Garland Breazeale was the last lawyer remaining in the courthouse’s library. Of course, “library” was a generous description for the cramped space in the building’s basement. The shelves contained two legal dictionaries, a five-volume legal encyclopedia, the South Carolina Reporter through 1944, and the 1898 edition of the South Carolina Code.
Vickie Hattaway, a deputy clerk who also tended to the “library,” casually walked by the doorway and glanced in to see if Garland was still there. It was quarter to five. Garland jotted his final notes for the day on his legal pad. He had read dozens of cases dealing with third-party claims to contracts. The black letter law appeared clear: only the actual parties to the agreement—those in “privity”– possessed the right to sue on the contract for damages. A mere beneficiary under the contract had no standing.
Garland remembered this rule from his law school days, but wanted to double check before informing Marvin Burchfield, Hampton Falls’ sole grocer, that he had no rights to sue the railroad for its failure to deliver goods on time to Marvin’s wholesaler. The delayed shipments had cost Marvin holiday sales, but because he was not a party to the contract and instead an incidental beneficiary, he had no legal recourse.
Garland had this figured out by three o’clock. Yet, he had two excuses for lingering in the library. The first was Vickie. Garland enjoyed any opportunity talk and laugh with her. She had a keen sense of humor and was always willing to share news about visiting judges or upcoming trials. Vickie was also one of the best dancers in the Chauga Valley. Or so Garland had heard—as a good Baptist he feigned no knowledge of the rise and fall of the waltz or the energy of a jitterbug.
The second excuse amounted to dereliction of duty. Ruby Sassard was dying. She was a long-time member of Reedy Fork Baptist Church where Garland served on the diaconate. Her husband, prior to his passing in early 1935, had been known throughout the state for his preaching in tent revivals. People would travel for miles to hear him. Garland knew many men and women who pointed to Edward Sassard’s preaching as an event that marked a turning point in their lives.
The entire Chauga Valley loved the Sassards. Miss Ruby, as the town called her, had no children, but was looked after by a bevy of womenfolk. The church’s men and various neighbors kept her home in good repair. They also assisted in the keeping of her garden, chicken coop, and milk cow. In late fall, the men spent a weekend felling trees and chopping wood on the Sassard place. With a dozen men and boys at labor, they usually provided Miss Ruby with four or five cords to season beside the old smoke house. The seasoned wood from the previous year’s cutting they moved to the shed just off her back porch.
Miss Ruby had come down with pneumonia right after Thanksgiving. Doctor Sandifer didn’t expect that she would see Christmas. The last word Garland had heard was that Miss Ruby was going down fast. The women of the church were taking turns sitting with her. They broke the day into six-hour shifts and had enough volunteers so that for every shift a woman served, she had three days off.
The previous Sunday Ella Sheriff had cornered Garland in the back of the nave.
“Miss Ruby was asking about you the other day,” Ella said.
“That was sweet of her. I been meaning to stop by, but a couple of deadlines I’ve been chasing have hindered me.”
Immediately after offering this excuse, Garland gave a little shiver. He had not even made it out the church door and he was fibbing.
“Garland Breazeale, if you knew how much the Sassards meant to your daddy’s folks you’d been over there to pay your respects and offer that saintly woman a word of encouragement.”
Ella stared him down. It was the look that only a veteran school teacher could pull off. A look that shamed and motivated.
“I know it. I promise you I’ll stop by this week.”
“Sugar, it better be this week or . . . .”
“It will be,” Garland assured her.
Ella stepped back and gave Garland a nod. With a bit of breathing room, Garland scurried out the church door and made for his pickup.
Four days had come and gone since the encounter with Ella Sheriff. Garland still had not made the visit. It was not that he didn’t admire Miss Ruby. He did. But for whatever reason that year, as Christmas crept closer, despair followed on its heels. Garland’s parents had been dead for 15 years–victims of a train derailment in April 1933. Inhabitants of the Chauga Valley simply called it “the Derailment.” Multiple families suffered losses that day.
As an only child, the holidays in the years immediately after his parents’ deaths were difficult. Friends and family had looked out for him, but at times the absence of his parents was excruciating. Lost in a mountain gulch at night as the temperature plummeted—that was the only physical description Garland could come up with to describe his mental state back then. This led to lethargy and bouts with self-pity. Self-pity turned to anger as Garland chastised himself for not being thankful for the opportunity to finish his education and the steadfast love and patience his uncle Vernon Abbot showed him in the years after the Derailment.
Garland had hoped that the pain accentuated by the holidays had passed. Or at least that he had become numb to it. But the Christmas of 1948 promised to be trying. Sleep was difficult to come by. Thoughts of life prior to the Derailment occupied his mind. The last thing that Garland wanted to confront that December was death, the indefatigable force that followed every living creature.
Garland gathered his papers and slipped out the backdoor of the courthouse. He cranked his 1937 Chevrolet pickup and pulled out of the parking lot. It would take him about 25 minutes to travel from the county seat in Maxton to his cabin outside of Hampton Falls. He would pass right by Oakway Road on the outskirts of town. One left turn and three quarters of a mile would take him to the Sassard place.
The December days were short and light was passing into darkness. As he drove up Route 321, Ella Sheriff’s rebuke rang in his ears. “Lord, give me strength,” Garland pled aloud. “Give Miss Ruby comfort and grace. Be with her caretakers. Give them patience and perseverance.”
Garland continued to drive along. Once out of Maxton, he met only a couple of cars on the road.
He began to reason with himself that the prayer he had uttered would be more efficacious for Miss Ruby than him blundering in on a cold December night. He had done his duty. He had lifted up Miss Ruby to the Almighty, the maker of the heavens and the earth. She was in His hands.
“What more could a mere man do”? Garland asked aloud.
Garland’s truck approached the town limits. Not too much further and he would be home. Too many restless nights had left him drained; he needed sleep. And he was sure that Miss Ruby needed her rest. Fever, labored breathing, and the cough that accompanied pneumonia had most assuredly worn her down. Peace and quiet were her desire.
Perhaps he could go tomorrow. If he finished up at the office a little early, he could try to shoot down to Miss Ruby’s. He’d check with Pastor Darst first to make sure she was up for a visit. Undoubtedly, she had been wearied with a revolving door of friends and well-wishers. No need to add one more to the heap unless Miss Ruby had improved.
Garland thought of his cabin. He imagined kindling a fire in the stove and fixing supper. A bowl of cornbread and milk, and maybe a few greens leftover from yesterday’s dinner, would ready him for the night. He would probably read a bit after the meal and his evening devotions.
The truck hit a pot hole in the road and jumped. The early winter rains had left Hampton Falls’ roads and streets in disrepair. As Garland bounced in seat and hoped he had not damages the front axle, he saw the turnoff for Oakway Road. The truck lurched in that direction and Garland wrestled with the wheel. Whether it was the potholes or some invisible force conjured up by Ella Sheriff, the truck veered left. He grasped the steering wheel with both hands and stared ahead. It felt as if Ella had yanked the wheel from him–much like she yanked up a rambunctious boy by the ear and led him to his seat in the schoolhouse.
Garland needed to turn around. But a renewed sense of guilt came over him. He eased his foot off the accelerator and contemplated what he could do. The truck continued down Oakway Road, but at a reduced speed. A U-turn would put him in the direction of home and closer to supper. Yes, he had given his word that he would visit the widow Sassard, but that did not mean it had to be now.
Before Garland could comprehend what had just happened, he was upon the Sassard place. The internal debate had gone on longer than he realized but now ceased. Shaking his head and letting out a sigh, he turned in and parked beside the magnolia tree in the front yard. Garland sat in the truck for a few minutes. He rehearsed in his mind what he could say to encourage one on her deathbed.
The young deacon ransacked his mind for a Scripture verse he could recite. Perhaps Isaiah 40:31: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not be faint.” Or he could remind her of the chariots of fire that brought the whirlwind to whisk Elijah away to heaven and how she might depart in a similar manner. No, that would be over doing it. Miss Ruby knew that only Enoch, Elijah, and Christ had left this earth in those unusual circumstances. Garland continued to stare off in the distance.
After two or three minutes, he finally moved. Garland felt like and automaton as he exited the vehicle, walked up the front steps, and rapped on the door. He still had no plan as to what to say or do. The door opened and Cecilia Cleveland greeted Garland with a hug. Cecilia’s husband Roy farmed one hundred acres just south of Miss Ruby’s land. Her shift at the home would be ending soon.
Cecilia’s welcome brought Garland back to his senses.
“You picked a fine time to visit. Miss Ruby’s having one of her better evenings. She slept most of the afternoon, but revived a bit a little while ago. Now, get yourself into this house.”
Garland stepped in and pulled off his coat and hat. He immediately saw Miss Ruby. A bed had been moved into the parlor area near the fire place. As he stepped forward he could see that her eyes were open and she appeared to stare at the ceiling above. In the corner, just toward the end of her bed, was six-foot Fraser Fir decorated with colored balls, figures, and tiny wrapped packages.
“Roy cut that and put it up last week,” Cecilia remarked. “We’re already for Saint Nick to slide down that chimney, ain’t we Miss Ruby.”
“More likely Saint Peter,” Ruby rasped as she turned toward her guest.
“Well, I see your sense of humor ain’t suffered. Oh, Ruby, you are a mess,” Cecilia smiled. “If he does pay us a visit, I expect to hear a ‘Huzzah!’ as the heavenly host welcomes you into Glory.”
“Boy, pull up a chair, join the watchin’.” Miss Ruby motioned to Garland.
Garland grabbed a ladder-back chair and put it by her bed. He took Ruby’s hand as he sat down. It was cold, as if she had just pulled it out of the ice box. He noticed Ruby’s skin had an ashen color. Her eyes were wide open, but appeared glassy in the dim light of the room. At least two quilts covered her from foot to just under her chin.
“Isn’t that pretty,” Ruby said as she nodded toward the tree. “Have you got the halls of that cabin of yours decked?”
“Can’t say as I do ma’am. Roy must’ve forgot to cut mine when he cut yours.” Garland winked at Cecilia and they laughed.
“Hmpphh. Bare walls are a sign of a lonesome heart. What you need is a good wife. She’d see to it that you had a proper holiday decor.”
“I hear ya, Miss Ruby. Maybe one day.”
Ruby broke into a coughing fit. She reached for a handkerchief and her body convulsed under the quilts. Garland glanced at Cecilia, and she gave him a weak smile. Without speaking she informed him that these fits were expected and common now for Miss Ruby.
After a minute or two, Miss Ruby settled back down. No one said a word as she slowly caught her breath.
“You need one cut from the mold of your Granny Breazeale. Now she was one fine, Christian lady. Did you ever get to know her at all?”
“To be honest Miss Ruby, I’m not sure if what I think I remember comes from the stories folks have told me, have some basis in my experience, or are just how I’d like to believe she was. She passed when I was four.”
“Well, you better believe that she was everything they say, and more. She was a friend to us. And the best Sunday School teacher at the church. I’d say she knew more about the Bible and the Christian walk than most preachers. And I’ve known a lot of ’em in my time.”
Cecelia, seeing Garland squirm a bit with the reminder of his bachelorhood, proceeded to tell him and Miss Ruby about the country ham that Wade Giles had brought over just before Garland arrived. The Giles were known to raise some of the best hogs in the valley. Wade had come to the back door, dropped off the meat, and headed home to do the milking.
“He told me to make sure you knew that the Giles family was prayin’ for you and that he’d try to stop by again on Saturday,” Cecilia reported.
Ruby closed her eyes. Garland could tell that the little bit of conversation had worn on her. She started to comment, but gave a slight cough instead. To take the burden of talking off of her, Garland began to tell about his winter garden. He described his beds, cover crops, and the large heads of broccoli he had been cutting. As he rattled on, Cecilia put another log on the fire and stoked it.
“Yes, ma’am, my kale has done better this year than last. I’ve been able to enjoy it and my other greens almost every other night. In fact, I’ve got so much that I need to give some away.”
Garland began to turn his soliloquy to his plans for spring planting when Miss Ruby’s eyes popped open and focused on the tree.
“Boy, do you see those three angels holding hands?”
Garland turned and scanned up the Christmas tree. Just below the star on top, he saw the ornament that attracted Miss Ruby’s gaze. The three angelic figures had been crocheted. Each one was white—now more cream colored with the passage of time. The middle angel was about one inch taller than the other two. The middle angel’s wings touched the left wing of each of the others. Just under the outstretched wings of the angels, their robes flared out in triangular fashion.
“I do. Looks like their ready to give the Good News to the shepherds of Bethlehem.”
“That sure is mighty fine work,” Cecilia added. “I’ve never been able to do those lacy crochet patterns.”
“Your Granny Breazeale made that. I’d suppose she gave me that not long after the century turned.”
Garland took a long look at the ornament. He imagined his grandmother rocking on her porch and crocheting. Perhaps that year she made every woman at Reedy Fork Baptist a Christmas ornament. Or maybe she took particular time and made this one especially for the Sassards.
“Cecilia, bring those angels here.”
Garland watched as Cecilia, up on her tip toes, carefully unhooked the ornament and brought it to Miss Ruby.
Another coughing spell came on. Cecilia bent over her and delicately wiped her mouth with a handkerchief. She offered Miss Ruby a sip of water, but Ruby just shook her head no. Cecilia then straightened up the quilts and tucked the sides under Miss Ruby’s legs.
“Boy, I want you to have this.” She placed the ornament into Garland’s hands.
“Your Granny would want you to have it. It’ll remind you of what a dear lady she was. I don’t need any more reminders. Besides, I’ll see her soon enough myself in that Celestial City.”
The flames twitched in the fire place and the warmth permeated the parlor. Garland watched the fire and held the ornament in his hand. Once it had been in the hands of his grandmother. Now it was in his hands. Perhaps his father had sat beside her as she worked her stick and hook to create the delicate angels.
The thoughts of Christmas past rushed into Garland’s mind. This ornament had been created in a time when both his father and mother were. It existed when they were a family. It existed today when he was the last living member of that household. And just maybe the ornament would continue to exist after he was gone.
Garland turned to thank Miss Ruby for the gift. Her eyes were closed and her chest gently moved up and down under the quilts.
He took her hand in his and gave it a slight squeeze. Garland wanted to believe he felt a squeeze in return, but he could not be sure. He wanted Miss Ruby to revive. He longed to hear stories about his grandmother and times when the full Breazeale clan—at least as he envisioned it—was. The first Breazeales entered the Chauga Valley in the early 1800s. These were his people, his forefathers. Since that time there had always been Breazeales in those parts. However, the “full” family as he imagined it was simply Granny Breazeale, his mother, father, and himself.
“They say folks sleep like this when they reach the last days,” Cecilia whispered. “I suppose just the work of living can be exhausting.”
Garland looked up and met Cecilia’s gaze. “It’s been mighty fine work she’s done. A workmanship not many lives exhibit.”
Garland got up from his chair and moved for door. He slid the ornament into the right pocket of his coat and wished Cecilia good night.
As he drove home, Garland thought of Miss Ruby and how her life was one of workmanship and beauty. Even in her last days—maybe hours—she was thinking of others. And on this December night, that other was him. Patting the pocket carrying the ornament, Garland’s mind turned to the uncomfortable encounter with Ella Sheriff and her insistence that he visit Miss Ruby. How he had dreaded the trip down Oakway Road.
“Thank you, Ella,” Garland mumbled.
Upon arriving at home, Garland headed to his woodpile in anticipation of starting a fire and having a bite. Rather than picking up the wood, Garland reached for his hatchet and walked up the path towards his garden. The damp leaves along the path muffled his footsteps. In the moonlight, Garland made out a cluster of pine saplings just at the edge of the woods. These would need to be cut anyway, he told himself, before they grew and could deprive the garden patch of needed sunlight. Garland reached for a pine sapling whose top came almost to eye level. Grabbing a branch about midway down and finding its base on the bough, Garland swung his hatchet and cleaved the branch from the tree.
Garland lifted the branch to his face and took in the fresh pine smell. It reminded him again of the fire—or at least the lack of a fire in his cabin. The branch was small, perhaps 18 inches long. It would do for now, he thought. Once in his cabin, Garland fumbled for a match in the drawer of the stand beside the front door. The lantern sitting on top of the stand rocked slightly. With match in hand, Garland reached out and steadied it. He turned the key on the lantern to move just a hair more of the wick above the burner tube. Garland struck the match and then applied the match to the wick. The glow of the lantern provided him with light to move around his cabin.
With the pine branch in hand, Garland headed into his bedroom. His towel hung on a nail just to the right of the bed. He removed the towel and tossed it onto the chair in the corner. Taking the branch, Garland hung it on the nail with the base where he had cut it pointing upward. Reaching into his pocket, he took out the ornament and hooked it on the branch. Inching backwards, Garland sat on his bed and admired his new Christmas decoration.
Happy thoughts of the Christmases before the Derailment occupied his mind. Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve at the church, visits to his uncle Vernon Abbot’s farm, and the Olympic Flyer wagon he received in 1921.
Garland kicked off his shoes and, still almost fully clothed, climbed under the covers. He rolled onto his left side so he could look at the pine branch and ornament. He studied the ornament for some time and continued to revel in the company of family in his memories.
Garland entered the haze that occupies a mind between the worlds of sleeping and consciousness. His eyes remained focused on the ornament. Or maybe it was the imprint of the ornament on his mind and he was really asleep. Slowly, the lacy heads of the angels began to change into semi-recognizable faces. Though no fire had been kindled in the stove since morning, Garland felt a secure warmth envelop him. For a moment, he thought he could make out the faces of Granny Breazeale, his mother, and father. But just as the faces formed, they seemed to give a joyous shout—one of familiarity and recognition. The human features suddenly disappeared. All that remained was faded lace. Garland jumped slightly in his bed and laid his head back on the pillow.
He suspected they would have Miss Ruby’s memorial service on Saturday. He also knew that in ethereal realms a celebration was well underway. A smile crossed his lips and he fell into a deep rest. It was the best night’s sleep that Garland had enjoyed in weeks.
Image: The Court Visit of the Four Sages of Mount Shang and Su Shi’s Visit to the Wind and Water Cave | Artist: In the Style of Kano Mitsunobu (Japanese, 1565–1608)