Clio, Virginia – 1856
Charlie Cooper sat next to the lifeless body of his mother
and brushed away the hair from her forehead. Silent tears
rolled down his cheeks. His face radiated heat from his
recent run, and his breath still came in ragged gasps. He
brought his mother’s hand to his lips.
I can be strong, Mama. I’m the man of the family. I promise
I’ll be strong until Papa comes home to us.
In the other room Aunt Martha continued sobbing. Through the
doorway he saw her seated in the settee with his
six-year-old little sister wrapped in her arms. The doctor
entered and placed the still form of the baby boy next to
his mother’s body. His hand touched Charlie’s shoulder, but
Charlie pulled away. He didn't want the doctor's sympathy.
He was a man now, and he would act like it. No one would
know what his mother's death cost him.
“How old are you, boy?”
“Twelve? Well, I guess that's old enough. The neighbor women
will be along to help prepare the bodies.”
Charlie nodded and listened to the doctor’s departing
footsteps against the wooden floor. He reached over and
touched the tiny baby. Such a perfect little human. He
traced the outline of the tiny lips and the small eyelids.
Except for the baby's bluish skin, he looked like one of the
dolls on display at the mercantile.
A bowl of water used to bathe his mother’s head still sat on
the nightstand. Charlie stared at it a moment, then dipped
his hand in the cold water. He sprinkled the droplets on his
brother’s soft black hair and signed a cross against his
forehead. He struggled to remember the words of the parish
priest from the old country. “In the name of the Father, Son
and Holy Spirit," he whispered. "I christen you Samuel
Cooper.” “Charlie,” his aunt, Martha Campbell, stood in
the doorway. “Whatever are you doing?”
“I had to name him, so I called him after Papa. It will make
Papa so happy to know his son carries his name.”
Aunt Martha choked on a sob and rushed from the room.
Emmeline stared after her, until Charlie called his sister
"I'm happy for Mama. Emmeline climbed on the bed, and
nestled herself against her mother’s body. She talked around
her thumb. “Big Ed said Mama is real happy now. Jesus took
her and baby brother to heaven. Mama's been sad since papa
left, and I'm glad she'll be happy. I didn't like to see her
cry.” Emmeline rested her head against the pillow and looked
up at Charlie.
He smiled back at her, glad that she didn't understand. If
only he could be young again. Someday she would know what
this day meant, and when she did he would be there to
“I gave Mama my shiny pebble to take with her.”
The women’s voices from outside reached him. “Come on,
Emma. Give Mama and Samuel a kiss goodbye, and let’s walk
down to the stream.” Charlie leaned over and pressed his
lips against his mama's cheek. It just couldn't be true, she
seemed so soft against his skin. "I love you, mama. I love
you." He couldn't tell her too many times.
His arm wrapped around Emmeline's waist and he hoisted her
off the bed and led out of the room before the others
“Laddie, lay it against the frame and fasten it. We want the
house pretty for yer mother's burial.”
Charlie pressed the coarse black fabric against the window
molding and watched Big Ed arrange the folds before he
nailed it down.
“Why did God let her die?” Charlie muttered.
“Och, laddie, don't go blaming God for yer troubles. He saw
fit to take yer mother. She’s far better off with him, than
she be here. Yer mother's been a wee bit ill since the boat
ride from bonny Scotland. With yer father being off like he
is, and with the wee one, it was too much for her.” Big Ed
stretched out his large hand and tousled Charlie’s hair.
“Mama said for me to be the man in the family. How will I
ever learn what I need to know? If only I knew how to do
everything, like you do.”
Big Ed laughed. “Yer talking’ to a man who’s nary
twenty-seven. I don't know everything, laddie. When yer papa
comes he’ll be a teaching you.”
Charlie glanced up into Big Ed’s brown eyes. He was so
strong, and a good head and shoulders taller than any other
man in town. He looked like he’d been cut out of the rugged
highlands of his birthplace.
“Run along, laddie, and fix yerself up. People will be
Charlie entered the front parlor where his mother’s body
lay. The wooden coffin Big Ed had spent the night carving
fragranced the air with fresh wood and pungent stain. The
sweet smell of wild violets mingled with smoke from the
kitchen cook stove. Emmeline sat against the wall in a
straight-back chair. Her fingers toyed with the yarn in her
doll’s hair and her new black dress crinkled when she
shifted. Aunt Martha stood next to the coffin and talked in
low tones with the blacksmith's wife.
Charlie crossed the room to his sister. “Come and sit by
“I can’t. Aunt Martha told me to stay by her.” Emmeline
hugged the doll to her.
Aunt Martha reached out and rested her hand on the girl’s
“She said she needs me, Charlie.”
Aunt Martha didn't even stop talking. She just tilted her
head and motioned Charlie to a place near the door. He
stepped away and took a seat in the corner. He might be not
be able to sit by Emmeline, but Aunt Martha couldn't make
him greet a bunch of strangers right when they walked in. He
hardly knew any of the adults in town, except by reputation.
If only they would just leave him be. He nodded at their
polite condolences, but kept his eyes trained on the floral
carpet. He didn’t know what to say or how to respond. Let
them spout their sympathies to Emmeline and Aunt Martha.
The late spring day drew to a close, the room darkened and
Big Ed lighted the candles. Charlie glanced over at Emmeline
dozing in her chair, and wished he could wrap his arms
around her. “Aunt Martha, should I put Emma to bed?”
Aunt Martha fingered the brooch made with her sister’s hair.
“No, Charlie. I moved Emmeline’s belongings to the room
adjoining mine. I’ll take care of her now.
“Edwin, carry Emmeline to her bed, please. I’ll put her in
With a quick step Big Ed scooped up the small girl and
pressed her head of yellow curls against his massive chest.
Emmeline looked like a soft black feather in his arms.
Alone, Charlie hugged his knee and stared at his mother’s
casket. The simple carving in the side reminded him of a
snail’s trail in the morning light. He listened to Big Ed’s
returning footsteps echo against the walls, like the
thumping of his heart at night when he laid his head against
“Ye be goin’ to bed, laddie?”
Charlie shook his head. “I reckon I’ll stay up with you and
“If that be what yer wanting.”
Big Ed crossed the room to the casket. He stood and gazed
into its depths. His large hands clasped in front of him.
The house remained quiet except for the sounds of Aunt
Martha readying Emmeline for bed, and the distant scrape of
a chair leg against the upstairs floor from one of his
aunt’s boarders. Charlie stared up at Big Ed and saw the
flickering lamplight reflect off a tear trickling down his
tanned cheek. Charlie rose and slipped his hand around Big
“What is it, laddie?” Big Ed's voice sounded strange.
“Aunt Martha told the doctor’s wife that she doesn’t think
Papa is coming back. She said we haven’t heard from him in
so long that ‘more than likely he left us high and dry.’”
Big Ed glanced down and Charlie saw fire in his eyes.
“Martha said them words? Yer faither’s a good man. He went
west, but he means to send fer ye. Give him time.”
Charlie swallowed hard and pressed his cheek against the
rough wool suit coat. “Do you think he’s dead?”
“Och! Bairn, only the Good Lord knows!
The next morning the sun seeped through the young leaves,
and filtered down on the people huddled in the shadows of
the church. Charlie gripped Emmeline’s sweaty hand. He
forced himself to focus on the minister's words, but they
were strange to him. He didn't know what redemption and
The minister's final sentence cut through his thoughts.
“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
Charlie stared at the wooden box in the earth. His mother
would finally own her plot of ground—six feet of pure
Virginia soil, twenty steps south of the church door.
The shovelfuls of dirt rattled against the wood and he
watched the clods break apart against the casket. The women
were sobbing again. He wished they would be quiet. If they
wouldn't carry on he'd be fine. He wiped away Emmeline’s
tears and wrapped his arm around her. If he held her tight,
he would be able to stay strong. He needed the comfort she
Dirt piled up in the hole, and the crowd began to disperse.
Aunt Martha jerked Emmeline’s hand from his grasp. Charlie's
gaze followed them across the narrow lane and toward the
house. He turned his head back toward the hole until the men
tamped down the mound of dirt.
Charlie found a seat on the back porch steps, away from the
milling guests. The smell of fried ham, permeated the air.
He picked at his sandwich. It tasted more like sawdust than
anything edible. He tore of a bread and threw it to the
“Hey, Charlie!” Snooky Johnson, a schoolmate, ran up to
him. “That’s awful about you and Mr. Caldwell.”
Charlie jerked his head up. “Mr. Caldwell? What do you
Snooky stepped backwards. “Uh, oh. I didn’t know you didn’t
know. I just heard your Aunt Martha telling my ma she
apprenticed you to Mr. Caldwell.”
Charlie dropped his sandwich. “No. That can’t be true.
Who’ll take care of Emma if I have to leave? Are you sure
you heard right?”
“That’s what she said.”
Charlie jumped up, his hands grabbed Snooky’s shirt. “What
else did she say, Snooky? Tell me. Did she sign the papers?”
“She said you’d be a working boy tomorrow.”
Charlie picked up a clod of dirt and hurled it at a rooster
atop the fence pole.
Snooky backed away. “Maybe I better go. I think I hear my
ma.” He turned and ran off.
Charlie stared hard at the ground. He wanted to be alone,
to get away from the gossip of the neighbors. Let them drink
their lemonade and eat their ham sandwiches, but he didn't
want any part of it.
With a quick turn, Charlie raced toward the empty barn and
clambered up the rough wooden rungs of the ladder. Tears
stung his eyes and blurred his vision. He threw himself on
top of the crude hay pile. “Aye, the dead dinna have no
heart that hurts. He fell back into the familiar brogue of
his childhood. Oh, Mama…” For a second he held his breath,
but the troubles of life overwhelmed him and he shook with a
Through his tears, he stared at a ray of afternoon sunlight
which brightened the wooden slats of the loft. With his
mother dead, and Amos Caldwell his employer, it didn't seem
life should go on.