HIS YANKEE WIFE By S. J. Wells
Onward Christian Soldier
Log walls weathered with age, wide front porch with wooden rockers swaying in the evening breeze, the old house welcomed me back like a long lost friend. The GPS unit on my dash said I was out in a field somewhere, but my heart knew better. I was home. Finally home.
Unplugging my cell from its charger, I stuffed it into my jeans pocket, shouldered my purse, and climbed out of the car. The brown scents of wood smoke and dying foliage swirled around me, and lifting my head, I breathed deep. Crickets chirped in the grass, and overhead, the leaves in the trees whispered to one another.
Autumn. Gathering in time. I glanced at the front door, half expecting to see Gran standing there saying, “Got a hot bowl of soup and pan of cornbread waiting on you, Baby.”
But the door was shut, and the yard remained quiet. Gran and Gramps had been gone for several years, and except for returning for their funerals, this was the first time I had been back since that long ago summer when I had done the unthinkable.
Teetering over the uneven ground, I told myself not to go there, but it was too late.
“You sure got a strange sense of humor, God.” But, I would keep my promise to Him, because He had kept His promise to me.
Jiggling my key into the old-fashioned lock, I gave it a turn and pushed open the door. It protested with a loud “screeek”, and I wondered how long it had been since it saw an application of grease.
Built over a hundred and fifty years ago, the house had character. Every room had its own fireplace, as well as a 1930’s style radiator and narrow doorways common in old houses, yet wheelchair ramps on both the front and back porches.
“I’m back.” My voice echoed in the empty front hall, and I closed the door against the chill creeping in. My footsteps were loud as I limped into the parlor and over to the fireplace where I stared up at the portrait that graced the wall above.
A man in nineteenth century garb looked out at me through eyes too old for his face. They reminded me of my own eyes whenever I happened to look into a mirror. “Gran always said you were a soldier. Were you a Yankee or a Rebel?”
Behind him stood an apple tree. I well remembered the sweetness of those golden fruits dripping down my chin as I ran and played tag with my friends. “Can’t run like that anymore,” I said, resting half of my weight against the mantle and the other half on the support cane that was now my constant companion. “That old apple tree is gone now. Lightning struck it while I was away.”
He remained silent, of course, but his eyes were solemn and steady as if to say, “I understand. Nothing lasts for ever.”
A floorboard creaked as I shifted my weight onto my good leg, and a stick of wood left to rot in the fireplace fell with a soft thud. Too weary to be spooked, I tilted my face to catch a draft of cool air wafting by. If I couldn’t share with the rest of the world, at least here, with him I was understood. “If I keep talking to you, they’ll haul me back to the shrink’s office so fast I won’t know what hit me.” Yet, I lingered. “Any advice on how to join the real world, again?”
Shaking my head, I stepped over to the antique rolltop desk in the corner where my grandmother had spent her evenings typing up her articles for the local paper. Remembering the clacking of that old, manual typewriter, I smiled and sat down in the ladder-back chair that Gran had sat in. I reached out toward the rocking chair beside me and set it in motion with my hand. My great granny used to sit there with her crochet, passing on her eighty-six years of wisdom to whoever would listen. “What do you think, Granny?”
“Put God first,” she would say. “God first, others second, and then yourself.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
As if it were a homing device, the wood frame sofa along the opposite wall drew my gaze, and like a flood, the memory of warm summer rain, forbidden kisses and the thud of his heartbeat against my ear came rushing back. I pressed a fist to my aching chest and choked back the guilt that threatened to drown me.
“Promise me, Rae.” That’s what they had said…both of them. First Connor, on that long ago day, and then Missy, just a year ago, in Iraq.
Looking back over my shoulder, I met the eyes of the soldier in the portrait. “God first, Missy’s girls second, and then me,” I said. “Any idea where Connor fits in?”
The wind picked up outside, rattling the windows, and I shivered in spite of myself. I knew I needed to bring in my luggage and see what in the way of groceries Jackie had left for me. Instead, however, I unlocked the desk and rolled back the lid. There, where Gran’s typewriter used to set was a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string of twine. Curious, I untied the string and let the paper fall away. Inside was an old book, its pages curling and yellowed at the edges. Excitement quickening my heart, I opened the cover and caught my breath at the handwriting still legible there.
“There’s the sign, Rachel! Do you see it?”
Following Rob’s pointing finger, she saw the weathered sign hanging from the branches of an old oak tree. “Eirinn?”
“That’s it,” he said, a look of such longing on his face that she felt a bit left out.
“What does it mean?”
“It’s Irish,” he said. “Means Ireland forever.”
“Nothing lasts forever.”
The words were out before she could stop them, and at the frown gathering between her husband’s brows, she lowered her gaze to her lap.
After a moment, she cleared her throat and looked out over the field of hay on her side of the buggy, breathing in its warm, golden scent. “Tell me about it…Eirinn, I mean.”
She heard him swallow, but as eager, if not more so than she to put forth a positive front, he began telling her the farm’s history.
She paid little attention, as he made the turn into the long, winding drive. Maybe, with his mind distracted and the shade provided by the trees on either side of them, he wouldn’t notice.
When had everything started to go so wrong? It would have been easy to blame it on the war…or rather, his decision to join the Army. Truth be told, though, wedded bliss had worn thin long before those first shots were fired on Fort Sumter.
Of its own volition, her mind went back to the many mishaps over the last several months. The burned pot roasts, the hard biscuits, the lumpy, half finished pies. Then, there was the Saturday she had forgotten to take the clothes off the line and his Sunday suit had been drenched when a storm rolled through. As if that weren’t bad enough, there was the afternoon the ministerial board came to visit, only to find every available surface in her parlor covered with undergarments. Her face still burned with shame over that one. Rob had assured her over and over that he didn’t mind. She was just getting used to being a wife, was all. But, she knew better. Still, things might have smoothed out between them, if she hadn’t lost the baby.
Swallowing hard, she pressed a hand to her middle and blinked against the ache behind her eyes.
“Rachel?” She started at his low voice and pulled away from his touch on her arm. “It will be all right, Love.”
“I’m not their kind of people, Rob.”
“What are you talking about? Of course, you are. Mother and the Delaney’s are just normal folks like we are, and they will love you as I do.”
She wanted to believe him, but his folks didn’t even know they were coming. What would they say when they realized she would be staying for an indeterminate amount of time?
Dropped on a stranger’s doorstep. Abandoned…again.
“Here’s my handkerchief. Take a minute to calm yourself before we make this last turn.”
She took his handkerchief and his advice. Even so, her cheeks felt hot and she knew they were splotched with color.
“They will think me ill.”
“No they won’t, Rach,” he said, starting the team once more. “Mother and Aunt Pat will clearly see that you have been out in the sun too long and will offer you a cool place to sit and a cold glass of lemonade or iced tea.”
Rachel blinked and balled up the square of linen in her fist. Too much sun? That was his explanation? Straightening her shoulders, she raised her chin and faced forward. If it made it easier for him to think she was fragile, then let him think it. She could hold her own. Had all her life. Now was no different. So what if she was an outsider…a Yankee? She knew how to pull her own weight, and soon her mother-in-law and Mrs. Delaney would be wondering whatever had they done without her.
“Wow!” I pulled a crumpled dollar bill out of my jeans pocket and marked my place, then closed it carefully. “Are you Rob?” I asked the man in the portrait.
I hugged the book to me, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Where had the book come from? Did Jackie know it was here? Had Gran left it here on purpose?
“I’ll keep reading,” I promised with a glance toward heaven, “just after I bring in my things and grab a bite to eat.”
An hour later, I drained the last of a bottle of water and walked around the house, turning out lights and locking doors. I changed into my night clothes and turned down the covers. With my prosthetic leg standing guard by the bed, I opened the book and began to read.