Varina, p.13

Varina, page 13



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  —That sump? V said.

  —Oh, you exaggerate. I’m sure there are a couple of fine weeks in spring. Anyhow, I’ll have relevant passages of the will scribed so you can see your situation for yourself. You’ll enjoy the Latin terms that crop up pretty often. And then you go on ahead and write Jeff to confirm. But meanwhile, considering your position, you need to amend your tone toward me.

  —I will begin that effort tomorrow. Until then I’ll think about what kind of low price you’re establishing for selling out a sibling. By the way, has Jeff ever even seen the will you wrote for him?

  —He signed it, you grubbing little bitch, Joseph said.

  All the women sat quietly at their places. Florida wouldn’t even look V in the eye.

  V had planned to spend the night at The Hurricane staying up late with Florida. But she walked all the way back to Brierfield alone in the dark. She sat by one of the giant fireplaces with her mind whirling until eventually she stirred a full packet of medicine into a glass of wine and waited for the spin to slow.

  —Catahoula Lake? she said aloud, her voice echoing down the long, dark room. That’s what Old Joe wanted her to think was her best prospect in widowhood? In dry weather it was nothing but a great expanse of damp ground. Hogs running open range on the lake bottom. V thought of her aunt Jane, who inherited a fortune from her first old dead husband and then married a much younger man and soon decided to divorce him, during which procedure the young husband killed the judge in the case in a pistol duel. A scandal, yes. But more bearable, V imagined, than marrying a Catahoula hog farmer.

  WHEN SHE FELL INTO BED AT DAWN, V had decided to run back to Natchez and never see Davis Bend or any Davis ever again. Two days later, on the next down-bound boat, she departed. Elusive V, she didn’t announce her plans to anyone but Pemberton, swearing him to secrecy. She showed up, to much surprise, on her parents’ doorstep with a trunk and three bags. She claimed the letter announcing her visit must have gone astray.

  She stayed only a week. Her father hardly noticed she was there. He had yet another doomed business scheme simmering, and her mother fretted constantly about his lack of sense in regard to money and how desperately tight running the household constricted her, how heavy their lack of funds crushed. All the mouths to feed. V spent sunsets and evenings in a chair near the bluff looking down on the river, watching yellow lights flicker across the dark water from passing boats and barges and rafts.

  A week later, she beat back against the Mississippi current to Brierfield, knowing that no matter which path she chose from then on—whether she flew away forever and changed her name and became a dowdy governess or went to New Orleans and became a fancy courtesan—dependency would doubtless follow. Might as well stay at the Bend and fight for her place.

  PEMBERTON RALLIED THE SLAVES AROUND V, and she began a letter-writing campaign to Jeff in Mexico. Once or twice a week, Old Joe came out and harassed her about progress on the house construction, which with Pemberton’s help she kept at a slow drag.

  Joe would ride up and start complaining about the lack of progress before he even dismounted. V stood smiling and saying that if it were up to her they would be much further along. But what an unexpected amount of preparation would be needed before the laying of the foundation. If it were not for slow transport of materials to their remote outpost, faster progress might be made. She wished their efforts were more immediately successful, and if she were a builder herself and could lay brick and swing a hammer, they might be. Would that it were different.

  What a friend she made of the subjunctive mood.

  Eliza quit being polite and pretending to like V and stopped all communication with Brierfield. The other girls followed along, including Florida, the one V always considered the best of them, the only one worth caring about. Florida seemed to believe all their lies about V and only wrote a couple of brief notes expressing her concern for V’s mental state and defending the others without knowing a pinch of truth about the shady deeds and wills that would determine V’s future if she let them stand as the documents that bound her for life. All the women of The Hurricane lay under Old Joe’s thumb just as he intended V to be. And maybe that’s also what Jeff intended for her if he died—leave her roped tight to the Davis wealth, forever bound to him by money as tight as he held Knoxie in memory.

  V wrote all the Davis women separate identical notes saying she perfectly understood Joseph’s hatred, antipathy, and disrespect, but did any one of them understand hers toward them?

  She held herself together to withstand Old Joe’s outrage every time he rode to Brierfield for an inspection of construction progress. And, yes, sometimes at night she allowed herself room to express her full emotions in letters to Jeff. After all, marriage is not just a business partnership. Of course, as she suspected and confirmed later, Old Joe’s letters to Jeff made her out to be a madwoman, hysterical and out of control despite his constant kind and gentle efforts. He argued that her youth and inexperience made her responsibilities at Brierfield overwhelming. He suggested she might wish to move back to Natchez until the war ended and Jeff returned. That sort of self-serving thing. But V was where she was. She intended to fight her battles where she stood, with the boundary between the two properties as her front line.

  MORNINGS, V AND PEMBERTON SAT under the big live oak in the yard and talked plans for the day as they drank coffee. Sometimes it would be plowing or planting or maintenance of buildings or roads or wagons and harness, the care of sick horses. Or that people needed pantaloons, dozens of pairs at a time, which V sewed herself. Or that someone’s Auntie had died and it would be good to cook a pig for the funeral. Then in the evenings she and Pemberton would sit under the tree as the light dimmed and the air cooled to recapitulate the successes and failures of the day. This went on and on.

  Pemberton very closely matched her father’s age, but after a year of daily discussions, V realized she knew him better than her father, and vice versa. She was not so young that she didn’t recognize the position he occupied—stuck in the center of a triangle between Jeff, Joe, V. And of course she knew she occupied the weak corner. But with careful calibration of power and distance and affection, Pemberton took care of her as if she mattered to him.

  Sometimes in the evening after the daily business of running Brierfield had concluded, V would ask Pemberton about Jeff when he was young. Day after day she picked away, asking questions about West Point and the time afterward on the frontier, about Jeff’s life as a young man and about his first wife.

  PEMBERTON WOULD HAVE BEEN forty-five or fifty during the Mexican War. Built solid and fairly tall, the gray in his hair mixed evenly, about 30 percent. Like several slaves on The Hurricane and Brierfield, he was literate, and he particularly liked newspapers, so V saved him the Memphis and New Orleans papers as they came up or down the river on steamboats several days after publication.

  He started out wary of telling her anything about Knoxie to the point it was hard to glean from his comments that he ever knew her.

  He’d say safe things like, After Mister Davis finished up school, we went to the north country and stayed an awful long time. We had cold winters at West Point, but up there toward the top of the river, winters kept on going until you worried the back of one and the front of the next might meet in the middle with no summer at all. He said, Winters, everything freezes up there. You could walk across the river. Play Jesus. It was awful weather.

  But after he realized V knew a few things about Jeff’s courtship of Knoxie—had visited her grave as a solemn honeymoon event and knew her death had wounded Jeff perhaps beyond healing—Pemberton talked more openly, though still only in snips and hints. She could tell Pemberton had liked Knoxie but didn’t want to say it. And when V thought about it, his favorable opinion of Knoxie carried some weight. She had previously pictured Knoxie as a little half-pretty, sharp-eyed belle—decorated in every fluffy feature of that season’s fashion—showing up in the middle of nowhere with her commandi
ng-officer daddy and being as single-minded and witless in her search for a husband among the young officers as a hen pecking at cracked corn.

  So V held back awhile on direct questions about Knoxie and went another direction. She made Pemberton awfully uncomfortable one sundown when she said, I’ve heard Jeff may have fathered an Indian baby up there. Some claim to know for sure it was a girl.

  She told Pemberton that people in Washington gossiped about it, and that she needed to know how to help Jeff handle the gossip, and that how to do it best would be different, depending on whether the story was true or untrue. She reminded Pemberton that managing social matters wasn’t where Jeff’s light shined brightest—which everyone who ever spent thirty seconds with him knew for a fact.

  Pemberton said, Ma’am, some things up the river back then’s not for us to cover here between us.

  V reminded him that when they sat under the tree at sunset, just the two of them talking, neither of them needed to worry about forms of salutation that slowed them down. Just talk the way he and Jeff usually talked. Not necessary to say sir or ma’am every other sentence. Just talk straight.

  —I don’t know anyone else to ask about this, V added. And besides, I was about one year old at the time, and he was a grown man on the wild frontier and very spirited.

  Pemberton said, Mr. Davis ought to be the one answering your question.

  V paused and then said, I’ll take it that the rumors of a child are true. Otherwise, you’d deny them. And I appreciate that you’re not going to lie to me.

  —No, ma’am.

  —Did you know the mother?

  —She was . . . He trailed off, waved his hands in front of him.

  —Let me guess. Pretty and seventeen? The way he likes us.

  —Her daddy was supposed to be from England, Pemberton said, as deflection. Anyway, she was light brown color and could speak good English, but it sounded funny. A part-Sauk girl by her looks. Most folks up there were Sauk or Fox, and a few Dakota Sioux from on out West. I knew her half sister some. Real, real pretty woman. They had the same mama, but that sister sure had plenty of Sioux in her.

  —Meaning what? V said.

  —Hard to say. Sioux were real strong fighters.

  Pemberton said it like a soft, happy memory.

  —I forgot you were a young man too back then, V said.

  Pemberton looked off toward the river. He stood and said, I believe I’ll go down to the horse barn before it’s too dark to see my hand in front of my face and make sure Jack is set for the night.

  Jack was V’s saddle horse and had been moving a little off in front the previous couple of days.

  —Check his feet, V said.

  —Been planning on it, ma’am, Pemberton said as he walked away.

  V sat outside past full dark imagining thousands of half-blood children like Jeff’s Sauk girl and Pemberton’s Sioux girl, entering that strange liminal world of native villages and invader forts and tallgrass plains and dark fir forests under conditions ranging from rape to rapturous love. Maybe the Sauk girl’s particular Brit father was a tallish blond fourth son, Cambridge educated but adventurous and looking to make his own fortune at a far and alien fringe of the New World. And he lingered almost a decade after the birth of his pretty daughter before fleeing onward toward the Pacific or backing away toward home. During those years he stayed, the girl became fluent in English. So Jeff arrives in the wilderness—winter, dark, cold—land cut in two by the Mississippi, which seemed not at all the same river that flowed wide and brown by Natchez. And he meets this girl and an old story only worth summarizing comes to pass. Two young people meet at that moment of accelerative emotion when nature floods our being with urgent demands. So, assume the usual plot elements—attractiveness, proximity, opportunity. She speaks a highly grammatical but oddly accented English, a matter of enunciation for the most part, a carefulness of the tongue in forming certain vowels that creates a music Jeff finds irresistible. Also assume variations on the usual narrative details, their differing clothes and social ranking and halting manners toward each other, the brief yearning and the quick consummation, including an oblique reference to the mechanics of reproduction. And then months later . . . what? No telling whether Jeff considered his next action as moving on or backing away.

  V was tempted to spin her imagination on and on about the adventures and loves of Jefferson and Pemberton in the wilderness, but she resolved to pause her deductions and inventions and give all that north woods material a name and put it away for a while like a rough draft. Title it something like Jefferson on the Wild Frontier, or Reckless Love, or simply Knoxie.

  A week later, though, she found a bundle of letters from Jeff’s courtship with Knoxie in a desk drawer. They’d been tied with a red ribbon. V didn’t read them, not that day nor thereafter. Their words to each other were not her business, but she assumed Jeff’s letters followed his usual heart-throbbing pattern, plunging headlong into French at the end.

  At seventeen V had been young and romantic enough to believe that, given time, she could occupy and eventually possess all the chambers of Jeff’s heart—or at least a majority of them. But even during the Mexican War she had already started to wonder if Knoxie’s spirit would hover between them, a beautiful ectoplasmic projection, throughout their marriage.

  THE MEXICAN WAR DRAGGED ON, and so did the war between Brierfield and The Hurricane. Politics and diplomacy between the two plantations became so bleak that Jeff asked for leave to make an epic journey, a thousand miles, to forge peace at home. His commanding officer was once again Knoxie’s father, Zachary Taylor, a general at the time. In Mexico, Jeff and the general became friends, and Taylor allowed that between them his daughter had been the better judge of young men. He sent Jeff off with his blessings to do what needed to be done in Mississippi.

  Jeff traveled by horseback from Monterey to the coast and then by ship across the northern Gulf to New Orleans and then by steamboat up the river to the Bend. He showed up with blood in his eyes, mad equally at V and Brother Joe. During the three weeks Jeff stayed at Brierfield, he and V fought nightly over the will—its surprises and secrets, the unimagined complications of property ownership, her lack of any inheritance or protections against the future. He spent most of every day huddled with Old Joe in his office conspiring about how to deal with her.

  When Jeff’s leave ran out, Brierfield and The Hurricane had failed to reach a peace treaty, or even a cease-fire. He left V with a chilly peck on her cheek on the porch, and V did not join him in the carriage to see him off at the dock. From Jeff’s arrival until his departure, she slept in a separate bedroom. She told him that the crudest way to put it was that if he died in Mexico—leaving her to the predations of Joseph—she intended to save herself for her second husband. Whatever grim transaction a second marriage might involve, dragging a child into the negotiations would be an unwelcome impediment. Or, leaving future husbands out of it, imagine her bed and board entirely in the hands of Old Joe, and Jeff’s child equally without inheritance so long as Joe kept the deed to Brierfield.

  Just as he turned to leave, V said to him, How can I bring children into the world knowing the brutal, mercantile family they would fall into, holding money over all our heads to control us? Old Joe already controls so many destinies, his houseful of women and fields full of slaves.

  All Jeff could say in response was, I think you’re exaggerating.

  AFTER A STRETCH OF WEEKS ALONE, V wrote to her mother, I have become quite a savage, and I tear my food in silence.

  A FEW MONTHS BEFORE the end of the Mexican War, Jeff came home wounded and walking with a cane—the great hero of the Battle of Buena Vista, where his strategy and leadership and courage would enter the canon of military history. In Natchez, they rode together through town in an open carriage heaped to their armpits with flowers. All the way up from New Orleans, in every town, brass bands and dignitaries and barbecues and salutes of guns and cannons welcomed them.

p; Jeff hid his true pain to the extent that his limp seemed a theatrical affectation and the cane a fashion accessory. All along the way, he made speeches to the crowds. Stop by stop as they moved upriver he grew more confident and more powerful as a speaker. One newspaper said that if he ran for the Senate he would go through the state like a bolt of lightning. But settled back at Brierfield, it became clear how badly he had been injured. Pieces of bone kept working themselves out of his wounds, and the fight with Brother Joe weighed heavy on his mind. He wanted V to play along, leave everything for Joseph to sort out someday. Trust him. But there Jeff was, his foot and lower leg wounded to the marrow, and V picking bone shards out of the mess every morning with tweezers, knowing any day it could go septic and carry him away to the next world.

  ALL THE YEARS LATER, living in the twentieth century, she’s taken care of herself long enough to know how it’s done. What she wanted at twenty-one was either to have the security promised as part of the deal when marrying an older man of property, or else to be left alone to live her life without some master like Old Joe lording over her.

  Jeff, though, wanted peace at home and power out in the world. He got the latter almost immediately without even having to go through an election when one of Mississippi’s old senators died in office, as they often do. War hero Jeff was immediately appointed to the position by the governor. As Jeff prepared to leave for Washington, he gave V a choice. Go along with Joe’s system of management and accompany her husband to Washington, or carry on the fight and stay right there at the Bend by herself.

  It was a mean ultimatum, knowing how much she loved Washington and that the wife of a senator would have even more access to the best parties and the most interesting people. They had mostly lived apart for the past two years, and if V didn’t agree to Jeff’s terms, they would spend most of another year separated. V decided to dig in and fight on, besieged at Fort Brierfield.

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