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Bronze

an extract from the novel
by Kit Reed

 


Before

Bronze by Kit ReedI'm so ashamed. It's all he can think of as he flees the Wayward plantation; scrambling down the back road out of Wayward, Jimmy Daley may be scared -- no, terrified -- but before anything, he is ashamed.

Laid out by a Carolina gentleman in richer, far less fearsome times, the front road into the Benedict compound at Wayward is overgrown but orderly. A double avenue of trees lines the approach to the antebellum house with its formal gardens and outbuildings. Come in by the front way and Wayward is picture-perfect Old South, with banks of blossoming azaleas and oleanders, carefully placed pecan trees and liveoaks festooned with Spanish moss. The Benedict foundry is not visible from here, nor is the boathouse perched on the edge of the marsh. Certain portions of the compound are closed. You will come and go by the front gate and never guess the truth.

Like their best work, the nature of the Benedict heritage is carefully hidden. What meets the eye is beautifully maintained, precisely groomed. Everything is quiet, orderly, expected. Nice.

But there is another way out.

The few who know the back road are afraid to take it. The escape route is notoriously unsafe -- twin grooves in slippery Carolina mud. It begins deep in the woods behind the Benedict house. Pebbled walks taper to nothing and artful planting gives way to weeds. Cutting through thick growth to the water's edge, the track gives onto an eroding causeway over the marsh. The causeway is so narrow and treacherous that any sane person would take the long way around to avoid it.

Old Beaufort Benedict made the last generation of slaves dredge him a causeway out of the muddy bottom of the Inland Waterway long before the War Between the States. They paved it with oyster shells so he could leave Wayward for the mainland unseen. It was built so long ago that if they knew, the town has forgotten. Whether that particular Benedict was hiding something criminal or trying to forge one more link in the underground railroad, nobody can say, but the ruined back road is treacherous. It's been abandoned for years.

Halfway to the mainland, a decaying wooden central span bridges the channel, and on the far bank the land is so bleak that it's hard to know why anybody would want to go there. The decaying causeway is overgrown in some places and in others it's disintegrated into mud with planks thrown across the shifting surface. There's no telling what's underneath. Once you are on the causeway, there's no getting off. On either side the salt marsh gives way to something that is neither land nor water, and in the channel under the center span whirlpools wait like hungry mouths.

At any moment the planks can shift and leave the traveler mired.

Once your car clears the Benedict property there is no turning, and if it breaks down there's noplace to go. The terrain is treacherous; in some parts of the marsh birds roost and insects burrow in the mud; in others the bottom is liquid, waiting to devour you. A man can drop out of sight here before he knows what has hold of him; he can drown before he has time to scream.

What things lie buried in the gluey bottom stay there forever: leached bones of slaves who died building the causeway, old enemies of the early Benedicts perhaps. Family treasures thrown into the swamp to preserve them from the invading Union soldiers. For centuries the marsh has claimed whatever it wants: here a flawed bronze angel with an arm sheared off, surrounded by imperfect submerged cupids -- and there, just off the point on the mainland, marched into the sawgrass by an ignorant drill sergeant, the skeletons of an entire platoon of lost Marines. There may be others deep in the muddy marsh that borders the Inland Waterway: the bodies of Charlestonians long ago reported missing, corpses begging to be exhumed.

Waiting somewhere in the mud there is a beautiful woman with her mouth frozen open in a perpetual scream.

It isn't safe.

But here is Jimmy Daley, struggling through the mud and undergrowth to the causeway. It's his last hope. Clearing the woods, he throws himself onto the oyster shells. Hitching along on his elbows, he advances slowly, dragging the rest of his body behind. The ruined would-be sculptor with the beautiful blue eye can't hope to make it to the other side. Not the way he is. He can't even hope to outstrip his terror, but he has to try. Sobbing, Jimmy goes along on bloody hands and elbows, trailing shattered legs and broken feet.

At Parsons, where he was an art student bent on being a sculptor, handsome, tow-headed Jimmy was a happy guy, affable, a little shy. His careless grin told people he had plenty to say even though, like most artists, he couldn't necessarily find the words. Deep, right? People liked Jimmy on sight. How did he stray so far from home, and how did he get so...

I'm so ashamed.

The grin is long gone. It was scraped off his face in a series of gouges that took one of those nice blue eyes; his mother would be so.... Oh, Jimmy, she would wail, Jimmy Daley. What happened to you? Only a mother would recognize him now. He is wrecked, body and soul. It's a wonder he can keep going. In fact, he's made it this far only because it serves somebody's purposes.

At the top of the cavernous house behind him something stirs: the figure in the window observes the little progress on the causeway. Waits.

What does Jimmy hope for, dragging himself along, inching through mud up to his elbows in some places and in others hauling over jagged shells that bite his raw hands? Does he really think he can make it across, or does he hope some rescuer will hear his sobs and scoop him up in a boat? Maybe he's pretending he can make it to the far highway where RVs and eighteen-wheelers go barreling north, and one of them will see him and...

He has to hope for something. If he can just make it to the highway, maybe he can haul himself up like a flag on a scrub pine, waving like a distress signal. Or else he'll hang there just like a real person, hitching a ride. Oh hi. Going to town?

One look and they'll know. They'll never guess why, but a blind fool will know at once that Jimmy Daley is afraid and, worse, that he is soiled and ashamed. So very ashamed.

Never mind. He has to go!

He fixes on the narrow track in front of him. One yard more, one yard more, how many yards will it take to get across? He doesn't know. All he knows is that he can't go on the way he is, he has to go. All he can hear is his own breath sawing in his throat. Behind him all of Wayward looms: land, trees, elegant house sprawling on a slight rise, doomed inhabitants caught in a dark globe of family obsession, terrible and huge.

Who they are, the Benedicts -- no, what they are doing -- explodes in Jimmy's consciousness. In a flash he comprehends Ava Benedict, his beautiful, cold mentor and her real intentions; Ava and her students, the work, the unknowable other -- everything at Wayward driven by the same inexorable force.

Something darker than fear drives Jimmy Daley now.

In the house behind him, the abiding spirit waits. Does Jimmy know he's being watched? Is he really trying to escape or is he only trying to get Ava's attention? When he shakes his bloody fist at the house is that real defiance, or does he expect Ava to see and come after him? God help him, he couldn't help what he did, he loved her. He did. Damaged as he is, ruined forever by his time at Wayward and bent on escape, Jimmy Daley may want something else. Maybe he really does wish Ava would come. Unless he wants her people to overtake him and finish him.

Anything to keep him from feeling this way.

From being what he is.

I'm so ashamed.

What's Jimmy Daley running away from? What's he really hoping for? In the deep, grieving part of him, Jimmy needs to be caught and punished.

Not for what he's done. For what he has become.

Before he left Parsons for Wayward, Jimmy was different. Talented. Borderline charming. Happy. A nice, ordinary guy.

All that has burned away. The only thing left of him is shame.

After Ava demolished him, he crawled under the potting shed. He hid until he was strong enough to flee. No matter how far he goes, he'll never outrun the shame. Filth mats Jimmy's hair and filth clings and drips from all his orifices; even now he can't remember what he did or agreed to do or what he let happen to himself that was so wrong, exactly, or why or how he got the way he is, but in the lexicon of shame what Jimmy Daley does next is the ultimate verb.

The quality of the air has changed. He hears the rumble of a car in Low, a cautious driver creeping along. For a second Jimmy mistakes the source. Ava, he thinks, gulping greedily; she's coming for me.

He turns back toward Wayward with the desperate, guttural roar that some men make at climax.

Behind him, the road is deserted. Jimmy fishtails in the mud, confused. This car is coming from the mainland. No! Some outsider who knows nothing of Wayward is heading his way. They'll see me! How can they possibly understand? He can forget the Benedicts. They aren't coming for him. With one eye destroyed, Jimmy can see that the Benedicts don't care.

The car is almost on him. In another minute the driver will see him for what he is. What he has become.

Oh, my God.

The driver is a girl. One look at Jimmy and she'll retch and turn away. He is repulsive. Even if she let him into the car, even if he got away... How can he explain what he has become? How can he admit what he's been up to here at Wayward. How can he go on living in the filthy wreckage of his body? This ruined face?

How can he live with the shame?

Can't let her see me, he thinks, and this is the end of Jimmy Daley. Even if he gets out, he won't escape. He could spend the next hundred years trying to find his way home to who he used to be and never get that person back. He sobs. Not the way I am.

Something inside him breaks in two.

Tears stream from Jimmy's good eye and the blind one, stinging his torn flesh; God, if only. But there's nothing left of the looks or the intelligence or the talent, the grin that won him so many friends. He is no longer who he was.

As the car approaches Jimmy rolls into the sawgrass, dragging himself through the mud. He's been warned about the quicksand underlying the marsh, riptides in the channel. He welcomes it. Sobbing, he lunges for oblivion. Sawgrass whips his face but he drags himself along, toward the deep place where the swamp will swallow him... She's coming, she'll see me, can't let her, I have to get away!

Yes!

Raising his arms like a descending angel, the ruined artist loses himself in the muck with the silent grace of a swimmer on a hot day, slipping into a cool pond.


1.

Something writhing across the road...

Squinting, Jude tried to make it out. At this distance it was no more than a grey blur in the road ahead, a shadow that disappeared when the car yawed and she blinked. -- What?

It could be nothing.

It could be something.

It could be anything.

Person, water snake, she wasn't sure; out in the unfamiliar Carolina countryside like this, on a narrow causeway over marsh and wide water, you imagined things. It was strange territory, ragged and wild. The road seemed to sit on top of glittering green water. It was like being on a stage set in a floating opera. On the shore Jude's destination waited like the set for Act Two -- an elaborate frame house sprawling under great, artificial-looking trees.

Careful, she told herself. This is the south. A strange country. Anything could happen here. Flying in last night was like coming into Oz. Landing in Charleston in the middle of the night, Jude Atkins and the other passengers had to come down a ladder and walk in to the terminal from the runway. After Boston on a crisp day in autumn, it was like walking into a warm bath. The light in the sky was different, the silhouetted trees were different, everybody sounded different. Jude's baggage, including all her funky jewelry samples, was adrift in the Washington-Baltimore Airport, where it failed to change planes with her. Her Charleston hotel had never heard of her and in the early dawn outside, a gat-toothed, grinning street kid in a tattersall vest handed her a spray of azaleas ripped off some bush and played the harmonica until she gave him money to stop.

On the way down here from Charleston she veered around a pack of dogs like carnival midgets boiling out of a blazing car -- crazy, she told herself, edgy and shaken; maybe it was only a TV shoot. Just as she left the interstate she caught a flash -- bears, or was it two enormously fat people dancing underneath the bearded trees. What if they weren't dancing?

Should I stop? Could I help?

She was going too fast to make it out. What could she have done to help anyway? Would they thank her, Oh thank God you've come, or would they separate and pound her to bits? It was all too new for her to know. The deep South went by too fast and in the context of the unnervingly usual -- superhighway, generic exit signs, flashy markers on stilts broadcasting nearby malls -- what you thought you saw didn't necessarily make sense.

So maybe she really did see something strange hitching across the narrow causeway like an enormous rodent or a leper fleeing so she wouldn't have to see his face.

Judith, stop!

So OK, she'd been awake for two days straight. That kind of thing makes people weird. Jude woke up in Boston before dawn yesterday, she's been running hard on no sleep. She packed, finished up at work, got to the airport three hours ahead of flight time. By the time she finally found a hotel room in Charleston it was five a.m. and she was too wired to sleep. She ended up drinking too much coffee in the hotel dining room, after which she set out on her fool's errands in a rented car. What was she doing driving into Wayward anyway? What was she doing in South Carolina three days before Peter expected her anyway?

He promised to meet her at the airport in Charleston on Friday after work. He wanted to take her to his apartment to see his paintings. Then they were going out to this wonderful restaurant on the Battery. But Jude couldn't help herself. She'd given in to this subversive impulse to catch Peter Benedict in his native habitat. She had to see him before he saw her coming. As though then she'd know what he was really like. Crazy, but she had to see what Peter was like when he didn't know he was being watched. A woman who's crazy enough to fall in love with a guy she met online needs to compensate by doing something sane. She had to find out who was behind the emails and the letters, the voice she fell in love with over dozens of late night phone conversations.

There was that one rushed meeting in Boston; he was there between planes and he came out through Security to meet her in a Starbucks: public place, coffee, plenty of people around in case he turned out to be weird, but there was nothing weird about Peter Benedict. Tall. Sandy hair. Sweet looking, she thought. As he headed back through security she heard herself saying, "If only you could stay!"

"I can't." He took her hands; the line moved forward. As her fingers slipped out of his he said, "If only you could come!"

Now here she was. Not spying, exactly. Jude let herself fall in love too fast last time, and Phil hurt her badly on his way out. This time she wanted to be sure.

So she drank too much coffee in the sunny dining room of her Charleston hotel this morning, and went to the Front Street address just before nine. She wanted to catch Peter coming out on his way to work. She needed to see him before he saw her. Follow long enough to catch him in an unguarded moment. Study him and decide. Was he really as nice as he seemed in their rushed ten minutes or was it an act he used with all the girls he met? What was he like when he wasn't trying to impress? If anything went wrong -- and Jude had no idea what she meant by anything -- she could write this off as a bad deal and walk away. He'd never know. By the time he came to the airport on Friday night for their long-awaited, carefully scheduled meeting, she'd be gone. All those emails and all those letters -- all those phone calls and one brief meeting. I'm in love. Am I in love? Jude thinks so, but she's afraid.

When you've been hurt as badly as Jude Atkins, you go forward, but you go forward with great care.

As expected, she found Peter's name on the mailbox next to the right number on the street where she'd sent him so many letters. It was the last thing that unfolded as expected that day.

First, the place wasn't at all what Peter led her to expect. The snapshot he sent put him in front of a pair of gracious-looking long windows on the porch of a beautiful house. His mailbox was bolted to the frame of a narrow, mean-looking door in a wall that showed nothing to the street. If the inside looked like the outside, Peter Benedict lived in a dump. What's more, even though Jude waited until midmorning, he showed no signs of coming out. Exhausted, anxious and impatient, she got out of the car and went up to the door. It opened as she was deciding whether to knock.

"Can I help you?"

Caught. "Ah. I. Not really, I think."

In the flowered dress and the straw hat, the old lady looked like a fugitive from Gone With The Wind. "May I ask who you're here to see?"

"I was just going." Jude blushed. Why am I falling all over my feet?

She fixed Jude with a military glare. "Why, whoever you are, I've been watching your car. There must be some reason you are parked outside my gate."

"I'm -- ah, a friend of Peter Benedict's? From up north?"

"Oh you poor thing. Come in!"

In the South, Jude had read somewhere, appearances are deceptive. At the old lady's back wild roses tumbled around wooden columns and twined around the railings of the double row of porches that ran across the front of the magnificent old house. Forget the rundown external wall, it was a little like Tara here inside the gate. For whatever reasons, the old lady could not stop blinking.

Jude said, "He does live here, right?"

"He does and he doesn't," the old lady said.

"Um, is this the right place?"

"It is and it isn't," she said. "Oh, don't fret! Off course he lives here but at the moment, I'm sorry, he's gone."

"Oh, no!" Jude sagged.

"Honey, it isn't the end of the world. I know he'll be sorry he missed you but he was -- called home unexpectedly? His mama, well, something came up and I'm afraid there's no telling when he's comin' back."

Exhausted, Jude heard herself losing it. "But I came all this way!"

"You poor thing, all this way and our Peter isn't even here." The old lady patted her arm. "He's gone down to see to the family, at Wayward? Family is so important to Southerners, and Peter's family, well, you must know all about his family, everybody does."

"I'm sorry, I don't..."

"Sure you know, everybody knows about the..." The old lady broke off, patting her flowered front. "When Peter goes, there's no telling when he'll be back, oh, but you're the little girl I've heard so much about, oh dear, are you all right? I'm Violet Poulnot, Peter's landlady, do let me give you some iced tea."

"No thank you, I have to..." She didn't know what she had to do.

"Come on, you look like you could use a little perking up..."

At Violet's back there was a gracious courtyard and above it long porches sprawled, this is more like it; the house was set at right angles to the street so the only thing outsiders would see was a blank wall and that mean-looking gate -- deceptive, Jude thought, like everything else down here. One more reason to study Peter from a distance. See how he acted in his native habitat. "You don't know a man until you know his family," Violet said.

"Oh yes, family really is important," she echoed, looking at Violet over the sprig of mint in her glass.

"In these circles, family is everything."

"Well I'd love to meet Peter's," Jude said.

"They aren't real social."

"Since Peter and I..." She flashed the ring Peter had sent her with the plane ticket -- an aquamarine set in silver filigree. "If I just knew where they lived..."

"Why, I don't know if the Benedicts... It isn't that easy. More tea?"

"After all, we are engaged."

"Oooooh, that's wonderful!" Violet closed knobby fingers on Jude's hand. "You know, he was so miserable after..."

"Ma'am?" What? After what?

"To tell you the truth, I was worried about the boy, but now..." The old lady beamed. "Now you're here."

"And he's gone!"

"Oh, honey, don't look so sad, Wayward isn't the end of the world, you know. It's only a little bit south of Beaufort, why if you wanted to go down there, it would only take you half a day..."

"I don't suppose you have a map?"

Violet's parting words taunt her now. "Why, everybody knows where Wayward is."

Why didn't I insist? As it was Jude said politely, "If I had a map..."

"Wayward, oh, Wayward isn't on any map. But don't worry, the Benedicts are famous. Let me call Peter and tell him you're on your way."

"No, please. I want it to be a surprise."

"Isn't that sweet. Honey, if you lose track along the way, all you have to do is ask. Everybody knows."

Indeed.

The minute Jude left the Interstate, she made a series of wrong turns. In spite of all her stops for directions at trashy gas stations and country stores, every road dwindled from cement to asphalt to oystershell to sandy twin tracks. ("Ma'am, didn't you see the sign?" "What sign?") The last set of directions led her into a cul de sac she thought marked terminal lostness until she ran into a hick kid working on a jacked up Corvette in a roadside clearing and stopped to ask one more time.

He had a Mr. Goodwrench T-shirt and silvered jeans that matched the eyes he turned on her; they were like windows in his head, so clear you could see right through to the Carolina sky. "Wayward?"

"Wayward."

"Everybody knows how to get to Wayward," he said.

"Except me. I'm, ah. From out of state?"

"Up north, you mean." The grin made it clear that nobody else would be stupid enough to take the back road to Wayward, only an outsider would end up here.

"So. If you could just tell me..."

"Ma'am, it's right over there." He waved at a spot where the trees thinned out. "Across the water, over there on the point?"

She shook her head in frustration. "You mean I need a boat."

"Not really."

"Then what?"

The kid said reluctantly, "There is a kind of road. But I wouldn't be using it if I were you because it idn't safe."

"You mean it's impassable, or what?"

"No Ma'am."

She tried not to sound irritated. "Then what's the big problem?"

"I just wouldn't be going in on the Benedicts by the back way, you know?" He studied Jude, the subcompact rental car; maybe he saw her head rattling with exhaustion and her whitening fingers clamped on the steering wheel because he relented. "Look, Ma'am, you don't need to take the causeway. You can make it to Wayward easy on the state road. It's a straight shot from town."

"Town?"

"Yes Ma'am," he said helpfully. "Just go back the way you came and you'll hit town in a couple of hours. An hour more and you're at the Wayward front gate."

"Hours!"

"You might could get there by boat if you could rent one, but." He gestured toward the spot where the trees thinned out; twin ruts led to the water. "Nobody uses the causeway, Ma'am."

"But it's so close!"

"Look, the front gate idn't that far. It's only three hours. If you start now." After a pause, he said, "Besides."

"Oh, please."

"The Benedicts have a nice guy that takes your name and unlocks the gate for you."

"Unlocks!"

"You know how they are about tourists," he said ominously.

"They're expecting you, right?"

"Not exactly."

"Then lady, you don't want to go."

She'd seen this in movies: visions of angry rustics running out of the house with shotguns and hounds to chase intruders over the dismal swamps. Jude said carefully, "Is there something going on that I ought to know about?"

"What?" The kid took her meaning. Too quickly he said, "Oh no, no ma'am."

"I mean, ah. You know." This was awkward but Jude tagged it and filed it under preliminary investigation, which meant she was able to ask flat out: "About the Benedicts? That people aren't supposed to know?"

He didn't exactly answer. "I think they want tourists to be satisfied with the museum in town."

"Museum!"

"All them statues, you know."

"I'm sorry, I don't. I just came looking for my friend."

"You're friends with them?" His expression slid from: uh-oh to oh wow to: amazing; it couldn't settle.

"Yes. No." This was embarrassing. "Well, sort of."

He stepped back. "Well if you know them, and all ..."

"I know Peter," she said. This both was and wasn't true.

"Then I guess it's OK. Look, that track puts you on the causeway, or what's left of it. That out there is Wayward, way out at the other end?"

Jude was afraid the last thing the kid said to her came straight out of some movie; as the Carolina kid watched her drive through the trees and onto the causeway, she thought she heard him calling after her with an it's-your-funeral wave: "But I wouldn't be going there if I was you."

She didn't know how hard it was going to be.

So, fine, she told herself, you're seeing things. It's only hysteria or fatigue or both. Unless. Squinting, she stared at the road, trying to see what had crossed her path and where it had gone. Whatever it was, it had disappeared. This was not going well. Her car was locked into twin ruts like a plastic toy in a roadracing set. If the road crumbled or gave way, then rental car and all, Jude Atkins could drop out of sight. Like that.

So it was her fault, she supposed, for charging in here on her own. But Jude ran her life in a series of checks and balances, and in the cold light of reason, the foolhardy, loving, needy Judith who had logged onto an internet dating service in a crazy attempt to get over Phil, the injured Jude who had found Peter and fallen in love with him sight unseen, was superseded by bright, tough Jude Atkins, who'd been hurt once, and vowed never again. She would do anything to keep from getting hurt again.

She'd even sneak into Wayward by the back way and catch Peter where he lived. Then she could make up her mind about him. She might even do it without his knowing, and if that was spying? Fine. She would be gone before he even knew.

Jude told herself this side-trip to the Carolinas was only a pretext for walking out of her old life. She couldn't keep running around Boston hoping Phil would change his mind and take her back. With or without Peter, she had to forget Phil and move on. If this with Peter didn't work out she had plans to keep going South to Savannah or Jacksonville, where there were plenty of boutiques that could use jewelry like hers. She'd sold out her half of the business to her partner and walked away with enough money to buy in someplace new. Forget two-timing Phil Forrest, and if he didn't measure up, forget Peter Benedict. With or without him, Jude was going to start a brand new life in the heart of the American South.

She had to do something to get past handsome, unfaithful Phil Forrest, whom she'd loved almost half her life.

Phil was her last mistake. He had to be. Brooding, she drove on without seeing. If there was anything unusual struggling across the road ahead, disappearing into the water, Jude wouldn't know. If there was an agonized cry, she would not hear. By the time she passed the spot, Jimmy Daley had disappeared into the water without leaving so much as a ring of ripples or a trace of froth to mark the place.

Then something caught her eye. Unnatural. Out of place here. Shapes protruded from the water like... What? With a start, Jude recognized them before she even knew how she knew.

Lord, those could be...

She saw a series of jagged edges sticking up out of the water, delicate shapes like the spires of a submerged city just clearing the surface in a formation that suggested something huge and unexpected below.

Those look like...

The little convoy of shapes emerged further as Jude came closer and the tide dropped, tips of whatever lay mired in the swampy waters just off Wayward. At first she thought it was a cluster of mangrove stumps jutting, but slimy and overgrown as they were, they looked like something else. She was almost close enough to see.

Oh lord, they are!

Statues. Bronzes, shrouded in slime.

It was creepy at first, frightening and glorious to know what these things were, sticking out of the water like broken branches: here a hand rising in the sweep of a graceful arm, there a wingtip, there a horse's hoof, and although the water was murky and the objects buried in mud, she could imagine the rest, flawed goddesses, broken angels, all mired so deep that no collector would ever be able to find the right equipment to dig them out; "Good lord." Why hadn't she known? She felt head-bashingly stupid. The public monuments. The dazzling bas reliefs. The family of sculptors. The fame. Everybody knows the Benedicts. I'm sorry, I don't. "Oh. Oh! Those Benedicts."

This must be where they bury their mistakes.

...continues


© Kit Reed 2005, 2006.
Bronze was published by Nightshade Books in October 2005.
Bronze by Kit Reed

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