Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Bookends (01/30/14)
TITLE: Marble Heart
By Arlene Showalter
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Sallie Mae shook her head, but continued flicking a rag over the books, sandwiched between busts of Plato and Socrates. How could Mrs. Schmitt understand few Georgia girls learned to read?
Who were these stern looking men, anyway, staring through sightless eyes, faces frozen in marble? She touched one. As cold as my own heart, she thought.
“My Wilhelm partook in another great victory.” Mrs. Schmitt rattled the newspaper. “They’re in North Carolina now.”
Sallie Mae shrugged and moved on to the pianoforte. She ran the cloth over silent keys.
“Do you play, Liebchen?”
Another shake of the head. Why do all Yankees think every Southern is rich, with a million slaves, living in mansions and pianos in every home? My pa couldn’t afford even one slave. She looked at her rough, red hands. I’ve worked hard all my life.
She glanced out the window at the alien landscape. Naked trees struggled against lingering cold to push life through deadened branches and produce tiny buds of promise. 'Twould be so hot in Georgia right now. Maybe hot enough melt my marbled, lifeless heart. She stared at her arms and spread her fingers. Like two dead saplings, sprouted from my own dead body and branching out to ten lifeless sticks.
“Will you check the post for me?” Mrs. Schmitt smiled as she sipped her tea. “How I long for spring. It seems so late this year.”
Sallie Mae nodded and shrugged into the oversized, borrowed coat. She welcomed the solitude of the chilly walk. Then, and only then, would she release the tears that daily threatened to drown her.
She wanted to hate Mrs. Schmitt. She poured every ounce of energy into trying. In the months since General William Sherman had accused her and 700 other women, children and old men with treason, in July of 1864 — for daring to work in Georgia mills making cloth for the Confederacy — she hated all Yankees.
General Gerrand forced all these Rebel “traitors” on a 10 mile march, carrying only what they could with their two hands. Sallie Mae took one dress and one suit of clothes for almost-three-year-old Jimmy. Her son and a letter from the front had arrived on the same day in 1862. Jimmy’s daddy had died, “with glory and honor” in a far-off place called Manassas.
After the trek to Marietta, Georgia, the “traitors” were crammed into boxcars and shipped north of the Ohio River. There, they were dumped on the loading dock, expected to fend for themselves in a foreign land.
The trip took nine days. Jimmy joined his father on the eighth. A Yankee soldier pried his stiff body from Sallie Mae’s stiffer arms and now Jimmy slept in Yankee soil, in a place Sallie Mae would never find again.
After two days huddled on the sagging wooden bench, a lady had stopped in front of her.
“Miss.” The voice held a heavy accent. Sallie dared look up.
“I haf not much money, but I cannot let you stay here and suffer. Please come home with me? I cannot pay you, but you can work for your keep.”
Sallie Mae struggled to her feet.
“I haf much pity for you. I am Mrs. Schmitt. Have you a husband?”
Sallie Mae shook her head.
Another denying shake.
“Then, you are blessed. You have no extra sorrow to carry.”
Sallie Mae clenched her fists behind her back and studied the rough boards beneath her feet.
Mrs. Schmitt soon learned not to ask Sallie Mae questions. She knew nothing of the girl but expressed gratitude of Sallie’s willingness to work.
I’ll not be beholden to any vile Yankee.
“This awful war will be over soon,” Mrs. Schmitt said, reaching for the letters Sallie Mae brought back. “Oh, here’s one from Wilhelm!”
Sallie drifted into the kitchen. Leave her to exult that her loved one lives yet. She took a rag and began scrubbing at the already spotless sideboard.
“Look, Liebchen, look!” Mrs. Schmitt squealed as she raced into the kitchen. “My boy had a carte de visite made.” She thrust it under Sallie’s nose. “Isn’t he handsome?”
Sallie choked the rag in her hand, but bent forward to study the tiny photograph printed into the small calling card.
That face. She saw those hands reaching — tearing her dead son from her arms.
Sallie Mae melted into the floor, her skirt swirling like a black pond beneath her.
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