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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
376 pages
Mar 2004
Howard Publishing

Secret Tides

by Gary E. Parker

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

The Oak Plantation, 1858

A band of thunderstorms hit the beaches of the South Carolina lowlands the day Camellia York accidentally killed the father of the man she hoped to marry. The storms didn’t come ashore all at once though. No, they gradually made their way inland, slowly eroding the blue sky of the early November day with dark clouds.

            As the storms approached, Camellia stood barefooted about midway down a long wood table in a plantation cookhouse about three miles from shore. An old black woman, so stooped she looked like she’d carried a rock the size of a washtub on her neck for a long time, worked on the opposite side of the table. The woman’s skin was so inky black that folks often said, if not for the whites of her eyes, they’d never see her after night fell. Camellia’s skin was a soft white, and her hair hung in rich brown waves past her shoulders. The black woman wore a green bandanna, but it did little to contain the gray sprigs she called hair. Camellia’s lips were full; she had all her teeth. The lips of the black woman seemed to sink in around her mouth, and most of her teeth had long since disappeared. A dip of snuff filled her right cheek.

            Flour covered the hands of both women. Camellia wiped sweat off her brow, leaving a smudge of the flour between her blue eyes.

            The black woman grinned and pointed at the flour spot. “Miss Camellia makin’ her sweet young face a mess. Lay on a mite more flour, and you be lookin’ like a swamp ghost.”

            Camellia laughed and bent forward. The older woman grabbed a rag and wiped off the flour.

            “There’s not enough flour from Beaufort to Charleston to make you a ghost,” drawled Camellia.

            “That be true,” said the black woman, chuckling. “Stella be black as the ink in Master Tessier’s pen, oh yes I am.”

            The wood floor under the two women’s feet creaked as they worked. Flies buzzed in and out of the open window to their right. The air hung heavy and hot in spite of the clouds gathering outside. A low rumble sounded in the distance. A fireplace as wide as a wagon covered the room to Camellia’s left, and the fire in it made the cookhouse even hotter than the outdoor temperature. Camellia faced the window and hoped to catch a breeze, but none came. She glanced around the room—a rectangular space about twenty by forty feet. Pots and pans and all manner of other cooking utensils hung on nails on the walls. Shelves on two of the walls contained flour, sugar, salt, and vegetables they’d put up in jars and cans. Barrels in the corners held cornmeal, rice, and wheat.

            Camellia picked up a clay jar, poured flour into a bowl, took a touch of lard from a pail, and dug her hands into the flour. Stella did the same. Her hands turned as white as Camellia’s. A strange notion seeped into Camellia’s head. Could it be that all people were the same color, under their skin? she wondered. She held up her hands, covered with flour. “Look, Stella. Our hands look the same.”

            Stella spit into the snuff cup she always kept close by but said nothing.

            Camellia wiped her hands on her apron, then scrutinized Stella. “Our clothes are about the same too.”

            Stella shrugged, obviously not catching Camellia’s meaning.

            Camellia started to say more but then decided if she explained it, Stella would just look at her like she’d lost her mind and wave her off. So Camellia went back to her dough, massaging it steadily as her mind stretched with the realization of how much like Stella she truly was: An apron covered her plain brown dress, just like an apron covered Stella’s plain gray dress. They both went barefooted except in winter or on the rare times they had traveled to Beaufort, close to thirty miles away, to attend church. They both labored from sunup to sundown on The Oak, a rice plantation of almost 3,000 acres and 325 laborers.

            Camellia blew a loose strand of hair off her cheek as sweat rolled down between her shoulder blades. She patted out a biscuit and laid it by the ones she’d already finished. Stella dropped one beside hers. Camellia studied the wrinkles in Stella’s hands—although nobody knew for sure, most folks figured Stella close to seventy. Camellia’s earliest memories brought Stella’s face to mind instead of a mama’s or papa’s. Stella had given Camellia a piece of peppermint—the first she’d ever had as a young child—and the girl had seen Stella every day since. That, maybe more than anything else, had stamped Camellia like a branding iron marked a horse. Now, except for her color, a little more refined speech, and the fact that nobody owned her, Camellia saw herself as real close to a darky.

            The thunder rumbled again, this time closer, and Camellia hoped it would rain and break the heat. Although they’d finished the harvest a week earlier, the coastal lowlands often stayed warm right up to nearly December. Right now the day felt as hot as July—a sticky suffocating blanket that made the dogs stay under the porch of the manse and slowed everybody’s labor to a crawl.

            The thunder sounded once more. Camellia left the table and walked to the window. Low black clouds put a mean face on the eastern half of the sky. To the west the horizon remained blue, except for a few white clouds. Camellia scanned the yard. The manse stood on four-feet-high stone pillars a good rock throw away, a stately two-story white house with four columns on the front. Porches wrapped both the front and back. An oak tree, at least a hundred years old and so wide it took four people to get their arms around it, stood to the right of the front porch. From this ancient oak, with its moss-draped branches, the plantation had taken its name. About a half-mile to the left of the manse, snaking its way toward the Atlantic Ocean, the slow-moving Conwilla River created the current that made rice growing possible. A gravel drive, bordered on both sides by twenty-five moss-draped oaks, connected about a quarter-mile away to a wide dirt road that ran from Beaufort to Charleston.

            Camellia wiped her hands on her apron. Although she owned none of The Oak and labored as hard as any of the coloreds that made it run, she loved the place. She loved the sandy soil that shifted under her feet; loved the crash and spray of the ocean she visited almost every Sunday afternoon because she lived too far from Beaufort to walk to church; loved the sounds of the frogs, birds, and insects that made every summer night a throaty concert; loved the flowers that bloomed almost year-round, their smells and color keeping everything alive. Mostly though, she loved The Oak because she loved—

            Lightning cracked the sky. Camellia jerked away from the window, her daydreaming ended. Thunder rattled the cookhouse as she turned to Stella. “That thunder sounds mean. Like it’s got something hurtful to say but no words to speak it.”

            “Maybe it’ll bring us some wet,” said Stella. “Cool us down a mite.”

            “It sounds angry, not wet.” Camellia eyed the odd sky—half of it blue, half black.

Stella grabbed a handful of potatoes and started peeling them. “What you know about angry thunder? A child your age don’t know such things.”

            “I’m eighteen now.” Camellia picked up a stack of the potatoes. “I can tell if a storm’s got rain in it. Just open your nose and smell—that’s all you got to do. And when it don’t, it gets mad, you know that. Wants to take out the anger on somebody.”

            “You talk like a slave mammy,” said Stella. “Readin’ the storms.”

            “A white girl can read storms,” Camellia claimed. “And this storm”—she looked at the window again—“I don’t know . . . feels frightful . . . like it’s a portent of something rough.” The thunder mumbled again, and she shivered.

            Stella stepped to the window, peered out, then moved back to her potatoes. “Got some blue sky left. Maybe the storm won’t even get us.”

            Camellia wiped her brow.

            “Not sure which is better,” continued Stella. “We need the rain, but the wind and the blow might do some damage.”

            “That’s the way with storms,” said Camellia. “They bring the good and the bad, one in hand with the other.”

            Stella smiled. “There you go again with your philosphizin’.”

            Camellia shrugged. “Just thinking. I mean, just look at that sky. Part blue, part black. Which side will win? Which way will it go? And which is better? We do need the rain. But what if the storm whips up a bad wind, enough to tear up a house or two? So which is better? Storm or no storm? Hard to know beforehand, right? You think one thing is better but can’t know for sure for a long time.”

            Stella kept at her potatoes. “You’re a smart girl. Too bad you ain’t had a chance to get some learnin’.”

            Camellia didn’t reply, but her hands peeled potatoes even faster. The fact that a girl of her station had no chance for an education made her sad. But she knew no way to change the matter, so she wouldn’t complain.

             “When is Captain York gone be back?” asked Stella.

            “Tomorrow,” Camellia said, thinking of her pa, a former cavalry officer during the Mexican War. “He and Mr. Cain are hauling a couple wagons full of supplies back from Charleston.”

            “You reckon he’ll bring back the blue calico you been wantin’ for that new dress? If he does, I’ll make a pretty one for you, just like you ask.”

            “Pa’s not always dependable these days,” Camellia said, frowning. “You know that. It’s like he can’t keep his head on real straight sometimes.”

            “He’s got a lot on him, runnin’ this big place,” Stella put in. “The Oak is an armful, that’s for sure.” She finished her potatoes, dumped them in an iron pot, and started mashing them with a big wooden spoon.

            Camellia cut the last of hers and dropped them on top of Stella’s. Captain York, her pa, served as overseer for Mr. Marshall Tessier. He managed the work of all the Negroes, plus a couple of white men who helped him. Every night he came home worn out and hungry. As the oldest child and only female in the house, the duties of cooking, cleaning, and keeping house fell squarely into her lap, in spite of the fact that she’d worked all day on the same plantation her pa had run for as long as she could remember. Sometimes that seemed strange to her, but since everybody in her world had their place and didn’t usually squabble about it, she just squared her shoulders and kept quiet.

            “That woman over in Beaufort said she didn’t want him courting her,” Camellia said. “He took it hard.”

            “That was half a year ago,” Stella commented sharply. “He ought to be over any hurt she caused. She was a loose woman anyway.”

            “He’s worse if anything,” lamented Camellia. “Like a barrel rolling downhill, busting up more and more as it bounces toward the bottom.”

            “How’s he worse?”

            Camellia wiped her hands. “Oh, you know, his drinking. And he spends most of his off time gambling somewhere. Cockfighting, horse racing, card games . . . anything he can find to make a wager. He hardly ever stays home, even on Sundays when he’s not at work.”

            Stella’s hands stilled as she swiveled toward Camellia. “Look at me, child.”

            Camellia obeyed.

            Stella took both of the girl’s hands. “Your pa got a lot of barky edges. Always had them. That woman in Beaufort, even as loose as she was, kept him with some calm. Now that she’s gone, his mean ways have bucked back up. I seed it happen lot of times. A woman puts away a man, and he just goes off wild.”

            “Was he better before Mama died?”

            Stella licked her lips. “That was a long time ago, child, back afore you got any memory. No use castin’ your head back to them days.”

            As usual, Camellia thought, nobody seemed willing to talk about her mama. In her earlier years, Camellia had asked about her lots of times, but her pa always shook his head and told her there wasn’t much to say. “She’s dead,” he’d state. “Typhus got her a long time ago.” Gradually she’d let it drop. But the mystery still haunted her sometimes.

            “Pa’s got three of us left,” said Camellia, changing the subject. “I can abide his crazy ways, but my brothers need a steady hand. When do you figure Pa will settle again?”

            Stella lowered her eyes. “I wish I could promise you he’s gone do that. But I reckon you and Chester and Johnny deserve the truth. Maybe your pa will, and maybe he won’t. I seed it go both ways.”

            Thunder rattled the floor this time, and Camellia again moved to the window. The black clouds now covered three-fourths of the sky, growing larger and darker as the wind blew them closer. Lightning dropped and hit the ground a couple of miles away. Camellia suddenly felt weak, as if something as dark as the gloomy sky loomed over her. She wanted to cry. For as long as she could remember, she’d tried to take care of her pa and brothers—Chester, now sixteen, Johnny, just over a year younger—even as more and more duties had fallen her way. But now it all felt too heavy to carry. Her heart sagged, and moisture glistened in her eyes. But then her stomach steadied. Giving up never did anybody any good, she knew, so she might as well not start now. She wiped her hands and took heart. One of these days, maybe soon, she’d get married and everything would turn out fine.

            Trenton Tessier’s face flashed into her memory, and she smiled. Master Marshall’s nineteen-year-old son loved her. Hadn’t he said as much this past Christmas when he came home from boarding school in Charleston?

            Camellia remembered the best night of her life.


            She and Trenton had taken a walk on the beach that Christmas Eve. Oh, she knew she ought not to have gone with him without a chaperone. But sometimes society’s rules needed some bending. Besides, the fancy rules of courting that governed Charleston didn’t really fit their situation since they’d known each other since childhood.

            The stars twinkled like pieces of broken glass that night. The ocean splashed gently toward shore, filling the air with scents of wet sand and salt. She and Trenton, so handsome in his tan frock coat, black pants, and calf-high boots, stopped about twenty feet from the water, and he took her hands in his.

            “We’ve known each other most of our lives,” he began.

            She lowered her eyes, afraid to speak lest he notice her unpolished words and realize she didn’t deserve him.

            “I’ve missed you every day these last three years I’ve been away at school,” he continued.

            “I’ve missed you more.” She looked up at him now, her shyness put aside to make sure he knew of her affection.

            “When I get home in the spring,” he promised, “we have big decisions to make.”

As the night grew chillier, she shivered, and he pulled her shawl tighter around her neck. Then he took her in his arms and held her for a long time. He kissed her and she trembled.

            Although he’d not exactly asked her to marry him that night in December, he’d come real close, so close that she had no doubt he’d ask her pa for her hand as soon as he got home in May. Then she’d have all she needed—Trenton Tessier, a man of charm and strength and fine manners. That’s all she truly wanted from life: Trenton to hug her every now and again, to tell her he loved her more than anybody in the whole world.


            “You be daydreamin’, child,” said Stella, bringing Camellia back to the present. “Let’s finish this supper. I don’t want to haul it to the manse once that lightnin’ moves closer.”

            Camellia hurried back to the table.

            “You be thinkin’ about Mr. Trenton, I figure,” Stella said bluntly.

            “You’re right about that.”

            Stella spit into her snuff cup. “That boy ain’t good enough for you.”

            Camellia ground her teeth. She and Stella had argued over this a lot. “I know he’s got his faults,” she began. “Sometimes he thinks too high of himself, spends too much time worrying about his clothes, the cut of his hair. And, yes, he puts too much store in his hunting skills. But what man of his quality and wealth don’t have a bit of the barnyard rooster in him?”

            “Money don’t give a man the right to look down on folks,” argued Stella. “I know it ain’t my place to say it, but he’s trouble, that one. You mark my word.”

            “You just don’t know him. He’s sweet and refined—as finely educated as any man in the whole country. He’s charming too, you have to admit. Enough to melt the heart of any girl in Charleston. What right do I have to think less of him just because he’s aware of his outstanding traits?”

            “I’m just tellin’ you what I think. Take it as you like. But one thing I know: You be pure in heart and he ain’t. And you know it.”

             “When we marry, I can help him,” insisted Camellia.

            “A woman ought not marry for what a man can be,” said Stella. “She be playin’ a losin’ game doin’ that. Best marry a man for what he is, for that’s mostly who he’s gone stay.”

            “He said he’d go to church with me when we marry,” Camellia answered, pouting.

Stella grunted. “Won’t matter. He’s like his pa. Reckon even the good Lord will have a hard time changin’ that.”

            Camellia’s face flushed at the mention of Marshall Tessier. A touch of anger ran up her neck. How dare Stella speak so ill of Trenton? She started to argue more but then thought of how Stella saw her beloved Trenton. He did treat the coloreds poorly sometimes, so no wonder most of them held him in low regard. But he wasn’t the only white man with that fault. If she waited until she found a man who handled the Negroes gently, she’d never marry anybody. Besides, the darkies needed a strong hand to keep them steady with their work; everybody knew that.

            After she and Trenton married, she’d tell him to give the servants more respect; she’d help him see how they kept The Oak thriving the way it did. She smiled as she imagined the days after her marriage. So much would change. She’d get a tutor and learn to read. Buy nice clothes so she could dress up and make Trenton proud. Take him to Saint Michael’s in Beaufort where they could sit in the front row and listen to the parson teach them the Word of the Lord.

            Lifted by her dreams, Camellia turned to her potatoes once more. Thunder rumbled directly overhead, and the room turned dark as the sun disappeared completely. Footsteps clomped on the cookhouse porch. Just who would come out in this storm? Camellia wondered.

            Then the door swung open, and Mr. Marshall Tessier, master of the plantation, pushed his bulky frame into the room. He wore shiny black boots and tan riding pants. A brown ruffled shirt was open at the throat, and his eyes looked bright, as if they had too much fire burning in them. He smelled like old tobacco and stale ale. Camellia’s heart began to race.

            “Mrs. Tessier wants you to come to the manse,” Tessier told Stella without looking at her.

            “I got potatoes left to mash,” Stella said, her eyes down. “You reckon I might finish them afore I go to Mrs. Tessier? She wants supper on time, I expect.”

            Tessier glanced at Stella only for a moment before focusing on Camellia again. “You go like I said,” he snarled. “No uppity smart mouth either.”

            Stella muttered softly.

            “I said git!” Tessier demanded. “Unless you want a switch on your old hide!”

            Camellia caught Stella’s eye and tilted her head toward the door. Although she hated to face Tessier alone, she didn’t want Stella to be punished. She’d seen him switch slaves before, and he was merciless.

            “Be back soon as I can,” Stella told Camellia as she reached the door.

            “I’ll finish up the potatoes,” said Camellia.

            As soon as Stella left, Tessier stepped closer. “You fill out that dress most amply,” he said, inspecting her head to toe.

            Camellia’s skin crawled. Tessier had said such things a number of times over the last year or so. Frightened by his attentions, she’d told her pa about it a couple of months ago. But Captain York had laughed off her concerns. She would never forget their conversation.


            “You’re a strikin’ woman now,” her pa said when she confided her fears. “Got to expect men to take notice.”

            “But Mr. Tessier is a married man!” she protested. “And he’s old too—got to be near sixty!”

            Her pa rubbed his neatly trimmed black beard. “You handle this easy like,” he finally said. “You can’t trifle with a man like Tessier.”

            “I’m not the one doing the trifling,” she argued, a low anger rising as she realized her pa, always so strong, might not stand up to Tessier like she thought he should.

            “Tessier pays the wages,” her pa continued. “Got to give the man with the money a little rope. He’s just havin’ a bit of fun with you; nothin’ to fret over.”

            “You defending him?”

            Her pa straightened then. “No. You’re my girl, and I won’t let him hurt you. But you’ve got to keep steady here, understand the ways of the world. Everythin’s not as pure as you see it. You’ve blossomed this past year but still aren’t used to handlin’ men’s coarse ways. Remember that Tessier can put me off this place at any second . . . and you too. Just stay out of his way.”

            “I’m trying,” she said. She wondered if she should tell him about her plans with Trenton. Her pa, of course, knew they spent time together when Trenton came home for visits. But so far nobody had said anything about any romance between them.

            “But he’s . . . Trenton’s father,” she finally stammered.

            “What’s goin’ on with you and Master Trenton?” he asked curiously. “He treatin’ you proper?”

            She shrugged. “Trenton says we have decisions to make when he comes home.”

            “A rich boy like Trenton is liable to play with a girl like you,” her pa said sternly. “But he ain’t likely to marry you.”

            Camellia pouted at the stinging words. She knew her station in life, how the classes stayed separate—owners at the top, darkies at the bottom, white trash who didn’t work just above the darkies, white folks who did work on the rung above them. But Trenton would overlook all that. She felt certain of it.

            Trenton will marry me,” she said, chin lifted just a bit. “He loves me.”

            When her pa grinned, she saw that he liked the idea of a marriage between her and Trenton. Although strong in a lot of ways, Captain York had a weakness for money, and he tended to give wealthy folks more respect than he did anyone else. “I hope you’re right.” He beamed. “So stay away from his father. That’s the best thing for everybody.”


            Camellia had tried to do just that, and it had worked for the past few months. Now she hoped she could escape again. She tried to move around Tessier, but he stuck a boot between her feet and blocked her escape.

            “I’ve had my eyes on you,” he said.

            “You’ve been with a bottle,” Camellia said, her voice stronger than she felt. “Smell like whiskey.”

            “I won’t hurt you,” Tessier said softly. “Just want a little kiss.”

            Camellia relaxed a little. Tessier had said similar things in the past, but she’d always managed to keep him at bay.

            “I’m not . . . not experienced in the ways of the world,” she said, backing up slightly. “You can find better than me to kiss.”

            “I can make amends for that.” He moved a little closer. “I can teach you how to please a man.”

            Camellia’s eyes searched past Tessier, looking for a way out. If she could get to the porch, she could run, and Tessier, in his drunkenness, probably couldn’t keep up with her. The room darkened even more as the clouds finally took over the whole sky and wind whipped through the windows. Tessier stepped still closer, until she could feel his breath on her cheek.

            “I can give you anything you want,” he coaxed. “I can send you to the best schools in the East, make a proper woman of you, clothe you in the fashions of Europe, provide you with manners, culture—all the things you surely want.”

            “That’s a kind offer,” she said, still trying to stay polite. “But I have no desire for such as that.”

            “Money then; is that it? I have more than I can ever spend. You give me what I want, and I’ll take care of you.” His fingers snagged her hair. “Such luscious brown hair,” he whispered. “And skin as soft as a swan’s feathers.”

            Camellia’s stomach rolled, but she kept her voice even as she spoke. Maybe she could still get out of this without any real harm. “What about your wife?” she managed to ask.

            Tessier chuckled. “She’s no concern of yours.” He touched the back of Camellia’s neck and then bent to kiss her.

            Camellia almost panicked. Master Tessier had never gone this far! What would happen if she let him kiss her? Would that be the end of it, or would he want more? Unable to tell, she began to pray for something—anything—to end the unpleasantness. When Tessier’s lips touched her cheek, she twisted away. He tried again, but she pushed him off.

            “You reject me?” he bellowed, his face bunched in rage.

            “Your son!” she cried, her voice now desperate. “He and I are—”

            He laughed at her objection. “Trenton is a boy! He has no idea how to treat a woman like you!”

            “Just let me go!” she pleaded. “I won’t tell anybody.” She tried to back up more, but the worktable stopped her.

            “You think I care?” he yelled. “I’m the master of this place, understand that? You, your father, my wife, or anyone else has no power here!” He grabbed her by the shoulders and dug his fingers into her flesh.

            “You’re paining me,” she whimpered.

            As he twisted her face to his, rain started to pound the roof. Thunder roared. In her fear and disgust Camellia almost collapsed. Then a bolt of lightning struck close by, shocking her heart into pounding again and sending a reserve of strength she didn’t know she had rushing through her bones. She wouldn’t give in to such unwanted attentions without a fight, she decided. She wouldn’t let Tessier kiss her, wouldn’t let him treat her like he owned her! No one owned Camellia York!

            As Tessier again bent to kiss her, she kneed him in the stomach. Doubling over in pain, he backed up. Camellia rushed toward the doorway and almost made it out before he caught her by the hair and jerked her back. She twisted and punched at his face but missed. Wrapping his arms around her, he locked his hands at the small of her back and squeezed.

            “You’re a woman of fire!” he bellowed. “Just what I like!”

            Seeing no choice now, Camellia reared her head back and thrust it into Tessier’s nose. He screamed, let her go, and stumbled backward. Camellia ran again, but he grabbed her once more, this time by the back of the throat, and spun her around. His hands tightened like twin vises against her windpipe, and she fell back against the worktable. She tried to scratch his face, but his grip increased until she couldn’t breathe! Her lungs felt like they’d pop at any second! She tried once again to kick him, but her legs couldn’t move. When her eyes began to blur, she knew she’d reached the end of her fight.

            “Pl...please,” she gasped.

            “You made me do this!” Master Tessier panted.

            Camellia tried to fight more but had no strength. Her body went limp. She closed her eyes and prayed to die, hoped to die, wanted to die to avoid the humiliation of what she feared Tessier would do to her.

            She heard footsteps on the porch and opened her eyes just as Stella rushed in, her head soaked from rain. Stella’s return gave Camellia renewed courage. Raising both hands, she raked at Tessier’s eyes. He cried out, let go of her neck, and staggered against the wall.

            Stella grabbed the potato pot and threw it at Tessier. Mashed potatoes spilled to the floor. The pot hit Tessier in the chest, but he knocked it away. Still fighting for breath, she searched for a weapon, and her fingers closed on the peeling knife. Holding it like a dagger, she yelled, “I’ll use it!”

            “No you won’t!” Tessier rushed at her and she backed up. But he kept coming. Feeling the table at her back, she stopped, poised to defend herself. Just then Tessier lunged for the knife . . . but his feet slipped in the spilled potatoes. Off balance, he fell forward. Camellia jerked out of his way, but he grabbed at her as he toppled over. His right hand closed on the knife blade as his head hit the table with a sharp thwack. His body sagged; his face fell into the potatoes. He rolled over and tried to rise but fell again. His eyes rolled back, then closed. A knot the size of an apple appeared over his left eye, just past the temple. Blood dripped from a cut in his skull and from his hand where he’d fallen on the knife.

            Stella squatted and lifted his head. Outside the thunder and rain suddenly stopped, as if listening to hear what would happen next. Tessier’s breathing sounded ragged and shallow.

            Camellia grabbed a rag, wet it from water in a barrel, and dropped to her knees.

            “Is he all right?” she asked, rubbing the rag over his face.

            “Reckon not,” said Stella, laying his head on the floor. “Busted his skull right good.” She pointed to the blood seeping out.

            “We have to help him,” said Camellia frantically as she held the rag to his head.

            Stella bent to his chest and listened to his breathing. “It ain’t good.”

            “We best go for a doctor!” pleaded Camellia.

            Rising up, Stella took Camellia’s wrists into her hands. “Maybe he be past our help. Or a doctor’s. Maybe the good Lord gone call him home.”

            Camellia struggled against Stella’s hands. “We have to try!” she urged. “Go for aid!”

            “Give me one good reason why.”

            “Because it’s the right thing to do!”

            Stella let go of Camellia’s hands and pointed at Tessier. “That man was goin’ to have his way with you. That be the right thing to do?”

            Camellia shook her head.

            “And what if he should live?” asked Stella. “He’d put you and your family right off this place. Me too. After he whipped me, he’d sell me fast, like a horse he don’t need.” She stood and toed Tessier in the chest.

            The wind whipped through  the window, blowing Camellia’s hair. Rain started falling again, but gentler now. Tears streamed down Camellia’s face. She bent to Tessier again. “We just let him die?”

            Stella patted her back. “He’ll live or die on his own. Not up to us.”

            Tessier took several shallow breaths.

            “I did this,” said Camellia.

            “He did it,” Stella countered. “You and me both know it.”

            Camellia thought of the doctor again and started to stand. No matter what Stella said she couldn’t just stand by and watch a man die. But then Tessier heaved one last big breath and lay still.

            Stella shook her head. “Not ours to worry about. He be gone.”

            Camellia touched his chest. It didn’t move. She looked up at Stella. “How will we explain this? They’ll accuse me of killing him, and they’ll be right.”

            Stella grabbed a rag, handed another one to Camellia, and started cleaning up the potatoes. “The man be drunk,” Stella said, as if talking about the weather. “He come to check on supper, see what we was fixin’. He tripped on this stool.” She took a two-step stool from beside the fireplace and laid it by Tessier’s feet. “He tripped on this stool and fell into the table. That’s all we got to say.”

            “What about the cut on his hand?”

            “A man falls, he grabs for the table, and his hand catches on the knife. He cuts the hand as he falls. A simple thing to happen.”

            “You think folks will believe us?”

            “If we stick to our stories, they’ll let it stand, I reckon. How else they gone say it happened? Two women knocked him on the head? What sense that make? Just say the story over to me; I’ll say it over to you. Then we take it to Mrs. Tessier.”

            “But we’re lying,” said Camellia.

            Stella took Camellia’s face in her hands. “Listen to me, child. This is the way it gone be. Mr. Tessier tripped on a stool and busted his head. That’s my story, and it best be yours. Any other way, and we both gone be messed up for the rest of our lives. You got that?”

            Too shocked to think of a good argument, Camellia nodded blankly.

            “Now repeat the story to me,” ordered Stella.

            Camellia started to protest. The notion of lying cut against all she believed. Yet, Stella told it right. Mr. Tessier had caused this by trying to take advantage of her. If he hadn’t made his shameful approach, he’d still be breathing. He carried the weight of what had happened, not her. Why should she hand over her life for a bad man’s sins? And what about Stella? If anybody ever heard the whole truth, they’d hurt Stella too, put her off The Oak. Where would she go at her age? What would she do?

            Outside the thunder rumbled as the last of the storm died away. Like the storm had fought with the clear sky to see which would win, now Camellia fought within her soul. What should she do? She wanted to tell the truth but knew she had no choice but to lie.

            “You done no wrong here,” Stella whispered. “Mr. Tessier brought this on. Just tell the same story, over and over. Nobody will ever know the difference.”

            Camellia stared at Stella.

            “We best go to the manse,” said Stella. “Tell your pa and the others what happened.”

“I’m fearful,” Camellia said.

            Stella nodded wisely. “I been fearful all my life, child. But I got words for you. You get used to it.”