I was born with very red hair.
But it was not red like a strawberry or cherry. It was red like the red of a sun ripened peach.
I was delivered by my aunt at 7 a.m. on April 11, 1852. I can't say for certain if I really do remember that day or if I just have an active imagination. Perhaps it is just something that my people told me -- but I know that the sun was soft that morning on the hanging curtains, and that there was a glint of it on the wooden bowl which held the warm water and the sponge of my first bath.
My mum and dad lived in Richmond, in a cottage with white lilies in the garden and green vines on the brick. Mother's name was Ellen Flynt -- her maiden name, Penrose. She sewed fancy carrying bags for ladies. Father was Philip Flynt, a cobbler with a shop beside the house. He was a light haired man who matured too quickly, and relied heavily on his wife for picnics. Her eyes were green like mine. That is what I have heard.
I have heard other things.
I have heard that my mother once grew a six pound squash in the garden, and that she would not cook it. I have heard that my father was not overly concerned with things of a worldly nature, and that at our table, he always set an extra place for wanderers and travelers.
I have heard that my crib was made of young birch and that it smelled sweet like a bowl of fruit....
I have also heard that of those who came to America from Europe, many had set out to escape some extraordinarily trying circumstances. And I have heard that of those who came from China, many immigrated due to similar conditions (though the Chinese especially seemed to endure more hardships in the years to come, with the building of the railroads across the west). And I have heard from some that the Irish brought cholera. And I have heard from others that the Chinese brought cholera. And still others have told me that nobody is to blame for cholera -- that sometimes it simply grows, like moss on a rock.
There is a baker, a Mister Joseph Brintons, whose shop was beside the old cobbler's house in Richmond. When I visited there, he told me that when my mother and father were infected with cholera, two soldiers were posted outside of our home. They pushed provisions through the windows, and were given instructions to fire on anyone who tried to enter the house. Mister Brintons does not know under whose authority they were acting, and he is not sure that it was the right thing. But he is also not sure that it was the wrong thing, as nobody else was infected. He told me that in the spring of '56, a doctor named Wickersham stood at the front door shouting instructions to my father, and then to me, when, like my mother, my father became too sick to stand. "Mix salt and molasses into warm water," said the doctor, "and make them drink it." Mister Brintons said that I never fell ill, and that though I was a young girl (just four years old) I dutifully accomplished the doctor's ministrations. He said that by the second day there was a collection of friends and neighbors who stood outside the house holding candles -- gathered in prayer. But that is something I do not recall.
My recollection begins with a dying woman that I do not remember knowing. She was pale, and lay under a white blanket on a brass bed. She called me her princess, and asked that I promise to take care of my father, who was downstairs on a bed in the kitchen. I did. He was lying on a mattress on the dining table. I patted him with a damp cloth, and squeezed water into his mouth with a sponge. He had a tea towel over his face that he would not let me remove. He was afraid his breathing would infect me. Before sunrise, he too had rested his fingers in his palm, his last breath expired.
I do remember rather well the loneliness of the time that followed. I have heard it was a day. I have heard it was a week. I have heard it was much too long for a child to be alone. And that, I believe....
Many times, the old cobbler's house on Peach Road has been described to me. It was a two story white house with a brick wall in the back. There was a steep staircase to the second floor. The rooms were narrow. The windows were small. I was told that the bricks of the hearth were re-used to build the hearth of the house that now stands on that lot. And I have seen that house -- but it is simply a stranger's house, and there is nothing to make me feel that it was ever my own.
Richmond is now regrown -- reblossomed, like a flower from a bulb. And when I stood in the streets of the rebuilt town, I did not recognize a single pebble -- not a stone, not a shrub, not a tree, not the color of the sky.
And my childhood seemed a long time ago indeed -- as I stood there on New Peach Road, and listened to the clop of horse hooves on cobblestone, to children tossing beanbags and jumping rope, to merchants selling flowers, and a man selling popped corn. I listened to the sound of hammering and sawing, and the shouts of men rebuilding -- to all those sounds of Richmond from twenty-five years before. And then I heard the echo of ten years before that -- of cannon and minie balls whistling overhead, of mad cries, and the long silences when air set still. And from beyond those years, in all the multitude of sounds between me and my girlhood, I strained to hear the sound of my own soft footsteps, and the sound of my own child's brush drawing through my own red hair....
But all I heard was the sound of horse hooves clop on the cobblestone, of children tossing beanbags and jumping rope, of merchants selling flowers and a man selling popped corn.
Even so, since that visit, I sometimes imagine my mum and dad -- Mum in a blue dress and a white apron, and Dad with his thin blond hair. They are standing in the slender stairwell with their hands outstretched. I cannot hear their voices, but I read their moving lips.That's it, Alma,
they say to me, as I rise from my hands and knees to take my first step....
Excerpted from A Still Small Voice by John Reed. Copyright © 2000 by John Reed. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.