Esther – July, 1944
Ever so slightly, Esther opened her eyes. Morning sun streamed between the rows of corn stalks that protected her through the night. The dirt against her cheek was cool and her shoulders stiff. Cautiously, she tipped her jaw from side to side seeking a release from the tight muscles of her neck. She pushed her legs to their lengths. Never had her bones known such resistance, but never had she spent a night in a corn field. The blanket of morning dew added insult and the tang of moist earth settled in her mouth and her nose. Yet, this was preferable to what could have been.
Yes, this was better.
A shadow passed overhead. Esther braced and trained her ears for sound.
Cautiously sliding her gaze upward, she found the culprit. A black crow had taken perch on a green stalk and stared down at her with judgment in it’s black eyes.
“Go on. Get gone,” Esther said as loudly as she dare.
The crow opened it’s razor beak from which a ‘caw’ sliced the morning stillness.
The damned bird had awakened them, she was certain.
Raising up on an elbow, she craned her head to look.
The children, Luddie and Helen, stirred only slighty, crooked arms for pillows. Her two perfect angels asleep on a bed of dirt.
After a scorcher of a day, the night hadn’t been all that uncomfortable and for that she was thankful, if there was anything to be thankful for in this pitiful situation.
Looking down, her hands were a mess. Dirt rimmed her finger nails, her palms smudged with soil. Her dungarees and flannel shirt not much better. She’d known better than to change into bedclothes the night before.
She raised a hand to shield her eyes. Oh, if her mother could see them now, the lashing she’d receive. Yet, there would be no offer of help, of that Esther was certain. She’d made her bed, albeit a bed of dirt at the moment.
Both children seemed to have fallen back to sleep.
Helen’s blond curls fanned out from her little face, cheeks rosy with slumber. At six years of age, it was easy to see she’d be a beauty one day.
Luddie’s clothes bore the spoiling of a restless night, dirt smudged here and there. He worried so. Too much for a boy of eleven.
Esther crossed her legs underneath her as a slight breeze kicked up. She was tired. So tired. How she hated Harlon for what he’d done to her life. If it wasn’t for the two children slumbering behind her, she lie back down and wish for the earth to rise up and swallow her, cover these weary bones of hers until she could blow away like dust.
Suddenly a different sound mixed with that of the rustling leaves. With a start she turned this way and that, eyes searching for the source.
Somewhere beyond the rows of corn it came, closer with every beat of her heart.
She strained to hear more. It was a voice. A male voice. Sober, yet melodic, drifting on the morning breeze.
Esther stole a glance back at her children, then rose and gingerly followed the path between the rows. Reaching the end, she crouched behind the sturdy stalks.
At first, she couldn’t see him, but then, over the horizon of the field, he came. A solitary figure. Tall and slender, with hair the color of rusty water, sun glinting off wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a white shirt tucked into brown pants, suspenders over his shoulders, boots crunching over newly cut hay. A stick in one hand. He stopped at the large boulder marking the edge of the field.
A dog ran to his side. A golden retriever. A beautiful dog.
The man spoke to his furry companion and tossed the stick toward the forest. The dog bounded off in fluid motion and in a moment returned with the prize. For his effort he received a nuzzle and a pat from his master.
This must be the new neighbor.
Esther couldn’t take her eyes off him. This man was a different sort. His movements were that of a gentle man. A man more comfortable behind the counter of a shop than the blade of a plow.
She’d heard that a single man purchased the old Kennedy farm. Ida Valentine said she heard he had a mysterious past. She said the Kennedy’s told her, the man dodged all of their questions about family and past occupations, but his money spent as good as the next. Harlon said Ida didn’t know her arse from a hole in the ground. On that, Esther hated to admit her husband was probably right.
The man stared off toward the edge of the field. Whether he was looking at something particular or lost in thought, she couldn’t tell. Then, he did something curious. He began to recite what Esther could only guess was poetry. She had heard these words before, but could not place the poet. As he spoke, she listened.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee,
With a slight turn of his head the words drifted off and Esther could not catch the last of it. And then, as he finished his recitation, as though the wind had switched from south to north with the snap of finger to thumb, his countenance changed. His shoulders slumped wearily and his head bent in a downward angle, arms crossed over his middle. A fit of melancholy seemed to have grabbed hold of him.
While different, this man certainly seemed harmless enough.
From behind, Esther sensed a stirring in the way a mother would and hurried to return, careful to keep her head low so as not to alert the poet in the field.
Helen scratched at an invisible irritant on her cheek. Then the bluest of eyes opened to the morning light.
“Mama?” The girl had a dark streak on her chin.
Esther wiped it away with her thumb and whispered. “Good morning, deary.” She rubbed the little girl’s arms to warm her.
“I’m not cold. We slept outside all night.”
Esther brought a finger to Helen’s lips. “Shh.”
“Why do I have to be quiet?” Brows knit like little worms and lips drew up in a pink bow.
Esther lowered her face until they were nose to nose, forehead to forehead.
“We don’t want to wake the baby bunnies now do we?” She could feel the contents of her heart flow between them.
A twinkle filled Helen’s eyes and she shook her curls.
Esther touched Luddie’s arm. “Luddie my boy, rise and shine.”
Luddie said nothing. He pulled his skinny body into a seated position, pulled in his shoulders and rubbed his eyes with the backs of dirty hands.
“We need to get back now,” Esther said. To Luddie she said, “Check the hen house. I’ll scramble some eggs.”
Helen spoke, “I’m dirty, Mama,” and brushed at her overalls.
“We’ll clean you up good as new. Now, Luddie, take your sister and get those eggs. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Yes, Ma,” he said keeping his eyes to the dirt below him.
Esther glanced back toward the clearing. “I’m going to check on something.”
The children stared at her with questioning eyes.
“Now go on. I’ll be right there.” She shooed at them and watched as Luddie took Helen by the hand and led her between the rows toward their little farm in the valley where their father would be sleeping off a vicious drunk.
Waiting only a few seconds, Esther proceeded in the opposite direction. At the end of the row she peered between stalks to see the man was still there. He turned in her direction. Quickly she ducked and retreated a few steps thinking she was unseen.
Then it happened.
The dog ran toward her.
Panic worked through her as she realized the stalks would not hide her completely. How foolish she’d been to return. She prayed the dog would not bark or give chase. Fretfully, she held her breath as the dog sniffed, came closer, sniffed some more, and then backed away. She sighed in anxious relief.
And then it barked. Startled, Esther backed away but her ankle caught between stalks and she fell back onto the ground.
It was then the man saw her. Their eyes met for a brief, fleeting moment.
Her heart throbbed in her chest as he came toward her. Would he call the authorities? After all, she was trespassing.
The dog advanced, barking as it did so. The man called, “Winifred, it’s all right. Winifred come.”
Desperately Esther picked herself up and ran.
“Wait,” he called after her. “Are you hurt? Can I help you?”
Esther kept running, pushing the stalks as she went. He continued to call after her.
She didn’t dare stop.