The Valley of the Shadow
It takes a lot to scare an old woman like Essie Owens, a woman who had lived through two wars, watched crops dry up and die in the field and lost her milk cow to sickness while she still had babies to feed. Her husband Woodrow was gone now and she was alone. Folks at his service asked if she would be moving to town, leaving the old farm that the two had worked together for as long as anyone could remember.
“I’ve been hungry and cold she told them and now I am alone but I ain’t scared. Woodrow wouldn’t want me to leave. Besides, there ain’t nothing for me in town,” Town was where her children lived but they had lives of their own, which didn’t include looking after an old woman still able to look after herself. Oh, she was welcome to stay with any of them and they invited her and more than once. They knew she wouldn’t come. They knew she would die right there on the farm, just like their daddy whose grave they had dug beside their sister’s who died while still a baby and their brother killed during the war.
It takes a lot to scare an old woman like Essie, who was used to hearing the wind howl and the rain dance hard on the rusted tin roof of her little farm house. Strange sounds from the woods didn’t scare her and neither did glowing eyes that watched from the darkness at the edge of the yard.
“When you got the Lord in your heart, you don’t have to be afraid,” she would tell her grand children on nights they had stayed with her. They had a way of gathering near her when night fell and long shadows pushed them toward the dim light which slipped through the screen and pooled on the front porch. They hadn’t stayed with her in a while, not since the summer before, late August.
After Woodrow died in the spring her grandchildren had taken turns staying with her keep her company. But school ended that as summer turned to fall. Now that winter was becoming spring maybe they would come and stay again. She hoped so. The sound of pattering feet on the slick linoleum reminded her of those made by their parents when they were kids. She would close her eyes and remember. She would close her eyes and remember Woodrow too, young and handsome, strong, with eyes fierce and dark and hands that never tired from working. It was hard to think of him sleeping in the cold hard dirt behind the house when she woke alone in the soft darkness of the bed they had once shared and warmed by fire wood he had helped stack the winter before.
Her oldest son had done the cutting, bringing the big ax that had once been his father’s down and splitting the fire wood. Woodrow, eyes already dimming could only help, following his son’s directions and feeling around with his hands.
She had helped too, with the stacking, watching on as her husband, frustrated by blindness tried to work. It was a hard thing to do, for him and for her, but they managed.
“That should keep you warm for a while,” he told her after his son was gone and he recollected what big stacks of wood they had made for the cold just beginning to blow in skies of gray he could no longer see.
He always worried about her. Now he was gone. He had tried to live to her birthday, one final birthday to hold her hand and tell her he loved her and make apology for not having a better gift to give than the one he had bought and wrapped weeks before when he thought she wasn’t looking. He didn’t last, no one could have. Death had taken him. Over a year he had been gone. This would be her second birthday without him. She wondered how many more the Lord had for her, before she could go and sleep in the cold dirt out back of the house. Death did not scare her, not anymore, not like before.
“When you got the Lord you don’t have to be afraid,” she told herself as she searched the darkness of her room for a speck of light. There was none but what was made by the light of the moon which cast shadows about and made her close her eyes again, in fear. Her heart raced almost as fast as her mind as she lay listening to the silence being interrupted by the sound of something outside her opened window. Mingled with smell of spring and lilac was the sound of a knocking.
It was a sound she had forgotten having not heard it since Woodrow died. It was a ghostly sound which made her draw the quilt about her as she listened again for it to come. It did, the knocking, after a while, mingling itself with the night sounds and mournful cries of night birds.
“Woodrow is that you,” she thought daring not to ask out for fear of an answer.
Old and blind her late husband would slip out of bed and with his cane guide himself into the darkness which had grown familiar with over time. Many had been the night she had wakened to the sound of him tapping his way onto the porch, down the steps, and around the house. She had pretended to never hear him as he wandered about answering whatever call that had urged him from sleep. Knock, knock, knock, she would hear his cane against the edge of the house as if someone were at the door and asking to be answered. Whenever he would slip back into bed his feet still damp for night dew on the grass she would only draw closer to his back and wait for the sounds of him sleeping.
“Woodrow is that you?” she asked again in frightened silence and knowing the answer she feared.
“Yea, though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” she whispered but only loud enough for herself to hear, wondering what she should do.
“Face your fears,” had always been what Woodrow told her when things became tough and uncertain.
Daylight was hours away and by then what ever was calling outside her window would be long since gone and only sunshine would dance on the side of the house from where the knocking sound had began again. Daylight would come and she would wonder and wait for nightfall and bedtime and to be awakened again by her fears she told herself. With this she threw back her covers and crept from the bed. She would face her fears as Woodrow would want her even if her fears were seeing him ghostly white in his funeral clothes and dark glasses which kept his eyes safe from light. All the way across the moonlit bedroom she imagined him a hovering spirit calling her out with alabaster hands.
It takes a lot to scare and old woman like Essie Owens, but by the time she turned the ceramic knob of her front door and stepped barefoot on the cold boards of the front porch she was more scared than she had ever been in her life. Armed with only flashlight left behind by one of her grand children she pushed on through the darkness. Afraid, she hadn’t yet turned on the light and cast its beam to guide her.
His ghost was out there, Woodrow’s. He had come back for her birthday. Tomorrow she would be eighty one or eighty two. She wasn’t sure anymore.
Knock, knock, knock, she followed the sounds feet damp for the night dew which gathered on the grass creeping up her legs and reaching out for her nightgown, thinned by time.
“I will fear no evil,” she whispered once more before making her way around the corner of the house already laying aside the flashlight. She didn’t not want to see what was waiting her; not in full light. The milky glow of the moon would push back the blue and black shadows of night far enough. She didn’t need to see but she looked anyway, her knees almost buckling in fear. Eyes large and sad as frightened as hers looked met hers, the eyes of a cow.
Lonesome, lost and hungry the old cow had wandered up next to Essie’s house where the grass had begun to grow tall. Knock, knock, knock went the roughed horns of the cow against the weathered boards of the house.
Essie letting the old cow eat followed her flash light back across the yard and around the house and inside, thanking God all the way for giving her the courage to face her fears.
“If I hadn’t gone on out there,” she would tell her grandchildren, I would have always thought your grandpa’s ghost had come for me and ever night I would have gone to sleep wondering and fearing when he was coming back.”
She told them that story many times, praying in they would learn the lesson in it, the lesson about facing your fears, and the Lord watching over you. And she always ended the story by telling how she come back in the house and slept like a baby in a cradle.
The rest of the story she kept to herself, the part about finding the Bible she had read to Woodrow from, on her pillow, just laying there in the moonlight waiting for her and how she picked it up and read the 23rd Psalms, Woodrow’s favorite, before closing her eyes and remembering, and falling asleep to the sound of the old cow outside her bedroom window.
This is a work of fiction dedicated to my grandmothers and all grandmothers who in their own way teach us so many lessons.
-edward reed 2018