Tombstones and Broomsedge
by Hadyn Johnson
Annie’s legs trembled, threatening to buckle beneath her as she strained to lift her foot from the top step to the porch. Coaxing the other foot to follow made her head spin like a wobbly top. Barely able to raise her arm, she clutched the porch railing with one gnarled hand, fighting for balance. The other arm hung uselessly at her side, refusing to move, no matter how hard she willed it.
A stabbing pain in her head felt near to chiseling a hole right through her skull and blurred her vision. Close to collapsing, she sighted the front door, which hemmed and hawed like a reflection in a slow-moving creek. Sweat poured from her face and soaked the front of her thin cotton dress. A wisp of white hair worried her face. Get in the house, sit down, and the spell will pass, she told herself. It had happened before, but this time was worse.
Shouldn’t have spent so much time in the noon sun hoeing weeds, Annie thought, but Eustiss expected her to keep the garden clean, allowing nothing to grow but what he intended to be there. Never saw the need herself. Whatever else took a notion to grow made little difference whether a crop was made or not, but it was Eustiss’s way of doing and that was the only way. Getting a fix on the front door, she let go of the railing and shuffled across the wide front porch. Nearly losing her balance, she fell against the door, took a weak hold on the knob, and paused again. Summoning what little strength she had left, she twisted the knob and swung the door open.
Annie dropped heavily into a ladderback chair close by the front door, and muddled memories clouded her head. Like a clearing fog, a vision appeared, and she recognized two familiar faces. It was her and Eustiss, their faces youthful in a way she’d long since forgotten. His was burnt brown from long days behind a plow but without the deep creases that would come with the years. Eustiss’s big, calloused hand pulled her up on the wagon seat to take her place beside him. When he slapped the reins extra hard across the back of the old mule and the wagon pulled away from Briar Creek Baptist, she might have seen the church’s name as an omen. But her blissful state of mind blinded her to such a portent, and the rigors of life on a poor, red-dirt farm with five young’uns was a memory yet to be made.
Few words passed between Annie and Eustiss that day as they made the five-mile journey to their new home. She’d known before she married him that he was a man who guarded words like he had few to spare, but what he did say was said without doubt or regret. She’d thought then that his taciturnity was a minor fault and accepted it as a tolerable condition of marriage. Not until they’d turned off the gravel county road and the old, unpainted farmhouse came into view did she envision what might lie ahead, and then only a glimpse, like a broken cloud sliding across the face of a full moon.
Jerking the mule to a standstill in front of the house but not uttering a word, Eustiss hauled the small oak trunk containing her few simple possessions from the wagon to the front porch. As she got down from the wagon, he began unhitching the mule. He looked at her and said, “I’ll expect supper to be on the table by sundown.” Satisfied that she understood his instructions, without another word, Eustiss turned and ambled off toward the barn, the mule shadowing him like a devoted disciple.
That night, Annie had supper on the table as she had been instructed. When she moved to take a seat opposite Eustiss, he gave her a look that caused her to stop pulling out a chair. He spoke, not with anger, but with a hardness about his tone. “In the Ferguson family, menfolk eat before the women. That’s the way it’s always been, and it ain’t gonna change now.”
As the searing pain in her head eased, the visions cleared, and Annie struggled to get a hold of her circumstances. Cataracts added to the misty haze that clouded her vision, but the familiar sound of squawking chickens in the front yard jerked her back into the present. Footfalls crossed the front porch. The screen door banged shut. She lifted her head and gazed in the direction of the light.
“Eustiss,” she called out, her voice feeble and muffled, like a sound made through a mouthful of ripe persimmons. “Is that you, Eustiss?”
Then a voice she recognized. “It’s me, Momma—Laura.”
“Where’s Eustiss?” Annie pleaded with some desperation.
Without a word, Laura rushed inside and dropped to one knee in front of Annie. “What’s wrong, Momma? Are you hurting?”
With some sense of recognition on her face, Annie raised her head and asked, “Is Eustiss with you?”
Her voice gentle but firm, Laura said, “No, Momma. You know Daddy is gone. Now where do you hurt?”
“Just got a real bad headache, honey,” Annie said, lifting a hand to touch her forehead.
Laura saw that the other arm hung limp at her side. Stroke—that, or maybe a heart attack. Either way, she knew she had to get her to the hospital.
To Laura’s surprise, lifting Annie required no great effort. Struck by a sharp pang of guilt, she realized that she’d paid little attention to how frail her once-strapping mother had become.
Her vision still clouded, Annie protested, “Where are you taking me?” Drawing a shallow breath, she said, “Eustiss won’t know where I am.”
“Just relax, Momma. I’m taking you to see Dr. Souther.” Not exactly the truth; Laura’s plan was to go straight to the hospital emergency room, but she knew that at the mere mention of the hospital, Annie would pitch a fit. And if she was right about the stroke, Annie would likely stress herself to death before getting there.
Not giving up, Annie pleaded again. “Eustiss ain’t a’ going to like this. We’ve no money for doctors. Every one of you young’uns was born at home. Eustiss said you don’t need no doctor or hospital for something as simple as having a baby.” Then she moaned softly, closed her eyes, and appeared to sleep.
Awakening hours later, Annie was confused as she surveyed her surroundings. She felt as if she was floating on a cloud but realized it was a bed she was lying on. The soft comfort of the mattress was like nothing she had ever experienced. This is something I could get used to, she thought as she pressed her hands into the mattress to make sure it was real.
Enjoying the new experience of such comfort, she was surprised when the curtain that surrounded the bed like a tent slid open and a pretty girl in a white dress appeared to the side of the bed. A friendly smile crossed her face as she gazed down at Annie and asked, “Would you like something to drink? We have water and a variety of juices.”
Annie thought for a second and said, “I’ll just have some water.”
As the nurse turned to leave, it suddenly occurred to her that she had never tasted anything such as orange juice. Eustiss never allowed her to buy much of anything from a store. He always said, “If it don’t grow on the farm, we don’t need it.” She was shocked by the unusual resolve in her voice when she said, “Actually, I think I’ll have some orange juice.”
It had been three days since Laura had rushed Annie to the hospital. She had visited at least twice a day and spent many an hour sitting by her bedside. After the second day, Annie carried on a sensible conversation, mostly complaining about hospital food but marveling at the sweetness of the orange juice that came with her breakfast each morning. By the third day, Laura noticed a surprising change in Annie’s attitude. She appeared pleased by all the attention she was receiving and seemed to enjoy being a hostess of sorts. She pointed out to Laura that if she needed the use of it, there was a toilet behind the door at the far end of the room.
She said, “There’s even a sink in there with two handles on it. You just turn the one you want, then hot or cold water comes out of the spigot.” It was a side of her Momma unfamiliar to Laura, a freer side. Maybe it was the medicine they were giving her, or her mind wasn’t totally back to normal just yet.
“Momma, the doctor says you can go home today,” Laura told her and seated herself next to the bed.
Annie was quiet for a minute and then said, “That would be for the best, I reckon. I ain’t talked to Eustiss in a while.”
When Annie spoke of Eustiss as if he were alive, Laura didn’t know how to respond, so she changed the subject to a matter that had to be decided. “Momma, you know I’ll be there as much as I can, but I can’t stay with you all the time.” She paused. “I insist we’ve got to run water to the house and put in a proper bathroom. You can’t keep running up and down the hill a dozen times a day.”
After a long silence, Annie said, “Eustiss will probably turn over in his grave.”
Laura pursed her lips in quiet frustration. “I’ve got to go sign some papers. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
When Laura returned, Annie was clutching a brown bag with the necessities she’d been given during her stay. She sounded somewhat reluctant when she finally said, “I reckon I’m ready.” Hesitating as if she’d forgotten something, she lifted a finger and pointed toward the door at the end of the room. “Wait just a minute. I want to use that toilet room again before we go.”
As soon as the car came to a stop in front of the old house, a determined expression set on Annie’s face. “I better get this over with,” she said.
“Where are you going, Momma?”
“Got to talk to Eustiss,” Annie said, easing the car door open. “You go on in the house, Laura. I best do this by myself. I’ll be back directly.”
Laura watched through the back window of the car as Annie walked slowly up a hill to the side of the house and disappeared behind the old apple orchard.
Near the top of the low rise was a small clearing near to losing the battle with encroaching broomsedge and blackberry thickets. Annie approached it with slow reverence as always. In the middle of the clearing, stone markers poked through the broomsedge like crooked teeth set on brown gums. The smallest of the tombstones barely peaked above the weeds. The sight of it caused her a touch of guilt, feeling that her neglect was disrespectful to the memory of those buried there. One grave stood a little farther down the hill from the rest, them farther up being the oldest. It was new enough to be readable. One side was still smooth, the other chiseled with the name and the vitals of a birth and a death.
“Eustiss,” she began, “I’m sorry I ain’t been here in a spell, but I ain’t been well.” Knowing how he’d always said “Excuses only satisfy the man making them,” she left out the details of her stay in the hospital. “Everything I ever done was with the aim to please you. I knowed you wouldn’t like it when Laura had ‘lectricity run to the house, so I never used it much; a kerosene lamp gives what little light I need.”
She paused, took a deep breath, and gathered her courage. “I knowed you always said that running water pipes into the house was a waste of money and just asking for trouble. Worser still, you said, was the idea of bringing the outhouse inside where a body could empty his bowels right inside the house.
“Well,” she went on, worrying hard the words she chose, “I ain’t asking you to like it, but Eustiss, you’re just gonna have to tolerate it. I’m gonna have both.”
Hadyn Johnson is retired and currently resides in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he was born and raised. He has lived in Washington, Colorado and Costa Rica. Moving back to North Carolina has provided him with an ample supply of information from the unique culture, which he has incorporated into a collection of short stories.