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The voice bellowed out from Father's library, curled around the magnolia trees in the front yard, streaked down past the stable, and finally found me playing with Sam, a son of one of Father's former nigras, down by the old slave cabins at the beginning of the long grove of pecan trees. I cringed. I knew that tone: Father had been a major with Fannin's Avengers during the Mexican War and the Twenty-seventh Georgia Infantry in the Confederate Army, and his military coldness carried over to the family when he was angry -- almost a constant state with him since we had moved from Griffin (in the Piedmont region of Georgia following my sister's death and Sherman's march to the sea) to Valdosta, where he had established himself as a lawyer and planter. I wondered what I had done this time as I took my jackknife back from Sam, forfeiting our game of mumblety-peg, and ran as fast as I could for the house. If I didn't show before the third calling of my name, I would feel Father's wrath through his razor strap on my backside and Father was heavy-handed.
My chest burned as I scrambled up the back porch past the lilac bushes and raced down the hall, my feet clattering on the freshly waxed boards. Lizie, one of our house servants, flattened herself against the floral papered wall muttering, "Lawd, run, child, run!" as I sped past, sliding recklessly around the doorjamb just as Father was gathering his voice for the third cry.
"Yes, Father?" I panted, trying to stand straight. My knees shook from my frantic efforts to get to him before the final call, and I concentrated desperately upon keeping them stiff. Father thought that trembling was a mark of weakness, and the scornful lashing of his tongue cut almost as deeply as the razor strap.
He gave me his level gaze; I quailed inwards, striving to keep my fear from showing upon my face. The early afternoon cast deep golden rays through slatted shades, but already he wore a claw-hammer white coat with matching trousers and a gold brocade waistcoat for the evening. I couldn't see his feet, but I knew his balmorals had been highly polished by his personal nigra. He looked with disdain at the coarse butternut cotton shirt I wore against the heat and my gray trousers and shook his head. I never could dress to please him.
He pointed a manicured finger to the bookshelves on my right. My gaze obediently followed his nicotine-stained forefinger, clutching a thick cigar between it and his middle finger.
"Where," he said softly, "is that book?"
"Which one, Father?" I asked, stalling for time.
"Don't be a fool," he said stiffly. "The one that belongs in the place where there is none: Swift's Gulliver's Travels."
He stood, towering above the gleaming mahogany of his desk. The tips of his fingers rested on the green felt pad in front of him: a recognized pose mirrored in the oil painting of him above the fireplace, except in the painting he wore his uniform. The walnut paneling glowed with a soft richness and reflected the brass fittings of the whale-oil lamps on the walls. The chairs in the room were black walnut spool-turned except for the Beltner chair he used behind his desk.
"What have I told you about borrowing things without asking?"
"Not to, sir," I said. I concentrated on the broken veins spreading across the deep pores of his ruddy cheeks and nose. I had discovered that if I kept my eyes there, he would think I was meeting his blue-eyed stare. For years I had been playing this game as his stare seemed to burn its way through my eyes to the back of my brain, reading my thoughts there. I had feared his stare since I couldn't remember. No, I do. Once he stepped on a toy of mine -- I think it was a wooden locomotive one of our bondsmen had carved -- and his heavy hand flashed out, striking my cheek and sending me reeling against the wall, his heavy signet ring splitting my cheek. I was two or three, perhaps. Usually his bursts of temper spent themselves upon my back. I carried a large, keloid weal there from one of his more enthusiastic punishments when I knocked over a bottle of wine he had opened for dinner while reaching for a fresh watermelon pickle Lizie had put up during her June canning.
Suddenly the pit of my stomach lurched, then a coldness settled in it and began to creep up my chest. I shifted my gaze and stared into his eyes. My brain seethed, and hateful words began to form themselves in my throat.
"And?" he continued, his voice lowering dangerously. A recklessness began to burn within me. I threw my head back and stood straighter, surprising myself when I met his eyes direct. I opened my mouth to speak, but a voice interrupted me.
"For heaven's sake, Henry, I took the book," Mother said from behind my shoulder as she swept into the room in front of me, her crinoline and skirt brushing my legs. She paused to lick her hand and press down a tuft of hair on my head. A faint scent of lemon verbena slipped down her wrist. Her quiet, black eyes stared warmly for a moment into mine, then hardened as she turned to Father.
"You came home late last night, and I took the book to help pass the time while I waited for you. Honestly, you wouldn't condemn a lawyer for accusing someone without giving him a moment to explain in court; don't you think you owe your son the same courtesy?"
"You know his habit, Alice," Father said sternly. "If he is innocent, why doesn't he come out and say it?"
"Have you given him a chance?" she challenged.
Father glared at her, but Mother calmly met his anger. He lifted his hand from the pad, clasping the velvet lapel of his white coat, shifting his shoulders back. It was the pose he held when he was finished with the moment and had decided to move on to something else. A muscle fluttered in my chest.
"Very well," he said. He looked at me. "You may go."
I didn't move. An eyebrow quirked, and he frowned at me.
"You may go," he said, emphasizing his words. Mother sensed the anger and turned quickly to me.
"Go on, now," she said softly. I hesitated. Her eyes softened with pleading. "You need to practice the Mozart concerto. It's not quite ready yet."
The rage left me, and I turned, stumbling a bit on the rug as I stepped away from the door. I took a step down the hall, then leaned against the wall across from the deacon's bench used by people to clean their shoes when it rained. I felt feverish, hot and cold, my lungs still aching from my sprint.
"Henry, you have to stop bullying that boy," Mother said.
Father snorted at her words.
"Alice, it would be best if you stayed out of the matters between us. You had him for the first ten years. You played your game of house with him: teaching him the piano, reading to him. But now it is time he learned how to be a man."
"He's just a boy!"
"At the end, the boys were fighting the war," Father said quietly. "Have you forgotten the cadets who routed one of Sherman's troops near Atlanta?"
"The war is over," Mother said. "It is time to let boys be boys again."
"That time will never return, Alice. There is no time for boys to be boys anymore. The war has killed our youth. They have to learn to be men. If your brother was here, he would agree with me."
"Thomas isn't here and well you know it," she answered.
"And you can thank Sherman for that," Father said icily. "He is the one who tore up the railroad tracks, leaving our boys to come home from Appomattox and Savannah on foot. It takes time to walk that far, Alice. It takes time."
"You could do something about that," she said.
"What would you have me do, Alice?"
"Go after him."
"I'm too busy. I have a law practice and the planting of the new scuppernong vines for the vineyard I'm planning. I'm also trying to introduce the pod pepper, the wanderer. I simply do not have the time, Alice, despite what you may think. I have a life to rebuild here, and I have the means to do it. You remember what it was like when I came back in 'sixty-two after Malvern Hill. I was sick and we were broke. We were almost ruined! Why, if I hadn't bought this property in Valdosta when the Savannah & Gulf Railroad came through, I don't know what we would have done. We have been mighty lucky, and I don't intend to take time off to go gallivanting over the country on some fool's errand. Romantic nonsense!"
I knew that tone of voice; it was dismissal. I scurried down the hall and into the salon before Mother came out and caught me listening. Although she was my protector, she took a dim view of eavesdropping.
I slid open the door and stepped inside, pausing for a moment. The salon had been furnished with balloon-shaped rosewood chairs standing beside cartouche-shaped tables. A medallion-backed sofa stood facing the piano. I loved the room. Here, we played games when my cousin visited: Copenhagen, Fox and Goose, Consequences, Pencil, Change Partners. Mattie and I used to ask each other riddles, each trying to outdo the other, and sing songs. She sang, that is, in a high soprano while I accompanied her on the piano. Now I stepped to the piano and slipped onto the bench, fumbling with the music propped on the stand. I ran my fingers over the keys, playing a chromatic scale to loosen them, then rolled into the concerto Mother had decided I would play at her next soirée. I sensed Mother entering the room behind me, but I ignored her, concentrating on the music, letting it wash over me, soothe me. When I finished, she came behind me and affectionately smoothed my hair.
"You're too angry, John," she said. "Mozart should be played lightly, delicately. You sound as if you're trying to drive the keys through the sound board."
"I hate him, Mother," I said, leaning over the keyboard, avoiding her eyes.
"Shh. Now, you don't mean that. He's your father."
"An accident," I said. "I didn't pick him. And I don't think he would have picked me if he would have had a choice."
"I know. I know," she sighed. She turned her head, coughing gently into a handkerchief she took from her sleeve.
"Why did you marry him, Mother? Surely there were others."
She smiled wryly. Her blue eyes looked off into the distance of memory.
"Oh my, yes, there were others. But Papa decided that the major was the better choice for me."
"You should have chosen the one you wanted," I said.
"Why, John Henry! You know that's the way of things. It is a father's duty to select the husband for his daughter."
"That isn't right," I argued. "I can understand the nigras being treated like that, but why a white woman?"
She sighed and fondly tweaked my nose. Tiny beads of perspiration dotted her upper lip. Her eyes looked bright and moist.
"Now don't mind about that. You can't change things that have become the ways. You need to get back to work on that concerto. And remember this time: lightly, delicately."
Obediently, I turned and began working my way through the concerto again. She sat on a small chair beside me, humming along as I played, lightly tapping the underside of my wrists, raising them so my hands would curve over the keys. After a while, I sensed the tapping of her foot out of time. I glanced at her, noticing her pinched nostrils, the lines etching themselves at the corners of her lips and eyes. She smiled, patted my shoulder, and rose and left. I knew where she was going: to her room where she kept laudanum and a bottle of sherry, her medicine against mysterious ailments that seemed to afflict her in the afternoons.
"Where are you going?"
The voice startled me, and I fumbled at the keys a moment before stopping. I turned on the bench and saw Father standing in the doorway, blocking Mother from leaving.
"I'm feeling faint, Henry," she said lowly. "I'm going to my room."
"To your bottle, you mean. I think you'd better lay off that stuff," he said.
"You drink your toddies!" I burst out.
Silence fell in the room. Father looked over Mother's head at me, and I saw the anger in his eyes. My heart thudded in my chest.
"What did you say, boy?" he asked quietly. I had heard that tone of voice once before when a nigra -- Sam's father -- had sassed him out in the grove. When Father was finished, the nigra had to be taken to his cabin until the veterinarian could come and treat him with Dr. Flint's Quaker Bitters and jalap. Once I would have quailed at that tone, but now I could feel the rage moving through me, creeping up my chest into my throat.
"Leave her alone," I said. My words rang clearly in the room. He flushed and started around Mother. She reached out and grabbed his hand, throwing herself in front of him.
"John Henry! Go to your room!" she commanded. I hesitated, then slipped out the other door.
"Get back here, boy!" Father yelled angrily. I heard a gasp, then a thud.
"Oh, you brute!"
I turned back to the room. Father was kneeling beside her, concern showing on his face. She saw me standing in the doorway and waved her hand at me behind Father's back. I turned and ran down the hall. Swiftly, I mounted the stairs to my room and fell on the bed, trying to make myself stop panting for air. The air seemed thicker, heavier than it had been in the past. I took a deep breath and held it for a moment, then slowly let it trickle from my lips. I glanced at the small, plain table beside my bed: Gulliver's Travels rested there, a dried primrose, given me by Mattie, marking my place. I lifted the book from the table, my fingers caressing the leather of its spine, tracing the letters stamped in gold. Tears came to my eyes as I remembered Father's words to me. I felt their cut deeply and swallowed against the thick ball rising in my throat, the prelude to tears.
I didn't know why he hated me so, but I knew he hated me as much as he hated the Yankees who had torn our country apart. When I looked into his eyes, I saw no feeling there: only coldness and aloofness. When he drank he was worse, his words taking on an extra edge, his criticism homing in on what was precious to me at the moment.
I tried to be what he wanted, but other things besides hunting and farming were more important to me. I didn't fit into the preconceived mold he had for me, into his world. And he couldn't understand mine. Not, I reflected sourly, that I had a world since the war.
The door opened, and Mother stepped into my room. She saw the book in my hands and smiled tiredly. She crossed to the bed and sat beside me. Her breath came in tiny gasps from having climbed the stairs. She nodded at the book.
"I think you'd better let me have that," she said.
Soundlessly, I handed it to her. She smiled and opened it to the pages I had marked with the primrose.
"Now, quickly: Tell me what I have been reading." "It's not fair," I said, the words bursting from me. "It's not as if I was stealing the book."
She hushed me, placing a soft finger across my lips.
"I know. I know. But you must remember to ask, John. That's all. You know he'll let you borrow the books if you only ask."
"After he gives me his lecture on responsibility," I said, pushing my head back against the softness of my pillow, sulking. "And when I return it, I get I his lecture on promptness. Everything is a lecture with him."
She sighed and smoothed my hair. She frowned and pressed her palm against my forehead. Concern touched her eyes.
"Are you well? You feel warm."
"Tired," I confessed. "That's all."
"Well," she said, rising. "You rest. I'll return the book for you." She bent and pressed her lips against my cheek, then straightened, took a deep breath, and crossed to the door.
She turned and smiled, waiting.
"When will Uncle Thomas return from the war?"
A tiny frown line appeared between her eyes. "Soon, John. Soon. I hope."
She left, closing the door silently behind her. I rolled over on my side and stared through my window. A lone hawk climbed high in the sky, spiraling in lazy circles. Clouds marched by above him. I closed my eyes.
And slept. CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES.
Posted March 17, 2000
I have always been a western buff and felt this was one of best I have read. Although some of the so called historical fact seem a bit hard to believe, I enjoyed every page.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.