The day he arrived started off as usual as any for Pru. It was late spring. She stood by the stove in the summer kitchen, boiling water to wash Miss Vena’s petticoats and undergarments. Old Janie, who worked at the Moffatts’ neighboring farm, sat at the large wooden table gossiping with Aunt Betty, Pru’s father’s sister, who was Miss Vena’s cook. At least once a week, Old Janie stopped by with the pretense of borrowing a cup of sugar, pint of molasses, or any other sundry item seemingly missing from the Moffatts’ larder.
“Who’d Miss Vena hire this time?” Aunt Betty rolled another biscuit between her palms and placed it alongside the others in the round baking pan. She wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, sending flakes of flour floating down around her like snow.
“Some high yellow boy,” Old Janie said.
Pru could never quite figure out how Old Janie knew all about the daily comings and goings in town.
“Don’t he have a name?” Aunt Betty asked.
“Baxter,” Old Janie said.
“Baxter? That Baxter?” Aunt Betty opened the wood-burning cook stove and slid the rolls inside.
“Reckon so. Ain’t no other ‘round here,” Old Janie said.
Aunt Betty clacked her tongue.
“Well, best be getting back before they wonder what I’ve been up to.” Old Janie picked up a handful of sugar cubes, put them in her apron pocket, and left through the back door.
Rags wrapped around her hands, Pru grabbed the handles of the cauldron, and, with all the steadiness she could muster, lifted the pot from the stove and poured the boiling water into the tub by her feet. Steam clouded her sight. At times like these, she liked to imagine that she was in the clouds. She’d fly high up over Miss Vena’s farmhouse and pastures, then past the white folks’ church on the hill, and swoop into the tiny town of Brownsburg. She’d look down at the post office and Bosworth’s Mercantile, circle the red brick houses with their wraparound porches, and then turn up the side road where her people lived in their handmade cabins, hewn from heavy logs, each one bartered for, and touch down alongside her twin sister Lonnie’s grave, hidden in the brush behind her parents’ house. She’d rest there to finger the flowers blossoming in the weeds, like butterflies trapped in spider webs.
With that vision in her head, Pru squatted alongside the tub and stirred the clothes with a heavy wooden paddle. She plunged her hands into the cooling water and ran the petticoats up and down the washing board with a bar of lye soap.
“Baxter. Lordy,” Aunt Betty said to no one in particular.
The colored folks knew Baxter, and the whites knew of him, that is, all the whites except for Miss Vena, because she wasn't from around here. Mr. Andrew East brought her back from Philadelphia to his home place in Virginia. They’d been married for only one year when he was killed in a hunting accident. Miss Vena inherited the house, the land, and the animals. That was two years back, and Pru wished Miss Vena had asked her or Aunt Betty about Baxter. But Miss Vena never took advice from anyone.
Waving a black fan vigorously in front of her face, Miss Vena stood in the kitchen doorway. Although beads of sweat gathered on her nose, she would never have acknowledged them. Her brown hair was upswept, and her white summer cotton dress cinched tight around her tiny waist. Her bracelets jangled with each flick of her wrist.
“It takes twice as long to get my clothes clean here than back home,” she said. “Twice as long. Why is that?”
“It’s the water, Missus.” Aunt Betty cut salt pork into translucent slices.
“The water, yes, the water.” Miss Vena leaned against the door jam. “Pru, tell me one good thing about this place.”
This was a game Miss Vena liked to play.
“Bosworth’s Mercantile, Miss Vena,” Pru said.
“And what’s so great about that?”
“Well, on my day off last week, I stopped in to buy Mamma a tin of coffee and saw a basket full of lemons. Mounded up, like a pile of sunshine. Can you imagine that?”
“My grandmother Kitty took me to the Ritz-Carleton Hotel in Philadelphia for afternoon tea once.” Miss Vena stared out at the red maple trees in the backyard through the steamy windows. “I wore a new white cotton dress, pink silk bow tied around my waist. Crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceilings. We ate lemon pound cake, each slice served on its own white china plate, painted with dainty pink roses.”
“Well, that sure is something, Miss Vena.” Pru wrung out the last pair of bloomers. “Ain’t never seen anything like that.”
“What would you give to see it?” Miss Vena asked.
Pru thought about the bundle of keepsakes hidden under her mattress. “I don’t know,” she said, trying not to look anywhere but at the Missus’ pink slippered feet.
“I expected you’d say that,” Miss Vena said. “Country life doesn’t suit me, doesn’t suit me at all. The only person close enough to visit with is Lizzie Moffatt, and she’s a nitwit. A real Dodo bird. And the church folk, don’t get me started. If I were back home right now, I’d be hosting a tea party or shopping at Barnaby’s on Walnut Street. Why did I ever let Andrew persuade me to marry him? What was I thinking?” Miss Vena sobbed. She pressed the heels of her palms firmly against her eyes.
“Missus,” Aunt Betty said, “it’s alright. Mr. Andrew loved you. Did everything he could for you. And, you loved Mr. Andrew. You were so happy. You said it yourself many a time.”
Miss Vena nodded.
“You just having one of those spells, that’s all. Why don’t you go lie down? Take a rest? I’ll help you.”
Aunt Betty wiped her hands off on her apron. Miss Vena held out her right arm, the fan dangling from a string around her wrist. Aunt Betty gently took her by the elbow and led her upstairs.
Hanging the laundry out to dry on a rope between two maples in the backyard, Pru caught sight of Baxter walking towards the house.
“Pruella Ann Carter. Been a long time,” he said.
“Baxter Vaughn. Sure has.” Surely he shouldn’t have seen the Missus’ underthings, but it was too late.
“How’s your mamma?” he asked.
“Glad.” His blue eyes traveled from her bare feet and up her legs, past her waist and lingered for the briefest of moments on her bosom. She remembered that she didn't have much of one the last time he saw her.
Pru crossed her arms over her chest. “How’s cousin Rachel and the kids?”
“Rachel’s fine. Kids are growing like weeds. You’re looking good, Pru.”
She hid her face behind a pair of dripping bloomers and then busied herself with hanging up the rest of the laundry. When she peeked out from under the clothes on the line, she saw his scuffed boots still planted in front of her.
She thought about how, at his wedding, his bride Rachel was already big with child. Towards the end of the ceremony, Pru and Lonnie snuck away to climb trees. That was three years ago. Pru and her sister were eleven years old.
Pru peered out at Baxter over a petticoat. He was looking toward the backdoor of the house. His fair skin was already ruddy from the sun, and a few red curls fanned out along the nape of his neck from under his straw hat. If it weren’t for the shape of his mouth and small stature, he would have looked like every other white McKinney around here. But no one dared say that to his face.
“Miss Vena’s expecting me.” He waved goodbye and walked up towards the back porch.
For as far back as anyone could remember, the Carters worked for the Easts, and the Vaughns worked for the McKinneys. Each side thought it knew what the other was thinking, and they all felt a confidence in that until the evitable uncertainty crept in, like a trickle of water through a crack in the wall. Pru imagined that she heard it dripping, washing away the town one drop at a time.
Baxter stood in the middle of Miss Vena’s kitchen, straw hat in hand.
“Have a seat,” Aunt Betty said. “I’ll tell her you’re here.”
“Yes Ma’am.” Baxter pulled a chair out from the table and sat down with his elbows on his knees. He kneaded the edge of his hat.
Pru, having just come inside, stood at the backdoor.
“Sure is hot today.” Baxter said.
“Uh-huh,” Pru said.
“Can I have a drink of water?”
Pru ladled out some water from a bucket in the corner. He took a sip and smiled.
“You ain’t working for the McKinneys no more?” she asked.
“Left there after Mamma died last year. They got a new cook, woman named Marjorie. She took a disliking to me straight away ‘cause I was close to them McKinneys. I don’t know how she done it, but that bitch turned them against me. It got so bad that I had to leave.”
“Yeah, well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. I was mucking stalls at the Trotters most recently when I got this here opportunity.”
Aunt Betty entered the kitchen. “Wait for Miss Vena out on the back porch. She’ll be with you shortly.”
Baxter handed Pru his cup and walked outside.
Soon after, Miss Vena, brown eyes wide and alert, entered the kitchen. She held out her hand to Pru. Miss Vena’s fingers were so soft and fine, like dogwood petals. She led Pru out to the porch.
“See the fence?” Miss Vena pointed out to Baxter the chicken yard down near the barn. Rotting boards teetered on the verge of collapse. “Can you fix it?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Sure can.”
“Pru here will keep an eye on you. Go on, Pru, show him the tools and wood in the barn.”
Pru did what she was told.
“You gonna stay here and watch me work?” Baxter asked Pru as he pulled off a rotten board with a pry bar. He’d already unbuttoned his shirt and laid it over a fence post.
“Nah. I’ll go collect eggs.”
“Miss Vena said you should keep an eye on me.” He tossed the board outside the chicken yard. His back was muscular, and the way his pants fit tight around his waist and backside made her feel uncomfortable.
He turned around and caught her looking at him. “Well, go get the eggs, then, little girl.”
In the dark dustiness of the chicken house, Pru’s legs felt weak. She sat down in the shavings. The dappled hens spread out around her. She thought about how Lonnie chased butterflies, jumping and twirling in the air.
“Lonnie, girl,” Pru whispered to herself. “Why’d you have to go?”
By the time Pru came out of the chicken house with a basket of brown eggs, Baxter was nailing in the final plank, straight and level. He stepped back to check his work.
Miss Vena approached. “Yes, that’s much better. What do you think, Pru? Should I keep him on and see how he does?”
Baxter gave Pru the side-eye.
“Yes, Miss Vena, keep him on.”
Deep in thought, Miss Vena pressed her finger up against her lips. Baxter stared down at his dusty boots. They stayed like that for a while, Pru standing by the fence in between them.
“Alright Baxter,” Miss Vena said. “Come back tomorrow. There’s lots for you to do around here.”
Baxter fixed the lattice work in Miss Vena’s rose garden. He repaired the leaky roof on the chicken house. He took the cows out to pasture, and by the time three weeks had rolled around, he’d been working there every day except Sundays.
One day, Miss Vena asked Baxter to slaughter a lamb, and she’d promised that Pru would help him.
It was hot inside the barn. Sweat bloomed immediately across Pru’s body. The sheep gathered, bleating, at the back. Miss Vena’s horse, Maverick, stood as a witness in his stable.
“You ain’t squeamish?” Baxter asked.
“No. I ain’t. You?”
Every year since she could remember, Pru watched her father and his cousins slaughter sheep and hogs, but, for some reason, the sight of those lambs tightly huddled together struck her as tragic.
Baxter took a length of hemp rope off a peg on the wall and handed it to Pru.
“Come on.” He waved her over the barrier to get to a lamb. Arms out in an open embrace, he swiftly cornered the largest one while the others scattered. He grabbed the lamb around his stomach and threw him on his back.
“The rope,” he said, voice straining.
Pru squatted down next to Baxter. He took the rope and bound the lamb’s feet.
A slice of light opened up into the barn. Pru looked up. Miss Vena stood in the doorway.
“Miss Vena? Everything alright?” Pru asked.
“I just came to watch. Don’t mind me.” Miss Vena walked up to the barrier.
“No offense, Ma’am,” Baxter said, “but you might want to leave. It’s about to get messy, something a lady like yourself might not want to see.”
“No. I want to see it.”
He nodded and pulled a knife out of a leather holster on his belt. “It’ll be quick.”
He pushed the lamb’s head to the side. The blade slid in easily, and he worked it steady-handed across the neck.
All three of them watched the lamb bleed out, his thick tongue wedged between his teeth. He breathed in short raspy spurts.
Pru glanced over at Miss Vena. Her face was flushed, and she had her hand on her chest.
“Ma’am,” Baxter said, “are you…”
“Alright? Yes, I am.”
“These things can be…”
“Yes, Miss Vena, upsetting.”
“But, necessary. Baxter, is it dead yet?”
There was a pool of dark blood under the lamb’s head.
“Yes.” Baxter wiped off the knife with a rag.
“Good. Butcher it. Pru, come with me.”
Walking back to the house, Miss Vena asked Pru to tell her about Baxter.
“His wife Rachel’s my cousin, my mother’s sister’s daughter.”
“Does he have children?”
“Three – Homer, Carrie, and Annie.”
Miss Vena strolled straight through the kitchen. Aunt Betty raised her eyebrows at Pru as she followed Miss Vena into the dining room and then the parlor.
“I need to rest.” Miss Vena reclined on the tan upholstered settee under the lace-covered window. “Pru, sit down.”
Pru sat on the floor.
“You’ve had much experience with things like that?” Miss Vena asked.
Miss Vena nodded.
“Yes, Ma’am. It’s the way things go around here.”
“Do you think my Andrew suffered?”
“If he did, not for long, Ma’am. Once the blood starts flowing, they pass out real fast.”
“I’d like to think he lost consciousness right after he was shot, but now I’m not so sure.” Miss Vena draped her arm over her eyes. “Stay with me, Pru, until I fall asleep. It’s too hot upstairs for a nap.”
“Yes, Miss Vena.”
Pru watched a daddy-long-legs amble across the floor, stepping over pricks of light. After a while, Miss Vena’s breathing became steady and deep.
That night, Pru lay on a straw mattress on the floor next to Aunt Betty in the tiny room they shared off of the kitchen. Usually, Aunt Betty’s snoring didn’t bother her. But tonight, her mind tracked the slow crescendo of snores, each one louder than the next until they crested and retreated back to a garbled whisper.
Pru sat up, reached under the mattress, and pulled out a checkered handkerchief. Inside, there was a dried flower from Lonnie’s grave and a blue-beaded bracelet that Pru made for Lonnie the summer before she died. Pru put on the bracelet. The beads felt smooth and cool against her skin. Her parents burned what little Lonnie had in the backyard. She watched the flames from the upstairs window. No more talk of Lonnie. Daddy had insisted. What was gone, was gone, he said. Mamma cried in her sleep. Maybe she still did.
“Lonnie, if you was here, I’d tell you about what’s going on,” she whispered. “Remember what Baxter’s mamma said about him, that his eyes are always too big for his stomach? Well, I don’t think Baxter working here is gonna do no one no good.”
The next morning, Miss Vena called Pru and Aunt Betty into the parlor.
“I’m going to host a tea party,” Miss Vena said. “Lizzie Moffatt goes on and on about her tea cakes. Well, it’s time she tasted a first-rate recipe.” She pointed to a stack of letters on the marble-topped table. “Pru, deliver the invitations to the post office. Aunt Betty, go with her so you can pick up supplies at Bosworth’s. Here.” Miss Vena handed a piece of paper to Aunt Betty.
“What’s the first item?” Miss Vena asked.
“Lemons?” Pru read over Aunt Betty’s shoulder.
“Yes, that’s right, lemons. Three of them. You’re going to bake a lemon pound cake.”
“But I ain’t never made one with lemons before,” Aunt Betty said.
“I’ll supervise,” Miss Vena said.
“If you say so, Missus.” Aunt Betty pursed her lips.
“I do say so.”
“You want us to go to town now?” Aunt Betty asked.
“But I ain’t finished getting lunch ready or even started on dinner.”
Miss Vena folded her hands on her lap and looked straight at Aunt Betty.
“Yes, Missus,” Aunt Betty handed the list to Pru.
“That’ll be all,” Miss Vena said.
On their way out of the parlor, Pru asked Aunt Betty, “Ain’t Baxter ‘sposed to come today?”
“Shush your mouth,” Aunt Betty said, yanking down hard on Pru’s arm.
Pru and Aunt Betty walked along the road. Up on the hill, in front of the Moffats’ place, Prince, the Moffats’ German Shepherd, barked and ran back and forth behind the fence. Aunt Betty raised her stick at him.
“Don’t know why you carry that with you,” Pru said. “He ain’t gonna get out.”
“I don’t trust those Moffatts.”
“Why don’t Old Janie tell him to back off?”
“You crazy? He don’t listen to her.”
Someone whistled. It was Tommy, one of the Moffat children. Prince quieted. Tommy smiled and waved at them. They waved back.
“That’s more like it,” Aunt Betty said.
Suddenly, they heard the front gate click open, followed by a rush of paws tearing through the grass toward them.
Pru screamed and got behind Aunt Betty. Aunt Betty hit Prince on the head with the stick. The dog stopped in its tracks and growled, bearing its jagged yellow teeth.
“Tommy, call off Prince,” Aunt Betty yelled.
The boy laughed. Prince lunged at Aunt Betty and ripped off a piece of her skirt.
“Go on, get, get outta here Tommy.” Aunt Betty waved the stick in front of her. Prince charged again, this time biting Aunt Betty on her right her leg and pulling her down. Aunt Betty screamed.
Pru couldn’t move. Her arms went limp. She heard Old Janie in front of the house, yelling at Tommy to call off Prince.
Tommy whistled. Prince let go of Aunt Betty, grabbed her worn brown leather shoe, and ran up to the house.
“Just wait until I tell your daddy,” Old Janie said to Tommy. “Give me that shoe. Lock up Prince in the barn.”
Old Janie, holding Aunt Betty’s shoe out in front of her, ran as fast as her chubby legs could carry her.
“Oh, Betty, poor Betty. What he done to you?”
Aunt Betty lay on her back, staring blankly up at the dark clouds. Her right thigh, just above the leg, was torn up and bloody.
“Betty, Betty, can you hear me? Say something, honey, please.”
Aunt Betty moved her lips, but no sound came out.
“She’s in shock. Teeth got in there pretty bad, but they didn’t hit no artery.” Old Janie ripped off a torn piece of Aunt Betty’s skirt and wrapped it around the wound, tight. “She’s gonna need stiches. Pru, hurry on back to Miss Vena. Help her hitch up the carriage and come down here to take Betty to Doc Silber.”
Pru took off running towards Miss Vena’s.
By the time Miss Vena’s house came into view, rain had pockmarked the dirt road. Thunder rolled closer. As Pru raced past the parlor window, she heard a rhythmic pounding, like something hard knocking up against the wall. She saw shadows, moving. She pressed her nose to the glass. Through the lace curtains, she made out Miss Vena, bending over the settee, head down, hair over her face. The bottom of her dress was up over her shoulders. Baxter was behind her, moving his hips, with a look on his face she’d seen only once. Suddenly, he spotted her. He put his finger up to his lips.
Pru heard a ringing in her head. The window shimmered in front of her. She stumbled out towards the barn. She stopped, bent over, and threw up into the mud. The rain came down harder, flooding away her tears. She opened the barn doors and curled up in a corner, shivering. Thunder and lightning chased each other across the sky.
The rain died down. The back-porch door slammed. Baxter pushed open the barn doors.
“What you doing in here?” he asked.
Pru hugged her knees tighter.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in town?”
“Prince bit Aunt Betty real bad. I came back to get Miss Vena.”
“Well, go on.”
Pru slowly uncurled herself and stood up. As she passed by him, he put his hand on her shoulder. “You didn’t see nothing,” he said.
Pru shook her head.
“I said, you didn't see nothing.”
“You did like they done to Lonnie.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Lonnie and I spent too much time hiding in the trees during your wedding, and on the way back home, in the dark, those men grabbed Lonnie first.”
“You ain’t making no sense. What men?”
“The white men we passed on the road. One of them held me and made me watch the other one rip off her skirt and do to her like you did to Miss Vena. Right there on the side of the road. But when it was my turn, our daddy yelled out. He’d come looking for us, and those men ran off. Left her lying face down in the grass. Daddy made us swear never to tell no one. He didn’t want no trouble.”
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry, Pru.”
“That’s why she done slit her wrists not even a week later.” Pru buried her face in her hands.
“This was different. I didn’t hurt her. She wanted me to do it. Believe me.”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s true. Honest. You didn’t hear her scream, did you?”
“Well then. Just don't say nothing to no one. And it’ll all go back to the way it was. I promise.”
It was late summer the day he left for good. Aunt Betty was kneading dough for the biscuits. Her leg was still bandaged. Pru stirred Miss Vena’s clothes in the basin with a paddle.
“Did you see Baxter this morning?” Aunt Betty asked.
“Caught sight of him headed to the far pasture,” Pru said.
“So she still has him out with the cows?”
“It’s been two weeks. A lot needs to be done around here. That damn boar has just about dug straight under the hog fence. The coop roof is leaking again. The bushes out front need trimming.”
Pru reached into the hot water and grabbed a pair of bloomers.
“When I came back from the garden this morning, I saw her slippers on the front porch,” Aunt Betty said.
“She rode out on Maverick. In the direction of the far pasture.”
“So that’s that, then.”
While Pru hung out the laundry, Miss Vena trotted into the yard on Maverick. Strands of hair hung loosely down her shoulders. Her eyes were bloodshot.
“What’s wrong, Miss Vena?”
Miss Vena wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
“What did he do?”
“Said something nasty. I fired him. Told him I didn’t need his services anymore. He called me a bitch and hit me.”
“Oh, Miss Vena.”
“Pru, it was awful, just awful.” Miss Vena grabbed Pru’s hand. “Something else happened… a couple of weeks ago. I was afraid to tell anyone, afraid that he might hurt me like he did just now. But I can’t keep it to myself any longer.”
Pru heard that same ringing in her head. “All you alright, Ma’am?”
“No, I’m not alright. Can’t you see that?” Miss Vena bent over the saddle, her head closer to Pru’s. “He took advantage of me,” she whispered. “In the parlor.”
“Took advantage of you?”
“Raped me, Pru. Raped me. Do you know what that means?”
Pru stared at Miss Vena, her mouth open wide.
“He forced himself on me. Sullied me. I’m going to tell the sheriff.”
“You sure you want to do that, Miss Vena? I mean, can’t you work it out with him on your own?”
“Pru, you’re so naïve. He’s going to hang. It’s the law. And I know the law.” Miss Vena pulled her hand away and rode off into town.
Baxter ran up to the house just as Pru pinned up the last cotton nightgown.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Pru said.
“Where’s Miss Vena?” Baxter rubbed his swollen lower left jaw. His hands shook.
“What’d you say to her?”
“She went crazy. Hit me in the jaw. Accused me of raping her. Pru, you know that ain’t true.”
“I don’t know nothing.”
“You gotta talk to her. Tell her that you saw us, that she wanted me to.”
“She ain’t here. She went to the Sheriff’s.”
“Go home. They’ll be coming for you.”
Baxter grabbed Pru’s arm. “Come on, Pru,” he said. “You know what happened.”
“You said not to say nothing to no one.” She pulled her arm away. “And that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Baxter went for her again.
“Get outta here, Baxter Vaughn.” Aunt Betty came out onto the porch waving the wooden washing paddle. “Or you’re gonna get yourself into worse trouble.”
Baxter spit on the ground and walked away.
“Aunt Betty?” Pru came up on the porch, still shaking.
“They’re gonna kill him, ain’t they?”
“Most likely. But since he’s a bastard McKinney, maybe not.”
“You think he made her do it?”
“He should have known better. Anyone else of ours – even with half the brains that he got – would have tried to find a way out. Come on inside.”
“In a minute.” Pru gazed past the barn and out towards the cow pasture. She tried to imagine Baxter hanging from the oak tree in the center of town. But, instead, she pictured that white man, the one who raped Lonnie, swinging as the rain soaked through his shirt and trousers.