Saturday, January 24, 2009

Deep Waters
by Rose Green

Chapter 1

Dad said Charleston was dangerous.

His words from so long ago came back to me as I darted for the brochure the wind had tugged from my fingers. The brochure fluttered, showing a map of Charleston on the back, and I made another snatch for it as our tour boat pulled away from the shoreline. The wind teased the paper just past my reach and tossed it carelessly into the murky water below.

Maps had covered Dad’s office; maps of places he’d been to, dreamed of. Maps of places that didn’t even exist anymore. My earliest memory was of him trying to read an atlas to me as a bedtime story. He knew everything about everywhere, and he loved to share it.

The water swallowed the last of my map with a taunting slap of waves as I leaned over the railing, and I realized there was one place he’d purposely left out.
It was too late to ask him about it now.

I rubbed a mosquito bite and wrinkled my nose at the sour smell of marsh mud oozing off the coast. The boat dipped, catapulting my stomach into somersaults. Along the water, reflections of pastel antebellum houses and Civil War cannons rippled in the harbor, just like in the postcards Aunt Jennifer had sent me. The postcards, of course, hadn’t included the hot, moist air and ravenous hordes of insects.

“...and that’s the story of Fort Sumter,” the tour guide said, wrapping up his description of the harbor. “Any questions?”

The buzz of conversation that had gone on during the guide’s spiel broke off into silence.

“Try me,” the tour guide said. “Here’s your chance to ask anything you’ve ever wanted to know about Charleston’s harbor.”

Anything I wanted to know. Dad had never once taken my brother and me to visit his home town. Never once brought up the subject himself, despite the aunt and uncle we knew—and the grandparents we didn’t—who’d lived here. The few times we’d thought to ask, he’d changed the subject, or, apart from that one remark about danger, refused to answer. Why?

The tour guide’s eyes darted eagerly from one tourist to the next, each of whom looked down as if he’d asked for the answer to an algebra problem from last night’s homework.


I set aside my own questions and jutted my head towards an island he’d failed to mention. Massive trees lined the shore and an avenue of oaks led to a mansion in the center. The clouds above parted then, and the wall visible through the trees gleamed white. “What’s that island called?”

Next to me, Aunt Jennifer squinted. “Where, Lily?”

I shaded my eyes and pulled my long hair off my sweaty neck. On the island, moss trailed in the breeze and a black pier reached into the ocean. It was as if a castle had sprung up on Treasure Island.

“You mean Folly?” the guide asked.

I shook my head. He’d already told us about Folly Island. “The one with the plantation house.”

Aunt Jennifer shot me a worried glance, and the tour guide raised his eyebrows. “Y’all ought to get something cool to drink when you get back,” he said. “The heat can do things to a person.”

I frowned. “But it’s right there. It’s got a dock and flower gardens and…”
The tour guide shook his head and took a step backwards, as if I had something catching.

“I’m sorry, Lily, but I don’t see it, either,” Aunt Jennifer said. “Maybe it’s just a reflection.” Her voice was gentle, a voice she might have used with someone very ill. Or crazy.

I tried to ignore the hairs lifting off the back of my neck as I stared at the land mass no one else seemed to see. The island was unmistakable, a solid sentry between the harbor and the Atlantic. Why couldn’t they see it? I raised the binoculars Aunt Jennifer had lent me and zoomed closer. Through the thick, lacy moss I could make out a tall gate. Black decorative bars curved in and out of each other, forming a flower around the lock. I wondered what lay beyond the gate, what secrets the iron guarded.

We circled closer to the open ocean. The water smelled fresher here, away from generations of rotting sawgrass. Waves lapped against the boat like a hum. I leaned over the rail and let the rhythm wash through my brain. The hum became a song, reverberating in my ears, almost like a familiar voice calling my name. It tugged at my breath as if daring me to leap down to the water and join the map lost beneath the surface.

“Dad?” I whispered.

The wake of the boat’s trail kicked higher, spraying me in the face.

The tour guide paused his description of where the C.S.S. Hunley had been found, and suddenly I felt the eyes of the group on me. “Are you okay over there?”

I flushed. Had he heard me talking to the water? “I’m fine.”

Aunt Jennifer pushed her sunglasses up onto her head. Concern radiated from her freckled face, so much like Dad’s. “Are you sure, Lily?”

I squirmed and inspected the mosquito bites on my wrists. They looked like smallpox. “I’m totally fine,” I repeated.

The boat lurched underfoot, and I grabbed the railing, reminded again that the only thing holding us up was twisting, changing water. Aunt Jennifer touched my arm. “The guide is right,” she said. “As soon as we’re done here, we’ll head home.”


After lunch Aunt Jennifer was still giving me her mother hen look as she stood in the doorway of my bedroom. “I have a house to show, but I don’t like leaving you if you’re not well. Maybe your mother was right, Lily. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to come here so soon after…”

So soon after Dad’s accident. Dad had come in February for Grandpa Pagett’s funeral, and met with a fatal car accident himself.

“I’ll be fine,” I said quickly. Aunt Jennifer was the one person who hadn’t treated me like glass, something I was intensely grateful for. I didn’t need her to start. I’d seen enough looks of pity to last a lifetime.

The visit had been Aunt Jennifer’s idea. Mom’s much-needed research grant came through just as Grandma Wosniewski, who was to stay with me, broke her hip. My brother Joel would be spending extra time with a friend’s family once he finished fencing camp. But Mom wasn’t about to leave me alone while she spent the summer in a remote area of the Rockies, especially not after discovering I hadn’t turned in a single school assignment in two months. That’s when Aunt Jennifer stepped in and suggested I spend the summer in Charleston. Uncle Rick would be in Slovenia, setting up company offices, and she’d love to have someone else here while he was gone.

“But that’s where the accident happened,” Mom objected. I’d overheard her the night Aunt Jennifer called. “She’s not engaged in school, she’s withdrawn from her friends—sending her to Charleston would only make things worse.”

“Maybe it would help her confront it,” Aunt Jennifer’s voice crackled over the phone.

But there was no other option. With Dad gone, Mom needed the grant for her job, so in the end she packed me off to Charleston. Mom might have not have been convinced, but Aunt Jennifer gave me a warm smile. “I’m so glad you’ve come. It’s about time you met Charleston for yourself.”

Her eyes reflected the same calm Dad has always given off, a calm that seemed to hold the universe together. “It’ll be okay,” she assured me. “Charleston is a part of you, even if you don’t know it yet.”

Now, in the doorway, Aunt Jennifer shifted in indecision, as if Mom’s worries were starting to sink in.

“I’m sixteen,” I said. “I’ll call if I need anything.”

She nodded doubtfully, and I listened to her footsteps retreat downstairs. Eyes stared out at me from a dozen sepia photographs of past Pagetts and Menguins. I ducked my head, suddenly shy before an array of relatives I should have known, had Dad not left Charleston off the map.

I pulled at the desk drawer to find a place for the stack of schoolbooks Mom made me bring. It was stuck, swollen in the humidity. I tugged again, and as it flew open something went plink.

I reached inside cautiously. Smooth metal met my fingers, and with a jolt I recognized the figure in my palm: an old key with a bird-shaped handle. Dad’s good luck charm, the one he’d brought with him everywhere. I stroked it against my cheek. It was warm, even though it had been sitting alone in the drawer. Dad must have forgotten it the day of the accident. Of all days to forget a good luck charm.

I toppled the pile of schoolbooks into the empty drawer and pocketed the key, the psychologist’s words to Mom echoing in my mind. “…she’ll never make progress until she accepts the fact that he’s gone. Right now she’s too afraid to face that.”

I stood up, though my knees trembled. He was wrong. I wasn’t afraid, and I could prove it. I went outside, my feet loud on the wooden boards of the porch. Heat glowed from the brick of the house. Aunt Jennifer’s car was gone. I slipped through the black iron gate.

Wide, sweeping oaks held their arms over the streets, Spanish moss stirring in the breeze. I followed the narrow street until at last I came to East Bay. The waterfront. The water smelled fresher now; the tide must be up, covering the marsh. I leaned over the seawall railing and watched the water splash up the wall. A low buzz seemed to come off the water, and I shivered. Maybe it was because it was my first experience with an ocean, but even as I stood on firm ground, something about the water made my head spin.

I stepped back from the edge, but the buzz didn’t go away.

The street cut inland, carving out a solid row of buildings between me and the waterfront. Ahead of me, flags waved from a stone building: the navy and white palmetto flag of South Carolina, the Union Jack, the American flag with a circle of stars, and the Jolly Roger. It looked like a building I would have known, had I done my history homework.

No textbook would have prepared me for the heat, however. I ducked around the corner and under the shade of an oak to wipe sweat from my face and shake the growing roar from my ears. But instead of clearing, my mind spun with the sudden unsettled feeling of the tide pulling sand from under my feet. I shut my eyes against the dizziness and reached for a tree, a bench, anything. I couldn’t faint, not after Dr. Mackler’s accusations about my delicate mental condition.

My ears filled with the sound of waves, far louder than the gentle swish of harbor tide should have produced. I fell to my knees and fought to clear my head. My vision wavered and went dark. At least the area was empty; there was nobody to ask awkward questions…

Gradually the roar faded, and I rubbed my eyes.

A crowd of people in period clothing congregated on the steps of the building. Those at the top of the steps were filthy, and as I looked closer, I could see the chains linking them together. Wary eyes glinted out of skeletal black faces. Behind them waited people with more flesh and better clothing, but apprehension glinted in their eyes as well. A movie, then. A sickeningly realistic movie about slavery. I searched for the cameras and roadblocks.

There were none.

Scents rolled in then, of dirt and sweat and animals. My heart pounded as I took in the scene. What was going on?

“I am not crazy,” I whispered. “There is a logical explanation for this.”

People brushed past me. It wasn’t just the slaves who stank. The men with brass-buttoned jackets and moneybags were whiffy, too. A stocky man in a tricorn hat and his pimply-faced companion gave me odd looks and quickened their pace away from me. Maybe they thought it was me who smelled funny.

A deep voice echoed across the steps, and I turned my attention upwards as the auctioneer opened bids on a gaggle of small children. The littlest one was crying. I stared, horrified, as two white men fought to restrain the child’s mother. With a scream she broke through their grip and lurched free, but one of the men struck her legs, and she fell, still scrabbling for her child’s outstretched arms. The other man clapped a metal band on her wrists, and together they dragged her away.

I shoved through the crowd after them, ignoring the shocked looks people gave me, but the woman’s cries melted into the general hubbub. What was this? No acting could be that real…

A pair of kindly-looking older men stood near me in conversation. “Excuse me,” I said, “but what—”

They turned to stare at me. “Go home and get dressed,” one of them said, pulling his companion away from me with a scandalized look at my shorts and t-shirt.

I bit my lip and slunk to the edge of the crowd. People around me gawked and whispered. One of them slipped off a jacket and tossed it at me. “Cover yourself up, girl! We’ll have no immorality on this street.”

I pulled on the coat, gagging at the sweaty odor. “Thank you. Can you tell me—”

But the man pushed away as if hoping no one had seen our exchange.

The auctioneer’s voice spun over the assembly. The eyes of the slave mother—if that was what she was—still haunted me, and I forced my gaze away from the block and onto the crowd. Strangely enough, not all the free people walking around were white. I even saw one black man buy a slave. I shook my head. That couldn’t be right.

Against my will, my attention flicked back to the slaves awaiting sale. There were no more children. A middle-aged man stood on the steps now. The slaves next in line were quiet, watchful. Prospective owners inspected their teeth, checked their backs for scars. Near the front, a white boy of about twelve was talking to a slave in his twenties. The slave was lighter than some of the others, with straighter hair. The boy turned, bringing into view a turned-up nose, quirky eyebrows. It was a face I had seen before. Not here—wherever this was—but back home, in Illinois. My jaw dropped. What was my brother doing here?

The boy shuffled closer to the slave, and I closed my mouth. It wasn’t Joel, just someone who looked remarkably like him. The same wavy hair, the same way he stood, only this boy was younger. Almost like a younger version of…I rubbed my eyes.

He looked like my dad.

My stomach dived. What were the chances of finding a movie actor who looked exactly like Dad as a boy—and right here? The other option, that it was somehow… No. That was impossible. Which left only one possibility: Dr. Mackler was right, and I was losing it.

I stared at the boy, whoever he was, and the man. The boy nodded at something the slave said. The way they looked each other in the eye was odd, as if they were equals, not slave and prospective master. I wrapped the filthy coat around me and moved closer, but I couldn’t hear their words over the auctioneer’s calls.
An auction worker tugged the slave’s chain. He was next. The slave glanced at the block, then back to the boy. He took the boy’s hands and pressed some small piece of metal into them. Light glinted off it for a second before the boy hid it in his grasp.

The auctioneer dragged the slave up to the block and the strange boy disappeared into the crowd. I dodged after him. Surely he would explain what the others refused to.

I took a step forward, and without warning, found myself spinning again, falling. My knee hit a cobblestone and I gasped at the sudden pain. I tried to hold onto the terrible scene before me, but my vision darkened, my mind muddled. I couldn’t fight it any longer.

I slumped to the ground.

When I could see again, the auction was gone. The clanking chains, the cries of the buyers…everything was gone. Trembling, I sat up and pulled off the stifling coat. Taxis and SUVs zipped past on an asphalt street shimmering with heat.

All signs of the slave market had disappeared.

No comments: