~This piece was previously published in North Carolina Literary Review (2001)
When Nora had all she could take of life, she doused her hair in kerosene and ran down the road swaying and hollering like a branded calf before she finally crumpled to meet her Maker face down.
Hal and Billy were there and they couldn’t forget the sight of their big sister turned into a heap of smoked meat, and it bothered them for weeks and months afterward. They’d wake up nights in bawling fits about a booger, and it about drove Mama distracted trying to quieten them down. (Of course, I was only a baby then, so I couldn’t have no such recollection of my own. I’m just relaying what folks said.) Mama thought maybe all this happened according to the Good Lord’s plan being as how Nora had been an odd sock, but it didn’t matter then; Nora was as dead this way as any other.
The first thing they did was cover Nora up. Then they laid her out in a hand-planed casket that was already made up for Grandfather Tompkins. He hadn’t died yet, so she got dibs on his coffin. They said she was awful small for that man-sized box, but she was in it for Eternity whether she fit or not, along with the rest of her kin in the Providence Cemetery.
The folks weren’t about to ship her back to England, though some said they might should. Nora was a married lady at the time and her husband was an Englishman she’d met in the Great War. He’d been shot up in the Somme, and was one of the lucky ones that didn’t get gassed, trench footed or killt by the Germans, but he did get the shell shock. (That’s something that makes a fellow with otherwise good sense shake like a fresh butchered hog.) To actually see Nora’s husband, you’d never know he’d been messed up like that, but folks said he was. And they said it made him swimmy-headed, like when he was out back talking to soldiers and nobody was there.
The truth is, Nora first ran across Mason Thacker talking out of his head in a hospital tent. Being a nurse, she tried to quieten him down as best she could among all that hollering and damp misery. By then she’d seen plenty of men shot up, though I can’t see how any sane person could get used to something as awful as that. Mama said she didn’t know what Nora saw in being there, what when she could have been home in a clean bed and have decent things to think about besides strange men’s messes. Why that alone would be enough to drive anybody distracted!
Mama said Nora was cut off a different bolt of cloth. When Hal and Billy were down with the grippe or whatever ailment, Nora would be the one who took to nursing them. You would have thought she was their Mama the way she took care of them boys sitting beside their bed reading them poetry. Only it wasn’t regular verse like you’d generally read to youngins. Oh no. Nora picked rhymes by a feller named Edgar Allen Poe. Hal, who was a tad younger than Billy, tucked his head under the pillow, not wanting to hear anything more about a haunted house or a talking raven. “That black bird makes me think of the ones we seen down by the cemetery,” he said. “Now I’m gonna be ascared of them saying things to me.”
Mama said Nora would just laugh, which was an odd thing in itself. They said her laugh was a lot like mine, which I don’t take too kindly to, being as how I’m not half as odd as Nora. (I’m a whole lot different, but I reckon that’s because I didn’t grow up around her.)
They say Nora tried her own hand at poetry, but she wasn’t much good at it. None of her stuff rhymed like Mother Goose’s or Mr. Poe’s, but she kept writing it just the same, to quieten her own nerves. Her verses were throwed out long before I can remember, but the folks talked about them.
When Nora turned eighteen, she found herself in nurses’ school up in Richmond. It was something, her running off like that, a girl who had been raised up right. The next thing they knew, she had signed up to be an Army nurse. She looked mighty important in her starched uniform, and it was one sad day when she left the family behind and shipped out from Norfolk. That’s where she left from.
Mama worried all the time about what might become of her with all those men out in the ocean on the way to the war, but that was the least of Mama’s worries when she started to get letters back from France. I read some of them that Mama forgot she still had. Nora told about the night shifts, helping sop up buckets of Lord knows what. She said the worst part was the smell of burnt skin. Several soldier men were pulled out of a barn that caught fire. They arrived by ambulance. One had his beard burned off entirely, she wrote. Another was missing half his skin and was gone to Glory inside of ten minutes. “I just had to go outside and be alone, that’s how bad it was,” Nora said. But then it was just her to go out and be by herself.
Mama said she wrote her back and said why didn’t she just quit that nasty business and come on home, but then Mama had no notion of what it meant to be signed up as an Army nurse. Nurses couldn’t just up and leave. They say Mama just bawled at the thought of her own kin in that godforsaken hole. “I never could talk any sense into that girl’s head. Never will, I don’t suppose.”
Billy said what first sent Nora on a downhill climb was visiting one of those fortunetellers. That happened before she’d ever heard tell of the Army. It seems there was this gypsy woman who’d set up a palm reading and card ciphering shop along about where the Old Colonial Pike turns into the state highway. In those days, a lot of folks came by there on their way to Danville. You could find the place plain enough because there was a big painted handprint out front. At least that’s what drew Nora’s attention to give it a look see, and for a full dime she got her palm read.
Nora and Billy went in and saw a woman sitting behind a curtain with a rag on her head. The gypsy gave Nora’s hand a good rubbing and looked at it. Then she said that Nora had a wobbly lifeline and mounts that pointed to love and wealth. The woman screwed her face up and said she reckoned Nora would have one child, but that it would be a child of darkness.
When they got back in the wagon, Nora made Billy swear he wouldn’t tell where they’d been or how much it had cost. And Billy asked, “What’s a child of darkness?”
Nora said she didn’t know, but having any kind of youngin was all right by her. It was a sign she would get married, and she was pretty pleased about that since she didn’t even have any prospects for a husband at the time.
Billy said she talked to him a lot about the fortuneteller, and not long after, she took to skipping church. Now the family had always been pretty much hard-shelled about religion, but Nora quit going altogether when she signed up for nurse’s school. And I suppose it would stand to reason that she quit praying too. That’s what can happen when you dabble with spirits. At least that’s what Mama said.
Nora wasn’t what you’d call a raving beauty, but she wasn’t ugly either. She was more regular. You can tell that from her pictures. They say her best feature was her hair that was the color of dried tobacco leaves, sort of blondish brown and easy to run a comb through. It had enough curl that it was fairly easy to manage—not all frizzed up like mine.
Now once the gypsy woman was done with them, Billy said Nora was more than happy with that ten-cent fortune, since things was going to look up.
“Don’t you tell nobody about that gypsy,” she told Billy, and he kept his mouth shut. He sat back and watched, and sure enough, inside of a year, Nora was getting courted by Mason Thacker in the hospital tent. Nobody was quite sure how that was done and Mama said she didn’t want to know. The fact is, nobody talked about it much, other than Nora was off in that place doing her duty. If she got a beau, at least it was more than she had back home, which was none at all.
This Englishman, in spite of all odds, got well enough to talk to Nora and she was mighty glad after seeing so much wretchedness packed into a short spell. He was an officer in the English Army, so he was good at telling people what’s what. I reckon he told her stuff like how beautiful she was and how he loved the way lamplight caught the shine of her hair. They say he claimed to be from a fancy line of people who went back to William the Conqueror. (If you believe that, fine. If you don’t, at least it’s a romantic notion.)
When Nora wrote saying she was going to up and marry this Englishman, the folks were real put out. The ceremony was to take place in a village in the Argonnes. On top of that fact, she was marrying a foreigner they’d never met by a Catholic priest who spoke nothing but French. Mama wrote and told her plain what it amounted to—that nobody in this family went off and did things like that, especially with no Catholics. She reckoned Nora never got the letter or if she did, she ignored it flat out.
Nora got married, and the war was over a good year before she and Mr. Thacker turned up at the train depot. By that time, the folks had already figured Nora would stay in England and never show her face around here again, but sure enough, there she was with that fancy husband and trunks galore, waiting for everybody to welcome them with open arms as if nothing happened.
Mason Thacker was an older man that talked in a brogue that couldn’t be remedied. He walked with a limp being as because of his war injuries, and said he’d help around the farm. First thing Papa wondered was what use he’d be boogered up like he was. Maybe shucking corn, ginning or whittling—not much more than that.
“Why ain’t you shaking?” Hal asked him.
Mama twisted his ear when he said that, which caused a commotion before they even headed toward home. What Hal didn’t know was Mason Thacker had long since given up the shell shock and moved on to being more regular acting.
Billy and Hal, who were about ten or twelve, helped load bags into the sedan. Mason Thacker and Nora had been to England and visited his folks before they set sail for America, so they’d been picking up more than a few souvenirs—a brass bed warmer, leather-covered books, silverware, a tea chest and andirons from his home place. They had stuffed more into those trunks than any mule could pull.
Papa wasn’t too happy about the extra mouths to feed, but he reckoned the two of them could stay in the cabin down by the tobacco barns. It might be bug-infested, but they could clean it up and make it livable. Nora and her husband said they weren’t too proud; they’d seen much worse accommodations back in the war, which was a true fact if there ever was one.
The boys went down there most every day, helping the couple set up housekeeping. Billy whitewashed the bead boards and ceilings while Hal swept the floors and arranged canned goods. They got the place to looking downright decent in no time, what with the tea chest in one corner, real silverware on the table and those andirons holding pine knots in the fireplace.
They say things began to really turn sour that summer when Mason Thacker took sick. He never was much count to do any work since they’d moved in, and when the heat set in, he took to his bed like a ground squirrel in its burrow. When it came time to help pull tobacco, he was no where to be found. Some folks reckoned it was colored work was the reason he didn’t want to have no part of pulling, but Billy said it was more likely because that Englishman wasn’t used to the heat. (And Billy oughten to know for sure being down at their place so much.)
Once, Billy said he happened out one evening behind the tobacco barn and he saw Mason Thacker in his night shirt standing on a stump, ranting into thin air. He said he stood there for the longest time waving his arms, pointing his finger, like he was making a soldier speech, only there weren’t none to holler at. Billy figured either the heat had got to him or the shell shock had never left.
Now they had this little kerosene stove to cook on. Nora would stand there next to it hugging herself, saying she was freezing to death though it was the middle of July. Mama said it might have something to do with her circulation and maybe she should go see Doc Perkins, but she ignored that advice like everything else Mama said. One day Mama brought her a basket of fresh fruit jam and a bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s, telling Nora it would cure what ailed her. Later Hal saw Nora pouring that stuff into a two-gallon watering can and sprinkle it on the garden. That’s how much good it did her.
At other times, folks could hear Nora out there in the corn rows talking to herself and sitting on the porch writing poetry. Curiosity got the better of Billy. He got hold of that journal of hers when she was up at the big house. He said he couldn’t see any sense to her writings at all. “They were just a bunch of strange words about dying people with their faces blowed off,” he said. He felt sorry for her, but he didn’t want to mention seeing inside her book since she’d probably clam up and give him the silent treatment.
Nora couldn’t find paying work being as far from town as we was, so she turned herself into a medicine woman—half-doctor, half-nurse—and took to tending the colored, being as they had no doctor to speak of. They’d pay her in yams, eggs, or honey—whatever they had plenty of which wasn’t much of nothing.
Mason Thacker was still busy trying to get used to what he called “living on the frontier.” Mainly he did sit-down work. He’d help shuck corn, shell peas, sharpen tools, even shoe horses on occasion. He knew how to do that because his family had Arabians back in England. Nights he’d commence to whittling bits of frivolity, as Papa said. Everything from whimmy diddles to carved soldier heads on bottle stoppers for corn liquor. Sometimes he did more useful things such as make furniture, but that was only on occasion.
Within a year after she and Mason Thacker showed up at the depot, which would have been about 1920 or 21, Nora took to midwifing colored even though her own babies weren’t coming. Everybody kept wondering what was taking them so long, too, because if she’d been like most women, she would have had at least a couple by then.
Mama figured her barrenness had something to do with being afraid of pain, being as how Nora had seen so much blood in the war. But the colored women had another idea. They said Nora had been marked with a sign like Ham when he got off of Noah’s ark. They’d known about all that, too, since Ham’s bunch wound up in Africa.
I suppose all that talk got Billy to thinking about that palm-reading gypsy woman and how just having been in the company of somebody like that might cause things to go sour. But he hadn’t said nothing about that to nobody yet.
Cooter Sams, one of the colored farm hands, claimed Mason Thacker wasn’t able to father any youngins because of being boogered up. Cooter said he knowed that for a fact, since he’d seen him once taking a whiz behind one of the sheds, but he never said much more than that. Whether that was a fact or not, we never knowed. Besides, Cooter was known to stretch the truth on occasion.
Nora made a good colored baby doctor, but several of her deliveries arrived with their own bad luck—born dead or as much as dead. Some of them arrived with a surprise like a caul which some said was a sign of witches, especially if the caul got throwed away, which I reckon it did quite a bit. What colored mammy was going to keep something like that around? Folks said they’d pretty much let those unlucky ones die on their own. And then there were the babies that wasn’t as dark as they should be. Most of those were taken in with the rest, but some were killt with hatpins. If you pierce their soft spot, they’ll die and nobody would ever suspect they been killt. At least that’s what some of the women whispered around.
When Nora got into doctoring, she took on this tall colored boy named Jubal to help out. He was one of those creek-bottom coloreds that were more than half-white and fairly good looking. He was smart as far as farm-smart goes, some younger than she was, but half-colored just the same. His job was to clean up, change her doctoring smock and take her to the next appointment since he knew all the back roads and paths around those parts.
Nora must have appreciated Jubal’s help and accompaniment since she had to go out day and night. He was heard to say he’d like to take up doctoring himself, but hanging around a white woman’s midwifing might not be the best way to go about it. Now some said he was tagging along just to see ladies’ naked bottoms, and that notion was enough to make a woman uneasy whether she was colored or not. So I reckon you could think of him as just “observing.”
Cooter said when his youngest was born, Nora ordered Jubal around to get hot water and tools out of her doctoring bag. He knowed exactly what ones to get, and the baby was born with all parts in the right place, so the two of them were good at what they did.
For a long time, white folks had wondered if Mason Thacker considered it was odd that his wife was gone off with that colored boy every day and night. Colored sure ain’t white folks, and they can get into a lot of scrapes on account of it. Then again, Jubal wasn’t exactly a boy; he must have been upward of nineteen or so—old enough to be a field hand when he wasn’t tending sick people.
Now when folks started to talk, Billy figured he’d go follow them one night just to make sure they were on the up and up. Well, he followed them all the way past Hurley’s Corner until they wound up at Old Man Webster’s. Everybody in the county knew Webster suffered from the sugar, so Billy reckoned there couldn’t be much spooning going on. Webster’s leg had taken to smelling like spoiled chicken and nobody would go around that place with any romantic notions, not if they had any sense. Billy followed them back a ways on his bicycle to Jubal’s where Nora bid him farewell, and he went on into his place and she came on home. It’s a wonder he didn’t get caught spying like that, but he didn’t.
Overall, folks thought Nora had stooped well beneath herself doctoring coloreds, but the fact is those people were mighty glad to have “Miss Nora” around. Whenever there was an emergency, you’d hear the colored church bell go off. That meant Nora was needed down there, and that happened pretty regular. Over time, she saved a couple kids in the Creek Bottom from choking to death of the whooping cough, set several broken bones and stitched up Cooter’s wife when he got drunk and wolloped her with a boot jack. He always was hauling off and doing something like that.
Nora’s doctoring business went along for the better part of two years until she plumb wore herself out. Folks said that’s why the doctoring business is for men, only you couldn’t tell Nora that. But since she got poorly, she didn’t show her face for upwards of four months. In the meanwhile, the family was mighty careful to keep her quiet down there at the cabin. Mama went down to tend Nora, telling Bill and Hal to keep their distance. “No use poking around in business that don’t concern you,” she said.
That spring, not long after Nora was up to doctoring again, Jubal up and left. They say he gave up doctoring which was just as well being as since there wasn’t any place around for him to go to school and get trained up proper, and he couldn’t afford to go if there was.
Meanwhile, Mason Thacker had gotten handy in the kitchen. Hal and Billy had gone down there a few times themselves and said he wasn’t a bad cook. He’d learned to bake cat-head biscuits and fry with fat back in cast iron. Hal, who was the youngest, said Nora had pretty much given up on cooking and had left it all to her husband, who had moved out of her bed by then. The reason Hal knowed that was because he’d seen a pallet set up and had asked questions even though it wasn’t his right to do that. He said “that Mason Thacker acted funny about it, and said he needed to sleep on the floor on account of his back.” When Hal said he picked up on something being out of sorts between Nora and that man she married, Billy told Hal to leave well enough alone.
By that time, the cabin was fancied up with lace curtains, embroidered pillows and some figurines they’d brought back from the war, and the Englishman had some silhouettes of his kin hanging on the bead board. That looked noble to the boys. And Nora just sat there staring out the window, like she was tranced.
While they was enjoying Mason Thacker’s ham biscuits, Billy spilled the beans about the fortuneteller, saying that curse had probably caught up with her finally.
“It’s that fortuneteller spirit. That’s what’s ailing her,” he said.
Nora looked over at him and started to growl like a wounded dog. It sort of scared him, but it was nothing like what came next. Before they could say Jack Robinson, she hauled off and swung at Billy, then grabbed the poker from the fireplace and started beating at everything she could see including Mason Thacker. It took all three of them to wrestle her down and slap some sense into her, but that wasn’t before she’d broke every piece of china on the table.
The Englishman needed stitches, but Doc Perkins had to sew them. That man sure wasn’t going to get any doctoring from his wife.
They should’ve taken Nora to the nervous hospital right then and there, but by the time that got talked about, it was too late. The next day the boys came over to check on Mason Thacker, they found him swatting flies off bandages. It was hotter than the devil’s stewpot and hardly any air was moving. Nora, who had been sitting there reading out of one of her books, stood up all of a sudden and mumbled something about the Somme.
Just when Hal said, “Some what?” she grabbed a can of kerosene and ran out the front door.
It wasn’t too many days afterwards that Mason Thacker had the boys pack up his things. He said he had enough of our bug-infested misery.
“To hell with Virginia and to hell with all of you!” he said.
Papa declared that it was good riddance being as how that Englishman wouldn’t hardly work and how things had turned out as sorry as they was. He reckoned Mason Thacker was a big part to blame.
Billy stopped by the day before that man was to head home and found him out back throwing stuff into the well. He tossed just about anything you could name, picture albums, pieces of china, Nora’s dresses, her books, shoes and hats. Everything but the andirons almost. Billy asked him, “What’s the big idea?” The Englishman said he was being just like the people in the Bible—shaking the dust off his feet before moving on. Well, it was more than just dust, if you ask me.
Billy figured Mason Thacker’s shell shock was rearing its ugly head again, so he was pretty glad to help him get back to England where he belonged. Papa wasn’t speaking to the Englishman any more, so Billy was elected to drive the sedan even though he could barely see over the steering wheel. On the way to the train station, he had Billy stop by the church and pay his respects. The Englishman hobbled out and made his way over to Nora’s grave, not yet growed over even though it was already summer. Then he slipped something white out of his pocket and left it at the grave.
At the depot, the two of them shook hands and said good bye. Mason Thacker had only one trunk and a box with the andirons to take back to his real home in England. They was pretty heavy to carry around, but he took them just the same.
When Billy was heading back home, he stopped for a look see at what Mason Thacker had left in the churchyard. It turned out to be an envelope with the photograph of a pecan-colored baby on one of those embroidered pillows like Nora had. Billy would’ve kept that picture, but it’s bad luck to keep anything off of a grave.
Now by that time, Jubal had gone off to Lord knows where. It was like one day you saw him and the next day you didn’t.
Mama was carrying me around saying I was her “bright spot” after Nora’s “conflagration.” Of course all I know of her is what folks told and what I see in pictures. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt more than cheated that I never knowed Nora, like there is this whole other story that everybody else remembered but me. I’d like to ask Nora what it was that drove her to such distraction, whether it was the poems or the fortuneteller, or whether she shouldn’t have signed up for that Army nurse job in the first place. It caused more heartache than Job had boils.
But I reckon if Nora hadn’t come back from the war and gone into doctoring with Jubal, I wouldn’t have been born. Mama never came out and said it, but Billy did. He said I was the child of darkness that gypsy woman was talking about. He said it was because I was pecan-colored that Nora went and set herself on fire.
When I heard that, I said he was lying. “I’m Mama’s,” I told him.
Billy said he knowed better. He said when I was a baby, he saw Mason Thacker carry me up to the big house after dark one night, wrapped up in a bloody white towel, bawling my fool head off. He said it wasn’t long after that he was down by the barns passing in sight of the back porch and saw those two men scuffling, and when a man like that crazy Englishman gets mad, they get awful strong.
“He threw one of them andirons and knock that colored boy in the head,” he said, “It was more than junk that Mason Thacker threw away. You want to know where your real daddy is, you just look down that well.”
Nobody lived in that cabin or used that well afterwards, but it didn’t mean the Englishman killt anybody. I told Billy that he’d been drinking corn liquor, as crazy as he was sounding.
All I know for a true fact is that Nora was handsome in her own way, with hair the color of dried tobacco. I think of it ever summer, around pulling time. And I think of those stories that have been told to me, and I see the colored out there working their fool hearts out for whatever they get. I can listen to them for the longest time. They swat flies off their do-rags like bandages on their heads, ever last one of them, going on in their mournful rhymes like they’re part of a past that won’t forget nothing.
But if you watch them close, you’ll see they keep away from Nora’s cabin and that dusty old road that leads up to it. They ain’t going to drink no water from that well, no matter how thirsty they get.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
While visiting with friends several years ago, I discovered an old parasol with a tarnished silver handle lying about their back porch. “Monti” was engraved on the handle. I was told that the umbrella belonged to a well-to-do cousin who had served as a nurse in Europe during World War I. While there she married a British military officer who accompanied her home to North Carolina.
The marriage was doomed. Both were haunted by the war and suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. Monti committed suicide by burning herself to death in front of her home. Grief-stricken, her husband returned to Britain.
The story was so tragic and so graphic—and so much embedded in history—I couldn’t resist trying my hand at writing it. Many of the scenes came directly from the narrative about the real nurse—Nora dousing herself in kerosene, Mason Thacker speaking to imaginary troops, and throwing belongings down the well.
I created the subplot of Nora’s younger brothers and of Jubal and the baby, who winds up narrating the story.
ABOUT TAMRA WILSON
Tamra Wilson’s work has appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies. Her story collection, Dining with Robert Redford & Other Stories, released in 2011, includes 19 pieces previously published in North Carolina Literary Review, The MacGuffin, Epiphany and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Stonecoast and lives in Catawba County, NC, where she is part of the Road Scholars speakers’ bureau with the North Carolina Humanities Council.
“Nora” won first place in the ByLine New Talent Short Story Contest, 2000; was a winner in the N.C. Blumenthal Writing Competition, North Carolina Writers Network 2002, and took an honorable mention in the Sheila Smith Short Story Prize, San Francisco Bay Area Branch-American Pen Women, 2003.