Many primitive charms must be worked in solitude. On the island I slipped out early to walk the beach washed clean of footprints. My father taught me about the beach at sunrise. All the years I was small, he often would wake me up and say, “Corne on, Bud, let’s go to the beach.” (I was “pretty as a rosebud” then later just “Bud” or “Buddy.”) At this hour it’s easy to see why these are called the Golden Isles of Georgia. The first peachcream rays slide over the water and strike the sand first, lighting the beach as if from below. We picked up sand dollars together and lined up our collection along the driveway wall. I tell my father the little bones that rattle inside are doves of Jesus’s because I saw that on a legend of the sand dollar postcard but he says nonsense, sand dollars are real money that mermaids use. When I break one open the “doves” that fall out look like my baby teeth I’ve saved in a ring box at home.
They’ve warned me not to go in the ocean alone. The undertow pulls even in shallow water. My father was sucked under as a boy. He said he knew not to fight, not to try to get back by paddling against a current stronger than man or beast. When a current pulls you out, swim sideways, parallel to the beach, gradually angle in, let the current help you. Since I know that, of course I swim alone. I am nine, and I’ve had lessons. I can sidestroke all day. I’m a coldblooded little animal and walk into the water at dawn with little shock, ride waves in until my fingertips shrivel, then cartwheel dry. By the time the wobbling gold orb hoists out of the water, I’m on the beach wrapped in a towel with my knees against my chest, every ugly hair on my arms standing straight up, my teeth chattering, though the air is soft and my skin powdery with salt. I like to stare out at the straight blue-ink horizon. How could they ever have believed the earth was flat? Where could the tide go when it went out? Someday I will live here alone and have my own boat and sail out exactly to that line where the ocean and sky meet. I will have candles and a bunk bed and a two-piece bathing suit. So very vulgar to show the navel, my mother says.
Sometimes Willie comes out to find me and swears she will tell if I do this one more time. On the island she doesn’t wear the black uniform she wears at our house in Fitzgerald. Here, she’s in a pressed red plaid dress, with short sleeves that point, and sandals. We’re the only ones up, and I walk back to the kitchen with her. She makes me a piece of oven toast, I don’t like toaster toast, and a soft fried egg because I will dip my toast into the yellow with lots of salt and pepper and she will eat the white.
* * * * * * *
We love St. Simons, Sea Island, Jekyll. Summer is here, only three hours from home, on this string of barrier isles, ocean on one side, marsh on the other. We stay sometimes on St. Simons, sometimes on Sea Island. The year I’m nine we have a long brick house with a breezeway and a little house out back for Willie.
By noon, the island sings with heat. Cicadas hum like high power wires, and air rising off the road wavers so that what I walk toward is real but looks like a mirage. The tree frogs won’t shut up either. We love the ocean, all of us. My father, up at dawn, my mother taking long walks down the beach, scudding her soles to smooth away callouses. As she swings out her leg to slenderize her thighs, her toes trace long arcs in the sand. My two sisters slather themselves with oil and lie on beach towels for hours. They don’t want straps to show, don’t want red noses, run splashing and screaming in to cool, then baste themselves again. Their burnished-gold gleaming bodies radiate the smell of coconut and salt and hot sand, the smell of summer. I don’t tan. Freckle like a quail egg. I love warm sugary sand sifting through my fingers, the drip castles melting at the edge of the water.
* * * * * * *
In the afternoon heat when there was nothing to do, I took pictures. My mother thought I should rest so I wouldn’t get polio, but I never did. I snapped a lizard asleep on a leaf, my dog Tish asleep under a bush, my sandals on the slate steps, my sisters coming in from the beach laughing together.
In the lens of my Brownie, I center Barbara and Nancy in hourglass bathing suits. Briefly, they pose in fifth position, their bare feet tender on the oyster shell driveway. They squint and smile over my shoulder, impatient.
They were older, with clothes on their minds and boys. What they did not want was me pestering them. In my not boredom but lack of available activity, I eavesdropped from their closet, hunching down among the Capezios and crinolines piled on the floor. They talked and talked about beach parties, Ralph from Augusta, Neil. Conversations started with “Who is that girl visiting the Addisons. She was about to pop out of that corny gypsy blouse. I don’t know what her reputation in Macón is but . . . .” Whatever the revelation I waited for, it never came. When I got tired of hiding, inevitably I made noise. Nancy, ironing a skirt, flung open the door shouting, “What are you doing, this is the limit.”
I race around her, leaping to the twin bed next to the wall. I bounce higher and higher, my fingertips smudging the ceiling. Barbara stares into the dressing table mirror. “Just Don’t pay Any Attention to her. She’s just Trying to attract Attention. She’s so Awful. Spoiled Brat, Brat, Brat.” She rubbed the Aquamarine Lotion they kept in the fridge on her legs.
“Meow, Meow” I call, louder and louder.
“Would you shut up, Now.”
“Make me. Make me.”
Nancy carefully turns her skirt, spreading the rickrack flounce flat as she can against the board. I keep catcalling louder and louder. “Get Off. That’s a new bedspread!”
“Try and make me!”
Nancy bangs down the iron. She lunges for me as I leap back onto the pillow. Her foot catches in the twisted cord and the hot iron falls. She grabs my ankle, pulls me down. Suddenly we smell the singed animal odor of burning wool. Barbara jerks the iron from a brown triangle scorched onto the pale blue rug and I bounce one more time, “You did it, you did it. Ya ya ya ya Ya ya.”
“You little. . . .”
As I run out I see Nancy giving me the finger and Barbara rubbing a washcloth on the rug. Nothing came up. She just streaked old makeup across the burn.
They didn’t bother to tell on me since my parents never punished anyway. Certainly, Willie wouldn’t tell. She got the fingernail scissors and snipped away the tip ends of the rug fibers. In the soft pile, the slightly shorter threads hardly were noticeable. She always knew a solution.
* * * * * * *
Willie looked like Nefertiti. When our third grade class did the unit on Egypt, I first saw the famous profile and recognized Willie’s, without her gold rimmed glasses. Maybe she was a descendant of the distant queen, the genes for that flat sloped forehead and chiseled cheekbones spinning along the DNA of generations of royalty, then slaves, and finally manifesting again with force in Willie Bell. Her grandmother was a slave. I knew her mother as a child-sized gray woman with hair tied in rags like kite tails. It seemed impossible that she’d once been a child of one as exotic as a slave. I didn’t know when or where Willie was born. We measured her time only in how long she’d been with us, six years, eight, eleven. Out of the many years she worked for us, I remember her most sharply on the island because there I first saw her as separate from us and felt the first inkling that there was something wrong between the races.
Now just this year, I’ve gone back. The light on the islands still is intense white, reflecting off the ocean, off the white sand dunes and oyster shell roads that shred your feet. In late evening, after a long twilight, the sky darkens quickly, like a room someone walks out of while holding up a lantern. Even after the fringed tops of pines disappear into the dark, the white white sand holds down the light, and the island is suffused with soft silver. Sky and ocean disappear into each other. Wind twisted coastal oaks draped with Spanish moss (full of chiggers) make the landscape mournful or romantic, depending on one’s frame of mind. W.J. Cash maintained that the blue air of the South, softening all edges, gave us our ambiguous ways of seeing things. And yes, it is as easy to imagine the early settlers vanishing into time as to imagine them raising houses, greeting Chief Tomochichi, planting pot herbs and fruit trees. Debtors hauled out of English jails and sent to paradise to start a silk trade. Asylum for the oppressed.
Walking around the tabby remains of Oglethorpe’s settlement on a cold March day this year, I rediscover my first instinct for history: as a child I stood looking at the site of the baker’s house, just an outline of crushed shell, imagined the oven, women walking under the oaks to get their bread, the fragrant smell as they stood at the door. At nine, I thought I’m walking here just as they walked. This time, I have the same sensation and, simultaneously, the sensation of myself as a child. The past doubles, a return, a gift, arcana mundi: there’s no escaping it, as the first settlers escaped their debts.
* * * * * * *
And my family escaped to the islands, too, packed up everything including the dog, and left my father to his own devices. He visited on weekends. When I think of the long cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof summers, it’s Willie I remember more than that quincunx of family, with my parents—never one of the girls—taking turns at center position.
Willie lived out back in the brick cottage with a dressing table made from a treadle sewing machine base, a maple sofa printed with American eagles, and bright yellow walls from the same paint can as the kitchen in the main house. Between the twin beds was a night table for the white Philco and a cranberry red lamp made of bumpy glass.
Now I see that she left her family to go to the island with us. Did she like that? Her old mother with rheumatism took care of Willie’s adopted daughter Carol (Willie asked me and I named her after one of my friends. Is this way of naming a left-over custom from slave times? Later I named Willie’s son Robert Nelson Smith after Lord Horatio Nelson.) Willie’s mother ate big spoonsful of damp red clay. Did she coax Carol to try some? Willie’s husband kept working at the mill.
Usually Willie took me crabbing on Saturdays. We got chunks of rotten meat at the grocery and took crab baskets to a bridge so low it almost touched the black marsh water when an occasional car went over. We stood for hot hours pulling in crabs. Mother would be so pleased; she never got enough crab, shrimp, flounder at home. Willie picked them up by the pincers and threw them in a croker sack. Since crabs had eaten rotten meat when caught, I never would taste one until I was 25 years old.
Willie met Kitty, the maid who came from Detroit with some people who made Fords up there. Kitty wasn’t crabbing for her employers, only out walking. “They can buy, honey,” she explained to us. I think Willie never had met anyone of her own color from the North. Kitty’s employers had a lot more money than we ever dreamed of, and her world must have sounded impossible to Willie.
I met the Detroit daughter at the Cloister Hotel pool. When I went to her house for lunch we sat in a baronial dining room and Kitty in white brought out two little tuna sandwiches on toast and Cokes. I thought it was amazing that someone so rich ate tuna fish, which I was too picky to touch since it smelled phewy and came out of a can. When the parents invited mine, my father refused to go because they were “nigger-rich” and “how can anyone live in Detroit?” My mother said they lived outside it and they were very nice. She was determined to meet interesting people. The ritual Sunday dinners, bridge games, the same days repeating themselves endlessly in Fitzgerald, were not what she had in mind. “Not everyone is stuck in the backwaters of Georgia,” she’d remind him.
“Well why do you think they’d want to meet people from these same backwaters then,” he argued back. He was always a good defense. In the large argument, the meta-argument of their life together, he knew she had to be defensive. He knew too that many people would like to meet my mother. He’d wanted to look at her for the rest of his life when he met her. Though who knew what happened to that.
Out of town, away from him, my mother became what she thought of as herself. The self she was as she met new people charmed everyone. The clothes she bought in Atlanta or had copied from magazines were gorgeous and sophisticated. She carried herself as if our name meant something, though its radius of influence was about ten miles. “Anyway,” she’d insist to him, “there are some interesting people here. I met a newspaper writer from Chicago. His wife had a purple birthmark on her back. Wonder if he saw it before they married. Really dark like raspberry juice. She had on a suit with a low back. She must not care. He smoked those little black cigarettes. And an old woman is studying slave songs and dances, writing them down for the future.” My father drains his drink. That’s his idea of nothing to do and all day to do it. “There’s a writer—,” she continues, even though he is not going to discuss it further, “you know that big Spanish house with the red tile roof right down the road? The one with the pines and the white stucco wall?”
He rolls his eyes back and shakes his head.
“Eugene O’Neill lives there.” She heard this from the newspaper man who said O’Neill was a famous writer with a strong sense of family. “His plays have been on Broadway.” (My ears pointed when I overheard that—a writer. I wanted to write books, too, and didn’t know how writers lived, except in remote, unimaginable places.) “They named the house “Casa Genotta”—for Gene and Carlotta. Her name’s Carlotta.” My father heads for the gin cabinet. “Don’t you know who Eugene O’Neill is?” she asks.
“Well, if you don’t know, I’m not going to be the one to tell you.” Soon they’d go out.
* * * * * * *
We didn’t know the word “racism.” Polarity was the God given order of things. At nine, I’d never even heard of separate but equal. From here, it’s impossible to relive that state of mind. At home, when my father asked the yard man to dance I felt embarrassed for my father but with no clear idea why. Drew, the yard man, and my father had little exchanges they went through on meeting. One stemmed from the time Drew first asked for employment at the mill, and my father filled out an employment form. When he asked Drew’s middle name, Drew replied “none,” and my father understood him to say “nome.” So, on greeting he always says, “Drew who?” and Drew replies “Drew NOME Hill, Cap’n, Drew NOME Hill,” and laughs. Drew could lift the proverbial bale of cotton on his shoulder. He was blue eyed, a “high yellow,” enormously strong. He could have mashed my father into the ground with his fist. I remember him later, crying at my father’s funeral, telling me how good the Cap’n always was to him, how he’d lost the best friend he had. My father, all generosity, all meanness, all enigma. Is it possible that the little name game, so obviously demeaning, did not seem so to them? When I found out Drew was afraid of the evil eye, my ritual with him was to close one eye and stare hard at him with the other. I chased him around the yard, with him begging me not to put the evil eye on him. Was he serious? Or indulging these peculiar white folks? I liked Drew. I teased anyone, black or white. As soon as I started school, I began giving Willie grades on food. At the end of every meal, I pronounced “A,” or “C—.” That these were adults and I was a patronizing, tormenting child I did not then see; it took me a long time to invent the idea of justice.
* * * * * * *
Willie was unfailingly kind in her sang-froid way. From her arrival at seven a.m. until she left for afternoon rest, the house was a better place to be. My father was gone, which helped, and mother and Willie were there—if only it could stay like that. They planned the menu, straightened the house. Mother went to the beach while Willie washed underwear or vacuumed. If Mother shopped, she honked when she got back, and they unloaded the groceries and started dinner. The orderly world of The House, my favorite game, metaphor, reality. I set up a parallel house in the breakfast room, laid my dolls on the cornsilk as Willie shucked corn, ironed my doll dresses as Willie ironed, cooked on the toy electric stove as Willie cooked. In the game, I always had the father away at a war. One rag doll turned into a black doll when I turned her over. All I knew on the subject of race was the Sunday school song “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” I mixed the song up with “Autumn leaves are now falling, red and yellow and brown, autumn leaves are now falling, see them tumbling down.”
If this sounds too archaic to believe, believe me. When I went to Nicaragua a couple of years before the revolution, my friend there picked me up in his big green Mercedes. I’d known him as a poet at Princeton; he’d gone home and become the secretary to Somoza, his prime minister. As we rolled through the streets, I had glimpses of poor, very poor people parting in the streets to let the rude chauffeur’s horn through. I was alarmed. “Why aren’t they throwing rocks at us?” was the first question I asked in that country. My friend answered, “Because they don’t know to,” His fate is another story.
Willie didn’t “know to” either. Within her range of opportunities perhaps she felt lucky. I think she enjoyed her mornings with my mother, who was never a prima donna and would scrub and pull weeds and strip paint from tables she picked up at antique sales. When everything is to be straight and clean and pretty and right, there’s endless work to be done. They laughed and gossiped. As at home, Willie soon knew everything through the maid’s grapevine.
My mother would have stayed forever. Sea Island suited her: a tropical island of perpetual vacation from the reality of Fitzgerald. My sisters liked the St. Simons lifeguards who came over at night and played canasta. I spied from behind the sofa. Late, they’d go to the beach to look for loggerhead turtle eggs. At Sea Island there was no one to play with, I wrote notes and put them in jars and made my father give them to shrimp boat fishermen to take out to sea. I never got answers from Nassau or England, as I hoped. My habits of solitude I seem to have like I have blue eyes, a natural result of the gene pool I was fated to. My sisters found boys and were gone. Everyone at Sea Island seemed old. All there was to do besides play on the beach was swim at the Cloister pool and order club sandwiches and ginger ale under the umbrellas. Saturday night, my parents got dressed up and went to the Cloister or King and Prince bar. It was terrible if I had to go to dinner all scratchy in organdy pinafore over sunburn, the food hidden under pale sauces, and old men, mostly belly, talking about what kind of season the Bulldogs might have and ol’Harry giving them hell in Washington. I thought Truman looked like a parakeet. After dinner a band played “I’ll Dance at Your Wedding,” “Some Enchanted Evening” (my mother’s theme song), “Rum and Coca Cola,” and Mother danced with all the men and Daddy went off somewhere until he came back with that mean expression on his face, the half-curl smile you could think was pleasant unless you knew him. Then he’d want to go home and she wouldn’t and I’d press my ankles together waiting. At home, a few drinks. Something would be broken. They shouted names, pushed each other around. Their routine and it never ceased to terrify. Once she wouldn’t give him the keys when he wanted to roar off somewhere at two in the morning. They chased around the house like two dogs. I was the only one who could calm my father. Maybe the absurdity of a 50-pound human as a peacemaker got through even to him. When I stood in the doorway, sometimes he could not go on. Though I might want to throw boiling water in their faces, I would instead stand there in my flowered seersucker nightgown, forcing my eyes to look as blue as possible. To react naturally would make me like them; I had to be smarter. They were trapped on a small grid. (Thanks to my parents, I sometimes recognize small grids when I get on them.) I never heard the word “divorce” pass between them. I’d known only one “broken home.” The mother worked in the dime store, the father took off for Jacksonville, Florida and sent the two boys drug store cards that said “Love, Daddy” on their birthdays. Divorce happened to those who were not very nice. We had love, much love, but it was scumbled. On the island, at night, often I ran to Willie.
Willie might be looking at magazines. She had a little fan turned on her feet. That famous profile. She drank coke and the red lamp shed a glow on her brown skin. She was exactly the color of milk choclate. When she lay in bed with her hair down, she looked different. By day she wore her hair in a bun and wet plum lipstick. Seeing her like this was strange. I always saw her ironing or cooking. Here she was stretched out, the covers kicked back, her shoulders bare. She smelled of rose oil. Both her incisors were mostly gold. She had big lips and a delicate but workstrong body. She wore an old gown of my mother’s. When I asked why the soles of her feet were white, she said the Lord dipped the African people in the dark to protect them from the sun. Their feet were white because he held them from the ankles. When I asked if I could stay with her, she never had to ask why. I looked out Willie’s front window at my parents in the kitchen, watching their gestures and faces as they slung drinks and leaned forward hands on hips to taunt each other. Willie rarely remarked on them, How could she refrain? She was wise. A slip from me about anything she said would be expensive. For no reason, sometimes my father would call her in the middle of the night and fire her. He got these crazes. The next day my mother would apologize and say “You know how he gets.” Yes, Willie knew. Since her husband worked for my father at the mill and was slow and much older, she was not going to disagree with anything.
Late, after the pyrotechnics were over, I’d hear Willie’s soft snore. The tide, at its lowest, dragged back through the deep cocina shells, a sound like someone stepping on fine broken glass. This sound and Willie’s breathing, I’d lie awake listening as long as I could. The fan on the dresser looked like a small black face slowly shaking its head in the dark.
* * * * * * *
Beyond the tabby wall behind Willie’s cottage, waist-high palmettos began, I was forbidden beyond the wall because quicksand could swallow me if I misstepped. I looked down as I ran, not only for quicksand but for coral snakes. I’d seen many moccasins, greasy blue, moving the way a hose moves when you cut off the spray at the nozzle. I didn’t know other poisonous snakes, but I imagined the bright twist of body in the white sand like the delicate coral necklace in my mother’s jewelry box, suddenly come to life. If one bites your finger, you have to have your finger cut off quickly or you’ll die. What if one bites your stomach? You’d never know what hit you. Palmettos slash against my legs. I run fast. When I stop, the sand is cool. Where is the big red woodpecker called Lord God? I sit still, hoping I will hear one of the small island deer clattering toward me through the knife sharp leaves. If I am still as a bush for a long time, a deer might come and rub its face against mine, even lie down beside me and let me rub its damp speckled side. The deer might think I am one of the animals, and I could step quietly with her toward the marsh grass.
In the palmetto jungle I imagine myself living there like the Swiss Family Robinson, making plates from shells, catching rainwater on the tip of my tongue from oak leaves. Maybe a Tarzan and Jane live somewhere in here. I have no idea how small the island is or that its owners forbid Jews, much less riffraff like the Swiss shipwrecked. As I walk back home, I search the shrubs for parrot nests. Low in the palmetto I find a small nest made of dune grass and twigs. Three mottled blue eggs. I run all the way home. When I see my father’s car pulling in the driveway, I cut over to the far side of the yard.
I can see my mother at the kitchen table polishing her nails poppy red. She hears the heavy crunch of tires on the drive and looks up to see the white curve of Daddy’s fender turning in. Already Friday again. She screws the top on the polish and spreads out her fingers to dry. She sees him, his thin scissor legs swinging out of the Oldsmobile, his rumpled linen suit, the way he holds his head to one side. He wipes his face with a handkerchief and turns toward the ocean for the relief of a sea breeze. There is none. The air is so thick it seems to congeal as he breathes.
He kisses her forehead. She glances at the stove clock. She could set it by his arrival each week. She can repeat without asking his answers about the week he just spent at home in Fitzgerald, but they go through the script anyway. She thinks of Oscar, the severely mongoloid neighbor at home, always asking the temperature. She’d made up temperatures every day for years, as though it ever had changed for him in his 30 years or ever would. She might bring up buying a house at Sea Island but Daddy always says renting is costing him hundreds of dollars and nobody notices that and does she think he’s made out of money. Enough never will be enough, he says. I linger, looking at them facing down for the weekend. Her hair streaked blond from the sun, him holding up the frosted bottle to the window to see how much is left. Did they ever want to just stay home and play mah jongg, make an omelet, and read? Was it getting married in the Depression, furtively running away in the middle of the night that started them off on this endless restlessness? Now I wonder if she ever tried to find another man on these summer trips. I certainly would have. Someone elegant from the North with graying temples and a bankroll. Her longing for a fuller life was a constant. As far as I know she never took a positive step to get it. Because of her beauty, because her own father adored her, because so many wanted to marry her, because, because, she continued to expect the life she was promised would arrive on its own.
I quietly let myself in the breezeway door. In my room, I hide the egg in a thumb of my white gloves in the top drawer, cover it with the other glove to keep the egg warm until it hatches. Every day I slowly slide out the drawer expecting a small bird with green jungle eyes to look out at me.
* * * * * *
Willie meets other maids easily and begins to go out with them on Saturday nights and Mondays, They go to the colored beach and to juke joints in Brunswick. I see her fastening her garter belt and slipping into sling back shoes. Putting something from a little pot on her eyes. They darken, almond shaped, more like Nefertiti’s than ever. Ten years later when she leaves us for a new life in Chicago, my mother is sure Kitty first put ideas in Willie’s head. By then Orvil Faubus is banging the school door in Little Rock, and waves of blacks are heading north, but my family blames Willie’s departure on Kitty’s gold bracelet and high shrieking laugh that always dropped off when my parents came into the room.
* * * * * * *
Now, going back to the island, I try to imagine my parents as content and old. Could they be happy? Impossible to know, of course, since he died five days after his 48th birthday, when I was 14, and she entered a nursing home at the age of 53 and must have set a Guiness for the longest stay there by now. Who they really were remains unknowable, one of those solve this or lose your life riddles. I try to imagine my daughter, at all her ages so far, visiting my parents. All their good qualities at the forefront. Compliments spilling over her, the tins of brownies, the stories of when her mother was little. Parties, drinking over with. Magically come to their senses and putting together mildewed jigsaws with a rapt grandchild. Perhaps they’d be bird watchers, counting egrets over the marsh at evening; I have to laugh, imagining that.
Instead, I go back to the islands to give a talk at a “Southern Women Writers in Transition” conference. My sisters are ready for a brief trip, and we meet in Atlanta. We drive to the islands, via home in Fitzgerald. When I ask Mother if she remembers Sea Island, she says yes, it was nice, wasn’t it? Yes, I answer, nice. If memory is destroyed, better, I decide, to assume everything was nice. We drive to the islands. Past Waycross, where my aunt Emmy spent the last years of her life in a baby crib curled up like a Peruvian mummy, not having any idea who or where she was. We rent a condo from the King and Prince Hotel on St. Simons Island. They’re still the big sisters and I’m still the little sister, only we’re grown and I’m giving a talk. They decide to go to a restaurant that has been mentioned in Gourmet or somewhere. I’m stunned that they do not plan to hear me speak but I don’t say anything. They keep saying they know they’d make me nervous. At the conference, my Fitzgerald High English teacher, now almost 80, has driven the 150 miles to hear me. I’m touched, and suddenly surprised with anger at my sisters, who used to drive off with boys in convertibles.
The next day we drive by the house on Sea Island and remark on how much smaller it seems. I look out back at Willie’s house. What if she’s still in there, looking at an old Harper’s Bazaar? If I ran to the door she’d look up and say, “Come on in and sit, but you’ll have to entertain yourself cause I’m all out of chat.”
The beach is bone-marrow cold early in the mornings when I slip out to walk alone. I want to keep going so I won’t have to turn back and face the wind. Closer than I remembered, just beyond a stretch of sharp waves, lies Jekyll.
* * * * * * *
When I go home to California, I open Volume I of The Story of Georgia, untouched since it was pulled out of the ashes of my grandfather’s house in 1961, I open to a pressed red rose, brittle, the color of dried blood, stuck in the crevice of pages titled “The Battle of Bloody Marsh,” words I remember from Georgia history class. An image of the marsh water skimmed with oily red floats up in my mind. I read about the Yamacraws and the Creeks, about yellow jasmine, slash pine and loblolly, black locust, the debtor immigrants hoping to turn quick fortunes making wine and silk. The first poem I ever wrote, at age nine, began “Oglethorpe, brave and true, / sailed across the briny blue./ Thirty five families crossed the sea/ and helped bring freedom to you and me.” No one marked me as a Mozart for that. Twirling the old rose I read that they didn’t want slaves, a fact I never knew. The first settlers refused them in clear moral terms until it became clear that the climate, swampy and murderously hot, was unbearable to their thin English blood. After all, Georgia is on the same latitude as North Africa. I see that I’ve discovered the first cause of rationalization, that number one talent of many Southerners. They decided that the equatorial Africans were better suited than they to labors in the sun: soon the slave ships moored at Ebo Landing at St. Simons.
* * * * * * *
Jekyll was deserted when I was a child. Robber barons bought the island in 1896 and built mansions where they vacationed. For some reason they abandoned them and the government closed the island down after World War II. Now it’s a state park crawling with vans and fast-food stands, campers and tacky motels. Then, we could row there, Nancy, her boyfriend Neil, and I. We crossed from the pier at St. Simons, going all around Jekyll to the ocean side because we weren’t allowed to land. This is where the illegal ship The Wanderer once anchored and let off the last load of slaves in the U.S. The houses are enormous, larger than the fanciest ones at Sea Island. Somehow Nancy and Neil are gone; the waves breaking in memory emphasize an absolute quiet. Moss long since had overtaken the swimming pools half full of slimy water. The delicate green embroidery of resurrection fern covers the live oak limbs. Stone statues of naked nymphs holding baskets of fruit startle me as I wander through the overgrown grounds. Up on stone terraces French doors swing and bang, disturbing only chameleons sunning on the steps. I go in a long room and from a black leather chaise longue pick up a letter addressed to the Cranes, the name stamped on toilets and stationery boxes at home. I take down a dusty game of Parchesi from a bookshelf. This is better than The Mystery at Lilac Inn or any other book I’ve read.
When I tell Willie about the deserted island she says that ghosts are there, everyone knows it, everyone knows that many slaves waded into the surf at Ebo Landing and some flew back to Africa. Those who didn’t sprout wings washed up on Jekyll and haunt it forever. She is holding a curling rod. She combs jelly into her hair, pulls the hot rod through the long kinks. The hot smell sizzles in the muggy air. She pulls back her hair tight and knots it at the nape. I would like to live here all year and play alone on Jekyll and in the palmettos. Willie could take care of me. I would never miss my parents.
* * * * * * *
On the last night, my parents and I are taking house keys back to The Cloister. My mother doesn’t want to go home. Suddenly my father slams the brakes. We see a red fox ahead on the road, stopped so still it looks as if it won’t move for the car to pass. “Let me out,” I beg my parents. I want to say something softly to the fox, not words, just sounds while I move up slowly. The fox would know me, know I meant no harm and it would let me brush the back of my hand across its tail. All three of us stare, and the fox glares straight back into the headlights then slips into the black off the edge of the road. I stare after it, not sure the two glinting eyes I see looking back at me from the dark are not my own reflecting in the car window.
As we drive by the turn to the secluded Spanish house, Mother reminds my father that they never met the interesting writer Eugene O’Neill, “You’ve got it all wrong,” he tells her. “They don’t even live on the island anymore. The bartender at the Cloister told me he was a miserable drunk and she was some chiquita banana with a made-up name who didn’t have the sense to come in out of the rain. He sat up there writing nonsense when it was so hot he had to sit on a bath towel and keep blotters under his hands so the ink didn’t run away in the sweat. Must have been a damn fool not to think of that when he bought the place. A damn fool Yankee.”
Never one to allow the last word, she retorted, “Well he’s an important writer with a sense of family.”
The low white wall pulls fast by my eyes like exposed film pulled over a light.