The dream came to Lanie Belle Freeman softly, so gently that the scene enveloped her like a warm, soft blanket. She lay still, caught in that zone somewhere between deep sleep and awareness. As always when the dream came, Lanie was vaguely aware that she was in a world that did not exist, yet at the same time the dream was so wonderfully real that she always resisted the pull of the world. The world was filled with cold practicality and hard decisions and heartaches. But the dream — ah, the dream! It was warm and lovely and filled with a joy that the real world could never give!
The dream always began the same, never even the slightest variation. Lanie had endured so many painful changes in the past few years that the most comforting thing about the recurring dream was its reliable sameness.
It began with the sound of Lanie’s mother singing “The Old Rugged Cross.” Elizabeth’s voice was clear as a bell, sweet and pure and true. The words seemed to Lanie to flow like the clear waters of Singing River:
On a hill far away, stood an old rugg ed cross,
The emblem of suff ering and shame
And I love that old cross wh ere the deares t and bes t
For a world of lost sinners was slain . . .
And then in the dream Lanie felt herself held securely by strong arms, and when she looked up the face of her mother would appear. The firm but gentle mouth, the clear gray-green eyes filled with love!
Then the scene would change, and Lanie would be clinging to her father’s hand, and Forrest Freeman would scoop her up, smiling and saying, “Well, now, Muff, how about a song, eh? Just you and me?”
Then Lanie would join her father singing the old hymn “Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad.” The voices of the two would blend, then Elizabeth would join in, and finally Lanie’s brothers and sisters would add their voices to the song.
The dream went on, sometimes for what seemed like hours, sometimes only briefly, but always the joyous sound of the Freeman family would fill Lanie’s world.
When the dream lasted a long time, Lanie would run with her father through the woods while the trees blazed with fall colors, and then she would be digging in the loamy garden soil with her mother, putting seed in the warm earth of spring. At times the dream would take Lanie and her family to the Singing River, where Cody and Davis shouted as they pulled thumping sunfish out of the sparkling waters, and Lanie and Maeva splashed in the shallows while their mother smiled on.
But then dark shadows would begin to gather, clouding the dream with somber darkness. Lanie always tried to fight the shadows, but they covered her with relentless power, pulling her out of the wonders of the dream into the world of pain and disappointment . . .
“No!” Lanie cried aloud, as the dream ended abruptly and she found herself sitting upright in her feather bed. For one moment she tried desperately to ignore the world of reality, to return to the warmth and color and joy of her dream — but she knew it was useless. Once the dream was over, there was no going back.
With a quick, angry gesture, Lanie rolled out of the bed and stood on the cool pine floor, disoriented. She blinked a couple times and finally got her bearings. “I can’t believe I fell asleep!” she muttered. “I still have more pies to make!” Then she shrugged and turned to face the world of Lanie Belle Freeman of Fairhope, Arkansas, July 1931.
Moving to a small mirror, she paused, thinking with anguish of her life as it had once been. The dream was a longing for her mother, now in her grave, and for her father, who was serving a term at Cummings Prison Farm for manslaughter. The loss of her parents was a grief so poignant that whenever Lanie Belle thought of them, a lump formed in her throat and tears burned her eyes.
Lanie forced the dream from her mind, yawned, and raised her arms over her head in a broad stretch. As she threw her head back, she heard a loud ripping sound, felt the seams give way, and immediately knew what had happened.
“Oh, fuzz!” she uttered with disgust. Reaching to her side, she felt the open seam and shook her head. “I’m going to have to make another dress. I’m getting fat as Jezebel.” The comparison was not exactly accurate since Jezebel was the Freemans’ four-hundred-pound sow. Lanie, at the age of seventeen, had emerged from adolescence into blossoming young womanhood. Her figure had swelled, and as she looked down at herself, she calculated what she could do to make a new dress.
Turning quickly, she walked across the room, opened a red cedar chest, and rummaged through it until she came up with a group of flour sacks carefully washed and folded. They were white with a delicate green flower that perfectly complemented the shade of Lanie’s eyes. Quickly she counted the sacks and then nodded with satisfaction. “I’ve got enough here to make me a dress. I’ll start on it after the celebration tomorrow.”
For a moment Lanie Freeman held the material against her cheek and imagined how it would be to go into a store and buy material off a roll. She’d had this experience on a few occasions before her mother died. Since then times had been hard, especially with the Depression that had come two years earlier. But she never liked to spend a great deal of time in regret, so she began to think of the McCall’s pattern that she had bought at the general store. She had the kind of imagination that could take the picture of a pattern, along with the color and shape and feel of the material, and envision the finished product.
Suddenly the giggle of a girl’s voice came floating in from the outside window. At once Lanie straightened up and glanced over at the clock. “Eleven o’clock!” she exclaimed. “Everyone’s supposed to be in bed.” She knew the giggle belonged to her sixteen-year-old sister, Maeva. Putting the flour sacks back in the chest, she went out the back door. The silvery moonlight illuminated the yard, and as she walked alongside the house, the voices became louder. Rounding the corner she saw Maeva being kissed by a tall young man. Darrell Watkins had a bad reputation with young girls, and the anger that swelled in Lanie suddenly reached the boiling point. “Maeva, what in the world are you doing out here?”
Maeva Freeman reacted exactly as Lanie expected. As she turned, the moonlight reflected on her red hair and her blue eyes were snapping. “What does it look like I’m doing, Lanie? I’m kissing Darrell Watkins.”
If Maeva Freeman was ever afraid of anything — or ashamed of anything — no one ever found out about it. She had the same curves of young womanhood as her older sister and stood there with an impudent grin on her face. “You’ll have to wait if you want to get your turn with Darrell, Lanie.”
“How did you get out of the house?”
Maeva laughed and pointed upward. “I climbed out that window. Climbed down the walnut tree. If you want to keep me in, you’re gonna have to chop down that tree.”
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
“Well, I ain’t,” Maeva said defiantly. “Are you ashamed, Darrell?”
Lanie stood there oppressed by a sense of helplessness. Her father would have been able to handle this, but he was in prison, and at the age of seventeen she was now, for all practical purposes, the head of the Freeman family. She had no trouble with her brothers Davis and Cody, and, of course, Corliss Jeanne, at the age of three, was a treasure. But Maeva Elizabeth Freeman was a rebel to the bone. She had often heard her father say, “I think Maeva gets her contrariness from her mama’s side. Couldn’t have got it from the Freemans.”
Unable to think up a reply that would bring any sort of remorse to Maeva, Lanie turned and snapped, “Darrell Watkins, you get out of here!”