Imagining the Woman Known Only as Wife On this Eroded Tombstone in the Old Butler Cemetery off Route 194

Fiction by Janice Leadingham

James E. McAnderson
Co. E. 7th Vol. Inf.
Born in West Virginia
His Wife

C___ spent her growing-up split between her grandmothers—Grandmama, a Baptist who lived in a white clapboard just past the General Store, and Mamaw, who told fortunes with the bones of a bad-luck-cat washed clean in a south-flowing-river to pay Popcorn Craven for moonshine. The first taught her not to dawdle on her walk to church, lest the devil pull her down. The second taught her that the devil was inevitable and it was better to see him coming. This created in her a terrible urge to seek and an insatiable fear to find.

The same night the edge of a tornado picked Mamaw’s house off its river rock foundation and set it back down square and clean but facing the opposite direction so that Mamaw woke up to a view of the river, C___’s first period came on. She resented the blood and the clots on the bridge of her underwear. Her body was more a roommate to her mind than anything else, and this, to her, was a bodily intrusion on her mind. Hell, it felt too intimate to pull the white bread and peanut butter from her gums with the point of her tongue, and she only ever touched herself over her underwear and even then, it was to frogs pulling themselves out of the wet, sucky mud.

C___ married Jimmy because he sweat a scent something like a radish freshly pulled up from the dirt. His very nature was vegetal—a greenhouse she could curl up in and take a nap. He never said much and what he did say was kind, and he let her hog the blankets without complaint, and knew that she took her liquor without ice. She spent most of their days together out in the garden with a red hen she named Georgie Jacamo. Together, they played God. They decided when to pull a butterfly free from the orb weaver’s web, or if a runty zucchini plant deserved the extra water it’d cost. Sometimes they disagreed.

Every night for a year after she died, Mamaw visited C___ at bedtime. She sat on her quilted feet the way a cat might until she knew she had C___’s attention, then she’d draw an X in the air with her pointer finger and whisper, “Buttermilk”. C___ knew this to be a ward, that trouble was on its way. She looked for omens in the Sears catalog and cracks in her biscuit dough. She listened for a noontime screech owl, cursed at the candlewicks that refused the flame.

And then, a year to the day Mamaw died, Grandmama died too, having had the last word. She was buried in a wig the color and sheen of gasoline.

Georgie Jacamo died in her lap in the Spring sunshine.

Jimmy survived the coal mine in West Virginia and fighting on a beach in France, but had a heart attack changing a tire on his truck and died in the Tennessee dirt.

C___ collected these deaths like pebbles sewn into the hem of her calico dress, a weight that pulled her down, curved her spine. So, she looked for and kept small joys as company. The first strawberries of the season, a celebration. Tinned artichoke hearts were a miracle, a Piggy-Wiggly buggy without a sticky wheel, a sign from God. Her library holds coming in, an occasion. She died there, in the library, in the rocking chair between rows 550 Earth Sciences and 560 Paleontology, a book explaining the evolution from dinosaurs to chickens on her knee.

She was buried beside Jimmy, under a stone paid for by the government, a leather bag holding Georgie Jacamo’s bones tucked under her arm. No one left to mourn her but a girl cutting through the cemetery to steal some lilacs.

And, anyway, it could’ve gone like this. If we had ever met, if we had lived at the same time, breathed in the same air, if we were walking down a county road together late at night in the summer and the smell of a recently runover skunk hit us, we’d wrinkle our noses and say “Skunk” at the same time, we’d be friends. The shivering tobacco leaves would call to us from the road and we’d run through their parted lines until there were sparks in our chests and stains from the red clay on our shoes and socks and skin. She would’ve told me all of this, all about her life, because she knew I would believe her and I wouldn’t think any of it was weird.

Janice Leadingham

Janice Leadingham is a Portland, OR based writer and tarot reader originally from somewhere-near-Dollywood, Tennessee. You can find her work in HAD, The Bureau Dispatch, the Northwest Review, and Bullshit Lit, among others. She is @TheHagSoup on Twitter and Instagram, and