Camel City Sunday Short Story – The Yellow Dress

By Jan Wharton

 

storm
storm

Anna pushed herself back beside the grandfather clock in the front hallway until she felt the coolness of the stone wall against her back. Two of the older servant boys ran past her, carrying large planks they had harvested from the floor of an upstairs bedroom. They headed toward the front door, closely followed by Mayta, the head servant who was shouting directions.

“Make way child. Out of the way,” Mayta yelled to Anna. ”You’re about to be run down by all these preparations. Go on into the kitchen now. The storm will be here soon and it will be a big one. I seen the bees swarming all over this morning, hundreds of them.”

Mayta stood with her hands on her hips.

Anna pushed herself away from the wall and plodded toward the kitchen.

“Hurry up, Miss Anna!” Mayta called over her shoulder as she continued out the front door.

As soon as Mayta was out of sight, Anne returned to her spot in the shadows beside the clock. From here, she watched as piece by piece the bones of the house were moved to the outermost shell.

The winds had begun to whip the looser boards at the windows, and the heavy footfall of Anna’s father as he rushed down the stairs punctuated the thump, thump, thump of the boards. He stopped across from the big clock and peered through the doorway that opened outward. The heavy wooden door was held open against the winds by a large iron cylinder that had once been used as a roller in the the sugar mill that stood behind the house. The mill now lay as empty and dormant as the cane fields around much of the island.

Mayta often told Anna stories of the strong men, Negroes like Mayta, but slaves, who planted and harvested the fields of sugar cane. Other slaves fed the cane into the heavy rollers of the mill and drove oxen or donkeys round and round to crush the cane into sugar. Mayta’s father and grandfather had worked in the mill as slaves, and then as paid laborers for the few years the sugar mill survived after they could not longer be owned. These men now made lives for themselves and their families from the rocky soil of Saint John. But the only purpose this cylinder of iron now served was to hold the door open against the winds of the coming storm.

Anna’s father surveyed the main door and the front rooms. He had not seen Anna in the shadows beside the clock. In the year since her mother died, she felt he hadn’t truly seen her even when she was standing right in front of him.

She had been sitting at a table on the verandah working through math equations left for her by her tutor when her father told her the news. Mayta sat beside her peeling potatoes. Anna was surprised to see her father as he usually was away from the house during the day.

When he came out to the verandah, he stopped directly in front of her, but he looked right through her. His eyes were so wide in contrast to his expressionless face, that she turned to see what was behind her.

“Anna, your mother has been in an accident,” he said.

Mayta set down the potatoes, rose from her seat, and placed her hands on Anna’s shoulders.

Anna’s mother had traveled by boat that day to Saint Thomas, a larger more populated island just across Cruz Bay. She made this trip once a month to buy food and supplies. One of the servants, Rena, had accompanied her.

“What they told me is true,” Anna’s father said.

“What’s true, Mr. Stewart?” Mayta asked.

“When Rena returned from town today, she was crying and hysterical. Two men were with her. They told me a beam had fallen from the main pier as your mother and Rena were pulling away from the dock. The beam hit Laura over the head and capsized the boat.”

“Is she all right, sir?” Mayta asked.

He paused and bowed his head. “She’s dead.”

“No,” whispered Anna, tears welling in her eyes. “Please, no,” and she looked to Mayta for some sign that she had misunderstood.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s not true,” Anna said. “It can’t be true. You would never act this way if Mother was dead. You’d be different. You’d be sad!.”

He sat down beside Anna and patted her hand. Seeing that he was trembling,Anna started to sob. He rose and left her to cry in Mayta’s arms.

Only during the wake, when her mother lay in a closed white casket in the parlor, did Anna see tears in his eyes. She listened in the night for him to cry like she cried or to call out for her mother, but she heard nothing from his room, not even the usual sound of his snoring. He seemed much like an empty shell abandoned by a hermit crab, hollow and immobilized.

A loud thump from a rogue panel brought Anna around, and she was again aware of the cool wall against her back. She heard many voices in the kitchen now. Neighbors from three of the houses that lay closer to the water had come up to the old plantation house which sat almost on top of the hill. This house had survived one hundred years of storms, and most expected this storm to be no exception.

“Anna, where are you?” Mayta called from the kitchen. “Anna!”

Anna’s father stepped outside. Anna followed him just to the doorway.

Although it was early afternoon, the light outside had given way to a swirl of black and bright. On the horizon, the tiny space between water and the cloud-burdened sky glowed with a light that seemed to shine up from the depths of the ocean, deep blue and electric. The air hung heavy, almost wet, and the wind moaned with the strain of moving it.

“Anna!” Mayta yelled from behind her. “I’ve been looking for you all over!”

Her father whirled around. “Anna! Go back inside with everyone else.The hurricane is enough to deal with!”

Anna did not move. He grabbed her shoulder, and her brown eyes met gray as he lifted her chin. “Now Anna, I need you to stay out of the way. I don’t want to see you out here again.” He had not spoken so directly to her since her mother’s death.

“Yes, Father. I understand.”

Mayta caught Anna by the bodice of her yellow dress and pulled her inside. “Come girl! Don’t make him no madder with such a hurricane brewing on the outside. I told you to go to the kitchen. A twelve-year-old girl should mind better than that.”

As Anna and Mayta passed the dining room, they saw the young son of a neighbor digging with a stick in bare earth.

“Oh no!” Maya cried, pulling the child away. “I told him over and over, ‘Son, only the boards from the pantry and the extra bedrooms.’” Mayta covered her face with her hands. “Anna, please take this boy to the kitchen and send my son back to me.”

Anna directed the boy toward the kitchen, but as soon as they were out of Mayta’s sight, she sent him ahead. She then hurried through the living room to the drawing room in the front corner of the house. Her father and several others would stay outside during the storm to keep watch over the house and water levels. She knew her father would station himself on this side of the house as it was the farthest downhill and the most vulnerable. Her Uncle Robert and two neighbors manned the other three corners of the house.

Anna looked outside through cracks between the boards that had been nailed over the windows. The light glowed though the cracks in the boards, projecting ghosts of each gap onto the floor. She moved from window to window until she caught sight of her father, his long black coat whipping and wrapping around him in the wind.

As the edge of the hurricane reached the island, it sent soft rain across the roof, like an invitation to play, but it soon crescendoed into a steady, angry rhythm. The wind whistled and blew branches and sand against the house. A crash of thunder shook the ground. Yet somehow through all the noise, Anna could hear the tick, tick of the clock. The time between each tick seemed to increase as if the gears of the clock would soon stop like the gears of the sugar mill had years before.

How Anna wished time had stopped before her mother died. She remembered the three of them in this very room, her mother and father behind her on the settee as she performed a Cantata she was learning to play.

“Please sing along,” her father said to her mother.

“Let’s just listen to Anna,” her mother said. “I’m really not in the right frame of mind.”

“You worry too much” her father said.

“You don’t understand, Peter,” her mother said quietly.

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Of what?”

“Of us. Of our family. You have not faith in me!” he cried.

“That’s not what I meant. That’s all you think about. Why can’t we just let it go, and leave this place.” She realized that Anna had stopped playing. “What I meant to say was that because you don’t play, Peter…” She patted his leg gently. “You don’t understand that it’s difficult for to play a a new piece of music while someone sings.”
“Very well,” her father said, “deny me one source of joy that remains.”

“It’s okay, Mother. I can do it. Please sing for Father,” Anna said.

Her mother nodded, and Anna began the piece again. Her mother sang beautifully as always, though it was a bit quieter usual.
By the time Anna and her mother finished their performance, tears filled her father’s gray eyes. He hugged and kissed them both and left the room. That was the last time Anna heard her mother sing.
She again looked through the gaps in the window boards. Darkness like midnight had fallen over the afternoon. Lightening flashed across the sky, and Anna counted the seconds aloud, “one thousand one, one thousand two,” until she heard the next clap of thunder. The eye of the storm was close, and with it would come a brief respite from the winds and rain before the other side of the spiral finished what the storm front began.
Through sheets of rain Anna made out the shape of her father, who had wrapped his arm around the column of the porch to keep from losing his balance. He lifted binoculars to his eyes and looked across the bay. He yelled something to whoever was at the opposite front corner of the house. Anna put her ear to the window. She heard only one word, “surge” and knew the news was bad.
Her father let go of the column and held to the outside railing as he made his way to the partial shelter of the porch. Once he was there, he leaned against the window where Anna stood just on the other side. She wondered if he felt her there, guarding over him while he guarded the house. Before her mother had died, he often called Anna his angel. But he no longer called her that, or anything at all. He treated her instead like the window that separated them now, and she wondered what he looked through her to see.
On Christmas Eve, Anna had given him a bouquet of lilies she and Mayta had gathered from the hills around the house. Her mother had grown many varieties of lilies in her garden, which now lay untended at the request of her father. Mayta told Anna the lilies they gathered were the children of those her mother grew spread by the ocean winds across the island.

Anna found her father in the drawing room and gave him the flowers. He took them from her, closed his eyes, and held them to his nose to breathe their perfume. They stood silently for a moment until he patted her on the head and said, “Thank you, Anna. I need to be alone.”

“But it’s Christmas Eve,” Anna reminded him.

“It is,” he said. “our first Christmas Eve alone.” He sat down in the leather chair that had been her mother’s favorite reading spot.

Anna left his there.

As evening fell, Mayta lit candles in all the windows of the house, but he asked that those in the four windows of the drawing room remain unlit. He spent all night in that darkness.

Anna no longer expected an early Christmas morning celebration with gifts from Saint Nick. But she was disappointed when by afternoon on Christmas Day, she had yet to see her father.

She finally asked Mayta where he was. Mayta just shook her head. “Still in our mother’s chair,” she said.

“Oh,” Anna said.

“Please go upstairs to your room and get ready for dinner. Guests will arrive soon.” She hugged Anna. “You’ll find a few things up there for you. Happy Christmas, sweet girl.”

On her bed lay a hand sewn doll she knew Mayta made for her and a white box tied with silver ribbons. Inside the box was a dress of sunny yellow, her father’s favorite color. “With love, from your father,” read the card. It was written in the familiar calligraphy of the dressmaker in Cruz Bay where her mother had often taken her to buy clothing.

Anna put on the dress, which fit perfectly, and took special care to braid her hair and tie it back neatly.

When she came downstairs, she was happy to see her father had come out of the drawing room. He was talking to her Uncle Robert in a corner of the living room. Robert and his family had come for Christmas dinner. Anna knew the conversation was not a good one by the way her father held his hand upon his chin.

She tapped him on the shoulder, and when he turned, she pirouetted. “Do you like the dress, Father?” she asked.

“Yes dear, it’s very nice,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen you wear it before.”

“But I thought…” Not wanting to embarrass him in front of his guests, she stopped herself. He must have bought it early and forgotten, she reasoned. He looked now as if he’d already forgotten she was in the room.

“You look beautiful, Anna,” her uncle said.

“It can’t be hopeless,” her father said, taking up the previous conversation.

“It will be easier to make a living on Saint Croix,” Robert said. “There are more people there, and supplies are easier to get. We’ve made up our mind to leave after the first of the year. I wish you’d come with us.”

“I will not leave Saint John,” her father said.

“But Peter!”

“I will die here and be buried beside Laura. And that’s my final decision.”

“But how much longer can you go on? Nothing’s really working.”

“I will not leave her. I cannot.” he said.

Anna wondered if he was thinking of her mother now, during this storm. She looked through the window again. A large stream of water had formed. It ran down the hill beside the house, pulling small trees and brush from the sandy soil as it flowed. She scanned the area for her father. Finally she saw him crouching by the corner of the house digging in the earth with his hands. Rain pelted the sandy soil so hard it flew into the air and covered her father’s black coat in a film of gray. Again, she heard him yelling to the other men but she could not make out the words.

He inched his way along the wall of the house until he left her sight. Like the windows, the front door had been shut and secured with boards on the outside, but someone was now prying the boards away. Soon excited voices flew through the stifling indoor air like bats.

Anna crept into the hallway as her father, uncle, and another man came through the front door. Again, she hid in the shadows of the clock.

“The foundation is cracking,” she heard her father say. “We need more sandbags on the inside walls.” Anna had watched earlier as sand bags were made outside the house and then passed man to man until they were inside and all the way down the stairs. The three men made their way to the basement door.

Her father went first down the stairs. “Oh dear God,” he yelled, “it’s completely flooded.”

“Then it’s too late to save,” Robert said.

“The mill,” her father said, “we must get everyone to the mill.”

Anna remembered what Mayta had said about the foundation of the mill being built on rock that goes straight down to Hell. “The mills will stay long after the rest of us our gone,” she said. “They will be a reminder.”

The men ran to the kitchen in the back of the house where the others were gathered. Anna knew they would soon realize she was missing, but she had to save at least some memento from her too short time with her mother.

She climbed the stairs to her room. From her jewelry box she took out her mother’s wedding ring, which Mayta had given to her after the funeral. She slipped it onto her finger.

Suddenly the house moved as if struck by an earthquake. Anna tumbled into the dresser in front of her. The mirror shattered, and a shard of glass cut into the palm of her hand.

She sat stunned and watched the blood drip from her hand onto the skirt of her yellow dress, the Christmas gift he had forgotten, now faded from the many times she had worn it since. She untied the thick ribbon that circled her waist and pulled it until the seams that attached it to the dress gave way. She wrapped the ribbon around her hand to stop the bleeding.

Anna crawled to the window. Her room was just above the kitchen, and the kitchen door was closest to the mill. When she looked down, she saw a neighbor man holding tight to the outside frame of the kitchen door. Another man held his hand, who held the hand of her Uncle Robert. Next came her father leading the chain. He was wading through the river of water washing down the hill from the higher elevations making his way toward the old mill.

He grabbed one scraggly bush after another to pull himself forward, and behind him, one by one, each man and woman become part of the chain, some with children hanging onto their neck or torso. Finally her father made it to the mill and grabbed hold of the heavy wood frame around the door. Uncle Robert was there next and traded places with her father, who then turned and made his way back down the chain of people until he was back to the house.

When he returned to kitchen door, Mayta said something into his ear. He looked around wildly. Anna knew he was looking for her. She banged on the window above them.

“Anna!” her father called into the dark house.

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the yellow dress

Anna yelled to them from the window, but she could barely hear herself over the winds, the rain, and the creaking of the house. She called to them one last time. The house shook again. She looked around for something heavy and saw the stone lamp that sat beside her bed. She threw it toward the window. The glass shattered, and the force unfastened a board nailed to outside and sent it cascading down with a splash into the pool of water that rose up from the basement.

Her father looked up at her bedroom window just as a flash of lightening ripped through the sky and set the roof of the house on fire.

He held one hand out toward his daughter as if he could reach her from there and motioned for her to wait.

The wind blew the rain into the broken window hitting Anna’s face like switches, and black smoke had begun to fill the air. She dropped to the the floor and crawled toward the door.

She heard her father’s familiar footfall on the ground floor and still crawling, she managed to find her way out of the room.

“I see you, Anna,” her father called from the bottom of the stairs. And in an instant, he swept her from the top landing of the stairs up into his arms and ran back down, through the hallway, and into the kitchen where the chain of family, neighbors, and servants, still held tight to lead them to the safety of the mill ruins. were

The house moaned and heaved. Anna’s father lost his balance and both he and Anna were thrown forward through the door.

Strong arms caught her father as he held tight to Anna. The fall and coldness of the water shocked her, but she soon realized they were being pulled toward the mill and one by one each member of the chain reached safety. She wrapped her arms around her father’s neck. “I’m holding on to you,” she said.

“And me to you,” her father whispered. “I will not lose you too.”

Anna looked back at the house. It was rocking like a ship in a storm, and she saw it start to slide.

 

wharton
wharton

Jan Wharton is a freelance writer who specializes in parenting, social science, and nonprofit marketing. She also writes children’s stories and short fiction. She lives in the West End with her husband, three sons, a floppy eared dog, and an elderly cat. Visit her online HERE or follow her on Twitter @jcwharton.

Jan comes to CCD from the Winston-Salem Writer’s.  Find out about this vital local organization HERE.