THIS OLD WORLD by Steve Wiegenstein

(Pub date September 1, 2014)

The community of Daybreak survived the war.  Can it survive the peace?    

After the war, James Turner and the other men of Daybreak return home to find that war has changed their Utopian community forever. Charlotte Turner, Marie Mercadier and the other women they left behind survived raiders and bushwackers, raised up children, and survived on little more than dogged determination. Now that the men are back—those who fought for the North and those who fought for the South—the community must somehow put the past behind them. But some carry scars too deep to heal, and others carry hate they have no intention of letting go.

Steve Wiegenstein’s THIS OLD WORLD is the beautiful sequel to SLANT OF LIGHT and the second in his Daybreak series. The writing is elegant and beautiful and for lovers of both historical and literary fiction–not to mention those interested in American history and the Civil War era–the book is a must-read. Here’s an excerpt:

~ Chapter 1 ~

Charlotte Turner stood beneath a redbud tree and watched the last six chickens of Daybreak scratch for morsels among the henbit carpeting the cemetery. They’d been kept in a coop for all the years of the war, far enough into the woods that the sound of their clucking couldn’t be heard by a passing raider, then brought down to scratch whenever the weather allowed. Any sign of trouble and she could shoo them into the forest within moments.

A wren sang overhead. Charlotte loved the sound of a wren in the morning, a bird she had heard since childhood, but never known by name until she came out to Daybreak and began accumulating knowledge of the world. Life in the forest had taught her much—plants that heal, plants that harm, songs and calls and what they meant. It troubled her that more knowledge was out there to be learned, knowledge she hadn’t mastered, plans unfulfilled, projects uncompleted, good things undone. But the war had come, and those plans and projects scattered like straw in the wind.

She shook off the thought. Life before the war was a dim memory. Almost like a child’s tale, the memory of a group of settlers coming to this remote Ozarks river valley to create a community of equality and sharing, like the Brook Farm and New Harmony communities that had gone before them, only this time they would make a go of it. But now they had been four years struggling for survival since the war had begun in earnest and the Federals had ordered all able-bodied men from the valley. Hens without roosters, scratching for whatever nourishment they could find beneath the leaf litter. Four years of growing food, hiding it, parceling it out to the children, retreating to Harp Webb’s old saltpeter cave whenever there was news of raiders in the area. Four years of escape plans and fear. When Price brought his army up from Arkansas last fall, trying to take St. Louis in some sort of desperation move, Charlotte had never been more glad they lived miles from the main road. As the Federals retreated, they burned towns and farms, and the advancing rebels had gobbled up what remnants they could find. From Pocahontas north to Fredericktown was a swath of burned ground and hunger.

From where she sat she could see sprouts encroaching into the northern fields, the ones last cleared from forest. Someone needed to cut those sprouts or else that field would be lost within the year. But who? Emile Mercadier could try, but at his age it would take him half a day to cut one sprout. Newton was nine, old enough to work, and he did his best. But they needed him for planting and hoeing the vegetables. If that crop didn’t get planted and tended properly, there would be worse awaiting them than the loss of a newly cleared field.

No wonder she spent time in the cemetery. They would all be in the ground soon enough. Her sister Caroline, dead in childbirth out in Kansas. Her mother soon after. Caroline’s husband, lost at Chickamauga, now a part of the earth in some lonely Tennessee hollow. Her father in the soil of Virginia. Hard enough to learn of his death, harder still to know he would lie forever in a rebel state. Adam, here beneath her feet, along with all the others from the early years of the settlement who had coughed or bled or suffered their way into the arms of the earth. And James, where was James? Charlotte recalled the day he had walked out toward town to enlist, not taking a horse for fear it would be confiscated, leaving her behind with a child in hand and another in the womb. She had approved of the enlistment then, encouraged it even, what with Sam Hildebrand roaming the countryside and carrying a grudge for the part they had taken in the fight that had taken eight of his men. Better to face a visible enemy in the daylight than to live in permanent fear of Hildebrand’s rifle from the forest. But the years had been so long. She hadn’t heard from him in nearly a month. Had he found his own bitter mouthful of dirt?

Dark thoughts, dark thoughts. Charlotte closed her eyes. The more she reflected, the more she saw a trail of incompletion all along her path, from childhood forward—the piano lessons abandoned, the reading list never finished, and Daybreak itself, ragged and half-empty, although she had to give some credit for that to the Federal troops and the guerrillas. Perhaps, though, they had only accelerated the inevitable.

She opened her eyes and stood. This was not the time to moon about lost opportunities. She needed to chase the chickens into their homemade cages, plant lettuce and radishes, sweep the woods for lamb’s quarter and dock, pull an onion from its hiding place and get it clean for tonight’s soup. She needed to endure another day.

At the ford where the road to Fredericktown crossed the river, a man with a pack on his back and a walking stick in his hand waded through the water. Charlotte smoothed her skirts and squinted into the distance. This was the first traveler they had seen in days. The occasional military patrol, old folks in wagons, sometimes a refugee family—but a man alone and on foot? Charlotte watched as he reached the near bank. He sat in the road and took off his boots, dumped out the water, and resumed his walk. When he came to the fork, he stopped.
He was wearing a blue kepi and what looked like a Union soldier’s coat, but that meant nothing. The rebels and bushwhackers wore them, too. But on foot like that, he had to be a Union man. No one else would be so foolish as to walk though this part of the world alone.
The man had a black beard, and from this distance what appeared to be black hair streaming out from under his cap. He still stood at the fork in the road, either thinking or waiting for someone to come out. Charlotte decided it might as well be her. She chased the chickens into their pen and headed down the hill.

She passed behind the Temple of Community, its broken windows still boarded over from the fight four years ago. Who could afford glass these days? And the weekly meetings had faded into memory, with the men all gone. When something needed deciding, they just met in someone’s house or in the cleared ground in front of the Temple. The four houses closest to the river, the ones most prone to flooding, were empty now. They use them for storage, as if there was anything valuable to store.

Perhaps this man had come to her with news of James. Perhaps this was the moment she had been dreading, when she heard of his death, in battle, or by disease, or amputation, or the thousand ills that can befall a man, the moment when she would have to stand and hear some claptrap about the sorrowing heart of a grateful nation.

No. That always came by letter, if you were lucky enough not to have read the name in the newspaper beforehand.

She stopped in the road about six feet in front of the man. She could smell him from where she stood. His overcoat was stained, more dirt brown than blue, and he had a Springfield rifle slung over his shoulder with a piece of rope.

They regarded each other.

“Lee’s surrendered,” the man said.

“It’s about time,” said Charlotte.

She waited. But the man seemed to be in no hurry to announce his business.

“We can’t feed you,” she said after a minute.

“Didn’t ask.”

“So you didn’t. But you’d not turn down a meal if offered, I wager.”

“No, ma’am. That’s the soldier’s first rule.”

“What’s your regiment?”

“Eighth Missouri.”

She should have known by the thick Irish accent.

“I mustered out clean,” he said. “I can show you the paper if you like.”

He gestured toward his knapsack, but she waved him off impatiently. She could feel the eyes of everyone in Daybreak on her. She wasn’t sure how it had come to be her job to size up every potential threat, but somehow it had. If he had not come to beg a meal, what had he come for?

“You have a woman among you, a woman named Kathleen Flanagan,” the man said.

He said it more as a statement than a question. Charlotte narrowed her eyes, suspicious. She remained silent.

“She was keeping my child for me,” the man went on. “My name is Flynn. The child’s name would be Angus.”

So that was it. Charlotte looked up at the sky.

“You’d better come on in, then,” she said at last. “Your son is here.”

She led the way into the village. This was not going to be easy. Everyone had gotten accustomed to the idea that little Angus’s father was gone, never to return, moldering in some field somewhere or simply off to start a new life now that his wife was dead. Marie Mercadier had been caring for the child for three years now, nearly four.

“So you know,” she said over her shoulder, “Mrs. Flanagan’s not Mrs. Flanagan any more. She’s Mrs. Mercadier now.”
“A woman her age,” Flynn said.

“She can be old and still crave happiness.”

Charlotte glanced over her shoulder, but Flynn gave no sign of what he was thinking. She stopped and faced him before they reached the first houses.

“You have heard about your wife?”

He nodded.

“I’m sorry.”

“Got the letter in Tennessee. Not much to do about it by then. Might as well keep fighting. I would have come home when my three years ran out, but we were in Carolina by then, with all the tracks tore up behind us. Had to fight our way north.”

She turned to face him again. “We all have our stories about the bad things that happened to us in the war. Not to play you down any, but just to tell you.”

“Oh, I get your point,” he said.

“My name is Turner, by the way. Charlotte Turner.”

“Husband out fighting?” He read her expression. “How long since you’ve heard from him?”

“Not quite a month. A month almost.”

He nodded. “That will happen, ma’am. You get to fighting, and days will go by. You shouldn’t put nothing to it.”

“Oh, I don’t.” She left it at that. She did not want to tell this stranger the feeling she had, the feeling she believed in as much as she believed in her own self, that if Turner were to die, out on the field or in some back-line hospital, she would know it that minute. She would feel the shock, no matter the distance or the time. And she had not felt that shock. Therefore he was still alive, somewhere, and heading her way.

It occurred to Charlotte that she was becoming a creature of signs and omens. Perhaps it was the hunger. She hoped she had not changed so much as to be unrecognizable when James came home, like some she had seen—crabbed, clenched women who never met someone’s eyes, whose instinct to protect and conserve had crossed over into some kind of madness. A woman in French Mills had died that way last year, growing suspicious and inward, hoarding food, and hiding from everyone, even her neighbors, until the silence and darkness of her house led those same neighbors to push down her door and find her dead in bed, starved, with bins full of food in her kitchen.

They had reached the pump in front of the Temple of Community. Charlotte stopped. “I’m sorry,” she said to the man. “I didn’t mean to be so unfriendly. It’s not very Christian of me.”

“You’re entitled,” Flynn said. “I’m a stranger. Don’t know as I could tell you who’s Christian and who’s not these days.”

As they stood, people emerged from their houses and came out to see the stranger, confident to come out now that Charlotte’s presence had marked him as harmless, if perhaps not friendly.

The former Kathleen Flanagan, who had returned from St. Louis early last year and married Emile Mercadier, stepped out of the group and came close. “Michael Flynn?” she said.

“The same.”

“Lord have mercy,” she said. “You’ve come back.”