Decades earlier, Kensington was not “Kensington.” He was simply Abe. And he probably would have turned out like every other white boy in the county if he hadn’t, that day in June, gone deep into the forest and come upon a secret prison.
He was twelve: fine-haired, skinny-armed, and patterned with blue bruises from rumbling up every staircase in the estate. The nanny tried to grab his ankles, make him sit, here, eat your supper, the dinner bell still clanging on its hook, but Abe enjoyed wriggling from clenched fingernails and suddenly bursting free. He’d bound out the west veranda like a dog, napkin flying at his neck, to the buzzing creek as the sun sunk under Quitman.
Boys of twelve were warned against hiking in that forest, but as he set out with his father’s walking stick, he saw that grown-ups were ridiculous. It was just a swamp with vines, putrid water, slicked branches arching from mud. He understood that Kensington Forest was his great-great-great-great-granddaddy Henry Abramaside Kensington, settled by way of the Mayflower itself, but this fact meant little to Abe then. By lunchtime (he noticed, because he’d forgotten to pack a lunch) he was miles deeper than he’d ever been, beyond the skimpiest shoreline of trees, beyond the would-be shouts of the nanny. His foot got sucked into a burping sinkhole, but that was all. And the “outdoorsmen vestments” he’d been gifted at Christmas—sheepskin boots and a leather-hooded wind cape? Heavy, cumbersome, and useless useless useless.
He did feel foolish about the food. His stomach gnawed and the forest grew loud with croaking frogs, squawking birds, and the leaves frothing overhead. Abe plodded forward—perhaps the feeling would pass—until his knees trembled and his vision watered. Where were the berries in this stupid forest? In the distance strange screeches echoed through the trees, like a train braking on its iron girders. He was delirious.
But was that not the sound of screeching metal? It was. It had to be. Abe wandered toward it, to where the sunlight slid more readily through the canopy. There was a clearing and a long gray building that resembled a horse stable. Surrounding all was a tall wire fence, the gate of which was being heaved open by two figures with long, black braids.
Who could say why Abe hid behind a tree? Some instinct that knew the trouble of quiet. The two were foreigners—coolies. They wore wrinkled robes to their ankles, with rifles slung diagonally across their backs. A faint beard on one, the other clean-shaven. They turned to each other to trade a ring of keys, and by the curves of their cheekbones Abe saw that they were not two men but one man and one woman. A real Chinawoman, with a belt full of tools! They resembled the China folk who managed his father’s commissaries, but Abe did not recognize their faces. Silently they worked, entering the fence and locking the door behind them. With a sudden clink the woman dropped her keys; the man stooped to the grass and returned them to her palm. She grinned at him. He quick-kissed her cheek.
The horse stable was unlike those at home, with no windows or obvious slits for ventilation. Just a long rectangle of steel bolted to vertical beams, like a boxcar abandoned on the dirt. The surrounding yard had been cleared of branches overhead, the Mississippi sun flashing off the metal roof. It must have been baking in there. Nearby was a crate of feed, a pump handle for a well, and two buckets.
The woman worked the pump and the man eased the wooden lid off of the crate. Drunken flies floated up and he shooed them away. He scooped a bucket of feed—dry corn, by the sound of it—and carried it to the horse stable. The long wall did not extend fully to the ground; a six-inch trough had been dug along the length of it. The coolie poured out the feed, walking backwards. The tongues of the horses licked it up, the line of yellow disappearing.
Then the Chinawoman did a curious thing. She walked to the horse stable and knocked three times. From under the wall appeared a shallow tray, as if by magic. What kind of horse could do that? The woman kneeled and lifted it with the edges of her fingertips, her mouth twisted, looking and not looking at the same time. She hurried the basin to a boulder and tipped the contents onto the rock. It did not smell like normal manure.
That was when Abe knew: those were no horses.
The coolies washed their hands and left along a path behind the building—to the other side of the woods, to where Abe had wanted to venture all along. But all that now seemed unimportant. This place, whatever it was, seemed to be the end of the woods itself.
He needed food. He’d have to be quick. He climbed the fence, darted to the crate and lifted the lid, but inside the walls were coated in a furry blue mold. He turned to the yellow line of corn disappearing under the wall. His stomach rumbled. He crouched up to the metal, its bottom edge cut so that it frayed with jagged teeth. A single, expert finger emerged, lowering to pick up each kernel one by one.
It was a Negro’s finger. Further down the wall, another one. And a third. Would they hear the jerking of his heart? Abe spied a smattering of kernels in the powdery dirt. He held his breath. He kneeled. He swept them up and into his pocket.
The finger stopped. It seemed to be listening. “Who there?” A man’s deep voice echoed from inside the box. “Who’s it out there?” Years later Abrams would remember that it was a not a shrill voice, not wild or deranged. Instead it was a searching voice, listening through the dark.
“It a deer?” came someone else, whispering and tense.
The first voice spoke again. “Who there?”
What Abe would not remember was how he scrambled back over that fence to the safety of the woods or how he found the rock to catch his breath. He would only remember shaking the kernels into his sweat-glistened hand. It was so similar to the corn his father approved weekly on the groundskeeper’s bill, the corn that traveled from wagon to commissary to burlap to barrel to scoop, so the Negro croppers of Kensington acreage could feed the mules and reap the cotton. Abe slurped one into his mouth. It didn’t feel like food at all—too hard and resistant and without taste. He bit. It wiggled down his throat like a swallowed tooth.
Who there? The voice knew that he was no deer.
The corn was enough. He made it back that day, and when the nanny came running out of the veranda, weeping onto the unmowed grass, hugging him angrily, demanding to know where? why? do you hear me? His mother and even his father emerged, fidgeting in the doorway. But Abe could not speak. Or rather, words themselves seemed hollow, so useless to describe the how and what and why of where he’d been.
They bathed him, fed him, reclothed him. The nanny would not let him out of her sight. The steaming bathtub, the bowls of soup, the headboard sandbagged with pillows. She left him only once, to fetch more tea, her swishing slippers hurrying up the stairs.
She sat on the bed, sinking the mattress near his knees. She pulled a brush hard against his scalp. “Has my mother gone to bed?” he asked.
“Blessedly, yes.” She shook her head. “Such a long day they done had.”
“Maggie,” he said, “did you know that there’s a building in the woods out there? It’s long, it looks like a horse barn. But it isn’t a horse barn. There are people inside. I saw them myself, I swear.”
Ms. Margaret was quiet. She was brushing his hair in steady strokes, not looking at his eyes but at the space above them. “Strange,” she said slowly. “What a day indeed.”
“And the people in there—they’re Negroes, I think.” He paused and corrected himself; Maggie didn’t like to be called that. “Coloreds, I mean. And there were these coolies who gave them food and water in a bucket.”
Ms. Margaret pulled back the brush and ripped the tangled hairs from the bristles. “Must be on old Plawson’s property. Up there’s all kinds of crazy.”
His mother had a similar response. “I can’t imagine what that Plawson has in mind these days.” She wiped her nose with her scalloped handkerchief and squeezed Abe’s shoulder. “Just please don’t bother your father about it—the sorghum prices are eating him alive.”
The next morning seemed to last all day. Objects looked sharper and yet more mysterious. His curtains quivered with puffballs like a fishnet pulled dripping from the sea. Outside, a single geyser of a tree shot from the grass into a thousand sprays of needles. Even his tea tasted different, harsh and scraping over the beads of his tongue.
His father, who Abe dutifully avoided, now seemed to avoid Abe. He stood up when Abe entered the parlor, remembering a phone call to be made or an errand needing immediate attention. More and more he appeared to Abe in hallways, in the entrances and exits of rooms, before the hurrying-on of coats, the flaring of umbrellas. He smelled the lingering trail of his pipe tobacco, pungent as overripe flowers.
Every day was like this except Thursday, when the County Commissioner, Warren Panette, and a rotation of associates came for bridge-playing in the West Parlor. Abe would help Maggie deliver glasses of bourbon just so he could breathe in the shuffling of cards, the generous laughter, the pipe smoke curling in the lamplight. A bowl of boiled peanuts—cropper food, they joked— littered the table with papery shells. They spoke of elections and corn subsidies and sending President Wilson to hell themselves. It was the only time of the week when his father seemed to relax, his elbows leaning on the table and his eyes grinning through that long, thick beard like General Longstreet himself. He’d lift a glass from Abe’s waiting tray and sip, nodding his eyes politely over the rim, as if Abe was not his son but a very appreciated young boy.
Abe grew up. Life carried on as planned: school in the schoolhouse, evening parties in the foyer, Saturday supper with the commissioner, and Sunday with the minister. But more and more, Abrams—as he started to call himself—was disgusted by it all. The gold-rimmed teacups, the sweaters shipped from his uncle vacationing in Brazil. “For your expeditions,” read the note, as his relatives marveled at the softness of alpaca. Perhaps it was sent to make light of his rugged desires. He threw the sweater in his closet and slammed the door.
He hated it all. He read Whitman and Thoreau and avoided the budding girls his friends now idled around. He would escape to a particular tree, far from the yard, with hard bark and soft grass and the sun sinking until it hurt to read. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse, he squinted. As brightly as from the rich man’s abode. The beads, the braids, the debutante balls: he decided these things were new; they were a waste of time. But the river, the rocks, the wind rippling over the Delta: these things were old. On them he would depend.
He moved into the storeroom behind the stairs. He lived like a pauper, dragging only the quilt from his bed and a single box of candles. He would wash his underwear in a bucket, hanging their cold drippings to dry over chairbacks. Everyone agreed it was repulsive behavior, though his mother was initially amused. “There goes our little idealist,” she’d smile as he trampled barefoot through the kitchen. “Good morning, Hawthorne.” This continued until she found the wet sock plopped atop her heirloom cedar pie chest. His parents spent long evenings huddled by the East parlor fireplace, finally spending time together, united in trading theories and complaints.
He continued making soap and trimming his fingernails with a jackknife until, one day, he didn’t want those either. That life, too, seemed phony, too full of showy effort. He moved back upstairs, albeit with sparser items than before: a single pillow, the same quilt, a mirror and a razor. Maggie emptied the washbucket on the grass, where it dried and faded.
It was not that he contemplated directly the lives of the men in the metal box. He did not. He imagined questions, yes, but he did not imagine their answers: how they managed to breathe, if there was any source of light, how they withstood the heat in summer and the frigidness in winter, how it smelled, what they spoke of, whether they knew if it was morning or evening, how they aimed into that shallow tray. He thought of these questions but not beyond them—such ideas were too remote to look at, like the other side of the moon.
One night he awoke to a hand gently shaking him. It was his mother, not Maggie. “Abe.” Her voice warbled; she gulped air. “I’m so sorry, Abe.” His father had died. A buggy accident while on business in Crenshaw. He tried to remember the last thing he said to his father. See you at bridge? But he could not remember.
In this way the Kensington land—all two hundred and thirty-six acres of it—became his. He employed his father’s groundskeeper to manage it, went to college in Memphis, renounced God, cavorted with intellectuals, studied the emerging field of civil engineering, took a wife, and came home. His mother—just months before she, too, would pass—moved her things from the master bedroom into the remodeled guestroom, where Abrams had camped all those years before. He and his new wife folded up the old quilt and laid it at the foot of the bed. In the closet he discovered the old alpaca sweater—miraculously no moths had gotten to it. He pushed his head through the plush collar and walked to the full-length mirror. It fit.
At the window he inspected his land. In his absence the groundskeeper had done an admirable job—the early cotton was growing with vigor, and a new grid of irrigation ditches was working beautifully. Below, the cropper families had no doubt been planting since sunrise, dragging fertilizer sacks through the rows while their little ones sprinkled it from purses. And beyond them, the woods. Many times his father must have stood at this window, surveying what was his. Had he seen what Abrams saw? The same bent croppers and the dark backdrop of the forest? Did he see the past, or did he see the future?
Abrams did not know. But he would do things differently. He knew that.
They had one daughter.
They’d hoped for a gaggle of children romping through the lilacs, but God would give them just the one. They named her Beatrice.
She was a drowsy child who yawned through her nose and enjoyed her bassinette more than any place else. Abrams and Mary took her to the fields themselves; they proudly released Ms. Margaret of her childcare duties, keeping her only for weekly cleanings and special events. It was Mary’s idea—she was from St. Louis and a modern woman, her hair chin-cropped and her closet full of pants. She had studied chemistry, though she would obviously not be pursuing that in Quitman. Together they agreed on which rooms in the house were unnecessary and emptied the closets, stripped the beds, and shut the doors down the hallways. Mary loved camping and hiking and knew the names of plants, and Abrams adored her.
“Take that bonnet off of her,” she said to Abrams, out in the grass. “Let her see the sun.” They were having a picnic supper, right here, on his property: no suit jackets, no highback chairs, no heirloom pewter napkin rings, not even utensils. Just a sheet tossed over the grass and meaty sandwiches they ate by hand. Abrams removed the cotton eyelet bonnet from his baby’s head. She blinked, rubbed her face, and sneezed repeatedly.
“Oh dear,” said Mary, fitting the bonnet back on.
“Maybe you’d prefer a big, yellow, fragrant daisy?” said Abrams, leaning one into Bee’s nose. She batted it away. “No daisies,” he said. “Noted.” Then she squirmed and squeaked until they gathered the half-eaten sandwiches and the glasses of wine, and he slung the sheet over one shoulder and hurried the whole affair inside.
He bought books on the subject of rocks and their categorization, collecting specimens from his property and lining them up atop her bureau: shale, clay, slate, granite. He would teach Bee the ways of the land, of their land, starting with the bedrock itself. Then might come the nature of seeds, and the miracle of plant life, and how a boll became cotton and then the shirt on your back! She’d play in the dirt and inhale its riches. He even bought her a tiny pair of boy boots.
But Bee would have none of it. Long after she could walk, she gripped their hands when going outside, as if facing the danger of a busy city street. Sunlight on her eyelashes made her fuss and squint. Breezes got hair in her mouth. Once, with hope, Abrams saw her lift a pinecone from a decorative tray and rotate it for several seconds. But that was it. Unlike other children she possessed no interest in animals, only commenting, once she had the words, on their smell.
“Peee-yooo,” she’d say in the buggy behind the horse, waving her hand over her nose.
Pee-yoo? Where did she—?
And later, “Betty’s had Winter’s Fairy since she was a little girl.” This was when, apparently, Bee decided that she could tolerate the odor of horses enough to want one for herself. “And she had seven more before him.”
“Does she even ride that ridiculous thing?” asked Abrams. By then he’d grown a beard and was plucking at a whisker that was longer than the rest. He’d seen Betty Luben with that horse exactly once, in the Quitman Independence Day Parade, its mane matted with a mess of ribbons.
“Every day,” said Bee. Right. Every day.
What did Bee love? She loved the closed doors, the locked cabinets, the thinnest edges of gold. He’d cleared the hallway of its garish trinkets, only to have Bee fixate on the one remaining table with the single glinting knob, reaching up to the refractions inside. “There’s a rainbow in here!” she would yell. She’d sit on her mother’s lap at the mirrored vanity, dunking her hand into a jar of rose-scented cold cream, while Mary scraped her smearings back onto the lid. Bee yanked out every drawer to squeal at the long pearls, clinking necklaces, and brass-handled hairbrushes that they’d stored.
“Mother! Wear this!” she’d said, laying on Mary’s shoulder an oversized, lotion-smeared, amethyst broach in the shape of a poodle.
“Oh, sweetie,” Mary said, prying the broach from her fingers. “I would never wear that.”
This is not to say that Bee was a creature of innate refinement. She was not. She had knock-knees atop her spindly legs, which she balanced in heavy-bottomed buckle shoes. She was forever stomping up and down the stairs with the grace of Frankenstein’s monster, even when people were trying to sleep. Over time she grew worried about her burly red hair and attempted to tame it on the ironing board, laying her cheek sideways while her free arm grabbed for the smoking iron on the stove.
Abrams did feel a little guilt. She did not have the nanny, the night-nurse, the newest hats, the fashionable shoes. They took holiday on an island off of South Carolina instead of France, staying with cousins instead of in hotels, with no white-gloved porters or packaged soap. And when the other girls returned, speaking of brioche and pain au chocolat, Bee looked newly worried, with even more things to learn. She begged Abrams for a detachable lace collar, a single beaded pendant—anything, anything to lay across her plain brown dress. Her anxiety grew a sharp point, like a unicorn. “Doesn’t it hurt your hair to wear it like that?” she once said to Mary, eyeing the pulled bun that she’d preferred since becoming a mother. Mary reached behind her head to touch it, looking wary and appalled. “It suits me just fine,” she said. Bee explained that she preferred the gently unfurling locks of the girls at St. Agnes, especially those of Cindy Fackenweather, who really had a sense of taste.
“I worry,” Mary said one night in bed.
“I know,” said Abrams.
“We shouldn’t have sent her to that school. It just made it worse.”
“We don’t know that,” he said, though he suspected she was correct.
The theory that his wife turned over in the middle of the night was that they ought to have either spoiled her outright or deprived her without mercy. They had aimed too cowardly toward the middle; they’d been wishy-washy and uncommitted. Mary had her suspicions right from the start—did she not? Didn’t she express her worries, when the girl was just a baby?
Abrams stared at the rafters. Beneath him the padded mattress seemed to be thinning under his weight. He was aware, through the stuffing, of iron girders crisscrossing his back.
Who knew why she was the way she was?
He could only control what he could control. That meant restructuring the commissary credit system, replacing the wooden creek bridges with steel, and ushering the whole of the Kensington acreage into the twentieth century. He personally oversaw the rebuilding project of the Sledge Negro School, its roof still half-missing since the hurricane of ‘35. In Memphis, the races respected one another; he had seen it himself. Whites didn’t let Negro facilities become eyesores for everyone else.
And he would do something about the prison. He gathered his courage and ventured back into the woods, this time with a driverless vehicle, his groundskeeper, and the same coolie caretakers in their same wrinkled robes. If only they could tell him what they knew. The wheels ached over the swamp. He remembered the smell: the pines, the thick puddles. Unlike his childhood home that seemed to shrink after college, the forest felt larger, more engulfing, The trees seemed to loom, blocking the sun.
There was the same crate of feed, its wood now splintered and weathered black. There was the same pails of food and water, greened over with chalky mildew. The building itself looked unchanged, save for its walls streaked with bird droppings and its bolts circled with flaky rust. There were dents from fallen branches and near the bottom, a dent outward, where a prisoner had lashed out. For once Abrams was grateful for Bee’s distaste of the forest. Unlike him, she would never stumble into this place.
“How many are in there?” Abrams asked the groundskeeper.
“Twelve, I believe,” he said. “Used to be twenty-two. They don’t eat like they once done.”
Abrams walked to the structure. Near his boots was the familiar trough, littered with stray yellow kernels. All those years ago they had crunched under his teeth, pressed his soft gums. “Do I just knock?” he said. The groundskeeper said nothing. The Chinaman shrugged; the Chinaman’s wife hid behind his shoulder. “All right, then.”
“Hello?” came Abrams’s voice. He was unsure in what direction to point it. He felt like he was talking to the trees, to the air. “This is Abramaside Kensington. Junior, I should say. I’m visiting today. I happen to own the land on which this structure is built. Well, I didn’t used to own it. It was my father’s for a long time, and his father’s before that, and so on.”
There was no response. Were they asleep in there? The coolie woman frowned. But she said nothing.
“Well, anyway,” Abrams shouted to the wall. “I’ve come to take a survey of this place. I want to make improvements to your situation.”
No one spoke. Then a voice sounded from inside. “Coffee?”
Abrams froze. It was the voice of a man. It coughed, echoed, and spoke again. “You got coffee?”
The question filled him with panic. The coolie woman ran up, pulled a steel thermos from her bag, and lowered it under the wall. It disappeared and that was the last they heard from inside.
Back home, in his parlor, Abrams summoned the old groundskeeper. He was a white man, bent, with a face as long as a squash.
“I don’t know much, I swear,” he pleaded. “All’s I know is to order two barrel’s corn once a month, and to keep those coolies on the roll.” That Chinese pair had the job for years. No one knew them in Quitman; they must have been chosen precisely for their foreignness. No one could ask them questions. “They’re paid pretty good, you’d be surprised. Every day they do the feeding and the changing, rain or shine.” Once they went in the middle of a hurricane, branches crashing all around, to bring the prisoners blankets and drill extra bolts into the roof and walls.
“Who ordered that done?” said Abrams, his voice shaking.
The squash-faced man blinked matter-of-factly. “Who else?” he said. Abrams did not know what to feel about this fact made plain: it was what he’d always sensed, but had no courage to confirm. He should have asked these things sooner, yes? Years ago! Why did he wait? But also thank God that he didn’t. It was a pleasure not to know.
“Who’s in there?” he asked. What did they do that was so terrible?
Rapes and murders, mostly. Maybe a couple grand thefts. But the groundskeeper had never seen the papers; he was only guessing. A deal had been made, probably long ago. There were no record books, no letters, no logs. Abrams himself had torn apart his father’s office and found nothing.
The groundskeeper shook his finger. He knew they weren’t from the Delta—they’d come from out-of-state. Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma. It started—he thought it started—with Abrams’s great granddaddy Kensington.
The China couple knew more, at least the day-to-day things, if they could speak it. They knew what each one liked: the youngest wanted a hand-held drum. The newest addition always wanted more blankets. The oldest enjoyed hot coffee, which the couple brought to him in a thermos. It was against the rules of the arrangement but they did it anyway.
How long had they been in there?
Twenty years, twenty-five years for the longest one. They were never getting out and they knew it. Hadn’t put in anyone new in years, and it was a big ordeal when they did. Had to chain the prisoners to trees so they wouldn’t escape, fifty feet apart. Same for a removal when one of them died.
Why was it a secret? Couldn’t it have been just a regular Negro prison? The groundskeeper could not say. Somewhere along the line, it began to smell like a secret, and he guessed it stuck. “Never had to be told,” said the groundskeeper. “I just knew.”
But he couldn’t give Abrams the pure facts. He didn’t know; he wasn’t there. “And don’t go getting mad at your granddaddies or some such thing. They did it for you. They did it for your daughter. And those were different times, mind you. They ain’t always had these luxuries.”
“Connect me to the people in charge of this,” Abrams told him. He expected someone to come to him, to finally explain it all. But he only received one anonymous letter with no address and no signature.
Dear Kensington Junior, it read. By now you have likely heard of the arrangement between the Kensington estate and the county penal system. It was three lines long; it explained nothing of the past. We trust that you’ll continue to carry out the settled terms, including the provision of monthly rations, ongoing maintenance, and personnel as needed.
Included was a check, dated April 1938. So there it was: the payments. Eight hundred a month from the State of Mississippi, and where had it gone? The teacups, the mahogany, the imported Belgian crystal goblets?
Well, he would put an end to that. He would return his inheritance to where it belonged. Maintenance indeed.
In came the paved roads, for easy access through the forest. Electric wires that Abe ordered himself to power heaters in winter and fans in summer. A new food closet of insulated cedar, custom-built by a craftsman in Oxford. The original frame he left standing—it felt wrong to destroy completely what his great granddaddy had built—but rectangles were punched out to make tall windows. Triple-thick glass drilled with lines of dotted airholes: not enough to smell the pines, but enough to breathe. Even a toilet was installed, in an annex with an internal door, for privacy. Mary applauded him, said that he was finally righting his family’s sins. Into an oversized truck bed went the shards of the old prison, where it was rolled from the swamp and gone for good.
All the while Abrams forbid the practice of chaining the prisoners to trees; instead he built a separate, temporary structure beside the original and housed them there. He even had the prisoners build part of the road themselves, roped together at the ankles. He imagined them enjoying for the first time some fresh forest air, the warmth of the sun on their faces.
Townspeople heard that Abrams was building a brand-new prison for Negroes. The costliness! they said. I could use a second home myself. Ugly telephone poles, thick as tree trunks, were sunk into the swamp and buttressed by wayward two-by-fours. Black wires were strung all the way from Crenshaw. It confused the birds. Probably one would get electrocuted. More than anything it was this sight that made the town uneasy—the lone cable looping along the pristine horizon, off to make sure some rapists were enjoying a satisfactory temperature. Was Abrams losing his grip? Knowing about this age-old prison did not ease the minds of Quitman; it only brought them new anxiety.
But Abrams didn’t care. He wanted the truth out. He publicized news of the renovations himself, called the editor of The Quitman Weekly. “Kensington Junior Brings New Light to Old Jail,” read the headline. There would be transparency; there would be unwavering scruples. And no more jail or prison—he would call it a penitentiary.
By then all the young people were full of strange new slang: this was hep, that was mode. It had floated down from colleges and boarding schools in the north. Abrams didn’t know what a saucebox was, but it sounded obscene. They even had a new name for their home. No longer was it Quitman—they were calling it “Q County.”
“How groundbreaking,” said Abrams to Bee. “I suppose I’m just a geezer now, according to my own daughter.”
“It’s just a word,” she said, sipping a teacup of coffee. “No need to make a fuss.”
He had to admit that there was something hep about it. He called the sign-painter on the phone. “That’s right,” he said. “Just Q.” A week later the final product was hung outside the prison: Q County Colored Penitentiary.
Despite all of this, he could not bear to bring his daughter there. “Where are you going? Can I come?” she would ask him, pausing from her piano lesson. Abrams looked down at his outerwear, his same old boots and cape. How could she tell that that was where he was going? All this urging and pushing, and now was the moment she wanted to join him?
“Not today, Queen Bee,” he said. “Not a good day.”
He was proud of the prison, of the improvements he’d made. Yet something inside of him didn’t want her to see it. “It’s a long way, darling. And it’s only business. You’d be bored to tears.” He searched for something more. “Why don’t you work more on that necklace you’ve been making? The one with the feathers? I’d love to see it when I get back.”
“I don’t want to work on that,” she said. “I want to see the forest.” Couldn’t she go with him? Please, daddy? Please?
“I wish so, Bee. I really do.” Bee was quiet. She turned back to the piano and banged out clashing chords.
The project was finished in fourteen months, just before Christmas. Abrams had a tree sawed from his property and propped up in the West parlor, where Bee and Mary adorned it with strings of popcorn and intricate paper snowflakes. Abrams fluffed the rug by the fireplace and they huddled around it, sipping spiced cider. Bee loved Christmas in all its ornament and sparkle.
Right around this time came the first escape.
It happened in the middle of the morning, after the daily feeding. They wouldn’t even have noticed, if not for the trail of corn dropped accidentally outside the fence. Abrams himself didn’t learn of it until lunchtime, when the Chinawoman came sprinting to his door, tripping on the ends of her robe. She didn’t know the word for escape. “He go!” she screamed in Abrams’ face, her eyes wind-whipped and frantic. “He go!”
The first priority was to organize city officials to apprehend him. But by Abram’s fifth unanswered phone call, a team of Quitman men were already collecting rifles from the barn. Plawson, Matthews, Arlo, Todd Panette. “Should I stop them?” Abrams asked Mary. She chewed her lip. Then she said, “Let them do it. The sheriff’s slow, and anyhow, they want to.” The men filled their arms with ropes and knives. What else? they yelled to one another. Never had this happened before. Would they need baseball bats, a fishing net?
By afternoon tea all of Quitman County seemed to know. The phone in the hallway rang and rang, and Mary filled a notepad with messages and handed them to Kensington as he fielded visitors at the door. A reporter came, followed by a photographer. The County Commissioner himself called to express his concern. “Abramaside Senior entrusted a lot to you, you know,” he said. His voice was elegant and as familiar as the shuffling of cards, the pipe smoke, the shells of peanuts. “I know, I know,” said Kensington, feeling like a boy. His hand shook as he hung up. Something had to be done. He called up the groundskeeper and ordered him to suspend the prisoners’ meals and close off the toilet annex. Then he called back the commissioner to inform him of this swift action, but was forced to leave a message with the secretary.
Upstairs, in the master bedroom, Abrams searched the horizon. A convict. Hiding on his land, eating his berries, sipping his creek water, pissing in his patches of grass. Kensington watched the search team moving through the forest, their lanterns bobbing like fireflies among the trees.
Around eleven o’clock they came staggering back. They’d found him, they said. But something about him was strange. The prisoner had been walking in plain sight, down the middle of the main road, moonlight illuminating him. He wore pants torn at the ankles, a hat over his eyes, and carried a walking stick, as if he were only a man on a leisurely stroll. The hat at night: that’s what gave him away. The search team pulled the coolies from their shacks by their long braids to identify him. They were drunk and jabbering in their native tongue, upset about losing a prisoner. But eventually the couple insisted that they could not verify the man, because they only knew the prisoners by the sounds of their voices.
They approached the man with a horsewhip. “Speak,” they told him. He would not speak.
Striking was not the word for it. Lashed? Licked, whipped, cut? Broke. It broke open the skin.
And so they broke him: one diagonal across his chest. He fell forward on his hands. They broke him on the shoulders. They broke him across the calves, where his skin was exposed. They broke him until he cried out, and the Chinawoman’s eyes startled. The couple nodded their heads, Yes. That was a cry they knew.
The groundskeeper relayed the whole scene for him, in the parlor with a glass of iced tea. He had a lively story-telling style, all hands, which Kensington regretted now. “That’s enough,” he told him. Mary paced the floors and sent Bee back up to bed.
By one in the morning, thankfully, all was settled. The Quitman Weekly printed its next issue a day early, the headline in all capitals: KENSINGTON RAPIST FOUND & RETURNED. RELIEF COMES TO COUNTY.
In town, at events, people seemed nervous in his presence. He made jokes. They laughed—at first tensely, then genuinely. “That’s not a trapdoor you’ve got here, is it?” he’d say, tapping the floor. “Are you on a wild goose hunt?” He felt the need to display his assured command, much to the surprise of Mary, who never before could lure him to parties. Now he wanted to attend more than she did. “Another debutante?” she said, eyeing a new invitation. Since when did he care for some neighbor’s cousin’s daughter’s coming-out? He invited the commissioner to dinner, who said Thank you, That would be nice, he would get back to him with possible dates. Kensington waited.
Altogether the matter died down, and the Weekly turned to matters of crop counts and engagements and the upcoming county fair.
Then it happened again. This time in the middle of the night. Same man, different stretch of road. Same leisurely walk. He was not hiding, and that’s what was so curious. Who was he, anyhow? He went by Hammond, the groundskeeper reported. He enjoyed coffee, he knew how to whistle. Some worried, seeing as he was the oldest, that he might be training other prisoners to do the same. But that was all suspicion; tense minds leapt to the worst.
An alarm system was developed: The China guards, upon discovering Hammond missing, were to bang on a metal pail with whatever they had—a wooden spoon, a fork. The guard would run. And when the clanging came within earshot of whoever heard it, that person would bang his own pot, as would the next man and the next after him, until the clanging arrived at the Kensington veranda and the men readied to chase the prisoner down. Everyone knew to leave their houses and gather their loved ones, to make sure that all were accounted for.
Each time Hammond escaped (and it was five times now: twice in winter, once in summer, and twice around Easter), the same men went scouting into the woods and the fields, searching outhouses, releasing dogs, peering under beds and floorboards. They stopped every Negro in the road, asked them to speak, and pointed their guns. The sharecroppers refused to work the fields until safety was restored—an entire day’s work lost. The ad hoc team became more practiced, and soon their sons joined too. But each time they caught Hammond, he was not hiding but leaving, discovered no more than ten miles away and in plain sight, like any ordinary traveler. He did not even go quickly. They would net him and cuff him and simply drag him back to the penitentiary. It was too easy. He wouldn’t say how he’d managed to escape, and neither would the other prisoners, despite the whippings.
Some said that it was precisely Kensington’s meddling, his foolish wish to give those prisoners a better life, that caused the whole problem. Those long days of clearing the forest path, that taste of industry and modern machinery—it had given them time to memorize the trees, to make plans. But more importantly, it gave them desire. They were better off forgetting the world outside altogether. Give a man a spring and he’ll only want an ocean.
But the waves of progress must move forward. He reprimanded the China couple—they, too, needed strict supervision. He promised more complicated locks, reinforced doors, and higher fences. He poured his savings into the task. For the first time, Kensington began tracking his accounts himself, trying to make sense of the ledgers late into the night. Eyes stinging, he’d remove his glasses and roam about the East Wing, survey the fireplaces disappearing perfectly good logs to an audience of no one.
“I wonder if we really need a taste of the tropics every which way we go?” he said to Mary in the drawing room.
She put down her sewing—another item for Bee’s trousseau. Bee was helping her, embroidering the edges of a future table runner. “Speak for yourself,” said Mary. “We’re perfectly comfortable.” Something about her was different too—she no longer gave and received, but instead seemed to absorb. What she gave was advice, arguments, declarations.
“I’m just trying to be mindful of the sweat that people put into that tree-cutting,” said Kensington.
“Will you two stop it?” said Bee, squeezing her embroidery. “I’ve just about had it.” Her cheeks were flushed, but with her newly-discovered rouge she looked that way all the time now.
And then there was the matter of Bee’s coming out. What had long been envisioned as a simple affair—some finger sandwiches, a spigot of punch—needed revision. Overdue, under planned—through all the distractions of the past year they’d delayed it, not occurring at year sixteen like everybody else but instead at the rapidly expiring age of seventeen. Bee was terribly embarrassed. Month after month she endured the explosively adorned houses, the golden sashes draped over chandeliers, the platters of ham and heaps of grapes, the individual petit fours. That custom-written song played on a lute as Cindy Fackenweather, glitter-eared and sprouting from her thousand-layer gown, descended her spiral staircase. The questions that day: When is yours, Trixie? We didn’t miss it, did we? Soon, was her nodding reply. And she flew home to her room through slamming doors, relaying the whole ordeal through coal-streamed tears.
He felt the need to make it up to her.
There would be a theme. Horse shows, steeplechase, jumping rides, derby. Though Bee hadn’t attended any such event, the magazines taught her everything; plus, it had the added advantage of being fancier and more distinct than the themes of all the other girls: Summer Picnic, Holiday at the Beach, Easter Parade, The Jungle Book. In came the planned drawings for saddle-shaped cakes and invitations letter-pressed with miniature horseshoes. Every guest was to come in equestrian attire, or as their favorite racehorse name—Winter’s Fairy, as one example. For party favors they’d be given wine-colored velvet helmets (the overall theme color being purple).
“Doesn’t somebody make fake ones?” said Mary, squinting at the bills. The young men would come as famous jockeys, whatever that meant. Only Bee knew.
“We won’t have anything left for her trousseau,” said Mary.
“Could we have a real horse?” said Bee.
“No horse,” said Kensington. He kept his face serious. The truth was he had already planned to buy her one, not as a prop but as a present—an elegant white mare to reveal at the party. “But how about a dance? We could clear out all the chairs, get dance cards printed.”
“Truly?” said Bee, her darkened eyebrows rising, stunned.
“We only debut once in this lifetime,” said Kensington. “Don’t we?”
Every offering on his part seemed both to excite and worry her. Did she feel odd, not having to beg and plead? To have it given freely?
As an extra-special treat—unheard of, unthought-of—it would be a sleep-away party. Boys on the first floor, girls on the second, and five mother supervisors stationed among them. Twenty-eight girls, twelve boys: ninety-three total guests including family and friends. He’d had the idea after discovering a purple-inked note on her bedroom desk, addressed to a boy, somebody named Brandon. You ought to give my handkerchief back. THIS INSTANT. With a tiny drawn flower she’d signed her name: “Trixie Kensington.” Trixie? Who was this vulnerable, adorable person? She must be honored.
Kensington summoned Maggie to be in charge, and she set to work. Up came the boxes from storage, the lids of trunks flung open, an outpouring of silk and paste jewels and gold candlesticks. Everybody thought that Bee would burst.
“I never knew!” she gasped, burrowing her face in an armful of translucent linens.
He would invite the commissioner. Yes, yes. A stupendous party, unforgettable. What a feat those Kensingtons could put together! On their famed estate, in all its glory.
Every closed door opened. Closets cleaned, windows washed. Sheets were snapped and fitted over beds. Bee ran from room to room, new strings of beads swishing from her neck. We had all this? she said. All this, all along?
“Look what Bee wants me to wear.” Mary grinned into the parlor where Kensington was signing a clipboard. On her head was a gigantic hat of spraying feathers. Bee came running behind her, concerned.
“I know that hat,” said Kensington. “That’s my grandmother’s.”
Mary laughed. “Isn’t it a riot? What a ridiculous thing.” She balanced it with one hand, looking at her husband and her daughter.
“It’s very mode,” said Bee. “It’s fun.”
“Fun if you’re a circus clown,” said Mary.
“I think you should wear it,” said Kensington. Mary blinked at him.
“Oh, would you?” said Bee. “You really ought to. You should.”
“It’s becoming on you,” he said, and Bee gleamed.
Mary removed her hat and crossed her arms. But Kensington didn’t care. His daughter was gazing at him like the sun rising from the earth.
On the morning of the party, Kensington went upstairs to offer the new young lady a platter of croissants. A hired attendant was unwrapping her hair from rollers and coating it in a slick substance that she warmed in her palms. She pinned each section against Bee’s skull.
“I thought you liked your hair down?” said Kensington. “In waves?”
“Did I say that?” She smiled at him. “I would never say that.”
Stacked white cane chairs were wheeled over smooth floors where the rugs had been pulled away. Mary wound candlesticks with lavender taffeta and positioned them all over the ledges and the banquet table. Maggie directed the caterers on how to place the dinner plate down first, then the salad plate on top, lined up so you could see both their matching, plum-colored rims.
Kensington snuck off to the barn to prepare the debutante present himself. The white horse whinnied when she saw him, as if even she knew what was coming. On her head he attached a massive violet-colored bow. He nearly skipped across the yard and back up to the master bedroom, where he put on his finest suit, the one he’d gotten married in nearly twenty years ago. And when the first doorbell rang, his heart rattled like something bursting from its cage. He descended the staircase and took his proper place in the greeting line between Ms. Margaret and his wife, who wore no hat and would not look at him. Bee herself would wait upstairs until the proper unveiling.
Here they came—a train of frills and top hats, long coattails and shawls. Colognes and perfumes of every make and era—dusty lilac, peach, cedar, crushed rose—hazed together in a nostril-itching mess, as Kensington held his breath to stop himself from sneezing. All those little girls he’d known had their faces painted and nails lacquered and hair polished. When he took their gloved hands, they curtsied—real curtsies! He hadn’t seen a girl curtsy since he was a boy. Altogether it felt like another time, another century.
He could not discern what was jockey-esque about the boys, but no matter. One extended his hand and introduced himself as Brandon Tortebaum.
“Brandon,” said Kensington, gripping the boy’s hand a moment longer. “I see.” He was red-haired and possessed the flush of strength and future handsomeness. Kensington smiled to himself. His daughter chose well.
In the edge of his vision, the commissioner was being inched along in his wheelchair. Kensington bent to greet him. “Good afternoon, Commissioner.”
“Are those your combines out there?” said the man, holding fast to Kensington’s fingers.
“Why, yes,” he said, startled. “They’re full steel, shipped last month from Ohio.”
“How much do they pull?” Kensington told him, the commissioner leaning forward to hear. The man grinned. Kensington could hardly believe it, this grin.
“Commissioner,” he said. “May I show you to the head of the table?”
“Don’t be silly,” said the man, dismissing the idea with his hand. “I’d prefer a seat by you, if I may?”
Kensington lit up. “Of course,” he said, heart flittering, and sent for the seating cards to be rearranged.
A gong sounded—a deep bloom rising over the foyer. The percussionist from the hired ensemble had struck it—unnecessary for the upcoming musical set but nonetheless wheeled in for this moment. A hush came over the crowd, as they looked to the top of the stairs. Out from the dark archways stepped Bee. At first Kensington did not recognize her. She stood pin-straight. Her lips were a startling shade of burgundy. On her head was an enormous derby hat, shading her face alluringly. A hoop skirt of a thousand stacked ruffles drowned any evidence of her knock-knees.
The photographer flashed his bulb.
“Gorgeous,” said the commissioner.
She was indeed. A woman now. Little Bee.
Trays were passed—cold scallops rolled with curls of watercress, fried corn cakes dipped in brown butter and sage. Bee descended the staircase and the crowd gobbled her up. Kensington closed his mouth around a corn cake and held it on his tongue, feeling its warmth, its savory and pleasant grit. This was turning out to be a wonderful party after all. More hors d’oeuvres! He sipped his bourbon and waved over another servant. “Horse d’oeuvres,” Kensington joked, and both men laughed.
Dinner began: the grand banquet of roasted pig and orange slices and glossy mounds of greens. The commissioner was wheeled to his spot next to Kensington, his knees angled carefully under the table. The servants rotated around the table to spoon hot soup into individual bowls—what a classy touch!—when a faint rhythmic sound slid through the conversations. No. It couldn’t be. The guests kept talking, then stopped to make out the sound becoming louder, closer. Kensington stared at his soup, the steam fogging his glasses. Please, no. Please. Please. Lord in Heaven: No.
They were already pushing back their chairs, abandoning their napkins to the seat cushions, scrambling to the East windows. There he was: the lone coolie sprinting from the dark line of trees across the wide green basin of the field, his arms extended and banging on that same tin pot with that same wooden spoon. He was running toward them, toward the house. Even after he saw them—after he saw that they saw him, knew the message was clear—he did not stop running and banging on his pot, his pant legs flapping behind him, eyes crazy. He did not stop until he reached the veranda and scrambled up the steps. Somebody edged from the crowd to offer an iced tea to his panting body.
There was no time to waste. The usual team hurried to fetch their rifles from the coatroom, dropped their top hats to the floor, and lifted every Kensington family rifle from their mounted places in the drawing room. They took ammunition. They took a set of whistles. The women helped load a utility truck, and then a stake bed, and even John Baylil’s sedan. Every man young and old wanted to go. Somebody grabbed a net; a girl pulled a rose from her hair and tossed it into the truck. They worried aloud about how the cars would get through the woods. Amid the commotion Kensington hardly moved from his dining chair. Nothing was requested of him; nobody needed him. They paused in their sprints only to ask him one question: Do you have any horses?
They took the white horse.
They led it from the barn, its long legs and gigantic purple bow plainly in sight of the North Parlor window. They pulled off the bow, dropped it to the grass, mounted the horse’s back, and rode away—that was when Bee couldn’t take it anymore. She crumpled under the window and down into the layers of her dress, glancing only to look again at the ribbon abandoned on the lawn.
They tried to comfort her, draping their arms around her and brushing her hair behind her ear. One girl brought over a stray suit jacket and balanced it over Bee’s sobbing shoulders. They reheated a cup of soup and fed her spoonfuls. When her cries subsided, a girl knelt on the rug and volunteered to reapply her mascara, directing her to listen to the ensemble readying to perform. On the small stage the musicians squirmed in their vests, and tried to play but were now missing the violin, cello, and French horn. Only a lone percussionist and thin-breathed boy on flute tried to get through the planned order of songs, their faces worried and distracted, until Mary ran up to the stage and tried to lead them in a roaring march with her pencil-baton.
Thank God for Mary. She improvised a card game involving forks and spoons among the wreckage of the banquet table. She cracked jokes. She had the girls’ wet-eyed attention. The Equestrian Competition proceeded as planned. Mary stood midway up the staircase in her helmet and skewed knickerbockers, announcing the winners from a card. “Best Mane” went to Ida Florine, naturally. “Best Manners” to Sheila Horn. One by one they climbed the steps to receive their bright and shiny ribbons, to pause for the photographer. The crowd clapped good-naturedly. “Best in Show” went to Beatrice Marigold Kensington, to nobody’s surprise, her mother kissing her cheek that couldn’t help but glow with pride.
Afterwards they settled around the snapping fireplace in the parlor, among the wingbacks chairs and puffy pillows, with an air of exhausted cheer. They unbent their knees, let their long arms flop across cushions. Kensington lowered into an armchair, watching. He crossed his legs and felt his muscles loosen and sink. He loved these girls, all of them; he was awed by their existence. He saw in them something he had never seen before. The fringed blankets, the cuddling: they loved it all. They loved being girls. They loved being the girls that they were.
Some time later a knock came from behind the front door.
They started and glanced at one another. Maggie rose to answer it. She disappeared into the foyer, unclicked the latch, and screamed.
Kensington ran out, and everyone rose to follow him. There, in the doorway, stood a stooped Negro man. His gray-haired head seemed to bobble on his skeleton. He leaned on a long stick with one hand, and in the other held a makeshift bag of tied cloth. His skin was withered but clean. His beard was white.
“Abramaside Kensington?” he said. His voice was streaked with gravel.
Kensington could not speak. “Yes?” he coughed.
“My name is George Clarence Hammond,” he said. “I believe I’m the prisoner you’s men are looking for.” He had almost no teeth, just three lone flashes of yellow. He looked around at what Kensington saw too: staring faces, hands over mouths, long fingernails clenching frilled skirts. “Don’t mean no interruption,” he said.
Kensington fumbled with the bottom edge of his jacket. The men had taken all the guns. In the kitchen there were knives, some shovels in the tool shed—what else?
“I’ll get right to the quick,” said Hammond. His eyes fixed on Kensington, steady and unblinking. “I’m here to have you’s release me from jail. You tell the jail people that they ain’t having me back no more.”
Kensington startled. He paused. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. It’s not in my power.”
“Yes it is,” said the man. “You own this land, your daddy done owned it and your granddaddies done owned it all the way back. You said so your ownself. Say what people say but it’s your prison. You can tell them not to want me anymore.”
“Mister.” The man insisted.
“It’s not possible.”
“Look,” he said. “Years ago I did a bad thing. Real bad, and the Lord and me both know it. But it’s been thirty-one years. I been counting the winters. I’ve served my right time. They’s want me in there until I die, but thirty-one years seems time enough to me.”
Kensington felt the many eyes behind him, felt their throats tightening. Somewhere Bee was among them, but he didn’t dare look. He couldn’t let her see him like this, amidst everything he’d hidden. “They’ll kill you anyhow,” he said. “If they can’t jail you, they’ll kill you.”
“Mister Kensington.” Hammond lifted his palm. “I ain’t interested in a freedom that I got to keep running to. I ain’t interested in being chased. Now I’m going to go down that main road, and take it all the way out of town, and I ain’t never, ever, coming back, so why don’t you call off your men and let me ride out in peace and you get back to your party?”
Kensington clasped his own damp hands. A fly buzzed over the veranda; he couldn’t tell if the air was cool or warm.
Who could say what confusions were in his heart? Not him. He did not examine options, did not turn them in the light or consider their refractions. He did not weigh, did not measure. When life turned its gaze on you, it offered no such luxuries. It pressed a gun to your ear and clicked.
He let the prisoner Hammond go.
Somebody, somewhere, would catch the man—yes? He turned from the silent crowd, went to the parlor, and shut the door. He emptied all the bourbon into a glass and opened all the windows. He waited to hear gunshots. But they did not come.
At some point came a soft knock at the door. The slippers shifting on the floorboards told him it was Maggie.
“Please go away,” Kensington yelled. But the doorknob turned.
It was Bee, standing in her crushed dress, nervously twisting the doorknob back and forth. Despite everything, she’d applied a fresh coat of lipstick, and had fixed her eyes so that they looked less puffy.
“Daddy?” she said.
“Oh, sweetheart!” he said, and opened his sloppy arms. “Come!”
She ran to him and heaved her arms around his chest, slumping her head onto his shoulder. Kensington smelled her perfumed curls and held her, grateful that she’d come to comfort him in this way. “Thank you, my love,” he said, squeezing her.
“Daddy,” she said again, quietly. “This is the worst day of my life.”
The worst day of her life?
“I’ve waited my whole life for this party,” she said. “But now…”
He pulled her off of him, stood her upright. He looked at her smeared, blinking face, searching for a sign that she must be joking, that she must mean something else. Her eyes squeezed up and she buried them in her hands. “Just look at me,” she said. “I’m ruined.”
Kensington let go of her. He crossed his arms. “Enough of this. All of it. Don’t you bother me with your prattle.”
She uncovered her wet face. “What?”
“Get out,” he said. “Now you’ve made this the worst day of my life.” She looked shaken awake, scared, but he didn’t give a damn. She ran out and he relished the sight of her, hurrying up the staircase like that. Finally the respect from someone—anyone—that he had deserved this whole damn time.
Around eleven o’clock the men returned. The women rushed in robes to greet them, telling what Kensington had done. The sleeves of the men were torn and hung loose around their hands; seams gapped at the shoulders to reveal puffed white undershirts. Their mouths drooped, eyes half-closed. Even Brandon had his red hair blown up and matted in wayward patterns. They smelled of sweat and dirt and swamp, their fine cologne wind-whipped away. But they also smelled of anger and pride and simmering discontent. Mothers kissed and gripped them. The younger girls eased the jackets off their shoulders and offered to mend them. Years later, many would cite this night, this moment on the West Veranda at the Beatrice Kensington Coming Out, as the beginning of the Kensington family’s fall from grace.
The men wouldn’t look Kensington in the eye as they filed out the door—not from disdain but with a kind of boredom, a disinterest, a fatigue. Then the girls paddled to their rooms and shut the day behind them.
Kensington steadied himself on the banister and eyed the staircase, its solid lines screwing in his vision. He turned around. He did not want to go up there, back to where he had come from. Instead he shuffled to the room behind the staircase, orange embers still glowing in the fireplace, where he collapsed onto the chaise and fell asleep.
Something woke Kensington in the middle of the night. The fire had died, the candles had melted flat. He fingered the button-punctured cushions underneath him and realized that he was not in his bed.
He had woken to a sound: the rhythmic banging of metal once again. Yet another prisoner must have escaped to God knows where. Was he delirious? Was he drunk? He hoped he was dreaming and having a terrible nightmare. But he was not.
Then came the confused shouts of girls echoing through the house. Who now? they screamed. Were the doors locked? Did someone get in here?
Kensington stumbled off of the chaise.
The girls scurried down the staircase, hair flying, waves loose, nightgowns trailing. They puddled at the bottom, as the adults tried to calm them. Some girls wore slippers, some were barefoot. One carried a stuffed orange rabbit in her armpit. They held one another by the shoulders and looked into each other’s eyes, as if to make sure they were really the people they thought they were. Eyebrows and eyelashes were revealed to be blond, translucent, nonexistent. Course pimples dotted their foreheads and their chins. Are you all right? Yes, yes we are, we just woke up, we ran.
Maggie stood on the staircase and frantically scanned the heads. “Where’s Bee?” she whispered loudly. Her eyes were crazy; she was talking to herself. “Did you see her up there? Bee?”
The girls looked around at one another. But none of them were her.
He took two steps at a time, past Maggie, leaping, catching the banister. At the top he caught his breath and turned into the hall, where every door was hanging open like a wagging tongue. On the long rug, a crumpled slipper. Candy wrappers, a hair roller. A strange wind tunneled through the hallway and rustled the prize ribbons that Mary had tacked over the girls’ doors: pale blue, violet, shades of pink. At the end was Bee’s door, closed and quiet, her giant, showy white ribbon flapping down to the knob. He pushed the door open.
He knew at once that she was not in danger. The window was shut, the curtains still, but more than anything he knew by the air, the atmosphere, the perfumes and the magazine cut-outs over the wallpaper and the straight pins scattered on the bureau. All of it belonged to the rightful habitat of Bee. A hundred damp cotton balls littered the floor under her mirror, smudged with black and tan and ruby-red smears. The tools of removing her beloved make-up. Kensington grabbed his damp forehead, overwhelmed and relieved.
In the bed was the figure of his daughter. “Bee,” he whispered loudly. But she didn’t move under the patchwork quilt, the frayed ends of her hair poking out of the edge.
“Get up, Bee. You have to get downstairs. Now!”
He threw back the quilt and there she was, arms and legs in her nightgown and a fury of straw hair. She covered her face with her hands.
“Don’t look at me!” she yelled.
“Don’t look at you?” He didn’t understand. At her bare face? At his own little girl? “Up,” he said. “I don’t have time for this. Up now.”
He grabbed her arm and pulled at her bent elbow. But it was like the root of a tree, stuck, exposed but held fast to something so much larger underground. She would not remove her hands. She would not rise from this bed, she would not go down there, she would not show this plain face. Did she not want to be seen? Or to see herself, being seen? Not even by him—her father— who loved her no matter what she was.