Five Rocks, Pennsylvania
January 21, 1841
In the 19th century a wagon couldn’t cross Pennsylvania without circumventing the worst of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians. Despite the breathtaking beauty of the lush green mountains, travelers gave a prayer of thanks when they finally made it past the Allegheny Front. There the plateau fell to the lowlands, into what some folks still called Westsylvania. Flat ground had never looked so good.
Some of those wagons later took a wrong turn and clomped across a charming covered bridge. Thank the good Lord Almighty, those drivers thought. Nice bridge like that, there must be a town ahead. And there was – Five Rocks. It offered one of everything they needed – Livery, Feed & Grain, General Store, Saloon, Doctor, and Lawyer – along with a choice of three churches. But none of these accidental visitors (for no stranger came to Five Rocks by design) stayed for more than a night. On their way out they clucked their tongues and wondered what on earth had possessed those folks to build their homes on what seemed to be the only ugly patch of ground in all of Pennsylvania. The few trees were gnarled and bent over, and not even weeds thrived in the hard-scrabble gray dirt.
Olivia Killion’s father, Old Man Seborn Killion, was the owner of Killion’s General in Five Rocks. She and her two older brothers, Avis and Tobey, lived with him in one of the eight “rich folks’ houses” on Maple Street. Olivia had attended the one-room schoolhouse until she was past fifteen, when her father’s illness put him in bed for good. She knew it was her place to stay home and care for Old Seborn.
Since then, for two long years, every morning had been the same – heat up water and fight past his flailing arms to bathe some part of him, while he hollered that she was trying to give him pneumonia. He was more cooperative while she fed him his breakfast. Afterwards she sat staring out the window while she listened to him complain. In the afternoons Olivia read to him and did her best to put off pouring the shots of whiskey he demanded. When he began drifting in and out of sleep she passed the time reading or trying to dredge up memories of her mother. In Olivia’s imagination Nola June floated up and down the staircase, always draped in a flowing garment of warm colors, her head topped with a mist of blonde curls. It was her mother’s face Olivia couldn’t remember.
Olivia had come to see her life as a never-to-end procession of such days, until a cold morning in late January 1841. Carrying a pitcher of hot water and a clean towel, Olivia nudged her father’s door open with her hip, wondering how bad he was going to be. Some water sloshed onto the floorboards, and she prepared herself for one of his looks. His tiny yellow eyes had a way of glaring that was worse than yelling.
She knew he was gone without looking at him. The room was silent and smelled of the waste he had evacuated. She set the pitcher and towel on the bureau and turned toward the bed. He lay with his arms at his sides, under the blanket, as if he had tucked himself in. His head was thrown back, his mouth hanging open and revealing tobacco-stained teeth. At least his eyes were closed.
She dried her hands on her apron and stared at him, shamed by the first thought that rushed to mind – no more baths. And no more washing out the green and brown lumps he spat into china teacups. Or helping him onto the chamber pot. She searched her heart for grief, but was unable to think of a single reason to wish him back alive. Not for his sake, and not for hers. Not that she hated him. There wasn’t anything about him to hate; but neither had there been much to love, even before he got sick. And he had taken such a dreadful long time dying. Olivia yanked the window open and went to the top of the stairs to call her brother Tobey.
Tobey stopped at the foot of the bed and stood rocking back and forth on his heels as he said, “Well, we’re orphans now. That’s what we are.” Then he went down to tell the housekeeper, Mrs. Hardaway.
“Why on earth do you got that window open?” he asked when he returned. “It’s snowing out there.”
“You’re supposed to leave a window open when someone dies. For at least two hours, so their spirit can go free. That’s what Mammo Killion said when Uncle Scruggs got killed.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s necessary to give double pneumonia to the spirits of the living,” he said and slid the window shut.
Mrs. Hardaway waddled into the room and put a hand on Olivia’s shoulder. “There, there. Thank the good Lord for taking him peacefully in his sleep. Tobey, you go get Doc Gaylin. And stop by the store to tell your brother. He’d better bring a load of eats back with him. You’re going to have a mess of folks coming in to pay their respects.” Olivia glanced at Mrs. Hardaway in surprise, having forgotten that death was a social event.
“I’d better get him cleaned up,” Olivia said, bracing herself.
Mrs. Hardaway squeezed her shoulder again. “Let me do that,” she said quietly. “You go wait in your room. I’ll call you if I need help turning him. Soon as the news gets around some ladies from the church are bound to be in to help.”
Olivia put her arms around the housekeeper and nearly cried with gratitude, which she knew was mistaken for grief. She had been dreading this final task. Not the stench of the filth; she could stomach that. But she had never seen Old Seborn naked. She’d always handed him the cloth so he could wash himself “down there,” under the covers.
“There, there.” The housekeeper patted her back. “You been such a good daughter all this long time. Don’t you worry no more. The church ladies will come get him ready for laying out. I’ll just make him presentable. Why don’t you go cover the mirrors?”
By the time Mrs. Hardaway finished cleaning Seborn up and removing the soiled sheets Tobey had returned. He and Olivia pulled chairs to the bedside and waited for the doctor and their brother Avis. Olivia slipped her hand into Tobey’s.
“You feeling alright?” he asked.
“Better than I should. How about you?”
“Mostly glad it’s over, I guess.”
“Me too. And ashamed of feeling that way.” Olivia stared at the floor.
“Can’t help what you feel.”
She squeezed his hand and put her other palm over it. “I guess you’re the only person in the whole wide world that I really care about. I wish it weren’t true, but I guess it is. Since Uncle Scruggs died anyway.”
“Thing you like best about me is I’m not Avis,” Tobey said.
Olivia turned her gaze back to their father. “He looks real old, doesn’t he? More like a grandfather than a father. Doesn’t seem right. I felt so much worse when that horse kicked Uncle Scruggs in the head.”
“Can’t help what you feel,” Tobey repeated.
The stone chimney ran through their father’s room, so it was the warmest in the house, but they could still see their breath. Olivia couldn’t blame her father for never wanting her to wash him, but now that all the busybodies were going to be parading around him, whispering and shaking their heads, she wished he didn’t look so neglected. Olivia thought about giving him a quick shave, but the impulse didn’t manage to evolve into action. She felt as if a heavy mantle of exhaustion had settled over her. The next four days, until they lowered her father into his grave, passed in a blur.
After the funeral Mr. Carmichael, the town’s attorney, came to the house to read the will. There were no surprises; the store and house both went to the oldest son, Avis. Olivia sat and listened, slowly beginning to comprehend her new situation.
The next morning she rose early and slipped out the front door, hoping to be unseen. A thick layer of ice covered the porch steps and she clutched the wooden handrail. Clumsy in her thick-soled boots and heavy black coat, she plodded up Maple Street through the deep snow. She was relieved to see that no one was stirring; the January cold seemed to be keeping the nosy neighbor ladies under their quilts. She hoped that none of them were spying from behind their parlor curtains, tsk-tsking about Old Man Killion’s daughter. “What is that girl up to now, traipsing around all by herself, not a day since they put her father in the ground? Never did know how to behave, that one.”
Olivia had heard the good women in the pews behind her all through her father’s funeral service, a flock of pecking hens in winter poke bonnets. They lowered their voices, but not enough; she heard their opinions of what that Killion girl ought to do. Or not do. Just what was wrong with her and how it ought to be fixed. “But what can you expect, what with that mother of hers. Never was right in the head.”
Olivia turned left onto Main Street, toward the row of weathered clapboard shops and offices. The smooth white crust of snow was not perfect – a few lonely trails of footprints had disturbed it – but it managed to make the dingy little town picturesque. Five Rocks had not benefited from the talents of a town planner; structures went up wherever any of its 768 residents chose to put them, and the slipshod façade of Main Street was one of the unfortunate results.
As she trudged along Olivia silently scolded Old Seborn. So what if Avis is the oldest son? What about Tobey and me? There’s no law says a man can’t leave anything to his younger son and daughter. Did Avis spend the last two years taking care of you? I’d like to see him try giving you a bath, the way you batted your arms around, like I was trying to kill you. I’m the one with the bruises. Parents are supposed to take care of their children. All their children. Don’t expect me to feel guilty for looking out for myself. If I don’t, who will? Not you, that’s for sure.
She stopped for a moment and listened to the silence, the only sounds her labored breathing and the muffled clop of horse’s hooves. She felt herself growing clammy inside the thick coat, more from anxiety than the exertion of the walk. She’d never had a conversation with Mr. Carmichael and felt suddenly shy. What was she going to say to the lawyer? Why had she come so early? He probably wasn’t even in his office yet. But when she looked up she saw curls of smoke rising above the tin roof. She hoped he was alone, no busybody in there to go blabbing about her coming to see him. She stared at the trails of footprints – two leading toward the office and one away from it – and hoped they had been made byMr. Carmichael and a client arriving and the client leaving.
She paused before stepping up onto the wooden sidewalk, afraid of tripping. The drifts were so high she couldn’t tell where the boardwalk dropped off, so she lifted her coat and skirt and kicked at the snow until she could see the edge. In the process she managed to get a boot full of snow, which quickly melted and soaked her already frozen foot.
A pang of self-pity stabbed through her and she thought, why do I have to do this alone? Why am I always alone?
For a moment she imagined the forlorn figure she must present – draped in black, stark against the glare of the snow, with the rust-colored splash of Tobey’s wide-brimmed felt hat on her head. She remembered the heavy oil paintings that hung in the public library over in Hillsong and could imagine a similar one of her, its neatly lettered caption reading “Orphan in Snow.” She clenched her jaw tight and stepped onto the walk, determined that no one was going to go around feeling sorry for her. If she couldn’t get that land, she’d just have to get a job. Seventeen was old enough. She ran her favorite refrain through her mind – There’s no reason why things have to remain the way they are.
She unwound her scarf and removed the floppy felt hat, feeling defensive about her choice of headgear. Well so what, she thought. A man’s hat might be inappropriate for a young lady, but who wants to traipse around in a woolen bonnet when it might snow? You can’t go five paces before it gets all stinky and itchy, like wearing a dead possum on your head. And a poke bonnet? Bosh. Horses don’t like having blinders on them. Why should women? Some men used those stupid bonnets as an excuse for saying women ought not to be allowed outside alone, lest they get run down in the road. Almost as bad as the way the Chinese purposely crippled those poor women Miss Evans had taught them about, hobbling around on their bound feet.
She tried to clear her mind and compose her thoughts. She wanted the lawyer’s advice, not disapproval or pity. She folded her scarf, removed a glove to run her fingers through her dark hair, and rapped on the door. Inside a chair scraped and the door was opened by a young man of Olivia’s age, wearing threadbare overalls and a bulky blue sweater. He smelled of tobacco and a body badly in need of washing.
“Billy Adams. Hullo. What are you doing here?” Olivia knocked the snow from her boots and wiped them on the rag rug before entering.
She cast curious eyes around Mr. Carmichael’s simply furnished office, having expected it to be grander. Chairs sat behind and in front of a large wooden desk. In the corner stood a bookcase and an iron stove, with two more chairs in front of it.
“Hullo, Olivia,” Billy said, backing up a few steps. “I come here to use Mr. Carmichael’s books.” He turned and nodded at the thick volume that lay open on the desk. “I’m going to be an attorney, just like Mr. Carmichael. I been clerking for him, and he lets me use his books in exchange.”
“Don’t you need schooling for that?” She tugged at the fingers of her other glove as she moved closer to the warmth of the stove.
“Not if you can pass the examination on your own.” Billy reached for the straight back chair that stood in front of the desk and pulled it out for Olivia. “And Mr. Carmichael’s gonna help me get ready for it. He oughta be back pretty quick. Went to get some paper signed. Guess it was too confidential for me to take.”
Olivia kept her coat on and sat down, while Billy reclaimed his seat behind the desk. She stared as he ran stubby fingers through his greasy blonde curls. He had never joined in with the other children when they made fun of her mother so she bore him no ill will, but, even so, resentment rose in her.
I was always the best pupil in class, she thought, and this blockhead, who didn’t even learn his letters until he was ten, is the one who can become a lawyer. It isn’t right. It just isn’t right. I can yap my jaw as good as Billy Adams.
Feet stomped on the sidewalk and the door opened, letting in a fresh gust of cold air. Mr. Carmichael entered, enfolded in a wide black coat and carrying a cracked leather case.
“A good morning to you, Miss Killion,” he said, one eyebrow raised. His voice always took Olivia by surprise. It was deep and warm and didn’t seem to go with his sharp features and awkward gait. Neither did his kind eyes, which now held Olivia in their steady gaze. “How may I be of service to you?”
He was tall and so thin and pale that Olivia thought she could just about see through him. Whenever he walked past the schoolyard, elbows and knees protruding in all directions, the children shrieked, “Ichabod Crane, Ichabod Crane,” and fled in mock terror.
He set his case down, hung his coat on a hook, and removed his top hat, revealing the dull black curls that framed his receding hairline and long white face.
There was something comforting about his presence and Olivia no longer felt shy. She glanced at Billy, who closed the book and stood up. He wordlessly pulled on his coat and disappeared out the door.
“I wanted to ask you something about my father’s will,” Olivia said.
“Certainly.” Mr. Carmichael seated himself behind the desk, moved the book Billy had been reading aside, and unlocked a drawer. He removed a sheaf of papers from it and looked up, waiting for Olivia to continue.
“But first, I wanted to ask, is it true you have to keep anything I tell you secret?”
He put his palms together and brought his fingertips to the end of his long nose. After a moment he lowered his hands flat on the desk. “Yes, that’s right. Seborn was my client and you have inherited his right to confidentiality.”
“I wanted to ask you about the land,” Olivia said.
“All right.” He leafed through the papers. “Yes, here it is.” He began reading. “Forty acres of farmland in Culpepper County, Kentucky – the deed to which is attached to this document – which were left to me by my dear departed wife, Nola June Sessions Killion, are to be inherited by my firstborn grandson. If there is no grandson –”
“No, not that,” she said. “I meant the other land – the farm out in Michigan that Uncle Scruggs left him.” She leaned forward, watching him turn the pages.
Mr. Carmichael moved his finger down the text and then read in a steady drone. “My wife’s brother, Lorenzo Scruggs, left me eighty useless acres in the swamp known as Michigan, near a Godforsaken place by the name of Fae’s Landing. This worthless piece of wilderness shall be inherited by whichever of my offspring is fool enough to claim it and try to put in a crop. If neither of them does so within two years of my demise, the land is to be sold and the proceeds divided between my two sons.” The lawyer stopped reading and looked up at Olivia.
“That’s what I thought,” she said, raising her forefinger. “When it talks about who can claim that land it says ‘my offspring,’ not ‘my sons.'”
“Well, I’m sprung off him just as much as Avis or Tobey.”
“Am I to understand that you wish to make a claim on this land?”
“Yes. I do. The way I see it – when he says ‘offspring’ and ‘neither of them,’ he’s talking about me and Tobey. I mean, he knew perfectly well that Avis was going to get the house and the store, so he decided to give Tobey and me a chance at that piece of land.”
Mr. Carmichael read the paragraph again, then put his hands back in their praying position and thought before replying. “Well, not a soul would agree with you on the face of it,” he pronounced. “Anyone reading this would assume that the entire paragraph refers to your brothers. I have little doubt that you also believe that to have been your father’s intention. However, the ambiguity of the text could make for an interesting court case. You are correct. One could argue that his specific reference to ‘my sons’ in regard to the proceeds from a sale could be taken to suggest that he was not referring to those same sons when he said ‘my offspring.’ Hence, the different terminology. Of course, if it ever came before a judge the opposing counsel would say it was obvious that the entire paragraph refers to your brothers, and I’ve no doubt the judge would rule in his favor.”
“But I could make a claim?”
“Anyone can make a claim to anything. Winning the case is another matter. Do you think your brothers would challenge such a claim?”
Olivia tilted her head and stared at the wall behind him while she considered his question. “No. I mean, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t. Neither of them cares two cents about having that land and once I got going farming it I could pay them back the money they’d have gotten if they’d sold it. But them wanting the land for themselves is not the problem. The problem is, they’d never in a million years agree to me going out there to claim it. That’s the reason I wanted to know if you have to keep this conversation a secret.”
The lawyer’s jaw dropped. “You can’t be thinking of going to a wild place like Michigan on your own!”
“No.” She shook her head. “I know I could never work eighty acres by myself. I’d have to get a partner or a hired man. I figure I can get a room in the town, in that Fae’s Landing place, and my partner can live on the farm. The will doesn’t say I have to live there; all it says is that I have to try to put in a crop. Try. I don’t even have to actually grow anything.”
“How old are you, Miss Killion?”
“Near on eighteen.”
He puckered his lips and leaned back. “Well, there are no legal obstacles to you holding property in your own name, as long as you are not married. And if neither of your brothers contests your claim, you certainly could inherit that land. But a young woman like you can’t just go off without a husband.”
“Well, I don’t have one of those, do I? I’ll just have to figure out something else.” She thanked the lawyer and rose.
He came around the desk and reached the door in time to open it for her. Turning to face her, he stared into her eyes. She saw sadness in his, but when he spoke his voice was dry and matter-of-fact. “I’m very sorry about your father and your situation. But that’s just the way the world is.”
A blur of lacy snowflakes greeted Olivia when she left Mr. Carmichael’s office. She put her head back and opened her mouth to capture some of them, like she used to do when she was a little girl. Snow on her face was one thing she loved about winter; another was the crisp air, free of the hot weather stench of horse manure and outhouses. She heard the faint tinkle of bells and saw a woman come out of Killion’s General with a basket on her arm. Good, she thought. Avis has opened the store and won’t be in the kitchen to ask me where I’ve been.
Before turning homeward Olivia paused at the corner to look up and down Main Street, at the town she was so anxious to leave. She was mostly oblivious to its shortcomings, having almost nothing to compare it with. Every year on the Saturday before Easter their father used to rent a buggy and take them for a drive to Hillsong – the only other town Olivia had ever visited. Two things always made Hillsong seem like paradise to Olivia. The first was a library – two whole rooms lined with books up to the ceiling. Olivia loved to climb the tall ladders and browse through the volumes. If only she could breathe in all that knowledge. All those stories.
Her father always left her there for a few hours, while he and his sons tended to “men’s business.” Olivia would still be high up on one of the rolling ladders when her brothers came bursting in to get her. They could never resist pushing the ladder back and forth between them, Olivia laughing and shrieking, until the librarian chased them out.
The second marvel of Hillsong was an ice cream parlor that stayed open as long as the ice was holding. They had fancy chairs with hearts carved into the backs and served dishes of vanilla ice cream topped with wild berries and whipped cream. They even gave each customer a thin slice of bread to wipe their hands with.
By contrast, Five Rocks had the Reading Room, where people tossed the books and periodicals they had no use for. It was in a rickety shed in back of the post office, which itself was nothing but an old store room behind the Brewster house. As for ice cream, a few times each spring Mrs. Monroe over at the boarding house froze up a batch. The children lined up outside her back door, each clutching three pennies and their own dish and spoon. Olivia had no friends to come whistle for her, so she was usually last in line, but Mrs. Monroe always made sure there was a scoop left for her.
When Olivia arrived home from Mr. Carmichael’s office she found Mrs. Hardaway working the pump handle over the kitchen sink. The housekeeper was a big, even-tempered woman, wide and solid, with a plain square face. A few strands of graying brown hair had escaped the bun at the crown of her head.
“Oh, there you are, dear,” she said as she turned. “Tobey said he thought you’d gone out for a walk. Awful cold out there. You’d better sit yourself down and get something hot in you.” She nodded toward the kettle humming on the iron stove.
“No thank you, maybe later.”
Olivia removed her boots and soggy socks and put on the colorful house slippers Mrs. Hardaway had knitted from leftover bits of yarn. Then she went up to her room, where she closed and latched the door. She pulled a heavy flannel robe on over her dress and tried to blow some warmth into her cupped hands. Then she removed a battered knife from the top drawer of her bureau, got down on her hands and knees, and opened the tiny door that led into the small attic under the eaves.
She crawled in, batting cobwebs from her hair and face and blowing them out of her mouth. Feeling in the dark, she shoved a canvas satchel aside, used the knife to pry up two loose floorboards, and retrieved a red velvet bag. She backed out and sat on her heels, beating small flurries of dust from the bag. Then she took it to her bed and poured out a stream of gold coins. Three years ago, before a horse kicked him in the head and killed him, her Uncle Scruggs had shown Olivia where he kept the red sack hidden, tacked to the bottom of his overstuffed chair.
“That money will always be there waiting on you, Olivia,” he’d told her more than once. “When my time arrives, I want you to come get it, before the buzzards swoop down and clear this place out. Please. You always been my favorite – nearest thing to a child of my own. No one else knows about it and there ain’t no reason for you to tell no one. I been saving it for you, and it ain’t nobody’s business but yours.”
Since Uncle Scruggs’ death Olivia had kept the coins hidden under the floorboards. She hadn’t spent a penny and checked every few months to make sure they were still there. Then one evening Tobey had knocked on the door while the money was spread on the bed, and she’d let him in and told him where she’d gotten it.
Now she wondered if that had been unkind. Uncle Scruggs had given this money to her, and their father had left all his property to Avis; only Tobey had received nothing. She frowned, thinking, I should give half of this to Tobey. That’s only fair.
She sorted and counted her inheritance. They were all there: thirty $10 Eagles, thirty $5 Half-Eagles, and sixty $2.50 Quarter Eagles. Six hundred dollars in all. She’d use it to pay for tools and seed and a hired man. She frowned again, thinking that she shouldn’t give Tobey his share just yet. She’d invest it in the farm, and a few years from now she’d have a much larger sum to share with him. Shivering with cold, she scooped the coins back into the velvet bag and returned it to its hiding place.
Maybe I can get Tobey to come to Michigan with me, she thought. Why should he have to work for Avis? Truth is, as soon as Avis marries old boss face Lady Mabel, Tobey will feel like he’s working for her. What kind of life is that? He needs something of his own. We’ll start with Uncle Scruggs’ land, and use the money we make to buy more and more land.
It seemed a perfect plan until she tried to imagine her brother – with his thin white arms, thick glasses, and constantly running nose – felling trees, plowing furrows, and harvesting fields of wheat. Even more than he lacked the physical strength, she knew he lacked the ambition.
She remembered the conversation they’d had the day before, after Mr. Carmichael finished reading the will. Olivia had dragged Tobey up to her bedroom to complain about being left dependent on Avis.
“You could teach school,” Tobey suggested. “Teach some white kids to read and write for a change.”
A long time ago, when Olivia was just a little girl, she’d taught her only friend – who happened to be colored – to read and write. She couldn’t believe the way people still talked about it, as if she’d done something wrong. Olivia bristled at Tobey’s remark, but held her tongue, not wanting to change the subject.
“That way you’d have your own money, if that’s what’s so important to you,” Tobey continued.
“You know teachers don’t get paid hardly anything.” She wiggled her backside to get more comfortable, jostling the mattress and making her layers of petticoats rustle. “You think I want to be like Miss Evans? She gets passed around like a bag of week-old fish, has to go live with a different family every month. Some of them make her help with the housework after school and still act like they’re doing her a big favor.”
Tobey sighed and patted her thigh. “People do all kinds of things, little sister. What’s it matter anyway, Livvie? It’s only until you get married.” Olivia saw her brother wishing he could suck those words back the moment they were out of his mouth.
She’d never had any gentlemen callers. Not a one. No one ever said it out loud, but Olivia could see them all thinking it – she was going to be difficult to marry off. She might not be a great beauty – her face was too thin for that – but she was pretty enough, slight of build, with dark wavy hair, smooth skin, and bright blue eyes. Way prettier than most of the married women in town. But she seemed to lack some essential quality that caused a man to come courting.
Tobey changed the subject. “You know Avis will let you work in the store, if you want.”
“Puh.” Olivia expelled a quick burst of air and shook her head. “Now that father’s gone, Mabel Mears is going to drag Avis to the altar quicker than two licks. And then she’ll be all over everything, like tar. Just you wait and see. I’d as soon go to Massachusetts and slave in one of those textile mills as be bossed by her. And how come you’re so calm about it? Why don’t you care?”
“Don’t see how me caring is going to make a whit of difference. Father left the store to Avis; it’s only natural for his wife to have a hand in running it. No point getting all fired up about it.”
Olivia rose from the bed and stood facing him, her fists on her hips and a scowl on her face. “Well, that’s just fine. Next thing I know, you’re going to be telling me to simmer down.”
Tobey smiled sadly and shook his head. That was what their father had always said whenever one of them displayed a definite sign of life – “Now simmer down. Just you simmer down there.”
“No, I’m not going to tell you to simmer down. But it is true that you’re a young lady now and can’t be going down by the river to throw rocks and holler like a banshee every time something isn’t to your liking. You got to start trying harder to fit in. Mabel’s got that nail hit right on the head. And you got to learn to take things like they come. You like to think you can change everything if you want to bad enough, but you can’t.”
“I know I can’t change everything. I’m not stupid. I know one person can’t change hardly anything at all.” She paced to the window and back. “But you can try to fix some things in your own life. How do you think the world gets to be the way it is? If everybody lay down and lapped up whatever flowed down the road, our grandparents would never have come over here. There wouldn’t even be any United States of America to come to. We’d all be back in Ireland, bowing down to the Queen of England, or doing whatever they did before some fool got all fired up. We’d be living in caves or mud houses, is what we’d be doing.”
Olivia sighed and started down the stairs. No, she thought, Tobey is not going to come to Michigan with me. Doesn’t have it in him. What’s the word? Gumption. He doesn’t have the gumption. So who? Who can I get to come? No one is who. I’ll have to go by myself, to that Fae’s Landing place. Find someone to hire when I get there.
But the prospect of traveling alone made her queasy. Even more frightening than taking a stage to Erie and a steamboat to Detroit was the problem of how she would get from Detroit to Fae’s Landing. Buy a wagon in Detroit and drive through the woods all alone, no idea where she was going? She wouldn’t know how to go about buying a wagon, let alone how to replace a wheel or fix a broken axle. She tried scolding herself. Shame on you, how do you think you’re going to run your own farm, if you’re too lily-livered to even get there? It didn’t help. She’d ridden horses and gone hunting, but always with her Uncle Scruggs. She’d never driven anything, not even a little one-horse buggy, and had no idea how to handle one of those big farm wagons.
She went to the kitchen, poured herself a cup of the bitter black coffee Mrs. Hardaway kept on the stove, and sat at the table, chin resting on the heel of her hand. She felt despair creeping over her, which Mrs. Hardaway mistook for sorrow.
“There, there.” The housekeeper set down her bowl of biscuit dough and washed her hands so she could pat Olivia’s head. “It’s so hard losing our loved ones. Takes it a while to sink in.” She launched into a long tale of the death of her own parents.
Olivia half-listened, nodding her head at appropriate intervals, as she sipped the burnt coffee. Then she shook herself and asked Mrs. Hardaway if she needed any help. The housekeeper went to the window and pulled back the red and white checkered curtain.
“Well, I would, but I hate to ask you to go back out in this. It’s coming right down again.”
“I don’t mind snow,” Olivia said, rising. “A walk would feel good. What do you need? Something from the store?” She reached for her coat.
Mrs. Hardaway shook her head. “I got a pile of pot handles need mending. Been putting it off, but now that darn oven door has got loose again, about ready to fall right off. I got to be able to keep food warm, what with all the folks coming to call. You think you could go scare up Mourning Free? I believe I seen him working over to Ferguson’s Livery this week.”
Mourning Free. Olivia felt like giving Mrs. Hardaway a hug.
Why didn’t I think of him? Olivia felt like shouting out loud. She turned away from the housekeeper, thinking, Mourning would be perfect. The way he’s worked everywhere in town, he knows how to do everything – fix a wagon wheel, raise a barn, put on a roof, clear a field, shoe a horse. Even knows how to cook – sometimes makes breakfast, dinner, and supper for the boarders at Mrs. Monroe’s. Won’t expect to be paid as much as a white man either. And, most important of all, if ever there was a soul in need of a new start in life, it’s Mr. Mourning Free.
Olivia told Mrs. Hardaway that she would be glad to go fetch Mourning Free. “But I think I’ll wait until after dinner,” she said and returned her coat to the rack.
She would be glad for an excuse to flee the house after the noon meal – when more flocks of women could be expected to climb the Killion’s front porch, each carrying a covered dish or pie as the price of admission. No one wanted to miss what might be their last chance to snoop around Old Man Killion’s house. Yesterday Olivia had caught one of the church ladies in his study, going through the drawers of the desk. What made women so nosy about the inside of other people’s houses? Olivia could see nothing interesting about theirs. It was a regular wood frame, clapboard house. It may have been larger than most others in town, but there was nothing fancy about it. She did, however, understand why they were so curious about her father. Since she was a child Olivia had known that – according to the busybodies – her father “had hardly buried that crazy wife of his before he started carrying on with that Place woman.”
But avoiding those women with their stew pans was not the only reason Olivia chose to wait. She didn’t want to be in the middle of explaining her proposition to Mourning Free and have to go home to eat. It might take a while to convince him that going to Michigan was the best chance he’d ever have to make something of himself. She could imagine the way he’d look at her when she first told him her plan – like a horse must have kicked her in the head. But eventually she would make him realize what a great opportunity this was, even more so for him than for her.
She moved about the kitchen, setting the table and slicing bread, her face set in a frown as she composed the arguments she would present to him. She acknowledged her brothers’ arrival home with no more than a nod of her head and listened to nothing of what they said during the meal. When she rose to clear away the plates, a smile finally crossed her face. There was one argument for which Mourning would have no response: “What do you have to lose?”
Olivia had heard all the stories about Mourning Free’s parents. Willis and Rosie Jackson had been runaway slaves who stumbled into all-white Five Rocks late one night, more than half frozen and starved. One of the local abolitionists found them and wrapped them in blankets. He left them stoking a fire in the stove of the Great Friends Meeting House while he ran from street to street, knocking on the doors of his co-religionists. Within an hour they had convened a meeting, eager to offer shelter to the Jacksons. They were, however, worried by the fact that Five Rocks had no “Bottoms” or “Nigger Town” for them to blend into; it had no negro residents at all. Even so, Mr. and Mrs. Brewster, founders of the local seven-member Anti-Slavery Society, offered the fugitives the use of the shed behind their house, the same structure that would later become Five Rocks’ modest Reading Room.
No one had a better suggestion. The men spent the next few hours clearing out the shed and moving in the furnishings that other Quakers donated. By morning the dazed Jacksons had a home, of sorts. Mrs. Brewster brought their meals on trays, always with a pudding or special treat for Rosie, who was most obviously in the family way. Each time Mrs. Brewster left she paused in the doorway and warned them to stay out of sight. “There might be some a them slave-hunters chasing after you and you two stick out around here like a couple a purple elephants.”
The first thing the Jacksons did was change their family name to Free. The anti-slavery people tried to talk them into choosing something else, saying it was far too obvious, but Willis and Rosie were set on being called Free. Sadly, they enjoyed only a few months of liberty before Willis succumbed to the influenza. Then a few weeks later Rosie died giving birth to Mourning.
The orphaned black baby was taken in by Alice and Goody Carter, who lived a two-hour walk away, in “The Bottoms” of the town of South Valley. They already had four children but hadn’t the heart to turn away the fondling in Mrs. Brewster’s arms.
Goody spent most days in Five Rocks, doing odd jobs for whoever needed him. When Mourning was six he began working alongside his foster father. The boy had a natural aptitude for fixing things and did whatever was asked of him without complaint. He was soon well-known to all of Five Rocks’ merchants, who often quarreled over who was most in need of Mourning’s services that week.
Not long after Mourning’s ninth birthday Goody made up his mind to go west and try farming. Mourning refused to go with them, insisting that he could stay in Five Rocks and take care of himself. He would go right on doing what he had been for years, working at Killion’s General and the other businesses in town. He could sleep in the loft of Ferguson’s Livery or the storeroom of the Feed & Grain. He often did that anyway, to save the long walk home and back.
But Goody was having none of it. “You gonna have folks saying we ain’t treated you right.”
The day the Carters finished loading up their wagon, Mourning sneaked into Killion’s General and hid behind the bolts of fabric in the storeroom. Seven-year-old Olivia watched as Goody Carter picked him up and dragged him out to the wagon. Mourning fought hard, kicking wildly and yelling, “I ain’t gonna go, I ain’t gonna. You can’t make me. I ain’t yours. I ain’t none a your business.” The white customers stepped aside in dismay, the women’s bonnets bobbing, but no one felt inclined to interfere.
A few days later Olivia walked down to the bank of the Saugauta River. It was a warm day in May, the sky a startling blue, the fields dotted with yellow and purple wildflowers. She spread a red and white checkered tablecloth over a patch of clover and knelt on one corner of it. A gentle breeze played with the cloth, so she anchored two other corners with her rag doll and picnic basket. She was humming “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” to her doll when she heard someone slosh out of the river. She looked up, amazed to see Mourning Free climbing up the bank, his scrawny chest bare and his trousers dripping. He was carrying his shoes in one hand and a brown shirt and blue cloth bag in the other.
“Hullo, Mourning,” Olivia said, eyes wide.
“Hullo to you, Livia.” He walked over and tossed his belongings to the ground.
“Did you fall into the river?”
“Nah. Been gettin’ cleaned up. Heard someone come and thought I’m a have to hide down there. Then I hear it just be you, talkin’ to your stupid doll.”
“Do you want to have a tea party with us?” She reached for her doll and pulled it back to her lap, making room for him to join her on the tablecloth.
“You got any food ain’t make-believe?”
She opened the picnic basket and arranged chunks of cheese, a few slices of bread, and two apples on a white linen napkin. Mourning sank to his knees, making large wet circles on the cloth, grabbed some cheese and bread, and filled his mouth.
“Ain’t et nothing for two days,” he mumbled, cheeks bulging.
“Who were you hiding from?”
“Everybody.” He swallowed and reached for more bread and cheese, but hesitated, glancing at his hostess.
“It’s okay,” Olivia said and leaned away from the food. “You can have it all. I thought they took you away.”
He bit into a chunk of cheese and sat back on his heels. “That right. But I run away from ’em. Been walkin’ for three days.”
This announcement left Olivia frowning. She watched him eat for a few moments before asking, “But who’s going to take care of you?”
“Me.” He jerked his thumb at his bare chest. “I can take as good care a myself as them Carters ever done.”
“Why, were they mean to you?”
He tilted his head back and grinned. “That what Goody think folks gonna say.” Then he looked straight at Olivia, his expression serious. “No, Goody always give me a good tanning when I got it comin’, but they ain’t never treated me bad. But they got four kids without me. That be crowd ’nuff in one cabin.”
Olivia studied the horizon, still frowning in bewilderment. “How did you find your way home?”
“Followed the river back. Minute I seen it, I know that be my chance to run.”
She hugged her doll and stared at this amazing boy, somewhat frightened of him. “You can have the apples too.” She pushed the plate toward him.
They sat staring at the sunlight on the river while they listened to the distant buzz of honeybees and breathed in the sweet smell of clover. Mourning chomped on the apples, leaving nothing but the stem and seeds.
“Why were you hiding?” Olivia asked.
“I don’t think they be lookin’ for me.” He tossed the tiny remains of the last apple away and lay back in the warm sun, hands behind his head. “They be just as glad I gone. But I gonna stay out a sight a few more days, just in case.” He lifted his head to look at Olivia. “Once they be gone west for good, ain’t nothin’ no one can do with me.”
“But you don’t have a mommy or a daddy,” Olivia said in a small voice, feeling cruel the moment she said it.
“Don’t need ’em. I can sleep in the loft over at the livery. Or in Smithy’s back room. In someone’s barn. Wherever I be workin’.”
“Oh.” Olivia imagined having to sleep in a pile of hay and started to get up, anxious to be home and safely away from Mourning.
“Tonight I’m a sleep in that old barn, ‘cross from Mrs. Place’s. You could bring me some food over to there, you felt like.”
“You already ate all the food.”
“Can’t you get no more?”
“I don’t know,” she said, tilting her head toward a shrugged shoulder, afraid of getting in trouble. “What kind of food?”
“Kind you eat.”
She stared at him, her bottom lip sucking the top one. “I don’t know.” She began putting things in her basket. When she reached for the tablecloth, he stood up too.
“Bread be good, you ain’t got nothin’ else.”
She packed her things as quickly as she could.
“Blanket be good, too. Get cold at night.”
“You can have this.” She held out the tablecloth, which she had been folding. It was hers, for her picnic basket, and Mrs. Hardaway would never notice it was gone.
He took the cloth and fingered it. “Thanks. But a blanket still be good.”
“Okay,” Olivia said, remembering an old gray blanket in the linen closet she didn’t think anyone would miss. “But you’ve got to promise to teach me to skip stones on the river the way you do.”
He nodded and grinned, then turned to frown at her. “And you ain’t gonna tell nobody ’bout me bein’ here?”
“No. I won’t tell. Cross my heart.” She made a large X over her chest with her right hand. “I have to go home now.” She picked up the basket.
“See you later,” he said.
She started walking away, then stopped and turned around. “Mourning?”
“How come you didn’t hide from me?”
He stared at her for a few moments. “Don’t know. Just dint think I had to.”
She hadn’t planned on going back. She couldn’t take things from home without asking permission; that would be stealing. But back in her room she couldn’t stop thinking about how cold it had been last night. Finally she got the gray blanket, threw it out her window, and ran downstairs and outside to hide it in the bushes at the back of the house. She felt terribly guilty until she remembered the time she had heard the grown-ups talking. They said the slave-catchers called the abolitionists thieves because they helped slaves get away. But Mrs. Brewster said that wasn’t stealing at all, that was a very good deed; they were helping poor black souls who were escaping from vile evil-doers. So somehow Olivia mixed it up in her mind and exonerated herself. Mourning was, after all, poor, black, and running away. So taking things to help him wouldn’t really be stealing.
Once she began her spree of crime, she was surprised by how easy it was. She simply waited until Mrs. Hardaway was hanging laundry out back and filled her basket with apples, bread, and small amounts of smoked fish and venison. When she thought of Mourning all alone in the dark she added some candles and matches. Then she stood by the front door, waiting to hear Mrs. Hardaway come back in. When the back door banged Olivia fled with her picnic basket, ran behind the house to retrieve the blanket, and set off to find Mourning.
Since it was still light she didn’t think he would have gone to the barn yet, so she returned to the river. The breeze had picked up and a ribbon of gold shimmered across the water. She gave a loud whistle and then began singing “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” in case Mourning might be afraid to come out and see who was whistling.
He emerged from behind a stand of bushes. She handed him the blanket and held up one of the wooden flaps of the basket to show him the food. Then she pulled out her slate, which she had added at the last minute.
“What that for?” He nodded at it.
“Well, I got to thinking, about how you’ve never gone to school,” Olivia said. “You know, a person can’t do much in life without knowing how to read.” She quoted Miss Evans. “So I’d better teach you your letters. One every day. We’ll start with ‘L’ because it’s a real easy one. In return you’ve got to teach me how to skip stones like you promised. Five whole skips.”
Mourning survived on Olivia’s pilfered offerings for four days. Then he finally showed himself on Main Street. In a town like Five Rocks, in which nothing ever happened, his reappearance was cause for much excited discussion. Everyone expressed shock and concern for what would become of the poor boy, but Olivia could see that most of them were overjoyed to have him back. Every day since Mourning had been taken away, Reverend Dixby had come into Killion’s General complaining that he couldn’t find anyone to sweep and scrub the floor of the Congregational Church.
Now the good Reverend lost no time in calling a town meeting to be held in his un-swept and un-scrubbed church. The Mourning Free situation must be discussed. Olivia and Mourning hid outside, beneath one of the open windows at the back. Reverend Dixby started it off by speaking at length about their Christian duty to pitch in together to ease the situation of this poor orphan. He thought the best solution would be for the whole town to take care of him. Mourning was right; he could go back to working like before. Whoever he was working for would give him his dinner that day.
Mrs. Brewster was the first to respond. “That’s ridiculous. Saying everyone will take care of him is the same as saying no one will. I don’t know how people who call themselves Christians could even consider such a thing. He isn’t even ten years old.”
“All right then.” A male voice called out from the back of the church. “How ’bout you adopt him? Tuck that Nigra boy between your clean white sheets every night?” This evoked a wave of snickering.
Reverend Dixby raised his voice. “Gentlemen, please, we are trying to have a serious discussion, in a Christian spirit.”
“That boy’s been taking care of himself long as I remember,” another man said. “Tell you one thing – he’d survive on his own better than you would, Dixby.” Several men hooted and women hushed them. “Besides,” the man continued when the laughter had died down, “the negro race is used to that kind of thing.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Mrs. Brewster asked.
“Look at all them slave children get sold away from their parents and get along just fine. And them tribes over in the jungles of Africa don’t know which children belong to which parents any more than them monkeys do.”
“What can you possibly think you understand about the suffering of slave children torn from the arms of their mothers?” Mrs. Brewster retorted. “And I’ve no doubt the hitching post knows more about Africa than you do. You couldn’t find it on the map for a dollar.” This drew even louder laughter.
“So what do you think we ought to do with the little darky?” a different voice called out.
“There are plenty of good negro families over in South Valley,” Mrs. Brewster said. “I’m sure we could find one willing to take him in.”
“What makes you think he won’t run again, just like he done from Goody Carter’s good negro family?” A voice Olivia recognized as that of Mr. Bellinir, the owner of the Feed & Grain, spoke. “If he’s wantin’ to stay here so bad, why not let him? I can pay him wages for a few days a week. Give him his dinner on the days he works for me.”
“I can do the same,” Mr. Sorenson, who owned the brewery and saloon, piped up.
This led to a chorus of indignant male voices: “Just hold your horses, who says you get him? . . . I got more work for him than you do . . . No, you don’t and I been paying him more than anyone else . . . You don’t got no loft he can sleep in . . .”
Olivia stood on her tiptoes and peeked in the window, just in time to see Mrs. Brewster grab old Mr. Vance’s cane and pound the floor with it, commanding silence. “Shame on you all! Fighting over who gets first right to exploit the poor child. Give him his dinner, indeed. So is he to go without breakfast and supper? And on Sundays and days when he has no work, he simply will not eat at all?”
Mrs. Monroe spoke up. “If he wanted to learn to help me with the cooking for my boarders, I could give him a plate out in the kitchen whenever he’s not working anywhere else.”
“And where’s he supposed to sleep?” Mrs. Brewster pressed.
“I could let him stay in that storage shed out back,” Reverend Dixby said. “Won’t even charge him anything. He can stay there in exchange for a few simple chores each week.”
Olivia and Mourning turned to look over their shoulders at the windowless shed. It hadn’t been used for years, had no stove, and looked ready to blow over in the first good wind.
“That won’t be necessary,” Mr. Carmichael said. “The boy is welcome to sleep in my office.”
“That wouldn’t be right,” Reverend Dixby retorted. “How could he afford to pay rent?”
“Who said anything about charging him rent?”
“Then what do you want of him?”
“As long as he cuts his own firewood, he is welcome to the warmth of my stove. I’ll ask nothing of him in exchange.”
“And what if he gets sick?” Mrs. Brewster pressed. “Who’s going to care for him?”
“Isn’t that what you Christian ladies are good at?” The rowdy voice from the back broke in again.
“If he’s set on staying, why not give him a chance?” Mr. Carmichael spoke and no one dared interrupt him. “Those good negro families in ‘The Bottoms’ aren’t going anywhere. I understand your concerns, Mrs. Brewster, and they are real ones. I’d like to believe that if the boy fell ill, we would all find it in our hearts to help care for him. If he requires the services of Doc Gaylin, I will commit myself to bearing the cost of those services.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Doc Gaylin said. “There will be no charge.”
Reverend Dixby soon brought the discussion to an end. He affirmed their collective responsibility for the boy and sent them home smiling. Allowing Mourning Free to stay in Five Rocks and earn pennies doing the menial jobs they didn’t want to do for themselves was the Christian thing to do.
That night Olivia lay awake, staring at the ceiling and thinking how awful it was for a child to have no parents to stick up for him.
After that meeting Olivia went looking for Mourning every afternoon and pulled him aside for his lesson. If they had time and it was sunny, they went down by the river. Otherwise school was held in the storeroom of Killion’s General, using the pickle barrel for a desk. One day Mrs. Monroe peeked through the open door while Mourning was studying what Olivia had written on her slate. Then they heard her lodge a loud complaint with Olivia’s father.
“I heard that girl of yours was teaching him to read.”
“What of it?” Seborn growled.
“Well it’s nothing to me, but folks are saying it ain’t seemly. She ought not to keep so much company with a nigger.”
“They are children,” Seborn said. “He’s only a boy. A boy with enough troubles of his own, I might add, without all you good women piling more on.”
Olivia listened with her head cocked. It was the kindest thing she had ever heard her father say.
Mrs. Monroe ignored the insult and persisted. “Well, I fail to see what need a colored boy has of book learning.”
“Way I see it, make life easier all around,” Seborn replied. “If he could read, whoever he’s working for could leave him a note, tell him what he’s wanted to do.”
“Well, all I know is that back East women who open schools for darky children go to jail. It said so right in the newspaper,” Mrs. Monroe said, before the tinkle of the bells on the door announced her departure.
“That Mrs. Monroe don’t know nothin’,” Mourning said. “Colored man need to know how to read more than any white man.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Olivia frowned at him.
“It surely do. What if I tell you ’bout some slaves what escaped off a plantation all the way down in Virginia. For weeks they’s goin’ north.”
Olivia never pointed out his grammatical errors. When Billy Adams or any of the other boys at school said things like “don’t know nothin” or “ain’t got” Olivia rolled her eyes and repeated the correct phrase in a show of great superiority. But Mourning’s voice flowed into his pattern of speech with such warm resonance, it sounded as if the words were meant to be put together just that way. Olivia was more tempted to imitate him than correct him, but knew how ridiculous she would sound.
“They ain’t got nothin’ but their feet,” Mourning continued. “And they be walkin’ all night and hidin’ in the woods when the sun be shinin’. Don’t got nothin’ to eat but bark and berries. Just about starve straight to death. Can’t hardly stand up. Can’t hardly see where they goin’. But they keep on, walkin’ all night. Walkin’ and walkin’. And walkin’ some more.” He stopped to dip a cup of water from the barrel and drink it.
“So what happened to them?”
“Finally they be here in Pennsylvania, in the snow. Walk all the way from Virginia. And then what you think happen to them? Them slaves be losin’ their direction and turnin’ ’round the wrong way. They be spendin’ the next few days walkin’ smack back toward that slave state what they come from. Smack toward the slave-catcher what’s chasin’ after ’em. You know why? Cause of they can’t read no map and can’t read no road sign. So that show you.” He stabbed a finger at the air in front of Olivia’s face. “Person got to know where they be in this world. Specially a person what can get sold if he be in the wrong place.”
“So what happened?” Olivia asked. “Did the slave-catchers get them?”
“No. Luck from the Lord, they pass by a field where a colored man be workin’. He set them back on the right way. They find their way to Five Rocks in time for her to birth her baby.”
Olivia stared at him for a long moment, hand cupped over her mouth, slowly absorbing the realization that the slaves in Mourning’s story were his parents.
“Well, you don’t have to worry, Mourning Free,” she said at last. “You already read way better than most of the blockhead white kids around here.”
Ten years had passed since then and Olivia seldom saw Mourning any more. They were agreeable to one another whenever he worked at Killion’s General, but he spent most of his time at the Feed & Grain, Ferguson’s Livery, or Smithy’s – all places Olivia seldom had cause to visit. When the weather was mild he was often gone for months at a time, working outside of town on someone’s farm. By now he was nearly a stranger to her.
Olivia put on her coat and boots, picked a wrinkled cellar apple from the bowl on the table and put it in her pocket, wrapped a scarf around her ears and mouth, and opened the back door. She felt like laughing when an image formed in her mind – her trying to drag a kicking and screaming Mourning Free into a wagon headed for Michigan.