By Susan Mulholland
The widow rocked on the cabin’s front porch, and the creaks started at the rockers and spread along the porch and up the walls, through each laid log and cut notch, and up to the mossy roof, so the whole house sang a thoughtful song. She sucked on her bottom lip, and her entire chin folded into her mouth and was gummed in quiet rumination. She noted the sky darkening and reddening in warning, but never considered it being a warning of something so soon—as usually the sky’s warnings are saved until morning.
The life-hum that boiled in the trees and brimmed at dusk came to her ears, and she let each rustling leaf and mewling creature touch her ears and held a parley with all of them. But most of all she wished the silent whippoorwill would speak again, but knew it would not in the echoes of that far-off cannon fire which she could not hear, but certainly winged and traveled beast could.
She had three boys off in the war—all old enough to fight, but none old enough to understand the truest nobility they could seek was in protecting her and her younger brood at the homestead. But she did not blame them. They were like their father, and she would not permit herself to think of them lest they appeared from the trees at that very moment and called to her. And if they never did, she would never think of them as she never thought of her late husband.
She thought they did just that a moment later, but the color was wrong. At least for it to be her sons. These men were blue and seemed bashful, milling near the treeline at the head of the trail. When they had primped and polished and picked themselves and their horses properly, they fell in form and came to the porch.
They were put-together rapist and thieves, but rapists and thieves just the same. The Captain was very young and very handsome, and his smile told her he was very good at raping and thieving.
The Captain and his men were for Booneville, traveling west on the Furnace road between the Kentucky and Red Rivers. Their road had been long, full of thick gullies to be plunged and hilly bosoms overcome and deep rivers crossed. Of course, it was the Captain’s young arrogance, which made him think of the rivers here as virginal—they had tasted red blood for centuries if not blue and grey yet.
He ran one hand through his chestnut hair and wrapped the other in the chestnut mane of his mare and swung off. The porch was mounted in much the same way the mare had been dismounted. The widow continued rocking, and the house creaking, dually unimpressed.
He tipped his hatless head. “How are you this evenin’, ma’m?”
She unfolded her chin but said nothing.
“Can you hear me, ma’m?”
She re-folded her chin, thinking, nodding. The Captain’s eyes, though on her, took in his surroundings. There was the faint smell of simple cooking from inside the house, but no sound.
“So you can hear me? You are not deaf?”
“I am deaf only to the thang I wish to hear most,” she said.
“And what would that be?”
Behind him, as choreographed, his men were dismounting and dispersing to find what goods were hidden on the homestead. The widow saw them but paid no mind.
She pursed her lips and whistled three syllables three times, a name which was a sound:
And then she waited for a moment with her ears pricked for a reply that did not come. Instead, the Captain said in the tone of realization, “They do not sing! Do they?”
“They da not,” she said simply.
But he did not hear her. He was in another year passed, past. He was in chase of a flying deer to the music of a score of well-trained hounds hot on the flying trail. And then a winding horn of memory called him to the camp of the next year, the year after the twelve-point deer when the hunt went on listlessly for a week until one night when the owls nor the whippoorwills called, and one of the hounds threw up his head and howled mournfully.
And one of the hunters had said “Morgan…” rising from his bed. “John Morgan, the dogs have heard his call.”
And the next morning the hunters, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and well-off farmers of the Bluegrass, left the Eastern hills of the state and returned home just long enough to kiss their loved ones…
The end of a muzzle-loading shotgun was in the Captain’s face.
And at the end of the shotgun, a beautiful girl of sixteen in homespun calico. The intent in her eyes was clear, and her voice was firm: “Thee steers are the only thing standin’ ‘tween us and starvation, and when they go, it’ll be over my dead body.”
He did not look behind him at the three scrawny cows his men had apprehended from the cliff below.
“Take ‘em back where you found ‘em.”
They camped that night in the woods near the widow’s home. His men went to sleep, grumbling mouths and stomachs. But he stayed awake for some time, eyes on the silent canopy. He thought of how few men ever see a Whippoorwill with their own eyes.
He whistled three syllables, not piercing but riding the warm night air. He strained his ears back toward the cabin. No response came. Maybe they slept. Maybe the birds all slept in the trees.
Then, something faint but on the air. The whisper of unsure thunder.
And he could see her wetting papery lips with a dry morsel of a tongue.
And then the sound was high and clear: Whip—oor—will!
When the Whippoorwills sang again, he would ride back here and marry that girl.
Should he live.