THE WOMAN'S CRY of loss swirled and eddied through the cemetery, like the cold fog that crawled among the firs and tried to hide the mound of soggy earth and the open grave.
The mourners' heads turned at the sound. Their eyes, glittering with righteousness, saw the black silk dress, the flaming hair, the painted face, and knew the woman for who, and what, she was. Condemnation hissed through the shrouding mist, arrowing from drab huddle to drab huddle, reviving old scandal, denying the woman's right to grieve.
Gideon Melody didn't hear the screaming woman or the muttering crowd. His lined face, revealing nothing of his youth, was ravaged by the agony of his loss. The strength of his stocky, hard-muscled body was gone, and his eyes, chips of blue ice, were empty of all but pain. His hands, callused and scarred by labor, hung uselessly at his sides. He stood unmoving, tearless, isolated.
His thin, bloodless lips trembled, parted. "Patience," he said, and it was a hard man's only concession to momentary weakness.
There was no answer. Patience, his wife for eight years, was dead at twenty-three. And Gideon had lost more than just a wife. He had lost the only woman, the only person, he had ever loved. Her death, while giving birth to their second daughter, had ripped all beauty and laughter from his world, leaving him only pain.
The preacher said a final prayer. Black-coated men lowered the pine coffin into the grave. Gideon turned and, followed by the other mourners, walked back down the steep path that led from the hilltop cemetery to the small frame house he had built for his bride.
The women laid aside their bonnets and shawls and moved about in Patience's kitchen, heating coffee on the black Monarch range, putting food on the long table. The men, ill at ease, shuffled their feet on the lye-whitened floor and tried to talk of ordinary things. The children, Gideon's daughter Hope and a scrubbed handful of others, waited in silence for the day to end and some adult to release them from the funeral-imposed restrictions.
Gideon Melody stood alone. A woman came close. A soft, white hand touched his shoulder. He shrugged it off and tried to move away from her Lilac-scented presence, but a husky whisper stopped him. "Gideon," was all the woman said.
"You," Gideon snarled, and the tall woman's blue eyes couldn't meet the loathing in his icy stare.
"Patience was my sister. I loved her," the woman said softly.
"You never loved anybody in your life," he said harshly.
"I loved you."
"No! You didn't. That was a lie. Like all the other lies you told Patience."
She moved closer. Her full bosom almost touched his chest. "I still love you, Gideon. You need me now. Let me stay and take care of you." Her voice was breathy, filled with promise. "You loved me once. You will again."
"No!" he shouted in rage and denial. He stepped back. His muscles corded. "Get out," he said. "Before I kick you out."
"Don't, Brother Gideon," the preacher said, and he grabbed Gideon's arm. "She's not worth it. She's trash, just like she always was."
"Trash, am I?" the woman asked, and now there was a whiplash of viciousness in her voice. "Wagner trash? That's what you always called us, wasn't it? Didn't everybody say it? That the Wagner girls were trash?"
"You'd better leave, Tansy," the preacher said. "There's nothing for you here."
"I'll go," Tansy said. "But, Gideon, You'd better remember that Patience was one of the Wagner girls, too."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Gideon asked as he jerked away from the preacher.
Ignoring his question, she glanced at the new baby, swaddled in quilts and sleeping in a cradle beside the stove. A smile, amused and knowing, grew on Tansy's lips. "Is the baby yours?" she asked.
Gideon knew what she meant, but shock held him silent.
"The Wagner girls like men in their beds, lots of men," the tall woman said, and as she walked out of the kitchen, she laughed mockingly and flung her final words, like poison darts, at him. "Blood always tells."
He didn't want to believe Tansy, but all of Gideon's old doubts and fears came back to torment him. Half-remembered scenes and phrases rushed at him. Patience had been beautiful and friendly, too friendly. The preacher had warned him, had told him of the talk about her. He felt the hurt of belief course through him and tried, vainly, to push it away.
Quietly, without looking at the tortured man, the congregation gathered their wraps and children and, family by family, vanished into the Oregon fog.
Gideon paced the night into dawn before he took down the Bible, dipped a steel-nibbed pen in ink, and wrote, "October 17, 1896, Patience, wife of Gideon Melody died birthing her daughter Jobena." The pen paused, slashed down, and dug words into the page, words that damned both mother and babe. "Born in Sin."
Copyright © 1984 by Patricia White