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A Foolish Son

By Stephen Lewis

“A foolish son is a grief to his father….” (Proverbs 17:25.3)

The boy on the witness stand eyes Mr. Wilkie Burton, the prosecuting attorney, a short and round faced man with sideburns that reach his chin and a mustache that covers his upper lip before curling onto his cheek.  Sweat drips from his bald head and moistens his facial hair.   Out of the corner of his eye, the boy sees Sam Logan, his father, staring  at him from the defense table where he sits next to his lawyer.  The boy’s glance continues until it lands on his mother in the front row of the spectators.  She nods encouragement.

He turns back to Barton who forms his face into an encouraging expression, such as you would use with a recalcitrant child who holds the key to your strongbox in a hand, sticky with molasses, over a yawning crack in the floor.

“Now, George,” the prosecutor says, “I know this is difficult for you.”  This last is said with a sidelong glance at Logan.  “We have heard your father say that on the afternoon of June 15th, 18 and 95,  you and he were clearing brush for a new road.  Is that right?”

“Yes,” George says.  He remembers how he lay on his bed the last few nights, listening for his father’s snores coming through the wall, but hearing only the rattle of the window frames in the breeze off the bay.  He looks again past his father’s tense face to his mother, her expression set in the same vacant stare it has worn since the sheriff came to take his father away.  All spring, he heard the birds singing in the morning, but at night his parents’ muffled and angry words.  Then their bed creaked beneath their grunts and moans.   He did not understand what this peek into the adult world offered him, and so as was his custom he did not try.  Burton has his thumbs hooked into the waistband of his trousers, and George remembers how his father sometimes whips him with his belt.  The prosecutor wears no belt, but George does not trust him.  He sees the prosecutor’s  jaw quiver, and then George adds, “That is what he said.”

“I see.  You were to help your father, isn’t that so?”

“Yes.”

“Of course.  You are a dutiful son, are you not?”

“I am that,” George answers, although he is not exactly sure what “dutiful” means.  He ponders, then seizes on the first syllable.   “I do what he asks.  Mostly.”

“Non-responsive,” Burton snaps with a glance at Judge Samuel Hightower..

“Son, can you be clearer in your answer?”  Hightower’s tone is both weary and warm.

“No, sir,” George says with a smile.

“We will recess for an hour,” the judge declares, “so everyone can cool down, and the witness can search his memory for better answers.”

George stays on the witness stand as the courtroom empties.   Finally, only the court officer remains with him.

“You can step down,” the officer says.

“I have no place to go,” George replies.

“Suit yourself,” the officer answers, and sprawls on a chair.  “But I have orders that where you go, I go.”

“I always do,” George replies, “suit myself that is. Mostly, anyway.”

The officer leans back and shuts his eyes.  His right hand, though, rests on the heavy butt of the revolver at his side.

George remembers the dew on the grass between his toes that morning, and how the orioles had been whistling in the trees.  George boy, George boy, come here, they sang.  The whistling would stop later in the afternoon, and his feet would be squeezed into boots too small.  He reaches down, now, to massage his toes through his own shoes and he can still feel where the skin on his little toe had been rubbed raw.

His father left to clear the new road.  He was to follow when he found the ax he had mislaid the day before.  His mother watched from the rocker on the front porch while George stood staring at the grooves on the chopping stump, scratching his head in wonderment that the ax head was not buried in the wood, and that he could not reach out his hand and grasp the handle.   After a while he let his mind drift to the rhythm of his mother’s rocker, which itself seemed to mimic the creak of the blades on the windmill over the well.  And then there was the song of the birds calling to him, and his feet burrowed into the cool grass.

The rocking stopped, replaced by the clomp of the heavy men’s shoes his mother wore to work in the vegetable garden behind the house.  The heels of her shoes resounded off the three steps leading down from the porch, and then softened in the dirt.

“Go on, now, your father’s waiting for you,” his mother called.

She had on the wide brimmed straw hat she wore to protect her face from the sun.  The exposed skin of her neck and hands was darkened by a summer spent outdoors. She stared at his bare feet.  In her hands, she held a pair of his father’s boots.

“You had best put these on, if you are going to cross Old Trail Road,” she said.

He took the boots from her, laced them together and threw them over his shoulders.

“I like to feel the grass between my toes,” he said.

She frowned.

“You will remember to put them on when you reach the road, though, won’t you?”

“Yes’m.  I always do.  Most of the time.”

“Did you find that ax?”

“No.”

“Go on then.”

He walked onto the grass between the ruts carved in the soil by his father’s wagon on the track from their cherry orchard to Old Trail Road, which led to the town at the base of the peninsula.   Lying in one of the ruts was the ax where he had dropped it yesterday.  He picked it up as though he knew that this was where he would find it.  Old Trail Road was dirt flattened smooth by the passage of innumerable wagons and heavy soled boots. He almost stepped into a steaming pile of manure left by a pair of horses pulling a load of lumber toward town, and then he felt the boots banging against his shoulder blades.  Hearing his mother’s instruction in the chatter of the birds, he knelt on the edge of the road to squeeze his feet into boots a size or two too small, and then he strode onto the road.  It followed the crest of a long, narrow hill rising above the meadows on either side.  He gazed at the bright blue waters of the bay sparkling in the morning sun, and then he trotted over the road into the field on the other side.  He left the field and entered the wood, his ears now listening for the sound of his father’s ax.  He had not taken more than a few steps before his toes began to cramp hard inside the boots.  He wondered for just a moment why his mother had been so insistent, but he was not in the habit of puzzling over things he did not understand, and so he walked on.

He was drawn to the song of the orioles.  Its lilt lifted his spirit.  Then the song stopped, and it was replaced by the loud cawing of a small flock of crows circling something in a small clearing up ahead.  He hastened, and then he saw her lying still on the ground.  The crows flew off a short distance, and there was silence.
Highsmith strides into the filled courtroom,  jurors and spectators, on their feet expectant and perspiring in the late afternoon heat.   From the distances comes the roll of thunder that promises relief.

George has been staring at the door awaiting the entrance of the judge.  His muscles ache, and there is a dull, throb pressing down on his forehead.  He hears the thunder and remembers only the silence above the dead girl after the cawing crows took flight.  He looks towards his mother.  Her eyes, which had been red rimmed before today, are now clear and cold.  He sees her offer a barely perceptible nod, and he recalls what she said this morning, “Just tell them, “ she said, “and don’t be afraid.”

“I am not going to ask you the questions you could not answer before,” Burton says..  George focuses on the man’s teeth as he talks.  They are stained yellow, and saliva pools in a space where a lower front tooth is missing.   He recalls how red Sarah’s lips were and how white her teeth.  He smiles at Burton.

“Let us try another approach.” Burton leans close enough for George to smell his breath.  It is not sweet like he imagines hers would have been if she had been still breathing when he found her. “Tell us what you saw when you arrived at the murder scene.”

“The birds were not singing anymore,” he answers.  He is there in the clearing between the trees, the ax over one shoulder.  He grimaces as he feels again how the boots force his big toe to overlap its neighbor.

Burton steps back, his face a picture of exasperation.

“Yes, but what did you…” he pauses.  “Let me be direct.  Did you see your father there?”

“No.”

Burton smiles.

“Did you see him that day between when he left to clear the road and when you found the body?”

George sighs.  He is suddenly very tired, and he is finding it more and more difficult to concentrate.  Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees his father staring hard at him.

“Yes,” he replies.

Burton’s jaw drops.

“Did you not tell the sheriff that you never got to the place where your father was clearing the road?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

George closes his eyes, and opens them to focus on the prosecuting attorney’s nose.  He sees the hairs poking out of the nostrils.

“Well what, Mr. Burton?”

“Which is it.  Did you help your father clear the road, or did you not?”

“No. I was on my way to help him,” he starts.

“Yes, and….” Burton prods.

“I saw her lying there.”

Burton’s sigh is audible throughout the courtroom.

“Before you could help your father, you saw the victim lying dead in that clearing,” the prosecuting attorney says.

George nods.

“She was so peaceful beneath that tree, and the birds in it stopped singing.”

Burton waits and then turns to Highsmith.

“No further questions,” he says.  “I think I have gotten what I can from the lad.”  He glances toward Logan, pulls a sweat stained handkerchief from his pocket, and daubs at the perspiration on his forehead.

Defense attorney Frederick Lowe’s thin, blond hair is parted down the middle and lies flat on his head, setting off his prominent nose and ears that protrude a bit more than normal.  He wears spectacles that leave an angry welt on the bridge of his nose.

Lowe steps ever so slowly toward George, his spectacles in one hand, the other rubbing the welt.  He stops and replaces his spectacles.

“Did you see your father anywhere near where you found Sarah’s body?”

“No,” George replies.

“ I see.  But you told Mr. Burton you saw him that day.”

“Later, I saw him later.  Back home.”

Lowe strokes his chin, adjusts his spectacles, but then turns on his heel.

“You may step down,” Highsmith says to George.  The boy is leaning over to rub his foot and seems not to hear for a moment or two, but then he rises and starts to walk towards his mother.

“You may be called again,” the judge says.  “

George lets himself be led out of the courtroom.  His step is firm.

“What was your plan on the morning of June 15th last?” Lowe asks Sam Logan.

“To clear a road to the harbor.”

“Were you going to work alone?”

“No.  I had young Phil Watson with me.”

“My hired hand.  Folks know him.  His father’s from the South.”

“Yes.”

“Was your son to help you as well?”

“Yes.”

“Did he?”

“No.  He never arrived.  I expect he had trouble finding his ax.”

“Was that unusual?”

“Not at all. He often is forgetful. But he is a good boy.”

Lowe pauses for just a moment.

“When he didn’t show up, what did you do?”

Logan turns his head slightly toward the jury and then back to Lowe.

“Why, I sent Watson to fetch him.”

“Did he?”

Logan shrugs.

“I do not know.  He never came back.”

“Have you seen him since?”

“No.”

“What do you suppose happened to him?”

Lowe looks over his shoulder as Burton rises to object, but Logan is too quick.

“I guess he found Sarah instead of George.”

Burton walks to the evidence table and picks up a pair of muddy boots.  He shows them first to the jury, and then to Logan.

“Are these your boots?”

“Used to be.  I haven’t worn them in years.”

“You did hear several witnesses, including the sheriff, testify that impressions left in the ground near the body match these boots, did you not?”

“I did.  But if my boots made those impressions, my feet weren’t in them.”

“Were you and Sarah Henshaw lovers?” he asks.

“We were friends,” Logan replies.

“You knew she was carrying your child, did you not?”

“No.  The last time I saw her she was upset and asked me for laudanum for her nerves.  I told her I didn’t have any.  She must have gotten some from somebody else.”

Burton attempts to show his shocked disbelief, but he is not a very good actor.  When he pulls back his lips, his mustache hides the gesture and his pudgy face looks more amused than distressed.

“You say you sent young Watson to fetch your son?”

“Why didn’t you go yourself?”

“And you did not see Sarah Henshaw that day?”

“No.”

“You did not drug her with laudanum and then squeeze the life out of…”

Lowe’s complaint is drowned by Highsmith’s gavel.

“I will rephrase,” Burton says when quiet is restored.  “Is it your testimony that you did not know Sarah Henshaw was pregnant with your child, that you did not see her on the day she was killed, that you know nothing about the bottle of laudanum found next to her, and you believe that Philip Watson killed her in that field while he was on an errand to find your son, and that is why he has fled, and that your own son’s confusing testimony is his feeble attempt to protect you?  You want us to believe that those boot prints in the field next to that young girl’s body were not made by you?  Is that what you want this jury to believe?”  Burton gestures grandly toward the jury box, and this time his face manages an approximation of incredulity.

“The truth,” Logan says softly, “I want them to see only the truth.”

“I think they have,” Burton concludes.

“Did I do right?” George asks his mother as they walk toward their house.

“Yes,” she replies.

“And he won’t beat me no more, or mock me, when he comes home?”

“He’s not coming home.”

“But poor Sarah…” he begins.

“Hush,” she replies.  “She is better off in heaven than giving birth to your father’s bastard.”   She points to George’s ax, now driven into the chopping stump.  “There is work for you to do.”

George smiles and pulls the ax out.  He places a log on the stump and brings the ax down hard.  The log jumps apart.  He stacks it neatly and picks up another.

Phillip Watson stands on the porch, a cardboard suitcase between his feet.  He holds out his hand, and she places a small wad of bills in it.  He stuffs the money into his pocket.

The ax rings out again, and Phillip picks up his suitcase.  He walks fast and then begins to trot.  He disappears over the hill.  George puts down his ax and watches.

“Will he be alright?” he asks.

“Yes,” his mother replies.

She pauses and looks down at her hands.

“It is only unfortunate that Sarah did not drink enough of the sedative, that she had to die hard.”

George picks up his and ax looks at his mother, a question in his eyes.

“Yes,” she says, “you did the right thing.”

“And so did I,” she says under her breath, but she wonders when again she will be able to wash her hands without feeling the young woman’s warm flesh between her fingers.


After having published seven novels in traditional print form, Stephen Lewis dips his toe into the new digital world with the historical mystery A Suspicion of Witchcraft, his first e-book.  His stories and poetry have appeared in various journals including Karamu, Convergence, Brooklyn College Review, Confrontation, Nebo, Pangolin Papers, Paumanok Review, Mysterious Anthology Magazine, and Jewish Currents.  Recent story publications include “The Visit,” in The Chariton Review, and “Eagles Rising” in the Palo Alto Review.  Although born and raised in Brooklyn, he is now incompletely acculturated to northern Michigan where he lives with his wife, an award winning short story writer, in a century old farmhouse on five acres.

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The Diary

By Lynn B. Connor

Time worn pages written so long ago—the thoughts of a twelve-year-old girl lost in the shadowy corners of my mind. Where have the years gone?

I am so lonely. Living here far beyond the end of the East Country Road, we are so isolated. My mother and older sister fill the days remembering when we lived in Heian-kyo, the imperial capital. They talk about the emperor and life at court and retell romantic tales. My favorite ones are those of Genji, the Shining Prince, and his romances. I want to read The Tale of Genji myself from beginning to end, not just hear scattered stories.

“Be patient,” they tell me. “Romantic tales are copied by hand. Printing is for important books such as the Buddhist sutras.” I am twelve and should be learning the sutras. We have those. But I can only think of Genji not of learning the way of Buddha. I remember every word of the stories of Prince Genji I have heard, but not the words of the sutras.

* * * * *

I’m not patient. Today I had a life-size image of Buddha made and prayed, “Buddha, please grant that we move to the capital soon, very soon, so I can get all of Genji. My request to Buddha is not reasonable. Father is governor of this faraway place. We cannot move to the capital. I pray and hope that someone will send us Genji.

My prayers are different now, and I know the sutras. I can separate my mind from frivolous things.

* * * * *

A messenger from the capital arrived today. I thought my prayers were answered. I was so disappointed. No books. Then this evening Father gave us the good news. He is being transferred back to the capital. I am so excited – the home of Genji and books! I am nervous, too. We have been away so many years. Will people think that I am a country girl?

All those dreams of court life, little did I know that life in the capital and the glamour of the court could be lonely, too. I served at court occasionally, but I was more like a guest. What would my life have been like if I had been more devoted to court service? If my father was not sent to the East Country again and then my husband sent to the East Country while I remained in the capital?

* * * * *

Sadness has crept in with the fog. It covers the house. Everything is dismantled and scattered about as we prepare to return to the capital. I must leave behind my life-sized Buddha. I burst into tears.

Outside more confusion. Our servants are gathering our luggage, our household goods, and everything we will need for our journey through the wilderness. There are so many of us – not just our servants and carriers, but also foot soldiers and horsemen armed with bows to protect us from robbers.

* * * * *

Yesterday morning our journey began. Mother, my sister and I got into our palanquins. Father rode ahead on his horse. We are staying for a few days in a temporary, thatched hut on a low bluff. We hung curtains and put up bamboo screens so we can look out and not be seen by the men. I can see a wide plain to the south. On the east and west the sea creeps close. What an interesting place. The morning fog is charming. I am glad we are resting here for a few days.

* * * * *

All yesterday we traveled in a heavy, dark rain. We spent the night in a little hut almost submerged by the rain. I was so afraid I could not sleep. Today the rain has stopped and we are drying our dripping clothes. There is nothing to see – only three lone trees on a little hill.

* * * * *

What a change from the rain. Last night, we stayed at a place called Kuroda Beach. On one side of us, hills and thick groves of pine made a wide band. The moon shone on the white sand stretching into the distance. We listened to the wind and wrote poems. Mine was:

I will not sleep a wink!

If not this evening, then when

could I ever see this —

Kuroda Beach beneath

the moon of an autumn night.*

* * * * *

I will never forget Kuroda Beach in the moon light. Now, here on the Musashi Plain there is nothing of interest. The sand of the beaches is like mud and the purple grass of poems is only various kinds of towering reeds. I do not agree with the old poem

A single stock

of purple on

the Musashi Plain

makes me love

all the wild grasses.**

We cannot see what is ahead, not even see the tips of the bows of our horsemen as we go through the reeds. There is nothing to love about these wild grasses.

* * * * *

We are going through an area called the Chinese Plain. A few pink summer flowers called Japanese Pinks remain. Everyone laughs – Japanese Pinks on the Chinese Plain.

* * * * *

Last night we reached the foot of the Ashigara Mountains, all covered with a wild, thick woods. We only had glimpses of the moonless sky. I felt swallowed up by the darkness. Then out of the darkness, three singers emerged. We invited them to sit under a large paper umbrella, and my servant lit a fire. They had long hair and their faces were so white and clean they looked like maids from a nobleman’s home. Their clear, sweet singing seemed to reach the heavens and charmed us. When they left, tears came into our eyes as we watched them go back into the darkness.

I was reminded of that night years later when we stopped at Nogami. Female entertainers came and sang to us through the night filling me with longing. And reminded again of that night by Mt. Ashigara, when traveling by boat we anchored for the night. The singing of women entertainers came out of the darkness. Their voices moved me as before. 

At dawn we began our climb of the mountain. As we climbed, the dense forest changed to a few scattered trees. Clouds swirled around our feet. I was so afraid.

* * * * *

Mt. Fuji! How surprised I am. When we saw it from our home, it was just a small gray peak. Seeing it so close, it is like nothing else in the world. The slopes look like they are painted indigo blue. The snow on top makes it look like someone wearing a short white jacket over a gown. Smoke rises from its flat top. Last night flames leapt into the air.

* * * * *

When we left our home, the leaves were still green. Now as we pass Mt. Miyaji red leaves cling to the trees. I thought:

The furious storms

do not blow

on Mt. Miyaji

the red maple leaves

are still unscattered.

* * * * *

I no longer care about looking at beautiful places and writing. We stopped for several days because I was so sick. Winter winds blew so fiercely, it was difficult to bear. Snow came, and in the storm we passed through another barrier station, and went over Mount Atsumi. At the foot of Mitsusaka Mountain light rain fell night and day mixed with hail. It was so melancholy that we did not stay. Nothing leaves any impressions. The places are only names, nothing more. Maybe we are just tired and anxious for our journey to end.

* * * * *

Tonight we have stopped by Lake Biwa. I’m so excited. I’m not sure I can sleep. Tomorrow we reach the capital, the home of Prince Genji and our new home. Now I can read all of Genji. I am nervous, too. What will people think of me, a girl from the country?

* * * * *

Yesterday we went through the last barrier station where they check the coming and of people before the capital, I remembered an old poem

This is the barrier

where people come and go,

meeting and parting

both friends and strangers

the Afusaka Barrier***

When I passed through this barrier station so long ago. It was winter then, too.

The voice of the Afusaka

Barrier wind blowing now

through the station,

is no different from the one

I heard long.

Before only a roughly hewn face of the Buddha could be seen. Now there is a splendid temple.

Genji came and went through here. And at last we entered the capital. I had forgotten how wide the streets are. Red Bird Avenue is three hundred feet wide and lined with willow trees. Their bare branches swayed in the wind as we passed. Huge, wild-looking trees surround our house. It is hard to believe we are in the capital and not back deep in the mountains.

* * * * *

Everyone is busy unpacking and arranging the house. No one has time to think about me and stories. Will I ever get to read all of The Tale of Genji? Today I could wait no longer. I pestered Mother, “Please, please find me stories to read,” until she stopped working and sent a letter to a relative asking if she had any books. Now we wait.

* * * * *

Today a box filled with beautiful booklets of stories arrived. I started reading them immediately. There are none about Genji.

* * * * *

I cry and cry. I don’t even feel like reading tales. My childhood nurse has died. Mother is so worried about me she found another Genji tale. Genji is charmed by ten year-old Murasaki. When she becomes an orphan, he takes her to his palace. I want to know what happens next. I pray, “Please grant that I may get to read all of Genji from beginning to end.”

* * * * *

Last month I went with Mother and Father on a retreat to Uzumasa Temple. My only prayers were for a copy of Genji. I was sure my prayers would be answered. I am so disappointed.

How vexed I was that my parents seldom took me on their pilgrimages. Years later I returned to Uzumasa and have gone on other pilgrimages. My prayers concentrated on raising my children with great care and seeing them grow up as I hoped. And I prayed my husband would find happiness in his career.

* * * * *

Today my parents sent me to visit an aunt. We liked each other and talked of many things. When I was ready to leave, she smiled and said, “I would like to give you a present, something special.” How did she know? She gave me all of Genji. I could hardly wait to get home and start reading.

* * * * *

I have done nothing but read Genji all day and until I fall asleep late at night. Things that confused me when I heard or read only parts of it now are clear. I never could memorize a Buddhist sutra, but already I know by heart the names of all the people in the story. There are over fifty. I would not stop reading even if I had a chance to become the empress.

I want to be beautiful and have long silky hair that almost touches the ground just like Genji’s love Yugao. I daydream about being like Lady Ukifune hidden away in a mountain village. Watching the blossoms, the crimson leaves, the snow and the moon. Waiting for letters from my shining prince. This is all I wish for.

The stories fill my mind all day, and I dream of them at night.

* * * * *

The things I hoped for. The things I had wished for. Could they really happen? How crazy I was. How foolish I feel.*

* * * * *

Author’s Notes: This story is based on Sarashina Nikki, a diary of a court lady in eleventh-century Japan. She is simply known as Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, Sugawara no Takasue’s daughter (1009-1059). I have adapted the sections of the Sarashina Nikki that tell of her childhood passion for romantic tales, especially The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), and then interwoven her reflections and events from later in life. My goal has been to maintain the spirit of the Sarashina Nikki. Additional information (such as the function of barrier stations, the description of Heian-kyo, present-day Kyoto, and poems which were well known at the time) regarding ancient Japan is woven into the text.

There are several translations of Sarashina Nikki. Where there is a direct quote from the diary, it is from The Sarashina Diary, A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan, Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, translated, with an introduction, by Sonja Arntzen and Ito Moriyuki. These are indicated with an *. If there is no asterisk after the poem, the translation is by mine. In addition, ** and *** indicate that the poems are not in the diary.: ** from the Kokin Shu, a poetry collection, compiled in the tenth century and *** from the Gosen Shu, a poetry collection, compiled in 951. The poems were well known at the time.

The Tale of Genji: When Genji (Genji Monogatari) was written a thousand years ago, it was just a Japanese tale of romance, court life and politics — a time before samurai, haiku, sushi, ninja and Hello Kitty. It was a time of peace and tranquility. The capital of Japan (present-day Kyoto) was called Heian-kyo – peace and tranquility capital. Tokyo, the present-day capital, would not be built for five hundred years.

Genji is often considered the world’s first novel and still read today. It became more than a romantic tale. It is an integral part of Japanese culture—art, poetry, card games, video games, plays, movies and manga. It is even pictured on money. The book has been considered a good influence, a bad influence, and even banned. Google Genji and you will get three quarter million hits in English alone.

______________________________________________________________

With undergraduate and graduate degrees in East Asian history, Lynn B. Connor planned to be an academic. That idea was short lived. She realized that sharing stories of other times and places with children (and grownups, too) is what she enjoyed. Living in Japan for two years and then being a guide (and training guides) at the Chinese and Japanese gardens in Portland, Oregon, increased her understanding of how stories can provide windows on other cultures.  Her translations of T’ang dynasty poems were published by Poet Lore, and LanSu Chinese Garden in Portland published her first book, The Stones and the Poet. Her stories have appeared in several literary journals, and “The Tea Master” was posted on Stone Bridge Press’ Cafe.

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Manassas

By Bruce Bullen

A young man dressed in a butternut uniform and carrying a rifle is looking out my window, waiting for Yankees. He was standing in my bedroom when they brought me up. There were others like him at the windows on the first floor. I guess they thought we had left for good and wouldn’t be coming back. I know that John and Ellen meant well. They wanted to move me out of harm’s way, so when the shooting quieted down a bit they carried me downstairs with Lucy Griffith’s help and took me to the spring house. I was holding on to the sides of the mattress trying to keep from rolling off the whole way. When we got there I told them I couldn’t bear to leave my house after so many years. The sound of the guns and the smell of smoke were as bad at the spring house as they were up here. I begged and begged until they took me back home.

I’m just an old woman, frail and sickly. I live in Henry House on Henry Hill. Their real names are Spring Hill Farm and Spring Hill. We never say Henry House or Henry Hill, but that’s what people around here like to say. I’ve lived on the farm for close to forty years, and there isn’t a more beautiful piece of property in the Commonwealth to my way of thinking. The farm itself has been fallow for years, cedar and pine are taking over, but the pastures dip as gracefully as always, the catbirds mew, and the scents are fresh, or at least they were until the shooting started.

It’s hot today, it has been for days, and the noise is enough to make you deaf. I’ve been bedridden so long I don’t remember the farm in summer. I’ve lost track of everything but the sounds. I hear the birds, the wind, and Ellen’s voice when she’s outside tending to things. Now, the familiar sounds are gone.

We heard guns in the distance at 5:30 this morning. I was dreaming of my Althea flowers, my pride. Some call them Rose of Sharon. The guns startled me and I woke up. Every so often a hunter comes by, but these guns weren’t hunting guns. The din was like nothing I ever heard before, and it kept up all morning. I could see that John and Ellen were upset. They kept running back and forth to my bedroom from the first floor asking if I was all right, talking to each other about what to do, thinking that I couldn’t hear them. What is it, I said? What is it? Yankees, they said.

I don’t fear the Yankees. My husband, Isaac, was a Yankee, and I’ve always been comfortable up north. It’s been a long time since Isaac died, 1829, not long after we moved here. We didn’t get to enjoy it together long. After Isaac died, I tried keeping up the farm, raised the children, and tended the garden, but it wasn’t the same without him.  My daughter, Ellen, lives with me now and has been such a help. My son, Hugh, is here when he isn’t at school. My son John happens to be visiting, while Hugh is away. I hired Lucy, a neighbor’s slave, to help Ellen with the chores, since I’m such a burden. Everyone is so worried and anxious, pacing about and wringing their hands. The soldiers tell me that I should leave because it’s too dangerous, but I’m not leaving again. I’m staying put no matter what happens. I worry about John and Ellen though, and of course Lucy.

The railroad junction is why they’re fighting. The RF&P line runs from Richmond to the Potomac –  the link between North and South, some say. That “link” meant something different a few months ago. Ellen has been telling me for weeks that Confederate soldiers were gathering at Manassas, but I didn’t believe her. The fight is about controlling the station, otherwise why come to Manassas? The Yankees want an easy run to Richmond, and the Confederates want to stop them. It’s very odd, having two Capitals so close together. It’s enough to make a person dizzy. I hope the fighting moves to Manassas, where it ought to be.

I don’t get many headaches, but my head has been pounding like the dickens all morning. It must be the guns. They sound closer. Ellen has been so kind, asking if I want anything like the good child she is, but when she tries to bring me water or tea her hands shake so much she has trouble holding the cups. Ellen, I say to her, it’s going to be all right. She doesn’t want to believe me. Lucy does her best to act brave, but I can see in her eyes that she is terrified. John tells them both to calm down, but he’s beside himself. I guess I’m not worried as much as they are. Who would harm a bedridden old woman and her family in such a beautiful place? Hugh sent Ellen a letter a while back, when rumors about Manassas first started. He said that our helplessness would make us safe if the troops ever passed through. I think he’s right. This war is nothing but a dispute between people who don’t see eye to eye on a few things. We’ve had trouble like it before, from the beginning in fact. When both sides see how determined the other is, they’ll sit down and work things out like gentlemen. I do wish this pounding in my head would stop. It hurts like the devil.

I often think about Isaac. He was a surgeon on the Constellation under Commodore Truxton, one of the first US Navy Captains commissioned by George Washington himself. Isaac was born and raised in Philadelphia, but he went all over the world, or so it seemed, serving his country on the Constellation. He was a good man who always did his duty, and he was a loving husband and father. We met after the country had fought to be free and were so proud to be on our own, thanks to the courage of great men from different states (colonies, I guess they were then) – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton – half of them Virginians, I’m proud to say. Isaac and I felt lucky to be alive at such a time. I wonder what he would think if he were here today?

I’m 84, older than the country itself. I’ve had a full life. A few weeks back was the anniversary of the Declaration, but not too many noticed. If they did it was to claim the Declaration for themselves, depending which side they’re on. Times have surely changed. Who would have thought Virginia would leave the country it worked so hard to shape? But I’m a Carter. Virginia is my state, and if we can’t be part of the Union then I guess we’ll have to be on our own like we were before. It’s too bad, and awfully confusing.

I’m tired and nod off occasionally, even though the sound of gunfire shakes the bedroom. I dream about old Virginia. My great-grandfather Robert “King” Carter was one of the great men around here in the early days. He had the biggest tobacco plantation and more slaves than anyone else. My grandfather Landon wrote a famous journal about life before the Revolution called The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter and lived just long enough to see the country win its freedom. My father Landon Jr. built Pittsylvania. It’s a grand place, but he had a hard time keeping it up. He used to say there was nothing those British wouldn’t try to tax and no price they wouldn’t try to squeeze. Was he ever glad to be rid of them! I had eight brothers and sisters. Daddy was a great family man, a real gentleman. He liked everybody, and everybody liked him.

The young man with the rifle is shooting out my window, and I can hear more shooting downstairs. John is shouting at him to stop, but he says he’s got his orders. If they shoot at Yankees from the house, won’t the Yankees shoot back? I’m sure they have respect for private property and must know that we Henry’s are peace-loving civilians, but if there are shots coming from the house won’t they be confused? I can hear shouting, gunfire, and tramping outside, as if it were in my backyard. The smoke is so heavy you’d think the day had clouded over.

I worry about the Robinsons and how they are faring through all the noise and commotion. I hope they’re safe. Gentleman Jim is hard-working and resourceful, so I suspect they will be. Ellen told me he moved the whole household to the Van Pelt’s and came back to secure his house. That would be like him. I hope he doesn’t get caught up in this turmoil. Jim and I are like family. We care deeply about each other and our families. Both of us were born at Pittsylvania. I feel bad for him, having two sons sold down south like they were, but it didn’t stop him from working extra hard to care for his family. Ellen says the roadhouse is doing better and better every month.

Jim’s mother was a free woman – she was a slave of my Daddy’s, but I guess he decided to make her free. At any rate, Jim was born free. We had the same tutor at Pittsylvania, so I know he’s an educated man. Being born free also meant that he was automatically landed, and he was able to buy the house near Bull Run in the 1840’s. He raised eight children in it and owns even more acreage now. When he married Sukey, she wasn’t free, and he had to find a way to buy her freedom and freedom for as many of their children as he could afford. He nearly succeeded, but for Alfred and James. He just couldn’t buy their freedom fast enough. Jim is a determined man, everything he touches seems to pay – his farm, his businesses. He’s a regular tycoon. People say he’s one of the richest freedmen in Virginia. Jim was a special favorite of my Daddy’s, and he treated Jim and his mother with great respect. To me, Jim is like a little brother. I’m proud of him. I wouldn’t want this war or anything else to keep him from being able to make a good life for himself.

John keeps running back and forth, up and down the stairs. He says the armies are getting closer to Spring Hill. Why don’t the Confederates make their stand at Manassas, I ask him?  It’s what they’re fighting over after all. He says they tried to stop the Yankees at Bull Run and now it looks like they decided to stop running and are making a stand. The shooting outside is growing steadier, and John says that reinforcements are being brought up. He says we should have left when we had the chance. Why would they want to fight over Spring Hill, I ask? What use could it be to them? John says he doesn’t know, it’s just where they want to fight. The aching in my head is getting worse. It’s like everything I ever took for granted is breaking into pieces. I’ll lie here quietly and try to put them back together again when the fighting’s over.

It’s madness that a country would pull itself apart over a few disagreements. Especially when it had such a hard time coming together in the first place. We were more tolerant of each other in the early days. There were differences of opinion, of course, but we knew we had a job to do and had a long struggle ahead of us. People set aside their differences and realized they had to make sacrifices. I hated that Isaac was away on the Constellation for as long as he was, but I knew it was necessary for the good of the country. I can’t believe that in a few short years, in my lifetime, people could have forgotten what happened back then and what makes our country so great. Too many of us let our differences get in the way. The people of Virginia are struggling, I know, and they aren’t happy with the way things have been going. The plantations aren’t what they used to be, and the slave question never gets settled, but there are people like Gentleman Jim who know how to make their way. We should give them a chance. They could show us something, help get us back on our feet. But the Yankees are stubborn. They won’t recognize that we’re Virginians first, that we have a proud history and our own way of life. They forget that we had the idea of bringing all the states together in the first place. I’m sure both sides will see the danger before it’s too late. I’m too old and too loyal to Isaac to think any other way. If they were here now, I know both Isaac and Daddy would tell me not to worry, to have faith.

John is back upstairs. He says that a Yankee soldier entered the hallway downstairs and that one of the snipers shot him dead. Ellen was standing there when it happened and is hysterical with fear. Poor Ellen. She needs to pull herself together. John says he wants to move me someplace safer, but he doesn’t know where and thinks it’s too late anyway. I tell him not to worry, I’ll be fine where I am. Poor Lucy Griffith looks like she’s about ready to faint.

John went downstairs and came back again, anxious and at loose ends, saying that both armies are bringing up cannon and preparing for some kind of confrontation. The gunfire outside just doesn’t stop. I tell John and Lucy to let me be and turn my face to the wall, wondering if the precious innocence of our country could actually die here at Spring Hill. I can’t believe it will be so.

We’re a peaceful, law-abiding family living in our own house, a patriotic family. The land the house sits on is abundant and undisturbed. The house and the farm are known to everyone in Virginia. I’m an old woman, a Carter, the wife of Isaac Henry, lying bedridden on the second floor, hoping the country will come to its senses. If Spring Hill turns out to be the place where the two armies meet, I know in my bones that all of us will be fine. Common sense is going to win out, and they’ll let us be. They cannot be intending to destroy our traditions and beliefs. I’ll just lie here and hope. I believe it’s my duty. Both sides need to remember the promises our fathers and forefathers made.

The big guns are booming, and the house is shaking. Smoke and fire are visible outside my windows. Ellen comes running upstairs with her hands over her ears. John is holding my hand, trying to comfort me, but his head is hanging down and he’s not doing a good job of it. John, I say to him, be proud, everything will be all right. I look into his eyes and see a fear that I’ve never seen before.

I wish Isaac were here. He would know how to take charge of things, how to deal with the Yankees and the children’s fears. He was never one to be afraid of a little pressure. But he’s not here, and I need to be strong for Ellen, for John, for Lucy and myself. We’ve worked too hard to let fear get the better of us. Isaac used to tell me about the many dangers he faced while serving on the Constellation. I couldn’t understand how he endured them. Now, it’s my turn to be strong. I’m not leaving this house, ever again. I won’t show that I’m afraid. I trust in our people and our traditions. The armies can fight over the railway junction at Manassas all they want, but I’m sure there are plenty of good young men on both sides who will have the decency to honor the sanctity of our farm and family. I may be a bedridden old woman, but I know when to stand up for what’s right.

The shooting is louder and faster now. I can hear the rumble of cannons. A ball struck the side of the house. It must be an errant shot. Who would intentionally shoot at our house? The jolt from the impact upset John tremendously, and he has gone downstairs to to tell both sides, if he has to, that there are civilians inside. I hope he’ll be all right and won’t do anything foolish. Ellen looks paralyzed with fear. She doesn’t know what to do and keeps leaping back and forth, unsure whether she should try to help me or cower in the fireplace. Another ball strikes the side of house, this time higher up. Ellen, I say, stay put in the fireplace. Lucy is running from one corner of the room to another, startled  by the booming of the cannons. It’s enough to make one lightheaded. Lucy, I say, get under the bed, if you’re scared. Under the bed.

The noise outside is deafening, but I’m at peace. The worst is underway. We need only brave it, endure it, outlast it, and we will save ourselves. Isaac and Daddy would be proud. I’m Judith Carter Henry, and I won’t be banished or exiled. This is my land, my country, my family. Everything will survive. It must. But my poor hedge… my bushes… my red and white Althea flowers….

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Bruce Bullen is a retired health care executive. He is unpublished and recently returned to writing fiction full-time. An avid reader of American history, particularly the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, he found the link between the two periods and the paradox inherent in the Judith Henry story both interesting and relevant. In addition to historical fiction, Bruce has produced several collections of short fiction, including fifteen fables and ten stories about the inner workings of government.

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