A longer version of the scene where Anna tells Jack about her brother, her parents’ deaths, and her memories of the war. This will be a spoiler if you haven’t read the novel yet, so proceed with caution.
They got ready for bed. There was a breeze from the windows, and a mosquito that circled busily, looking for a meal.
“We need screens like Amelie’s,” Anna said. She sat on the edge of the bed inside the cocoon of the mosquito netting, braiding her hair.
“I’m starting to thing this cousin of yours is a creature of your imagination. Or at least her window screens are.”
“Maybe we can see her next week sometime?”
Stripped to the skin, he walked to the window and looked out onto the street. After a moment he pulled the curtains closed, leaving the window open for the breeze. The light fabric came to life, puffing up, fluttering, and falling again. He came back to bed, slipped under the covers and studied her face for a full minute.
“Can you sleep?”
“I’m going to try.”
But twenty minutes later they were still both awake. He was waiting, and she rewarded him for that.
“I have to tell you about Paul, I think.”
He brushed a curl away from her temple. “If you want to tell the story, I’m listening.”
She started at the beginning.
“Both my parents died the summer I turned three, my mother in late July and my father a month later to the day. Three is very young, but I have a few hazy memories.
“My mother was the youngest in her family by quite a lot but she was the first of her generation to die, and family came from everywhere to say goodbye. Even my grandfather Savard came from New Orleans though he was very feeble. She trained with him, you realize, and she was a great favorite of his. A month later when my father died – his only son – but by then he was too sick to make the trip again.
“When my mother died it was Paul I wanted. I wanted Paul more than anyone. I don’t think he left my side for more than five minutes at a time. When I woke up he was there, and when I wanted to see ma’s grave he took me. Our father was – I don’t know where he was. Working, I think. He kept going out on calls. They were both doctors, you know that. People get sick and have babies, and he was better dealing with them than he was with me.”
“Little children have trouble sometimes separating thoughts from actions. I think that’s what happened in my case. I didn’t want Paul to leave after the funeral. I didn’t want him to go back to school. West Point seemed to me to be the other side of the world.
“It’s not as though he left me alone. I was anything but alone, there were aunts and uncles and cousins enough, and they were all eager to do what they could for me. But I wanted Paul to stay and I didn’t keep that to myself.
“That night before Paul was supposed to leave our father went out late on a call. On the way home the rig lost a wheel and flipped into a ravine.
“So I got what I wanted. Paul didn’t leave, he stayed for the funeral. I don’t remember the next days at all, but Aunt Quinlan and Aunt Martha have both told me that I was in a trance of some kind. I’ve thought about it for a long time, and I think I believed I had caused my father to die. That it was my fault, because I wanted Paul to stay. I realize that it doesn’t make rational sense, but children aren’t the most rational creatures.
“Then of course there was talk about what to do with me. I told them that I wanted to go to West Point with Paul, and I refused to listen to the reasons that wasn’t possible. In the end Aunt and Uncle Quinlan brought me home, here to Waverly Place. Because she wanted me, she said, but I know it was also because West Point is closer to the city, an easy trip by train. That meant I could see Paul more often, and that’s what she wanted for both of us.
“And that’s what happened.
“My earliest clear memories are of Paul coming to visit me. He’d bring me small things. A carved horse, a peppermint stick. He read to me and taught me to read, he said so that I could read the letters he wrote to me. I took that very seriously, another thing Rosa and I have in common. What she did with the draft of the letter I wrote to the Mullens, I can imagine having done that myself.
“At four I could read the simple letters he wrote, and at five I could write one, of the simplest kind. Dear Brother, Today a cat got into the garden and chased the chickens and Mr. Lee was very put out with that cat but we had pie for supper. Very laborious sentences.
“And that’s how it went on. I had Aunt and Uncle Quinlan and Mr. and Mrs. Lee and Cap, by that time, as a playmate. When Paul came over a weekend we sometimes went to a matinee or a museum, but mostly we just went for walks. I didn’t want anything else.
“And then the war.”
Jack fought the urge to stop her. He knew what was coming, and he wanted to spare her, and himself. But it would be a disservice, and so he drew her closer, settled her against his side and listened. Even so part of his mind went away, back to that first summer of the war when he had been twelve years old to Anna’s six. Isolated as the Mezzanottes had been on the farm at Greenwood, they were a household of boys who had lived for news of war. Every day one of them would find an excuse to get to town and bring home a paper.
Anna told him about the day her brother showed up unexpectedly with an announcement: he was on his way to report to General Scott at Army headquarters in Washington, where he would be given an assignment and a rank, most likely second lieutenant.
Jack knew enough military men to imagine all this clearly. Paul Savard was a product of West Point, but more than that, he had been raised in an abolitionist household, brought up in the simple certainty that slavery was an abomination that had to be banished, once and for all, and if it meant blood shed. Of course he looked forward to the war, and of course Anna hadn’t understood any of it.
She was saying “I don’t remember any of the details, of course. It just flowed over me, the whole discussion. Paul was very even tempered, even serious. I asked when he’d come home, how long he’d be away, and he wouldn’t answer me. I understood that he would be shooting guns, but it didn’t occur to me that anybody would be shooting at him. Not at Paul. Until that day he left for Washington, it hadn’t occurred to me.
“When he left to get his train I turned my back and wouldn’t say goodbye. I cried for hours. I don’t think I stopped crying until his first letter came a few days later. I remember thinking, as long as he writes to me I know he’s alive.”
“His second letter came the same day as the telegram that said he had been wounded at Manassas.
“I think Margaret told you that Uncle Quinlan had been a regimental surgeon in the Mexican war and he still had friends and connections, so he went down to the telegraph office to see what he could find out. He was gone all day. By three I was finished with waiting, and I packed a little bag and took my savings and set out for the train. I thought if I could get to the hospital in Virginia and remind him of his promise, he wouldn’t dare die. Uncle Quinlan intercepted me before I got very far, and carried me back home though I wailed and struggled.
“Aunt Quinlan finally made me settled down so I could listen to what news Uncle Quinlan had brought. Now I realize that it was very bad news, but then all I heard was that he was leaving right away to find Paul and bringing him home. That seemed to me the right thing to do. In a half hour he was gone.”
She pressed her lips together until they were bloodless. Jack waited, and finally realized that she was hoping for his help.
“I’m thinking that your uncle didn’t get to Paul in time.”
“No,” Anna said. “He never got to him at all. There was tremendous confusion in the aftermath at Bull Run. They were so poorly prepared. The ambulance service didn’t have what they needed, and the wounded who got transported at all could end up anywhere. They moved Paul but nobody was sure where they moved him to. But Uncle Quinlan didn’t know how to give up on a thing once he started.
“I wish you could have known him. He was very strong for his age, really very fit, he could work for hours in the garden or in an operating room, and his mind was so sharp, nothing seemed to ever even slow him down. But even for him, it was too much.
“What happened next is unclear. We never were able to find out the details, but uncle fell ill with typhoid fever before he ever found Paul, and twenty four hours after that, he was dead.”
Jack pushed out a long breath.
“He died that same night Uncle Quinlan got to the camp of a wound to the abdomen. I wish he hadn’t been alone when he died, but even uncle Quinlan couldn’t have saved him with that particular kind of wound. Instead we lost both of them.”
She disentangled herself from Jack’s embrace and went to her dresser. From the top drawer she took a box, and from the box a small bag of green velvet.
The photo she slipped from the bag was set in a simple silver frame. A young man in the uniform of a West Point cadet. His hair and eyes were like Anna’s, and there was a similar stubborn set to the jaw. But mostly he looked young, unformed; a boy was waiting for his life to begin.
“It was taken a month before he died, at the academy. It’s a very good likeness, though I wish he were smiling. When I let myself think of him at all, I think of him smiling.”
She climbed back onto the bed to lean against Jack, the portrait held between them.
“I remember the details very clearly, what they both looked like in their caskets, and who came to call and what things they said. I remember being glad that they were being buried next to each other. After that I was quiet for days.”
“What broke your silence?”
There was the flicker of a smile, the vaguest hint of a dimple. “Sophie’s mother wrote a condolence letter, and Sophie added a paragraph for me. The mails were terrible, but we started to correspond. I wrote to her about Paul and uncle Quinlan. All the things I felt I couldn’t say out loud, I wrote to her. And then I took the next step, though I didn’t see it that way at the time. I started showing the letters to Cap, and a three way conversation was underway.
“By the end of the war she had lost everything, and so Aunt Quinlan sent for her. All three of our families were torn apart by the war, but then Sophie came from New Orleans, and Cap was here. The three of us together, we held each other up.”
She pressed her face to his shoulder and shuddered. They stayed like that for a good while, with Paul’s portrait between them.