By Lisa Weiss
Betty and her brother slept in an upstairs bedroom in the family house. The other nine rooms had been taken over by Union soldiers. Fresh in their minds was the Union army’s victory parade down the main street. In the recesses of their minds were the stories they’d been told by their grandparents, of early settlers times back when the Indians had been the enemy. At the forefront of Betty’s mind were the Union band members playing the theme from Norma in the parade. Norma was an opera by Bellini which had premiered at La Scala in Italy thirty-some years ago. She didn’t know this. It was just stuck in her head. She took care not to hum it out loud for fear of upsetting her brother, but it seemed to always be on the tip of her tongue and she adored it.
Circumstances, including death by pneumonia of both their spouses, the loss of Betty’s brother’s son to smallpox, and the departure of Betty’s daughter upon marrying a man from a town two mountains away, had brought them back to their childhood home. The Union soldiers enjoyed the family furniture. They sang and they whistled. They gave Betty and her brother kitchen privileges.
It was Sunday. Betty and her brother read to one another from their Bible, sitting by their bedroom window, looking out onto the quiet street. They’d shared the same bedroom as children. The soldiers who lived in the house had gone to the town church two blocks up. They’d watched the men stroll there, the decisive battle, as far as West Virginia was concerned, now over and already lost in the past. Union-made graffiti was now being scratched onto the walls of the houses in the town.
The church bells rang at noon, signaling the end of the service. The first few notes were meant to be the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. It was a tune neither Betty nor her brother had ever heard before. Betty tried to latch onto it, but the bell ringer, a Union soldier, didn’t seem to know it. He repeated the first phrase over and over. At last he tried to go on, but seemed unable to find the next note. Betty noted how he seemed to give up. He skipped to the next phrase. It made her almost laugh. He soon hit a very bad note four times in succession. It seemed as though he did not want to admit it was wrong. He stumbled through to the end of “Battle Hymn.” Betty was startled by the sound of her brother’s laughter. It was the first time in days she had even seen him smile. His red hair seemed on fire in the midday light.
He was over by the bed, where he kneeled down and reached underneath the bed skirt. He felt for the hatchet, retrieved it, sat back on his knees and cradled it in his arms
“Don’t you think you’re being a little extreme? We do have poor musicians on our side, too, you know. No need to kill anyone over it.”
“Whoever of them is playing those bells, whatever Sunday it is, it’s never going to be right. I’ve seen to it.”
Betty stared at him.
He raised himself up and swung the hatchet in the air just as the “Battle Hymn’s” final note died away, which didn’t take long because it had been a limp attack without any center. The penultimate note that preceded it had been the dirtiest, most sour note in the entire history of all past and future performances of the tune. No historian would ever record that fact in a history book, but it was just so nevertheless.