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STRANGER HERE BELOW
By JOYCE HINNEFELD
Copyright © 2010 Joyce Hinnefeld
All right reserved.
Chapter One Pilgrim and Stranger 1968
In April of I968 Maze Jansen Whitman wrote a letter to her friend Mary Elizabeth Cox. She'd written many letters to Mary Elizabeth, always signing them "Sending my love, and wishing you'd come back, Maze." But Maze wrote this letter imagining it would be the last one she'd send to Mary Elizabeth, her friend since the two had met as first-year college roommates in the fall of 1961.
"It's hard to keep up with you, M. E.," the letter began, "especially when you don't respond to my letters." And it continued:
I'm glad you've let me know where you are, at least. I guess I've stopped imagining that you'll ever come back here to Kentucky. But don't you miss us, even a bit? If not us, if not me, then maybe at least the green and lovely and godforsaken land, as Dr. Wendt used to call it? Remember him, M. E.? And remember all those hikes you and I took on Saturday mornings, the way we ran full speed down Fat Man's Misery and slid on the rocks and laughed so hard we couldn't breathe? But now everyone is gone, not only you. Sister Georgia dead and buried, Sarabeth and Phil gone to Canada. And Daniel, too. He is dead, M. E., killed in the war. It's just Harris and me and our children left now. Even my mama's moved back to Torchlight, with Uncle Shade. Harris and I have twin sons, born one month ago, and I am weepy all the time. Marthie is four, and too serious already, because of me, I'm sure. I am tired and weep), and afraid all the time, not because I have two little babies but because my babies are boys. Because of what our fine nation does with its boys. They are Harris's and my children, and they are not expendable, and I do not know what to do about that. I'm too young for all these regrets. I regret that we didn't talk Daniel out of going when we found out he'd enlisted. That Sister Georgia didn't live to know our twins. And that you have drifted farther and farther away from me and have never told me why. I've asked myself over and over what I might have done. If it was what happened that night I stayed at your house in Richmond. Or when I came to Chicago. I thought our friendship would last, M. E., no matter all the things that got in our way. But maybe you've been trying to tell me I was wrong. There's one thing I do want you to know, and that's our twins' names, Pilgrim and Stranger (we usually call him Ranger). They are named for you and me, for the way I remember us when we first knew each other at Berea, the way we felt when we climbed those green hills and sane, those old hymns at the top of our lungs. I hope, you are happy in New York.
The letter was signed, simply, "Maze."
Chapter Two Sister 1872 1908
Georginea Fenley Ward was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in March of 1872-in the midst of an unexpected spring blizzard, when the Kentucky bluegrass was covered in white, really not itself, and the doctor could not get there in time.
Her father, Davis Ward, had insisted that her mother, Rose, spend the last month of her pregnancy at the home of her sister Lenora, outside Lexington. But he had not accompanied Rose there, planning to arrive only in time for the birth of their first child, because he wished to spend as little time as possible in the home of his brother-in-law, whose life habits (the drinking of whiskey and, earlier, the holding of slaves, to name but two) were distasteful to him.
And so, in the midst of the ruthless ice and blowing drifts, both the doctor and little Georginea's father failed to arrive in time for her birth or for her mother's death a few minutes later. Georginea's Aunt Lenora continued, throughout her life, to insist that Rose glanced at her infant daughter and faintly smiled before closing her eyes a final time on that March morning-a story that the girl Georginea and later the woman Georgia knew could not be true; she was left, she was sure, in a corner while all eyes and ears were turned toward her dying mother-Georginea herself clean and warm and tended to, always, but also completely alone.
At the age of three, long weaned from the wet nurse who came regularly to her Aunt Lenora's home through the first year of her life, she arrived at the Cincinnati home of her father, minister of the Second Presbyterian Church. Already she was a serious and dutiful child. But she was also capable, when provoked by a perceived slight, of sudden flashes of temper that flummoxed the series of nurses who cared for her until she turned twelve. There was nothing to be done, Reverend Ward told each nurse in turn; as he repeatedly observed to Georginea herself, she had inherited the steely will of her grandfather Ephraim Ward-a locally renowned abolitionist, a friend and, for a time, a fellow student of Lyman Beecher and Theodore Weld at the radical Lane Seminary.
By the age of twelve, left alone to read in her father's study for long periods, she had devised her own particular system of signs and symbols. It was a system shaped by random influences: one German nurse's fear of cats; the reading material-mostly theological treatises, with a smattering of poetry-available to her in her father's study; her father's own hunched, black-coated back as he walked stiffly from their home to his church. These became, somehow, the hot, fulsome smell of an animal's breath, connected obscurely with sexual depravity. The slow and regular ticking of a clock and a sleeping person's noisy breathing-signaling blood, and shame and dread. A gaunt man whose black hat, caught on a gust of wind, is transformed into a crow, that filthy, laughing menace. Carrion feeder. Roadside taunter. Interrupter of dreams.
At sixteen, she packed her bag, her books, and her system of symbols and left for Oberlin College. The days of the "raving Bloomerites," the outspoken women who smoked cigarettes and debated the issues of the day as if they were men, may have ended at Oberlin, but there were freedoms there that Georginea could not have imagined in the camphor-drenched shadows of her father's house. Still, she would not have expected to fall in love with a young black man. Yet there she was, by the end of her second year: in love with Tobias Jewell, toffee-skinned and brown-eyed, filled with spiritual and other passions, and possessor of the purest tenor voice the college choir had ever had.
To her shock and deep dismay, her father-son of the abolitionist Ephraim Ward, firm promoter of racial uplift in his sermons-forbade Georginea to marry him.
"God's will, Georginea, is not for the physical mingling of the races," he told her one spring morning in his study. Greenish-gray storm clouds brewed outside the window, and she knew she was not mistaken in thinking that his mouth curled with a kind of horror, a deep distaste, something sour and threatening there in the room between them, as he said it. With that she was removed from Oberlin and sent to the woods of Kentucky to be a teacher at a school he knew of there.
She was younger than many of her students, and she lived among the girls and young women in Ladies Hall. On her bed the day she arrived lay a copy of the student manual. "Throw back your shoulders and take a deep breath every time you step out doors. Make 500 gymnastic movements to start the blood and waken every muscle when you rise. Take a good drink of water in the middle of the forenoon, middle of afternoon, and before going to bed. Wear no fine clothing which could make you conspicuous, or make class-mates envious, or which you cannot afford."
Elsewhere in the manual students were warned against burning gunpowder or keeping firearms; such weapons were, for the duration of the academic term, to be deposited with the principal of the institution. Georginea was in a foreign land.
And yet it was, in certain ways, like Oberlin; her fellow teachers were God-fearing, in love with learning, quiet and respectful yet passionate about the future of the Union. And in 1890, the year she arrived at Berea College, on the frayed, western edges of the mountains-somewhere between the placid, rolling bluegrass she remembered from her childhood and a harsher, mountainous world to the east-over half of the 35o students enrolled there were black. They were the sons, and in a few cases the daughters, of freed slaves, former soldiers and survivors of the war, and they studied and sang and lived among white students from the mountains.
The ragged, frontier quality of the town and the newness of the school-so removed from the world she'd known in her father's stately house in Cincinnati or her Aunt Lenora's lavish rooms in Lexington-pleased Georginea. Dormitory life suited her, too; the stark simplicity of her bed, with its thin mattress and rough sheets, her nearly empty wardrobe, desk, and chair, made her feel light as air. In this clean, white, airy room she forgot, at least for a time, the heavy nights and mornings of the summer before, the blinding headaches she'd experienced in her father's house, the listlessness of her last days there.
Down the hill, on the edges of the town, gunshots often rang out. Deathly drunken brawls were common, and sometimes men-both black and white-were killed. Not far outside Berea, along Scaffold Cane Road, children nearly froze to death in the winter. Georginea would hear about such things from Lottie Johnson, the slow, heavy girl who distributed the mail in Ladies Hall and whose narrow, red-rimmed eyes grew large as she recounted one lurid scene after another, forcing Georginea to listen to yet another whispered account of the latest gossip from "down below the tracks" before relinquishing that morning's mail.
If Kentucky was still a frontier state, home to outlaws and renegades, and if those who lived in the surrounding hills and valleys guarded their cabins with guns near their bedsides, Georginea was barely aware of it. Vigilante gangs passed along Main Street from time to time, but Georginea, having a few yards of homespun measured and cut at Coyle's Store or dodging the crowd of horse-drawn wagons on a Saturday morning as she crossed the muddy street, hardly noticed them. In all likelihood she would have known nothing at all of the life outside the college walls (she seldom read the local newspapers, feeling more and more detached from the world outside her own mind), had she not been pulled from her room on occasion by several of her devoted students.
These young women loved to tease her, too, about the obvious interest of another young teacher, Lowell Wesley, who had come to Berea from the mountains of Virginia. He taught mathematics, and he had arrived at the school shortly after Georginea, in the fall of 1900. He had what she considered an affected air and a ridiculous accent, but she tried at first to return his interest. Until, one darkening evening after a walk over the college grounds, he pushed her roughly against the shadowy back wall of Ladies Hall and pressed his wet lips and mustache against her mouth, his tongue prodding her teeth. She pushed him away and hurried to the building's back door, shocked to realize that some part of her had wanted, for just a moment, to return his ardor. To let his tongue in through her clenched teeth.
As the door closed behind her, she heard the yowling of a cat. After that she avoided Lowell Wesley, who never invited her to walk with him after dinner again.
When she returned to Cincinnati for the week between Christmas and the New Year, Georginea found herself plagued by a vague, nameless anxiety. Though her father was eager to learn about her work at Berea, and their conversations were polite and respectful, if distant, by the second night of her visit, her headaches had returned. At night she slept fitfully, her dreams crowded with feverish images-a hissing cat on the windowsill, the smell of its breath invading her room. A smell transformed, eventually, into the scent of her own body on Tobias's hand where he had touched her. He appeared suddenly and unexpectedly in her dreams, and she reached for him with a pained hunger. But just as suddenly he would turn his back to her, deaf to her pleading, dressed now in the black coat and hat her father wore, walking away from her, from her need, her weakness, her woman's scent.
Back at Berea after the holiday, the dreams and the headaches persisted. For hours she lay in her room in Ladies Hall, drifting between dream-laced sleep and anxious wakefulness, staring at the ceiling. When something scratched at her window she barely turned her head, certain it was a hissing, yellow-eyed cat. Or an angry crow, roused from slumber in a crook of the giant sugar maple outside Ladies Hall. At prayers in the morning after nights like these, she wept silently, wiping her tears as discreetly as possible but still giving rise to rumors and whisperings about Miss Ward's strange devotion, the depth of her religion.
Years passed, and Georginea's memories dimmed-Tobias Jewell's eyes and his sweet tenor voice slowly fading, growing blurry in her mind. Everything blurred as a new century began and attitudes at Berea began to shift, and Georginea moved through her days in a kind of fog. Her headaches persisted, along with her tearful prayers. Her sense of something having gone awry, having failed terribly-failure and disappointment in the very air she breathed-grew into a conviction: The failure was her own.
By the spring of 1908, the college had chosen to comply with a state law called the Day Law that forbade integrated education. It was that or economic collapse, the president insisted, and so a separate school, the Lincoln Institute, was founded for black students, and Berea turned its attention to the white "children of the mountains."
At first a few other faculty members besides Miss Ward engaged in clandestine defiance of the Day Law. A cooperating staff member would turn off the lights shortly before a lecture was to begin, and when a student rose, at the instructor's leisurely request, to turn them on again, two or three formerly enrolled black students would have appeared at the back of the room. The instructor would proceed with that day's class, pretending not to notice their presence, in the early days of the Day Law, when the school's administrators were more willing to turn a blind eye, such acts were common enough.
Eventually, though, such acts could lead to a teacher's quick dismissal. Georginea knew this. Yet gradually, reading Blake and Byron into the wee hours of the night, sleeping and waking, floating between faint images of Tobias's face and of an angry, white-haired God, of swinging corpses and of somber, black-hatted men, she came to realize something very simple. They were all, beginning with her father and on through Berea's present administrators and many of its teachers, wrong. For nearly twenty years she had been their willing tool. But that would change now. They had left her no choice. The black-coated men, the dreams and blinding headaches. Tobias's sweet face and voice, slipping away from her like a quiet stream.
And so one April morning, she walked into the classroom and said loudly, "Leave the lights on, Winerip," to the old Berea groundskeeper. To the young man and woman, Winerip's son and daughter, waiting stealthily in the hallway, she said, "Come in now, no need to wait for cover of darkness; we will no longer pretend in my classroom that we honor the laws of a decadent land." It was Byron whom she quoted to begin the day's lesson.
"'On with the dance!'" she intoned, eyes blazing and cheeks inflamed, as two male faculty members arrived to escort her from her classroom. "'Let joy be unconfin'd!'" And as they grasped her arms and pulled her toward the hallway she called back over her shoulder, "'No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet!'" She could barely make out the gaping mouths and staring eyes of the rows of students at her back, but she caught a glimpse of Winerip's daughter, smiling. And weak and feverish and frightened as she felt then, something in that smile unleashed a cold, reckless wind, blinding white sunlight warming her face as they reached the open doorway, and Miss Georginea Ward left her last class at Berea College smiling and laughing. Like a madwoman, the students in her class that day would later say.
Excerpted from STRANGER HERE BELOW by JOYCE HINNEFELD Copyright © 2010 by Joyce Hinnefeld. Excerpted by permission.
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