I am not a writer but by need. When I first began to tell my story, I thought the story could somehow be separated from me. Now I know better.
I have determined to track down all the survivors of xyon experiments and record our experiences. So far as I know, I am the only living descendent of the men, women, and children tortured at Confederate camps. Still, others are known to have survived Incident 1 and Incident 2, remaining on the earth to this day. These Xyon Chronicles may someday provide clues to help a world full of people overtaken by greed for power.
I only hope my story does service to all those who kept me safe, taught me survival, and wished a different life for me. And even for the ones who wished this life for me.
—Josiah Turn, October 1897
Mount Xyon, Kentucky, Appalachia
United States of America
3 September 1888 — 20 September 1890
03 September 1888
I wake with a chill and the dim memory of Mama’s voice chirping, “Somebody just stepped on your grave.”
The door scrapes. Lights of moon and candle seep inside.
“This is my abode. My children sleep throughout the room.” Dad’s tight words draw my attention. I squint without moving to see the party at the door.
“Willem Turn,” General Bryan says. “Don’t suppose you remember me.”
“Should I, General?” Dad says.
“How’ve you spent these last few days, Willem? I come here and your lovely daughter tells me you’re at the mill. I go to the mill and no one’s seen you. Makes a person wonder.”
“You have no call to speak to my girl,” Dad says.
Why didn’t Sharon tell me the General’s been to visit? I hear her breath in the bed above and know she’s awake. I hope the littles slumber on. Neither Sharon nor I dare interrupt.
“Strange,” the General says, “your Sharon strikes a remarkable resemblance to a woman I once knew.”
“I imagine you’ve seen more than your share of women,” Dad says.
The butt of a soldier’s gun upon Dad’s temple blunts his sass. General Bryan takes Dad by the collar, drags him out the door. Sounds like he shoves Dad into the planked wall.
“Was The War so long ago, Willem?”
Dad spits. He sucks in air through a gut punch. I make to rise but my head spins. The world gets away from me. I collapse back onto my bed.
The fire coals whip about me, but the corners of my sight blur and wink. Vertigo visions. Since I was twelve years old, I’ve had this thing Doc calls vertigo. It spins me and makes me see things true and false. I shut my eyes to lock out the crazed visions; the key’s no longer mine. I languish under the horrible scenes that rise from vertigo. I see her – Mama – drenched and ashen, just as she looked coming up out of the water that killed her. She often finds me in my sickness. I fight down screams and vomit rising within my chest. I fear her in vertigo, where her form is only death.
“You don’t know what you love until you love what you know,” Mama says. Her bones gnaw through skin. She is not here, I tell myself though she descends upon me.
“When you’ve left a place, never turn back for a treasure, lest you lose yourself,” she says. Mama’s hair mats and knots as we spin. I wish to cry and scream and beg and talk with her. I must return to Dad, stand with him.
“Safe as pie,” Mama whispers. This one used to make me laugh, ‘cause pies live safe from nothing. I don’t laugh now. I only struggle against her. Mama’s eyes sink and grow. She’s upon me. I smell her death.
“Life cannot be owned or kept, only used and utterly spent.” With this late bit of mountain wisdom, she ferries me out of the vertigo and into unconscious relief.
My sister’s voice is better than any old rooster for waking me in the morn. I squeeze my eyes against the day as her words jumble in my sleepy head, but Dad’s tone cuts in like a skinning knife.
“Now, girl, if I want your brother to know, I’ll tell him.”
“He’ll not hear from me.”
My mind’s churning ways I can corner Sharon later. I still my body so they’ll not learn I’m awake. Memories of candlelight and the General come up like cream.
“But he ought to hear it from you. Today, Daddy.” Oh my stars and stripes forever! She’s about to catch it. First rule of a happy life: don’t sass Dad.
“I’m not putting that on him.” He sounds weary. “Wish you didn’t know either. Your mama and I wanted you kids to have peace in your young days. We never wanted you lot to suffer our worries.”
“We’re both old enough to do some good,” Sharon says.
“You’ll help by keeping to yourself and your work. Watch the smaller ones and don’t let Josiah cross General Bryan. I’ll warn him about the cave, but he won’t hear me.”
The house goes still for a piece of time before Dad steps out. I rise and see the house empty but for Sharon.
“You missed the others, but they understand,” she says. I’m confused why Dad would stay so late at home.
The odor of my shirtfront, wet with sweat and bile, unsteadies me. The full force of my earlier vertigo spell threatens to drive me back to the floor.
“Whoa, steady, Josi’.” Sharon aids me.
“I was supposed to walk the littles to school,” I say.
“They know the way. I cleaned you up the best I could, but Daddy said to let you sleep a while longer.” She offers me fresh clothes and turns her back to let me change.
“How much do you remember?” she asks.
“Was I that loud?” I say.
“And good thing, too,” Sharon says. “I called Daddy in and the soldiers let him go.”
“What was that all about?”
She moves to gather some bread and milk for me. “How about you tell what you think you know and I’ll say yes or no.” This has long been the way my sister and I keep secrets.
“Awright,” I say and chew a hunk of bread, “let me see. General Bryan’s been to see you.”
“No,” she says.
“I heard him say so,” I push.
“I was not who he came for,” she says.
“That’s cheating your own rules, you know.”
She purses her lips.
“General Bryan’s been by to see Dad. Dad’s been avoiding him.”
“Yes and yes.”
“Dad and the General know each other.”
“They went to war betwixt North and South.”
Sharon’s eyes narrow and I think we’re both judging how far to take this. “Is that all?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Dad told you to keep me from the General.”
“Yes.” She seems to be hardly breathing.
“You learned something Dad don’t want us to know.”
I wait for her to maybe give me something, but she doesn’t.
“Well,” she says, rising to tend the fire, “I do believe we’ve no more to say.” She must know from my pause that I’m out of ways to keep the game going. I lace my boots. She hums and busies herself. Before I leave, I squeeze her shoulders but she keeps quiet ’til I’m at the door.
“Josi’,” she says, her voice every bit the warmth of Mama, “your answers ain’t with the General but they might be close at hand. Right on the surface, I’d say, if you’ll humble yourself enough to ask.”
“Maybe I will, sister,” I say.
“Be sure you bring home the late berries for Tabitha’s cake. Hard to believe it’s been five years,” she says. Five years since Tabitha was born, yes. Same five years since Mama died and Naomi lost her legs. Five years since Sharon became mother to all of us – me, our two brothers, and two younger sisters.
Sharon’s more than a year older than me and has ever been the more grown up between us. After Mama passed, Sharon’s the one who’s taken care of everybody. Dad works every moment he ain’t on supply runs. Though she was only thirteen, Sharon kept us all going, especially Tabitha. They took Tabby out of Mama’s belly just before she died.
Reminding myself to take flowers to Mama’s grave after my work, I walk through town without paying mind to anybody. As I face the woods, Dad all but knocks me to my dusters. He catches my elbow and I stand. He’s full of vinegar.
“You best not be in the woods today, son,” he says, a sharp edge on his words.
“Teacher’s expecting firewood. So is the Mercantile. Not cold enough yet for too awful many payers. I’m getting a late start as is.”
Dad holds onto my shoulders and looks at me like I’m in a spot of trouble. “Stay out of that cave today.” I start to pitch a fit about the same old fight, but he cuts right across me. “This ain’t about you, Josi’! Your family might need you today. I might need you.”
“I have to get the wood,” I say, trying to suss out his meaning.
“I reckon you do. But you get yourself to town and stay put after that. If I need you, I’ll need you in a hurry.”
“Just give up that dad-blasted cave today. I mean it. You don’t know what could happen.”
“Tell me then!” I say. “I ain’t fixing to die like Mama or lose my legs like Naomi!” Saying too much, I steady myself against the blow I half expect. He just lets go my shoulders.
“Look, you’ll be grown someday and you’ll understand. I’ll be right there to make sure you do. I’ll explain it, every mite, myself. But today is a day for obeying not asking. You got me?” Dad’s never looked so old before. I know he hates those woods, my cave. But I don’t. I love them.
“I got you.” I understand his orders if not his reasons. Some small weight leaves his eyes. Dad walks toward the mill. I’m already so late I decide to walk the school gardens in hopes of seeing Esther Adams at market.
I reckon this day’s gonna be hard no matter nothing. Still, I ain’t seen Dad this worked up about the cave since that fall Mama died. I started hauling wood. I was twelve. Dad was working and traveling. Sharon had our two brothers and two sisters to tend. My hauls were slight in the beginning and I think most people expected me to cut myself in two. One day I fell asleep in a cave I found. Dad, madder than a hornet, tore through the woods to find me. His hollering woke me with a fear for my family.
When we met in the woods, his face changed from anger to something I couldn’t read. By the time he took me in arms, tears fell from his eyes and a thing kin to relief washed over us both. It was the first time we touched after Mama passed nearly six weeks prior. He kept saying, “I thought I lost you, too,” and I hoped maybe Dad had returned. He hadn’t. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve touched since that night in the woods, and today was one.
He forbade me going to the cave. He condemns every place a person might have a bit of fun. All because of Mama. And Naomi. Dad keeps his superstitions to himself, but I reckon he cain’t stand me tempting fate today.
Like today, five years ago today was the first day of school. During break, Naomi went with some kids her age to pick late berries by the creek. She later said the others dared her to go into the water. From the time we were tots, we all learned that the dangerous creek water could burn skin and poison flesh. But Naomi loves showing off. Kids ran to town for help, said she went to screaming before she was knee-deep. Mama, her belly good and swollen with baby Tabitha, took off toward the creek. I kept to her heels. The screaming was nigh on to deathly.
Mama splashed right into the water and lifted Naomi to shore. How my sister stood so long, I’ll never know. Her legs felt like fire. As we carried her to Doc’s house, Mama stumbled. Sweat poured from her. Then came blood, soaking her skirts, dripping to the ground. She collapsed on Doc’s porch step. Naomi screamed all the while. I thought they all three would surely die. I worked hard not to run flat-out away from the misery.
I sat on that porch for hours. Seemed the whole town passed by, but I only heard the sounds of my baby sister and Mama from behind the door. Sharon and I rocked our brothers, James and Thaddeus. If any of us spoke, I don’t recall. Food came but we didn’t eat. Sometime after nightfall a babe cried out. Sharon was called inside to take Tabitha. Mama was gone before Sharon entered the room.
Except the second he flashed into Doc’s place, we didn’t see Dad until the funeral the next day. “Naomi must stay in bed,” he told Sharon. “We’ll need to say goodbye to Mama for her. When she asks, you remember that Naomi’s legs are going in the ground today, too.”
We didn’t see Mama, and I’ve never been sure whether I wanted to. I miss her face. I miss everything good about her. Precious little of her goodness comes in the visions. That we managed to keep both Naomi and Tabitha is no small wonder. Still, I miss Dad. Part of him went in the ground that day, too. His laugh. His quiet joy and love of play, those never returned. He never looked past his own pain to see how much hurt the rest of us feel. That’s what makes me most angry – Mama had to go but Dad chose to leave us alone.
I tend not to think about that day often because anger boils under my skin. On top of that, today I’m plain annoyed with Dad and his secrets. Dagnabbit! Why cain’t I just get through today. After kicking a stump at the back of the garden, which only hurt my foot besides, I sit and watch the boardwalk. Folks mill about the market. I lose myself in the daily rituals. It’s a wonder I don’t jump a foot high when I hear Dad’s voice. He ain’t talking at me.
“Jim, I come this close to telling my boy everything this morning,” he says.
“Why’d you stop?” The words belong to Pastor Shoemake.
“He’s seventeen, and that’s too young to face this.”
“Don’t you remember when we were seventeen? Worst year of my life. Now imagine if I hadn’t even known what I was risking by taking another breath upon this mountain. What if you hadn’t known what they expected or what might’ve happened to you or young Virginia?”
Dad paces amongst the corn. I sit still as a bird’s nest.
“What’s the last twenty-five years been for if he’s got to worry like we did?” Dad says.
“Shoot, Willem. You and I both know the General ain’t going away. Next to his men, what have we got to protect ourselves? I wish we’d gone down the mountain, all of us, when we still could.”
“Too late for wishing. Might be too late for…” Dad stops short. I want to ask what it’s too late for, but I’m supposed to be cutting firewood not listening through a patch of corn.
“You going to the ridge?” Pastor Shoemake asks after a while. Dad clears his throat.
“Yep. Don’t know what good I’ll be. I just want to see it. Virginia would call me a fool.”
“Virginia was a wise woman,” the Pastor says, making them both laugh.
“You stay here in town, Jim. If the worst happens, you’ll be up to your belt buckle in needs. Watch my family, won’t you?”
They clasp hands and pause like something more’ll be said but nothing comes. I don’t know what comes over me when I throw myself into the corn row. My heart beats my rib bones. I feel hotter than the sun. Their faces show shock. Pastor Shoemake breaks the moment.
“Ain’t you a ring-tailed tooter!” His voice booms. “Looks like you’ve got a chance to prove Virginia wrong,” he says to Dad. He smiles, claps both our shoulders, and says, “Don’t be a fool,” before entering the market with a loud greeting to nobody in particular.
My heart jumps like a spring frog in my throat. All the more when I look Dad in the eye. I wish Pastor Shoemake had stayed. Dad might be less apt to—
“Dad?” I ask. He’s laughing. “I’m sorry, but I just, well, I just wanted to—” I’m thankful he ain’t mad, but this laughing is mighty peculiar.
“Josi’, my son,” he says, gaining himself, “you and I, we’re cut from the same cloth. I should’ve seen you’d sneak about for answers.”
“I didn’t mean to sneak!” I say. Dad wraps his arms around me. I don’t rightly know what to do. We don’t hug. Not in a long time. After a minute, he lets go and laughs once more.
“Let’s have a talk,” he says. “Follow me.”
We walk toward the mill then beyond. Dad doesn’t say a word. I’m still so shaken by his hugging, laughing silliness, I don’t know what to say. I hear the falls ahead. The creek froths and roils. There ain’t much further to go along the bank unless we dive into the water. Dad turns to a set of tree stumps that look like a meeting place. We sit and I figure he’ll start lecturing, but he just sits. I look to his face to tell his mood. He don’t look like any feeling I can recall.
“If your mama had lived, she surely would’ve known what to tell you kids and when. Without her, I’ve been mostly lost. I could’ve used your help, truly, but I couldn’t risk losing you. I promised her – well, I promised Virginia a great many things, I’m afraid.” He rubs his hands over his head. I let him think, though I want to scream: We’re lost already! He seems to think if he left us alone we’d be fine. Truly, we lost our mother and father at the same time.
“What is it you know, Josi’?” I’m not used to his eyes on mine. I feel bare and nervous.
“Just that you and General Bryan know each other from the War betwixt the States and that you’re watching each other.” Dad nods, breaks eye contact. He chews on the inside of his cheek when he’s rapt in thought. I’ve caught myself doing the same thing on occasion and hated myself for being like him in any manner.
“This mount is sacred,” he says. He pauses so long I’m sure he’s decided to shut up. “We – your mama, me, and all the others who live in Founding – we protect the mountain.”
“From what?” He returns his gaze to mine. I swallow hard, wishing I’d not spoken.
“From everybody. The mount is rich, you see.” His pauses gall me. I wish he’d get on with it.
“Gold?” I ask.
“Naw. It’s a piece of earth like gold or coal but much more valuable. It’s called xyon. So far as we know, this mount is the only place xyon can be found.”
“You’re saying that we sit on the richest mountain on earth,” I say, sass leaking through the words. “Where’s my mansion?”
“Now, son, you decide: Do you want what I’ve got to say?” Dad sets his face. I nod and bite my tongue.
“There’s no market for xyon. We keep it that way. This is not the sort of wealth we can spend. Our work ensures the safety of mankind from the greed and power mongering of a few. Confederates got hands on xyon during the War. General Bryan was among those Southerners who rounded up slaves, freemen, and poor whites to experiment with the xyon. They tried to build us up into something stronger in hopes of making their own soldiers stronger. The result was a bunch of dead folk. Disaster struck before they had the chance to perfect a formula to use on soldiers.
“In our hour of need, the Sugalla, a native tribe on this mountain, they helped a lot of us escape. They asked us to be partners in protecting the land and helped us build Founding. We keep to our land and they keep hidden in theirs. Now the General’s come to harvest again.”
Dad picks up a handful of dirt, shakes it through his fingers. I know I ought not doubt him, but I can scarcely sort all he said.
“Have you got questions, son?”
Questions? Only about five hundred, give or take!
“Likely shoulda told you and Sharon together. Took her a bit to get her wits about her. Those of us who bore children decided to keep adult things to adults. We believed we could keep you out of danger and let you grow up naturally, a thing we didn’t all get.”
“Pastor Shoemake,” I say, “said he wished we’d gone down the mountain. What did he mean? Why couldn’t we still go down? If these people are as dangerous as you make out, we should get the littles somewhere safer.”
Dad’s face shows something I’d forgotten: pride. I’ve hungered for his pride. Somehow, I’ve done more in a couple of questions than in years of working for this family. I should feel happy but I’m just aggravated.
“You are a fine man, Josi’. I hain’t told you but I notice. I see how you look after the others. Your firewood customers say only decent things about you. I’m glad to be your father.”
“You’re scaring me,” I say. Not even before Mama passed did I ever hear Dad speak this way. “You ought to have told me how bad things are.”
“I reckon so. You and Sharon both have grown without me being there. I’m sorry, son. Forgive me.”
My throat burns. A piece of me wishes to cry and then go fishing with my Dad. But there’s no time. Not today.
“Let’s get back to town and gather up the littles,” I say, rising to go. My belly ties in knots; I need to see the others before something happens. Dad puts a heavy hand on my arm.
“No! I won’t sit! What keeps you up here? Our town cain’t fight the General!”
“Sit down. You need to hear a bit more.” Determined not to have my mind swayed, I perch on a stump. “General Bryan cannot be allowed to harvest the xyon. It is powerful, dangerous stuff. We vowed to protect it. To protect the world. The decision was made with full knowledge of the risks.”
“Those are your risks. Not Tabby’s. Not Naomi’s. James, Thad, Sharon, me – none of us agreed to the risks.” My voice surprises me in its evenness.
“No. You all were a risk, too. We chose to bring you children about even in the face of risk. I would not change that.” He hangs his head. “And you won’t change us. We made a vow and we’ll keep it.”
“Then let me take the littles down. I’ll get them somewhere safe and come back to help.”
He cain’t say no, can he? He wouldn’t refuse to get his own children to safety. I’m making plans when he speaks again.
“You ain’t ready,” Dad says. “None of you are. It’s not as safe as you think. For our life here to work, we had to change the way we saw each other. We had to change how we thought of each other.
“The War itself freed slaves, you know, but it didn’t change the way black and white felt about one another. Down the mountain lies much hatred and discontent between colors. I’ve been out there and seen it, felt it. All of Founding’s children together would cause nothing less than a riot. The likes of you or even Sharon mixing company with, say, Lucille Gaither would find you beaten. Maybe killed. Few places indeed have need for your black skin. You all don’t know the proper ways to act according to your color.”
“According to our— what the devil are you saying?” Anger and confusion storm within me.
“What we went through in the camps, Josi’, it was awful. We were changed. Where once we saw no joining of black to white, we saw only how very alike we are. We hurt the same. We met the same ends. It unified us, son. When we got out of that place, we only had each other. No one else in the world would’ve had us. We were no longer black and white but people of xyon. The Sugalla brought us here because they witnessed our change, because they’ve been changed. They knew, as did we, that we were all one.”
“Just me and Sharon then,” I plead, “we could make it with just our littles.”
“No, son. You have nowhere to go. You’ll find no kindness of strangers.”
“But don’t you know anybody from your supply runs? There must be somebody we could go to.”
“Six children are a heavy burden to put on anyone down the mountain.”
Through all the questions swimming in my head, I begin to mark how we are at an end of choices.
“I suppose I just don’t see why you waited three weeks to tell me,” I say. “General Bryan’s been here three full weeks. Dad, you had time to get us ready. To send us to safety. You had time.” My breath sticks in my chest. Pain and betrayal burn in my stomach. Time stretches between us. He knows I’m right. He must! I don’t care if he’s sorry.
“Truth is, you’re seventeen. You’re my son. I did choose to leave such hard decisions to the older amongst us. I don’t regret that. In time you’ll make tough calls, too.”
I kick at the dirt. My head’s too full to say more. I love Dad for telling me the truth. I hate him for keeping it from me. I hate him for putting the littles in danger. I believe him when he says there’s no other way, but I question all the other ways we could have gone.
“I’d best let you get to cutting firewood,” he says, clapping his hands down on his knees. “Find me when you come back to town.”
“Play party’s tonight,” I say.
“Yep, and you’ll go. I need you to act normal. We cannot afford to stir things up.”
I head into the woods. Dad calls, “Promise me.”
“What’s that?” I say, stopping to hear.
“Promise me you’ll not go to the cave today.”
“I got you,” I say, accepting his order.
As I cut firewood and haul it to town, I replay Dad’s words. The more I go over them, the more confusing they sound. I cain’t recall a time I ever heard of skin color causing a row. Could it truly be so different off the mountain? I bet it’s an old wives’ tale like the ones Mama preached. Something to keep us home and settled after we come of age. The old folks are just scared that the War changed so little. My dark skin next to Lucille’s white skin would get me beat? Naw, I don’t buy what Dad’s selling.
And the bit about War times…Seems true enough that the General and Dad have met afore. Pastor Shoemake’s not one to lie, nor is Dad to my knowing. I never heard tell of women in army camps! What word did he use – experimenting? Why on earth would the Confederates want to go experimenting on slaves? Or more, on white folk? For power, did he say?
How is it I’ve lived on this mountain all my years and never so much as seen one of those natives Dad was on about? Besides, something more valuable than gold would have people of every stripe crawling the mountainside! I should ask for a bed up off the floor if we sit on such riches. Or we could build a new room just for the kids to sleep in. Yeah, if we guard great wealth, a new bed and two rooms ain’t much to ask. Maybe after the General leaves and things calm down, then’s a time to bring it up.
Once the wood is cut and delivered and all my coins are collected from payers, I feel a good deal calmer. I love Dad, but he ain’t always right. He’s certainly cooked up some of this, even if he does believe it. By the time I store my skid, my cares vanish. The only thing on my mind: deliver those berries for Tabby. Her dinner should be nothing short of delicious!
“Finally!” Sharon says when I enter the house. “Boots off, please!” She takes the basket from me so I don’t tromp across the floor. It’s a thing we all tease about, because a dirt floor don’t seem like much to worry over. She keeps it swept hard, though, and expects we’ll keep out the extra dirt and leaves that might make it in on shoes.
“Tell me every minute of your first day of school!” I sweep up Tabby in one arm and take Naomi by hand. They rattle for many minutes, telling me about the book Teacher is reading, the bows and boots and all the shiny things saved for the first day, and the giggles had. James and Thaddeus come in barefooted with a penny bag of sweets not very well hidden.
“For me?” I say and fairly drop Tabby. Sharon allows us to chase around the room for a bit before thwacking the wood shovel on the oven grate. As the others dissolve onto the bed to enjoy sweets, I ask Sharon if she needs any help.
“All is in hand,” she says. “The berries look big for so late in the season.”
“Dad told you we talked, huh?”
“I’m proud of you, brother. Feeling better on the whole?”
I spy the littles jabbering in the corner and drop my voice. “Feeling fine. Don’t it all seem a bit odd to you?”
“Surely, it’s odd,” she says, laughing softly.
“I mean to say, don’t it seem like a tall tale, a story to keep us—”
“To keep us what, Josi’? Dad’s telling the truth. Just because you don’t want to trust him doesn’t mean he’s lying.” Sharon turns back to dinner at the stove. She’s miffed.
“Just because you want to believe him don’t mean he’s telling the truth.” I stoke the fire. “It’s just, have you ever seen a native around here? Or whatever could be worth more than gold? Do you really think life is so different in the valley?”
“Esther told me she’s seen proof.”
“Esther? You talked to Esther but not to me?”
“Dad wouldn’t have you know before, but Esther brought the matter to my doorstep. She said Doc kept all kinds of records on health in Founding.”
“Of course he did! He’s the doc!”
“But Esther works with him sometimes, you know. She’s seen the strange things that happen to folk here and how Doc tends them. These are no ordinary ailments.” She drops to a whisper. “Like Mama. And Naomi. No ordinary ailments. No ordinary creek causes babies to be born and mamas to bleed to death and limbs to die.”
I’m turning it in my mind when Dad comes in with a handful of flowers.
“Looking for the lady of the house,” he announces in a proper tone, “one Miss Tabitha—”
“Me! I’m here!” Tabby runs forward and tries to knock him off his feet. He gives her the flowers and I remember the ones I was to take to Mama’s grave. I’ll do it after supper.
We gather ‘round the table to enjoy beans, greens, and berry shortcake. James and Thaddeus fight over the pork fat in the pot. The four school children share every detail of their first day. Learning is a source of great excitement, but Sharon’s face clouds. She misses the books more than I do, I think.
“Josi’, Sharon, any news to report this evening?” Dad says when the babble dies down.
“Teacher ordered more wood for tomorrow,” I say.
After a pause, Dad nods and gulps down his water. “Good, good. Sharon?”
“Quiet day,” she says.
“I get to serve at the play party!” Naomi breaks the bubble of tension.
“You cain’t serve,” Thad says, making a motion of carrying a tray on his head.
“Thaddeus!” Sharon scolds. Naomi has no tears for herself though.
“I’ll serve until I’m allowed to dance, and I’ll circle you with both!”
She amazes me. Naomi has more reasons than most to be sour and harsh but she shines brightest.
When supper’s over, Dad offers to clear the table. I accept ‘cause I want to get to the party. Sharon hesitates.
“I’ll stay in tonight with James and Tabby,” she says. “I have some darning to tend.”
“All right, Sharon,” Dad says. “I’ll head over to the pastorate and see if I can have a word with Jim.”
“Dad!” I say. “Sharon ought to be at the play party. Like you said earlier, we should act normal.”
“She don’t want to go, do you, Sharon?”
“Well,” she says, “I want to be a help.”
“You are, girl.” Dad waves to the littles and heads out.
“Sister, you should be dancing tonight,” I say once he’s gone.
“You heard Daddy this morning. I have ways to be of help.” She won’t say more so I don’t push. I swear, sometimes Dad is so blind! He will have his own daughter turn old here at home before he thinks of her future. Ahh! This is Dad without Mama: thoughtful with flowers or harsh with orders but mostly ignorant of his family’s desires.
Being as her mind is settled, I don my Sunday suit and kiss Tabitha and James goodnight. Thad, Naomi, and I walk to the square. The town’s lit up for dancing.
“You act about like this is your first play party,” says Henry Ketter, my sometime best friend. He spits in the dirt.
“You’ll never court a girl if you rot your teeth and spit on everything, or didn’t you know?” I hightail out of his arm’s length as his swing catches nothing but air.
“Everything you know about courting would fit in a single spit,” he says. We laugh because he’s probably true. Of a sudden I wonder whether we’d be enemies in Dad’s version of the world in the valley. It’s tough to say a little thing like skin would cause such trouble.
The fiddle strikes up and girls giggle over their dance cards. Mothers nudge their boys, give mint leaves to their girls. And I, well, I join them. Seventeen if a day and I know the gift of a quiet life. If Dad’s fears came true today, who knows when – or if – I might’ve gotten to dance again.
‘Sides, if we don’t all play our parts, these affairs will die out altogether. Then the youngers, like Naomi and Thad, won’t ever rise above serving refreshments. They’ll stay half-grown. Little bits like Tabitha would never make it out of bedtimes and nursery rhymes. James won’t get a chance to be big as he acts. No, everybody deserves to make it to twelve.
Shoot, at my first play party I was scared no girl would agree to dance with me. Happened to be Lucy Gaither’s first play party, too, and she found difficulty waiting to be asked. Who’d be standing before me now but the very same?
“How do you do this night, Josiah?” Only Lucy ever says the last sound of my name. Already her sweet and spicy perfume’s on my suit. Since our first play party I’ve always liked how she’s at ease amongst us, no matter nothing. Her beauty is hard-pressed to survive out here in the mountain, Dad says, but she don’t look to me to be suffering.
“Finer than frog hair, Lucy. Thanks for asking.” I bow to her like Dad used to bow to Mama.
“Care to dance?” Lucy doesn’t pink when she asks questions she ought not. Her skin shines like the top of water on a still day. I heard she never even talked to a person of dark skin before she moved to Founding. Maybe that’s what Dad means – light and dark separate themselves but ain’t mired in hate. “Amuse me,” she says.
We take to the floor, dancing for the fiddle. My head feels light right up to seeing Esther standing on the edge of the circle. Lucy catches me looking at Esther, I think. Before the last note shakes the air she releases me and flies through lantern light.
“Why, Miss Esther, you’re a sight to rival the stars,” I say without breaking from her gaze.
“Thank you, Josi’,” Esther greets me with a honeyed voice. That feeling in my gut when Lucy said my whole name ebbs. When Esther says my name, it’s like being called home.
“Wouldyaliketodance?” Yep, I run all the words off in a valley together. To her account, Esther makes no note of it but tenders her hand.
We dance ’til the ladies snuff the lanterns. She invites me to walk her home and that’s just what I do. Too quick, her mama shoos me off the doorstep. Tomorrow I’ll ask to court Miss Esther Adams, I will.
Walking home I hear a scuffle. A lady shrieks over by the dance floor. As I near, soldiers tease and tell crass jokes about the ladies. The rigamarole draws menfolk – soldier and otherwise. Some ladies beg the attention of General Bryan to complain, but he sloshes some foul drink before them. Women abandon the task of clearing the space as the first punch is thrown. What’s clear from the get-go is these soldiers have training in combat but the men of Founding have honor. How dare they come into our town, abuse our grace, and start a brawl!
Pain explodes on my lip, fuels my fight. Henry joins my side as I lunge toward the two soldiers beating someone on the ground. A blow to the head and two to the ribs turn the soldiers to Henry and me. I see one of James’ friends passed out on the floor. We each take a soldier. I know little of what happens beyond my reach. My soldier pulls out a knife and strikes my forearm. I step back to regain my balance so I can ram the man. A tug at my neck pulls me out of the fray. Shots fire!