Josephine watched Mister go. She wanted to bring her hand to her cheek, but she didn't. She spat a red streak across the weathered floorboards, rubbed at it with her bare right foot and then picked up her basket, stepped down off the porch, around the side of the house. There was a lightness in her, a giddiness almost. She walked down the slight slope, the grass cool under her feet, the sun a little higher now, the low mist burning off. Run. The word echoed thunderous in her ear and filled her head like a physical, liquid thing. Run.
Josephine had not been born at Bell Creek but she knew no other place. Riverbank, sink, fire pit, field, these had been the four corners of Josephine's world all seventeen years of her life. Missus Lu kept Josephine close, sent another to run the errands in town, took a hand servant hired from the Stanmores with her back when she used to travel. Josephine stayed behind. She knew the stream that twisted west of the fields, the narrow banks only a few yards across, sycamore and willows overhead, their branches trailing in the water. Here is where she'd do the wash, cool her feet, fish for brown trout and catfish and walleye perch. She knew the twists and turns of the bank, the mossy bits and where a large stone angled its peak out of the water and underneath spread dark and wide. She knew the fields in all seasons, brown and fallow, greening and ripe, and the grown tobacco plants rising nearly to her shoulders, the leaves as wide as her arms outstretched.
She knew the big house, built by Papa Bo's childless brother Henry back when the state of Virginia seemed blessed by both God and nature in the bounty of her riches. Henry's barren wife had devoted the fullness of her attentions to keeping a house sparkling and outfitted with the best that her husband's tobacco dollars could purchase or build. A wraparound porch in front, bedrooms many and large upstairs, full plate-glass windows in the parlor, a horsehair settee for sitting on when sipping from the bone china tea service marked with green ink upon the bottom of each cup. And a library, tucked at the back of the first floor, the books bound in red and brown leather, stamped with gold along their spines. They called the place Bell Creek and once it had been fine.
Now patches of white paint had molded to green, shingles slid down the low sloped roof, windowsills were splintered, the brick chimney cracked along the top rim. In the library, the books were stained with mildew, the pages stuck from moisture let in through a cracked side window that had never been mended. At night Josephine would listen to the scratching and burrowing of mice, squirrels, rats under the floorboards and behind the thin wood of the attic walls. Josephine slept on a thin pallet on the floor, the roof sloping low, the summer nights so hot she'd lie spread-eagle, no two parts of her body touching, her own two legs like strangers in a bed.
Josephine rounded the corner of the house and slowed at the sight of Lottie. She stood knee-deep in the side bed, weeding, picking purple veronia and pink cabbage roses for Missus' table. All around the house perimeters, sloping down toward the river and, on the east side, toward the fields, spread the flowers: morning glories, spring beauties, irises, purple pokeweed, goldenrod. Whatever design had once attached to the beds had been lost with time and inattention, but the plants themselves seemed none the worse for it. They flourished, encroaching onto the lawn, spreading their pollen down even to the road, where rogue roses bloomed every spring beside the trodden dirt path and latched front gate.
Lottie was bent at the waist, elbows pumping as she pulled and flung the weeds behind her into a heap, the flowers in a tidy pile beside her. A few stems of bluebell, Winton's favorite, were tucked under her apron strings. Lottie took small things here and there, bacon ends from the smokehouse, eggs from the hens, a sewing needle, a sweet; she never faltered and was never caught.
Excerpted from The House Girl by Tara Conklin. Copyright © 2013 by Tara Conklin. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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