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Margot caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror as she passed and stopped to peer at her reflection. Her sandy-colored hair had worked itself loose from its bun and lay damp and heavy against her neck. Her face shone with sweat.
The house had been closed up since the fall, and in the mid-July heat, the air was stale, the rooms like an oven. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at her forehead, her cheek, then leaned forward to study herself in the glass. Though the heavy drapes were still pulled closed, enough light leaked into the big room for her to clearly see the freckles scattered across her nose and cheekbones.
She sighed and shifted the heavy linens in her arms. Mistress Hannigan and her three children would be coming down from New Orleans in less than a week, and the house needed to be in perfect order. There was only Margot, her younger sister, and their grandmother to set the house to rights before they arrived … and it was a big house.
If only the heat would break.
Something—a movement reflected in the mirror—caught her eye. She turned, but there was nothing in the massive dining room except the mounds of sheet-covered furniture … and her.
She laughed nervously. She’d been on edge ever since they’d arrived the night before. Chewing her lip, she scanned the room, squinting uneasily at the odd shadows cast against the walls.
The feeling of dread that seemed to be following her from room to room made no sense. She loved this place—had spent every summer since her birth here: wandering the gardens, reading beneath the old hickory out near the creek whenever she found a spare moment. Every year, from July until mid-October, the Hannigans closed down the mansion in the city and came here—bringing their house slaves with them—to escape the disease-ridden air of the New Orleans summers: malaria, cholera, yellow fever. Here, the air was fresh, the water clear.
But ever since they’d stepped from the carriage, Margot had been unable to shake the feeling that some dark, infected cloud had followed them out of New Orleans and was settling itself all around Far Water.
Named for some plantation in Haiti, lost long before Haiti had been known by that name, the estate had been in the mistress’s family for over a half century.
Catherine Hannigan was French Creole but had married James Hannigan, an American. Her family might have been far more scandalized had Monsieur Hannigan had far less money.
Margot brushed aside her unease. There was furniture to be uncovered, windows to be washed, and the half-dozen fireplaces all needed to be swept clean of last season’s ash. And where was Veronique?
She moved to the window and pushed aside the thick drape. The manicured lawn swept down toward the road, where it disappeared from view beyond two magnolia trees. Her little sister was supposed to be helping to clean, but Margot hadn’t seen even so much as her shadow since their morning coffee, hours before.
Something rustled behind her and she spun, the hairs on her neck standing up.
“Veronique?” she called. She cocked her head and listened, but the only sound was that of the old clock out in the hallway.
“Idiot, fille,” she muttered.
She straightened and ran a hand across the gritty mantle. Never mind the vague threat she felt oozing from every corner. There was real work to be done and the very real Grandmere to fear.
In less than six months’ time Margot would be eighteen. The Hannigans had promised her her freedom on her birthday, but until then, her grandmother could still pinch her arms until they turned blue if she caught her daydreaming instead of working. Margot smiled as she stepped into the hallway.
Margot yelped and dropped the bundled sheets as her sister danced gleefully in the hallway.
“I scared you, didn’t I?” crowed Veronique. “Admit it! I scared you. Did you think I was a ghost?”
Margot glared at her younger sister as she bent to pick the linens up from the floor. “I was not frightened.… And where have you been?”
Veronique simply laughed and grabbed her from behind in a tight embrace.
“What mischief have you been up to, ma petite?” Margot laughed in spite of herself, pulling away to face her sister. “Sweet Virgin, you are a mess.”
She ran a thumb across the dirt smudged along Veronique’s cheek, tried to smooth down the wild hair, the same sandy color as her own, except that her sister’s stood in a wild tangle about her face and was matted with straw and feathers.
“I was collecting eggs.”
Margot eyed the feathers. “Collecting eggs or playing with the baby chicks?”
Veronique threw out her arms and laughed. “I do one and then the other is easier, oui?”
Margot smiled and shook her head. She thrust a handful of the sheets at her sister to carry. “Come, silly girl. There is real work to be done.”
* * *
All night she’d tossed and turned in a fitful sleep, and now, just before dawn, she lay wide awake. Groaning softly, Margot sat up. Yesterday had seemed to last forever—endless hours of scrubbing floors, beating half a year’s worth of dust from the carpets, airing out the bedding. The heavy work—mending the coop, taking the shutters from the windows—that would be left to Girard when he brought the Hannigans from the city, though their work had been hard enough and Margot’s body ached with fatigue.
Pale light seeped through the window of the small cabin she shared with her sister and grandmother. Wincing, she pushed herself out of bed. Veronique was still asleep, curled in a tight ball at the edge of their bed. Margot glanced across the narrow room toward the cot where their grandmother slept, and groaned softly. Grandmere was not there. The small sitting area off their bedroom was empty as well. Margot pulled a thin shawl from the hook by the door and stepped onto the porch.
“Non, Grandmere,” she muttered. “Not again.”
The day was still just beyond the horizon but the predawn air was already thick with heat. Across the damp grass, fireflies flickered in the shadows of the cypress trees.
“Grandmere?” Margot hissed into the darkness. “Grandmere, es tu ici?”
From somewhere deep in the gloom, where the grass dissolved into bayou, a cougar screamed. Margot flinched.
Their cabin sat on a slight rise, connected to the main house by a stone walkway, and though her grandmother was an early riser, the house was dark. In the other direction, the walkway led to the creek. Growling in frustration, Margot turned toward the creek. In the shifting light, something brushed across her face and she swatted frantically.
“Nom de Dieu, Margot,” she murmured. “Get hold of yourself.”
The walkway was cool beneath her bare feet and she moved slowly in the dim light. She rounded a bend, and there on the creek bank loomed the old hickory tree, a lantern flickering at its base. But her grandmother was nowhere to be seen.
A thick mist rose from the dew-covered grass. Moss, hanging from the tree branches that leaned far out over the creek, quivered in the slow-moving water.
“Grandmere?” Her voice bounced from tree to tree, then disappeared in the fog.
A figure moved in the shadows down at the creek’s edge, and she stiffened. Moments later her grandmother stepped into the small circle of light cast by the lantern. Her nightdress was soaked and muddy all the way to the knees, her square face scratched and bloodied.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” whispered Margot.
The old woman stared blankly into the trees and Margot rushed to her side. She flung her arms around Grandmere and tried to guide her back up the walkway toward the house. But though her grandmother was well into her seventies and a head shorter, she was strong and solidly muscled. It was like pushing against a tree.
Margot glanced at the sky. It would be light before long, and Veronique would wake and find herself alone. Her sister had an unreasoned fear of being left alone. Margot pushed harder.
“For the love of God, chére. What are you doing? Do I look like a wheelbarrow to you? Stop pushing on me.” Her grandmother was squinting at her in irritation.
Margot dropped her arms. “What am I doing?” She glared at Grandmere. “What are you doing out here in the middle of the night, vielle dame? And look at you.”
Grandmere glanced down and grunted, seemingly surprised by the mud caked on the hem of her nightdress. “Ah.”
She picked up the lantern and turned toward the cabin.
“Hush, chére,” snapped Grandmere. She grabbed hold of Margot’s hand. “The spirits called my name.”
Margot felt the hairs stand up on her arms.
Her grandmother spoke to the spirits often—as often as she spoke to her and Veronique. Each morning, Grandmere lit a candle and whispered her prayers. Each night she did the same. On holidays, she saved a bit of the choicest meat and the richest cream as an offering to the ghosts of the ancestors. The Hannigans knew and left her to it. At least the mistress did. But the master … well that was a different matter.
But when she began to wander—when Margot would wake to find her grandmother gone in the middle of the night, or worse—missing for one whole day, or more—then Margot grew terrified. For it was at those times, few and far between, that Grandmere said the spirits were calling especially to her, had come to whisper their warnings.
The feeling of dread that had weighed on Margot since they’d arrived grew heavier, making it hard to catch her breath. Grandmere was watching her.
“Come,” she said. “Your sister will wake soon. The fireplaces all need cleaning and the linens got to be laid in the sun to freshen.” She sucked her teeth.
“And that kitchen garden’s a mess. I’ll get to working on that, then make us some sweet potato biscuits for supper.” She smiled. “You and your sister can grow fat as me, oui?”
Margot resisted being pulled along. “Grandmere, you promised Master Hannigan…”
Her grandmother whirled. “Master Hannigan does not control the spirits, girl! He does not control the world of gods.”
“But he controls this world, Grandmere. The one we live in every day. You might remind your spirits of this when they come whispering in your ear late at night.”
Grandmere reared back, the air quivering hotly between them. For one long moment Margot thought her grandmother might strike her.
“Master Hannigan is spit in the ocean, Margot,” said Grandmere finally. “In fifty years, a hundred, who will know his name? But the ancient ones, they will still rule the ways of the world.”
The old woman turned and stomped away, leaving Margot alone in the shadows. By the time she arrived back at the cabin, her grandmother stood waiting on the tiny porch. The two stared at each other.
“Chére,” said Grandmere finally. “I will not always be here like this for you and your sister. But when the world is black, when you think you are alone, the spirits, my spirit, will be with you, living in your heart. When you don’t know the answers, just listen. Quiet. And the answers will pour into your soul.”
She gazed up at the lightening sky and laughed bitterly. “They might not be the answers you want, but the spirits always answer.”
She turned and walked into the cabin, leaving Margot shivering on the threshold.
Copyright © 2019 by Rita Woods