If you need some acoustic guitar, fiddle, and beautiful harmonies this lovely bluegrass duo is the soundtrack for today. If you close your eyes, you can almost smell the sunshine on fresh grass and taste the sweet iced tea. There’s finally some sunshine in Boston and while the majority of this week has been spent pining for the south, it’s a beautiful day.
What do you mean you haven’t read the latest from Jessica B. Bell (via Helena Hann-Basquiat)??
Cease whatever currently occupies your Saturday and take a trip down the Mississippi to the swamps of Louisiana where there’s more out there to fear than a hungry gator or two.
Well?? Why are you still here!?
The continuation of The Fall of the House of Hawkins, read the previous installments here.
Charlotte knew he couldn’t hear her, buried beneath the verdant ground somewhere in the tangle of weeds and flowers. She knew the graveyard would be like this–abandoned, forgotten. Even before Mother’s mind began to wander, she never could face the loss of her husband. They would have lost the plantation without several kind neighbors. Charlotte remembered watching the Hawkins plantation crumble before her very eyes, along with the owners. Just thirteen when it all happened, she sprawled on the landing, peeking through the stairway railing as she listened to her parents discuss Mason Hawkins’ ruin. Her father died not long after, when the nagging cough he blamed on the dust became bloody.
Charlotte turned from the overgrown tombstones, the decaying fence. Her father–his twinkling eyes rimmed with white webbing from the smile lines where sunlight never reached, his booming laugh–was gone. With some difficulty maneuvering her skirts into the phaeton after climbing up one of the large wheels, Charlotte left the whispering trees and the weed-blanketed graves behind.
Joshua trudged through the tall, unkempt grasses. He glanced back once at the mansion, grown small in the distance. Sweat trickled down his spine under his shirt and soaked his collar. He was glad he thought to wrap the bundle of clean clothes in his driving coat. He shaded his eyes against the sun, hoping he was going in the right direction. The land seemed brown and listless, nothing like the rolling green fields filled with churning machines and the singing of the field slaves. He tried humming to himself, but the dust fogging the air seemed to choke the song, so he continued in silence. At last, he spotted a few stunted trees, remnants of the proud thicket he remembered. He picked up his pace until he reached them. The swimming hole was still there. Almost miraculously, it shone out of the dust, like an emerald laying forgotten on a jeweler’s shelf. He stuffed his bundle of clothes in the crook of a tree and stripped off his dust and sweat stained shirt and trousers.
Not bothering to test the water, he made sure no fallen tree branches stood in his way and dove in. The warm green water closed over his head, embracing him with weightless arms. His eyes penetrated the sun-filled depths before his head broke the surface again, water streaming down his face. His cogwork leg pulled at him as he tried a few exploratory strokes, but it was light enough not to drag him under. He floated, lopsided, letting the sun kiss his bare body as he stared up at the clear sky. He ducked under the water again to run his fingers briskly through his hair, his cogwork leg was tinted green under the water. When he came up for air, he heard the unmistakable rumble of wheels and looked up.
“Why Mr. Hawkins, what an odd time to go for a swim,” Charlotte had pulled the horses to a halt when she saw a ripple of water in the old swimming hole that stood just over the fence marking the boundary of Polk plantation.
“I’m so sorry Miss…Charlotte?” Joshua squinted in the sunlight, pushing his wet hair away from his face.
Surely it wasn’t Charlotte Polk.
She laughed, throwing back her blonde hair with abandon. He could see it now, the resemblance to the scrawny sixteen year old he remembered. He suddenly wished for the water to be a good deal murkier. Hopefully she was far enough away. He swam towards the meager shadows just to be sure.
“Did you fall in or was this on purpose?” she asked, shading her eyes with one gloved hand.
“There’s no water at the plantation and I rather wanted a wash,” he said, still trying to fit the gangly tomboy he remembered into the young woman he saw now.
“You look as if you need it. You always were grubbing about, weren’t you? I’d have thought you’d grown up by now, Mr. Hawkins,” she tsked at him and then laughed again. “What would dear Isabella say if she saw you now?”
“I imagine she would ride on by and pretend not to see me in such a state,” he called back, wishing his clothes were nearer to hand.
“How did you get all the way out here?” Charlotte scanned the field behind him. There was no gleam of his autocar in the tall grasses and no horse in sight. “You didn’t walk all this way?”
“Did your sister tell you about the leg then?” Joshua felt the angry flush darken his neck and ears.
“The leg?” Charlotte looked confused. “Oh, that,” she waved a hand dismissively. “I only meant it’s rather a rough walk since the fields have gone wild and it’s quite hot.”
Joshua gaped at her for a moment, trying to find words.
“If you’d like I can drop you at home, it’s on the way,” Charlotte inched closer in the buggy and Joshua sank down deeper in the green water.
“It’s really no trouble, I wouldn’t mind the walk,” his voice grew almost frantic.
“Mr. Hawkins, I’ll turn around and you can get to your horse blanket or whatever it is you’ve got hanging in that tree over there and then I’ll take you home.” True to her words, she promptly turned her back to him, her words brooking no more argument.
Joshua scrambled up the bank, feeling his cogwork leg slip in the mud before he reached dry land. He scrubbed himself dry and dressed quickly, pulling on his boots and running a hand through his wet hair. He suddenly realized how shaggy it was now that it dripped into his eyes.
“Are you decent, Mr. Hawkins?” Charlotte’s voice was thick with suppressed laughter.
“Yes,” Joshua had walked quickly through the field and was at the edge of the phaeton.
Charlotte started, turning at the sound of his voice so close. She grinned down at him and he was forcibly reminded of a much younger girl staring down triumphantly from a magnolia tree with her skinny legs wrapped around a branch higher than he or any of the other boys could reach.
“Well, I declare, if it isn’t Joshua Hawkins,” her imitation of Isabella was scathing as she stretched out her hand limply as though expecting him to bow over it. He hopped up into the phaeton beside her, unable to resist returning her smile.
“Well, Miss Charlotte, I sure am glad to see you,” he said in the same exaggerated drawl.
“I never thought I’d hear you call me ‘Miss Charlotte,'” she broke off the charade with a shake of her blonde curls.
He noticed that there was dirt on her face and that her long hair was loose and tangled. The corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. The tree-climbing, frog-catching girl he remembered was still in there. She saw the smile and raised one eyebrow at him in the perfect expression of a well-bred, southern lady. He stilled his face with an apologetic look and sat back as she snapped the reins and clucked to the horses.
“Well, I can’t very well call you Lottie anymore, can I?” he returned back to their earlier tack, admiring the way she handled the spirited animals and enjoying the feel of the hot wind as it dried his hair.
“I’ll shove you out of the phaeton here and now if you do,” she spared him a wicked glance.
“You’d do that to a cripple?” the words were out of his mouth before he could pull them back and he looked away over the fields to avoid meeting her She snorted.
“Some cripple, swimming around in that over-sized puddle after walking all this way. And I had to practically heave you into the carriage myself,” her voice was dry. “Don’t think I’ll feel sorry for you Joshua Hawkins, not after all the times you teased me and dumped me in that same pond.”
“You haven’t changed a bit, have you?” he turned back to appraise her.
“What a thing to say! Last time you saw me I still wore my hair in tails and ribbons to match my pinafores.”
“Ribbons? You?” it was his turn to scoff. “The only thing that ever matched between your hair and your frock was dirt.”
She pulled a face at the back of the trotting horses that was meant for him and he laughed. Then, he realized suddenly how insulting that must have sounded.
“That is…you weren’t…” he floundered for an apology that wouldn’t sound insincere.
“Ah, there’s the tongue-tied Joshua I remember so well,” she said. “You sound like you did when you used to come and call on ‘Bella. Don’t let her hear you stammer like that around me. She might think I’ve finally gone and stolen her beau at last.”
She turned back to the horses, completely missing the expression on his face. It–and not his stammer—would have given Isabella a twinge of unease.
Joshua woke to blazing sunlight that poured through the dust coated windows of the kitchen, looking like a huge cloud of steam settled just outside. His mouth was dry and his skull began to pound. He shoved the heavy driving coat someone laid over him to the side and struggled to sit up, grimacing at the nausea that roiled through his stomach. Twiggs must have put the jacket over him and left him to sleep when he returned last night. There was little furniture in the house and the floor was as comfortable in the kitchen as anywhere else. He felt stiff and his shoulder ached from being pressed to the wooden floor all night, but the pain in his thigh had subsided. He flexed his cogwork leg experimentally before attempting to stand. Once he was certain it would bear his weight, he leaned against the wall and pulled his plain leather boot back on over the ostentatious gold leg. He attempted to brush some of the dirt off himself but gave up after seeing it was fruitless. Limping slightly, more due to his night on the floor than the leg, he went to look for Twiggs. And some water.
He found Twiggs on the front porch, surrounded by a dozen or so other slaves. He was giving them instructions on making the house livable. Joshua looked at the faces, he recognized a few of the housemaids and the butler from his house in Charleston, but the others were new faces—men and women Twiggs found for him. Some people would curl their lips at him giving so much power to a slave, but Twiggs kept Joshua alive when he could have let him die. In Joshua’s weakest moments, Twiggs never asked anything of him, or threatened him, or tried to blackmail him. Joshua came to trust Twiggs with his health and his life, trusting him with money to purchase new slaves was nothing.
“This is Mistah Hawkins,” Twiggs said, noticing Joshua on the porch.
“Hello,” Joshua said, conscious of the dirt on his face and his disheveled hair. “Twiggs has you well in hand I see. Listen to what he says as you would listen to me. If you are ill or troubled, do not hesitate to speak with him or myself. If you misbehave or run away, you will be punished. If you do not, you will have three meals, a clean place to sleep, and clothes and shoes to wear. I expect the house to be kept clean and the grounds maintained.”
The chorus of soft “yessahs” was punctuated by several sideways looks from the new acquisitions. Several of them had never been personally addressed by their masters, certainly they were never told to bring their troubles or sicknesses to them.
“Carry on, Twiggs. Oh, did you bring any food from the hotel?” his stomach reminded him of his reasons for seeking Twiggs.
“Yessah, it’s in the icebox in the kitchen. There’s fresh water and lem’nade, too. Your suitcase is in the autocar, should I fetch it?” Twiggs gestured towards the stables-turned-garage.
“No, Twiggs. I’ll get it a bit later. I’m going to see if the old swimming hole still has water.”
It wasn’t a steaming bath in a copper tub, but it would have to do. Joshua turned back to the house and went in search of food. The cold chicken and cheese he found did wonders to quell the nausea and Twiggs managed to get the old icebox working so the lemonade was almost ice cold. Joshua wondered how soundly he slept if Twiggs worked on the contraption while he slept feet away. He shook his head, then regretted it as a new wave of pounding resounded in his skull. With thoughts of the sparking water he hoped was in the swimming hole, he slipped out the back door and made his way to the autocar to fetch a clean pair of clothes.
Charlotte sighed as she glanced in the glass. Isabella would approve of this dress from the wide skirts to the lace trim around the sleeves and neckline. At least it wasn’t pink. The hat was absolutely ridiculous. It was a shrunken top hat of red silk, to match the flowers on the straw colored dress and had a tiny wisp of a veil that got caught in her eyelashes and on her nose. She really only wore her working clothes home to annoy Isabella.
And it worked like a charm, she thought cheerfully.
Her older sister really was a prig. Charlotte prodded at the net veil before giving it up as lost and strode towards the door, wondering if she would fit through it after all.
Isabella looked up over the top of the novel she sat reading and gave Charlotte a self-satisfied nod. Charlotte curtsied ostentatiously, just managing to keep the stupid little hat on her head before, with unnecessary flouncing of her full skirts, she walked towards the door.
“Where are you going?” Isabella demanded. “It’s absolutely scorching outside, you can’t possibly mean to—”
“I’m going for a drive. I’ll take the phaeton. No, Boggs, no need to fetch anyone,” she said in a stage whisper. “I’m going to drive myself and anyone who disagrees can eat steam,” she raised her voice at the end and was gratified by a yelp from Isabella.
Charlotte laughed to herself as she let Boggs help her with her driving coat and gloves. She tried to keep the swearing to a minimum when she came home, especially when Mother was around. But Isabella so resembled a gaping fish when even the mildest vulgarity crosses Charlotte’s lips that she simply couldn’t resist. She waited on the porch while the horses were hitched to the phaeton. They were one of the few families that still kept horses, originally because Father insisted and later because Mother couldn’t bear to let them go. The deep roan mares were well looked after, Charlotte saw with pleasure. Their coats gleamed and their silky manes flashed in the sunlight. Charlotte stroked their velvety noses and whispered greetings into their silk feathered ears before she allowed one of the stable boys to help her into the conveyance. The help was necessary in the over-sized balloon she wore.
She wedged her skirts in the two-seater as well as she could, gave Boggs and the boys a merry wave, and flicked the reins. The phaeton rumbled over the dirt road and soon the house was out of sight. Charlotte enjoyed the feel of the hot sunlight on her nose and cheeks, aware that she would be even browner by the time the day was out. She inherited their father’s looks–tall and lean with skin that weathered and blonde hair that turned nearly white in the sun. Isabella was all their mother–soft and voluptuous with her auburn hair and cream skin. Charlotte flicked the reins again and leaned forward slightly as the horses picked up their pace.
Aimlessly, she guided them down the roads that ran through their properties, past the fields that gleamed with cogwork machinery and healthy crops, lifting a hand to the field workers that paused as she rocketed by them, destination unsure. Before she quite realized where she was going, she reached the border of their land, where trees grew unchecked and the air was filled with the scent of magnolias and dogwood blossoms. She slowed the horses to a walk as the phateon rolled through the dappled sunlight, bouncing slightly over the uneven pathway, carpeted over the years with grasses and wildflowers.
“Whoah there, beauties,” she reined the horses to a stop and cranked the handbrake into place.
She wrenched her fingers free of her gloves and finally unpinned the obnoxious silk hat, throwing it on the seat. With no one to help her down–and no one to care–Charlotte hopped out of the phaeton, feeling for a moment as though her skirts held her aloft before she landed lightly on her feet. She ran a hand over one of the huge yellow wheels. Her father always loved bright colors.
She wound her way around the trees until she came out into the open again. She paused at the fence. The painted white metal railing was flaking away to reveal spots of rust that sent chills across her spine as she ran her fingers over the pitted surface. Encroaching weeds clung to her voluminous skirts, filled the air with the buzzing of cicadas and the scent of summer and honeyed sunlight. Twin stone columns, velveted with moss and spattered by bird droppings stood sentinel. Charlotte gazed over the edge of the rail where the ground sloped, picking out the headstones that jutted like rotting teeth. Soft wind caressed her long blonde hair, murmured against her neck: Welcome home, Lottie.
She shuddered and gripped the railing tightly, shaking her head to dispel the words.
“I’m not home,” she whispered. “This place stopped being home a long time ago, you know that, Papa.”
photo can be found here
“I hope dear Joshua is feeling better, such a kind note he sent. You saw it, Isabella?” Mrs. Polk lifted her silk fan lazily, her feet propped up on a low stool embroidered with roses.
“I saw, Mama,” Isabella replied, her hand shaking slightly as she set down her glass of lemonade.
“…a lovely young man. I am ever so glad he’s back,” Mrs. Polk continued sleepily.
“Mmm,” Isabella replied, biting her lower lip as she remembered the horrid mass of metal and flesh that now made up part of Joshua Hawkins.
She shuddered. The father and now the son; perhaps the family was cursed.
“…was telling your sister–”
“What?” Isabella broke out of her reverie. “Charlotte isn’t here, Mama.”
“She is, indeed,” Mrs. Polk struggled to sit up so that she could look at her daughter. “She arrived in Charleston yesterday and she popped by today just before breakfast.”
Isabella slumped down onto the low settee. First Joshua, and now Charlotte. Was the universe set against her? Her dreams of trips to Charlotte for the Exhibition and the grand balls were all crumbling; she had such high hopes for the summer, too. She stared moodily at her dripping glass of lemonade as it dampened the ivory doily on the table beside her.
“You know dear Joshua stopped by yesterday? Before he even went back to the plantation. A great compliment to you, my dear, I’m sure,” Mrs. Polk murmured.
“Yes, Mother. You told me Mr. Hawkins came to call and that’s why I called on him yesterday afternoon,” Isabella tried to keep the bite out of her voice.
“Oh I did, didn’t I? So silly of me…Such a nice boy, Joshua. Always had an eye for you, for my ‘bella…” Mrs. Polk’s voice drifted off in a snore.
Isabella sighed and took the fan gently from her mother’s lax fingers and rescued the tilting cup of cooling tea from her mother’s lap. She gestured to one of the housemaids to draw the curtains against the sun that filtered in through the sitting room windows, watching as the sunlight melted into little more than a sliver across the colorful rugs and softly glowing wooden floors. Isabella stared at the watery pattern the bright line of sun made as it rippled through the curtains.A bee trapped somewhere in the room buzzed frantically. Mother slept more and more these days, since the doctor prescribed higher doses of the laudanum. It was good she wasn’t in pain, Isabella thought, but her absentminded mother was becoming positively nonsensical. If only Father was alive… The sound of an autocar outside made her raise her head. Joshua?
The front door burst open and the gay cry of: “Why hello, Boggs, it’s positively smashing to see you!” brought Isabella out of her seat as though she was on a spring. Hurrying through the dim room, she pulled the paneled doors closed behind her and walked quickly to the foyer.
“What are you wearing?” Isabella gasped.
Her sister’s ensemble was horrifying even from the back. Charlotte spun to face her sister, displaying the tight trousers she wore from the front. Her so-called skirt, made of thinnest cotton, swirled from her hips like a cape. Beaten brown leather boots reached her thighs and a fancifully embroidered corset revealed how thin she was beneath the dusty navy duffel coat she was shrugging off her bony shoulders.
Charlotte’s voice was just as Isabella remembered: husky, sounding as though she was on the verge of a smile or revealing a juicy secret. An indecent voice.
“You can’t let Mother see you in that,” Isabella said.
“Mother can barely see the tip of her own nose these days. Besides, I wore this to breakfast this morning and she didn’t say a word,” Charlotte grinned, wide mouth stretching in her familiar catlike smile.
“You…you…” Isabella choked on a fitting invective.
“Ungrateful urchin? Troublesome trollop? Wretched wastrel?” Charlotte’s green eyes widened earnestly as she tried to aid her sister.
Isabella sniffed, her normally milky skin suffused with pink. Charlotte hung her coat on a hook by the door, pointedly ignoring old Bogg’s attempts to help her.
“Boggs,” she said. “How is the arthritis?”
Boggs bobbed up and down, mouth twitching despite his best efforts.
“Oh, it don’t hurt so bad, Miss Charlotte. The summer heat be helpin’, I reckon.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Charlotte said, tossing her dusty gloves onto a table.
“Really!” Isabella exclaimed. “The maids only just cleaned and here you are tracking in dirt and dust from God knows where.”
“London, Cairo, Venice, and Charleston,” Charlotte ticked the cities off on her long fingers. “God’s cogs, I’m tired. It was a hell of a run we had.”
She pulled off her grimy black top hat and allowed Boggs to take it while she ripped the pins out of her hair. It tumbled around her shoulders in a riot of silver-blonde curls.
“Honestly, Charlotte,” Isabella grabbed her sister’s elbow and dragged her towards the stairs. “Have you no decency?”
“No,” Charlotte freed herself from Isabella’s vise-like grip and ran a hand through her tangles. “I haven’t.”
“When was the last time you bathed?” Isabella wrinkled her fashionably upturned nose at the tang of sweat, dust, and smoke that hung around Charlotte. Her skin was nearly brown, making her fair hair and eyebrows look even paler. The white shirt she wore under her corset was stained and frayed at the sleeves.
“Oh, honestly, Isabella. I’ve been travelling for weeks. Can’t you keep your nagging to yourself or will you explode?” Charlotte’s low voice did not rise in volume, but Isabella recoiled.
“I–I–Mother’s quite ill, you know,” Isabella said, smoothing her full skirts unnecessarily.
“I know,” Charlotte said. “She wrote me.”
“She wrote you?” Isabella stopped halfway up the wide staircase.
“Yes. She always writes me,” Charlotte said over her shoulder, as she continued up stairs, leaving a trail of gold hairpins in her wake. “Don’t worry, Bell. I won’t be staying.”
photo by me
This is the next installment in my Southern Gothic-Steampunk tale. The first part can be found here.
The bourbon was nearly gone. With the only two glasses in the house lying in glimmering pieces on the kitchen floor, Joshua was forced to drink straight from the bottle. He felt like a common cobblestoner, gulping moonshine out of a rag-wrapped jar. Twiggs had ushered Miss Polk out and she refused his offer to drive her home in her autocar. Joshua bade her farewell from the floor where the gold screws and wheels in his leg looked particularly out of place on the dusty wooden boards. Her voice trembled as she made her goodbye and she was none too steady as she hurried out the door. Joshua heard the loud hiss of steam as she started her autocar and thundered down the plantation drive. Hours ago. With his own vehicle out of commission in the old stable, he would be forced to sleep at the plantation tonight. The bourbon swished in the bottom of the bottle as he put it to his lips and took a long pull. His gums were pleasantly numb and the tips of his fingers tingled, but the throbbing pain in his thigh was still an irritation.
Twiggs had left on foot for the hotel in town not long after Miss Polk’s flight. They had rooms reserved and all the luggage was there. Joshua thought longingly of a hot bath and dinner in the hotel dining room. But he could hardly stand, much less walk, and it was miles away. Twiggs offered to carry him upstairs but Joshua waved him off, preferring to sit in the darkening kitchen, watching the shadows traipse across the floor. The cicadas began their chorus and he closed his eyes, listening to the almost forgotten sound. He had become more accustomed to the whistles and hisses of streets full of autocars, the whir and whoosh of dirigibles overhead, and the clatter of mechanical carts as street vendors hawked everything from jewelry and ribbons to expensive cogwork clocks and gleaming toys.
Even indoors there was constant noise–the hum of the hydrogen lamps, the clink of machinery running through the walls to power them and to warm the pipes running through the walls and the floors. The plantation house was filled with different noises all together. It seemed as though the very walls were speaking to him: groaning and sighing. Joshua’s father had refused to modernize the place; Mason Hawkins’ father and his father’s father lived there with the place just as it was and so would he. The only place Mason allowed any of the new machinery was in the fields–not to spare the field hands–to boost productivity and attempt to save the ailing plantation. The one modern luxury he enjoyed was his autocar until a ride back from town after too many drinks at the hotel led to the accident that cost him his leg and nearly his life.
Joshua wondered how his father would have felt if he knew the same field machinery that brought him such pride took Joshua’s own leg. A wheel came loose on one of the steam-powered tillers when Joshua had been walking alongside. The slave driving it had wrenched the wheel as hard as he could when he felt it jerk left—keeping the machine from cutting Joshua in half. His sharp swerve caused the tiller to flip over, crushing the man to death and leaving Joshua bleeding in the dust. Joshua wondered how many generations of Hawkinses had fed the plantation fields their blood in vain. He took another swig of bourbon, silently toasting the dead Hawkins men that had died before seeing the ruin of their lives’ work.
Given the same choice as his father, Joshua accepted without hesitation. The wires that ran through his new leg were painstakingly spliced with his nerves and arteries, using his body’s naturally produced power to run the gears and cogs. It flexed at the knee and ankle and even where the arch in his foot used to be. Sometimes the cogs at his new joints froze up like today, but he had not had such an event in almost a year. The machinists were ever developing and improving their designs.
If only they could improve the oily tasting tonic he had to take twice daily to make certain the artificial ports that connected his nerves to the cogwork leg did not reject it. He had seen men sitting on street corners with stumps of arms or legs that oozed putrefaction onto the cobblestones, their eyes vacant, lips black with the tar they drank hoping to stem the infection. The hand that lifted the bottle of bourbon to his mouth shook. He did not look down at his leg, afraid he would see the tell-tale darkening in his veins, spider-webbing up his thigh like the insidious roots of some noxious plant. If rejection occurred, there was nothing he could do to stop it.
When he tilted the bottle back this time, only a few drops trickled down his throat. His head felt heavy and he struggled to keep his eyes open, the bottle slipping from his fingers to settle in the dust. Soon, the only sounds were the melodic buzzing of the cicadas and his gentle snoring. The moonlight through the magnolia trees sparkled off the empty bottle of bourbon and danced across Joshua’s gleaming leg.
image found here
The painted white metal railing was flaking away to reveal spots of rust that sent chills across her spine as she ran her fingers over the pitted surface. The encroaching weeds clung to her voluminous skirts, filled the air with the buzzing of cicadas and the scent of summer and honeyed sunlight. Twin stone columns, velveted with moss and spattered by bird droppings, stood sentinel. Charlotte gazed over the edge of the rail where the ground sloped, picking out the headstones that jutted like rotting teeth. Soft wind caressed her long blonde hair, murmured against her neck: Welcome home, Lottie.
Another offering to Friday Fictioneers, a little delayed due to a pesky virus.
photo copyright sarah ann hall
South Carolina – 1840
Joshua Hawkins pushed his driving goggles back on his dirty forehead and unwound his grimy scarf. There really wasn’t much he could do to avoid dust in July in South Carolina, but it surely was a pain in the nether regions nonetheless. Joshua handed his scarf and long duster coat to his valet, Twiggs, whose dark skin was coated with a layer of grime that made his face look powdered except around his goggled eyes. He stared up at the plantation house. The paint on the once pristine white exterior looked like flakes of skin peeling away to reveal dingy gray bones. The autocar wheezed slightly, emitting a puff of steam. Joshua handed his gloves to Twiggs and stowed his goggles in the special case he kept in the glove-box. They were Italian leather and brass, made by one of the best lensmakers back in England—Jasper & Jessups.
“Twiggs, take the autocar into the old stable–you remember where it is–and see if the regulator has come loose from the steamshaft,” Joshua turned back towards the plantation house.
“Yessah,” Twiggs said.
The autocar let out another large puff of steam and a frightful bang as Twiggs put it in gear and Joshua shook his head. Blasted piece of machinery. The dust kept clogging the regulator and the cogs weren’t catching properly due to all the grit. He never had this problem in Charleston, but luckily Twiggs was not only a perfect manservant but an effective machinist. No one he knew had a slave who knew his way around an autocar from cog to chrome like Twiggs.
The stairs creaked beneath his feet as he walked towards the front door, stepping around a large hole. Joshua shook his head. He pulled a key from his waistcoat pocket and turned it in the lock with difficulty. The stench of dust and decay assailed him as he entered the foyer. No butler stood at the door to offer him a glass of water or bourbon, more was the pity. His boots echoed hollowly in the hallway. Moths had eaten the magnificent rug from Persia to nearly nothing. He could buy another in Charleston now that they came over on the dirigibles. He had never flown in one himself, but they were marvelous things. He preferred his autocar. Another bang echoed through the open door and he winced. When the confounded thing worked.
He hesitated before opening the door to his father’s study. Even before the house was closed, this room had been shut for years. He glanced at the wall behind his father’s desk. The hair on his scalp prickled even though the painting that had been spattered with blood and brains had long since been removed.
The plantation was in deep financial trouble and after the autocar accident cost Joshua’s father his leg, Mason Hawkins had never been quite the same. He refused the offer of a new cogwork leg.
“I’m no piece of machinery made of gears and metal and pistons!” he shouted. “Worse than being a negro—being half a machine.”
Joshua remembered his father’s face turning purple; the stump of his leg had seemed to twitch in revulsion and indignation at the thought. Two weeks later, a loud bang shattered the still night air. Joshua made it to the study first, keeping his mother and sisters out. They collapsed in the foyer, clutching each other and wailing fit to wake the dead–which, of course, they couldn’t.
Joshua walked to the bare bookshelves, resolutely ignoring the stain on the floor that lingered even after the house slaves scrubbed it with sand. He knocked his knuckles against the panels until he heard an echo. Sliding the wood aside, he saw the bottle of dusty bourbon just where he remembered. Now, to find a glass.
“Well, Mr. Hawkins, I declare, I’m sure pleased to see you.”
It was the last voice he expected to hear. He turned to see a beautiful lady with auburn hair tucked under a burgundy silk top hat. The net veil covered half her face, but he would recognize that voice anywhere. Her voluminous skirts seemed to fill the hall and the brass driving goggles around her neck gleamed in the late afternoon sun that lit the dust motes on fire.
“Miss Isabella Polk,” he said. “It is still Miss Polk?”
“It is indeed, as you very well know,” she laughed, pulling the net back to reveal her long-lashed green eyes. “You called on my mother.”
“I’m afraid you’ve discovered my deception,” he laughed.
“Share some of your bourbon with me and we’ll call it square,” she said.
“I do believe that can be arranged,” he offered her his elbow. “I fear there won’t be any ice.”
They made their way down the hallway which creaked deplorably. To Joshua’s delight, two tumblers sat in the dark recesses of a cabinet. He wiped them out with his handkerchief and splashed some amber liquid into each. With a clink, they toasted one another.
“Welcome home, Mr. Hawkins,” Isabella said.
Joshua lifted his glass to drink but cursed suddenly. Bourbon splashed onto the floor and the bottom of Miss Polk’s dress. He sank to the floor in humiliation as his leg gave out. Isabella shrieked and set her glass down on the edge of the table where it toppled to the floor in a spray of tawny liquid and smashed on the floor.
“Joshua, what ever is the matter?” Isabella cried, white-faced.
Twiggs appeared and pulled Joshua over to the side of the room to lean against the wall. He unbuckled Joshua’s left boot and rolled up his trouser leg. Isabella gasped, wavering on high-heeled boots. Twiggs pulled a tool from his pocket and began tightening one of the screws in the gleaming apparatus that began where Joshua’s knee used to be. Joshua leaned back, remembering his father’s last words, scrawled on his desk.
“Better to die as a man than live as a machine.”
He started to laugh.
From the Smashing Sub-Genres Challenge, where I “rolled” Southern Gothic and Steampunk.
*The southern Gothic style is one that employs the use of macabre, ironic events to examine the values of the American South (wikipedia)
*Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery,especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century (wikipedia)
photo also courtesy of wikipedia
If you want to do some whimsical writing and find yourself pondering the need for a prompt, then go visit Mr. Chuck Wendig and his latest “Flash Fiction Challenge: Smashing Sub-Genres”.
The clever concept is to utilize his random number generator to roll the dice, selecting by random two numbers that correspond to twenty sub-genres. After finding out your flash fiction fate, it is up to you to meld, weld, melange, and combine your two sub-genres into a flash fiction piece of 1,000 words.
Yours truly was the lucky winner of Southern Gothic and Steampunk. Feel free to google/wikipedia those terms. This fun flight of fancy comes to a close in a week’s time, so get to work. And read the rest of Chuck’s entertaining and enlightening blog.