I’m thrilled that this story was chosen as the winner for 2016 out of 400 entries by the Historical Novel Society . For readers of ‘Summertime’/’Under a Dark Summer Sky’, it is written in the voice of the character Grace, mother of Henry and Selma. The child in this story is Selma in the novel.
Fire on the Water
During the early 1900s, oil millionaire Henry Flagler used his vast wealth to fund his dream of a railway stretching from Miami all the way to Key West, Florida. The project attracted thousands of workers, from as far away as the slums of New York and the Caribbean islands, drawn by the promise of good pay and living conditions.
This is one of their stories.
Florida Keys, 1909
We came from Haiti so Xavier could work on the overseas railway. Sophie was just little then, but she was fascinated by the men working on the tracks. She worshipped her Papa. Xavier was a good man, probably the best man I have known, and I have known a lot…too many to count. When I look back, it seems that was the only time the sun shone on my life. Everything before and after is in darkness. But for a short while, with Sophie growing fast, Xavier in a steady job, and me working as a laundress for the railway workers’ camp, we lived well. Being married meant we got a decent cabin, just a tent raised up on a wooden frame, but it kept us clear of the sand flies, and at least we did not have to live in the floating dormitory with the single men.
The cabin was the best house I ever lived in. It kept the rain out, and was sheltered by coconut palms. We had plenty to eat, bought with Xavier’s pay, and what I grew in our little vegetable garden. There was an orange tree that folks said was over one hundred years old. It had the sweetest fruit you ever tasted. Sophie made a pet of a big iguana who liked to sun himself on the hot sand by the cabin door. She called him Jack. Xavier would take her fishing on his day off. We were happy.
Not long after, I came to realise this was something the universe simply could not tolerate.
I brought the old knowledge with me from Haiti. Xavier complained, he said we were in the modern world now, and the people would look down on us, or worse, if they knew. But I kept it quiet. Out back, behind our cabin, I stored my tools inside the rotten trunk of a poisonwood tree because I knew no one but a crazy person would stick their hand in there. Every day, I prayed to Jesus and Mary, and made offerings to Dunballah, the father, and Erzulie the moon mother, and Papa Guede, loa of death and resurrection, to keep us safe, and well, and whole. And it worked, or as well as anything can be expected to. With the old ways, there is always a price for the loas’ favours. Sophie did come crying to me once, her hand all burned by the poisonwood. She had seen me putting my tools away and gone to investigate. Luckily, I was able to get the gumbo limbo tree sap on her quickly, or she would have been scarred worse. It was her first lesson in respect for the old ways.
Pretty soon, word got around and women started coming to me, wanting things, the usual kind of things women want: more babies, fewer babies, more love, or different love. Less pain for themselves…more pain for someone else. I knew Xavier did not approve, but I exchanged my spells for extra food and supplies we needed, so he kept quiet.
Xavier was killed on a cold Tuesday in February. It had been raining all night. People said the orange groves had ice on them so bad that all the tiny white blossom turned black. Xavier hated the cold. He used to say it was his hot blood. Sophie wanted to go with him that day, but Xavier said no, she had to stay home and help me with laundry. I will always be grateful that she was with me, instead of with her Papa.
They told me it was no one’s fault. All the equipment was wet from the rain. The men’s hands were numb, so when they fired up the big excavator, the one that hacked its way through the coral with a thousand iron teeth, the operator lost his grip. The machine jerked forward, right over my Xavier and two other men. They cut the motor as fast as they could, but there was not enough left of him to fill a coffin. I put away my spells that day.
The railway company set a wooden cross in the ground for him, but they took the cabin, and told us go back to Haiti. Even if I had money for passage, I would never go back there. They fired me from my job to make us leave, said they did not want lone women around to tempt the workers—even though Miss Hattie Malloy made a good living from her floating cathouse, just off the beach.
So I went to Miss Hattie and offered my services as a laundress. I put on my karabela dress and my head scarf which Xavier always said made me look like a queen. Hattie looked me up and down, said nothing for quite a while. Then she said she did not want Sophie around, that she was not running no nursery, but I said I would keep her out of the way, make her invisible. We bunked down in a corner room, little more than a cupboard. I have laundered plenty of filthy linens in my time, but the linens that come out of a whorehouse take some beating.
For a while, we were safe. There was not much space or food, but it was enough. Most of the girls stayed drunk on the liquor smuggled in for the workers. Mr Flagler, he would not have no whores nor booze in his camp, but the men found a way to get both. They gave Sophie little trinkets now and then. Sophie did not complain, and little as she was, she helped as best she could, even when the hot water and strong soap hurt her hands. She seemed to understand it was just us now together. Our home kept floating south, always south, keeping pace with each new mile of track laid, and the men who worked on it.
I could hardly bear to look at Sophie, she so reminded me of Xavier. She was not a pretty girl, but there was something about her, a fierceness burning in her eyes, head held high like she was somebody. As she grew, so did Miss Hattie’s attention. I saw her watching Sophie as the months passed, figuring, weighing up my girl’s worth to her in the future.
I had no intention of letting that happen. My plan was to make enough money to leave Malloy’s service, and set up my own seamstress business on land. I would find us somewhere to live, sew and keep chickens and grow vegetables. A safe place where we could start over, that was all I wanted. I saved everything I could, kept in a hole that a rat chewed in my mattress.
One night, Hattie’s best customer, a railroad supervisor called Mullins, turned up drunk, when his regular girl was off with the clap again. Miss Hattie said she could not disappoint him, surely even a savage like me from the islands could understand that? She said not to worry about old Jim Crow, he only had a say in how things went on land. Out here on the ocean, she said, a man was free to indulge his tastes. She gave Sophie one of her best smiles, but before she could speak, I told her I would do the job for her. She said to put on that crazy creole dress for him, so I did.
As soon as Mullins came into the room, I recognised him, from his chalk white skin and bright green eyes. Xavier used to talk about him, said both blacks and whites avoided him because of his vicious temper. I knew then that the spirit of Congo Savanne was in him…he stank of pure evil, like something dead left in a hot room. I got to study those green eyes of his real good. Each time I closed mine, he slapped me and said, ‘Look at me, girl.’ His eyes were just like the ones on Sophie’s iguana. Savanne grinds people up like they are corn, and so he did to me that night. He tore my beautiful kerabela dress, which upset me more than anything else. I told him I would take it off for him, but he would not wait.
It was that night I used the spell, for the first time since Xavier’s death. I cleaned myself and then took Sophie ashore in the little skiff and we made a mound in the sand, surrounded by palm leaves and a sprinkle of oil, to summon Ayezan, punisher of those who prey on the weak. And it was not just for what he did to me, but for how he treated men like my Xavier. It was the first time I let Sophie watch. Her eyes never left me. I could tell she was taking it all in, putting it away somewhere, for later.
The spell took a while to work, so long I had almost forgotten about it. In the meantime, Hattie used me more and more. I still did the laundry too. My little pile of money grew, and so did Sophie, and I noticed Hattie noticing. I put Sophie on her mattress outside the door each time I was with a customer, until it was over. She always looked up at me when I opened the door, with those all-seeing eyes of hers. Never said anything, like she understood.
Ayezan took care of Mr Mullins on a miserable hot day a few months later, when all the girls just sat in their rooms, shades drawn, fanning themselves. None of the other men had the energy to visit us, but Mullins never missed a week. I caught a glimpse of him as he went in with Rosie, because I had my monthlies. He was even whiter than usual, and sweating, but then so was everyone else. A few minutes later, Rosie came running out screaming, said his face had turned all purple and blue, and there was foam coming from his mouth and nose. They rowed him over to the camp doctor, but it was too late. An infected mosquito bite on his leg went bad and poisoned his whole body. I gave thanks to Ayezan that night.
Soon after that, my monthlies stopped. Lord knows, I was careful, but my precautions were not enough. I tried everything, but neither Ayezan nor any of her sisters or brothers could stop the baby growing inside me. I just knew I had to hide it as long as I could from Hattie. Any girl with child was hustled back to shore quick as a flash. Hattie only tolerated Sophie because she worked with me. I could not say whose it was…not like it was a secret, but because I did not know. At that time, I was working so much that it could have been any of a dozen men.
But it seemed that, for once, fortune had turned her fair face to me. My money pile inside the mattress had grown along with my belly. I had almost enough for our new life, I had only to work a few more weeks, and keep my secret. Then we would be free, free to start again. No more lying under stinking, grunting railroad men, no more scalded hands, with skin all shrivelled by the carbolic. I told Sophie, one of the first things I would make her was a new dress. The one she wore every day was too small and full of holes.
The fire started in the kitchen late one night. The flame beast devoured Hattie’s place, its blistering breath tore the shack to pieces. All was chaos. Girls ran around the deck screaming. There was no time to grab anything. I had Sophie in my arms when the side of our room burned away and we fell into the dark water. Sophie and I clung with Rosie to a trunk. Sometime in the night, Rosie drifted away. Sophie and I eventually washed ashore a mile or so down the beach, coughing and exhausted in the grey dawn. When we looked out to sea, the familiar silhouette of Hattie’s was gone.
And with it, my money for our new life.
I just lay there on the sand, surrounded by burned timbers and waterlogged dresses, too tired and heartsick to move. There was no hope for us, not on land or water. Too spent even cry, I figured it would have been better for all three of us to go down with Miss Hattie’s place. Then the baby started kicking hard, like he knew what I was thinking, like he was trying to tell me he wanted to live even if I did not.
I looked over to where I left Sophie on the sand and she was gone, so I scrabbled to my feet and started yelling for her. She had not moved far. I found her kneeling beneath some coconut palms. She had put some shells in a circle, with an assortment of leaves and bark in the middle, and she was chanting nonsense and flinging her hands around. I thought maybe she had hit her head when we fell into the water, but then I realised what she was doing. My little one was casting her first spell.
I sank down beside her in the sand. We had landed on an empty stretch of beach, nothing but palms and sea oats and scrub pine in sight, north or south.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked her. We needed food and shelter and water, and here she was, wasting time. ‘Come on, we must get moving.’
The rising sun shot pink streaks into the grey clouds. It would be hot soon.
‘I sayin’ thank you, Mama. You learned me, it’s polite to say thank you, when you get somethin’ you asked for.’
‘What in heaven do we have to be thankful for?’ Although she was my child, there were times when her mind went places I could not follow.
She turned her eyes on me, those eyes that had seen so much already. Too much. ‘For the fire, Mama,’ she said. ‘I give thanks for the fire.’