William turned and looked into Evan’s open face. In that instant, he understood this boy had seen terrible things.
“My sister drowned one summer,” William said evenly. He didn’t mention that his parents had been destroyed by her death, or that his other sister had run away with a horse trader that very night. He didn’t say that Amy’s favorite dress had been blue. It was the dress she’d been buried in, nearly fifty years earlier.
“I think I saw her by the river.” Evan glanced up to see if Mr. Starr would laugh at him, but no, the old man merely shook his head.
“You’ve been through a war,” Will remarked, with more kindness than he imagined he could manage since his beloved son had been taken. “It will take a while before everything you’ve been through settles down inside you.”
“She wasn’t wearing any shoes,” Evan went on, hoping a further description might jog Mr. Starr’s memory.
Little Amy hadn’t been wearing shoes when she was found, nor when she was buried. Will’s mother had said that in the kingdom of heaven no one wore shoes. She’d made them open the coffin so she could unlace the pair of eelskin boots the women in town had fitted on her daughter when they’d dressed her. Will had glimpsed his sister’s pale face. He was terrified that her eyes would be open, but thankfully they were closed.
THE NEXT MORNING they went down to the river together, the old man who didn’t care whether he lived and the boy who thought he might already be dead. Since they’d probably have time to spare, they decided to bring their fishing poles. Trout were biting, and in a little over an hour they had both caught two rainbows. Ordinarily they would have spoken out about their good fortune, but not today. They sat on the riverbank and listened to the torrents of water go by. Once Evan thought he saw a flash of blue beyond the willow trees, but it was only a cornflower wavering on a thin green stalk. The next day they came again. Evan had dug worms from the old abandoned garden behind his house where there was red soil that was said to be lucky for fish but unlucky for love, not that he believed in such things. Will had his daughter-in-law fix a lunch for them to bring along. When Mattie Starr overheard what their mission was, and understood that it concerned a messenger from the world to come, her eyes brightened.
“We’ll sit there and nothing will happen,” her father-in-law assured her. “But at least we’ll have a good lunch.”
When Will Starr left to meet Evan at the river, Mattie took her children over to Mrs. Kelly’s house and asked if her neighbor would mind Glenna, who was only three, and little Will, who would soon be two. Mattie had a wild look in her eyes, and her tone was urgent. Mrs. Kelly agreed to watch the babies, even though she had plenty to care for in her own household, a brood of children and a plot of land to till with the help of a single mule. Mattie didn’t take note of Mrs. Kelly’s hesitation. She left Will and Glenna and ran off through the meadow in her husband’s old fishing boots. She felt light and oddly free, like the seedpods that were carried along in the mild breeze, floating over the fields in wispy gray threads. Mattie had taken to wearing her husband’s clothing and had lately been seen tramping through town in britches and Constant’s blue jacket. She wore his socks and his undergarments. She slept with the tintype image of Constant inside her nightdress. Sometimes she dreamed he was there with her. She could feel his long thin feet beside hers, his fingers in her hair, his breath on her skin. She woke in the throes of desire, and when she realized she was in the present time and not inside her dream, she didn’t want to leave her bed. Sometimes she stayed there until noon, and the children would have gone hungry if their grandfather had not moved in to help care for them.
Mattie hastened through the tall meadow grass, past the oldest apple tree in town, the one people said had long ago saved the population of Blackwell by stubbornly bearing fruit in the year when there was no summer. There was a cloud of white blossoms on the tree. Mattie wondered if there had been apple trees in Virginia when Constant had been there, if the snow had fallen in those meadows in the winter of his death, as it did in Blackwell, so very deep and quiet. She wondered if the soil was as red as it was in the oldest garden in their village, the one behind the Partridge house. Where blood has fallen, the ground aches but the fruit is sweet—that’s what the old women in town vowed. They thought it would bring her comfort to hear such nonsense, as if her loss could ever be sweetened. No wonder she had stopped talking to most people.
Mattie veered into the woods. There were wild gooseberries here. Just last summer she had brought the children with her to pick some for a pie for Constant’s supper. The night before he left she had begged him not to go, knowing as she did so that he wouldn’t listen to her pleas. It wasn’t like Constant to let the other men down. “It’s a war,” he told her, as if that would explain everything. “Oh, I don’t care,” she had answered fiercely. She had pleaded and sat on his lap and kissed him and offered herself to him; she said she would do anything to make him stay, but in the morning he still got up from their bed and packed his bag. He left while he thought she was sleeping. She let him think that. She refused to watch him go.