by Jen Paulin
It was an innocent enough question. All I see are your wide brown eyes regarding me with open curiosity. I hesitate, and I can tell by the crease on your brow that it annoys you. For the first time in your short sixteen years I pause before lying to you. I’ve told the fiction I created so many times I’ve begun to believe it myself, perhaps you did too. Maybe it’s because we’re back in Virginia, I don’t know, but this time, on a summer afternoon in June, I can see him in the corners of your mouth and the relaxed slope of your shoulders. This time the truth about your father bubbles up in me and I can’t stop it.
“Mom, did you hear me? I asked about that scar.” You point to the place where my rib cage begins to curve into my waist, as if I need a reminder. “I don’t think I’ve seen it before.” The realization seems to shock and offend you at the same time, like you’ve suddenly discovered the secrets I’ve kept buried there.
I open my mouth to speak: I fell down the stairs when I was a child, I ran into a doorknob as an adolescent, anything that will stop me from revealing to you how I got that scar. But the fabrications get stuck in my throat.
We’re sitting at an outdoor table at a restaurant in Reedville. The sunlight sneaks around the large umbrella above us and reflects off the glass table onto your face. There’s a light breeze wafting off the Chesapeake Bay and it catches your long brown hair, but I don’t feel it. I’m drowning in the stifling face of honesty. How could I have been so careless? I had simply lifted my purse strap from my shoulder and it caught my shirt as I sat, revealing a hidden part of me.
“Mom, what’s the deal? Are you ok?” You put your fork down with a clang on the table and lean your willowy form closer to me. You must see the fear rolling in the shadows behind my eyes.
I inhale the salty air and grip my warm iron chair. “Yes, I’m fine.” I exhale in slow measured breaths. “Your father gave me that scar.” My mind traces the heart carved into my side and pain shoots through me like a lightning bolt. I can feel the burn of his knife cutting my skin and see his shaking hand as he sculpts the shape.
“My father?” I hear the grains of sand under your chair legs grind against the old deck as you shift in your seat. I can see you taking your confusion out on your lip as you consider my words and for a moment I’m worried you might bite through it.
“Your father didn’t die in Iraq in 2000 and he wasn’t an orphan.” You’re looking at me as if in a trance and I continue before you have a chance to run. “Your father died in 1861 during the first battle of Manassas.” I wait for you to laugh, yell, run away and throw me in the loony bin. But you don’t. Instead you sit as if frozen.
“When I was about your age I lit a candle.” I close my eyes and start talking like I’m ripping off a bandage. “I lit a candle with my mind. It scared the shit out of me and I nearly burned down your grandmother’s house. After that, those kinds of things started happening a lot; objects flying across the room, light bulbs exploding. Your grandparents were really patient with me but they made it clear that I wasn’t normal. After some years of practice, I was able to control my abilities, to bury them down in a dark place inside me, at least until I moved to Manassas after college. The battlefield seemed to call to me, to pull me. I dreamt about it every night and when I was awake it was all I could think about. The more I went, the more I needed to go.
“I remember the first time I saw him. He was hidden in the shadows by the creek. I thought he was a ghost at first; I could feel so many on that field. But he wasn’t a ghost. He walked toward me and I saw he was very real. It was like we had stumbled upon this…space…between time. As if time were an illusion and we had the power to peek behind the veil. I was standing in 1999 and he was still in 1860, but we could see each other, feel each other.”
A slight vibration ripples across my scar as I conjure his image. My eyes are still shut and I can see his sideways grin, so like yours, and his shining blue eyes as if he’s standing in front of me. I feel his skin under my fingertips and his blonde hair lazily catching a breeze as it tickles my face. “He worked on the Manassas Gap Railroad that was adjacent to the land that became the battlefield. He would walk along the creek that ran through the field. He said it was peaceful. It was on one of those walks that he found me in the winter of 1860. But I knew that by the summer of 1861 the railroad would be gone and nothing would be the same. I don’t know if I changed anything or not by telling him what would become of the South and what would happen during the War. Maybe if he had never met me he would have gone off and joined the army and survived somehow. But he didn’t, he stayed behind to be with me. It cost him his life.” The memory conjures the smell of tar and burning coal so strongly I choke. “My God, I loved him so much.” I’m there with him again, lying in the grass with our nakedness displayed to the setting sun. I feel his soft lips on my skin and his feathery touch caressing my ribs. “I begged him to go; to run west and escape the war. But he wouldn’t go. Somehow we knew that what we found in that place on the field we would never find again. That there would never be another dimple in the passage of time where we could find each other. He stayed knowing he would perish in the battle.”
I open my eyes and try to look at you through my tears. You’re still in your trance, watching me. “On July 20, 1861, the night before the armies rushed the field near Bull Run Creek, we met for the last time, hiding from the Confederate and Union troops that were already gathering there.” I raise my left hand and touch the silky skin of my scar on my right rib as I had done so many times before, in the secret darkness of lonely nights. “He loved this spot, the place right before my curves slope into my hips. He gave me a heart so that I would always remember him; so that I would always know that what we had was real. We didn’t know then, but we made you that night as well.”
You blink for what seems like the first time since I started. I see that same crooked grin I had seen so long ago on your father hit the corners of your mouth and panic washes over me. I’m sure you’re going to laugh in my face, but then you don’t. I smell your hibiscus shampoo as you gracefully lean in to sweep the unlit palm-sized candle off the table. It’s nestled in a glass jar and there are bits of sand and dried leaves littering its half melted surface.
“I’m glad you told me.” Your tone is gentle, as if you’re attempting to sooth the trepidation racing through me. You cup your hands around the small jar and a hint of a breeze escapes your lips. With a look of satisfaction rounding out your face I see a flame flickering in the candle.