It was 1862, and dusk threw pinks and corals through the trees as she heard the stillness broken by the sound of horses nearby. Her husband Silas had been gone to the army only two months, and Ava was certain the war would be done in a short while.
“Percy,” she yelled toward the barn, and then she turned into the house to grab the shotgun.
As she returned, she saw five young, ragged men approach the porch, and she raised the shotgun at them. The two in the rear broke off toward the barn.
“What do you want here?” Ava asked.
“Just some food, ma’am. We’re a hungry lot,” said a man not quite old enough to be a man. His hair was blond, stringy; his tattered clothing appeared to have once been a uniform.
“Ride on. There’s a village five miles to the east. Keep going.”
“Well, that ain’t very neighborly of ya’, ma’am,” said the young man, clearly the leader of the group. At that very moment two men led Percy from the barn by a rope tied to one of their horses.
“Hey, Harry, they got some more horses in the barn,” 1 yelled one of them. “And I got this one’s gun.”
Ava shot the gun over the heads of the two men leading Percy.
“Well, well,” said Harry as he split the group and came around behind her. He seized her gun and tossed it with his left hand toward one of his comrades as he grasped Ava around the waist with her right arm bent tight against her back. She struggled within his grip and then flailed her left arm in an attempt to free herself. Harry started laughing at his captive’s failed attempt to flee until she kicked him hard in his shin. He yelped and his comrades laughed in unison.
“If you’ re Confederates, y ou’ re in Union territory. You best get out,” yelled Ava.
They continued laughing.
“We may be from Virginia, but don’t belong to no armies. At least not anymore, do we, Zach?”
“Nope,” answered a dark-haired youth behind Harry.
“Zach, go get the horses in the barn. And get me some rope. This little gal here is a feisty one.”
One of the men went into the house, ransacking for valuables. He would find few.
The renegades wanted to stay the night at the house, indulging in down bedding, scavenging for food, but they knew they were not in safe territory. Zach lifted Ava onto a roan led by Harry, tied her hands to the saddle horn, and they left, pulling Percy on foot behind them. Percy, the young farmhand, could not conceal the bewilderment on his face, bewilderment that soon transformed to fear.
“We’ll not be harmed, Percy,” Ava whispered to the boy, praying her words would bear the truth.
The group headed south through the woods, but Ava knew well that they would come to the Chesapeake Bay and, without a boat, would have to return northeast. She said nothing, but once the men turned and headed north along the river, and when the sliver of a crescent moon rose high, they stopped amidst a thicket of red cedar and laurels, lighting a small campfire and heating broth and coffee. It was there, on the cedar boughs laid for bedding, that Harry defiled Ava the first time. She did not struggle; she had been fearful all day that this was how the day would end. She was empty, spiritless, as the songs of the cicadas rose and fell in the woods around her.
Harry had no knowledge of the child Ava had carried within for three months, nor would it have mattered to him, and after six days of stealthily meandering through woods and swamps, after days filled with thirst and hunger, the child was no more. Ava was weakened, but the gang continued south to the Bay in Virginia. Her cotton dress, once cheered with yellow flowers, was now stained with blood and torn at the hem that was muddied; her flaxen hair fell tangled. As her horse followed Harry’s one morning, Ava looked down and saw the stone, the cobalt gem, a sapphire, on a silk cord, that her own pa had given her when she married. That night, as she lay alone on a blanket, she took the smoothed talisman in her hand and prayed. Prayed for her pa now gone, for Silas, for her child that was not to be. She would later stitch the cord into her dress to ensure its safekeeping.
It was not far from the Chesapeake Bay, in Virginia, where Harry found an abandoned cabin and decided to stay. Zach, being from Eastville, told the group the stagecoach goes through nearby Pungoteague, and the men mulled over how that might advantage them. It was near Pungoteague that the group decided to abandon Percy, nigh a Confederate regiment.
“One word to them soldiers about us and your mistress here’s a dead woman,” said Harry to Percy. “Got it?”
Percy nodded. He was so scrawny. Ava sent up a prayer that the enemy would feed him. He would be on his own to choose in Pungoteague, enlist or perish.
It became clear to Ava that she was the property of Harry, the self-proclaimed leader of this renegade gang. He was not brutal, nor was he kind; he was merely indifferent. With the loss of her free will, Ava dreamt of death; she wanted Silas and believed, in death, she might be reunited with him. Ideas of escape haunted her dreams. Thoughts of mounting a horse and riding off when no one was looking filled her head, but it was a long way back to civilization. If they pursued her, she would surely be caught. She prayed soldiers might find them but knew not what the Confederates might do with her. Her fate appeared bleak and her heart broken.
One night Jimmy, the black-haired man who walked with a limp, tried to have his way with her, but Ava was not silent in her resistance and Harry knocked him off the porch with one punch, sent him soaring across the yard. She could hear the fighting outside by the campfire. Jimmy’s face was swollen for over a week and, then, Ava never saw him again. Harry started leaving Ava unbound during the day so she could cook and do chores, but Harry always chained her ankle at night so she would not run off while they slept.
The rogues drank and spoke of the war, and laughed at the foolishness of others who’d been led voluntarily to their slaughter. As autumn began to wane, Ava was so filled with disgust at her own oily hair and body scents, at the rashes that came and went and came again, that she begged Harry to let her bathe.
“God knows you stink. Guess we could all use a good bathing. Hey, Zach, we’ll go fishing tomorrow.”
It was the next morning Harry and Zach took her to the shore where they all stripped down and bathed in the frigid Chesapeake waters. Ava stayed as far from the men as they would allow, and, as the men were fishing, she found a brief joy floating in the water as she scrubbed her hair and body. For a brief time she felt human, but in early winter Ava fretted that she’d had no flow for two months; she was again with child. She did not want this man’s child. She cried herself to sleep every night, sickened with hopelessness. Harry would scream at her to “shut up.” He sullied her constantly, but he never struck her; she was merely a dispensable item.
That first winter brought brutal Atlantic winds that raged through the walls of the house and on toward the Bay. One morning Ava found a barn cat frozen near the kitchen door. Time passed; weeks into seasons.
Ava continued to cook, to clean, and she swelled in girth as her unborn child grew. It was a warm summer day when she delivered a baby girl as the men sat around a fire outside roasting a rabbit and imbibing in pursuit of drunkenness, oblivious to the wailing in the cabin’s back room. Just before dawn, as she suckled the newly arrived infant, her thoughts consumed her. How can I love this child? I am forever lost. Lost to Silas. This miserable war was about slavery, and here I am imprisoned in this desolate place.
But Ava persevered through this life to which she was now bound. She found joy in visions of freedom and in her daughter. Ava called the baby mon ange, my angel, and she strived to keep her joy hidden for fear the men would take it away. Now a young woman who had grown into a mother, she was protective of her child. Her daughter inspired hope, and, thus, Ava prayed every night; prayed her silent, hopeful words. She thanked the Lord that her child did not look like Harry. Ava decided her daughter resembled her mama’s sister, Aunt Hildy, who was a beauty with auburn hair and turquoise eyes. The red-haired girl grew into the delicate features Ava remembered her aunt had. She loved this sweet child with all her heart, but she was not the child she and Silas had wished for. Was her Silas even alive?
One summer morning, as Ava played hide and seek with her daughter amidst the laundry hanging on the line strung between two trees, she heard the men yelling and whooping. Zach had returned from Eastville, where he had gone for supplies, and returned with the news that the war had ended, that President Lincoln had declared victory, that soldiers were being released to return home. All Ava could think of was her Silas. As she cooked supper that evening, the gang of deserters feuded over returning to their homes. They fretted over imprisonment, probable rejection by families. It was a hot and humid evening when they all agreed they would go to New Orleans.
“You can leave, Evie,” Harry said to Ava the following morning. He always refused to use her real name. “Go on home. Don’t need to be feeding no kid. I will find me a new whore in the city,” he said. Ava whispered a prayer for the new one.
“May I take the roan,” she asked, imploring, eager for some mercy.
“Take one. Don’t need to be feedin’ them neither.” And with that, she swiftly gathered some linens for the two of them, filled a canteen from the well, and packed a bit of staples from the kitchen. She would not wait for them to change their minds. With her toddler tied into a cloth she draped over her shoulder, she fastened her sack with her few possessions to her saddle and rode away, never to see Harry again.
As she rode farther north, there were soldiers walking along the roads north and, amongst them, Ava saw slaves walking freely. Many of the soldiers appeared wasted, some missing limbs, a few begged for food, but most of them let Ava be. As the sun neared the horizon, Ava searched for some refuge in the woods, away from peering eyes. She ate a bit of dried turkey she had taken from the cabin, and she nursed her child as darkness enveloped their nest among the trees. She lit no fire, as it might only invite stragglers. With linens laid, the two rested through the night and woke to the song of a robin. She heard nearby frogs echoing songs and knew there would be a rill or stream. Following the melodies to a rill, she watered the roan and refilled the canteen. By dusk of the third evening Ava was in Maryland and decided to be brazen when she spotted a small farm not far from a mill. A stout woman folding fresh laundry looked at Ava suspiciously as she approached.
“Can my babe and I beg for a safe place to rest tonight? Your barn will do,” implored Ava.
“Why are you traveling alone, young woman? You appear in no condition to be traveling alone with this child,” she chastised.
“Forgive me. I am Ava; this is my daughter. I am traveling toward home, near Elkton, and it has been a long day,” Ava responded, not wanting to give any details of where she had been.
“Is your husband dead? Killed in the war?” asked the woman.
“I do not know. We are hoping to meet with him at home,” she shared.
“Aye. I will ask my husband, but I am certain it will be good for you to stay,” she said, putting down her basket and walking toward Ava. “Mabel’s my name. Mabel Ogden. My husband is Russell,” she added.
Mabel fixed Ava a bit of food and Russell took her horse to the barn and fed her. As Ava ate, with the child toddling about the room, Russell and Mabel argued about where Ava would sleep. Russell said the barn would be fine, but Mabel said there was no reason the young woman and her babe could not sleep in Tom’s room. Ava wondered who Tom was.
“I can surely sleep in the barn. We slept in the woods last night. Please allow us to make a bed out there in the straw. We shall be fine.”
“That settles it,” said Russell. Mabel threw him a stern look.
After Russell left the room, Mabel told Ava about Tom, her son. They had received a letter from Gettysburg, but had heard no more from him.
“Russell keeps hoping he will come home. I fear he has been killed, but my husband refuses to believe such. Regardless, I doubt he will be home tonight,” she huffed.
“I am sorry, Mabel. I do pray my husband is home already.”
“Why are you not there to greet him?”
“I stayed with family, to the south,” Ava said.
Darkness began to fill the sky, and the small cabin sat still and gloomy in the valley; no smoke rose from the chimney. Silas stood at the crest of the hill, puzzled by the sight before him. No candlelight; no sign of life. After the miles he had walked, after years of dodging bullets and sabers, living in war’s squalor, he had foreseen a different homecoming. Thoughts of his Ava had traveled with him every day since he’d left this place, each night, as he drifted toward dreams. He had smelled her sweet hair, the vanilla she wore at the nape of her neck, remembered the light silkiness of her soft skin against his and gazing into the gravity of her hazel-green eyes. He remembered the curve of her bosom and the gentle swell of her waist, with their first child sprouting in her womb. He had yearned for years now to hold her in his arms again. Their child would be four now.
Silas found it hard to move from the spot where he stood. Where should I go? Where are they? He pulled his leathered flask from his sack and poured the last drops of whiskey down his scorched throat, then began his descent toward the empty house. It was still his home and may hold clues. A missive may lie on the table.
The final battle at Petersburg had been fierce and, it seemed, endless; the dead, both grey and blue, scattered about the field as far as one could see. Those who had not been so lucky lay in agony; death moans sometimes still echoed in Silas’s ears. On a sunny spring day, the medics saved those they could. The scene did not reveal that the battle had been won. Those who remained were not the eager men they had been when they left home to take up arms, but fragile shells that had once held a zeal for life like the empty cockle that laid still on the beach. The President released the remaining soldiers in early June, and Silas had been walking now for more than a week, sleeping with others near one campfire after another as they traveled home, some to the south and some to the north. A friend of his had been captured at Gettysburg. He prayed he lived to return home to his family near Reading. Silas was one of the lucky ones, with an injury to his arm that healed quickly enough to avert the loss of his limb unlike so many others. Those he’d left at the main road were hungry, shattered—but the war was done.
Meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds sang for the dawn just beyond the horizon. Their song was Silas’s only welcome. He pushed the door, pushed hard and finally it opened. Rodents scattered with a flutter followed by silence. The home reeked of a vermin presence, but nothing more. In the blackness Silas found a candle and, taking a flint from his pocket, lit it, and with the flame lit an old Betty lamp on the kitchen table. There was no electricity in rural Maryland, nor was there elation to be seen with the light. The flickering flame revealed tossed chairs and dust cloaking familiar objects around him. No letter lay on the table, only layers of powdery grime and dishes left hastily and scoured clean by critters finding comfort in Silas’s cabin.
After six days the little house in the woods was cleaned, the well pumped; Silas pulled invading creeping oxalis and purslane from the yard and through the garden, revealing sprouts of onions and squash sprung from seed. He washed laundry, his own as well as the bedding. He ate one fine meal when he shot two quail in the woods. But, still, there was no sign of his wife. On the seventh day there was a knock at the door.
“Silas? Anyone home?” It was William. William was Silas’ s cousin who lived beyond the woods in the town of Elkton.
“Silas,” he said, as they hugged each other. “I didn’t know you were home, not ‘til I was huntin’ and saw smoke coming from your chimney. I just got home last week; come from near Harper’ s Ferry when Lincoln let us go. Y ou? Where’ d you come from?”
“Near Petersburg. Your family okay? I can’t find Ava. She’s plainly been gone awhile; the house was a mess.” William saw Silas’s eyes dampen with worry. “Have you heard anything of her?”
“Damn, Silas. Where is she? Mary and the kids are back home. Her pa took the family to Wilmington, to their farm near the city, shortly after I signed up.”
Silas sat in the chair at the table, his head in his hands.
“I think Mary asked Ava to come with her. But we both know how Ava is. Stubborn?”
“Well, her folks are gone. Where would she go? Ava said she’d be fine. She knew how to use the shotgun, and she had Percy here. Living in the barn and helping with the horses. They’re gone too. Percy and the horses.”
“Can you trust Percy?”
“Sure. But he’s just a young’un. Only fourteen when he came to help us at the farm and damn lucky the Army didn’t take him. Guess he’d be about eighteen now.”
It was late in the afternoon on a hot August day when Silas saw a roan approaching him, at the foot of the hill. As the horse neared, he saw it was Ava. His heart almost stopped with joy. A garden thick with vegetables and an unfamiliar black stallion running in circles within the fence greeted Ava. Someone was home, she thought. Ava prayed it was Silas. What would I tell him?
Ava guided her roan through the meadow, and then she saw him. Silas. Running towards her through the tall grass.
“We are home, Silas.” She unbound the small child in her lap and handed her to Silas.
“Home,” and the tears spilled from her eyes and would not stop as she dismounted the roan.
It had been almost a year since Ava arrived back home, and the garden was abundant with crops. Spinach, squash, potatoes, and a bit of cannabis Silas used for the rheumatism that assaulted his joints on the battlefields, pain that lingered. Goldenrod grew about the barn that Silas had enlarged for his new plow. A fine crop of corn carpeted the field. Word never came of Percy’s fate, but Silas was hopeful to one day find someone to help about the farm. There were an ample number of freed slaves looking for work.
Silas had been startled when he met the child Ava carried with her last year. He could see straight away it could not be his child. Ava had tried to explain, but Silas would have none of it.
“But Silas, I lost our baby, deep in the forest far from here. They ...” But before Ava could utter another word, Silas kissed her, long and demanding.
“What has happened does not matter. I just want to be with you, Ava. Over the past years, I have dreamt of nothing but returning to you, our farm.” Silas saw her weakened state, her unsteady step, and then she fainted as he grabbed the child she carried. Over the following weeks he nursed his fragile Ava back to health, until the rose returned to her cheeks and her will to live quickened.
Ava’s spirit had been altered. Silences passed between them, round and round like the whirling eddies in the Elk River. Silas held Ava long when they embraced, afraid to let go of her; fearful she might vanish, like his comrades on the battlefield who had dissolved to vapors, gases freed into the heavens.
The firmament remained thick between the couple. Silas and Ava still had no child of their own, and redemption was absent, like a darkened firefly. The unsaid words blanketed Ava’s sorrow and Silas’s conflict. Ava knew well she indulged her child, that she had been negligent in teaching her proper habits; while Silas’s heart found it hard to see the little girl as his own. She was a radiant but precocious child, but not his. She was Ava’s daughter. She knew nothing but this life, free as a spirit on a farm near the woods—a soul who loved as much to bask in the rain as in the sunshine.
Winter approached, and as the first snow fell, Ava woke to its chill and the whistling of the wind. She found a fire in the fireplace, warming the kitchen. She could not find her daughter. She was not in her bed. Still in her linen chemise and barefoot, Ava walked toward the kitchen, and there she saw Silas. He was pulling heavy pantaloons onto the young girl, up under her green coat. He pulled on her rain boots, and he drew white mittens onto her tiny hands; the child stood gazing up into Silas’s face. Sylvie’s red curls sprung loose around the white hat covering her ears. Ava said nothing but, standing behind the fireplace, watched the sight before her eyes.
“Let’s go. Let’s go feed the cows and horses. Brace yourself for the cold,” and he opened the door.
“Allons.” said Sylvie, taking Silas’s hand.
As snowflakes fluttered into the room and just before the door closed, Ava heard Sylvie yell into the snowfall.
“Let’s go, Pa.” The young girl’s giggle faded as the door closed.
Ava’s hand rose to her chest and her breath caught in her throat. At that moment the universe halted a beat and then jostled into its destined orbit, and Ava’s heart slipped back into place.