Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Home Again (2)

by Rocky Macy

(Part 2 of 5)

Jeremiah was carrying water from the spring when he saw his father approaching the cabin with the doe draped over his sturdy shoulders.  The son set down his buckets and rushed to greet the returning hunter.  “You’re back.  And just look at that fine doe!  Can I help skin her, Pa?”
Ephram carefully laid the dead animal on the flat rock that had served as a butcher’s stone for as long as the Millers had been on Chance Creek.  “I gutted her in the woods, son.  The skinning and carving I’ll leave to you.  But be quick about it. Your mother will want to have some venison for the kettle so that we might wake to a hearty stew.”  Ephram drew his knife from its sheath and handed it to his eldest.  “Quickly now, but with care.”
“Yes, Pa.”  The boy accepted the knife with an almost reverential attitude.  He had often helped in skinning out the game that his father brought back from the hunts, but this was the first time that the entire task of skinning and butchering a large animal had been left to him alone, an honor made even grander by the magnificence of the doe.  Jeremiah fell eagerly into this rite of his approaching manhood.
“Jeremiah, where is the water?”  Comfort emerged from the cabin in search of one wanderer and found another.  “Oh, husband, you have returned!”  She ran into Ephram’s waiting arms, and backed away almost as quickly.  “You’re cold and your clothes are soaked.  Get into the cabin and make ready for your bath.”
“Not so fast, good wife,” Ephram scolded.  “Aren’t you even curious about the hunt?  The Lord has seen fit to share His bounty with us once again.”
“See, Ma”, Jeremiah said.  “Pa has brought home this fine doe, and he asked me to skin her out and carve her up.” He was intently pulling the animal’s skin back from the slash that his father had tendered in order to disembowel the creature. “Isn’t she a beauty!”
“Treat the skin with care, Jeremiah.  It will make a respectable shirt for you or Thomas.”  Comfort’s remark fooled neither father nor son, for both knew that skinning and butchering the doe brought with it the solemn right of being clad in her skin. Thomas could wait for his shirt. As the farm wife turned and started to pick up the buckets of water that Jeremiah had abandoned, Ephram stepped forward and assumed her burden.  “Thank you, husband. I’ll warm this water for your bath.”
Ephram laughed and said softly, for her ears alone, “So that I might be made proper to share the bed of a woman as lovely and pleasing as you?”
“Mister Miller!” Comfort snapped with mock alarm. “I do believe that you have been too long in the woods alone.”
Inside the cabin Ephram silently looked upon his other two children. Young Thomas was in the loft, wrapped in a blanket and asleep on the old straw tick that he and Jeremiah shared as a bed.  Abiah, the baby, was nestled in her cradle near the fire, and though the child was lost in slumber, Ephram could tell by her labored breathing that she was still ill. “Always the same,” he said absently to Comfort who was pouring water into the kettle over the fire. “It doesn’t seem right. Death would be a mercy.”
Comfort took her husband by the arm and led him to the tub that sat at the foot of their bed. “She has died, husband, and it was no mercy.”
The weary hunter fell back into the soft embrace of the bed and stared at the loft where Thomas was beginning to toss about in search of the missing warmth of his older brother. Ephram could feel Comfort’s hands as they struggled to free the boots from his wet and swollen feet. “What is this all about?” he asked softly.  “Why has God chosen to visit this strangeness upon us?”
“No one can know the mind of God, husband.  It is sinful to even try.”  As she gently ran her hand across the damp and dirty cotton shirt that covered her man’s hard chest, Comfort thought of the countless times that they had had this conversation before.
*  *  *  *  *
            Ephram awoke with a start as Comfort was pouring the first kettle of hot water into the tub. Everyone in the Miller family bathed on the eve of the Sabbath, and the father, as the head of the household, was always last. Ephram raised himself onto one elbow and watched his able wife carry the empty kettle back to the fire where she filled it again with creek water and placed it over the fire next to the pot with the stew fixings.  The tub in which he would bathe, Ephram knew, still contained the water from the earlier baths, water that had now been made warm again by the labors of the farm wife.   Next to the tub was another bucket of hot water that the hunter would use to rinse off the residue of his wife’s strong lye soap.
Comfort scooped up Ephram’s shirt and breeches as he stepped into the tub and eased himself down into the soapy, warm, relaxing water. She sat the bundle of dirty clothes by the door and then went to her cedar trunk where she found a nightshirt for her husband to wear when he had finished his bath. After laying the nightshirt and an old pair of woolen socks out onto the bed, Comfort pulled a footstool up to the tub and took the soap from Ephram. “Let’s get your hair wet,” Comfort said as she dipped a small pan into the bath filling it with warm water.  As she started to empty the pan onto his head, Ephram surprised her by sliding playfully beneath the water.  When he arose she began to lather his head without comment.  Sometimes Comfort felt as if she had three sons, each one a rascal.
Ephram awoke, still in the tub, to find his wife hanging his washed breeches and shirt in front of the fire to dry. “It’s too cold to be out at the creek washing clothes,” he protested, obviously too late. “You’ll catch your death.”
“It would appear, dear husband, that we die but once, and I have already crossed that threshold.”    
“As have we all.”
“As have we all, indeed.”
“Wife, do you ever wonder if there is something beyond all of this, some other threshold that awaits our crossing?”
The wife registered mild surprise at his question. Their conversations had settled into familiar paths over the years, and comments that strayed afield of the expected needed to be explored.  “The will of God cannot be known, dear husband. Is something troubling you?”
“Just a skittish feeling. Perhaps some wayward spirit has been walking on my grave.”
Comfort laughed as she walked over to the tub and lifted the oak bucket of rinse water with an ease and grace that belied the decades of hardship that the poor farm wife had endured. “Arise, good sir, and let me rinse you of your worries.”
“Yes, good lady.” Ephram stood in silence savoring the feel of the clean water as it gently removed the last of the soap and filth from his body.  The hunt had been hard, but he was home now, home and clean and warm in the love of his family.  After drying himself and dressing in the cotton nightshirt that Comfort had set out, Ephram began to slide the tub of bath water to the door.
“No, sir.  Leave that be,” Comfort admonished. “Jeremiah will need to wash up when he finishes with the deer. He and I will dump it later.”
Ephram sat on the edge of the bed and watched as his wife busied herself at the hearth. The aromas wafting through their ancient cabin inflamed Ephram’s senses and left him consumed by the hunger that he had forced out of his consciousness while on the hunt. Suddenly he was ravenous.
Comfort rose and brought two plates to the table. “Join me, husband. I have waited so that I might sup with you.”
“Rabbit?” Ephram’s exclamation as he seated himself at the small table was one of pleasant surprise.
“’Tis but the most meager scraps of a rabbit who was himself as poor and hungry as are we.” Comfort offered the unnecessary apology as she spooned a watery brown broth onto Ephram’s biscuits. “The children supped on the best portions.”
“That is as it should be, good wife. Believe me when I say that scraps of a rabbit and your wonderful biscuits are a bounteous wonder to one who has eaten only jerky and hardtack the past week, and blessed little of that. Let us give thanks for what is before us.” The couple bowed their heads in supplication as Ephram asked God’s blessing.
It occurred to Ephram that he did not know the source of the meat that graced his plate.  This entire year game of the first life had been unusually abundant, but game of the second life, the only type that God had seen fit to provide to His children of the second life, was scarce. Indeed, the surest way to find game of the second life was to be on hand when it arose into the hereafter. It was that knowledge that continually led Ephram back to his lookout by the road, a place where life tended to end and begin, and by the grace of God, end again.
“The rabbit was provided by Jeremiah,” Comfort said in response to the unasked question. After nearly a century-and-a-half of marriage, both husband and wife were able to wander through the other’s thoughts as effortlessly as if they were their own. “He was at the creek this afternoon watching the rabbit drink when a hawk swooped down and attacked the poor creature. When the rabbit died and came back, Jeremiah got it with a rock.”
“I know that he hasn’t grown since…in size…but still…” Ephram could seldom speak of the night, that bloody, terrible night when the band of deserters from the Union Army, emboldened by whiskey and spurred on by Satan, had slaughtered the Miller family for their mules and few meager possessions. “Our son is…”
“Yes, husband, I know. He is changing. In many ways our Jeremiah is wiser and more able than he was when we crossed over.” Comfort got up and began clearing the table. “I too wish that we could see him step into manhood, take a wife, give us grandchildren.”
“Wife, I know that it is wrong to question the will of God.”
“It surely is.”
“But in my heart,” Ephram said, “in my heart I can never believe that He meant for our family, our Christian family who lived by His Word, to be butchered for sport by drunken heathen.”
“We died at the same time, Ephram. That is a blessing in itself. We are all together and we are happy.”
“All but Samuel.”
“The Lord spared Samuel.”
“A blessing, I reckon. He was so proud that we trusted him to take the calves to market by himself."
“Samuel was a fine son, dear husband.”
“He was gone at the right time. He lived and we died, though often it seems that it was Samuel who died and we live on. I miss that boy so much sometimes that I find myself angry at him for leaving us.”
“He didn’t leave us. God chose Samuel to take the Miller name beyond the Shedd, and we both know that he made us proud, even if we weren’t alive to admire him as an adult.” Comfort reached across the table with a hand cloth and dabbed some broth from Ephram’s wiry beard. “It was Samuel that came back and dug our graves. Remember that, husband. He was the one who set the hickory saplings over our remains, trees that have grown as tall and proud as the dreams we had for our children. Don’t be angry with our eldest, for anger tarnishes his memory and takes him further from us. Just be happy in knowing that God spared Samuel for a reason.”
“It seems that with each passing year anger comes more easily. I pray that you will indulge my chronic temperament, dear wife, and know that it comes from being away from your side for too many cold and dreary days.”
“God has a plan, Ephram.  We must be patient.”  Comfort removed herself from the table and returned with the last of the rabbit broth that she spooned onto the portion of the biscuit that Ephram had left on his plate.  “Finish your meal, my tired husband. I have much left to do this night, and you must get some sleep.” 

*  *  *  *  *
Ephram stayed up and helped Comfort and Jeremiah prepare the ingredients for the stewpot, but soon afterward he succumbed to the incessant demands of his tired body for sleep and renewal.  He awoke to the wonderful smells of the simmering stew when his wife came to bed. Sometime later, as if in a dream, he heard the baby crying and stirred awake once more as Comfort brought fragile Abiah to their bed. It was later, when the night was at its darkest, that Ephram awoke for the final time.

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