Copyright 2010 Bob Henneberger
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We sometimes congratulate ourselves at the moment of waking from a
troubled dream; it may be so the moment after death.
Nathaniel Hawthorne Passages from the American Notebooks (1868?), entry for 25 Oct. 1836
Wind moving through the forest masked most animals’ sounds, except for five crows chattering in a pine tree next to the river. A solitary hawk circled on a warm thermal searching for her next meal. As the thermal pushed the hawk higher into the sky, she could see the river as it meandered through thick woods. She dove for a mouse on the riverbank, then flew away, wings laboring with her prize. The water flowed almost silent, except for an occasional gurgle, where the chocolate muddy current folded under a partially sunken branch. Fall still lingered in the trees and thickets, light to dark earth tones, randomly spattered with bright yellow orange and red. Further from the banks, the terrain heaved into rumpled mounds of browns and greens piled like unkempt blankets on the ground. The forest grew no more than a half mile to a mile from the bank in both directions. Beyond the forest lay vast areas of cleared and plowed farm land.
For a mile and a half along the river, the forest was owned and managed by several families who owned the mill. They had cleared only enough trees to build a dozen homes to house them all, plus a ten acre garden to raise food and support their two milk cows, five horses and thirty chickens. The locals called the mill and its clutch of houses the Rose Community, named for the family who bought the land in 1849 and built the mill. Abraham Rose and his brother Hezekiah had moved from Pennsylvania to establish a religious community here, free from slavery.
On the border of the garden plot, two boys stooped over a well used plow as they struggled to right it and move it to a small barn one hundred yards away. They had been asked to clean the plow, oil it, then store it for the winter. Both of them had felt a great sense of relief when the other boys, along with two men, set out in the community wagon to collect dead and downed hardwood for fuel. In the coming weeks they would have to cut and split the wood, but for today they had the easier chore.
Paul smiled, looking into the woods as he talked. “I don't know if I want to stay on here forever. I like this place well enough, it don't want to eat you up like plantation land.”
“Wonder what bein' that rich would feel like,” Mark stood up and wiped his brow.
“My mama has a piece of paper in her old trunk that says I owned fifty acres.” Paul used hushed tones, as if giving away a deep family secret. “I saw it yesterday when mama was out workin' in the mill. I remember living on that spot of land when I was small, but I didn't know it was mine. She doesn't know I can read that well, but I read it all. She also has a piece of paper signed by a doctor.” He paused again. “I think it's about me.”
“That's nothing special.” Mark focused on the first thing his friend had said. “I want to know about that land you said you owned, that fifty acres.”
“It was where I was before me 'n my folks came up here,” Paul stared in the distance. “I remember it was near town, in the bottom land close to the road.”
“That's a good piece of land,” Mark replied. “Was it near the thick woods?”
“Right on the edge of it,” Paul confirmed, still not looking at Mark. “I thought we share cropped on it, until Mr. Appleby threw us off it.”
“And, you seen the piece of paper that says you owned it?” Mark skeptically asked. “You sure it's real?”
“Don't know,” Paul answered with a shrug. “Might be, but it don't matter no way.”
“No one would let me or my mama own that good a piece of land no way,” Paul replied.
“Maybe someone would.” Mark tried to sound encouraging.
“Sarah Bellows was my real mama, if one of those pieces of paper in my mama's trunk tells the truth.”
“She married that Appleby man who owns all the old plantation land,” Paul said, slowly sounding out the name.
“The Appleby who owns all that land, the same man who threw you off yours?” Mark's replied, somewhat startled.
“The same one,” Paul answered. “I guess we wasn't wanted there; all that land never will be mine, but if what I read is true, at least I know what should be.”
“You white?” Mark sounded unsurprised. “We thought you was, partially so at least.”
“Recon so, but ain’t nobody gonna believe it,” Paul replied.
“God, you were that close to owning all that land!” Mark held up his hand to show a small space between his thumb and forefinger.
“Not that close.”
“Did your mom ever say anything about the Appleby woman before?”
“No, she didn't say much about her time on the plantation, and after my Dad died, she didn't say nothin',” Paul answered.
“I don't want to leave this place.” Mark nodded his head for emphasis. “I grew up here, even my Yankee parents wouldn't leave, they love the land too much.”
“I don't know,” Paul tilted the plow back on its wheel so they could drag it to the barn. “I think I'd like to see what else is out there; there ain't too much here for me, near as I see it.”
“There's me, and all your other friends and your mama.”
“I guess,” Paul mused.
“This dang plow is put away now.” Mark closed the barn door behind them. “What say you and me go do somethin' else before the rest of them get back from collectin’ wood.”
“What about huntin' some deer?” Mark sounded excited. “I was walking up by the beaver swamp on Harris Creek a couple a days ago and I saw a whole lot of them there.”
“Sure.” Paul nodded quickly. “Will your father let you borrow the Enfield?”
“I don't see why not.” Mark hesitated. “I brought home the last batch of deer meat and my mom was happy to have it.”
“Can we make it back to home in time for dinner if we get a big ol' buck?”
“Don't see why not.” Mark paused to think. 'It's about ten in the mornin' and the swamp isn't but a mile from here.”
Paul nodded and let out a burst of air, then raced Mark toward the houses.
“This place don't feel like it usually does,” Paul looked up and down the shore line of the small creek.
As the two boys left the village and mill, bright sunshine had shone overhead, but by the time they reached this thick woods by Harris Creek, a thin layer of clouds darkened the landscape. Paul was wearing his gray coat with the tear on the left sleeve. He had tried to sew it together, but it still flailed a small shred of cotton as his arms swung.
“What're you talkin' about?” Mark asked. “It looks the same as I left it two days ago.”
“Yeah, I know,” Paul answered his friend. “But, somehow it feels different, like someone's out there.”
“Ain't nobody here.” Mark pointed towards the beginnings of the swamp. “Could be the clouds movin' in.”
Several small beaver dams interrupted the creek about a half mile down stream. The bottom land flooded all too often, so planting crops on it was uncertain at best but the dams kept more good farm land from flooding so the local farmers wisely left them alone. The beaver pond also attracted enough small game to keep the locals well fed throughout the year, so the swamp stayed, and that particular patch of forest was left alone. It was the only reminder of what the land had looked like for the millennia before the white man came. It would remain, without further change for some time to come.
“Sure feels like there's somebody here to me,” Paul insisted. “No matter, where did you see those deer the other day?”
“They was walkin' from this side of the creek up to the top of that hill over there, then down towards the river.” Mark pointed to a small knoll with a thick stand of river beech and a few chestnuts.
“Best we get to the high ground beyond the hill up there.” Paul trudged towards the stand of beech trees. “The way the wind's blowin' we got to get down wind of any deer comin' this way.”
“I'm right behind ya.” Mark slung the musket over his left shoulder and followed Paul up the hill. As they walked, a fog began to envelop the woods.
“Look at all the deer track,” Paul observed. “There's some big ones passed through here for sure.”
“Like I said.” Mark proudly added, pointing to a dense stand of mixed trees. “Let's set up somewhere up there and get us a big buck.”
“What time you reckon it is?” Paul asked.
“By the sun, I suppose it's about one,” Mark guessed. “We can stay out here an hour or two, then we got to get back home.”
“Yeah, that's what I thought,” Paul replied. “If it gets much more cloudy, or starts to rain, I want to get goin' sooner. It’s getting’ cold.”
Mark nodded, then he paused, looking for the best cover in which to wait for a deer.
“How about over there.” Mark pointed to a stand of pine saplings which stood three feet tall at best.
“Why don’t you put a load in the musket now,” Paul said.
Mark picked up his rifle and plucked a paper wrapped cartridge from a leather pouch hanging under his left arm. Pulling out the ramrod, he tore off the powder end of the cartridge then poured the gun powder down the barrel. With the end of the ramrod, Mark jammed the lead bullet still wrapped in the greasy paper down the barrel. After pulling the hammer back one notch, he carefully installed a percussion cap on the nipple.
“You gotta be pissed about all that land bein' taken from you 'n your folks,” Mark said.
“I guess I am.” Paul reluctantly sat down next to his friend. “I don't feel that mad, though.”
“I would be,” Mark paused. “I mean if a bunch of yahoos rode in and took all my daddy's land away.”
“But, I didn't know it belonged to us until yesterday.” Paul sighed. “If my folks had told me about it before, I might be all worked up.”
“And, that paper that says your real mama was white?” Mark added. “What you think about that?”
“I don’t think much of it,” Paul paused. “It don’t matter no way, ain’t no white man gonna accept me as one of his.”
“My daddy does.”
“After you think on it some more, you might feel different,” Mark assured him.
“Maybe.” Paul fell silent.
“So, does this change your plans?” Mark didn't want to change the subject, but for his friend’s sake he did. “I mean, you still thinkin' about travelin'?”
“Yeah,” Paul answered. “More than before.”
“Where?” Mark asked. “Still out west?”
“I think I'd like to go on to California eventually.”
“That sure sounds like fun,” Mark said, fascinated by the thought. “I'd love to go with you, but I want to stay here and work with my dad.”
“You always say that.” Paul chuckled. “Your brother is more likely to go with me.”
“Could be, but I don't think any of the Rose kids will ever leave this place.” Mark leaned back. “We all like it here too much.”
“I can't see that,” Paul politely objected. “This place is not that good to us.”
“It could be worse,” Mark said, looking away.
“It could be a whole lot better.” Paul started to say more, then stopped. “Why don't we keep quiet; the deer will never come near us if we keep on flappin' our jaws.”
The two boys shifted their positions slightly, then settled down to wait. At one point Mark stole a sideways glance at Paul, but decided to say no more.
A sharp noise made them jump, although they were too well trained to move about. The rifle blast filled the woods; the shot immediately echoed off the hills, dampened a bit by the surrounding trees. Both boys looked in all directions, as if they were trying to spin their heads three hundred and sixty degrees at once.
“What the hell was that?” Mark demanded in a loud whisper.
“It was a rifle. But no rifle sounds like that, least wise none that I ever heard before, did you hear the loud cracking sound?”
“Sure was loud,” Mark agreed.
“What the hell was it?” Paul asked, keeping his voice quiet.
“Maybe one of those fancy new huntin' rifles with the brass cartridges.” Mark was still peering into the trees. “But, where?”
“Came from over there.” Paul pointed to their north. “I told you other people were here.”
“I guess you was right. What do we do now?”
“We could go on back,” Paul replied. “I don't like the feel of this place.”
“Let’s see if they got a big buck,” Mark said. “Sure as hell won't get one around here after all that noise.”
“I don’t know.” Paul paused, then looked at the ground. “This makes me feel funny. I think we better go on back home.”
“I wanna go see the deer they shot.”
“You ain't goin' over there, are you?”
“Sure I am,” Mark insisted. “I want to see one of those new huntin' rifles up close.”
When Paul hung back, silently, Mark shouted, “Hey, mister. Did you get a buck?”
“Who is that.” Ahead of them a voice called back. “Is that one of you?”
“It's me,” Mark shouted. “Mark Rose from down by the mill.”
“What mill?” The voice shouted back.
“'Bout a mile or so up the river from here,” Mark answered.
They could still see no one.
“Don’t tell them where we live,” Paul whispered. “They could be Klan or something.”
“We're lost out here,” the voice shouted. “Can you help us find the town?”
Mark walked towards the voice. “Sure thing, where are you now?”
“I can't hear you, you must be walking away from me.”
“I ain't gone nowhere.” Mark looked at Paul. “Hello!” he called out as he faced a new direction.
“You trust strangers too much,” Paul whispered angrily. “Let's get home and send some help out for them.”
“Where’d you go?” the strange voice shouted, still loud but now a little hollow, like an echo.
“I'm getting scared.” Paul tugged at Mark's sleeve, motioning him to stop.
“I bet his voice is bouncin' off the hills around here.” Mark looked at his friend. “Maybe we can hear him, but he can't hear us.”
“Could be.” Paul didn't want the stranger to find them. At that moment, it started to rain, falling as a cold, heavy mist. “Let's get back home 'n tell them about these lost strangers.”
Mark ignored him, he shouted again, “Hey mister, we'll send someone back later.”
When several more attempts failed, Mark agreed to go home and summon help.
“You told them we’d send someone to look for them,” Paul reassured him.
“Let's get goin'.” Mark agreed.
The boys turned to the north and began walking as fast as they could. The rain steadily increased, making the cold feel more brutal as the boys became soaked. They discussed Mark’s rifle, Paul handing Mark a heavy cotton shirt to wrap it in, then quickly pulling on his worn jacket.
“I figure you should fire off that bullet in the gun before the powder gets wet and you have to pull it out.” Paul observed.
“Not a bad idea.” Mark aimed the musket at the ground and fired it, he then wrapped the gun in Paul's shirt, covering as much of the rifle as he could.
The two boys paused to catch their breath; they had made it back to the river, and the path along the eastern bank that led straight to the mill.
“It's not too far to go,” Mark said. “Who do you think that hunter was? “
“He couldn't have been from around here, or he wouldn’t be lost,” Paul replied, between gulps of cold air. “If he were he wouldn't be lost.”
“I guess not,” Mark agreed. “He didn't sound like no Yankee.” He huffed a bit as they increased their pace. “He sounded like he was from town, like a good ‘ol boy.”
“That’s the problem.” Paul began to walk faster.
Mark gave him a startled glance.
Ruth Rose shook her head, only slightly disapprovingly at her son and Paul as they stood inside the front door to the cabin. “You boys are wet as two frogs in a pond.”
“I'm sorry, Ma,” Mark replied, looking sheepishly at his mother. “It didn't look like rain when we left.”
“No, it didn't,” His mother agreed as she tossed two towels to them. They began to strip down, gratefully getting into drier clothing as fast as they could. The boys told her the story of the lost hunter whose voice had disappeared; she shook her head.
“It's real thick around there,” Ruth said. “No one ever did clear that whole area; it's always been too swampy and it floods all the time.”
“Yeah, but there's only about a hundred acres that's not cleared for cotton around there.” Mark ran the towel around his wet hair. “It'd take a lot of dumb to get lost in that small a forest.”
“I guess some of the men folk could head out that way after church services tomorrow,” Ruth said. “It won’t take that long to find them if they’re still in there.”
“That’d be the kind thing to do,” Paul agreed. “Someone has to look after those who can’t look after themselves.”
“Could you please dump those wet clothes on the front porch,” Ruth sighed. “I want you two to hang them on the line out back if it's sunny tomorrow. I suppose we can do some wash later this week, but they'll be fine if you dry them out.”
“Oh, it's almost stopped rainin'.” Mark pulled on a pair of dry shoes. “I got to clean Pa's rifle real quick before it sets up rusting.”
“I guess you'd better.” Ruth turned around and stared at her son and Paul. “You go on and clean the rifle, Paul can help me get dinner ready.”
“Where's Pa?” Mark grabbed the rifle and headed back to the covered front porch.
“He's with your brother and some other men down at the mill,” Ruth answered. “A big load of grain was brought in today and the gentleman is in somewhat of a hurry to leave.”
A road from the southern end of the Rose Community led to a river crossing, sometimes manned, sometimes not. A large raft made from logs was tied to a rope loop which spanned the river. On both sides of the river, the rope loop was fixed to sturdy trees by a pulley. This crossing was the closest entrance and exit to the community from the nearby town. Visitors were first greeted by the well tended garden plot and clutch of houses, then by the mill and broad river.
The Rose Community was built near the river’s extensive east bank. Since the land was cleared for the grist mill decades ago, cavernous runoff ravines burrowed deep into the sloping hills. Upriver lay a village which had a college, and downriver lay a larger town which served other small farms, as well as the nearby Bellows’ plantation. Near the mill, musty smells from decades of rotting vegetation intermixed with the forest smell.
Dark came slowly to the Rose Community that night; a gentle rain subsided before sunset. Changing to the northwest, the wind picked up as a waning moon darted in and out of fast moving clouds. Cleared by a rapidly moving pacific cold front, the cold air magnified the starlight. Strong gusts pushed the trees from the west, the tallest of them undulating, gradually twisting as they first flowed with the wind, then gently sprung back; their tops set up a slight elliptical motion as the process continued.
Mark had to explain why he didn't come home with a quartered deer and his father took delight in teasing him. Dinner passed quietly.
Around nine in the evening, shouting men on horseback attacked the community without warning. They set it afire. Roaring flames merged with the pounding horse hooves and yelling figures, noises driven with a rage of fear. Few men from the Rose Community fought back directly; some helped the women and children escape the flames while others formed a ragged bucket brigade bringing water to the fires.
From inside their cabin, Paul watched the onslaught. The many imperfections in the window glass made the scene look dream-like, unfocused in the dim light. People moved like apparitions. Accenting the disorder, orange flames with jagged red fingers shot head high through doors and windows of several shattered buildings,.
Paul's mother, Mary, ran the length of the dirt street howling at the Klansmen, “You bastards! You bastards!”
Her arms flailed in the air. Drained more by despair than anger, Mary propelled herself after one, then another rider. When she paused to catch her breath, one Klansmen raised his heavy wooden torch, crashing it on her head. The flames on the end of the torch shattered into hundreds of small sparks that showered Mary with fire. The rider pulled in the reins of his horse and darted off in the direction of the mob as Mary fell, her dress smoldering.
Staring out the window, Paul felt everything slow down. Most of the able bodied had gathered to fight the fires, at the far end of the village. No one was near enough to put out the embers on Mary’s dress. Paul found himself outside, staring at his mother. His awareness stepped out of time; the daylight of reality and this dark dreamlike scene blended. Taking off his coat, he wrapped her in it, smothering all the embers; through it all she moaned, muttering no comprehensible words. He left Mary wrapped up, lying in the street. Still dazed, he wheeled in slow motion towards the house.
Once indoors he sat down again in front of the distorted window glass. Time slipped away from him again. Fallen into a shallow trance, he stopped noticing details, his consciousness no longer registered the violence outside. Staring blankly ahead, he spoke in a whisper, “Only thing we have in common is blood soaked land, but what part is my part? Them shooting and busting up the place, us outlasting them, for a hundred years, it's still a war, it will always be a war. And no one ever understands why, even when they say they do.”
He looked onto the floor, then fixed his lower jaw. “This ain't my war. This ain't my land, not now, not ever!”
A woman screamed. At the noise, Paul rose, like a wounded old man, to look through the door. Ahead of him, Ruth Rose was running toward the house, behind her was Zeke, her youngest son.
“Paul.” Her voice quivered. “We saw you out there, your mother, the others are with her now. Mary will be all right, she's not badly burned.” She broke into tears.
Meanwhile, a sullen silence spread through the streets, overlaid by continued explosions, fire and collapsing, burning buildings. As quickly as they had stormed the village, the mounted men left it. They gathered at the far end of the dirt road, near the road toward town. Milling about on horseback, they began to race towards the river crossing, heading back out of town.
Still weeping, Rose had begun to sob in gasps. The thought came to her that she didn’t want the young boys to suffer more by witnessing her grief, so she fled into her bedroom, shutting the door. In shock, she wasn’t thinking clearly; it would take weeks for her reason to return completely. Zeke, Mark’s younger brother, sat huddled beside Paul, on the floor. Suddenly, a chill rose along Paul's spine. He knew that some other bad thing had happened.
His mind rushed back to the Klan lynching of his father, John. The time of night three years ago, the smell of smoke, was all the same. Images of that night attack twitched in and out of his thoughts; the silent men on milling horses staring at his father’s lifeless body. Faceless in the act, the killers felt alive only through another's death. That night had also ended with a hushed conference among the masked murderers. Although they had only been in this village once before, both times they reveled silently in their rites of blood.
“What happened?” Paul asked softly, not really wanting to know.
Mark’s brother replied as if he were in a stupor, his voice took on the air of a disillusioned cantor, mindlessly repeating words with a metered, emotionless voice.
“Mark tried to run fast, he really did, but he stopped to push Mother into a ditch. You know, the ones the men dug at the end of the street to keep the rain water from washing away the road bed so bad. He run as fast as he could, but this big man on a spotted horse run him down.”
Zeke took a big gulp of air. “He pushed Mark with the horse 'till he fell down, then Mark lay there, looking up at the man on his big horse. The man was carryin' the biggest sword I've ever seen, it was real wide at the hilt, and it was long as I've ever seen. He waited 'till Mark tried to stand up, then, without sayin' anythin', he swung that shiny sword down at Mark so hard it was almost like he threw it at him.” Zeke fell silent.
“Mark?” Paul squinted his eyes, squeezing small tears from the corners.
“His head come clean off, it fell over from his neck, lots of blood comin' out of his neck pushed it over, it spun clean over and landed upright in the dirt right next to his body. It looked like he was buried in the ground, right there like you plant a new tree, his face looked real funny, it looked like he was tryin' to yell or scream, or somethin' like that, 'cept there weren't no sound, it was real funny lookin'. Dad and some of the older boys are takin' care of Mark now,” Zeke abruptly fell silent again.
I'm in a nightmare and I can't wake up, Paul thought. He lowered his head into the palms of his hands and wailed. Ruth emerged from her room as their crying grew louder. She gathered both boys, one under each arm; the three of them sat together, they clutched each other in tearless silence for a long time.
Several elders from the Rose Community met with the sheriff. They gave detailed accounts of the murder of Mark Rose; some Klansmen were recognized and identified by eyewitnesses. Polite to the point of contrition, the sheriff took all the information on the murder from the citizens of the Rose Community but started no actual investigation, made no arrest. Whether from fear or shame, the night riders never again visited the Rose Community after the death of Mark Rose.
“It's only been a week since the riders came here,” Ruth pleaded with Mary Burns. “Your son needs his mother.”
“I can't do it no more,” Mary's voice disappeared into the background.
“You have to be here for Paul,” Ruth insisted. “He loves you so much.”
“I don't think so,” Mary mumbled. “Not since he found out about who he really is.”
“You know that doesn't mean a thing to him.” Ruth calmly put her hand on Mary's shoulder. “You and John raised him, you two are his parents.”
“I can't do it no more,” Mary repeated a little louder than before. “I do love that boy, but I can't live here no more.”
“You and Paul are safe here,” Ruth assured. “Where would you go?”
“I want you to look after Paul. You and Abraham are good people, and you and Paul are all white folk.” Mary bitterly looked up at Ruth. “I lost my husband here, and you lost your son to them mean crackers.” She paused. “I can't stay here no more.”
“Where can you go, then?” Ruth asked.
“I'm goin' back to the plantation land,” Mary said. “At least there I can be safe; ain't no one gonna kill me for workin' the land like my people's done for generations.”
“They could and probably would kill you,” Ruth disagreed. “You know Mr. Appleby has it out for you.”
“As long as I play the good little slave girl, he ain't gonna do nothin',” Mary said. “It means I gave up and he won.”
“What about your son?” Ruth asked again. “You should stay here.”
“Paul needs to get as far away from this place as he can and as fast as he can,” Mary's voice grew stronger. “Appleby’s more inclined to kill him, not me. It's too late for me to get away from all this trouble, but it's not too late for him.”
“He's welcome to stay here with us.” Ruth didn't know what to say.
“I want to be buried near my mama, and that means I have to go back there and take up my old life in the field.”
Leaving Paul with Ruth and Abraham Rose, Mary felt herself drawn back to the Appleby plantation like a ghost to darkness, going through the half forgotten tasks, as if dancing to familiar tunes. Six months after leaving the Rose community, she died, never speaking of her adopted son, Paul, again.