It was getting late. Everybody had either gone home or gone to bed, and left me and my cousin Jamer sitting up with the dead.
Jubal Marler was my neighbor. He wasn’t so very old; only, say, in his mid-fifties. He should have had more years ahead of him, right up to his three-score and ten. He’d been out felling a tree that threatened to fall on the roof of his and Marcine’s house, but the tree fell on him instead.
So here Jamer and I sat, as was the right thing to do. Marcine had wanted to stay, but her girls had insisted that she go upstairs and try to get some rest before Jubal’s funeral, and one and another of the family had gone off home to tend sickly young’uns, or to be up early to get their chores done before they came to that big front room to load Jubal’s casket to be hauled to the churchyard.
It was an October night. Outside the moon hung bright and yellow, the only light in the front room, for Jamer had turned down the kerosene lamps. The night was warm, too, for October, so Jamer had propped the door to the front porch open. There was a gentle little breeze blowing in, rustling in what few leaves were left outside.
It was along about three in the morning when I, half-asleep, sat up with a jerk. That warm gentle little breeze had suddenly gone chilly like the dead of winter. Jamer, who had been snoring softly, sat bolt upright. “I hear footsteps–” he began.
So had I, but there was not time to say anything else, for all at once two girls stood at the door.
I will remember till the day I die how they stood there. One of them looked to be almost grown up, her dark red hair done up on her head in a knot; the younger, smaller one, who had blonde curls that hung nearly to her waist, looked to be about ten years old, maybe twelve. They both were dressed in white, old-fashioned looking dresses, and the younger girl’s was tied with a blue sash around her waist.
I had never seen either of them before.
Jamer was the first to speak. “Good mornin’, ladies,” he said politely. “Y’uns must have had a long trip, to just now be gettin’ here.”
“Aw, naw, not so long,” the older one said. Her voice wasn’t very strong, like she had weak lungs. “We walked, though, and got a late start, so we’re just now gettin’ here. We didn’t want to disturb nobody, we just wanted to stop by and say we’re sorry for Jubal’s loss. We–we hadn’t seen him in awhile.”
The little one never said a word, or looked at Jamer or me. She just looked at Jubal, lying there in his pine board casket.
“Do come on in,” Jamer said. “If you’ve had a long walk and will have a long one back, come set a spell.”
“Well, maybe for a few minutes,” the older one finally agreed.
Jamer and I talked with her for awhile. The little one never said a word, though; she just sat there, looking at Jubal’s dead face, and one or twice, she seemed to have tears in her eyes.
Finally the redhead got up and said, “Come along, Sissy. We’d best be gettin’ home.”
The little blonde got up, and only then did she speak; she whispered goodbye as they left.
That cold breeze come up again as the crossed the threshold.
And then Jamer said, “Did you hear that?”
I only nodded, for I had.
There were three sets of footsteps crossing the porch. And by the light of the moon we could see plain: three figures stepping off and starting toward the road.
One was the redhead. One was the little shy blonde.
The third one was a man, much about the size of Jubal, when Jubal was living. As they walked off into the shadows, I saw the little blonde girl take his hand.
“Did you know them?” Jamer asked awhile later.
“No,” I said. My teeth were chattering. “I thought you did.”
The redhead and the little blonde weren’t at Jubal’s funeral. I made sure to look.
When spring came, Marcine decided to clear out the attic of her and Jubal’s house and make room for her youngest daughter and her twin boys after the girl’s no-count husband took off with another woman. She asked me to come help, and I agreed.
We were working away one warm April afternoon when I turned up something that made me cold all over. It was an old picture–one of those where everything that’s not white looks brown. It was big, too, near about lifesize, and showed two girls in white dresses.
And I felt sick to my stomach, because I’d seen those girls before.
“Marcine–” My voice even sounded sick. “Who’re these girls?”
Her eyes welled up with tears. “They were Jubal’s aunts,” she said after a minute or two. “The older one was named Mary Lee, and the little one was Sissy. They were Jubal’s daddy’s younger sisters, and he took ’em to raise when their mama and daddy died. When Jubal was just little, he’d go to spend the night with some of his cousins, and Mary Lee and Sissy used always to walk over and fetch him home of a mornin’.”
She shook her head. “Mary Lee died of the gallopin’ consumption, and a year or two later, Sissy drowned in the creek on her way home from school. She wasn’t but twelve years old. How come you to ask?”
I made some answer. But I never told her that, on a moonlit October night, Mary Lee and Sissy had walked to fetch Jubal, one last time.
My friend Lily comes from the mountains. She told me part of this story, which is told for true in one of the families in her mountain home, and is said to date to the 1930s or 40s; the other part I added from memories of a picture I once saw in a house, since burned down, many years ago. I sort of tinkered around and put the two together. Thank you, Lily!
Copyright 2010 by Fairweather Lewis.
PS Jamer really is a name. I think it’s in the Bible somewhere. It was the given name of one of my great-aunts, but I think originally it was a man’s name. 🙂