Authors: The Outer Banks House (v5)
Asha spat, “Just look at you, all dressed up, doing the devil’s work. You all say you follow Jesus Christ, but it’s the devil hisself that got you on his leash. This ain’t
Her face was wet with silvery tears, and she could hardly speak. “I won’t be coming back to Edenton with you all.”
She didn’t look at me when she said that.
Daddy, for just a moment, was at a loss for words. But he soon hardened himself to her, to all her years of service to us. “Good riddance, then. Don’t come crying to me when things turn bad. And they will, Winnifred.”
The men pushed her away, tired of waiting. But they didn’t have to pull and push the reverend. Elijah walked out of the room with his head held high.
As he made to leave the schoolhouse, Daddy said with quiet fury, “I’m just real sorry you had to see all this, Abigail, but you never should have snuck over here. Go on back to the cottage with Ben. And we won’t speak of this night again, to anyone.”
Then the schoolhouse was as dark and quiet as church on Tuesday. No one moved or spoke or even cried. Everyone must have sensed that it would be their own death if they ventured out of the schoolhouse. We stood still, staring at one another’s feet.
I could actually smell the fear in our labored breaths. But soon I couldn’t tell if it was urine or cold sweat that I smelled. I was afraid to look at the students, scared of what I would see in their faces. How my own daddy had made them feel. They would never trust me again.
The silence stretched out, a cold, glassy blackness that wavered on and on for long minutes, and then we heard a rifle shot in the distance.
And the silence shattered into shards. The entire group rushed for the door and ran outside screaming. Ben, Asha, and I followed the students down the dark street, since everyone seemed to know where they were going. And with my senses heightened, I smelled something burning and quickened my pace.
Then I saw the source of the fire, and I had to walk closer to confirm my first thought. It was, incongruously, an enormous pile of books, burning in the middle of the street. The fire lit up the night, so that I could see everyone’s panicked faces as they took in the ugly sight.
Ben moaned, “Oh, God, not his books. They’ve burned his books.”
There must have been hundreds of books in the pile. Their covers were melting and curling in the blaze.
Some of the students ran into the house across the street, and then, over the spitting fire, I heard several people wailing. Ben tried to grab my arm but I slipped through his grasp and ran up the steps into the house. Ben followed at my heels.
The inside of the house was empty except for a rope bed and a
table and chair. But I sensed the commotion in the yard behind Elijah’s house. I walked out the back door, and Ben again tried to pull me back. But I had already seen the tall wooden cross driven into the dirt. Elijah hung from it, as if crucified. Nails had been driven into his hands and overlapped feet.
But he hadn’t suffered too much on the cross. He had been shot straight between the eyes. The hole where the bullet entered was jaggedly dark and oozing, a tiny pocket of hate. His white shirt had been removed, and he had been whipped all over his chest, and likely his back as well. Blood dripped from the slashes down onto the dusty ground.
But even worse than all that was his face. On both cheeks were freshly burned brands of the letter
. His handsome black face was almost unrecognizable.
Ben tried to hug me to him, but I pushed him away. I stumbled through the house and back out into the street again, where the fire was growing even higher, feeding on the knowledge inside it. And through the smoke I saw a glint of white over the sound. It was Mr. Viceroy’s fine schooner, sailing across the water. In the pitch-black sky, its white sails glowed like a malevolent ghost. The
The truth of the night was slowly bubbling to the surface.
My daddy is a murderer, full of hate. Ben is a liar, full of secrets. The Reverend Africa, a murderer himself, was killed in cold blood. Nailed to a cross, branded, and whipped
I faced Ben and looked him straight in the eye. In a voice void of all emotion, I said, “I would like to go home now.”
And by home, I meant Edenton. I was done with the Outer Banks for good.
August 31, 1868
… conscience, that had slept so long, began to awake, and I began to reproach myself with my past life, in which I had so evidently, by uncommon wickedness, provoked the justice of God to lay me under uncommon strokes, and to deal with me in so vindictive a manner
EN ROWED US SLOWLY NORTH THROUGH THE
wobbled pathetically through the water, as if he were deliberately trying to delay me. An angry grief accumulated in my throat like lava.
We had left Asha with Pearl Jefferson, a stout, loquacious woman with whom she had gotten friendly at the schoolhouse. She would not
come back to the cottage with me, and I didn’t blame her. I thought I would cry, saying good-bye to her. But no tears had come, even when she hugged me tightly to her heaving chest.
We crossed the northern edge of the island, and Ben raised the sail to catch the strong southwest wind. Once we were moving along at a brisk pace, Ben choked, “I’m so sorry, Abby.”
I shook my head violently. I couldn’t speak a word to him.
“I’ve done wrong, I know. I got all caught up in the idea of being a person of some account, and I couldn’t get free. Your daddy … he knows how to work people over, get them to do things.”
“No,” I said, turning my head from his pleading eyes.
I suddenly recalled Ben’s mysterious warning about Daddy, for me to “be careful of him.” Ben had known
, even as far back as Independence Day. And the more I thought, the more I remembered—his sour feelings about Roanoke Island, his fits of downheartedness, his strange reaction upon meeting Elijah, and even Daddy’s abrupt cancellation of Ben’s tutoring sessions.
I was so furious my hands twitched. I rasped, “You deceived me. You deceived Elijah.”
He sighed deeply, and continued to row without responding.
“You could have warned him,” I spat. “Every night we went to the schoolhouse, every night you sat there, knowing what you knew.”
He shook his head stubbornly. “He killed those people. Even you heard him admit to it tonight. He wasn’t all he made himself out to be, Abby.
was the one fooling us.”
My throat made a queer little choking sound, and then closed up completely. I couldn’t wait to be off this little boat, far away from this person I’d thought I knew so well. I scrubbed my forehead hard to block out the pastel memory of making love to him on Jockey’s Ridge.
Yet as soon as that thought retreated, it was replaced by the image of Elijah on the cross. It was hard to reconcile with the image of Elijah bending over in the glittering darkness to help someone sound out a word. I began to sob and squirm around on my seat, desperately trying to see land.
Ben pleaded, “I didn’t kill the man, Abby. I just helped uncover the truth is all.”
But I clamped my hands over my ears and forced myself to watch the water flow beside the boat. The more water that went by, the closer I would get to Nags Head. Yes, we were almost there.
My thoughts settled on Hector, and how I would likely be married to him by the winter. I could forget all of this ever happened and live a quiet, easy life. Supervise a garden of orange lilies and eat chocolate cake after every supper. It sounded good enough to me.
Breathless from running all the way from the docks, I climbed through the bedroom window and wearily made my way to bed. I sat down and stared at the children, sleeping soundly. Even in the darkness, their red hair gave color to the white linens beneath them.
In the face of so much vivid innocence, I began to cry silently. I didn’t even undress. I just curled up in a ball and sucked on my knuckles. I listened to the rise and fall of the ocean and wished that I were smack in the middle of a wave’s crest, right before it hit the undertow beneath it.
I couldn’t think, I couldn’t see past the hateful things that men could do to one another, the excuses they made for their evil. I tossed on my bed like a ship in a storm for the remainder of the night.
And the next day came, in spite of itself. I couldn’t believe it, when
I saw the sunlight streaming into the room. In my mind, it was still dark and cloudy, no moon or stars to light the gray matter.
The children came immediately back into the room after rising.
“Abby, wake up!” Charlie said, shaking my shoulder.
I tried desperately to make my mouth work. “I am awake.”
“Winnie is gone, and the breakfast isn’t even made! We can’t find her anywhere! Do you know where she’s gone off to?” asked Martha, a look of worry on her face.
I sat up, trying hard not to remember Elijah’s branded face. I said softly, “Winnie has gone to stay with a friend of hers over on Roanoke Island. She might … She wants to stay there for a while.”
“You mean she’s not coming back?” Martha cried.
Tears filled Charlie’s wide green eyes. “She left us
I tried to explain. “There’s a good school over there, and Winnie likes it very much. She wants to learn how to read and write, just like you. You know how she was always bragging about you two.”
Charlie nodded, agreeing with the notion of his exceptional abilities. But his voice shook when he said, “But she didn’t say good-bye! That’s not how you’re supposed to leave somebody. You’re supposed to give folks a big hug and a kiss on the cheek and shake hands and cry and all that.”
I nodded numbly. “A friend of hers needed her very much. She had to leave in a hurry.”
“Can we bring her things to her, at least?” Martha asked, trying hard not to cry.
“Perhaps,” I said carefully, although I knew the island wasn’t a place for them right now. And Asha didn’t have many possessions at all. She had only one calico skirt and shirtwaist, one starched white apron and head scarf, one worn pair of boots. She was wearing it all when I left her.
But we walked out to the porch, anyway. A thin blanket with about a dozen patches sewn onto it was folded neatly in the center of her hammock.
Martha lifted it to her nose and inhaled. “It smells so clean, just like Winnie. She’ll want this blanket, I bet.”
Her face turned into itself then, and she began to cry. I hugged her to me, the blanket in between us a poor substitute for a lifetime of Asha’s comfort.
Hannah, lonely and overworked, agreed to stay with the children that afternoon. With the sun blazing through my bonnet, I rode Mungo to the one place in Nags Head that still held good memories for me. I knew that poor old horse would never make it up the dune itself, so I hitched him to a scrubby pine tree next to one of the fresh ponds and made my way up Run Hill.