I have neither the energy nor the inclination to record every gruesome detail of my husband’s death — if, indeed, dear reader, my poor Winston is truly dead. It may well be my duty as a wife to bear witness, but I take no pleasure in documenting the particulars. I write only for the sake of the child I carry inside me, the one that deserves to know what happened to its father.
To understand my husband, you must first know and come to accept, as I have, that Winston Biggs was seemingly possessed of an uncanny ability, on more than one occasion, to cheat death. Even as babe, no more than a few days old, Winston should, by all accounts, have died, but the scarlet fever that took his mother apparently never touched the child.
Tragedy struck the family again when Winston was thirteen. He alone somehow walked away from a fire that claimed the lives of his father and two servants, a fire that started in the boy’s own bedroom. It was then that Winston left Washington, near Augusta, to live with his older sister in Savannah.
Now, there is no doubt that Julia Gaines, widow of the late honorable Judge Jefferson Gaines, loved my husband. When she married at nineteen, leaving a then six-year-old Winston to fend for himself back home, she was certain to tell her brother that he always had a home in Savannah. My husband had said on many occasions that were it not for Julia, he would not have lived to see as many days as he had.
I wish I had understood their relationship better from the very beginning.
I had met Winston at the wedding of a mutual friend. Savannah society, even then, was a small group of well-informed wives and widows, all looking for any opportunity to marry off a niece or daughter. I was the former, visiting my Aunt Winnie for the summer when I was eighteen. Winston, wide-eyed and handsome in his uniform, was formally introduced to me after the Church service. He was then dividing his time between Washington and Savannah, trying to rebuild the Biggs estate.
It was not until the following week, when he awkwardly came to call with an invitation to dinner at his sister’s house, that I knew Winston Biggs was the man for me.
Only three years and few months separated us in age. We were perfect together. We shared a fondness for gardens and a love of music. We both wanted a large family and an estate with many servants. He called me his “lovely Rose” — for that is my name, Rose — and I was the happiest woman alive.
It was to be a short courtship. We were married on the 22nd of March. A few weeks later, Winston rejoined his regiment,
the 15th Georgia Infantry, and I was a new bride — with no husband and no home, for the house in Washington was still in disrepair. It was then that Julia invited me to stay with her at the house on York Street, near Columbia Square. Without Nelson there, her sixteen-year-old son who was also off fighting Yankees, the house felt empty, she told me.
I remember her saying “We are, after all, family, my dear.”
But family does not keep secrets as Julia and Winston kept from me.
I had never had a sibling, so I do not expect to know or understand the nature of the bond that exists between brothers and sisters. Winston and Julia shared a playfulness that I envied, and an unspoken understanding of each other’s thoughts. For the few weeks of our short honeymoon, Winston spoke much of Julia.
“I owe her my life,” he once told me at dinner.
I had only remarked that Julia seemed overly protective of him.
He reached inside his vest, as if to show me something, but then stopped.
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
“Implicitly,” I answered, for I was in love.
“Then, please, never question my sister’s dedication.”
We would not speak about the matter again.
The two of them were incredibly superstitious. Everyone in that part of the lowcountry was. Even my own aunt — as rational as I or any woman who bore the maiden name of Mathers — even she dabbled in the Geechee medicine of the region, swearing by area superstitions and local lore.
It was something I had to accept about Savannah. Everyone was friendly, and everyone had a secret.
I later learned from talking to Julia that what Winston kept pinned inside his jacket was a small, red flannel pouch. She had given it to him the day he returned to Wilkes County to join the Delphi Rangers.
“A charm of protection,” she said. “A gift from Father Po.”
Now, Father Po was a freed slave who was said to live in a shack in the woods outside the city. He was certainly well respected, feared even by all the servants who worked in the local homes. Betty, our maid, a fine, good-tempered woman who had served the family of the late Judge Gaines for decades — she would always make the sign of the cross every time Father Po’s name was mentioned.
Some folks said that he was over a hundred years old, and that his power came from the devil. For years, Julia had known him. She visited him at least once a week, sometimes more, and always alone. She brought him food, blankets, and sometimes, new clothes.
In return, he would work his spells for her.
Root magic is what it’s called.
“It’s a harmless sack,” she told me. “Full of dried leaves and such.”
“Then why insist he carry it?” I asked her.
“To humor me, my dear. To keep him from harm when he’s out there fighting Yankees. You would be surprised, sweet sister, by what the power of suggestion can do. You didn’t touch it, did you?”
“No, he wouldn’t show me,” I replied.
“Good,” she answered. “You are to never ask him about it. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Julia,” I answered. Then, hoping to endear myself to my new sister, I asked her “Will you show me how to make such a charm for myself?”
At the time, I had taken her at her word and assumed there was no harm.
“No,” she replied. “You can’t work magic on yourself. Someone has to gift it to you.”
Such a pretty face Julia had, but when she spoke those words to me that afternoon, her aspect turned menacing. It was as if I was being told that I’d forever be an outsider, and that there were certain things I was never meant to know. I resented being treated like a child, and was never again very comfortable around my sister-in-law.
For Winston’s sake, I vowed to make the best of my situation, but in my heart, I disliked Julia. Until he returned from war, I would respect her wishes, but I looked to the day when he would come home and take me away from that place.
Alas, it was a sad reunion.
Winston had been wounded at Sharpsburg in September, and when he returned to us, discharged from service and disabled, in mid October, he was a different man. A piece of the bullet that had struck him down had embedded itself in his left temple. The field surgeon told Winston he was lucky. But because of the fragment, my husband’s left eye drooped, and the muscles on that side of his face were forever rigid. It was if the joy that was once there, the life in his smile and light in his eyes, they were gone.
To those who did not know him so well, Winston was otherwise fine in his appearance, but with the injury had come other, more noticeable changes. He had terrible headaches every day — like tiny little knives cutting into his brain he said — and, at times, his balance would leave him. He had also lost a great deal of weight, almost forty pounds, leaving him but a ghost of his former self. I could not get him to each much more than soups and perhaps the occasional piece of rare beef.
Other than that, he showed little interest in food.
My husband’s appetite for, how shall I put it, marital relations, however, was not the least bit affected.
You must remember, we were still newlyweds.
It was not long before I knew I was with child, and for a few fleeting weeks in the charm of late autumn, when even warm Savannah starts to cool, we were the happiest couple that God in his heaven had ever seen fit to bless. Despite his afflictions, Winston was elated, and news of the pregnancy even saw a softening in my sister-in-law.
She became very protective of me, letting me know that it was a special thing to be a mother — that she could enlist the help of Father Po to protect me against any harm — for such things as miscarriage and stillbirth were common — but I respectfully declined the help of magicians.
I chose, instead, as any good Christian would, to put my faith in God. Every Sunday, I prayed alone at the new Trinity Church. It was a long walk to Calhoun Square, but I enjoyed the time alone.
Winston and his sister would not join me.
For a short while, Julia and I were at least civil toward each other. There was a mutual respect. That is, until a few days before Christmas, when she recommended that Winston and I join her for a visit to Father Po.
“For what purpose?” I protested.
“He can provide you with the things you’ll need to raise a healthy child.”
“I have told you. I am not having any root doctor touch me,” I said.
But Winston intervened. He explained to me that Julia meant no harm, and that his sister had given birth to her Nelson while under the care of Father Po and his wife Dory. It was not easy for Julia. Judge Gaines had died before Nelson was born, and it was Betty’s mother who had introduced her to Father Po. Dory, as it turned out, was an excellent midwife. Without them, Julia might not have made it as a mother alone. It was for this reason — to honor Dory — that Julia had since helped local women, poor slaves and indigents and the like, with the birthing of their children. In fact, she had been away for the entire evening just the night before, helping a friend of Betty’s. Alas, the woman lost her child.
“Let’s just go this once,” said my husband. “Julia has done so much for us. To do otherwise would be rude.”
“I’m not drinking, eating, or touching anything,” I told him.
“She misses her son. She wants to feel like part of a family. This is her way of welcoming the baby,” he said.
So I reluctantly acquiesced, and thus agreed, we traveled outside the city limits that Saturday.
It is important for me to first tell you how we stopped the carriage only a few blocks away at Colonial Park, the cemetery where Judge Gaines was buried. Julia insisted that she would be quick, that it was only proper to bring her late husband some flowers for Christmas.
I wanted to stay in the cab, but Winston insisted that I join them.
Julia quietly processed past headstone after headstone, eerie in her silence as if the walk were somehow solemn. It was funny, but I never thought she cared much for the Judge. I remarked about this to Winston, and about the overgrowth of Spanish moss that had caught my attention, but my husband had no patience for me.
“Show some respect for the dead,” he scolded.
I’ll be the first to admit that I acted like a petulant child. I said not a word for the rest of the ride. I questioned not while Julia hovered above the grave. I remained silent as Winston and his sister talked of death and the corruptibility of the body. And I commented not when — strangest of all — my husband quite unexpectedly announced that he had made preparations for “the remaining members of the Biggs family” — myself, Winston, Julia, Nelson, and even our child — to one day be buried, not in the ground, but in a mausoleum at some new cemetery just outside the city called Laurel Grove.
Julia looked only slightly surprised. I, however, was quite bemused.
This preoccupation with death frightened me. It was a side of Winston that I had not seen before. That he had made the arrangements without first consulting me did not concern me so much as this newly manifested fear and loathing of a “common burial below ground” as he put it.
I understand that a man who had faced death on the battlefield may become obsessed with his own mortality, but Winston’s terror was sudden and palpable. In the carriage, at the moment of his announcement, he loosened his collar and began to sweat.
“Promise me, both of you,” he pleaded. “At Malvern Hill, I heard of men buried alive. I will not have that happen to me.”
“It’s alright, Winston,” I told him, holding one of his wet and trembling hands as Julia clenched the other.
Winston gritted his teeth. It was one of the headaches, come on like a storm. I could sense the pain in his face, despite the left side’s rigidity.
Closing his one good eye, he whispered, “Just promise you won’t bury me unless you are certain I am dead.”
“We won’t sweetness,” I told him, looking to Julia as she nodded in agreement. For the rest of the trip, we had to reassure my husband that nothing of the kind could ever happen. He would never need to worry about such nonsense. He was going to live a long, long time.
By the time we pulled up the carriage to the dilapidated shack that was the home of the root doctor, it was almost dark. Truth be told, I had become so concerned for my husband that I almost forgot the purpose of our visit.
Julia did not. With the help of the driver, she was first out of the carriage to greet the old black man. I was startled to see her embrace him, and as I helped Winston out of the cab, I noticed how this Father Po held Julia’s hand.
“Back from da sho ded?” he said, apparently making some observation or perhaps asking a question. I write here what I heard, but as I did not then, nor do I now understand the Geechee dialect, I was at a loss to reply.
“He wants to know if we stopped by Colonial Park,” said Julia, nodding as Father Po laughed. “Isn’t that right Father? I told you we would be stopping by to see the Judge.”
“Yeh,” he coughed, still giggling.
‘Sure dead,'” she repeated, slowly, so I could understand. “It means ‘the cemetery.’ He’s asking if we went there today.”
“Oh yes,” I answered. “Julia here insisted that we pay our respects.”
“No, eyes ‘insisted’,” answered the shriveled figure of a man.
I believe the old root doctor was mocking me.
The remainder of the evening passed without incident. Father Po neither asked to touch my stomach — an impropriety I would not stand — nor did he force upon me any potions, pouches, or pills. I must admit that as the visit came to its completion, I was somewhat offended by the devil’s indifference toward me. He spent most of the evening muttering his broken English to Julia, and staring at poor Winston. My husband, who silently suffered through his excruciating migraine, was not amused.
As we were leaving, Father Po said, “Take dis,” while handing Winston something that looked like tree bark. “Chew,” said the old man.
“It will help with your headache,” explained Julia. She sat beside me in the cab, looking out the window.
“Thank you,” answered Winston, “That’s kind, but not necessary,” he told Father Po. “I’ll be fine,” he said.
I could see that my husband was likewise uncomfortable with the old man’s brand of medicine. But Winston would never say so in front of his sister.
The root doctor said nothing. He just smiled and started to laugh again, first to himself, then out loud like a crazy person. As the driver closed the door to the cab, we watched as the old man first raised his black finger to the center of his forehead, and then slowly lowered the same digit to point at his side.
That it was the same area where Winston kept the pouch made by Father Po, well, that thought did not occur to me then.
“Sho ded,” said Father Po. He was no longer laughing.
We said little on the ride home.
The next morning, Julia received word by mail that her son had been wounded at Fredericksburg. Word from a Captain in Nelson’s company tipped Julia to the location of a field hospital where her boy lay, mortally wounded. He could not be moved, and it was feared he might not make it through to Christmas.
Julia left that afternoon for Maryland to find her son.
I took over the duties of the house, but it was to be a somber holiday. Winston’s headaches grew worse. He kept to his bed most of the day, and had ordered both Betty and myself to keep the house dark and cool.
Come Christmas morning, I could not wake him.
On Christmas, my Winston passed away.
I cannot relate to you, dearest reader, the pain a young wife feels who loses her husband before she even reaches the first anniversary of her marriage. But to lose a husband as such and also be with child, it is unbearable, and I do well to forget those first few hours of shock and disbelief as Betty and her family helped to console me.
The undertaker — Wallace Anderson, our dear friend, a cabinetmaker (for he was only an undertaker part of the time) — was kind enough, after receiving word from Betty, to leave his own family on Christmas night and come and help with Winston’s body. For this, I was most grateful.
I was assured that I would be spared the meaner tasks. Wally would prepare Winston, washing his body and binding his mouth. He would straighten the limbs and place my husband in his coffin. I asked about embalming — for the practice was becoming more widely accepted — but Wally said there was only one man in Savannah who had the necessary chemicals, and that his aid had since been enlisted by the army.
The dear man kept me sane. Before leaving the next morning, he became anxious for me to settle on a date for the funeral. My husband needed to be buried before the first of the New Year, I was told, as the body would not keep for much longer, even in the cool damp of the cellar where I had been instructed to keep his casket. But I asked him to delay for at least those last few days in December so that we might, perhaps, successfully contact Julia.
I must admit that I used the inability to reach my sister-in-law as a bit of an excuse to put off the funeral. After all, it was only days before that Winston entreated us both to not bury him unless we were certain of his death. I realize that it may sound too fantastical to believe, but a twenty-year-old widow clings to whatever morbid hope she has. Thus, I was willing to wait to inter my husband, at least for a few days, until I had allowed ample time to honor his last request. Wally would have thought me mad, but I promised Winston I would do so.
Betty and I waited three long days, but Winston never did emerge from the cellar.
I was not surprised, and on the day that Wally came to remove the body, I remained in the kitchen while he and Betty’s grandson bore the coffin to the parlor. There, Betty had prepared a small memorial to my husband. Winston’s close friends came, and our minister said a few words at a small service.
Before carrying Winston out to the carriage for our procession to Laurel Grove, Wally stopped me and asked what he should do with my husband’s personal belongings.
I assumed he meant Winston’s wedding ring, for other than the clothes my husband wore when Wally placed Winston in the coffin on the morning of his death, I could not think of any other belonging, personal or otherwise.
“There was a little red pouch,” said Wally, handing me the flannel bag that Winston had always kept pinned inside his vest.
I was aghast, for I was to never touch the thing.
“Don’t worry,” said Wally. “I didn’t open it.”
“You should not have even touched it,” I replied, though I now realize how rude I must have seemed to the poor man. I asked him to please put the bag, along with the ring, back where he found them. To humor me, I also asked that Wally check for signs of life one last time, to look for breath on a mirror glass or movement in Winston’s eyes before we left for the cemetery.
He obliged, and reported back what I knew to be true.
Winston was dead.
We said nothing more to each other, even at Laurel Grove, beyond the mutual recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as my husband’s casket was placed quite unceremoniously into the brand new chamber that Winston himself had commissioned.
So new was the cold stone crypt that the masons had yet to complete the inscription of the Biggs family name. There simply was a single ornate “B” above the iron door.
It was then, and only then, that I allowed myself to cry.
Even when Julia returned, I shed not a tear. It was the middle of the night sometime in mid January when I awoke to her cries. As she wailed and moaned upon hearing the news of her brother’s death, I kept my quiet in my room. I did not rise from my bed as Betty told Julia what had happened.
I could not bear to face my sister-in-law until the following morning.
“Were you with him when he passed?” were Julia’s first words to me. “Are you certain?” she asked, meeting me as I descended the stairs.
There was no embrace, no words of consolation.
“I was,” I answered. “And I am,” I replied. “I remembered what he said.”
“You couldn’t wait for me?”
She was indifferent toward me, cold.
“Wally gave us three days,” I said. “We couldn’t reach you.”
“You should have tried harder,” replied Julia. “Did you see the body?”
“Why are you asking me these things?” I became nervous and excitable. “Yes, I mean, no,” I said. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” I told her.
“The bag,” she answered, all flushed with rage. “Did he have the red flannel bag on him?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Well, no,” I hesitated, “at least not for a time. Wally removed it when he first examined Winston. But I made sure that he put it back. I remembered how important it was to him. To you.”
“You stupid girl,” cursed Julia.
As she rushed up the stairs, the ruffles of her immense skirt almost knocked me over.
“I’m sorry,” I pleaded.
“You don’t know what you’ve done,” she said.
A door slammed in an upstairs room.
I yelled out her name to the empty stairwell.
Julia’s response was short: “I must go the vault. Now!”
She had just emerged from her bedroom. I heard her lock the door — something I had never known my sister-in-law to do before. Hurriedly, she ran back down the stairs. Over her shoulder, she had slung a large sack.
“Betty?” she called.
“Yes, M’am,” replied the servant, standing out of breath at the railing above us.
“Do not let anyone near my room. Including Rose. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, M’am. Understood,” said Betty.
“What’s going on?” I asked Julia, following her to the foyer.
There, she fumbled with the sack on her shoulder. It did not seem heavy, but she was careful to not damage the contents.
“I pray we’re not too late,” she answered.
“This is insane,” I insisted. “You don’t think?”
“He’s alive,” she replied. “You buried him alive.”
I would have fainted, but the desire to prove her wrong was too strong. I therefore forced my way beside her into the carriage, adamant that I would join her on what I thought was a mad escapade.
When we arrived at the vault, I was horrified.
The great iron door of the vault was open, as was the lid of a stone sarcophagus inside. However, the coffin within seemed intact. The box did not appear to be disturbed.
“We had it equipped with a mechanism he could easily open,” said Julia.
I was dumbfounded.
“Perhaps vandals,” I offered.
“No, he’s not here,” said Julia.
“How do you know?” I asked — for I was not about to pry open the lid of the box that contained my husband.
“I just do,” she answered. “Here, see,” she said, pointing to a ledge inside the crypt, a little cutout by the door. “There was a key here that Winston was to use to let himself out.”
I could only muster a simple, obvious question, for I believe now I was in my right state of mind.
“Then where is he now?” I asked, placating her, for I still believed that Winston was with us, and that thieves had broken into the vault, looking for valuables.
Her answer was equally simple. “I don’t know,” she said.
From the satchel on her shoulder, Julia removed a handful of dry soil, and as she sprinkled it over the floor of the crypt, she whispered what seemed like a prayer.
“In case he comes back here,” she said, turning back towards the carriage, loosening her fingers as the remaining mounds of earth spilled out onto the ground.
Neither of us said a word to the driver as we boarded. He took Julia’s bag from her and placed it on a rack behind the cab, but before he began to drive the horses, I heard him comment to Julia that her satchel had been left untied. She scolded him, and then strangely insisted that he leave it that way.
She barely spoke to me on the ride home. I must have thought of a thousand questions to ask her, but none seemed appropriate.
It was clear that the crypt was disturbed, and that my sister was somehow convinced that Winston was still alive, but, surely, I thought, there must have been a more logical explanation.
Perhaps she still suffered from news of what happened to Nelson.
In all the confusion, I had completely forgotten to ask her about her son.
So I did.
“As far as the world is concerned,” she told me, showing neither the anguish nor the pain one would expect from a mother, “he is gone.”
“You found him alive?” I asked.
“When I got there, I barely recognized him,” she said. “Half of him was gone.”
“I’m so sorry,” I told her, taking her hand in mine, for although I was beginning to fear for my sister’s sanity, I tell you, dear reader, that as a mother to be, I sympathized.
“This family is more resilient than you know,” was her response.
Then she smiled, but I know now, it was more a sign of madness than an act of reassurance. Julia was beginning to frighten me, and I was careful to not let her know.
When we arrived home, I said goodnight to my sister and sent Betty’s grandson to fetch Wally. I asked for them to take some lanterns and some tools, to return immediately to Laurel Grove and repair the damage to the vault. I also requested that Wally report back as a witness — to confirm the internment of the body, for this would surely ease poor Julia’s troubled mind.
But neither Wally nor Jacob returned that evening.
Julia left the house for a few hours around seven o’clock to assist with a birth. Upon her return near eleven, she gave instructions to Betty for a light supper to be brought up to her. To me, she said nothing.
When Betty returned with a tray around midnight, she told me to not bother her mistress until morning.
I respected Julia’s need to be alone.
As Betty feared for the safety of her grandson, the two of us waited up in the parlor playing cards. Until we received word that both men were safe, neither of us could sleep.
At three in the morning, I swore I heard a baby crying upstairs. But as I had believed I might have momentarily drifted off to sleep, dreams of a child crying did not seem all that unusual to me then.
I do know for certain that I dreamt of Father Po — of the old man laughing to himself and telling me about the “sho ded.”
In the early morning hours, Betty woke me. I heard rain against the shutters.
“Any sign of Jacob or Mr. Anderson?” I asked her.
She lowered and shook her head. Tears began, and I reached out for her hand. How funny the contrast in our skin, I thought — how similar our worry and our fears.
I rose from my chair and threw my arms around the old black woman.
I held her while she cried.
Julia had since awakened. She had descended the steps in her dressing gown, and asked us what was wrong. When I told her about how Jacob and Wally had gone missing, she flew into a blind rage.
“Why in heaven’s name did you send them back there?” she demanded.
“To prevent further vandalism,” I said. “To give Winston his peace.”
“Winston’s peace is with his family, sister.” Julia hammered the word “sister” as if it were an angry nail.
Barefoot, she ran across the foyer to the front door, as if half expecting a visitor. As she undid the lock and turned the knob, there stood — by all things blessed I know not how — my beloved Winston. Rain poured down, and in the pale gray of a damp morning, I saw him.
A shroud cap still remained on his head. The straps were tied beneath his chin. The fabric was covered in blood. He was dazed and unresponsive, as if drunken and half asleep. He fell into his sister’s arms, and I dashed to help drag my husband’s body inside.
“Winston!” I cried.
Betty ran to get a blanket.
“Come,” said Julia. “Help me get him up to my room.”
I did not ask why. I believe now that I may have been what some doctors call hysterical, but somehow, together, we managed to combine our strength and carry my poor resurrected Winston — the husband I had apparently buried alive — up the hard wooden steps to Julia’s bedroom.
“What is going on?” I asked her, taking most of Winston’s weight on my shoulders as she let go of him to unlock her bedroom door.
“You are about to find out, my sister.” Her tone was excited, yet deadly sincere. “I hope to God that you are prepared,” she said, pushing open the door.
“Momma?” A voice from the bed called out to Julia. I could not see the figure as the drapes were drawn, but the address to Julia was clear. Someone called her again — this time “Mother?”
“It’s alright, child,” said Julia. “Hush now.”
As I lowered Winston to a chair beside a dressing table, Julia lit an oil lamp. Within seconds, the room began to glow.
My first thoughts were of Winston.
He remained catatonic, but he was definitely breathing.
I untied the bloody chinstrap and removed his grave cap. I then checked his lips and tongue for a wound that would explain the blood.
“It’s not his,” said Julia, knowing my intention.
“What?” I asked, dismayed.
“They get hungry,” she answered. “They need to eat,” she said.
My stomach turned, and I thought of how Wally and Jacob went missing.
“Momma?” came the voice again from the bed.
I turned, and in the orange light of the oil lamp, I finally saw what called out from the bed.
It was Nelson, or at least the boy I presumed to be Julia’s son, for I had only previously seen him in a photograph, and even then, this figure was not entirely recognizable. For in that moment I turned, I screamed. This was surely Nelson, but half of the boy’s face was gone. Jagged bits of teeth poked through swollen lips — lips that repeated “Momma?” over and over. The pathetic thing reached out to me.
With one good hand and one bloody stump, it motioned for an embrace.
I cried “My God, Julia. What have you done?”
“A cannon blast took him at Fredericksburg,” she said. “I found him like this at the field hospital.”
She had since come over to the bed, and began to caress the cheek of the sad mutilated wretch.
“But he’s a good boy,” said Julia, as the deformity smiled. “He never removed his pouch. He kept it close to his person, just as his mother told him to do.”
I looked to see a red flannel sack, just like Winston’s, on a cord around the boy’s neck.
Julia continued. “When he died, it wasn’t all that bad, was it, my child? It only hurt for a moment, and then his Momma brought him home. I told you I wouldn’t let anything take you away from me, sweetness. I told you that Momma would protect you.”
“Momma,” answered the abomination, closing its eyes.
“How?” was all I could muster.
“Father Po made the magic. I told him that my boys were going off to war. That I didn’t want them to die. But I swear to you,” she said, crying as she comforted her child, “I didn’t think it would ever be like this. I thought Nelson and Winston would somehow be invulnerable. Impervious to injury. Not like this.”
“It’s impossible,” I answered, backing my way towards the door. “Winston, too?”
“Yes. Him too,” she confirmed.
So I pushed further. “He came back after I put him in the vault.”
“No,” she answered. “Winston died at Sharpsburg, most likely. He came ‘back’ to both of us then. He’s been dead for quite some time.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
“It was the magic brought him home,” Julia told me. “But after you put him in that coffin, I wasn’t so sure it would still work. That’s what Winston himself was afraid of. That’s why I had to leave a trail.”
“The dirt,” I said.
“You’re learning,” she replied. “My boy had to find his way home.”
Winston began to wake in his chair, mumbling to himself.
“Julia,” he muttered weakly. “I’m hungry.”
“I’m hungry too, Momma,” said the monster on the bed.
Julia turned to her dresser and opened a drawer. From within, she retrieved a blanket, and unwrapped it to reveal an infant. The babe was a newborn — a beautiful, innocent brown baby. It was still breathing, but barely.
“My God, Julia. What have you done?” By this time, I was pressed with my back against the door, too petrified with horror to even turn the knob.
Julia held the child in the air and answered me by saying “my boys got to eat. My boys have got to live.”
“They’re dead,” I told her. “They’re all dead,” I said.
“Help me,” whispered Winston.
I believe he was talking to me.
“This is a sin,” I cried — to Julia, to Winston, and to the terrible thing on the bed.
Then I tipped over the lamp.
The fire from the burning oil spread quickly. I snatched the baby from Julia, and I ran. I ran for my life and the life of the child to the bottom of the stairs. I grabbed Betty by the arm, handed her the baby, and I never looked back.
The Gaines house on York Street near Columbia Square burned to the ground that day. The bodies of my husband, his sister, and her son were never found. Their bones may have been among the ashes, but I can never be sure.
Betty returned the child — the one Julia said was stillborn — to its young mother. I was not there for the reunion, but Betty has since written me to say that the girl is doing well.
I do not know whatever happened to Father Po. I do know that I do not blame him for the magic. In my heart, I hold Julia responsible for what became of my husband.
I left Savannah within a few days of the tragedy that claimed the life of Julia Gaines. I never told the story to anyone until now — not even Betty, though I suspect that she knew all along.
It has been over a year since Winston first left for war. My own child is due any day now. I hear that the Yankees may soon take Vicksburg, and I am happy to be far away, here with family in Texas.
That my baby was conceived through union with a dead man is a matter for God. My worries will not prejudice the outcome. It is only my prayers that matter.
I pray that my child is healthy. I pray that Winston, Nelson, and even Julia all find peace. I pray that my child will one day be kind to my husband’s memory, and I hope that he, or she is able to forgive us both.
But most of all, I pray that when I die, I don’t come back.
I have seen resurrection, and it is a terrible thing.