The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (8 page)

BOOK: The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel
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“You shouldn’t do that!” I gasp. “Those are dangerous.”

The kid blinks, murky light accentuating bewildered wrinkles in his forehead. Wide brown eyes regard me from beneath the impossibly thick lashes I noticed the first day I saw him sitting alone in the empty schoolyard.

“Him’s not a very big’un,” he says of the alligator.

My heart squeezes. His voice and the slight speech difficulty make him seem even younger than he probably is. Regardless, I don’t think a five-or-six-year-old should be wandering all over town like this. Crossing streets and chasing alligators. “What are you
doing
out here by yourself?”

His bony shoulders rise, then fall under the lopsided straps of a faded, grease-striped Spider-Man muscle shirt. That plus the baggy shorts are really a pair of pajamas.

I shake the tension from my hands, try to get my wits about me. The leftover buzz of fear has me still prepared to do battle.

Leaning in, I go for eye contact. “What’s your name? Do you live around here?”

He nods.

“Are you lost?”

He shakes his head.

“Do you need help?”

Another nonverbal no.

“All right then, I want you to look at me now.” He flutters a glance up, then away again. I do the teacher thing with two fingers to my eyeballs, then pointed toward his. We’re locked in. “You know how to get home from here?”

His gaze holds fast to mine, his head moving uncertainly up and down. He’s like a stray kitten in a corner, trying to figure out what he has to do to get away from me.

“Is it very far?”

He points vaguely toward the ramshackle cluster of houses on the other side of the field. “I want you to get on your bike and go right there. And stay there, because there’s a storm coming, and I don’t want you to get hit by lightning or anything like that, okay?”

He visibly deflates, displeased. He had other plans. I shudder to think of what they were.

“I’m a teacher and kids have to do what teachers say, right?” No answer. “What’s your name?”

“Tobiashh.”

“Tobias? Well, that’s a great name. Good to make your acquaintance, Tobias.” I offer a hand, and he’s willing to shake, but he giggles and quickly withdraws, tucking the arm behind his back. “Tobias, you are a very brave, and might I add incredibly handsome, little Spider-Man, and I would hate to see you drowned in a rainstorm, or eaten by an alligator.” His eyebrows rise, then fall, rise again, then sort of bounce around his little forehead. “And thank you for saving me from the alligator, but I don’t want you to ever, ever,
ever
do that with any alligator, ever again, anywhere. Are we clear on that?”

He pulls his bottom lip between his eye teeth—the middle ones are missing—then he licks a smear of dirt or barbecue sauce.

“Promise me now. And remember, superheroes
always
keep their promises. Spider-Man, especially. Spider-Man never breaks a promise. And not to a teacher, for sure.”

He likes this superhero thing. The rounded shoulders straighten. He nods. “ ’Kay.”

“All right. You go on home. Remember, you promised.”

Turning the bike toward town, he drapes one knee clumsily over the too-high bar and looks back at me. “What your name?”

“Miss Silva.”

He grins, and I wish for a second that I had an elementary teaching certificate.

“Miss Seeba,” he says. In a flash, he is gone, the bike wiggling its way down the levee until it’s moving fast enough to draw a straight path.

I do a quick alligator check before turning and striding off in the direction from whence I came. No more daydreaming for me. Out here, paying attention is a matter of survival.

Even though I’m watchful on my way back, I almost miss the path to the judge’s old house a second time. A row of wildly overgrown crape myrtles shields the property from the lane. Thick with sucker shoots, marauding grapevine, and copious amounts of what looks like poison ivy, it’s almost indistinguishable from the natural landscape, save for the empty hulls of the summer’s blooms protruding like burned-out Christmas lights.

Between the roots, moss grows in a jigsaw puzzle of green, rectangular shapes. I scrape one with my shoe and uncover the paving stone of a long-ago footpath or driveway. Broken myrtle branches testify to the fact that someone has created a narrow passage through the bowed trunks.

My mind zips back to a six-month stint of living in Mississippi with my mom and her boyfriend at the time, who didn’t much care for kids. As an escape, my stuffed animals and I made a secret fort among the crape myrtles of a beautiful, flower-laden estate nearby. Slipping through the gap now feels completely natural, but the garden on the other side, while unkempt, is on a much more epic scale.

Yawning live oaks, tumbledown benches, stately pecan trees, and the remains of winding brick walls provide unorthodox trellises for enormous runs of old-fashioned climbing roses. Here and there, mildew-speckled marble pillars lift their crowns above the sea of greenery, standing like dispossessed royalty, frozen in time. No one has tended this place for a very long while, yet it is beautiful even now, peaceful, despite the wind kicking up.

A ghostly white hand reaches toward my foot as I turn a corner, and I do an involuntary cat-leap before realizing the severed limb belongs to a toppled one-armed cherub. It lounges nearby on a hammock of tangled trumpet vines, its stone eyes fixed toward heaven with eternal longing. I’m momentarily tempted to rescue it, and then I remember Councilman Walker’s story about moving Miss Retta’s garden saint to the flower bed at my house. The cherub is undoubtedly more than I can lift.
Maybe he’s comfortable there,
I think.
It’s a pretty nice view.

I follow the path over an arched brick bridge, where rainbow-colored fish dart about the shallows below. I’m careful, working my way through the knee-high overgrowth on the other side. Alligators, for one thing. And poison ivy.

The house comes into view around the last bend. I pass a crumbling gateway, and I’m in a yard that’s freshly mown, the grass thick and lush and waterlogged from the recent rain. The rumbling sky reminds me that there’s more moisture on the way and I’d better not dally. If I had my druthers, I’d stand here and take it all in awhile, soaking up ambiance.

Though both show the unmistakable signs of neglect, the house and yard are magnificent, even from the back. Epic oaks and pecans line the drive and shield it overhead. At least a dozen magnolias stretch upward, their branches capped with thick green leaves. Crape myrtles with intertwined trunks as big around as my leg, antique roses, oleander, althea, milk-and-wine lilies, and spindly four-o’clocks scribble riotous patches of color alongside the old Grand House, pressing free from the artificial confines of flower beds and spilling onto the grass. The sweet scent of nectar wars with the salty air of the oncoming storm.

Presiding silently over its dominion, the stately house stands perched one story off the ground on a raised brick basement. A narrow wooden staircase up the back provides the closest entry to a wide, breezy wraparound gallery framed by thick white columns that lean inward and outward like crooked teeth. The decking groans underfoot as I traverse it, the sound mingling with a mystical, uneven melody of clinking metal and glass.

I find the music’s source out front. Near a pair of grand staircases that circle from the ground in ram’s horn fashion, a wind chime of forks and spoons clatters softly, testing the worn bit of twine that suspends it. Beside the porch, a barren tree strung with multicolored bottles adds a smattering of indiscriminate high notes.

I knock on the door, peek through the sidelight window, say “Hello?” a few times, even though it’s clear that, while the yard has been mowed and the flower beds around the house kept up, no one lives here and no one has for a while. The circular patterns of rain-spattered dust cover the porch floor, disturbed only by the tracks I’ve made.

I know it instantly when I reach the window to the room LaJuna told me of. I don’t even lean close to the thick, wavy glass or shield the slight glare from the going sun. I just stand before the double glass doors, stare through the grid of cobweb-laced wood and glass, and take in rows upon rows upon rows of books.

A literary treasure trove, waiting to be mined.

CHAPTER 7

HANNIE GOSSETT—AUGUSTINE, LOUISIANA, 1875

It’s dark when I come awake, not even a moon splinter or a gas lamp or a lit pine knot to see by. Can’t think where I am, or how I come to be here, only that my neck’s sore, and there’s a numb spot on my head where it’s rested on rough wood. I reach up to rub it, and half figure I’ll find a bald place. Back in our refugee years on the Texas plantation, when work was hard and help had got thin after the swamp fever and the black tongue killed some and others run off, even us from the house worked the cotton patch right alongside the field hands. The job for the children was toting water. Buckets on our heads, back and to, back and to, and back again. So many buckets, the wood rubbed us bald on top long before the harvest.

But there’s hair on my head when my fingers test it. Hair sheared short so I don’t have to trouble with it, but I’ve got on a hat instead of a headscarf. John’s field hat. My mind trips a step or two, then breaks to a run, comes back to where I am now. In a alley, dead asleep in a hogshead barrel that’s still got the boiled sweet smell of cane syrup.

Ain’t supposed to be dark, and you ain’t supposed to be still here, Hannie—
that’s what hits me first.

Where’s Missy?

Where’s Juneau Jane?

A noise comes close by, and I know it’s what woke me. Somebody’s unbuckling the traces and tugs, unhooking Old Ginger from the calèche. “You want us to roll the wagon off in the river, Lieutenant? She’s heavy enough, she’ll sink mighty good. Nobody know any different, come mornin’.”

A man clears his throat. When he talks, I try to decide if he’s the same one who took Missy and Juneau Jane in the building hours ago. “Leave it. I’ll have it disposed of before morning. Load the horses onto the
Genesee Star.
We’ll wait until we’re past the mouth of the Red and over the state line into Texas to sell them. The gray is the sort too easily recognized nearby. An ounce of care saves a kettle of trouble, Moses. Remember that, or it’ll be your hide.”

“Yas’ir, Lieutenant. I remember that.”

“You’re a good boy, Moses. I reward loyalty as verily as I punish the lack of it.”

“Yas’ir.”

Somebody’s light-fingering Old Ginger and the gray!
My body comes full alive so quick I can barely keep from jumping out, hollering. We need the horses to get us back home, and beside that, I was left to watch out for the stock and the carriage. If Missy Lavinia don’t do me in, Old Missus will when she finds out. I might as soon be sunk in the river right alongside of that calèche, and take John and Jason and Tati with me. Dead from drowning’s better than starving to death. Old Missus will make sure we can’t get work nor a meal anyplace. Some way, this mess with Missy Lavinia will be all
my
doing, before it’s over.

“You find her driver boy yet?” the man asks.

“Nah, sir. Reckon he run off.”

“You
find
the boy, Moses. Get
rid
of him.”

“Yas’ir. I do that directly, boss.”

“See that you don’t stop until it’s done.”

The door opens and closes and the Lieutenant goes into the building, but Moses stays. The alley’s so quiet, I don’t dare even get my legs bunched under me to run.

Can he hear me breathing?

These men ain’t just some horse thieves. There’s doings here that’s worse by far. Something tied to that man Missy and Juneau Jane went to see, Mr. Washburn.

My leg twitches all on its own. The jingling harness buckles and chains go quiet, and I feel Moses looking my way. Heavy steps grind the stones in the alley, come closer one at a time, careful. A pistol slides from its holster. The hammer draws back.

I swallow my breath, press into the wood staves.
This how I die?
I think to myself. After all these years of toil, I don’t grow more than eighteen years old. Don’t have a husband. No babies. Just dead by the hand of a bad man and dumped off in the river.

Moses is right on me now, trying to see in the shadows.
Hide me,
I beg that old hogshead and the dark.
Hide me good.

“Mmm-hmmm…” He makes the sound deep in his throat. His smells—tobacco, gun sulfur, wet wood, and sausage grease—dance up my nose.

Why’s he waiting? Why don’t he shoot? Should I bust out, try to get past him?

Old Ginger nickers and paws, nervous, like she knows this is trouble. Like she feels it the way animals do. She snorts and squeals, and dances over the shafts to take a kick at the gray. The man, Moses, must’ve stood them too close together. He don’t know them two horses ain’t familiar. Old boss mare like Ginger, she’ll put a young rowdy gelding in his place, first chance she gets.

“Har!” Moses moves away to settle the horses. I weigh out my chances on running or keeping hid.

He stays with the stock, and I hold still. Seems like hours I wait for him to calm the horses, then check up and down the alley, knocking over stacks of crates and kicking up trash piles. Finally, he fires off a shot, but he’s far down from me. I wrap my arms over my head and wonder if that bullet’s coming my way, but it don’t. No more follow after it.

A window slides up just over my head, and the Lieutenant hollers at Moses to get done with the job he’s at; there’s cargo to load yet. He wants Moses to see to it, personal. Especially the horses. Get them on the boat and get rid of the boy.

“Yas’ir.”

The horses’ iron shoes ring against the stones and echo on the walls when he leads them off.

I wait till the sounds fade before I creep from my spot and hurry to the calèche to feel around for Missy Lavinia’s brown lace reticule. Without it, we ain’t got money or food to get us back home. Once it’s in my hand, I run like the devil’s on my hind heels. Thing is, he might be.

I don’t stop till I’m away from that building and down toward the water, where there’s men and boys swarming a night-call boat like ants on a mound. Pushing Missy Lavinia’s reticule down the front of my britches, I move off from the river landing to where farm wagons and freighter wagons sit parked in a camp lot, waiting for boats that’ll come in tomorrow. Tents billow and sigh in the river breeze and wagon curtains and mosquito nets hang stretched to tree branches, sheltering bed pallets underneath.

I slip through the camps quiet as the breeze, the voice of the river covering the little sounds of my passing. Water’s up high from spring rains, the old Mississippi making a ear-filling noise like the drummers on their homemade drums did back before the freedom. When the harvest was in—corn was always last of all—the masters had big corn-shuckin’ celebration parties, with platters of ham, sausage, fried chicken, bowls of gravy and peas, Irish potatoes, and barrels of corn liquor, all anybody wanted. Shuck corn and eat and drink and shuck more corn. Play the fiddle and banjo. Sing “Oh! Susanna” and “Swanee River.” Have us a frolic, finally free of our labor till it all started up again.

After the white folks had long took their leave of the party and gone up to the Grand House, the fiddlers put away their fiddles and took out the drums, and the people danced in the old way, their bodies slick in the lantern light, swaying and stomping and feeling the rhythms. The old ones, weary in their chairs after the hard season of cane cutting and feeding the steam mill in the sugarhouse, threw back their heads in their chairs and sang songs in the tongues they learned from their mamas and grandmamas. The songs of long-gone places.

Tonight, the river’s like they were then, wild and looking for a way free, crashing and pushing at the walls built up by men to keep it trapped.

I find a wagon with nobody near and climb up into a safe place between piles of oilcloth, a space just big enough for me to fit into. Gathering my knees to my chest, I wrap my arms tight, and try to make sense of things in my mind. Off through the wagons and tents, stevedores and roustabouts come and go from the buildings along the row, rolling barrels and wheeling loaded-down handcarts. They move in a rush under the gas lamps, loading the boat so it can take to the water by morning light. That the
Genesee Star
the Lieutenant man spoke of to Moses?

Moses comes and goes from the buildings to the boat, answers my question. He points, gives orders, pushes the workers along. He’s a strong, brash man like the slave drivers of the old days. The driver was always the sort that’d use the cat-o’-nine-tails on his own kind to earn hisself good food and a better house. Type who’d kill his own color and bury them out in the field and plow and plant over their graves next season.

I scoot farther back in the canvas when Moses turns toward the camp, even though I know he can’t see me here.

How’d Missy get herself tied up with men like these? I need to find the why of it, and so I open her lace bag to see what’s there. Inside is a kerchief that smells like it’s got corn pone wrapped inside. Missy don’t go too many places without food. My stomach squeezes while I finger through the rest of what she was carrying. A coin pouch with six Liberty dollars, Missy’s ivory hair combs, and, at the very bottom, something rolled up in one of Old Mister’s black silk cravats. The thing inside is hard and heavy and jingles a little when I unwrap it. A shudder goes through me as a little pearl-handle two-shot pistol and a pair of loose rimfire cartridges drops in my palm. I dump the pistol back in the cloth and sit looking at it on my knee.

What’s Missy doing with something like that? She’s a fool for getting herself in this mess, that’s what she is. A fool.

I let the pistol stay there while I open the corn pone and eat some. It’s dry and hard to get down without water, so I don’t eat much, just enough to settle my stomach and my head. I put the rest back in Missy’s reticule with the money pouch. Then I sit looking at the little pistol again.

The smells of pipe smoke and leather, shaving soap and sipping whiskey rise up from the cloth that wrapped it, bringing to mind Old Mister.
He’ll come home, and all this mess will be over,
I tell myself.
He’ll be good to his word about the land papers. He won’t let Old Missus stop it.

Old Mister don’t know you’re here.
The idea slips through my head, sudden as a thief.
Nobody knows it. Not Missus. Not even Missy Lavinia. She thinks some yard boy drove her carriage to this place. Make your way home, Hannie. Don’t ever tell nobody what you seen tonight.

That voice falls easy on my ear, takes me back to the last time somebody else tried to get me to bolt and run from trouble, but I didn’t do it. If I had, maybe I’d still have a sister right now. One, at least.

“We oughta take our chance,” my sister Epheme had whispered to me all them years ago when Jep Loach had us behind his wagon. We’d stumbled off into the woods to do our necessary, just us two little girls. Our bodies were stiff and sore from walking and whippings and nights on the froze-up ground. The morning air spit ice and the wind moaned like the devil when Epheme looked in my eye and said, “We oughta run, Hannie. You and me. We oughta, while we can.”

My heart pounded from fear and cold. Just the night before, Jep Loach had held his knife in the firelight and told us what he’d do if we troubled him. “M-m-marse is comin’ to f-fetch us,” I’d stammered out, too nervous to work my mouth right.

“Ain’t
nobody
gonna save us. We got to save ourselves.”

Epheme was just nine, three years older than me, but she was brave. Her words peck at me now. She was right back then. We should’ve run while we could. Together. Epheme got sold off, two days farther down the road, and that’s the last I ever laid eyes on her.

I oughta run now, before I get shot or worse.

Why’s it my trouble, what young Missy’s got herself into? Her and that girl, that Juneau Jane, who’s been fetched up like a queen all these years? Why I oughta care? What’d anybody ever give me? Hard work till my body screams from it and my hands bleed raw from the cotton thorns and I fall to bed nine in the evening, then get up at four the next morning, start all over again.

One more season. Just one more season, and you’re finally gonna have something, Hannie. Something of your own. Make a life. Jason maybe ain’t the quickest in the head, not as exciting as some, but he’s a fine, honest worker. You know he’d be good to you.

Get walking. Get back into your dress and burn these clothes soon’s you make it to home.
Nobody ever need know. The plan sets up in my head. I’ll tell Tati I been holed up in the cellar of the Grand House, couldn’t slip out because there’s too many hired boys out sweeping the yard, then I fell asleep after that.

Nobody’s got to know.

I set my teeth in that idea, and put away the pistol, cinch up Missy’s reticule, hard and angry. What’d I do to deserve this mess, anyhow? Stuck here hiding in some wagon camp, dead of night, man chasing after me, wants to shoot me and dump me in the river?

Nothing. That’s what. Just like the old days. Young Missy starts her mean ideas to rolling downhill, sits back and waits for somebody to get smushed. Then she stands with her fat little hands behind her back, rocking on them round little feet, proud that she’s got away with it.

Not this time. Missy Lavinia can find her own way out of trouble.

I’m bound to get myself to the edge of town while it’s still dark, seek a place off the road to hunker down till first light. Can’t start for home till then. Colored folk traveling alone, there’s still plenty of riders working the night roads, same as the patrollers did back in the old times, keep our kind from going place to place, unless they’re doing business for white folk.

Peeking from the tarps, I look over the wagon camp to figure my best way out. Closer toward the landing, a flash of a man in a white shirt catches my eye. I pull back, in case he’s looking at me. Then I see it ain’t a man, just a set of clothes that’s been hung up in a tree branch to dry out overnight. The little cook fire underneath sputters down to coals. A wagon curtain is stretched across and tied to the branch, a net slung over it to keep off the mosquitos.

A big pair of feet pushes up against the net, flopped out sidewards.

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