Authors: The Outer Banks House (v5)
It didn’t feel wrong that I loved my uncle more than my own daddy. And when he died, I lost a father.
The threadbare Confederate soldiers delivered Uncle Jack to us in a coffin that needed only two skinny men to carry it. And when we looked on his embalmed body before the burial, he appeared to be a child dressed in an officer’s uniform, the material bunched on him so
badly. I could just imagine the disease that killed him, still hiding inside that body, nibbling and gnawing ’til there was nothing left of the once-dimpled, potbellied Uncle Jack that I’d known.
The day after his funeral we had to put his beloved stallion down. Ace was old and sickly, but he refused to die. ’Course, we all knew that he was waiting for his master to come home. When I watched the wagon bearing his huge black body make its way down the long pathway away from the house, my tears finally started to flow.
Now I shuddered slightly in the breeze and carefully placed the letter inside the reticule. Then I gazed up the beach, this beach that Daddy had just had to build a house on.
Daddy had showed us the Outer Banks on a creased United States map one day after midday dinner about a year ago. He traced the tip of his long, freckled index finger down the crooked chain of barrier islands that skipped delicately from the Virginia line down along the North Carolina coast for 175 miles.
It had always been accepted that the islands were both a blessing and a curse for North Carolina. They protected the state from all that ocean, but at the same time they hemmed it in, frustrating state commerce and travel. As such, North Carolina was an important victory for the Yankees, back during the war. When they took the state, they unlocked all the numerous waterways, giving their army access to the South and her valuables.
The fragile Banks curve eastward from the mainland, like the beak of a falcon, to an unprecedented twenty miles into the Atlantic Ocean. At the farthest eastern tip of the beak, at Cape Hatteras, two strong currents fight like cats and dogs, causing most any ship to founder helplessly on the shifting shoals. Folks affectionately refer to the area as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, due to the countless ship carcasses that have emerged from the waves.
Looking at that map by myself, I wouldn’t have even noticed the
islands, they were so thin. They looked as if a dull writing pencil had accidentally been left on the map, creating a snaky mark. Those islands seemed so
, stuck in between the hulking land mass of America and the wide-open sea.
Their stubborn reaching into the ocean, their blatant tempting of fate, captivated me, yet filled me with fear, and I took the map to bed that night, studying it by flickering candlelight.
The islands weren’t far from our hometown of Edenton—just sixty or so miles due east across the Albemarle Sound. But to me they were as far away as the moon, and just as mysterious.
I had heard that the locals there descended from shipwrecked sailors and runaways who used to lure ships to their fate by tying a lantern around the neck of a horse at night. They would lead the nag up and down the shore, the bobbing lantern resembling light from another ship. The unsuspecting sailors would steer for the light, only to founder in the shallow waters near land, where the men would ransack the wrecked ship and take its contents for their own.
Hence the glorious name “Nags Head.” I thought that it was a right clever trick, for such simple men.
Daddy hunted all the time back in Edenton, so much so that folks joked about Daddy’s arm being a rifle instead of mere bone. I swear, he talks nicer to his pack of hounds than he does to his own children. Needless to say, most of the meat on our dining room table Daddy shot and killed himself.
He couldn’t wait to explore the shallow yet wide sounds and the maze of inlets that separated the Banks from the mainland. He had already hired a local guide for the summer weekends, to show him the best spots for hooking fish.
He visited the Banks last fall to scout land for our summer cottage, and when he returned, his cart full of dead geese and ducks, he went
on and on about the large numbers of waterfowl that visited the sounds on their migratory routes. And come suppertime, we all agreed that the Currituck bird meat was the most savory we had ever eaten.
My breath recovered, I clambered to my feet and looked to the north, where a handful of rustic houses sprouted from the sand. They were recently built, defying the more sensible soundside tradition, about two or three hundred flattened feet away from the ocean. These boxy cottages looked to be constructed with precaution in mind, with no thought whatsoever to opulence.
From what I had gathered from Mama and Daddy, the first cottage to be built on the ocean side was owned by the Dr. Pool family from Elizabeth City. I thought the Pool house must be the one whose wood had already darkened from its exposure to the endless barrage of salt and wind.
Word had it that Dr. Pool had already purchased a ribbon of land—about fifty acres—that stretched north from the hotel property up along the shore, and was selling the lots for a dollar apiece to his friends back home. He disliked the loneliness of ocean living, or so we had heard.
But at least those few cottages had one another for company.
Far south down the beach, I could barely see what I knew to be our cottage. It stood alone, an arrogant outcast. And the more I gaped down the shore, the more it occurred to me how eccentric, how completely
the cottage appeared, all alone on an expanse of defenseless sand. It looked to be the home of a madman.
Yet at the same time it looked like some sort of miracle, a product
of genius. Standing there by the sea, where nothing could live for long, it threw out a dare.
I began to walk south down the beach, faster and faster, my shoes filling with sand, until I came right up to the cottage’s porch steps, unfolding like a silent welcome into the sand. It was even smaller than I’d thought it might be. It couldn’t have been more different from our plantation home, which was, at the beginning of the war, one of the finest homes in Edenton.
For more than a hundred years, the Great House back home had been called, for lack of a more creative moniker, “Sinclair House.” It was a three-story brick Georgian structure with fifteen high-ceilinged rooms. It had taken almost twenty years to build, back in the early eighteenth century. This beach cottage was just a little larger than our kitchen house.
The squat, two-story square, covered with cedar shingles, supported an isosceles roof that sat substantially on the second floor. Wide porches embraced the cottage on all sides, and the entire structure was perched atop numerous pilings embedded in the sand. Wood shutters yawned open with prop sticks to let the ocean breezes blow through the windows, and doors appeared to open to the interior on both the western and eastern sides.
The only thing that wasn’t tight, shingled wood was the brick chimney poking obscurely from the northeastern side of the house.
The kitchen jutted out a bit from the southwestern side of the house, and the privy and an adjacent washhouse stood nearby. A little stable for our horses and cow had been built a hundred yards south, and the water pump had already been dug, down to the layer of freshwater that lay beneath the sand.
With the cotton and tobacco crops already growing strong at home, Mama, Martha, Charlie, and I would live here through the beginning of September, with Daddy tending to business in Edenton
during the week and visiting every Saturday and Sunday. If the cottage didn’t get washed away by the ocean, we’d return here every summer after this one. Already, I didn’t think I would ever want to leave.
I guessed it would take Justus a good while to load and transport our belongings in the carts. Justus was a rail-skinny, but mysteriously strong, twenty-year-old field hand from home. He was always late, always gone when needed. When he did manage to make his appearance, it was with a guilt-free expression of contentment. I personally thought it was funny, but no one else in my family got the joke.
I pictured Daddy on the docks, standing there in his finery while Justus loaded the cart with our numerous cases and cages of chickens. At least Hannah, Justus’s headstrong thirteen-year-old sister, was already at the cottage, readying it for our arrival. It would mean one less thorn in Daddy’s side.
I climbed the five long steps up to the porch, my hooped dress scratching the raw wood with each step. I pulled back the screen and opened the door, which still smelled of freshly cut pine.
“Hannah?” I called inside. “We’re here!”
Hannah hollered her greetings from upstairs, the room where Mama and Daddy would sleep. I could hear her footsteps banging through the thin ceiling.
The sun from the windows gave an amber glow to the parlor, which was comfortably outfitted with a wide array of antique Sinclair furniture. The rug that covered the squeaky pine floor was a tread-softened blend of beige, blue, and red, and the old mahogany dining table, which matched the accompanying glass-fronted china cabinet,
was draped with a white linen tablecloth and already boasted silver candlesticks and a china bowl full of shiny green apples.
Yet the walls were left unfinished, like a log cabin in the mountains, with no paint or plaster to cover the bare wood. No curtains were hung, and the raised panes of glass in the windows were already smudged with salt. I inhaled the scent of sea and freshly starched linen and smiled. Finery and rawness seemed to be everywhere.
The bedroom downstairs was much smaller than my bedroom at home, but I found the room so refreshing, with its light blue and white quilts and view of the ocean through the two windows, that it didn’t seem to matter, at least for that moment, that I was sharing such a small space with my brother and sister.
With sodden clothing and salt-stiff hair, Charlie and Martha tore through the house and tumbled onto their beds while I gazed out the window. The sun reflected off the sand, so that I had to shade my eyes, even indoors. Just the change in light would take some getting used to.
“Tickle me, Abby!” ordered Charlie. I reached over to wiggle my fingers into Charlie’s taut midsection. He jerked into a little ball, gasping for air and adjusting his authentic pirate eye patch, given to him by a collector friend of Daddy’s. Even Martha, usually trying so hard to be a lady, tickled Charlie until he cried for mercy.
Soon I heard the creak of the oxcart and Justus’s monotonous rambling. I went to greet them, and through the screen door I saw Mama ascending the front steps. Her tall, angular form darkened the doorway, blocking out the sparkling sunlight. She folded her parasol and gripped it easily in one pale, bony hand. She then walked slowly
around the room, running a hand over the shiny wood of the dining chairs.
Mama, with her sunlight hair and creamy, unwrinkled complexion, could have been truly beautiful. Instead, her acidity caused her small, carved features to appear demonic and skeletal rather than aristocratic.
There was only one attribute of hers that appealed to me—her ice pick–sharp mind. Yet her big brain thought too much about everything, especially during casual conversation. Even over tea and sandwiches, she came off as socially inept and even inconsiderate, especially with well-bred women from town, who usually wanted to gossip.