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The House Girl






Lynnhurst, Virginia


Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run. She heard the whistle of the blow, felt the sting of skin against skin, her head spun and she was looking back over her right shoulder, down to the fields where the few men Mister had left were working the tobacco. The leaves hung heavy and low on the stalk, ready for picking. She saw a man’s bare back and the new hired man, Nathan, staring up at the house, leaning on a rake. The air tasted sweet, the honeysuckle crawling up the porch railings thick now with flower, and the sweetness mixed with the blood in her mouth.

The blow came without warning, no reason that Josephine could say. She had been sweeping the front porch as she always did first thing, clearing off the dust and leaves blown up by the night wind. A snail had marked a trail across the dew-wet wood of the porch floor and rested its brown shell between the two porch rockers. Josephine had caught that snail with a sharp swoop of the broom, sent it flying out into the yard, and then she heard Mister’s voice behind her, coming from inside the house. He said something she could not make out. It was not a question, there was no uplift in tone, nor was it said in anger. His voice was measured, it had seemed to Josephine then, before he hit her, not urgent, not hurried. She stopped her sweeping, turned around, looked to the house, and he walked out the wide front door, a proud front door Missus Lu always liked to say, and that’s when his hand rose up. She saw his right arm bend, and his lips part just slightly, not to open but just the barest hint of dark space between them. And then his palm, the force of it against her cheek, and the broom dropping from her fingers, the clatter as it fell.

Something shifted in Josephine then, a gathering of disparate desires that before had been scattered. She could not name them all, there were so many, but most were simple things: to eat a meal when hunger struck her, to smile without thinking, to wear a dress that fit her well, to place upon the wall a picture she had made, to love a person of her choosing. These distilled now, perfectly, here on this September morning, her hunger for breakfast sharp in her belly, the sun pink and resplendent in the sky. Today was the last day, there would be no others.

Afterward, she tried but she could not explain it to Caleb, why this moment marked the course of things to come. The snail she remembered, the curve of its shell, and the hot colors of the dawn. What came later—Dr. Vickers, what Missus Lu had done—did not change what Josephine decided then with Mister on the porch. Even if that day had held nothing more, she told Caleb, still she would have run. Yes, she would run.

As Josephine turned her head back around to face Mister, a warbler called from down toward the river, its sweet sweet sweet clear as the brightening day.

Mister said, “Look after your Missus. The doctor coming today, don’t you forget.”

He stepped off the porch, into the dirt of the front path, and looked up at her, his dark beard dusty from the fields, his eyes shadowed. Last month the curing barn had burned to the ground, and they’d lost some horses too, their screams terrible to hear. The winter before, Mister’s father, Papa Bo, had passed on, and the cow stopped giving milk, and Hap the field hand died from a bee sting. He’d got all puffed up and started scrabbling at the ground, Otis said, like he was digging his own grave, save the others the work. Now Missus Lu and her fits. There was an affliction in Mister, he had cause for sorrow. But Josephine did not pity him.

She nodded, her cheek on fire.

Mister walked in long steps down the sloping back hill of the yard, across the raw furrowed rows they had had no seed to plant. Jackson, the Negro overseer, watched over the others. Picking time, and the field just barely begun. Over at the Stanmores’ they had hundreds of acres, dozens of slaves, and already the first tobacco leaves were finished drying and sent to market, the wagons rumbling by the house, the nut-brown bundles piled high in the back. Mister would always spit when he saw one pass by on the road to town.

Josephine watched Mister go. She wanted to bring her hand to her cheek, but she didn’t. She spat a red streak across the weathered floorboards, rubbed at it with her bare right foot and then picked up her basket, stepped down off the porch, around the side of the house. There was a lightness in her, a giddiness almost. She walked down the slight slope, the grass cool under her feet, the sun a little higher now, the low mist burning off. Run. The word echoed thunderous in her ear and filled her head like a physical, liquid thing. Run.

Josephine had not been born at Bell Creek but she knew no other place. Riverbank, sink, fire pit, field, these had been the four corners of Josephine’s world all seventeen years of her life. Missus Lu kept Josephine close, sent another to run the errands in town, took a hand servant hired from the Stanmores with her back when she used to travel. Josephine stayed behind. She knew the stream that twisted west of the fields, the narrow banks only a few yards across, sycamores and willows overhead, their branches trailing in the water. Here is where she’d do the wash, cool her feet, fish for brown trout and catfish and walleye perch. She knew the twists and turns of the bank, the mossy bits and where a large stone angled its peak out of the water and underneath spread dark and wide. She knew the fields in all seasons, brown and fallow, greening and ripe, and the grown tobacco plants rising nearly to her shoulders, the leaves as wide as her arms outstretched.

She knew the big house, built by Papa Bo’s childless brother Henry back when the state of Virginia seemed blessed by both God and nature in the bounty of her riches. Henry’s barren wife had devoted the fullness of her attentions to keeping a house sparkling and outfitted with the best that her husband’s tobacco dollars could purchase or build. A wraparound porch in front, bedrooms many and large upstairs, full plate-glass windows in the parlor, a horsehair settee for sitting on when sipping from the bone china tea service marked with green ink upon the bottom of each cup. And a library, tucked at the back of the first floor, the books bound in red and brown leather, stamped with gold along their spines. They called the place Bell Creek and once it had been fine.

Now patches of white paint had molded to green, shingles slid down the low sloped roof, windowsills were splintered, the brick chimney cracked along the top rim. In the library, the books were stained with mildew, the pages stuck from moisture let in through a cracked side window that had never been mended. At night Josephine would listen to the scratching and burrowing of mice, squirrels, rats under the floorboards and behind the thin wood of the attic walls. Josephine slept on a thin pallet on the floor, the roof sloping low, the summer nights so hot she’d lie spread-eagle, no two parts of her body touching, her own two legs like strangers in a bed.

Josephine rounded the corner of the house and slowed at the sight of Lottie. She stood knee-deep in the side bed, weeding, picking purple veronia and pink cabbage roses for Missus’ table. All around the house perimeters, sloping down toward the river and, on the east side, toward the fields, spread the flowers: morning glories, spring beauties, irises, purple pokeweed, goldenrod. Whatever design had once attached to the beds had been lost with time and inattention, but the plants themselves seemed none the worse for it. They flourished, encroaching onto the lawn, spreading their pollen down even to the road, where rogue roses bloomed every spring beside the trodden dirt path and latched front gate.

Lottie was bent at the waist, elbows pumping as she pulled and flung the weeds behind her into a heap, the flowers in a tidy pile beside her. A few stems of bluebell, Winton’s favorite, were tucked under her apron strings. Lottie took small things here and there, bacon ends from the smokehouse, eggs from the hens, a sewing needle, a sweet; she never faltered and was never caught.

“Morning, Lottie,” Josephine said, and she thought her voice would be steady but it cracked toward the end, the echo of Mister’s blow still in her. Lottie raised her head, her gray hair tied up in a dark cloth, her skin shiny with sweat. A single horizontal line of worry creased her forehead as if a hatchet had been laid there once long ago.

“What? Child, what is it? You look like you seen a spirit.” Lottie believed the restless dead of Bell Creek lived among the willows lining the river where the morning mist hung. Papa Bo, Lottie’s own boy Hap, all Missus’ dead babies, even Mister’s mother and four sisters, their bodies buried back in Louisiana. Lottie saw them there on a summer’s night, or just before the dawn, she said, dancing, laughing, wailing too, among the branches that trailed like a white woman’s hair into the water.

Lottie dropped the flowers she held and moved toward Josephine. Her skirt hems dragged wet in the grass, and her gaze hardened as she saw the mark of Mister’s blow. Taking Josephine’s face in her hands, she turned it and laid one long finger on the tender spot. “Ah girl,” she said. “You’ll be needing chamomile on that. Or something cool.”

“It’s nothing,” Josephine said, though the skin tingled and she felt a rising tenderness. “Lottie, it’s nothing. Just a little thing.” But she did not pull away. The chill of Lottie’s hand, wet with dew, calmed her. Josephine leaned into Lottie’s warm, tough bulk and she was again a child at night at the cabins, after Lottie and the others had finally returned from the fields, and all the day’s sadness would fall from Josephine and into Lottie’s yielding places: the flesh at her waist; the shoulder’s curved hollow; an ample, muscled calf. Then as now, Lottie’s body seemed sturdy and soft enough to contain all Josephine’s hurts.

Lottie let Josephine fall against her and then she turned Josephine’s face back around and took her in with a level gaze. “All right, then. It’s nothing if you say it.”

“It’s nothing.” Josephine shook her head quick, like shaking water from her hair. She squinted at the sky and then turned to Lottie. “I saw Nathan down back,” she said. “He looked to be straining.”

“He been laid up awhile, so he said. On account of his heels. Couldn’t do nothing, couldn’t stand or walk. They cut him too deep, is how he told it.”

Mister had hired Nathan from Mr. Lowden, a neighbor six miles west, just for harvesting time, just to see them through. Nathan had run twice already and twice been caught and brought back to Mr. Lowden, whose tolerance for such goings-on had been sorely tested. Mister had hired him cheap on account of the history and Nathan’s slow pace now that his heels were cut. He was still new to Bell Creek, Josephine had not spoken with him yet; she had not asked him where it was he’d been headed when he ran.

Josephine said, “What’s he like, huh?”

Lottie paused, tilted her head. “He’s fine. Seems fine enough. Got some sense.”

“Mmm. Puts me in mind of Louis. Something in his person, way he stands.” Louis had been sold off three summers past and this was the first time Josephine had spoken of him. It surprised her that her voice did not shake, that no tears came with the sound. Louis. The name hung weighty between them, a hope or a tragedy, neither of them knew which. He was gone, gone.

“Louis? I don’t see no Louis in him.” Lottie said this with a frown and a slow shake of her head, as if that decided the matter. “Josephine, what you want with Nathan?”

“Just wanted to say hello.” Josephine looked down and stepped away, her bare soles marking 2-shapes in the mud. She had never lied to Lottie before and she did not like the feeling it gave her, a shifting underfoot, a drop in her belly. Tonight Josephine would ask Nathan to tell her the route north, tonight she would run. Run. The word still resonated within her and now took on a new pitch. Would Lottie come with her? Lottie and Winton possessed an unremitting belief in a salvation that would be delivered if they mustered faith true enough, if their path remained righteous. Lottie looked for signs of the redemption, like the two-headed frog Otis found by the river last summer, or the night the sky filled with lights falling and they shone so bright that everyone at the house and down by the cabins woke and stood on the front lawn, even Mister and Missus Lu, all of them together side by side, eyes open to that burning sky. These were all markers along the way, Lottie said, signs that Jesus be coming soon. She was waiting for Him. You cannot wait another day, Josephine wanted to say now. Come with me, Lottie, you and Winton should come. Nathan will tell us the way.

But here beside the flowers, the air heavy with their scent, the cool of Lottie’s hand still on Josephine’s cheek, the idea of running seemed too raw to bring out into the morning, into the sunlight, with tasks to be done, hours to be got through. The idea floated, not fixed or certain in its specifics, and she knew how easily an intention might go astray, how a path leading away might twist and return you to the place where you first began.

Josephine had tried before to run, one night some years ago. She had been no more than a child then, twelve, maybe thirteen, years old, with no understanding of the dangers or the true northward route or the way the shadows played tricks on the road. The journey back to Bell Creek had been long. This time she would not turn back. This time she would keep on, across the great Ohio River, all the way up to Philadelphia or Boston or New York, the northern cities that lived in Josephine’s mind like Lottie’s ghosts lived in hers.

Josephine said, “I got to be getting on. I’ll come see you tonight, Lottie, at the cabins. We’ll talk then.”

“You come see me,” and Lottie blinked her eyes slow, a softening at the corners of her mouth, the look Josephine knew so well in her, of cautious affection, a caring that Lottie always pulled up short before it went too deep. A muffled, distant kind of love. She’d been this way since Hap passed on, her last son, just twelve years old, proud as a peacock of his fiddling abilities, dead in minutes, with Lottie bent over his body still warm, lips and tongue puffed up, and on his arm a dime-sized redness where the bee had bit.

Josephine continued, down the low slope to the vegetable garden with its tangled rows and a thicket of raspberry and blackberry bushes grown together, fruit mostly for the birds because it reached too high and went too deep for Josephine to collect it all. Josephine thrust her hands into the brambles and pulled blackberries off their white fibrous posts. Last night Missus Lu had asked for berries with her breakfast. The thorns pricked Josephine’s skin but she kept on. Today like any other day. Pick what needs picking, berries with breakfast, greens for Mister’s supper. Do what needs doing. Like any other day.

Josephine gazed west at the small figures in the field, tattered scraps of dark moving against the tobacco green. Jackson alone stoodmotionless, a cowhide hanging ready at his belt. Even now with so few of them left at Bell Creek, he never flinched when whipping for a row dropped, a slow pace. He’d make a man eat the tobacco worm, Lottie had told her, the thick wriggling body with pincers at its head swallowed straight down. His wife, Calla, was stout and irritable, bought by Papa Bo years back from an itinerant trader. She never spoke of the children she’d left behind or the ones she’d lost at Bell Creek. There was a deep-down meanness in them both. Mister had no backbone for whippings, so Jackson did the work.

A thorn pricked Josephine’s skin deep and she brought the fingertip to her mouth. The first time she ran, fear had seemed a physical presence, tall beside her on the road, and she tried but she could not run out of its shadow. Now the fear seemed different; it crouched and slithered and whispered within the berry bush and the tall grasses all around. It was smaller, trickier, more cunning. The sting of the cowhide. A twisted ankle, a summer storm. Would it thunder tonight, or would the sky be clear? The hounds, the rifles. She thought of Nathan’s crooked walk. They cut the heels with an ax or a long-bladed hunting knife, the legs held fast under the weight of a man or within a vise like the one used for planing the new boards or just tied up with cord, bound as they bound the calves for branding. Two swipes of the blade would hobble both heels, but too deep and the wound would never heal, a leg swelled up and stinking or the foot itself dropped clear off.

A sudden cold descended upon Josephine and it seemed her legs turned dense and heavy, her breath caught deep within her chest. With shaking fingers she took another berry from the bush. Like any other day. Do what needs doing.

A sound or a shadow took her away from the berries, and Josephine raised her eyes toward the house. A curtain rippled and she saw Missus Lu’s pale face at the window, staring down to where Josephine stood. Like an apparition, if Josephine hadn’t known better.

Hair dark and unsettled as a storm cloud, her eyes just shadows in her head. Missus placed a hand on the glass. Josephine nodded up at her and started back to the house.

A breeze came up and pushed at Josephine’s back as she walked the path. Run, it whispered. Run.

The House Girl
by by Tara Conklin

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062207512
  • ISBN-13: 9780062207517