Elizabeth Stephens gazed across the newly reaped fields and silently observed the comings and goings of Liberty’s annual harvest festival. Even at a distance, she could still pick out individual community members as they gathered in celebration. Sally’s long red hair glowed like burnished copper and fire and Andrew’s six foot five-inch frame towered over everyone else. Susanna, her stepdaughter, moved slowly and deliberately, the final weeks of pregnancy taking their toll on her delicate frame. Soon enough the new resident would join Liberty’s small population, giving cause for more celebrations.
Turning away from the festivities, Elizabeth let her gaze wander over the small, tidy cemetery. She gathered tufts of bearded grass as she slowly circled its perimeter, deftly weaving them together as she went. Satisfied with her handiwork, she laid the finished wreath on a small, unremarkable headstone engraved simply “Michael James Stephens, 1831-1872.” She picked up a wooly worm that was making its way across the grey stone and deposited it on a nearby oak tree, biding it luck in the coming winter.
“Hello Michael,” she sighed, returning to the gravestone. She passed a gentle kiss to her fingertips and touched the carved name, which remained cold and unresponsive under the warmth of her hand.
“I’ve come to say goodbye one last time, my dearest. Liberty was your home, not mine. Now that you’re gone, there’s no reason for me to remain. It’s time for me to move on now.”
Her own words startled her. It was the first time she’d given voice to those thoughts. She’d often considered leaving since that awful spring day when Michael had collapsed in the middle of sowing the fields. There had been no warning signs that anything might be amiss. Elizabeth had spent far too many hours mentally reliving those last weeks together, looking for some indication that all had not been well. Her knowledge of medicine and illness was better than many country doctors thanks to a lifetime working at the side of her father, a physician, and a few too brief years learning herbal remedies from her mother. Still there was nothing to be found, no warning signs that she’d find herself a widow. Even if you’d known, could you change it, Eliza, she thought to herself. This is why you need to move away from this place. You need to get away from those memories.
“Where will you go?” a voice carried on the wind so softly she’d scarcely heard it. “Would you return to your own family?”
Elizabeth laughed bitterly at the idea. The terrible war that had brought Michael into her life had ripped apart her own family and rendered it unrecognizable. The loving, peaceful home that her father had striven so hard to create no longer existed. He lay buried behind the family home, a victim of the stress and emotional toll of wartime life. Denied a place beside their parents, her younger brother Andrew rested only a few feet from Michael. He’d chosen to ally himself with a Union company from Kentucky when the war started and even in death, remained unwelcome on his family’s lands in the mountains of western North Carolina. The house they’d grown up in now fell under the control of their older brother, John, a stubborn, domineering Confederate officer who had managed to keep the family’s property intact through various political maneuvers. The loving, peaceful home of their childhood had been replaced by the ironclad authority of an embittered man intent on destroying all those opposed to him, including his own flesh and blood.
It wasn’t just my family that was torn apart, she reminded herself as her emotions wavered dangerously close to self-pity. She recalled the first time she’d seen Michael as he emerged from the woods behind her family’s home, clad in a bloodied Union officer’s uniform and carrying the limp body of a young, rag-clad Confederate soldier. Michael had risked his own freedom and life to see the boy safely to the field hospital that was the downstairs of Elizabeth’s family home. Only later did Elizabeth wrangle a confession from Michael that the boy was his own younger brother. That moment epitomized the war for her more than any other had. Conflicting political and social views waged their own battles against family ties and loyalty in countless households throughout the country. In her mind, too much had been lost for either side to claim a true victory.
Elizabeth’s own tenacity and stubbornness had convinced Michael to remain at their home while he recovered from his own wounds. As her father removed lead shot from Michael’s shoulder, he explained that they’d quietly helped many Union soldiers, secreting them throughout hiding places in the house, just as they’d hidden runaway slaves for so many years. When her father remarked that he hoped his own sons would be shown the same kindness if they found themselves victims of the conflict, Elizabeth fought back tears. Even as he fought against his own pain and cares, Michael had managed a smile of sympathy and gazed at her compassionately. In spite of the surreal and bloody circumstances of a field surgery in the fading twilight of a hidden attic space, Elizabeth felt some small sense of normalcy and humanity for the first time since the war had begun. She’d never found the words to thank Michael for that.
She found other words in the following weeks as Michael recovered first from his wounds and then a subsequent infection that left him bedridden. As the fighting moved away from the area and the wounded Confederate soldiers began to take their leave, she found herself with more time to spend tending to him. Countless hours passed as they shared stories of their childhoods and their shared concerns for the future of their families and country. Elizabeth explained away their time together as merely an act of kindness, but when Michael had recovered sufficiently to leave, she found herself tearfully pleading with him to remain.
“Hush,” he’d whispered as they stood at the edge of the woods, hidden in the deepening shadows of twilight. He brushed away her tears and pressed his lips to her forehead. “I won’t forget the seeds of friendship sown here. I promise to return, but there are other things I must tend to first.”
Michael had been true to his word, returning a few weeks after the surrender had been signed at Appomattox Court House. To Elizabeth’s delight, Andrew accompanied him, untouched by the war. She closed her eyes tightly, trying to drive out the memories. A day that had been filled with relief and joy had so quickly turned horrific and haunting. Only moments after the two men arrived, John stormed outside to where they stood, bellowing hatefully that he would not abide having any Union sympathizer in his home. Unable to contain his fury at his sibling’s alleged betrayals, John had turned on them with loaded pistols, killing Andrew on the front steps of their childhood home. Unable “to shoot a woman, even a stupid, disloyal one” as he described her, John had thrown Elizabeth bodily from the porch, cursing her in every manner he could muster and turning her out of the only home she’d ever known.
Unable to act and numb from shock, Elizabeth silently submitted to Michael’s insistence that she accompany him to his home in Ohio. While she had been rendered helpless for the first time in her life, he arranged the transport of Andrew’s body to Liberty and saw to a proper funeral for the young man. He’d taken her into his life and home without hesitation, just as Elizabeth’s family had taken him into their own.
“This is your home,” the breeze whispered, tugging at strands of her dark hair. “Tend to the seeds you’ve planted here.”
“I have,” she replied aloud, tears threatening to spill from her eyes. “Michael and I… I’ve reaped my harvest, winter approaches.”
The saying had been a favorite of Michael’s, muttered whenever something had been finished. She had reaped the seeds they’d planted, living for seven years as his wife and raising his daughter as her own. They’d never managed children of their own, but Susanna was enough for Elizabeth, an endearing child who grown up in front her eyes. Perhaps the common bond of losing a mother at too young an age had brought them close initially, but over the years, they’d grown to be a family. Now that Susanna was grown and Michael gone, there was nothing left to hold her to Liberty.
She looked across the fields as strains of music carried on the wind intermingled with the dry rustling of leaves. In the winter after she’d arrived in Liberty, she’d taught Michael’s nephew to play fiddle and it was his music that now drifted toward the hushed cemetery. A new father himself, he’d asked her to teach his children when they were old enough. Someone else will have to do it, she thought firmly. They don’t need me for something as trivial as music lessons.
“Who will help take care of the Widow Adams if you go? Who will bring her meals when her rheumatism leaves her unable to walk?” the wind whispered insistently at her. “Who will teach Michael’s grandchildren poetry and art? Who will tell them about the kind and gentle soul he was? Who will tend to this grave and to the roses his own mother held so dear? Who else here can prepare herbal remedies? Who will take care of the sick? Who will be the community’s midwife? Who pray to the gods every day for the safety and happiness of this little community? Who else will treat every citizen here with kindness and as an equal and friend? Who else could face life with your courage, Eliza? Who else could tend to all the seeds you’ve planted? What home is there for you, if not this one?”
The questions tugged at her heartstrings and left a lump in her throat. Without intending to do so, she’d sown countless seeds since her arrival here. Every gesture and action that she’d taken had meaning to someone else here. Simple kindnesses had become deep and lasting friendships. Michael had not been the only one here to show her love and she felt a sense of blessing as she thought of all the people who had welcomed her into the community. Michael’s time had come and gone, but hers still remained. Fresh tears fell as she thought of the way they’d rallied around her when Michael died. Even months later, she wanted for nothing, as there was always someone there to lend a hand or support.
“Would you abandon all that you know and all those you love just to avoid the pain of his memory?” the wind wailed as it scattered leaves around her feet. “Would you leave this community to mourn not only Michael but your own departure as well?”
No, no I won’t, Elizabeth said firmly to herself as she pulled two apples from her apron. She placed one gently on Michael’s headstone and took a bite out of the other. Savoring the lemony tart flavor, she set out across the fields towards the harvest celebration, leaving the dead to their peace. She began to hum softly in time to the music, thinking of the impending birth of Michael’s first grandchild. So much still remained to do in preparation, but it would wait until tomorrow. Today was reserved for thanksgiving and celebration for all the gifts that had been bestowed upon her and the community. There were many blessings to be counted even in this year of sorrows and Elizabeth counted the sense of Michael’s presence beside her as the first.
“My harvest is not yet reaped and winter is still far away. Until then, my home is here,” she proclaimed to the wind which sighed contentedly in answer.