Episode 9: Whispers in the Wind
“What in Heaven’s name happened to you?” Mae gawked from the doorway as we climbed the porch steps. She glanced at Lloyd, who was sneaking around the corner of the house, leading the horses to the barn, and then returned her astonished gaze to us. “Y’all look like you’ve been rollin’ in a pigpen full of ashes. Make sure ya dust off before you come into the house.”
We lined up in front of the doorway and brushed the dirt from our clothes and hair.
“Aw, not Miss Ellie, too.” Mae reached from the doorway and wiped away the dirt from Ellie’s cheek with her apron. “What am I goin’ to do with you boys?”
“Well a hot bath would be nice.” Al sat down on a wicker chair and dumped pebbles from his boot. “And some cold lemonade. My mouth is drier than a powder keg.”
Mae huffed and raised an eyebrow, revealing a humored glint. “That does sound nice. I’ll get right to it, and you can finish getting the supper on.” She disappeared into the house, letting the screen door slam behind her.
Lightning streaked in the distance, followed by a low rumbling of thunder. Wind gusted across the covered porch, almost knocking off my hat. “By the sound of it, you can rinse off and get that cool drink all at once when the rain gets here.”
“And risk getting fried by lightning? Uh uh. The bath can wait.” Al shook his head, stomped his boot, and adjusted his belt as he stood.
Ellie pinned back a loose strand of hair and attempted to smooth the folds in her muddied dress. “Well, you heard Mae, there’s supper to get on. Better clean up as best you can and get to the table before Mr. Al eats it all.” Her eyes danced between Al and me, an amused smile escaping her lips. She plucked a leaf from my mud-clumped hair and shook her head softly, chuckling as she entered the house.
After we washed up, Al and I settled into the dining room as the first wave of rain hit the windowpanes. I took my place at the head of the table and gazed aimlessly at the windows. The sheer white curtains reminded me of the many times I’d endured such a storm from within the meager shelter of a worn, canvas tent. A strange peacefulness crept over me as I listened to the raging elements from the comfort of a well-built home.
Bursts of lightning flashed outside, casting a sharp halo of light over the table. The wall sconces dimmed as their filaments crackled their last electrical sparks and faded to complete darkness. The crack of thunder that followed startled me from my thoughts.
“Looks like Pa’s generator is on the fritz again.” Another flash of lightning lit Al’s path as he entered the room, still stuffing his shirt into his pants.
“I’ll have Lloyd check it out after the storm passes. Tonight, we’ll eat by candlelight, like everyone else.” I felt around for a box of matches and when I found it, I lit the decorative table candles in front of us.
Al sat down in the chair to my right, leaning over the table as he inhaled the aroma of fresh-baked biscuits before settling into his seat. “Smells good. Oh how I’ve missed Mae’s cookin’.”
“Watch yourself, Mr. Al, unless you want supper in your lap.” Mae appeared beside us with a steaming pot and served us each a ladle of hot stew. “I reckon you’d eat just about anything right now.”
“I reckon you’re right, Ms. Mae. But nothing would taste better than your stew and fresh biscuits.” He scooped up his spoon in one hand and stuffed half a biscuit in his mouth with the other.
I split my bread and drizzled honey on each half. “I can’t remember the last time we had honey, can you?”
Still savoring his butter-soaked bun, Al spoke between chews, letting golden crumbs fall on to the linen tablecloth. “Too long. Must have been the night before we left, before…” He trailed off, the unspoken words as heavy as the pine boxes he was reluctant to mention.
I cleared my throat, not wishing to dwell on our losses. Riding all the way home with Pa and Jr.’s bodies behind us had been been painful enough. “It has been quite a while.”
“By the way, Mr. Cornwell stopped by today, about your Pa’s will.” Mae said softly as she filled our glasses with water.
“Ah, right. Guess we’ll have to deal with that sooner than later,” I said.
“I reckon so.” More crumbs fell from Al’s mouth as he spoke.
I folded my napkin and placed it in my lap. “We’ll head to town in the morning. Stop by Bern’s office, grab supplies, order vittles for a welcome home dinner party. You know, the kind Pa always used to throw. What do you think, Al? Should we revive the Albright tradition?”
“Absolutely. You don’t have to ask me twice, and I think Maddie will be over the moon to attend her first formal party.”
“Where is Maddie?” I asked Mae. “She wouldn’t want to miss biscuits and honey.”
Ellie descended the last few stairs in the main hall and entered the room. Her hair had been washed and pulled into a tight bun, accenting the feminine sweep of her cheekbones. She’d changed into a faded green dress and tied a fresh apron around her waist. “Lil’ Maddie’s already been fed, washed, and tucked in for the night.”
“How’s she doing?” Al asked, his hand lingering over his glass as he waited for a reply.
“She’s doing real well. No sign of fever today and a little more appetite than yesterday.” Mae rested her hand on the back of Al’s chair. “But she’s sure torn up about losing her new doll.”
I winced, remembering my forgotten promise. “That’s right. I told her I’d help her look for it. Between searching for Pa and Junior, the fallen airship, and that old rotting tree, I completely forgot.”
Mae’s brows furrowed, and her eyes darted between Al, Ellie, and me. “What old tree?”
“Our search took us by the cemetery…and the Lynchin’ Tree,” Ellie said, meeting Mae’s gaze with reluctance.
Mae tilted her head and gave Ellie a reprimanding look. “You shouldn’t be messin’ around out there.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice. I have no desire to revisit that place, but it seems someone else does.” Al took a swig of water. “Someone’s hanging bottles from the tree’s branches.”
“And the cemetery next to it wasn’t there before the war,” I added. “I’m guessing Lloyd and some hands fixed that up?”
“Seemed like an appropriate place to lay the dead to rest,” Mae answered reverently. “Not far enough away from the house, if you ask me.”
Another flash of lightning illuminated a figure in the doorway. A silky white nightgown swayed as Maddie stepped into the room, the aura of soft candlelight warming her ghostly outline.
Mae pursed her lips in a motherly fashion as she gave Maddie a stern, but affectionate, look. “Now Miss Maddie, you should be in bed. You’ll catch a chill if you’re wandering around this drafty old house at night.”
Maddie gazed at Mae with eyes full of childhood innocence and never-ending wonder. “I can’t sleep. I’m scared.”
Mae’s eyebrow raised as she glanced at Al and me, a look that told us she wasn’t fooled by the child’s stall tactics. “It’s just a storm, precious. The good Lord likes to remind us that he’s still upstairs, watching over us.”
“Not the storm. Chimes…” Maddie blinked mechanically and tilted her head ever so slightly. “And whispers. Don’t you hear them?”
Mae’s motherly calm slipped into concern. I wondered if she had been mistaken about Maddie’s fever passing; it seemed like she still showed signs of delirium.
Ellie stepped in, squatting next to Maddie to speak at her level. She ran her fingers through Maddie’s hair while cradling her face with the other hand. “There, there, now. You’re hearing the howl of the wind and pans clanking in the kitchen. Would you like it if I sat with you for a while? Until you fall asleep?” Maddie shook her head up and down in short, slow motions, and Ellie returned a warm smile.
They retreated from the dining area as Mae returned to the kitchen. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Maddie was still unwell. What other explanation would there be for the weird tree pictures, funny dolls, and hearing things? And her words tonight? It was as if she knew about the superstitions and rumors about the Lynchin’ Tree and its bottle-clad branches. I hoped she hadn’t heard stories from the workers. I made a mental note to task Ellie to speak to the workers and snuff out all those unwanted rumors—especially in the house, where Maddie might overhear.
Al and I finished dinner with meager small talk, but my focus was on the storm outside. Through the warring elements, I almost thought I heard glass bottles dancing in the wind, their echoes carrying the whispers of stirring souls.
Stay tuned! Episode 10 posts Friday, February 6, 2015.