Hannah dug the chalk-paste dentifrice out of the bottom of the jar with her finger, hovering over her husband’s head. “I need you to open up for me, Francis,” she spoke softly, and he complied, opening his mouth mechanically as she ran her finger over his teeth.
“It’s snowing, honey,” Frank replied, some of the paste dripping from his mouth.
“I know it is. You don’t have to look at it if it bothers you.” Hannah slipped her hand over his eyes before his stare could turn trancelike. “Stay here with me this time, Francis.” But it was too late. His mind had gone to the snow, and she wouldn’t reach him now. She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his temple, her mouth lingering over the warmth of his skin longer than usual. “I wish you would have stayed with me this time. There’re no good memories in that snow, my love.” But she might as well have been talking to herself.
“It’ll be just this time, Elizabeth,” he responded with indifference. “This one time. Please, don’t tell my wife I’m here with you. She won’t understand. She’s too good to understand, and it will break her heart to think her letters aren’t enough.”
Hannah’s lip quivered as she reached out to touch her husband’s cheek. “I promise I won’t tell your wife,” she whispered, and her eyes glassed over with unshed tears. They’d fall a hundred times before the day was over, she knew, but for now she held them back.
She’d never know who Elizabeth was. Some woman among the many who had followed the Rebel camp, she presumed, giving the soldiers what they couldn’t get so far away from home. One thing she knew for damn sure was that this Elizabeth woman had never rubbed dentifrice on Frank’s teeth as he nodded off, or fed him from a wooden spoon because he might bite down too hard on a pewter one, or witnessed him struggle to remember his own son’s name. She didn’t care who this Elizabeth was. Whoever she was, Hannah only hoped the woman had given Frank whatever he’d needed while he’d walked through hell—marched, slept, fought, starved, thirsted, cried through hell.
Hannah would also never know what had happened in the winter of 1863 in a place called Fredericksburg. Seventeen inches of snow had fallen over two days when the men were stationed near Rappahannock Academy. All the papers mentioned it at the time. A letter arrived from Frank on that very day, dated weeks earlier, saying how miserable the snow had become, how it slowed them down and soaked through their clothes, clinging to them like a disease. But whatever had occurred between that letter and the Siege of Suffolk had forever taken Frank away from the man he’d been and the wife who still needed him to be that man. His eyes glazed over, and she tried not to pity him—this shell of a being, still young at 37, in the mental state of a decrepit old man.
“Elizabeth, did I ever tell you about the winter war?” Frank said, interrupting Hannah’s thought.
“No. But I’ll remind you to tell me sometime.”
“Remind me to tell you sometime,” he said simultaneously.
“All right.” She stood and left his side, wandering toward the bookshelf or the kitchen—no real destination. “I’ll do that, Francis.”
A knock arose at the door. Hannah forced aside the guilt of sudden relief she felt. It was short-lived, however, when her son, Robert, opened the door and handed her the letter they’d all been waiting for.
“They refused you again,” he said. “They say there’s nothing they can do, that the hospital doesn’t handle this kind of care.”
“But what about recompense?” she asked. “I can’t support him on $34 a month, even when I get it on time. They said when he enlisted that there would be recompense for damages, to help out the wives, the—”
“They lied to you, Ma. I don’t know what you want me to say. Here it is, right here, writ plain out.” Robert opened the letter, searching the lines. “Your petition declined, with regrets. They even have the audacity to say that, were he a bluejacket, they might reconsider.” He dropped the letter into his mother’s hand and peered around her. “How is the old man?”
“I’m fine, Corporal,” Frank answered for himself. “Just talking to Elizabeth.”
Robert bristled. He hated being called corporal. He’d never served a day in his life, but his own father didn’t know him from anyone else who walked in the room. Sometimes there were rare moments of lucidity, and Robert almost hated those more, for when they left, they left his mother in a state of depression that was unbearable. Still, she refused to leave the man, calling on that cold word that hung around the house like a noose: duty.
“You weren’t talking to Elizabeth, Pa,” Robert replied. “Who is Elizabeth?”
Frank’s voice dropped to a hush. “Oh, she’s just a girl of comfort. Don’t tell my wife. My sweet Hannah would never understand.”
Robert looked at his mother with a pained expression, and she just shrugged. “I think she’d understand, Pa. I think …” he met her eyes, and he knew, “she understands just fine.”
“It was lonely out there, wasn’t it, Corporal?”
Robert sighed and wrung his hands uncomfortably. “Yes, it was, Sergeant. Our wives would understand.” He circled his father, then turned abruptly. “I can’t do this, Ma.” Without another word, Robert walked through the door and slammed it behind him.
A soft chuckle purred through Frank’s throat. “He’s touchy.”
“A bit touchy, yes,” Hannah returned lightly. “He gets it from his father.”
“Must be a boorish lout.”
A smile touched her lips. “Oh, he’s not so bad.”
“I have to tell you something, Hannah, honey.”
“Francis!” She took the room in strides. “You called me Hannah!”
“Of course. What else would I call you?” Brightness shone in his eyes as he looked back and forth from his wife’s face to the snow out the window. Behind the brightness, sorrow still clung, but it appeared more apologetic than lost. “I have to tell you I did some things that wouldn’t make you proud, honey. Maybe if I say them outright—”
Her mouth fell open, and she took his chin in her hand, dragging those bright, sorrowful eyes toward her. He’d never looked at the snow and spoken. She wanted so desperately to keep him in that moment with her, to know, to understand. “I don’t care, Francis. It doesn’t matter. I’m always proud of you. None of that matters now, don’t you see?” Her fingers stroked him—his hair, his hands, his cheeks. “I don’t care about what you did out there, who you killed, what you saw, whoever Elizabeth was. It doesn’t matter.”
“Elizabeth?” he spoke with disdain. “You know about her?” His words hushed to whispers, and he hung his head in shame. “She followed our camp, honey, I never intended … never meant to … I was so …” his pause spoke for his regret, “so … uncomfortable, honey. I needed you there.”
“Francis, it doesn’t matter. None of that matters. Not the women or the soldiers,” her words left too swiftly, “or the blood or the snow.”
“The snow,” he echoed listlessly.
“Oh, no, no, I didn’t say that!” A trembling hand shot over her mouth. “Please, please, don’t leave me again. You said you needed me there; well, I need you here. Please, don’t leave me again.” She fell to her knees in front of him, but his eyes already seemed far away. “Oh, why did I say it? Why did I mention snow? Curse this all!” She pounded her fists against her forehead and laid her head in his lap. The tears she’d been holding back finally fell, as they always fell.
“I won’t leave you, Hannah.” He rubbed his fingers through her hair, and her breath caught. “You should’ve left me, but you never did. I won’t leave you, honey. Did I ever tell you about the winter war?”
“No,” she whispered, her tears dripping through his trousers, “but I’ll remind you to tell me someti—”
“Seventeen inches, Colonel Stiles said,” he continued, and she didn’t dare stop him, even knowing that recounting this memory for the first time could spiral him into a spell that would last for days, weeks. “Ten thousand of us were engaged in battle that day, honey, and we’d been so restless, so cooped up. General Hoke’s camp attacked us—my God, Hannah, our own men! Infantry, cavalry—they were all there attacking us as if they’d gone mad. Reinforcements from the commissary came to our aid, but it was too late; we got pelted, honey.”
“You don’t have to talk about this if it’s too hard. I know the snow is so painful for you.”
“No, Hannah, don’t you see? This was the battle that changed everything. The reinforcements helped us, and Hoke withdrew. Out of selfishness, we planned a counterattack, not to be outdone by our own men. We formed regular lines and marched the Georgia camp directly into the North Carolina camp with our balls at the ready, but you see, they were waiting for us. They’d outfoxed us. Their haversacks were full of ammunition, and they surprised us and took prisoners. The snow was so thick beneath my feet, so wet on my clothes, and I was captured—”
“Captured? I didn’t know you were captured. What do you mean by your own men? Your own men captured you?”
“They did, and I was hit repeatedly with—Oh, how it stung! I was pelted with … with …” Frank unexpectedly started to laugh.
“With what, Francis?” Hannah cried frantically, nearly shaking him. “Tell me!”
“With snowballs,” he said simply. “Thousands of snowballs.”
“Snowballs?” Her hands dropped from his shoulders. “You mean it was a … a snowball fight?”
He smiled. A truly genuine smile. “It was the best day of the war, Hannah. You should’ve seen us, honey, how we laughed, the smiles on the men’s faces. I remember that joyous day, that blessed day of reprieve, every time it snows.”