My eyes slowly opened. It was morning already? Why did the hours have to fly by so quickly when I finally fell asleep? I didn’t want to get out of bed, I just wanted to stay curled up underneath the covers where it was warm and cozy. But I knew I had to get up, there was much to be done today. Forcing myself out of bed, I went to the little closet and pulled out the old black dress. I ran my hands through the threadbare fabric, and with a sigh began putting it on. There had been a time when I could have a new dress every day if I wanted too. Now, with any material being almost impossible to find, I had to work with what I had had before the war started. I had cut up an old dress of Aunt Helen’s and patched up this dress as best I could. The fact that it was black was to my advantage and with carful stitching I made the patches barely noticeable.
I was just struggling with the buttons in the back when Elsie walked in.
“Elsie, will you give me a hand,” I asked in a whisper. Evy was still sleeping and I didn’t want to wake her up.
“Sure thing, Sarah,” Elsie whispered back, and walking up began swiftly buttoning up the dress. “I can’t help but wonder,” she said with a small laugh, “if the Mrs. Greensten is rolling over in her grave because you have completely ceased to wear corsets.”
“I hope she’s not. I wouldn't want to add to the many disappointments I already was, but fighting to survive is hard enough, having to do it with a device that restricts your breathing would be near impossible.”
“Prissy continue to wear corsets.”
“And she can continue doing so, with my good wishes,” I retorted.
Elsie chuckled and tied my sash. “Tell Lulu I’ll look after Kristoffs today, and the two of you are in charge of the household chores.”
“Alright,” I nodded my head and Elsie left the room while I walked over to thy tiny dressing table and the mirror that hung above it. I gazed at the looking glass, eyeing the reflection that stared back at me. The Sarah of my youth had vanished, gone with the wind. This Sarah was weary and careworn, with tired eyes and chapped skin. The Sarah of today didn’t have time to be carefree; she was busy fighting for survival.
I brushed out my golden locks and tied them into a tight bun on the back of my head. No more curls, no more fancy hairstyles, I pulled all the hair out of my face so it wouldn’t get in my way. I also ceased to wear just about any jewelry, having hid it all long ago. I did keep one luxury, the old, cheap locket that had once been my mother’s. It was soon after Uncle Andrew’s death that I had pulled the little trinket out from under my pillow. There was nothing in the locket, but it had my mother's initials E. B. scratched on the inside. I would take the chain off in the night and this morning, just like the previous mornings, I put it around my neck. My toiletries complete, I tiptoed out of the room.
Going through the hallway on my way to the kitchen I paused and gazed out the window at the bleak, bare landscape. It was winter again, the very end of December. 1863 was coming to a close. How we had made it through the year was nothing short of a miracle with endless war around us and soldiers all over the place.
I had written to Jeff of Uncle Andrew’s death, I had written about Prissy’s fate and of how she now lived with us. So many letters had I sent, but silence was all I ever heard from him. I wasn’t ready to accept the worst, after all silence did not mean death. Jeff had not appeared in the lists of the killed in action, so there was still plenty of hope. Maybe my letters just didn’t reach him, maybe his letters didn’t reach me. Maybe he had been captured and was a prisoner of war. The list of what could have happened to him besides him dying was so long that I could not accept the fact that he was gone for good. Where there is life, there is hope and I hoped that when the war would end Jeff would come home. That was of coure if the war would end and sometimes I felt as though it would just go on and on forever. How many nights had a lay down and told myself that I couldn’t take anymore of the hunger, the shortage and the despair. How many times had I said that I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed and face another day? And every morning I would find that I could get up and I would face the hardships I had sworn I would not be able to take the night before. Giving up was simply not an option.
Prissy could of course be counted on to make life harder than it already was. Ever since she had come to live with us she had complained about everything. Whether it was the fact that she was forced to share quarters with ‘slaves’, to the fact that there was a shortage of food and clothing, we heard about it every day. We also constantly heard about how she was alone in the world, how life was unfair, how we lived like paupers, how her nerves couldn’t take this form of lifestyle, how she was brought in a more comfortable way of living and this was slowly but surely killing her. On and on the whinning would go. At first I would explode at her constant complaints, but with time I learned to ignore her and all her gabbling became back ground noise.
Things got even harder when, this autumn, Kristoffs suddenly took ill and became bedridden. I couldn’t have Kristoff die, there had been enough deaths in this house as it was. But with no doctors or medicine, rest was the only medicine I could give, and I hoped it would be good enough till supplies would become more plentiful again.
Staying alive was proving to be a quite a task for all of us. The cotton fields lay black and unused. Food had become very scarce, the towns all had a great shortage of everything. Our vegetable garden proved to be our savior. Not only did we eat the vegetables ourselves, but I started trading the vegetables with Billy, a former slave who would hunt for rabbits and squirrels. I had also managed to get my hands on a few chickens. Of course, the livestock meant having to feed them through the winter. I had acquired enough grain to see the chickens till spring, but now, with our own food supply running low, I was wondering whether we would just start eating the grain ourselves, and the chickens would follow soon after.
These depressing thoughts flooded my mind as I stared out the window and I had to shake myself free of them. I had to try and keep a positive outlook. God had seen us through this far and would continue to do so. Taking a deep breath I continued on my way to the kitchen.
Lulu looked up from the pot she was stirring and greeted me with a smile. “Up already, Sarah?”
“Yes, is breakfast ready?” I gazed into the pot she was stirring.
“Just about. How about Evy, is she up?”
“No, I let her sleep in.”
“Ah, let her hibernate while the winter drags on. I see that Arthur has gotten up before me again,” I poked Arthur, who was sitting at the table, carving a piece of wood with his knife. He grinned a good morning at me and went back to his work.
George entered the kitchen. “Mama, is Sarah up? Oh,” He noticed me. “Sarah, you’s awake, that’s good. There is a man out there who says he needs help.”
“Another deserter?” I dryly thought as I followed George to the parlor. I had sheltered several deserters this year. It was risky business, but I didn’t have the heart to turn them in. Could anyone blame them for being sick and tired of this war and fighting and the fact that it was dragging out for three years.
Walking into the room I saw a man in a grey suit standing, his hands clasped behind his back, gazing out the window. He turned when he heard us enter.
“Mr. Browne,” I gasped as he turned his face to me.
“Miss Rose?” He gave a short bow and looked intently at me, “I hardly recognized you.”
“What brings you to my home after all these years?” The last time I had seen Cleaveland Browne was the spring before I had left for Europe in 1858.
“I’m afraid it’s not pleasure that brings me to your door this time,” His face flushed a little at this statement. “I’m a scout in the Confederate army now.”
“You need shelter?” I guessed.
“For a little bit, I’m being chased and I need a place to lie low before I try to head back to headquarters.”
“You are welcome to stay here, Mr. Browne, though I must warn you that my home is not exactly safe from Yankee soldiers. I’ve seen quite a few of them in the past year.”
“I’ve been running all night; I’m tired and worn out. Even just a couple of hours of rest would do me a world of good.”
“Of course. Breakfast is just about ready and if you wish, I’ll ask Elsie heat some water for you to wash and you may eat with us.”
“I am much obliged to you, Miss Rose.”
“Nonsense, it is nothing. Wait here a few moments while we prepare some water for you.”
“How is the war progressing?” At last I would be able to get some decent news about the war.
“Not so good,” Mr. Browne replied, “ever since our defeat at Gettysburg, the invasion has stopped and we are on the defensive right now. What makes it all the harder is that there are hardly any new recruits.”
“That’s because there are hardly any men left,” I pointed out.
He nodded his head, and even though there was a wry smile on his lips, his face looked so sad.
“Mr. Browne, you haven’t heard anything about or from my cousin, Jeffrey Greensten, have you?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Miss Rose, but I haven’t heard anything of him.”
“Do you think he may be dead?” Prissy looked over at him, “We haven’t heard from him in almost a year.”
“He could be, he could not be,” Mr. Browne shrugged, “anything is possible.”
We were certainly having a depressing discussion.
After breakfast, I showed Mr. Browne to the room tiny little room that Arthur and George shared. He gratefully accepted it and promptly went to sleep while we went about the usual chores.
“I’ll do the dishes, Lulu,” I offered. “Prissy can sit in the parlor while you and Evy tidy up. Elsie offered to care for Kristoffs today.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Lulu agreed. “You would think, Miss Sarah, that Prissy would help us at least…”
“Lulu, remember the last time Prissy helped us?”
We laughed and went about our work. Laughing at how Prissy behaved was the only way we could keep from getting really angry at her. When she had first arrived Elsie had tried to get her to help with the household chores, but Prissy had thrown such a scandal that in the end we begged Elsie to just leave her alone. At least when Prissy wasn’t doing anything she stayed out of our way. Elsie kept ruling that we should just throw her out, but I didn’t have the heart to do that. Prissy may be a burden, but she was a human being and I wasn’t about to have her blood on my hands.
I set about to wash the dishes and clean the kitchen. I was grateful for all the work, idleness would make my mind stray and I wanted to keep it clear and strong. Presently Elsie entered, carrying the dishes from Kristoffs room.
“How is Kristoffs feeling today?” I dared to ask, almost fearing the answer.
“Praise the Lawd, he’s actually feeling a bit stronger. Even got it into his head to get up and help around. George and I kept him in by sheer force.”
“Don’t let him out. We’re managing alright without him and the last thing we need is him to over exhaust himself.”
“That’s what I told him but he doesn’t like the idea of us managing just fine without him. Says us whippersnappers don’t know nothing about running a household properly, and Lulu won’t be able to manage us on her own."
"You did mention that George is a year short of fifty?"
"Evidently that is not old enough in Kristoffs' mind."
We burst out laughing at her words.
“Sarah, Sarah, Yanks are on the way!” Arthur ran into the kitchen. “I was climbing the tree and saw them approaching. They’ll be here in a matter of minutes.”
“Mr. Browne,” I gasped. I hastily wiped the greasy water off my hands and ran to warn him. We would have to hide him before the soldiers came to the door and that was precious little time.
Merry Christmas Eve to you all :) Hope you are enjoying the story and in honor of Christmas there will be another chapter up tomorrow :)