From the trail, the scout thought it was one of those inky dark birds that fished the river, dozens of them skittering across the surface, wings flapping wildly, breams or small bass speared on their beaks. Birds and water, everywhere. Yesterday, he had eaten from a turkey so enormous its breast burst when he shot it. A man could live here if it weren’t so bloody at its heart. He did not know that he had strayed into the territory of Florida several days ago.
But this bird was too still. As he neared the creek, a doe and her fawn lunged up the other bank, their white tails moving targets as they fled into the pine strand. A girl floated, face down, where the creek pooled just before disappearing, sucked back into the earth to some unaccountable end. He lowered himself to the rock ledge that had stopped her body in its downstream journey. Loosed from its antler pins, her black hair cloaked her shoulders, drifted in the current. Her skull was rived from crown to nape.
The scout wiped his hands on his pants, then squatted and carefully rolled her over.
She was young, her face not yet ruined by the water that cradled her, by wolves or bears, or turtles, or the big cats that slunk through the woods. Bead necklaces ringed her neck. He could not tell the colors, maybe light and dark blue, red. The dyes in her tunic and skirt had just started to run, and her deerskin leggings, heavy with mud, were pushed to her knees. She was barefoot, her calves gashed by rocks and branches the stream had dragged her over. But the cuts were too even, too neat for that. Maybe an alligator. Still squatting, he pulled a pouch of tobacco from his vest pocket, rolled a piece over his palms, then dropped it back into the pouch. No, those were from dogs, scabbed over when she was still alive. That’s too bad. That’s just too bad. He imagined her beads, clacking soundlessly under water, chattering in some language understood only by the rocks, the moss, the cypresses exposing their knees to the sun, until the sounds were dragged away by the slow-moving current.
What he heard was rattling, low, insistent. Other rattles joined it, echoed. At first he thought it was the rustling of wind in the trees, but there was no wind, hardly a breeze. Only ferns beneath the palmettos swayed back and forth, as if dusting the undersides of the fronds above them. His horse nickered, once, twice. Otters dove into the neck of the creek, and in the distant woods, where vision quit him, some large animal tore through the bushes. He stood quickly. Then, changing his mind, he knelt, unsheathed his knife, and cut a string of beads from the girl’s neck. He pocketed it next to his pouch of tobacco, shouldered his haversack and canteen.
The clattering increased, came closer, until all the woods seemed to shake with the sound. He realized, then, that Indians were rattling their shot pouches to unnerve their quarry. He reached for his new, army-issued Flintlock. Fort Scott, north and west, was more than a day’s ride away.
The twins had died too soon: before the few years of peace, before the men built a meeting house with a graveyard, before Nessie shot a man. In the room she always cleaned first, their room, she knocked down a spider web strung between a ceiling beam and the wall, empty of both bugs and spider. Nessie thought of her little sisters, who had just made their first tentative steps, laid out in death. They had been dressed in white: cotton stockings, dresses ruffled at the collar and cuffs, sashed at the waist over softly gathered skirts, sheer caps. Their Sunday best. Their legs, protruding like the first tender shoots of skullcaps, sheathed in pantalets stiffened with stitching, didn’t make it halfway down the bed. Lily on the left, Lois on the right. One a flower, the other something Nessie did not remember. Signs of the fever had not marked them badly; their cheeks were only slightly tainted. Could they carry a curse they had no part of into death?
Her nephew, Little Knuckle, had watched from the doorway, clutching his corncob horse, as she helped clean and dress the girls. Isaiah, the preacher, sat in a child-sized chair, Bible on his knees, her skirts brushing his legs as she passed. That had been three, no four years ago. She had been seventeen.
Nessie righted the broom, began pulling webs from the bundled straw. As the last one dropped to the just-swept floor, someone knocked on the front door. It must be a stranger. Anyone else would have just come in and called for Nessie or for Miss, her mother. She set the broom against the white-washed wall, then wiped her hands on her apron. Her rifle rested on hooks nearby. She swung the door in.
For a moment Nessie stood, silent and startled. Then she managed to rasp, “Why, Billy Sawyer.”
He took his hat off, held it over his heart.
She thought of another man who had done that, once, what he wanted. “Livy’s not here. She’s at the post office,” she stammered.
“I haven’t come for Livy, Miss Agnes.” He stuck his hat under his arm, the way he had since he was a child with his first felted one.
On the back porch, the voices of Miss and Juda quieted. A wind had come up. She wondered why she hadn’t heard it as she swept. “You might as well come in, then.” She backed into the door to give him room to pass.
“Miss’s been up and watering.” A hibiscus bud, not yet flowered, lay on the porch floor, so red against the pine wood that Nessie thought it must have been lacquered.
Billy scraped his boots on the mat, entered the hall, and waited, crushing his old Stetson between his hands.
“Give me that.” Nessie hung the hat on a wall hook. From old habit, she pinched his shirt, tugged him into the parlor. He took the chair by the window, rested his arm along the sill. The wind had quieted, but the lupines were still pressed to the earth, as if it would take too much effort to straighten.
He turned to Nessie, who had taken a seat across the tea table from him, smoothing her skirts under her legs. She left her fingers pressed beneath her thighs, thumbs worrying the worn gingham.
“I hope your mother is mending, not ailing so much,” he said.
Nessie stilled her hands, irritated at the little deceit. Miss had told Nessie that she often saw Billy Sawyer when she and Livy rode out in the buggy.
“Miss is the same as always. I thought Livy drove the buggy past your place every now and then.”
He rested his hands on his knees and leaned forward. “Yes, but you’re never with them.”
“Why would I be? I’ve work to do here.”
Juda had heard Billy come in, or more likely Miss had and sent Juda to see why he was there. Billy stood when she entered. She was medium tall, thin, her belly and jowls just giving way to gravity. Her hands, gripping a tray, were dark against its silver. She brought tea, steaming in its pot, lemon for Nessie and a pitcher of cream for Billy. Some water. Bread, dried persimmons.
“Let me take that,” he said.
“Why you standin’ for an ole lady like me, Mr. Billy? Sit yourself back down.” She set the tray on the table between Billy and Nessie, then waited, her hands resting on her hips. A minute or so passed. Juda shook her head, waited a moment more. Finally, she said, “Well, you’re gonta have to explain to your Ma why he’s here. She wasn’t expectin’ you’d have no callers today.”
Nessie wanted to stand and run Juda out. She reached toward the teapot as if propelled by the same wind that had bowed the lupines. Sweat rolled down her back, her neck. As she leaned forward, her hair, tied back with a green ribbon, fell over her shoulder.
From the doorway, Juda observed, “A person spend most his boyhood in this house, then don’t come ’round for years. Now, why’s that?”
Juda knew why. Nessie knew too, or thought she did. The knowledge caused her to straighten, but her heart hadn’t slowed its pace since she opened the door. “Miss is calling for you, Juda. You’d better go.” Her voice was hoarse, deeper than usual.
When Billy grinned, one corner of his mouth didn’t quite follow the other up. He looked as if he weren’t sure if what he had just witnessed was mirthful or sad. But Nessie knew this appearance of uncertainty was just a quirk of his features. “You smile the same as always.” She rested the warm cup against her lower lip.
“And you order Juda about the same as always.”
“Would you like me to tell her to fetch you a sweet? She will, if you’re hungry.”
“Naw, I’m not hungry.”
Nessie watched him, noted the care with which he laid a lemon slice down, fanned out from the other slices, as if he were trying to arrange something more precious than the fruit that grew in such abundance in the orchard. His hands were more callused than they had been when he was sixteen and she fourteen. Roping cattle shows fast. But his wrists were strong, and the soft down on his forearms shone. Though she didn’t want to, she thought of the day they had ridden to the ridge overlooking the river. The wind had snapped clouds out of the sky, and ducks heading toward their breeding grounds had stitched a black line across the blue. They sat on a short bluff, heels bouncing against wet stone. When he clasped her hand in his, she instinctively tilted her head back so she could feel his face on her neck, his warm breath. Her heels drummed to a stop against the rock. She felt her thighs loosen, her knees part.
“Why did you come here?” Her pulse skipped recklessly in her throat. If he had not come for Livy, he must have come about Livy, to tell Nessie their plans. She felt as if she sat before a winter fire, the kind whose heat seeped into her, loosened her stiffness, but also threatened to burn her to ashes. Nessie held up the pot, and Billy nodded. She poured as slowly as she could, willing her breath to come easier.
“I saw you riding yesterday, your new horse.”
They both knew Billy had seen her, as they knew she had seen him.
“Attah, I call her. She’s more than four already, and fast.” Nessie rolled the teapot around on the edge of its base. “I saw you too.”
“She’s pretty.” Billy watched the rotating pot, Nessie’s wrist curving as she turned it. When he looked up at her, she kept her eyes on the pot, on the circle it indented on the tablecloth. She released the handle, and it teetered to a stop. She pushed her hair back over her shoulder, dropped her hand onto her lap, palm up, fingers spread open. She met his gaze then. “Yes, Billy, but you didn’t put on a clean shirt and ride over here to tell me that.”
Billy stood and paced in front of the window, his hands behind his back. With a great effort he stopped, turned toward her. “There’s going to be another war,” he said.
“There’s always going to be another war.” Her cheeks warmed again. Billy’s shadow crossed the table, her knees. “You’ve come to tell me you’re going? I thought you had plans with Livy.”
“I’ve spoken to Livy about going.” He stepped forward.
Nessie stood, almost as tall as Billy. This time it was he who looked down, studying the carpet as if trying to memorize its patterns. “Then, go, Billy Sawyer. Why come to tell me? There’s room enough for graves in Texas.”
“I’m thinking I might not want to go.”
She crossed her arms over the rough calico of her bodice. She felt as she had one morning out hunting, when she leaned her rifle against a tree, then bent to cool her face in the spring. When she looked up, water running down her face, a panther crouched in the mud just yards away, watching her.
She stepped back, held her hand in front of her, fingers spread, so Billy would not come any closer.
“I understand about Isaiah. I do.” He lifted his hand and placed his palm against hers, slipped his fingers between hers.
Nessie ripped her hand away. “You don’t know anything about it,” she croaked. And though she knew she sounded just like Miss, she added, “You don’t know anything about anything. Just go.”
“Nessie, please. You don’t have to live like this. I don’t.”
“Live like what?”
Someone clambered up the back steps. From the clumsiness of the movement, Nessie knew it was Livy. Before Billy could respond and Livy could bring in whatever bad news she bore, Nessie said, “I thought you made a promise to her.”
Billy shook his head, bewildered. Behind him, Juda clasping her elbow, Miss stood in the doorway. She rapped the frame with the knuckles of her free hand. Billy and Nessie both turned toward her.
“You’ve a reply from Richmond.” A letter was tucked high under Miss’s arm.
Nessie and Billy regarded it warily, as if it were a single-shot pistol waiting to be fired—but at which of them? Nessie closed her eyes, took a long breath. “Give it to me.”
In the kitchen, Livy heated water for Nessie’s bath. Juda could have done it, or Nessie could have heated it herself, but the kitchen was Livy’s domain. She ruled there, taking over Juda’s chores, ordering the kitchen boy, Cush, to bring wood, stoke the fire, run errands.
As Livy poured a pot of boiling water into the tub, Nessie asked, “Just what does Juda do these days?”
The water hissed against the cold tin. Steam rose. Livy’s face, wraith-like behind it, wavered and reformed as the mist dissipated. “You should know that ’bout as well as me. You’re in charge here.” Livy stirred the tub with a long wooden spoon.
“Yes, but why do you do all her work? You’re a free person.” Nessie’s composure had partially returned after Billy’s visit, but her body still shook, and she wanted that warm bath more than anything.
“I do what I want to do, just like you.”
“You think running this place is what I want to do?” Nessie stuck her fingers in to test the water. “Ouch.” She jerked them out, shook them.
Livy rubbed her ankles together. “When are you going to tell me what’s in the letter?” The room was warm and steamy, but Livy’s face was pinched. The blonde prettiness of her childhood had faded; her hair was now a light brown, though occasionally it still glinted gold where light struck it.
“Here, unbutton my dress,” Nessie said. She bent and started unlacing her boots. Rosy blotches bloomed across her face and neck from the warmth of the bath water. She had brought a fresh dress, stockings, a linen towel from the house. She had laid them over the back of a chair next to the tub, but she was no longer sure if she wanted to put them on or to dress again in her worn clothes, her stockingless boots. She must have been quite a sight to Billy. “Yes, Livy, the seminary offered me a position. Room and board, though I’ll have to trim my own wicks, I suppose.”
She laughed at the thought of sharpening pens, filling ink pots every morning as the teacher had when she’d gone to school. Her stomach knotted. She would have dipped her face into the tub to cool it, but the water still swirled from the last pot Livy had poured in, heat emanating from its surface. The decision no longer seemed easy.
A sob broke from Livy’s throat. She swatted at the clothes draped over the chair as if they were a sleeping cat and would, at her gesture, leap up and leave the room. Then she sat on top of them, grabbed a clean stocking, and held it to her eyes and nose as she cried.
“For God’s sake, Livy, I don’t even know if I’m going.”
“You’re not?” Livy dropped the stocking.
Nessie’s palm tingled. She had put too much weight on it for too long, leaning over the tub, listening. Now she swung a leg into the too-hot water, slid in to her neck, her hair loosening around her. Was Livy crying because Nessie might leave, or was she terrified that she would change her mind and stay? The two cousins had known each other all their lives. Livy had lived with Nessie ever since her mother had died. What did Livy desire? What dream of beauty or love ordered her days? Nessie believed that Livy just wanted to bake biscuits for Billy the rest of her life—but it was an ardent, desperate want. Nessie couldn’t destroy that. She sank under the water, then emerged, shaking hair off her face. “I don’t know, Livy. I haven’t decided.”
Livy stretched the stocking between her hands, rolled and unrolled it. “And if you don’t go?”
“I don’t know.” Nessie shrugged. “Bring me some soap and oil so I can wash my hair, please.”
“I can wash it for you, if you want.” Livy stood. The stocking unrolled down her skirt and drooped on the floor. She picked it up. “I’ll hang it by the stove. It’ll be dry by the time you get out.”
Nessie nodded. After Livy left the kitchen, Nessie studied the last ribbons of sunlight that wove through the trees and left a dusky glow on the walls. Livy hadn’t swept here any better than Nessie had swept the twin’s bedroom. But the spider webs caught in the corners of the kitchen, Nessie had to admit, were far less intrusive than those hanging from the beams in the girls’ room. Those cobs were thick and deserted. These were spider silk, spun across the window, each strand delicate, translucent, each web a prism to the light: one magenta, one chartreuse, another emerald and then turquoise, depending on how she tilted her head. She opened her fingers, pattered them over the surface of the water, waggled her toes. For a moment, only her eyes were visible. Then she sat up and poured water over her head, like a libation, from her cupped hands. Going to teach Latin grammar to young ladies suddenly seemed dull and stultifying.
She had a vision of Miss, standing in the doorway earlier, waving the letter. As Billy lifted his hat from the wall hook, Nessie had said, “I don’t know, Billy Sawyer. I’ll think on it.” He had nodded, bowed slightly, and left.
“There was a time he would have hugged me,” Miss had complained. She had come into the room and sat in the chair that Billy had vacated. Juda poured her a glass of water. She took it, drank, then set the glass down. It pinged against the teapot. Beneath her gloved hand, the letter rested on her lap. “What did he want?”
“I don’t know. He never got around to asking. You know Billy.”
“I know what he wants.” Miss drummed the letter. “He wants to get married.”
“He said he’s going to the new war.
Miss handed the letter to Nessie. “What are you going to tell him?”
I was born and raised in Florida. My ancestors first settled there when they received land in the Armed Occupation Act of 1842. Though I have long since moved away, the state’s history remains rooted in my imagination. The things the settlers did, not to survive but to prosper—own slaves, kill natives—are rightfully seen as heinous now. I must ask myself what I would have done had I lived in that time and in that place. This is a question we must all grapple with: is it ever possible to escape the social mores and cultural conventions that determine our behavior from birth?
Peace River tells the story of Nessie, the child of hard-working white settlers in the middle of Florida in the midst of the Seminole Wars. Her family, which owns a few domestic slaves, raises cattle and farms land in former native hunting grounds. As Nessie grows up, her world is repeatedly upended by violent events near and far, leading her, slowly and haltingly, to re-examine the relationships she was born into and remains a part of. Hers is a story of a woman forced to make agonizing choices, who, in the process, begins to see the extent to which she has misconstrued the world she lives in, and herself.
As a child, her family is ripped by bloody clashes between the white settlers and the indigenous people they are displacing. The Seminole Wars are followed by the Mexican War of 1846-48, which in turn accelerates the approach of the unavoidable historic battle over slavery in the United States. As Nessie struggles to find a way to make choices she sees as decent, she increasingly tests the limits of what her society allows a woman to do and to be.
Kathleen Tyler is a fifth-generation Floridian who was born and raised in Tampa. She received a B.A. in English Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles, and an M.A. in English Literature from Loyola Marymount University. Her publications include three books of poetry—Open the Window and Drown from Kelsay Books, My Florida from Backwaters Press, and The Secret Box from Mayapple Press—as well as short stories and poetry in numerous journals. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two dogs, and four chickens. Her website is kathleentyler.com.
Embark, Issue 5, July 2018