A Novel by Susan Sidell
“It’s a boy,” the grizzled woman stood in the dark hall, blocking any view into the tiny room. She swiped at the gray hairs that hung around her face, leaving a bloody streak across her forehead, and turned back into the room.
The young man, he was really no more than a boy, put more wood into the fireplace and adjusted the large cast iron kettle. The wood handle was worn bone-smooth with grey cracks from its many years of use. It would need replacing soon, he noticed, as the handle wobbled slightly on the posts of the kettle. He tipped the spout and water splashed onto his hand, turning his skin pink. Hot, but not hot enough to burn. He’d brought the kettle to boil yesterday afternoon and now, confident that it was sterile, he was keeping it hot enough for the midwife to use for washing. Sweat beaded his upper lip, catching in the patchy few hairs that sprouted there. He leaned away from the fire’s heat and wiped his eyes of the tears that had threatened to overflow. He squinted into the darkness of the hallway, willing his eyes to see Martha standing. He could hear the baby now but he hadn’t heard anything from Martha since the midwife had closed the door on her cries last night.
He and his new bride had joined the many people from her church to move WEST. Rumors of a place where they could worship without prejudice and persecution called the small group away from their home. Jeb and Martha had been married almost two months when the elders had decided to move in the coming spring.
Jeb was not surprised when the news was announced to the Faithful that Saturday evening, the cool November wind had ruffled the Elder’s hair and he vainly patted it into place while he spoke to the congregation. Two weeks before the announcement, Martha had curled into his arms late one night, the full moon streaming into the bedroom and lighting her tousled hair. The sight had seized Jeb’s heart for a moment, it was so like and yet so unlike that night six years earlier when his mother had laid in this bed, the moon filling the room with light as she kissed him for the last time. Jeb pulled Martha closer to him, closing his eyes against the tears that threatened to flow. “You and me,” he whispered, “we will be together forever.”
“On this Earth and in Heaven,” Martha replied.
“And I will never, ever leave you alone. I promise.” Jeb’s whisper cracked and he hid his face in Martha’s hair.
“Jeb,” Martha began in a soft voice, “Momma told me she overheard some of the elders talking about leaving.”
Jeb’s face jerked away from Martha’s hair, his eyes wide as he asked, “Leaving? Why would they leave? You’ve just moved here!”
“I know. There has been some news of our Brethren in Illinois facing persecution and, well, Momma heard Elder Farrow say it would be better to leave here before they come to take our homes and land, before we get too attached to life here in the valley.”
“Martha, ‘too attached?’ what does that mean? I’ve lived here my whole life; my granddad settled this farm. How could I just up and leave my home?”
“I know, Jebby, I know. I hope Momma is wrong about what she heard, but I thought I should tell you, just in case. Please, don’t tell anyone, okay? Let’s just wait and see what happens.” Martha reached up to stroke Jeb’s face, running her finger down his soft cheek and to his tightened lips, “Besides, certainly it would take some time to get everyone ready to move, don’t you think? And they haven’t even told the Faithful yet, so I’d guess we have plenty of time.” Martha moved her finger from Jeb’s lips and placed her mouth on his, giving three quick kisses then a kiss on his nose. This had been their little joke that had started the first time Jeb had kissed Martha. He had pulled her in close and looked deeply into her eyes, his body raging with fire up and down his limbs and his face flush with desire and fear in equal parts. He’d never kissed a girl, but he so wanted to kiss Martha. He gave her a fast kiss on her lips without warning, then blinked and kissed her again, his head moving quick as a chicken pecking. Martha had smiled, giggled softly, then wrapped her arms around Jeb’s neck and pulled him in for a soft and gentle kiss. Jeb had gasped at the intensity of this kiss and Martha had laughed, then kissed his nose. Jeb knew then he wanted to marry Martha, to have her in his life forever. The ache of longing and of loneliness shared domain in his heart and Jeb had burst out, “I love you, Martha!”
Martha’s father had come to this rural part of Tennessee to spread the WORD OF GOD, Martha, who had four sisters and five brothers; Martha, who had both a mother and a father, and two aunts and uncles; Martha, who was only fourteen and wore a blue dress that matched her eyes; Martha, who came and talked with the sixteen-year-old orphan boy trying to manage a farm by himself and invited Jeb to church with her; Martha, who had invited him to dinner after church, who had accepted his invitation to marry four months later, who had stood with him at the small alter, the number of her family making up for the lack of any on Jeb’s side during the ceremony, who had said she was bound to her husband and her parents equally when the order came that it was time to move on. Martha, who had become Jeb’s entire world; Martha, who pointed out that the homestead was a memory of a painful past and moving out WEST would be the start of a bright future for them…
Martha, who said God was calling her to guide her new husband into a forever home of security and loving family support in the WEST and that Jeb needed to trust the WORD OF GOD. His chest tightened at just a wisp of a thought of being without Martha. What if she didn’t choose him? What if she chose her family and the Faithful over the orphan boy and his scrappy farm? His throat closed and the sides of his neck pounded, he couldn’t breathe. His mind jumped inside his skull like a trapped squirrel in a cage.
Just because God had not spoken to Jeb directly about moving WEST didn’t matter. God had never spoken to Jeb, never even noticed the him, as far as Jeb could tell.
Martha threw up for the first time on their three-month wedding anniversary, and then she threw up the next day, and the next. It had taken almost two weeks of vomiting before she realized she was pregnant. She lay nauseous most of the day, rousing only to make dinner before retching and going back to bed. By the time her third month of pregnancy had come, she resembled a ghost, a figment floating through the house quietly. Jeb’s worried eyes never left her.
Martha’s mother assured her worried son-in-law this was normal. Martha would have a rough time the first three months and then suddenly it would be over. Jeb hoped and waited for Martha to get better. Please don’t let her die, he prayed every night as he climbed into bed beside the girl who had become a sack of bones.
Martha’s mother was right. One day Martha didn’t throw up after rising, and she didn’t retch after cooking dinner. The next day, Martha woke with an appetite and after that, she was again the bright star in Jeb’s firmament. Laughing, baking pocket cakes for Jeb to take with him when he went out to work, singing while she fixed dinner, and smiling into his eyes while they ate together.
It would take three months to trek to the Promised Land.
And then the order to move came. Their brethren were under attack in Illinois and it was only a matter of time before Tennessee and the other states would do the same. The non-believers wanted the land, fine, let them have it, Martha’s father had preached. We will go to a place, the Basin, where no man wants the land, and we will thrive.
Martha was four months pregnant when the order came to move immediately. The Tennessee winter had been gentle so the Faithful decided it was a sign from God to pack up and head out in advance of the May 1846 deadline. Jeb wondered about this deadline; there was no directive in Tennessee for the people to leave, no extermination order here. Why not wait? Wait until Martha and the baby are strong enough.
Martha’s father said that God does not act within a man’s timeline. Martha, feeling strong and ebullient assured Jeb that they would be able to reach the Basin by early summer and there would be still two months to build a house and get settled before the baby was due. Listen to God, Martha said. But Jeb couldn’t hear God. Maybe God didn’t talk to orphans who questioned Him, even if they did it only in the silence of their own mind.
Jeb stared at the ruts in the frozen mud as his tractor toiled out of the gate toward its new owner’s farm, his favorite dappled gray mare and his father’s bay gelding pulling it along, their breath coming in frosted fogs as they left the little farm. In front of the little cabin his grandfather had built was a new wagon, its pale canvas breathed softly in the wind and the new yellow wood of its wheels shone like a sunrise. The oxen would have no trouble hooking into the new yoke that Jeb had bought. He averted his eyes from the dappled gray mare disappearing down the drive and looked to the new yoke leaning against the new cart. He admired its golden gleam, smooth and perfect. He glanced at the old yoke laying against the barn, its weathered patches and splintered sides spoke of the many years of service to the Murtry farm.
Martha and her sisters sang as they packed the kitchen into the chuck box. Jeb could hear snippets of gospel songs and laughter as the girls chose only the most necessary of the old tin items left by Jeb’s mother. There had been two generations of women in this kitchen before Martha; there would be no more Murtry women to light the old cast iron stove after her.
Jeb and Martha’s brothers positioned themselves around the feather mattress. Jeb surveyed the room as they lifted the unwieldy mattress. A heat rose from his knees and threatened to blind him; he and his brother had been born on this mattress. His mother had spent most of her time in the kitchen but it was in this room, on this mattress that Jeb remembered her most strongly. Holding her hand as she lay on it, wiping the sweat from her face, cleaning the bile when she vomited. At the end, her wasted frail body had barely made a dent in it. Jeb remembered the long shadows cast by the moonlight as he curled next to her, counting her breaths, watching her pulse flutter in her neck. His father had slept beside the fire in the kitchen every night since Mom had gotten sick and Jeb had stayed beside his mother in his parent’s bed. That last night, the full moon streaming through the window so bright you could read, his mother’s eyes had opened for the first time in days. She reached her hand to cup Jeb’s cheek, the corners of her mouth lifting slightly. “Sweet boy,” she whispered. Jeb drew closer and she kissed his forehead, looking into the face that resembled her own, his jaw would broaden in time but for now he was her spitting image. “I am so, so sorry to leave you. I love you so, so much.” Her hand slipped from his cheek then and Jeb watched her eyes close.
One of the brothers shouted, “Heave!” and they lifted the mattress into the wagon. Jeb felt the thick fold of bills in his pocket press into his hip, money from the sheriff’s son who had bought the rest of the furnishings and the house. He didn’t need to weigh down the wagon with furniture, he would build whatever Martha needed when they got to the Basin. In his other pocket was a small green velvet box, Jeb could not decide whether it should come with him into his new life.
Jeb pulled the green velvet box from his pocket. He could wrap his entire fist around it now. When Pa had pulled it off the mantle that first time, the box had engulfed Jeb’s hand before swallowing his father and brother. The familiar ache rose again in his heart. Would it ever go away? Would the sadness ever stop stabbing his gut? Jeb didn’t think so. Even with Martha, there was an emptiness, a void, that threatened to devour Jeb and all he worked to build. Jeb squeezed the box, willing the heirloom to break, as if he could break the hold it had on his memories.
The trek would take only three months.