Excerpt from “A Kindness”
2017 SFK Novel Contest Winner Amidst This Fading Light by Rebecca Davis
It was the breathless summer of 1919, and it was so hot that even the air seemed to sweat. All farm work had to be done before the sun reached midday. Production was lower than usual, which left more time to idle on porches or in front of the general store. While the men were out, the ladies busied themselves in the kitchen, prepping all the meals for the day (cold meats and potato salad) and then retired with their husbands out front with lace or paper fans in their hands. Each starched dress and cotton shirt was damp at the pits. There was nothing much left to do but listen and talk.
There was one porch packed more tightly than the rest, and it belonged to Mrs. Honora Brow. The Brows were the most well-to-do family in Germantown. The original Mr. Brow had maintained the only cemetery that serviced the community. He’d gotten his undertaker’s license in Reynolds. He was a man who smoked thick cigars and smelled like death, and in his later years, he’d had a habit of pointing at people and telling them when they would die.
Prediction was a Brow tradition, and folks were always eager to hear a tale. If you asked anyone if they believed her fully, you’d get a spread of vague answers and none of them firm. But the fact that people gathered and listened was a testament to the power the Brows held over the place. Honora claimed her father’s predictions always came true. The story she most often told was when her father pointed to her own husband, a young man of twenty-one, and said that he would die by the week’s end. Of course, at the time, Honora and her husband didn’t buy it. “Though, I had a feeling, you know, deep in my bones,” Honora would later say. Her husband was out mending a fence one evening when he was shot straight through the head. One of their farmhands found him a few hours after and brought him up to the house, brains and blood leaking all the way. Honora said that she didn’t let her husband’s body into the house because it would spoil the cream rug he’d bought her. “He loved that rug. It was a wedding present for me. He’d saved up so much, I just couldn’t let him ruin it.” Her father, as the undertaker, gained possession of his son-in-law’s body and, as Honora said, “Fixed him up real nice.” So nice that they held an open-casket funeral for him.
No one ever knew who shot Honora’s husband, but it was probably a teenage boy hunting across the creek who’d fired a wayward shot into the woods that caught the man in his temple. Hunting accidents happened all the time, really. In such a small place, it was not an off occurrence. After a while, everyone stopped talking about it, so Honora Brow told the tale from her porch. She decided to keep her maiden name and passed it on to her son so that Brow Cemetery would always be owned by a Brow. Her son, who had been born only a few months before his father died, went to school to become an undertaker and took over the cemetery, as his mother wanted. He married a local girl his mother approved of. The Brows had their fingers in all of Germantown. They told the news, knew the gossip, and handled the dead. Everyone knew that one day a Brow would be prepping them for coffins and lowering them into the ground. Everybody wanted to be on the best side of people like that, almost like they had some say in how folks left this world, some precursor to Judgment Day.
But, that summer, Mrs. Brow was only part of what caught and kept interest. That summer, a new family moved into Germantown. The Picketts. They seemed normal enough at the start. They were pulled by a fuzzy mare who seemed to die a little at each step. The man whipped her gently, but his arms were stiff and tense. His wife was beside him on the wagon, full of pregnancy. She swatted mosquitos from her face with a fan and kept her other hand pressed to her belly. The daughter and the son were in the back with a few belongings: a table, a wedding chest, a box that clinked with the sounds of china, two cots, and one bed frame. There were a few chickens huddled near the children’s feet. A cow walked behind the wagon, tied to the back.
Reggie Pickett had bought the old Himmel homeplace. It had weathered about ninety years, and Himmel had passed as little more than a skeleton. He died in that house. No one knew about it until a little boy noticed vultures pecking at the roof. Some of the men went out there and found Himmel in a corner, body stiff and smelling. There were rats there, too. Someone said that the rats had eaten out the eyeballs. Someone else said they figured that the smell would never leave the place. But, Reggie Pickett bought the house anyway, and moved his little family in.
The Picketts’ arrival wasn’t unexpected because Reggie’s older brother, Marlowe, had come before him by about three years. But Marlowe, unlike Reggie, had never been a sharecropper; instead of inheriting their father’s farm, he bought his own out in Germantown, bringing along his wife and two children. The wife had died about a year after they’d moved. Mrs. Honora had predicted that one. She pointed to that little bird-faced woman and said she would die in childbirth. And Lace Pickett did, moaning and clawing at her husband, while the midwife stood by with her hands at her apron. The doctor was a county over. Everyone felt sorry for Marlowe, and he took the charity with grace. He accepted the food and drinks and long afternoons of chewing and spitting and smoking and talking about nothing but life and death, and at some point he had mentioned his brother, Reggie, and his family, and that Reggie was reckoning on whether or not to quit sharecropping and move to Germantown. Marlowe said that Reggie was a little odd. No one thought to ask how odd, because there were more interesting things to talk about: like Lace’s death and how all those cakes and pies were so good.
After Reggie Pickett’s wagon rattled down the main drag and off towards the old Himmel Place, Mrs. Honora Brow said to her audience of three families (men, wives, and children) on her porch, “Well, I’ll be. Didn’t you feel that chill?”
There was no chill. It was too hot. But a few of the ladies nodded. One said, “Oh yes.”
“They’ll bring something queer here, mind you me.” Mrs. Brow shook her finger at no one in particular, but they all thought her finger was aimed at them.
On the adjacent porch sat Mr. Tom Jefferson, who owned the general store. Jefferson lived in an old farmhouse behind the store. Jefferson knew everybody. He sold food, clothes, and special-ordered the things everybody needed for their professions. He sold with a smile and a thank you kindly as he took the money. Jefferson lived with his wife, Shirley. The couple had no children, and they were well into their forties. They kept up with Jefferson’s two sisters’ children: a gaggle of nieces and nephews who lived in town.
More interesting, though, was the knowledge that Mrs. Brow and Mr. Jefferson, though living so close, couldn’t be more opposed. When Brow spoke, Jefferson was known to head back in his store to dust, despite the fact that his wife kept each shelf spotless. Well-known was that Brow made weekend trips to Reynolds to buy goods rather than step across that sparse yard that divided their properties. They were like two cats sharing the same porch rail. Usually they just stared each other down, but sometimes one would puff and hiss at the other. And everyone else, like fascinated children, stopped to watch.
“Honora, they’re just people. And it’s near ninety. There can’t be a chill,” Jefferson said.
Honora took a sharp breath and let it out, whistling between her teeth.
“I felt it. When you get to be my age, you may be more inclined to feel things, too.”
She was puffing up, and everyone wondered if Jefferson would hiss.
He didn’t. Instead he went inside the store, leaving his wife with their little niece, Sarah, on her lap. The child said, “I wonder if those children like to play?”
As was customary, a few days after the Picketts came, ladies paid their calls. Headed up by Mrs. Brow, who wore a white silk dress that swept all the way down to her arthritic ankles, and her daughter-in-law, Norma, three ladies and Mrs. Jefferson made the jaunt to the Pickett Place. Brow brought an angel food cake. One lady carried a basket of jellies and jams from her past fall’s apples, another had a small package of sugar that had started to chunk, but not too bad, and the last had a loaf of day old bread. Mrs. Jefferson brought biscuits, salt ham, and some honey.
The walk could have been pleasant if not for the heat. The road was soft dirt and lined by trees, which were fully leaved and occupied by the hum of bumblebees. Children ran about in yards and up and down the steps of the three churches (Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian) screaming and sweating.
Norma held a parasol over her matriarch. The ladies felt the weight of summer and of their years on their backs. The dirt swept about their ankles in the wind, and they worried about dusty stockings. Mrs. Jefferson felt bad that she would track such mess into a woman’s new home, but she’d been out to Himmel’s after his death and had seen how he’d let the place go. The whole house swung wildly to the left, as if struck by a giant hand. The floorboards had holes and ends that did not meet. There were gaps in the mortar of the walls.
She found the house little changed as she and the other ladies were seated around Helen’s small table. There was new furniture there: a bed in the corner with a crib ready for the little life in Helen’s stomach, the table with four mismatched chairs, a woodstove charred around the edges by too-warm flame. The two children, shining from a recent scrubbing, played absently on the floor. The daughter made a cloth doll dance upon her lap while the boy made shapes with his fingers.
Brow took in the scene with a raised head and lowered eyes. Dirt was an inch-thick on every surface except the table. Helen had at least cleaned that. Helen also took their offerings with a timid “thank you much” and never made eye contact. Without her belly, she would have been a small woman, already graying. She was a woman who had been born to worry, Brow decided, though she wasn’t sure what that meant. Brow was a woman who valued her gut feelings, so she stuck to them. Helen had a narrow, shrew-like face, but the boy, Quincy, had inherited that face and it suited him well. The girl, Louise, had a wide head like her father and a broad mouth that moved with breathy words as she played.
The other women looked around as well, but weren’t eager to form their opinion until Brow had spoken. They noticed Helen looked down and her fingers trembled as she offered them bitter lemonade and cookies that were coarse with poorly sifted flour. They knew Mrs. Brow noticed, too, and they hoped (but knew, yes?) their own hospitality was far superior to this little woman’s in her dirty little house.
Her offerings set, Helen took her place at the table. “I pray it’s fit to eat. Thank you for the visit.”
Mrs. Brow nodded regally. She took a sip of the lemonade, and without taking her lips from the rim of the smudged glass, spit most of it back in. She did not raise the glass again. None of the women moved toward their glasses either. Mrs. Jefferson seemed to enjoy the drink fine. Mrs. Brow asked, “Where are you from, Helen?”
“Up near Saura. My papa owned a farm there.” Helen looked at her children playing on the floor.
“You like this house?”
Helen nodded. Then, more adamantly, “I’ll have a garden next year. Reggie will always provide.”
“He’s a good man, then.” Brow reached across the table and put her hand on Helen’s.
Helen drew hers back.
Brow’s lip twitched. Most people around favored her touch. She wasn’t used to being recoiled. She’d known it: these Picketts were odd.
“Helen dear, may I have more lemonade?” Mrs. Jefferson asked.
Helen filled the glass. She seemed to notice the others were untouched. She asked her children if they wanted any, and both children were on their feet and at the table almost before Helen had finished her sentence. Louise reached up to take a cookie. Quince held onto the back of her dress where the bodice was messily sewn to the skirts—Helen’s poor attempt to resize the garment.
“Quince, you need to eat something. Have you had anything since supper last night?” Helen’s voice was marked by concern.
The boy shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”
Mrs. Brow studied him for a few moments. Across those cheekbones was a splash of red. She’d seen it before. She remembered her father preparing three siblings, two brothers and a girl, all taken by scarlet fever. She remembered their hands best, folded over their stomachs. The girl’s mother had tucked a bunch of wild violets between those still fingers, saying the girl had picked them only days before. “Boy, let me see you.”
Quince glanced at his mother, who nodded in return. He approached the matriarch and looked up at her without hesitation. He was a small boy—built slight. The ridges of his collarbone protruded above his shirt collar. If he’d been a girl, he would have been called graceful. Such beauty wasn’t desirable in a boy. But he was a lovely child, and he would grow into a charming young man. Mrs. Brow took his chin in her hand. His eyes gave pause—they were storm colored. She said, “You should call the doctor, Helen.”
Helen snatched her son, pressing him to her. “What do you mean?”
“He’s got the fever.”
The other ladies murmured. Mrs. Jefferson studied the boy closer. His face did seem awfully red.
“He’s red from the heat,” Helen insisted.
Mrs. Brow rose. Chairs screeched back as the other ladies made it to their feet. “I fear for him. Pray I’m wrong,” the matriarch said as she walked to the door, leaving the other women scrambling to follow, Helen with Quince and Louise with a half-eaten cookie in her hand. Mrs. Jefferson took one last swig of lemonade before going along, sighing.
At the door, Brow turned around. “But, Helen, I am never wrong.”