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The Girls in the Stilt House

The two girls climb down from the wagon and land with gentle thumps on a mat of damp leaves. They move quietly against the dark expanse of forest behind them. Overhead are a hazy half-moon, a few scattered stars. Ada waits as the other girl nudges the mule forward and loops his leather lead around a branch. With a glance back at the wagon, which the girls have steered off a weedy dirt road and close in to the trees, Ada follows her companion, dependent upon the sounds of twigs and old acorns crunching under boots until her eyes adjust to the deeper darkness of the woods. Even then Matilda’s face, her arms, her bare legs beneath the hem of her drab dress blend with the night, while Ada considers herself as pale as the moon, conspicuous to anyone passing by. She worries a finger-sized hole in the pocket of her skirt. Surely anyone spotting them would wonder what two girls of their ages—Ada sixteen, Matilda probably some older—and of their sorts were up to out here on this remote stretch of the Natchez Trace near on to midnight. Ada says as much, her voice a hoarse whisper.

“Ain’t nobody passing by in the thick of these woods this far off the Trace, day or night.” Matilda’s voice rings through the dark night unhushed, and Ada feels a thrill run up the back of her neck. She is nearly overcome by the newness of the feeling. Anything, it seems to her, might come of this night. And almost anything would be better than what has come before.

Deeper in the woods, a canopy of old-growth trees blots out even the faint moonlight. Matilda lights a small lantern, and an army of moths rises to claim the flame. Ada follows the swinging light, and the girls walk on in silence. After a time Matilda says, “There they are,” and stops.

Ada steps up to two lichen-encrusted tombs—brick and limestone—rising just over knee-high from the forest floor. She kneels beside one of them, slides her hand over the cold stone top, and is almost convinced she is not dreaming.

“They’re Confederates,” Matilda says, and though the girl’s voice is still unfamiliar to Ada’s ears, there is no mistaking her lack of sympathy. “Somebody laid them out in style, sixty-some years ago. Had the slabs carved up and hauled out here where almost nobody’d ever see them. There’s the crack, on that one there.” Matilda sets the lantern on the other tomb, and in the small splash of light, Ada can read bits of a worn inscription: Died October 18, 1862; Colonel; steadfast; and Asleep in Jesus.

Roots of the old trees have worked themselves under the tomb, buckling the brick frame and loosening the stone slab on top, cracking it in two across the sagging middle. Ada runs her hand along the dogleg crevice. She can just shove her little finger through it, which she does, raising the hairs on her neck again.

Matilda tries to lift a corner of the slab. “Give me a hand here,” she grunts. Ada fits her fingers under the stone, and the girls pull in tandem. They manage to slide it several inches.

“All right, then,” Matilda says. “We found them. Let’s go back for the tools.”

“And for…for him?”

“Unless you’re planning on leaving him buried in hay in the back of the wagon.”

The two girls trudge back the way they came. Ada follows Matilda, wordlessly working on the hole in her pocket until she can slide her whole hand through it.


Spring, 1922

Virgil Morgan was the devil.

Matilda had known him for what he was with the first word she heard him speak. Boy. Directed at her father. It was nothing new, that word used in that way, but coming from the likes of Virgil, it carried more than its usual sting. It had come, that first encounter, on the heels of Curtis Creedle’s having told Virgil to “get on home” when he came around looking to buy liquor on a Wednesday afternoon when Curtis, as Virgil well knew, only sold to locals on Sundays. Sunday morning, nine to noon, when those most likely to object were tucked away at church. It was safe enough, selling hooch to pagans on the Trace while Prohibition was only just taking hold, but Curtis did not need Virgil’s business. And he did need Matilda’s father. On the Creedle farm, Dalton Patterson, a sharecropper, was more important than Virgil Morgan. Matilda knew that, and Virgil knew it. So Virgil took him down a peg every chance he got.

Virgil lived on the opposite side of the Trace. Way up in the swamp, so Matilda had been told. With the rest of his sort, she supposed. Reptiles and rats and slugs. Those useless little gnats that never let up. Chiggers that get under your skin and leave their marks if you pick the wrong flowers or take the wrong shortcut through a field on the way to somewhere you’d like to go. Pesky, inconsequential little things that would be easily squashed if all of nature did not conspire to provide them such cover, give them such an advantage.

She caught sight of Virgil’s wagon one day when she arrived for school at Miss Bodie’s house, an old cabin leaning on the shoulder of the Trace. His mule came around a bend in the road, followed by his rattletrap wagon, Virgil swaying on the driver’s seat, already three sheets to the wind and the sun just up.

Headed toward town, thank God and everything good, Matilda thought. She watched the wagon until it disappeared around another turn, then she went inside mad.

Matilda attended school when she wasn’t in the fields, mainly to make her mother happy. But she looked beyond the teacher’s lessons for most things, seeing science in the stars and the heat lightning and the long-legged skimmers skating across the pond, art in the agates she collected in the gully, and history in the bones and arrowheads and bottles she dug up in the sandy creeks. As for religion, she looked at the moon and knew there was a god. She saw Virgil Morgan’s wagon coming down the road and knew there was a hell, because Virgil was going there, no question.

After school that day, she followed the creek bed home, picking a path around anything that might punch a hole in the cardboard soles she had cut out and slid into her shoes that morning. The hem of her dress swung uneven at her knees, and she swatted at a loose thread that nagged the back of her leg. As she neared the outskirts of Curtis Creedle’s farm, his plantation, as he liked to call it, the woods thinned on either side of the creek and a breeze that smelled like rain stirred the new leaves on the trees. A wild-eyed yellow dog she didn’t know bounded from a clutch of scraggly pines and ran a frenzied circle around her, then veered off across a fallow cornfield as if he had sized her up and matched her with the run-down shack across the creek from the Creedle house. And when Matilda arrived there, the dog was waiting, hanging back at a sagging corner of the sun-bleached shack, tail thumping expectantly, as if he were something more than a passing stray. She stomped her foot and he scuttled back, then slunk forward again, low to the ground, eyeing her hopefully. Matilda turned away. She was not getting attached to anything new on the farm. As it was, she was already working on detaching herself from everything holding her there.

Her mother was hanging dry clothes on a line strung across the front porch, humming a hymn around a clothespin tucked between her lips. She was airing out the clothes, a “wind washing,” she called it, stretching the life of things too ragged to survive the boiling pot.

“Hey, baby,” Teensy said, the clothespin flapping. Matilda answered over her shoulder as she slipped inside the shack, the screen door slapping shut behind her.

It seemed to Matilda that every blame thing in her life was ragged, the shack being the prime example. Flies flew in and out no matter how much newspaper or straw mud Teensy stuffed between the warped clapboards, as did wasps, harvesting the dry wood for their paper nests lodged in the porch rafters. Furniture in the main room consisted of a square table with three straight-back chairs, one for each Patterson; a three-legged stool Teensy sat on when there were visitors; a shuck mattress on a base of apple crates pushed up against the back wall, where her parents slept; a small woodstove; and a hammered-tin pie safe wrapped in a pick sack filled with sawdust and straw, making do as an icebox when there was ice.

A tar-paper wall sectioned off a narrow space just long and wide enough for a wobbly, four-drawer chest with one drawer missing and Matilda’s pallet of quilts. It was a sorry sanctuary, but it gave Matilda a private place to think at night. She slept on quilts because she could not abide the sound a shuck mattress made beneath her when she turned over, so much like the dry rustle overhead when a snake was holed up in the attic, which was the case as often as not. Two ginger cats—even they were battle-scarred and scraggly—were on perpetual guard against mice.

Her mother always referred to the shack as “our house,” though to Matilda’s mind it wasn’t theirs and it fell way short of a house. Her father was of like mind. Matilda had never heard him speak of it as anything but the place. “Go back to the place and fetch me a dry sweat rag,” he might say, mopping his forehead with a damp scrap of cloth when Matilda checked on him in one of the cornfields or the peach orchard.

Like most of the sharecroppers Matilda knew, her father wanted a place of his own, a piece of land that was his, with something he could rightly call a house sitting on it. But unlike most of the others, her father had a plan for bringing that about. It required making a deal with a devil—there were plenty of those besides Virgil Morgan—but he had done it because it looked to be a way out. Not just for himself, but for Matilda and for the baby her mother was carrying. The prospect of owning land was what drove him, day and night. It was the reason the shack was stuffed chock-full of illegal home brew—jars of corn liquor in the attic and the meal bin and the corn crib, bottles of peach brandy in the crawlway under the floor. It was the reason there was a false bottom in the bed of his wagon.

Not one of those bottles or jars belonged to Matilda’s father. Not any more than the shack did, or the fields he worked, or the team he used for plowing. It made Matilda crazy. Her father wanted his own place so bad he couldn’t think in a straight line, and not many straight lines in Mississippi ended at a colored sharecropper owning his own farm. Matilda knew that.

Still, her father had gotten himself tangled up in a deal to hide Curtis Creedle’s liquor and to transport it in the rigged-up wagon. Twice each month he filled the hidden compartment with crates of liquor that he drove to the train station in Canton, handing them over to someone else beholden to the Creedles, who, in turn, loaded them into a freight car and sent them on to Vicksburg. From there, a steamboat captain floated them up the river to St. Louis, then shipped them on to Chicago. Dalton did this in exchange for Curtis’s promise to write off, at the end of one year, the debt Dalton owed him. The typical crippling sharecropper’s debt for seed and rent and poor crop yield that kept men like her father from ever getting out of the hole with landowners.

Back when Dalton was still mulling over his decision, or what passed for a decision between croppers and landowners, Matilda had said what she and her mother were both thinking—that Old Man Creedle, with all his outbuildings and his 140 acres, only hid liquor in the shack so he could point to Dalton as the bootlegger should anyone catch on to his enterprise. Her father was no fool. He knew what was what with regard to Curtis Creedle. But he so wanted a chance in life that he was willing to take the risk.

“One year’s all I need,” he’d said. “Then we’re out of here, free and clear.”

Her mother, in contrast, had learned to take joy in a warm slice of strawberry pie or a cooling breeze visiting the porch on a hot day. Teensy held that life was short and she was not about to miss any good thing right in front of her, looking ahead for something that might never be.

Matilda tried to find her own way between the two of them, a way around all those low expectations, but there wasn’t a path to anywhere that she could see from where she was. The problem—one of the problems, as she saw it—was that a person, at least a person in her own circumstances, couldn’t have a respectable dream in a place like this.

Foraging in the pie safe for something to eat before she’d have to plant a few rows of strawberries ahead of the coming rain, Matilda found a day-old biscuit and an almost empty tin of cane syrup. A fly had died a sweet death stuck to the side of the tin, and Matilda flicked it off with her fingernail. She stabbed the biscuit with her thumb and dribbled the dregs of syrup into the hollow, but before she could take a bite, she heard voices from the porch.

“Mattie! Miss Creedle’s here.”

Good lord. A long day just got longer. Peggy Creedle looking for somebody to get in trouble with.Matilda had never known a girl as old as Peggy was—seventeen—with so much time to spare and so little sense about using it.

She took her time strolling out to the porch. She wouldn’t have gone at all if she hadn’t known her mother would start offering up apologies to “Miss Creedle” for her daughter’s dawdling, and Peggy would say “It’s okay, Teensy, she’ll be coming,” and there was just so much wrong with a scene like that.

“Hey, Peggy.”

Teensy had asked Matilda more than once to address Peggy as “Miss Creedle,” but Matilda called her “Peggy” when there weren’t any other Creedles around and avoided calling her anything when there were.

“Miss Creedle brought you a letter,” Teensy said, and then Matilda was interested.

“Eugene picked it up at the post office this morning,” Peggy said, flapping the envelope like a paper fan. Eugene was an extra hand hired to help with spring planting and to run errands. “He carried it back to the house for you,” she said, meaning the Creedle house, as even Peggy knew that shack was no kind of house, the same as the other two cropper shacks on the place, way over on the peach orchard side.

“Who’s it from?” Teensy asked, looking at Peggy politely, and Matilda reached in front of her mother and slid the letter from between Peggy’s fingers before Peggy could pretend she hadn’t already read it. She had done a sloppy job of resealing the envelope. Matilda took a few slow seconds to examine the seal, making a silent issue of it. She swept a quick glance across the face of the envelope at the postmark—Cleveland, Ohio—and the handwriting—Rainy’s. She would have pointed out the postmark to her mother instead of stating her own business in front of Peggy, but Teensy couldn’t read.

“It’s from Rainy,” Matilda said. Then she looked over at Peggy and added pointedly, “From Miss Day.”

Peggy’s face pinked up, and Teensy said in her prim, white-folks-are-listening voice, “Well, that’s nice,” and Peggy—God be praised—said her goodbyes and headed back to the Creedle house, auburn curls bouncing, tail end swishing—trouble looking to happen.

“Mattie, keep a civil tongue,” Teensy said the minute Peggy was out of earshot. It was more plea than rebuke, delivered with so much worry around the edges that Matilda would have offered something to ease her mother’s mind if she had not been so eager to see what Rainy had written. So she just went inside by the front door and out by the back door and took a path that climbed a hill and ended at the rim of a gully that fell off into the creek. A rocky outcrop near the top, hidden by a buttonbush growing out of the bank, was her place for being alone, and she sat there and opened the letter.

Five months had slogged by since her best friend, Lorraine Day—Rainy—and her family left the Trace for Ohio. Plenty of people were leaving. There were jobs in the North, people were saying. Up North, railroads and factories and meatpackers and stockyards were looking for Negroes to hire. So people said. Rainy’s mother had an uncle in Cleveland who ran a Negro newspaper—now there was a dream worth having—and he had written to them about an anti-lynching law some people were trying to get passed in Washington. He was hopeful, he had written, though many in the country opposed it.

Matilda had asked herself then how anyone—anyone—could be against an anti-lynching law. But there were people, she knew, who would resist any law handed down by the federal government. People who did good things, who went to church and gave to the poor and helped their neighbors and loved their children, and at the same time would stand against making it a federal crime to hang people from trees, or beat them to death, or burn them, or douse them with acid. Year in and year out such things were happening, while her mother’s mind was stayed on cool breezes and wildflowers and berry pies and her father longed for a piece of this godforsaken, blood-soaked land to put down roots in. None of it made any sense to Matilda.

Even before Rainy left, Matilda had decided that as soon as she could manage it, she would board a train headed north and take her chances. She had thought it through. First, she would get herself to Jackson and find work. Most every white woman in Jackson had a maid, and most were always on the lookout for a cheaper one. Or one less likely to catch a husband’s eye. So Matilda had heard. She could do maid work for a while, if it came to that. Maid work was far and away better than chopping cotton, which is how she had spent every late spring and early summer since she had been big enough to hold a hoe. Or she could bus tables. She was only sixteen, but she’d be seventeen by the time her mother’s baby was born.

Matilda was counting on the new baby to soften the blow of her departure. She had a friend in Jackson she could stay with in the room she rented. She would have to put up with the latest bad boyfriend—Leeta always had a boyfriend, always a sorry one—but she could handle that. She would give herself a year there to save up. She figured she could stand anything for one year. And she would be careful not to let herself get sidetracked by things like love and marriage and children, because if you did that, you could almost always forget about ever getting out. She had not told anyone about her plan. Not even Rainy.

And then Rainy had left first. Without warning. When no one was paying attention. The preferred manner of departure when leaving Mississippi for the North, taking the South’s secrets.

Matilda tore open the letter. It was short, just a few lines. Rainy was working as a laundress, earning more for a day’s work than she and Matilda had earned in a week chopping cotton. They were living, the six Days, in the top half of a house—four rooms to themselves. There was enough space for Matilda, and work, too. “Get your skinny butt up here quick as you can.”

This was a real plan. Something concrete to take the place of all the daydreams about leaving that Matilda had only half believed in. Doing laundry had not figured in her dreams, but it was a beginning. She could send home some of her pay, she told herself. Help her father buy his own team, his own seed. He might not ever have a chance to own his own farm, but he could move up from sharecropping for Curtis Creedle to tenant farming for somebody else. Get out from under Old Man Creedle’s thumb, out of his nasty business. That was something. A start.

Matilda slid the letter into her pocket and Cleveland, Ohio, into her heart.


Spring, 1923

Ada smelled the swamp before she reached it. The mingling of sulfur and rot worked with memory to knot her stomach and burn the back of her throat. She was returning with little more than she had taken with her a year before, everything she counted worthy of transporting only half filling the pillowcase slung over her shoulder. It might have been filled with bricks, the way she bent under it, but mostly it was loss that weighed her down. The past few days had swept her clean of hope, and a few trinkets in a pillowcase were all that was left to mark a time when she had not lived isolated in this green-shaded, stagnant setting. When she was a little girl, she had believed she loved this place, the trees offering themselves as steadfast companions, the wildflowers worthy confidants, but passing through now with eyes that had taken in other wonders and a heart that had allowed an outsider to slip in, she knew she had only been resigned to it. As she was again.

She had heard it said that children who lose their mothers early are childlike for the rest of their lives. As it happened, she had overheard those words on the morning of her mother’s burial, whispered by the preacher’s wife to the preacher, who had cast a doubtful glance at nine-year-old Ada, finding it unlikely—Ada’s being childlike—even then. Nevertheless, Ada had held on to the thought, sliding it to the front of her mind often in the weeks that followed until it became undeniably apparent that her mother’s death was not, after all, going to usher in an era of ongoing playfulness.

Seven years had passed since then, and if there had been a childlike moment in Ada’s life, it had been the one in which she slipped out an open window to run away with the first boy who looked her way. Childlike because she had hardly known him. Because she was only fifteen at the time. Although no one who knew her, or knew her father, would have tried to stop her. She had drifted through the following year in a sweet dream, and when she woke to find she was left with nothing and no one, with nowhere to go but back to her father, the only thing that was surprising to her was that anything as wonderful as Jesse, as their tiny room over the white barbershop on Harlow Street in Baton Rouge, had happened to her at all.

Now she found herself on the last leg of a journey she had promised herself she would never take. She had left Baton Rouge at daybreak, traveling first by train, then in the buggy of a charitable stranger, and finally on the back of a produce wagon that raised a cloud of dust in its wake, obscuring all that lay behind her. The vegetable peddler had taken her far beyond the limit of his usual route, well past the last smattering of rickety houses on the fringes of Bristol, Mississippi, to a wild, desolate strip of the Natchez Trace, an old Native trail cut through the backwoods and now only partially passable. He had let her off where the Trace began to swing away from an increasingly marshy terrain, raising an eyebrow before lifting his hat as Ada slipped down from the wagon and murmured a word of thanks. She had watched him maneuver the horses back the way they had come, then disappear behind a new cloud of dust.

Now she pressed on, both hands wrapped firmly around the twisted end of her pillowcase, not thinking about where she was going or where she had been, but only of forward motion. After some time, at a spot where the old road narrowed amid wild overgrowth, she turned off the Trace and onto a grassy trail hemmed in by a dense canebrake on one side and a mixed-wood forest on the other. The sun, not due to set for a few hours more, abandoned her for the far side of the canebrake, and she knew to watch her steps in the false twilight, alert to any stick that might be a rattlesnake, any root a copperhead, as the path curved around the cane and the woods closed in behind her. A mockingbird trilled overhead, lazily acknowledging her presence in his woods, but she did not stop to look at him or to pull up the socks that had slid under her heels and bunched beneath her feet, though she felt the sting of new blisters.

After a while, the trail took a sharp turn. Without warning, but coming as no surprise to Ada, the wall of river cane fell away, and there it was. Familiar as her shoes. As her squarish hands and her long tangle of pale-brown curls. Still, it was alarming.

The swamp. It stretched before her as if she had arrived at the utter end of a dismal world. Shrouded in a thin fog, giant bald cypress trees rose from the still water as apparitions, their gnarled limbs trailing tendrils of Spanish moss, their buttresses bulging above the water’s surface, exposed to hordes of insects that chirped and screeched an afternoon dirge. All that was left was to follow the edge of the swamp, and she did. The nearer she came to her destination, the more slowly she walked. In time, she was hardly moving at all. And yet, she arrived. Home.

Small and boxy, the house was raised on a network of cypress stilts facing the swamp. A year had not changed it much. Its bare-wood exterior was still a weathered mushroom gray, its tin roof still rusting through an ancient coat of white paint. The house did not seem of slighter scale, as Ada knew houses often did when people returned to them older. If anything, it was taller than she remembered. More forbidding, somehow. Or perhaps she just felt smaller. It did seem more ramshackle, as if it might fold its stick legs and collapse under a good wind, but she knew that was because Baton Rouge, even Harlow Street, was luminous in her memory. Bright and shiny and as solid as the swamp was soggy.

She stood there for a minute or two, breathing old air from her old life that did not seem to fill her lungs anymore. Jesse was less than twenty-four hours behind her. Her hair still smelled of the mossy cavern under his arm where she had asked, had begged, to keep her head for an extra few minutes before they left the little apartment. She had wasted those moments crying, but he had let her stay nested there until the last second. She doubted he knew how grateful she was to him for that and for every other moment spent with him. But that was done.

There was no sign of her father’s wagon. When she rounded the house and checked the pole barn that slumped against the tree line at the edge of the woods, his mule was not there. So he was away, she thought. There would be no gaining permission to reenter her previous life, and Ada was reluctant to barge back in without leave. A thousand insect voices urged her up the front porch steps, pressing her to pull open the screen door and knock. When she did, there was no answer, but even so, she called out before pushing open the front door, then called again after.

The main room was as changed as the swamp was the same. Half living room and half kitchen, it was cluttered with dirty dishes, grimy clothes, newspapers, trash, and empty bottles and mason jars. It was like a way station for roving bandits. A jumble of skinning knives and leather sheaths rested on the roughly hewn pine table, some of the knives standing with their blades lodged in the wood. This was the table her mother had set for supper when Ada was young and that Ada had set for her father in later years. Now a hacksaw lay across the cookstove at one end of the room, and at the other end a greasy sawtooth trap caked with dried blood and matted fur occupied Ada’s old bed, a thin straw mattress laid over a narrow rope bed frame. With no female presence to contend with, her father evidently had relocated the tools of his trade from the tin shed out back to the house. All around the room his drying boards, stained with animal oils and pocked with nail holes, leaned against the walls. A wooden barrel, chest high and filled with sawdust, stood behind the front door.

Ada dipped her hand into the barrel and let a mound of sawdust sift through her fingers. Her father used it to clean his pelts, dusting them with it and brushing it through until the fur was soft and shiny. She remembered a time, when she was very small, when she had sprinkled a handful of sawdust into her rag doll’s yarn hair, delighting her father to no end. He had squatted down to her level and eyed the doll. “Good girl,” he’d said. “Should we scalp her now? Mount her pelt on one of my boards?” He’d held out his hand, and Ada had wordlessly handed the doll to him. Her father had howled with laughter.

“Virgil, please,” her mother had said, taking the doll and tucking it back into Ada’s lap. Ada wondered what became of that doll, but then she pulled her thoughts back to the present. She had found it was best not to let them stray.

As she stepped around the stove on the kitchen side of the room, Ada choked back a scream. An alligator hide had been nailed to the wall, the creature’s mouth frozen in a bisected grin. Spilled from an overturned cup on the floor were what looked to be the beast’s teeth, yellow and sharp and curved liked machetes. Ada raised her hands to her face and felt them trembling as she backed away.

She was almost glad her mother was not alive to see this, to have to live with this, which she would have, her mother. Ada remembered that much about her. Her mother had not been the sort to confide in anyone, but it had not escaped Ada’s notice, even as a young child, that her mother was well schooled in living with things. With enduring. And until the day Ada met Jesse, she had followed her mother’s lead.

She went over to the window. Through a filmy layer of grime that dimmed the room like a shade, the swamp was a blur of green and brown. She had a thought: perhaps even her father was not living like this. The trash, the broken bottles, the foul air—it all squared with abandonment. Maybe he had moved on, somewhere farther north with better trapping. It was possible. Or there might have been an accident while he was setting his traps and snares in the woods or stringing a trotline in that bend of the Pearl River where the current was fierce. Such things had been known to happen. He could have been shot by a hunter taking him for a deer. That last thought was not entirely unpleasant to Ada, and though it shamed her some, she let it linger. Soon she was mentally clearing the house of the tools and the trash, erasing the subtle stink of decomposed carcasses, turning the room back into the clean, spare space it had been when she was a little girl and her mother was young and still somewhat resilient. She stitched imaginary curtains for the windows and twisted rag rugs for the floors. She stuffed dried wildflowers into milk bottles and allowed herself a slight smile.

When she crossed the dim, dogtrot hallway that divided the house into two rooms, intending to make similar improvements to her father’s bedroom, all the pretty pictures in her head fell away. She tripped over a tub of greasy tools, and reaching out to catch herself, she caught hold of the cold, smooth barrel of her father’s deer rifle mounted on the wall. Her father would have left his leg behind before leaving his rifle, had he moved on. It was much more likely that he was away selling pelts, hauling a load to Jackson or to Vicksburg to be shipped up the river. He would be back. Unless he really was dead. Ada entered the bedroom cautiously. Her father’s mattress, lying atop a box bedstead, was bare except for a thin blanket twisted into a rank wad. The window on the back wall was greased black to keep out the sun, but a small circle had been rubbed clear, letting in enough light for Ada to note the array of empty bottles surrounding the bed. Her father had not lost his taste for rotgut. She hadn’t supposed he had.

The room was so small a person with some talent could spit tobacco juice on each of the four walls while lying in bed, something her father had been proud to prove to her more than once. She noticed a scrap of her mother’s Christmas tablecloth, embroidered with holly leaves and berries, caught in a crack in one of the baseboards, pulled through by mice, she imagined. On the windowsill, within reach of the bed, was another mason jar half-filled with—Ada leaned and sniffed—pee.

She returned to the kitchen and sat down on an old cane chair that groaned even under her slight weight. Living here hadn’t seemed so bad, she thought, when she had known nothing else. But now it was nearly unbearable. She shoved aside a dirty plate and rested her forehead on her arms crossed over the sticky tabletop. It wasn’t that she and Jesse had had much, but what they’d had was all Ada would have needed for the rest of her life. It had been more than enough. It had been everything. When she left Baton Rouge, she had nothing. And now she had this. This house. In this place. It was less than nothing.

She thought maybe she would try praying, went so far as to fold her hands under her chin there at the table, but she couldn’t come up with any words that did not mean “Please let my father be dead” or something just as likely to send her to hell. And what if her father really did not return? What if God chose that moment to answer an unspoken prayer? Who would she look to then? There was no one to tell her what to do, and she had no experience with making plans of her own. She stood up. She opened the front door and let the late sunlight spill across the room. She filled an empty bucket with dirty dishes and dropped in a brittle slice of dirt-lined soap she found wedged in a crack between wallboards in the kitchen. Then she lugged the bucket down the back porch steps and out to the pump behind the house. She would make herself useful.

The woods had crept closer while she had been away, and perhaps the canebrake to the north, as well. In time, she supposed, if left unhindered, they would overtake the entire yard, then the outbuildings and the house, creeping right up to the edge of the swamp.

She dumped the dishes onto the grass and set the bucket under the spigot. With a familiar rhythm, she worked the handle up and down until a trickle of water grew into a stream and she was able to loosen a layer of sludge in the bottom of the bucket. As she bent to replace it under the spigot, she caught a flash of movement in the woods. A quick flicker of light or shadow that could have been anything and was likely nothing, but she thought perhaps she had heard something, too. Something not quite right for those woods at that time of day. She scanned the overgrown edges for anything that might emerge, a raccoon or a fox or a muskrat, perhaps, and told herself that the woods were full of ordinary creatures darting or waddling through the brush, sounding like things they were not. A squirrel dashing through dry leaves could sound like a bear. She knew that. Still, she turned back to her task uneasy.

She would fill the bucket and wash the dishes as best she could. Before the last of the light was gone on this first day home, she would bring in a fresh bucket of water and begin cleaning the house. When it was too dark and she was too tired to work anymore, she would take Jesse’s shirt from her pillowcase and slide it over her arms, button it over her blouse. She would brush the layer of dust off the old oilcloth table cover folded behind the stove and spread it on the floor, find an old pillow. She was a light sleeper. She would wake to his foot on the steps, to his crossing the porch, should he come in the night. She would call out to him. “Daddy,” she’d call, and he would know it was her, would put down any weapon he had in his hand. He wouldn’t shoot her. What would be the fun in that? And her father, Ada knew, would have his fun with her return.

The Girls in the Stilt House
by by Kelly Mustian

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • ISBN-10: 1728217717
  • ISBN-13: 9781728217710