Madam’s Creek

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This historical novel is set in the mountains of western Virginia in the mid-nineteenth century. Its protagonists are a young couple, nearly inseparable in their youth, who are pulled apart by the Confederate draft. Halfway through the war, their homeland becomes Union turf, thanks to the creation of the new state of West Virginia. The turmoil wrought by war is compounded by this change. The story’s focus is not the Civil War, however, but its impact on Marcus and Maylene, who do not find peace at the war’s close. What is the secret they must unravel before they can reclaim the closeness they once knew on Madam’s Creek?

An excerpt follows:

Marcus had never had to compete for Maylene. Even wise-cracking Junior had never made a move in her direction. Johnny was probably tempted but knew Maylene had no interest in him. Amos felt like a dire threat—taller, older, and Marcus assumed, by anyone’s criteria, better looking. Worst of all, he was smooth talking. Marcus feared he’d treated Maylene like a sister for too long. How was he going to learn sweet-talk overnight? It was far easier to picture Maylene laughing at him than falling into his arms if he began talking like Amos.

And when was he going to see her if Amos began monopolizing her Sundays? At thirteen, Maylene and Marcus had graduated from the Madam’s Creek School, situated between their homes, near the mill. The Sabbath was their only remaining point of contact.

Marcus was not accustomed to either fear or powerlessness. He could remember only one time he had felt their combined power—the day Maylene had fallen into the river. He had thrown himself across their sandstone perch, onto his chest, but missed on his first attempt to grab her, his hand closing on air and splashing water as the current carried her away. With a sickening sense of desperation, he made the leap of a lifetime, a downstream leap off the rock shelf, a leap of athleticism inspired by unmitigated terror. He seemed suspended in air, landing in slow motion, with time to plant his feet carefully between the rough stones that could have toppled him. He then plunged into the water, holding the lifeline of a tree branch with one hand, reaching for Maylene with the other. The turbulent water carried her to him. The feel of her forearm in his grip allowed time to return to its normal pace. He had her. He would not let her go until she was standing next to him, and he did not.

That night he had lain awake unable to fight off the what-ifs. He’d told himself Maylene wouldn’t have drowned if he hadn’t reached her. She knew how to swim and would have overcome her panic, stopped trying to stand in the impossible current on the hopelessly slippery rocks, and simply swum to safety. But he wasn’t sure. Even at age eleven, it was easy for a child with his vivid imagination to visualize what could have happened. His mind replayed the image of Maylene’s golden hair swept across her face, her green dress swirling. . . .  She had seemed to be becoming part of the river, and he’d felt powerless to stop it from claiming her. He could see himself pulling her free of a logjam, laying her out like a shot muskrat on the bank, dragging himself to the Farleys’ door, forcing his lungs and throat and tongue to form the hideous words, “Maylene is dead.”

Then, like now, he was mad at her for scaring him.

His thoughts gnawed at him as his whittled-thin stick snapped in two and the sun dipped into sinews of clouds strung along the horizon. He might as well head back. Pa wouldn’t be happy about his backed-up chores.