Belinda Belle Waller stared at the window, fascinated. Etched upon a pane of glass was the ghostly visage of an African-American person (man? woman?), the features distorted with pain or terror, mouth open in a silent scream. She shivered despite the heat.
"That's Fancy Joe," said Tricksy Lou Faulcon with a shrug. Having grown up in the old Arcadia plantation house, she was blasé about such things. "He was a slave back in the 1840's, when Archibald Faulcon lived in Arcadia. Mary Margaretta Dupuis Faulcon was Archibald's wife. Her picture's over there." She pointed towards a portrait that hung over the fireplace.
Belinda tore her gaze away from the window, fastened it on the portrait. The painted woman was beautiful, proud and haughty, seemingly cold. However Belinda noticed a certain suggestive glitter in the woman's eyes; sensed a conflagration of hidden passions burning beneath the icy exterior. The outline of her body beneath the antebellum gown was rich, swollen with the promise of pleasure kept tightly controlled.
Tricksy went on, "Margaretta Ma'am is what they called her. She bore three stillborn children to Archibald before finally giving birth to my great-great-granddaddy, Wade Dupuis Faulcon. Anyhow, she's the reason why Fancy Joe's image was caught in glass by lightning. Want to hear the story?"
Belinda nodded. Her eyes traveled back and forth, from window to portrait. Her scalp prickled.
"After she gave Archibald an heir, Margaretta Ma'am didn't want nothing more to do with her husband in that way. They hadn't married for love, you know. It was arranged betwixt their families." Tricksy settled down to tell her tale with the relish of one recounting a juicy scandal. "From what I've heard, Archibald preferred slave women to his wife - I reckon she couldn't help it, poor thing, since they kept girls ignorant in those days - and that was that. Only what he didn't know was that Margaretta Ma'am wasn't sleeping alone. She had taken a house slave, Fancy Joe, as a lover.
"Well, one night there was a big storm, full of lightning and wind. Archibald was s'posed to be taking care of some business down in Laughlin, but he came home early, drunk as an earl, and caught Margaretta Ma'am and Fancy Joe together. Lord, he went plumb crazy! Whipped Margaretta from her bedroom to the hall, from the hall to the stairs. She fell and was dead by the time she hit bottom. The bloodstain on the floor is still there, you know. Scrubbing won't take it out; neither will sanding or replacing the floorboards. My uncle Vernon tried it; tore it all out and had the boards replaced. In two weeks, the stain was back, but that's neither here nor there."
Belinda asked, "What happened to Fancy Joe?"
"Archibald pursued that slave through the house, until he cornered him in this very room. Archibald was going to kill Joe, but a big ol' streak of lightning came flashing down through the window, struck Fancy Joe dead. The only pane of glass that wasn't busted was the one with Joe's image on it. That lightning somehow caught Joe's reflection and burned it into the glass. Archibald left it there. Don't know why." Tricksy shrugged again, scuffed a toe against the faded rug. "We just leave it be. It don't bother us none."
"I remember you telling me that Arcadia is haunted," Belinda said, focusing attention on her friend.
"Yeah, and you said you didn't care, that you wanted to spend the summer here anyhow."
"I do. But I'd like to hear more about the ghosts."
Tricksy frowned. "All right. Folks have heard Margaretta Ma'am crying in the hallway upstairs. She don't hurt nobody, so don't have a conniption fit if she comes around. Okay?"
"No fits, I promise."
"And when there's a big lightning storm, we can hear something screaming out by the pond."
"Nobody's ever seen it, but nobody's ever come to grief over it, either. Now I don't know about you, but I'm bored to tears with all this ghost talk. Want to go out to the pond and have a swim? S'posed to be clear until late tonight."
"Sure." Belinda followed Tricksy out of the parlor, up the double staircase.
They had met at the Laughlin Community College, where both young women were taking courses. Belinda had grown up in nearby Darlington, and knew very little about the plantation's history. The two became friends, helped by the fact that they were very, very distant cousins. Eventually, Tricksy invited Belinda to stay at Arcadia for the summer - her parents were taking a cruise to Norway, and she would otherwise be alone in the big house. Since Belinda was fascinated by ghosts and ghost stories, she had eagerly accepted.
About ten miles outside of Laughlin, Arcadia was set back from a dirt road that angled away from Elderberry Drive - hardly more than a narrow country track that was bogged in the rainy season, and full of dusty potholes in the dry. A thick stand of pines and crepe myrtles obscured the view of the house from the road. Arcadia itself was an antebellum jewel. A grand front porch, supported by classical columns, faced flower beds full of petunias that had wilted in the heat. There was a wide balcony that ran the length of the second story. Windows were tall and broad, to admit as much air as possible during the summer months. A vast wisteria vine clung to one side of the house. It had reached as high as the roof in some places, and sent runners onto the second-story balcony rail. The vine was covered with drooping purple flowers, whose sweet scent attracted bees.
Belinda threw open the French doors in her bedroom, inhaled deeply. She could hear droning bees, and crickets chirping in the shadows beneath the wisteria vine. Tricksy had gone to her own room to change, and Belinda was alone. She turned to her suitcase, found the swimming suit she had brought with her. It took her only a few minutes to change.
As Belinda twisted her blonde hair into a braid, she found herself recalling Fancy Joe's agonized face. The memory brought another shiver with it. Poor man, she thought, fastening the end of the braid with a rubber band. Poor Margaretta Ma'am. Tricksy didn't say, but I hope they had some happiness together before the end.
Suddenly, Belinda felt a brush against her cheek. She turned her head, saw a flash of gold out of the corner of her eye. Bee, she thought, scanning the bedroom for any sign of the insect. Belinda spun in place, found nothing. She had just dismissed the incident from her mind when she heard a woman's voice say clearly, "Lies."
Belinda jumped, startled. What the hell was that? She was alone. Tricksy slept in another bedroom, two doors down the hallway. She knew there was no television upstairs; Tricksy had told her that when she'd accepted the invitation. A radio, maybe?
"Lies," the woman's voice repeated, a sob at the end of the word.
A chill raced down Belinda's spine. "Who's there?" she asked, gritting her teeth to keep them from chattering.
There was no answer.
Belinda waited a few more minutes, until she heard Tricksy say impatiently, "C'mon, girl. What's taking you so long?" The door opened, and Tricksy poked her head through. "Are you coming with me to the pond or not?"
"Yes, I'm coming." Belinda blew out a breath, rubbed the goosebumps on her arms. After one last look around the room, she followed Tricksy back downstairs. When they reached the spot where a dark, irregular stain glazed the floorboards, Belinda bit her lip. "Um, Trick... has Margaretta Ma'am ever spoken to you?"
"Nope." Tricksy shook her head, dark curls dancing. "Far as I know, she ain't never spoke to nobody."
They walked away from the house, down a pathway that curved behind the wisteria. It was like going through a dark green, heavily scented tunnel; Belinda's head was swimming from the perfume. Then they struggled free of the vines, took a little track through the woods, long weeds whipping at their legs. A carpet of dry pine needles crunched underfoot. The pond was a short distance away. Tricksy dove in immediately, bobbed back to the surface spitting water through her teeth. "Ah, that feels good!" she whooped.
Belinda walked into the water, leery of what she might be stepping on. "Are there turtles in this pond?" she called.
"Yeah, big ol' snappers, bite your toes off just like that!" Tricksy laughed at the expression on Belinda's face. "Damn, girl, you look like a cat walking on wet grass. Quit pussy-footing and just come in!"
Belinda was not a very good swimmer, and she knew it. Nevertheless, she managed to get in deep enough to start dog-paddling, trying to keep her face from getting wet. The pond seemed fairly clean; the water was greenish-brown, cool, hardly sun warmed at all. She found it refreshing.
Tricksy splashed around, sending glittering arcs of droplets through the air. "Hey, Lindy... I was thinkin' about calling Boyd, seeing if he might want to come over. Want me to ask him to bring a friend for you?"
Belinda made a face. Boyd Heckler also attended the community college. Tricksy was sweet on him. Belinda thought he was a loud-mouthed asshole. Despite her opinion, she remembered that she was a guest at Arcadia, and minded her manners. "I'd rather not see anybody right now," she answered. "Reckon you and Boyd would prefer to be on your own."
"Oh, yes, ma'am! I love that boy to pieces!" Tricksy swam closer. "You don't mind?"
"Not at all. I can find something to occupy my time while you and Boyd..." Belinda did not complete the sentence, but risked a ducking by raising her hands and making a gesture that caused Tricksy to blush hotly.
"Oooh, Lindy Waller, you bad, bad girl! I'm gonna tell your momma on you!" Tricksy laughed.
A little while later, when they were lazily floating on the surface of the pond, Belinda said, "You sure that Margaretta Ma'am doesn't speak?" Try as she might, she could not help worrying this thought like a dog with a bone. She stared up at the sky, which had gone grey as iron, though cloudless.
"Well, Grandmomma Eunice said she heard things sometimes, like somebody talking from far away, but she couldn't understand what they were saying." Tricksy flicked water at Belinda. "How come all these questions?"
"I don't know. I thought..." Belinda stopped. She did not want Tricksy to think she was crazy. "Never mind. Maybe you could answer me one more question."
"Questions, questions, questions! Curiosity killed the cat."
"But satisfaction brought him back," Belinda completed the old saying.
Tricksy giggled. "Go on, then."
"How do you know that the story about Archibald, Fancy Joe and Margaretta Ma'am is true?"
"Are you accusing me of lying?" Tricksy's voice was suddenly cold.
"No, no," Belinda said hastily. "Not that. It's just... well, sometimes stories get mixed up, you know? I was wondering if maybe there were some kind of records, or whatever, to prove it."
"Not any that I've ever heard. I told you the story the way I got it from Granddaddy Chester Faulcon, who probably got it from his momma or daddy, and so forth. Don't know nothing about proof. It just is." Tricksy rolled over, started swimming towards the edge of the pond. "You about done? I want to call Boyd."
Boyd Heckler proved unable (or unwilling) to drive up to Arcadia. Tricksy sat at the kitchen table, pouting while Belinda fixed their supper - bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. "I will never understand men," Tricksy complained, sipping a glass of iced tea. "My parents aren't here, Brother's away in Atlanta, and we'd have the whole house to ourselves."
Belinda was relieved, but hid it well. She slid a sandwich in front of Tricksy and said, "Trick, honey, don't work yourself into a state. Maybe he can come tomorrow."
Tricksy brightened. "From your mouth to God's ears, Lindy!" She picked up her sandwich and took a big bite, good humor restored.
After supper, she and Belinda retired to the family room to watch television. The set was new, but the rest of the furniture was old, battered, almost worn out. Belinda sat in a chair with a sprung spring digging into her behind while Tricksy flipped through the channels. One inane program followed another, until Tricksy hurled the remote away.
"I'm bored!" she cried, throwing herself full-length upon a sagging sofa. "No reflection on you, Lindy, but living out in the ass-end of nowhere just makes me crazy sometimes."
"We could go to town, see a movie," Belinda offered.
Tricksy wrinkled her nose. "I'd rather go find that no-count Boyd. Probably swappin' lies with his buddies in a bar somewhere."
"I'd lend you my car..."
"But I can't drive stick. Oh, well. It's my own damned fault for being too lazy to learn." Tricksy heaved a sigh.
They sat there in silence for several long moments. Finally, Belinda asked, "Has there ever been a seance in Arcadia?"
"Good Lord, girl! Is that all you've got in your head?" Tricksy wriggled around, so that she was facing Belinda. "What is this obsession with ghosts all about?"
Belinda sat back, gripping the arms of the chair. "It happened up in my bedroom, when I was changing. I thought somebody touched me. There was no one there. And I heard a woman say, "Lies." She said it twice, as clear as if she was standing right in front of me."
"Hmph." Tricksy's eyes narrowed. "Are you pulling my leg?"
"I swear to God."
Tricky's skeptical expression changed to one of puzzlement. "That's never happened before. No, wait. It did happen once, when I was a kid. I'd forgotten about it." She squirmed upright, excited. "See, my cousin Carter got engaged about twelve years ago to this girl from Honeymoon Junction. One of those mountain families, you know? Anyhow, she broke off the engagement after Carter brought her here, 'cause she said she heard a woman saying, "Lies," in the bedroom, and thought it meant that Carter would deceive her after they got married. What was her name? June something-or-other."
"Junette Glidwell," Belinda said, relishing Tricksy's astonishment. "She's a third cousin from my momma's side of the family. We hardly have anything to do with the Glidwells. I didn't know she was engaged to your cousin Carter."
"It's a small world." Tricksy ran a hand through her cap of dark curls. "Damn, girl! That's weird. You think it was Margaretta Ma'am giving you a message from the Other Side?"
"I have no idea." Belinda scratched a mosquito bite absently. "Maybe we can find out."
"How? A seance?"
"Meemaw told me once about a thing called a dumb feast. It's meant to call up spirits."
Tricksy's mouth fell open. "Does it really work?"
"I dunno." Belinda got up, looked down at her friend. "Want to find out?"
"It's got to be better than sitting around here getting eaten alive by skeeters. C'mon, girl." Tricksy took Belinda's hand, used it to help haul herself out of the depths of the sofa. "I've never seen Margaretta Ma'am. Wonder if she looks the same as her portrait. Hah! Let's find out."
Apprised of what was needful, Tricksy found a folding card table, which she placed at the foot of the stairs, close to the old bloodstain. Belinda thought the connection between flesh and spirit might be reinforced that way. Following her Meemaw's instructions, Belinda gathered together items from the kitchen and placed them on the table in the dining room, then she took china and silver from the cabinet to set the card table for two. Tricksy insisted on turning off the lights and lighting candles, for "the right atmosphere." Finally, they were ready.
One by one, Belinda and Tricksy each took an item from the dining room, walked with it backwards to the card table, and set it down without speaking a word. Salt and pepper shakers, mustard pot, honey jar, jam pot, vinegar and oil cruets, bread basket, and a cut crystal wine decanter - the nine items required by ritual. Next, they went (still backwards) to the kitchen and brought out a loaf of bread. Together, they sprinkled the loaf with salt and stood silently, facing away from the table.
The grandfather clock in the entrance hall chimed midnight. Twelve strokes, deep and mellow, echoing through the house.
Through Arcadia's corridors and rooms, basement to attic, golden tones telling the witching hour.
At each note, Belinda seemed to feel a strange vibration beneath her feet. The loaf of bread fell to the floor. Tricksy grabbed her hand, and she knew the other woman felt it, too. The compulsion to exclaim, to give vent to a growing sense of terror was nearly overwhelming. Belinda clamped her mouth closed, breathing heavily through her nostrils. A phrase crossed her mind: Et in Arcadia ego. She could not remember where or in what context she had read it.
Suddenly, there was a bone-rattling wrench, as if the world had taken two steps to the left, dragging her with it. Belinda gasped, staggered, and would have fallen if Tricksy had not tightened her grip. She blinked. They were still in Arcadia, but the white-painted walls in the entrance hall were now a rich ochre, and plaster ornaments on the ceiling looked new. So did the ivory button in the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. It had been yellow, cracked with age - an old-fashioned symbol that the plantation's mortgage had been paid off.
Belinda realized the card table was missing. "What happened?" she said, frowning because her words sounded hollow to her own ears.
Tricksy shrugged, but did not let go of Belinda's hand. "I don't know." Then she frowned, too.
Both of their voices were muffled. It was as if they were speaking to each other from a distance, even though they remained close together. "Did you feel something?"
"I thought I was going to lose my supper. I'm still kind of queasy. What the hell did you do, Lindy?"
"I don't know. Meemaw just said the spirits were supposed to appear. You could ask them questions as long as you didn't look at them directly."
"Well, I don't see no spirits."
Belinda nodded towards the staircase. "No card table." She inhaled sharply. "And no bloodstain!"
"What?" Tricksy wanted to go closer, but Belinda restrained her.
"No, no, Trick. We'd better keep hold of each other. No telling what might happen if we didn't," Belinda said. "Together, then."
A step at a time, the young women advanced to the staircase. As Belinda had seen, the floorboards were polished and unstained by blood. "Shall we try it?" Tricksy asked, jerking her chin upwards.
"I don't know." Belinda was unsure. Piss or get off the pot, as her Meemaw used to say. Meemaw had another saying: Might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. The trouble was, Belinda did not want to be hanged at all.
Growing impatient with Belinda's hesitation, Tricksy tugged her hand. "I want to see upstairs. Don't be such a scaredy cat, Lindy."
"Look before you leap," was the only caution Belinda could think to give.
Tricksy snorted. "You're the one who got us into this. Now you want to stand here all night?" A flash of lightning, distant boom of thunder, startled her. "Didn't know it was fixin' to storm."
"Oh my dear sweet Jesus." Belinda's face was ashen. "I think I know where we are."
"We're in Arcadia, fool."
"No, I mean, when we are. Remember the story you told me about Margaretta Ma'am and Fancy Joe? I think this is the night. The night it happened."
Tricksy squealed, "Really? Goddamn! History in the making!" and she dragged a protesting Belinda up the stairs.
Margaretta Ma'am's bedroom was at the end of a corridor on the house's southern side. The door was closed. Tricksy reached for the doorknob and got the shock of her life.
Her hand passed straight through, as though her flesh was made of smoke.
Belinda shrieked, clapped her free hand to her mouth. Her eyes bulged, staring into Tricksy's equally horrified gaze. "We're ghosts," Belinda whimpered.
Tricksy touched a finger to her lips. "I don't feel like a ghost," she said slowly, already starting to calm. "Do I have a pulse?"
"How the hell should I know?" Belinda looked at the door, and back at her friend.
"Aw, poot!" Tricksy's foot stamped on the floor. "It don't matter. I can't do nothing about it, so I'm going inside. Are you coming, or do you want to wait out here?"
There was really no choice. Belinda shuddered as Tricksy disappeared through the door. Their hands were still joined. Belinda saw slender fingers clasping her wrist, Tricky's arm cut off bloodlessly at the elbow. The rest of her, it was presumed, was in the bedroom. Tricksy yanked hard, pulling Belinda through.
The bedroom was painted a bright blue-green, the walls further decorated with an exotic mural of white peacocks, cypress trees and swirling clouds. The massive mahogany bed was canopied with fringed net, and it was occupied by two women - Margaretta Ma'am (recognized by the portrait - the painter had not lied) and another, who was light-skinned with auburn hair, but had definite Negro features.
"Josephine, I want to write in my diary," Margaretta Ma'am said, her drawl slurred, overlain with a French accent. "Please fetch it for me."
"If you must, petite." Josephine replied, her voice as musical as her mistress'. "I wish you would sleep instead."
"Please." Margaretta Ma'am stroked Josephine's cheek and smiled. "Please, cherie."
Josephine threw off the quilt and got out of bed. She was nude, firm bodied, strong. Her bare feet whispered on the floor as she walked towards the fireplace. A loose brick in the side revealed a hollow with a leather-bound journal inside. Josephine retrieved the diary, put it on the writing table. Not bothering to cover her own nakedness, she helped her mistress into a silk robe. Margaretta Ma'am wrote in the journal with quill and ink for a while, Josephine brushing tangles from her long dark hair.
Tricksy and Belinda goggled at the sight. More shocking was the easy familiarity between the two women. Considering the time and place, Josephine had to be a slave, yet Margaretta Ma'am treated her like a favored intimate. They exchanged little caresses, kisses, endearments in French and English. Margaretta Ma'am and Josephine acted like they were in love.
Belinda reeled beneath a sudden inspiration. "Weren't lighter skinned slave girls called 'fancies' back then?" she whispered.
"Uh-huh. I think so." Tricksy was hardly breathing. "Quadroons, octoroons, mulattos." She snapped out of her trance. "Wait a goddamned minute..."
"Fancy Joe. The fancy, Josephine. Your family remembers it wrong, Trick. Margaretta Ma'am wasn't in love with a man."
"Holy shit!" Tricksy cried, then looked guiltily around. After a moment, she sagged in relief. "I reckon they can't hear us. We really are like ghosts. Unless they can see us?"
Belinda, greatly daring, waved at Josephine when she turned around to get a scent bottle from another table. "Doesn't look like it."
"Wow." Tricksy loosened her grip on Belinda's hand, but not completely. "Momma's going to flip when I tell her about this. Oh, Lord... I'd better not tell Grandmomma Eunice. She'd turn wrong-side out."
Margaretta Ma'am finished writing, returned her journal to its hiding place. When she stood up again, she took Josephine into her arms. "I've been thinking about it, cherie. The thing we discussed."
Josephine's expression hardened. "Oui?"
"We've suffered long enough. It was bad, so bad, cherie, when he took you, hurt you. I thought I would die! When the child came, I was terrified that he would take it, sell it far away. Your son."
"And yours," Margaretta Ma'am persisted.
Josephine softened. "Wade is a good boy. He looks white, he will be Arcadia's heir. Master Archibald says that Wade has his mouth, the Faulcon nose. Not like mine." She sighed. "How I wish we'd never left our home. Your parents were mad to marry you to that brute!"
"His animal lusts sicken me." Margaretta Ma'am made a soft spitting sound. "Three dead babies in three years. I was not made for breeding. Thank God for your strength, cherie. Archibald is content with his son. He has not sought my bed in months. He will not, since he has women elsewhere to satisfy his needs."
"He will never have you again. You belong to me, only me!" Josephine kissed her lover passionately, while Belinda and Tricksy watched with huge eyes.
"Yes, I've been yours since we were girls," Margaretta Ma'am panted. "Do you remember, cherie? The wicked games we would play! And later, after Archibald, you would come to me, wash away his touch, comfort me."
"Like this?" Josephine's supple fingers slipped beneath the silk robe. "And this?"
Margaretta Ma'am murmured, "Je t'adore, oh my love, my love... I never gave myself to him. Never gave that part to him. Cold, cold was my bed, cold was my heart. I saved the best for you."
"Oh my God," Tricksy groaned. "I don't think I can watch this anymore. It's embarrassing, like catching your parents having sex."
"Hush." Belinda was waiting for the rest. She knew there was more to come.
"What were you writing?" Josephine asked, pulling away from her clutching lover.
Margaretta Ma'am regained her composure with a visible effort. "The measure of my days, cherie. Tonight, I wrote of triumph. When my husband returns tonight, filthy drunk as usual, he will meet with an accident. All will be as we've planned it. When Archibald is dead, you and I and Wade will be safe. The child will be better without such a father. He'll be our boy, cherie. Our son. There is money enough. By law, you must remain a slave, but in this house, you will rule at my side."
Josephine licked her lips. "No one must suspect, or we'll both be hanged. For you, a quick death. For me, many agonies before the noose."
"Archibald is a known drunkard. A storm, a bolting horse, a broken skull." Margaretta Ma'am fluttered her eyelashes. "A grieving widow with an orphaned son. I'm sure there will be many sympathetic mourners at the funeral. Be easy, cherie. Remember how much we have already suffered at Archibald's hands. He hurt you, my darling girl, forced you to bear his child because I could not. We must be strong."
"I think the master begins to believe that we are not simply mistress and maid."
"Let him think as he chooses. After tonight, he will be doing his thinking in Hell."
They kissed again. The door banged open, revealing the rain-soaked figure of Archibald Faulcon. Brown hair was plastered to his face, which bore a wild expression of combined hatred and triumph. "Whores!" he shouted. A horse-whip was clenched in his fist. "Dirty devil whores! I heard your plotting, every word!"
Belinda and Tricksy, unwitting observers, could only watch in horror as Archibald stomped into the room. Water drizzled from his coat, pooled on the floor. His shoulders hunched, his lips twisted in a grimace, Archibald looked more demon than man. He flicked the whip expertly at Margaretta Ma'am, tearing open the shoulder of her silk robe. The fabric fell apart, showing a bloody welt on her milk-white skin.
Josephine screamed with rage and launched herself at him. He batted her out of the air, a powerful blow that sent her crashing against the bed. Her head hit a solid post with a wet crunching noise, and Josephine slid down limply, to lie on the floor like a discarded rag doll. A trickle of blood darkened her auburn hair. One eye was open, the pupil fixed and dilated.
"Whores!" Archibald said hoarsely.
Margaretta Ma'am was stricken, her face absolutely colorless. Crimson flooded back into her cheeks, hectic red spots that burned hotly. "You killed her," she said, low and deadly. There was nothing but naked hatred in her expression. "Bastard. Murdering monster."
"Don't you talk to me like that, God damn you for a lying bitch," Archibald said thickly. He drew back his arm, sent the horse-whip singing through the air again. Margaretta Ma'am did not move. She stared at him, not flinching when the whip carved another mark on her upper arm.
"Bastard," she said, unblinking.
He hit her again. And again. And again.
She stood still as a statue, his rage made impotent by her disdain.
Finally, when her robe was in bloodied rags, Margaretta Ma'am lifted her chin. When she spoke, it was in a voice edged with razor sharp scorn. "Kill me, Archibald. Kill me now. If you don't, I swear that you're a dead man."
Archibald weaved on his feet. The horse-whip dropped with a clatter. "You ain't doin' nothing, bitch. I've seen the truth. All these years, you been playing me for fool. Denying me my rights as your husband, and laughing behind my back with that nigra. That's where I went wrong. I treated you decent, like a lady, and you ain't nothing but a filthy whore."
Margaretta Ma'am stepped forward, swung back her arm, and gave Archibald a stunning slap across the face that knocked him to his knees. Then she was gone, out of the door and running down the corridor. Archibald struggled up, bellowing like a wounded bull, and lurched away in pursuit.
By mutual silent consent, Belinda and Tricksy followed them. There was a pair of crossed tomahawks on the wall by the landing - hammer polled iron heads with a curved steel cutting edge, maple hafts studded with brass tacks. As Margaretta Ma'am started down the stairs, Archibald snatched up one of the hatchets and threw it at her. The tomahawk wheeled end over end through the air, landed with a meaty thunk in the back of Margaretta Ma'am's neck. She fell, tumbling to the bottom of the stairs, a blur of white flesh and ragged silk. When she reached the end she lay there unmoving, a leg twisted at an impossible angle. Blood pooled beneath her body, a widening scarlet pool.
"You wanted to kill me," Archibald mumbled, "but I got you first." He had gone halfway down the stairs, and now paused, hanging on the banister rail for support.
He turned as a choked sound came from the landing above him. Josephine was not dead. She stood, looking down at Margaretta Ma'am. Her face twitched. Thin lines of blood trickled from her nostrils. Josephine let out a low moan, an animal sound that made the hair stand up on Belinda's neck.
Josephine drifted down the stairs, brushing past Archibald as if the man did not exist. He made no move to stop her.
At the bottom, Josephine knelt in Margaretta Ma'am's blood, reached out a trembling hand to smooth a lock of hair from her brow. "Sleep now, pretty one," she slurred. "He can never hurt you again. Take my love with you into the darkness, ma petite. Be at peace."
Archibald's mouth worked a moment. His bloodshot eyes stared at Margaretta Ma'am and Josephine. "You ungrateful nigra bitch," he said softly. "I gave you my seed, because my wife couldn't give me nothin' but dead babies. You had my child in your belly. My son. I took him as my own. I promised never to sell you away. That wasn't enough for you, was it?"
Josephine stood up. Thunder rumbled nearby. Blood dappled her nude body, glistening scarlet in candlelight, scarlet in the mellow glow of oil lamps. She opened her mouth, closed it, and shook her head. With great dignity, she turned on her heel and walked away, leaving a series of bloodied footprints behind.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?" Archibald shouted after her. He half-ran, half-fell down the remaining stairs, skidded in his wife's blood, and went after Josephine. Belinda and Tricksy followed. Both of them were fairly certain that they could not physically affect anything in this place, but they nevertheless stepped cautiously around Margaretta Ma'am's body.
By the time they reached the parlor, Archibald had Josephine cornered. Rain lashed at the windows, driven by screeching winds. The curtains had not been drawn, but the only view outside was blackness and water. Archibald glared at Josephine, mumbling oaths to himself. His hands were knotted into fists, the knuckles white and strained. The slave woman faced him unafraid.
Belinda squeezed Tricky's hand, felt a returning reassurance. The tension wound tighter and tighter, a nerve-racking ordeal, and Belinda prayed it would end soon.
Relief came in the form of a lightning strike.
A dazzling blue-white explosion that seared their retinas, accompanied by a rain of flying glass shards. When Belinda cracked her eyes open, she saw Josephine outlined with a crackling burst of energy that crawled over her skin. Her face was contorted in agony, head thrown back, mouth open in a scream that was swallowed up by a deafening crack of thunder. The vision was etched into Belinda's brain, although it lasted for barely a heartbeat. When she blinked away the after-affects, Josephine was lying on the floor, presumably dead. There were burns on her wrists and ankles. Her auburn hair was kinked, tendrils of smoke wafting up from the scorched mass.
Archibald had been blown off his feet by the concussion, landing on his back on the other side of the parlor. He got up, arms and legs struggling feebly. He seemed to have aged in the last few moments. When he shuffled out of the room, he moved like an old, tired man. Another booming swell of thunder made him stop briefly, glance over his shoulder. Archibald was afraid. He continued on his way a little faster.
Belinda tugged Tricksy towards the blown-out window. A single pane of glass was intact in the lower right corner. Josephine's screaming face was somehow burned into the glass, looking exactly as it had in the contemporary Arcadia. Belinda shivered, and felt Tricksy shuddering beside her.
"Two parts truth, one part lie," Tricksy said, staring at Josephine's body. "My ancestor Wade never knew his real momma. Never even got to know Margaretta Ma'am. He was a baby when it happened. Wade got killed in the Battle of Chickamauga, but he left a wife and three sons behind him. I reckon he must have told his boys the story he'd gotten from Archibald."
"And so it goes, and so it goes," Belinda said. "That skeleton in your family's closet just got a little worse or a little better. I'm not sure which."
"Hush your mouth, girl. It was bad enough before. Now I don't know whether to laugh or cry."
Archibald returned with another man in tow. "I want you to see to the burying, Glidwell. Not in the slave cemetery."
"Where d'you want me to put her?" Glidwell asked, sidling around to gawk at the dead woman.
"Weight it down, throw it in the pond. There's some scrap iron in the mule barn." Archibald rubbed his face with his hand. "The storm's about over. When you're done, saddle my horse. I need to go into town for the sheriff. My wife's had an accident."
Glidwell nodded. "Yessir. Just as you say, sir."
Belinda frowned. "Glidwell? I knew the family lived around here way back when, but who is he?"
"Probably the overseer," Tricksy answered.
Archibald walked out again. Glidwell pulled a big burlap sack from beneath his coat. "Alright, girl. Let's get to it." He stopped down, began to stuff Josephine into the sack. The real horror was yet to come. When her upper body was inside, her legs began to jerk slightly. A shuddery moan issued from the sack.
"Oh my God," Tricksy said. "She's still alive."
Glidwell realized that, too. He sat back on his heels, pulled at the thin beard that adorned his chin. "Mister Archibald," he said, "she's pretty lively for a dead'un."
Archibald returned, holding a glass of whisky. Without pause, he strode to the fireplace, pulled out a poker. Glidwell hastily backed away as Archibald smashed the poker down on the sack until Josephine stopped moving. Then he dropped the instrument on the rug. "See to it," Archibald said coldly. Fear and shock had sobered him. "And keep your damned mouth shut."
"Yessir." Glidwell hurried to finish his job. When he was done, he tied a piece of twine around the top of the sack. With a grunt of effort, he heaved it up on his shoulder. "Pitiful waste of good woman flesh," he grumbled to himself.
"What was that?" Archibald asked.
"Nothin', sir. Nothin' at all." Glidwell bore his burden out of the parlor, wheezing under his breath.
"I'll bet her bones are still at the bottom of the pond," Belinda said before she could stop herself. The thought made her gag.
Tricksy used her free hand to aim a slap at Belinda. "Don't say things like that."
Belinda noticed that there had been a feeling of pressure around her which was now growing lighter, less dense. "Uh, hang on, Trick. I think we're fixing to..."
And suddenly there was a bone-rattling wrench, as if the world had taken two steps to the right, dragging her with it.
This time, Belinda kept her balance. As soon as the queasy feeling passed, she turned around. She and Tricksy were standing at the foot of the stairs. In front of her was a card table. The walls were white again. Belinda bent over, looked under the table. The floorboards were stained with old blood. There was still a faint echo of the grandfather clock's chime shivering through the air.
"We're back," she said. "Looks like no time has passed."
Tricksy pulled hand out of Belinda's grasp. "Are you sure?" She looked at the table, the nine items, the loaf of bread on the floor.
"Seems that way."
"Christ on a crutch, Lindy." Tricksy pulled out a chair, sat down and leaned her head on her hand. "Remind me to kick your Meemaw's ass some day. Dumb feast, hah! Ignorance is bliss, you know. I could've done without seeing all that mess."
"Your ancestor killed his wife. He would've killed Josephine, too, if the lightning hadn't beat him to it." Belinda wet a napkin in the water jug, used it to wipe the back of her neck.
"Margaretta Ma'am plotted to kill him first."
"Two wrongs don't make a right," Belinda said, quoting another of her Meemaw's favorite sayings. "I think it's Josephine who screams out by the pond. You said it happens during lightning storms, right? That makes sense. And Margaretta Ma'am is trapped in the house. What happened to Archibald?"
Tricksy took the napkin away from Belinda, put it to her forehead. "He died when Wade was eighteen. Drank himself to death. I think his liver gave out. He don't haunt Arcadia, that's for sure. Margaretta Ma'am in the hall upstairs, Josephine by the pond, Aunt Octavia in the music room. That's it. How come the spirit talked to you, anyway?"
"Margaretta Ma'am also talked to Junette Glidwell." Belinda shrugged. "Maybe it has something to do with Josephus Glidwell. Who knows? I mean, the Wallers are hardly related to that family anymore. Certainly not close kin."
"Do Glidwells have the Sight?"
Belinda was starting to get a headache. "I have no idea. Does it really matter? Dammit, Trick, we've got to do something about this tragedy. Think about it. All those years of misery and torment... God! The only comfort they had was each other, and that was taken away. Those two women are in hell. They've been suffering ever since that night."
Tricksy sighed. "Daddy would kill me if I drained the pond. Besides, if Josephine's bones are still in there, they're probably buried in six feet of mud. Anyway, how do we know this wasn't some hallucination brought on by bad mayonnaise?"
Belinda rolled her eyes. "The diary, remember? If we find the hiding place, then we know it was real."
"Smarty pants. I was just what-iffing. That felt too damned real to be a salmonella delusion."
"Wait a second..." Belinda's headache was worsening, just the way it usually did before a big storm. "Didn't you say there's supposed to be rain tonight?"
Before Tricksy could answer, a rumbling growl rolled overhead. The air changed, the wind blowing through open windows carrying coolness, the crisp scent of ozone. "Uh-huh," Tricksy said, eyeing the ceiling.
"Then I've got an idea."
Despite Tricksy's objections, she accompanied Belinda through the gathering darkness to the pond. Lightning flashed, briefly illuminating the pines. "If I get fried, I'm going to come back and haunt you," Tricksy warned.
Belinda did not answer. She was out of breath from carrying Margaretta Ma'am's portrait under her arm. The gilded carved frame was heavy. When they reached the pond, she put the painting down carefully, the muscles in her arms burning. "Okay, if this works, you have to help me bring the portrait back to the house."
"Right." Tricksy had put on a yellow rain slicker, pulled rubber boots over her feet. "I still think this is the craziest thing I've ever heard."
"It might be crazy, but on the other hand, it just might work." Belinda propped the portrait up so that it sat on edge, supported by her legs. Another thunderbolt sizzled across the ink-black sky. "If Josephine isn't bound here by her bones, it may be that she's just lost and can't find her way. If we can get her back up to the house, maybe she and Margaretta Ma'am will be together again. If we can get her to pay attention to us. If she'll follow the portrait."
"That's a whole lot of "ifs" there, Lindy."
"I know. I just feel so sorry for them, Trick."
Tricksy pointed at the portrait. "Momma will skin us both alive if that thing gets ruined out here."
"It won't." Belinda considered a moment. "Hey, where's Margaretta Ma'am buried?"
"At the graveyard in Laughlin. Oh, I get it. If Margaretta Ma'am can haunt Arcadia when her bones are buried in Laughlin, then maybe Josephine ain't trapped in the pond. You do have a teaspoonful of brains in that head of yours, don't you?" Tricksy laughed, held out a hand. A fat raindrop landed on her palm, then another. "It's a-coming. I have the feeling this is going to be a real frog strangler."
"Yeah, my head is about to bust."
They waited in silence as the storm rolled in. Jagged streams of lightning clawed towards the earth, followed by loud thunderclaps. Not much rain had fallen yet, but it was coming. The moon was obscured by boiling black clouds, swollen and dangerous. Tricksy heard the sound first.
"Listen," she said quietly.
Belinda cocked her head. A shrill wail had started in the woods to their left. She looked that way, and saw a flickering blue-white light weaving among the pines. "I think that's her." The screams grew louder each time a lightning bolt flashed, and faded away.
"Okay. Here goes." Tricksy sucked in a deep breath. She let it out in a shout so loud, Belinda almost fell over. "JOSEPHINE! JOSEPHINE! JOSEPHINE! I CALL YOU FORTH THREE TIMES!"
Belinda knocked the side of her head with her fist, trying to stop the ringing in her ears. "Damn, Trick, you ever thought about taking up hog calling for a living?"
Tricksy grinned. "Momma always said I good lungs for a girl."
The flickering presence came closer, skittering along the edge of the pond. It was human shaped, with two arms and two legs, a torso and head, but it had no face. The wailing carried on, up and down the scale, and set Belinda's teeth on edge. As agreed, she and Tricksy each grabbed a side of the portrait, held it up for the ghost to see.
"It's Margaretta Dupuis who waits for you," Belinda said. "Do you remember Margaretta? She's waiting, Josephine. Waiting in Arcadia. We'll take you to her." As she spoke, she and Tricksy took a step backwards. To Belinda's amazement, the glowing spirit followed. She had not expected her plan to work so well.
"I wish she'd quit that," Tricksy gritted through her teeth. "Like fingernails on a chalkboard."
"Be hush and keep walking."
It was awkward, but Belinda and Tricksy managed to wrestle the painting along the path back to the house. Getting the portrait through the wisteria tunnel was a nightmare, since they had to go side-by-side in a narrow space that had little maneuvering room. At last, the two women reached the front porch steps. They went up, and stopped in front of the door while Tricksy reached behind her with one hand, groping for the knob.
The spirit halted at the bottom of the stairs. The wailing trailed off into silence. Its featureless head was turned blindly in their direction. Belinda did not know how it had followed them, or why it was attracted to a portrait that it could not see. Then again, she thought, Josephine's been dead for a hundred-plus years, and maybe ghosts don't need eyeballs. She screams pretty good for somebody that's got no mouth, too.
Belinda felt Tricksy shoving her. "Take it easy. Can't you find the knob?"
"It ain't that. Get out of my way, girl!" Tricksy dropped her end of the portrait, causing Belinda's grip to slip. The painting fell on the porch, and the frame split with a loud crack.
Belinda began to protest, but stopped. The door had opened of its own accord. Standing on the threshold was Mary Margaretta Dupuis Faulcon. She looked as though she had stepped out of the portrait and into flesh. Vivid, beautiful, magnificent and proud. Sapphires sparkled on wrists, earlobes and around her neck. She walked out onto the porch, the skirts of her antebellum gown rustling. Step by step, she glided down, and disappeared around the corner. Belinda and Tricksy rushed to the side of the porch to follow her progress.
Margaretta Ma'am had not acknowledged the blue-white spirit. She walked on, until she reached the tall window of the parlor. Once there, she did not hesitate. Margaretta Ma'am reached out and touched the pane that held the lightning portrait. Instantly, a hair thin bolt of energy zig-zagged out of the sky. It struck the pane, and the glass shivered into fragments.
"Oh, no..." Tricksy breathed. "Grandmomma Eunice is going to have a cow. A whole herd of 'em. I don't even want to think about what Daddy's going to say."
Belinda nudged her with an elbow. "Look at that."
Josephine's spirit was changing. Where there had been nothing but horrible blankness, a face was rapidly forming. Wide eyes, a flat nose, full-lipped mouth, prominent cheekbones. It was Josephine, restored to the beauty she had known in life. Her blue-white color altered to skin like rich cream. She wore a red satin dress that somehow did not clash with her auburn hair. She joined Margaretta Ma'am, and the two spirits linked arms.
"Look at that," Belinda repeated, wiping away tears.
Tricksy sniffled. "They're so happy. Can you feel it, Lindy?"
"Oh, yes, I feel it. It's beautiful. The storm is over."
The wind was blowing from another quarter, sending the storm back to the mountains. A final scattering of raindrops pattered in its wake. Belinda wished she had a Kleenex. She leaned against Tricksy, who put a friendly arm around her waist. "Do you think they're going to Heaven now?" Tricksy asked.
The two spirits walked back to the porch, floated up the steps, and entered the house. The door closed behind them. Belinda said, "I reckon that answers your question, Trick."
Tricksy shrugged. "I hope they don't aim to have their bedroom back. Momma just had it redone into an office for Daddy, and I don't think he'll relish having them two ghosts turtle-doving while he's trying to work."
"I'm sure it'll be fine." Belinda looked at the door with sudden suspicion. "Uh, Trick... you did bring the house keys, didn't you?"
Tricksy gasped. She ran over to the door, turned the knob. "Aw, poot!" She stomped her foot, struck the door with her fist. "Hey! Let us in! Margaretta Ma'am! Miss Josephine! Let us in!"
Belinda laughed. "C'mon, girl. I'm sure they want some privacy."
"Really?" Tricksy stopped banging the door, mingled fascination and wariness in her expression. "Can ghosts do that?"
"After a hundred-odd years, I'd surely be tempted to find out." Belinda came over, still chuckling. "I've got a spare set of car keys. Let's go to town, find Boyd, and make him buy us a beer."
"A beer, hell. After tonight, I want a whole pitcher." Tricksy ran off the porch, into the yard, and looked back at the house. She started giggling.
"What's so funny?" Belinda asked as she joined her.
Tricksy continued to giggle. Belinda glanced up, and saw a window on the second story. Two misty figures stood there, close to one another. They were limned in soft pink light. Faintly, just on the edge of perception, Belinda heard, "Ma petite... je t'adore."
Belinda blushed furiously, grabbed Tricksy's arm, and pulled her to the car.