Angel of Mercy
Brown leaves rustle in the wind, whirling around Ollie’s feet as she tries to climb the hill. She stumbles and falls onto sleet-sprinkled turf. The jolt of falling makes the throbbing in her head almost unbearable. Holding her breath, she leans one cheek against a clump of orange-tinted sage grass, pulls her knees to her chest, and closes her eyes.
“Stand up. You have to get home. You’ll freeze out here tonight.”
Ollie opens her eyes enough to see a woman’s long white dress. “I don’t care.”
“You must care—if not for yourself then for Eldridge. Your little brother’s home, waiting. If he comes looking for you, he’ll freeze. Get up.”
Something warm trickles down Ollie’s neck as she struggles to stand. She touches a painful spot at the back of her head. Chilled fingers wrap around a large knot. It is wet and warm. She trips over a hidden root, and grabs a bush for support. The hand holding the bush is red—blood red. Sleet whirls in a milky haze, and the earth pulls at Ollie like a magnet. Resisting, she clings to the bush with both hands, swaying with the blasts of north wind.
The urge is great to close her eyes, melt into the tall sage, and sleep away this nightmare. Her knees bend as she weaves a slow descent, but the woman keeps urging until Ollie hears
Eldridge crying, “Ollie, help me! We gotta get inside.”
Ollie feels weightless and shivers when the woman eases her onto cool bed sheets.
Eldridge folds a heavy blanket over her then dabs at her head with a wet cloth. “Ollie, what happened? Please don’t die.”
I won’t die.
The scent of her own blood tugs at the pit of her stomach, and pain intensifies each time he touches her head.
“Wake up, Ollie.” He pats her face and rubs her hands. “Talk to me.” He sniffs, and exhales. “Oh, God, will You help me? I can’t get her awake.”
Why can’t Eldridge hear me? She drifts into sleep, a welcome relief from pain.
“Roll over Ollie. I have to put a dry blanket under you.”
She, a fifteen-year-old, has wet the bed. Her shame does not last long. The roaring, swirling mist erases humiliation.
Eldridge seems far away. Sobs choke his voice. “Ollie, I can’t go for the doctor. It’s been sleeting and snowing all night. The road’s covered, real deep.” His footsteps echo as he crosses the plank floor.
Burning logs shift, sparks pop, and his steps come back to the bed. “Wake up. Tell me what I should do.” His voice cracks with fear.
Be careful. Don’t get burned.
With a wet cloth, he pats her lips and squeezes a few drops of water into her mouth. “Oh, Ollie, if you could just talk to me.”
She attempts turning toward him. Pain, like long spikes, shoots through her head.
Eldridge, ask that woman to get Mama’s aspirin and some water. I’m thirsty.
The tall slender figure dressed in white touches Ollie’s lips and forehead. Thirst and pain disappear. “Sleep, child. Dream.”
Her thoughts drift into a mist that pulls her back through time.
Springtime fragrance whispers across the yard as Ollie helps Mama break branches from the sprawling lilac bush. Mama and Ollie walk the long road from the farm to the cemetery and place the blossom-covered limbs on a tiny grave.
“Mama, why did baby Herbert die?”
“He was too small.” She pauses. “I’m thankful he’s not in pain. He’s happy in Heaven.”
Four-year-old Ollie barely remembers Herbert. She was only three at his birth. His life was short. Mama said Herbert went to be with Jesus. Mama seldom cries. Seeing the gleam of tears and her sad smile causes tears to well in Ollie’s eyes.
Later that afternoon, Ollie and Bertha rock their dolls in the pretend playhouse beside the chimney. “Listen, Ollie, I hear a wagon. I bet it’s Papa coming back from town. He said he’d bring us something good.”
Ollie jumps up. “It is Papa! I see the horses. He’ll have candy.”
“Whoa,” Papa’s voice demands. The wagon stops by the front porch steps.
Earl runs out of the house, and the three children rush to greet Papa. Eager hands reach, ready to search through the packed wagon.
Mama comes outside, drying her hands on a towel. “Children, wait until we can help.”
Papa points to a large box. “See that? It’s got something special in it.”
“Not now, Robert. Supper will be ready by the time you get the horses fed. We’ll eat before we unpack the wagon.”
Ollie listens with impatience while her parents talk and enjoy the meal.
“Lucy came by today. She tied little Alice in Ollie’s rocker while we went outside for water. I could hardly stand to see that baby lashed down.”
“Everyone raises children as they see fit.”
“But, Robert, I have a bad feeling about this. Did you know they bought Alice a rocker just like Ollie’s? While tied in it, she scoots all around the room. I asked Lucy, ‘What if she turns it over?’ She said, ‘I’m more afraid of getting her chilled.’”
Papa shakes his head and turns to stare at Mama.
Mama looks down and smoothes her apron. “I know. Lucy’s sister died with pneumonia. I can understand her fear, but–”
“Artie, you can’t tell her how to raise that child.”
“There’s something else.” Mama swallows and looks down at her plate. “Before they left, Ollie clung to Alice and begged Lucy not to take her. Lucy laughed and said, ‘We’ll come back tomorrow.’ Ollie started crying and said, ‘No. I’ll never get to play with Alice again.’”
“Artie, you’re making too much of a four-year-old child’s imagination.” He shoves his chair back, reaches for Ollie, and tosses her into the air. “Let’s go find a present.”
Ollie giggles. “Papa, did you bring me candy?”
Papa reaches into the box, takes out a small brown paper-wrapped package, and hands it to Earl. A bone-handled pocketknife is inside. Mama frowns. Earl grins. Everyone waits while Earl receives instructions on how to open, close, and use the sharp blade.
Bertha bites her lip. Ollie coils a ringlet of honey-colored hair.
Papa stands, and rests his hands on his hips. “Well.”
“Robert, stop teasing. Ollie will wet her pants if you keep her waiting any longer.”
He bends to remove two dolls from beneath the paper. Bertha gets one dressed in pink with dark-brown hair. Ollie reaches for the one with a green dress and reddish brown curls.
Ollie holds her doll up and stares at it. “Oh, Papa, she’s so pretty.”
He hugs both girls. “See what they do when you pull the strings at the back of their necks.”
“Ma—Ma,” the dolls cry.
“Artie, this is for you.” Papa hands her a length of blue cloth. “Thread and buttons are somewhere in the box.”
Smiling, Mama partially unfolds it. “Oh, Robert, it’s beautiful. I couldn’t have done better myself. I can’t wait to make a dress.”
Mama smoothes a wrinkle from the fabric. “Girls, get ready for bed. It’s getting late. Earl, you wash-up when they’re finished.”
The next morning, Ollie holds her new doll in the crook of one arm and Annie, the old rag doll, in the other when she bounces into the kitchen.
“Ollie, you can’t bring dolls to the table. Put them somewhere else.”
She takes her babies into the living room, then skips back. “Mama, I named my baby Cinna, ‘cause her hair looks like cinnamon. Like we put in the pie yesterday.”
“How clever. That’s a good name. Girls, take care of your dolls or they won’t last long. That hair is glued on, and the faces are painted. If you get water on them, the hair will come off and the face will peel.”
Ollie shakes her head as she makes a solemn promise. “I won’t get water on her.”
Bertha and Earl rush off to school. Papa leaves in the wagon. Ollie, warm in a soft sweater, takes her dolls outside to the chimney corner. Mama begins work on her new dress while watching and listening to Ollie through a window propped open with a large thread spool.
The sun is shining from the top of the sky when Papa comes up the road, horses running hard. He never runs the horses with the wagon. Something is wrong. Ollie peeps around the chimney rocks.
Mama calls through the window opening, “Honey, stay there with your dolls.”
Papa pulls hard on the reins to stop the wagon, wraps the lines around the brake handle, and jumps down. “Artie. A terrible accident!”
Her breath coming in little puffs, Mama gasps, “What is it?”
“It’s little Alice. Lucy tied her in that rocking chair, just like you said. She went outside to hang wash. When she came back, Alice was face down in the fireplace.”
He nods and wipes his eyes.
Mama slaps both hands over her mouth, walks over, kneels, and hugs Ollie. “Honey, Little Alice has gone to Heaven.”
“Like baby Herbert and Granny.”
Mama stands. When she answers, her voice seems to hiccup the words. “Yes, like little Herbert and Granny.” Mama turns toward the house. “Honey, go back to your playthings. I need to hurry. Your papa’s gone to get Cousin Mattie or one of the neighbors to stay with you. They’ll be here soon.”
Ollie burrows her face against her new doll. “I wish I could play with Alice.”
The next morning, Saturday, Mama rushes to prepare food for Lucy’s family and iron clothes to wear to the funeral. Ollie goes to the chimney corner to hold her dolls.
Mama shouts out the back door, “Ollie, come quick. Quick! We can’t be late!”
Ollie plops the dolls on their pretend bed fashioned from a block of wood, and runs in answer to Mama’s call.
During the funeral, Ollie sits without a word. Afterward, Mama pats Ollie’s back while talking. “Mattie, I appreciate you taking the children. Lucy and Jim are such good friends. We must go sit with them.”
“Stay as long as you need to, Artie. If it gets late, I’ll put them in my bed, and I’ll wait on the divan. Just knock loud, in case I fall asleep.”
Sunday morning is dark. Rain slaps at windowpanes. Lightning pops and the house quivers with rumbling thunder. Ollie sits up in bed, looks down at her dress and remembers going to Mattie’s house. She pats the bed and lifts the covers. “Where are you Annie? Cinna?”
Her bare feet hit the cold wood floor. “Oh, no!” She rushes through the kitchen where Mama is cooking, and out into the rain. The door slams as another clap of thunder shakes the house. Still, Ollie runs to the play area.
She gasps at the doll’s face and grabs her. The cinnamon-colored hair remains on the rain-soaked blanket. Seeing the crinkled face and bald head, Ollie screams.
Lightning flashes, pellets of ice clink against chimney rocks. Mama grabs Ollie, dolls and blanket, and carries them inside, her face nearly as white as the hail.
Ollie squeezes her palms to her ears. Still a voice echoes, “It’s my fault. It’s my fault.”
Bertha runs to the kitchen. “Her hair! It’s gone! Why did you leave her outside?”
Ollie stares at Bertha and begins to yank at her own hair. “I didn’t take care of her. She’s dead. It’s my fault. It’s my fault.” Louder and louder, she shrieks, running to the bedroom. She crawls under her bed, sobbing. “It’s my fault.”
Stooping to look underneath, Mama’s voice is soft and gentle. “Honey, maybe I can dry and mend Cinna.”
“No! No! I didn’t take care of her. It’s my fault.”
“Come on, Hon,” Papa coaxes. “It was an accident. I’ll buy you another doll.”
He reaches under the bed and pulls her out.
“I don’t want another baby. I want Alice and Cinna.”
She twists tiny fingers in her damp hair and yanks. Mama unwinds curly strands from the small hands and hugs Ollie tight, rocking gently until she is quiet. Waving Earl and Bertha from the room, Mama removes Ollie’s wet clothes.
“Honey, lift your head. Let me dry your hair before you catch a cold.”
Ollie has stopped screaming, but her body still jerks with sobs.
“Lift your arms. Slide into this warm gown.” Mama tucks a quilt around her and pats her back. “I’ll make your doll a new body, even new hair. You’ll see.”
No one mentions going to church. Papa pulls a rocker near Ollie’s bed and sits reading his Bible. Bertha and Earl play in the next room.
Warm chamomile tea with berry wine is one of Mama’s home remedies. She coaxes the trembling child to drink some. Ollie falls asleep, but wakes several times during the day and begins to cry. Each time Mama gives her the tea and wine mix, tucks covers tight, sings, and rubs her back until she falls asleep.
A new day comes with sun peeping over the horizon, shining into the bedroom through pink clouds. Ollie opens her eyes. For a moment, Mama’s goose-down pillows and white sheets tinted by the dawn seem like her dream of Alice, Herbert and Cinna playing on soft billows.
Ollie blinks, rubs her eyes, and looks toward the dresser. A doll sits waiting, wearing Cinna’s green dress on a new cloth body, her head covered with curls made of cinnamon-colored ribbon. Rosy light shimmers on her downy wings. “Oh, Cinna. You did turn into an angel.”
Eldridge runs to her bed. “Ollie, are you awake? Did you say something?”
She hears Eldridge talking, knows when he lays his head on the foot of her bed, and feels the bed shake with his sobs. Still she cannot make him hear what she wants to tell him. The fog engulfs her like a whirlwind, taking her back—back into old memories.
Dark clouds race across the sky, pursued by strong north winds that whistle under the door and around loose windows. Is it just the approaching storm that instills such fear in Ollie? She begs, “Leave the sheep, Papa. Won’t they hide under the big cedars?”
“No, Ollie, I need to bring them to the barn. If the creek gets up, they might drown.” Papa buttons his overcoat, grabs a sweat-stained hat, and leans into the blast of air sweeping through the open door.
Mama shouts after him, “Be careful, Robert. Don’t linger in that valley and get yourself caught in high water.”
His answer is unheard over the wind’s roar.
Mama turns to scald the milk-pail. Hot water sizzles and steam puffs into the air as she pours boiling water over the bucket. “Bertha, Earl, while I go milk, stay inside and help Ollie with the baby.” Her brow puckers, and she flinches when the empty kettle clanks on the stovetop.
“Mama, can you wait until Papa comes back before you go milk?”
“No, Ollie. Once the rain begins, it may last through the night, and your papa will be ready for supper when he gets back.” Mama pulls back the blue print curtain from the kitchen window to peer out at the dark gray clouds rolling in from the southwest. Ollie sees her jaw tighten and the frown deepen.
“Do you think it’s a tornado, like blew away Uncle Levi’s house?”
Mama gives her a quick but understanding look. “No. No, it’s only wind and heavy rain, but the clouds have a greenish tint. They might have hail. If it starts beating on the windows, you kids get under a bed so you aren’t cut by broken glass.”
Holding baby Eldridge on one hip, Ollie nods. “We will, Mama.”
Bertha is too busy chasing through the house with Earl to pay attention. Eldridge burrows his face against Ollie’s shoulder when Mama raises her voice: “Bertha, Earl, did you hear me?” Breathing hard, they stop and turn serious faces. “Stay inside and watch the baby. I’ll be back when I finish milking.”
“Ollie sits on a rag-rug in the warm kitchen and plays with the baby while listening for hail. Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake.” Thunder rumbles in the distance. There are no bleating sheep coming up the hill. Eldridge giggles and scrunches his neck as she tickles him. She does not want him or anyone else to know the terrible fear she holds inside. Earl would call her a scaredy-cat, and Bertha would say she worries too much.
Bertha comes tearing through the house, eyes wide with fear, and grabs the baby from Ollie’s arms. “Come on! Come on! There’s a man under the bed!” Earl is at her heels. Ollie jumps up and follows them outside.
Ollie pulls at the door as she flees the kitchen, but strong wind sweeps it from her grasp before the latch can catch and hold. Yanked back and forth, it bangs hard, reverberating against the outside wall. Reaching to close it, her hand freezes in midair—a man stands in the dogtrot hallway. She turns and runs, hearing the pounding of the door all the way to the barn.
The Guernsey cow jerks her head and steps sideways as the children rush into the barn. Mama catches the already dented milk pail just in time, before the frightened cow kicks it over.
Bertha gasps, “Mama, there was a man under the bed.” She takes a deep breath while adjusting Eldridge on her hip. “In the front bedroom. Earl was hiding. I looked under the bed and saw him! Mama, he grabbed at my arm.” She shudders and catches her breath. “I ran and—”
“Hush. Tell me about it later. You’re scaring the cow. She won’t let down her milk if you keep this racket up. Come with me.” Mama opens the corncrib door and looks inside. “Stay in here until I finish. We’ll go to the house together.”
Mama clamps her hand over Earl’s mouth. “Don’t say another word, not even a whisper until we’re in the house, unless you want your backside warmed with a strap.”
Earl staring as if she has already belted him, nods compliance before looking away toward the cows. “Mama, you forgot to put out hay. I’ll get some.”
He takes a step toward the hayloft before Mama yanks the back of his collar. She speaks in a low voice through tight lips. “Didn’t you hear what I said? Get in that corncrib now. Don’t let me hear another sound from any of you.”
The older children sit on the rough oak planks in silence, unspoken questions in their eyes. The baby snuggles against Bertha, and sucks his thumb. His wide eyes focus on the Guernsey, blinking with each swish of her tail.
Mama stops pulling milk from the sagging udders and leaves the cows licking up grain with their long gray tongues. The gate squeaks when she opens it, allowing two brown calves to rush toward their mothers.