excerpt from THE COLOR OF PRAYER
A Circumstance So Sorry
Sophronia listened to the creaks and groans of the house. Papa wasn’t snoring in the next room, so maybe he was awake too. She matched her breathing to the sound of Sister sleeping beside her. The wind shifted and rattled window panes, leaking through the glazing to waver the white curtains into ghosts. Outside, Crenshaw’s old hound howled at the hidden moon. When a cramp started again deep in her belly, she failed to will it away. Mama said the monthlies were a woman’s joy.
She pushed her freezing toes underneath Whiskers, curled asleep at the bottom of the bed. Stretching helped diminish the cramp. She smelled a hint of lavender sachet that Sister swore soothed her pains, but Sophronia never felt its ease. She’d grown used to their menses coming on identical days, taking some ease from knowing she didn’t suffer alone. Luisa would never share that sister secret.
Will it always be so cold and dark?
She slipped out from under the quilts and inched her way across the frigid floorboards. When she pulled the curtain aside, she felt the icy breath of the glass on her cheek. Scratching off a layer of frost, the particles fell like pinpricks onto her fingers. She couldn’t see anything outside except demon branches whipped by the wind. It was a bitter day already and would only get worse.
Her feet ached from the cold, but she deserved the punishment. She lit the candle and tipped the looking glass to keep the light off Sister. Tucking up her flannel nightgown, she unpinned the rag from the cloth belt and rolled its bloodied side inward. She carried it to the bucket behind the door, raised the lid, and slipped it into the cold soak water. The rags would all have to get boiled soon, but not to-day.
She ignored her shivering reflection as she pulled off her nightgown. The icy water she poured into the wash basin numbed her to the bone. The drying towel was rough on her skin, but helped rub warmth back into her limbs. She opened the wardrobe door slowly so the hinge wouldn’t squeak, then lifted her drawers from the hook and a clean rag out of the box. She stepped into her drawers, then folded and pinned the rag in place. Another cramp made her hold her stomach and breathe it away.
On her half of the bed, she laid out the clothes she must wear to-day. When she slipped the delicate chemise over her head, but it offered little warmth. Her cold fingers took forever to tie the neck ribbon.
Will I spend my life in black crape?
Putting on her stockings brought another cramp. When the pain finally faded, she smoothed the dark stockings up over her knees and tied each with a half-twist knot. She stepped into one petticoat and tied its waist string. She raised a second over her head and let it fall to her waist, then tied it. Two more petticoats waited on the bed. Sister said four petticoats gave a girl the best profile, the width of a skirt at the ankles leading the eye to the slimness of a waist and the pretty swelling of a breast. The rustle of one starched underskirt rubbing against another, silk on silk, was how ladies were supposed to sound. But it didn’t matter if her waist was slim enough to please anyone. Getting through to-day was what mattered, and helping Mama and Sister get through it. She put the two unused petticoats away.
When she turned from the wardrobe, her elbow hit a bottle that tipped over on the dresser. She heard the contents gurgle out. Setting it upright, she didn’t care about the stain on the dresser or that there was no basil water left to daub the blemish on her chin.
She smoothed the black bombazine skirt down over her petticoats. She’d worn it to Dan Underwood’s service last March. Matt Givens’s in April, Marion Hawn’s in May. Josiah Givens came home to recover from pneumonia but died, and Allen Shrimplin was home to get over the fevers when he breathed his last in his mother’s arms. Her crape skirt’s hem guard had gotten so worn she had to spend most of a Saturday mending it, struggling to see her stitching whenever tears threatened, repeating a prayer that she might never have to wear it again. At Newt Shroyer’s memorial in September, Adelia held so tightly to Sophronia’s hand that it went numb, but she didn’t withdraw it because Adelia’s pain over losing her brother was so much greater than her own. Would anyone hold Sophronia’s hand to-day?
She slipped into the long-sleeved black blouse and fastened its jet buttons up the front to the high collar.
I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Tears were a comfort she did not deserve. She sat on the dressing table stool to unbraid her hair. After brushing it smooth, she twisted it into a coil and fastened it with the onyx hair combs.
And then Company K went to Corinth, Mississippi. Mrs. Shrimplin hadn’t come out of her room since the news reached them that Van was killed. For two days they thought Edwin was dead too, until they heard he was only wounded in the leg. Mrs. Lybarger’s hands still hadn’t stopped trembling, and Mr. Lybarger had taken to pacing the house, though it was hard to tell what he did or didn’t understand anymore. John Green’s and John Denner’s families weren’t as lucky because both boys really had been shot in the fight and died. Six more from home were wounded there. Some of them might yet perish. They all might.
How can a rod and a staff comfort anybody?
She felt in her jewelry box for the jet earring bobs and put them on. She clasped the velvet ribbon of the matching pendant around her neck.
It’s too late to be sorry.
Her numbed toes fit tightly into her dress boots. Her fingers were warm enough to manage the shoe hook. She wrapped the wool mourning shawl around her shoulders and sat in the rocker. She stroked the black suede leather of the gloves in her hand. Mama and Papa had given them to her on her last birthday. Sister had been so envious of this newest fashion that Sophronia almost gave them to her.
Luisa had always coveted Sophronia’s world atlas. Why had she been too hard-hearted to give it to her for her own, when she would have prized it so?
She endured another cramp. She wasn’t ready to go downstairs. Maybe if she sat quietly enough she would wake up from this nightmare. Maybe she would wake up and discover it wasn’t the start of the worst day of her life.
Across the hall, Luisa’s bedroom door moaned, as if Luisa’s hand was on the knob and she was trying to sneak out of the house without permission. Sophronia got to her feet, fearless for wanting Sister and Mama and Papa to stay sleeping. Swirling cold wind met her in the hall, blowing in through Luisa’s open window to make the hinges moan and creak. The velvet curtains in the room were flying toward the ceiling like demons. She braved her way to the window and shut it but didn’t close the curtains, wanting daylight to keep its promise.
All the times I scolded, when I should have smiled and kissed you.
She set the candle on the desk, a sorry spy. She would give anything to hear Luisa’s footsteps running up the stairs again, to be caught snooping and earn the irate scolding she deserved. To be forgiven.
She ran her fingers over Luisa’s pen case, the bottle of ink, the blotter, the empty candlestick holder. She opened a small black notebook, surprised to find that Luisa, who hated school work and sitting still, had neatly recorded every donation to the Alert Club of a half-cent or more, and every expenditure, starting from April 15, 1861.
The last entry was “For the Arsenal Girls,” a total raised of one dollar and twenty-three cents for the families of the girls dead in the explosions and fire at the Army’s arsenal near Pittsburgh. Luisa had read them the newspaper accounts of the inferno, how pieces of bodies were found in the Alleghany River. In tears, Mama made her stop, overcome by the carnage at Antietam the same day. Sophronia opened the newspaper clipping Luisa had carefully folded into the ledger. The coroner’s jury, it reported, ruled that the arsenal accident was caused by a horse’s hoof making a spark that ignited loose gunpowder accumulated in the roadway due to “gross negligence” for safety.
She searched through the desk drawer, but didn’t find the Alert Club’s election tin. Getting on her knees, she felt under the bed and pulled out the brightly painted cigar box where Luisa kept her treasures. Setting it on the smooth coverlet, she searched it and found the brightly decorated tin can, a slot cut in the lid for donations. She put it in her pocket, then stopped to let the pain of another cramp pass. She didn’t stop herself from investigating Luisa’s other treasures. A tiny blue clay fish. A white stone. An arrowhead. A delicate, brittle bird’s nest. In the bottom of the box lay a half-dozen envelopes tied in ribbon. She read that they were addressed to Harlan Murphy and realized this had been her suggestion for Edwin Lybarger to bypass Papa’s censure and write Luisa about soldier life. She brought the candle closer, pulled off the ribbon, and read every letter.
Edwin’s stories of camp life were made to entertain a ten-year-old: the antics of a terrier dog one of the soldiers adopted; the night around the campfire when they thought they’d been shot, and it was only an exploding potato; what it was like to sleep with no tent in a rainstorm. Edwin concluded his last letter with a teasing request: “If you learn to knit, you could make me a pair of good socks. The army issue doesn’t last long. Knitting takes practice, but it’s a good thing for a girl to know. Your friend, Sgt. Edwin L. Lybarger, 43d O.V.I., Co. K.”
She put the letters away in the treasure box and slid it under the bed again so Luisa wouldn’t know she’d spied. She tiptoed down the stairs with the donation tin and the candle, wanting to let Sister and Papa and Mama stay asleep for a few more moments’ reprieve before they awoke to the ravishing truth all over again. One day, Papa would be able to treasure those letters.
Downstairs, her courage faltered in the utter silence, no clock ticking to steady her heart. They hadn’t known what time Luisa died, so Papa stopped the clock at the hour and minute the search party found her body in the river. By sheer force of will she made herself walk down the hall past the lifeless clock. Luisa needed her, and she was ready. She stepped into the parlor, her candle raised high, and her heart broke anew. Mama and Papa were asleep in each other’s arms on the settee beside the small coffin with its lid forever closed to the living world. Luisa wasn’t alone, after all.
She crossed to the front hall and set the donation tin on the table where it would be the first thing every visitor would see. Returning to the hearth, she set the candle on the mantle, then quietly relit the fire that had died. From the yarn basket beside the rocker, she rescued the frazzled bundle of yarn her little sister had discarded in frustration. When she found one end, she secured it to her finger and began winding it into a smooth ball.
It was time to face the truth. It was her fault Luisa drowned in the Kokosing River. After they’d finished chores last Saturday morning, Luisa had come into the parlor and asked for a knitting lesson. Sophronia was comfortable on the settee and meant to spend the rainy afternoon reading a novel whose wealthy heroine ought to spurn the handsome suitor whose promises of love hid an avaricious heart. Sophronia pointed out that Luisa had already had three knitting lessons and none had stuck, then returned to her novel. Luisa worked the needles on her own, muttering all the while. Finally, she unraveled her ragged efforts and announced she was going for a walk. Sophronia declined to go with her and kept to her book.
Luisa never came home. It was very late and dark before the searchers found her body where she’d drowned. A stone was clenched in her hand. Near her in the shallow water they found the mindless boy Winslow Eagle. People said he must have chased or scared her and somehow caused them both to fall in the Kokosing and drown. The October rain had made the riverbank treacherous.
You never should have been alone there. I should have protected you, dearest.
As the wind and rain ushered in dawn on the day of her little sister’s funeral, Sophronia sat by the fire in the parlor near Luisa’s coffin and her sleeping, heartsick parents. She made room for Whiskers when he jumped into her lap, grateful for his warmth. She selected a pair of needles from the yarn basket, and with the reclaimed yarn she cast on stitches to knit Edwin Lybarger the grey lambswool socks that Luisa never would. Whiskers began to purr. Sophronia breathed a prayer with each yarn-over.
Live to wear them. Live to wear them. Live to wear them.