Song of the Nightingale

by Ron Van Sweringen


The nightingale came at twilight every evening, that fall of 1862, usually when the sunlight in the orchard was deep pink and a mist had settled over the meadow. Then Martha Henning took her place on the porch of the weathered farmhouse. It was a special time of peace and quiet, of forgetting the toil of the day.

Her patience was rewarded and a smile crossed her lips as the plaintive song drifted up from the orchard. She closed her eyes, picturing the familiar valley she had loved for over sixty years.

“Pardon me, ma’am.” The voice shocked Martha’s eyes open. “Don’t mean to disturb you...”

“Well you did,” Martha replied sharply, studying the young man standing in front of her with a small mongrel dog at his side. He held both a rope tied around the dog’s neck and a worn straw hat in his callused hands.

“Sit down on the porch step until she finishes her song, young man. Whatever is on your mind will keep till then.”

Martha leaned back and closed her eyes. Except for one small slit that stayed open long enough to make sure the young man did as he was instructed. From the sigh of relief when he sat down, she assumed he had walked a long way on the dusty road. She made a mental note from her quick observation. He was a handsome boy about sixteen years of age, clean-cut and honest-looking. Martha made a bet with herself that his handsome young face was also hungry.

Two ham sandwiches and a piece of apple pie later, Martha watched the boy wipe his plate clean with a scrap of sandwich bread.

“All right,” she said, her eyes leveled on him, “let’s start with your name and where you come from.”

“My name is Philbus Martin, ma’am, and I’m from near Walkersville.”

“Walkersville?” Martha replied with surprise. “Why that’s almost ten miles from here. You walked all that way?”

“Yes, ma’am. I started this morning as soon as the funeral was over.”

“Funeral,” she said, again taken by surprise. “Whose funeral?”

“My paw’s,” Philbus answered softly. “He was wounded at the battle of Sharpsburg, a month ago. Seems he gave up wanting to live afterwards and passed away in his sleep two days ago. I’m on my way to Richmond, to sign up and take his place in the militia.”

A moment of silent respect followed. Martha’s own feelings of anger against this war between the North and the South were again kindled by this boy’s plight. His eagerness to give up his young life pained her.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, removing his dish from the table. “It’s a hard lesson to learn so young in life.”

Philbus remained quiet. Darkness had fallen and two oil lamps gave a soft glow to the kitchen.

“You’re welcome to stay the night,” Martha said. “In the morning we’ll talk some more.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Philbus smiled. “Would it be all right if I let my dog loose, so he could sleep on the porch? Some folks don’t take kindly to a strange dog, but Jack’s a good boy, ma’am. He listens to me right well.”

“All right,” Martha answered, seeing the pleading in the boy’s eyes. “Just be sure to tell Jack, if he gets after my hens, I’ll put a load of buckshot in his backside.”

Martha Henning found it hard to sleep that night. She was up twice, looking from her bedroom window toward Butcher Mountain and the road that stretched fifty miles to Richmond, Virginia. Finally giving up any hope of sleep, she lit a small oil lamp on her dressing table and sat gazing at herself in the mirror.

She subconsciously studied her reflection. A neatly plaited gray pigtail fell over her left shoulder, tied with a blue ribbon. Eyes of the same pale color stared back at her, the face that once belonged to the prettiest girl in the valley, or so most folks said. That was a lifetime ago. She shook her head, as if to dislodge the thought.

This was here and now, and for some reason she couldn’t quite put her finger on, Philbus Martin was stuck like a fishbone in her craw. Later, she put out the lamp and crawled back into bed. Tomorrow would be here in a few hours. She could send the boy on his way then, she told herself, but down deep inside she knew better.

Martha woke late the next morning. When she entered the kitchen, she found Philbus sitting on the back porch steps. Opening the screen door she urged, “Come on in and have some breakfast. Jack can come in, too.”

A happy smile crossed the boy’s face as he and Jack moved quickly to her command.

“Make yourself useful and fetch me some of that wood over there so I can get this stove going,” she said to Philbus. “After breakfast, we’ll decide what to do about you two.”

When they had finished eating and the table was cleared, Martha asked quietly, “What are you going to do about Jack? When you join the militia, you’ll have to leave him in Richmond.”

She could see that Philbus had no ready answer to her question. She reasoned he either hadn’t thought that far ahead, or more likely, he couldn’t face the proposition of being separated from the dog.

Sensing the boy’s discomfort, she continued, “I have a proposition for you. Suppose you leave Jack here with me while you’re gone off to war. He’ll have a good home and you can come back and fetch him when it’s over.”

Philbus looked up quickly, and unless Martha was wrong, a sense of relief flooded the boy’s face. “Would you keep him for me?” he asked. “I have no way to pay you.”

“You can repay me with a favor,” Martha added. “That is the second part of my proposition.” Philbus looked puzzled as she continued.

“My milk cow is due to calve in the next few days. I’m not as young as I once was and I might need your help, seeing as how this is her first calf and she could have a hard time.”

“I’ve helped with calving before,” Philbus replied eagerly, “when we still had our farm, before my mother died. “

Martha looked into the boy’s wide blue eyes and for a brief moment wanted to put her arms around him and hold him close.

“Then we have a bargain?” she asked. “You stay and help me until the calf is born and I’ll take care of Jack while you fight your war.”

The next few days passed quickly for Martha and the boy. There was plenty to keep them both busy. Even Jack pulled his weight by killing two rats in the barn. Martha was fixing breakfast one morning when Philbus called excitedly, “It’s time now, come quick.”

The animal was already down and far along in labor when Martha got to the barn. As she had feared, it was going to be a difficult birth. Hours passed and the cow struggled to deliver, but it was no use.

“We are going to lose them both,” Martha sighed, sadness in her voice.

“No, ma’am,” Philbus replied, pulling his shirt off. “I’ve seen my paw free one.”

Martha watched in amazement as Philbus began working to free the unborn calf, his hands inside of the struggling mother. At length the hind legs of the calf appeared. She was amazed at the boy’s strength and determination until the newborn gushed free of its confinement in a rush of fluids.

Philbus fell back on the hay, a look of happy exhaustion on his face. “We did it, ma’am.” He smiled waving his bloody hands.

“No, son,” Martha answered, watching the calf respond to its mother’s licking. “You did it.”

* * *

Two days after the calf’s birth, Philbus was gone. That morning when Martha came into the kitchen, she found two words crudely printed in white chalk on the pine work table:

THANK YOU

She stood looking at the letters for a long while, then gently rubbed her hand across them. It was Jack’s plaintive whine that brought her back. He was tied on the back porch and Martha gently picked him up. “He’ll come back,” she whispered to the animal, her eyes full of tears.

Martha Henning did something she never thought she would. The night Philbus left, she let Jack sleep at the foot of her bed. The following morning, they awoke to sullen gray skies and the sound of wind and heavy rain on the roof.

From her bedroom window she watched streams of water wash over the impassable road. Hardly a wagon or carriage could traverse the muddy ruts. It would be almost impossible for a person on foot to travel. She wished with all of her heart that Philbus was safe and dry wherever he was.

The rain lasted for three days, accompanied by winds that wailed through the trees at night. Twice in her life, Martha had seen storms like this come up from the deep south. She recognized the end of a hurricane, with flooding and destruction in its wake.

The Little South Fork River was less than a mile from Martha’s farm. Although it was a shallow meandering stream during the summer months, it had turned into a raging torrent of muddy brown water that ate up the land on both sides of its flow. In the fields, stranded farm animals stood knee-deep in water and marooned farmhouses dotted the landscape.

Martha’s farm stood on higher ground than most in the valley and so far had been spared the worst flooding. The orchard was flooded and most of the lower pasture was under water, but the house and barn had been spared. All manner of bewildered animals sought refuge at the small oasis. Martha recognized Mr. Caldwell’s cow and two of his goats, along with a sow and six piglets.

She kept busy caring for the stranded animals and tried not to worry about Philbus. It did little good. He was always on her mind, but she was consoled by his youth and strength. In her heart she believed that one day he would come home to them.

The fourth day dawned cheery, with sunlight so bright it hurt Martha’s eyes. Even Jack felt better as he raced to meet Mr. Caldwell’s wagon, slowly navigating its way up the muddy road.

After a warm greeting and some small talk, the sow, her piglets and the two goats were loaded on the wagon. Mr. Caldwell’s cow was tethered to the back and off they all went, with Jack barking and Martha waving goodbye .

In the late afternoon as usual, Martha took her seat in the old rocker on the front porch, only now Jack lay stretched out at her feet. It was pleasant to see the sun setting over the valley again. Martha closed her eyes and pictured Philbus’ smiling face, then she wondered if the nightingale would return to the orchard soon.


Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen

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