I opened the door to the cabin and was struck by the emptiness. The only furniture remaining, two benches and a wood plank table where, four years ago when I was nine, we ate our meals near the fireplace. Ambrose’s bed, Ma’s rocker, the straw pallet in the corner my sisters and I had slept on, the buffet that had divided my parents’ bed from the rest of the house were all gone. My eyes flicked across that barren space to where Ma had last lain in bed, our stillborn brother in her arms, pale, unmoving, empty of life and spirit. Ambrose had stood beside me, his arm around my shoulders, his breathing shallow and rough, his chest muscles jerking, barely holding in his emotions, my big brother being strong for me as we said goodbye to Ma.
A faint light filtered through the small window she had looked out of so many times during her sickness. Shadows flickered across the room as tree limbs swayed in the breeze, mesmerizing me, drawing me across the room to the spot where her bed had been. I sank to my knees and into the past, to that last night when we girls slept with her, Ella and Jennie at the other end of the bed, going to sleep giggling and singing their ABCs, and me snuggled next to Ma as she painted pretty word pictures of us girls visiting Aunt Hannah and going to school and making friends and sleeping in her old bedroom. Sometime during those visions of good times I drifted off in Ma’s arms.
I woke up to her screams.
“Get Hannah. Get Hannah.” She clutched her stomach. “Oh, no! No!”
And then Aunt Hannah was there, shooing me and Jennie and Ella out of the room, sending Ambrose for Doc Sloan. Then the waiting, and Pa ranting about Aunt Hannah and Cordelia keeping Ma from her bed while they washed clothes the day before, causing the loss of his son. And at the end, Doc Sloan saying, “She’s gone.”
My hand closed around the locket with her hair inside. I squeezed my eyes shut and knelt there for a long time, flashes of memories, good and bad, tearing my heart, aching for our family, for my mother, for her smile, for the sweet cornbread she made that was like no one else’s. I ached for the feel of her pulling a brush through my hair. “A hundred strokes a day,” she always said, “will keep your hair healthy and shiny.” I could almost feel her hands stroking my hair.
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