By: Don Tassone
Five months after the end of a war that pitted brother against brother, still dressed in his blue uniform, Thomas Fenwick approached a brick house surrounded by oaks and maples with leaves of red and brown. White chickens roamed free in the long, dewy grass, pecking at insects. Through the front window, Thomas spotted an anxious, lovely face.
“Cover me,” he said to his two fellow horsemen as he dismounted.
His eyes fixed on the face in that window, his vision sharpened by combat, Thomas pulled his rifle from the leather scabbard below his saddle. He slowly walked the fieldstone path to the wooden porch that spanned the width of the house. All the while, the young woman in the window remained still, watching him.
Thomas ascended the steps and strode to the front door. Floorboards creaked. He removed his cap. Long, brown hair that had been tucked underneath fell down to his shoulders. He raised his right hand and gently knocked on the weathered oak door.
Thomas heard footsteps inside, coming closer. He gripped the barrel of his rifle more tightly. After months of pacifying Southerners, he had learned to be wary.
He heard metal slide on the other side of the door. Then the door slowly opened. Inside stood the young woman. She was petite and looked even lovelier up close. Her eyes were blue. Her chestnut hair was parted in the middle and pulled back into a braided bun behind her head. She wore a long, gray dress. Beside her, holding her hand, stood a little boy.
“Yes?” she said softly.
“Good morning, ma’am. My name is Thomas Fenwick. I am a captain in the Union Army. My men and I are on our way through Tennessee to make sure everyone is okay.”
She stared at him, as if she expected him to say more.
Finally, he said, “Is everyone here okay?”
“Yes, we are holding up.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Would you mind if I looked around?”
She looked puzzled.
“It’s standard procedure.”
Thomas, still on the porch, turned to his men and said, “Why don’t you go ahead? I’ll secure this one and catch up.”
One of the men grinned. Thomas heard a gasp behind him and turned back around. The woman had her hand on her mouth. Her eyes were wide. She looked frightened.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I won’t harm you. There is nothing to fear.”
The two horsemen turned and rode away.
“Come in,” the woman said.
Thomas stepped inside and shut the door behind him. After years of sleeping in a tent, he was still getting used to being in real homes again.
“My name is Maggie Calhoun,” the woman said. “And this is my son, Luke.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Maggie,” Thomas said, extending his hand.
She looked surprised but took it. Hers was the smallest hand and the softest skin Thomas had felt in a long time.
He then said, “Hello, Luke,” again extending his hand, but the boy retreated behind his mother.
“You’re welcome to look around,” Maggie said. “We have an upstairs and a cellar. Out back, there’s a barn and three cabins.”
“For the slaves. They’re all gone now, of course.”
“Is your husband here?”
“Where is he?”
“Thank you. Would you like some coffee, captain? I just made some, fresh.”
“I’d love some.”
“I’ll be right back. Please have a seat,” she said, nodding toward the parlor.
She left with Luke holding fast to her hand.
Thomas stepped into the parlor and sat down in a high-backed armchair near the fireplace. He was still getting used to sitting on soft surfaces again too.
He put his cap on his lap and set his rifle next to him on the floor. He looked around the sunlit room at the ivory-colored walls and took in the sweet, earthy aroma of good coffee and was reminded of home.
A few minutes later, Maggie came back, carefully balancing two white, porcelain cups on saucers, with Luke still at her side. Thomas got up and took one of the cups.
“Thank you,” he said.
Turning to Luke, Maggie said, “Why don’t you go upstairs for a few minutes while I talk with Captain Fenwick?”
“Yes, Mother,” he said and left.
Maggie sat down on a sofa across from Thomas.
“You’ve got a very good boy there,” he said.
“Thank you. Luke is an angel.”
They sipped their coffees. It was by far the best coffee Thomas had had in years. He’d grown accustomed to drinking chicory but never liked it.
“If I may be so bold, was your husband in the war?”
“Yes, he fought for our side. He was killed at Cumberland Gap.”
“I’m sorry. So you and the boy have been alone here ever since?”
“No. My daughter died last winter, and the slaves all left right after Appomattox.”
“What was your daughter’s name?”
“Her name was Emily.”
“How old was she?”
“I’m sorry you’ve had to endure so much loss.”
Maggie simply nodded.
“I noticed crops in your fields,” he said, changing the subject.
“Yes, cotton and tobacco. They were planted in the spring.”
“Is there anyone to harvest them?”
“Just me, I’m afraid. I tried to cut tobacco leaves, but I didn’t get very far. The tobacco still out there in the fields is dead. The cotton is about ripe. I’ll pick what I can, but I reckon I won’t get very far on that either.”
“What will you do? How will you get by?”
“I’ve decided I’ll have to sell this place.”
“Where will you go?”
“I’ll move back home and live with my sister and her family.”
“Have you been there?”
“Yes. Not long ago, in fact.”
Her face softened. She sipped her coffee, watching him over the rim of her cup.
“Where are you from?” she said.
“Just outside of Philadelphia.”
“You’re a long way from home.”
“How long have you been in the Army?”
“Since sixty-one. I joined right after Sumpter.”
“If I may ask, why?”
“I’ve always believed slavery is wrong. Our cause was just. I wanted to help free the slaves.”
“Well, they’re free now.”
“So why have you stayed on?”
“To help finish up.”
“But don’t you want to go home?”
“I’m not sure I’m welcome there any more.”
“We’re Quakers. We’re supposed to be pacifists. When I said I wanted to enlist, my father said, ‘We don’t fight. We don’t kill.’ I signed up anyway. He was livid. I’d never seen him so upset. He told me to get out and never come back.”
Thomas nodded and said nothing.
“Have you written your family?”
“So they don’t know if you’re alive? They must be so worried about you.”
“I’ve wanted to write, but the things I’ve done. I’ve taken men’s lives. How could my parents ever understand?”
“I don’t know, but you’re their son. I suspect they’ll never stop loving you.”
“I hope you’re right. Maybe I will go back one day. Maybe after I finish this tour.”
“When will that be?”
“I signed on for three months. I’ve served five. So I can ask to be discharged whenever I want.”
“If you went home, what would you do?”
“My father is a farmer. He grows corn and wheat. I’d probably work on the farm and take it over one day.”
They had both finished their coffee.
“Your parents must miss you terribly,” she said.
He looked away.
“Captain, I have an idea.”
“If you do decide to leave the Army, you could live here, in one of the cabins out back. You could help me pick the cotton, and I could pay you from the money it fetches. After that, you could leave any time you like. You could go home.”
He stared at her, trying to comprehend that idea. Just then, he heard someone coming down the stairs. Instinctively, he reached for his rifle.
Luke appeared in the doorway. He looked at Thomas, holding his gun. He darted over to his mother and climbed up next to her on the sofa. He got so close that his left leg was nearly covered by the folds of her dress. She wrapped her arm around him and gently kissed his head.
“It’s okay,” she whispered.
Thomas remembered his mother holding him and kissing him that way when he was a boy. He longed to be near her again.
He looked at Maggie. The autumn light through the wavy glass window behind her cast a mystical glow.
“Do you make coffee this good every morning?”
Don Tassone is the author of two novels and six short story collections. More than 350 of his stories and essays have been published, mainly in literary magazines. He lives in Loveland, Ohio.
There’s a lot going on here. It’s typical ‘Tassone’ writing: lean, spare prose with short sentences and space for reflection along the way. And always, an implicit thread of hope. Very good.
Thank you, Gordon.
I agree with Gordon, Don. Once again, you delivered a multi-layered story, from the title to the conclusion. It’s a well-told tale of loss and brokenness with the hope of restoration and renewal. Thanks for sharing a message needed for such as time as this.
Thank you, Dee.
Thank you, Gordon.