I begin with an afternoon in the summer of 1864, a season of bad heat and rain. War raged somewhere and probably love too, but I was safe from both, I thought. I didn't know they were sneaking up to storm me by surprise and wreck me. There had been signs-mud snakes in the well, thunderbolts cracking our nights like warning shots-but I was fifteen. I read things wrong.
We had spent the morning sweltering behind a barred door, with daylight only through chinks and our one high window in the gable. The Home Guard was on a tear again, so Cee wouldn't let us out. She was the kind of mother who might sometimes risk her own neck but never ours.
I was sick with the heat and confinement. After six hours of it I broke.
"I can't breathe!"
"Lie down by the cat hole," she said.
So I got some air there, with my nose next to the little cutout square at the bottom of the door, hoping Cee would say, You poor thing, which she didn't. Under the floor our gold dog, Girl, snuffled and whined, scratching out a hollow to lie in. Through the cracks I could smell the turpentine we rubbed on her for fleas and yellow flies, and probably she could smell me, I was so sweaty. Whispering down to her, "Poor thing, poor you," I spied out the cat hole, but all I saw was a patch of the ordinary world.
Nothing moved in the drowned cornfield. Rainwater stood in pools like flat tin, and no birds flew. It didn't look like danger, it only looked like home, still and beautiful and scorching green. Now and then a dry pod snapped in the chimney vines, flinging seed across the roof like sand. Deep in the matted honeysuckle on the porch a lizard hid, and suddenly his throat bubbled red.
I said, "There's nothing out there but the usual."
"What did I teach you? Before you take a chance, you figure your what?"
"You mean to tell me they turned in our favor?"
"Sit tight then."
In the early afternoon Henderson Oxendine came to tell us the Guard had been seen on the Lumberton Road heading our way. Eleven horsemen riding hard, Brant Harris in the lead. Henderson said we better let him take Boss and Andrew out to the swamps to hide with the young Lowries. At first I wasn't paying close attention to what he said, I was noticing how both his pants legs were worn through to his scrawny knees.
Cee thought Andrew and Boss too young to let go, only seventeen and fifteen.
"And if I can't protect my own boys against a half-blind bunch not even fit for the Rebel army then what am I good for?" she said to Henderson, still a boy himself not yet twenty but serious as a preacher, born that way. I'd known Henderson all my life, he was my childhood favorite up until I was thirteen, when Margaret Ransom came along, frisky and pretty and down-to-earth as a turnip, and a lot easier to talk to than Henderson. Besides, Cee thought it was time I had a girl for a best friend instead of running down to the fish traps with that boy every day, so Henderson and I drifted apart, me with Margaret and him with his brother Calvin.
But when I saw him again, with his bare knees and his knowing eyes, I was a little sorry I had swapped him for Margaret in the first place. If I'd stuck with Henderson, I told myself, things might have turned out different. His appeal went beyond the ordinary, to something in the spirit realm. He had a gift of music that could move the doubtingest heart. Whenever there was a brush-arbor preaching, or a husking or a picnic, someone would call on Henderson for a hymn. His face was narrow and bright, his eyes deep with the true, mysterious, hopeless love of things that can't be seen. The times I heard him sing, I said to myself it was too bad a boy like that couldn't be traveling the world, singing the praises of the Lord in his sweet, sad voice to the heathen.
But under the present circumstances-hunger and peril-Henderson wouldn't be singing for a while. He and his brother Calvin and their cousin Steve Lowrie and some others were trying to dodge the Guard and not get conscripted to Wilmington for forced labor at the salt factory or the Fort Fisher earthworks. The macks had decided they'd rather not send any more slaves for work that broke them or even killed them, so the solution was "Send Scuffletown." They wouldn't have our boys as soldiers but they grabbed them quick enough for slave labor. Word was that Steve Lowrie's brother Henry-the great Henry, who nobody could outrun-had been caught and sent.
But the truth was, when boys went missing like that you couldn't be sure what had happened. They would vanish off the lane on a quiet morning, and no one knew their fate or if we would ever lay eyes on them again. It is terrible to hope your boys are slaving somewhere, but that was what we had to hope.
"There's no end in sight," Henderson said. "And Harris is taking boys younger now, to fill the requirement. Somebody's helping him, writing up a list and telling him where to hunt. We think it might be the postmaster."
"James Barnes?" Daddy said, and Henderson nodded.
The postmaster knew us. He lived down the river half a mile.
Henderson offered to take Andrew and Boss to where the Lowries were lying out, but he wasn't allowed to say exactly where that was, for our own safety. Nobody was to know, not even mothers, not even Preacher Sinclair, who was passing information to the lie-outers. Sinclair and Dr. McCabe and Lawyer Macmillan were three among a handful of macks who took an interest in the settlement-all of them good-intentioned but one way or another troubled in mind and therefore not to be confided with the whole story.
"I brought a little something," Henderson said, and he put three eggs on the table. I never had seen anything so pretty. Eggs! I'd forgotten how they looked. The way they sat there, smooth and perfect, gave me a shiver of pleasure.
"Did you get you one?" Cee asked him.
But, thank goodness, he shook his head.
"And how did you come by these eggs, Henderson?" she said.
"Some folks still has hens. Mr. Allen's got his underneath the floorboards, trained to hush when someone comes. He closes the trapdoor, and there's not a peep."
"Allen's playing you along," she said. "Chickens don't fuss in the dark anyway. They think they been swallowed, they think it's doomsday."
From my corner I said, "Swallowed alive. Never again to run free or see the light of day or breathe the sweet air of God's green-"
"You didn't swipe them, did you?" Cee said.
"No'm. They were given to me to give," Henderson said.
"In a way of speaking."
"-swallowed into the pitch black dark, no ray of hope..."
Finally she looked at me and saw my puffed face, my damp curls clinging to my neck.
"Bless your heart," she said, and meant it. She held out an arm and I went to sit by her knee so she could fan me.
Daddy said let Henderson take the boys. "I've done some lying out myself, in my time," he said. "It ain't nothing to be ashamed of when your life is on the line." He told Henderson, if the Lowries were at Devilsden in Back Swamp like he'd heard, and if they had as many guns as he'd heard-he paused but Henderson didn't say yes or no-then Boss and Andrew should go.
"It's Lowries and you two Oxendines out there, I believe, along with one white one, McLaughlin, and one black one, Applewhite. I have it on good authority. Am I right, Henderson?"
I smiled to hear Daddy quote me as a good authority.
"I've given my oath not to say, Mr. Strong," Henderson answered.
I said, "I guess Steve Lowrie didn't give his or if he did it's bum. He came in Pate's last week telling everyone Henry was taken off to Wilmington but Applewhite joined in his place. Steve said they have five revolvers, ten shotguns, four Union rifles, and a plan to get a bunch more."
To gain Henderson's attention I may have left the impression I'd been at Pate's store myself to hear this when really it was something I had overheard said between Cee and her friend Nelly Gibson the day before. I thought I might impress Henderson with my up-to-the-minute knowledge. But he was keeping his eyes off me. I wasn't playing the flirt, all I wanted was to be seen as another human being in the room. I wanted to say, It's just the same old me, Henderson, but suddenly I wondered how true that was. Time had been at work on me since our childhood days.
Looking at his shoes, Henderson said, "If Applewhite's with us-and I'm not saying he is or he isn't-then we're lucky to have him."
This was George Applewhite, who had once been a slave in the Marion District but found the life not to his taste and made his way to us, dodging the catchers for so long now-five years at least-they would soon surely have to declare him dead or northernized.
"Ap can keep the boys safe," Daddy said.
Cee said, "And I can't?"
"I don't mean you aren't a strong woman, Celia Ann," Daddy said, his tongue rolling with the sound of his childhood home. His Gaelic was long gone, since Cee never let him talk it, and sometimes you could have thought he was settlement-born, he came so close to what was called the long talk, the Scuffletown sound. But his burr crept back when he was anxious. Then you heard Isle of Skye coming through.
"You're the strongest in the world," he said to her ("sdungest in the wudduld"), "but how could you hold off the Guard? Or how could I? And suppose Harris starts thinking, 'Well, he's halt but he's a digger, ain't he?' Barnes gave me a hard look at the post office last week, he might put my name down. But I don't want to be took, Cee. My knee, my constitution...Maybe we all ought to go with Henderson and lie out till the war ends. Wilmington would be the end of me. I'd not survive the climate, I don't have the strength of the rest of them-"
"Johnny, that's why you won't be took."
"You don't think they'll come for me?"
"Not an old bustard like you. You got my word, it's the truth if I ever told it. Besides, you forgot, you're not the shade of color that's preferred for fort work."
That settled his mind, and he quieted down. Half her time was spent calming him, keeping his thoughts off the subjects that could plow him under (jail, death, and my bleak future). Ever since the day they met she had been his guarantee against despair, and if she had her own share deep down, she hid it. I wondered if other marriages worked by the same arrangement, wives shooing off husbands' gloom by teasing, soothing, badgering, any trick in the book to bolster them.
Cee said thank you to Henderson but she would keep Andrew and Boss at home, and he could have the pail of potatoes by the hearth. They were resin-baked, a specialty from the old days when Dorcas, my grandmother I never met, cooked for the turpentine woods crew. You dig a hole and bury the potatoes under a thick layer of wet moss, add your lightwood and a ladle of gum, stand back and throw in a match. This is best done at night, to see the flare whoosh up toward the stars and then settle back to a long steady burn. By the time it's down to a flicker, the potatoes are done, and you spoon them out of the ashes. Then you cool and peel and eat them. The taste of the resin isn't strong, it's more like a tinge, a something, that bumps your memory back to other times and your thoughts back to times even before memory. Resin-baked potatoes was my only knowledge of Dorcas Sweet aside from her death by suicide.
Henderson looked in the pail, and I hoped he would decline but he took out two-my mouth watered just to see the charred papery skin and orange flesh showing through popped blisters-and he lingered by the door with the potatoes in his hands. He seemed to have something else to say, or maybe he misunderstood my longing gaze. Don't take them, I was thinking, even though his bony knees proved he could use some fattening up.
I wasn't as generous as my mother, and I hadn't yet learned how to kill hunger by force of will, as she could, or the even better trick of holding it and using it as a power. I was always famished. But sometimes my belly wanted something more than ordinary food. It wanted a food like fire, like iron, or earth itself in fistfuls. People do sometimes crave things that don't make sense, they will eat clay and swallow swords for no earthly reason. But it could be they've learned food only feeds hunger. To kill it, you need something stronger.
Suddenly I noticed, and my mother noticed, how Henderson was looking at me now. He started to say something, but then he thought better of it. He took his leave and backed out, and Cee bolted the door with the new iron rod Boss had just added to replace the thumb bolt he said was too puny now, in these times.
We had a new key lock, too, that Boss had put together from parts collected off the locksmith's trash pile in Lumberton. Boss was the promise of the family, the one I put my hopes in. We were close, Boss and me, less than a year apart, alike in features and complexion-but he was slight for his age, and I felt motherly to him more than sisterly. I had decided I wouldn't give him up to the Lowries or the Home Guard. The Lowries would have to take me too if they took him, and the Guard would have to kill me. Boss was my darling, my little man. He didn't let me cuddle him anymore, but I could at least throw my arm around his shoulder and he would lean against me. He was who I loved most on earth.
Others loved him too-his blue-gray careful eyes, his slow deliberate talk, and his singing voice, second only to Henderson's. But Boss's own passion was for locks and clocks and springlatches, anything that had a mechanism of little parts. He could make gadgets work after other people had given up, using needles and a punchbelly file to fix the inner workings, those springs no bigger than a grain of rice and cogwheels smaller than a wedding ring. For our lock, he made a key from a spoon. He was an uncommonly directed boy. The pleasures young men often care for, drink and revelry, shooting and whoring or knocking women about, Boss showed no interest in. He never even wrestled Andrew-I did, and I was good at it.
But I don't mean Boss was scaredy or girlish. He only had his mind on other things, and his way was to watch and listen. Someday, he was going to be-well, I hesitate even now to say my plans for Boss. I had hopes for him so high that to tell them then would have made me sound crazy and still might. He was born for something more than ditching and chopping-and the future I dreamed up for him was work I'd never known anyone to aim for. I wanted him to be a poet. I wanted him to adventure out into the world and learn its ways, not losing himself in the jumble of life but seeing it with a poet's eye, and withdrawing later to a library room where he would write his poems of revelation. He would tell what he had seen. This was my big plan, one that today seems both a pipe dream and a prophecy. Boss never wrote a word in his life. But he did see.
Reprinted from Nowhere Else on Earth by Josephine Humphreys by permission of Viking Publisher, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Josephine Humphreys. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.