Heart of the House

by Beth

Notes: The February 2003 Challenge (the "Estrogen" Challenge):  offered by Lady Catherine 

I know many writers like to stretch their creative muscles by creating new characters to work with the seven.  I also know that many writers have a strong dislike for Mary Sues, (as do I).  Therefore: I would like to see a three dimensional female character who is NOT romantically connected with any of the seven (past, present or future).  She must play a role in the story, i.e. not simply walking by and tipping her hat.  Women come in all shapes, sizes, ages and personalities, just like dudes.  Make her tough, sweet, good, evil, prissy- whatever. Let's see some girls just being girls.

Please send comments to: artwriter@operamail.com

Her chickens were gone, eaten by troops that had bedded themselves on her husband’s land. Her old dog, Bess, now hid by the stove, fearing for her life, fearing the roars of canyons, and the piercing sounds of rifles. Though the battle had ended, the destruction remained.

She continued to knead her bread dough, and gracefully she wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist. She could hear her lone steed nickering for his fallen comrade. After four long days of battling for his life, the old gray finally died. She would have put him out of his misery…if she’d had a bullet to spare. She tried to make him comfortable, but anything she did was minimal to what he needed.

Her hands were callused and rough, and her beauty diminished by war. She was fortunate though, her home still stood, her fields would soon be ready for planting, and she knew the sun would once again rise.

“…Let us pause in life’s treasures, and count its many tears, while we all sub sorry with the poor. There’s a song that will linger, forever in our ears, oh hard times come again no more…” her voice blended with the air, and like a warm wind on a cold day, she saw her life clearly.

She’d survive.

She’d survive like her mother had before her, and like her grandmother before that. Soon, the black man would be free. No longer enslaved by the laws of the land, no longer at the mercy of any white man…soon, they’d be free to own land, vote, and chose their own destinies…three very small things that should not be denied to anyone.

Except her…and those like her.

She thought about the dowry, paid to her husband by her father for her hand in marriage. At the time, she’d felt like a piece of meat being auctioned off. At sixteen, she’d been dressed up, made to look like something she wasn’t…they’d called it her ‘coming out party’. It hadn’t been anything other than a way for her parents to find her a suitable mate, and for society to approve of her ‘position’. She was lucky though; her husband was a good man with a good heart. He worked hard, fought bravely, and wrote her loving letters; he told her how much he missed her, and how much it pained him to be so far from her call.

Not blessed with children, she found her solace in her garden. It had long ago been trampled by Calvary horses and artillery, but like so many things, she returned to that ground and worked the soil, hoping to one day see the lush green vegetables and colorful flowers.

She had to hope…for something.

The fire flickered and shot sparks upward. The cast iron pot hanging on the swivel warmed the stew in her Dutch oven, and the aroma of muskrat cooking filled the air like the soft hum of a bird’s feather passing through the wind. It wasn’t fancy, but it was all she needed to survive. Tomorrow she’d cut some wood, repair the fence, and work in her garden…she’d do the things her husband had done before her.

“…While we seek mirth and beauty, and music light and gay, there are frail forms fainting at the door… While their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say, Oh hard times come again no more…”

She looked up and out the window, watching as the colorful hues of yellow, orange, and red, faded into the distance—blending with the distant lands. Smoke still hovered over the grass and trees, looking like a shadow that shared no happiness. Men lay dying under that fog, suffering, crying, and ultimately begging…all for the cause. It didn’t matter what color they wore—to her…they were all the same.

She heard a tap at her door, and immediately she reached for her weapon. Bess picked up her ears, but remained by the stove. Softly, delicate feet moved across the worn wooden floor and a small hand grabbed the latch.

Wearing shredded, stained, and old clothing, he stood weakly next to the doorframe. His mouth spoke nothing, but his eyes pleaded loudly. His hair was matted, covered in dirt and blood and his skin seemed dark under smudges of mud and sweat. He leaned heavily, but his body was nothing but skin and bones. He gasped for one last breath of air before falling forward into the woman’s arms.

She dropped her weapon and grabbed the frail form before he could cause himself more harm. Gently, she lowered him to the floor and brushed his hair back, unsure if the color was blonde, brunette, or even perhaps…chestnut. His hand reached up and she grasped it to her breast, and carefully she brushed his cheek.

“You’re all right,” she whispered softly, “you just rest.”

Without further ado, he closed his eyes and succumbed to the darkness that beckoned him.

“Well, Bess…” she said, “looks like we’ve got some nursin’ to do.”


He could feel gentle hands wiping his face free of blood and mud. She bathed him, clothed him, and shaved his stubbled face. It brought tears to his eyes; guilty for being unable to care for himself, guilty for failing his unit, and shame for his weakness.

Without judgment, she dabbed the tears from his cheeks, and continued to softly hum. Her voice melted, reminding him of butter on a hot roll, and his stomach growled in response. His head was lifted gently, and a warm cup was placed to his mouth. Broth slipped past chapped lips and slipped between them like honey. He slurped, and coughed, trying to make up for his lack of control. 

A soft cloth wiped at his mouth, chin, and neck. Gently, he was lowed back to the bed and covered with a heavy quilt.


His heart raced as bullets passed his head, they pierced the ground by his horse’s feet…but still, he continued forward. The fog of war had thickened and the enemy had disappeared. Horses screamed out in their last dying breaths, and fathers, brothers, children, and lovers succumbed to the brutalities of it all.

He sucked in a deep breath as the dreams flooded his mind. Friends fell from their mounts, crying out for their mothers. He whimpered and grasped the blanket on his bed with a tight fist. He felt a soft hand on his arm, and then his face. A cold cloth wiped sweat away from his brow. He turned toward the comfort, seeking all he could.

She started humming again, gently wiping his bangs from his forehead. Tears fell from close eyes as fevered dreams consumed his mind. “Bess,” she called to her dog.

The mutt stood on her front legs and batted her tail on the wood floor. Slowly, she crept toward her master.

“Up,” she said, motioning for her dog to get on the bed.

Bess did as she was ordered and lay along the body of the fallen soldier. She laid her head on his arm, eyeing her master all the while. She received a pat on the head and a smile for her effort, and Bess was content to remain where she was.

The woman returned to her duties, cleaning laundry, and donning the soldier’s uniform. She hoped all the while that her husband was warm, safe, and unharmed. She prayed that someone would be kind enough to take him in and nurse him, should he need their care.

“…Bob Roebuck is my sweetheart’s name, he’s off to the wars and gone, he’s fighting for his Nannie dear, his sword is buckled on…He’s fighting for his own true love, his foes he does defy, he is the darling of my heart, my Southern soldier boy…” She sang again, filling her home with sounds of new, but thinking of a past not forgotten.

Her heart rang out for the boys, like the one lying in a troubled sleep on her bed. Their mother’s were home, worrying about their sons; sisters sat waiting for their brothers, and wives lay in bed at night praying for their soldiers return.

They weren’t idol in their deeds. No. They kept their homes running: chopping wood, repairing fences, feeding animals, caring for children…and being the sole providers of their own self worth. They worked without complaint. Once soft and delicate hands were worn and callused. Clothing that had been clean and elegant was now tattered and frayed. Skin that had been soft now knew the feeling of sweat and pain.

Southern and Northern women alike, fought for their men in the same manner.

Many died.

More survived.

She wiped her hands on her apron and looked out over the land, praying for a new opportunity.


She woke suddenly when she heard the soldier cry out. Bess had moved to the end of the bed, watching curiously as the stranger struggled with his demons. Sweat gathered and poured down his face and neck, and he spoke franticly, but incoherently.

She wrapped herself in her housecoat and quickly sat beside the struggling form. “Shush now,” she soothed, grasping his hand and pressing it against her chest. Gently she wiped his fevered brow, trying to soothe him.

Slowly, he opened his eyes. Lashes clung together from sweat and tears. “They’re dead,” he muttered, barely making a sound.

She reached out and pulled him gently to her lap, allowing him the use of her thigh to rest his head and shed his tears. She rubbed his back gently, allowing herself to mourn the loss of innocence. Bess slowly crept behind the soldier’s legs, resting her head on his hip. His body shook and shuttered with every intake of breath...

Breath that his friends and comrades would no longer take.

She rubbed his back, allowing him the time he needed. Unsure of what to say or do, she hummed softly…and then started to sing, “He lead-eth me; O blessed thought! O words with heavenly comfort frought; What-e’er I do, wher-e’er I be, Still ‘tis God’s hand that lead-eth me…”

Her voice melted over the troubled soul that suddenly calmed, he grasped her gown in one last effort to keep her near, and she only smiled, unwilling to leave him. She continued to sing softly, while stroking his hair, cheek, and back.


He woke to the sound of wood scrapping metal. Slowly, he opened his eyes. Seeing only blurry images, shades of brown, yellow, and red. He closed his eyes again, and took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the scent of a woman, and the home in which she lived. His lungs and mind sent messages to his heart of a better time in his life…when things weren’t so complex.

Like the angel that instinctively knew their charge was in need, a soft wet cloth tenderly stroked his face and he turned toward her, and once again, he opened his eyes. Still blurry and unclear, the images slowly came into view.

“Welcome back,” she spoke softly, her voice floating like a seductive smile.

He watched as she stood up and moved toward the large wooden table. He couldn’t tell her hair color. Depending on how the sunlight caught it, it appeared blonde—almost white, or dark brown, and then black. Her age was undetermined, he only knew her beauty by kindness and generosity.

“What happened?” he asked, his voice sounding harsh and unfamiliar.

“Doesn’t matter,” she replied, spooning some soup into a bowl.

“How long have I been here?”

She looked up and smiled: “Three days.” She moved back toward him, her skirts dusting the floor, gently swaying around her hips.

He nodded tiredly, and didn’t object when she placed a strong arm behind his shoulders. Still weak and unsteady, she helped him sit up.

“Are you alone here?” he asked, watching as she prepared to feed him.

“I’m never alone,” she replied, lifting the spoon to his lips.

“I’m sorry for havin’…”

“Don’t apologize,” she stopped him, “don’t ever apologize for something so…unavoidable.” She smiled as she spoke, and a calmness settled over him.

He watched her hands, how they moved with such grace. He noticed the shape of her jaw, the softness of her face, and how her eyes were the key to her soul. There was so much there, and yet, it was all unreachable for him.

“Thank you,” he said softly.

She smiled and patted his shoulder. “You should eat…to get your strength back.”

He nodded and allowed her feed him, wiping his chin when he spilt, never judging him, or making him feel any less of a man.

“What’s your name,” the soldier asked, leaning back against the pillows.

“Anna,” she replied, “just Anna.”

He smiled and watched her a moment, wishing he had the energy to thank her right.

“Get some sleep,” she ordered, pulling his blankets up to his chest.


Feeling strong enough to dress, he stood and slipped into his freshly laundered and donned clothing. It felt strange, almost as if they were new. He tried his best to make the bed he’d slept in, but failed.

He could hear the sound of wood being chopped, and he silently cursed himself…wishing he were stronger. It had been far too long since he’d arrived, causing more problems for Anna. She worked harder than any man he ever knew, and she had the inner strength of an army.

He reached out and carefully placed his gunbelt on, not at all surprised that it had been oiled and cleaned. Even his sword shined. He ran his hand along the blade and looked up when the door opened. “I should be going,” he said softly.

Anna smiled: “I know.” She deposited her wood near the stove and retrieved the small bag that had been bound with rope. “It should last you long enough…at least until you reach your unit.”

“I can’t take your food…”

“You can, and you will,” she forced him to take it, “the bread is hard, but it is fruitful.”

“I never told you my name,” he said, wishing he had more to give.

Anna shook her head: “I don’t want to know.”

He was taken back by her statement, but on some levels he understood. He nodded, and made his way to the door. “I want to thank you…for all you’ve done.”

Anna brushed a stray length of hair from her face and smiled warmly.

He stepped outside and took a deep breath, allowing the fresh air to enter his lungs. He stepped down the stair and turned. He noticed Anna, standing in the doorway. “If we win this war—” He stood proud. “I’ll come back here, and thank you properly.”

Anna nodded, but didn’t say a word. She offered a wave and watched as he left her home.

He never returned.

The End

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