AN INTRODUCTION BY PAMELA ERENS
A narrative set in a bygone era — before 1900, let’s say — can feel to both author and reader like a gamble. For the author, there’s the difficulty that no one living can instruct you on how people really talked and acted back then, what the air smelled like, how it felt to be alive. The reader, for her part, approaches in fear of not being convinced, of the scent of cardboard or melodrama.
I admire Chanelle Benz’s maneuver in “The Mourners,” which takes place in 1889, first in an affluent Mississippi household, and then in an unnamed frontier town out West. Rather than strain to convince us that things were “like that,” she signals that there will be a certain artifice to this story. “There is an art to dying and the boy does not have it,” says the mother of a terminally ill man. Benz’s protagonist, Emmeline, is the wife of that man, and we learn that “having been married to him fifteen years she had grown accustomed to his notseeing.” Poetic diction and neologism put the reader on notice that Benz is fashioning a poem, one that will make us see and feel what mere naturalistic detail cannot. It is a poem that tosses us about and eventually swamps us, just as the dying man, the victim of tuberculosis, is “swamped in his own blood.”
Benz is fashioning a poem, one that will make us see and feel what mere naturalistic detail cannot.
In Benz’s language and concerns there are echoes of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, a similar interrogation of violence, preoccupation with genetic and social inheritances, and fatalism about human hopes. It is invigorating to see a woman author and a woman protagonist refashion those concerns for their own. “The Mourners” is about specifically female kinds of losses: the loss of the children one has borne, the loss of status and safety when the men in one’s life cannot or will not protect you. It is also a father-daughter story. What does a daughter owe a father? And even if the answer is everything, can she really give that to him? “The Mourners” moves at a stately pace, and yet at the same time with wild, exhilarating leaps. As in a vividly convincing dream, I never knew what was coming next. But the ending snaps shut like a perfect trap — or like death, which we should always know is coming but somehow never do.
Author of Eleven Hours
“The Mourners” by Chanelle Benz
Electric Lit is 12 years old! Help support the next dozen years by helping us raise $12,000 for 12 years, and get exclusive merch!
The clocks had been stopped and she did not know if a day had yet passed only that it had been light then dark, and now the light had come again, but had it yet been a day? In this uncertain passage of time, she had not had thought. Instead a road of airless wool had unfurled wide in her head, winding monotonous through the astonishment of her loss.
Just before, when Henry had lain swamped in his own blood, his wife had heard his mother telling the new Negro cook as they stood outside the bedroom door with the dinner tray: “There is an art to dying and the boy does not have it — never mind he has been dying since first he was born.” Out the bedroom window in the fermenting dark, a loose dog had again started baying. “Should I turn over a shoe, Henry?” his wife had asked, wiping her folded handkerchief across his mouth. Henry’s eyes were closed, active in their closing, the collar of his nightshirt flecked red. Having been married to him fifteen years she had grown accustomed to his notseeing. Notseeing his mother’s slights when first he brought her to Mississippi. Notseeing her unseemly origins. Notseeing her father’s vulgar, dubious profession. Notseeing Judah’s exhausted frailty betrayed by the transparency of that child’s skull.
For days now his wife had heard voices speaking of her, the Yankee, so of course a Negro lover, a motherless daughter who had entrapped Henry. Whether this was spoken as she sat there in the swelter of the parlor as the townsfolk came in to view the body she could not tell, she knew only that the voices were those of women.
Her own mother had not bothered giving her a name. Perhaps predicting that she would not live past birth, it then being a time of yellow fever, or perhaps imagining that if she were to survive girlhood, she would enter into the fleshly profession, adopting a name meant to jollify men — Diamond Dolly, Baby Minnie, Big Kitty — rendering a name prior to that undertaking inconsequential. It was her father who had named her Emmeline. Emmeline, after his sister who while still a girl had fallen from a tenement window in the Lower East Side.
Emmeline stood in the stately plush oppression of the parlor and went to where her husband had been placed, propped, arranged, displayed, to where the day was finding its way into his body, choking the candles and compression of flowers.
That rot in the heat could not be her Henry. The dull gold hair she had combed and cut, the smooth emaciated body she had bathed, making certain to touch every part — the left hollow of his collarbone, the stilldamp behind his knees, the indent of his lower back — because it was said that a dead person’s spirit could enter through your hands she had gripped and kneaded his fast ossifying skin, pinching his spirit into hers.
For it was through the body that they had first understood each other. When first he saw her outside of the finishing school, he had taken her hand as if he had been waiting for her.
His dying left her in a strange muscular silence: a black halo of notsound. If ever they were to speak again it must be now through the spirit.
She closed her eyes and traced the scrolled back of the sofa to the center of the parlor, nipping her shin on a serving tray. She walked until she banged into the wall, bruising her left knee, sliding along until she felt the door. When she opened it, she opened her eyes.
No sunlight striping the hall’s floral patterned wallpaper. No pallbearers coming to carry him away. Nobody to tell her if it had yet been a day and if she, Emmeline, once the wife of Henry Stovall, was free to leave his body.
Emmeline was not seen leaving the house except for Sundays. On the church bench, the weeping veil of black crepe could not wholly hide her, but she felt sequestered, screened. Only Judah, squirming on her lap, could slip under and touch, his fingers reminding with their hot wet that though no longer a wife, she must be a mother. The baby clutched her skirts as if trying to steer her, melting his yellow curls into folds of her heavy black serge. Kissing his hands was enough to make him smile for she was his religion.
Every night before midnight, Emmeline let herself out of the whitewashed front door and hastened down the line of cedars clotting the path, her skirts rushing over the ivy trailing down the roots as a net of branches spread above, dissecting the night sky.
Over Henry’s grave, the damp silence was swallowed thick and she was nakedly awake in the stutter of birds and stars calling through the melt and sway of Spanish moss suffocating the trees.
HENRY JAMES STOVALL 1855–1889
She called but he would not come.
Nine months passed before Emmeline received a letter from her father, Zebediah Ferris. In it, he made no mention of Henry, or of the year and a day that a widow must wait when in deep mourning. He wrote only: “I need you here.”
She did not comprehend his urgency but recognized the habitual, cryptic pattern of all his attending her. When on holiday from The Select School for Young Ladies in Atlanta, she would arrive at a temporary town of picks, shovels and pans to live with him among the drinking, whoring and gambling. Either he had ignored her, or furiously concealed her in a hotel, setting Wilkie, a former buffalo hunter and his enforcer, at her door.
Emmeline could not disregard the letter. It was her father who had sent her East to the expensive school, he who made certain that her marriage to Henry Stovall, variously contested by his family, had taken place, he who had been the originator of all her good fortune and as he was fond of saying: the devil has his price.
Outside the parlor, Judah, a condensed weight on her hip, dropped his head on her breast.
“Sleepy, button? Yes, we’ll do it now,” she kissed and kissed him. “We’ll do it quick.”
Mother Stovall did not look up from her bookkeeping until Emmeline spoke saying, “Mother,” and the parlor filled up with a static, continuous ire as she raised her goldgray head but not her pen asking, “Yes? What is it?”
Emmeline hesitated. “I’m afraid I’ve had a letter from my father.”
“It’s about time. I saw it delivered.”
“He said that he wants — well truly he needs me to come out West. And I feel I ought.” Emmeline shifted Judah onto her other hip.
“Hadn’t you better not. To take a trip? Now? Why it isn’t at all seemly. Write that you will come in three months.”
Emmeline turned away, lingering near the piano. Judah stretched to pick the wax at the bottom of a candle perched next to the sheet music. “But how could people, Christians I mean, find fault in my traveling to see my family? Is that not a duty? Not a wise and sensible course?”
“Nonsense. The world will know it as a lack of respect for the memory of the dead. That you should have the courage to go against it — a Stovall would not contemplate it — it must be the extravagance of your age talking.” Mother Stovall put down her pen. “Wasn’t Harper’s right that the sham lady will always be manifest?”
Emmeline put her chin on Judah’s hair. “I have no wish to be the cause of talk, Mother.” As she kissed his head, her lips felt for the thin, compact burn of a fever. She began vainly humming. He had yet to fall ill.
“Don’t you take that boy if that’s what you are supposing.”
Emmeline opened her mouth.
“Why? Why Judah is as susceptible as ever his brothers were. Traveling for so many days on a dusty road will kill him if he isn’t first slain by Indians.”
“Won’t my father want to see him, having never done so? He never got to meet August, or even Caleb.”
“There was reason for that.” Mother Stovall sniffed. “Caleb. You always had a partiality for that boy — petting him so.”
Caleb had died in the time it had taken her to change her dress. He had squeezed her hand crying “Mama,” and she had cradled him as she did the day he was born. She had not believed he could die.
“And should I care what he of nopast may desire? He whose scandalous vocation Henry did not care to dwell on, nor whoever your mother may have been, yet how could not I? Being a Stovall of Mississippi, how could not I?”
Mother Stovall had clung to this refrain for fifteen years, brandishing it whenever she could: a dull, starved outrage gone solid.
Reaching for a pinecone, Judah toppled a frame from the mantel. Emmeline crouched on the empty bricked hearth where Henry’s rifle leaned with Caleb’s fishing rod, saying, “Judah, now look — you almost broke it.” It was a painting Mother Stovall had done: a small portrait of Henry, a white- blond boy in short pants. She laid it facedown on the mantel.
“As a man Henry did not have to dwell, but we women must. You and I must.”
Judah kicked and Emmeline set him down, watching him toddle and yank on a curtain rope. “Gently. No, I’d not have him fall ill, of course not. Be gentle with it, Judah. And I am sorry if it gives some reason to talk, but I have to go. Mammy Eula can care for him while I’m away. It won’t be for long. A week or two. It couldn’t be for long.”
The goldgray head lowered back to the bookkeeping, scratching over the household accounts. “What would you not do for that horror of a man? As if you are his dog and he has said, Come.”
For what did her father need her, to what use could she, a mother, a new- made widow, a woman of thirty-two, be put to by a brothel-owner in a cowboy town? When the stagecoach rattled in and the ditched road bucked her one last time, the black lace went tight around her throat. But as the driver opened the door and her hands accepted his, the constriction of lace left her.
The two remaining passengers, a pregnant woman and a hazy notyoung whore, grimaced at the mud track meant to be a main street, at the slop pot stench of the tents, at the baleful eyes of purblind men. Emmeline stood in the center of the thoroughfare, drawing back her heavy crepe veil, letting in the din of burnt hard necks. How long it had been since she had known this incongruous measure of relief which now undid her as she staggered tranquil into the dusty hotel?
“Hell is in session, Emme. The town lost its marshal last month.”
“Did he run, Pa?” she asked, sitting on a chair by his bed, her hands clasped tight in her lap. She could not get comfortable.
“Naw, he was strung up. Turns out he used to be a bandit before he turned lawman and had returned to the old ways. Made a miscalculation robbing a bank near Fort Worth and those folks came down here for justice. I myself could not help him though you might have said he was a friend.” He said this while he paced the hotel room, a dirty glass of whiskey in hand.
“Oh dear. Well, I do hope they broke his neck first.”
“Naw, not that rabble. He hung there like an angry chicken for nigh on two hours turning blood purple.”
“Now Bart, you’re exaggerating. It was half that, and it was a bank near Galveston not Fort Worth.” Madame Cora, her dyed blond curls rolled tight to her head, in far finer dress than Emmeline, smiled triumphantly from above a cape of fox fur.
“Jeysus,” said Wilkie from where he stood by the door twisting the stillred of his mustache. “Sure is durn good to see ya, Emme. You look right well. Glad you come help us with them Morgan boys.”
“Shut your mouth, Wilkie,” said her father finally sitting down on a chair on the other side of the bed, a ragged titan in a new suit.
Till then she had avoided the dirty patch covering his left eye, waiting for him, but in the tension of all in the room she now sensed an agreed deflection. “What happened to your eye, Pa?”
The new gauntness of the large, square face glared at her. He leaned over the bed, flipping the patch to show a ruined hole damp with healing. “The girls got the men a little too excited and they took to shooting out the lights. That’s how some celebrate their salary.”
She wondered why he bothered with the lie. “Who did it, Pa? Was it these Morgans?”
“I see you’re still in mourning for Henry. But now ain’t you always in black.” His remaining eye which was also her eye scraped at her. “I reckon since you’re dark, being a widow becomes you.”
“Pa?” Her voice close on a whisper, as if they were alone. “The night before Henry died, I heard a dog.”
“Yes.” She nodded, her eyes wide.
“Did you now?” He too came soft at speech but with an austerity she could not at that moment match.
“Yes Pa. Howling and howling. It wouldn’t stop. I don’t know whose dog — I don’t know just whose it was. And it was odd but I remembered something Ma had said, and it is one of the few things I ever recall her saying to me, but when Flossie — do you remember Flossie? — was sick with fever, Ma said that when someone is dying you must go under the bed and turn over a shoe. Remember?” He was the only person she had told, could tell.
“And did you,” he asked, “did you turn over a shoe?”
“I only remembered what Ma had said when I was in the garden with the minister and he was asking me what kind of coffin did I want. But when I went up and asked Henry — ” She scratched her cheek. “No I didn’t do it right away. Do you think, Pa — ?”
“It hasn’t been a year, has it, Emme dear,” said Cora, folding and refolding her cape over powdered breasts. “What with losing two sons and then your husband, Lord, why you don’t know yourself. It’s a good thing you come here to be with us.”
“I’ll have to go back soon,” Emmeline said.
“I thought you might bring the boy,” said her father.
Her face burned for she was wishing she had not come at all. “Judah is too like his father and brothers.” Emmeline untied her bonnet and smoothed the veil, seeing Judah when he woke in the morning, his undiluted joy upon seeing her face. Who else would ever look at her like that? “I suppose you want me as madam.” She spoke now with the vigilant serenity which kept her intact.
“I didn’t spend money on your fancy school for that. Besides, I got one here. Cora gabbles on but she knows her trade. I’ll give her that much. You being the grand lady in the Old States is worth something. I ain’t about to throw away all that damn accomplishment.”
“And since I’ve come on,” Cora said, “a trick here can earn five dollars — ten a week and you got fifty. We got a whole bunch of new girls too, did you see? Oh, they got to feeling blameful at the start but then they watch as their savings pile up! Emmeline honey, you could be an angel to your father now in his time of need.”
“Shut your mouth, woman. There’s a man who wants to meet you, a man I want you to marry.”
“The man who shot out your eye?” Emmeline asked.
“The man who shot out my eye is dead.”
“You do not mind if Wilkie remains, do you Mayor Gibson? It is a great comfort to my father to know that I am accompanied until I am able to hire a female companion.”
“Dear madam, as you wish. Have you had trouble finding a suitable abigail?”
From across an unvarnished table in the shadowed vacuum of the hotel parlor, there was a brutish, glittering air about the fact that Mayor Gibson’s coat reeked of cigar smoke and his breath was saccharine with brandy. He was a man who did not wear his weight well. The corpulent pucker under his eyes seemed to be dragging itself from the bone.
“Well sir, I did not know that I would be visiting for quite this long, and I find, without the least surprise, that there is a scarcity of respectable women in town.”
“Ma’am, I myself will make inquires on your behalf.”
“It is most kind in you,” she said and smiled in her light, fatal way.
“Your father has told me that you have recently lost your husband to consumption.”
“Yes sir.” At his mentioning Henry, she began to detest him.
“Such a cross to bear when already you have said farewell to others. How long has it been?”
Her throat went dry. What was Judah doing now? Likely playing in the garden, or sleeping on Mammy Eula’s nap. “Coming on eleven months.”
“So recent, so recent. Why it might feel to you he were alive yesterday. It did so with my sweet wife and little girl child. Time passes differently for the bereaved, does it not? And when you wake in the morning, there are those first moments when you are innocent of knowing like Adam in Eden.” He pressed a limp hand over her glove and through the black kid came a damp heat. “Your father said I would find us of a similar understanding.”
This man she was supposed to marry was a fool. She felt behind her to where Wilkie stood, thumbs in the pockets of his shabby waistcoat, and was scalded by his notwatching.
“Sir, I will confide to you that the reason I have stayed is because I am dreadfully worried, dreadfully worried that I might lose my father.” She heard her words as if someone else was speaking.
“I do believe, ma’am, that we will meet those that we have lost, that itself Death is but one level of our moving closer toward God.”
“I would like…I do believe that as well. Yet I cannot help but feel my father is fortunate that the bullet which took his eye did not pierce his brain.”
“In these parts, danger predominates in so many of our young men’s dispositions.”
“But sir, I have heard that these Morgan brothers are regular bandits, that they ride with posses and such, robbing the Mexican ranch — ”
“As I myself am no Wild Bill, it has seemed best to let such beasts deal with their own. Is it hard on you there being no Methodist church in town? Is it possible you might find comfort at a small gathering I sometimes frequent? I could introduce you to our celebrated Miss Ada.”
She finally felt she could withdraw her hand. “What takes place at these gatherings?”
“The assembled ask Miss Ada questions of metaphysical abstraction and she answers with what I would deem supernatural eloquence. You would find her elocution upon the subject of the deceased most enlightening.”
“I suppose it is true that I sometimes feel there is nothing noble in my grief.” This may have been the one true thing she had spoken.
“There is that which assuages the mourner, the one who has yet not charted the passage to the grave and may have a vague horror upon its account. Why ma’am, if I could but show you the liberation that could be yours — but I do not seek to proselytize, only offer you the solace which I have found. If I could arrange it, Mrs. Stovall, would you care to join us?”
“I think — ”
“Your father seemed to feel you might.”
“ — Yes. He is so often right,” she smiled and Mayor Gibson smiled at her, wiping his hands on his thighs. “I could do with the solace you speak of. Though I can’t help but think that I would know some measure of it if I knew my father were safe from the Morgans. You see, talk of them taking their revenge is all over town. It seems unjust when it was Shep Morgan who shot Pa, and Pa who was simply defending himself. But Shep being their kin, the Morgans shall never see reason.”
“Would ease your mind if I had a warrant put out for their arrest?”
“It would…” She pretended to be flustered. “No, yes it would, that would, it’s true.”
“Please do speak freely. Are we not friends?”
She decided to lower her eyes. “I don’t wish to seem ungrateful, sir.”
“You could never.” Again, he pressed her hand.
Now she looked straight at him. “As long as the Morgan brothers are alive, my father is in danger.”
“And as mayor, I could see that they hang?”
“My father believes it would ease my mind.”
“And he being so often right?”
She need say nothing, she had won him, and was impatient for the game to end.
“Dear lady, I shall see it done.”
“Now that we are friends you must call me Jasper.”
“Thank you, Jasper,” she said.
Emmeline tucked the letter in a drawer next to a memorial tintype of August, her first baby upturned and openmouthed in her arms. Henry had not wanted Caleb photographed saying we had him for eight years, we will not forget him. He had a signet ring made; the band filled with Caleb’s hair.
The day of August’s burial it had rained, but rain so light she could not feel it, and still the dirt would not go soft, lending the shovel a feverish tinny rasp that bit and bit. But the morning after Caleb died she and Henry walked the sunny fields, their sweat and tears loose in the gold lead heat. Now she could not clearly see Caleb’s face. She who had made him — her and Henry and God.
“You’re a right good girl.”
She turned from the dresser to face the balcony. She had to close her eyes to say it. “My boy is ill.” But he was with Mammy Eula, a better nurse than herself, she knew. She hated hearing her babies cry, the pained mewl that none of her words could soothe. “I have to go back.” She pulled her trunk onto the bed, opening it.
Wilkie folded his arms, as if to shrink his bulk. “He’ll get better. Don’t you fuss yerself. Thet Miss Ada is a medium.”
She needed fresh air, outside, the fresh air. “I’ll tell Pa. I can come back once Judah’s well.” From the balcony she could see Mayor Gibson passing below. “Am I the only woman who isn’t a whore that Mayor Gibson has known in years?” She watched as a drunk was thrown from a saloon by two men who stood over him as he yelled. They took turns kicking and punching him until he went quiet in the mud.
“An you wearing black. He likes thet.”
“Mayor Gibson is a powerful man. He’s gonna be governor someday.” Her father came into the room but not onto the balcony.
“It’s all a humbug — spirit rappers,” Wilkie spat.
“As long as Miss Ada ain’t managed by P. T. Barnum she’s all right in my books,” her father said.
“It ain’t right,” Wilkie said.
She felt impatient with Wilkie, her father, the choking weight of the air.
“Judah is ill, Pa.”
“There’s always a spider bite or a cut or a cold. You can’t keep them from the peril of the world — it’s the world, Emme.”
“Yes, but I have to go back. You do see, don’t you?” The words were said with a narrowing restraint.
“You’re gonna marry the mayor.”
“Pa, I’m not trying to get your back up but must it be marriage?”
“Emme, that man there is a civilizee, he don’t wanna be seen with no soiled dove. Decency and order, that’s what this town is coming to.”
She tried to wring the irritation from her voice. “But even if the mayor does hang the Morgans there will come more just like them.”
“That’s why I need this fellow in my pocket and your marriage is gonna put him there. I’m a man of business, I can’t go around having my eye shot out by every hayseed that has a hankering, now can I?” He watched Mayor Gibson walk by the drunk and enter the saloon.
“I’ll marry him when I come back, I promise.”
“She’s a beauty, ey?” Her father came behind her, clapping his hands down on her shoulders.
She flinched. “I will, Pa. But I have to be with Judah.”
“When she was a kid and she’d play outside in the thoroughfare, grown men’d watch her and weep. Remember that Wilkie?”
“But what if he should be like Caleb or August? I have to — ” She tried to twist away but he propelled her inside. He shoved her down into the chair in front of the dresser, keeping his hands on her shoulders.
“Her mother too. Some men’ll perish over a woman. Not me, but some. Emme wouldn’t know but plenty tried to buy her mother off me. Lillie had a little of everything in her… German, Mexican, Ethiope… and in them days, Wilkie, any drop made you a slave.”
“Is there affection, Pa? Is there any affection between us?”
He grabbed her by the jaw. “And my Emme was so pretty, so pretty — ”
She tried to pry off his hands and get up but he wrapped both hands around her neck so she sat back down.
“So when the fellas came round, asking when she’d be ready to fuck, it was me — not Lillie, not the drunk with no head for business so soaked no man wanted to get horizontal with her — it was me who held them off, me who made Emme a lady and married her to money. Wilkie, I’ll admit I never expected a man as wealthy as Henry Stovall, but I knew him for a reckless sort when I first laid eyes on him. Holding hands with Death all his life made him a gambler who wouldn’t pay any heed to the objections of his family.”
“Zeb,” Wilkie said, his hands tentatively reaching.
Her father thumbed her throat. “But I still hadn’t achieved a happy ending. For there was, you see, an impediment. What was that impediment, Wilkie? What was it? You remember?”
“Zeb, now I don’t mean to argufy but Emme’s a right biddable girl. Sho she’s seen to it we’ll see them Morgan boys hanged. There ain’t no need to speak on days past.”
“That’s right, her mother. Because not only was Lillie a whore but a negress and that kind of union ain’t legal in Mississippi, not then and not now, it being, according to law, incestuous and void. But as I knew Henry was the type to perish over a woman I said: pay me and they will never hear a whisper, those high- class Mississippi Stovalls. Because I am not the type to perish over a woman, because no matter what she is I am her father, I dosed Lillie’s whiskey with enough laudanum to kill an elephant.”
He let her go.
She stared at him in the mirror and then into her own eyes realizing that she already knew.
“Now Emme’s a fine lady, she can afford to have sensibility, but not me and I tell you, Wilkie,” her father said, his voice proud and violated, “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth is it to have a thankless child.”
“Now you may join hands,” said Miss Ada from where she sat in a bloom of crepe and camphor at the head of the table.
Mayor Gibson took Emmeline’s left hand and an old woman retrieved her right. She ground her teeth so she wouldn’t pull away and tried to watch the medium crease with effort then fall bland, passive for the so- called spirit, intoning: “We are here tonight to seek the divine illumination of our spirit guides.”
Emmeline rolled her head from side to side, stretching her aching neck. And who indeed should be her spirit guide?
August Thayer Stovall 1876–1876 5 mo. 11 d. “So small, so sweet, so soon!”?
Caleb Edmond Stovall 1877–1885 8 Y’s 4 mo. 15 d. “When blooming youth is snatch’d away!”?
Henry James Stovall 1855–1889 In the 34 year of his age. “Earth hath no sorrow that heaven cannot heal”?
Not Judah. She was leaving tomorrow morning on the next stage. To please her father, she would marry the mayor, but first she would go home to her son. She needed to feel the weight of him, his damp head in the crook of her arm.
“We should all concentrate on our most pressing question with loving reverence,” said Miss Ada.
Did she who could not believe in Heaven have a question? Emmeline crossed and uncrossed her legs, resisting the urge to kick. Did there exist a persistent, incorporeal presence hungry and blind and monotonous as hate, one neither wholly living or dead who by being neither was cursed to wander with eternal incomprehension of both? When death came did that which animated dissolve back into the earth, or was there some union of energy wherein some shape or rather in no shape she would be with them again? Or did the straining and longing and recoiling of this life beget nothing but a silence beyond notsound? Why did this frowsy woman not weighing a hundred pounds fetid with camphor insist on trumpeting her talent of conjuring demon or angel or humbug?
Heat soaked Emmeline’s neck like a rash, sweat itching her scalp. She should say she was too hot but she shouldn’t interrupt. Well and if it got
worse she —
She was kneeling in a graveyard. The stone slab that covered the length of a coffin was cracked, shards of granite caved in. From the oak trees around her, music was playing: fiddles and brass, the clap of boots stamping, as if somewhere there were dancing.
She heard a cough.
He cleared his throat. “I can’t see a damned thing.”
She reached through the hole and through the dark, braying and sweet, she saw Henry’s discolored face, a moving bruise under his eyes. “You’ve come back — ” She crushed herself in him. “I just want to be with you,” she said into his beard. “I just have to. I can’t be without you. I don’t want to, Henry!”
“Sweet girl,” he said but she could not see his tongue move.
“If I die, will I get to be with you?” She kissed him and he tasted of sour earth. “You have come for me, haven’t you?” She held his face in her hands, memorizing the ruin of eyes notblue.
He shook as if swimming up to her. “I don’t want you to worry, darlin. He’s with me now.”
“Who? Caleb? Judah?”
She heard a noise and looked up. It was as if she were at the bottom of a well. Two faces peered down at her through a tunnel, a man and a woman whom she did not know. They seemed so urgent — shouting for her, though she did not know what they wanted, who they were, or now who she was, but that there was something of where they were which vaguely had to do with her, whoever she was. In this paralyzed musing she found herself, regardless of having made no decision, materializing into the room where they were, into the rolling furnace of a body which was hers.
“Emmeline, Emmeline” they insisted until she knew her name.
She lay in the dark on a sofa, the candles having gone out. Mayor Gibson and Miss Ada were bent over her, fanning her, holding up smelling salts. She burst into tears. The silence, that black halo of notsound, had left her.
Emmeline slept into the next afternoon. It was almost sundown when she woke in a daze, everything tilted, the sun crackling like light rain through leaves. She thought she was in her bedroom in Mississippi hearing a baby cry in the next room. Standing, the blood roared oversweet in her ears. She saw the sealed letter on the dresser. She went to the nightstand, rinsing the sulfur from her mouth, and picked up her Bible, a wedding gift from Henry, as neither her mother nor her father had ever seen fit to give her one. But she set it back down between a bottle of perfume and her pincushion, placing the pipe that had been Henry’s on its cover, and again washed her mouth. She could not taste clean.
On the balcony with the letter, the town went quiet and forgotten.
Leaving off her veil, she stumbled down to the thoroughfare. At the window of a dance hall, she watched a man two- stepping with a tawny whore and everything in her body went incredulous with ache and she knew herself to be that little girl standing outside her father’s brothel, looking in the window at her glazed sharp mother tendering up her soft impervious breasts, manufacturing ardor for the men sore and mean with desire and her father at the glass saying No you cannot come in.
The men and the whores had turned to stare. She was beating the window with her fists until she heard her left hand break. Then she ran through the streets until First Street, north until she reached the treeless graveyard. There, she found her mother’s grave in the older section, buried under piles of stones the same as the bandits.
LILLIE FERRIS 1840–1874 “Sleep on now, and take your rest.”
Cradling her aching hand, Emmeline knelt on the cracked dirt before her mother’s wooden marker. “You were never like a mother… But I’m sorry,” she cried, “I am. But now Judah’s gone where do I go? I can’t go back but I can’t stay.”
A young man’s voice in the falling arrested dark.
“Do y’see this here? This is my younger brother. You might look at me and think well he musta been mighty young. He was, an my mamma charged me with his keeping but I guess I did not keep him.”
She refused to turn to him — to the constant anonymous need of the world.
“I didn’t even kill him like Cain did Abel. Naw, I did nothing but carry him until he died right there in my arms.”
She felt him pressing the empty space behind her and itched with a violent grim frustration.
“It shoulda been me or Virgil or Jim. Christ, it’s hard.”
If she were to die here, if this man were to kill her now, what would be etched on her grave?
“Look at me, lady, I ain’t bad- looking. Goddammit, I was accounted handsome back in Carolina.”
Not dead but gone on before?
“Hey.” His hand on her shoulder.
“I swore I ain’t gonna pay for it ever again after that.”
Asleep in Jesus?
He pulled her. “I could use some comfort.”
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
“Ain’t this is an old grave? Why you still wearing black?” The young man stood over her drinking from a bottle of rye in the stain of the abating twilight.
She was silent then said, “I’m a widow. This is my mother’s grave.”
His hand went down her arm. “Did you love him?”
Her mind’s eye passed through as many images of Judah as it could conjure until he was a sleeping infant across her lap with his thin, perfect skin and lightly open mouth.
“Yer husband,” he said, turning the diamond ring on her wedding finger. “The one yer widowed from.”
“But you’re gonna marry again?” He would not let go her hand. “I reckon you ought not.”
“What then would you propose?”
“Honor the memory of the dead like I’m gonna.”
“How do you do that?”
“I’m gonna murder the son of a bitch who kilt my little brother. Me, ma’am? I’m a thorough cutthroat.”
“I’m thirsty,” she said. “Would you have enough? Of the rye?”
“Would it be fittin?”
Her smile was bitter, brief. “You sir, have never been a delicately bred female at the mercy of her father.”
He let her take the bottle and asked with anxious subjection, “Do I seem ugly to you?”
“How can I say when most of you is hiding under that beard.”
He stared down at her mother’s grave. “How did she pass?”
“She was a whore. How ever do they all pass?”
“Lillie Ferris. She related to Zebediah Ferris?”
“He’s my father,” she said and sweat parted down her back.
The young man seized her wrist and the bottle smashed at her feet. He dragged her to where shep morgan had been painted on a white post above a new grave. She was not afraid because it seemed to be happening so slowly.
“Why’d he have to shoot him?” He shook her. “It were an accident. Cause Shep — Shep he weren’t the swaggering type. Not like the rest of us, you see?”
He shook her until she laughed. “Do I see?” she said.
He threw her away from him. “He was jest turned fourteen.”
“Why’d he do it then?”
“Don’t you know how men do?” she asked.
“I know how men die,” he said.
“So do I,” she said and began to walk away.
He went to her again, blocking her path. She stopped and her face hollowed with ache.
“I’m gonna kill your father. That offend you?” he enunciated this as if through her he could reach the ears of that man.
“Why should it? Very little is likely to offend me. I have spent a good amount of time among countless examples of intoxicated humanity.”
“You think I am that?”
“I don’t care. I suppose you must be born astray like all other men. You’ve come of age in a time rife with fearmongering. But Henry always said that I could not fully know, being born a woman, and perhaps I don’t, but then being I am on the outside perhaps I can see it all.”
Because he too was a prisoner of the fragile flesh, because it would be a quick chaos that in its intricate burn would hold still time, because she could, she asked: “Would you lie with me?”
He seemed to try and outright laugh, sifting the voice that had spoken to him amongst all the other voices that had ever spoken. “You jest ask me to fuck? For a fact?” He was trembling, peering at the flat land, the backs of the buildings. “Out here?”
She stepped close enough to inspect the freckles across his sunburnt nose, the coarse twist of his red hair. He looked hungry, decorous, and young — far younger than she.
“Ain’t you pledged to marry?”
“I’ve decided to take your advice.” She began unbuttoning the neck of her dress.
His fingers trailed hers helplessly. “What’d I advise?”
“To honor death.”
She led him to an open space between the graves. He took off his coat and made a bed in the dust, punching it soft.
“Is that comfortable?”
She laid back, pushing her head in the folds of his coat and feeling the ground’s retreating heat. He looked away as she bunched up her skirts.
“Come here,” she said.
He took off his hat and knelt between her legs, dogged and secret. “Do we — what’s your name?”
“Emmeline,” she said, unbuckling his pants and helping him to angle inside.
Above them, a hot wind dissolved into the dark.