Wish You Well

  "Yes, gosh indeed. I wanted to be a writer since I was a child."

  "Well, why aren't you?" asked Lou.

  Cotton smiled. "While I can appreciate inspired, well-crafted writing better than most, I'm absolutely confounded when attempting to do it myself. Maybe that's why I came here after I got my law degree. As far from Longfellow's Boston as one can be. I'm not a particularly good lawyer, but I get by. And it gives me time to read those who can write well." He cleared his throat and recited in a pleasant voice: "Often I think of the beautiful town, that is seated by the sea; Often in thought go up and down—"

  Lou took up the verse: "The pleasant streets of that dear old town. And my youth comes back to me."

  Cotton looked impressed. "You can quote Longfellow?"

  "He was one of my dad's favorites."

  He held up the book he was carrying. "And this is one of my favorite writers."

  Lou glanced at the book. "That's the first novel my dad ever wrote."

  "Have you read it?"

  "My dad read part of it to me. A mother loses her only son, thinks she's all alone. It's very sad."

  "But it's also a story of healing, Lou. Of one helping another." He paused. "I'm going to read it to your mother."

  "Dad already read all his books to her," she said coldly.

  Cotton realized what he had just done. "Lou, I'm not trying to replace your father."

  She stood. "He was a real writer. He didn't have to go around quoting other people."

  Cotton stood too. "I am sure if your father were here he would tell you that there is no shame in repeating the words of others. That it's a show of respect, in fact. And I have the greatest respect for your father's talents."

  "You think it might help? Reading to her," said Oz.

  "Waste your time if you want." Lou walked off.

  "It's okay with me if you read to her," said Oz.

  Cotton shook the boy's hand. "Thank you much for your permission, Oz. I'll do my best."

  "Come on, Oz, there's chores to do," called Lou.

  As Oz ran off, Cotton glanced down at me book and then went inside. Louisa was in the kitchen.

  "You here to do your reading?" she asked.

  "Well, that was my thinking, but Lou made it very clear she doesn't want me to read from her father's books. And maybe she's right."

  Louisa looked out me window and saw Lou and Oz disappear into the barn. "Well, I tell you what, I got lots of letters Jack wrote to me over the years. They's some he sent me from college that I always liked. He use some big words then I ain't know what they mean, but the letters' still nice. Why don't you read those to her? See, Cotton, my thinking is it ain't what folks read to her that's important. I think the best thing is for us to spend time with her, to let Amanda know we ain't give up hope."

  Cotton smiled. "You are a wise woman, Louisa. I think that's a fine idea."

  Lou carried the coal bucket in and filled the bin next to the fireplace. Then she crept to the hallway and listened. Murmurs of a single voice drifted down the hall. She scooted back outside and stared at Cotton's car, the curiosity bug finally getting the better of her. She ran around the side of the house and came up under her mother's bedroom window. The window was open, but it was too high for her to look in. She stood on tiptoe, but that didn't work either.

  "Hey there."

  She whirled around and saw Diamond. She grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the window. "You shouldn't sneak up on people like that," she said.

  "Sorry," he said, smiling.

  She noticed he had something behind his back. "What do you have there?"


  "Right there behind your back, Diamond."

  "Oh, that. Well, you see I was just walking down by the meadow, and, well, they was just sitting there all purty like. And swear to Jesus they was saying your name."

  "What was?"

  Diamond pulled out a bunch of yellow crocuses and handed them to her.

  Lou was touched, but of course she didn't want to show it. She said thank you to Diamond and gave him a hard smack on the back that made him cough.

  "I didn't see you at school today, Diamond."

  "Oh, well." He pawed the ground with one bare foot, gripped his overalls, and looked everywhere except at Lou. "Hey, what you be doing at that window when I come up?" he finally said.

  Lou forgot about school for now. She had an idea, and like Diamond, she wished to defer the explanation behind her actions. "You want to help me with something?"

  A few moments later, Diamond fidgeted some, and Lou smacked him on the head to make him be still. This was easy for her to do since she was sitting on his shoulders while peering into her mother's room. Amanda was propped in the bed. Cotton was in the rocking chair next to her, reading. Lou noted with surprise that he was not reading from the novel he had brought, but ramer from a letter he was holding. And Lou had to admit, the man had a pleasant voice.

  Cotton had selected the letter he was reading from a number Louisa had given him. This letter, he had thought, was particularly appropriate.

  "Well, Louisa, you'll be pleased to know the memories of the mountain are as strong right now as the day I left three years ago. In fact, it is rather easy for me to transport myself back to the high rock in Virginia. I simply close my eyes, and I immediately see many examples of reliable friends parceled here and there, like favorite books kept in special places. You know the stand of river birch down by the creek. Well, when their branches pressed together, I always imagined they were imparting secrets to each other. Then right in front of me a wisp of does and fawns creep along the fringe where your plowed fields snuggle up against the hardwood. Then I look to the sky and follow the jagged flight of irascible black crows, and then settle upon a solitary hawk tacked against a sky of cobalt blue.

  "That sky. Oh, that sky. You told me so many times that up on the mountain it seems you can just reach up and take it, hold it in your hand, stroke it like a dozing cat, admire its abundant grace. I always found it to be a generous blanket I just wanted to wrap myself in, Louisa, take a long nap on the porch with as I settled under its cool warmth. And when night came, I would always hold the memory of that sky tight and fast, as though an honored dream, right up to the smoldering pink of sunrise.

  "I also remember you telling me that you often looked out upon your land knowing full well that it never truly belonged to you, no more than you could hold deed to the sunlight or save up the air you breathed. I sometimes imagine many of our line standing at the door of the farmhouse and staring out at that same ground. But, at some point, the Cardinal family will all be gone. After that, my dear Louisa, you take heart, for the sweep of open land across the valley, the race of busy rivers, and the gentle bumps of green-shrouded hills, with little beads of light poking out here and there, like bits of sly gold—they all will continue on. And they won't be worse off either, for our mortal dabbling in their forever existence, seeing that God made them to last forever, as you've also told me so many times.

  "Though I have a new life now, and am enjoying the city for the most part, I will never forget that the passing down of memories is the strongest link in the gossamer bridge that binds us as people. I plan to devote my life to doing just that. And if you taught me anything, it's that what we hold in our hearts is truly the fiercest component of our humanity."

  Cotton heard a noise, glanced toward the window, and saw a glimpse of Lou right before she ducked down. Cotton silently read the last part of the letter and then decided to read it in a very loud voice. He would be speaking as much to the daughter, who the man knew lurked right outside the window, as to the mother lying in bed.

  "And from watching you all those years conduct your life with honesty, dignity, and compassion, I know that there is nothing so powerful as the emboldened kindness of one human being reaching out to another, who is held only by despair. I think of you every day, Louisa, and so I will, as long as my heart continues to beat. With much love, Jack." r />
  Lou poked her head over the sill again. Inch by inch she turned until she was looking at her mother. But there was no change in the woman, none at all. Lou angrily pushed away from the window. Poor Diamond was teetering mightily now, for her shove against the windowsill had done his balancing efforts no kindness. Diamond finally lost the battle, and both he and Lou went tumbling over, their plummet ending in a series of grunts and groans as they sprawled on the ground.

  Cotton rushed to the window in time to see the pair race around the house. He turned back to the woman in bed. "You really must come and join us, Miss Amanda," he said, and then added quietly, as though afraid that anyone other than himself would hear, "for a lot of reasons."

  * * *


  THE HOUSE WAS DARK, THE SKY A MESS OF CLOUDS that promised a good rain come morning. However, when skittish clouds and fragile currents bumped over high rock, the weather often changed quickly: snow became rain and clear became foul, and a body got wet or cold when he least expected to. The cows, hogs, and sheep were safely in the barn, for Old Mo, the mountain lion, had been seen around, and there had been talk of the Tyler farm losing a calf, and the Ramsey's a pig. All those on the mountain handy with a shotgun or rifle were keeping their eyes peeled for the old scavenger.

  Sam and Hit stood silently in their own corral. Old Mo would never prey on the pair. An ornery mule could kick just about anything to death in a matter of minutes.

  The front door of the farmhouse opened. Oz made not a sound when he closed the door behind him. The boy was fully dressed and had his bear clutched tight. He looked around for a few seconds and then took off past the corral, cleared the fields, and plunged into the woods.

  The night was a bucket of coal, the wind rattled tree limbs, the underbrush was thick with sounds of stealthy movement, and the tall grass seemed to clutch at Oz's pant legs. The little boy was certain that regiments of hobgoblins were roaming nearby in full terrifying splendor, he their sole target on earth. Yet something inside Oz had clearly risen superior to these horrors, for he did not once think of turning back. Well, maybe once, he admitted to himself. Or perhaps twice.

  He ran hard for a while, making his way over knolls, navigating crisscross gullies, and stumbling through the jumble of dense woods. He cleared one last grove of trees, stopped, stooped low, waited a bit, and then eased out into the meadow. Up ahead he saw what he had come for: the well. He took one last deep breath, gripped his bear, and boldly walked right up to it. But Oz was no fool, so just in case, he whispered, "It's a wishing well, not a haunted well. It's a wishing well, not a haunted well."

  He stopped and stared at the brick-and-mortar beast, then spit on one hand and rubbed it on his head for luck. He next looked at his beloved bear for a long time, and then laid it gently down against the base of the well and backed away.

  "Good-bye, bear. I love you, but I've got to give you up. You understand."

  Now Oz was unsure of how to proceed. Finally, he crossed himself and put his hands together as though in prayer, figuring that would satisfy even the most demanding of spirits who granted wishes to little boys desperately in need of them. Staring at the sky he said, "I wish that my mother will wake up and love me again." He paused and then added solemnly, "And Lou too."

  He stood there with the wind slicing into him and with peculiar sounds emerging from a thousand hidden crevices, all potent with evil, he was sure. And yet with all that, Oz was unafraid; he had done what he came to do.

  He concluded with "Amen, Jesus."

  Moments after Oz turned and ran off, Lou stepped from the trees and looked after her little brother. She walked up to the well, reached down, and picked up his bear.

  "Oz, you are so dumb." But she didn't have her heart in the insult, and her voice broke. And ironically it was iron-tough Lou and not open-souled Oz who knelt there on the damp ground and sobbed. Finally wiping her face on her sleeve, Lou rose and turned her back to the well. With Oz's bear held tightly to her chest, she started to walk away. Something made her stop though—she wasn't exactly sure what. But, yes, the fierce wind truly seemed to be blowing her backward, toward me thing Diamond Skinner had so foolishly called a wishing well. She turned and looked at it, and on a night when the moon seemed to have totally abandoned her and the well, the brick seemed to glow as though afire.

  Lou wasted no time. She set the bear back down, reached in the pocket of her overalls, and pulled it out: the photo of her and her mother, still in the frame. Lou placed the precious photograph next to the beloved bear, stepped back, and taking a page from her brother's book, clasped her hands together and looked to the sky. Unlike Oz, though, she did not bother to cross herself, or to speak loud and clear to that well or to the heavens above. Her mouth moved, but no words could be heard, as though her faith in what she was doing were lacking still.

  Finished, she turned and ran after her brother, though she would be careful to keep her distance. She didn't want Oz to know he'd been followed, even though she had come along only to watch over him. Behind her the bear and the photo lay forlornly against the brick, resembling nothing so much as a temporary shrine to the dead.

  As Louisa had predicted, Lou and Hit finally reached middle ground. Louisa had proudly watched as Lou rose each time Hit knocked her down, the girl growing not more afraid through each tussle with the wily beast, but rather more determined. And smarter. Now plow, mule, and Lou moved with a fluid motion.

  For his part Oz had become an expert at riding the big sled that Sam the mule dragged through the fields. Since Oz was lacking in girth, Eugene had piled rocks all around him. The big clods of dirt gave way and broke up under the constant dragging, and the sled eventually smoothed the field like icing on a cake. After weeks of work, sweat, and tired muscles, the four of them stood back and took stock of good ground that was ready now to accept seed.

  Dr. Travis Barnes had come up from Dickens to check on Amanda. He was a burly man—red hammy face, short legs—with gray side whiskers, dressed all in black. To Lou, he looked more like an undertaker coming to bury a body than a man trained in preserving life. However, he turned out to be kindly, with a sense of humor designed to make them all comfortable in light of his bleak mission. Cotton and the children waited in the front room while Louisa stayed with Travis during his examination.

  He was shaking his head and clutching his black bag when he joined them in the front room. Louisa trailed him, trying to look cheerful. The doctor sat at the kitchen table and fingered the cup of coffee Louisa had poured. He stared into his cup for a bit, as though looking for some comforting words floating among the strains of beans and chicory root.

  "Good news," he began, "is that far as I can tell, your momma's fine physically. Her injuries all healed up. She's young and strong and can eat and drink, and so long as you keep exercising her arms and legs, the muscles won't get too weak." He paused and set his cup down. "But I'm afraid that's also the bad news, for that means the problem lies here." He touched his forehead. "And there's not much we can do about that. Certainly beyond me. We can only hope and pray that she comes out of it one day."

  Oz took this in stride, his optimism barely tarnished. Lou absorbed this information simply as further validation of what she already knew.

  School had been going more smoothly than Lou had thought it would. She and Oz found the mountain children to be far more accepting of them now than before Lou had thrown her punches. Lou didn't feel she would ever be close to any of them, but at least the outright hostility had waned. Billy Davis did not return to school for several days. By the time he did, the bruises she had inflicted were mostly healed, though there were fresh ones which Lou suspected had originated with the awful George Davis. And that was enough to make her feel a certain guilt. For his part, Billy avoided her like she was a water moccasin looking to get the jump on him, yet Lou was still on her guard. She knew by now: It was right when you least expected it that trouble tended to smack you in the head.

  Estelle McCoy, too, was subdued around her. It was apparent that Lou and Oz were well ahead of the others in terms of book learning. They did not flaunt this advantage, though, and Estelle McCoy seemed appreciative of that. And she never again referred to Lou as Louisa Mae. Lou and Oz had given the school library a box of their own books, and the children had slipped by one after the other to thank them. It was a steady if not spectacular truce all around.

  Lou rose before dawn, did her chores, then went to school and did her work there. At lunchtime she ate her cornbread and drank her milk with Oz under the walnut tree, which was scored with the initials and names of those who had done their learning here. Lou never felt an urge to carve her name there, for it suggested a permanency she was far from willing to accept. They went back to the farm to work in the afternoon, and then went to bed, exhausted, not long after the sun set. It was a steady, uninspired life much appreciated by Lou right now.

  Head lice had made their way through Big Spruce, though, and both Lou and Oz had endured shampoos in kerosene. "Don't get near the fire," Louisa had warned.

  "This is disgusting," said Lou, fingering the coated strands.

  "When I was at school and got me the lice, they put sulfur, lard, and gunpowder on my hair," Louisa told them.

  "I couldn't bear to smell myself, and I was terrible afraid somebody'd strike a match and my head would blow."

  "They had school when you were little?" Oz asked.