|THE SLEEPING NIGHT
Author: Barbara Samuel
Publisher: Belle Bridge Books
Pub Date: June 2012
Strong, romantic women’s fiction from this multiple bestselling author. In 1940’s Texas an African American soldier returns to his hometown after fighting in World War II. His bitter memories of his father’s murder there make it unlikely he’ll stay in town for long; but then he reconnects with the young white woman he loved as childhood friends. Racism, romance, drama. A terrific romance drama from a very beloved author.
THE SLEEPING NIGHT © Barbara Samuel
That now-grown bird whistled in merry greeting at a figure on the road, indistinct in the twilight. But Angel didn’t need to see his face to know it was Isaiah, partly because Ebenezer wasn’t friendly with that many humans, but mostly because she recognized his rolling, graceful walk.
She looked back at her garden, her mouth setting. He joined her without a word, standing a few feet away. Angel moved the sprinkler slowly, back and forth, back and forth. Neither of them said a word for long moments.
Finally Angel said, “If you came to yell at me some more, you can just turn around and go home.”
“I didn’t come to yell at you,” There was apology in his tone, and from the corner of her eye, she saw him shift. “Came to make sure you’re all right.”
“You know,” she said, “this has always been my favorite time of day. I love to come out here and water and weed. You ever notice how bright the colors are at evenin’-time? Makes me feel calm.”
“Angel,” he said, “I’m sorry about this afternoon. “
She lifted one shoulder in a shrug.
“Paul’s worried you might be in trouble.”
“I wish he hadn’t been here. Maybe I ought to tell Maylene he should stay somewhere else.”
“No. He loves to be here and you like having him. Somewhere else it might not be so good.” His voice deepened. “I told him if he sees Edwin, he’s supposed to run home right away.”
Angel nodded. She gave one last swoop of water to the garden, then turned around and walked over to the pump to turn it off and shook drops of water from her hand. “Edwin Walker has chased me since I was thirteen years old. I’m not being vain–he only wants me because I never liked him, but there’s something weird about his eyes, especially since he came back… “
Even though she was angry with him, his presence gave her a sense of safety. She had never seen a man as strong—long muscles ran down his arms and over his chest under the light cotton shirt he wore. It wasn’t difficult to imagine him in combat, with a gun in his hand. But she also knew he hadn’t liked it, the business of killing. “You know, Isaiah, I don’t have a lot allies. I’m stuck and I’m lost and I really don’t need you to be so…mean to me. Do you understand? I can’t take it.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I just didn’t…it was such a bad situation…” He halted. Met her gaze. “I’m sorry. I should’ve at least made sure he didn’t hurt you. Bad, I mean.”
A tinge of humiliation burned along her jaw, up to her ears as she thought of the bruises. “I’m fine.”
“After a fashion.”
She laughed quietly. “After a fashion,” she agreed, and let herself look up at him. They stood several feet apart. Ebenezer whistled between them on the ground as he pecked at worms soaked out of the wet earth. Isaiah’s eyes were grave and kind and steady, and there was suddenly between them a sense of knowing and history; all the Isaiahs she’d known melded into this one man, with his elegant bearing and rich laugh and troubled heart.
He shifted abruptly. “I brought you something” His voice was gruff. “Let’s go inside.”
“All right. I made some coffee just a little bit ago,” she said, and led the way to the back door. “You’re welcome to some.”
As they entered the kitchen, he said, “I saw Edwin on the road and it scared me, thinking of you in here alone, and no telling what he’ll do, and then I came in here and you had that whole tea party going, and I just wanted to smash something. Didn’t really mean for it to be you.”
She listened and nodded. “Apology accepted.”
He reached under his shirt in the back and brought out a revolver. He put it on the table, “You know how to use this?”
She paused in the act of pouring a mugful of coffee. “A gun?”
“I believe I could use a cup myself,” he said.
Automatically, she took a mug off a hook and filled it for him. “I’ve never fired a gun in my life.” She carried the cups to the table and put them down. “They look so evil.”
“No good for anything except killing,” he agreed. “But I ain’t gonna have a four-year-old out here trying to defend you. You gonna to learn to do that yourself.”
She stared at the gun for a long moment, then recognized the truth in his words. “All right. What do I do?”
“First, you always figure a gun is loaded.” He flipped open the chamber and took the bullets out, piling them carefully on the oilcloth, then held the gun out toward her. “Go on. Get the feel of it.
It was a lot heavier than it looked, and it took both hands to hold it steady, but once she had it straight, she squared her shoulders. Isaiah showed her the mechanics, how to line up a shot, how to fire. His arm brushed her shoulder, his chest was warm behind her, and she knew she would think about it later. For now, she listened, practiced with the empty gun, tried to get the feeling of it.
“When there’s bullets in there, it’ll kick,” he said, “and there’s no way to show you how to make up for that. You’ll just have to practice. Take it outside and use a tin can or something when you got time.”
“All right. Show me how to put the bullets in.”
He loaded the first, then let her do the rest. “Go right now and put it someplace safe, high enough it’s out of reach of Paul. ”
She picked it up, testing the heft, and looked at him dead on. “I will use it, Isaiah, if I have to. God helps those who help themselves.”
There was tenderness in his eyes as he looked at her, and she knew that the bruises were visible here, in this light.
“You and your God.” He gestured with one hand toward the front room. “Go on and put it up.”
* * *
While she was gone, Isaiah picked up the typewriter and settled it on the table, lifting off the heavy square lid. When she came back, her skirt swishing against her legs, he said, “You pour me another cup of coffee, I reckon I could show you how this works, too.”
She lifted her chin, one hand on her hip. “Conscience bothering you, Isaiah?”
He glanced at the typewriter. “I reckon it is.”
“About time,” she scooped his mug from the table, refilled both cups, and sat down. “Okay, now show me. Whole lot better than a gun.”
“You got that right.” He illustrated the carriage return and the shift key. Angel slipped a piece of paper into the carriage and sat down in front of him to try typing a line. He stood behind her, smelling the mix of sweat and oranges that came off her skin, noticing her small, well-formed head and the fine wispy hair. He thought of moving her hair off her neck, putting his nose to the damp place at her nape. He knew she would not turn away.
And then they’d both end up dead, or worse. “You gettin’ the idea,” he said, and moved toward the sink, drinking his coffee.
“I know there’s a way to type with all your fingers. Do you know how?” She pursed her fat little lips. The bruise on her cheek made his head ache.
“You can probably get a book at the library.” He put his cup in the sink. “I have to get back. “
“Oh.” She stood up, catching her hands behind her back. “Thank you, Isaiah.”
For one last, long minute, he indulged his long loneliness and told himself to remember how those wide green eyes looked, right now, with their flecks of yellow and blue. Then he swallowed and backed away. “You’re welcome.”
Even to his own ears, his voice was gruff.
On the back porch, she stopped him. “Isaiah, I’m not a fool, you know.”
“I know that.”
“It’s just all so…overwhelming. My daddy. The store.” She shrugged. “You.”
He only listened.
“I’m trying to figure out what my life should look like, but I don’t know right now.” She held out a folded piece of paper. “I wrote you a letter the other day.”
He half-smiled. “You couldn’t just talk?”
“No. You won’t let me.”
“We’re talking now.”
“You know what I mean.” She wiggled the paper at him. “Take it.”
“We can’t be buddies, Angel, and you know it.” But he came close enough to take the paper.
She lifted a shoulder. “That’s why I wrote.”
He was reminded suddenly of her stubborn, almost unshakable will. Sometimes as children they had clashed, but Angel never got angry and shouted. Instead, her voice would drop and steady, and his argument or wishes would melt under her relentless reasoning. He quelled an amused quirk of his lips, because even anticipating it would have fueled the fire. He propped a leg on the stair near her foot and said nothing, knowing she’d talk.
“I’ve lived my entire life in this little one horse town. I’m sure not sophisticated or world traveled, like you are.” Her chin lifted mulishly. “But do you know that I was the number one student in school the whole time I was there? Nobody beat me, ever. And I’ve read books that took me someplace else, a lot of other places—I’ve seen other people and other times. I know about history and religion and all kinds of things that nobody in Gideon sure ever thinks to talk about.”
She looked at him, suddenly very sober. “I’ve also always lived right here in these woods. I’ve been watching the hatred since before I was old enough to understand it, watched my daddy just get eaten up by it. I used to want to leave here, because I thought it was just Texas, you know? That maybe in other places, people didn’t have to live like we do, all separated and scared of each other. But then the war made me see that it really doesn’t get any better anywhere. It’s just another kind of hate, another kind of rules.”
A very deep stillness washed through him at her words, a perfect quiet. “It is better some places, Angel. Not perfect, of course. But at least sometimes the hate isn’t something folks make laws about.” He moved his foot closer to hers. “You’d like England. It would make you laugh, the way everybody seems to know there’s a way to do everything. Been doing it five hundred years.”
He wanted to take her hand or sit close the darkness, the way you should to talk about far things, and powerful ones, and terrifying ones. Instead he had to content himself with leaning on his knee, as close to her as he dared. “Your little tea party made me think of Mrs. Wentworth, how she’d sit in her open air parlor, three walls half-standing, ceiling gone, and have tea anyhow.”
Angel laughed. “What did she do when it rained?”
“Have it in the kitchen.” He twitched his mouth. “That’s where she was when the V-6 got her. I stopped by to see her before I came on back home, and some of the neighbors told me. Those bombs take out everything in their path. There wasn’t nothing but a pile of rocks where her house used to be. Didn’t have the heart to go look around.”
She was quiet for a minute. “Do you think Europe will ever be the same, Isaiah?”
He thought of the wasted landscapes he’d seen as he searched for Gudren, thought of the bombed churches and endless rubble that tanks and mortar fire and bombs had left behind, thought of entire miles of scorched trees. He thought of the hungry, aimless children, hordes of them orphaned by war, and the camp refugees traveling in small knots, fleeing the broken spine of Europe. He thought of Berlin and Paris and London, the legendary cities of their childhood, all of them tattered and stomped and littered with the refuse of battles, like the souls and hearts of the people who remained.
“No. Whatever it was before is gone,” he said at last. “They’ll fix the streets and replow the fields and build up the churches. Twenty years from now, there’ll be children who don’t remember. But as long as people live who saw it…” He halted, the words crowded from his throat as he thought of the children. The widows. The dead animals in zoos and along the road—lions and bears, spaniels and tabbies. The walking skeletons, the bare heads of refugees.
“It really was like some terrible fairy tale.” Isaiah looked away, trying to focus on the sibilant whisper of wind rustling through the leaves, and Texas, which he had once believed to be the most twisted and evil place in the world. In comparison to what he’d seen, it seemed a petty evil in ways. “You know, I don’t even believe in God no more, that’s an honest fact.”
Her dry hand touched his under cover of night, her paper-dry fingers covering his knuckles. Without looking at her, he turned his hand over and met her, palm to palm.
“I imagine God won’t mind if you can’t believe in him for awhile,” she said quietly.
He squeezed her fingers in appreciation, but didn’t speak. A long time passed just like that, Isaiah standing there with her hand clasped on his knee, Angel sitting on the step.
When she broke the silence, it was hesitant, as if she were afraid of censure. “Do you think there might be somebody in Lower Gideon who’d be interested in buying this store?”
“Could be,” he said. “Depends on how you plan to sell it.”
“I need enough money to leave here. That’s all. But a colored store ought be run by a colored family, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” he said, and inexplicably, everything in him lightened. “I do. I’ll talk to some folks. I reckon there’ll be some interest.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Before he could be further tempted, he lightly pinched the fingernail of her index finger. “Good night, Angel.”
“I’ll say a prayer for your soul.”
He shook his head, unable to prevent his answering smile. “Do that.”
“Good night, Isaiah.”