If you looked close enough, you could tell he wasn’t sleeping. This was something else. The sheet was rumpled and sweat-soaked from his thrashing in delirium. Sometimes he’d be burning up, and struggling to tear the covers away from himself. At other times he would shiver and moan, no matter how many quilts I put on the bed. All without waking up. No matter how often I wiped his forehead with a damp rag, beads of sweat still glistened on his brow, and when I spoke to him, he never seemed to hear. He would not come back from oblivion.
He’s not even forty yet. That thought rose unbidden to my mind, and that’s when deep inside me I knew the truth that I would not admit or even think about. No matter how well I tended him or how much I cared, he was going to die. Soon.
I reckon things might have been different if we hadn’t moved to town. Times were hard for everybody these days. Mr. Hoover’s Depression had stretched on into President Roosevelt’s term with no end in sight, but the fate of the stock market did not matter to the likes of us, just as long as there were jobs nearby for Albert. But all the jobs were in town, which meant a whole new set of problems. At least if you lived out in the country, you might not have any ready money or store-bought goods, but nobody ever went cold or hungry. You could always be sure there would be logs for the woodstove and food to put on the table at suppertime. Country people could hunt the fields and forest for squirrels and rabbits, same as the red hawk did. A family could eat good on rabbit stew thickened with flour, cooked with carrots, taters, and onions from the garden. It cost little enough to keep a flock of chickens if you had land enough for them to forage on, which saved the cost of feed. Chickens would give you eggs and a good Sunday dinner every now and then. Looking back on it, I can see that the country was the best place to ride out hard times.
Back then, though, moving to town seemed like the right thing to do. Albert’s cousin Willis worked in the machine shop of the railroad. When he came up the mountain for that summer’s dinner on the ground at the church cemetery, Albert asked him about jobs in town. The graveyard picnic was held to honor our dead kinfolk, but Albert said people ought to think about helping out the living, too. Willis saw the sense in that; he told Albert that if we were willing to move to town, he could get him hired on at the rail yard. After they talked it over, Albert asked me what I thought about it.
To me a regular paycheck sounded like an answer to prayer.
Ready money meant that we could buy food that didn’t grow on the farm—oranges, coffee beans, and sugar. Money meant shoes for the boys when they outgrew their old ones, and maybe a store-bought dress for myself every once in a while, or at least a home-stitched one made with cloth that hadn’t once been a flour sack. In town we might even manage to eat something for dinner besides stewed chicken or rabbit. I thought that if we could afford to eat pot roast once a week, maybe Albert could put on some weight, instead of having his ribs poking out, looking like a half-starved hound. With a little more meat on his bones, I hoped he wouldn’t catch so many of those head colds that made him cough and wheeze all the way through every winter.
The town school would be better for the boys, too; no more one-room schoolhouse, where the teacher’s attention had to be split up eight different ways and there weren’t enough books to go around. People said that town schools had blackboards and books aplenty, and, best of all, they split the pupils up into different grades, so that they shared a class with schoolmates their own age, and there was one teacher for every single one of those classrooms. Eddie was bright, and, just like me, he loved to read, even if it was just those old dime novels about the Wild West. Georgie was still too little to read on his own, but he’d sit and listen as long as anybody cared to read to him from a storybook. I hoped that better schooling would help the boys go further in life than their daddy ever had. Albert could read and cipher well enough, but he wasn’t what you would call educated. Never had the chance, coming from where we did.
Not that Albert was a bad man—he wasn’t. He worked long and hard, even when he was sick as a dog, with never a word of complaint, never drinking his paycheck away, or making wagers with it. Everybody saw him as rock-steady, but he was nearing middle age now, and it was plain that no matter how hard he worked he wouldn’t ever earn much more than it took to pay the bills and put food on the table. If it was the Lord’s will, I wanted a better life than that for Eddie and George, and maybe a town school would make the difference.
I told Albert: “They could be anything; if they get good schooling and work as hard as you do, there’s no telling what they could do in life.”
We went back and forth about it for most of the week, talking in hoarse whispers in the bed so as not to be overheard through the wall. Finally Albert sighed and said, “All right, Ellendor. If you’re dead set on it, why, we’ll go.”
Every time he moaned, I’d open my eyes and jerk back awake.
Although I tried not to, every now and then I’d catch myself dozing off in the chair. Ever since he took sick, Albert had been in our bed alone, and for all that time I had sat in that chair and watched him every minute I wasn’t tending to the boys. I didn’t want him to wake up and find me gone, or be in need of something and have to do without. I kept on telling myself that he would wake up—any hour now, I thought, and then it became any day.
But he didn’t.
If there had been someone I could ask to come in and sit a spell with Albert while I got something to eat or to sleep a little in the boys’ room, it would have been a blessing. But I was on my own. Even Eddie was too young to watch over his daddy. I couldn’t bear to think of our boy keeping watch there alone, in case Albert should die while his son looked on. There might have been ladies I knew from church who would have sat with Albert so that I could rest, but I didn’t feel like I knew any of them well enough to go asking favors. They weren’t family. Cousin Willis was the only family we had in town, but he had no wife to be counted on, and besides, he had his job at the railroad yard taking up most of his time. Men are no use in a sickroom anyhow.
I must have slept sometime, but I can’t remember doing it. I had worn the same clothes for days, not that it mattered compared to everything else. I kept thinking that surely Albert’s fever would break soon, and once the crisis had passed, I could go and tend to myself. For days I waited for him to begin to recover on his own, but instead he seemed to sink deeper into himself, shutting out food and water, light and sound. Shutting out the world, like he was getting ready to let go.
I tried to pray every now and then, but it didn’t give me any comfort. I kept asking the Lord to let my husband wake up and come back to me, but gradually I began to realize that if God had answered my prayer, then His answer had been no.
The time came when I was more afraid than hopeful. The practical side of me—the one that took me through hog killing and childbearing and doing without—told me that I ought to be thinking about a future without Albert, but I felt some kind of superstitious dread that if I started making plans for a life without him—if I so much as thought such a thing—then my acceptance of his fate would cause him to die. I know it was whistling in the dark to believe that if I didn’t plan ahead he would have to recover, but it gave me a feeling of control when in fact there wasn’t any. Things just happened, and nothing I could do would change what was meant to be.
Finally, it felt like our little rented house had shrunk to just this one small room.
We knew that living in town meant we would have to pay rent, of course, but we were resigned to that. At least Albert and I had the sense to make the trip down the mountain to town to look things over before we went forward with our plans to move—no use wishing for something if you can’t make it so. Albert said it wasn’t as if we’d be cast alone among strangers. Cousin Willis had promised to look after us, at least at first.
True to his word, Willis took Albert to work with him down at the railroad yard and managed to convince the shop foreman to hire him on. Albert was good with machinery. All the men in the Robbins family were—always tinkering with a broken clock or a misfiring gun. It just came naturally to them. I think they’d rather take a machine apart than to use it.
When we knew he would have a job with the railroad, Willis took us down to see one of the deacons from church and explained about his country kinfolk who were fixing to move to town and needed a helping hand. We just stood there like geese and let him do all the talking. Well, we were new in town then.
That church deacon said he thought there was more to religion than just praying, because the Lord told us to love one another, so he took it upon himself to help us find a place we could afford, which wasn’t much. He claimed he knew everybody in town, and that if there was a house to be had, he would find it for us. When we made our minds up to rent one of the houses the deacon showed us, Albert said that the fellow’s kindness made us beholden to him, so he reckoned that settled the question of where we would go to church. Country people pay what they owe—be it money or favors or meanness. Sugar for sugar; salt for salt.
It seemed like I sat there at the bedside for months instead of days. Sometimes I read the Bible, not so much for comfort as to forget all the other things I’d rather not worry about. I didn’t know how Albert had caught this illness, and that made me afraid that the rest of us would get it too. Georgie was too little to survive such a sickness; maybe Eddie was too. Back when I was still in school, during the Great War that was, an epidemic of influenza hit the big cities and the army camps across the country, and it wasn’t the old folks or the babies who mostly died. It was the soldiers, and strong, healthy people in their prime—like Albert was now. I worried, too, that I might be taken, but only because if I fell ill, there would be no one to look after the boys. It was for their sakes that I made myself eat when I fixed food for them, for I had no appetite and scarcely tasted anything that passed my lips.
We were lucky, I suppose, for Albert was the only one of us who took sick. I didn’t feel fortunate, though, for I knew that whether the rest of us got sick or not, there were hard times ahead. Dying would be easier than what was to come. Quicker, anyhow.
When word got around that Albert and I were going away to live in town, the folks at our little mountain church prayed for us as if we were headed off to Abyssinia instead of just down the mountain and a few miles across the valley to a no-account whistle-stop railroad town.
The town had sprung up at the turn of the century in that narrow river valley around the railroad shops. We had no money to buy land or lumber to build a place of our own, so, with the kind help of that church deacon, we resolved to take what we could get. I was hoping that we would find a house with indoor plumbing—I had heard about places in town having the privy and a bathtub right inside, in a little room of their own, with piped-in water that didn’t have to be boiled. But houses with marvels such as that belonged to the bankers and doctors and the foremen of the railroad shops—not to ordinary folk like us.
After looking at half a dozen places, some hardly more than shacks, the deacon took us to an across-the-tracks place that wasn’t grand enough for any fancy plumbing, but that was why we could afford it in the first place. Instead of running water, the little house had a hand pump in the yard, which at least was better than an open well. There was a tin bath in a corner of the kitchen, but we had to fill it up with water that we heated on the stove. It took so much water to fill it that by the time we managed to heat enough water—a gallon at a time on the woodstove—the bath wasn’t more than lukewarm.
A ways from the house on the woods side of the backyard sat an unpainted wooden outhouse. “Four rooms and a path,” Albert called it, trying to tease me out of my disappointment. I hadn’t uttered a word of complaint, but I guess he could see it on my face.
We had seen the houses that were available, and most of them were beyond our means, so we settled on that four-room frame house a few yards from the railroad tracks. The place was small and in need of a coat of paint, but the kitchen had a cook stove, an old icebox, a pie safe, and an unvarnished pine table, which meant fewer things for us to buy. Above the dry sink, a little square of window overlooked the woods beyond the yard. What I liked best of all was that the kitchen was separate from the parlor. Next to it was a short hallway leading to two bedrooms opposite each other. We gave Eddie and George one of the rooms to share, and we took the bigger one across the hall. After all those years of being cooped up on the farm with the in-laws, I could scarcely imagine any more privacy than that.
We were happy to finally have some privacy, even after all the years that we’d been man and wife. It was better than having a kitchen all to myself.
Another disappointment for me, besides the lack of plumbing, was the fact that the house wasn’t wired up for power, either, but the deacon said, “That means there won’t be no electric bills to pay,” and Albert happily agreed with him, as if that was good news. But he wasn’t the one who had to worry about keeping food cold so that it didn’t spoil and poison us, and he wouldn’t be lying awake nights worrying that a kerosene lantern would get knocked over and cause a fire.
Well, there hadn’t been electricity or indoor plumbing at the farm up the mountain, either, so I hadn’t lost anything, but I figured if Albert and Willis were handy enough to work in a machine shop, then between the two of them they could rig up some wiring for that little house. I didn’t nag him about it—not too much—but he must have known how bad I wanted it, because two months after we moved in, Albert and Willis had the house fitted with electricity so that we could dispense with the kerosene lamps. I wanted a refrigerator, too, instead of an icebox, but I knew it would take a long time to save up for that.
The best thing about leaving the family farm was that we wouldn’t have to live with Henry and his wife anymore, bumping elbows with Elva when the two of us were fixing dinner, and then Albert and me trying to keep the bed from creaking in the night. That alone was worth the move to town, and Lord knows the move hadn’t been too much trouble. We had lived with Albert’s family for the whole of our wedded lives, so there had never been any call for us to buy furniture or dishes. What little we had to take with us fit in the bed of cousin Willis’s old Ford truck, with room to spare.
Albert had started off the New Year with a hacking cough that kept both of us awake nights. By mid-February the cough had turned to wheezing, and his skin was hot to the touch. He was ailing for most of a week before he finally took to his bed and surrendered himself to the fever. He had not left it since.
Albert was never what you’d call hardy. Being thin as an arrow, like all the Robbins men, made him look taller than he was, and he had a narrow, bony face that made you think that if he wasn’t sick, then he wasn’t getting enough to eat. But that wasn’t so. Albert could put away food like he had a furnace in his stomach—seconds on everything; four biscuits at one sitting; and all the chicken that was left after the boys and I had eaten our fill. Albert could go through twice as much food as I could eat, but he never seemed to keep it on his bones. No matter how much he ate he never put on any weight. I used to tell him that I could gain weight just watching him eat. Not that I was all that heavy either, being little and wiry, but I reckon that if I had tried to keep up with Albert, I would have swelled up like a toad inside of a month.
I always thought he would get heavier as he got older. People generally do. Running to fat is a bad thing to happen to most men and to all women, but in Albert’s case, I figured the extra weight might come as a godsend as he got older. His sandy hair had flecks of gray, but they didn’t show much. Being so thin made him look younger.
Sometimes he would moan in a fever dream, and I would try to talk to him. When I ran out of things to say, I’d sing, “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide . . .” It was Albert’s favorite tune. I know that the words of that old hymn were meant to be spoken to the Lord, but when I sang it then, I was really pleading with Albert himself. Abide with me.
He seemed to turn toward me, just ever so slightly when I sang, but his eyes stayed shut, and I never did know if he heard me or not. Every now and then he’d gabble a few sounds that might have been words, but I couldn’t make sense of them. Maybe they weren’t words at all, but just the sound of his fever. Finally, when he had gone two days without eating anything, I tried to wake him. When I could not make him wake up to drink, I held a moistened rag to his lips so that he would get the water, but he just lay there moaning softly, his eyes shut tight as a new kitten’s. Every time I held that cloth to his mouth, I thought about the Crucifixion, when someone held a sponge up to Jesus so that he could get a bit of moisture. Sometimes it’s all you can do.
That was the only time I ever wondered if we had been right to leave the farm.
Hour after hour I just sat by the bedside, waiting, while Albert slept on. At first I was waiting for him to wake up, and then I was waiting for his condition to change one way or the other, and finally I was just waiting, because when I stopped waiting, time would start again, and I’d have to go on with the rest of my life.
Every now and again Eddie would remind me, mostly for Georgie’s sake, that they needed meals cooked for them. I’d leave the sickroom long enough to boil some potatoes, fry slices of bacon, and round off the meal with whatever we had left in the larder. No one had been to the store in a week. We mostly ate in silence. I was exhausted and I think Eddie was afraid to ask me any questions about his dad. I was afraid that if I tried to explain it to him, I’d commence to crying and never stop.
At mealtimes, if I remembered, I would eat a bite or two myself, before I went back to the chair by the bedside. The only times I’d know that I had slept were when I would jerk awake in the chair and see that outside the window the light had changed or the moon was down. It was better to look out the window than to catch sight of my reflection in the mirror—catching even a glimpse of myself made me cringe: broom-straw hair; hollow, staring eyes; a pinched face; and lips pale as a fish belly. Sometimes I caught myself hoping that Albert wouldn’t wake suddenly and find me looking haggard and old. I knew he’d be too sick to care how I looked, but I still minded.
The front yard of our rented house faced a dirt road, but it was big enough to have a patch of grass and flower beds, and on one side of the house a high blackthorn hedge kept us from having to look at the ramshackle house next to ours. The other side of the house faced the woods, and that view was more to our liking.
Our backyard faced the railroad tracks, but at least it was big enough to have fifty yards of bedraggled grass and a place to put up a clothesline. That spring I laid out a flower bed next to the blackthorn hedge.
When we first moved in, we discovered that the house was so close to the railroad tracks that whenever a train went past, the windowpanes rattled and the whole house shook like a leaf in the wind. The shrill scream of the locomotive whistle cut right through your bones. The only thing I ever heard as chilling as that was the sound of the cougars—we called them painters—up on the ridge. Maybe people could get used to such things, even learn to sleep through the shuddering roar of the night train, but none of us adjusted to it quickly. Georgie would wake up screaming. A whole year passed before the rumble of a train became an ordinary night sound, disturbing no one anymore.
I figured I could plant a vegetable garden in the backyard so that we could save money on groceries. I wasn’t sure about keeping chickens—not with the railroad tracks so near. If I turned them out to forage, they’d either get run over by the train, or stolen by the tramps who wandered from place to place with nothing to their names except their independence. We could have put up a chicken wire fence, but the kind of flimsy fence we could afford wouldn’t do much to keep the hoboes out or the chickens in.
Albert loved the woods, even that scraggly patch of weed trees near us that didn’t amount to more than a couple of acres. I thought that maybe he wouldn’t mind living in town so much if he lived near some woods and didn’t have to feel crowded in by other houses. We moved because he needed a job to support us, but I didn’t really know if he liked being a town dweller or not. He never said. We never did talk much about feelings or wherefores; mostly it was just “What’s for supper?” or “Do you have anything that needs sewn while I’m doing the mending?”
I guess it really didn’t matter whether Albert liked it here or not, though, because we were doing what we had to, but even if that had not been the case, I had no intention of going back up the mountain and living on sufferance from Henry and Elva. We would manage in town on our own.
After I had spent three days tending him, scarcely leaving the room except to see to Eddie and George, Albert stopped thrashing and his breathing changed. That’s when I truly became afraid and gave up trying to care for him on my own. Digging two quarters out of my change purse in the dresser drawer, I called for Eddie and told him to fetch the doctor.
“Eddie, your daddy’s took bad,” I said, as if he didn’t know that already. “You go and fetch the doctor, and if he’s busy, you stay with him until he can come with you, so you can show him the way.”
“And so he won’t go tending to somebody else first,” said Eddie.
“That too. Give him the quarters. Tell him it’s all we got.”
We had some jars of blackberry jam left over from summer, and I thought I’d give the doctor one of those along with the quarters. People pay what they can these days, and I reckon by now the doctor is used to taking his fee in vegetables or fresh-killed chickens. He was raised in these parts, so maybe he took these things so that his patients wouldn’t feel beholden to him or feel shamed by charity. Most people’s pride walled them away from anybody except family, and when illness struck, they tended their own. Fetching a doctor was the last resort. If a family felt ashamed to be in the doctor’s debt, they’d not be sending for him again.
After Eddie set off, I stayed there by the bedside, wondering how long we could make do with just the food we had in the house. Albert hadn’t got his paycheck on account of his being sick, and we had no money now to buy more. I’d had to choose, and I chose the doctor. That’s what people do in town: when someone took sick, they sent for doctors. Well, poultices and herbal home remedies first, same as up home, but finally, doctors.
A passing freight train thundered past, shaking the house, its shrill whistle cutting through the silence. It shook me awake, for during my weary vigil I had nodded off in the chair. Albert did not stir. He still laid there, eyes shut tight, dead to the world, sleeping but yet not sleeping. He sank all the way into the mire of illness before I ever realized how serious it was, and before I knew that things were coming to an end. Back when Albert was still awake, when I had no inkling of what was to come, I did not try to talk to him about anything other than how he felt and whether he wanted to eat or sleep. Later on I wished I had thought to ask him bigger questions, but that would have meant admitting to myself and to him that he was not coming back. As bad as I needed to know things, I could not have done that. Taken away his hope of surviving—I could not have done that.
Anyway, I hadn’t believed it myself. I kept thinking, But he can’t be dying. He’s not old.
But by the end, I knew that if, by the grace of God, Albert did return to life long enough to speak even a few words, I would ask him about everything. By then I’d had many waking hours to sit by the bedside in silence and dwell on the big questions, knowing that the answers to questions would have to last me the rest of my life. I needed to ask him about money, about the boys, about a future without him, whether he wanted me to stay here or go back up the mountain. So many questions, but they all boiled down to a single one: What must I do?
There had always been things we had to worry about—mostly money—but now all those day-to-day cares seemed meaningless compared to this last great sorrow that swallowed up all the rest. All I could think was: What must I do?
Prayers the Devil Answers
The year is 1936 and society provides no safety net for newly widowed Ellie Robbins, a woman in a small mountain town who suddenly has to support her family on her own. She’s not trained to be a teacher or a nurse, the only respectable careers for a woman. So in order to care for her children, Ellie takes the only job available: that of her late husband, the sheriff.
Ellie has long proven that she can handle herself, and her role as sheriff is largely symbolic. Yet the wariness of her male subordinates and the townspeople is palpable. Soon, as dark secrets come to light, Ellie is forced to grapple with the tenuous ties she shares with a convicted killer and the small-town superstitions that have plagued her for years.
When a condemned killer is sentenced to death for his crime, her opportunity to do so presents itself in a way she never expected. There’s one task that only a sheriff can carry out: the execution of a convicted prisoner.
Atmospheric and suspenseful, Prayers the Devil Answers is rich with the same masterful attention to historical detail and captivating folklore that you cherished in McCrumb’s renowned Ballad novels. Her luscious writing brings her unforgettable characters to life with the “pure poetry” (The New York Times Book Review) that defines her astounding novels. Prayers the Devil Answers is a mesmerizing depiction of one woman’s tenacity and strength in even the most harrowing of circumstances.