My name is Briny James. I reside on the same Virginian farmland where I grew up. Every night for fifty years and the sounds still have the power to startle me awake. Most nights it is only a faint knocking on the back oak door, or footsteps that pace anxiously. The floorboards will groan in protest, but no one is in the attic or pounding at the door. My husband sleeps still as death. Our children are grown and gone. When guests stay the night, they hear the noises. They laugh in the morning, telling me how the creaking, the shuffling, and the pounding causes their hearts to jump. To convince themselves, they tell me that the house is settling. But I know the truth.
Our guests always came at night to seek refuge. Father never turned one down. There were too many to remember all those names. Father said that was for the best, to forget. No names. No record. No memory. I didn’t understand that night until a year later.
When I was young and naive, I remember marveling at the darkness of their skin. I was six when I gathered enough courage to ask my mother if I stayed out in the sun if my skin would ever reach that rich dark complexion. She laughed as she grabbed the log cabin quilt off the clothesline, which had been drying since yesterday afternoon. She looked down at me and ruffled my blonde hair.
“Mercy child, where would you get an idea like that?”
“That’s why they travel at night isn’t it? Cause the sun burns them?”
Mother knelt down to my level, her face turning serious. She took my small hands into hers. “No, honey. They come at night because bad people are after them. The darkness helps hide them as they run away. You see these bad people don’t like our house guests because of the color of their skin. They want to hurt them. Do you understand?”
“No.” I squeaked.
Mother’s smile was tight and sad. “I don’t really either, but God made us all special, and some people just don’t like the idea of that.”
Mother mumbled something about property and it wasn’t right to own another person, as she continued to fold the quilt. I tore my gaze away from her and looked out across the field. My father was mending the fence. Sweat soaked his blue shirt while Bessie, our milk cow and escape artist, looked on disapprovingly. Mother dropped the quilt into the basket and followed my eye line out.
I turned toward her. “Isn’t father tired? He was up awfully late with the guests and all.”
“I reckon so, Briny. Why don’t you go grab a glass from the kitchen and take him some water.”
I started towards the house without another thought. Mother’s hand grabbed my wrist before I made it more than a foot away.
“Don’t slam the door Briny. Remember our guests are sleeping.”
I reached the back door. I yanked the door open with all my might. It swung wide, and I wheeled around as fast as I could to catch it, but it slammed shut rattling the entire house. My body cringed at the offense. Mother is going to have my hide. I just know it. I hurried and grabbed a glass from the cupboard. I felt a shadow slip behind me. I turned expecting to find mother fuming, but it wasn’t her. The glass almost slid from my grasp. It was him. There, standing in the kitchen was the boy from last night. But he was awake this time. His skin was the color of night, and his wide eyes stared blankly back at me. His clothes were rumpled and stained. I swallowed and stretched out my hand.
“Hi, I’m Briny. Who are you?”
He looked to be about my age. He didn’t move. He didn’t even seem to be breathing. A moment passed between us and his eyes drifted down to the empty glass in my hand.
“Can’t you talk?” I asked and dropped my unshaken hand.
“John.” His voice was rough and husky.
“Are you thirsty?” I reached up on my tiptoes and grabbed a second glass. “The water is outside. You can have this.” I started for the door, but John was rooted to the floor. “Come on.”
John followed sheepishly behind me. Before fully leaving the house, I peeked to see where mother was. She was still taking down the wash, and blissfully unaware of the slammed door. Good. We left the kitchen. I kept my hand upon the offending door until it quietly shut into place. Our well was just off the kitchen. I always had to put my whole body into getting the pump to work. I grabbed the pail that was sitting next to the lever and set it under the spigot. Mother always said our guests weren’t meant to lift a finger while they were here. They had traveled far and still had many miles to go. We were to treat them with the utmost respect and civility. I gave the pump a tested push, it didn’t budge. Sorry, Mother.
“John would you like to help me? It’ll go faster with the two of us.”
He stepped forward without question. The water flowed freely under the weight of both of our bodies. John stopped pumping as soon as the pail was half full. The lever nearly hit me in the chin, as John raced to the pail with his glass in hand. He dipped the glass in filling it to the brim. He drank greedily. My father’s booming voice was like thunder announcing a coming summer storm. John stopped drinking, his brown eyes were wide with fright. Father was smiling and dragging a handkerchief across his sweaty face.
Father knelt down before us. He rested a calm reassuring hand on John’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean to startle you, but I think it’s time you two went back inside.”
“We weren’t doing anything,” I protested. “I was going to bring you a drink, and John was thirsty.”
“I know Briny, but it isn’t safe out here for John. Go in the house, and I’ll bring the water in.”
John looked at my father, his brown eyes suddenly full of admiration. Two hushed words escaped his lips, “Station master.”
My face scrunched in confusion. Station master? Why is John calling my father that? There aren’t any trains for miles.
Father smiled his crooked smile and stood up. “I bet you’re hungry. Briny, take John in and get you guys some lunch.”
I heard mother’s voice calling out to father about the fence. “Come on John!” I half drug him back into the house as I ran. Mother didn’t need to know we were outside.
A year passed since John and his companions were at our house. I never made that mistake again, inviting a guest outside. I still remember the thorough lecture on discretion father gave me after they left.
He sat me on the kitchen table and we talked for the better part of an hour. “If one of our house guests is thirsty and the sun is still up, you have to get it for them. I know we don’t have any neighbors, but we can’t be too careful. John and his family are running from some really bad people who think they are their property. If they found John here with us, they’d take him away and hurt us too.”
Father consoled my fears and told me not to worry. I never made that mistake again. I became the perfect hostess. We didn’t have guests everyday. We’d go weeks with no one. Then in the middle of the night I’d hear the familiar tapping. Father always knew when the next bunch was coming. I never figured out how until I was older and how he always knew when to be ready.
It was April 19, 1864. Those first few weeks in April we had house guests coming and going every night. I guess that is why those bad men came that night. They must have spent all month lurking in the woods that bordered our farm. Planning and biding their time for the perfect opportunity to make the most out of the reward that waited for taking our house guests. They had to have known that our attic was full: a boy, two men, a teenage girl, and three women. I can’t remember their names. Most times I didn’t talk much to the guests on the account that they were always sleeping. Resting up for their journey’s continuation my mother said.
My bedtime rose and set with the sun. No arguments. Father never let me stay up to see the guests off. He said I needed my beauty sleep. I guess that was a good thing that night, because what I did see scarred me.
I rolled over in the darkness, wrapping my blanket up to my chin. Something was moving outside my window. I heard the heavy footsteps on the porch. It sounded like boots, which was odd because many of our guests arrived barefoot, and their footsteps sounded like whispers against the wood floors. But these footsteps were loud and angry. I opened my eyes to see the moon was high in the sky, and I crept to the window. The attic moaned with movement. Our guests hadn’t gone to sleep yet. I looked down below but couldn’t see anything. A scuffling and hushed whispers flew up to me. The guests must not know to go to the back door. I heard father shuffling through the house, the creak of the door broke through the night.
I scooted towards my door, and peered out towards the stairs. Mother was at the top of the stairs. Her white nightgown billowed around her. She looked fierce, with her hand wrapped around the banister.
“What can I do for you folks?” Father’s voice reached up. He sounded tired, irritated.
There was no spoken reply, just a loud crack. Mother screamed. My heart pounded. Father? I tried to leave my room and run for mother, but she was no longer at the stairs. She was gone. She’d run at the sound of the crack. Her cries shook something loose inside me. I didn’t hear my father’s reassuring voice. Where was he? A loud groan came from above. The window. The guests were trying to leave. The intruders must have heard because a lone set of boots came running towards me, he was nothing more than a shadow as he barreled past me and up the wooden ladder at the base of the attic.
He tore up the ladder as if he’d been climbing all his life. The attic exploded to life. Cries rang out. I ran past the other men as they hurtled to help their companion. I found mother in a white heap. Her gown was splattered red. Father wasn’t moving. His bright green eyes seemed to have lost their sheen as he stared at the ceiling above. I felt so cold. My legs shook as I walked toward mother.
“Mother?” My whisper was nothing more than a breath.
She looked up at me. Her chestnut brown hair was wild mess. Her sun kissed skin was taught and placid.
“We have to go now.” She seemed to say from miles away.
“What about father? We can’t leave him.” The tears fell in fat drops down my flushed cheeks. “Our guests? Father said we can’t ever leave them.”
Mother took a breath which seemed to settle her shaking limbs. She grabbed my hand with a strength I didn’t know she possessed. “Honey, we have to go now.”
She started to walk, but I planted my feet. I wasn’t leaving.
“Briny! We can’t stay here.” She choked out. “Father is dead. Our guests know where to go to find safe–” A loud bang sounded above us. We cowered into each other.
Mother picked me up in that moment and ran into the woods. I felt her hand crush my head into her shoulder. She was trying to bury me away from the horror. She whispered into my ear not to look back, but I did. Smoke poured from our attic. Three figures exited the house. The boot footed men. They headed towards the barn with lanterns in hand. Our house crackled and groaned as the white siding blackened. I saw something moving towards the attic’s window. A petite figure stumbling blind in the smoke. I trembled underneath my mother’s grip as I watched the figure move. It kept moving, until an unholy shriek blasted from the window. It was the girl. Our guest. She was in pain, and I couldn’t help her. I was suppose to help, and I could do nothing. The windowpane shattered. Shards of glass glistening orange tumbled downward. I screamed as I watched the girl from the window fall. She was aglow in flames plummeting towards the ground, seeking freedom from pain.
My mother turned and saw the scene play it. She forced my head back into her shoulder. “Don’t look baby.”
By week’s end there was nothing left of our house and barn, only the skeletons of what had been. It remained that way until the end of the war. Hopeless. The Union rebuilt our house the way it had been, but it was never the same. Each night I hear the whispers, the bangs, the shuffling of those forever waiting for their departure from the station.