Picture is property of Elizabeth Harper
It had been a long drive for Claire as she got out of the car to unlock the gate. She paused and gazed at the house.The "house with four chimneys" her younger brother Edward would say when they escaped from their grandfather and ran across the field, hiding in the tall grass. Knowing that when they finally went back he would dole out "a proper punishment for their blatant disrespect of all he was doing for them"! A feeling of sadness came over her when she thought of Edward and a sharp stab of anger when she remembered her grandfather. Though he really wasn't their grandfather. Their grandfather's cousin Jonas was appointed by the courts to take care of them after the sudden death of their parents and grandparents when their small plane crashed.
The house was really one of the smaller homes from their grandparents estate on their father's side. It was nestled in the valley between two small mountains in DeKalb County, Alabama, with some of the best farm land around. It had been a productive farm when their father and grandfather were alive. Even though she was only five and Edward three, they were assigned chores, as their grandfather would say, "It's never too early to learn about working on the farm." He loved the land. Claire was beginning to love the farm as well. She loved to lay in the clover, listening to the wind whisper as it blew the clover flowers from side to side, the blades of grass swaying; looking up at the beautiful blue sky, watching the puffy white clouds and feeling the coldness of the earth slowly seep through her clothes.
Her grandmother's name was Belle Newsome. Grandfather Black use to call her his "Southern Belle". Our father, Solomon Black was their only child. When he went off to Auburn to study Agriculture, he met and married our mother, Nellie Turner. After graduation, they came home to the farm to live rather than living at the house in Mountain Brook, Alabama. Dad use to say, "The whole point of going to college was to learn how to create a better farm, so how could he do that living in the city?"
Viewing the house from the back gate didn't really do it justice. You only saw the level, where the kitchen, family dining room and the family great room were located. If you came in the front gate, you saw the house in it's true splendor. The great ballroom with it's own dinning room, then the bedrooms which opened onto a large balcony with steps leading down to the swimming pool and gardens. Claire loved to slip out at night during the summer and sit on the steps listening to the night sounds. The whippoorwill making it's name calling sound, "whip-o-will", the katydids rubbing their wings together, with the tree frogs singing their loudest song. If she got out there early enough, she could see the fire flies blinking as they flew by.
Claire reached into her pocket and pulled out the key, hoping it would turn in the rusted gate. She realized the neglect that had set in since Jonas had died five years ago. But she couldn't bring herself to return until now. She had so many mixed feelings, some pleasant and good memories entwined with some of the worst memories of her life. Thankfully the key turned, so she went back and drove the car through the gate then out of habit locking it back to prevent any of the farm animals getting out, though that was unnecessary as there weren't any animals around, they had all been sold after Jonas's death. She drove down the weeded drive to the back of the house. It was habit that she came in the back gate. Her parents and grandparents drove in that way because it was closer to the barn where they unloaded supplies for the farm and then continued on to the house to unload groceries.
She stopped the car and leaned back and thought about the summer she turned five, the summer her's and Edward's life changed. It was a trip to Memphis, Tennessee to celebrate our grandparents thirtieth anniversary that took them away from Alabama. Memphis was where they were married and had spent their first weekend together. Everyone was so excited! Mama and Grandmother Belle had driven to Birmingham to shop for special evening gowns to wear out to dinner while they were there. They would be staying at the Peabody and both loved to dance and chattered away about the food and the bands that would be playing while they were staying at the hotel. Matilda, their housekeeper, would be taking care of her and Edward while they were away. I remember hearing mama comment about being away from us for the first time, letting out a deep sigh. Edward and I were scared about them leaving too, though I didn't say anything, Edward clung to mama when sheleft. We stood on the back porch waving until we couldn't see the car anymore. Dusk had already set in when they drove away to Fort Payne's small airport. Thomas Dickson, a friend of papa's was flying them up in his new plane.
I remember being awakened by the ringing of the doorbell and Matilda yelling, "I'm coming", as she rushed up to the second level to see who was at the door. I followed behind her, bumping into her when she stopped to turn on one of the lamps, she distractedly put out her arm to keep me from falling, but she didn't tell me to go back to bed. She glanced out the front door window before opening the door. She swayed and I heard her mumble, "Sheriff Baker, oh dear, this can't be good news. I hope James hasn't had a wreck." James was her youngest son, who was always getting into trouble.
"Hello Sheriff, is James alright?"
"Matilda, may we come in, it's not about James", then he glanced down and saw me, "You might want Claire to go back to bed before she gets cold." I didn't understand his hard stare at Matilda. "I'll go make some coffee while you take her back to bed.
Taking my hand, "Come along baby, I'll tuck you in and then come back to find out what he wants to tell me".
The next morning I sleepily wondered into the kitchen. Matilda was sitting at the kitchen table, her hand clasped around a cup of coffee, her eyes red. "What's the matter, Matilda?"
Picking me up and wrapping her arms around me, she told me about how the new plane had developed engine trouble about ten miles west of Memphis causing the plane to stall and crash, killing my parents and grandparents as well as Thomas who was flying the plane.
My mother's parents had died the second year after mama and papa had married. She was an only child as well. The only relative living near by was Grandpa's cousin Jonas. Grandpa use to describe him "as the most worthless human God ever created". But the courts didn't know that, and they wouldn't let Matilda raise us because she wasn't a relative. There was a will setting up a trust for me and Edward as well as the division of the land, but I'm sure mama and papa never expected to die at such a young age, so they didn't have anyone designated to take care of us in case they died.
The next twelve years were some of the most painful, physically and emotionally, of our lives. It all ended the day I turned seventeen. Edward and I had managed to bake me a birthday a cake. Jonas had been drinking heavily all day until he finally went to his room, and we thought, had passed out, like he had done so many times in the past. We felt safe sneaking to the kitchen and pulling out the cake. Edward had just lite the one candle and was quietly singing "Happy Birthday". When suddenly Jonas slammed back the door leading from the kitchen to the second level. He charged at me, ignoring Edward, grabbing at me, but I dodged him and ran around the table.
"Come here, girl," he slurred, "It's time you pay me back for all this time I've cared for you. If I could have gotten some of the money I deserved, but no, it's tied up so tight I can't touch it. All these years, so close I could smell the green. Now you're going to give me the money and more." He made another lunge at me.
I don't remember Edward leaving the room, all I remember is the loud noise of the gun going off and the stunned expression on Jonas' face as he turned around and saw Edward standing there with Grandpa's gun in his hand. Then he slid off the kitchen table to the floor. His blank eyes staring up.
There wasn't a trial for several reasons. After we called Sheriff Baker, who was still the sheriff, heard what had happened, he shook his head in disgust, asking, "Claire, what didn't you come to me?" How could I explain the fear learned as a small child, being told of what Jonas would do to Edward if I dared tell anyone.
The second reason, and the main reason, is that Edward has never gotten over killing a human being. He's still receiving treatment, and the doctors say he's improving, but he still needs more time. I feel so sad that our freedom came at such a cost to Edward, but I'm so grateful for the love he had for me that he wouldn't allow Jonas to hurt me.
Edward is the reason for me returning to the house with four chimneys. His therapist feels that there might be a break through if he returns to where he killed Jonas. As I look at the house, I wonder if I can overcome the bad memories and rekindle my love for this place and bring back the dreams of my father; and if it goes as the doctor thinks, maybe Edward will be able to live here as well.
Slowly I headed for the door, visualizing my parents and grandparents standing there, smiling, with open arms reaching out in a welcoming gesture, pulling me back into their world.
Elizabeth Harper is the sponsor of Tuesday Morning Writings. To read the writings of others click on the following link-or if you want to contribute a writing, her blog tells you how. We would like more to join in the fun of practice writings.