My Wounded Soldier 1
His head came higher than the corn, just like a scarecrow free to walk this field, parting the dry green stalks. He was singing, some old battle song, had the word 'glory,' rolling through it. I told Johnny to get inside, not that he ever listened when he was curious.
When Stranger cleared that corn I saw the scabbard dragging, but the sword was in his hand. And he raised it while he sang, calling out, "Charles Swan, Charles Swan," in this voice like doomsday, calling out, then singing.
Johnny nudged me then, "Here Ma," he said.
I took the shotgun, mostly cause I couldn't believe he had the everlasting pluck to be holding the thing after all I'd told him not to, but then when I swung it high I said, "That be all right there, Mister," but this veteran did not listen, as they sometimes did not. In their heads, many not right from the war, and the country running with them while they tried to find home. It was frightening times.
"Right there," I said, the baby in me kicking high this morning, making it hard to breathe, and now this. Well.
He stopped then, like he was in a parade. He moved that sword up in the air and brought it in over his heart. "I told Charles, ain't right what you did, me goin' stead of your son. I come to reckon with this son…this Riley Swan. I was a poorly man. We owed Charles Swan, his big store an all. Crops didn't make three year. So he said it would settle the debt. And I left my missus and children and went to Lincoln's war instead of his boy answering the call. I spent the years in prison Riley Swan should have spent. When I got out…my wife moved west, they said. Took my children. So to keep it straight, I come to settle. You be?" he said, his attention sharp on me.
"You lay down that sword and I'll bring you bread and butter 'neath that sycamore," I said quick. The Lord and this gun gave me courage.
Johnny had the where-withal to go for his pa. So it was that Riley followed him into the yard now. He carried two buckets from the milking, but he set them down. "What's this?" My husband's voice was sharp, for he did not take to these strangers.
But he did not take to his wife holding the gun such, and he made a motion with his hand for me to stop my foolishness and lower the weapon.
I did what he asked, but I was ready to lift it once more for I had my fill of this deviltry.
"You be Riley Swan?" Stranger asked.
"That's me," Riley said, no attempt to defend himself. His hands moved to his hips as if he'd had enough.
"You are the one whose cross I bore. You took all that I was…all that was mine." He lunged toward Riley then, two hands lifting the sword, a swift motion, an arc of red ripping down my husband, across his face and neck and chest, so deep.
I heard my Johnny scream, but it was that sword, lifting to finish my lad that brought the weapon steady on my shoulder and God's hand on mine as I squeezed that trigger. Red drops splashed in the sun as that Stranger's hat blew away with a goodly piece of his head.
His body fell to the earth and my son blinked a look at him…at me.
"And so…," I said, panting hard.
And then pain. I dropped that gun, and I reached for Johnny who was stuck there staring at the two who were beyond help.
"Be Mama's boy," I said. "Hear me. Johnny!"
He looked at me, his little body heaving with his breaths.
"Run yonder. North field," I said. Then I knew not how but I was on my knees. I was gripped in pain again, and I was locked in it unable to move. I could not even lift my head to see if Johnny had high-tailed it for help. But I knew that one was home from the war, that oldest son who never spoke to even say howdy. I'd seen him riding high on the wagon just that morning in the north field. I wagered…he'd be the first one here. I just knew. For he'd been a soldier. And if there were more of these strangers skulking about…well he would know what to do.
"Edward," I said, for that was his name. I could lift my head now, and my son was still staring. "Johnny…find Edward."
I felt all of life gush between my legs then, and the sharpest most sickening pain. I could not birth on this sad porch. I must hold on…and help would come.
I would never look at a field the same again. For all of life seemed different to me now. I did not trust the quiet. It used to stretch on, when I was young. But now I did not trust it at all, and knew it held all of the ingredients for the chaos that could come so quickly, in a turn, a moment. Death.
I had just finished the bread and meat Ma had packed for me in the wagon. That soft white bread I could not stuff myself with enough to silence my thoughts or fill the empty craving, the aching inner prisoner that rattled my cage and said I wasn't worthy of the bread, the hands that kneaded it with hope, nor the fire that baked it, nor the warmth, or ash from the fire.
I was no sooner done with my hourly, minute-by-minute drink of self-loathing when I picked up a call that was not bird nor beast. It was a young voice. Too young for such a pitch, such a word, my name.
It was not my brother Garrett. But I heard him sometimes…on the wind. Smelled him, too. Saw him in some men…tall ones, strong like him, walking loosely and free. But this call was younger, and I thought I heard it again. I rounded the wagon and saw him. A lad coming on, running. "Mr. Cullen," he cried. I hurried to meet him. "My ma," was all he could say, over and over, hands on his knees. But when he got going, I picked him up and ran for the wagon for though I could not clearly understand him, I heard enough of the words I hoped to never hear again. Soldiers and guns and killing.
He was the Swan boy, the one who favored the mother. He was dark and freckled, big brown eyes. I had seen her at church, but I did not stare. I saw very few, but she had rattled me enough that I took note. Only because my ma went on. My sister too. There was Jesus and the Mrs. Swan.
But now…the lad sat beside me, as I nudged this old mule to do more than saunter. She was past her prime and in no hurry. I'd only brought her today because the work was light.
I watched the boy from the corner of my eye. He stared ahead, a white grip on the seat.
I wished my ma was here. The boy had told the story then stopped talking altogether. I didn't think I could send him to the farm on his own. He looked spent, and if there was trouble, he shouldn't be trouncing around until I understood what to look for. I had my rifle, I was rarely without it, so the boy needed to stay near.
I pulled up to a gruesome scene. The boy was keening, a bad sound. He was rocking on the seat. I told him to lay in the bed of the wagon. I spoke firmly, and made him look at me, but he pointed to the porch, and there was his ma, her dark hair spread around her spent form. She looked tossed on that porch like a rag doll. I lost my breath for fear she was dead, too, but she moaned then and started to move.
So I grabbed that boy from the seat and all but tossed him in the wagon's bed. "Lay still. Soon's I can I'll help you out. Don't be afraid. I'm here now." I took my rifle and went to the woman. I could tell the men were gone.
Holy Crow she was big with child. Looked ready to foal, and with the moaning. I needed Ma. There was no possibility…I'd rather face those dead bodies anyday.
I knelt by her side. She opened her eyes and said my name. I couldn't have been more surprised if she was dead. I stood my rifle against the house, also retrieved her shotgun and did the same. Then I scooped her up because she wasn't heavy at all, not nearly like the dead body of a full grown man. So light, like my sister. I pushed through the door with my shoulder, looking at her, so pretty and looking like almighty hell. This poor thing. I went to the bed in the far corner and laid her on the quilt. I ran to the door then. "Boy," I called, grabbing the rifles, "Get on in here." When he didn't show I said more firmly, "Boy!"
He popped up then and scrambled over, hitting the dirt hard, but on his feet, and he came running. I wanted him in the house where I could make sure he was safe. This woman didn't need to lose another while birthin'. Dear God, birthin'. Just me and her and the big blue sky.
So I set that boy a job. I had him peel about six potatoes so she'd have some soup when she got through pushing out this baby. And I wanted his mind to stay. Setting a task was the way to nail him to something real.
Then I hung a quilt from the rafters to block his view. I fed her a little water, but she was poorly. I debated sending that kid over to get ma, but my gut said don't do it. So I rubbed my hands together, and took off her shoes. She had little feet and I blushed seeing them so small and dainty in my hand. I did not know my preference for little toes before now, but another pain gripped her and I came to my senses and repented as I told her I was sorry, but she couldn't have a baby wearing her bloomers. So being careful to keep the skirt in place, I tried to reach beneath its bulk and get ahold of the bloomers, which were split so she could make water, but still I knew this was going to get real messy, so I pulled her bloomers down, and tears came to my eyes I swear thinking of the after, that's if we both lived through this. But I got them off without seeing anything but her dainty legs shaped so fine I could call myself nothing but sinner as I tried to blot out every idea I ever had about procreating and such.
I checked on Johnny and he sat at table hacking at those potatoes. I told him to fetch some carrots too, and work on those and I wanted them done right. I felt so guilty, and I don't know why seeing as I didn't ask for any of this. But God was always giving it to me anyway, and I didn't deserve nothing good, but what a fix.
I got a rag and the whole bucket of water and told him, "Don't be looking out that window neither." Cause I didn't want him studying his pa that a way.
I went behind the curtain, and she was worse it seemed, eyes closed and whimpering, and I wet the rag and washed her face, then her neck she was so sweaty and distressed. I was speaking soft to her, saying embarrassing things I thought might soothe her, I didn't know. But I'd talked to a dying man or two and it served me now.
In the next hour we got past it all. Her skirt was completely off and on the floor. I had her knees bent, and was constantly having to bring her leg out of the way. She was screaming and writhing, then so silent I feared she was dead. Her woman parts were widening so swollen and looking ready to pop. I had seen animals birth…all my life. So this was not so different, and so very different.
I was studying down there, praying for that head to show. She was such a fragile looking thing, so dainty, and yet so strong, I shuddered to think how she hurt. I never wanted to see such pain again, but here it was, and I told myself it was good. If she lived.
I hoped I didn't have to reach up there and turn it around. I'd had my arm up a cow or two, even a horse, but there was no way I could mess around in this tiny woman, and hurt her like that…, "Oh God, I know my prayers are rotten to you…but for her sake…."
Her little head was thrashing. "Edward," she screamed.
And then a miracle happened, and I could see the head. She opened up, and I saw the child's hair. "Miss Isabella," I said, "you're doin' so fine, girl. You're so fine. Just push it out now, it's just like it should be, honey." I was so danged relieved I could have danced a jig if I wasn't afraid she was going to rip apart and bleed to death in my arms. Her little parts were straining, parting like the Red Sea, and before I knew it her opening widened and a bigger oval of the infant's hair showed.
"That's it, honey. You're the strongest woman I know. My ma would be so proud of you. You're almost there now, darlin' girl. Don't you be afraid. You've got to push. Put some muscle in it now."
"She grit her strong little teeth, and I gave her my hand, and she squeezed the juice out of it, and I kept telling her to come on like she was pulling the plow through mud and stone, and she pushed and I had to let go and catch this baby who's whole head and shoulders were out now, and I turned it gentle as I eased it out of her, and my life got washed in one moment, and I knew that somehow God was telling me I wasn't the most miserable bastard that ever lived. Cause I had touched heaven, and done a good thing…like a priest or something.
So I set that baby on her mama's chest, and Miss Isabella looked at that girl and laughed a little, then at me, and I had this life cord and the business still running into her to deal with, but for a moment, we just looked at each other and she said, "Thank you." And I said…nothing in the face of such beauty as that mother and her child. I couldn't speak.