Life tending to Aunt Magdalene's dying days became a bit easier with Uncle Sam home. Euphemia found she had less to do with two other able hands around and was contented. Uncle Sam chopped and carried in the wood and at night he would pick out a few hymns and we would sing them together in harmony. Time passed quickly for me, but I think slow for Aunt Magdalene. She prayed and moaned until I couldn't tell the difference anymore. My first visit to her in the mornings made me struggle not to gag or cover my nose from the smell. Her bedside confessions became less frequent. I couldn't tell if she was saving up for the part of the story she thought would kill her, or maybe had lost her resolve. But one morning when I brought in her tonic and her coffee, she was already up straight in bed, like a steel poker.
"This affliction has made me a more humble servant" Aunt Magdalene said, but I saw a slight grimace of disgust as she swallowed her tonic and the sour taste reached her bowels. She had started talking like that after Preacher Jim stopped by the other Monday to tell her that her illness was a sure sign of God's promise of her final reward of heaven. So the more she suffered now, the less she'd have to suffer in purgatory before she could join the angels.
I shouldn't say that I think Aunt Magdalene didn't believe a word of it. I really shouldn't, but I have the feeling that maybe for her, saying the words was as much believing as fully embodying the holy spirit when one is grievously anointed.
Uncle Sam poked his head in the door and brought in some fresh wood for the fire.
"I don't know why you stay Samuel," Aunt Magdalene said. "Your pagan wife needs you as do all those beasts and creatures you study. We can get along just fine without you sticking your high nose into everything."
I often wondered and even asked Uncle Sam why he came to see Magdalen off,
but as we both stood there watching her cheeks sink in her eyes pop out farther and farther
each day. I knew. Either Magdalene had truly been a kind sister to him as he grew up, or
Uncle Sam was a Saint. Perhaps it was a little bit of both. Either way, with Sam around,
even when he got that twinkle in his eye riling her up, I began to see Aunt Magdalene in a
different light. No matter how difficult she was, she had won love from at least one a good man.
And I began to feel a little more sheepish about my own feelings toward her.
"Last I heard, Catholicism isn't paganism. But let's you and me just be friends - after all, I came all the way here by train, boat, and horse just to sit with you and enjoy your company sister dear. And after three months of traveling, I'm quite happy to stick around for a little while longer." He took out his pipe, but with dramatic gasp from Aunt Magdalene didn't light it - only stuck it in his mouth contemplatively.
"You always were drawn to the Devil's ways - you and Jeremiah skipping around happy as larks in the swamp where none of the rest of us God-fearing folks would trespass. And you picked up that nasty habit from him too."
"Now, now Maggie. Let's put all that behind us. I just wanted to listen to your story a bit and I promise I'll keep quiet." Uncle Sam leaned back and even put his pipe in his pocket, looking like the most obedient schoolboy.
" Well, as I said, Jeremiah started to make more and more money and wore newer and nicer clothes straight from Liberty. Some people began to whisper that the Devil was leaving coin on Jeremiah's doorstep, in return for Jeremiah keeping the swamp for him to come claim one day."
"HA! You believed that claptrap?" Uncle Sam said.
"And you didn't and that's why your soul is in grave danger Samuel...." Uncle Sam realised he was dangerously close to getting a lecture instead of a story so he eased on his most humoring smile and patted Magdalene's hand.
"That's alright now, you just go on. I'm sorry for interrupting you." There was something deep and sad in his bright blue eyes that made my heart sink a little for not understanding it. It almost seemed that he was there watching - keeping record of what Aunt Magdalene said.
"Well, Samuel, you know as well as I what happened that day. Jeremiah came to town on his new horse and new saddle -- so new it squeaked. His hair was all greased up and he had a flower in his jacket's front pocket. Well, I was in the storeroom..."
"You were hiding from him like you did every time he came by!" Uncle Sam seemed so tense he was ready to spring up and yell something. I could already feel like we were at the edge of a cliff and I wasn't sure I wanted to be taken over the edge with the two of them.
"I was in the storeroom counting out the flour and I heard the scream. Mary Beth Sanderson screamed and didn't stop screaming for two days. They had to keep her at home for nearly a week all she did was shake and close her eyes and beg the Good Lord to make her stop seeing that poor baby boy get trampled by Jeremiah's horse. Trampled till Jimmy's skull was crushed and bloody and his poor parents were only inside the church talking to the preacher." Aunt Magdalen's eyes were covered in glassy tears that fell in fat drops down her yellow, shriveled skin. She wrung her bony wrists and searched wildly in her bedclothes for her handkerchief.
"You see, Clara, the boys had been throwing rocks at the horse. They were calling Jeremiah names..'son of the devil,' 'lucifer,' you name it. Jeremiah tried to calm the horse, but Jimmy got in the way. Jeremiah was knocked flat on his back in the road and no one could get to Jimmy in time." Uncle Sam looked close to tears himself and Aunt Magadalene weeped weakly into her pink quilt.
Uncle Sam cleared his throat and put his fingers to his closed eyelids. I reached toward Aunt Magdalene and held her hand. She grabbed it, wetly. This, was what she had wanted to tell me, or some part of it. One of the hard awful parts that I always skip in the Bible like when they crucify Jesus or the whole book of Job.
"They beat him, Clara. They beat Jeremiah senseless," Uncle Sam said. His elbows on his knees and hands covering his face. His back, curved in an arch of grief. "As soon as they took Jimmy's body away, one of the older boys who had thrown the rocks told Curtis, Clarence, and Obediah that Jeremiah just walked over Jimmy, smiling like it was Christmas. They didn't stop to think why Jeremiah was out of his wits on the road. They were always thugs those three boys. They spent their Sundays after church drinking moonshine and huntin' raccoons. And they, all three of them, had the worst, ugliest taste for violence."
"Where were you? Why didn't you help him?" Aunt Magdalene wailed, sobbing dreadfully now.
"I saw them coming at Jeremiah with shovels and a pistol...I swear to God Maggie, I tried to stop them and they pushed me out of the way. I tried to go get Pa at the house, but when I got back it was over. They'd stop just short of killing Jeremiah because the preacher told them that enough was enough and maybe Jeremiah will repent of his sins now that he's been brought so low."
Euphemia hollered from down the hall that lunch was ready. But I couldn't eat. I felt that empty ache when Grandpa died and my brother died. All I wanted was to sleep the world away and I told Uncle Sam as much so. He took my hand tenderly and said, "There's more Clara, and we need you to hear it. And soon," he said as he looked at Aunt Magdalene staring out the window, as if she saw and heard but didn't or couldn't or wouldn't.