This is the prequel to my unpublished historical fiction manuscript, Striving After Wind, which previously appeared at Short Fiction Break.
Helen Brandt lay on her straw mattress listening to the autumn rainstorm roll across the northern Kentucky countryside. A growl of thunder vibrated the cabin. Outside her bedroom window, lightning flashes revealed the skeletal remains of the surrounding forest readying itself for winter. The wind slapped rain against the glass pane sending shots of cold air through the worn-out chinks between the logs of the cabin.
She buried herself deeper into the layers of bedding knowing she wouldn’t fall asleep before her husband came to bed, as Theodore usually stayed up late on weekends preparing for his Sunday sermons. On occasion, she would keep him company in the study as he worked until interrupted by the clandestine arrival of runaway slaves. With no forewarning, they would arrive in twos and threes, ragged and tired, having sometimes spent days in the wilderness. But Helen doubted anyone would be out on a night like this.
A sharp clap of thunder rent the heavens. That gave her excuse enough to get up and see how far Theodore had gotten with his sermon. Listening to him read it aloud usually put her to asleep, not out of boredom, but because she would hear it three more times on Sunday when she accompanied him on his rural town circuit. She jumped from the bed, wrapped a shawl over her sleeveless cotton nightgown and headed toward the firelight beckoning from the study.
From the bedroom, Helen saw Theodore hunched over his desk, the top of his balding head glistening with fevered concentration. His wire-rimmed spectacles balanced on the tip of his nose. He dipped the metal nub of his pen in the inkbottle then scribbled notes on a piece of paper. A Bible and other worn compilations of writings from Church fathers formed a barricade atop the desk. His head bobbed up and down, his blue eyes moving between book and paper. Helen made her way across the sitting and kitchen area, hopping onto area rugs to avoid the chilled wood under her bare feet. She leaned against the doorway of the study, fingering the rope of silver hair that hung over her porcelain shoulder.
“You’re going to catch cold,” he said in German.
Helen walked behind his chair and wrapped her arms around his thin shoulders. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“You’re distracting me,” he said, a smile teasing at the corner of his mouth.
Theodore turned around in his chair and kissed her. Then he smiled and returned to his work. She leaned her chin on his salt and pepper hair as he continued to write. They remained like this for several minutes, him working and her listening to the sounds of the storm mingled with the crackle of the fire.
“So what did your sister have to say in her letter?” he finally asked, flipping through the New Testament.
“Grandchild number three has been born.”
Theodore turned around and removed his glasses. “So that’s the reason for your melancholy! People were beginning to think I’d done something to you. Why do you let that bother you still?” He scooted his chair back from the desk and pulled Helen down onto his lap.
“I don’t know.” She lay her head against his and shrugged as she toyed with one of his shirt buttons.
“Look, I’ve settled into a selfish stage now. I think I’d be quite sour if I had to share you.” He smiled and kissed her neck, making her squeal like a girl. Then she sat straight up.
“Did you hear that?” Helen’s eyes searched for the direction of the sound. “That,” she said, as the rapping against the back door grew louder. She stood and followed Theodore out of the study toward the source of the noise.
Theodore cracked open the back door and then widened it to reveal a shivering little chocolate girl. Bullets of rain riding on a blast of chilled wind pushed the child inside. Her thick plaits were swollen from absorbing the water falling on her head. Her bare feet and ragged attire were slathered in mud.
“Tabitha? Are Ulysses and Caroline with you?” Theodore asked in accent-free English. He scanned the area before slamming the door shut.
“Mama fell out there,” the girl whispered through chattering teeth. Her bony finger pointed toward the darkness.
“Why would they choose to run tonight?” Helen said in German. “Caroline should be ready to have that baby by now.” She removed her shawl and bundled Tabitha in it. Helen picked up the child in her arms with ease, despite the fact that the girl was about eight years old. Helen carried her over to the fireplace in the middle of the room as the skinny wet legs around her waist sent a shiver up her back.
Theodore had already donned a hat and a woolen overcoat, and was now lighting a lantern. “What better night than tonight? Nobody will want to look for them until morning.” In English, he asked the girl, “Where’s your daddy, dear?”
“Out helpin’ other folk wit’ they farm. He s‘posed to be back t’morrow.”
Theodore left the house without saying anymore. Helen sat in a chair next to the fire, holding Tabitha until the girl fell asleep. Then she walked into the study and moved a wooden bookcase full of empty tomes. Behind it was a door that led into a windowless room with two sets of bunk beds stacked three cots high. Underneath one of the beds was a trapdoor through which one could climb down into a tunnel that connected to another trapdoor in the barn several yards away. Helen laid the little girl onto one of the beds and sat next to her, rubbing her back and humming “Jesus Loves Me.”
Helen jumped when she heard the front door splinter from its hinges. She immediately exited the room, closed the door, and pushed the bookcase back against it. She hurried to Theodore’s desk and located the breech-loading rifle hidden underneath. As she jammed the butt of the gun into the groove of her shoulder, Theodore burst into the study with a very pregnant Caroline in his arms. The woman was soaked to the bone. Her butter-colored skin was sallow. Hair plastered against her back and chest like black spider veins. Helen shoved all of Theodore’s work onto the floor and helped him place Caroline on top of the desk. An anguished scream indicated the baby’s imminent arrival.
“Where…my…baby girl?” Caroline mumbled through ragged breaths.
Helen smoothed the hair from Caroline’s face. “She’s sleeping.” She stood at Caroline’s side and offered a hand to absorb the woman’s labor pains as her body contorted with each passing wave. As Caroline writhed, Helen noticed bruises covering her body. “Look at this!”
“That’s not from Ulysses,” Theodore said.
Helen exhaled and rolled her eyes. She’d never met the husband, Ulysses, though she did deliver all six of their children at the request of Caroline’s mistress, with only their first surviving. Helen ordered Theodore to retrieve the necessary items for the delivery. After receiving them, she pushed him out of the room and shut the door.
After a few hours, Helen emerged from the study carrying a bundle of cloth in the crook of her arm. Theodore slept in a chair near the potbelly stove. She shook her husband awake. “Caroline’s gone. She held on long enough to name her baby.” She held the bundle out toward Theodore. “What are we going to do?”
Theodore stretched and yawned, his eyes still closed. “I’ll go by the Evans place in the morning. Ulysses will have returned by then.”
“What about Tabitha? You can’t risk taking her back there. They’ll wonder why we have her.”
Theodore stood. “That’s up to Ulysses.” His eyes widened when he finally looked at his wife and the bundle in her arms.
“What is he supposed to do? Caroline was the only woman left on that farm. Earl will sell these children for sure.”
Theodore sighed and scratched his head. “Knowing Ulysses, he’ll want his children. He has a pass to leave for work. Maybe now he’ll be ready to run.”
“Or we can keep them.”
“What about this one?” She held the bundle out in Theodore’s direction, urging him to look. When he did, Helen couldn’t help but smile as he stroked the tiny ivory fist clutching his finger.
TO BE CONTINUED…