Irma Jean was not like other women. She had been a widow longer than some folks’ marriages. She was old and knotty from tending chores, yet she never relished the end of the work, which, in her part of the world, was heralded by a beautiful Kansas sunset. She had no need to stand and admire such things, because, aside from being old and strong, Irma Jean was also blind.
So, she kept working. While supper was simmering, she was outside weeding her garden. One of her gnarled hands was bare so she could feel the braille of her plants—the waxy beans, the plump tomatoes, the chives like a drunk’s stubble…
“And this sneaky devil,” she said.
Out came her other hand, a leather glove gripping a pair of shears. Snip.
“Mr. Dandelion,” she said to the culprit, “I’ll make a wish with you. May no more of your kin come round here.” She pursed her thin, leathery lips and blew the seeds off the stem. The soft white puffs flew over her sod house.
A breeze brought new aromas. Irma Jean sniffed the air, nodding her head in recognition, then shaking her head in disbelief. She dropped her shears in the dirt.
Tobacco, pomade…gunpowder too…lantern oil, ink, paper, and…
“Dried flowers,” she said.
Her heart thundered. Its rhythm matched the horse’s hooves she now heard on the horizon. Irma Jean turned to the sound of the rider barreling down the country road to meet her.
“My grandbaby has come back from the war!”
She broke into a run. The dooryard was as flat as a skillet, like all of central Kansas, so she had no fear of falling. Dust rose from her shoes. She skidded to a stop at a limestone rock that served as her fence post.
A man on a horse was there. He wore a uniform, though the clothing was unlike anything issued by the U.S. Armed Forces. No medals hung from his breast. No epaulets adorned his shoulders. He wore a black robe, a tailor-made shadow.
And instead of a rifle, he had a scythe.
“Major Rufus Medford!” Irma Jean exclaimed. “I’ll be dipped in spit and rolled in flour. France has made you into a man.”
Cackling, she smacked the hindquarters of the horse, which, like its rider, was black and menacing. The horse reared back, snorting in surprise.
Irma Jean grimaced. “Your stallion roll in something rotten? Nevermind, nevermind. I’m just riled up with you being here after all this time. You must be famished! Come to the house, supper’s cooking.”
With eerie grace, honed from years of being blind but not letting it hinder her living, Irma Jean grabbed in midair the reins the man had dropped. She still wore her one gardening glove, and it was with that hand she pulled the black horse along.
“You were never one for words Rufie, but Lord have mercy, the army’s done plucked the tongue from your skull. Can’t imagine what you saw over there. Hell on earth, more’n likely. You’ll loosen up with some food in you.”
The man’s hood was askew, and he straightened it back over his white skull with a petulant tug. He reached back for his scythe.
“I’m so proud of you, Rufie,” She sniffed the air, except this time it wasn’t to smell but to sniffle. “You were awfully strong to do what you did. Fearless. Your letters helped me know you were safe. You were going to be okay so long as you had my sunflower angel.”
She pulled the horse to the hitching post and threw the reins over the nearest peg. The black leather strap immediately began scorching the wood like a cattle brand. The wind blew the smoke towards the porch. Irma Jean jumped at the smell.
“The dinner! I left it on the stove too long. Come on in, Rufie, you know the way. Make yourself at home.” The old woman hightailed it into the cabin. A great clanging of pots and pans filled the air.
The man got off his horse and stood before the porch. Somehow he was even taller standing on his own than he was in the saddle. Though the day was dwindling and the shadows were long, he didn’t cast one himself. He regarded the open doorway, and the strange woman, weighing his options and hers. Always weighing.
The horse whinnied. Coming from its mouth, the sound was low and guttural and could’ve been mistaken for an angry dog, perhaps one with three heads that guarded the gates to the underworld.
The man looked behind him and saw what all the growling was about. Nearly half of the hitching post had caught fire. Casting out his hand, he snuffed out the fire in an instant. With his horse satisfied, the man climbed the porch steps.
He had been called many things by many people in the many years he had practiced his profession. Being late for dinner wasn’t one of them.
In the kitchen, Irma Jean stirred a large cast iron pot on the stove, sniffing after every turn of the ladle. “No, no, no,” she muttered, before hopping to the spice cabinet and grabbing a small glass jar. She rubbed the label with her thumb, feeling the writing. She popped the top and wafted the smell to her nose.
“Hello, thyme, there you are.”
She sprinkled some in the pot and stirred. Then she tended the fire in the potbelly stove before waltzing into the pantry for tin bowls and cups. What age had taken from her, habit compensated with speed and assurance. The cabin was her world, and she could name every creak in its floorboards.
“Rufie, no need to stand. Sitting at the table ain’t gonna kill you.”
The man was indeed standing in the corner watching with fascination. He grabbed a seat, and a moment later she placed a tin bowl before him. In it was some sort of stew—a ham bone floated on the swamp water broth.
“I know it ain’t enough for a strapping man, but it’s what I got. A widow’s dinner if there ever was one. Had to lean the hot pot over to get every last drop! If you would’ve sent word, I’d have gotten the Kearney boy to fetch me some of his family’s chicken to roast. You remember George, don’t you? He was just a sprat when you left. He’s been my godsend these last few years. Gets my groceries and reads my letters. He hasn’t been coming around as often, since his mama’s been ill…”
The man didn’t need to be told. He already knew about George Kearney’s mother. He would be paying her a visit soon enough.
“…but that’s neither here nor there, Rufie. I got you right now.”
Irma Jean leaned towards him. She wanted a hug, maybe even a kiss. The moment had arrived. All he needed to do to complete his work was touch her. The touch of his fingers on a mortal’s skin brought about their demise—a terrible disease, an unfortunate accident, cold-blooded murder. Normally, he had to seek out his marked victims and initiate the danse macabre. But as he watched Irma coming in to embrace him, he was feeling gracious about his usual proceedings. She could do herself the honor of finishing her final act on Earth.
He felt her hands squeeze both of his shoulders. He waited for the old woman to slump to the kitchen floor, to watch the light sputter out of her blank eyes.
“My oh my, Rufie,” she said. “Did the army feed you in France? You’re nothing but bones!”
The man glanced from one shoulder to the other. Instead of Irma Jean’s old hands, he saw potholders. On his right were the stars and stripes of the American flag; on his left was a crocheted rooster. She hadn’t taken them off since handling the soup pot.
The man reached out to grab her face, to finish the job, but Irma Jean stepped back at the same time. His hands grabbed air.
“Coffee! I forgot all about the dang coffee.”
Next to the pot on the stove, the percolator was gurgling. Irma Jean grabbed the handle with her star-spangled mitt and poured two cups. The smell of coffee filled the kitchen. She took a deep breath and set a cup in front of the man, who was stunned by this turn of events.
“Rufie, I know the war changed you. You don’t have to say nothing about it. When your granddaddy died in the first one, my heart broke. Wasn’t The Great War supposed to be the war to end all wars? Here I thought Clarence had died in honor of the last hurrah.”
She stiffened at what she said and how it sounded.
“Now don’t think I’m tarnishing his reputation. What I’m saying is that if he had to go, like so many others, the least the world could’ve done was stop fighting.”
The man said nothing. He didn’t want to correct her about such a naïve notion. War was as natural to people as the sweat on their brows and the blood in their veins. They had been fighting since they left the garden or crawled from the seas, whichever they wanted to believe. And they would keep fighting until the sun winked out and the Earth was swept away in fire.
The man should know. He had seen it happen many times.
In 1918, the man remembered finding Clarence Medford, Rufus’s grandfather, in a little French town. There the Americans had set up their first offense against the Germans. The rain that day was as relentless as the gunfire. The man walked through the trenches and watched the Americans stand their ground.
Clarence was one of those men. He had shot his last round before reaching down to grab more ammunition. The man’s cold, bony hand touched him instead. He jumped back, eyes wide.
What he saw in the trench with him was a strange man in a black uniform—a covert German spy, Clarence thought wildly. He grabbed for his gun, realized again it was empty. With his back turned to the melee, he was shot. He fell face first into watery sludge.
While guns fired and men shouted, the man went unnoticed. He bent over the corpse. Clarence’s pack was the only thing visible above the waterline. The man reached into the flap and pulled out the burlap sack he knew was there. He opened it up.
Inside was the head of a small sunflower. The petals were bright yellow in the gray, raining day. The man plucked off a few petals before returning the head. Then he slipped away.
He hadn’t yet visited the German side. It was going to be a busy day.
“War took your daddy too, even though William never wore a uniform. Your mama told you he died from a heart condition, didn’t she?” Irma Jean clucked her tongue. “I’ll give it to your mama for half-baking a lie, just like everything else she did, including leaving you for me to take care of. If anything, Rufie, your daddy died from a broken heart.
“The past was ever on William’s mind. He was a melancholy child after Clarence was killed in France, and he grew into a more melancholy man over the years. Marrying your mama didn’t help his sadness. They fought a lot, and it took a toll on him. In its own way their marriage was a war, and he was a soldier on the losing side.
“Whenever he was low, William came over so I could console him. He took to looking through an old trunk of Clarence’s possessions, the ones I kept to remember him by. Photographs mostly, and his old clothes from the war. I let William do it. Can’t a man visit with his father, or at least the things he left behind?
“But then one day, after he and your mama had a big fight, the fight to end all fights you could say, he ended up on my porch looking like something the cat dragged in. He spent a good long while with Clarence’s things in the back room. And he found something he wanted to take with him when he left.
The pain was palpable now on Irma Jean’s face.
“William rented himself a room at McHenry’s Inn. They still had attic rooms back then. He and your mama had one for their honeymoon. William remembered that. For such a special occasion, Mr. McHenry had wrapped those ceiling beams with wedding garland. He did not varnish the truth for me about what he had found in that very same room years later. Your daddy was in there, but what was tied tight around the beams wasn’t garland. It was a thick rope William had bought from the general store.
“Being the good Catholic man he was, Mr. McHenry only told me, your mama, the sheriff, and no one else. We told everyone else the tall tale your mama told you. Whether they believed it or not.” She paused with her head cocked to the side. “Eat your soup before it gets cold, Rufie.”
The man didn’t eat but merely clinked the ham bone with his spoon. He was enraptured by the old woman’s story. He had never been able to hear of his work from someone else’s perspective. It was plain and simple poetry coming from the old woman. But with her telling it, the man felt like he was seeing it for the first time.
The man remembered the attic room in McHenry’s in 1932. There were warm smells wafting up from the kitchen below, fried pork and potatoes. The sunlight was strong coming in through the east window. Though he never saw the wedding garlands, the man did note the well-made, deliberate knots of rope around the ceiling beam. Beneath the noose, a simple wooden chair had toppled over on the floor. William, Rufus’s father, had been standing on that chair a moment before. The man had given a final, gentle tug on William’s left hand, which was bare. William had obeyed and stepped off.
His shadow now swung in small arcs along the wall like the slowing pendulum of an unwound clock.
When the swinging stopped, the man reached into William’s front pocket, feeling past the wedding ring and the hand-scribbled note. He then tried the back pocket. There. The man pulled out a familiar bundle of burlap.
The sunflower had dried out from the rainy night in France years before. When the man leaned in close, though, he could still smell blood and wet earth. The sunflower’s head was missing roughly a quarter of its petals. He regarded what remained. The petals were the color of old newspaper and just as brittle, but they were still holding on. Why they did remained a mystery to the man.
He carefully plucked more off into his hand. He loves me, he loves me not.
“I made up my mind to tell you these heavy things when you came back,” Irma Jean said. “Not if, but when. I knew in my heart that you would come back. I never wanted to speak ill of your mama…but my god, Rufie, I raised you by my damn self after she left for Chicago with that jumped-up pig farmer with the butcher business on his mind. I still had my eyes when you was growing up, and half a mind to keep my mouth shut about all this until you were grown.”
She leaned across the table. Her hands were clasped as if in prayer. They bumped her bowl on the way over, spilling some broth. The man was taken aback by her lack of precision. She was so confident in her blindness before. But now? She was afraid. Finally afraid.
“Rufie, I am so sorry I never told you sooner,” she said. “The best I could do was give you the sunflower before you left. Your granddaddy Clarence had it in France, and it was the bit of Kansas that came back with him. Your daddy had it for a time, before things got too dark for William. And still the petals were yellow. The head of a sunflower is nothing but hundreds of little sunflowers waiting to scatter and bloom. If that isn’t hope, I don’t know what is.”
Tears were rolling down her cheeks. She was waiting to be touched, the man realized. She wanted her grandson’s hands to lay on top of hers. Words were a poor substitute for the comfort of an embrace. The man weighed his options. He was always weighing.
“I ain’t one for fancy words, Rufie. But no matter how bad things got for me, for us, I kept thinking about sunflowers. How they can stay yellow and bright in the worst storm. Love can do the same. You think I’m too old for such fairy tales, but I believe what I believe.”
She smiled and it was heartbreaking in its hopefulness. For all of his years, the man had never gotten used to such expressions on the faces of mortals. How could the same look of goodness survive generation after generation? Yet here it was again. Another impossible candle burning against the darkness. The man couldn’t help but be in reverence.
“And now you’ve finally come. My man on a horse.”
Blinking away her tears, Irma Jean gave a wry smile. “Do something to let me know I haven’t been talking to the damn horse the entire time.”
She let out a small gasp. Rufie had finally reached out to touch her. His hand was so cold. But, no, that wasn’t quite right. She realized the coldness was coming from inside her clasped hands. Slowly, she unlaced her fingers.
Resting on her open palms was the shriveled head of a sunflower. Only a quarter of the petals remained. Yellow petals still hanging on.
“My angel, Rufie. My sunflower angel.” Her fingers gently folded around it, feeling its edges. The flower rustled and crackled with her touch.
“I love you,” Irma Jean said. “All I ever hoped for was to see you again.”
Her weary sobs of happiness warmed the room. The old woman bowed her head so her nose almost touched the table as she laughed and cried and did everything in between.
The man rose from the table with the well-worn handle of his scythe in hand.
George Kearney knew it wasn’t a smart idea to go out this late. His father had said just as much while George was tying up his shoes on the porch. A fool’s errand halfway is a fool’s errand all the way, Georgie.
But his father hadn’t made any move to stop him. He had kept sitting in his chair, his eyes large and glassy. George’s mother was still coughing blood even after the visit from the doctor. Outside of tending to his wife, George’s father wasn’t paying attention to much of anything, including his own son. People dealt with grief in all sorts of ways.
George’s way was getting out of the house. He wanted to check on old lady Medford. The boy felt bad for not visiting in the past week. He had brought more groceries to her than usual on his last visit, and only briefly mentioned his mother’s sickness. He had left before he started crying in front of her. Missus Medford’s husband and son had died, and her grandson was fighting in the Second World War. Why would George want to add to her misery by weeping about his sick ma?
It was three miles between his house and the Medford property. George jogged most of the way. Dusk was settling over the prairie, stars prickling the sky.
Since he wasn’t carrying groceries, he was moving at a good pace. The only thing he held was a small stack of letters tied with twine. It was the Medford’s mail from the post office in town. George had noticed that one was pretty official-looking: a clean, white envelope with a gold seal. He knew the insignia of the U.S. Army anywhere. George wanted to be a soldier, just like Rufus, to serve his country one day. By candlelight, he would read every single word of Missus Medford’s mail, starting with that Army letter. Anything to stay useful and keep his mind off of his own mother was a good thing.
He passed the limestone post and was halfway across the dooryard when he saw the black horse. It was hard to see it tied to the hitch post in the growing dusk. As George got closer, the horse snorted and startled him. The gray steam coming from the horse’s nostrils reminded George of smoke shooting from a locomotive.
The squeal of the screen door opening made George jump again. The kitchen window was glowing, but the porch was dark. He squinted at the shape coming towards him.
“Missus Medford?” he said.
“Can’t say that I am.”
Where there were shadows before, the boy now saw a pale face, narrow as a sickle, on top of a very tall body. The man wore a dark coat that ended halfway down his shins. In his hand swung a black leather bag with wooden handles.
“Oh, hello, doctor. I mean, sir,” George said. “I didn’t see it was you.”
“It’s all right, son. Not many people do.”
It was a good thing it was dark: George’s face flushed. The boy took the words as a sharp joke. When the doctor had visited George’s mother last week, he said he had come in from Beloit to be of assistance while Doc Caldwell was getting over his own sickness.
This new temporary doctor was a tall man and hard to mistake for anyone else. Yet George plum forgot what he looked like after he had left. Forgot his name too. Only now, seeing him again, did George remember he had met him at all.
“Is Missus Medford under the weather?”
The man slipped his doctor’s bag into a pannier hanging off the side of his horse. “She has had a long day,” he said, which didn’t answer the question at all. He swung into the saddle. “A long and eventful day.”
The boy backed away as the man steered the horse towards the boy. Clomp-clomp, clomp-clomp. George had trouble bringing his voice out from the back of his throat. Something told him he needed to steer clear of that horse.
“Are you going to have to check on her again?”
“Soon,” the man said. “But soon isn’t on the face of a watch, now is it?” He waited for George to laugh, but when the boy didn’t, the man continued. “I’ll come when the time is right. You should go in and check on her. She’s been having strange dreams, but I gave her something for them. She’s been resting for a while now. When she’s woken up, read her those letters you got. There is bound to be some interesting news.”
As the man passed by, George got the nerve to speak up. “You may need to come to my house soon, sir. My ma ain’t so well.” He was ashamed at the tears stinging his eyes.
Despite the horse’s protest, the man pulled back on the reins. He was a busy man, but he was in a light mood. All of that humanity, he supposed. He reached inside his coat.
“Boil these in a kettle for your mother,” he said. “They’ll make a nice, strong tea to keep her spirits up before I come back around this way.”
George Kearney held out his hands to catch the brittle petals falling from the doctor’s fingers. They were bright yellow against the gloom. The boy imagined them as sparks off the burning bush Moses saw in the Bible. They were only sunflower petals after all, the most common thing in Kansas besides cattle and thunderstorms. But the boy still couldn’t shake the feeling of awesome importance with these particular petals. He’d be sure to make his mother tea when he got home.
“Thank you, sir, thank you,” George said all in one breath. “Where are you off to now?”
“I have to make visits all over the county,” the man said. “My work is never done. Best get going.” With a flick of the reins, he went riding off into the darkened prairie.
George Kearney watched him go. He slipped the sunflower petals in his pocket for safekeeping. For the first time in a while, the boy felt the pall lift from his thoughts. He turned to the warm yellow light of Missus Medford’s window and walked up the steps.
George felt that if the old lady was alive and well after all she had been through, then his mother would get better. He needed to have faith that such things could happen—and did happen— in the world. He smiled at such a comforting thought. He would tell Missus Medford about it when she woke up. Holding the bundle of letters to his chest, he knocked on the front door and waited to deliver some good news.