Nicole Seitz, Author of Southern Fiction
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BEYOND MOLASSES CREEK
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THE INHERITANCE OF BEAUTY
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SAVING CICADAS
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A HUNDRED YEARS OF HAPPINESS
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TROUBLE THE WATER
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THE SPIRIT OF SWEETGRASS
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Recent Progress in Gullah/Geechee and sweetgrass culture

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books - The Inheritance of Beauty

The Inheritance of Beauty by Nicole SeitzExcerpt

PROLOGUE
1929, Levy
Her

I am seven years old, holding the magician’s wand, cool and silver in my hands. My breath is hot against the canvas bust of Mama’s dressmaker’s dummy. I’m inside of it, hiding.

There is green gingham wrapped around me, around the dummy. My brother, Ash, and I play here sometimes, hide and seek. I can feel the metal skirt hoop and smell the musty canvas. I can hear her screaming, begging him to leave us be. There is a thump and a cry at the same time.

Then silence, nothing but the sound of my own breathing.

I don’t know who’s still standing, but I can feel trouble—it fills the room. Someone’s looking my way. Can he hear me breathing? Can he see my feet? Does he know I’m here? I pull my toes in and try hard not to exhale.

I close my eyes. Go away, go away. Footsteps move across the room, and I hear shuffling around. They come closer, painfully slow. I’m about to lose my breath. I’m seeing stars. My knees are shaking.

It’s dark. I’m afraid in the dark.

I hear a sound, a short, quick, scratch.

Then another, and another.

Finally, there’s a whoosh and the footsteps are running away. I wait to be sure they’re gone. I wait, I wait, but I’m getting hot. I might pass out. I open my eyes and look down at my bare feet. Orange fire is on the hem of the green gingham dress. There’s fire, and all I can think is I’ve got to get out of here. I stand up straight and hit my head on the metal. The dummy falls over with me in it.

I wake up, looking into my brother’s eyes with the blue sky and white smoke above us. He’s saying to me, whimpering, “Please, Maggie, talk to me!”

I try but the words won’t come.

******
Him

The fire dances, a great orange jack-o-lantern high above the trees, well into the night. Every man in town is here, buckets of water in hand, sweat on their brows. The heat is nothing I’ve ever felt and nothing I ever hope to feel again.

The watering hole must be empty by now. I think of the fish. I think if they’re frying on the burning embers of the house. I think there might not be any more fish to catch and worry how to restock Togoodoo Creek. Funny what the mind goes to at a time like this. I should be thinking about more serious matters. About the stranger and if he’s dead in that fire. About her, and if she’ll survive. I should be thinking these things, but my mind is not able to work it out. Instead, I will think about fish. There are enough worms to catch a whole heap of them, but now they’re burning in a heap that was once a home. A happy home.

The fish swim up to the night sky in swirls of orange-white smoke, and I wish I could climb the swirls like Jack up the beanstalk, up and away from here. I have never seen a fire this big. Fires should not get this big. Maybe it’ll swallow Levy.

I wish I could go back to before. Please God, let me go back to before I ever met him. Before the train came to town. Let the fire burn up all the time and seconds and let’s just go back to before I ever heard her cry. I pray it. . .I pray it. . .I pray it. . .Amen.

I open my eyes but the fire rages. Will she forgive me? Will she ever forget?

Can I?

ONE
Eighty years later. . .
Annie

It started when Miss Magnolia got this great big package in the mail on the very same day Mister Joe moved in, just a few doors down from her. At the time, I didn’t put two and two together, but I know better now. Something was different about that very morning—the air was cool and crisp on an August day, the birds were quiet, and the cat was prowling some other corner of the house, not the first floor like it usually did. . .waiting for some old folk to die.

Nobody died in Harmony House that day the man come high-tailing in the front door, carrying that package all in a hurry. None of us aides had ever seen anything that big, so we was all eyes, you know, wondering who it could be for. I seen it said Mrs. Magnolia Black Jacobs, and I remember feeling pride ‘cause she was one of my own and being so surprised ‘cause I never known she was a Black. In the two years I’d known her, she’d just been Mrs. Jacobs, Miss Magnolia, George’s wife, to me. That package hinted she had a life before—before Harmony House, before age came and stole her away, before she ever married George Jacobs and had family with him.

I walked with the package man back to room 101 and asked what was in it. “Don’t know,” he said. “Maybe some kind of painting?” It was a large, rectangular thing. The address was from New York City, but there weren’t a sender’s name.

I opened the door and found Mister George and Miss Magnolia still sleeping sound in their bed. It had been a rough go for them, ‘specially the last six months, for Miss Magnolia losing her mind with each pin stoke, losing her independence, her ability to communicate. But for Mister George, I declare, it was even worse. For a while, his wife seemed to be forgetting everything and everybody. Even him, her husband of seventy-some years.

After the man helped me heft that package into the room, I leaned it up against the wall. I tiptoed on over to the bed, and Mister George stirred. “Goo-ood mornin’, Mister George,” I sang in my brightest, happiest voice, wanting to wake him with a Southern smile. He deserved some sweetness.

******
George

I open my eyes and see Miss Annie hovering over Maggie, her large frame blocking the sunlight, her face hard to wake up to. I’ve been spoiled by my lovely wife. “Good mornin’? Sheesh, maybe for you—you got all your teeth.” I reach over and fumble, trying to find my glass.

“Over to the right a little,” says Annie. As I reach into the water, I realize what a stupid thing I just said. Miss Annie, the colored woman who takes care of my wife has terrible teeth, all crooked and small and yellow, like little bits of corn left out in the field too long. And a face like a beat up frying pan, but sweet like an angel. Think, George, before you speak. That part’s never come easy for me, thinking. I pop my teeth in.

“Ah gee, I didn’t mean. . .I’m sorry, Annie.”

“For what? I ain’t understood a thin’ you said, what with your no-tooth self.” She winks at me. “You sleep good?”

“Yeah, reckon. Fair to middlin’.”

“Mornin’, Miss Magnolia,” Annie sings. “How we doin’ today? Rise and shine. The Lawd done give us a new day together.”

I turn over because I don’t really know how my wife is going to react to being woken up. She doesn’t know me anymore, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know Annie either, and I just don’t want to see a whole production right now. It’s something that’s hard to prepare for, and you never know when it might happen. Not too long ago when Maggie could still speak, Miss Annie was putting her to bed one night, and she turned and looked at me and said, “Where’s he sleeping?”

“Right here, in the bed.”

“With me?” said Maggie.

“Of course,” said Annie.

“The hell he is.”

My wife had never used a profane word in all her years, but it’s not what bothered me. I was a stranger now, just like everybody else.

Miss Annie knows enough to leave me alone every now and again. Occasionally she finds me lying on a bed of white towels in the bathtub, crusty tracks on my face from crying half the night. It’s been hard. I won’t lie.

I sit up slow and hang my legs off the bed, struggle to find my slippers. I rub the back of my head and my whiskers, my unshaven face. And I tell her about my dream, hoping to smooth over any unpleasantness on the other side of the bed.

“Miss Annie, last night I was young again. How ‘bout that.”

“That right?”

“Yes ma’am. Old George. Dreamt I was sitting at this watering hole we used to have near the farm. I’d sit there as a boy, eight, nine, ten. . .with crickets or worms on my hook. I’d get brim on a good day, catfish any other. Sometimes we’d sell ‘em at the store, Jacobs Mercantile. In this dream I had, there was somethin’ on the line. It was a big somethin’. I was pullin’, haulin’ it in. The water was dark and I couldn’t see, but I was pullin’ and pullin’ and pullin’ and—”

“Well, what it was?”

I realize my hands are stretched out like I’m fishing, so I stop. I turn and watch Annie helping my wife sit up, the powder white of her hair like snow on her sweet little head. I miss touching that softness. I miss those shoulders, that body. I miss the woman who knew me. I miss my wife. But I’m not complaining. She’s still here, see. That’s more than some people can say.

“No, Annie, I never did see what it was. I woke up before I could reel it in. I tell you this though, it was somethin’ mighty big. And in that dream I felt like if I could just pull that thing up from out of the water, it’d be like winnin’ the lottery, like finding a pot of gold, you know?”

“Magic fishes, imagine. You find one, bring it to me, hear? Miss Annie gonna fry it up and get rich. There you go, Miss Magnolia. Give me this leg. All right. Careful now.”

I could help Annie get my wife into her wheelchair. She’s thirty-something years old and strong as an ox, but still, I could help her. I might be in my nineties, but I’m not useless. This morning, I just don’t feel like it. I can’t get my mind off of that dream. I can’t stop thinking what could have been under that water. Maybe tonight I can go back to sleep and figure it out, what I was supposed to pull up. Maybe there’s treasure waiting for this old man, after all. . .though at this age, what in the world would I do with it?

“I brung you somethin’, Miss Magnolia,” says Annie as she goes to the windows and throws open the blue curtains. Yellow morning spills over everything, and I rub my eyes. I slide my feet into my slippers and hold myself propped on the edge of the bed.

“Good-looking white man drivin’ a FedEx truck brung you this great big package here. All the way from New York City.”

New York? I pick up my glasses and stick them on my nose. Hey diddle, she’s right. The biggest box I’ve ever seen, long and skinny, is propped up on the wall behind the card table. It’s almost too big for our little room.

“What is it?”

“Don’t know. You want me to open it?”

I tell her yes and look over at Maggie who’s studying the big brown box as if Miss Annie’s let a perfect stranger into the room. “There’s a letter opener in that drawer there.”
Annie grabs the box and attacks the edges, sliding down one seam, across another, and my heart stirs. What in the world has come for my wife? Who does she know who would ever send her anything, except for Alex or Gracie, and they could deliver it themselves if they needed to.

“Alrighty then,” she says, pulling the side open and reaching in. “Wrapped it good.” She pulls it out, huffing. Finally she cuts the bubble wrap off and there we are, Annie standing back, and me on the bed, Maggie in her wheelchair, staring at the biggest, most beautiful portrait of a young girl I’ve ever seen. She’s lying on her stomach at a swimming pool, pushed up on her elbows, with wavy hair and full bosoms and all sorts of curves.

“You okay?” Annie asks, as I must have gasped out loud.

“I don’t believe it. It. . .it’s Maggie.”

“Naw. Wait. Lawd have mercy, sure ‘nough! I never seen a body so lovely. . .Miss Magnolia?” she crosses over to her and pushes her wheelchair to within two feet of the photograph. “You see this? This is you, ain’t it? Weren’t you were the prettiest thang? I swanny. Look at you!”

I watch Maggie, sitting there with her hair still uncombed and white and pink pajamas on. She studies the life-sized portrait of herself in a bathing suit. It must have been taken around the time we were married—she’s only, what, seventeen or eighteen? Maggie lifts a trembling hand and puts it in her mouth. “Annie, grab her a washcloth.”
She does so, and Maggie chomps down in it instead of her raw knuckles.

“How come you never told me she was such a beauty? Where’s this picture from? Some magazine?”

“This is new to me. . .unless I’ve forgotten,” I say now, low and inadequate. “Which is entirely possible. I—my goodness. No. I’ve never seen this photo in my life.”

It dawns on me then: There are things I still don’t know about my wife. After all these years, how can it be? But then again, there are things she still doesn’t know about me either.

The thought of it all makes me want to tell Miss Annie to leave us alone a while. I’ve got to study the young face of my wife. It’s the pretty face that used to smile only for me. Apparently she smiled for some other creep too, somebody living in New York City now.

 

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The Spirit of Sweetgrass Trouble the Water, coming February 2008!