from The Place Where I Belong

by Margaret Ann Faeth

The Girl in Gray, 1870

The iron-gray November skies sulked overhead as Hancock Fisher pulled the brim of his second-best hat down and adjusted the collar of his coat with one hand to keep the icy drizzle from running down his neck. His team of horses clip-clopped along muddy ruts that had been frozen solid the past few nights. He momentarily regretted his decision to drive his own empty carriage instead of saddling his horse and making better time, but then he remembered his aged aunt, awaiting a ride to her husband’s funeral. Uncle Ira had been the youngest of his late mother’s eleven brothers and sisters, and his last blood relative. It was The Cough that took him. He had survived his retirement by six months. Aunt Bess would be leaving Core before the end of the year, going to live with her sister in Martinsburg. At least Hancock could keep her warm and dry, and offer her a bit of dignity as they followed the undertaker’s wagon to the service in the Presbyterian shack and the burial in the gloomy cemetery at the crest of the hill.

Hancock shivered as the slushy brown tracks grew gray, studded with slag. As he drove into town, he noticed that everything seemed gray. The late autumnal skies, waiting for the worst possible moment to drop their icy load, the mountain peaks, devoid of foliage, the buildings—all gray. Even the few neighbors who doffed their hats or nodded in condolence and respect as they trudged to the church looked gray. Hancock pulled up outside of his aunt’s home, rented from the mining company at a discount in lieu of a pension. The undertaker’s wagon was waiting outside.

Hancock tied up his team and entered the front parlor where the undertaker and a few pallbearers were navigating the pine coffin over and around the furniture in the tiny room. The sofa had been pushed against the wall and Uncle Ira’s favorite chair had been moved into the adjacent kitchen to make room for the three sawhorses that held the coffin. Aunt Bess, looking wide-eyed and bewildered, was backed into a corner as she watched her husband leave for the last time.

Removing his soggy hat, Hancock weaved his way through the crowded space and kissed his aunt gently on the cheek. He solemnly offered her his arm and she seemed, for a moment, to be taking inventory of her fortitude as she straightened herself, flipped her black veil over her face and grabbed him. Hancock loved the dignity of this woman who, in their infrequent encounters always treated him as if he had already lived up to her expectations. It made a difference, he thought, when someone believes in you. He replaced his dripping hat and walked her to his carriage as if he was escorting the Queen.

They followed the undertaker’s wagon at a sedate pace for two blocks until they arrived at the square, squat building where the Presbyterians met for worship. The Presbyterian Shack was separated from the Methodist Shack by a weedy vacant lot. In death, the assorted faithful were united in the company cemetery. For a moment, Hancock felt a surge of panic as he remembered his beloved wife’s funeral, twelve years earlier. So young and vivacious, then gone in a matter of days from a bout of the grippe.

Somehow, Hancock managed to dismount from the driver’s seat, tie up his horses, and accompany Aunt Bess into the building. He wasn’t sure who was holding who as they made their way to the front pew. As he removed his coat, Hancock realized that the chill had seeped deep into his bones. His marrow felt like it had turned to icy slush, and he shivered. Aunt Bess took his hand as the minister processed in and began to intone, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord. He who believeth in me, though he be dead, yet shall he live…” After some scripture and prayers, and a somber warning about eternal salvation, Hancock did not think that he could feel any worse. His uncle was in that box. He would never see the pride in his uncle’s eyes or feel the heft of that heavily muscled arm around his shoulder again. He missed his beloved Lila every day, but today his thoughts turned to the grotesque, wondering what was left of her after so long in the grave. For a moment, all was silent, as he stared down at his hand, manicured and clean, entwined with the mottled, vein-mapped hand of his aunt. Then there was a rustle and he looked up. A lovely young woman, modestly dressed in a tasteful gray dress, stood next to the piano. She fixed her gentle gaze on Aunt Bess, or was she looking at him? And, as the piano played, she began to sing, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.” Her pure soprano voice washed over him, consoled him, and broke open something inside him that had been sealed tight for a long time. He felt for his handkerchief, wiped his eyes, and wiped his forehead. Was it hot in here?

He wanted the girl to sing forever. When the solo was over and the minister began intoning more prayers, the contrast between that angelic voice and the pinched and pious whine of the cleric was almost unbearable. Just as he thought he might shout out something rude, the young woman stood again. This time she was joined by the older woman who had played the piano, and a full-bosomed matron. The pianist hummed three soft notes and the trio began the oratorio from Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

“Lift thine eyes, O lift thine eyes, to the mountains, whence cometh help.”

The buxom soprano was a bit warbly and slightly imperious but the pianist’s contralto was rich and true. And the girl in gray, such a lovely shade for those blue eyes, sang the mezzo part as if it had been written for her.

Aunt Bess waggled Hancock’s hand. He startled then realized that his mouth was hanging open in an undignified manner, and dear Aunt Bess was silently giggling at him. He felt each capillary open from his neck to the roots of his hair as the blush rushed in. It was hot in here.

It was snowing lightly on the mountain by the time the burial was over and the mourners began to trudge toward home. Hancock saw the shining golden curls of the girl in gray leaving in the silent procession, when Aunt Bess called out in a clear, cheerful voice, “Christina! Susannah, dear!” Hancock’s heart missed a beat as the pianist and the girl in gray turned in surprise and headed back toward them. As they approached, he realized that they were mother and daughter, the older woman handsome and comfortably built but faded, as if she were a pretty thing left out in the sun. The younger woman’s eyes filled with tears as she embraced Aunt Bess. This time it was Aunt Bess who did the consoling. It was as if she had commended Ira to his Maker and had made her peace with her new lot in life. She thanked them warmly for their part in the service, and turned to Hancock. “Hancock, may I present my dear friends, Mrs. John Davis and Miss Susannah Davis?” Continuing the introduction she said, “Christina, Susannah, I’d like you to meet my nephew, Judge Hancock Fisher.”

They shook hands, Susannah adding a tiny curtsy, which Hancock found both embarrassing and enchanting. Aunt Bess explained that Susannah had been coming over to read and sing to them since she had graduated from the local school last spring.

“Ira ’n me always wanted to learn to read but when Susannah started coming to read to us, we decided that the Good Lord was making up for lost time. Ira said she sang like an angel. He would have been smiling today.”

Judge Hancock Fisher, accustomed to the complete control of a courtroom, was surprised to find himself feeling shy and awkward and inexplicably at a loss for words. Finally, he stammered, “What did you read?”

This time it was Susannah’s turn to blush. “Well, we always read some scripture.” Here she hesitated and Aunt Bess snorted with laughter. “Believe it or not, your Uncle Ira liked those love stories…you know the ones by Miss Jane Austen?” She wiped a tear from her eye, then muttered, “He had a soft heart, that one.”

Hancock was flabbergasted, but decided not to comment upon his late uncle’s surprising tastes in literature. Instead, he asked Susannah, “Where do you get your books?”

“The schoolmaster, Mr. Stanford, talked the mining company into converting an old shed into a library. Some of the boys patched the roof and built shelves. Mr. Stanford’s mother collects books for us and sends them along from Pennsylvania.”

“Susannah’s the librarian,” bragged Aunt Bess.

“They pay you?” asked Hancock, then instantly regretted it. His mother had come from this mountain, and he still had kin here, but there were certain things about company towns that he would never understand.

Susannah laughed as she confided, “No, but I get first pick on the new books.”

Hancock wanted to think of something else to make this extraordinary young woman laugh, but the snow was sticking and the wind was blowing and the afternoon light was turning the dull sky into an opalescent pearl gray.

“Thank you again for all you have done for my aunt and uncle,” he said to Christina and Susannah. With a courtly bow he added, “I hope our paths will cross again.”

That night, cocooned together under the pile of quilts that had warmed them through the years, Christina told John about the day’s events.

“He came in a big carriage, driving it himself,” she marveled. “He sat out in the snow so his aunt could ride in style. Quite the gentleman. It is hard to imagine Ira and Bess with a judge in the family.”

“His mother came from these mountains,” John said. “She married well but never forgot where she came from. The Judge’s father helped my Pa protect the deed to this land when the mining company wanted it. Sad thing about the Judge’s wife. They had only been married a few years when the winter fever took her. People in town say he has never looked at another woman.”

“Well, he looked at one today,” said Christina emphatically.

“They’re good people,” John murmured drowsily, aligning his long lean body against the familiar softness of hers.

From the other side of the thin partition that set their sleeping quarters apart, they heard the lisping query of their youngest child, “Papa? Are there bad people?”

Christina grimaced and rolled her eyes as she whispered, “Little pitchers…”

“Yes, son,” John answered, “but not in this house. Now go to sleep.” And from the loft, where Susannah lay awake, Christina heard the soft, melodic notes of “Abide with me” wafting against the mournful wail of the wind.

The Schoolmaster, 1872

Phineas Stanford always dreamt about flies. Whether sleep lured him back to childhood days on the banks of the Susquehanna, or to the nocturnal yearnings of a young Romeo, his dreams always ended with swarms of buzzing, incessant, crawling creatures straight from the bowels of Hell. Tonight was no different. He was dreaming of grooming his horse, Sonata, her bronze coat reflecting light under the curry brush, when a single fly landed on her side. Phineas flicked it away, but it was quickly replaced with two, four, then hundreds of flies. Phineas slapped Sonata’s rump, and she bolted off in terror, dislodging the flies who directed their attention to him. This was the part where he usually realized it was a dream, after the flies had begun to explore his flesh, but before they consumed him.

Like most nights, Phin woke up drenched in fear, his skin crawling with the few stubborn vermin who had dared to follow him out of his dreams. He swiped sleepily at his face and the arm where they always tormented him the longest. The arm that felt each miniscule affront in that liminal stage between dreaming and awareness. The arm that wasn’t there.

Phineas Stanford’s right arm lay somewhere in a Union boneyard, not far from Antietam, where a Confederate musket ball had shattered his upper arm and left him semi-conscious and writhing in the vile brew of blood, mud, and gore that slimed the verdant green of a Maryland farm. The skin, bone, and sinew had responded to his command and had almost taken on a sentience of its own as the music in his brain travelled by electrical impulse and magic to the bowing arm that could coax beauty, jollity, longing, or laughter from his violin; that extension of his soul now decayed amongst the violated long bones of the boys and men who had fought alongside him on a remote southern farm track called Sunken Road. The only thing that Phin could remember of his ordeal—the time spent lying among the wounded and dying, his agonizing transport to the field hospital, and the amputation itself—was the flies. Ten years later, he remembered the stench that drew them, and the moans that offered some variation in the unrelenting buzz. Sometimes, in the midst of busyness and distraction, or under the soothing amnesia of sleep, Phin forgot that he had no right arm, but he never forgot the flies.

Phineas rolled over under his covers and tried to go back to sleep. Except for the nightmares, he was a sound sleeper. When dawn’s first rosy smudge appeared behind the mountains, he kicked off his blanket and sat blinking on the side of his cot. He arose early every morning to tend to the stove that heated the schoolhouse. He was employed by the county school system, but he had been given a room under the eaves as a part of his compensation from the Monongela Mining Company, which owned all of the buildings and property in town. The company kept the coal bin well stocked. The families of the students took turns supplying him with victuals. He was especially grateful when the farm families fed him. Mrs. Lemley’s biscuits always came with a jar of jam—Concord grape, or strawberry, or autumn’s apple butter. Mrs. Davis’s fried chicken was as good as Grandmaw’s and she always remembered to include staples like eggs, butter, and bread. The mining families kept chickens and tiny garden plots, but mostly they shopped at the company store where fresh foods were expensive. He saw what the children brought for their own lunches and reminded himself to be grateful when his daily ration consisted of a chunk of cornbread, an apple, and some lima beans.

Phineas was a man who had learned how to make do. How to function without his dominant arm. How to adapt to life’s vagaries as dreams slipped away. The auditions for acceptance to the Peabody Conservatory had been replaced by a veteran’s application to the University of Lewisburg. He kept his violin, anyway. Phin made do when he applied for teaching positions and saw the pity in the superintendent’s eyes as he received another apologetic rejection.

But he liked it here in the mountains of West Virginia. The seasons were mostly predictable and with all the coal he could burn, the winters were tolerable. Between his amputee’s pension, his schoolmaster’s pay, and the basic provisions of the job, he was able to save a bit of money. The mountains, which appeared immutable, changed daily, and Phin’s eyes were tuned to their seasonal offerings. He delighted in the moody landscapes that greeted him each morning and the grandeur that belied the excavation, exploitation, and blight that went on in the mines. Coal warmed his home. Coal had won The War. Coal was fueling the industrial growth of the nation. But, perched as he was, with such a clear view of both Nature’s bounty and man’s insatiable need, Phin was aware of mining’s terrible cost.

Phin loved his students. He had known a moderate degree of privilege that most of them could not even dream of. Their dreams were constrained by their experience, but he loved their capacity to aspire and hope and work. A new kitten. A hand-me-down whittling knife. A life spent working in the sunshine. Here, the ordinary mattered. At twenty-seven years old, Phineas had lived a lifetime. He had enjoyed an untroubled childhood on his father’s horse farm. His mother, with no daughters to train in the arts, had insisted that all five of her boys take music lessons. They had an old family violin but Phin’s father said that his brothers played like tomcats looking for a lady. When the older boys were forced to practice, Mr. Stanford would complain of an earache and retreat to one of the horse barns or training paddocks. But Phineas showed an unusual talent. When he surpassed the skills of the local violin teacher, Phin’s mama sent him to Morgantown to learn from a conservatory graduate. On his fifteenth birthday, at the urging of his teacher, Phin hung up Grandpa’s old fiddle and, thanks to a very good horse breeding season, he traveled to Pittsburgh with his teacher to choose a sleek, professional instrument. It became his best friend, his first love, his pride and joy. Phin dreamed of a life as a professional musician, traveling with a symphony orchestra. But the random whims of Fate intervened.

In a series of events that neither his father’s money nor his mother’s prayers could alter, Phineas had gone to war, lost an arm, and returned to a life where disappointment played a continual discordant note to the hymn of daily life. Grateful for his survival and aware that, in a family of five boys, one arm was a small price to pay, Phin applied his energy and resourcefulness to the art of making do. Phin could stoke the stove, but relied on one of the older boys to clear the path and front steps of the schoolhouse when the snow fell. He could tend to his personal needs—bathing, trimming his auburn beard, even buttoning his clothing and tying the laces of his boots. He had given an impromptu class demonstration of one-handed tying when little Anna Mae Morton had asked him for help with her own laces before clapping her hand over her mouth, her cheeks flaming pink, her blue eyes brimming over with tears of embarrassment and horror. While the class gathered around Anna Mae’s too-large, and too-worn, winter boot, Phin had called upon all the nimble facility of a concert violinist to entwine, loop, and tighten the laces while the class marveled. Emboldened by the schoolmaster’s response, the children had inquired about his other hidden skills. Yes, he could fish, but the big ones usually got away, along with a few of his cane poles. Yes, he could shoot, but only a pistol. Yes, he could scratch his remaining arm, as long as he found something to rub against. And, as a veiled warning, he added that he could still beat all four of his older brothers at arm wrestling.

The children liked this kind, patient man who deployed disappointed expectations as effectively as their previous teachers had wielded the paddle. Mr. Stanford helped them imagine a world outside of the community they inhabited. History, literature, science, mathematics, geography…all woven together to inspire imagination, broaden horizons, and create opportunities. The schoolmaster knew that most of the boys would end up in the mines, or in the fields, and all of the girls would raise families, accommodate their husbands, and care for aging parents until exhaustion, childbirth, or poverty pulled them into the grave.

But every schoolteacher dreams of making a difference, and Phineas Stanford was endowed with a tenacious faith that, somehow, his disappointment might become the compost for his students’ opportunity. Could he instill a love of poetry in someone who would find solace amidst the tedium of housework or recall beauty in the dark maw of the mine? Could he recognize and nurture the rare talent that God bestowed upon the few—the artist, the mathematician, the insatiably curious? Could he offer the building blocks of contentment for the ordinary, and the means for something bigger for the exceptional? Despite his ideals, he was a realist. His most brilliant student was married, a mother of twins and a mine widow living on charity and washing miners’ filthy laundry before she was twenty. Johnnie Hawes, who could draw with astonishing accuracy, had left school when he was eleven to sort slate from coal with those gifted hands. And every evening, as he returned to the quiet, cozy attic room that was his home, Phineas looked upon his precious violin, hung by the neck from a roof strut, like the silent corpse of unfulfilled aspiration.

Late in the summer of 1872, John Davis drove his wagon over to Core from his farm in Cass. He found the schoolmaster at the well pump, drawing water to wash away the ever-present coal dust that had settled over everything during the long summer holiday. As John introduced himself, Phineas recalled the Davis family. William who had graduated the spring before Phineas arrived. Susannah, a bright and engaging young woman with a beautiful voice, who had recently married a judge in Morgantown. Mrs. Davis, whose dinner baskets could still make Phin’s mouth water. And a baby, no, a toddler, who would still be too young for school. What a shame, Phineas thought, remembering those happy days when Susannah’s arrival came with the smell of fried chicken or fruit-filled hand pies.

John Davis removed his hat and shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other as Phineas topped off a bucket and stopped pumping to give John his full attention.

“My youngest will be starting school this term,” he began awkwardly. “His name is Wash…Washington Alexander Davis,” he clarified before continuing. “Wash is…different.” John blushed as Phineas looked puzzled. “I didn’t know you had another child,” he answered, to fill in the awkward gap. “I only know of William, Susannah, and the baby.”

“That’s Wash,” John said. “He’s not a baby. He’s going on six years old.” The schoolmaster remained silent as John continued. “He’s always been small. When he was born, we didn’t know how he could live. But he did. The doctor couldn’t explain it. We don’t understand it. But whatever he is missing in size, he makes up for in gumption. He scares his ma to death, climbing in the barn, chasing the animals around the farm. Susannah taught him his letters and numbers and he could read through the primer when he was four.”

Abashed by his own sentimentality, John explained, “We all spoil him. We don’t fear for his life like we did when he was a baby. But we don’t know how to protect him from the world. We have sheltered him. The children ’round here know him from church but he has no friends his age. His best friend is a judge with both the money and the heart to try to make up for whatever God or Nature has done to our boy. We used to think he could catch up, that he’d grow to be like other children, but…” John trailed off.

Phineas swallowed his own dismay at the realization of the challenges this child would pose. “How can I help?” he asked.

John Davis was no sophisticate, but his innate cleverness and good nature served him well. Now, having left the realm of the explanatory and ventured into the practical aspects of preparing the schoolhouse for Wash’s arrival, he was in his element. He fetched a chair from the wagon. The chair was a few inches higher than the benches where the youngest students sat for their lessons. It had doweled rungs around three sides of the legs. He placed it at the end of one of the benches so that Wash could sit among his peers. John chuckled as he explained that Wash could climb up and down without assistance. “Matter of fact,” he mused, “if you need any roof repair, Wash can climb a ladder, climb a rope, and walk a roofline better’n any man I know. I made the mistake of telling my wife that he was half monkey. She said I was the one with the hairy toes.” Phineas liked this humble man who loved his odd child, and who knew how to tell a joke on himself. John returned to the wagon and unloaded a wooden box, fitted like a series of three steps. It was lightweight, with a small handle carved into each side. “He can use this when he needs it,” John explained. Next, he unloaded a curiously carved piece of wood, some iron hinges, and his toolbox. Almost before the schoolmaster realized what was happening the privy was fitted with a seat that raised and lowered, with a hole too small for a tiny child to slip through.

As John washed his hands under the pump, he grew somber. “That’s the easy part,” he said, as much to himself as to the schoolmaster. He turned pleading eyes on Phineas. “He’s a good boy,” he said. Words failed him, and he wiped his dripping hands on the legs of his overalls. Phineas Stanford, schoolmaster, battle veteran, and bearer of chronic heartbreak, recognized a posture of prayer when he saw it.

“I’ll be proud to have your son in my school,” he reassured John. “We can’t protect these children from the hardships that will come, but we can make them strong enough to face them.” Phin pointed to his right sleeve, knotted at the shoulder and tucked under his suspender strap. “I’ve seen enough cruelty to last a lifetime. I won’t allow it in my school.” John nodded his silent Amen. It was all that he could ask.

Back at the Davis farm, Wash was sitting at the table, practicing his letters on a slate, his small pink tongue poking out, his brows furrowed in concentration. Mercifully oblivious to the anxieties, hopes, fears, and uncertainty that swirled around him like an invisible cloak, Wash was counting the days until the door between his protected seclusion and the big, wide world swung open. Wash was going to school.

The Reverend Dr. Margaret Ann “Sam” Faeth is a retired Episcopal priest, retreat leader, and seminary instructor. She is the Academic Dean of Iona WNC, the school of theology and formation in the Diocese of Western North Carolina. Her sermons, poetry, and essays have appeared in Fiction Southeast, a poetry collection of Odes to Ordinary Things, in several sermon anthologies and most recently (April 2021) in Smoky Mountain Living. She is at work on her first novel, from which the above excerpts were taken.