The Keepers of the House
By Shirley Ann Grau
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1992 Shirley Ann Grau
All rights reserved.
November evenings are quiet and still and dry. The frost-stripped trees and the bleached grasses glisten and shine in the small light. In the winter-emptied fields granite outcroppings gleam white and stark. The bones of the earth, old people call them. In the deepest fold of the land—to the southwest where the sun went down solid and red not long ago—the Providence River reflects a little grey light. The river is small this time of year, drought-shrunken. It turns back the sky, dully, like an old mirror.
November evenings are so quiet, so final. This one now. It is mist-free; you see for miles in all directions. East and north, up the rising ridges, each tree is sharp and clear. There isn't even a trace of smoke up there, though earlier, in October, there were ugly smears of drifting ashes from forest fires in the Smokies. And there is no trace of fog along the fold that holds the Providence River. Everything is crisp and clear. There is only the quiet steadily fading light.
Last month there were two whippoorwills crying all night around the house. I did not think I would miss their shrieking, but I do. Now.
Behind me the house is quiet as my children get ready for supper—an early supper because only the two youngest are here. My oldest girls have gone to school in New Orleans. The county does not know of that yet, but they will, they always know everything. "Just like a Howland," they will say. "Always doing crazy things, high and mighty, the way they are. Broke their neck last time, though, broke it clean...."
I have the illusion that I am sitting here, dead. That I am like the granite outcroppings, the bones of the earth, fleshless and eternal.
I turn on the porch light. Since I have come out to water the geraniums, I do just that. With the great tin watering can in my hand I sprinkle the dense line of sprawling red-and-white flowers. I was taught that a geranium will stand the cold of the night better if the roots are wet. These now, growing under the porch roof and back against the warm house wall, last until the very worst of the winter.
I pour carelessly and the water splashes across the porch boards. I am looking out at the yard, at the front yard. Even in this dim light you can see that the turf has been broken and torn. It looks a bit like a choppy sea. The paling fence is completely gone; all you see is the gentle fountain-like rise of the branches of the cherokee rose that grew on it once.
I shall not replace that fence. I want to remember.
As I stand there in the immaculate evening I do not find it strange to be fighting an entire town, a whole county. I am alone, yes, of course I am, but I am not particularly afraid. The house was empty and lonely before—I just did not realize it—it's no worse now. I know that I shall hurt as much as I have been hurt. I shall destroy as much as I have lost.
It's a way to live, you know. It's a way to keep your heart ticking under the sheltering arches of your ribs. And that's enough for now.
There are some big white moths fluttering around the porch light; and a few fat-bellied beetles flip over on their backs and squirm helplessly on the boards. I wonder how they have survived the frost. They must have hatched under the house, in the warmth there, or between the clapboards. A screech owl pumps silently past the corner of the porch, avoiding the light.
I wrap my sweater tighter around me, I lean on the porch rail and watch the night come. Not from any particular quarter—it's not that sort of night—it creeps in from all over, like stain up a sponge. There is no wind yet; it will rise later on. It always does.
I hear the brief scream of a rabbit; the owl has found supper.
I stand on the porch of the house my great-great-great-great-grandfather built, and through the open door I hear my children clatter along the hall to their supper. Marge, the baby, is laughing as Johnny teases her: "You are, you are, you are!" The words carry on the quiet motionless air until a door cuts them short.
I was a child in this house once too, rushing through those halls and up and down those stairs. It was not as nice as it is now—that was before the war, before my grandfather made his money—but it was the same house. For them, for me. I feel the pressure of generations behind me, pushing me along the recurring cycles of birth and death. I was once the child going to bed upstairs, whispering to reassure myself against the creatures of the night. My mother slept in the great tester bed in the south bedroom. And my grandfather stood, where I am standing, this same spot.... And those before him too. They sat on this porch and looked out across the fields, resting from the heat of the day, letting their eyes run over the soft turns of the land until they reached the dark woods. In those days the woods were much closer.
They are dead, all of them. I am caught and tangled around by their doings. It is as if their lives left a weaving of invisible threads in the air of this house, of this town, of this county. And I stumbled and fell into them.
The owl gives his quivering descending call, far off now. For a minute I think I see his sweeping shape against the sky over the Providence River. I stand in the pitch darkness and listen to the sounds of voices that roar around in my head and watch the parade of figures that come and jostle for attention before my eyes. My grandfather. My mother. Margaret. Margaret's children: Robert and Nina and Crissy.
It's been several years since I've heard from either Crissy or Nina. I don't know where they are now. I don't know what they are doing. I don't even know if they are still alive. But Robert, now, Robert came back. And how long ago?—three months, no more. He came back jeering and hating. He drifts out of the crowd of people inside my head and stands next to me on the porch. Not the boy I grew up with, not the child I knew, but the man I saw just three months ago.
He is my age, almost exactly, though he carries himself like an old man, rubbing at his mouth, batting his eyes rapidly. But he is alive. And when I am being honest with myself, as I am tonight, I know that I wish he were not.
I want to tell you the story of my grandfather, and Margaret Carmichael, and me. It's hard to know where to begin, everything leading back and weaving into everything else the way it does. My grandfather was William Howland. Margaret was a Freejack from over by New Church. But it didn't exactly start there either.
When you think about it, you see that it started way back, a long long time ago, in the early 1800's, when Andrew Jackson and his army marched north from New Orleans. It had been a fine war, good and brisk, and it didn't even take a man away from his place too long—there was plenty of time for spring planting work. It was a dull winter's worth of war, and they'd have something to tell about now for the rest of their lives. How they'd chased the British army in the fields and swamps of Chalmette. How they'd had a hero's welcome in the city afterwards. A city bigger than any they'd ever seen. A fine rich city with great sailing ships moored in the river, and a Pope's cathedral and priests in long black dresses. And women like they'd never seen before either, round-faced, smoothly fleshed, dark-eyed; softer, gentler than their own gaunt wives. All dressed in bright silks, even the mothers, all jabbering away in a language they couldn't understand.
The army went home heroes, and even the slaves felt pretty good. There were quite a few of them—Andrew Jackson had taken them along when he marched south, nervous and worried, not knowing the kind of British army he'd be facing. Those slaves went down with the army, served with it, and came back with it. As each man left, he got a bit of paper signed by Andrew Jackson giving him his freedom. Now, the General had a poor hand and he signed carelessly, with only the first four letters of his name showing clearly. On those pieces of paper there was just the word "Free" and a scrawl that looked like "Jack." So these new freemen and their children for all the years after were called Freejacks.
They were proud of their station and they kept apart from other Negroes. In the generations that followed they got themselves some Choctaw blood, and kept even more to themselves, taking on many of the Indian ways and customs. They were scattered all across the state, little communities of them. In particular they settled the pine uplands and the swampy bottomlands between the east and west branches of the Providence River. That was good fertile land, though it had considerable malaria. There were at least fifty families scattered through there, and you could be born and marry and die in the triangle of land between the forks of that river, a community they called New Church. And that's where Margaret Carmichael was born.
Now in the same army that straggled north during the spring of 1815 there was a man named William Marshall Howland. He was from Tennessee, a young man, sixteen or seventeen or eighteen, he wasn't quite sure; his mother had died when he was a baby and other people—his aunts and such—hadn't bothered keeping count. He was tall and thin and brown-haired and blue-eyed. When he took the road with his friends, marching home after the war was over, his head was aching from the liquor he had drunk and his brain spinning with the things he had seen. After a day or so he felt better and began to look around him. He saw the roll and pitch of the land and the soft sandy soil. He saw endless stretches of trees, the pines and hickories, big-leafed magnolias and huge live oaks. He saw how plants bloomed in the warmer soil, how they grew double their usual size with no wind to cut them down: dogwood and redbud, flame azalea and laurel. And he remembered the hill country he was going back to—razorback ridges, and valleys so narrow the sun never shone into them and little patches of tobacco on slopes so steep a man reached up to tend the plants. He remembered the balds too, flower-flecked and open, and the great blue-green distances seen from them. But his eyes were tired of reaches, he wanted a friendlier he balds too, flower-flecked and open, and the great blue-green distances seen from them. But his eyes were tired of reaches, he wanted a friendlier country, cut to the measure of a man, where the hills could be walked over, and the land turned easily under his plow.
His friends told him that if he wanted to turn farmer, he should go on to the fat black delta land that lay just a bit to the north. But William Marshall Howland shook his head and said he was tired. He dropped out to make his own way. He hadn't nearly done walking though, because it took him weeks to find a spot that he liked. He finally settled in the almost empty country toward the east, by a bluff that stuck red sides straight up in the air over a deep fast-running little river. Since it had no name he called it the Providence River, which was his mother's name, and just about all he knew about her. The land was heavily wooded and he could see very little. So he walked slowly back and forth across the surface, mapping it in his mind. From the river bluffs the land rose gently in a series of long waves, lifting gradually to the higher ridges in the east. He put his house on the fourth of the rises from the riverbank, halfway between river and ridge.
That William Howland was murdered by five raiding Indians one April while he was clearing his fields. They took his ax and his rifle and his powder horn and the shot pouch of groundhog hide, but they didn't bother the house up on the hill. They were drunk and careless and maybe they just didn't notice. The Howland boys went racing off to their nearest neighbors—there were six or seven families in the area by then. In little more than a day nine men set out, and William Howland's oldest son, who was fourteen, went with them. They trailed the Indians to the Black Warrior River, and they killed them—all but one—on the banks there. They took that single survivor back, along with the half-dry scalp. They called the Howland family out to watch while they hanged the Indian to a white oak in front of the house. They buried William Howland's scalp decently at the edge of his grave.
That was how the first William Howland died, a youngish man still, but not before he had left a wife and six children to fill his house.
All in all the Howlands thrived. They farmed and hunted; they made whiskey and rum and took it to market down the Providence River to Mobile. Pretty soon they bought a couple of slaves, and then a couple more. By the middle of the century they had twenty-five, so it wasn't a big plantation; it wasn't ever anything more than a prosperous farm, run pretty much along the lines of the Carolina farms the first William Howland had seen. There was cotton, blooming its pinkish flower and lifting its heavy white boll under the summer sun; there was corn, soft-tasseled and then rusty as the winter cattle grazed over it; there was sorghum to give its thin sweet taste to the watery syrup; there were hogs whose blood steamed on the frozen ground in November; there were little patches of tobacco, moved each two years to fresh clean virgin ground. The house grew larger; there was a barn and a stable, and four smokehouses, and a curing shed for the tobacco. There was a grist mill with a cypress wheel and granite stones. In the prosperous days before the Civil War even the interior began to have touches of elegance—harmoniums, and inlaid tables and shelves full of china figures. By then the county had a proper name—Wade—and the little boat landing that the first William Howland cleared had turned into Madison City, a tight neat town with a brick courthouse and a square and a single street lined with stores and houses.
And every generation had a William Howland. Sometimes he had his mother's maiden name for a middle initial and sometimes he didn't. There was William Marshall Howland, who'd come first from Tennessee. His son was just plain William Howland, his mother having come from ordinary people with no feeling for their name. His son was William Carter Howland. He was killed in the Civil War, maimed and burned to death in the thickets of the Wilderness—a young man without a wife or even a bastard son to carry his name. Within three years, his brother's son was named William Legendre Howland, and the name was back. That particular Mrs. Howland, whose name had been Aimée Legendre, caused quite a commotion in the county. First of all she was a Catholic from New Orleans, had married before a priest, and never once set foot in either the Baptist or the Methodist church of the town where she lived her entire married life. That was one thing. And then there was her father. Mr. Legendre dealt in cotton; and during the last days of the Civil War, cotton sold at fabulous prices both to the mills of the North and those of England. A man who wasn't troubled by Confederate loyalty could make a fortune in no time at all. Mr. Legendre did, and he continued to prosper all through the Reconstruction. He was a very wealthy man when he dropped dead on the steps of the St. Louis Cathedral, as he left mass on a rainy Sunday morning. His money went to his daughter, and with it the Howland place prospered and grew. Aimée Legendre Howland had a craving for land, perhaps because she was city-bred herself, and as other farms were sold (in the poverty-ridden '70's and '80's) she began buying. All sorts of land. Bottoms, for cotton. Sandy pine ridges that weren't used for anything in those days except woodlots.
After her son, there was one more William Howland. He was my grandfather.
When I knew my grandfather he was an old man, a big heavy man, with faded blue eyes, and a shiny bald head fringed by dark hair. His beard had gone so white that there was no longer any shadow on his cheeks and they shone bright pink at you like a child's. That was the man I knew. But there was another, an earlier one—I had seen him in pictures and I knew him from stories. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau. Copyright © 1992 Shirley Ann Grau. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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