It’s one long leave-taking hard on the heels of another. Robert, she says, must you go, must you leave me, leave your strapping young sons, your baby daughter, leave this your family in the prime of your life and for what, the promise of gold, a dream of money. For God’s sake, remember me and write to me. She remembers that handsome man, that preaching man, that blue-eyed man, fine of feature, slight of build, his dark coat too big for him though made to fit, as though he is always sloughing skin, secretly, just a little every day, sneaking back to soul. Gone for gold, then for good, no gold, not an ounce ever sent back to her who waits in Missouri with them three growing and ever-hungry children and the memory of a revival-crazed husband, a Baptist to boot.
Goodbye, Robert James. Goodbye.
Goodbye, Frank. Susan. Jesse. My Dr. Reuben Samuel. The earth itself passes away, don’t it. Watching it, you can imagine that just out there beyond the windowglass, beyond that stand of windblown elms and stretching from there to the horizon, is Frank’s land, his farm he calls it when it is plain as day that no crop worth the name will rise from that hard red dirt and he’d best settle for the cattle and be done with it. It is land, he says, it is my land. Yes, but it will pass away, even as just now it passes with the speed of this train across Oklahoma. It will be blown out from under you, you wait and see. She watches the trees. Not many. Not enough to shield nothing. Goodbye. Missouri will be along soon enough. Can’t be any too soon.
But, my, this Oklahoma is a long state to get across. Indian Territory it used to be, all this land the land of the savages. Don’t see so many Indians out there, unless they live in farmhouses now, with windmills and picket fences. Life goes on, things change. Don’t they though. Zerelda, Robert says, a man has got to take advantage of the opportuities that present themselves. He’s not smiling, and he holds her hand clasped in both of his so firm she thinks he might mean harm to it. It’s the hand she has no more, the one gone with half the arm when the Pinkertons, them bastards, them sons of bitches, throw their bomb through the window of the house and kill her Archie, her dear little son by Dr. Reuben Samuel, thinking to get her other sons of course, the ones by Robert. Gone or not, she still feels Robert’s grip on that hand, the rough edges of his palms pressing, his fingers stiff as sticks. I’ll send for you, he says. I’ll write soon as I get here. I’ll be missing you. I’ll be loving you in my heart.
And panning gold with his hands until his heart thumps its last. Dead not two weeks after getting there, and so when she thinks gone to California she thinks it’s goodbye for good, a chase for the grave, California just another word for purgatory, a long wait in the farthest West once you get there. Maybe he’ll send for her yet. In the meantime—which is to say this life—she means to keep herself on the move.
Across the aisle from her sit a gentleman and a lady. They look straight ahead, as though Oklahoma’s passing beyond their window means nothing to them. The lady, her tiny feet in pumps that look narrow as corn cobs, her hands gloved tight in gray suede, looks across the aisle at her from time to time, just a quick glance. Can’t catch her at it. Can’t meet her eyes. The man you can’t even catch breathing. Stiff! She’s seen St. Joe store dummies show more signs of life.
There is a resemblance though. In the woman she sees a resemblance to her Susan. Lord, what if Susan had married such a man as that one. Some things you can be grateful for. Parmer’s a man, at least, a rancher, a Texan, a big handsome man with hands thick like her Robert’s, no preacher’s hands, and feet that move beneath him as though they are in charge, they are deciding where to carry him to next.
Woman, she says, you look like my daughter.
Nudges her, reaches across the aisle with her whole arm, leaning outward so as to leave no question who’s being spoke to. You, girl. It’s you I’m talking to. That’s right. A body’s got to make conversation, pass the time. I am one of them that needs conversation. I do not seek out solitude.
The woman smiles, her man clearing his throat, patting—she can see this good enough all right—his knee with the tips of his long fingers. So he is alive. But can he speak.
That is a handsome ring, she says to him. I like to see a man wear a ring. My son was in habit of wearing two.
The man clinches his fist, then opens it quick, like he hasn’t meant to do that, he has nothing to hide. Out the window there’s not a tree in sight. Grazing land, the grass beaten down, almost white this time of year, the sky closed off, one unbroken cloud, smooth as horseflesh, not a speck of sunlight coming through, she don’t know where the light’s coming from.
Do you have the time of day, she asks, and there’s Frank, how he does show up at the unlikeliest times, that boy, looking like he wants bad to smile but can’t, don’t know how, his hands clamped in front of him and his boots mudspattered, his eyes narrowing, not the better to see her, no, but as if to block out as much of her as possible. He’d not look at anything, she believes, if it meant he’d be safe from the world, hid inside himself. Well, Frank. What is it this time.
Not a speck of sunlight coming through, but all this brightness.
Mother, Frank says. I’m leaving Missouri. This country’s no place for me.
Is he going to California then? No, he goes to Tennessee, does Frank, his brother with him, their wives, their children. There’s no stopping them. When they come back, she will tell them, Stay, it is enough, but she might as well say, Lord, give me back my arm, you have had it long enough.
If you are wondering about my arm, she says to the lady and gentleman, I would be glad to tell you the story, though it’s not very pleasant. In fact it is downright grim. It is what my boy Frank would call a tragedy.
Jesse has been her favorite. Why not say it, it’s Jesse with his blue eyes like her Robert’s, his smile like her daddy’s, a wisp of a smile but it’s there, he’s the one pleases her most, neglect her though he will and Frank profess his endless devotion, his vow to take care of her until she take her final leave. Gone is Jesse, gone like her Robert to the grave, chased there, poor boy, by them that would profit from an orphan’s tears, a widow’s wail, bankers and their henchmen, those robbers in dapper waistcoats and spit-shiny oxford shoes.
The man looks at his lady—she knows that look all right—and the two of them rise without so much as a pardon-me and walk, heads high and still as alert hens, both of them like hens, walk to the front of the car and reseat theirself, the lady hen this time taking the seat by the window—so that the gentleman hen can protect her no doubt, pretend to be a rooster. Goodbye then. Goodbye and good riddance.
She waves her stump of an arm at them. Hens.
He smells of shoe polish, but his boots are dull, worn. Perhaps it is the uniform, blue like the federals wear when they come to do their mischief. Uniforms smell like shoe polish and feel like wood just varnished, too smooth for anything cloth. Frank, in his rebel gray, hugs her—Farewell, Mama!—and it is like being in the clutches of a tree, the bark of it stripped off. Let go of me, boy. Let go and go do what you got to do.
Yes, she has her ticket. Used to be there was no need for it. She boards a train and is recognized, she is their mother, the lost arm her ticket to wherever she wants to go. Step right up, Mrs. Samuel. Find you a good seat. She’d like a seat by the window, thank you. And a companion who knows how to listen. She does not want—she smiles, they always laugh at this—her other arm talked off, thank you. Oh, Mrs. Samuel, how you do go on.
How indeed. On and on.
Now they don’t know who she is. It is nineteen hundred and eleven, for nearly six weeks it has been 1911, and no one remembers who she is. My, sometimes, she forgets herself. Someone will have to poke her, she imagines, when her name is called and it is time to take her leave. Yes, she has her ticket. Good all the way to Kansas City.
For some must watch while some must sleep. He’s full of quotations, is Frank. She watches him read, his little eyes, bless them, wide as they ever do get, his thin lips moving as little as possible. It should have been better for him, it should have been better for all of us. What good has his Shakespeare done him. Robert’s gold, no better than his Bible. Oh, she’ll not mock that book. No. God has His reasons, no doubt. A waste of time to try to figure them out. Thus runs the world away.
Tell me this, she asks. Just where is it that we are all going, when we are going away from each other. That’s what I’d like to know. Tell me that.
But there’s no one there. She has forgotten. She sees them up there in front of her and on the other side of the aisle, the backs of their heads letting the dark through, holes in the light. There’s no one else in the car and not a station to stop at and pick up more before Oklahoma City. Just now Oklahoma City seems a long ways. The landscape outside the train window is barren. It seems not to move, all the trees gone. She may die before reaching Oklahoma City. Then where’ll she be. Where her arm’s at, she hopes. Whole again, wherever. Or else all empty, everything gone. What use is it, though, to go away and leave your flesh behind. She’s grown fond of it. It’s not the flesh it once was, no, not the soft skin Robert touches—seldom enough, to be sure, but when he does, well, there’s never been another like that lanky, loose-boned, big-handed preacher—no, it’s not that skin but it’s her skin, she has no other.
She hears something. Is it singing. Somebody singing. Comes from the gentleman and the lady, but their mouths ain’t moving, unless her seeing’s gone bad. She searches the depths of her bag for her glasses—there they are, already on her face. Well, then, she must move closer. Does, and they’re the same distance, singing the cheerfulest hymn she’s ever heard and their lips not moving at all. How do they do that. She means to get in close enough to touch their lips, to make out the words.
Impossible. Something has hold of her legs. If she stands she will fall. Let go, damn you. Why’re you holding me back. Ain’t I lady enough. Ain’t I good enough.
Her father comes to her and says, Zerelda, you must never disobey your mother. You must always respect her, no matter how unreasonable she may seem to you. She is a good woman. At heart she is a good woman. Runs off with another man. A good woman, her father says.
His eyes not looking at her—she remembers that—and how his hands lay on his thighs like they was not hands at all, the longer she looks at them the stranger they become, hunks of wood, rock slabs, broke china. He has taken her to mass, miles away, such a long ride in the flat and hard bed of the wagon, over rough and dusty roads, in order that the priest the father may hear her confess. A dark room smelling of potato sacks shelved in the root cellar, but you are not alone, even when finally he absolves you and you can go. The Lord always with you. Watching. Peeking. That Holy Ghost.
Idolatry, says Robert, such a soft voice and him a preacher, his young skin smooth, more like her mother’s than her father’s, the fingertips blunt but delicate as little leaves afluttering across the surface of your flesh, just so, there, touching the nape of your neck. You was raised up, he says, in a idolatrous religion. Yes, she says. Oh, yes. Wishing he might never stop telling her. She will go anywhere with him. Please tell her what she must believe. Save me.
From what. From nineteen hundred and eleven. This train, Robert. You know I’m here, don’t you, not a idolatrous thought to my name, a convent girl unconfessed these, what is it, these sixty, no it is seventy, years. That has lasted, damn you, sins as fleeting in the commission as in the regretting.
This is dying, that’s what this is. That is why she can’t move, why the trees have disappeared, why beyond the window Oklahoma has stopped running away. Mary, Mother of God, has hold of her ankles. Quit now. She kicks but Mary hangs on, her grip like a fact of life, no more than that. Enough, enough.
How far, she calls to the couple, is Oklahoma City.
Singing, they don’t hear nothing.
Oh, they sing all right. They keep to theirselves their secrets, their blood beating beneath their skin, shooting for the heart and hitting, in secret, keeping time hid in a dark place inside. Everybody the same. She’s not going to blame them. Nobody’s to blame.
She rises. Come along, Mary. It is as though the train has stopped in order to free her from the place, permit her to walk up the aisle to where the gentleman and the lady sit. Nothing’s holding her back. She’s been imagining things, sitting there like a child, letting her fancies get ahold of her. She is eighty-five years old or is it eighty-six, a grown woman surely, with a mind of her own. She intends to live to a hundred. She means to do what she pleases. It is the privilege of age, this liberty. Look at the arm I’ve lost.
Well, she says, here I am. Move away from me and I follow. Let’s talk. Stop that singing now and talk to me.
She has never seen the likes of this. Singing and their mouths closed. Pretending they don’t hear her, don’t see her. In the convent the biggest one, the one with cheeks rimmed like squash, says Jesus is going to whip whoever is a bad girl, he can see everybody all the time. She’s glad that she’s good, has her catechism by heart. It must be Jesus, seeing her now and remembering, who gives her the strength to rise and walk away from the grip of Mary. Jesus or Robert. She is grateful, however, though if it is Robert he must understand that she don’t intend to let him off the hook so easy. He has got some explaining to do, going away and leaving her with three children, a farm best fit for weeds, and a promise of gold. In her dreams he stands at the doorway, says, Zerelda, love of my life, why don’t you come along with me, then hides so that she can’t tell where he’s at, not even if she looks behind every bush, every rock, in every cave. Catch a glimpse of him, see his shadow, his face bright as a lamp, but up close it’s just her father. Why’re you so late, he says. Zerelada, what trouble you have gotten into.
Mortal trouble. Awake, she knows it’s mortal, but of course he’s gone and she reckons can’t hear her. Won’t ever forgive her anyway. You are leaving the Church, he says, those strange woodlike hands laying there in his lap like they was nailed down, glued, varnished and polished smooth. You are leaving the Church for a Baptist preacher. You are putting your soul in dire peril.
I married Robert James, she tells them, when I was seventeen years old. My convent education never took. I became a Baptist and raised my children Baptist. I bore him three children. Then he went away. Then they went away.
I know who you are. You are my Jesse. I recognize you.
Everything he done, he done because he had to, because men drove him to it. Always he had to take his leave before he was ready to.
They was raised up right, all my children. Raised by the Good Book. Mama, Jesse says, hear what I know by heart: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. John 3:16. He had it by heart and never forgot.
Both of you boys always had strong memories.
They went off to look for their father’s grave. They went all the way to California. They had to find it. It’s no use, Reuben told them, but they had to go. It was after the war and there was no arguing with them. They were men sure enough and they were going to find their daddy’s grave if it killed them. Jesse hugged me. He kissed me on the mouth and his lips were like porcelain, as cold and hard, and they both kneeled and held my hands, Frank the left, Jesse the right, the one gone now, and looked me long in the eye and swore always to love me and never to forget all I had done for them in the days of their youth.
I never forgot, Mama.
No, you never forgot. I know that, Frank.
Made her feel like a queen the way they kneeled down in front of her. Kissed her hands. My sons! Promise me you’ll come back.
Outside the window the trees are little as bushes. No groves. They grow alone, squat close to the ground. You’d have to crawl under them for shade. I like this country, Frank says. I like to see all around me. I like my creeks narrow and my ravines shallow. I like the flat land, the big sky, the roads leading straight to where you want to go. I like the thunderheads, I like most everything but the wind and the sleety winters.
What they need to understand is that she never insists on his coming back. No, she remembers being surprised to hear it. I’m coming home, Mama, he writes, like I promised. I’m coming back to Missouri. This country don’t suit me. Will any country suit him, her blue-eyed Jesse.
I missed you, Mama. It was like a part of me was gone. Don’t talk to her about parts being gone.
So he’s got to move back to Missouri, everybody on the hunt for him, you can’t trust nobody, at least there’s kin in Missori. Him with his young wife, his cousin that was named after her, Zerelda Mims from Kansas City, her sister’s girl, and them children that remind her so much of her own that she can hardly stand it, the girl honey-eyed and rosy-cheeked just like Jesse, climbing into her lap and saying, Nanna, how come your arm’s not at all there.
It’s there. You just can’t see it.
Or: I once had another son. He was named Archie. when he died he took that arm with him. He didn’t want to go, you see, but if he had to he wanted me to come with him. He was just a little fellow. Archie, I said, that wouldn’t be fair to my other children. They are grown, but they need me too.
That’s right Mama.
Well, says Archie, if you won’t come with me at least let me have your arm always around my shoulders to keep mewarm. He’s her baby and she can’t refuse him. Do you blame her? She’ll be leaving this world, soon enough, and she reckons she’ll be whole in the next world, wherever that may be.
The next stop is Oklahoma City.
That singing. Is it the hawks. Is it the way hawks would sing, seems to her, not humans. A hymn sung by a hawk. Fancy that. Of course you couldn’t make out the words. This is a country fit for hawks, plenty of sky. A crow perches on the shoulder of gentleman, but she’s through trying to tell him anything.
I been wronged, says the crow.
It faces her, its eyes, she swears, no crow’s eyes at all, blue eyes, Jesse’s eyes. So this is what it comes to. She remembers the wound, mortal sure enough, open and soft in the back of his head like lips, a better pair to replace the others that would never open to say what needed saying. She leans down to listen: Caw, caw. Is this a joke he’s playing on her. Oh, this is some life, ain’t it. When she was a girl, everything was forever, everyone together, her father’s hands seldom moving, fixed on his lap or to the ploughshare, save when in the church in Lexington making the sign of the cross, and her mother always returns to the room, her basket filled with corn ears and muskmelons. Three sisters sleep in the trundle bed, the boys on pallets spread across the plank floor. At night the house itself seems to breathe, all around her breath in and out of the chinks, a sweet panting and now and then a sigh. We are all together in this house. But where are we now, nearing Oklahoma City, our souls in peril. How can she have known, the warmth of her sister’s young bodies aflowing in the trundle bed, they will all go away, not a one of them stay put there where they belong, she herself quick as any to depart, go off damned by her own father for the love of a sweet-talking Baptist with clear blue eyes and not a speck of dirt in his fingernails, big hands pale as a girl’s, hair smooth like feathers. He holds her hand, the one that’s gone now but she can still feel that touch, and she thinks, This is what I am meant for. Nothing’s the same after that. Goodbye, Father.
She likes her chair by the window so that she may watch the progress of the trees. One of the privileges of age is that you can sit down, you are not always expected to be doing something, you can sit still by the window as long as you want to. The disadvantage is the solitude. You can keep your solitude.
Frank takes her to the station. She sees how worn down he is. He ain’t as tall as he used to be. He is old, her little boy an old man, older than her own father, and his son is gone away, she thinks, to Texas. Frank, do you know where your brother is.
Mother, Jesse’s where we all’re going.
No. He’s right there on your shoulder. He’s looking straight at me out of that crow’s eyes.
That can’t be.
I know my son’s eyes. See how they are blinking.
I saw him lowered into the ground, Mother. You did too.
He must’ve went straight through, come out the other side.
But she remembers. She has him put in the yard so that she can watch out for grave robbers. People come from all over the country, say, Mightn’t we see where he’s buried. For a small fee she lets them look. Sells pebbles from the site. When those pebbles run out, gets more from the creekbed. People coming all the time. Where is he. Beneath the ground you’re standing on. Take one of them little pieces of rock you want to, two bits each. It’s nice to have a memento.
She remembers now.
Listen, she says to the couple, I am dying. I will be dead before this train can stop at Oklahoma City. You will have to carry me off. I am Zerelda Samuel, mother to Jesse James. Before I leave I want you to know how much I have appreciated your company these last hours of my life. If you would care for a keepsake, cut a swatch from the hem of my gown. It is good material and will last. Pass it on to our grandchildren. Tell them how you met me on this train in the middle of Oklahoma. Tell them I wish them the best. Tell them I said Goodbye. Tell them I said don’t no one pity me, not when I am passed away.
Even though it be forever getting across Oklahoma, she means to say no more. She’ll examine the scenery from now on. Not much. All the same, it’s what’s there. That peculiar sky. Hawks and crows. No sun in sight, but light, light the whole way.
Robert Taylor, Jr., is co-founder of West Branch and a professor emeritus at Bucknell University. His stories have appeared in The Ohio Review, Obras, Western Humanities Review, and North American Review. (6/2014)