Authors: Kathy Hepinstall
Copyright © 2015 by Kathy Hepinstall, Elizabeth L. Hepinstall Hilliker
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.
To our brother and sister, Randy and Margie
Libby waited for her dead husband in the woods, her breath making clouds in the cold night air. Her hair was cut short above her ears, and her neck was cold. Her wool uniform itched. She had not slept in two days. She leaned against a bay tree as the fog moved through the woods. She closed her eyes and began to drift. She heard the crackle of a footstep and opened her eyes. The fog cleared and Arden stood in front of her, pale and somber, the red stain of his stomach wound still fresh and spreading out across his gray jacket.
She was exhausted from the march, and the sight of him no longer caused the shock and dread of the earlier encounters. She had resolved that there must be a realm, when the fractions of night and fog reached some magical equation, where the living and the dead could coexist. Arden, though, had grown increasingly moody and demanding.
“How many have you killed?” he asked.
Her fingers shook as she counted them. She had known the answer at noon but had forgotten it with the coming of dusk.
“I’m trying, Arden.” She looked at the blood spreading over his shirt.
“And your sister. How many has she killed?”
“I don’t know.”
He leaned in close.
“You’re a liar. You do know. And you know who else she killed, don’t you?”
They were sisters, the pretty one and the one who lived in her shadow, a pale, chip-toothed, uncertain girl who made too much noise while eating celery. They lived on the outskirts of Winchester, in a house owned by their father, a dentist by trade. The fields behind their property grew wild with evening primrose and goldenrod. Near the cornfield on the east side of their property stood an apple orchard, and it was here that golden Libby and chipped-toothed Josephine, Libby’s elder by a year, made their sanctuary, taking refuge from everything: the yelps of children during tooth extractions, the peskiness of a little brother, the swift, severe gaze of a mother, general pangs, harsh sunlight, and chores.
The other children in town courted the affections of Libby, but she preferred the sweet mixture of orchard and sister, all that shade and adoration.
When Josephine was thirteen, a shadow trespassed on that filtered light. The family next door had moved from a small town near Fredericksburg called Shiloh, a young couple with three sons. The oldest was named Arden. He came strutting into the yard on a warm spring day, when the leaves in the orchard were curling tendrils, and the shadows hung dark, waiting for May to darken them into the black of an Angus bull. He wore a pair of corduroys and a shirt with a Western design; his hair was almost as light as Libby’s and his face just as angular. His eyes gave off different inferences that depended on the angle of approach. Libby saw wildness and sweetness and a deep capacity for sorrow. Josephine saw arrogance and entitlement and a lack of respect for elder sisters.
Soon Arden’s feet were swinging from the branches, and the quality of conversation was forced into a different season, one that incorporated boys. Now Indian talk pierced the orchard, fishing lore, legends, and brutal accounts of cats killing birds. Pirate stories and secret caves, the challenge of breaking a colt. Even the drifting scent changed from the faint lavender of girls to the sweat of a hot boy. Something was unnatural here, like a tree that fruits before it blooms. Josephine was gently elbowed out of the shade until she no longer entered the orchard at all but lurked at the perimeter.
She didn’t understand how to be alone. She felt insubstantial, impermanent as silence in a room full of women. There was some kind of secret to making friends, and, denied this, she began to spend her time in her father’s office. Children cried and teeth flew.
“Hand me the laudanum,” her father said.
She watched him pour the opiate onto a spoon to numb a patient’s pain. She imagined the bottle held to her own lips, pain declining, pleasure growing. The sweetness of a watermelon, the dreaminess of a summer afternoon, the cool water of a fishing hole, the softness of ferns.
Hostility toward the whole led to belligerence about the parts. His laugh. His haircut. The shape of his arms. The blue of his eyes. The way his pretty face resembled Libby’s.
“You spend so much time with him,” she complained to Libby. “How about me? I thought I was your best friend.”
“Don’t be silly. You can sit in the orchard with us anytime.”
“That was our orchard!”
“Oh, Josephine. Orchards belong to everyone.”
When Libby and Arden weren’t in the orchard, they would disappear into the woods and stay gone for hours, returning with new secrets, certain stories exchanged, pebbles gathered, sparrow eggs rescued, snakes slain. The sight of the interloper drove Josephine to distraction. She had nightmares in which he fell from the branch of a tree or from the top of their house, grasping her sister’s hand and pulling her down with him.
A year had passed. Autumn had arrived. The apples were heavy in the orchard, weighing down the limbs. Flowering weeds turned colors or withdrew their blooms. The sky was white in places, sweet blue in others.
Libby’s illness began as a weariness, a desire for naps. Quickly it grew a fever, then chills. The orchard sat empty. Libby lay in a dim room, her face flushed and skin perspiring. Arden visited her at first, but when she grew worse, he could not look at her without bursting into tears, and Mrs. Beale sent him away.
“Get ahold of yourself, son. You aren’t helping matters.”
Despite the protestations of her mother, it was Josephine who took over, fetching teas and applying poultices, whispering, singing, telling her own tales, finally. She wiped down the floors with lavender water so that Libby could awaken to the fragrance of flowers. She brewed tea, heated soup on the fire in the kitchen. Her nursing skills defined her, made her whole again.
A framed tintype sat on the night table. Two little girls stared out from it, one with golden hair and the other with bright eyes and a contented smile. Their father had taken them down to the studio at the Taylor Hotel as a birthday present for Josephine a few years earlier. She couldn’t help staring at it now and remembering those days when Libby was healthy and belonged to her.
They would speak to each other, sister to sister, Libby’s voice dreamy and hot, a breeze coming through the open window, a pail of water on the nightstand, a gingham cloth dripping water on the floor.
“Hold still,” Josephine said, as she applied the compress.
No sign of Arden, whom their mother would not let back in the house.
Apples fell, too ripe now for eating. One day the chickens got loose and spent the day in the orchard, eating the bruised flesh. Crows came to that harvest, as did raccoons and deer.
The corn had ripened. Stephen, the lazy younger brother, was supposed to have gathered the ears but spent his time chasing an elusive bullfrog down a winding creek, coming back with his pants wet up to the waist. He slogged into Libby’s room, dripping water on the floor and corrupting the sweet air with the sweaty odor of his body.
“Get out,” Josephine said.
“She’s my sister, too.”
“You’re smelly. That can’t be good for her.”
Whispers from their parents’ room.
“She’s not getting any better,” said their mother.
“I don’t know what to do. I’m a dentist, for God’s sakes. And that crazy old doctor hasn’t helped a bit.”
“There are better doctors in Richmond . . .”
“Richmond? How can she possibly make that trip?”
Fever moved through Libby’s body. She shook with chills and soaked her sheets with perspiration. Symptoms in opposition and growing further apart, like the views of the North and South. She mumbled things that made no sense. The old doctor came again and stood by her bedside and saw the bad news like everyone else. When he put on his stethoscope, one knob fell out of his big ear and he didn’t seem to notice. He pressed the metal disk against a vein throbbing in her neck.
As if prodded by the shaking hands of the doctor and the look on his face, Josephine’s father went to town and returned with a pine coffin. He didn’t sneak it in at night but dragged it purposefully off his wagon, across the yard, and into an old shed at the far end of the property. Josephine opened the window of Libby’s room and watched him. The coffin made a rushing sound in the dry grass, thumping occasionally against a rock or a rake Stephen had left in the yard. Dogs ran up and sniffed it before they sidled away. Dr. Beale walked with a stiff and singular purpose, dragging the coffin right through the herb garden and between the stables. The horses poked their heads out and watched him disappear into the shed.
Mrs. Beale came into the room but didn’t look out the window or at Libby. She searched the room for something neutral, settling on a silver tea strainer that drained brown liquid on a china saucer.
“She’s not going to die,” Josephine said. “I won’t let her. Remember that dog with the infected leg? No one expected him to live, either. But I saved him.”
Josephine had always thought of God as a vague fog that lived in the sky, someone who never bothered her and whose music was sweet. An insubstantial being that seemed to vanish when studied closely. But now she had no choice but to tremble and believe. The room was full of fever now, reeking like tidewater in which plants have died, and no amount of lavender could bury the smell. Libby’s dreams grew frantic. She called out sometimes. She saw things in the room that did not include her family.
Josephine summoned her quiescent faith, which had not been visited since the days of the infected dog. She apologized for the long delay and prayed a desperate prayer that would have been high-pitched had it been spoken out loud. The wood planks of the floor hurt her knees. One shin pressed against the metal slats of the gravity vent; she felt a draft as her lips formed the words. The wool blanket that covered Libby’s bed scratched Josephine’s elbows. She finished the prayer and began it again, finished and began, wearing a groove down God’s patience, no doubt, but the thought of life without Libby was less imaginable than even the hereafter. Josephine started again. She heard her mother’s footsteps when she entered the room, and her sigh, and the sniff of hushed weeping. Her mother sat down on the bed, jostling Josephine’s elbows.
No one knew the exact hour of the fever’s breaking. It happened sometime during the night. Libby woke up that morning mumbling. By afternoon she whispered things that made sense. She had lost weight; her face was gaunt, filled with sickbed shadows. Josephine held her hand.
The old doctor came in and shook his head. “She’s better,” he announced, as though it weren’t obvious. “There’s no medical explanation. These are the ways of God.”
His breath smelled of absinthe. He gathered his bag and left the room, his back stooping.
“I had such beautiful dreams,” Libby said. “It felt as though years had passed.”
“No. You’ve been sick about a week. I’ve been here the whole time. I even slept in here.”
Josephine stiffened. “I don’t know where he’s been.”
By early evening, Arden had heard the good news. He pulled a chair up to Libby’s bed and played cards with her. “I thought I had lost you,” he said. “I couldn’t stand it. I haven’t eaten in two days.”