At fourteen, Amethyst March had terribly small feet. That meant that the brown leather, scallop-top boots that laced up the front, which had been issued to her by whichever Union officer oversaw such things this season, had very little wear. Amy had never owned anything with very little wear, though until she had her brown boots, she also hadn’t known that. It naturally caused her to ponder the child from whom she’d inherited them.
Whatever child had first been in possession of her brown boots before their family escaped Roanoke Island ahead of the battle—or quite possibly evacuated afterward rather than watch the soldiers confiscate their lands, harvest, and cattle—must have owned more than one pair. That or they didn’t share their shoes with siblings at the very least, and perhaps didn’t have to walk far, when they weren’t in a grand house with even flooring.
The floor was even enough here, and it belonged to her. Amy’s father had built the house on the corner of 4th Street. If she understood what she’d eavesdropped, the honor of owning one of the first homes in the colony meant he’d proven himself of some importance, and in wartime, important men were rarely at home. He’d had his pick of the lots, Mammy said, and he’d chosen well. Amy was certain he couldn’t have done otherwise, since in the old life—which was what the March family had taken to calling everything that came before the circumstance of war had freed them—there had scarcely been enough cover over their heads. Near the fields, her whole family had been able to count the stars between the feeble slats meant to constitute a roof. She was young—as her family reminded her all too frequently because they’d decided to guard it as a precious thing—but Amethyst was already on her second lifetime, and in this one, Papa had built a roof that was whole.
This house on Roanoke Island faced Lincoln, one of three avenues in the village, and that meant that despite it being too hot to amuse herself outdoors, Amy could at least watch the others as they came and went. She saw her eldest sister hustle up the avenue and then cross the street, the young woman’s skirt in her hands as she acknowledged a salutation from a colonist Amy couldn’t see. When Meg was nearer, Amy opened the door before her sister’s hand could take hold of the knob.
“Amethyst March, how dare you!” Meg pressed her sister out of view of the street, and rushed to close the door. “In nothing but a chemise and boots? Where’s your sense?”
“Meg, your hat,” the girl said, mimicking her sister’s disapproving stance, though she didn’t actually care.
“Oh, I know,” Meg said apologetically. And then as though recalling why she’d come back to the house, she hurried past her little sister without unpinning and removing her straw bonnet. “I’ve only come back for a moment.”
Amy placed the toe of an unblemished leather boot behind the opposite heel so that she could swivel slowly to watch Meg move through the room, down the hall, past Mammy and Papa’s room on the right and the room their four daughters shared on the left, and into the kitchen at the far end of the long house.
“That was nearly perfect,” she shouted down the hall when she was finished. “I’ve taught myself to do it just like the dancer in that music box we had to leave behind! Meg, come and see!”
“I have to get back to school, Amy,” the eldest replied, returning with full hands and her face glistening. “It’s so hot now, I’ve had to start shortening the lessons just like the missionary teachers do. Four hours for the early class, and four this afternoon, but at least I had time to come home when I realized I’d forgotten my lunch.”
“Cornbread and an apple is hardly lunch.”
“Don’t pout, it’s unbecoming.”
“And who have I got to be becoming for?”
Meg forced herself to slow a moment and looked down into her sister’s face.
“Amy,” she said, and smiled. “For yourself, of course.”
“I like myself just fine, thank you.”
“All right,” Meg answered with a laugh. “I like yourself, too. If you get dressed in a hurry, you can walk me back.”
Amy’s large dark brown eyes brightened, her cheekbones leaping up to meet them, and her sister immediately regretted the invitation.
“Only if I can stay and take my lessons properly, like everyone else.”
“Oh, Amy,” Meg began, her shoulders sinking at the start of a familiar discussion for which she had no time. “We’ve been over this. More than one hundred new freedpeople arrive to this colony every other day, and most of them have never had a single lesson until now. We simply can’t spare the space, not when you can already read, and I can teach you fine when I’m home. Try to be reasonable.”
When her sister crossed her arms, Meg continued: “If I had my way and a too-warm day to pass, I’d go to the edge of the village and lie underneath the cypress trees. Doesn’t that sound angelic?”
“I’ll stand outside a window—”
“The missionary teachers have the buildings. I teach in a tent.”
“I’ll stay outside the flaps!”
“Amy, I must get back, dear one,” Meg cried. Amy’s only solace was in the breeze created when the door swung open and shut again, after which she stomped around the front room in her lovely brown boots until someone else came bursting in.
“Mammy, what a lovely surprise!” Amy threw her arms wide, and when her mother created a new breeze, it was as she swept past her youngest child, whose forehead she fell just shy of kissing in her haste. “Is it hot enough that the officers are finished dictating their letters and they’ve sent you home?”
“Wouldn’t that be delightful, my love.” The woman’s voice carried from her bedroom, into which Amy followed her with a disappointed trudge. “Fan Mammy’s neck a moment.”
The young girl retrieved her mother’s fan from the dresser, admiring the pink ribbon that trimmed the woven straw and wrapped around the handle. It had seen better days, and now only half the ribbon clung to the handle, the rest dangling dejectedly.
Finally the girl fanned her mother, while Mammy pushed her rolled hair up from her damp neck.
“I have to get back,” she said after a time. “I only thought your sister might have come here. She wasn’t at the schoolhouse.”
“Meg teaches from a tent, Mammy,” Amy reminded her. “She isn’t a missionary teacher, after all.”
“I can’t imagine where else she’d be. It isn’t like her to be unpredictable…”
Amy didn’t say it aloud, but she knew that Mammy meant her eldest daughter could be a dreadful bore. Everyone knew it, though she’d gotten in trouble on more than one occasion for saying so.
“She came home and went back again,” Amy said.
Mammy sucked her teeth. “Well then, I must have just missed her.”
“Whatever you needed done, perhaps I could do it!”
“Thank you, Amy, but it’s nothing like that. I’ve invited someone to supper, and I didn’t want it to be a surprise.” Mammy kissed her on the forehead successfully this time and then swept back out through the front room; Amy hurried to follow. “I’ll send word to her somehow, but don’t you go bothering her at school, do you hear me?”
And before Amy could argue that whether or not she was allowed to deliver the news, she should at least know it for herself, her mother was out the door.
She collapsed onto the floor, though there was no one to see or pity her. It was just as well; someone would have made her get up, and it turned out lying on the floor was slightly cooler than all that moving around.
Amy was bored—dreadfully, in fact—but if it meant she’d have to wear heavy skirts to make up for the lack of a hoop, she was glad at least that she didn’t have to do important work like Mammy and Meg. Joanna, the second oldest, worked alongside the freedmen charged with building more houses, and no one chided her for wearing the kind of flat skirts one might wear on a plantation in the old life. Bethlehem, the third-born March girl, was a celebrated seamstress; no one minded what she wore so much as what she made for them.
Still lying on the floor of the front room, Amy closed her eyes and willed her other two sisters to come home, too. When the door flew open for the third time, she sat up so quickly she felt light-headed, but still managed to blurt out, “Mammy’s invited someone to supper!”
“Has she?” Beth came just inside the door and dumped an armful of uniforms on the floor.
“Isn’t that unpatriotic?” Amy asked as her sister rushed to retrieve something from their bedroom.
Beth was sixteen, and the nearest to Amy in age. Along with her calm manner, this made her feel most like her younger sister’s equal, and that made Amy feel certain she was the leader of the two.
“I don’t think so,” Beth answered breathlessly when she returned, because it wouldn’t occur to her not to, however silly the question. “I think something must be intentionally unpatriotic, or it isn’t at all.” She spread the thin throw blanket she’d collected onto the floor beside the pile, then transferred the uniforms onto it before tying the ends to create a cumbersome-looking bundle. “You haven’t told me who Mammy invited to supper.”
Copyright © 2021 by Bethany C. Morrow.