Although I could pick some apples, I was still pretty useless on the farm. I could pick the above-ground vegetables in the kitchen garden, but I could do nothing with the root vegetables. Josiah, on the other hand, could dig up those by feel.
One day as he and Ma were in the garden and I was sitting in my customary spot on the porch, the question Josiah had asked several days before came back again to me. “Are ya gonna let a little kid beat ya?” That stuck in my craw. I was still afraid of failing if I tried to write, and I had always prided myself on my penmanship. Maybe I wasn’t great at arithmetic or spelling but my penmanship was always the best in the school. However, I was competitive enough that I didn’t want Eddie to be able to do something I couldn’t. What should I do?
Finally I went into the house and got some paper and a pencil and a book. Sitting at the kitchen table I tried to write the letter “a.” Pitiful! But I tried again and then again and then again until I finally got a letter I could at least recognize. I started practicing the way Eddie had, focusing on the first four letters of the alphabet. I continued to practice until I heard Ma and Josiah coming towards the house. Hastily hiding my papers in the book and the pencil in my pocket, I sat there pretending to read. Of course I knew Josiah wouldn’t see what I was doing, but I wasn’t at all ready to have Ma talk about it.
After lunch the others went back to their work and I returned to my writing. I have no idea how long I worked, but I suddenly heard the door open and in came Pa. He looked at the papers and the pencil and the book and asked what I was doing. Well, I couldn’t lie to him could I? I don’t think I ever had. So I told him. He came over and looked at my latest a…b…c…d and grunted. “Not bad,” was all he said.
“Please don’t tell the others,” I begged. “I’m not ready for them t’ know. I wouldn’t have showed you if ya hadn’t surprised me.”
“Won’t say a word,” he assured me and then went into the downstairs bedroom to change his overalls.
At supper that night, Josiah asked me, “So what were ya up to all day?”
Now, I could lie to him. It wasn’t like lying to Pa or Ma, so I looked steadily at Pa and said, “Well, most of the time I was readin’.”
“Robin Hood,” I said.
“What’s it about?”
Fortunately, I had read it before so I could answer his question. Ma looked at me a little oddly and Pa could scarcely hide his smile, but I got away with it.
Josiah and Pa often discussed the war news, which I definitely didn’t want to hear. I had lost all interest in the war, and every time they talked about a battle it upset me. One thing I did hear, however, was that Lincoln intended to free all the slaves in the Confederate states on January first. That really upset Josiah, who again made the dire predictions about what would happen.
After the kitchen garden harvest was done there was not a lot left to do on the farm except plant the winter wheat. Pa said we were late planting this year but if the weather held we might get by with it. Then he asked Josiah if he could help him.
“How would I help?”
“Well, I thought mebbe ya could hold the plow and Elias could tell ya how t’ go.”
“OK,” Josiah said, “I could certainly give it a try.”
The next morning dawned cool, crisp, and sunny, a beautiful day to be outside. The three of us went out to the barn and Pa hitched up the horses to the plow and drove them to the field, where he said it was time for Josiah to take over. Josiah draped the reins around his neck, took hold of the plow, and said, “Giddap.” The horses began to move forward, but not quite straight.
“A little t’ the left,” I said, and Josiah pulled on the left rein just a bit and on we went, with me walking right beside him. It was slow, but we did pretty well. Pa followed along behind spreading seed.
That evening at supper, Josiah said, “I’ve been thinkin’. Ya know, I’m pretty useless on our farm because I caint see. But Elias and I together could be like one man; he could be my eyes and I could be his arm.”
Ma and Pa thought that was a wonderful idea. I wasn’t sure just how it would work in the long run, but if we tried it then at least I wouldn’t be totally useless.
The next morning Josiah and I went out to the henhouse. He held the bucket and I plucked the eggs from under the hens. After we took the eggs in to Ma, we went to milk the cows. Josiah knew how to do that once I got him into the right position. Then we worked together on brushing down the horses and slopping the pigs, and before long, the morning chores were done.
When we sat at breakfast, I brought up what I thought was a crucial question. “Josiah, don’t yer folks need ya on yer own farm?”
“Not really,” Josiah replied. “Ya know I said I was pretty useless on the farm, and aside from doin’ a few chores, I couldn’t do much. Eddie and Tad have grown to the point where I’m not even needed on the farm anymore.”
“D’ya think yer parents might let ya move here more or less permanently?” Ma asked.
“They might if I told them about the plowin’ and all.” So it was agreed that he would ask them.
When we finished breakfast, Josiah and I went out on the porch for our morning smoke. We sat for a time in companionable silence before I suggested, “Ya could also tell your parents you’ve been helpin’ me recover from the war.”
“Yeah, ya have. I’m certainly not all better. Ya know I still have the nightmares, although once in a while there’s a night when I don’t. You’ve gotten me talking again and you’ve gotten me involved in the farm again. And,” I paused dramatically, “You’ve also gotten me doin’ somethin’ else.” I got the book of Robin Hood, and pulled out the papers I’d been working on. Although Josiah couldn’t see them I handed them to him.
“I’ve been practicin’ writin’,” I said.
“When did ya do that?”
“When you and Ma were out in the kitchen garden. Pa caught me one day but I swore him t’ secrecy.”
Josiah laughed and asked, “How far have ya gotten?”
“Only half the alphabet, but now that I won’t be doin’ it in secret any more I can make more progress.” Sure enough, in two more weeks I had finished the alphabet. Of course, I still needed a lot of practice to get really good, but it was a start, and I had overcome my fear of failing.
When all the farming except for the daily chores was finished, Josiah and I took a walk over to his home to ask his parents if he could move permanently to our house. He explained to them how he had helped on our farm and how he had helped me come out of my funk. At first they were inclined to say no. After all, they loved him and wanted him with them. But as we all talked about it, and as Josh and I promised he would return often, they decided that perhaps it was a good idea, his ma saying to me, “I’m so glad that Josh’s been able t’ help ya. I think he’s been rather at sixes and sevens here sometimes so if he’s found a way he can help people, then that’s a good thing.”
Josiah and I packed up the clothes he would need for the winter, said goodbye to Eddie, Tad, and their parents, and walked back to my house. On the way we stopped for a while at the pond. The trees had been turning color and the grass was now golden. It was a beautiful sight. I tried to describe it to Josiah, but he said, “Since I’ve no idea of the colors yer talkin’ about, I caint really appreciate the description, but I do love the smells of autumn, the way the leaves and the grass smell. I’m glad ya can enjoy the colors as well. And don’t feel badly for me; I’m very happy right now.”
So was I, at least at times. Memories of the battle continued to flash back at me from time to time. One day I heard a hunter shooting in the woods and the fear and trembles returned. Josiah just hugged me until I calmed down again.
That night as we got into bed, Josiah said, “Elias, I caint stand it any longer. Ya hardly ever let me even touch ya. Please, will ya just let me do that?”
After a moment I replied that it was fine for him to touch me, but I just wasn’t ready for kissing and sex yet. I never had any idea why that was. I think part of it was my self-consciousness about my stump. How could I stroke him and love him with that awful thing? But I think something else was holding me back. I cared about him, I really did, but I had seen how quickly life could be cut short and I found it hard to commit to real love again.
As we lay in the dark, me on my back and he on his side, he reached his arm over and just began stroking my chest and stomach. He didn’t get anywhere near my crotch so after a time I began to relax and enjoy the feelings. At some point I fell asleep and slept the night through.
In the morning the two of us raced out to the outhouse as we usually did and pissed, letting our streams cross, then raced back into the house and up the stairs to get dressed.
Since the harvest was over and I had returned safely home, my parents and Josiah’s decided to have a joint feast of thanksgiving. Ma spent days cooking, and I’m sure Josiah’s ma did as well. The Parkers’ kitchen was larger than ours, so the morning of the feast we hooked up the horses to the wagon and drove to their farm. It being late November, it was a cold day and a cold ride, but we were greeted very warmly by all Josiah’s family. Ma and Mrs. Parker brought out all the food and set it on the long trestle table. Pa said a sweet blessing, thanking God for my safe return, for good friends, and for the food we were about to eat. We sat with the parents towards one end of the table and the boys at the other. It was a lively, delicious meal and we all ate until we could eat no more. Eddie and Tad finished first and asked to be excused. They got up and ran about the yard letting off their energy while the rest of us simply sat and talked.
Before we left, I called Eddie over to me. Pulling a paper out of my pocket I held it up for him and Tad to see. There was my alphabet. Perhaps not as good as I could have done with my right hand, but pretty good nonetheless, and I was proud of it.
Eddie gasped, saying, “That’s better than I can do with my left hand, not t’ mention my right.”
“I made this for you,” I said, “t’ thank ya for showin’ me the way back t’ writin’.”
“Thanks!” he said. “I’ll keep it always.” With that he ran into the house to find a place where he could keep it safe. Then Josiah, Ma, Pa and I got into the wagon for the homeward journey.
And so winter came. One day I was excited to get a letter from Billy, who told me little except that he was OK and in winter quarters. I immediately wrote back. I have no idea if he ever got my letter, for I never heard from him again. Did he survive the war? Was he killed? I’ll never know.
By Christmas we had some snow on the ground. Pa told me I had to go with him to pick out the tree, while Josiah proved remarkably adept at stringing berries and popcorn, of course, eating half of them as he went.
As usual, unbeknownst to us, Ma had been busy and had made a new shirt for each of us. Pa gave me a new pen and ink.
After church on Christmas morning we exchanged gifts with the Parkers. I had had no idea what to give Josiah for a present so I had been relieved when he didn’t give me anything.
But back at the house he said, “I need t’ talk t’ ya.” We went up to our room, as it was “ours” now rather than “mine”. He reached under his clothes in the drawer and pulled out a beautiful, leather-bound journal. “Now,” he said, “I’m givin’ this t’ ya for a reason. I know ya kept a journal up ’til the time of the battle, and I know that ya still have it as well as some older ones. What ya need t’ do now is write about the battle and bein’ in the hospital and comin’ home.”
“Josiah, yer very kind,” I stammered, “but there’s no way I can do that. It would put me into a funk all over again.”
“Mebbe for a time,” he replied, “but I think it’s what ya need t’ do t’ really recover. Oh, I don’t mean the memories ’ll ever go away, but I think the best way ya can deal with them is t’ write about them. Yer a writer, Elias, and ya need t’ do this.”
“I…I caint,” I blurted, getting angry. Why did he have to spoil a wonderful Christmas with this? I knew I could never do what he was asking.
“Yes yya can, and I’m gonna help ya.”
“How can you? Ya weren’t even there.”
“You’ll see. Just accept the journal for today and we’ll find a way t’ help you.”
“It’s a beautiful journal, but I caint accept it ’cause I’ve nothin’ for ya.”
“I know you’ve nothin’, but I don’t want anythin’. What I want is for ya t’ use the journal. That’ll be present enough for me.”
I shrugged my shoulders, which of course he couldn’t see, and, with a quiet thank you I put the journal on the dresser.
That night he rubbed my chest once more for a few minutes. Finally I said, “I don’t have a present for ya, Josiah, but at least I can do that for ya.” I turned and rubbed his chest. It was wonderfully warm and I could feel his breathing and his heart beating. How comforting it was to touch him again.
We fell asleep that way, with my left arm around him and his right arm around me.