Saturday, May 9, 2009

Chapter Nineteen - The Brother

Billy Compton stood on short, sturdy legs as he comtemplated the red-faced, squirming intruder lying in the oak cradle.  He slowly removed his finger from his mouth, and standing on his tip-toes, he slowly reached out a chubby hand and with one finger, he gently poked the blanket covering up what everyone said was his new brother.  Suddenly, he felt a presence behind him.  His tiny nose picked up her scent before he even turned around.  "Billy, what are you doing in here?  Have you come to see your new brother, Robert?",  Billy heard her ask.  He turned his head around and gazing up with round-eyed longing, he reached his little arms up, imploring her to take him.  "No, mother cannot pick you up just yet.  Maybe in a few weeks".  Billy felt his little face begin to whimper up with frustration and yearning, but then he stopped himself.  Turning back around, he looked over at the sleeping form of what everyone had been calling his brother.  Brother.  He wondered just what that meant.

Mother sat down in the beautiful oak rocking chair and reached out her arms to him.  With a satisfied smile, he ran into her arms and with her help, he climbed into the one place he loved to be more than anywhere else.  He reached up to encircle her neck with his tiny little arms, anxious to breathe in her scent.  He knew she smelled differently from anyone else in his world.  He recognized that it came from the large, shiny glass bottle that sat atop her dressing table.  He had, at times, watched as she removed the stopper from the top and with delicate fingertips, dabbed it on herself.  As he sat there comforted in her soft lap, she began to talk to him and tell him what it meant to be a big brother and how it was his duty to protect and help take care of little Robert.  She also told Billy how his new brother came to have the name Robert Loudermilk Compton.  He sat there listening intently, secretly wishing with all his might that he, and only he, could be the one she held in her lap while gently being rocked to sleep.

The months began to pass and soon the year was nearing it's end.  Although little Billy Compton was not quite sure what Christmas Day was all about, he knew it was something more special than all the other days of the year. Billy remembered nothing from his first two Christmas's, but this year he felt the anticipation and excitement on the face of  everyone he knew  .For weeks all the women of the house had been baking and making preparations for all the visitors that Christmas Day would bring.  Sometimes the wonderful smells coming from the cookhouse would make him beg pitifully for one of the candied treats cooling on the shelf.  Occassionally, Delilah, the only house slave the Compton's owned, would hand him a small tidbit, with her finger to her mouth to warn him to silence.   Then, he awakened early one morning to the usual sound of his baby brother being suckled at his mother's breast as she gently rocked him and sang a song.  Hearing Billy move, she looked over at him with her blue eyes smiling and said "Merry Christmas, my little man.  You must dress quickly and we'll go down for breakfast.  And I think I heard Saint Nick late last night as he left you a surprise in your stocking".   Suddenly Billy remembered being lifted up by his father so that he might hang his little black stocking above the fireplace.  He didn't quite understand why he did this, but now he was quite anxious to see just what surprises were inside that stocking.

Oh my!  Little Billy Compton stood in wide-eyed wonderment as he saw what had taken place while he slept.  Green pine boughs had been put above the fireplace on the mantle and above the doorways.  Bunches of red berries from holly bushes had been tied together and placed in these pine boughs.   And there, hanging from the mantle was his stocking, with something round and hard in the toe.  Father picked him up as he reached out with his little hand and took it down.  He reached inside and pulled out something long and hard with red stripes all around it.  Father said it was a candy stick and it was for eating, but he must wait until he had eaten his breakfast.  And there , down in the bottom of the stocking, was the round thing, which father called an orange.  Billy had never seen such a thing and had no idea what it was, but if it tasted as good as it smelled, then he wanted to eat it right then and there.   And the most wonderful thing of all!  Sitting next to the fireplace was a large wooden box, tied up in white ribbons.  Quickly pulling the ribbons off and flinging off the lid, Billy saw something that made his blue eyes grow wide in wonderment.  A set of wooden blocks with all the letters of the alphabet were nestled inside.  And there, beside it, was a tiny little wagon, complete with wheels that really turned and a long rope for pulling.  Billy could not contain his joy and excitement!  Although he did not know it at the time, his father had spent many hours in the evenings after Billy went to sleep, lovingly and skillfully working on these things for his beloved child.  

As the time has a way of doing, it began to pass all too quickly.  Soon little Billy Compton was approaching his eighth birthday and there was another baby in the house.  His little sister Julia had been born a few years earlier.  Billy didn't really pay her too much attention.  Girls just weren't all that much fun when you thought about it.  They mostly just sat around and sewed or did other things that didn't look like much fun or anything he would even want to do.  But his brother!  They had so much fun together!  As his brother grew and Billy realized what it meant to have someone there to play with, to sleep in the bed with, to share all your fun with, they developed a wonderful bond of that sameness or oneness that only those who experience it can understand.  But sometimes he grew tired of his brother and would beg his parents to allow him to visit with his friend Tolliver Humphries.  Tolliver lived several miles north of the Compton place and he only got to see him once a month when church meeting took place.  After the church meeting was over, he and Tolliver would run and have such a grand time playing while the grown-ups visited and discussed much more important matters.  During those times, he grew tired of Robert always tagging along.  Robert was never as sturdy or strongly build as Billy, and he tired easily.  Billy just wanted him to go and stay with mother and leave them alone.  But it never worked out that way.  His father would give him that look that let him know that some things were not open for discussion and Billy had no hankering to feel the switch on his rear ever again.  Tolliver had a sister who was born at the same time Tolliver was.  Billy had heard someone call them twins.  And she was pretty.  He would find himself casting shy glances at her during church service when he was sure no one was watching.  Sometimes when his parents visited the Humphries' home, she would try to talk to him, but he always felt as if a huge lump was forming in his throat and he could not speak.  He hated himself when that happened.  

One summer afternoon, after his chores were done, father said that he and Robert might walk down the road and meet Tolliver at the small creek that ran behind the Humphries'  farm.  It was a wonderful place to spend a lazy afternoon fishing for small mudcats and bream.  And if the fishing wasn't too promising, there was always the anticipation of a swim in the cold, clear waters of the creek.  When Billy and Robert arrived, anxious to enjoy an afternoon of fun, he was both delighted and terrified to realize that Tolliver's sister Annabelle was there.  He tried to think of something clever to say, but he could not.  Everytime he looked at her and she looked back, he felt his hands grow cold and clammy, but at the same time it was as if there was a fire being lit in the pit of his stomach.  He did not understand what was happening to him.  And he could never, ever tell anyone about this feeling, especially Tolliver.  

Soon they grew weary of the fishing, and before long off came the hot woolen socks and leather boots.  As they sat upon the banks of the creek and talked of the coming school year, and how long before they could own their own gun and be allowed to participate in the fall hunting, along with other matters that were oh-so important to young boys, they paid no heed to Robert and Annabelle.  The cold water of the creek felt so wonderful on their hot feet and legs.  Suddenly, Billy remembered he was suppose to be watching out for Robert, and so he turned back to see where they were.  Then he heard a splash, then a terrible scream of fear.  "She's fallen in, she's gone!" he heard Robert scream.  He and Tolliver hopped up and quickly ran to where Robert was pointing and shouting.  They saw nothing, not even a faint outline of Annabelle.  Quickly, Billy and Tolliver dove into the cold waters of Brison's Creek, vainly searching for Annabelle.  Tolliver was in a panic.  He came up and dove back down, again and again.  Billy swam underneath the murcky water, desperately looking and reaching out for anything.  There was nothing there.  As he came up for air, he heard himself scream at Robert to run as fast as possible to the house and get Mr. Humphries.  Billy continued to dive down into the cloudy waters, vainly searching.  

Later that evening, as the sun began to set, a weary Billy Compton watched as the limp body of Annabelle Humphries was brought up to the creekbank.  As though he were a million miles away, he could hear the anguished screams of Tolliver's mother.  His own father stood there, his clothing dripping with creek water, as he solemly watched.  His eyes met Billy's.  Neither could say a thing.  He held out his hand and together they began the long walk back to the Compton farm.  Billy still could not believe all that had happened that afternoon.  It was as if it were a dream, a terrible terrible dream, that he wished desperately to awaken from.  As he approached the rear of the house, his mother met them there.  As he looked into her face, he knew it had been no dream.  He ran to her, needing more than ever to feel her loving arms embrace him and to tell him that it wasn't his fault.  But it was his fault.  He had failed.  

Later that night, Lydia Loudermilk Compton sat beside the restless body of her son.  It was his cries that had awakened her.  As she approached his bedside, she looked into his blue eyes, so much like hers, that were filled with grief and shame.  He could not stop sobbing as he held to her as she softly stoked his hair and murmured soft reassurances.  He just kept repeating, over and over, "Oh mother, I'm sorry, I tried so hard but I just could not save her, I just could not save her." 


Friday, May 1, 2009

Chapter Eighteen - The Beginning

April 9, 1835

"That's right honeychile, you doin' good now , jes you keep on pushin'. Dat baby gone soon be here to welcome in dis' new day! " With an exhausted and weary sigh, Lydia Loudermilk Compton lay back against the sweat soaked pillow, hoping for a brief respite from the hard, painful labor as Aunt Magnolia, the black midwife, wiped a cool cloth over her face. Her pains had begun in late afternoon the previous day. She was utterly exhausted. She didn't know how much more strength she had left. Suddenly, with a fierce urgency, she felt the overwhelming need to push with all that she had. She heard herself scream as she felt her lips curl back and something that came from a hidden place, that place that never makes it's presence known until everything else is gone, came rising up as she felt her child finally and mercifully slip from her exhausted body. She anxiously waited to hear a cry. There! Yes, she could hear the angry, but strong cries of her child. "Oh Miz Lydia, you done gone and got yoself a fine, strong boy chile. And jes' you look at all dis' black hair! I do declare, I ain't ever seed such a mess of hair in all my born days!' Aunt Magnolia quickly, yet skillfully, tied off and cut that most precious connection that would forever be a bond between mother and son. Lydia Compton reached out her arms, hungry for the sight and feel of her newborn son. She gazed down at his tiny face, anxious to meet this wonderful soul who had inhabited her dreams for months. For a moment he just lay there, then he sleeply opened his eyes, squinted against the brillance of the sunshine, and gazed back at her. She smiled. Oh yes, yes. His eyes were Loudermilk blue.

Little William Thomas Compton, named in honor of his father and both grandfathers, was a joy to behold in the eyes of his doting mother as he lay there in her arms, greedily suckling the warm, rich milk from her breast. She reached out to take a plump hand and pressed it to her lips. "Oh, he is growing so fast" , she thought. She called him her sweet little Billy boy, and he was indeed the light in her blue eyes and had such a hold of her heart that she lived in constant fear of his falling into sickness. He was a fat, happy little boy with a grin that could melt even the staunchest heart and who seldom cried. As the months passed and spring became summer, then fall, he grew into a chubby little toddler who would stand on unsteady legs as he gazed at his father from across the room. With a toothless grin and a small stream of glistening saliva dripping from his bottom lip, he would take one tiny step before collapsing on all fours. Then, with a gleeful squeal, he would quickly crawl into the arms of his beaming father. Many mornings, before the hard days work would begin and the weather was still warm and mild, his father would pick him up and together they would walk through the fields of the Compton farm. His father would talk to him and tell him of all the things that could grow in the earth, and how important it was to strive to be not only a good honest man, but to do your very best in whatever endeavor you pursued. The Compton family of Bon Temps were not wealthy people, but had a good name, and a reputation for being good, honest and hard working people who were generous in spirit and always there to lend a hand to those in need. Through hard work, thrift and wise business dealings, the Comptons had managed to build a nice, spacious home and amass a few hundred acres of rich, delta farm land that seemed made for growing cotton and all the food this young, growing family could need. The elder William Compton had no doubt his beautiful son would not only follow down this same path of integrity and honor, but also come to love this rich Louisiana soil as he did.

The first year passed so quickly and soon little Billy Compton reached his first birthday. This was not only a momentous milestone in the life of this sweet, much loved child, but a milestone in the fact that so many infants did not reach their first birthday. The summers in Louisiana were brutally hot. Tiny Bon Temps was located on the banks of a large lake, as were many other small towns. When the spring rains came to replenish the earth for spring planting, it also brought the dreaded threat of malaria. As these fragrant rains fell and fresh puddles of water quickly turned stagnant, millions of mosquitoes began to breed. Malaria was a constant threat during the warm months and there was no medicine that could save a poor soul once the fever set in. Infant deaths were especially high. Every morning as Lydia Compton cradled her hungry son against her breast, she gave up a prayer that God would keep him safe.

But life was about to change for little Billy Compton. Soon there would be a new baby in the family and although Billy did not know exactly what it was, he had already begun to notice the excitement and anticipation flowing throughout the house. Also, he noticed that his mother seemed different. No longer was he allowed to satisfy his need for sustanence at her breast.  Many mornings it was his father, not his mother, who came into his room to lift him from his cradle. He hated the warm corn mush and cow's milk offered to him each morning. When he finally saw his mother, he would hold out his arms to her and cry to be lifted onto her lap and be allowed to drink the sweet, rich milk he craved. "No, you're a big boy now. You're going to be a big brother very soon, and you must not act like such a baby.. You must learn to eat your breakfast so you can grow strong and take care of your new brother or sister." Billy would contemplate these words, not exactly understanding what they meant. But he somehow sensed that something was about to change. And he wasn't quite sure if he liked it.