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Lee Smith is the author of nine previous novels as well as three collections of stories. Her ninth novel, The Last Girls, was a New York Times bestseller as well as co-winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. The recipient of an Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999, Smith lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
On Agate Hill (2006)
The Last Girls (2003)
The Christmas Letters (1996)
Saving Grace (1995)
The Devil's Dream (1992)
Fair and Tender Ladies (1988)
Family Linen (1985)
Oral History (1983)
Black Mountain Breakdown (1980)
This book belongs to me Molly Petree age thirteen today May 20 in the year of our Lord 1872, Agate Hill, North Carolina. I am an orphan girl. This is my own book of my own self given to me by the preachers wife Nora Gwyn who said, This little diary is for you my dear unfortunate child, to be your friend and confident, to share all your thoughts and deepest secrets for I know how much you need a friend and also how much you love to read and write. I do believe you have a natural gift for it. Now it is my special hope that you will set down upon these pages your own memories of your lovely mother and your brave father, and of your three brothers as well, and of all that has befallen you. For I believe this endeavor might help you, Molly Petree. So I urge you to take pen in hand commencing your diary with these words, Thy will be done O Lord on Earth as it is in Heaven, Amen.
Well, I have not done this!
And I will not do it either no matter how much I love pretty Nora Gwyn who looks like a lady on a fancy plate and has taught me such few lessons as I have had since Aunt Fannie died. NO for I mean to write in secrecy and stelth the truth as I see it. I know I am a spitfire and a burden. I do not care. My family is a dead family, and this is not my home, for I am a refugee girl.
I am like the ruby-throated hummingbird that comes again and again to Fannies red rosebush but lights down never for good and all, always flying on. And it is true that often I feel so lonesome for all of them that are gone.
I live in a house of ghosts.
I was born before the Surrender and dragged from pillar to post as Mamma always said until we fetched up here in North Carolina after Columbia fell. Our sweet Willie was born there, into a world of war. He was real little all waxy and bloody, and Old Bess put him into a dresser drawer while the fires burned red outside the windows. Mamma used to tell it in that awful whisper which went on and on through the long hot nights when she could not sleep and it was my job to wet the cool cloths required for her forehead which I did faithfully. I loved my mamma. But I was GLAD when she died, I know this is a sin. I have not told it before. But I am writing it down anyway as Nora Gwyn said and I will write it all down every true thing in black and white upon the page, for evil or good it is my own true life and I WILL have it. I will.
I am the legal ward of my uncle Junius Jefferson Hall who is not really my uncle at all but my mothers first cousin a wise and mournful man who has done the best he could for us all I reckon. We arrived here during the last days of the War to a house running over all ready thus giving Uncle Junius more than thirty people on this place to feed, negro and white alike. Uncle Junius used to be a kind strong man but he is sick and seems so sad and lost in thought now since Fannie died.
This is his wife my dear aunt Fannie who is recently Deceased it has been seven months now, and the baby inside her born dead and backward.
I will NEVER have a baby myself!
I sat out in the passage all night long on a little stool and listened to Fannie scream then moan then watched them run in and out, the negros and old Doctor Lambeth who stayed here for three days all told. He is a skinny old man with a horse that looks just like him. He came riding in at a dead run with his long gray hair streaming out behind him under his high black hat. He has always been Uncle Junius best friend. At first I did not get to see the baby though Old Bess thrust him out the door past me wrapped in a bloody cloth then Liddy took him away and washed him and wrapped him again in a clean white sheet like a little bundle of laundry. They put him on the marble top table in the parlor.
What is his name? I ventured to ask Uncle Junius once when he came out of the bedroom but he cursed and said, He has no name Molly, he is dead.
But then Mister Gwyn the preacher arrived and said, Now Junius, you must give him a name, for I cannot baptize him without a name, and he cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without baptism.
So then they unwrapped him, and I got to see him finely, pale blue but perfect, he looked like a little baby doll.
Mister Gwyn dipped his hand in the special water in the rose china bowl and touched the babys little blue head and blessed him saying, Lewis Polk Hall, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
Amen, Uncle Junius said, Amen, then gave a great sob and rushed over and knelt down and kissed the babys little cheek then went straight back into the bedroom.
Nora Gwyn held the baby for a long time while the servants and some of the neighbor people came in to see him, then they laid him out on the table again with dimes on his eyes and a little white lace dress that somebody had brought him. Uncle Junius had named him for his oldest boy Lewis that served in the Twenty-second North Carolina Regiment under Colonel Pettigrew. Now he is dead, and Uncle Junius is old, and Fannie was old too, she did not have any business with any more babys, Old Bess said. Babys are always dangerous but it is even more dangerous when you are old. But everybody except me wants them, it is hard to see why.
The things that people really want are the most like to kill them, it seems to me, such as war and babys.
More and more people came. They sat in the parlor and gathered outside on the piazza and all over the yard in the shade of the trees. Why do they keep coming? I asked Liddy in the kitchen but she just wiped her face and gave me some parched corn and said, Here, go on, take little Junius down to feed the chickens. Little Junius is a snivelly little boy who looks like he is about a hundred years old. I got his hand and took him out the door and down the hill to the henhouse where all the chickens came running. He threw out the corn like it was a job of work.
Then I heard hammering from inside the barn.
So after he finished feeding the chickens little Junius and I went into the big barn to find Virgil there making something, with Washington helping him. Washington is Liddys son and my best friend on this place, he is milk coffee color with gray eyes and a big smile. Virgil and Old Bess came all the way from South Carolina with Mamma. Old Bess is what they call a griffe negro but Virgils face is as round and shiny black as that globe our uncle Harrison brought back from the Cape of Good Hope, I believe you call it obsidian. Virgil is real old now, but he can still make anything.
By then it was late late afternoon and the sunlight fell through the golden dust to make a shining block in the air and a shining yellow square like a magic carpet on the old barn floor where Washington sat planing a long piece of wood. Yellow dust flew everywhere. A little wooden box sat on the straw beside him. Virgil was fitting two wide planks together up on the sawhorses.
What are you doing out here Missy? he said.
That is her coffin, isnt it? I asked him. Nobody told me, I said.
Dont nobody have to, Virgil said.
Junius held tight to my hand and looked all around the barn like he had never seen it before. He is four years old.
The time will come when it come, Virgil said. He reached into a deep pocket of his overalls. Here now Washington, see can you teach this here little white boy something.
Washington jumped up and Virgil gave him the leather bag full of marbles.
Washington whooped. Come on, he said, and got Junius other hand and led us both to a level spot just outside of the door in the shade of the big hickory tree. This ought to do us, Washington said, so we all sat down in the crackly leaves as it was November. Then he took a board and scraped off the leaves and made a round place in the dirt, then used the edge of the board to draw a big deep circle around it. All right now, Washington said. Then he put all the marbles down in the middle of the ring. They were mostly made from the agate and quartz on the hill, but one was sort of silver and one was greeny gold, and another blue as the sky.
Little Junius clapped his hands.
Now this how you do it, Washington told him. He picked up a white marble and held it cupped in his fingers with his thumb behind it. I picked up a clay marble and held it the same way. Junius reached over and got the blue one but he couldnt hold it in his little hand like we were doing so he started to cry.
Now thats all right, Washington said. You dont got to do that honey. Why looky here. You can just roll it. He showed little Junius how to roll it to hit the others and Junius got the hang of it right away.
As for me, I am just as good as a boy at everything.
So we sat there in the dirt playing marbles for the rest of the afternoon until the sun went down in a red ball of fire, and color spread across the whole big sky. I could smell leaves burning someplace. A little cold wind came up.
It got dark in the barn but Virgil kept on hammering. Its about time for supper now aint it? he called finely, and the minute he said it, I was just starving.
I pulled little Junius up by one hand and Washington pulled the other and like that we walked kicking leaves up the hill to the house where they were laying out little Junius mother in the bedroom and big Junius was beating his head bloody on the brick kitchen wall behind the house. We walked right past him into the kitchen.
I bet yall are hungry aint you? Liddy said. She set us all down at the table and gave us some chicken and dumplings out of the big black pot. We ate like wild animals as Fannie used to say. It was nice and warm in the kitchen with that big fire glowing. Here honey dont you want some more? Liddy asked and even little Junius ate another whole plateful. I dont know if he knew his mamma was dead or not.
That was seven months ago, and things around here have gone to hell in a handbasket ever since. Nora Gwyn and Mister Gwyn do not know the half of it. But they have come only to say good bye to Uncle Junius as they are moving to Tennessee where Mister Gwyn will be the headmaster at a new boys school, old sourpuss Presbyterian he has got a poker up his ass as Selena says.
Uncle Junius and Mister Gwyn and Nora Gwyn are sipping sherry wine in the parlor down below me as I write.
Now dont you want to know where I am? For you could never find me in a million years. This is my number one hiding place in all the world, a cubbyhole right in the heart of the house yet invisible and unknown to all. Come see. Nora Gwyn says you will be my friend and now you will be my guest, I have never had one before.
But first you will have to come out here to Agate Hill so you will be riding up from the Haw River on the road and then along our dusty lane with trees and fields on either side. The land will rise as you come up and up, yet so slowly that it will surprise you to turn and look back to see the countryside spread out like a dreamy quilt below you now, orchards and woods and overgrown fields with piled-up rock walls between them. White quartz rocks stand out in the fields. You can find agate and fools gold too at the very top of the rise behind the house where I often climb though I am not allowed to.
I love to sneak down the back stairs in the night time and run across the yard from tree to tree and up the rocky path to lie on the big flat rock which stays warm from the sun long into the night. I call it my Indian Rock. I love to lie there flat on my back and let the wind blow over me which is not like any other feeling ever felt by anybody else in the world I am sure of it, known only by me and now by you, my friend of this diary. Sometimes the moon is so bright it is nearly like day and casts shadows among the rocks. One time I fell asleep on my rock and slept there all night long until King Arthur started crowing in the dawn, THEN I had to skedaddle. Liddy and Old Bess both saw me from the kitchen door but they did not tell, they gave me a corn pone and sent me on my way.
From On Agate Hill by Lee Smith. © 2006 by Lee Smith. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.