“What happened to your buttons, boy?” Rod asked. “Were you obliged to sell them for food?” He also sat, and crossed one leg over the other.
“Naw. Some fat Yankee sergeant down the road a ways cut them off me. Said I was in uniform and didn’t have the right.”
“That’s where you got the cuts and bruises and the mud, Carl?” his mother asked.
“I reckon, but they didn’t hurt me none.” He eased his rib cage from side to side to be sure.
Rod slapped his thigh in anger. “Yankees,” he spit out.
Carl looked up, feeling a similar heat. “They ain’t mannerly, that’s for sure, but I came out lucky anyhow. Didn’t lose nothing but my buttons. I hid my horse back in the willows along the creek, and they were too drunk to spot him, so they missed the rifle I snuck off the Yankee weapon pile after I got my parole.”
“Drunk, you say? That sounds like the same Yankee bunch that’s been back and forth through this part of the Valley, teasing and tormenting the folks.”
“Could be them.” Carl shrugged, then looked around the room once more. “Ma, where’s Marie and the little girl? Ain’t they supposed to help you?”
Julia smiled. “Your little sister is nigh on to twelve years old, boy. We kept having birthdays while you were away. You’ve had a couple yourself. Ain’t you about nineteen now?”
“Closer to twenty, Ma. I ain’t a young’un no more.”
Julia looked at Carl’s bearded face. “I see you been over the mountain, son.” She paused to form a corn cake. “I sent the girls in to Mount Jackson to Rulon’s place. Mary’s not feeling well, and she’s got Rulon to tend to, so they’re helping out with young Roddy. You heard Rulon got hurt bad?”
“There’s also more food in town,” Rod explained. “Your ma has her wits scraped down to a nubbin to find us enough to eat since Sheridan paid his call.”
“Clay went in with the girls,” Julia added. “He’s got a job at the livery, so there’s just Pa and James and Albert to fix for.”
“And Benjamin,” Carl reminded her.
He watched his mother’s body stiffen, and saw his father take a protecting step toward her. Silence hung in the room like a curtain made of combed cotton fibers, thick and heavy and oppressive. Then Rod spoke, his words muffled and measured.
“Benjamin fell at Waynesboro. I had no way to get word home. Your ma only found out when I got here.”
The words bucked into Carl with the kick of a mule. He sagged on the stool and his head dropped against his hands. First, Peter had fallen at the Second Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run, as the Yankees called it. Then Rulon, the eldest, was sorely wounded in the siege of Petersburg last October. Now Benjamin was gone. Carl felt his ears ringing hollow, filling his skull with a soft buzzing.
He rose to his feet and faced his parents. “I’m powerful sorry,” he said, holding himself still. “Benjamin was always such a lucky cuss, full of life, and all. It don’t seem right he’d be gone.”
Carl bowed his head, took a deep breath, and began again. “Ma, I know he was your favorite son, and I don’t hold it against him. He was the favorite of everybody.”
He took a step toward his mother, watching her white, crumpling face. With another step he had her in his arms, patting her head and shoulders. “There, Ma, you cry. It’ll do you good.”
Rod’s arms went around the pair. “The boy talks sense, Julia. You ain’t cried since you got the news. Let the tears wash out the grief you been carrying around.” He continued gruffly, “I reckon I already done my sorrowing.”
The men waited, suspended, as Julia’s sobs tore the air. After a long time, she quieted, wiped the tears from her cheeks with her apron, and stepped out of the men’s arms. Her face was changed, resigned. “I reckon that’ll have to do for Benjamin, ‘cause the living need their daily bread.” She went back to the table, wiped her hands, and continued to fix supper.
How do you handle grief? In a situation such as Julia faced in losing her son, do you think--if you lived during the 19th Century--you would have acted differently than you would today?