Wilderness Run: A Novelby Maria Hummel
Winter 1859: While exploring the frozen expanse of Lake Champlain, Isabel "Bel" Lindsey and her cousin Laurence hear a hoarse voice call out to them, the voice of a runaway slave.
The teenage children of wealthy Vermont lumber barons, Bel and Laurence decide to hide and aid the runaway. The choice catapults them from their sheltered upbringing into the/p>
Winter 1859: While exploring the frozen expanse of Lake Champlain, Isabel "Bel" Lindsey and her cousin Laurence hear a hoarse voice call out to them, the voice of a runaway slave.
The teenage children of wealthy Vermont lumber barons, Bel and Laurence decide to hide and aid the runaway. The choice catapults them from their sheltered upbringing into the central issue of their time: slavery and the future of the Union. Wilderness Run recounts their coming of age as it follows America's own loss of innocence after entering the Civil War.
Two years pass and Laurence is a soldier fighting in some of the war's bloodiest battles, while Bel, in the confines of her father's mansion, begins to fall for her French-Canadian tutor, Louis Pacquette--only to see him enlist for the Union. As Laurence and Louis become friends and serve in the same brigade, Bel starts to unravel a painful family secret. The history of family and nation come together when Bel goes to serve as a nurse in Washington, D.C., and after the terrible fires of the Battle of the Wilderness, reunites with the two men who love her.
Featuring vivid characters and visceral war scenes balanced by intimate portraits of domestic life, Wilderness Run is a powerful debut by gifted young writer Maria Hummel.
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By Maria Hummel
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Maria Hummel
All rights reserved.
Isabel set one timid boot down on the creek, a white pastry of ice and fallen leaves, where her cousin Laurence was already running and halting to slide. Her thick honey-colored braid had loosened and a few wisps spoked about her face like the bristles of a much-used broom. She was at that age where girls are big-headed, her body a stickish protrusion of legs and arms.
"Hurry, Bel," Laurence said as he coasted away from her. He never called her Isabel. No one did but her father and mother, and consequently she associated the name with a dutiful and somewhat dull version of her twelve-year-old self, who would have stayed at home and practiced her stitches instead of sneaking outside with her cousin.
"Is it safe?" she asked.
"'Is it safe?'" He mocked her in falsetto and nearly lost his balance. "You sound like Mary."
Mary worked for Isabel's parents and was always secreting Bel off to say the rosary, her cold black beads burnished by frequent use. Although she insisted she was still "in the neighborhood of twenty," Mary had the nervous disposition of an elderly spinster and her red hair already showed a few strands of gray.
Bel let the other boot down quickly and began walking stiff-kneed toward her cousin. Beneath her, the ice felt like a ballroom floor just cleared of dancers, hushed after a long waltz. The steep banks of the creek bed lifted the winter wind to the world above, and a cove of warmth rose between her coat and skin.
"Try sliding," Laurence instructed her, and demonstrated the quick sprint and splay of his feet as he let the ice take him. Bel followed his motion. The surface smoothed her steps away as she ran and then balanced herself to glide. On the second attempt, her boots hit a stick jutting from the white glass. She tripped and landed with an abrupt swoop, her ankle twisting.
"Try again," Laurence shouted. "You'll get it." He was far away now, skimming down the creek toward the nearby lake. The black coat, tailored to join at his hips, made her narrow cousin look even longer than he was, like a grasshopper dressed for a dinner party.
"We aren't supposed to —" Bel started, but she let the wind carry her voice away and eased herself back upright. Laurence was seldom home, and he was so much more fun than any of the playmates her mother tried to arrange for her. He and Bel had spent six blissful years together as children before her uncle George shipped his son off to school in Boston. Although they wrote frequent letters to each other, it was her seventeen-year-old cousin's holiday returns to Allenton that she looked forward to, for they meant all sorts of adventures and journeys, even in the dead of winter.
Laurence was always in search of a new secret place, a "wilderness," he called it, where the foundations of an abandoned house lay ruined in the weeds, or a belt of woods raised up birds, chittering, unseen. Every new discovery was given a name with wilderness in it: Lost Wilderness House, Wilderness Woods, Isle of the Wilderness (this last always unreachable, a knot of land in the middle of the bay where geese landed on their way south). Bel's favorite place in winter was the creek. Locally known as Potash Brook, their steep-banked Wilderness Run protected them from the harsh wind, and led to the open lake, an icy expanse that bordered Allenton to the west and smelled in December of clean, pure things, and vast distances.
Upon reaching his seventeenth year, Laurence had stretched himself tall and angular, more like her father than her uncle, although he had George Lindsey's determined brown eyes. His blond hair had darkened and his voice deepened, occasionally squealing like a new piece of furniture. From far off, she could still hear him clearly calling to her.
"Come on, Bel. I have something to show you."
Bel mustered up a limping dash and slid carefully toward her cousin. Even beneath the thick wall of ice, the water flowed, just a trickle maybe, but still she feared falling into that dark current. Once she had seen the shadow shapes of fish flitting deep below a clear patch on the lake. They looked like slivers of the moon, and the sight of them had made her feel impossibly cold.
When she glanced up from her mincing steps across the ice, Laurence was standing at the entrance to the lake, waiting for her. The white plain sharpened his figure to a silhouette. As she approached, he opened his arms with a gesture of ownership.
"Wilderness Lake. It's like the map of a new continent," he whispered. "See all the borders?" He pointed to the fissures and ridges running along the lake's surface.
"Is it frozen all the way across?" Bel asked.
"I don't know. You want to see?" Laurence jogged in place as a shrill wind bore down on them.
Bel answered her cousin by glancing back in the direction of Greenwood, the house her father built for her mother when she was born. Steep banks blocked her view of their part of the hill, the elm avenues lined with iron gates and brick houses. Greenwood would stand among them on the horizon of the city, watching over it in case invasion came. But nothing ever invaded Allenton but the seasons, and Bel was suddenly aware of how unnecessary the grandeur of her neighborhood was, when other people lived in plain clapboard homes.
"You didn't ask me what I wanted to show you," Laurence chided. "Look to your left."
On the bank beside her, the frozen architecture of a midwinter storm rose over red rocks, glistening like the domain of an absent ice queen, with giant thrones, glassy towers, and ramparts for her henchmen to defend her. Bel regarded the crested curls of wave and stone. There were easy footholds all the way up.
"How could you miss that?" Laurence shattered her awe. "How could you walk out here and not see that right away?"
"I was looking at you," Bel stammered. Her cousin's mercurial moods often confused her, much as she was used to them.
"You were looking back at Allenton. You missed the whole world for that stupid little city. You're going to end up like Lucia and Anne." Laurence kicked a leaf free from the ice as he pronounced his sisters' names. The twins, both in the perilous age between girlhood and wifehood, were excruciating in their daily routines of dances and dresses and calls from local young men.
Insulted, Bel turned away from her cousin to clamber up the stiff formation of ice. Finding herself a clear throne, she carefully plucked a downy feather from its seat and let the wind take it toward the lake before she sat down. The hard ice pinched her hips, and she squirmed to get comfortable.
"I'm sorry, Bel. It's just that you haven't really seen Boston, or these other places where —"
"I've been to Boston." Her breath clouded the frozen room around her.
"For two days! And with your father. But to watch the immigrants from Ireland and Italy hired at the docks in New York —"
"I've seen Irishmen, too."
With a snort of disgust, Laurence commenced climbing a tower of ice higher than her own. From her seat, Bel could hear his breath go ragged with the exertion. His cheeks were stained a deep raspberry.
"Are you tired?" she asked softly.
"No, of course I'm not tired. Just think about it, Bel. Think about all those grand cities in Europe that we've never been to, and ask if you're satisfied with stodgy little Allenton."
"If Europe is so wonderful, why are they all coming here?" She refused to meet his gaze.
"Oh, Bel. That's a thoughtless question. Because not everyone gets to live in a castle like us. You haven't grown up as much as I thought."
This was enough to goad Bel to utter silence, and she stared fiercely over the lake. It was Sunday afternoon, and on the nearby bay, the wooden fishing shanties of the lumberyard workers glowed like shells on a strip of sand. She could see men moving among them, arms crossed, chins tucked against the cold. Beyond them, the lake lay in a skirt of silver and blue, hemmed by the purple shadow of the Adirondacks looming on the opposite shore.
Laurence began to whistle and leaned out on a frozen prow, holding it with his arms. The sun sank a fraction below the mountains. Bel shivered discreetly. She would not be the first to mention going back.
"Be you the friend of a friend?" said a hoarse voice, and she looked down.
A dark-skinned man was standing on the ice, shivering. On top of his head perched a hat made from a burlap sack stuffed with newspaper, its unkempt and somewhat accidental appearance reminding Bel of a capsized bird's nest. Newspaper also patched large gaps in the man's homespun shirt and breeches: A headline announcing the funeral of John Brown crossed his chest; another, proclaiming the rise in tobacco prices, covered a hole above his knee.
The man took a step closer, his rag-bound feet whispering. Bel started and almost lost her balance. "Laurence," she said softly, watching the apparition.
"Be you the friend of a friend?" he repeated in exactly the same pitch and rhythm, as if they were the only words he knew. His teeth shone the sharp milky yellow of the ivory tusk Bel's father kept in his study. She shrank back.
"Yes, I am the friend of a friend." Laurence's voice rang out importantly as he slid down the ice. The man noticed him and bunched up to run. "Friend of a friend," Laurence repeated in a more soothing tone.
"Laurence!" She saw that her cousin wore the same frowning grin as on the day he had made Bel steal a horse with him and go riding to the edge of Allenton.
"Hush, Bel, I know what I'm doing."
As the boy clattered awkwardly to the lakeshore, Bel regarded the stranger from her safe height. Aside from the extraordinary outfit, his most prominent feature was a white scar curving like a fishhook below his left eye. The round cheek it marked made her remember a sketch of Hottentots in one of her mother's issues of Frank Leslie's Fashion Gazette, a thin volume that came every month with stories of Africa and Arabia, fairies and magicians, and the intricacies of fashion in Paris and New York. While the Hottentots had a certain comfortable roundness to them, this man was wiry and short, with a chest that bulged beneath his shirt like a laborer's. His eyes were the ugly gray of wet mud.
Everyone knew that some people in Allenton secretly helped the runaways get to Canada, where slavery was illegal, and Bel had heard her own mother proposing it to her father in hushed tones one evening when they thought she was already asleep. But the Lindsey brothers were public supporters of Stephen Douglas, the Vermont-born senator from Illinois, who was in favor of letting each state choose on the issue of slavery. They would never approve of Laurence trying to rescue a runaway.
"Canada." Laurence pointed up the lake, then took off his coat, offering it to the man.
The man snatched it with one quick hand. "Friend of a friend," he repeated, and patted his stomach with the other.
"He's hungry," Laurence said, his eyes shadowed with a strange triumph. "We'll have to take him home."
"What, just march him up the street?" Bel demanded, suddenly angry with her cousin. "He could be dangerous." She didn't like the way the man clutched the black coat hard to his hip, as if he thought Laurence might try to take it back.
"If he wanted to harm us, he could have done so already, Bel. We hardly noticed him creeping up."
"But what will your father say, or mine, for that matter?"
"They don't have to know. Unless you tell them," Laurence added with heavy emphasis.
"They don't have to know?"
"Your mother will help us."
Bel tried to envision her mother's response but could see only the color darkening across her father's high cheekbones and his blue eyes going to ice. Daniel's left hand would begin to shake, and she would feel instantly ashamed. His misshapen three fingers were only a slight disfigurement, but they made Bel love her father with a deep, pitying devotion. As a young girl, she had often asked him to tell her the story of the injury, relishing the details of the molasses barrel tipping slowly from a wagon, crushing his fingers as the sweet brown sludge spilled over his arm. He was standing in the wrong place, he always said. He didn't get out of the way in time.
This slowness to act still pervaded his decisions. Although Daniel favored abolition in theory, he didn't believe the system could change overnight, and Bel recalled his response to her mother's whispered request. He said that he could help the slaves the legal way, by voting and campaigning, but never by harboring runaways. That is a job for other men, who have less to lose than myself, he had said. What good will it do for me to get arrested?
Bel wielded the phrase on her cousin. "What good will it do if we get arrested?"
"Bel. We're young. We don't know any better." Without his coat, Laurence's shirt flapped like a sail, and his ruddy cheeks had begun to mottle with white patches. The runaway's eyes rolled toward the lumberyards. "Canada," he muttered, pulling his burlap hat lower.
Laurence shook his head. "If we don't help him, he's going to keep going and die. I think we should hide him up the creek a ways, and I can come back to get him after dark. Come on, sir." He motioned for the African to follow him and started back toward town.
Bel didn't move. Her legs ached from the coldness of the ice seat. The cry of a nearby gull sounded harsh in her ears. The man gazed up at her, and back at Laurence, then planted his feet.
"Please, Bel. He won't come if you don't," Laurence said. "You'll always regret this if you don't help him. Things aren't going to stay the way they are."
Still confused, Bel stood up from her throne. As she stepped onto the steep glassy bank, her right boot slipped and she lost her balance. The sky wagged above her, blue and gray. After a moment's hesitation, the runaway dropped Laurence's coat and reached out to lift her down the way a gentleman would help a lady from a horse. Against her ribs, his fingers felt hard as sticks stripped of their bark.
The odor of sweat and leaves and earth filled her nose, so unlike her father's clean lemon scent. Daniel had stopped lifting her in his arms years before, but now Bel remembered the delirious sensation of being swung, the power and the surrender. She squirmed in the runaway's hold. He gripped her tighter, his face so close, she thought his parted pink mouth would swallow her. Her toes met the flat ice. When she stood safely on the lake, the runaway let go, and the two of them backed away from each other warily, like boys who have decided not to fight.
"Are you all right?" Bel heard Laurence in the distance of the moment. But she was already running, her steps sliding away even as she took them, her leather boots making soft hammer taps on the ice of Wilderness Run, Potash Brook, the creek that swelled with rain from the farmers' fields and spilled it into the lake. Laurence called her name twice, three times before she turned around. Despite her exertion, she was hardly fifty feet away from them. The runaway had not moved at all. Laurence looked at her, at the man, and back at Bel again.
"He won't hurt you," her cousin said in a disappointed, accusing tone. His shoulders quivered with cold, but he rooted himself like a soldier facing an advancing army. "He didn't hurt you, did he?"
Bel shook her head. She did not lessen the distance between them, breathing in deeply to erase the smell of the runaway. It clung to the back of her throat, thick as chocolate or clay.
"I'm going to rescue him." Laurence folded his arms. "You go home if you want to. I know your mother will help me."
Bel swung around to face the brook as it wound up the hill and into Allenton. The white path stretched before her, pocked by summer stepping-stones. There was nothing alive, nothing moving in the frigid air but a tuft of dead blond grass rustled by wind. The breeze flattened her coat against the ribs the runaway had touched. A chill spiked up her spine.
"I'm going home," she announced to the emptiness before her. Laurence did not answer. She heard only the subdued trickle of water below her as she passed over the fragile roof of ice but did not fall through.CHAPTER 2
By the time Bel reached her house, the sun was just a wedge of light behind the Adirondacks. Dusk made the city lonely and infinite. Snow-laden boughs dipped over hushed yards, the iron gates shaken of their whiteness into a stark and guarded black. Bel plowed two blue-shadowed furrows through the street with her boots, turning around often to see if Laurence followed her trail. He did not. Instead, a red sled coursed over the hill and past her, pulled by a lone black mare whose hooves alternately kicked up and vanished as she trotted through the drifts. The smaller of the two passengers called back over her shoulder.
"Hello, Bel Lindsey! Where are you going?" It was Mary Ruth Cross, one of the many Allenton girls Faustina tried to make Bel befriend. Mary Ruth's face shone like a misplaced moon beneath her fur hat. The way her wide nostrils aimed outward reminded Bel of a piglet, but Mary Ruth was generally accepted among the adults as the girl who would grow up to be the heartbreaker around town. Her fair hair and blue eyes were so admired that Mary Ruth had already begun to acquire a bewildered string of boys who tripped over themselves to do something sweet for her without knowing why
Excerpted from Wilderness Run by Maria Hummel. Copyright © 2002 Maria Hummel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
Maria Hummel is an award-winning poet who has written for The Georgia Review, Green Mountains Review, and other publications. She is also the author of House and Fire and Motherland. She received her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she studied under a Randall Jarrell Fellowship. She is a native of Vermont and lives with her husband in Los Angeles, California.
Maria Hummel is an award-winning poet who has written for The Georgia Review, Green Mountains Review, and other publications. She is also the author of Wilderness Run, House and Fire and Motherland. She received her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she studied under a Randall Jarrell Fellowship. She is a native of Vermont and lives with her husband in Los Angeles, California.
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