If my great-uncle Philemon hadn't gotten a sudden hankering for turtle soup, the story I'm about to tell would have come out different. Or maybe it wouldn't have happened at all. But then who's to speak with any certainty about what might or might not have been? Everyone knows fate has a way of finding us no matter how well hid we may think we are.
All I can say is my particular story started when my great-uncle decided a bowl of Delia's soup was just the thing for his rheumatism, which was fearsome bad in damp weather. Since the old man couldn't go hunting himself, not with his stiff knees and aching back, he sent me to the marsh instead. A little spring rain wouldn't hurt a boy my age, he said. Nor the wind either.
Delia raised her eyebrows at this and said, "Age got nothing to do with it. I never knew pneumonia to spare a body, young or old." But she didn't waste her breath arguing. Once my uncle got an idea in his head, nobody could shake it loose. Not even Delia, who had more sense than me and him put together.
Uncle Philemon gave her a vexed look and said nothing. Delia was the only slave he owned, and he treated her good most of the time, fearing she might run away if he didn't. He'd told her more than once he planned to free her when he died; it was already written in his will, item two, right after the part where he left me, his great-nephew, all he possessed. Which didn't amount to much as he had gambled just about everything away long before I came to live with him.
"Go on now, boy," Uncle Philemon told me, "and fetch me the biggest old turtle you can find."
I knew better than to put up a fuss. Armed with along pointed pole to poke the turtle out of the mud and a basket to carry him home in, I headed for the marsh. If it had been later in the year, I would have had an easy time of it, but we'd had a long cold spell in February, worse than a normal Maryland winter, and the wily old rascals were still hibernating. I figured they'd burrowed clean through the earth to China by now. Most likely children on the other side of the world were catching turtles that by right ought to have been mine.
The wind blew across the Chesapeake Bay, straight through the tall grass, driving the cold rain before it. It pricked my face like icy needles and soaked right through my raggedy old jacket. I soon grew weary of prodding and poking the mud and finding nothing.
"Dang you, Uncle Philemon," I hollered, "and dang your everlasting rheumatism, too!"
I was sorely tempted to go home, but I didn't dare, not when my uncle had his belly primed for terrapin soup. If I walked through the door with nothing for Delia to cook, the old boy would throw a fit loud enough to scare the devil himself. Might even give me a thrashing, especially if he'd been into the brandy.
Despite his cantankerous ways, I must say I was normally right fond of my uncle. He'd done his Christian duty by me, sure enough, for he'd taken me in after Mama and Daddy died. I wasn't but four years old at the time and the most useless child you ever did see, but he agreed to be my guardian and teach me to be a carpenter. All he'd taught me so far was hammering, which you can't call a skill. I guessed it was a start, though. After all, I was only twelve. I had plenty of years to learn sawing and measuring and such.
Mostly what I did for my uncle was milk the cow, help the hired hands with the planting and harvesting, and provide Delia with things to cook for supper. Deer, squirrels, rabbits, oysters, crabs, turtles-whatever the old man wanted to eat I brung home. Without me, he'd most likely have starved to death long ago.
Other than that, and a few lessons in reading, writing, and figuring, Uncle Philemon allowed me to do pretty much as I pleased, which was often nothing but playing in the creek or climbing trees or making mischief of one kind or another. As for thrashings, all I had to do was stay out of his way when he'd been drinking. You can't ask for a much better life than that.
So I kept on poking the mud in hope of scaring up a turtle. Before long, the rain turned to a downpour so heavy I could hardly see. Truth to tell, the wetter I got, the better a thrashing seemed, mainly because it would be given inside, in front of a roaring fire. Let Uncle Philemon warm my britches and the rest of me as well. If he wanted a turtle, he'd just have to drag his sorry old self down here and find one.
I took a path that led out of the marsh and into the woods, hoping to find shelter under the trees. If I hadn't been fussing about my uncle, I might have wondered why the crows were making such a ruckus, but I was just too mad to pay them any mind. In fact, I didn't notice a thing out of the ordinary till someone grabbed me from behind, pressed a knife against my throat, and clamped a hand over my mouth.
"Don't move or I'll kill you," a woman hissed in my ear. "Don't make a sound either. Stay right where you are, as quiet as you can be... Promises to the Dead
. Copyright © by Mary Downing Hahn. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.