A right turn from this dreary rooming house onto the sidewalk leads down the street, past three houses, and across the road directly to 124 Hicks Street. Henry Ward Beecher's home is tall and sturdy, built solidly of dull brick. The windows are elegantly corniced, capable of providing ample sunlight to the interior, but the shutters inside are tightly drawn. A sleepy-looking newsboy stands at the corner, waving newspapers at the few carriages now bumping across the cobblestones, pulled by horses expertly keeping their balance, lifting their hooves high over the familiar terrain. henry ward beecher in coma, reads the headline of the paper in his grubby hand. Below it, renowned american family gathers for vigil.
The carriage occupants stare at the Beecher home. He's dying, they whisper to one another. The old man is dying. The most brilliant preacher in America, that's what everyone says. Even more than his father was...What was his name? Lyman. Lyman Beecher. A family of preachers, all of them. Except for the women.
Inside the house, dust hangs in the air. The windows have not been opened in days. The walls of the parlor to the right of the front door are covered in very expensive satin paper, purchased for three dollars a roll (thirteen single rolls to do the job) but unfortunately in a snuff brown color that Eunice Beecher insisted upon because she was sure it would fade and she didn't want to start with something too light. It has not faded.
The stairs are steep, and any visitors today will be met at the top with the mix of sweet and acrid smells of the sickroom: tallow, various medicinal syrups, slops, perspiration. In the presence of illness, Eunice does not believe in excessive ventilation.
There is, unsurprisingly, little light in Henry's sickroom. A coal fire not stoked for hours has burned out, leaving white ash in the fireplace. The room is cold, so cold. At the foot of the bed stands the small figure of a woman with slightly sunken cheeks and dark eyes that seem too big for her face. But Harriet Beecher Stowe stands erect, projecting a strength that commands the room as she crosses her arms, tucking her fingers under the armpits of her compact body for warmth. She wears one of her usual severe black dresses, a tacit acknowledgment that the mourning of one loss quite quickly blends into the mourning of another, and sometimes it is too much effort to change one's wardrobe. Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun.
Henry lies motionless, his body, sheathed in a white blanket, an imposing hillock rising from the bed. His inordinately large head takes up the entire pillow, but without animation his face looks oddly loose and fleshy. His long, white hair lies tamed, tucked behind his ears, and his eyes are closed.
It makes Harriet uneasy to stare at him when he looks so vulnerable. Her eyes turn in the direction of the oak armoire, where her sister-in-law is rummaging for something in a large trunk under the windowsill.
"What are you looking for? Can I help?" she asks.
"No, I've found it." Eunice pulls out a black silk dress and briskly shakes it. "I'll have the girl air this out and iron it. I'll need a hat and veil. A heavy veil."
Harriet tightens her arms across her chest and looks away. Eunice is preparing for Henry's funeral, actually planning her wardrobe as he lies in his bed, still breathing.
"You find what I do inappropriate?" Eunice turns and faces Harriet, her long, thin face looking even more sallow than usual.
"I judge you in no way, Eunice. You have a great deal on your mind right now and a great burden to bear. I understand."
Eunice lets the dress fall heavy in her hands, the skirt touching the floor. "Well, you don't really, but you're trying to say the right thing. In truth, you think I'm detached." Her gaze shifts to the bed. "The person lying there" -- she nods to the still figure in the bed -- "that isn't really Henry."
Copyright © 2008 by Patricia O'Brien.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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