That last Sunday in August, they all—Helen and Walter and their little boy Bucky, Randall and his daughter Orice, Helen's Aunt Abitha—climbed into the buckboard wagon and headed east from Beaver Creek for the early evening service.
"I remember going to camp meetings when I was a girl," Aunt Abitha, who had raised Helen back in Little Rock, said. "It was the first time I ever heard white people get happy and shout in church."
A half-dozen tents surrounded the campground, with a log cabin in the middle. Off to the side was a brush arbor, a wooden framework covered with vines.
They took their seats on the birch pews Walter and his neighbor Randall—a fresh widower now at thirty-five—had finished sanding just the week before: Helen and Walter Blyeth in the front row, Randall and eight-year-old Orice behind them, Aunt Abitha on the sill of the open window on the side wall.
"A body has to breathe," she said with a frown.
Little Bucky, a full year younger than Orice and totally captivated by her, was running around inside the small cabin, barefoot and in overalls.
A dozen other folks were there to hear the preacher whose visit had been announced on a flyer posted in the general store and post office:
2 Weeks of Preaching, Testimony, Bible Study & Fellowship
Come One! Come All!
Preacher Zebediah Corne Presiding
At the back of the room, Helen recognized the Marston brothers sitting up behind the makeshift pulpit. They were the ones who'd made the coffin for Maddie.
The preacher arrived a full month after the funeral. By then the loudest grieving had fallen silent, and most who lived in Beaver Creek trudged on to do those chores that needed doing. The horses had to be fed; milk, eggs and chickens taken into town to sell; and the Blyeths' cows checked for pregnancy and culled. That summer's meager crop of fruits had to be canned, mincemeat and sausage pudding made.
But Maddie was gone; that loss should have stopped the world. Helen steadied herself with her hands on her knees, simultaneously dizzy with grief at the death of her best friend and boiling with anger at what she'd found an hour ago in Walter's drawer.
Her hand, shaking, reached out to pick up one of the leaflets fanned out on the pews. It listed the towns the itinerant preacher would visit that summer: Warnock Springs, Midway, Gravelly, Mt. Pleasant, Bethel, Red Colony, Keener. There was a schedule for that day as well, noting that after the evening's worship service there would be cool drinks and hand-dipped ice cream cones.
Helen didn't plan to stay. If Maddie had been with them, they could have made a good time of it. But the way things were, with Maddie gone and her recent discovery of Walter's betrayal, Helen saw no reason for fun.
She could feel the warmth and weight of her husband's body sitting next to hers on the newly made bench. She could feel the muscles in his large thighs through her seersucker dress, which was white on top and blue-and-white striped in the skirt. She'd even managed to find, up on a top shelf in the closet, a straw hat with pink rose trim. After seeing the box in the drawer, she'd almost pulled down her tweed suitcase with gold- and rust-colored stripes as well, but Bucky had run into the room just then and she'd grabbed only the hat and set it carefully on her blond curls before joining the others in the wagon.
Now, at the meeting house, Bucky was still running, scooting in and teasing Orice, then running away, laughing.
Helen hissed, "Bucky, get back here."
Randall reached up from the bench behind her and briefly rested his hand on her shoulder. "It's all right," he whispered into her ear. "He's not bothering anybody."
Walter snorted loudly and turned around to face Randall. "Not now, anyways. Christ, that boy's a handful. Showing off for your girl, I 'magine."
Bucky scrambled up into the empty space to Orice's left, where Maddie should have been sitting. Tears came to Helen's eyes, but Walter reached to grab the boy, pulling him roughly onto his lap.
This time it was Orice who whispered, "It's okay. He didn't mean nothin' bad, Mr. Blyeth." Helen had turned around at all the commotion and the thought went through her head that she should have taken time to iron poor little Orice's dress, with its red scalloped trim on the neck and puffed sleeves. Randall was a good father, but there were things he just couldn't be expected to do, at least at first.
Preacher Zebediah Corne, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, strode to the front of the room. He was the skinniest man Helen had ever seen, with bones protruding a bit more than was natural—his jaw, his elbows, his long fingers.
A breeze ruffled Aunt Abitha's gray silk bonnet as the preacher reached behind her to push the tall window open further.
"Fresh air is as good for the soul as the body!" he shouted, and a few voices murmured their agreement.
The sky was still light behind Aunt Abitha, though her large bulk blocked most of the view of the Arkansas hills.
Helen hadn't told her aunt about the jewelry box she'd found stuffed behind Walter's yellowing Jockey briefs and ribbed undershirts. She'd been looking for a handkerchief to give Orice, a pretty cotton square Maddie had embroidered as a gift for Helen, with two flocked red hearts overlapping. The hankie wasn't there, but inside the box was a gold filigree bracelet laid on a piece of puffed white satin. She'd known right away it was too small for her wrist and meant for someone else's.
"Look out then at the darkening sky!" the preacher thundered. Helen saw him standing now at the pulpit, arm bent at one bony elbow, fingers outstretched, long fingers and a surprisingly short thumb, the fingers pointing east, away from the last light of the day still pouring through the open window.
She'd stayed in bed for two whole days after Maddie died from typhus and the baby in Maddie's womb died hours later.
Helen remembered when she was a girl in Little Rock, Aunt Abitha had warned her about an epidemic. One summer, the city had started collecting garbage and monitoring their drinking water. And she'd seen plenty of newspaper articles about the tragedy typhus had caused in Russia and Poland during the war: millions had died. But all that was happening far, far away from them, to a land so far east she could barely imagine it existed.
So when Maddie first complained of back pain and fever, Helen just suggested she rest, and then after three days, the rash appeared on her swollen stomach, and though most in the U.S. weren't dying from it, Maddie did.
Helen fainted when she heard the news and was put in bed herself, and she stayed there, refusing even to rouse when Bucky cried for her. Walter tiptoed around her and took care of the boy as best he could.
But he'd finally given up and called Aunt Abitha, asking her to come help them out. A month after Maddie's death, Helen was still moping around the house and could barely get meals on the table, he told her.
Helen and Maddie had often talked about their husbands, how sometimes their men seemed so unable to really know what needed to be done. To know what people really needed in their hearts. It was like there were two levels to living, Helen thought. The one where the fields got plowed and cows were bred. And the one underneath no one talked about, where folks needed care.
"Who seeth us? And who knoweth us?" the preacher was asking, each word drawn out long like his arms and fingers, and said with such intensity Helen almost expected the letters themselves to hang in the air before his open mouth.
She closed her eyes. She wanted to tell herself she hadn't known Walter, what he was capable of. But that was a lie. There'd been signs before. Flirtations, too persistent eye contact with women he spoke to, even while Helen was standing right there. His body too close to the other's, reaching out to touch a woman's arm for unnecessary emphasis. Nothing specific Helen could rationally object to, and he always made light of her concerns, but she knew what she saw. And felt.
And now the bracelet. She tried to think which of the many women Walter flirted with it might be for. There was the new postmistress, a pretty young thing with auburn hair who'd just moved to Beaver Creek from the next county. Or maybe one of the salesgirls at Woolworth's, standing behind a glass-topped counter, wearing red lipstick and a ready smile. Or even Jenny Brackman, who'd run the combination general store & tavern in town since her husband was killed in a threshing accident last year.
Helen forced her attention back to the preacher. He had stepped out from behind the pulpit and was holding a big black leather Bible, edged in gilt, in his hand.
"Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus," he said, emphasizing some words with a thump of his hand on the book.
Walter cleared his throat and shifted his legs.
Bucky squirmed to get comfortable again on his father's lap. The boy finally settled in so that he could look back over Walter's shoulder at Orice. Out of the corner of her eye Helen saw him wave at the girl. Wink at her. A long, slow wink.
She heard Orice cluck her tongue against the roof of her mouth three times. Heard Randall say, "Sshhh, sweetheart, sshhh." She imagined Randall behind her, putting his arm around his daughter and on Orice's other side, that dreadful empty place on the bench. The seat where Maddie wasn't, the space a silent shout that vied in competition with the preacher's earnest words.
The jewelry box had been tied with a narrow pink ribbon. She'd left it right where she found it.
Bucky was squirming again on Walter's lap. Walter grabbed the boy's tiny wrist, squeezed it hard enough for Bucky to say "Ouch."
The preacher glanced down but just for an instant, quickly moving his eyes back up and away, toward that far eastern horizon where whatever he was promising lay.
Walter took Bucky's fingers into his own and pressed them flat against his trouser leg, like a trapped animal.
If Helen thought about it too long, the empty space would leave the bench behind her and slide up into her belly, where it would grow and envelop all of them in darkness.
Helen sighed. Walter glanced at her, eyebrows furrowed. She closed her eyes and shook her head to say Nothing, everything's fine because really what was he going to do there in the church with the preacher talking and all those people around them. And she didn't even know yet what she wanted to say to him.
"And so this is what the Lord sayest," the preacher's voice suddenly boomed, but when Helen looked at him his eyes were closed, his mouth open, and that hand, those uncanny fingers still pointing somewhere she couldn't see.
There was a snore from one of the Marston brothers; it was hard to tell which one though Brady Marston's head was bobbing a little.
When Walter slapped her face the first time, Helen had run over to the Spears so fast the large red handprint still blazed on her cheek.
"It was my fault," she said through tears. "I was angry and tired and pushing him away. I pounded my fists on his chest, shouting at him. It was something I never should have done," she sobbed. Even as she said the words, she felt a curious mix inside her. She wasn't sure it was all her fault, even if Walter made it seem like it was.
"I'm going to call the sheriff," Maddie said.
Randall stood a few feet behind them, still in his wrinkled nightshirt, his hands at his side.
"No, don't!" Helen said. She didn't want the sheriff involved; it wasn't that bad, what Walter had done. And she had really gone at him, yelling that he was never at home, that she couldn't take care of the sick baby all by herself. "It's all right. I'm fine. It was just an argument, and he lost his temper. I lost mine as well."
Aunt Abitha had told her to stay. "You've made your bed, and now you must lie in it." And so Helen stayed, and mostly things got better. Walter was charming when he wasn't drunk or angry; that charm had swept her off her feet when they first met in Little Rock. He'd taken her to the best restaurants like the Savoy and Adkins. She knew his family had a small farm out in the country but he never took her to meet them and then, both his parents were killed when the steering rod broke on their motor car, sending them plunging over an embankment into a branch of the Ouachita River.
Suddenly, Walter wanted to take care of the farm, and Helen decided to go with him, against her aunt's wishes.
Maddie was the only person in all of Beaver Creek who knew about the few times Helen packed her suitcase and was ready to flee her husband. Walter had opened her heart wide and broken it. Every few years, he'd yell at her so loud, scare her so much, she'd put her few dresses and underthings on top of the brown satin lining in the travelling bag and tie the gold ribbons to keep the clothes in place. Once she'd even gone so far as to call her Aunt, saying she was coming home. She could not live like this any longer, she'd said. Not in this poor, tiny town of Beaver Creek. How on earth had she ended up here, she wailed, with an angry, cheating man and sawdust floors and a dozen chickens and ten cows and a rambunctious little boy to care for?
"I swear," she'd told Maddie one afternoon when Orice and Bucky were toddlers. "I don't fathom how a man can be so clumsy in the realm of the heart. I saw Walter flirt up a storm with that new clerk at the Five & Dime. When I told him I'd seen him, he looked like a little boy." She'd gestured toward Bucky running after Orice as fast as his chubby little legs could take him. "Like a little boy who'd been caught with his hand in a cookie jar, innocent and guilty and proud at the same time."
Somehow, she and Walter had made it past every transgression. Walter said he loved her, but she'd just been so damn distant since Bucky was born, he said. All he wanted to do, he said, was make love to her. She often remembers how angry he got those first months after Bucky's birth, when she'd refuse him access to her body.
Then, just last summer, Maddie said, "I'm ready for another baby" and was pregnant two weeks later. Helen knew her friend hoped she'd soon follow suit, but Bucky remained a handful, harder to manage than Orice. And Walter had taken a second job working at a sawmill because the farm just wasn't producing enough money, they were just scraping by, and Helen didn't want to have a second child, not then. She kept telling Maddie, Later. Maybe later she'd have a second.
But now it was too late
Helen lost track of what the preacher was saying up there, standing and pointing away from the setting sun. There was no window on the wall toward which he pointed, only uneven split logs, and the brothers Marston slumped against them, one with his chin down and one with his chin up, head back. Both in their well-worn denim overalls and long-sleeved white shirts. Both now asleep. Falling asleep wasn't a concern for Helen. In fact, her mind was skittering about like the black-tailed jackrabbit that had run through the yard just that morning, its long ears alert for predators, zigzagging here and there as though it had no idea where to go for real safety.
She remembered when Maddie's sister lost a child six months into her pregnancy. They'd held a ceremony for her, an Indian blessing adapted for the loss of a child. They'd washed her feet in water in a copper bowl and laid flowers on her hair and rubbed her hands and shoulders. At the end, Maddie put a silver hand mirror in her sister's hand so she could see how pretty she was, with the flowers and the love bathing her and that poor unborn baby. It was women who did these things, Helen thought, and wondered what on earth she would do without Maddie.
"I want Jesus to become King of your heart," the preacher was saying. "Not just in theory. In practice."
Helen saw the red mark on Bucky's wrist where Walter had squeezed too tightly. Generally, Walter was a good father. Generally, he was a good husband. Helen had trouble understanding he was both good and bad and wondered why she'd ever thought anyone would be otherwise.
Months would go by without any sign of Walter's anger, and she would settle into thinking that their life wasn't perfect by any means, but it would do, it would certainly do. She truly loved being a Mama, even if Bucky moved faster than a hummingbird's heartbeat, and she loved washing dishes in the wide porcelain sink Walter installed for them and sewing curtains and cooking and cleaning Somehow by making a good home for the three of them, by making it so Walter didn't get angry and their little family was at peace, she imagined she was doing what she was supposed to be doing in the world.
When she wasn't taking care of Bucky or doing chores, she read and for a while attended a Bible study group at the Lutheran church in town. But she was bothered by the haggard Jesus pinned to the tall pine cross on the back wall, and the preacher's loud and angry sermons about hell and damnation confused her. She wasn't sure what she believed anyway. She knew she wasn't perfect, nor were her husband and son, but she couldn't imagine that they would all go to hell just because Walter sometimes flirted or sometimes drank too much and raged. Even the church seemed another place she had to keep secrets locked inside herself.
An hour later, all six of them had climbed back in the wagon, and Walter giddy-upped the horse. They rode in silence toward home. Helen could hear the sounds of children playing and a chorus singing fade into the distance behind them as they left the campgrounds. This was the way Maddie's memory would fade, too. All that sweetness grew distant behind her. Helen figured that even Orice would remember her Mama, but only a little, a wavering ghost she would want to see.
"Saw there's a sale at Woolworth's," Walter said as soon as the wagon had come to stop. None of them had dismounted yet. "OB sleeves and gloves to check the cows. Figure I'll head in first thing tomorrow morning."
Helen swallowed. She didn't want to cry there, in front of all of them.
She didn't want to leave the others either. She'd been sleeping in the guest room since Maddie died but couldn't with Aunt Abitha visiting. So when she climbed into bed, she would turn on her right side, away from Walter. When his hand slipped between her legs, she'd close her eyes and wish it away. She'd feel herself stiffen. She didn't want to. But she didn't know how to reconcile the good and bad in Walter. The slapping and flirting frightened her and made her want to pull away.
She'd always turn to Maddie, to tell her when the bad things happened. And somehow that made it better. It was the secrets that made her tighten her insides and pretend to sleep, pulling away from a man she didn't really trust.
Randall was helping her step down from the wagon. She could feel his hand on her lower back. She wanted to press into it, glue it to her because his hand reminded her of Maddie, and because it was a hand that had never hit her.
Bucky and Orice ran off to the tire swing Randall had hung at the beginning of the summer, before the grief hit. A white moon big as a dinner plate hung over the tall oak, washing its black-green leaves, the tire, and its thick twisted rope in light.
Aunt Abitha harrumphed and hitched her skirt up as she made her way over the scrub grass toward the Blyeths' cabin.
Walter remained in the driver's seat, looking down at Helen and Randall.
"Want company going to the store tomorrow?" Randall asked.
Randall put his foot up on the baseboard, as though willing Walter to stay put instead of driving off to put the horse away.
Helen heard the children laughing and turned to see Bucky push Orice in the swing, running under it so the girl rose high, her matchstick legs sticking out from under the dress Maddie had sewn. Dirt coated the soles of the girl's feet.
"Bucky Blyeth, don't you kill me up here!" the girl sing-sang in her sweet voice, teasingly. "Don't you kill me, Bucky Blyeth!" She was grinning widely. "I'll sic my Pa on you if you do."
Randall took in a deep breath through his nose, removed his foot from the baseboard.
Maybe Maddie had told him about the girl at the store, Helen thought. She remembered the small square box in the drawer, the thin gold chain inside that had never been meant for her.
She stood there waiting for Walter to say something, anything.
But he didn't.
She could feel Randall standing next to her and knew he would be lonely.
She pictured the preacher, pointing east, where things happened that she didn't really understand or know about. Could be heaven, could be war or typhus. Could be anything really, just something still unseen over the horizon.
Title graphic: "Buckboard Transit" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2014.