Elizabeth Martin sat up and blinked in the pitchy darkness. What had disturbed her dreamless slumber? With pounding heart, she shoved back the warm layers of quilts and reached for the woolen shawl at the foot of her bed. Wrapping it snugly around her flannel nightgown, she pushed her feet into her sheepskin slippers and tiptoed down the hall to peek into the children’s bedroom. Quietly listening, she waited until their even breathing assured her they were both still sleeping peacefully.
She crept down the stairs, treading lightly on the creaking steps until she finally stood motionless in the front room. Holding her breath, she listened intently to the sounds of the night. But other than the ticking of the mantel clock and the whistling of the winter wind outside, the farmhouse remained silent. Even old Flax, faithful friend and watchdog, appeared unconcerned as he snoozed blissfully on the braided rug in front of the glowing coals of the fire.
Stooping down, she set a couple more logs on top of the last remnant of red embers. She hoped they would catch and burn until morning. Blowing onto the hot cinders, she watched as flames flickered to life and then licked up the birch’s papery bark. Without even moving, Flax opened an amber eye, peering up at her with canine interest.
“Sorry to disturb you,” she whispered as she stroked a silky golden ear. “You didn’t hear anything, did you?”
His tail thumped contentedly in answer. Just the same, she gazed up at the long shotgun mounted above the mantel, wondering if she should take it down…just in case. But standing, she slowly shook her head. No, there was probably no need for that. She was confident that it was loaded and that she was fully capable of firing it—and wouldn’t hesitate to if necessary. Less than two weeks ago, she’d shot at a small pack of coyotes that had threatened to invade the chicken coop. But she suspected that tonight’s intruders were simply products of her own imagination. Otherwise Flax would have barked. Or Brady would have tapped quietly on her door. Despite his sixty-some years, his hearing was as sharp as ever. The freed slave was her dependable hired hand. She didn’t know what she’d do without him.
Just to be sure, she went over to the front window and, barely moving the lace curtain back, peered out into the farmyard. Thanks to a bright half-moon and the freshly fallen snow from earlier in the evening, she could see that all was a picture of perfect peace out there. No sign whatsoever of intruders. No farm animals stirring. She didn’t even spy any tracks of wild critters in the blanket of new snow. Brady’s little cabin looked equally undisturbed and somewhat picturesque with a thin layer of snow coating its shake roof. All was obviously well, and she knew she would be wise to return to her own bed while it still retained a margin of warmth.
But she was fully awake, and despite being worn out from a long day of holiday baking as well as her usual farm and household chores, she knew that sleep would not come easily to her now. It never did at times like this. Besides that, returning to her empty bed was always much more unsettling in the middle of the night than when she retired at her usual bedtime, not long after she’d tucked the children into their beds and listened to their prayers. At first it had seemed strange to turn in with the chickens and the children, but over time she’d convinced herself these early bedtimes conserved kerosene and candles and firewood, especially during winter, when the nights were so long. Oh, she knew the real reason for her juvenile bedtime…even if she couldn’t admit it to anyone else. It was a clear-cut case of plain old loneliness.
More than three years had passed since she’d lost James. In the beginning, everyone had promised her it would get easier with time. Sometimes her mother still reminded her of this. And in the bright and shining light of day, Elizabeth believed her. It had gotten a tiny bit easier over the years. But at times like this, awakened in the middle of the night and experiencing her solitude, the rules changed.
Elizabeth’s usual loneliness turned into a deep black pool in the night. Pulling her down, holding her under, it sometimes made simply breathing a struggle. Alone in the darkness, her grief felt as fresh and intense as if it she’d only just lost him. And she knew the ache in her heart would never heal. How could it? But eventually morning would come. She would go through her daily paces, and sometimes she would even laugh and smile, moving forward one day at a time. But nights were difficult.
She sat down in the rocker by the fireplace, and staring blankly at the flickering flames, she began to pray. It was her usual prayer, painfully familiar to her, and she hoped God didn’t grow weary of her pleading. She always began by asking God to help her to bear her grief with grace and with strength. Then she asked him to make her wise enough to parent Jamie and Ruth with dignity and mercy. Finally she asked God to grant her peace—that lovely perfect peace that surpassed understanding. And for the most part God had generously given it to her, at least in the daytime.
Recently, however, even in the light of day, that particular sense of peace seemed to be lacking. She couldn’t quite put her finger on where it had gone or when it had started to fade, but she felt certain that something had changed. Or perhaps it was simply a result of winter. The cold and ice and snow had come earlier than usual this year. Certainly, that could make anyone uneasy. At least that was what she had tried to convince herself.
But when she was being perfectly honest, like on a night such as this, she had to admit that something was definitely amiss. In all truthfulness, these stirrings had begun early in the fall. Her unsettling sense of discontentment, as if something—and not just her beloved departed husband—was missing from her life. Deep down inside of her, similar to a festering splinter or a stone bruise, something was disturbing her.
“You’re just ready for a new relationship,” her mother had happily told Elizabeth after she’d confided this sense of restlessness several weeks ago.
“A new relationship?” Elizabeth had been confused.
“It’s only natural that a young woman such as yourself should want a good man by her side.” Then, as was her habit, Elizabeth’s practical mother had begun to list the eligible bachelors and recent widowers within a twenty mile radius. This was followed by all the recent gossip tidbits her mother had overheard in town that week. And finally, her mother had ended by declaring that Howard Lynch was the perfect man for Elizabeth. “You know how he lost his wife and little girl to cholera too. Gladys Barton told me that he’s been very lonely of late.”
“That’s not what’s troubling me,” Elizabeth had declared. “I’m not looking for a man, Mother. It’s something much bigger than that. A restless sort of stirring deep inside of me. I can’t even describe it properly.”
Of course, that had worried her mother. She’d even felt Elizabeth’s forehead, thinking she might have a fever. “But remember, you have Jamie and Ruth,” she had said with concern. “Those youngins depend on you. Even if you’re discontent in some way, you do have your children to keep you going. Don’t forget them.”
As if Elizabeth could ever forget them. “I love Jamie and Ruth more than I love my own life,” Elizabeth had reassured her. “You know that, Mother.”
Smiling in a knowing way, her mother had gently patted her hand. “It is simply a season, my dear. All women suffer from these afflictions at times. Don’t fret, this too will pass.”
But as Elizabeth stared into the fire tonight, she wasn’t convinced this would pass. Something inside of her knew this was more than just a female problem or a seasonal stirring. And certainly not a desire to remarry. It was much bigger than those things. Elizabeth was fairly certain that this longing was related to an old dream that she and James had nurtured early in their marriage. Back when the children were small, she and James would sit right here in the evenings. Relaxing in their chairs that flanked this very fireplace, together they would discuss this dream as they planned for a future that was exciting and adventurous and challenging.
It had been a very big dream, but when James was alive, it had seemed realistic and possible. However, cholera changed everything in 1853. The dream had died when Elizabeth had buried her husband and stillborn baby.
But in recent weeks, this old longing had been trying to return. It had been sneaking into her dreams, whispering into her ear, and waking her in the middle of the night—as it did tonight. But the dream was unsettling now. It felt too big for her. Too big for her children. And for the most part she wished it would go knock on someone else’s door. And yet…there was a small part of her that was still intrigued by this dream. Probably because of the way it made her feel connected to James.
Sometimes, she almost felt as if James was the one waking her in the middle of the night. That he was sitting with her by the fire, filling her mind with these strange ideas in the wee hours of the morning. She could never admit this to anyone—certainly not her mother—but sometimes she almost felt as if she were being haunted by her dearly departed husband. No, “haunted” was the wrong word because she never felt frightened. It was more as if he were sending her messages.
Even now she could imagine him sitting in his chair across from her, smoking his pipe, smiling with confidence as he encouraged her to pursue the old dream. She sensed him assuring her that this was the right path for her and the children. And sometimes, in the quiet of the night, she almost believed it too.
But common sense always came with the morning, and in the light of day she always realized how impractical, impossible, and slightly insane it was to entertain such wild imaginings. So for days, she would dismiss this crazy dream altogether. And other than that fleeting sense of discontent, which came and went, she would move smoothly through her life. But then a night like tonight would sneak up on her. And suddenly the dream seemed like a real possibility, and a part of her felt as if she almost wanted it to come true.
But another part of her, that protective maternal part, was hesitant and careful and slightly afraid. After all, her children were dependent on her. Common sense must prevail. And so as she watched the flames flickering and crackling, she once again asked God to direct her, to help her to lead her children on the path that was best for all of them. And if somehow this dream was truly best for them, if it was the direction God wanted them to take, he would have to show her the way and lead her. Otherwise, she would simply stay put.