Saturday, April 30, 2016
It was a damnable paradox. If the windows were screened enough to keep the mosquitoes out of the house then it was far to hot and humid inside for a human being to endue it. There were insects in the swamp that did nothing but sing and hum all night long, there were frogs who screamed until dawn, and all the while there was a steady warm rain as if the whole of the Universe did nothing but urinate on Southern Louisiana for days. I knew, and everyone else who was paying attention knew, that sugar cane was a dying crop. Slavery would come to an end after Mr. Lincoln’s War had its way with us and most of us knew it. I hated this life. I hated The South. I hated Don Pierre the overseer for how he treated the slaves, and I hated slavery. Yet there was a slow and steady trickle of gold that made its way into my hands and there was an eager banker in New Orleans who opened an account in New York for me under an assumed name. I watched the people I owned as property being beaten into a yellow metal that would make me comfortable for the rest of my life. Their own lives would end in misery and death. They spent each night chained to the floors of their hovels. I stood naked on the balcony of the mansion I owned and felt a thousand mosquitoes descend upon me instantly, as if they had foreseen my coming. For a full minute I tried to endure what they endured each night but for only a few seconds did I manage. I knew that I condemned these people to their fate. I knew I lived upon their despair. But the plantation owned by the father of my late wife was useless as anything but a sugar cane plantation. He was in New York and she in the cemetery beyond the house. He wanted me to ride out the war until the bitter end and I promised him I would. After the war, with the money we made on the plantation along with the gold he coaxed out of the Yankees for building cannons, we would return to the South and rebuild, and own much better, and much more land. John Roundtree was nothing if not a thinker and a man of money. He still treated me like a son, but every time I drank I wondered if he had not allowed me to rot in this festering near jungle that grew nothing but cane and mosquitoes. And there was a ferry that ran from nowhere to nowhere, or at least did before the war. They called it Truitt’s Crossing, but I never discovered who the Truitt was. I thought about that when I drank.
And drink I did. What else was there for me to do? Mr. Roundtree’s men in Baton Rouge took very good care of my money. Don Pierre seemed to love his work with a frenzy that defied the imagination of the condemned. The punishments he chose for the slaves were as severe as they were imaginative. Men were locked in a box near the edge of the swamp with nothing but their arms and legs sticking out. By morning only a stump remained. Most bleed to death but a very few survived to be hauled to the field and whipped to death for not working. The rest knew what it meant to try to run or not to work, but they also knew that even in work, there was death, albeit a slower one, it was not as gruesome. I drank more and more each day and smoked more each night.
I awoke with a start, the jug of rum still in my lap, the simple drinking cup of a slave in my hand and I heard the scream. I stood and nearly fell, and in the darkness saw fire and I smelled the smoke of the hovels burning. I had taken some put some opium in my pipe and I had drank rum. In a near stupor I had gone out to the hovels and released the slaves, unchained them, and I had given one of them the keys to the house where Don Pierre lived. The Yankees had taken Vicksburg a while back and now there were rumors they were spreading out all over the low country. I heard Don Pierre scream again and I knew they had put him into the box. They looted his house and had set it ablaze. Oddly, they did not touch mine. Would the Yankees see the fire and investigate? I thought they might. I didn’t care. I expected as much mercy from the Yankees as Don Pierre had shown the slaves. To many of the Yankees this house would be a symbol of everything that was wrong in their world. They would loot it; the paintings on the wall, some of the pieces were great works, objects that I had loved for years, and I could envision the looters growing weary of carrying them and casting them aside into a ditch, or using the canvas as tinder. The silverware, artfully molded and forever polished, would be melted down into lumps. Lorilee’s jewelry, passed down from seven generations of the Roundtree family, would be snatched away by grubby hands that would never know the story of their creation or care. The house itself, a jewel in its own right, would be burned to the ground. And what of Lorilee’s crypt? I struggled to my feet again and saw that the fires were burning down. How long had I been passed out this time?
What might I tell you of Lorilee at this moment? She was sixteen when we married. Young, perhaps, a wisp of a woman, the youngest daughter of John Roundtree, yet full of ambition to be wed and to be a mother. She had the fairest of skin and the white hair of one much older, nearly transparent was she. Her eyes were as green as the grass on a hill and her smile was like the sun. The disease and the foulness of the air of this place sickened her and the birth of a child was far too great for her slight body to bear. My son breathed once, cried not at all, then went to join his mother in the darkness of eternity. May my soul be damned for not following them that day!
There was a sound. The Yankees had come. For the sound was that of a team of horses being whipped forward, driven hard, and the cry of the driver who snapped a whip over their heads. I went to get my pistol and was determined not to be captured or tormented. I would die with my blood pouring from my body or from some great wound. Loot this house? Never! I took the lantern and flung it against the wall and it set ablaze my home.
“Robert Holley!” and I recognized the voice at once. It was not the Yankees!
“Robert Holley!” Lankford Waterford shouted. “Open your door to me! I am in great need!”
“Fool!” I fairly screamed at him. “What business have you here?” I meant to rush upstairs and try to quell the flames but could think of no reason to do so. It would end tonight. For it was likely the Yankees had let Lankford pass just to see where he led, and his passing, so quick and urgent, would lead them here. Yet without permission or my bidding Lankford pushed his way into my doomed house near the point of exhaustion and panting.
What drove this man? Here was someone who never made a true living at work or overseeing work, or even born to idleness. Lankford Waterford’s family was not wealthy but other than he, were good people. He was an adventurer, a wanderer, and more than a bit of a sluggard. While others went to war he went about the business of nothing with more passion than those who sought glory on the field of battle. Yet, Lankford had been, and was, I admit, a friend of mine. In the early days in the swamp he had lent his hands and back into building this place. Much rum and even more wine did he consume, and I was very careful not to leave Lorilee alone with him, but he gave of himself and his time true. At length, and after a gulf or two of rum, he caught his breath.
“Robert,” he panted, “true friend and man of God, hear me, evil I have done this night and worse evil follows from behind, but I know these roads better than any man, you know this, and you know that whatever else may be said, never was my soul in great peril for my actions, wanton as they have been, I have never been truly evil! Yet this night I have brought calamity forth in a manner that cannot be explained easily or quickly, and it is in haste I come.”
“Lankford!” I exclaimed. “Speak not of evil! There is very little here for me to offer you and even as we speak the flames from a broken lantern devour my home. There is nothing left for me here. Let us leave together.”
Even as the first wisps of smoke began curling about the ceiling, Lankford paused to look, as if he just realized what I had said. “Robert, I have done murder. If those I have killed are not in sacred ground ere the sun arises, their souls will forever haunt this earth! We must make haste! I know of the crypt next to that of Lorilee, forever bright and amazing child! We must put those I have killed next to her and we must pray to God the souls of the dead remain forever trapped there!
“Murder?” I could barely managed a whisper. “I stand here amongst ruin and fire and disaster and you bring even more, and worse to me?”
“That is who this man is and this is what he does.” And it seemed that a man had appeared out of the smoke. “It is I, William George, this man has murdered. He has seduced my wife, lay in my bed as it was his own, and when he was caught there he came at me with a knife. My pistol’s shot was errant, and my wife was slain. I he slew with his knife, but both our deaths lay upon his soul like a stone, and it is to hell he will be dragged!”
I stepped back and it seemed that my head swam in waters swirling around the room like the smoke. Here before me stood a living man, Lankford, and here stood before me the dead. I had heard of ghosts and spirits, and always I was wary of dismissing them but here was someone clearly from the beyond. He was dressed as if he were alive, yet his skin glowed with a darkness. Light seemed not to touch him but rather it was absorbed like cloth will drink water. His face seemed as if it were in shadow and his eyes were black pits with no white or color at all. His hands were at his sides and they moved not at all when he spoke. His feet did not move yet he glided towards Lankford and Lankford recoiled from him.
Was this really William George? Who did not know of him? His ships brought from Africa the very slaves that worked this land and he had evaded the Yankee navy many times. No patrol could touch his sloops and he braved storms that frightened even the most stout sea captains. Even in death George looked the part of a man of the seven seas. He was a large man and chesty. His beard was solid grey, from what I could tell, but younger men shied away from conflict with him.
“What would you have me do, Captain?” I asked but my voice seemed to be more of a ghost than he.
“Stop!” and once again I felt my blood turn to water and my bones to thin twigs of the first days of spring. Through the closed door a woman wafted as if she were walking through the screens that kept mosquitoes at bay. Tall was she, and even in death, stately and proud. She lifted a ghostly finger at George and he quivered in darkness. “Stop!” she repeated. “For neither man has told the truth here.”
“Carah!” George shouted. “Be thee silent, my wife, I bid thee to speak no more!”
“Wife?” the ghost replied.”Wife? What wife had you but that of your ship? You and my father treated me as goods to be bargained for, and he gained access to your fleet and you gained access to my body. Yet no child, no son have I brought forth for you! Like a ship that sails infrequent, I have no cargo to discharge! Wife? You married into a trading company and no more!” Carah turned and then pointed at Lankford. “And you!” Lankford backed away from her finger as he might a loaded rifle. “You were in my bed more frequent than my husband, but your time was spent more with him. It is not unlike a man to take his friend’s bed, but you seemed to fear no discovery. With my time you seemed practiced yet there was a facade I could not figure.”
Carah stopped speaking and turned to me, “But no matter, this one is right, you must bury us in sacred ground this night or we will not know peace, me least of all. My mother was accused of being a witch and escaped hanging only because she married well. But mark the truth, sir, these two both have shared my bed, and I think they have done so without my being there. The truth is that my husband’s aim was not untrue, but he murdered me. And at that moment he would be free to do with his life as he pleased, but he trusted not Waterford’s silence. When he turned the gun on his lover it misfired and Waterford killed him. These two are naught but those who would hide who they are, and there is no sin in this. But to kill others to bury a secret is to risk more than I can tell you. Quickly, sir, you must get my body into the ground lest the sun rises upon those who have done me evil, for it is not ghosts you must fear but…”
There was a scream. Don Pierre was at last taken by one of the creatures of the swamp and his voice cut through the lateness of the night like a knife. The ceiling crumbled and fell in. I ran for a window and threw myself out of it. When I hit the ground there was smoke and cinders and there, above the din of my home crashing down to the earth full of flames was the laughter of a woman, strong above all things alive.
I lost everything in the fire. The Yankees followed the sign of fire and smoke and even as I stood watching all burn they came and clasped me in the very chains my slaves had once worn. I was dragged away and thrown into a cell with many more men like me and there we stayed for months, before the end of the war. I made my way to New York, finally, and made a new life there but one day there was a man who came to see me. Don Pierre had survived the box. The Yankees had freed him but he had lost a leg. He came to me to kill me, but his aim untrue for his hands still shook. He was easy to subdue, more frail than any child, and he told me after I disarmed him that he blamed me not at all for setting the slaves upon him, for he owned up he deserved no less. But there were ghosts in the swamp now, and would always be, and for that we should both die.
“So do you believe in ghosts?” the student asked as the others sat in silence.
“No, don’t be silly.” She told them. “It’s perfectly safe out in the swamp if you’re careful and we’ll all be careful.”
“But what about the four people who died there ten years ago, on the same date that four people died ten years before that?” The student felt a little silly for speaking out loud.
“They wandered away from the dig site.” She explained. “It’s easy to get lost if you wander.”
“I have heard that ghosts are the spirits of people who are confused as to how they died, and to create ghosts, you have to make sure they never know why they were killed.” Another student joined the conversation. “And that all of them are invoked by witches.”
“Witches now?” She laughed. “Werewolves next?” The whole class laughed.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Wilson.” The Student apologized.
“It’s okay,Waterford,” she said, “and call me Carah when we are in the swamp. Being there makes us family.”
Sunday, April 24, 2016
It was in the last of January, a new moon had risen and with it the wind. Even though the sea was twenty leagues distant from my farm the smell of salt hung in the air with each new gust as if the fields were sheets of canvas and the earth itself was to be pushed by the gale. For three days, for three days and for three nights too, the wind howled and the trees moaned with the effort it took to withstand it. Snow, ice, limbs, and every jot and tittle of warmth blew sideways and away again. No fire could stand in the pit for the wind came down the chimney with reckless hate and every coal was smothered by it. I allowed the dogs in, placed them in the bed with me, and covered us all with everything made of cloth. On the third day of the storm I bundle myself such as I could and with a rope tied to my porch and my left boot, I walked the twenty-five feet to the well. I could not see the house behind me. I dropped three heavy stones into the well before I heard the sound of water and the bucket nigh froze solid before I could get back to the front door. The cows and horses in the barn would have to do with what they had, if indeed the barn still stood.
I thought the dogs mad, but all four of them stood on the bed and horripilated so, hackles raised, and they growled deeply. None of them had so much as moved for half a day and I did not either. Their warmth and mine mingled and all of us were loath to separate our resources, yet they did not hesitate; there was something out in the blackness other than ice, and wind, and cold.
The hammering on my door sounded very much like the wind had sounded for three endless days. The night looked blacker than noon only because white on white replaced white that laced out of the darkness to extinguish all light and flame. Yet there at my door was the sound of a hand being beaten into meat for everything was frozen. The dogs barked and yowled at the sound. I got up and lit a lantern and I thought I heard the sound of horses outside, but I could not be sure. Suddenly, and without any preamble, the wind stopped dead. All sound ceased. Then the dogs barked again, as I heard my named being called from the door.
“Robert Holley!” and it was a voice I had not heard in many years. “I bid thee haste! Open this door so that I might pass within!”
I unlatched the door and flung it open and Lankford Waterford stumbled in. We managed a fire and I had forgotten how warmth had felt, and Lankford spoke as soon as he could, “I thank thee for my life, Robert, but more I will ask of thee come this night! Evil I have brought to your home, and evil upon evil I have done, but if my soul is to be redeemed, I beg of thee, Robert, help me if you can, and if you dare!”
Before I could ask of him what he might need or, knowing Lankford as I did, what he had done, he began, “You know what a weakness I have for wine, Robert, and I ask your forgiveness in my gluttony. I went to Charles Town, to look for work, I swear it, and found lodging in the home of a seafarer whose wife rented room, please do not look at me so for I did not intend to harm anyone, but on my third night there, nigh on the head of this storm, the woman did seduce me, and whilst she lay with me her husband came to pick my pocket! I grabbed my sword and he his, and he fired at me with a flintlock pistol but missed me and struck his wife. I slew him with my sword as he stood agape at what he had done. Now they are both dead and the bodies I have in my wagon!”
Indeed, now the stillness of the night weighed as heavy upon us as the wind had. Clearly, the voices of the horses could be heard, and even though my mutts knew Lankford, they showed him their teeth and they milled around and barked at times, even though I beseeched them to silence. The horses were restive and I could hear their unease, too. Horse and hounds knew what I did not, ancient enemies they might have been. For Lankford’s tale rested not at all in my mind and I knew what he wanted of me. As if he could hear my thoughts he blurted out, “We must bury these bodies in sacred ground before the sun rises else their spirits will give me no peace!”
No greater horror could Lankford have arrived with in tow, but this, even if the ground was not frozen as solid as the ice in the well. “Fool!” I declared him. “By what device should we break the earth free from the winter’s hand? Yet were we to coax a grave into the ground, what of the warders and guards of the town? What of Pastor Grimsey? Into stocks he had thrown you thrice already! The gibblet awaits you and perhaps me also were we to get caught, and caught we shall be, trying to bury the dead without announcement of how they came to be!”
“Much wisdom you do speak here, sir!” and with this I nearly shrieked. For through the door itself and it not open, a man, his visage whiter than any snow, his eyes blacker than the night, and it seemed his feet moved not at all yet across the room he came, and stood before me.
“I am William George, yes, the same who owns the ship by that name. Pick his pocket? Villain! Scoundrel! Seducer! What has he ever in his purse or his bed that did not rightfully belong to another man? You know him as well as any and would you trust him with twenty pieces of copper or the milk maid?” The apparition pointed his ghostly finger towards Lankford. “You! You! You who turned my own wife against me and fed from my table and who slew me as I walked into my home weary from toil and travel now drag my dead body through storm and through ice and even now the sun races around to deprive my spirit peace! You coaxed my wife into your sway and then the two of you sought to waylay me and live lively on what I have so long sought to build! But now you have ensnared your last friend and it will be he who suffers most for the good of heart bear punishment of the evil heavily, knowing nothing of it.”
I knew the name of William George and I knew others would know him, too. Were we caught with his body then nothing short of the charge of murder would be laid and now, I perhaps thought this was more of the case than any. I thought it best to drive the team of horses pell-mell to Charles Town and declare honestly and truthfully what I had heard and seen, and Lankford would have to suffer for his own mistakes for they not mine. My lands, my home, and my reputation lay in trying to succor from the dead a man who had done little good for the living.
“All of this, Dear Sirs, is well and good, but I am confused as to why you tarry.” This voice belonged to a woman who, like the one before her, drifted through the door and glided across the floor. “I be, Carah, the wife of William George, and the daughter of Huxley Adams, and in any case, I was never anyone else, except the daughter of a man who would give her to another man, and in this, very little of me you might know.”
“Silence woman!” roared George but she ignored him.
“Or what, pray tell?” Carah continued. “I sat in silence whilst my father and you negotiated for my future in the parlor. No one asked me until the deal had been sealed. I was another piece of one man’s empire that would bond to another’s. I was glue, a nail to bind two boards, and a pot to mix to family’s blood.” She lifted a finger at me and said, “And you! That wretch I took in boredom brings me here but your name I know, also. You vowed never to take another wife at the grave of a girl you killed in childbirth! Did you think one so slight of body and so ill of health would make a fine broodmare? Her father’s land you plough now instead, and your child and the mother lay frozen in the earth. All of you with money see women as steps on a ladder. All of you without see another man’s success to be enjoyed at game, or worse, livestock.”
“Be ye silent!” George whispered. “In the name of the Lord, I command thee so!”
“Command me?” Carah continued. “The ship you commanded took the lives of the great fish until it was learned the lives of men could be taken for more. I was told as long as you spoke of your journey when you returned you had not committed evil, but the first commerce you had with the slavers fill you with silence and evil! What foulness did you but commit on that ship with your cargo? Not human you would declare but fully acceptable for your bed on that boat. And to my bed your brought your love for taking with force and binding with rope. You did not learn that teaching Sunday School, but you would have your own wife be your slave and little more, even without your rapine nature. Why would I, a Lady take a man well beneath my station? At least to him there is honesty in the lust, and in this I know that once or twice, and then I can be rid of him.
What do you think happens to a wife when a man of fortune is at sea? His neighbors and his friends count the days for the ship to be late. They nod and tip their hats but they also hope the waters take you and in this the widow might be ripe for the picking. ‘Your husband’s boat is but a little late, Misses, fear not!’ but each man that spoke this in church wondered if my father would pay again a dowry, maybe more, for a woman without her virginity is damaged, even if it is the man who wants her has done the deed. Murder? Robbery? I cannot say whose story is the truth but I can tell you I suffered the last fate a woman must suffer when men have their honor to keep. You have no choice now, for dawn comes running! Burn this house with our bodies within or our spirits will haunt forever this earth! The one who has suffered the most wrong here will never be at peace with mankind! Can you not do this or is too late already?”
But the wind had not spoken in an hour. The dogs and horses went silent. I stopped to listen and the whole of the world had not spoken to me since the knock on the door so clearly.
“I am sorry, Mr. Holley,” Lankford whispered. “I did not realize the hour was so late.”
“Four bodies?” the warden asked.
“Yes, just like last year.” His supervisor replied. “All froze to death.”
“Happens every new moon that falls on the last day of January?” the man shook his head. “Computers scare the hell out of me sometimes. Who first figured it out?”
“Popped up a few years ago. Since then the ghost hunters have come up with all sorts of fantasies. This was the first day four people died while with a group that large. No one knows what made them leave their tents.”
“You believe the stories there’s a witch here at Truitt’s Crossing, Ms.Carah?” the warden asked.
“Children’s tales to frighten college kids,” she replied. “Such as that wouldn’t scare a real man, would it?” She smiled. “Let’s go have a beer.”
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
We human beings tend to gravitate towards other human beings whom we perceive to be like minded or in some way moving in the same direction. Fans of a sports team will sit together in a bar and cheer for the team with one another, even if they are strangers in all other regards. There is a shared happiness in this, to find someone who is excited about something special and we humans crave it.
For my part, I tend to listen more closely to the lives of writers. They do not have to be famous or revered or even published for that matter, the process of creativity is my sports team that I cheer for, it is the commonality sought in other humans, and like other humans, I mourn when one of my team members dies, or worse, is murdered.
To lose a sixteen-year-old to murder is shockingly horrible or at least it should be and the wound is deeper in the heart when the murder is mindless, senseless, and utterly stupid. This year marks the first year that has passed where she has been dead longer than she was alive. That’s all I have to say about the death of Kelly Fleming.
Kelly Fleming was a very young woman who was a sister, a daughter, a student, and she wanted to be a writer. She wore a crooked smile, like the one in the photo, yet by from what I have read about her, she was ultimately a happy person. She wrote stories that were dark yet they tended towards happy endings. She handled the spark of creativity with love and with respect.
Ask a fan of a sports great what that person was like and you’re likely to get a list of accomplishments or great games or some memory, but there will be no substance of the true soul of that person for fans are still strangers and I wouldn’t pretend that I knew Kelly Fleming or that I know anything about her personally.
What I want for you to do today, right now in fact, is to understand that you lost Kelly Fleming too. We will never know what she might have been. We will never know what she could have written.
What I am going to ask you to do is not seek out how or why or anything about the death of Kelly Fleming today. I want you to look for her life, shortened as it might have been, and I want you to find some happiness that she brought the world in just sixteen years, and in some way, I want you to celebrate that life.
If not Kelly, then find some joy, find a way, a reason, a glimpse, something that will draw out of the darkness, some light, that might be found, can be found, that we must find, today, in the lives of those who died with her. Mention it here, somewhere else, anywhere else, say the name aloud of someone who was taken from us all and in this find a way to keep that smile alive.
Honor the that life not with sorrow, but with life.