"Morning, Lottie," Josephine said, and she thought her voice would be steady but it cracked toward the end, the echo of Mister's blow still in her. Lottie raised her head, her gray hair tied up in a dark cloth, her skin shiny with sweat. A single horizontal line of worry creased her forehead as if a hatchet had been laid there once long ago.
"What? Child, what is it? You look like you seen a spirit." Lottie believed the restless dead of Bell Creek lived among the willows lining the river where the morning mist hung. Papa Bo, Lottie's own boy Hap, all Missus' dead babies, even Mister's mother and four sisters, their bodies buried back in Louisiana. Lottie saw them there on a summer's night, or just before the dawn, she said, dancing, laughing, wailing too, among the branches that trailed like a white woman's hair into the water.
Lottie dropped the flowers she held and moved toward Josephine. Her skirt hems dragged wet in the grass, and her gaze hardened as she saw the mark of Mister's blow. Taking Josephine's face in her hands, she turned it and laid one long finger on the tender spot. "Ah girl," she said. "You'll be needing chamomile on that. Or something cool."
"It's nothing," Josephine said, though the skin tingled and she felt a rising tenderness. "Lottie, it's nothing. Just a little thing." But she did not pull away. The chill of Lottie's hand, wet with dew, calmed her. Josephine leaned into Lottie's warm, tough bulk and she was again a child at night at the cabins, after Lottie and the others had finally returned from the fields, and all the day's sadness would fall from Josephine and into Lottie's yielding places: the flesh at her waist; the shoulder's curved hollow; an ample, muscled calf. Then as now, Lottie's body seemed sturdy and soft enough to contain all Josephine's hurts.
Lottie let Josephine fall against her and then she turned Josephine's face back around and took her in with a level gaze. "All right, then. It's nothing if you say it."
"It's nothing." Josephine shook her head quick, like shaking water from her hair. She squinted at the sky and then turned to Lottie. "I saw Nathan down back," she said. "He looked to be straining."
"He been laid up awhile, so he said. On account of his heels. Couldn't do nothing, couldn't stand or walk. They cut him too deep, is how he told it."
Mister had hired Nathan from Mr. Lowden, a neighbor six miles west, just for harvesting time, just to see them through. Nathan had run twice already and twice been caught and brought back to Mr. Lowden, whose tolerance for such goings on had been sorely tested. Mister had hired him cheap on account of the history and Nathan's slow pace now that his heels were cut. He was still new to Bell Creek, Josephine had not spoken with him yet; she had not asked him where it was he'd been headed when he ran.
Josephine said, "What's he like, huh?"
Lottie paused, tilted her head. "He's fine. Seems fine enough. Got some sense."
"Mmm. Puts me in mind of Louis. Something in his person, way he stands." Louis had been sold off three summers past and this was the first time Josephine had spoken of him. It surprised her that her voice did not shake, that no tears came with the sound. Louis. The name hung weighty between them, a hope or a tragedy, neither of them knew which. He was gone, gone.
"Louis? I don't see no Louis in him." Lottie said this with a frown and a slow shake of her head, as if that decided the matter.
"Josephine, what you want with Nathan?"
"Just wanted to say hello." Josephine looked down and stepped away, her bare soles marking 2-shapes in the mud. She had never lied to Lottie before and she did not like the feeling it gave her, a shifting underfoot, a drop in her belly. Tonight Josephine would ask Nathan to tell her the route north, tonight she would run. Run. The word still resonated within her and now took on a new pitch. Would Lottie come with her? Lottie and Winton possessed an unremitting belief in a salvation that would be delivered if they mustered faith true enough, if their path remained righteous. Lottie looked for signs of the redemption, like the two-headed frog Otis found by the river last summer, or the night the sky filled with lights falling and they shone so bright that everyone at the house and down by the cabins woke and stood on the front lawn, even Mister and Missus Lu, all of them together side by side, eyes open to that burning sky. These were all markers along the way, Lottie said, signs that Jesus be coming soon. She was waiting for Him. You cannot wait another day, Josephine wanted to say now. Come with me, Lottie, you and Winton should come. Nathan will tell us the way.
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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