Needing to keep her mind from speculating on the report the park aide had babbled over the phone lest she arrive with preconceived ideas, Anna concentrated on history and nature as she drove south.
Both were a balm. History because its sins had already been committed, nature because she was supremely indifferent to the petty hysterias of the human race.
Mt. Locust was thirty miles south of Port Gibson on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Once it had been a producing plantation with the attendant kitchen and slave quarters. In the early 1800s it became one of the first of over fifty "stands"--rudimentary inns--serving travelers between Natchez and Nashville. Of these stands, Mt. Locust was the only one remaining and, built about 1780, arguably one of the oldest structures in Mississippi. The outbuildings and detached kitchen had been reduced to rubble and memory. All that remained to tell of the many slaves who labored in them was a recently discovered cemetery out beyond the kitchen garden, bones without names or markers.
In the past year, Ranger Dinkins, with the help of the park archaeologist and historian, had undertaken to find out who was buried there. So far they had eleven names. With the tendency of Mississippians, both black and white, to settle close to home, it was hoped that through deeds of purchase, oral history and DNA testing the descendants could be found. The graves would then be marked and commemorated, a piece of a people's violently fractured history put in place.
Anna drove with the window rolled down, breathing in the essence of autumn: an exhalation of a forest readying itself for sleep, a smell so redolent with nostalgia a pleasant ache warmed her bones and she was nagged with the sense of a loss she could not remember.
Most of the leaves had been stripped from the trees by a recent hard rain. The sweet gum and sassafras were bare, winter branches etching a sky still summer blue. Pin oaks and black oaks clung to their foliage though it was sere and brown and clattered rather than rustled when the wind blew. Along the shoulders of the narrow two-lane road, grass as green as springtime was neatly mowed to tree line. Here and there, in hollows where the mechanical slash of the bush-hog couldn't reach, the soft blue of chicory shimmered. The delicate yellow daisy that an enemy of botany and poetry had named tickweed touched the higher ground with earthen sunlight.
Anna savored the thirty minutes of the drive, the beauty flashing by at a speed the original travelers of the Trace would never have dared even imagine lest they be accused of witchcraft. Soon enough the darker side of being a park ranger would assert itself. She wanted to absorb all the antidote she could before she drank in whatever poison awaited. A poison that she knew from experience and observation was addicting. Actors weren't the only ones who thrived on drama.
Before ten on a Saturday morning in November, Mt. Locust's parking lot was blessedly empty. The park aide was outside the small visitors center, a brick building with the one-room bookstore to the left, bathrooms to the right and a breezeway between. The aide was a tiny woman, scarcely bigger than a child. Anna's thoughts flashed on her maternal grandmother as she pulled the Rambler into the shade of an oak tree, one of several left on a center island when the asphalt was laid. What Anna's grandmother had lacked in stature she'd made up for in venom. Anna wished she'd taken more time to know this seasonal interpreter so she'd know which way the little woman might break under pressure.
As she walked toward the visitors center, the aide stopped pacing, her eyes fixed on Anna. They were blank and slightly hostile.
"Hi," Anna said, needing to make a connection.
Shelly Rabine--Anna had come close enough to read the nametag--stood squarely in front of the breezeway and crossed her arms on her chest. "I'm sorry. Mt. Locust is closed. You can't go up to the house," she said.
From Hunting Season by Nevada Barr, Copyright © February 2002, The Putnam Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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