On the homemade oak table beside the captain’s bed, rests a book of poetry and a framed photo of a beautiful woman. I reach for the book, where a ribbon marks what he must have last read, a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. . . .”
Then I pick up the photograph and stare into the woman’s eyes. What was her name? Caroline . . . I remember now. His wife was a blond schoolteacher with a heart of gold. The captain wasn’t thinking of me when he read that poem, but his wife.
“And if God choose,” the sonnet ends, “I shall but love thee better after death.”
I roll on my side, kiss the captain’s wife on her forehead, and put her photo back on the table. Then I kiss the captain’s pillow and smell his scent, now gone forever, a man who could have been my lover.
Wherever they are, they are together, Captain Wolfe and his wife, Caroline, flying hand in hand, sailing over the tops of the White Rock Cliffs through the red-golden light.
Before Blum and I leave the camp, the new major, sent over from District Five, calls both of us into his office. “You need to rest. You’re exhausted,” he tell us, sitting behind the desk we’d done an amputation on a week earlier. “I’m going to ask for a nurse from Camp Roosevelt in Virginia to come over for a few weeks, so you can take some time to recover.”
“That’s very gracious.” The doctor clears his throat. “But speaking for Nurse Myers, will her leave be paid?” My mouth falls open and my cheeks redden. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to ask.
“Gadzooks, yes! And I’m going to put in for a position for you as an L.E.M. too.”
Dr. Blum looks puzzled.
“Locally employed nan. I understand the camp hasn’t had their own physician for a couple of months. Maybe we can work out a schedule, if you’re willing to alternate with Nurse Myers.”
The doctor doesn’t respond, and for a moment I think he’s gone mute again, but finally he speaks. “Yes. Certainly. But I’ll need to discuss it with my other employer.” Who the hell is that? I think. Hester?
Patience had gone home with Daniel in the Ford and left the Pontiac for us, and I’m so tired I don’t even notice when Blum slides into the driver’s seat. We leave the green forest of the camp and enter the nightmare remains of hell. All along the road are the blackened monuments to the wildfire, black spikes without branches reaching into the sky.
Crockers Creek is almost overflowing with rushing brown water. “The ground can’t hold the rain after a burn like this. The rain put out the fire, but it doesn’t heal the earth. Not yet,” Dr. Blum says, taking the tone I’ve heard before: learned professor. “The soil will be fertile, full of minerals and nitrogen, but the ashes coat the ground, so the water can’t penetrate.”
I’m just going to ask how he knows these things when something catches my eye, a stone chimney, standing alone where there should be a house.
Blum puts on the brake and pulls up next to the metal skeleton of a swinging bridge. Across the roaring creek there’s no house or barn where there should be. No family with little girls.
“Fuck!” exclaims Blum. “Where are the Hucknells? Their place has been torched. The fire must have swept over on the swinging bridge and burned across their land. You can see it didn’t go much farther.”
I don’t respond. My breath is knocked out of me. What happened to the family? The whole place is gone. Blum shifts the Pontiac into gear and speeds on to Liberty. Near the bridge that crosses the Hope, the scene changes again.
On one side of the river are charred forest and fields, a black-and-white world; on the other, a town with green lawns and flowers. It’s the same all the way home, green on one side of the river, black on the other.
We stop at the Hesters’ before going home, and as I enter the kitchen I smell something good. Patience is baking bread. Danny plays with his tin truck on the floor and the baby sleeps in the sweet grass basket that Cypress, the grandmother from Hazel Patch, gave me.
“Oh, Becky!” Patience greets me. “How are you? Where’s Isaac?”
“Out at the barn, searching for Daniel.”
“You look so tired. Coffee?” I know what she means. No makeup, stringy hair, droopy army nurse’s uniform. I’ve not changed for days.
“I’m okay . . .” I trail off and then start up again. “We went past the Hucknells’.”
“Yes, the Hucknells . . .”
“Their house is gone. That was one of my old delivery stops. What happened?”
“I thought you knew.”
“No, nothing. What happened?” I ask again.
Patience looks puzzled and moves toward me. “You didn’t hear? Alfred and Willa and their baby boy died in the fire.”
“No!” Patience catches me as I drop, and helps me into a kitchen chair.
“Oh, Becky, I’m so sorry. It’s been almost a week and I thought everyone knew.”
“What happened? How could that happen? And what about the girls?”
“Alfred carried the girls out of the house, one by one, when he saw the fire had jumped Crockers Creek. It was in the paper and everything, an interview with the oldest child, Sally.
“He carried them through the burning fields down to the creek. Remember how the wind roared that night? The wooden boards on the swinging bridge were already in flames. He made each girl lie in the water with a wet blanket over her head.
“It was good thinking. The water saved their lives. Then he went back for Willa and the baby. When he got them as far as the creek bank, he ran back to the barn to free the frightened horses and cows.”
“But you said the parents and the infant died.”
“Willa slipped on the steep bank and lost hold of the baby. She couldn’t swim. Couldn’t reach the baby in the brown water. The oldest girl saw it happen, but it was dark and the current was strong. Within minutes, they were both swept away.
“The creek saved the girls but took the baby and their mother. Their bodies were found two days later in the rocks down by the gravel pit . . . I’m sorry. Am I telling too much? Should I stop?”
“No . . . finish.”
“Alfred was apparently caught by a burning beam in the barn. . . . The girls found him when they thought it was safe to come out of the water. Can you imagine, finding your father, burned and dead? Twenty-four hours later, Reverend Miller picked them up on his way back from the CCC camp, the four little orphans, walking along the road to town barefoot in their nightgowns.”
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