As if looking good was so much to ask! Daddy was yelling his lungs up downstairs but I bet that’s because he, like all men, thinks a girl can just get pretty lickety-split.
“Well,” I said real sly to myself, “someone has the Easter jitters.” I was back at the mirror, back to that black silk dress with the white cuffs, when I heard him billowing up the stairs with clunks and sighs. By the time he’d opened the door I was seeing how the lime green chrysolite pendant would look even though it hung a little lower than my collar and—
“You’re still dressing!” he wailed. “How?”
I twirled from the mirror with a big failure of a smile. “Do you think this topaz would look better than the chrysolite? I think yellow suits the black silk more than green would.”
“You’re in mourning!”
“Well, sure, but—”
“But what?” His eyebrows crumpled and he said, “Yesterday I couldn’t even get you to leave the house.”
“Well,” I said, twirling the necklaces, “here you are, I’m leaving the house.”
“No ma’am,” he said, eyeing my baubly dangles. “Not as a gypsy.” I glared and scoffed all over the place. “Winnie, I’m sorry we haven’t talked about this, but I thought you knew.”
“I do. Which is why I don’t want to launch someone else into it when they look at me.”
“It’s not your duty—it’s the opposite of your duty, in fact—to be the comeliest woman there.” I heard the horses neigh their assent as Ezekiel pulled up with the buggy.
“Need I you remind you, sir, that someone in my position has no real duty.” His ruby face went numb pearl.
“Being a dead soldier’s fiancé is no different than being a dead soldier’s wife.”
“It’s different to me.”
“Well not to me! You’ve been holed up this whole time but I’ve been going to town. I’ve heard how the Northerners talk.”
“They talk about me?”
“They talk whatever they want. They don’t care about gossiping right in the open. I’m trying to keep you out of that.”
Here I probably threw in a little eye roll. “Well, that’s fine, Dad, but how do you think I’ll feel when I see everyone else today, all decked out in their Easter finery while I’m over in a corner—”
“You’ll feel like a widow! Because that’s how folks think of you: not as a dead mean’s fiancé, but a widow.”
“I barely even knew him.”
“Did you know I wanted to leave a quarter of an hour ago? Did you hear me say that yesterday?”
“Well, you have one minute, Winifred.”
It would have been fine—his slamming the door and all—but that little porcelain canary I kept over my doorway spilled from up top and scattered the ground like your first toss of corn feed. My silk creaked as I stooped to the wreckage. The bird’s beak sat up as tall as you please in the center of its own mess.
I couldn’t clean it. I’d never touched it after putting it up there so I certainly wouldn’t now. When she’d bought it for me, Mama had only said, “Now that’s something” as she watched the canary eye me plucky from the palm of my lace glove. (Maybe she explained the one for Quinn better—“pheasants are mindful, just like you”—because he was younger). But Mama up and died before I could ask what she meant and then Quinn followed her out before I could engage his pheasanty powers of perception and then Daddy went and Humpty Dumptied this moxious thing to its doom.
I shot my necklace at the dresser as I stomped over the fowl yellow candies.
Daddy waited more than a minute. I knew he would. The guilt from all that howling of his was probably tearing him up. And I felt soft until Ezekiel helped me into the back of the buggy and I saw Daddy wasn’t going to say a thing. So as I smoothed my dress I smiled away from him, thank you very much.
And furthermore: as we trundled off, I saw just how sweet this moment would be. If we’d left when Daddy wanted, we wouldn’t have caught any of this. The way the fog nuzzled the palmettos’ shingly bark as it slunk to the marshes. Or how Ezekiel yelled to another Negro, “Boy, what you doin’ fishin’ when the Lord’s arose? Get you some doctrine.” It’s true that the Spanish moss, once we were in the forest, would still have teased the horses with its fuzzy pendants, would’ve swathed us in the dusty breaths of its crinkling leaflets.
But as we neared the forest’s other side, the curtains of moss began to billow and heave, to snap as they finished snaking. Yes, the air was much heartier than if we’d left when Daddy wanted. Even through the heavy foliage, the air was breezing in savory—fast and chilly for April. And that’s when I laughed at this Carolina Sunday, breathed it in. Maybe some churching would be just my delight.
My bottom lifted a smidge as we tore from the forest. I grabbed the front seat as I leaned towards it. Ezekiel must have heard my breathing. He kept his eyes on the road but turned his head towards me. “Could be a soppy mornin’.”
“Rain’ll beat us there, Miss Winnie.”
“Hmm?” I inquired with a ready smile. But then I looked forward. Amethyst clouds were digging in from the other side of town. “Oh!” I blurted out like an old man falling out of bed.
Daddy looked up as I tried to lean back real innocent. But the glare he shot me was something sharp. Had he known we were in for rain? Is that why he was so crazy about leaving early?
Now it was my turn for guilt: if we got to church wet I’d be the Easter Executioner. (And, on a very unrelated note, look significantly less fetching.)
I tried, “I’m sorry if we’re running a little behind.”
He shook his head. “You could care less about duty, couldn’t you.”
“Duty!” I almost died laughing. “I left the necklaces at home if that’s what you’re so tart about.”
“Winnie, do you even feel sorry that Trent died?”
He tried to gasp but I spit out, “Because we knew him about equal. And that’s to say not very much at all.”
“But, yes, I probably bawled my eyes out solid for the first two weeks.”
“Then why aren’t you still mourning?”
“’Cause I’ve already done it. And just because I’m sorry for him doesn’t mean I’m sorry for me.”
His eyes popped. His whole body turned towards me. “Never say that to anyone.”
“You will not say those words to another person.”
Wasn’t now my time to tell him?
His eyes kept inflating. “Don’t ever say that again, Winifred.”
“Sure,” I said, examining the toes of my shoes. They’d been so chic ‘til last year! War, you ruiner of fashion.
He turned and spit to the dust. We went miles without a word.
But just when I was checking my hand for raindrops, he burst out, “You don’t make sense, Winnie. The way you’re acting now. It don’t correlate.”
Shouldn’t I tell him? I could get it out real quick, like a gun shot: Daddy, I sent a letter to Trent that said I didn’t want to marry him but I don’t know if he got it before he died or as he was dying or after he’d gone up, and, Daddy, I didn’t mind the mourning thing, I just don’t think I can keep it up any longer.
I bet I would’ve said all that. Except right then Daddy had to say, “It only took a few days of knowing your mother before I was dumb with caring. We weren’t even courting and I was sick for her.”
Now I sure as shooting couldn’t tell him about Trent. My eyes were shut too tight. ‘Cause all I could see was Mama, back at that store. Back at the counter, paying for that canary. Isn’t that strange? I can’t remember any of those wonderful things she said to me every single hour, but I can still think up her paying for that dumb canary. She had the surest smile I’d ever seen.
Ezekiel hustled the horses and I finally came to, pretending the sky was clear and pretending to watch it. But I kept thinking of Mama, and when I looked at Ezekiel, I had to wonder if she would have liked that he was free now, driving our carriage as proud as lemons past fields that Sherman had lit up and shut down.