Authors: The Outer Banks House (v5)
At that I pulled my hand away from her, but it took some wrenching to do it. “Is this what you wanted to talk about? ’Cause I don’t want to discuss her with you. It ain’t right, given our history.”
She looked so sad then. “‘Our history,’ says he! Don’t that cap the climax! You know, I always thought we’d live our lives together, right here, in sight of the woods and the sound, like you wanted. I know this place ain’t much. Nags Head ain’t much better than a pile of sand stuck in the middle of the sea. But it’s
, Ben.” She sounded like she was going to have herself a good cry. “I can’t see myself here without you. And I sure can’t see you with that Abigail. Her family ain’t right for this island. They never will be. They don’t have the guts to stick it out here, year after year, storm after storm. They ain’t made of the same stuff we are.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“And everyone agrees with me. You shouldn’t go mixing with the weaker kind of folks. It’ll bring down the island, make us soft. We need to stick together, us Bankers.”
At first, I’ll allow, I thought the Sinclair house was the craziest sight I’d ever seen. And I still thought that way most days. But sometimes I caught myself wishing for a window to the sea, so that when I awoke in the morning I could look out and for miles and miles see nothing but water. Raging waves or lapping curls, it wouldn’t matter. It would be like having a friend who never left your backyard, a friend with a temper sometimes, sure, but also a merry friend, a true friend, one who was always there through thick and thin.
“I miss you, Ben. That’s all. I just miss you.” Her eyes were wild and her breath was quick and loud. “I can be a lady, too, just like Abigail. I can make you love me.” She grabbed my face hard with both her hands and kissed me rough. She tried to poke her tongue in my mouth, but I pushed her away.
“Stop it now, Eliza. I’ve got nothing else to say to you.” I turned and walked back to the party, closing off my ears to her gut-wrenching sobs.
I felt so sorry for what I’d done to her. But the love I had for Abby would never go away. Even if she did leave me for Edenton, I would always want her. And Eliza could never be enough for me again. That was just the way it was.
The party was dying down when I got back, but Jacob and Jimmy and Harley were still there, getting soused on the beer. I joined them in the sand. They all looked at me but didn’t say a word about Eliza.
“Well, well, Benny. I been noticing you haven’t told us much
about your new job. I
that you were set to work construction down in Hatteras,” said Jimmy.
I grabbed Jimmy’s cup of beer from him and took a deep pull. “You heard right. I’m a bona fide member of Mister Stetson’s crew. How’s
make you feel?”
They all stared at me like I’d grown fins and gills. Harley hollered, “I think it’s way past high time you told us how you got that job, and if there’s any left for us! You’ve got to look out for your friends, you know!”
Jimmy gulped the rest of the beer and waved his empty cup in my face. Then he asked, “That big bug you guiding for have anything to do with you getting that job?”
“And what if he did? I deserve that job, fair and square. And I’m helping my pap retire. Just shut pan about it.”
I noticed Jacob not saying much a-tall. He just sat there in the dark, smoking a pipe and watching me. “I hope you not getting in too deep with that Mister Sinclair,” he finally said. “He ain’t of no account.”
I should have known Jacob would have more information than most. Being a waterman, he went all over the rivers and sounds and swampy inlets of northeast Carolina. He talked to all kinds of folks, black and white and yellow, rich and poor. He was naturally good-natured and helpful, so folks trusted him to keep their secrets.
“It ain’t none of your beeswax, none of you. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep out of it.”
I was starting to feel like the surrounding trees were set to fall down on top of me and crush me into bits and pieces.
Jacob stood up then. He glared down at me, like all possessed. “The Freedmen’s Colony
my business. I brung some of them over my own self, back during the war. Hid them in the swamps with the
snakes and gators. Snuck ’em past the blockades. Got them set up in the colony. It was the least I could do, being born free.”
Jacob had also saved my life, lugged me from the sea like ship’s wood. He said he’d help my pap out when I left for Hatteras without even clearing his throat. He was just that kind of man.
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “I knew you were friendly with some of the colony folks, but I never knew you helped them like that.”
“Ben, you been my friend many long years, and I never had nothin’ but the most friendly feelings for you. But I been hearin’ the craziest yarns lately—I couldn’t even make ’em up my own self. One day you’re in the freedmen’s schoolhouse. Another day you’re in the hotel having whiskey with Mister Sinclair, and sailing back and yon to the island at all times of day.”
He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Mister Sinclair, who rides on the ship of a bona fide Ku Kluxer, a newspaperman with a Negro-hating pen. On top of guiding for Mister Sinclair and getting learned by his daughter, I think to myself, he sure in the thick of it! It don’t look good.” He looked away from me, as if through talking. But he wasn’t yet finished with me. “I can see you’re up to the devil’s work. I don’t want you messin’ with those folks on the island. Just mind your business.”
Then it hit me. Under his anger was fear. I could smell it on him, like rotten eggs. I whispered, “You know about Mister Africa, don’t you?”
Jacob breathed out slow and long.
I said, “You know what he did. Damnation, Jacob.”
Harley and Jimmy sputtered, “What in tarnation are you all yammering about? Who has done what in Africa?”
Jacob’s face looked peaceful, though. “I wasn’t more than a boy when I brung him down the Chowan, when word got out what he’d
done. Most every Negro wanted to help him out, but the difference was, I could do it.
“What I heard was, he hid out for a few months in the attic of a freedman in Windsor. That friend set me up with him. Back then I was fetching folks and sailing them to Union land. I met him in the swamps near the river late one night. He was dirty and skinny, looked like he’d break if the wind knocked him down, and weak as a baby bird from hiding in that little spot. Had nothing ’cept a ratty old Bible, and he was just holding on to that Bible for dear life. He slept with that thing bunched up in his hands every night I was with him. You ever see anything like that? It’ll squeeze the blood right out your heart.”
He stopped for a minute, then lowered his voice.
“I hid him in a barrel during the day, case the boat got searched. He never did complain against it. He never talked of what he done to get in the spot he was in, and I never asked. He knew trouble was in it, for both of us.
“What I didn’t know was how much I’d get on with him. We spoke about all manner of things those long days. Got to know him right well, good enough for my uncle to book him passage on a whaling ship, take him out of here for good. But he come back, you see. He wanted to help his people.” He whistled low and shook his head. “I never met a man like him in my life, and I doubt I ever will.”
“He’s a killer, Jacob. You can’t just close your eyes on what he did.”
“I don’t forget, and I
he don’t. But now you can see he’s helping those folks on the island. Somebody’s got to do it, and he’s the best man for the job.”
I shook my head. “He’s done bad, Jacob. He’s got to pay.”
“Oh, he paid all right. He been paying up his whole entire life.”
I stared at him, trying to find the right words. “I’m sorry, Jacob. I don’t want you to take it personal. I …” This was just too much for me. I rubbed my face with sandy hands, dirtying myself up again. “There are things I just had to do.”
He laughed. “You didn’t have to do nothin’. That whole entire family got you all mixed up. You need to square yourself, or you never going to be right again.”
Then he left us there. I thought about what he said as Harley and Jimmy peppered me with questions. I knew that what I’d done went against my better feelings on the matter. I couldn’t think about that brand on the preacher’s shoulder without getting sick to my stomach. I couldn’t smell the leaves of yaupon bushes without getting a pain between my eyes.
But I had good reasons for doing the things I did. Least
thought they were good reasons. And the man had it coming. You just can’t kill folks and expect to get away with it, even if you did happen to turn preacher.
That is what I would keep telling myself, in the heavy dark, with the shadows of trees watching me squirm like a dying goose.
Abby didn’t nurture the slightest notion I was building her a house, even though I was covered in sawdust and riddled with splinters every night. I wanted to surprise her someday soon. I wouldn’t think about her leaving the Banks, not anywhere near it. And I sure couldn’t think of her marrying that Hector.
At night, when we sailed back to Nags Head after long hours of teaching, she kept up her reading of
by lamplight, and the closer we got to the finish, the slower she read. Words dripped off her tongue like hot butter.
I was happy, on account we had finished the book. Abby gave it to me for keeps when she closed it up for the last time. I figured I might be able to make a go of it on my own, and I never would have thought such a thing at the start of it.
But I didn’t want to make a go of it on my own. I wanted her there with me, every little book I read in the coming years. Even if she wasn’t sitting right next to me, I wanted her there, somewhere close by.
Old Robinson and Friday got rescued at the end, twenty-eight years after the shipwreck. Can’t feature going back to a country full of highfalutin folks after that. Must have been a real shock to their systems, living like they had.
Likely wished for the little cave house, after a while of being surrounded by too many comforts. Thought of the dwelling as a home, even though it was just a cave with some wood built over the door. It took him over six months to make, and by his own hands at that. Had all of his worldly things in there, lined up neat and pleasing. It wouldn’t be easy to leave a home like that.
But I reckoned
was one of those words with lots of different meanings. To me, home was where I found myself most happy. Could be a boat, could be Pap’s shack, could be a porch by the sea. Now I’m featuring it to be this house of oak.
It was mighty peculiar, the place where I found myself raising the dressed logs. It was in a space clear of trees, and much closer to the ocean than to the sound. I put all the windows and a little porch on the side of the ocean. I planned to make two chairs and a table for us, but I didn’t have time to do all that just yet.
I did pick out two strong oak trees in back of the house, where I hung the old hammock. Used to be my ma’s, that she never used the whole time she was living. Had too much work to do, said Pap. I thought that was a shame. The hammock spot had sight of the ocean
and the sound through the trees. I thought of Abby a-laying there reading a big book, then maybe fixing cooter stew for our supper.
And if you’ve never looked up and seen a cloudless blue sky through the green leaves of trees, then you haven’t seen much. The view of the world from a hammock is just about the best there is.
When the house was more or less done with, doors hung and gaps chinked, I walked around and around it, trying to find weak spots in the floor boards. Didn’t take me long to cross the breadth of it. It was a small thing, only one little square room. But I had built it strong, and the front windows would let in plenty of sunrise.
It had the makings of a happy house. With the roof and porch just so, it looked like it was smiling.
August 31, 1868
“Well,” says Friday; “but you say God is so strong, so great, is he not much strong, much might as the devil?” “Yes, yes,” says I, “Friday, God is stronger than the devil, God is above the devil, and therefore we pray to God to tread him down under our feet, and enable us to resist his temptations, and quench his fiery darts.” “But,” says he again, “if God much strong, much might as the devil, why God no kill the devil, so make him no more do wicked?”