Two women in colonial America are brought together out of the strife that haunts us still. Then racism and greed, from the beginnings of Democracy to the present day, give us the story of a twelve year old trafficked Cambodian girl. Then, finally, the lives of four strangers come together as their house divided falls.
Jean Clement, eremite, trapper, convicted poacher, hunter, runaway, seeking freedom and wealth and a glimpse of the new world, had been put aboard the Normand merchant ship, Oiseau de Mer, setting sail from the port city of La Rochelle, mid-coast on the Bay of Biscay, destined for Quebec City and making landfall fifty-seven days later on the north eastern shores of North America. He was to repay his debt to society by working off his indenture to Louis Buade de Frontenac, recently appointed Governor of New France. Waiting for the right moment to escape, Jean Clement slipped overboard when anchored in the lee of Port Royal, where they had sought refuge to avoid a raging storm in the Atlantic, and disappeared into the primal mists of the great forests of New France, so dark and lush under its towering canopies of copious green.
He cut and hacked his way deep into the never-ending growth of spruce and fir, ash and birch, maple, hemlock, black cherry, beech, and hickory, ever beckoning—a primordial Eden filled with rivers and streams running pure and cold from the mountains not so distant, and through it, and astride them, elk and bison and mountain lion, fox and deer and pheasant, turkey, bear, coyote, mink, beaver, osprey and eagle, hawk and owl, all too bountiful. He worked his way across to the Mountainous regions far to the west breathing in the pine scented air and fresh fecund loam, thriving on the freedom from all he’d left behind in the old world. Here was a place beyond dreams and no end to it for as far as he could see. Traveling to New France as an engagé, an indentured servant to work off a debt for poaching, Jean had jumped overboard after dark and swam to shore. The short time spent in debtor’s prison back home was enough to cure him of his fellow man for the rest of his life, he told himself and meant to stick to a solitary life in the natural world. He kept moving farther into the depths to be lost there, thought he might never see another being, utter a single word ever again. But knew it couldn’t be so from markings on trees and stones blackened with fire. Watched, he was, as though he could feel it on his skin, or was he perhaps losing his mind from the isolation and vast mystery that was this Eden in its wildness, and then they appeared.
Nebulous as phantoms and specters and soft in the pale light they made not a sound, but just as they were not, then suddenly they were. Feathered and beaded, with painted faces and shaved heads and topknots, bare chested and necklaced, from eyes dark as mined coal, they watched to see what he would do. Quick witted and sensing the precariousness of his position, he took some good thick pelts from his sled and laid them out in front of him on the ground and made a gesture of friendship in offering up these gifts to the native people. Knowing he meant only to save his own life, but admiring the pelts, they took the gifts and also a few more and disappeared back into the forest. They were there, then as soon as he looked away for the briefest of seconds they were gone. After, he’d had to count the skins again to confirm he wasn’t dreaming.
For some people, money did grow on trees. One person in particular. Every year it would bud on limbs that brushed outside his bedroom window hard against the pane—a tree his father had planted years before. Budding red, blue, and green folds eased and released, opening to the morning light until fluttering lightly to the ground, crisp new bills littering the yard where a young Michael Bane picked them up every day on his way out the door. He would stoop and grab and stuff his pockets full, then be on his way, and on good days when he had time, he’d get the broom out and sweep the money into great piles to scoop and fill and tie in bulging plastic bags he kept in the garage. Then he’d stash them in the basement or the attic and wherever else he could find—later on, like in savings banks or the stock market. There were other places, eventually—offshore accounts. If the wind blew and some got away then so what, it didn’t matter, he had more than enough, more than he could possibly spend in a lifetime, no matter how much he lost or spent. It was a tree, the leaves and the windfall perennial, he felt so lucky, and he was.
Not that he didn’t try to spend it all. He bought a six-bedroom house in South Hampton, a condominium in Palm Springs, and a penthouse at 157 W. 57th street in Manhattan overlooking Central Park, a Mercedes, a Lexus, a Maserati Gran Turismo, a 173-foot luxury sailing yacht he named Orchid after his wife’s favorite flower, and then he bought a twelve year old Cambodian girl named Davi Seng, took her back with him to America and kept her in the safe room in his penthouse on West 57thStreet overlooking Central Park. Nobody knew. The penthouse strictly for himself; his wife never set foot in it.
The first time he saw the girl she had stepped out from behind a dirty torn curtain, looking down at the mat floor, afraid and shy, her body so thin and small he thought he might lift her in his hands. Her mother said her name and she turned her small oval face upward toward him and pierced him with two dark wet eyes filled with innocence and fear. Hair like a river of shimmering ink flowed from her head. It bore the sheen of moonlight on a dark sea and fell to her waist where it moved when she moved, like the back of a slinking cat creeping through the Cambodian jungle. Her dark caramel colored arms draped delicately across her pink pajama pants, her right foot pulling in and out of a dirty blue flip flop as she nervously shifted her weight back and forth from one foot to the other while he looked at her with wonder. “This is Michael,” her mother had said to her.
A daylight moon ghosting through the bony Chestnut drifted slowly on a pale blue sky. Hovering, it was, and gauzy as a bandage. The men, waiting restless and kicking dirt by the rusted metal shed, had flown their stars-n-bars all the way down. Now they spit their oily chaw while pacing back and forth ‘til late afternoon, there being a desperate tedium of cricket thrums in the dead grass; harsh is the ruthless torpor of impatience. Cigarettes and desire held them tethered while they listened closely, heads atilt.
Owls in hollow trees spoke such soft deliberation it made them all queasy as new sailors. This was way across the sea all right. This was o’er the fathomless deep, mighty and reckless, sure as they were doing it. Tides born of oceans were rising and these boys were rising with them, storming the beaches, as it were; no more talk, no more bluster. It was happening, finally, and they were all in. On cue they turned and held their collective breath.
They turned to listen. The boom truck, not far off from the sound of it, made the noise of distant cannon, the shouts and prayers of Confederate dead echoing softly along the sugarberry and the Dogwood. Above the Magnolia, black smoke rising, blue coils from their cigarettes were put in small relief. Oh, Antietam! We shall return; we shall rise, and that day is here upon us. The blood of long ago shall be restored. Thy honor lost, returned to its rightful high sovereignty. Oh, Confederates! Take back your mighty swift sword!
These days for the General have been rife with high spirits. The voices of the past won’t leave him alone nor will the Yankee heathen Jews. Sleepless nights and wandering thoughts made work so barely tolerable till he tries and fails to stay on task. Dangerous for loggers it was; could be death for the careless. Running the grapple skidders and slashers for twenty years now he figures he’ll make quick work out of that boom truck, but for now he’s been under duress. He has thought it all through, forwards and backwards, inside and out. Hardest part’s going to be getting Lee and Jackson out of that Butler building without making a mess of it. He isn’t a real general but the other men have an unholy belief in him; it was unanimous to have him lead the charge. His advancement in the ranks was instantaneous and sudden as a bolt of lightning. The others lacked his air of authority, though were his equal in enthusiasm. I sing of Dixie, he bellowed! And they responded.
“Are you sure about all this?” Stacey asked again before he left that morning. She paced a little in the kitchen as he wolfed down his eggs. His failure to answer quickly had told her right enough everything she did not want to know. “What am I gonna do if they put you in jail, now? Have you thought of that? I mean…”
“No more time for it,” he said, pushing past her through the door, the rusted spring sounding like a swinging noose in memory, the quick thud and hush of silence right after. Without turning he called out as he went, “The field is ripe with glory today and I am the reaper.”
“Just remember,” she called after him, verge of tears filled her eyes. “Pride goeth before de-STRUCTION…” He kept walking while she waited. “Haughty spirit BEFORE THE FALL!” The dogs in the yard began to bark, a sorry chorus to her grief, her eyes glassy with fear, but not a single tear fell. Waste of time and she knew it. Prayer was what she’d talk herself into. Later. Didn’t her Momma teach her that? Didn’t she trust in the Lord Jesus to get her through?
Well? Didn’t she?