As a Virginian, especially, it would have been hard to decide. :P But anyway, enjoy My Pale Rose Trembling and tell me what you think of it. :)
“My Pale Rose Trembling”
By Rachel Heffington
“It’s all right, Jess. You can go…I won’t be afraid.”
She never lifted her eyes from the wee white rose in her hands, but I knew what those words cost sweet Ava Chisholm.
I set my shoulders and cleared my throat a time or two just to be sure my voice would come out as clear and manly as I wished it to. “Come now, Ava. I’m only goin’ as moral support for the other soldiers. We’ll clear them Yanks outta’ Virginia before you have a chance to miss me.”
Ava raised her proud little head and replied, with the look of reproachful affection she aired every time I vexed her purposely, “I’m already missin’ you, Jesse Hamilton.” Her red lips quivered like when the wind passes over a cornfield, but her eyes, those startling eyes blue as bachelor’s buttons, were full to overflowing with courageous tenderness.
I laughed, to show my Ava I wasn’t the least bit scared myself, and stamped a time or two to hear my new spurs clank.
I held out both my hands. “Aren’t you going to kiss me goodbye?”
Ava turned red right up to the roots of her hair, but she tip-toed to brush my rough cheek with her lips, since I asked. We’d agreed to save our first real kiss for the moment we were pronounced man and wife, but Ava gave her little pecks with her womanly heart on her lips, and I teased them from her often as I dared.
“I hear the boys comin’ for me, Ava-girl.”
She turned into a windmill at the words, arms flying as she checked my satchel and made sure I looked “all right.” “You will be careful and you won’t take any risks, Jesse?”
She made me dizzy flying around so. I stopped her and put my hands on her shoulders. “War’s a risky business, Ava, and you know I wouldn’t go if it wasn’t my duty. But I swear I won’t light matches near the gun-powder kegs or put on my boots before shakin’ them to make sure no snakes are curled up inside.”
“Oh, Jesse!” Ava tore herself away from me and crossed her arms. “I hadn’t thought of snakes!”
“Now, now, little woman. I didn’t mean to get you any more riled than you are.”
“It’s no use, Jesse. You’d better get goin’ before I change my mind and make you stay right here.”
I laughed at the picture of Ava making me do anything. She was a sturdy girl, used to farm-work, but I was a regular John Ridd, six-foot-six in my sock feet, and I had to stoop to get through the door.
A gunshot from a nearby field echoed through the still summer air outside the window. We both flinched, and I could guess the thoughts in Ava’s mind--they were running through my own. Pretty soon I’d be the one shooting on a still summer morning. And I wouldn’t be aiming at any rabbits or deer. I shivered, though it was as humid and hot a day as any that July.
Ava drew near and put a hand up to my cheek. “God be with you, Jesse Hamilton.”
I couldn’t bear to see the tears in her eyes, so I pulled her close and hugged her as tight as I dared without fear of hurting her. “And God be with you, Ava-girl.” I put the little white rose in her hair, but I knew it was no use delaying my departure further. The longer I stood in Ava’s parlor, watching her sweet face, the more I wished I was doing anything but enlisting in the army.
I shouldered my pack and stepped out into the bright sunlight. It hurt my eyes and made them sting after the cool shade of the house, but at least I had an excuse for the suspicious water in my eyes. I strode to the old pecan tree where I’d first seen Ava Chisholm. She’d been serving out lunch to the threshers, me among them. I’d asked for seconds, and complimented her cooking, and she’d laughed and told me to move along.
The memory brought a lump to my throat as I thought of how her heart now begged me to do the opposite. She had said “go”, but I knew that her heart, that faithful little heart beating under the calico-clad breast, pleaded with me to stay as sure as I knew my own heart wanted to fly back and never leave her side.
I couldn’t resist taking one last peek at my sweetheart. There she stood in the doorframe, like a pale rose trembling, but a brave smile shone between the glistening tears streaming down her face.
She raised an arm to wave goodbye. “Don’t you forget to carry a handkerchief, and do check for snakes!”
I made my best military bow, clicking my heels and all as I’d seen the Colonel do to the ladies in Richmond. “Take care of yourself, little woman.”
* * * * * *
That picture of Ava in the doorframe came to mind again and again in the next few weeks. Camp life was hard. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the other men had a’ all been from our county. Then we could’ve swapped stories about home, and talked of our sweethearts, the crops, the weather…but all the boys from my town had been scattered to different regiments. I guess there weren’t enough of us to make our own band of Johnny Rebs.
I found myself living in a camp full of taciturn, dirty men. I don’t mean ordinarily dirty—I liked nothing better myself than to come home from a hard day’s work covered in grime.
But these men lived in their filth. And they had dirty character. They laughed over the lewdest of jokes, they spoke with disrespect of their superiors, their families, and even each other.
I soon learned that anything I didn’t want filched, I had to sleep on top of. Even my confederacy-issued gun wasn’t safe. I got to where I could sleep with one eye open, or almost so.
The commanding officers spent their days drilling the men and drinking. I finally got into the rhythm of camp-life. We’d rise, eat a meal of flap-jacks or hard-tack, and begin drilling. It was the one saving grace. I’d enlisted to be a good soldier, and Captain Havilland was a strict officer during drill-sessions.
I got in the habit of talking to Ava in my mind while I drilled. I’d never known a person could be such good company, even when they were a hundred miles away, but somehow the loneliness of the camp faded away after I had talked things over with Ava.
“I’d hate for you to see these things, Ava. It ain’t right that men should act so. I mayn’t be clever, but I can see that. Seems to me the Lord didn’t make us to feed our selfish impulses. He made us to work with our hands and delight in it.”
And I’d imagine Ava’s confiding expression, and the way she had of letting a smile hover on her lips when she was especially thoughtful.
After three weeks I figured it was time I made a friend. I knew Ava thought so too, sure as if she’d told me so.
I sat outside my tent and chewed on who to speak to first. There was that red-headed private, George McClooney. He seemed a decent enough fellow, though he did swear like a judge in court.
Next time I saw him at the mess tent, I spoke up. “How’s it goin’, George?”
I coulda’ slapped myself for the awkward speech I’d just made. Ava could have told me what to say, but she wasn’t there, of course.
George McClooney eyed me over as if asking what it was I wanted from him, and how much he’d lose by it. At last, seeing that I had no designs, he made a noise, something between a grunt and a growl, and motioned to a fire nearby. I followed with my tin plate and seated myself on the ground beside him.
He stared at me for a full five minutes, harpooning his flapjacks with his knife and stuffing them in his mouth. “So you’re the preacher boy?” George said at last.
I felt my color rising. “…Preacher boy?”
“Y’don’t drink, y’don’t gamble, y’don’t cuss, and y’read your Bible like a reg’lar chaplin. What’re we s’posed t’think?”
I didn’t know what to think myself. I suddenly wished Ava was here so I could at least feel the gentle pressure of her trusting eyes on me. “George, I’m no better than th’rest of you, least-wise in God’s eyes.”
He grunted and took a swig of his coffee. I cleared my throat and shifted my plate from one hand to the other. “Listen, I’m lonely as a brood-mare with her colt just sold out from under her. Cain’t we at least be neighborly?”
He removed the mug from his mouth and stared at me, as if uncertain as to whether I was in possession of my wits or not.
“A man ain’t got no call t’be lonely, ‘less he’s used t’bein with his gal ever’ other minute. C’mon man, let’s see her picture.” A vague curling of George McClooney’s lip seemed to indicate a smile.
I reached into my breast-pocket and pulled out the little brass picture-case. I undid the clasp, and opened it up. Red velvet covered the inside, and surrounded a miniature of my Ava. She wore the blue cotton dress that made her look pretty as a speckled pup, and her hair was pulled back loose enough to let the waves in it ripple like the James River when the wind rises.
Ava always reminded me of the song,
“She looked so sweet from her two bare feet
To the sheen of her nut-brown hair…”
George McClooney let loose a low whistle and shook his head as I handed the picture to him. “See why ye’re lonely, Hamilton. She looks like a mighty sweet gal.”
“You bet.” And pride for my Ava like I scarce felt before, even in my happiest moments, swelled my chest till I felt fair to bursting. Then I thought it wasn’t quite neighborly to talk only of your own affairs, so I ventured a question. “You got any family?”
“Wife. Son. Disappointment. Runned off at fifteen and never seed ‘im again.” George McClooney spit a stream of tobacco juice sizzling into the fire.
I could take a hint, and I left the fireside wondering if I’d made a friend or a foe. “What do you think, Ava?”
After awhile I decided she thought I’d made a friend, though he wasn’t much to speak of.
* * * * *
Till I’d been in the army a month, we hadn’t seen anything more alarming than a few blue-coated Yanks crossing the river up north of us. Guess they’d been sneaking around up in Richmond.
It wasn’t till the fifth or sixth week I’d been in my regiment that we were called into battle. It happened this way.
A messenger came skittering in on his pie-bald horse up toward evening one day. His nag was skinny anyway, but it was purely frightening how his sides shrunk in with each breath and how the foam fell off in clumps when the messenger slid off his back. All of use men gathered around discussing what the man had come for. Some thought the Yanks were just across the river and going to march on us.
Others, George McClooney among them, said they’d heard our army needed reinforcements up near Charlottesville, and we’d be movin’ out tonight.
I didn’t know who to believe, and I thought it’d just be simpler to wait and hear the truth. We didn’t have long to wait. The Captain stalked out of the tent, his eyes already bright with liquor.
“Men, we’ve got a battle on our handsh. We are moving out tonight. We must go in shilensh, or elsh the nemeny will hear ush.”
I blushed for the disgrace of the drunken Captain. One of his aides took him by the arm and pulled him back inside the tent.
The over-heated courier stood by for a moment, slugging down a mug of water.
We loitered near the tent, awaiting orders. At last, one of the other officers came out.
He held up his arm for silence, then grinned. “Men, we are moving out. We’ll be making the Yankees’ blue blood run red in the morning. “
Many of the men cheered. I felt sick to my stomach. It wasn’t the killing that bothered me. Sometimes I man’s got to do things he hates in order to do what’s right.
It was the barbaric delight the men displayed that knotted my insides as if they were made of barbed wire. I’d never fought a war before, but I was a man, and I knew that it was a thing to be taken seriously. Here these men were, whooping and hollering about a chance to kill as we were celebrating Independence Day or going for a country picnic.
I turned away to pack my things, feeling lower than a hound dog. If only I had stayed home, married Ava, and took up farming. I would never be going into battle, facing the sights I so dreaded.
But the picture of my girl in the doorway, my pale rose trembling, revived the spark of patriotism nearly extinguished by homesickness. I recalled why I was fighting. To preserve our way of life. To keep things the way they were, and had been for as long as anyone could remember. I wasn’t a great politician. I didn’t know all the whys and wherefores of this Great War. I didn’t even know why they called it the Great War. I saw nothing but misery and terror. But I knew that I was a Virginian. I knew that I was Southern born and bred, and I could not fight against my kin, my neighbors, and my friends. I couldn’t fight against Ava anymore than I could fight against my own body.
With renewed energy I rolled up my sack, cleaned my gun, and got in line behind the slowly forming group of men.
We marched all that night until the East was streaked with white. Then the Captain, a bit soberer than he had been previously, informed us that we could sleep for an hour. The enemy was still a few miles off.
I laid down in the cool meadow-grass, burying my face in its familiar scent, but sleep would not come. I rolled over and took out my Bible, flipping to a well-worn page.
“He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High
Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I shall say of the Lord, He is my Refuge and my Fortress;
My God, in Him I shall trust…
A thousand may fall at your side, ten-thousand at your right hand
But it shall not come near you. Only with your eyes shall you look
And see the reward of the wicked.
For you have made Him, even the Most High your dwelling place.”
A peace stole over my heart, even as I watched the sun crawl higher above the tree-tops. A few moments and the call to arms would come.
George McClooney’s red head and beard poked over my shoulder. “What’s ‘at yer readin’, Preacher Boy?”
“A Psalm.” I read the passage aloud to him and strange to say, he didn’t grunt or spit tobacco juice or do anything but stare into the distance.
At last, he spoke. “Only with yer eyes shall y’see the reward of the wicked? I’d like that.”
I coughed, and stared hard at the horizon too, so George McClooney wouldn’t think I was listening. But I had to say something. “All y’have to do is dwell in the secret place of the Most High, George.”
I would have pursued the conversation further, but the drums began rat-a-tatting and my blood quickened. This was the moment. We were being called to arms. At once the mood in the camp changed. Men sprung to life and horses whinnied. Officers barked orders and the drummers rattled away.
Then a silence, deeper than the darkest night, descended on our camp. Through the meadow between us and the enemy, was an invisible line. We felt it, and we knew that any moment battle would begin in earnest. All it would take was one shot fired, one life taken, and all hell would break loose.
It seemed like swearing to say so, but I meant it with all my heart. There was nothing glorious, nothing beautiful in battle. In this world it was a necessary measure at times, but it was pitiful and downright frightening.
I clutched my gun and checked it to see I’d loaded it right. My cartridge belt was slung around my waist just the way I liked it. Despite the pains of anticipation my head was clear and focused. I guess I was as ready as I’d ever be.
The silence in the meadow continued. White patches of fog rolled up from the long grasses and scarved the trees on the other side so we could hardly see them. “Ava-girl, pray for me,” I whispered. And I prayed for myself, repeating the words of the psalm as if my life depended on them. And so it did, in a way. My chest ached, and I found I had been holding my breath. I let it out shakily and stamped my foot. This infernal waiting would turn me into an old man if the battle didn’t begin soon.
All at once a single shot ripped through the air and we began fighting in earnest.
“Fire, men!” The cavalry officer’s charge electrified the air and the report of three hundred guns echoed through the glen.
I’d barely noticed I had fired my gun. What had I fired at? I couldn’t see the enemy, even if I had wanted to fire. I glanced to my side. I guess the Yanks couldn’t see to aim any better than us, for all the men in my sector seemed safe and well.
A strong breeze sprung up and within five minutes, through which the men had continued volleys of fire, had swept the fog from the valley. My stomach knotted as I began to make out the shapes of men in the trees over there.
“Now we’re gon’ have some fun!” The rasping of George McClooney’s voice grated on my ear and I gripped the stock of my gun harder.
I thought of Ava, even as I shot toward the Yankees hidden in the trees beyond. I wondered if she was awake yet, and what she was doing. I wondered if she thought of me, and I hoped she wasn’t too worried about the snakes.
All at once I saw a man beside me go down and it hit me.
This was war. Lives would be lost. And if I didn’t keep on my toes, the life could be mine.
I reloaded my gun and shot toward the Yankees. There was such a confusion of cavalry and horses, smoke and noise that I couldn’t be sure where my bullets were hitting.
I found myself following a group of our men to a stand of trees halfway between our camp and the Yanks. We could see the faces of the Yankees now, and their blue uniforms. I aimed my gun at one of the blue-coated soldiers and put my finger on the trigger.
At once he turned and I gasped. It was young Ben Avery, from back home. A union soldier and it was my duty to shoot him.
His eyes locked into my own, and I saw a kindred emotion in his face. How long we stood thus, I don’t know. But our gaze was broken when I was struck in my chest and arm.
The bullets had found their mark. It hurt like blazes, but I didn’t know how bad I was injured until I tried picking up the gun I had dropped and found the bullet had broken the bone in my arm. It hung, useless and lifeless at my side.
“Hamilton, y’all right?” It was George, and his voice sounded thick and distant.
I tried to answer him, tried to tell him I could still fight, but my voice didn’t work. Nothing worked. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t make my mind rest on anything, save that picture in my mind of Ava in the doorway with the white rose in her hair.
* * * * * *
I awakened in a hospital tent. The tingling smells of ether and camphor, alcohol and a thousand other doctoring tinctures filled my nose.
Was this real? Had I really survived my first battle? I tried to sit up, but a sharp pain in my arm reminded me of my injuries, so I lay quietly by till the camp doctor came around.
Deep lines were engraved in his face and several days’ growth of beard stubbled his chin. All the same, his eyes lit up when he saw I was awake.
“Feeling all right, Hamilton?”
“All right.” I was hurting bad, but it seemed silly to mention it when I was in a hospital. Of course it hurt, but I knew there must be a lot of men who were hurt worse than I was.
“You’re one lucky dog, Hamilton. If it hadn’t been for your pretty little sweetheart, you’d be a dead.” The doctor laughed as his fingers prodded my arm.
What could Ava have done? The doctor must have seen my confusion, for he reached in his pocket and pulled out my little picture case, then handed it to me.
I turned the brass case over and over in my hand. The bullet had struck the brass, denting it so that the clasp could no longer fasten, and the glass over Ava’s sweet face had cracked. The bullet must have met the case and ricocheted off before it had a chance to hurt me. Tears of gratefulness pooled in my eyes and spilled out over my cheeks.
The doctor patted my good shoulder. “Your arm, though, isn’t good for much. In fact, I can’t promise it’ll ever heal all the way through. For now you’ll have to go home.”
Those words were some of the sweetest I think I’ve ever heard. I’d have to go home. Home to Ava, home to my farm, home, home home.
* * * * *
A week later my arm had healed enough that the doctor thought I was all right to make the journey home. It wasn’t too far, and I was raring to go. I thought it best not to tell Ava about my injuries beforehand. I’d just walk up and show myself, and see the tender astonishment in her blue eyes.
I’d planned it all, and as I walked up the dusty road toward the Chisholm place, my heart lifted on wings lighter than a swallow’s at dusk. I took my time strolling up the driveway. I wanted to savor this moment of homecoming as long as it lasted.
I tip-toed through the doorway, knowing I’d see my Ava any moment. There she was, sitting in the window-seat of the parlor, arranging a bowl of flowers. She had her back turned to the road, and so hadn’t seen me coming.
“I’m back, little woman.”
Ava uttered a little happy scream and flew to my side. She stopped short at the sight of my sling and a world of wonder filled the blue of her eyes.
“Just a little scratch, Ava-girl.”
She drew nearer and I folded her to my heart with my one good arm. I wished this moment would never end. I was captivated by the beauty. The beauty of my pale rose trembling.