Steeds 25

7 05 2017

“May I put something forward for your consideration, please?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Heavens to Betsy, don’t say that,” said Ella. “I’m younger than you are.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“One more time, and I’ll lay into you. I can do it, too. I had a big brother, you know.” As soon as the words got to Lee, Ella faltered. It took a couple minutes before she could say anything in addition. “You also know he died in the war.” Tears came to her eyes. “Did I tell you he served with the Iron Brigade?”

“Yes. As a soldier in the Seventh Volunteer Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. The Huckleberries.”

“I said that?”

“Yes.”

“I’m surprised I could get that far. Did I say he died at Gettysburg?”

“You did.”

Ella nodded. “You’re the only one, then, who’s heard that much. You have a way with people, not just horses.” She tried to smile. Then, “It’s not that I refuse to discuss it with anyone else. I can’t….”  Ella had to pause again to compose herself. “I still can’t. Even here and now, almost twenty years later, I still cannot.” She looked about and whispered, “Where’s Clara?”

“She’s out with the sheep. There’s a girl with her. I saw her holding a lamb.”

“Good. I don’t want my sister to see me like this, not after so much time. Clara relies on me to be Ma and Pa and … Nate….” Ella shook her head savagely. She pounded it with both fists. She stood and began pacing the floor of her kitchen, at speed, while with crossed arms she hit herself repeatedly. “Stop it! Stop it!” she said to herself.

Lee waited in silence at the kitchen table. Once, when Ella came within range, Lee reached out to touch a forearm. She stopped flailing, but continued pacing for another couple minutes.

Ella stopped. After smoothing her apron, she asked, “More tea?”

“Please.”

Ella stepped to the cook stove in the manner in which everyone who watched her was accustomed. However, she grabbed the tea kettle with some violence. “Have you noticed that Clara is as good with sheep as are you with horses?”

“Indeed I have.”

Ella refilled Lee’s cup. “Another piece of kuchen?”

“Please.”

“The girl is our niece, Sarah. She’s visiting for a few days from her folks’ farm out yonder in Apucawa. She’s here because she’s feeling as bereft, as bereaved as we did after we got the news about…”  Ella forced it out. “Nathan. It killed our mother. That’s why Sarah’s here. Her folks―they would be Peter and Madeline Courtwright―her folks figure we can talk to her because we know what it’s like.”

“Excuse me, Ella,” said Lee. “I intend not to be indelicate, but neither Clara nor you are married, and if Nathan died in the war, how can you have a niece?”

“Oh. Well, Nate married Madeline just before he enlisted. She was going to await his return, and then she would move here from her folks’ farm―their place was out near Jolliet―and Nate and she would gradually take over more and more of the farming here while eventually taking care of Ma and Pa when they came to their dotage. Ma and Pa figured, of course, that Clara and I would move out, getting married and all.”

“But Sarah is far too young to be the daughter of Nate and Madeline,” Lee observed.

“True. She’s just going on fourteen. Madeline remarried, you see, some years after the war. Sarah is her youngest.”

“Ah.”

“Sure. Clara and I realize that Sarah’s not really our niece, except maybe in an in-law sort of way. But we took a shine to her mother, Madeline, back when. We would visit on Sunday afternoons. We’d go out there, or they’d come here, until….” Ella could not conclude the sentence.

Her hand held a knife to use in cutting a piece of cake, and it trembled. “How often have I striven with this, my mother’s pet knife?” Ella confessed. “I have been sorely tempted to strike, to smite … someone. But who? The rebels? General Lee? General Meade? President Lincoln? The slavers? Who? Do you realize that the first word we got of Nate’s death came, not from some officer in the regiment or brigade or the Army of the Potomac, not from the Department of War, but from a Roman Catholic nun? She and a number of her sisters had gone to the battlefield to render whatever mercies they could. She held Nate’s reddened, blackened hand. As for the military, if it weren’t for Mr. Lincoln stepping up and saying those few words, I would fear they thought of my brother as nothing more than a checker piece.”

Ella screamed, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” She slashed the air with the knife.

Ella then stood still. She smoothed her apron again and put both hands behind her back. With head bowed, she quietly said, “Please, Llewellyn Elias Leall. Speak to my niece, Sarah. She has lost someone dear to her: Daisy.”

“A friend?” Lee asked.

“A friend, yes. A cat. Just a cat, many would say. But Sarah’s not yet fourteen, you see, and that cat was her friend. Like Isolde. Like Freyja. A friend.”

“I understand,” said Lee.

“A friend taken suddenly, violently.”

“What happened?”

“They were mowing hay. The cat was in the field, hidden in the tall grass. All four feet got cut off.”

“Oh.”

“Daisy didn’t die. The hired man, he took her and drowned her in a water tank. Just a cat, don’t you know.”

Lee sighed.

“As I said, Sarah is bereft, bereaved. Inconsolable. They don’t know what to do.”

“Sarah’s mother has nothing to say? Nothing to share?” Lee asked.

“She’s confused. She lost a husband, but that was after a whirlwind courtship and then something like two years of absence. When she got the news of Nate’s death, she didn’t know what to think, what to feel. She watched us flood tears. She watched my mother drowning in a cloudburst of sorrow, and my father freezing in a wind that blew all the green from his farming heart. And she? She felt … shame. She felt so very ashamed of herself.”

“What can I do?” Lee asked.

“Sarah has questions. Listen to her. Speak with her.”

Lee nodded.

“I would. If you won’t, I will. I must. But I am afraid of myself.”

“Why?”

Ella moved both hands from behind to before. One hand bled from gripping the blade of the knife. “ ‘I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress, my God; in him will I trust….

“ ‘He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day.…

“ ‘A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked. Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation, there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

“ ‘Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.

With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.’ So it was written. So our dear Nathan believed. He was a good man. Where was our good God?”

Lee eased the knife from Ella’s hand and gently placed it on the table. He took that hand into his own and held it close, stanching the flow of blood. “Ella,” he said. “You know that psalm contains a prophecy regarding the Messiah, our Savior and Lord.”

She nodded. “So I have been told.”

“You know He could have called twelve legions of angels to His defense, as He said. And yet, as you know, He did not. Instead….” Lee held two bloody hands up, still clasping. “He bled, He died, to take hold of us. Now consider: did the prophecy fail? Did the word of God fail the Son of God? Or was it fulfilled in a way greater, grander?”

 

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