Stars of Fire
by Mary Ellen Dennis
Matilda Tuttle’s burial was short and sweet. Short because the minister had developed a bothersome itch between his thighs. Sweet because someone had sent a flowered wreath: roses, lilies and snapdragons. No card of acknowledgment had arrived with the fragrant blooms, and the minister had a sneaking suspicion that the wreath had been delivered to the wrong corpse.
He tried to keep his hand away from his groin as he intoned a hasty psalm and added a fervent “Amen.” Only one person stood by the grave—Matilda’s sister, Martha. Should he comfort her? He didn’t know her very well. In fact, he didn’t know the corpse very well. His gaze touched upon the simple coffin. In life as well as death, the Tuttle sisters had been uncommunicative.
After patting Miss Tuttle’s shawl-clad shoulders and nodding at the grave diggers, the minister walked away, his hand creeping surreptitiously between his legs.
Martha Tuttle sniffled. Then, indignantly, she sniffed. Dr. McAllister had said her sister Tillie died of the dysentery, but Martha knew different. Tillie hadn’t shat herself to death. Tillie had been poisoned.
“I’ve been poisoned!” Tillie had screamed, just before Martha fetched the doc. Then Tillie spoke to Dr. McAllister alone. Then she died.
The law wouldn’t do nothin’ ‘bout the poisoning. Tillie was a midwife, not some upper crust lady, though she’d oft brought forth the bastards of the upper crust. Tillie had even crowed ‘bout one hoity-toity lady, Anne Coleman, daughter of a Philadelphia moneybags. A shame Tillie never pegged the baby’s pa.
Despite the sun’s glare, Martha shivered. Then she shifted her somewhat myopic gaze and squinted at a man half crouched behind a distant scrub of brush. Was he the one who’d sent Tillie flowers? If so, why didn’t he move closer to the grave?
The object of Martha’s gaze sprawled backwards, landing on his buttocks.
Damn! He shouldn’t have come. He shouldn’t have sent the wreath either, but he always sent flowers after a fresh kill. It was only fair.
“I’m too tender-hearted for my trade,” he murmured.
James Coleman looked up from the wood he whittled, a piece cut from a sycamore tree—smooth, clean, the color of oatmeal. Surrounded by fragrant chips and shavings, he sat on the porch steps of the old clapboard house.
Only twelve, James’s gray eyes seemed ageless. His spindly body hadn’t caught up to his alert mind, but broad shoulders and long legs hinted that great strength would evolve soon, perhaps this very summer.
Suspenders crisscrossed his bare back and held up his trousers, severed raggedly at the ankles with his whittling knife. Aunt Sally said his feet were ‘ristocratic, whatever that meant, but today they were caked with mud, hiding dried blood from briar scratches. Berry juice stained the deep cleft in his chin, and the sun had streaked the top layer of his brown hair gold.
“Bastard, bastard, bastard!”
The familiar singsong cuss came from the slack mouth of Ambrose Higley, eldest of Uncle John and Aunt Sally’s four sons and three daughters. At sixteen, Brose was the same height as James but stockier. Brose was mean, had been born mean, and James understood that he’d get no peace until he answered the taunt. A fight usually resulted in a whupping from Uncle John, but ignoring Brose was worse. The gibes would continue and eventually include a slur about James’s unknown father. Or even worse, his mother who had died in childbirth.
Laying aside his knife and the horse he’d been carving for Aunt Sally, James rose from the porch steps. To his right stood a well with a hanging bucket. About sixty paces from that, a privy. To his left was a woodpile, where a well-honed ax split a dead stump. Behind the stump, overgrown weeds led to the barn where James slept at night, sharing his loft with a black collie bitch he’d named She-Dog.
“What do you want, Brose?”
“I tried to cut wood like you showed me, bastard. All I got was splinters.”
“You hack too rough. Bring me another chunk from the woodpile and I’ll show you again.”
“You ma’s in Frankfort.”
“My ma’s dead. And there’s nothing in Frankfort . . .” James paused, but he couldn’t stop the voice inside his head that whispered: except an insane asylum.
“Your pa was strung-up for a murderin’ thief.”
“Liar! If you don’t shut, I’ll—”
“You’ll what?” Brose whistled. Other Higley offspring appeared: Walt, Frank and Dudley, ages fifteen, fourteen and thirteen.
James was in no mood for a brawl. He could smell possum stew. Soon Aunt Sally would ring the dinner bell and James was hungry. He was always hungry. Uncle John doled out vittles as if the morsels were gold coins.
“What do you want, Brose?”
“I want your magic knife, bastard. Fork it over.”
“My knife ain’t magic.”
“It’s a hoodoo knife. I get splinters with mine.”
“The magic’s in my head. I picture the critters clear and carve ‘em.”
“If the magic’s in your head, reckon I gotta split open your head and pull it out.”
James began pacing backwards, toward the well. At the same time he snapped his fingers for She-Dog, who’d been lazily eyeing one of the barn cats.
Brose turned to Frank, Walt and Dudley. “Git’im! Hold the bastard down!”
His three brothers hesitated. They didn’t see the sturdy legs beneath the ragged trousers or the flexed arm muscles or the sparse trail of brown belly hair that had, of late, sprouted. But they did see James’s clenched jaw and determined eyes.
“Aw, leave him be,” Dudley whined. “Supper’s near ready.”
Brose sneered. “Yella?”
“If ya hold him down and let me hit ’im knurly, we can divvy his share of possum.”
Dudley licked his lips, saw his brothers do the same. At a silent signal they all rushed forward.
James had ambled to the other side of the well. Grasping the bucket with both hands, he let it fly to the end of its rope. The bucket caught Frank square between the eyes, and the boy dropped.
Frank’s brains would be scrambled for hours, thought James. One down, three to go, though Brose was cowardly and would wait until James had been hashed by the others.
Walt leapt piggyback onto James, tearing at his sweat-slick chest.
“Ya kilt Frank,” Dudley screeched, looking down at his brother.
“Ain’t kilt. Head’s hard as a nut. Can’t crack that shell,” huffed James, whipping around in a circle until he dislodged Walt. “Keep fast, She-Dog!” With satisfaction, James heard the snarls of his collie as she held Walt at bay on the ground.
Dudley spied his father’s straight razor and strop, left carelessly on the well’s fount. Grasping the razor’s handle, he advanced, slashing. Though his movements were slapdash, one frantic swipe of the blade lacerated James’s face from his eyebrow to below his earlobe.
James felt no immediate pain, only the sensation that someone had upturned a full pitcher of warm water over his head. Instinctively, he reached out and caught Dudley’s wrist, pressing hard until the boy’s fingers relaxed and the razor dropped. Then, with all his strength, James plunged his fist into Dudley’s jaw and Dudley sagged to the ground beside Frank.
Walt regained his feet. James watched She-Dog’s fur rise in spiky bristles along the ridge of her back. Her muzzle lifted and she growled low in her throat.
Lord a’mighty, he hadn’t given his dog the signal to attack. James opened his mouth then closed it again when Walt ran toward the privy and hid behind the shut door.
James sensed rather than heard approaching footsteps. He made an about-face.
Brose’s stubby fingers clutched an ax, suspended above his head.
With disbelief, James darted a quick glance toward the stump near the woodpile. Damn, he was done for.
The older boy’s eyes were red, the corners of his open mouth smeared with spit. He looked like the rabid wolf Uncle John had once shot.
James moved his throbbing, bloodied head left and right until his gaze locked on the discarded razor. He took a step sideways and dropped to one knee. The ax descended, slicing empty air, missing his shoulder by a hair’s breadth. He could smell the chips of wood that clung to its sharp, cutting edge.
The blade buried itself in dirt. Brose still grasped the ax’s handle. Before he could heft it, James slashed upward with the razor, severing Brose’s little finger. The ax handle fell, forgotten, as Brose screamed like a girl and thrust his mutilated hand inside his pocket.
James stood, ready to strike again, but Brose’s mouth was now set in a silent O as he stared, dazed, at the finger on the ground. Blood soaked the seam of his trousers.
Whistling for She-Dog, pausing only long enough to pocket his whittling knife and carved horse, James sprinted toward the barn. When Walt came out from behind the privy door, he would fetch Uncle John.
James stole a glance over his shoulders, but all he saw were the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. He had to leave the farm—without supper, he thought regretfully. He didn’t fear a whupping, but he did fear retribution. “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” Uncle John was fond of saying.
Finger for finger?
Entering the barn, James tried to figure out what had happened. Always before, after a brawl, he was left with a bloody nose, scraped skin, and bruises that matched the color of his eyes. The others took pleasure from fighting but they always won—until today. Did he feel good about his victory? No. Yes!
She-Dog flopped to the barn’s floor as James climbed to the loft and wrapped his meager belongings inside a blanket: a shirt, a pair of scuffed boots, a piece of flint and two books. The first, an old Bible, was inscribed: TO ANNE FROM HER LOVING FATHER. The other, a well-thumbed copy of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, had an even shorter inscription: ANNIE, WITH LOVE, J. B.
James scuttled down the loft ladder. As he reached the last rung, he felt a touch on his bare shoulder. Releasing the blanket, he turned around, prepared to do battle.
“What happened to your face?” Aunt Sally gasped. At age thirty, she looked ten years older. Not too old to bear another child, however, since her belly bulged with yet more proof of her husband’s drunken prowess. “Your face. What happened, boy?”
“Razor . . . Dudley . . .” Aunt Sally swam in and out of James’s vision.
“Thought so. Walt said you and your dog jumped ‘em from behind, but I didn’t believe that for one minute.”
“John slung him over the mare and headed for the animal doc. Brose’ll live. He’s too mean to die. Can’t say the same for you, boy.” Sally dropped her shawl. “Gotta stitch up your face afore you lose more blood.”
“No need to put yourself out.”
“You ain’t scared of a needle, big grown boy like you?” As she spoke, she led him toward the horse trough and ripped off a ruffle from her petticoat.
“That’s your only underskirt, Aunt Sally.”
“Reckon I’ll use the rest soon enough for swaddling.” She cleansed his face with water from the trough. “Ain’t too deep, but more’n a scratch.” Reaching for the needle and thread she always carried, she carefully stitched the ragged edges of his wound together. “There. Keep it clean or it’ll fester.”
James ignored the sting; he had more important matters on his mind. “Aunt Sally, do you know my momma’s name?”
“Reckon it be Anne, boy. Them books—”
“Does my momma live in Frankfort?”
“No. She lives in heaven.”
“Is Coleman my pa’s name?”
She shrugged. “It was the name you come with. I remember that day real good. You, no bigger than a mite, handed over by Tillie Tuttle. Tillie died of the dysentery not one week later. You wore a white lace gown and a linen diaper. Reckon both was cut and stitched from a fine tablecloth.”
“Why’d you never ask my ma and pa’s whereabouts?”
“It was part of the bargain. I only got you ‘cause I had milk from Dudley. He weren’t weaned yet.” She heaved a deep sigh. “Me and John was paid to care for you. A preacher-man from Philadelphia sent the money by post till his church burnt and he passed.” In a tired, unthinking voice, she added, “God rest his soul.” Then, “But you know all that.”
“Thought I might hit the trail and find my real kin,” James said, even though his heart pounded like a thumped washboard. Would Aunt Sally beg him to stay?
“Reckoned you’d leave. Didn’t figure so soon but you’ve had schooling, learnt to read and cipher.” She knelt, unfolded her shawl, and handed him bread, cheese, and a flint-lock pistol with its walnut stock and brass barrel.
“Lord a’mighty, Aunt Sally. That’s Uncle John’s gun. I can’t take it. He’ll be madder’n the devil.”
“Take it, boy. John drank up every bit of your keep money and he’ll be crazed no matter what, ‘cause of Brose.”
“I’ve got something for you.” Reaching into his pocket, James retrieved the carved horse and handed it to Aunt Sally.
“Thank you most kindly, James,” she said. “I’ll put it with the others. I sure do like to see them ponies galloping ‘cross my shelf. They look so . . . free.”
Embarrassed by Aunt Sally’s sudden tears, James returned to the loft ladder and fumbled at the contents from his spilled bedroll. The Thomas Paine book had landed open, face down. James picked it up, blew away the wisps of straw then glanced at the page. “ ‘My country is the world,’ ” he read aloud, “ ‘and my religion is to do good.’ ” Shamefaced again, he added the food and pistol to his blanket.
“I’ll miss you.” Aunt Sally lifted her arms as if she might hug him. Instead, she drew her shawl across her shoulders. “I sewed your face good, boy, but you’ll carry a scar till the day you die.”
“If my momma lives in heaven, we can all be there together,” he said, trying to grin, trying to act grown, even though he felt like the smallest boy who ever lived.
“I don’t have much hope of heaven, more’s the pity.”
“Why not, Aunt Sally?”
“Snuff. God don’t hanker to them who use snuff. Always remember, James Coleman. No matter what sins you commit, never use snuff.” She gave him the ghost of a smile. “Tobacco, neither, though that’s more aristocratic.”
That night, having traveled a goodly distance from the farm, James pulled the flint from his bedroll and lit a small fire. She-Dog curled up close. James buried his face in her rough coat, trying to curb the all-consuming sobs and shudders that seemed to rip apart his body from the inside out.
It would be twenty-eight years before he wept again.