“Fairhope” in The Carolina Quarterly, Spring 2006:
The walls crack and in the attic light feet skitter, but still I wait and listen for the voice this house has yet to yield. On the second floor of three, around one up-curve of the spiral stair—the only one in Alabama like it, built by slaves, so says my plaque—are still my husband’s books, his shirts folded flat as shrouds, his ordination in a wooden frame, and, alone in a drawer, his glass-vialed splinter of the Cross. He carried it through all the wars. The boys reached from their cots to clutch it as he leaned in close to listen and whisper, with them, prayers. I told him he’d been cheated, but he wouldn’t listen. There were always wars and always soldiers dying. Always voices calling him away. You’ll see me soon, he told me. Who knows me anymore except this house, and what lives here with me? Its name is Fairhope, says the plaque. Nobody speaks its name, or mine, here anymore. Not even he.
I’m still here, without him, straight west from Selma, where the highway dissolves into dreaming cotton towns and hills that roll as gently as the narrow chests of graves. Log trucks roar along the blacktop at the bottom of the hill. There was a battle here late in the war. By that time, the men were out of bullets and snuck out of the woods at night to strangle sentries. The gray cloth had run out, too, and their wives made uniforms from the rags of their own skirts, stained brown with leaves. The blood is brown now, on the floorboards of the house’s foyer, where the other women nursed them, where my husband fell. It never washes out. All of us, we wait on men. They twist and moan, they pray and bleed and die. They curse and call to one another and they look at us with bewildered open eyes. Outside, the horses scream. Our husbands’ bodies are no longer ours.
And when they leave, we learn to get along. Pick sheep’s sorrel for soup. Club rabbits. Last week I found a rattlesnake in the yard. Big female one. You know her by the smell: thick, intimate as blood. I killed her with the bushaxe under the porch. The tree frogs thrummed even louder that night, because I saved them. You can’t save them all, the generals told him. But unless ye be saved, ye do not enter. How long must a snake soul wander, filling out its punishment? How long a soldier’s? Or a priest’s? On your belly shall ye crawl. Eat the dust of the earth. Lie here, ye snakes, ye ghosts, in the long shadow of my house, and cool yourselves. Bruise my ankle, bruise my heel. I can’t control your lives here now.
I dream at night of falling, like he did. The soldier’s voices called and called him till he struggled out of bed and fell. I dream I’m standing on the third floor of this house, outside the attic, and I plummet through the spirals of thin air down to the boards. Past the beams exposed like bones where plaster flakes away, past cracks like veins. I stand upon this height and swoon. I’ll lie where he did, where the dying men clawed grooves into the wood, where the prayers twined up into the air, where the other women cried. The blood below me marks the place. Their voices beat the air around my ears, but still I wait for his. How long, O Lord, how long?
I wait. I wait. Wise virgin with the lamp, in readiness. The Lady with the Lamp, Crimean, at Antietam, Ypres, and Waterloo. In Korea and Da Nang and in the field below this house. He always told me to bury him there, with the men. His wheelchair leans against the attic wall next to what’s left of other lives, great trunks and yellowed books swollen with the thickness off the air, plantation ledgers bound in faded green. Handprints sweated onto the cover, still. His hands I clutched. They slipped from me. There’s Matthew Arnold, Dante. Armies on a darkling plain. Swept by pity and confusion. Tennyson abandoned next to Dickens. Come into the garden, Maud. The black bat, night, has flown. Bats tuck into the eaves each morning now and whirl against the sky like cindered paper from a flame. Burning. I should burn it all.
Their blood still soaks the floor. His chest was flat as theirs against the covers, his eyes the same cracked blue. Go away, old woman. I don’t know you. I hired a colored boy to carry him up and down the stairs and call him sergeant once again. My son. My son, he said. Are you in pain? Maybe he got lost. Confused. Maybe he tripped and fell upon his legs that got him just so far, upon the bones hollowed by the years of praying in wars, and wars, and wars. His body just unbalanced him, into the air.
I’m an educated woman. I can live here by myself. Why don’t you write a local history, he said. Some verse. This house is full of stories. He put a big desk on the second floor for me. Sometimes I sit there still. I write my name in script across the page, my grandmother’s name, Fidelis, nothing else. It’s Latin. No one can pronounce it. It will confuse the soldiers calling to my husband, and to me. They aren’t the classics-tutored planters’ sons but poor boys, possum-hunters, from the woods. Dulce et decorum est. They plead with me for letters they can’t read. They beg me, now, to come, like him, to comfort them, but I don’t listen. I run from them, up and down the back stairs, in and out the burned wing and the whole one and through the butler’s pantry and the kitchen. Dashing, darting like a girl. I bang the fly-clogged screen to frighten them. I’ll run until I hear that voice. For which I wait.
I ring the old iron bell on its fencepost in the yard and eventually somebody splashes up the driveway, all mud this rainy spring. Past my mailbox with my house’s name and date, the sign they gave me when this house was recognized. Miss Fiddy, how you been, Miss Fiddy? Hummingbirds flirt in the hibiscus. In the field below the house, grass blows. The long hair of graves. Of battle. Thought I’d see about you. They say sometimes they knew my husband at Fort Benning or Fort Bragg. I’ve no idea who they are. I’m fine, I tell them. Pray for me when you think of it. West Alabama is no kind of place. Nobody came to stop his fall.
On the porch, I sit. The soldiers don’t come here, nor does my husband, never past the bloodstains in the hall. Over me the ceiling curves, the timbers soaked and bent by hand for just that line, as graceful as a waist awaits a young man’s arm. The ironwork was forged in Selma and crumbles now to orange powder in my hands. Broken curlicues rust in the grass. Fifty slaves, five years it took to build this house. The plaque they gave me doesn’t mention that. Built 1854, it says. It says there was a battle with no name, down in the field. It doesn’t name the women stepping over bodies in the halls, the sodden mulch of arms and legs beside the door, or the man just like my husband gripping dying hands until he cries. Dear God, Dear God. You have to write things down to know them: without its label, his splinter of the Cross could just have come from under someone’s fingernail. The boys still long for it. They whisper to me, let me hold it, ma’am, please bring it over here. Tell my mama where I died? This house won’t live past me. I’ll burn it down, and with it everything he left.
This house was built to gather, to direct. In thunderstorms, I open doors and windows on the first floor, then I scurry, girl-quick, faster than the boys can call, up to the attic and I open windows there. At the bottom of the stairs I stand and feel the draft whirl over me and up the stairs like smoke. The voices fly up, helpless. As they pass, they lift my hair a little at the ends, like lightning. The whole house shudders. It would burn at once, he said, if lightning struck. The rain sighs. Fill me, say the ditches and the empty barrels in the yard. Wash me, cry the trees, their silver-bellied leaves upturned like hands. This day shall ye be whiter than snow. This day, you’ll be with me in Paradise. Someday, he’ll call. I’ll go.
In the double parlor, pocket doors flung wide, I walk. Marble mantelpieces chill my hands. I can sleep anywhere. No one room on these three floors is mine. In the walls, the fissures bloom and branch, like trees, the voices rustle and insist. I am Fidelis. I can wait.