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  • Grace A. Johnson

featured story: ode to ellie by m.c. kennedy

Updated: Dec 20, 2022


Y'all, this story is too sad and yet sweet, too touching not to share! I hope y'all enjoy Ode to Ellie by M.C. Kennedy!

 

Mrs. Henry’s finger was shaking up and down like a sideways metronome, her face red and

her eyes sparking as she hissed, “You have sinned. Your daughter’s death would have been proof enough, but Ruthie’s deafness only confirms it. You ought to be falling on your knees in

repentance, Matthew Keaton, begging for God’s mercy on your life. How long will you continue

to live in your sin?”

For the first time, Matthew was glad his wife couldn’t hear anything. His lanky frame towered over Mrs. Henry as the muscles in his jaw twitched. “I appreciate your concern, Mrs. Henry,” he said, keeping his tone even only with an effort. “Now I must ask you to leave.” He strode across the floor and tugged open the door. The crisp autumn air pushed into the room, though it did little to dispel the tension permeating the very walls.

Mrs. Henry spluttered, her cheeks turning from red to purple. She marched toward the door

and rose as tall as she could to speak directly into Matthew’s face. “I am innocent of your

blood,” she spat. “It is on your own head now.” She sailed across the threshold, the house

shaking as she slammed the door behind her.

Matthew’s shoulders slumped, and he leaned his arm against the doorframe, drawing in a

shaky breath. “Oh God,” he sighed. “Dear God.”

The house was silent as he turned back around to face the small sitting room. Two wooden

rocking chairs, a small table, and an old upright piano comprised the furniture. Mrs. Henry had

just vacated the chair on the right. Ruthie occupied the other one, her eyes fixed on the

newspaper clipping lying on the table, her hands clasped tightly in her lap.

“She’s just a mean old lady,” Matthew said, moving back into the sitting room and dropping into the empty chair. “That’s all. She doesn’t really know what she’s talking about.”

Ruthie said nothing. The only thing indicating she was still alive, aside from the stiffness of

her back, was the steady rising and falling of her chest as she breathed. Everything else, from the paleness of her skin to the blankness of her eyes, spoke of death.

Matthew pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut. “You ought to be falling on your knees in repentance, Matthew Keaton!” Mrs. Henry’s accusation rang in his mind, and he

splayed his hands over his face. “How long will you continue to live in your sin?”

But he had repented. They both had—though the way he saw it, he was the only one to blame.

The golden band encircling Ruthie’s left ring finger proved to the world that he’d done the

honorable thing and married her.

Apparently, though, it wasn’t enough for God. 

Matthew picked up the newspaper clipping from the table. Mrs. Henry had brought it with

her, shoving it at him as soon as he opened the door to her, insisting that this was the reason for

the tragedy that had fallen upon his family. The square of paper was from several months ago

and featured the town’s weekly marriage announcements. His and Ruthie’s names were circled

in red, and the date—“May 24, 1940”—was underlined in heavy ink. Today’s date was scrawled

beside it: “November 18, 1940.”

Matthew crumpled the paper into his fist and jerked to his feet. “So what?” he demanded. He tossed the wad of newspaper into the garbage bin in the corner. His hands behind his back, he began to pace. “So what that our daughter was born three months ago and we’ve only been

married for six? We were sorry for it, Ruthie! We went before the church and confessed it to

everyone. We married.” He stopped in front of Ruthie and fell to his knees beside her, placing

his hands over hers and squeezing hard. “We did wrong. But we tried to do right. Why wasn’t

that enough?”

Ruthie raised her eyes to his. They were dull, with none of the shine in them that had made

him fall for her when they were kids of sixteen and seventeen. She didn’t move, didn’t shift her

hand to hold his. She just stared at him, stared past him, as if the fever that had stolen her hearing had taken her soul as well.

“Dear God, why?” Matthew leapt up and ran from the room. His eyes burned as he pounded up the tiny staircase that led to his and Ruthie’s equally tiny bedroom. He shoved the door open and dropped onto the bed, pressing his hands against his eyes. 

The little wooden crib was just a few steps away. They’d had to burn all the bed clothes.

Everything she’d touched was gone, even the little doll Ruthie had so carefully stitched for her.

All they had left to remind them of her presence was this empty shell of a bed.

Matthew bit down on his knuckle, pushing back the sob that yearned to tear from his throat. “Please, God,” he whispered, slumping forward, “help me. I know I don’t deserve it. But I’ve lost Ellie, and now I’m losing Ruthie, too. God, forgive me. Help me.”

Only silence answered him. Matthew swallowed hard, past the tightness of his throat. That

was the only answer he ever received these days. Even God had abandoned him.

Matthew exhaled, willing the pain and the grief to leave him as easily as that puff of breath did. A cold wind from the open window nipped at his cheek. His eyes trailed over the room, stopping on the bureau wedged into the far corner. Several sheets of paper resting on top of it testified that it doubled as Matthew’s desk. He stood and crossed over to it, shuffling through the papers. It had been at least a month since he’d touched them—only a month since his world fell apart.

He picked up the papers and carried them to the bin in the opposite corner. If they’d sat there for a month, they couldn’t be important. 

Another breeze entered the room, this one catching the papers and snatching them out of his hand. Matthew groaned as the pages scattered across the floor, and he hurried to collect them all.

One fluttered close to the window, threatening to leave the room and become a part of the outdoors. Matthew grabbed at it and slammed the window closed.

Then he looked down at the wrinkled page in his hand and frowned. Black lines formed neat bars across the page, the topmost of which had several circles and lines scribbled onto it. The top of the page sported three simple words: “Ode to Ellie.”

The other papers fluttered onto the bed as Matthew gripped the one in his hands. He’d begun to write this two days before Ellie started running a fever. The rash had come next, all while the fever continued to ravage his daughter’s little body. Ruthie had cared for her day and night, until the fever struck her, too. The last thing she’d heard before it stole her ears was the wailing of her dying child.

Matthew shuddered, squeezing his eyes shut. Then they popped open again as he strode back to the bureau. A stubby pencil sat on top of it, and he grabbed it. A few swift strokes added more notes to the staff as Matthew transferred the melody running through his mind to the paper. It was springy and bubbly, mirroring Ellie’s smiles and gurgles that would have turned into laughs in time.

Soon the page was full. Matthew tugged open one of the bureau drawers and pulled out a fresh sheet of staff paper, continuing the tune. But the key switched to minor. Matthew hesitated, his hand slowing. There was darkness here—deep, frightening darkness that no light could pierce. It didn’t fit with the rest of the song. It shouldn’t be here.

But no other notes would come. At last, Matthew sighed and wrote down the oppressive

melody. It continued for several measures, each one filled with more agony than the last. And

then— Matthew paused, staring at the page. There was nothing now, only silence in his head. This was no way to end a piece of music, but no other notes presented themselves to him. He

scribbled a full-measure rest, then added another one just to spite the obstinate silence. Then one more, because the third one finished out the page.

He placed the two sheets side by side, skimming over the music that had poured from his

heart onto the pages. The first page was happy, excited, beautiful, promising nothing but hope.

The second one took those dreams and crushed them. And that dreadful silence at the end

threatened to ruin the whole thing.

He exhaled slowly as he placed the first page on top of the other. “I should play it,” he

muttered. “That’ll help me think of an ending.”

Ruthie was still in the rocking chair when Matthew came back down, sitting as if she hadn’t moved an inch. Matthew watched her for a moment, running through a thousand things he could say to her. But she wouldn’t respond to a one of them. She couldn’t. He moved to the old piano and sat down, propping up the two pages in front of him.

He placed his fingers on the keys. For a few seconds, he simply took in the feel of the worn

ivory under his fingertips, a sensation he’d gone without for a month. Then, following the notes

he had written, he began to play. He went slowly at first, pausing to jot down suggestions for

later. But when he reached the second page, he couldn’t stop. He played it all the way through,

right to the end of those awful rests. Exhaling heavily, he raised his hands and lowered his head.

There was still nothing for an ending.

Something rustled behind him, beside him. Then Ruthie was at the piano, staring at it, her

eyes longing as she reached out to touch it. Her hand slid over the wood, across the keys, and she closed her eyes as she drew in a deep breath. 

Matthew’s throat tightened as he watched her. She’d once told him that she could listen to him play for hours. “I’m working on something,” he said, working to keep his voice steady,

trying to act as if Ruthie’s moving didn’t send streams of hope coursing through him. “It’s… for

her.” He played the opening chord, pretending his wife would be able to hear it.

Ruthie jumped, her eyes flying open as she snatched her hand away from the piano. She

stared at the keys, then at Matthew, then back at the keys. 

Matthew blinked at her. “What?” Excitement stirred in his chest. She hadn’t had this much of a reaction to anything in weeks.

Ruthie pressed down on the keys, creating her favorite E-minor chord. The hint of a smile

fluttered across her lips, and she played another chord. The smile returned, staying longer this

time.

“Ruthie, can you hear that?” Matthew half-rose, craning his neck to look into his wife’s face. She didn’t answer, and the hope that had dared to raise its head crashed back into the pit of his stomach. He stared at her as she played note after note. And then his mouth formed a circle as his eyes grew wide. “Ruthie,” he whispered, “you can feel it.”

He pushed back the piano bench, the legs scraping across the floor. He touched Ruthie’s

shoulder, and she started before turning her head to look at him. He gestured to the bench. “Sit

down,” he invited. “Please.” She stared at him for a moment before nodding and sliding onto the bench.

Matthew pushed her close to the piano, his heart hammering in his chest. “Please, God,” he breathed, “let this work.” He stood behind Ruthie, his arms surrounding her as he took her hands and placed them on the keys, his own resting over hers. He closed his eyes and inhaled. Then he played.

He played through his song, from start to finish. He played exactly as he had first written it,

disregarding his edits. His fingers traveled across the keys, and Ruthie’s hands kept pace with

his. She tensed when the second page began, but he pressed on. He took her through the

heartbreak, through the rage of grief. When the silence came, he kept his hands on the keys, and Ruthie sat motionless. He let it continue: one measure… two measures… three measures. Then, letting out his breath in a slow sigh, he played again the opening notes of the piece. 

He let the last note linger, holding down the key until the sound from it faded naturally away.

Only then did he raise his hands and look down at Ruthie’s face. She was gazing up at him, her face wet and her eyes shimmering. She smiled at him—a gentle, tremulous smile that sent his heart soaring. He returned it with a wobbly one of his own. 

Ruthie placed her hands back on the keyboard. Matthew put his over hers and squeezed. “Thank You,” he murmured. 

Then he played for her.

 

Wasn't that just precious? *sniffs* If y'all are interested in reading more from M.C. Kennedy, check out her website, where you can learn about her debut novel (and its re-release, which I am so excited for), A Wolf's Rose!


yours in spirit and script,

Grace


#featuredstory #shortstory #historicalfiction

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