فصل 22کتاب: قبل از اینکه برای تو می بودیم / فصل 23
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Fern freezes halfway across the sitting room. Her body goes stiff so that I can see every little string of muscle. A second later, she’s wetting herself for the first time in weeks.
“Fern!” I snap under my breath because I don’t want Mrs. Sevier to hear me and come see what Fern’s just done. Our new mommy’s so proud of Fern that she takes us to the movies and talks about trips we’ll go on together and how we’ll see Santa at Christmas and what he’ll bring for us. She’s even got it in her head that we should all drive to Augusta to visit her mama. I don’t want to go to Augusta, but I also don’t want any trouble now that Mrs. Sevier has started letting us out of her sight a little more.
I hurry across the room and strip off Fern’s dress and shoes and socks, use them to sop up the puddle. “Go on upstairs before she sees.”
I can hear Mrs. Sevier talking to someone in the front parlor.
Fern’s mouth quivers, and her eyes fill up with tears. She just stands there while I roll up the wet clothes and stuff them behind the ash bin where I can take care of them later.
All of a sudden, I know why Fern’s not moving. There’s another voice in the parlor. The closer I get, the more it sends ice slivers through me, right down to the bone.
“Go hide under your bed,” I whisper against Fern’s ear, and push her toward the stairs.
Fern runs up to the second floor and disappears. Breath comes in and out my nose in short gasps as I flatten myself against the stairway wall and creep closer to the open parlor door. In the kitchen, Zuma turns on the electric mixer. I can’t hear the voices for a minute, but then I do.
“…a very unfortunate situation, but it does happen,” Miss Tann is saying. “It’s never my wish to take the children away once we’ve found good homes for them.”
“But my husband…the papers…We were promised that the girls would be ours to keep.” Mrs. Sevier’s voice wavers and cracks.
A teacup rattles against a saucer. It seems like forever before Miss Tann answers. “As well they should be.” She sounds like she feels sorry for our troubles. “But adoptions are not final for one year. Birth families can be so difficult. The grandmother of these children has petitioned to gain custody of them.”
I gasp, then hear the soft sound of it and slap a hand over my mouth. We don’t even have a grandmother. Not that I know of, anyhow. Briny’s folks are dead, and Queenie hasn’t seen her people since she ran off with Briny.
“This can’t…” Mrs. Sevier lets out a sob that sounds like it’ll break her in two. She sniffles and coughs and finally forces out some words. “We…we can’t let this…D-Darren will be home for…for lunch. Please…please wait. He’ll know what…what to do.”
“Oh my, I’m afraid I’ve upset you more than is necessary.” Miss Tann sounds sticky sweet, but I can picture her face. She’s smiling the same mean smile she had when Mrs. Pulnik was holding me down on my knees. Miss Tann likes the way people look when they’re afraid. “I wasn’t planning to take the children with me today. You can fight this foolishness, of course. You should, in fact. The grandmother has no real means of providing for the girls. They would have a terrible life. May and little Beth are depending on you to protect them. But you must realize that…legal work can be…costly.”
“For people of your obvious means, that shouldn’t be a difficulty, now, should it? Not when the fate of two innocent children is at stake. Two children whom you’ve come to dearly love.”
“Three thousand dollars, perhaps a bit more. That should go quite a distance toward resolving these legal issues.”
“What are you saying?”
Another pause and then, “Nothing matters more than your family, don’t you agree?” I can hear that horrible smile in Miss Tann’s voice. I want to run in there and tell the truth. I want to point at her and yell, Liar! We don’t even have a grandma! And I had three sisters, not two. And a baby brother, and his name was Gabion, not Robby. And you took him away, just like you took my sisters.
I want to tell all of it. I can taste the words on my tongue, but I can’t say them. If I do, I know what’ll happen. Miss Tann will take us back to the children’s home. She’ll give Fern to someone else, and we won’t be together anymore.
Mrs. Sevier sniffles and coughs again. “Of…of course, I agree, but…” She breaks down in sobs again, apologizing for it all the while.
A chair creaks and groans, and heavy, uneven footsteps cross the floor. “Talk with your husband. Express your sincere feelings on the matter. Tell him how much you need the children and how much they need you. I won’t bother with seeing the girls today. I’m sure they’re doing quite well under your care. Thriving, even.”
Her footsteps move closer to the doors at the other end of the room. I push off the wall and run up the stairs. The last thing I hear is Miss Tann’s voice echoing through the house: “No need getting up. I can show myself out. I’ll expect to be hearing from you by tomorrow. Time is of the essence.”
Upstairs, I hurry to Fern’s room. I don’t even get her out from under the bed. I just slip under there with her. We lay face-to-face the way we always did on the Arcadia. “It’s all right,” I whisper. “I won’t let her take us back. I promise. No matter what.”
I hear Mrs. Sevier pass by in the hallway. Her sobbing echoes off the wood walls and the high ceiling with the gold edges. The door closes at the end of the hall, and I hear her take to her bed and cry and cry and cry, just like she used to when I first came here. Zuma comes up and knocks on the door, but it’s locked, and Mrs. Sevier won’t let anyone in. She’s still in the bed when Mr. Sevier comes home for lunch. By then, I’ve got Fern cleaned up, and I’ve read her a book, and she’s sound asleep with her thumb in her mouth and the teddy bear she calls Gabby, like it’s our baby brother.
I listen while Mr. Sevier unlocks their bedroom. After he goes inside, I tiptoe out where I can listen better. I don’t even need to be very close to hear how mad Mr. Sevier is after his missus tells him what happened. “This is blackmail!” he shouts. “It’s nothing but outright blackmail!”
“We can’t let her take the girls, Darren,” Mrs. Sevier pleads. “We can’t.”
“I will not be blackmailed by this woman. We paid the adoption fees, which, by the way, were exorbitant, particularly the second time around.”
“Victoria, if we let this get started, there will be no stopping it.” Something metal topples over and clatters across the floor. “Where does it end then? Tell me that.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. But we have to do something.”
“Oh, I’ll do something, all right. That woman doesn’t know who she’s dealing with.” The door handle rattles, and I hurry to my room.
“Darren, please. Please. Listen to me,” Mrs. Sevier begs. “We’ll go to Mama’s home in Augusta. Bellegrove has more than enough space, and the place is too much for her now that Daddy is gone. The girls will have aunts and uncles and all of my friends there. We’ll take Hoy and Zuma and Hootsie. We can stay as long as need be. Permanently, even. Mama is lonely, and Bellegrove House needs a family. It’s a wonderful place to grow up.”
“Now, Victoria, this is our home. I’ve finally gotten my little studio building under way down by the lake. The McCameys aren’t the fastest workers, but they have the piers and the flooring in place, and they’re making progress on framing up the walls. We can’t let Georgia Tann put us out of our home, my family home, for heaven’s sake.”
“Bellegrove has acres and acres along the Savannah River. You can build another studio. A bigger one. Any kind you want.” Mrs. Sevier talks so fast I can hardly make out the words. “Please, Darren, I can’t live here knowing that woman could come knocking on our door at any moment to take our children!”
Mr. Sevier doesn’t answer. I close my eyes and dig my fingernails into my fuzzy pink wallpaper, waiting, hoping.
“Let’s not do anything rash,” Mr. Sevier says finally. “I have a meeting to go to in the city tonight. I’ll pay a visit to Miss Tann and settle this matter face-to-face, once and for all. We’ll see how bold she is in her demands then.”
Mrs. Sevier doesn’t argue any more. I hear her crying softly and the bed creaking and him comforting her. “Come now, darling. No more tears. It’ll be taken care of, and if you’d like to take the girls to visit in Augusta, we can arrange that as well.”
I stand there with my mind rushing through a hundred thoughts, and then it stops and settles on one. I know what I have to do. There’s no more time to waste. I hurry to my dresser to get what I need and then run downstairs.
In the kitchen, Zuma has lunch ready, but she’s over in the corner with her head in the laundry chute, so she can listen to what’s happening with the Seviers. Hootsie’s probably halfway up the chute telling everything she hears. On the chopping block, there’s a little picnic basket ready to go down to the McCameys’ construction camp. Normally, Zuma would make Hootsie take it down there. Hootsie hates that, and so does Zuma. Zuma says the McCameys are nothing but white trash and they’ll steal Mr. Sevier blind if he turns his back. The only good thing is Zuma and Hootsie hate us less now, because they’re busy hating the McCamey boys and their daddy.
I grab the basket and run out the door, yelling, “I’ll take this to the camp. I’ve got a movie handbill to give to the boy down there anyhow.” I’m gone before Zuma can argue that I’ll be late for lunch.
I bolt out the back, jump off the veranda, and cross the yard as fast as my legs will take me, all the while looking over my shoulder to see if Hootsie’s following me. It’s a relief that she doesn’t.
Down by the lake, Mr. McCamey is more than ready to settle under a shade tree when I show up with the basket. Near as I can figure, he’s always willing to stop working. The only reason he’s got a sweat worked up today is because his two biggest boys went to the neighbor’s place to help cut a lightning-felled tree off their barn and fix the roof. They won’t be back for a day or two, until that job’s done. The only help Mr. McCamey’s got right now is the youngest boy—Arney is his name, but Mr. McCamey just calls him boy.
I nod at Arney, and he follows me up the path to a willow tree where we’ve sat and talked before. I slip under the branches and give Arney a sandwich, an apple, and two sugar cookies I squirreled away in my pocket. Arney’s a scrawny little thing, so usually when I come down here I bring him food he doesn’t have to share with the rest of the McCameys. I figure he needs it. He’s a year older than me but not even as tall as I am yet.
“Brought you something else today.” I give him the handbill from the movie theater.
He holds the picture of a cowboy on a tall yellow horse and whistles long and low. “It sure is purdy. Tell me how the tale went. Was there lotsa shootin’?”
He sits down, and I sit down with him. I want to share all about the movie Mrs. Sevier took us to and the theater with its big red velvet seats and tall towers that looked like they should’ve been on a king’s castle. But there isn’t time to talk about those things. Not today. Not with what’s happened. I have to get Arney to say yes to what I asked him yesterday.
The moon will be full tonight, and on the water it’ll be almost bright as high noon. With Arney’s brothers gone, there won’t be a better time. I can’t let Mrs. Sevier drag us off to Augusta. I can’t let Miss Tann make us go back to the home. And besides that, Fern’s starting to think of Mrs. Sevier as her mama. Little by little, her mind’s letting loose of our real mama. At bedtime, I sneak over to Fern’s room and tell her about Queenie and Briny, but it’s not working anymore. Fern’s forgetting the river and Kingdom Arcadia. She’s forgetting who we are.
It’s time for us to go.
“So, what we talked about yesterday. You’re gonna take us, right?” I ask Arney. “Tonight. The moon’ll be up early and long.” You don’t live all your life on the river without knowing how the moon travels. The river and its critters choose their moods according to the moon.
Arney jerks away like I’ve slapped him. He pinches his brown eyes closed. A shock of thin, reddish-brown hair falls across his forehead and parts over his long, bony nose. He shakes his head in a nervous way. Maybe he never meant to help us at all. Maybe it was just big talk when he said he could run his daddy’s boat and he knows how to get through the oxbow lake and Dedmen’s Slough all the way to the big river.
But I told him the truth about Fern and me. The whole story. I even gave him our real names. I thought he understood why we needed his help.
He rests his elbows on his dirty overalls where his knees poke through. “I’d sure enough miss ya if’n you’z gone. Y’all been the only thang good ’bout this place so far.”
“You can come with us. Old Zede’s fetched up lots of boys. He’d take you on, I bet. I’m sure he would. You’d never have to see this place again. You could be free. Just like we’re gonna be.” Arney’s daddy drinks every night, and works his boys like sawmill mules, and beats on them all the time, especially Arney. Hootsie saw Arney get whopped upside the head with a hammer handle just for bringing his daddy the wrong peck of nails. “And either way, the pearls are yours, just like I promised.”
I dig in my pocket and pull them out and hold them in my hand where Arney can see. I feel bad about the pearls. Mrs. Sevier gave them to me the night after she took Fern to get fitted for the special shoes. She thought it was my birthday on account of that’s what the papers from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society said. The Seviers figured I’d forgot all about it being my special day, and they surprised me with a party at supper. I was surprised all right. My birthday was five and a half months ago, and I’m already a whole year older than they think I am. But my name isn’t May Weathers either, so a birthday in the fall didn’t matter too much to me.
The pearls are the prettiest things that have ever been mine, but I’d give them up for Queenie and Briny and the river. I’d hand them over quick as a wink.
Besides, Arney needs the price they’ll fetch more than I do. Half the time, they’ve got whiskey but no food in their camp.
Arney touches the pearls, then pulls his hand away and picks at a scab on his knuckle. “Awww…I couldn’t leave my fam’ly. My brothers ’n’ such.”
“Think on it real hard. About staying on the river with us, I mean.” Truth is that Arney’s brothers are practically grown, and they’re just about as bad as Arney’s daddy. Once they get tired of working like dogs and finally decide to light off, Arney’s likely to starve to death or get beaten till he breaks right in two. “Briny and Queenie can find you a place, I promise. They’ll be so happy you brought Fern and me back, they’ll find you a really good place. If Zede’s not there at Mud Island anymore, you can stay with us on the Arcadia till we come across Zede again.”
A little worry sliver pokes under my skin. Really, I haven’t got any way of being sure Briny and Queenie are still tied up in our same spot…except that I just know. They’d wait there forever if they had to, even though the nights are getting cooler, and the leaves are falling, and it’s time to be headed south down the river to warmer country.
What I’m afraid won’t go easy is getting Briny and Queenie to cast off once Fern and me are back on the Arcadia.
Has Silas told them that only me and Fern are left, that Camellia’s gone and Lark and Gabion are far away? Do they know?
I can’t think about it too hard, because it hurts. Don’t borrow trouble from round the bend, Briny always said. Right now, I just have to concentrate on getting down the slough to the big river. From there, we’ll stay close to the shore and watch out for the wakes off the boats and the barges…and keep an eye on the drift piles and strainer trees and such. Many’s the night here at the Seviers’ house, I’ve climbed way up in the cupola and looked out. I can’t see the river from there, but I can feel it. I’m sure I hear the foghorns and the whistles, far off distant. At the edge of the sky, I can see the Memphis lights. From what Arney’s told me, I figure the slough that drains off this lake must hit the Old Man River someplace between the Chickasaw Bluffs and the bars upwater from Mud Island. Arney’s not exactly sure, but I can’t be wrong by much.
Arney nods, and it’s a relief. “All right. I’ll take ya. But it’s gotta be tonight. No way of knowin’ when my brothers’ll git back.”
“Good. Fern and me will sneak down here soon’s the moon comes up over the treetops. We’ll meet you at the boat. You be sure your daddy gets into his whiskey early this evenin’. Let him eat real good too. That’ll make him sleepy. I’ll check that Hootsie brings down plenty of food for supper.” That won’t be hard. All I have to do is tell our new mommy the boy here in the camp is hungry and didn’t have enough to eat. She’ll make Zuma rustle up extra.
Mrs. Sevier has a heart that’s soft as a dandelion puff. It’s just as fragile too. I don’t want to think about how she’ll get by once we’re gone. I can’t think about it. Queenie and Briny need us too, and they’re our folks. It’s simple as that. There’s no other way to look at it.
It’s time for us to go.
Arney nods again. “All right. I’ll be there at the boat, but if’n we’re to trek downriver together, they’s somethin’ you oughta know first. Might be it’d change some thangs.”
“What’s that?” My breath hiccups a little.
Arney’s bone-thin shoulders lift and fall, and he cuts a narrow look at me before coming out with it. “I ain’t no boy.” He unbuttons his shirt neck, which isn’t much more than rags anyhow. There’s a strip of dirty old sack muslin wrapped around under there like a doctor’s bandage, and Arney ain’t a boy. “Arney’s for Arnelle, but Daddy don’t want nobody knowin’ it. People won’t cotton to me workin’ if’n they find out.”
Now I’m sure more than ever that Arney needs to stay down the river with us. On top of the fact that he’s a she, and this is no kind of life for a girl, there’re bruises all over her skinny body.
But what’ll Zede say about a girl on his boat?
Maybe Briny and Queenie will let us keep Arney on the Arcadia. Somehow, I’ll make a way. “It don’t matter if you’re a girl, Arney. We’ll find you a place. You just be ready tonight once the moon’s over the trees.”
We pinky-promise on it, and then Arney’s daddy hollers for her from the other side of the trees. Lunch is over.
All afternoon, I wonder if Arney will be at the boat tonight when Fern and me get there. But I figure she will, because when she thinks about it, she’ll see there’s not much to hold her here. She needs to get away down the river as much as we do.
The Seviers talk in their bedroom again before Mr. Sevier heads into Memphis for his meeting. When they come down, he’s carrying a little overnight bag.
“If the meeting runs late, I may stay in the city,” he says, and then he kisses Fern on the head and me too, which he’s never done before. I grit my teeth and try really hard to be still while he leans over me. All I can think about is Mr. Riggs. “You three take care of each other.” He looks at Mrs. Sevier. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”
Zuma hands him his hat as he walks out the door, and then it’s just us womenfolk. Mrs. Sevier tells Zuma and Hootsie they can go on out to the carriage house and kick their feet up. There’s no need to fuss over a meal. We girls will just have ourselves a tray of finger sandwiches.
Zuma fixes the tray real cute before she leaves.
“A little pajama party just for us. Captain Midnight is on the radio tonight,” Mrs. Sevier says. “And hot cocoa too. Maybe it’ll settle my stomach.” She licks her lips and presses a hand over her tummy.
“I don’t think my stomach feels too good either.” I’m itching to get upstairs and gather some things together. I won’t take any more than I have to of what the Seviers bought for us. It’s not right. Anyhow, we have things on the Arcadia. Not fancy things like these, but we’ve got what we need. What would a river gypsy want with ruffled dresses and shiny leather shoes? The clackety soles would scare all the fish away.
“You girls go on and wash up, and put your gowns on. May, you’ll feel better once we’re all settled in with some cocoa and treats.” Mrs. Sevier wipes her forehead with the back of her hand, then pushes her lips into a smile. “Come on, now. We’ll make a lovely evening of it. Just us girls.”
I take Fern’s hand and head upstairs.
Fern’s so excited about our party with Mrs. Sevier, she washes herself and gets her pajamas on lickety-split, even if her nighty is backward.
I fix it and put her robe on over the top and get mine on too, but I keep my clothes underneath. If Mrs. Sevier notices, I’ll just tell her I was chilly. Lately, it’s been cool in the house at night. One more reminder that it’s time to get back to the river before winter sets in.
I try to act like I’m happy about our radio party, but I’m nervous as a cat while we’re eating our finger sandwiches. I drop one on my robe and stain it, and Mrs. Sevier wipes the mess up for me.
She checks my forehead for a temperature. “How are you feeling now that you’ve had a little something to eat?”
All I can think is that I wish she was Queenie. I wish Queenie and Briny owned this big house, and I wish Mrs. Sevier could have babies one right after the other like Queenie does so she wouldn’t be lonesome after we’re gone.
I shake my head and whisper, “I might oughta just go on up to bed. I can take Fern with me and get her settled.”
“No need for you to bother.” She runs a hand along my hair, gathering it in her fingers and lifting it off my neck the way Queenie used to. “I’ll bring her up when she’s ready. I’m her mommy, after all.”
Everything in me goes cold and hard again. I barely even feel it when she kisses me on the cheek and asks if I need her to come tuck me in.
“No…Mommy.” I hurry out of the room quick as I can, and I don’t look back even once.
Upstairs, it seems like forever before Mrs. Sevier brings Fern to bed. Through the wall, I hear her sing a lullaby. I push my hands tight over my ears.
Queenie and me sang that song to the babies a lot.
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,
Go to sleep, little baby.
When you wake,
You shall have
All the pretty little horses.
All of it tangles in my head: The Arcadia and this place. My real parents and Mrs. Sevier and Mr. Sevier. Queenie and Mommy and Briny and Papa. The big river. The oxbow lake. The slough. Long white porches and little ones that drift, and drift, and drift over the water, not painted at all.
I play like I’m asleep when Mrs. Sevier comes into my room and feels my forehead again. I’m afraid she’ll try to wake me up and ask how I am, but then she leaves. The door closes at the end of the hall, and I can finally breathe easy.
The moon’s just coming up when I put on my coat and shoes, strap a little poke onto my back, and slip into Fern’s room and lift her out of bed. “Sssshhh…be real quiet. We’re gonna walk to the river and see if we can spot some fireflies. If anybody hears us, they won’t let us go.”
I wrap my little sister in a blanket, and she’s asleep on my shoulder before we’re down the stairs and out the door to the porch. It’s dark and shadowy there, and I hear something scratching in the gardens near the house, a coon or a skunk maybe. Mr. Sevier’s hunting dogs bark when I step off into the grass, but they quiet after they see it’s just me. Nobody lights a lamp in the carriage house. Dew flicks up and sprinkles my legs as I hold Fern tight and hurry toward the trees. Over branches, the moon shines high and full, as bright as the lantern Briny always hangs on the Arcadia at night. There’s plenty of light to see by, and that’s all we need. We’re down to the lakeshore quick. Arney is waiting, just like she promised.
We whisper, even though she tells me her daddy’s dead-dog out cold from whiskey, like usual. “If he wakes some and wants me, he ain’t gonna git hisself upright to come lookin’.” But Arney hurries us into the boat anyhow. Her eyes are wide white circles in her thin face when she checks over her shoulder toward the camp.
At the last, she stands there with one hand on the little jon boat and two feet on the shore. It seems like forever that she’s turned toward the camp, just watching.
“Get in,” I whisper. Fern’s waking up a little in the bottom of the boat, yawning and stretching and blinking around. If she figures out what’s going on, I’m afraid she might raise a fuss.
Arney’s fingers drift off the boat until only the tips are touching.
“Arney.” Is she thinking of sending us on alone? I’ve got no idea how to run the motorboat by myself, and I don’t know the way through the slough. We’ll get lost in there and never come out. “Arney, we gotta go.”
Past the treetops, the shadows shift on the lawn, and I think I see streams of light moving over the grass. They’re gone by the time I stand up for a better view. Maybe they were only in my mind…or maybe Mr. Sevier decided to come home tonight instead of staying in the city. Could be he’s parking his car and walking into the house right now. He’ll look in our bedrooms and know we’re gone.
I wobble across the hull and grab Arney’s arm, and she jumps like she’s forgot all about me. Her eyes grab on to mine through the moonlight. “I don’t know if I oughta,” she says. “I won’t never see my people again.”
“They treat you bad, Arney. You have to leave. You have to come with us. We’ll be your people now. Me and Fern and Briny and Queenie and Old Zede.”
We stare at each other for a long time. Finally, she nods and casts off the boat so fast I fall over the top of Fern. We take the paddles and row out a ways, letting wind and the current pull us along toward the slough until we’re well out from shore.
“Where’s…a fi…fireflies?” Fern mumbles when I crawl over her.
“Sssshhh. We gotta get all the way to the river first. You might oughta sleep awhile yet.” I pull her blanket up tight and put her shoes on her bare feet to keep them warm and let her use the poke for a pillow. “I’ll wake you up when it’s time to look.” There won’t be any fireflies, but when Fern finally sees the Arcadia, she won’t care a bit.
Arney starts the motor and sits down in the stern to run it. I take my paddle and move to a place up front to watch for drift logs. “Light the lamp,” Arney says. “There’s matches in the box there.”
I do what she asks, and just a few minutes later, we’re slipping down the middle of the wide, clear lake, stirring the night critters as they skitter away from the circle of lantern glow. I feel free as the Canada geese that pass by overhead, honking their call notes and dotting out the stars. They’re headed the same way we are. South to the river. I watch them pass and wish I could catch on to one and let it fly me home.
“Best keep a lookout up there.” Arney slows the boat when the lake narrows and the trees squeeze in closer. “Push off the drift if ya spy any. Don’t let us run up on it.”
The night air cools and thickens and smells of the slough. I button my coat tighter. Trees shut out the sky, their bottoms wide and twisted and rooty. Their branches reach at us like fingers. Something scrapes along the hull and lifts us on one side.
“Keep us offa them,” Arney barks. “One splits the boat, we’re goners.”
I watch for logs and cypress knobs and any sort of driftwood. I push it away with the paddle, and the miles go by slow. Here and there, skiffs sit tied ashore and swamp houses float on skids, their lanterns flickering, but mostly we’re alone. There’s nothing except us and miles of low, boggy country where the otters and the bobcats live and moss hangs heavy from the branches overhead. The trees make shapes that look like monsters in the dark.
A screech owl sounds off, and both Arney and me duck low. We hear it pass right over our heads.
Fern roots around in her sleep, bothered by the noise.
I think of Briny’s tales about ol’ rougarou and how he carries little children off to the swamp. A shiver runs through me, but I don’t let Arney see it. There’s no monsters here worse than the ones that’re waiting for us at Mrs. Murphy’s house if we’re sent back.
No matter what else happens, Fern and me can’t get caught.
I watch the water and try not to think about what might be out there in the swamp. Arney turns us this way and that, finding the channel time after time just like she said she could.
Finally, we run out of moonlight, and the kerosene in the lamp goes dry. The flame sputters until it’s just the wick burning. The breeze snuffs it out as we draw to shore and tie the bowline to a tree branch. My arms and legs are heavy like the water-soaked logs I’ve been shoving away with the paddle. They ache and crackle when I crawl to the center of the boat to get under the blanket beside Fern, who’s been asleep almost this whole time.
Arney comes too. “Ain’t far to the end of the slough from here,” she says, and the three of us curl up together, cold and wet and wanting sleep. From someplace, I think I hear music, and I tell myself it’s a showboat and that means the river’s nearby, but it could just be my mind playing tricks. As I drift away, I’m sure there’s the sound of the boats and barges far off. Their foghorns and whistles travel on the night. I listen close, try to decide if I know which ones they are. The Benny Slade, the General P, and a paddle-wheeler with its telltale puff, slap, slap, slap, puff.
I’m home. I’m wrapped in the lullaby I know by heart. I let the dark and the night sounds come inside me, and there’s not a dream or a worry anywhere. The mother water rocks me soft and gentle until nothing else is around me at all.
I sleep the deep sleep of a river gypsy.
In the morning, voices pull me from the quiet. Voices…and wood pounding on wood. I throw off the blanket, and Arney snaps upright on the other side of Fern. We look at each other for a minute, remembering where we are and what we’ve done. Between us, Fern turns over and blinks up at the sky.
“I tolt ya they’s somebody in that boat, Remley.” Three little colored boys stand watching us from the cypress knees, their overalls rolled up above skinny, muddy legs.
“That one’s a girl!” the biggest boy says, stretching out his chin to get a better look at me and tapping the boat with the end of his frog gig. “And they’s a little girl too. White girls!”
The others step back, but the biggest boy—he can’t be much more than nine or ten—stands his ground and leans on his gig. “What’re you doin’ here? You lost?”
Arney stands up and swats a hand at them. “Scamper off! Y’all better git gone if’n ya know what’s good for ya.” Her voice is deeper, like the one she used before I knew she was a girl. “We been out fishin’. Just waitin’ on mornin’ to start up again is all. One a’ y’all clamber up there ’n’ unhitch that line, so’s we can git on our way.”
The boys stay where they are, still watching us, wide-eyed.
“Hurry on now, ya hear me?” Arney shakes the paddle toward the branch where we’re tied. The water pulled us around while we slept, and the rope’s tangled in the limbs. It’ll be hard to get at it ourselves.
I scrabble in the poke and hold up a cookie. In the Sevier house, it’s never hard to make off with Zuma’s baked goods. I’ve squirreled some away the last few days to have them ready for our trip. Now they’ll come in handy. “I’ll throw you a cookie if you do.”
Fern rubs her eyes and whispers, “Where’s Mommy?”
“Hush,” I tell her. “You be real still, now. No more questions.”
I hold the cookie up for the colored boys. The littlest one grins, then drops his gig pole and climbs the branch as good as any lizard could. He works at the knot a bit, but he gets it loose. Before we drift off, I toss three cookies up on the bank.
“No need in givin’ them any,” Arney complains.
Fern stretches toward me and licks her lips.
I hand Fern and Arney the last two cookies. “We’ll have lots of food once we get to the Arcadia. Queenie and Briny are gonna be so happy to see us, they’ll cook up a mess so big you won’t be able to believe your natural-born eyes.” Ever since we started this trip, I’ve been promising Arney things to keep her going. I can tell she still wants to be back with her people. It’s funny how what you’re used to seems like it’s right even if it’s bad.
“You’ll see,” I tell her. “Once we’re on the Arcadia, we’ll cast off down the river where nobody can give us trouble. We’ll go south, and Old Zede, he’ll be right behind us.”
I tell myself that over and over and over while we start the little motor and work our way to the mouth of the slough, but it’s like there’s a line inside me and it’s still tied to something back yonder. It gets tighter and tighter, even after we turn a corner, and the trees open up, and I see the river, ready to carry us home. There’s a worry growing in me, and it’s got nothing to do with the wakes from the big boats jostling and rocking us around as we putter along toward Memphis.
When Mud Island finally does come into sight, the worry gets my breath altogether, and I half wish a runaway barge would plow us under as we cross toward the backwater. What’ll Briny and Queenie say when they see that Fern’s the only one left besides me?
The question gets heavier and heavier as we pass the old shantyboat camp, which is almost empty now, and I guide Arney into the backwater I’ve traveled a hundred times in my mind already. I’ve come here from Miss Tann’s car, and Mrs. Murphy’s cellar, and the sofa at the viewing party, and the lacy pink bedroom at the Seviers’ big house.
It’s hard to believe, even when we clear the bend and the Arcadia is waiting there, that she’s real. She’s not just another dream.
Zede’s shantyboat is tied up just down the way, but the closer I get, the more things look wrong about the Arcadia. The porch rail is broken out. Leaves and downed branches litter the roof. A shattered window shines its sharp fangs in the sunlight near the stovepipe. The Arcadia lists in the water, her hull mired up on the bank so high, I wonder how we’ll ever break her loose.
“Arcadia! Arcadia!” Fern cheers, and claps, and points, her sun-gold curls bouncing up and down. She stands in the center of the boat the way only a river girl can. “Arcadia! Queenie! Queenie!” she yells again and again as we come closer.
There’s no sign of anybody around. Maybe they got up this morning and went off to fish or hunt? Or maybe they’re down at Zede’s?
But Queenie doesn’t leave the boat much. She likes staying home unless she’s got womenfolk nearby to visit with. There’s nobody else around here.
“This it?” Arney sounds doubtful.
“Must be they’re not home just now.” I try to seem sure of myself, but I’m not. A thick black feeling comes over me. Queenie and Briny wouldn’t ever let the boat look like this. Briny was always prideful about the Arcadia. He kept things up real nice. Even with five kids around, Queenie made our little home spotless. Shipshape, she called it.
The Arcadia is a long way from shipshape now. It looks even worse as Arney steers us close to the gangplank, then cuts the motor so we can float in. When I grab the porch rail to pull us to, a piece of it comes off in my hand, and I almost topple into the water.
We’ve no sooner gotten tied up than I see Silas running down the bank, his long legs pumping through the sand. He jumps over a brush pile, nimble as a fox, and for a minute, I think of Camellia scampering away when the police came.
That seems like years ago, not just months.
Silas meets me when I climb off the boat. He grabs me in a bear hug and swings me and holds me up over the sand while his feet sink down into it. Then he sets me on the end of the plank.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” he says. “I never thought I’d see you again.”
“I wondered too.” Behind me, I hear Arney helping Fern, but all I can do is look at Silas. He’s a sight for sore eyes, that’s what he is. “We’re home. We made it home.”
“You did. And you got Fern here too. Wait’ll Zede sees!”
He hugs me again, and this time my arms aren’t pinned down by his. I hug him back.
It’s not till Fern talks that I remember there’s anybody else watching. “Where’s Queenie?” she asks.
The minute I let go of Silas and step back to look at him, I know something’s wrong. Nobody’s come out of the shanty, even with all the racket we’ve made. “Silas, where’s Queenie? Where’s Briny?”
Silas holds me by the shoulders. His dark eyes stare hard into mine. The corner of his mouth quivers a little. “Your mama died three weeks ago, Rill. The doctor said it was blood poisonin’, but Zede told me she just had a broke heart. She missed y’all too much.”
The news guts me out like a fish. I’m empty inside. My mama’s gone from this world? She’s gone from this world, and I’ll never get to see her again?
“Where…where’s Briny?” I ask.
Silas holds me tighter. I can tell he’s afraid that if he lets go, I’ll crumple like a ragdoll. For a second, I think I will. “He ain’t been well, Rill. He took to the bottle after he lost y’all. He’s worse since Queenie died. Worse by twice.”
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