THE WIDOW RUSSELL'S BOY
ROBB T. WHITE
THE WIDOW RUSSELL'S BOY
ROBB T. WHITE
Emmaline watched him play alone in the dirt. His brothers and sisters were used to his silences. In the thoughtless ways of children, they left him to himself while he scratched marks in the dirt with a stick. Her “silent son,” her beloved Amiel.
Elias, her oldest, separated himself from the games of his siblings and took off to fish or hunt squirrel. He had the mannerisms of his father, that shrug, the sly smile. Josea named Amiel from a book in Davidson’s general store. “It has letters like yours,” he said.
“What are you writing, my boy?”
“A letter to F-father.”
“That’s nice,” Emmaline said. “Tell him we miss him.”
“H-he knows that.”
Sunday church was dreadful, the first since the accident. People cut their eyes away from her and the children in the pew. It hurt worse than those useless words of condolence.
Winter coming, November already. How would she survive with five young children, the baby still nursing? People struggled to feed themselves. When Mason Hardcastle and her brother-in-law came around to drop off firewood, they didn’t speak to her. Stephen’s hands had dried blood on them from the logs. It was the tree that killed Josea they’d brought her.
The first snow came before dawn. The wind was building to a prolonged wail. Their cabin was farthest out in the valley. Sometimes she saw smoke from the Rafferty's chimney when the wind blew from the west. Her canning was done, however, and the crops had been good. They might not have anything else to eat until spring. It made her proud to know Ely had woken in the blue-black cold to fetch wood.
Tragedy followed the Russell men. Josea’s father was hit in the head by a horse he was shoeing and was never right afterward. Stephen’s own wife had drowned in Barrow’s Creek last winter. Josea found her. Stephen had come to the cabin wild-eyed, yelling for his brother. They’d ridden off in a bitter wind to look for her. She’d gone for water, Stephen said. Her footprints were filled with new snow, two pairs of tracks leading down to the creek.
“She slipped and fell in,” Josea told her. She remembered rubbing his hands to warm them.
For days afterward, it bothered them both Stephen had allowed his pregnant wife to go off alone, the baby due any day. Hill women were tough as shoe leather, but Rebecca had traveled from Binghamton in New York State to marry Stephen. She was unhappy out here in the wilderness surrounded by hills. “The sun goes down behind the hills so fast,” she said to Emmaline at a sewing bee. “It frightens me so, the dark.”
Amiel responded to her, although he ignored most adults. Even Josea had a hard time getting through to him. She had never blamed him for favoring Elias.
That night, she heard her husband’s voice in the cabin. The pang of anguish she felt made her sit bolt upright, throw off the covers, waking up the baby beside her. She gently moved around the infant and stood still holding her breath. Her children lay in a single row beneath the heavy lumps of wool blankets like angels asleep. The memory of Josea’s words flooded her with sorrow. This was their only time for love-making when the children were asleep. Her heart thumped with the recollection of their urgency beneath the covers.
“Emmaline, my love . . .”
The voice was his. Her legs buckled, she tumbled to the floor.
When she came to, Amiel was stroking her cheek, patting her hand.
“Momma, wake! Wake up!”
“I’m awake, Amiel,” she said. “I must have slipped getting out of bed.”
She made them breakfast and dressed her youngest girl, Maddy. The baby was colicky and needed to nurse.
“I’m goin’ huntin’,” Elias said. He was already dressed, waiting for first light.
A silent communication passed between mother and son: he needed to replace his father as provider.
“Take some honey biscuits with you,” she said.
Ely returned hours later with a pair of rabbits slung over his shoulder. His proud smile faded when he saw the deer hanging from the limb where his father field-dressed his kills.
He dropped the rabbits at her feet. “Who brought it?”
“Uncle Stephen,” she told him.
Ely looked at the ruby drops in the snow and snorted. “She’s an old doe,” he said, unimpressed.
It was how Josea would have said it, meaning the animal had spent her summer burning herself out to produce milk to nurse fawns. The meat would be lean, tough.
Amiel barely ate that night. He wouldn’t look at her when she spoke to him. She added a blessing to Stephen before the meal “for his kindness in remembering us in our plight.”
“What’s a plight?” Mary asked.
“It means sorrow,” she replied, unsure. The word was common among the family prayers she’d grown up with. Her oldest brother Jacob lived in Kentucky and possessed the family bible. He was the only one of thirteen siblings able to read.
At bedtime, she told the children one of her grandmother’s stories, the one Amiel liked about the Indian chief Cornstalk tricked into coming to the fort for a powwow with the settlers. He and his son were ambushed by the river and their bodies thrown into the river. He cursed the town before he died. The following spring, crops failed, cattle died, and the icy river flooded the whole town. The people gathered in one building for safety, but when a wall collapsed, they all drowned.
When she finished, Amiel wouldn’t lie back under the covers with the others. Firelight danced in his eyes from the dying embers. He looked so fierce. The window was rimmed with frost and her breath steamed from the iron cold seeping through every gap in the timber. She went back to her bed to nurse the baby.
She heard a voice like the night before—a woman’s—coming from outside. She could barely move her legs to sit up. The window was frosted with crystals and droplets.
Wind howled, and a voice cried out: Who cooks for you . . . Who cooks for yooouuu.
A barred owl’s familiar call, she realized. Her hand touched the pillow behind her; it was sopping wet. She must be feverish. She didn’t remember falling back to sleep but there were more voices, louder: groans in the dark.
Not an owl now. Her children—her babies crying to her from the dark.
She must get up. She was too weak. Her arms and legs had gone numb. Her face burned as if fiery rags had been rubbed over it. Her stomach heaved, gurgled. Oh, shame. . . Her bowels voided, sopping the bed. Her exhausted body refused to move a muscle. She lay back in her filthy nightdress and prayed. A whirling black vortex, like a swirl of black chimney smoke, floated toward her. Merciful God, she prayed, save us.
Images, burned smells of cooking, bright colors shifted before her eyes like the tube Josea wanted to buy at the general store for the children. He held it to her eyes. “Look how shapes come when you twist it,” he said.
Then she was moving through the cold and dark, floating.
When she woke, she recognized the cabin—Stephen’s. How did she get here? Where were her children?
A witch’s face with periwinkle blues eyes surrounded by a thousand wrinkles leaned over her.
Shalersville folk called her Grandma Kinsolving. She lived alone on Byers Mountain. A witch, they said, who made potions, cast spells, and could summon spirits.
Stephen’s face loomed over her shoulder. His black beard meshed with the wisps of white hair from the old woman’s crown like unspooled yarn; her scalp glowed pink beneath her white hair.
“Your babies is dead,” the old woman said. “Spoilt meat kilt them all ‘cept you and one child.”
Emmaline thrashed but Stephen pinned her arms.
“Them’s all dead now,” the woman crooned from gaps in her mouth, “at peace with their father ‘cept for that one there, the boy who talks to the dead.”
“Quiet, old woman,” Stephen said.
“You need me now, more’n you think, Stephen Russell. That one, he ain’t teched in the head neither. He knows how to bring forth the spirits.”
“Take your money and get out, witch.”
“He’s come to collect on you, Stephen Russell, for what you done to his family.”
“Get out!” Stephen repeated.
Through blinding, salty tears, Emmaline saw Amiel looking at her from the fireplace, his face twisted with grief. She wanted to call to him. Her throat swollen, it felt like swallowing knives. The black swirl came for her again and she slipped into it, wrapped tight.
Her eyes opened and stayed open, finally: darkness. She knew where she was. Stephen rocked by the fire with his back to her, his face half-lit by flickering yellow tongues.
“Mine now.” He wasn’t speaking to her.
The words croaked out of her throat, jolting Stephen from his reverie.
“He run off, sweetheart,” Stephen said, coming to her side and grabbing her hand beneath the covers.
Sweetheart. That word in his corrupt mouth sickened her. She had to get out, find her boy, run from this wolf, this monster--
His hand with black curly hairs to the nail plate of his fingers revolted her. Stephen stroked her face, his hand moving down, fumbling beneath the covers to encircle her breast. Her body tensed with disgust.
“Don’t fight me, Emmie,” he whispered. “I’m going to take care of you.”
He kissed her forehead.
She forced fear out of her voice. “Find my only son.”
“I’ll get him.”
He lifted the rifle from the gun rack.
She knew, too. It took a long time to get out of bed and longer to stand without falling. She found a bucket of water and washed herself. Her clothes were folded in a drawer. The walk outside in moonlight seemed more dream than real. Her feet in Stephen’s shoes stumbled over the rocky ground to the tack barn.
She gripped the pommel and swung the saddle over the brood mare and led her outside to the tree stump where she mounted. She was sweating but felt stronger. Near Rafferty’s farm, she saw the glow above the tree line: her home on fire. She kicked the horse’s flanks for a burst of speed that nearly flung her off.
A raging fire bloomed from every corner of the cabin; thick smoke roiled beneath the eaves of the loft like black waves. Stephen, trapped inside, tried to climb through the open window, but the frame pinned his sides. His hands were red claws where glass had shredded flesh. She slid from the horse and staggered toward the fire—only the thought of saving Amiel giving her strength.
Stephen’s screams soared above the crackling fire. Framed by the open window, he swatted sparks from his hair and beard. She fell to her knees sobbing, calling Amiel’s name.
“Mother, over here.”
Emmaline picked herself up from the dirt. Amiel stepped from behind the red maple, Josea’s tree, the one he’d chosen where they would build. Amiel was safe. Another face appeared over his shoulder for an instant—Rebecca’s. No, it can’t be. . .
Stephen’s howls ceased. The cabin burned to the ground while she held Amiel tight.
“Father says Stephen hit him with an axe when his back was turned. He says we’ll be fine.”
Amiel’s boyish voice was a whisper. She didn’t answer. Her eyes were fixed on the maple, expectant yet terrified Josea would step from behind it.
At dawn, people came riding out. The children were buried in Shalersville Cemetery. The Widow Russell refused to allow them bury Stephen’s body near them. The door was scorched but in one piece. No bolts or locks were found.
“He coulda walked right out,” the sheriff exclaimed.
Robb T. White lives in Northeastern Ohio and writes crime, noir, horror, and mainstream stories. Since 2011, he has published 5 crime/noir novels. Special Collections won the New Rivers eBook Competition in 2014. His latest works are a collection of hardboiled stories featuring women characters or narrators and another crime novel: Perfect Killer (Crowood Press, 2018).