I KNOW THAT ELI is dying.
Rachel said the rattlesnakes were a bad sign, but that doesn’t signify. The Negroes give so much credence to conjuring and signs. But there is something about Eli. He looks so much like Pa before he died. Eli trembles in his bed like Pa did. He has the same fever in his eyes. Losing Pa was terrible, but I don’t feel that with Eli. He is not a bad husband, but it will not be like when Pa died.
When Eli came home on horseback, the heat had covered him in sweat. The humidity hung in the air like wet sheets shimmering in the sunlight. Simon had uncovered a nest of snakes beside the carriage house by the apple trees. Rachel and Emma were wild with fear. They closed themselves up in the kitchen. It became so hot the bricks seemed to sweat. John helped Simon kill the snakes with hoes while Rachel called to John from the kitchen window loud enough for the whole town to hear, shouting at him to keep away, to think of their boy, repeating over and over that it was a bad omen. Simon ignored them as if he had no fear at all. His black skin was dotted with tiny beads of sweat from the heat or maybe that was fear. He hacked at them while they shook their rattlers and coiled around each other in a solid writhing mass. Simon warned me to stay back, but I wanted to see them. And then Eli came riding up the lane almost hanging off his saddle.
He drank water straight from the pump, lifting the lever and heaving it down as he bent over it, the other hand extended, waiting for the rattle of the pipe until the water splashed over his palm. The sunlight glittered in it as he threw it on his face. He drank it in gulps. Simon left the dead snakes and spoke with him. He helped Eli into the house and left the horse for John.
Eli is twenty-five years older than I, but he gives the impression that he could live forever. He has a sureness of youth about him in spite of how ungainly he is. He is imposing but not handsome. Never handsome. His waxy scalp shines through his thinning hair. His nose is bulbous. His jaw sags with awful, long whiskers. He wears odd Quaker hats to keep the sun off or his skin will splotch red.
He barely said a word through supper last night and picked at the cold mutton and pickles Emma laid out. He complained of the odor of her canned tomato relish and the early greens. His wheezing drove me to distraction. He stared at his plate, red-faced, breathing hard as if it took all his concentration. I had to scold Henry for shoving his sopping biscuit into his mouth.
He was dazed when he took to his bed—our bed. He perspired to excess but would take no water. Dr. Greer’s visit was hardly reassuring. He came late and said it was some fever that would pass. He recommended cold compresses and tartar emetic to increase the sweating, even though the bedding was already soaked. And a bleeding tomorrow, he said.
Simon gave him the emetic mixed with molasses. Emma and Rachel kept wet cloths on his forehead. Then I had my turn, sitting with the lamp low, watching the rise and fall of his chest and the dull rattle from each exhale. Just once he awoke, but he didn’t speak. He searched the room with his eyes, searching for something, and then he saw me. His hand reached out and I took it in mine, curling my fingers around his without touching his palm, resisting him. I hushed him and pressed the damp cloth against his forehead. I wiped down his chest through the gap in his nightshirt. He closed his eyes and drifted in and out of sleep, disturbed by the spasms brought on by the emetic. I knew then that he would not survive. I know for certain that he is dying.
When Pa died, it was about winter. The trees were already half bare, the lawns brittle and brown. But everything here is so alive. The garden soaks in the sun, thriving in this relentless humidity without the faintest hint of death. The grass is dense and green. The trees are heavy with leaves, drooping with exhaustion. Fat peonies have bloomed, their petals collapsing into so many delicate pieces of torn pink silk on the grass. Tendrils of honeysuckle twine around the thin posts of the back porch, their honey-sweet perfume hanging in the air with no breeze to move it away.
Henry plays on the gravel path. His towhead in the sun is like new hay, a trait he bears from Eli. He is all Eli, with none of the Sedlaw brooding features and dark hair. He squats with a stick in his small hand, poking at an anthill. He has no sense of waiting. He only asked this morning why Papa was still in bed, then shrugged away his concern when Emma came in.
“Come quick, Miss Gus!”
Emma leans from the bedroom window waving a towel. We both look. White turban. Black face. Black dress. White cuffs. And a filthy towel whipping wildly in front of her. No words anymore, just panic on her face. I know what she has to tell me. Thank God she came with me into this house when I married. Mama threw a conniption, but Emma is free to choose as she pleases. Lord knows she was more of a mother to me sometimes than Mama. She chose to come for whatever reason. I didn’t force her.
“Wait here for Mama,” I call back to Henry. My shoes crunch over the pea-gravel path and click against the steps of the porch.
The shadows of the house are cool. A door closes upstairs, but the latch does not click. I mount the step and my heel catches in my skirts. The hem tears. I pull at my dress and grab the banister.
The odor of sweat and rot slithers around me. It swallows me as I climb. I want to retch. What is all this red? Is it blood? I should go into Eli’s room, but this red—red everywhere, smeared on everything. Bowls of pewter and clay are scattered across the hall bench. Blue willow china and cooking pots canter pell-mell over the wood and overflow with wet rags tinted scarlet, dripping red onto the polished hickory, swirling in shimmering iridescent shades of crimson like oil in a puddle. Red smudges the lips of the bowls and pools in their wells. The white door is marked, smeared with red in clumsy fingerprints that are slashes against the gleaming paint. I cannot touch the brass handle of the door. The substance covers it.
I hear Emma’s voice. “You’ve got to keep working at him, Rachel.”
I push at the wood with my fingertips. It swings open slowly. Eli lies panting in his bed, prostrated. He is stripped of his clothing, appallingly naked against the white sheets. Emma, Rachel, and Simon all work at his body. The redness drips from his temples like sweat. It seeps from his armpits and the wrinkled folds of his neck. His skin is tinged watery pink. The bed linens are soaked with jagged marks of red saturation around his body like a grisly halo. He wheezes pathetically as the servants soak up the fluid with their rags and wring it into bowls. More red seeps through his skin, dripping down his arms and legs as Simon lifts each one, pushing a red-soaked rag across his limbs. The fluid falls from his face, collecting in pools around his eyes and spilling onto the sheets as he trembles. Bowls filled with bloody cloths sit on the bedside tables. The servants cannot wipe it off quickly enough. Their work is frantic.
“I won’t,” Rachel says. She holds her hands away from herself as if they are not hers.
“Rachel, hush,” Emma says, cutting her eyes between us.
“I won’t, Emma,” she says. “The devil’s done bit him on his heel to bleed like that. I won’t!”
Rachel rushes around the bed and past me, wiping her hands on her apron. They leave pale pink streaks across the white cloth. Emma and Simon turn to me. “Miss Gus, Mr. Eli needs the doctor,” Emma says.
But I am paralyzed. I will my feet to step forward, but they refuse. I can only watch him. I cannot pull myself away. What is happening to him?
His eyes have an unseeing wildness as they search the satin starburst of the bed canopy. They roam in wider circles until finally he stares into my face. He lifts his arm just barely, too weak to move. He groans with a terrifying rattle in his chest. A gurgling sound.
Simon looks at me. “He wants you, ma’am. He wants your hand.”
Eli’s pupils are dilated to large black spots in pools of red, staring at me as if he wants to say my name. He reaches for me. I lean on the door frame. I think I am going to faint. My heart is thudding in my throat so hard I can’t breathe.
“I’ll tell John to fetch the doctor,” I say. I fall out of the door and hold the banister with both hands, looking down the well of the stairs. My head spins along their curve. All of my insides feel as if they will come out.
Simon is beside me. He has left Emma alone with Eli. He puts a hand on my arm. “Miss Gus,” he says. His eyes are hard. “Did you see if Mr. Eli had anything with him when he came home?”
“Simon, take your hand off me.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” He pulls his hand back. “Mr. Eli should have had a package with him yesterday. I think it might have contained some money.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Eli needs a doctor right away, and you come asking me for money?” It’s a wonder that Eli trusted Simon.
“I think it’s important. Mr. Eli would want to know that it was safe.” He steps back and his face loses its expression.
“I’m getting the doctor for Eli. I think that’s what is important. If you want to help Eli, then you should be with him. Emma’s in there all alone.”
We both look through the open door. Emma is on the far side of the bed, looking over Eli while he wheezes. Simon’s face becomes stern. These servants. Thank God for Emma.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says. He nods and goes back to Eli’s side.
Rachel had better not have already frightened John with her stories. He’ll have to fetch the doctor either way.
The wall clock is ticking by the small hours. Emma and Simon are surely asleep in their beds, although a light from Simon’s room over the carriage house glows against the thin curtains. He keeps his lamp lit, a faint flickering glow half hidden by the catalpa tree. Perhaps he is awake and waiting. Perhaps Emma is in her attic room waiting for a word from me. After this horrible afternoon, we are all waiting. His sickness—whatever it is—overwhelmed him so quickly.
Eli’s breathing works in a faltering heave and sigh. The lamplight has faded. The oil must be almost gone. At least the bleeding has stopped. Thank God it has stopped. But the scarlet-stained sheets are still under the blankets Greer had us put on Eli to keep off the chill.
How stunned Greer was when he came again, watching the sweat and blood pour off of Eli. His features seemed to fall in on themselves.
“I am sorry, Gus,” he said. “I have seen terrible things. I have done them, Lord knows. We had to do them. We did what we could to save those boys. Poor innocent boys.”
What could I do but nod? Greer is such easy prey to his memories of the war, unable sometimes to speak of anything else. Unable to help himself. We looked down on Eli’s suffering face, both of us struck dumb.
“I am sorry, Gus,” he said again. “But I do not know this illness, and I do not know how to help him.” Then he fell quiet, with only the jagged rhythm of Eli’s breathing between us. When Greer looked at me, I didn’t turn away. I looked at him more closely than I have in years. His sagging, weary eyes. The heavy cheeks covered with grizzled, rust-colored beard. The scar that cuts from eye to jaw, the slash of a shell wound from Chickamauga, grapeshot that had been blasted into the field where he was working on the dying soldiers. He tells the story so often. The scar is a smooth pink ribbon. It seemed to pulse red, as if inflamed by his memory. He turned away from me.
“We can try to ease his pain,” he said. There was shame in his voice. “Put blankets on him and close these windows near twilight. And this. It’s a tincture of opium. You know how to apply it.”
He held out the small bottle of curiously shaped dark blue glass, but I would not take it. I know how to apply it. I have handled it before. It is a familiar remedy to me. He knew that.
He placed the bottle on the marble-topped table by Eli’s bedside and departed. The skin on my arms tingles when I look at it. I cannot help but look at it. The opalescent liquid flared in the glass like a nymph swirling in milky veils. Simon poured it into Eli’s mouth, drops dribbling down his chin onto the sheets. I could have kissed him there, just for a taste of it. But Rachel was apoplectic about the blood. She insists we keep from touching it. Simon was relieved when Eli’s breathing eased into a shallow wheeze. He slept and seemed less troubled. I was relieved, too.
Emma sat on a chair in the corner, sighing a hymn. The refrain had something soothing to it. What were the words? I think I heard it in the African church west of the square when I was a girl. Mama had taken me there to hear their preacher, who had a reputation. The entire congregation sang, wailing and ecstatic. Their voices were like waves of grief and joy combined.
There is a balm in Gilead
That makes the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
Eli coughs and rustles in his bedclothes. Was I sleeping? I want to sleep. I want to cross the hall and lock the door behind me and crawl in between the clean dry sheets and sleep.
Eli’s eyes are open. The whites are red-riddled. He stares at me and shakes his head. “No,” he says again and again. Is it no? I cannot understand him. His arms wrestle with the blankets. He wants to reach out to me again. He wants some last embrace. I can feel each vertebra of my back against the chair. My hands grip the carved wood arms. His mouth opens and closes. A shudder takes hold of me and my breath will not come. He gasps and the air makes a wet sucking sound as it enters his lungs. He groans. I want to scream but cannot. I want to run from him. The blankets lift with an incredible effort. He is scratching at them, his hands prisoner under their weight. He lets out another shuddering groan. His arms collapse against the bed. He exhales with a click.
And all is quiet. The blankets lie still against the bed. A soft wisp of breath slips from his mouth. His eyes fade. The frenzy and desire in them vanish. They are opaque and bleary. He is dead. My God, he is dead.
I cannot cry. I do not want to cry, though I should weep for him. And for myself. And for these past ten years we spent together. For this thing that was our marriage. Whatever it was. And now my husband has died and left me a widow.
The first pale hints of sunrise creep into the sky to color it a hard gray like gunmetal. Simon’s lamp still burns in his bedroom window. He has waited up all night. But I want to linger with Eli. I do not want to move. I do not want to leave this room. Why do I wait? The word widow vibrates in my head. It rolls on my tongue. Widow. My mouth shapes the word silently. I have counted so many days until I could call myself by that name. Widow.
© 2012 Taylor M. Polites
The Rebel Wife
Augusta Branson was born into antebellum Southern nobility during a time of wealth and prosperity, but now she is left standing in the ashes of a broken civilization. When her scalawag husband dies suddenly of a mysterious illness, she must fend for herself and her young son. Slowly she begins to wake to the reality of her new life: her social standing is stained by her marriage; she is alone and unprotected in a community that is being destroyed by racial prejudice and violence; the fortune she thought she would inherit does not exist; and the deadly fever that killed her husband is spreading fast.
Augusta needs someone to trust if she and her son are to escape. As she summons the courage to cross the boundaries of hate, The Rebel Wife presents an unforgettable heroine for our time.
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Reading Group Guide
Augusta “Gus” Branson, born of a prominent Southern family made destitute by the Civil War, is forced by her family into marriage with a wealthy upstart. Ten years after her marriage and the end of the war, she watches her husband Eli die from a horrifying blood fever. During the horror of Eli's swift demise, his most trusted servant, freed slave Simon, urgently questions Gus about a missing package that contains bribe money meant to sway politicians in an upcoming election. Gus plans to flee her Alabama town’s suffocating poverty and social constrictions, but once she realizes her husband’s fortune vanished in the Panic of 1873, she sets out to find the package.
Augusta begins to wake to the realities that surround her as a widowed woman in the antebellum South during Reconstruction: her social standing is stained by her marriage, she is alone and unprotected in a community that is being destroyed by racial prejudice and violence, and the deadly blood fever is ravaging her town. If Gus and Simon c see more