Our lives are made up of stories and as we live, we silently beseech the people we touch to remember us so the darkness that consumes us in the end is forced to leave a small piece behind. Jeannie is the story of a woman who lived long ago. She was my great great great grandmother and other than her name and dates of birth and death very little is remembered about her. All that remains is a picture and a story.
I know from my great grandfather that Jeannie was kind and gentle. I know from his story of her that she was brave. Like many family legends this one has changed with each telling so that I don’t feel I am breaking the code of the storyteller or the code of the granddaughter, in painting it with my own details and giving it new life.
The importance of remembering family stories is one of the greatest focuses of my life and as it progresses, of this blog. This story is still in need of some work so I appreciate your reading and would value your feedback.
Bent over in a dirt stained cotton dress, Jeannie dug with her fingers, searching the dry soil for what she hoped would be dinner. Just one. She thought as she dug, more frantic with each passing moment, with each grasp that resulted in nothing but a handful of dirt. Just one.
Her empty stomach rumbled, the baby inside kicked hard and Jeannie fell forward into overturned dirt.
Rolling onto her back, too tired to stand she turned her face upward, to the pine trees and the cloudy star speckled darkening sky above. It will rain tonight, she thought.
“Rain” she said aloud.
It was such a good sign once. Once long ago before the war came and ripped their nation apart. Once when all that mattered was rain and crops and harvests. Once when Jeannie was more concerned with new dresses, and dances and finding a handsome beau.
As she lay in the cold dirt, feeling the dampness of rain settle in all around her she couldn’t stop herself from being swept away to the last dance, the last night when time was measured by the distance from one social to the next.
It had been an unusually warm night for a Tennessee spring in 1861.
The first moment of that night that came rushing back to her was the memory of throwing food off her plate after only a few bites of dinner. She gave it to the dogs waiting hopefully on the porch and mounted the staircase, hearing her mother call behind her that ladies did not rush. Jeannie bit her tongue and didn’t respond to her mother’s admonishment or slow her pace a step, instead she swung around the banister at the top of the stairs and ran into her room. She kicked the door closed behind her and stripped down to nothing. She remembered standing in front of her new dress hanging on the wardrobe door and she smiled. It had taken her weeks of begging to get father to agree to spend so much on a dress.
He muttered after only half agreeing.
“It’s her husband I’m doing a disservice to” Jeanie heard him say to her mother “there’s no coming back from a spoiled woman.”
There was a suppressed smile in her mother’s reply “Yes darlin’.”
The dress fit perfectly. Dark blue with tiny flowers and lace bordering the neck. The latest fashion. She rode in the wagon to the dance with her brothers, jostled along the bumpy old country road, sitting in content silence as afternoon faded to evening. Bill and Tom’s minds were on girls they hoped would dance with them. Jeannie’s had been on Andrew.
The thought of Andrew’s face pulled Jeanie back to her present state of misery, her back felt moist as she lay on the ground, dark ringlets of her brown hair had come unpinned and fell all around her, dirty and wet. Her face began to feel the mist of the coming rain and something small and slimy made it’s way across her open hand. Using a strength she didn’t know she possessed, she stood and said to the pine trees gently swaying in the breeze, “Well fat lot of good all that dreaming did me Andrew!”
As she walked out of what was once a garden, and now only consisted of dirt and weeds and wishes, she pressed her hand firmly into her stomach and was greeted with a life affirming kick.
“You’re alright my little one.” She said as less of a promise and more of a prayer. “You’ll be alright.”
With all the men gone to war, her parents dead and the horses stolen by Yankees, Jeanie knew she was alone. It used to be that she waited all day for a few moments of peace from her brothers and mother and father, but since marrying and seeing so much death, the idea of total seclusion terrified her. There were too many ghosts, too many words she should have said and nothing to do but sit and think and pray away her fear and hunger. Nothing to do but pray for Andrew to come home safe. So she spoke aloud to people who weren’t there, to a husband, thousands of miles away and to her unborn child who, in her darkest moments, she half hoped would never live to see this horrible world.
Not bothering to lock the doors Jeannie took off her soiled dress, washed hardened dirt from her hands, face and hair and fell into bed. She covered her stomach with her hands and sang almost forgotten songs to the baby rolling and kicking inside her. Sleep came quickly, a sweet release.
And there, just beyond the day, was the sound of Andrew’s deep voice at her parent’s front door.
Her mother shouted standing above her bed, “Eugenia, wake up. Wake up. Something’s happened.”
“Downstairs” was the last word her mother spoke before sitting in the chair beside Jeannie’s bed and loudly weeping into her hands. Jeannie flung the covers off her legs, put on the first dress she touched and ran down stairs. Her father grasped her by the shoulders as she reached the bottom step. His voice was calm and soft as always but his eyes were sad and looked at her with concern. He told her that Andrew had come to call then gave her a gentle squeeze and kissed her on the forehead. Confused Jeannie turned the corner into the dining room where Andrew sat, a steaming cup on the table before him. Hunched over the coffee, Andrew didn’t look up. Jeannie said his name, and stood across from him on the other side of the table. Moments passed before he acknowledged her, but when his gaze lifted from the cup now clutched in his hands, she was surprised to find that the light blue eyes she expected to greet her had grown darker since she had last looked into them, and were now red and bloodshot. His lopsided smile had been replaced by a tightly closed mouth and was pinched together in a way that made Andrew look like he’d eaten something sour. His normally neatly combed chestnut brown hair was wild unkempt. As she took his new appearance in, he rose from his seat and said nothing. Floorboards creaked as he shifted his weight and Jeannie heard her father’s low whispers to her mother in the hallway outside the dining room.
Andrew stared at Jeannie for a moment with a distant look in his empty eyes that made goosebumps rise on her arms.
Opening her mouth to say something to break the silence, Jeannie shut it again when she saw Andrew struggling for words. He spoke in a flat, emotionless voice, not his own. He told her without any emotion in his voice that his brother was dead. After he said the words his countenance changed and tears ran down his face. He cleared his throat and continued, stammering as he spoke. He died in a Yankee prison up north. His regiment had been captured and James, along with all the other privates had been marched from Tennessee to a prison camp in Chicago. The officers were sent somewhere else. Andrew rambled on. Words that came to him with such trouble before, flowed now, like a river after a heavy rain. His face, still wet from tears was turned down to the floor. He looked oddly like a child that had been scolded. Hands behind his back, then at his pockets, picking at buttons, refusing to rest. He looked scared and frightened. Jeannie could feel his pain from across the table, radiating like heat. He spoke because he had to, words that he knew were true even as he refused to believe them. “So this is what it looks like when a heart breaks.” Jeannie thought to herself and wondered why broken hearts had always seemed so romantic in books. Andrew looked into her eyes, but did not see her when he said “No one thinks this war will last long” his voice was becoming stronger. “Papa says James’s regiment is being exchanged and reformed.”
Feeling oddly self conscious, Jeannie didn’t know what to say. Reverting back to an old nervous habit she twirled a strand of her hair in her fingers and whispered, “Andrew.” then took a breath wondering what on earth she could say next that wouldn’t sound trite. “I’m so sorry.”
As if he didn’t hear her, Andrew said. “It’s too late for James though I reckon.”
He wasn’t staring through her anymore. He was looking into her eyes and she wished above all things that she could give him back his older brother.
Poor James, she thought. Tears began to fall. Poor Andrew.
“…they’re going to send officers to Pulaski to enlist more men…” His voice whispered to her “I don’t want to wait…” Andrew paused silently willing her to understand, but she didn’t and he spoke louder. “I’m going to Jackson to meet them and join up….”
Jeanie couldn’t hear anything but a ringing in her ears. She was overcome with the need to sit down. She pulled a chair back from the table and sat. Looking up at his face she noticed that he’d stopped crying.
He loved James.
Thoughts ran through her head at a faster speed than she could hold on to them.
He can’t go to war! They said one battle. one. They said one month. They took James. They took Bill and Tom. They cannot have Andrew. Not Andrew.
“Jeannie.” Andrew called to her harsher than he’d meant to. “Are you listening?”
She wasn’t given time to answer before her father came into the room. His footsteps drew Jeannie’s attention and she turned to him as he passed by her. He said nothing until he stood in front of the boy he’d known since the early winter morning he’d helped deliver him into the world.
Jeannie had never thought of her father as a stern man, but as he looked at Andrew now he looked so serious that his expression bordered on angry as he asked
“and what will happen if you die?”
Andrew looked down at his shoes and said nothing. Jeannie stepped forward.
She needed to move to keep from falling.
“Mr. Compton…” Life came to his voice as Andrew tried to speak calmly, attempting without success to reason with Jeannie’s father.
The room went still for a moment before Andrew raised his head and looked Jeannie’s father in the eye. “You’re right.” He said rubbing his jaw as he spoke.
“I might die.”
Jeannie saw her father’s head nod in agreement.
“The war will go on and on. No one will yield. Crops will fail and businesses will fall. We’ll all be destitute by the time this is over.” Each word he spoke was louder and when he was finished speaking Jeannie’s father had straightened up and stood a head taller than Andrew. Both men seemed to understand something Jeannie didn’t and each seemed on the edge of fury.
They stood, staring at one another. Their eyes were locked and Jeannie felt like stomping her foot on the ground to break the silence.
Her mother came into the room and moved to stand by Jeannie’s side.
Andrew looked at Jeannie when he spoke, “I love her.”
They were married the next day.
Jeanie woke up and the voices of her father and husband followed her from sleep.
Looking out the window she could see that the sun was making its lazy climb across the sky, slowly casting it’s light golden glow on the ancient oak tree outside her window. For the first time in a long time, she laid still, breathed deeply and smiled, thinking all at once how wonderful it was that something remained beautiful and untouched in this wicked world. She slowly realized that for the first time in weeks she’d slept through the night and hoped aloud that it would become a habit. With a touch of a smile still lingering on her lips she pushed her back off the bed and leaned up onto her elbows, groaning with the effort. Jeannie spoke soft words to her child and absentmindedly rubbed the rumbling from her stomach. “I will go hunting for something today.” Jeannie said aloud to the great oak through the closed windows. “The Yankees can’t have run off everything.”
As she dressed and thought about hunting she remembered days she spent trailing behind her father and brothers and later Andrew even though her mother had been horrified by it. Some of her favorite days were spent on old trails, listening to the call of birds from above and the soft crackling of twigs underfoot, as they combed the woods for deer and rabbit.
Most of her days now were spent lost in dreams. Chores had always gotten done faster if she allowed herself to be pulled into the world of the books she’d read. She spent many long hours scrubbing floors and feeding animals all the while writing herself into the pages of her favorite stories. Time now seemed to do the same when she lost herself in memory and the recreation of it. The only thing she never dreamed of was the future.
“We’ve got ourselves quite a prize here!” she heard the exclamation closer than her daydreams and jumped.
As fast as her large stomach would let her, she grabbed the shotgun Andrew made her promise to always keep by the bedside when he was away.
Jeannie peaked out of the window nearest to the bedroom door and saw nothing. Not bothering to find her shoes, she adjusted her hold on the gun and tried hard to calm her nerves as she moved carefully and opened the door to the bedroom. The old door creaked loudly as it swung open on it’s hinges. All around her the house was quiet. She moved from the room into the hallway and heard birds chirping outside of the windows behind her. Slowly she made her way down the hallway, looking into the rooms she passed, she heard nothing. Nothing but her bare feet on the creaky floorboards.
As she stood at the top of the stairs looking down into the hall below, trying to determine if the front door was open, she began to chide her imagination for being so cruel. Jeanie exhaled one deep long breath and the fear rolled away with each step she took down the stairs. When she reached the bottom, she looked around. There was nothing. She walked through every room, peeking out windows when she came to them. She saw no one.
Jeannie relaxed her hold on the gun in her hands and took a few deep breaths. Looking over her shoulder she walked to her father’s study to sit and read. Knowing that the light weight of a book in her hands would calm her nerves like nothing else. It would make her forget she was hungry and alone. It would take her away, and give her peace, even if for just a moment. When she got inside she laid the gun across her father’s desk, pushing aside papers and books he’d left on it before he died.
The bookshelf in her father’s study took up an entire wall and standing before it, she thought of all the times she’d shirked chores and stole away to lose herself in one of the many volumes of poetry or history that was kept here. She ran her index finger along the bindings, unsure of which to read again. She had been through them all many times since childhood and probably would read them each again before the war was over. “I will read.” Jeannie said to the books and the quiet room. Then to herself she thought that when she was done she would hunt and after she went hunting she thought that maybe she would swim and cook her meat by the banks of the river like she used to do with her brothers before the war. She would see if there were any berries left on the blackberry bush in the grove and maybe take them into town to see how her friend Bess was doing. If she was lucky, she thought, maybe she would catch enough meat to take some to Bess. Lately the food had been scarcer in town than it was on Jeannie’s farm.
Even as she was plotting and planning, even as she was smiling over the thought of such a blissfully perfect day, even then she knew somewhere deep in her heart that she would not be doing any of those things. If she could muster the energy to hunt, she knew there would be no game. There were no blackberries.The invaders had taken care of anything that could be eaten. And town might as well be Nashville, because without a wagon or horse she would never make it there in her condition.
A rank smell traveled filled the room and Jeannie turned to face it.
In the doorway stood a man, with the look of someone who had been on the road for a long time. He was short and skinny but looked to be very old. The clothes he wore, if they could be called clothes, hung on him in pieces. All the same dirt color. All with holes. The rags clung to his body as if they were grafting slowly to him and covered very little. Jeannie had the sudden urge to avert her eyes but instead met his gaze and held it. He said nothing but winced shifting his weight off of one leg and leaning dramatically onto the other. His face was gaunt and patches of hair grew sporadically not quite covering his chin and cheeks. He was covered by what she guessed was caked mud. A casualty of war, Jeannie thought surprisingly full of more pity than fear.
Maybe he was kind, she thought. Almost certainly he was a deserter, but not all deserters were like the ones that had passed through before. Maybe he had been in Andrew’s regiment. Maybe he knew of him. From the few words he spoke to her, she knew that he was a southerner and had likely fought for the cause, though that meant nothing. Some of their own were the worst. Some had been conscripted to fight and cared nothing for the cause or honor or country. Much like her, they were fighting for survival and many would commit unthinkable horrors to get it. Many, but not all.
Thoughts passed like a train through her mind as she tried to talk herself out of dying from fear. All her excuses for the man were empty lies when faced with the one truth she couldn’t push aside. He hadn’t knocked on the door.
In that moment she made her decision.
“I don’t have anything” She said curtly
Maybe he has an excuse for not knocking she thought. Pleading with God for that to be true.
His response was a lazy, half amused smile. And Jeannie started to sweat.
The man whistled, looking and gestured at her protruding stomach. “Well look-ey there, someone got her a’fore me.”
Jeannie’s face reddened, and she too laughed thinking about the fact that apparently not even poverty and war; not even death and misery could rid her of the modesty so carefully ingrained in her. Surely that was a tribute to her mother’s many hours of instruction on the endless and ridiculous virtues of being a lady.
Jeannie’s laugh threw the man off and he stopped smiling, shifted his weight a little from his good leg and pointing a finger at her said, “Is you crazy lady?”
“Yes” Jeannie said, hoping he would believe her. “I am crazy. Now get out of my house.”
Jeannie tried to slow her breathing to a steady pace that would not give her fear away. She stood in stone silence staring at the man whose expression was now as blank and unreadable as her mind and in that long and terrible moment she knew what would have to be done. He would never leave, not ever, not unless forced. And if by some miracle of fate or act of God she did manage to force him from her home, she knew that he would come back. The world was not as it once was. There was no law anymore. No order. There were no sheriffs or judges worth a damn. No more honest men. All the gallantry had marched away with those who enlisted to fight and with each passing moment those men, many of whom now lay dead and rotting in distant fields far away, seemed like a dream much more than a memory.
She knew. She had known it since her father died and she was left alone. Her sister gone. Her brothers dead. She was alone and alone would have to deal with the problem standing before her, stinking up her father’s study with the moldy stench of death and dying. She would have to kill him or he would never leave. If she didn’t he would kill her and her child and Red Oak would be grown over with weeds by the time Andrew came home from war. If he ever came home.
She unconsciously ran her fingers over the rip in her sleeve.
Jeannie had seen his eyes find it moments after turning to face him for the first time. He was eyeing it now, carefully, then with his head raised and a vicious smirk back on his face he met her gaze and clicked his tongue as if calling a horse.
“Youse a mighty mouthy for a little slip of a thing left all alone.”
She said nothing.
“Did one of our boys do that?” He questioned with a laugh. When she said nothing he asked, “One of the blue bellies?”
“What do ya’ want?” Regretting the question the second she asked it.
“Well now let’s see” he drawled out slow, in a thick country accent, “Ain’t go no food I’s guessin’.” Chills ran down her spine.
“No money neither.” He smiled an arrogant toothy grin then said nothing, letting her mind fill in the blanks.
She broke the silence, “ Will you leave on your own?”
Her hopelessness seeped through when she asked him in a whisper why. His face then became serious, his eyebrows pulled together and he frowned slightly before telling her that while he would like to leave, he found that he would much rather see if by chance she was hiding anything of value on what looked like a previously lovely farm so far from town. When she promised him that she had nothing, that she had no food and no money, when she told him in a shaking voice that she had not eaten for days he knew that she was pleading for her life. He enjoyed her misery and was not anxious to move on from it.
Jeannie knew she sounded desperate. She knew that she was desperate but desperation and a sudden desire to live was all that she had.
As the man stood, now leaning off his bad leg entirely, his shoulder rested on the doorframe, he went on to tell Jeannie in great vulgar detail, just what he intended to do to her and how. As he spoke her anger grew, not her fear but Jeannie knew that the helplessness she felt pouring from her would be a more helpful appearance so she contained her rage as best as she could and let him talk. All the while she was trying to come up with a way to get to the gun that was more than halfway across the room and much closer to the man now saying how he planned on burning her parents farm to the ground .
At once it came to her.
She said a silent prayer, then, before thinking it over too much, as the varmint was still slowly telling her what happened to the last lady he’d run across all alone, she picked up her skirts, ran across the room and reached the gun the same moment he was able to hobble to it. She didn’t see his hand move but felt the back of it hit her across the face. She fell to the ground. He grabbed the gun, checked to see if it was loaded then pointed it at her and told her to stand. She knew that she only had moments, only a breath of a moment to act. She knew that if he was able to think too much, he would have her backed into a corner that she couldn’t escape from. So again she acted, and with desperate hope she raised her leg and kicked him firmly in the knee of the leg he had been trying so carefully to stay off of. As he fell, screaming and cussing she grabbed the gun.
Jeannie looked at the man laying on the floor, holding onto his leg, moaning from pain and gasping for air. She had to force herself not to feel any remorse for him as she told him to stand. The cost for compassion would be too high. He spit at her and told her she really was crazy. Again she told him to stand. He said that he couldn’t. When her answer was to raise the rifle to her shoulder. He stood with a curse then hobbled to the door with several others.
By the time they reached the front door Jeanne was no closer to figuring out what to do next. She couldn’t just shoot a man in the back, could she? Maybe he would rush her and then she could shoot him in self defense. Not bothering to contemplate the audacity of hoping to be attacked and not wanting to speak for fear of the man realizing how afraid she was, she prodded him on with the barrel of the gun.
The moment she began to open her mouth and tell him to keep going she heard the floorboards behind her creak. She died and came back to life in the breath of a moment then said with a sterner voice than she’d ever imagined she had, “One more step and your friend gets it in the back.”
From behind her came a deep long laugh. “Well now little lady lets not get ahead of ourselves.”
She told him again to stay put. Then thought quickly and told him to leave the house the way she assumed he had come in, through the back, then go around and stand in front of his friend at the front door so she could see him. Both men laughed then and she was embarrassed. Wondering at the absurdity of it all she repeated her instruction then added as if she were a mother speaking to a disobedient child, “You have until the count of 10 or I’ll kill him.”
She heard him leave. The man at the receiving end of her gun cheerily reminded her about counting. Slowly she began. By the time she got to 8, the second man was standing before her on the other side of the first. He pat his companion on the arm as if nothing was unusual and called him Jim. Then he looked at Jeannie, taking his time taking her in before saying to Jim, “well you’ve got a nice one here. Too bad she’s fat with child though.”
“Yeah well it won’t the be first time”
The men spoke as if she were a cow they had purchased to butcher. Her hands shook but she held the gun steady. Pretending as though she hadn’t heard either man she told them to walk down the steps and sit down. They turned to face her, and she felt like a small child interrupting adults deep in important conversation. The nameless man spoke to Jim, never taking his eyes from Jeannie’s face. “Ole George is gonnna be along in the next day or so right?”
Jim smiled a slow, knowing smile and shook his head. “yep, he’s gonna like this one.”
She leveled her gun at Jim’s head, remembering at once what Andrew had written her about deserters in the army. She had been angry when she read the letter and wondered why her husband would relay such horrifying details but her mother shook her head and patted her hand. “He’s only scared for you sugar.” Jeannie didn’t understand. “He wants to make sure you know what men with no morals are capable of in times of war.”
She pulled the trigger.
The man without a name stepped away from Jim as he fell to the ground.
“You know miss”, the man said casually, “I’m gonna have ta hurt you for that.”
Now visibly shaking, trying to ignore the blood and the rising urge to vomit Jeannie turned her gun on the remaining man. Without taking her eyes from him she took a shell from her dress pocket and loaded the gun. Her child rolled inside her, kicking for the first time since she had been thrown to the ground. Reminding her that she wasn’t alone. In an effort to put a little more distance between her and her aggressor she took two steps back. Moving broke the thin veiled bubble of calm she had somehow been able to exist in, and a panic began to overtake her. The man asked as he might ask for the time, if she was planning on killing him this day or the next. She ignored his crude joke. Without a thought she cocked the gun again, her finger heavy on the trigger. Jeannie then did something that she would think about later as she lay in bed reliving the nightmare. She apologized.
The man removed the hat on his head, and placing it over his heart nodded in her direction telling her that he had pillaged more houses and wives left behind than he could count. “I always did reckon I’d get it one day.” He gave his last smile.
With the last bit of resolve she had slipping away she told him to turn around.
He did as ordered and asked with the same lazy confidence he possessed before “Why, sweetheart? You don’t want to look at my face when you pull that trigger?”
“No.” She whispered. “I want to shoot you in the back like the coward you are.”
She pulled the trigger for the second time that day and the man without a name dropped on top of Jim leaving Jeannie in silence alone with two more ghosts than before, the only noise her heavy breathing.
Callie Armstrong © 2013