Below is the conclusion of A walk into the unknown, the first chapter of my novel in progress, part one can be found here: https://calliedeanne.com/2013/12/22/a-walk-in-a-winter-wonderland/
I didn’t know what it meant to have someone I loved die. Death was where great aunt Mary went the year before I was born. Mama read her book of poems to me every night before bed, and because of it I felt that I knew her well. In great aunt Mary, I had an ally in the heavenly realm. I imagined her standing with Jesus on a cloud. She would read him poetry and he would cry like mama said she always did when Aunt Mary read to her. Death was a beautiful thing in my little mind then, it was something wrapped in clouds and soft running creeks bordered by fields of spring grass, speckled with flowers. Mama and Daddy shielded me from what it really was as long as they could. But that cold morning when Mama came out of Aunt Holly’s room covered in blood, holding a screaming baby, was the moment that reality forced its way in.
I don’t remember much of what happened after that, only that mama put me and Benny in the small room beside the one Aunt Holly shared with Uncle John. The day was still new and the room was dark and cold when we stepped inside. Mama had her hand on my back and guided me to the bed. Still holding Benny, I sat and looked up at her, wondering what was the matter, even though I believe now, that I knew. She held Holly’s baby in one arm as it flailed tiny arms and open fingers above the edges of the quilt. Mama wiped at her face with her free hand. Looking down at me she smiled for a moment before a deep sob escaped her throat. Mama covered her mouth with the back of her bloody hand and breathed deep before saying, “You must try to sleep Clara.”
“Mama, I’m not tired.”
She didn’t look angry at my protest. She looked down at the baby she held then looked at Benny, who was just beginning to settle against my shoulder and she walked out of the room, closing the door behind her.
For the first time I felt hurt by mama and that made me want to cry. Instead, I laid Benny on the side of the bed close to the wall and put my head down next to his. He was snoring again and I thought that he’d probably be hungry when he woke. I wondered if Mama would be back for us before then.
I woke up in Daddy’s arms to the slow rocking of his horse walking us home. I didn’t ask for Mama or Benny. I didn’t want to know, so I laid my head against the rough wool of his coat and went back to sleep.
“Your Aunt Holly is dead” Daddy said as I drifted off, so that my memory of her would always be entwined with the scent of Daddy’s tobacco, and the feeling of snow as light as air, landing on my cheeks.
I slept a full day, the cold and the trauma of the day before having kept me in a blissful state of exhaustion and I sat up the next morning in my own bed with a pile of quilts weighing me down. I stood on wobbly knees, starving, and went into the kitchen for breakfast only to find that no one was awake. When I reached the table and sat down, Daddy opened the door to his and Mama’s room. “Mornin’ sugar.”
I smiled at him and my stomach rolled.
“You must be starving,” he said, pulling out a cake from a cabinet and setting it on the table.
I ate while he made grits and drilled me on spelling.
“Where’s Mama?” I asked.
“Well,” he turned away from the stove, and looked at me before reminding me of what happened the day before.
“We’re gonna’ have to be especially nice to Mama and help her with Benny.”
“Where’s Aunt Holly?”
Putting the bowl of grits in front of me he held my spoon in his hand and reminded me that it was hot before turning away again. I didn’t think he was going to tell me where Aunt Holly was or when she’d come back. Jesus was coming back, wasn’t he? Pastor Michaels always said so in church, so it must mean that Aunt Holly will be back too.
“She’s gone home.” was all that he said, and I ate my grits in silence while Daddy made Mama tea. The slats of wood creaked as he walked across them, then he was gone for a long time. When I was finished eating I left my bowl on the table and went into my room to get dressed. It was a cold morning, even with the fire roaring in the room that doubled as a kitchen and a living room. Our house was normally small enough to be filled with its warmth, but
even a constant fire only touched the chill that settled inside its walls that year. Putting on my second pair of stockings I thought over an idea that struck me at breakfast when Daddy said we had to help Mama. When I was sad, she always told me to try to think of something good, something that made me happy, and to focus on that until I smiled. She said that if I could find a reason to smile, and hold onto it, the smile would work its way to my heart and what was ailing me would fade away.
I knew just what to do to make Mama smile. In the spring and summer daddy would bring her flowers, and throughout the winter she looked out the window and wish for them. “Only your Mama can pray with a look.” Daddy always said, “And the way she looks at that bare earth ain’t nothin’ if not a prayer.”
Down by Moss creek, close enough to the house that I could still see the chimney from its banks, I’d seen a shrub of Witch Hazel growing and thought that it may still be there. Its yellow and red bloom couldn’t touch the beauty of the spring wild flowers that Mama loved, but its unlikely existence in the dead of winter would lift her spirits, if anything could.
I put on my coat, checked that my mittens, warming by the fire, were warm and dry and I tried to sneak out of the front door without making any noise.
It was cold outside, but if I ran and kept to the trail I could be back before Daddy knew I was gone and maybe before Mama’s second cup of tea. The door closed with a bang behind me, despite my trying to be quiet and I stopped for a minute to see if Daddy heard and would come out to see what I was doing. After a few minutes, which could have been seconds, when he didn’t, I ran down the front steps, knocking snow off as I went, then took the unsullied white path down to the creek. The cold air choked me and coughed and slipped at the same time, catching myself on a tree branch. When I got down to the creek I was disappointed not to see any witch hazel. Using my glove I dusted off bushes and picked through weeks. I couldn’t find anything until off the path, along the bank I saw it peeking out of the snow. There was a little red and yellow mixed in with the white. Holding on to low hanging branches I moved over to where the shrub was, hoping to gather enough to fill one of mama’s clear glasses. I imagined, as I made my way over, the look on her face when she saw what I’d brought her. She would smile, I knew, she might kiss me on the cheeks and tell me how happy I made her. She’d forget about the day before, about our long trip and her dead sister. She’d be happy again.
Mama’s smile was the last thing I thought about before the tree limb I’d grabbed onto to get one step closer to the flowers snapped and my unsteady footing gave way at the surprise. It wasn’t cold when I hit the water, it just hurt. The heavy wool of my extra layers soaked in water and weighed me down. Before I could flail I was underwater. My face hurt so bad from the cold. I wanted to scream but when I opened my mouth it filled with water and shot down my throat, burning. I thought of the odd color of witch hazel, how it was reddish purple and yellow, before I stopped thinking of anything.
The only evidence of my trip to Moss Creek, small boot prints in the snow, that were quickly filled in and covered by a descending storm.
Callie Armstrong © 2014