Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
**Author’s note: This story is written about a time period of American history that dealt very bluntly and often unfairly with issues of race. Slavery was a fact of life, and racism was the rule and not the exception. Please do not confuse my accurately accounting things (such as prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and mannerisms such as accents and ways of speaking) with endorsing such. I strive to be as accurate and faithful to the characters and history as possible. Thank you.** Rated T for adult themes
I’ve always known I was different from everyone else.
Even when I was a tiny child, it was something I just understood, even before I could speak.
I had unnaturally early and vivid memories. Common knowledge says that a baby can’t remember things, that our memories really begin once we’re two or three years old at the very earliest, when the mind has developed more…but I remembered things very well, and much earlier, than at two or three years of age. And I remember that even then I knew something set me apart from others.
My first clear memory must have been when I was about six months old. Before that, there were jumbles of color and sound and sensation, which gradually began to grow more and more distinct with time’s passing.
I think that was when I was about six months old, because I was just beginning to be able to roll myself over and to push myself up on my hands and knees, to rock back and forth gaily, not going anywhere, but exulting in the ability to move. I remember feeling a sensation I later could label as “exhilaration,” that I could make my body do what I wanted it to do.
To be able to make your body respond, to make it do what you tell it to do when you want it to, is something adults take for granted, until they have been rendered helpless by old age or illness. Then they understand all too well. Babies understand it very well, too, in their own way; that helplessness and frustration is humiliating, and it is the norm for them. Why do you think babies cry so often? Wouldn’t you, if you had no idea who or where you were, and had no idea what was going on around you, compounded by the inability to control your own body?
But I digress. Not many babies can remember like I did.
In that first, formative memory, I remember Mama laughing her sweet laugh from somewhere above me, and my big brother clapping his hands and laughing with her. I remember hearing their words, which I didn’t understand then, but I loved the sound of their voices, regardless of what they said. I laughed too, knowing it would make them happy and laugh even more to hear my giggles. Laughter was a trick I had mastered early; it was an excellent method to get the big people to make me more comfortable or to play with me.
Mama reached down and pulled me up to sit me on my bottom, her big warm hands bracing me, holding me up when I would have slumped forward, not sure how to keep myself upright yet. Big Brother took one of my hands in his; my little fist was swallowed in his, but it wasn’t frightening, feeling so small next to him. I already knew him and loved him more than anyone else except Mama, but it was a different kind of love. Where Mama nurtured and sustained my body, Big Brother was the sun of my existence, lighting my world and bringing joy.
From my new vantage point, sitting up, I was able to see so much more! I looked around in wonder, taking in all the things for which I had no names yet: colors and shapes, sounds and smells. All so new and confusing, but still so exciting.
Before, swaddled and bonneted and lying in a cradle with solid wooden sides, I had been isolated, only getting glimpses of the world around me when Mama or Papa or Big Brother lifted me out to change me, dress me, bathe me, feed me. Then, half the time I was held against a big, warm shoulder, not able to see anything, or pressed against a fragrant breast, or someone would lean forward over me, blocking my field of vision while the changed my clothes or diaper.
This was so new, so intense!
And then it began: the whispering.
I’d heard it before, but never paid it much attention, like white noise in the background of my confusing world. Ever since I became conscious there had been, entwined with the normal sounds of life all around me, something…different from the other sounds. Whispering words that I couldn’t understand, voices that were strange and disembodied. It was like the wind, even before I knew to call wind “wind.”
A bright, swirling spot coalesced in the air corner of the room, I could see it over Mama’s left shoulder. It drew my eyes like a magnet, with its colors and movement. The whispering came from there.
I didn’t understand the words, of course, but I understood the intention behind them, the emotion. The whispering was letting me know that the whisperer knew I could hear them. And also, that Mama and Big Brother couldn’t hear the whispering. And that it was special, for me to be able to hear it.
So I was special. Only I could hear it. Only I could see the colors.
I was delighted, and I laughed more in my delight. That caused them to laugh more with me, and we all collapsed in a jumble of joy. Big Brother tickled me, Mama kissed me, blowing on my tummy. The whispering chuckled softly as well, all around.
After that, as I grew, my memories grew more and more clear and solid. I remembered sitting up by myself. I remembered taking my first faltering steps, running from the side of Mama and Papa’s huge bed into Big Brother’s waiting arms. I remember throwing my bottle down onto the floor and demanding a cup of my own, and to be able to sit at the big table with everyone else and use my own spoon to feed myself.
And intertwined in all those memories that I shouldn’t have, was the whispering.
They whispered to me in my dreams and in my waking times. I began to understand them. Eventually I realized it wasn’t just one whisperer, but many. And although they were different, they all loved me, and were so happy I heard and saw them. To say I saw them isn’t quite right, though; I saw something, sometimes. Not always. When the whisperers tried especially hard, when it was especially important, I could again see that lovely swirling of colors and light, and pinpoint the voice coming from it. They’d shown themselves to me that first time to make their presence known to me.
By the time my first birthday had passed, I was running everywhere. A bit early, of course, but it delighted the big people in my life to see me zipping around, crashing into things and laughing when I fell down onto my round, well-padded little bottom. I knew I could do better, be less clumsy than I was, but I chose to hold back a bit, because I knew somehow that it might frighten my big people, how “advanced” I really was. I knew that because the whisperers told me, urging me to be cautious in how I displayed my differences. Big people are scared of different things, they whispered. They don’t like to open their minds.
So I held back. I fell down like a normal kid. I tried my best to not be too showy about things.
Big Brother was everything to me.
He had watched over me since I was a squirming little red thing, his blue eyes deadly serious as he shouldered the responsibility for being my champion. Someone had told him once that snakes like babies, that snakes like to creep into cradles and get warm next to them, and that sometimes they bite the babies. Since we lived in the middle of Texas, rattlesnake central, Big Brother was determined to not let any snake get to me. Sometimes he fell asleep next to my cradle, his golden head leaned against it, his arm draped over the side, his fingers grasping my hand. I always felt safe when he was there. And I never saw one snake.
Once I could walk, I started following him everywhere he went. Sometimes he got frustrated with me getting in his way; I’d run along behind him, he’d stop, I’d slam into him, we’d tumble to the ground together in a confused tangle of arms and legs.
“Ginny!” he’d howl, trying to get up without hurting me.
By then I’d learned what my big peoples’ words meant. And I knew my name, especially. Big Brother was the only one who called me “Ginny.” Mama and Papa called me “Virginia,” and the colored servants and slaves called me “Little Missy.” I preferred Ginny.
I got up and then fell back onto him, howling with laughter, pounding on him. I knew he wouldn’t hit back. “Funny, Ja-pa, funny!” I still hadn’t quite managed perfect control over my mouth and voice yet, although I understood perfectly what I wanted to say…it just didn’t always come out right. But I managed. He understood me.
“Yeah, yeah, Ginny…” he muttered, trying to untangle us. The buckles of his boots snagged on the flounces of my impractical lace crinoline. He pulled us apart as delicately as possible, then stood up, hauling me up with him, pausing for a moment to straighten my skirt, smooth down my wild hair. “Now, let’s try that again, all right?” He extended his hand for me to take. “Let’s go see if we can find some cookies!”
Cookies! I loved cookies, anything sweet. I grabbed his hand and held on for dear life as he hauled me off to the kitchen, to wheedle molasses cookies from the cook, who smiled her wide, white smile form her dark face. She glanced around, checking to make sure Mama or Papa weren’t there, and then pressed a handful of warm cookies into Jasper’s waiting palms. We took our booty to our hiding place beneath the stairs to eat, uninterrupted.
Sitting there in the shadows of the stairwell, leaning against my Big Brother, munching our cookies contentedly, I was so happy I felt I could just drift away on a cloud.
The whisperers approved. They caressed us both, but I was the only one who felt it for what it was; Jasper just shivered a bit. They loved Jasper too; they loved everyone, but especially those like me who heard them.
The longer I listened to them, the more I began to understand about them. They’d once been people, apparently, these whispering voices. Now they weren’t people, their bodies had died, but they were still around, lingering, trying to make themselves heard. They existed somewhere between my real world and Heaven, I decided, one ethereal foot in each plane. I never was able to come up with a better analogy than that, even when I was fully grown.
The whisperers wanted me to pay attention to them, they had things to say, messages to relay. They showed me things that I might not normally notice. They warned me when there was danger.
Once, I was wandering around outside in the back yard, blowing dandelion clocks.
It was a hot, blistering Texas summer day. The sky over head was a bleached-out, cloudless blue; the sun beat down mercilessly on everything below. My own blonde head was so hot if I reached up to touch my hair it burned. But I was blowing dandelion clocks, and I was intent on my sport. It was great fun.
Mother cursed those dandelions every day. She’d throw open a window and stare moodily outside at the yard, mouthing bad words she’d never actually utter aloud. She wanted a rolling, green lawn full of lush beds of bright, ornamental flowers and shade trees, I knew, like from the tales of her youth that she told me in the evenings. What she actually had was a scrubby field of half-dead yellow grass, studded with stubbornly healthy dandelions in various stages of growth and not a tree in sight.
When the yellow flowers ripened and turned into their downy white final stage, I would pluck them up and hold them before me. Cook had told the name for the flowers, and had told me once that if you blew on the white, mature dandelion three times it would tell you the time of day. Also, according to stories I’d heard from my mother and the help, the results of blowing on the flowers could tell you if your mother wanted to see you, or if it was time to go home, and sometimes it might tell you how many years you might live. It didn’t matter if it was true; it was just fun. I loved watching the little white, fluffy seeds catch flight and ride the wind of my breath, then take off in the real wind, swirling away, up into the sky. I imagined myself as one of those seeds, flying high, free as the wind itself, without a care or a destination.
I’d found a particularly rich trove of flowers; I snatched up five of them, several in each hand, one for each year I’d been alive, and proceeded to blow. White seeds flew everywhere, caught on the hot breeze, whipping around and soaring up and away. I followed them, laughing, wanting to know where they’d end up.
I’d run for a little while, my healthy little body not tiring even in the oppressive heat, when suddenly the whispering voices turned to screams.
I stopped, still as a statue. I’d never heard them sound like that before. It was scary.
I was paused right before a clump of scrubby bushes, where the yard began to descend to the creek bottom. The dandelion spores kept on flying along merrily, the wind taking them to points unknown. I watched them go, envious.
A few inches away from my foot, a dry rattling sound buzzed up, stopping my heart.
BACK UP, SLOWLY!!!
I did as the whispers told me, my heart hammering with fear. Instead of lifting my feet I slid them back as carefully as possible, shuffling one foot after the other, until I was a good yard from the bushes. My eyes stayed fixed on them, waiting.
Eventually, a rattlesnake glided out of the bushes, dusty brown and green in the bright sunlight, smooth as a river over stones, serene and confident as it sought better shade. Thick as my little wrist, and longer than my four-year-old body, it would have killed me, had I stepped on it, unknowingly.
My heart thudding hollowly in my chest, slowing down gradually as the shock began to wear off. I sat down abruptly, not having the strength to stand any longer. My dandelions fell to the ground.
Thank you! I thought, wondering if they would hear me.
Watch yourself, child. All the separate and diverse whispers merged into this, a voice so strong and sure I was sure anyone else should have heard it.
They loved me. I didn’t know why, other than that I could hear them, but the whisperers loved me, and they watched over me as best as they could. But they couldn’t touch me except as a cool, vaporous caress, couldn’t stop me when I was barreling into something truly stupid. So I had to be more careful.
Mama began having me sit in on Jasper’s lessons when I was a bit past five, shortly after the rattlesnake incident. She knew I was smarter than my age, and she also thought that girls should be educated as well.
“After all, Virginia Lucille, what good is an ignorant woman to her husband, or to herself?” she’d say.
I knew it was true. Papa relied on her opinions in many things. Every evening they sat before the fire, he in his leather armchair smoking his pipe, she in her cane rocker, embroidering or knitting something. He’d be reading from the newspaper and stop, folding it down to look at Mama over the top. “So, Margaret, what do you think of this new tariff on sorghum?” Or something like that.
Mama would keep rocking, her eyes never lifting from the embroidery hoop or knitting needles, and would reply in her soft, cultured voice, giving a long, detailed explanation of her thoughts on the issue.
Papa would sit for a moment, chewing on her words, then nod decisively and go back to reading…And the next day, while he was discussing the issue with some local merchant, he’d voice his opinion…which matched Mama’s exactly.
Mama loved to read, and she pressed it on Jasper and I. Luckily it didn’t stunt our desire to read, but did the opposite. Jasper was especially bad about it; he’d always have a book stuck somewhere, and would often get in trouble for shirking his chores when he was caught with his nose in a book somewhere, leaning on his pitchfork or spade or whatever.
I loved to read, too, but I also loved science and mathematics and geography. One of our tutors had a lovely globe, and I adored spinning it and randomly stopping it with one finger on some strange, exotic country, and then finding out everything I could about it.
The whisperers helped me with that, too. They seemed to have come from everywhere, and they loved to show me things about the places that had been their homes long ago. I was shown brilliant glimpses of faraway places, sometimes caught whiffs of foreign smells, heard odd languages. It was amazing.
I was a fast learner. Even though I was five years younger than Jasper and he was several years ahead of me in schooling, I caught up to him pretty quickly, though I did pretend to be behind in some subjects…to be kind to his pride. Jasper was a sweet, quiet, intense boy, very intelligent, and I’d never want to hurt his feelings. It wasn’t that I was smarter than him, per se, but I just had something about me that made learning especially easy. Perhaps it, along with my early memories, was related to my ability to hear the whisperers: I was just born with very keen senses and a very open mind.
Regardless, I enjoyed school. Our lessons were given at home; Mama would never stand for us getting a common education, among the children of farmers and storekeepers in the little schoolhouse a mile off our property. I hated that part of our schooling; I wanted to be among other children, make friends, experience new things. But Mama would have nothing to do with it.
“Really, Virginia Lucille!” she exclaimed, exasperated, one morning, after I’d been nagging her about letting us attend the school. She slapped her palm down on the tabletop and sighed. “What have you in common with those other children? They’re all children of poor families, with no breeding or background to put you on an equal footing. Besides, that poor teacher there has too much on her hands anyway, with seventeen children in a one-room school, all different ages and backgrounds… I won’t have it.” Her pale blue eyes held mine, her lips in a tight, serious line.
I hated hearing her speak about things like that: although Mama was a sweet, gentle person, she’d been raised very traditionally, on an old, prestigious tobacco plantation in Virginia, where the family never mixed with outsiders, especially those of color.
“You and Jasper will learn more and better here, with your tutors, and always be under our eyes, to keep you out of trouble!”
She had me there. I was always getting in trouble. I’d probably have given that teacher premature gray hairs.
I was a bit of a handful; I look back on my childhood now with the wiser eyes of an adult and have to shake my head and chuckle. I did things that no other girl back then would have done, with total abandon and no thought for social convention, no matter what Mama did or said.
While I was growing up there were generally two kinds of girls.
First were the children of the upper class, petted and pampered and dressed like dolls, treated like porcelain, and expected to be nothing more when they grew up than well-groomed wives who would produce well-groomed children for their equally well-groomed husbands. Those women were expected to have few opinions, have delicate skills such as needlework and music and poetry; they were afflicted with “the vapors,” which amount to fainting spells brought on by too much intensity, and other mysterious female illnesses that doctors dismissed as hysteria. The feminine mystique was the common opinion: woman was the soul of culture and the heart of the home, not to be exposed to the dangers and realities of the world, and they were idealized by the men who felt them too intellectually inadequate to vote or have rights of their own. These poor ladies often died fairly early, I imagine often indirectly from the loneliness and emptiness of all their years pining away atop the pedestals their men put them on.
I should have been one of those; somehow I managed to avoid it. Mama would have been happy had I at least had some decent manners and feminine charm. I worked hard to put a veneer on my outside, but I never let go of my wild spontaneity inside. It was my soul.
The other kind were the children of common women, who worked from their girlhood and died early, often from childbirth or overwork or uncared-for illnesses, their hands rough and hard from labor, usually completely uneducated. They struggled and fought for everything they had, were grateful for it, and had shrewd, pragmatic views instead of a useless artistic education. I saw little of these kinds of women until I managed to escape from under Mama and Papa’s wing a few years later, and found I had much more in common internally with them than with the delicate upper-class flowers…despite Mama’s best efforts.
I always wondered at my mother’s personal duality: she was, on one hand, the classic example of idealized femininity of the time. Her honey-brown hair was always meticulously curled and pulled up in the latest style; she had pale skin that she cared for meticulously; she always dressed well, even though we were far from anything resembling a fashionable locale. She was soft-spoken and modest, excelled in the “feminine arts,” and came from an impeccable background. Yet she was well-educated and felt I should be too, and had very sophisticated opinions about many different things, things most cultured women would never consider. She made me shrug and shake my head in confusion.
Regardless, as I mentioned, I wasn’t exactly the most exemplary girl. I was far too wild: I laughed to loud, ran too fast, talked too much, and kept company with boys outside, instead of staying inside to work on my needlepoint and piano lessons. I played practical jokes and told jokes and eventually managed to get Jasper to teach me how to shoot and do other boyish things. He even taught me how to spit.
We played cowboys and Indians and war games in the creek bottom with Henry and a few other local boys in the afternoons, when lessons had been adjourned and chores not yet due. I always ended up with skinned knees and torn skirts, my hair yanked from my braids in errant tufts and standing around my head like a wispy golden halo. Jasper would always have to inspect me before we returned to the house, yanking out a handkerchief to wipe away the worst of the dirt, helping me re-plait my hair and straighten my skirts.
“Really, Ginny, you should take more care. You know how Mother screams!” he’d admonish me quietly, and yank a braid for emphasis. But not too hard. He could never be too hard on me, could never stay angry at me, even when I played horrible pranks on him.
Ah, my pranks…
My favorites were one which caught him unawares in compromising positions. Marbles on the floor in the hallway leading to the outhouse in the middle of the night…thumbtacks on said outhouse’s seat…spiders and frogs in boots and tucked into the foot of his bed, between the sheets…hot chili in his breakfast…shoe polish daubed on his palm while he slept, so when he went to scratch his nose he’d slather it all over his face, and wake the next morning thinking he’d turned Negro in the night…
I always managed to be nearby when the prank was played out. My whisperers helped me with that. They loved my sense of humor, and helped me find the right times and places for my plans. How angry Jasper would have been had he realized I had help in my evil machinations!
My whisperers were my constant companions through it all. I learned how to not always listen to them consciously; if I did, I would be so distracted I couldn’t function. The more I sat and listened to them, focused entirely on them, the more I would lose touch with reality, and I understood instinctively from an early age that I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t ever reach my full potential if I my head was always in the clouds, and I knew that I had something important to do with my life—maybe several important somethings.
Since I wasn’t always focused on them, the whispers became more and more prominent in my sleep, where I was almost one of them, disembodied and changeable, flowing languidly through my dreams. In those dreams they spoke very clearly at times, giving me advice and sometimes warnings, but rarely again so very emphatic as they’d been about the rattlesnake when I was so tiny.
One such time was when they showed me a plague of locusts. In my dream the insects descended from the sky in a leaden, chittering cloud, and they consumed everything around our farm for miles and miles, destroying all the crops and fields. I saw the cattle and horses slat-sided and starving. I saw dust clouds rolling, set adrift by the lack of grass, covering everything. I woke from that dream screaming, scrubbing my arms and legs frantically, feeling the locusts crawling all over me, spiny little claws stabbing me.
I streaked from my room without a thought, charging full-bore into Jasper’s room, launching myself onto his bed and into his waiting arms. I didn’t question how he knew I was coming; I never did, though he always was. Jasper was special in his own way.
“Gin, what’s the matter?” he whispered into my hair, patting my back rhythmically like he had done when I was a baby, trying to calm me. Just like back then, when he did that, when he held me close, I felt peace start creeping through me, until the terror was almost gone. Only the images of those horrid, clinging, devouring insects remained in my mind, no more of the sensation of them on my skin.
I managed to inhale a full lungful of air without it being hitched and wrenched by sobs. I dried my face against his pajama jacket and lifted it to look up at him.
He was so handsome in the moonlight, even then. I think that was when I was seven and he was twelve. His face was very serious and calm, his eyes full of concern.
“I saw a lot of nasty bugs coming, Jas.” I couldn’t tell him too much, it would alarm him. But I couldn’t be silent. “They flew like a cloud and they landed here and all around, and they ate everything! The cows were dying ‘cause the grass and hay were all gone, and Papa had no crop to sell!”
His eyebrows lifted in surprise. I guess he was wondering how I knew what locusts were. There’d been no plague of them in recent memory, and we’d never discussed it in our lessons. I think Papa had mentioned them in passing once, during a Bible lesson on Sunday, when he was talking about the Plagues of Egypt.
“Like grasshoppers, Gin? But bigger? Browner?” He didn’t try to tell me I was a silly little girl. That was one reason I loved him so much. He didn’t look down on me, ever.
I nodded. “Yes, very big and brown, with big buggy black eyes. And they flew, and the sound they made was like…”I paused, scrambling for the right words. “It was like all the popcorn in the world popping at the same time, or a million cats clawing on the tin roof of the barn.” I shuddered with the memory, brushing absently at my shoulder, where the ghost of a claw scratched through my nightgown.
The whispers swelled around me. Urging Jasper to believe me, even though he couldn’t hear them.
Jasper shivered a little, glancing around the room, but he saw nothing, heard nothing. But Jasper was always a very sensitive person; perhaps he sensed something.
“So what, then, Gin? Do you think that it was just a nightmare, or what?” He seemed at a loss.
I didn’t know what to do either. “I think it was more than a dream, Brother. It felt…different.”
He nodded a little, his eyes distant as he thought. Again, he took me seriously, even when I was just a frightened seven-year-old girl. After a moment, something came to him, his face lighting up.
“I have it!” he said excitedly, and leaned down to start whispering in my ear. It only took him a minute to explain his plan; it was so simple it was funny. The whisperers laughed silently with us, overjoyed that a way had been found to put what they’d warned me about into action. We both laughed at our ingenuity, and I slept there with him until dawn touched the window with its rosy fingers, finally feeling safe.
We began carrying out our plan the next day, first thing.
I stole into the kitchen where Cook was assembling breakfast. She was a tall woman, her skin dark as coal but shiny and silken; she had a long, proud neck, and features like an aristocratic cat, with its large almond-shaped eyes and narrow chin. She looked like she’d been a queen in some other distant, exotic country, but she’d been born and raised in Texas. She always wore brightly patterned calicos, her kinky dark hair bound in a kerchief, and she went barefoot except in the dead of winter. She sang while she cooked, and she told me wonderful stories. We were good friends, and more.
Her sharp gaze caught me lingering in the doorway immediately. “Hey now, little Missy, what have you here?” she asked me in her purring voice. “Breakfast is not done, as you know!” Regardless of being born and raised in Texas, her accent was strange, falling and peaking at odd places, like a rolling green savannah.
“I know, Mama Dina, but I wanted to tell you about something!” I said, glancing back over my shoulder to make sure no one else was around to hear. “I had a dream last night!”
Her mahogany eyes lit up in delight, and she smiled her gleaming smile, her teeth so white against her dark skin. “Did you now, chil’?” she murmured, motioning me forward and leaning down so we were closer to the same height. She smelled like cloves and cinnamon.
Mama Dina had a healthy respect for dreams. Her own mother and grandmother, she had told me, had been dreamers. “They’s had the Sight,” she’d said when I had asked her about it a few years ago, rubbing one of my cheeks with her thumb, smiling. “Jes’ like you, little Missy. I seen it in you from the time you was a little babe, you sees things. Wakin’ an’ sleepin’.”
I didn’t clarify anything for her, telling her about the whisperers. Somehow I knew it would frighten her, to hear that I heard voices. But dreams and visions weren’t anything abnormal, different somehow, in her particular gathering of superstitions and spiritual beliefs.
After that, she always asked me about my dreams, and I told her. She’d give me advice on interpreting them, which sometimes helped. The entire community of hired help and slaves knew about my “Sight” now, and held me in a cautious reverence. But it was funny how that never managed to get back to my parents, who would have been horrified that their little girl was perceived as a benevolent kind of witch by their servants.
“Tell me ‘bout it!” she whispered, handing me a cookie from the jar behind her. I took a quick bite before launching into the description of my dream, which was still as vivid that morning as it had been the night before. Maybe even more.
Her eyes grew wide and fearful, the white showing in stark contrast against her skin. “Ah, now, that’s a bad ‘un!” she said, her long-fingered hands clenching into fists in her apron pockets. “Bad indeed, my Mama tol’ me about those. Ate ev’rthing! They had ‘em back in the Old Country, too.”
I nodded. “So what do we do? We can’t make them not come, right?” I was wondering about some kind of African spell-casting, or maybe some Mestizo ritual. Whatever was necessary to keep those horrible bugs from eating my Papa’s crops and the grass for our poor cattle.
Mama Dina pursed her full, lovely lips. They were the color of a dusky red muscat grape, and just as ripe.
“Well, chil’, there’s no way to keep ‘em from comin’, but at leas’ if we’s ready for ‘em…” she trailed off, nodding decisively. She straightened and pulled off her apron, striding toward the back door that led out of the kitchen into the stableyard, glancing back over her shoulder. “You peel ‘em taters, all right Missy? I needs to talk to Big John. I’ll be back in a few minutes!”
Big John was the farm foreman. He was a mixed Mestizo-Negro freedman, and “big” wasn’t sufficient for him. He was huge. And he was also Mama Dina’s husband.
They’d come to work for Mama and Papa the year before Jasper was born, and had never left. They’d both been slaves on a farm in Alabama before, and had been freed when their owner died, emancipating them in his will and providing them with enough money to make a living for themselves out West.
When the couple had shown up at the newly-constructed gate, Papa had recognized the value of the huge man’s experience and sharp mind, and Mama had been overjoyed at the concept of someone like Mama Dina to help her around the house. They became part of the family almost immediately.
Big John had helped Papa pick the right kind of men to work his lands, helped him decide on crops and which foals and calves to keep or sell, and generally ran the farm from top to bottom. Anything of importance around the farm was equally Big John’s responsibility, and Papa relied a great deal on him. It never occurred to Papa to feel any kind of disdain or separateness from Big John—he wasn’t a slave, after all, not anymore. His being a mixed-race person was just an unfortunate matter of birth, in Papa’s opinion. Such blissful ignorance made me chuckle more than once.
As for Mama Dina, as I said she was our cook, but ever so much more. She ran the house, leaving Mama to be able to pursue her diverse feminine enjoyments and relax, since Mama had been half-crippled since my birth. Every surface of our home sparkled and shone, and our food was always ready when we were hungry. Her dark, capable hands had been the ones to catch both Jasper and myself when we’d emerged, squalling and red, from our mother, and she’d been the one to sing us to sleep and bathe us and wipe our bottoms. She was like our second mother.
I peeled the potatoes as she’d instructed me, casting occasional glances out the window, trying to see what was going on. Mama Dina had sprinted across the yard into the stable, her orange and yellow skirt flapping in the stiff, hot breeze that was already blowing. She emerged a few minutes later, hand in hand with Big John, both of them talking intently. I dropped my eyes to the potatoes as they came inside, trying to look like I hadn’t been watching.
Two hard fingers plucked at my ear teasingly, not hard enough to hurt. “So, Missy, havin’ dreams again, is we?” Big John laughed quietly behind me. I turned and smiled, looking up up up to finally see his broad, dusky face, with its own bright teeth in an answering grin. I nodded mutely.
Mama Dina picked up the paring knife I’d dropped and resumed the potato peeling. “Go on now, Miss Ginny, we gots it under care, all right? Don’ you worry.” She nudged me with her bony elbow, an unspoken way of telling me to get out of her kitchen.
Feeling relieved even though I didn’t know what was going to be done, I’d skipped out into the scorching morning sun, looking for something to do until breakfast was ready. My whisperers were happy. I’d done the right thing.
A week later, when the locust cloud did in fact appear on the horizon, the farm was ready, although Papa had known nothing about it.
With a hue and cry, the hired hands and slaves began ringing the bell, and from thin air burlap sacks, torches, and smudge pots appeared. Men and women scattered everywhere, and before a half hour had passed a heavy, oppressive haze of smoke hung thick over our property. When the insects were directly overhead, the workers began flailing their sacks and stoking the smudge pot coals, pouring more smoke into the air, billowing it upwards. It looked like a thunderhead sat directly on our land.
I huddled inside with Jasper, watching through the closed window of his bedroom, which faced the fields out back. The sound of the locusts above was terrifying, their wings and constantly-working jaws making that chilling, chittering sound…I remembered my dream again and squeezed my eyes shut, shaking within the warm circle of Jasper’s arms. Whispers swelled around me; I felt a brief caress on the back of my neck, as they sought to reassure me.
But they didn’t land.
Discouraged by the smoke and the noise, the locusts passed us by, drifting south. We were safe.
Unfortunately, the word of the potential threat hadn’t been taken seriously everywhere. Although the slaves and servants had put out the word of warning, not all had been able to convince their masters to be prepared. Several large farms to the south of ours were devastated. Although it was a sad thing, the losses of others, it did benefit us: where grain, hay, and cattle were in short supply, my Papa had it in plenty. Prices went up, and his accounts swelled.
But all I cared about was that they’d left us alone. I hadn’t had to feel the touch of those bugs on my skin. And they hadn’t destroyed everything.
After that, Jasper took me even more seriously, as did the servants. Mama Dina watched me with wise, pensive eyes, trying to catch hints of what was going on in my head.
There were several other things like that which occurred over the next several years. I correctly predicted a drought, and outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease in the cattle and horses, and an outbreak of burglaries and thefts. I always told Jasper, and we always found a way to do something about it.
Extra wells and new irrigation ditches were dug at Big John’s urging; Papa had listened to his logic and eventually shrugged in assent, remembering the locust swarm, and how somehow the servants had been prepared when he had been utterly clueless. Those wells and ditches kept us thriving when other farms around us were parched and dying. I had even helped find some of them, guided by my whisperers and a hazel rod like Mama Dina had shown me long ago. Those wells have still never run dry to the best of my knowledge.
The plague among the livestock didn’t touch us, either. Big John spread the word around to keep a close watch on the animals, and stopped accepting trades from cattle agents from far away. Unfortunately one of our neighbors bought a passel of infected cows, and he ended up losing all of the new ones plus all his other stock. Last I heard he sold his farm and moved West, seeking opportunity and gold in California.
As for the burglaries, Big John and his men became extra vigilant. It was a gang, they discovered eventually, a big group of dispossessed white men and runaway slaves and renegade Indians. When they saw our gates and barns well-guarded by deadly-serious men with guns, they must have decided to leave us alone. The closest the gang ever struck to our home was miles south, near Houston, where they decimated several farms, even killing some people. I heard they were caught eventually and hanged in a public display.
I also kept having a series of more vague but infinitely more oppressive, frightening dreams, where the whisperers urged me to beware, that war was coming.
Watch Jasper, they told me in my dreams. Watch him. They showed me glimpses of my brother, older, harder, dressed in a gray uniform, clutching a musket. His face was cold and remote, not the serious but sensitive boy I knew and loved. I saw blood and smoke and fire. And something else.
Something…very strange. They showed me three women, three beautiful women…but they weren’t women. They glittered in the moonlight…
I woke up screaming, sweat pouring down my face, matting my hair to the back of my neck in sticky tendrils. Those women terrified me, with their brilliant smiles and red eyes. So lovely they hurt to see. But dangerous! Oh, my Jasper, what was going to happen to him!
Once again, I charged out of my room and into his waiting arms. Once again, he calmed me. But this time I didn’t tell him about my dream. I lied, not knowing why, telling him I didn’t remember. The whisperers approved of my lie, though normally they didn’t like deception.
The years rolled on, and we grew like weeds under the spring sun.
Jasper shot up, a beanpole of a boy, towering over Papa and Mama, though he was still only to Big John’s shoulder. He was a lean young man, but well-muscled from all the time he spent helping around the farm and in the saddle, and very handsome. His golden hair and tan reminded me of pictures of lions I’d seen in books, and the resemblance made me happy. He was my personal lion, the defender of my dreams and champion of my waking times. No matter how many pranks I pulled on him, he still was always there for me.
I didn’t grow much; I guessed I never would. I was quite short and small-statured; Mama Dina called me her pixie. I even grew a bit vain, especially of my hair, which grew long and golden like summer wheat. Mama Dina loved to sit me down Saturday nights after baths and comb through the waves, smoothing out the tangles. She’d hum tunelessly while she did it, a slight smile on her lips. I wondered at those times, when she felt even closer to me than Mama did, why she’d never had children. Once I even dared to ask her.
Her beautiful face grew very still, her eyes sad. It took a moment before she answered.
“We had us a son, once, Missy. He were as big and strong as his Pa, or, he would’a been, if he’d lived.” She blinked rapidly, her long lashes glistening with tears, I thought, though none ever fell. “He died when he were jes’ a boy. Had a fever ‘n terrible cough. One mornin’…well, he jes’ never woke up.”
I dropped my eyes, hot with shame. I’d never seen Mama Dina look so sad. I hated having caused that.
Her warm hand pressed against my cheek, urging my face up again. Her deep brown eyes met mine without any condemnation. “He went to a better place, baby. An’ ever since, the Lord hasn’t given me no more babies. ‘Cause he gave me you, an’ Mister Jasper. I think I’m a lucky woman.”
She enveloped me in her strong arms and rocked me a little. For some reason I started crying.
Just like when I’d been a tiny baby, she pulled me into her lap and rocked me, shushing me. The whispers rose around us, trying to sooth me, too.
I didn’t know why I was crying. I remembered my dreams again, and felt the heaviness inside me from having to keep them to myself. I had this awful sense of foreboding, that I was going to be alone soon, that something terrible was going to happen.
She began to sing to me, and her voice was like honey dripping, warm and sweet and deep.
Oh, hallelujah to the lamb
Down by the river
The Lord is on the giving hand
Down by the riverside
Oh, we’ll wait ‘till Jesus comes
Down by the river
Oh, we’ll wait ‘till Jesus comes
Down by the riverside
Oh, we are pilgrims here below
Down by the river
Oh, soon to glory we will go
Down by the riverside
Oh, we’ll wait ‘till Jesus comes
Down by the river
Oh, we’ll wait ‘till Jesus comes
Down by the riverside
She’d sung that song to me when I was a baby, propping me against her shoulder and rocking, just like she was then.
After a while I stopped crying. She sat me up and wiped my eyes with the back of her hand, then brought her knuckle to her lips and tasted the tears, smiling.
“Angel tears’re the best medicine, they says, for a broken heart,” she murmured, patting my cheek again. “Did’ja get it all out, baby? Seems like y’been holdin’ it in for a while.”
I nodded. At least the pressure had abated a little bit. I felt like I could breathe again.
She sent me off to bed after dosing me with one of her possets, the contents of which I could never quite guess, except that they usually contained some heady combination of honey, ginger, rum, and spices. The purpose was to knock me into a quick, dreamless sleep, and it always worked. I slept long and hard that night, untroubled by whispers or dreams, good or bad.
Shortly before I turned twelve, my world as I’d known it came crashing down around me.
For months before, my dreams and the whispers were my constant, unwanted companions, sleeping and waking, but not comforting or informative like they’d usually been. I couldn’t escape them. I thought I might be going mad. My lessons suffered, I dragged through the days like a zombie, food tasteless in my mouth…I’d drop into my bed at night and awake in the morning feeling exactly the same, as if I’d never slept. I begged God or whoever might listen to a little girl’s prayers to please, let this stop. I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t want to be special anymore, if it meant I could have a bit of peace.
Mama Dina fussed over me, that I was taking ill, stuffing her home-brewed medicines and tonics down me, preparing my favorite foods to try to tempt my appetite, anything she could think of to shake me out of my stupor. She watched me constantly, dark eyes full of worry and fear. I heard her praying a lot, when she didn’t think I could hear her:Oh Lord, Lord and Spirits above and all around, please watch over my golden girl, and take away this cross you’ve given her…
The images and whispers were always the same. War.
I saw men dying in my dreams, dark as thunderclouds boiling on the horizon, full of menace. I saw blood and smoke and heard screaming and gunshots as if they were in my room with me. I heard men and boys plead with their maker to take them away, to let the pain pass. I saw rows and rows of white crosses, marking graves. I saw brothers and cousins and best friends fighting one another, destruction and plague and rape.
A little girl shouldn’t see and hear such things. It changes you.
But worst of all, I saw my Jasper in the middle of it all.
He was leaving me.
No matter how often I begged him to promise me he wouldn’t sneak away, no matter how many times he made that promise, I always knew he was lying. I could see it on his face, and the whisperers told me so anyway. He’d always stroke my head and try to soothe me in his strange, familiar way…it might work for a while, but it was more like a painkiller, masking the sensation for a while until the drug wore off, leaving as much pain as before…perhaps even more, as you became suddenly aware of hurting again.
The day it all exploded, the day it all came to a head, was when Papa brought the paper home.
He’d been to a meeting in Houston, where the local assembly had gathered to discuss a resolution put forth in the State legislature, on whether or not Texas should join the other Secessionist States and leave the Union altogether. I knew what was coming. It was whispered in my ear as I sat in the kitchen, hearing Papa’s horse’s hooves pounding the turf in the stable yard outside the kitchen door.
He’d burst in with the news, that Texas had decided, Texas was out, Texas would stand with the Rebels for State’s Rights and against Unionist interference with the Southern way of life.
I watched Jasper furtively as Mama read the paper Papa had handed her. He knew what it meant. I saw the sly expression flicker across his face, could fairly read the plot he was ironing out in his thoughts. He was leaving. Soon. And I couldn’t stop him.
That night, after dinner, I tackled him and tried to use all of my available weapons to try to convince him to stay. Tears, threats, logic…None of it really worked.
We were dancing an elaborate little masquerade, each of us with our own secrets that we were guarding, each of us pretending to believe the other’s lies. I couldn’t tell him I knew what he was planning, because then I’d have to tell him how I knew; he couldn’t tell me the truth about his plans to run away and join the army, because then he’d have to admit his lies to me.
After that night, things got even worse for me. Before, it had been a feeling of dread and foreboding. My dreams and the things that were whispered to me had been more indistinct and nebulous, before that night. With the actual declaration of secession, the images became more clear and frightening…what had been foretold in the spirit world was becoming reality, rapidly.
I turned twelve with little fanfare; Mama Dina made me a little cake, and Mama and Papa gave me a few gifts.
Mama gave me a beautiful set of combs and brushes and a mirror, elegant worked silver set with moonstones and mother-of-pearl. Mama Dina loved to brush my hair with them, and arrange the long locks in elaborate fashions, while we laughed at ourselves in the mirror.
Papa gave me a new set of leather-bound books, the plays of Shakespeare and the works of Milton and Chaucer and a collection of love poems. Also, I got a new pony, a sweet-tempered little dappled gray, which I named Cloud. I found a bit of comfort spending time with him in the stable, currying his coat to a gleaming sheen and braiding his long, silky mane and tail. We understood each other; sometimes I would lean my forehead against his strong neck, and he’d lay his long nose over my shoulder, making little snuffling noises into my ear, nibbling on my hair.
Spring progressed, and each day that marched by brought me closer to the inevitable. The day would come very soon, when I would wake up and Jasper would be gone.
My restless sleep evaporated into insomnia. I had to pretend to sleep, often sneaking into Jasper’s room to curl up with him, trying to keep him there with my presence. I knew it wouldn’t work, but I still tried.
Then it came. The day my world ended.
Jasper came home that afternoon with a different aura around him; his demeanor practically screamed deception to my keen sight. He kept glancing about, seeing who might be watching him. He was jumpy and nervous. And he refused to meet my eye.
After dinner we washed the dishes together, even getting into a little splashing match; he was trying so hard to seem normal. Once upstairs, I tackled him again, trying to weasel the truth out of him.
I used every weapon in my arsenal. Tears, pleading, logic…none of it worked. He lied to me, blatantly and boldly. Supposedly it wasn’t him that was sneaking off to war—it was his best friends, Henry and Newt Berryman, and Jasper was covering for them so they could get away safely. His eyes and voice pleaded with me to believe him, to trust him.
I realized the futility of my struggle; I felt something break inside me, felt something begin to wither and die. I’d fought and I’d lost: he was leaving. Tomorrow. My whisperers sighed into my ear, trying to comfort me, but I mentally shook them off in disgust. What good were whispers and dreams when you couldn’t even keep your own brother from getting himself killed?
I wished he’d trusted me. But he didn’t. No matter how much we loved each other, he didn’t trust me not to betray his plans to Mama and Papa.
I suppose he was right to not trust me. I couldn’t say with any surety that I wouldn’t have run to Mama and Papa to tell on him. I could have still done that, made them watch him more carefully, lie to them like he was doing to me…
Let him go.
As strong and united as they had been that day I had almost trod upon that rattlesnake, they commanded me, the voices full of authority, no longer whispers. I was amazed Jasper didn’t hear them.
So. I’d lost. I had to let him go. Why? I asked them silently, begging for an answer that might make it easier.
Jasper has a destiny all his own, it calls to him from the future. He must wander long and far and endure many things, but in the end he will be made whole, and fulfill his role in this world.
Again, they sounded so sure, totally indisputable.
All my defiance drained out of me. I felt as empty and alone as an abandoned shoe on the side of the road.
Numbly, I pretended to believe his lie. I agreed to cover for his “secret”, to not betray him to Mama and Papa. I played my role, the credulous little girl, though I felt like I was a million years old inside. I went through the motions of studying and doing our assignments for the next day, although I knew he was as distracted as I was…but his distraction was excited, his eyes shining with delight at the prospect of adventure and glory…My distraction was frantic and full of dread.
My dreams of war flooded my mind. So much blood and death. He would be part of all that soon. And I couldn’t help him, couldn’t be with him.
Eventually we had to stop the charade of studying; I stood up and left the room, bidding him a good night, then trudged slowly to my room, where I lay upon my unslept-in bed, waiting for time to pass. Every minute crawled by, like molasses in January.
I knew I couldn’t go and sleep with him again that night. He wouldn’t be sleeping. And I couldn’t stand in the way of his destiny. So I lay there in the dark, my eyes burning with unshed tears, my fingers knotted into the quilt, as if I were trying to tie myself down. Perhaps I was.
It was the darkest, coldest part of the night when I heard it. The utter silence of the night seemed to amplify my hearing, as if I was there in the room with him.
Shuffling, whispering, the scrape of a boot across the windowsill in Jasper’s room. The creaking of the ivy trellis outside his window as someone climbed down. Footsteps padding quietly across the stable yard, toward the barn…the faint squeal of the stable door hinges…the barely discernable jingle of the bridle as he saddled Star…then quiet hoofbeats, fading with distance.
I couldn’t hold myself there any longer.
I tore out of my room, barreling down the hallway and down the stairs, fumbling with the latch on the back door. I had to see him go. I couldn’t let him go without one last look!
I stumbled out onto the back porch and down the steps into the dusty stable yard, my nightgown billowing around me like a ghost’s shroud. I strained my eyes to see into the darkness of the moonless night, for any glimpse of him.
Finally I caught the movement by the front gate, about half a mile away. A horse, two riders. Jasper and Henry on Star, silhouetted against the velvety black night. Cantering into the great unknown, away from me.
If he’d turned and looked back, he would’ve seen me there, would’ve seen me waving frantically, begging him with everything in me to see me, to at least say goodbye. But he never did.
I watched him go until I couldn’t see him any longer.
Then I sat down in the dust and drew my knees up to my chest, my chin atop them, huddling into myself against the cold pre-dawn air. A faint breeze kicked up around me, swirling my hair in tangles around my head, and the cold wind made my tears like rivers of ice down my cheeks.
He was gone. I’d been abandoned. I’d never speak to my brother again in this life, I knew.
I closed my eyes against the tears and stayed there in the dark and the dust and I cried and cried and cried.
Big John found me there a little while later; he was always the first one awake and around the farm.
I heard him coming, but I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. I didn’t turn and look at him, or even acknowledge his soft, surprised cry of alarm at realizing that I wasn’t just a bundle of rags in the middle of the yard.
He squatted down in front of me, his big, warm, hard hand gripping my chin gently and forcing me to look up at him. He had kind, liquid black eyes, and a broad, honest face that was full of sadness and shock.
“Well, Miss Ginny, what’s the matter?” he whispered, glancing around and then back at me. Likely he didn’t want anyone to discover me, sitting out there in the yard in my nightgown, dusty and tearstained. “Why’re you outside!”
I just shook my head and laid my face back onto my drawn-up knees, trying to ignore him.
Just then, from the house, there was a scream. Mama.
Footsteps running. Papa yelling. Mama sobbing. They’d found something, probably a note. Seen his empty bed.
Then Mama Dina was there. “Ah, Lord, what now!” she muttered, scooping me up into her arms. She was so warm. She cradled me to her breast; my head lolled against her shoulder, my tears starting again.
“He’s gone, Mama, he left me all alone!” I finally whispered into her neck, tears wetting her smooth brown skin. I couldn’t close my eyes anymore. They burned so much.
She sighed heavily, walking now. “Well, chil’, you knew this was a’comin’, so don’ be surprised,” she replied softly, no accusation in her voice despite the words. “John, you go’n get things goin’ around here, Master Whitlock ain’t gonna be good for nothin’ t’day, baby,” she called over her shoulder.
John, always so quiet, nodded and went off toward the barn, jamming his hat down atop his head, his stride full of purpose.
Mama Dina carried me into the kitchen, setting me down next to the stove, and proceeded to scrub my face and hands with cold water til I felt the blood beginning to circulate in me again. Then she produced a comb from somewhere and smoothed down my wind-tangled hair, murmuring prayers under her breath the entire time. Occasionally she’d shoot a worried glance toward the kitchen door, as if waiting for one of my parents to come in and catch her cleaning me up. She dashed into the laundry pantry and emerged a moment later with a clean nightgown, and re-dressed me quickly, tossing the dusty, tear-stained one into a hamper of dishtowels.
Finally, I must have met her standards, for she took my face between her big hands and looked me straight in the eye, her face deadly serious.
“Listen to me, Ginny Whitlock,” she began, her voice stern. I perked up a bit in surprise; she never called me by my name. “You gots t’ be strong, for your mama an’ your papa. They’s goin’ to be terrible sad, an’ you know your mama ain’t in the best of health.”
My eyes widened, remembering.
Ever since my birth, Mama had been sick off and on all the time, and she couldn’t walk or stand for long periods of time without getting very tired. The doctors had told her giving birth to me had damaged something inside her, and that she had a weak heart anyway, and she should take care not to become overly excited or anxious. That was one reason we all walked on eggshells around her. I didn’t want to make my mother sicker; I knew Jasper had been her favorite, although I was the baby of the family, and it had never bothered me before. It still didn’t, I realized abruptly: I just didn’t want her to be upset, or any more upset than she already was. I couldn’t add to her pain by behaving like a zombie.
I nodded mutely, staring up into Mama Dina’s face. Tears threatened again but I fought them back, taking several deep breaths until I gained control, blinking savagely to keep my eyes dry.
She nodded in approval, patting my cheek. “Good girl. You be strong. Don’ worry, Mister Jasper will be all right. Jes’ listen t’yer dreams, they’ll show you.”
I sighed, looking down at the floor and nodding absently. I knew the whisperers would tell me things, but it wouldn’t be nearly so good as having him nearby. I couldn’t watch over him from so far away!
Mama Dina got up from her crouch, pulling me to my feet with her. She turned me to face the stove, pointing over my shoulder at the big cast-iron pot, where she always prepared our morning oatmeal. “You start on that, young ‘un, I’m gonna go see t’your Mama for a moment,” she admonished me, and bustled out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.
I sighed again. Perhaps mundane tasks would help me forget my abandonment. So I set myself to the job ahead. I didn’t stop at the oatmeal; I sliced the bread and put it to toast in the oven, sliced the apples for the oatmeal, strained the new milk that waited in the stone jar by the kitchen door. I brewed Papa’s coffee, and made Mama’s tea. I set the table for everyone, putting out the butter and sugar and jam and molasses.
I was right: it did help distract me from my pain. The familiar movements of my body, performing such simple, homey tasks, was comforting. But even at my most distracted, the knowledge of Jasper’s absence still ached inside me.
Eventually Mama Dina came back, shaking her head sadly. She stopped, looking at the table and at the breakfast waiting, ready, on the sideboard, her eyes wide and incredulous. “Well, chil’, you do seem to be listenin’ this mornin’…for once…”
She beckoned me over to her, looking back toward the door again as she furtively pulled something from her apron pocket, pressing it into my hand. I didn’t need to look at it to know it was a letter from Jasper.
“Don’ tell your Papa I gave this t’you, all right, baby?” she whispered, curling my fingers around the paper. “He had it in his desk, locked up, like he never meant to give it t’you…but I think it’s better to have it, right?”
I nodded violently in agreement, shoving the letter into the pocket of my nightgown. “What now?” I whispered back.
Mama Dina shook her head again, biting her lower lip. “Well, y’Mama is in bed. She’s terrible sad. Your Papa gave ‘er some of that medicine Doc B left for ‘er, that laudanum, it’ll help ‘er sleep.” I frowned, I hated that medicine, it made Mama sleep like the dead, and when she did wake she was often dizzy and disoriented. But maybe that was best right now.
“Papa?” I asked, dreading the answer.
She took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “Well, he’s not much better, tho’ he’s still walkin’ around. He said he’ll be down f’breakfast anytime now.” She pushed me toward the door. “You scoot on now, baby, go get dressed. Then come down an’ eat, an’ try t’be the good, sweet, strong girl you are, all right?”
I left without another word.
In my room, once the door was shut tight, I allowed myself to crumple to the floor, sliding down the door and leaning against it, clutching Jasper’s letter in both hands against my chest. Silent, tearless sobs shook my whole body.
I stayed there for a long while, until the wracking sobs had run their course. I stared down at the letter again, his handwriting so neat and straight as it wrote my name across the front of the envelope.
With trembling fingers I managed to rip it open and pull out the single small sheet of paper.
I know I lied to you about leaving you, and about what I was planning, but please believe me when I say it wasn’t to hurt you. It hurt more than you can ever know. I am so sorry for that, but you have to understand that I feel like this is what I have to do, for myself, and to provide you with the kind of example of what a man should be. You are the best thing in my life, and I will come home to you and Mother and Father as soon as I’ve done my duty to God and Country, with my head held high. I promise I’ll write you as often as I can. Please think of me and pray for me, Ginny, that it will be soon when I am able to hear your voice again. I love you very much, little sister.
I struggled with myself to not crumple the paper into a ball, or to tear it to a million shreds. My anguish was turning into anger with every passing second.
How dare he?? Liar. He didn’t even say goodbye, didn’t even turn around!
Immediately the whispers swelled into a raging tide all around me, scolding, admonishing.
Brave boy. Good man. Don’t be awful. Everyone has their place, their destiny.
All the separate voices, talking at once, like I was in a crowded room.
Overwhelmed, I clapped my hands over my ears and screamed. “Be quiet!!!”
They stopped. For a moment, blessed silence reigned. I leaned my head back against the door, my burning eyes sliding shut. I was so, so very tired…
Finally, after a while, one whisper breathed into my ear, hesitant.
You have a destiny too, you know.
Like I care! I shouted back at them from within my mind, not wanting to draw any more attention with more noise.
The whisperer persisted. You have no idea, Virginia. There are many things, wonderful and awful things both, for you in the years ahead. You must be strong. It is very, very important. For you and for your family.
I sighed, scrubbing my hot, aching face with my hands in frustration. “All right, all right…just shut up for a while, please?” I begged them in a whisper of my own.
They didn’t reply. I supposed that was their answer.
In the strange, echoing silence, I crawled to my feet and managed to make it to my bed, where I curled up around my pillow, burying my face in it. I lay there for a long time, time drifting by unmarked; I almost dozed.
“Ginny? Sweetheart? Can you…can you come down, to have breakfast with me?”
Papa’s voice, muffled from behind my door. He didn’t try the doorknob. Even through the wood he sounded different. Older. Sad.
The sound of his own grief suddenly dawned on me. My god, what a selfish little brat I am!
I rolled off the bed and ducked into my closet, searching for something to wear. “Of course, Papa, I’ll be down in just a moment, I’m dressing!” I called back, trying to make my voice sound like something resembling human.
I heard him sigh, and a sound like something gently press against the door. I think it was him leaning his forehead against the door, wearily. “All right, Ginny. I’ll see you downstairs, then.” His footstep faded away.
I stared at myself in the mirror that hung on the wall beside my bed. My face was pale and my eyes were bloodshot, but other than that I looked…normal enough. Taking a deep breath, I buttoned my dress and straightened my skirts, pulling my hair back and fixing it atop my head with one of Mama’s combs. I pinched my cheeks hard, to bring some color into them. Turned and faced the door, marched out, headed downstairs to eat a breakfast I had absolutely no appetite for.