But here beside the flowers, the air heavy with their scent, the cool of Lottie's hand still on Josephine's cheek, the idea of running seemed too raw to bring out into the morning, into the sunlight, with tasks to be done, hours to be got through. The idea floated, not fixed or certain in its specifics, and she knew how easily an intention might go astray, how a path leading away might twist and return you to the place where you first began.
Josephine had tried before to run, one night some years ago. She had been no more than a child then, twelve, maybe thirteen, years old, with no understanding of the dangers or the true northward route or the way the shadows played tricks on the road. The journey back to Bell Creek had been long. This time she would not turn back. This time she would keep on, across the great Ohio River, all the way up to Philadelphia or Boston or New York, the northern cities that lived in Josephine's mind like Lottie's ghosts lived in hers.
Josephine said, "I got to be getting on. I'll come see you tonight, Lottie, at the cabins. We'll talk then."
"You come see me," and Lottie blinked her eyes slow, a softening at the corners of her mouth, the look Josephine knew so well in her, of cautious affection, a caring that Lottie always pulled up short before it went too deep. A muffled, distant kind of love. She'd been this way since Hap passed on, her last son, just twelve years old, proud as a peacock of his fiddling abilities, dead in minutes, with Lottie bent over his body still warm, lips and tongue puffed up, and on his arm a dime-sized redness where the bee had bit.
Josephine continued, down the low slope to the vegetable garden with its tangled rows and a thicket of raspberry and blackberry bushes grown together, fruit mostly for the birds because it reached too high and went too deep for Josephine to collect it all. Josephine thrust her hands into the brambles and pulled blackberries off their white fibrous posts. Last night Missus Lu had asked for berries with her breakfast. The thorns pricked Josephine's skin but she kept on. Today like any other day. Pick what needs picking, berries with breakfast, greens for Mister's supper. Do what needs doing. Like any other day.
Josephine gazed west at the small figures in the field, tattered scraps of dark moving against the tobacco green. Jackson alone stood motionless, a cowhide hanging ready at his belt. Even now with so few of them left at Bell Creek, he never flinched when whipping for a row dropped, a slow pace. He'd make a man eat the tobacco worm, Lottie had told her, the thick wriggling body with pincers at its head swallowed straight down. His wife, Calla, was stout and irritable, bought by Papa Bo years back from an itinerant trader. She never spoke of the children she'd left behind or the ones she'd lost at Bell Creek. There was a deep-down meanness in them both. Mister had no backbone for whippings, so Jackson did the work.
A thorn pricked Josephine's skin deep and she brought the fingertip to her mouth. The first time she ran, fear had seemed a physical presence, tall beside her on the road, and she tried but she could not run out of its shadow. Now the fear seemed different; it crouched and slithered and whispered within the berry bush and the tall grasses all around. It was smaller, trickier, more cunning. The sting of the cowhide. A twisted ankle, a summer storm. Would it thunder tonight, or would the sky be clear? The hounds, the rifles. She thought of Nathan's crooked walk. They cut the heels with an ax or a long-bladed hunting knife, the legs held fast under the weight of a man or within a vise like the one used for planing the new boards or just tied up with cord, bound as they bound the calves for branding. Two swipes of the blade would hobble both heels, but too deep and the wound would never heal, a leg swelled up and stinking or the foot itself dropped clear off.
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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