When the Gruens came over, Emily thought at first it was for a social visit, but as soon as she saw Mr. Gruen’s ramrod posture sitting stiffly next to Mrs. Gruen’s tearstained face, she knew. She didn’t even have to hear the words to know what their news was.
“We can’t stay for coffee Mrs. Evans. We just thought you might want to hear that we received a letter from Jakob’s commander. He and John died hero’s deaths. In battle. Like men.” His words were delivered with a harshness that masked his sorrow. His eyes scanned the yard, falling on Abe, who leaned against a barnpole, chewing on a piece of straw. Shoulders stiff, Mr. Gruen sniffed, his mouth turning down in distaste. As he snapped the reins that catapulted his horses into motion, steering the buggy away, Mrs. Gruen broke down into more sobs. Rachel only stood next to Emily, stoic as always, before turning and going back inside the house. Emily was struck dumb.
She’d been living in a make-believe world on the farm, doing what she was told and what she knew to do to keep everything for the men-folk so they’d have something to come home to. Then, when Jakob came back they were to build their own home over the hill from this house. That’s the way things had always been.
The soldiers were a means to that end. They were going to help the women keep the bank from taking their property. Not complicate her feelings about everything.
She couldn’t bring Jakob’s face to mind, only blurry images floated around her memory. When she finally forced them to her mind, they came with a vengeance. John and Jakob had been friends since they were born together practically, so most of her memories of John were infused with Jakob--tugging on her pigtails, stealing her lunch pail, tying their fishing line around her ankles while she slept by the creek.
It was no wonder their parents wanted them to be married. And it was no wonder she loved him so. She’d grown up with him.
The pain welled up in her belly, blooming outward until it encompassed her entire body. She clutched her belly, the source of the pain, as she ran. Her legs pumped, pistoning her away from the house toward the creek, her safe place.
The tears flowed but she didn’t feel them, didn’t see anything through her grief. Emily wondered if they’d suffered, if they were aware when they died, where they went after. Of course they went to heaven, that’s where good God-fearing men went.
Only they weren’t men. John and Jakob were just boys. Her brother and her friend. Her future.
One by one, her family was getting smaller.
Emily tried not to think about the fact there was still no word from her father, so there was still hope he was coming back. Not that it would be the same. But he would come back.
She and Mama had been doing so much to keep the farm, working until well past dark, trying to keep everything running for Papa, so he would have a farm to come home to. Now he would have two fewer children when he came back, and his daughter wouldn’t be married like they’d planned. He wouldn’t have to help her build her new home.
Emily rolled onto her stomach and clutched at handfuls of dirt while she wailed her sorrows into the earth. She was far enough away from the house she wouldn’t be heard by the soldiers or mama, or her sisters, but of course, she’d been followed.
Iron arms wrapped around her in a warm cocoon and picked her up to settle her against a chest. It was familiar, but not the chest she wished it was. She honestly wished her brother was comforting her in her time of need, but it was Isaack, shushing her and rocking her with his quiet strength.
“It’s okay. They probably went fast without suffering. I’m sure that’s how it was.” His low voice was comforting, and he let her cry. And it infuriated her.
But she did cry. She succumbed to the useless tears that wracked her entire body. She cried for the loss of her family, and then she cried for the futility of it all.
“They didn’t even want to go!” Beating her fists against Isaack’s chest, she felt helpless. “They were conscripted! They didn’t want to fight! They died for nothing!”
Her tears were gone, yet she still cried, and Isaack continued to hold her. When he spoke again, his voice brought her more comfort than she realized.
“In my experience most death is utterly futile. We can’t question it. It just is.”
She’d never heard him speak much, and these words sounded so formal, bringing to light how different he was from her. He was a Yankee, probably had more education than her elementary school-house certificate coupled with reading Mama’s books from Boston. He had been fighting against her family in the war, he probably chose to fight, because he believed in whatever the ridiculous causes were they warred over.
She hated him and everything he stood for.
Pushing herself away, she managed to see him past her headache pounding behind her eyes. “Leave me alone. You probably killed them.” She spat the words, hearing them come from her like she was floating above her body, not actually speaking them.
He understood her though. She saw it in the grief of his eyes as he clenched his fists at his sides. He opened his mouth, but apparently thought better of it, because he clamped it shut like a steel trap. Slowly, he rose to his feet and turned his back on her and her tears.
She didn’t think he went far. Emily knew he was never far away from her. Isaack was always watching her. Her shadow.
Before, she’d felt flattered by the attention. It had made her feel protected, especially after the incident at the creek. He was attentive, and when she had trouble with something he was always there. She only had to notice something broken, and the next time she saw it, it would be fixed. She only had to wish something done, and the next thing she knew he’d done it. Fence mending, wood chopping, anything. Once, she’d been daydreaming about venison for supper, and as if he read her mind, he brought a skinned and butchered deer to the door.
So she was under no illusion he’d actually left her alone to cry herself into oblivion, and instead of angering her, it actually pleased her deep down. But she wasn’t ready to admit that.
Not yet. Not the day she found out her fiancé was dead. Had been killed in battle while she was at home, kissing the enemy.