Tentative prologue...

...for the middle book in a historical trilogy I'm writing....


 After the Stars Fell

Valhalla Farm
Near Mobile, Alabama
November 13, 1833

At the back of the farmhouse, in a room he pretentiously called the library, Morgan Walraven waited for the notes in his journal to dry. He wasn't going to write any more tonight, so he gently swished his quill pen in a small bowl of water and laid it aside to dry.

Several feet away, stretched out on a braided rug near the fireplace, a yellow feist named Jupiter -- Morgan's faithful friend since his teenage years -- was deep in sleep.

It was so still and quiet, he almost jumped when the clock on the mantle chimed the first of twelve strikes, marking a cold November midnight, like so many others. Nevertheless, tonight there was a ripple of anticipation in the air.

It was always that way on the day -- or night -- that babies came.

None of the babies that had come to Valhalla in the past were his -- they were siblings or nieces or nephews -- but that little surge of anticipation accompanied them all.

This time, though, it was his baby and the ripple was supercharged.

He grew still, straining to hear any sound coming from upstairs. Tedious silence settled over him. He slid his chair back from the desk -- plain but sturdy items, built by his grandfather -- took the base of the lamp in hand and stepped to the settee next to the fireplace, where low flames crackled softly.

His current book sat on a nearby table. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. He had read it before, once as a boy, and once as a young adult. He put the lamp on the table, sat down and got comfortable, and reached for the book.

Tales of the sea and faraway places appealed to him. It seemed that he had inherited the sometimes bewildering conflict that had confronted other Walraven men -- a devotion to the land and to what grew and lived there, but also a fascination with the sea, an allure that drew them as the moon draws the tides, whether they could indulge it or not.

It didn't help that he lived no more than a stone's throw from the upper edge of the brackish estuary of Mobile Bay, which emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, which itself opened onto the Atlantic Ocean ... and the entire world. In daylight, from the house, he had a distant but clear view of a strip of sawgrass marsh and sparkling blue water beyond.

But his world had already been decided. His destiny was the land, the forests, the fertile fields of Valhalla Farm.

He had not read half a page before the text blurred and disappeared and his breathing grew deep and regular -- until something, some noise awakened him. He was surprised to see that an hour had passed. His grogginess left him in an instant when he remembered why he was not in bed and he sat up, listening intently for the sound of Opalee, the midwife, calling to him.

Instead, he heard urgent knocking at the door to the back veranda. Jupiter raised his head and his ears pricked as the soft but frantic voice of Isaac, the farm's foreman, quavered, "Mast' Morgan! Please, come quick! The end of the world comin'!

Morgan strode to the door and opened it to see the terrified faces of Isaac and young Wiley as they motioned him outside.

"The sky falling!" Wiley shrieked, clutching the porch rail and pointing upward. "The stars, they comin' down like rain!"

"It's the tribilation!" Isaac said.

"Y'all quiet down," Morgan said sotto voce. "You'll wake everybody."

He stifled a smile at the silly thought of leaving his family in the arms of Morpheus through the Second Coming. Glancing to the side, he saw Jupiter lay his head back down and fall into instant slumber. How bad could it be if Jupe was sleeping through it?

But as he stepped through the doorway, levity deserted him. The frosty air that wrapped around him didn't register because his attention was caught by something else -- the eerie, almost other-worldly glow that illuminated the countryside, giving him a brief chill unrelated to the temperature.

He walked across the veranda, steadied himself against the bannister rail, and leaned forward to look up beyond the edge of the roof. Evergreen live oaks blocked out the sky but through gaps in the foliage, he could see pinpricks of light. Moving.

"See Mast'?" Wiley had lowered his voice but his tone was as urgent as before.

"Come with me," Morgan murmured. "Let's go out front. We can see better there."

He led the two frightened servants inside, calling softly, "Wiley, shut the door." They hurried down the hallway to the front door, which Morgan swung wide. The trio scurried down the steps to the yard.

The trees here grew along the sides of the lawn, leaving the sky open above it. What Morgan saw when he looked up took his breath away.

Meteors, hundreds of them -- no, thousands of them -- lighting up the countryside far more brightly than a full moon, and falling to earth just as Wiley had said, constantly, like rain. But not like rain, either, since few actually reach the earth. And they were completely silent.

Morgan stared upward, transfixed by sheer awe and a fragment of delight -- both tempered with a sizeable measure of the same fear that rattled Isaac and Wiley.

"Mast', please, you gotta do something!" Wiley pleaded. "Maybe you pray and the Lawd, he hear you and stop this!"

"Y'all think, now. It's not the tribulation -- no earthquakes, the moon hasn't turned to blood, none of the other signs are happening. Of course I'll pray, but it will stop on its own, anyway. The Leonid meteors occur this time every year."

"Nawsuh!" Isaac said adamantly. "I ain't never seen nothing like this."

"Yes, it isn't usually this grand -- not usually this many of them. Well ... never this many of them, so something uncommon is going on. But not the end of the world. Regardless of how many we see, there's no need to worry. They burn up before they reach earth. That's why they're so bright. They're on fire."

"Oh, Lawd!" Wiley wailed. "They ain't stars! They fire! Please, Mast' Morgan, please pray for the Lawd to save us!"

"All right, but calm down. How is everybody in the reserve?"

"Skeered," Wiley said.

"And Milly," Isaac added, "she in ... she in the travail. She skeered the child will die." Distress threaded Isaac's tone; Milly was his wife.

"I forgot about y'all's baby coming." Morgan's forehead buckled with mild chagrin. "I've had another baby on my mind tonight. Here, let's kneel and pray."

He dropped to one knee, his hands on the shoulders of the trembling servants, who knelt with him.

"Heavenly Father, please protect us from this spectacular display of the power and beauty of nature thou hast created. Remove from us the spirit of fear, and keep us in thy holy protection, that we may serve thee all our days. We especially pray thy blessings on the little bairns who are on their way to us, and for their mothers and fathers. In the name of thy son Jesus, amen."

"Amen," echoed the two servants, who were calmer now but still unwilling to look upward.

The prayer had calmed Morgan, too. He stood and said, "You go on back and tell everyone its not the end of the world, and tomorrow will arrive like always. Tell them I told you this happens every year -- it's just never been this intense -- and tell them we prayed and the Lord will watch over us all, especially Milly and her little one."

"Yessuh," Isaac said dubiously. He and Wiley loped across the lawn and around the corner of the house, disappearing in the shadows.

Morgan resumed his riveting contemplation of the heavens. At that moment he heard the faint sound of a baby's cry coming through the open door.  The wondrous phenomenon unfolding above him was instantly forgotten as he streaked up the steps and inside the foyer, and fairly flew up the staircase.

The baby's lusty cries grew louder.

Morgan paused at the door to the bedroom he and Julia shared, met by an object that was surely unmovable.

"You can see them in a little while," Opalee said. "Not right now."

"Is she all right? Is the baby all right?" He tried to look past her but could see only his sister-in-law, Eliza, smoothing the bed covers.

"They fine." Opalee side-stepped to block his view. "We'll get 'em both fixed up for you to see but it'll take a few minutes. You wait."

"Livvy, since you're here, who's with Milly?"

"Betsy taking care of Milly."

"Betsy? She's just a kid."

"She know what she doing. Now you g'wan outta here."

Too keyed up to sit, he ignored the deacon's bench in the upstairs hallway and paced the floor, wondering how long Opalee's little while would last, until he heard her say, "You can come now, Mast' Morgan."

Entering the room lit with a golden glow from a single lamp, he met Eliza headed for the door, carrying a basket full of clothing and rags. He caught a glimpse of bloodstains, which jolted him, but it dissipated with Eliza's happy visage beaming at him. "Congratulations, Morgan. You have a son!"

"A son...."

Julia was reclining on a mound of pillows, looking wan but serene, staring down at the face of the baby in her arms.

At Morgan's approach, she looked up and her peaked face was transformed by a radiant smile. "Oh, look at him, Morgan! Isn't he beautiful?"

Morgan bent to gently stroke the baby's cheek with a forefinger. Dressed in a white batiste gown with delicate tatting around the sleeves, bald, red-faced and scowling, the baby nevertheless was indeed beautiful.

"Yes, he is. And so are you." He kissed her forehead, straightened to look at his son and basked in this moment of joy. "Born as the stars are falling. His life will be charmed."

Julia gave him a quizzical look.

He stroked her hair back from her forehead and said, "I'll tell you later. You get some sleep now."

She nodded before resting her head against the pillows and closing her eyes. Opalee tiptoed to the bed to take the baby from his mother's arms and lay him in his cradle.

As Morgan walked back toward the doorway, he heard other doors opening and urgent whispers in the hallway. Judging by the occasional word that reached him, the spectacular display in the heavens had become so bright, it had awakened his sister and brothers. He stepped into the hall and said, "Y'all go outside and look. You don't get the full effect looking through the windows."

They stared at him, Rachel in mild alarm, Carson and Noah disheveled and bleary-eyed with sleep.

"The full effect of what?" said Rachel. "What's that strange light outside?"

"Falling stars, thousands of them." He shook his head and held up a hand. "No, it's not the tribulation, just a meteors raining down out of the sky. A magnificent sight and maybe a charm, a good omen --" he gave a little laugh "-- on the night of my son's birth!"

"Son? The little one has come?" Rachel cried. "Oh, Morgan, how wonderful!" She wheeled around and reached toward him. He returned her quick embrace.

"Y'all go on outside," he repeated. "The babe's asleep. You can see him when he wakes. But we don't know if we will ever again see such a spectacular display in the heavens. Not until the end of time."

The mention of thousands of meteors had knocked the drowsiness off his brothers' faces. They trooped downstairs with Rachel to see this wonder in the sky.

Nobody saw Opalee lurking in the bedroom doorway, or heard her low-voiced, "Charm? Or curse?"

She clasped her hands before her breast and raised her face, eyes closed, and silently beseeched the Deity to protect the little one from whatever evil the stars might portend. "All his days, amen and amen," she ended in whisper.

Copyright © 2018 by Connie Chastain. All rights reserved.