excerpt from THE COLOR OF PRAYER, set in Springcreek, Ohio in late 1862
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.
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.