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Garden Fog

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Everything we aren't expecting comes suddenly, and so did she. And suddenly, in the quiet, warm voice of a friend I had thought I would never see again, Mary had ripped the foundations of my world out from under me, until my beliefs were as foggy as the cold white mist that had cloaked us both. Now I stood shivering in the cold rain and listening to the wind whistling through the desolate land. Reality was reality. I breathed slowly in and out, and felt perfectly calm, for the time being, at least. I stood still, and I remembered. Memories danced in front of my eyes, mixing and cascading with the greys-blues of rain and wind and sugarcane at twilight.









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A tingle had seeped into me last night, and not even a steaming cup of honeyed tea had soothed it from me. I had leaned back in my chair and stared at the novel I was reading, and had seen only shapes. Not words, but the shapes of the individual letters, staring up at me from the page. Not even the absence of John, the man I was married to, gone to who knows where from the plantation all of yesterday, had smoothed my nerves.

That strange sensation awoke me at dawn, so I fought my way into my whalebone corset and the one gown of mine that lacked the usual frivolous lace trimmings, and slipped outside-and into an oven. The air shimmered. Growing up in Lousiana, heat didn't phase me much, so I let my bare feet, and that growing bubble of anxiety in my stomach, guide me down the hot, dusty road around the back of the mansion. I smiled hello's to the women I passed along the way, and they looked up from their work and waved back to me, calling me not "Mistress Sofi", or "Ma'am," as they did when John lurked nearby, but Sofi, with genuine smiles on their weathered faces. They knew I wasn't hiding a whip anywhere about myself, and that neither did I possess a tendency to fly into drunken rages. The endurance of these men and women, forced into slavery, never ceased to humble me: the sheer, iron wrought strength of their determination to keep going, the spirit that was revealed to me with their every piercing glance. Their songs and chants had filled my ears many times among the buzzing fireflies on warm summer nights, and cold winter days while they huddled in their shanty-homes. They laughed and married and had children, knowing that they might be torn apart, sold away from their families forever.

Dust powdered my feet and the hems of my skirts, and sweat slicked my skin under my baking dress. My hair was disheveled and sticky. Looking up into the azure sky as I glided along, I thought a strange thing. The sun, high above, beat down upon the yellow grasses of the lawns that sloped away from the path, and I thought, "The color of blood. Why, it's just the color of fresh blood." Now that I considered it, the thought itself was not strange, but the nature in which it had disheveled to me. It was as if someone else had placed it in my head and made me think it. I wiped the notion from my mind and continued to wherever I was going, mopping absently at my forehead as the minutes passed.

The dirt road transitioned to cobblestones, and the white gates of the Garden stretched out before me to either side. The mansion was only just in sight to my left, a gaudily elaborate building sprawling across the distant hilltop. I tried to distance it from my thoughts, as well-but the woman, the terrible smiling woman I became around him lurked in my thoughts, like a shadow just out of sight, and I knew I would be forced to become her again as soon as he entered my line of sight. To him, I was ignorant, a helpless little wench he had taken under the glorious, almighty spread of his wings the hour our parents had had us meet, 16 years ago, on our wedding day. I had to be careful, or I might carry my little act so far as to start bowing and scraping at the ground before his feet the next time I saw him.


"Ah, my dearest wife!" John spat. There he was, in his expensive garments, now stained with sweat and fine champagne, and twisted and wrinkled so that it appeared that he had slept in them. More than once. The smile was a cruel rictus, the coldness of which I could see glittering in his eyes. He scratched his unshaven cheek. "Where are you gallivanting off this hour of the morning? Get yourself home and get working!"


I just stared at him for a moment, an all-too familiar taste wetting my tongue. It was the taste of hatred. My fingers instinctively stroked the warm metal cross that hung around my neck. It was a sin against the Lord to hate. Even so, I could not dam the overwhelming rush of feeling. I wrung my hands, which I did often in his presence. He probably thought he made me nervous. The truth was that my anger at him sent to my fingers the itching, prickly desire to cause him pain. My thumb found the cross. To slap him at the very least, I reprimanded.


I began in a meek tone. "John, I-"


"Can't you do anything? No wonder your worthless parents were so eager to marry you off when you were only 15 years old!" John sneered at me and roughly cupped my chin with one filthy hand. I ground my teeth beneath my pleasant little smile and forced myself to remain still. "You're worthless! I know it now, and they knew too. You're lucky you ended up with someone like me, who takes care of even a vain harlot like you! You should be grateful I even agreed to marry you!"


His words ignited rage within me. I would be grateful to him if he had ever treated me like a woman, or acted as if I was a human. I would be grateful to him if he didn't insist upon keeping slaves when he knew the very idea of slavery tormented me to no end. I would be grateful to him if he had at least treated his slaves kindly. Instead, he beat them and struck a living terror into the hearts of the men, women-even the young children- flailing them with a heavy whip that must have made blood spurt from their backs. I clung to an appearance of outward tranquility. My lips felt like two cold, dead fish, but I drove that terrible smile across them again. "Oh, believe me John, I am eternally grateful for what you have provided me."


He snorted, smirking in what seemed to be self-satisfaction.


He sauntered away. "You just remember that, dear."


Inside the white gates, a menagerie of vibrant plants, now in the full ripeness of their beauty, burst from the black soil on either side of me. Painting the scene around me were rosebushes, mallows, day-lilies, cone-flowers, and many multitudes of lushly colored flowers, the names of which I know not. They stood in well-tended, methodically arranged rows. My stomach twisted when I remembered who was responsible for that. The garden was a sea of endless flowers, drenching the land in color. It was a paradise, a green, watered shelter, a fenced-in spot of life in the middle of the parched and yellow hills, and the dusty crops that screamed for water. A sickly-sweet perfume of lilacs and roses carried to me on a hot breeze. The cobblestone path meandered down the middle of the circular garden, and curved off in either direction every so often, allowing me to access the gazebo that stood off to the left, erected in a sweep of marigolds and Indian Blankets.


I stepped into the open air structure. The oaks and smooth-hewn cuts of elm whispered to me, retelling their stories, remembering the nearby forest where they had once thrived. I breathed in the familiar scent, but today, the calm I usually felt here evaded me. My apprehension grew, making the insides of my arms itch. I twisted a long lock of my hair between my palms, which suddenly were clammy and cold despite the sweat that still dampened my scalp and trickled down my neck. That was the last moment of summer.


Gray light, filtered through a thick, chilly shroud of fog, slanted across the dark, wooden-beamed railing and to the floor. It all happened suddenly. A knife-edge of cold sliced through the simmering air, and the white haze twined its ghostly arms around me as if it had a will of its own. Claws of ice clenched my stomach. I shivered as goose bumps pebbled my skin. The bath of perspiration instantly evaporated, replaced with a sheen of icy moisture. The bright hued flowers appeared pale and lackluster through the fog. The sun itself seemed to have died. It had turned white and icy, a heatless ball radiating clear, sharp cold rays from its pedestal in the blank sky high above. It was winter, on July 9.


A warm voice, deep for a woman's, echoed in my skull. I recognized it instantly.


"Sofi."


I swallowed. “Mary, you told me to look for some truths. The things you wanted me to know… I think, I think I know why. Mary-” I steeled myself. Mary Blunt had been born on this plantation 25 years ago, and since my arrival here, I had always known her to be a kind and intelligent woman-one I had gotten along well with and even taught to read and write a little. She had been a friend. As she watched me, her dark eyes pierced my soul. I willed my lungs to fill and my eyes to remain locked into hers. My last words tumbled from my lips. “I found out how you died.”


It was said and done, and I couldn't help but wince, but the dark skinned woman before me did not react quite as I had expected. A smiled touched her lips. It was full and peaceful, but nothing if not melancholy. She wore a simple white gown, but it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The color was so pure and bright that it strained my eyes. A faint crystalline glow radiated from Mary herself. She looked down on me with a benevolent patience from where she floated in a curtain of fog, a few inches off the ground. She looked real enough to touch, but she had…wavered…when I had tried to do so last time.

For the last week, while the pale dusty moon dangled from its place in the night sky, I had tossed and turned in my sheets for hours, sweating with the nightmares that flashed before my eyes as soon as they closed. I saw her little boy, Jeremiah, six years old, with his big brown eyes, and her husband, William. Though I knew selling her meant meant she would have to be separated from her family, I had pacified myself by focusing on the fact that she was well-or as well as a slave could be-and alive at a plantation nearby, happily, owned by a family I knew treated their slaves well. I had believed his lies, been fooled by his cover-up. When I thought about it, I wondered why he had even bother to hide what he had done from me. He knew I would do nothing. It grated me terribly, but it was true. I never did anything back. Knowing what he had really done to Mary deepened the hatred I bore toward him, if it could be deepened, and made a proud love rise in me for Mary.



“Sofi, I’ve been watchin’ you from Heaven, and I know you think you’ve got everything figured out. But you haven’t. How I died is only the first part of it." She descended to the ground gracefully, and then in her eyes flashed a certain urgency, the type that is just-contained panic. I wondered what was wrong. She continued, and her soft, soothing voice belied the worry I had glimpsed in her eyes a moment ago. "Sofi, I have things to tell you, frightening things since you’ve never heard them before.” I drew a deep breath as she continued. That tingle, that anxious gnawing in my stomach, intensified. It came to me that I'd had it before, but I couldn't recall when, or why. Only that it felt wrong.


Mary's next words were soft. A killing blow is always best done softly.


"Sofi, we're in a novel."


The cold wind screamed around me, sounding like some animal screeching in despair. I couldn't see my home from here. I'd always been able to before. The world was cold and silent, but for the wind. The wind and the small, shallow sounds of me breathing.


"A novel?" I heard myself say. My fingers felt numb as they clutched the cross. It was as cold as ice.


Mary reached a hand out as if to touch my shoulder, then withdrew it slowly, looking pained. I wondered what Heaven was like, and if she could touch people there.


"Sofi, have you ever felt...like things weren't quite right? I didn't notice, until I got to see the finished work. It's a long book, and we're all in it. Little Jeremiah, my William, everybody. Every move you make, every decision you think you're making, he is writing about. He is our maker. Our actions fill the pages and make up the plot line. He adds to it all the time, and sometimes he changes things. If you've ever blacked out, and I know you have, it's because he's gone and erased something from the story, and replaced it so something else has happened." My mind flew through all the many times I had fainted, and I leaned toward Mary a little more. Waves of electricity pulsed through me. "You don't realize it, because you forget what was, and remember only the new memory. But sometimes, it is possible to remember a little bit of a memory he erased, if you think back hard enough to when you passed out." She paused, and I concentrated on a specific blackout, as she had said to. I gasped. A memory burned in my mind, clear as day. Myself, speaking to a man I did not know, a man I have never seen in my life, and yet...there, in the memory, I was talking to him happily. There was no doubt about it; the author must have altered the storyline so that our paths would never cross. Knowing this, a new torrent of questions crashed through me.


Mary continued. "Sometimes you can notice when he's accidentally changed something, too, or when he's forgotten something. Sofi, your mansion isn't there now. You might think you just can't see it from here, but that's not true," My mind raced at that near echo of my thoughts, "You wouldn't be able to see it from anywhere right now. It doesn't exist, at least for now. He's probably just focusing on a certain scene near here, and he's forgotten that it should be part of the setting. The plantation is the setting, but not the only setting. The book has lots of characters, and some of them live in far off places, like Europe, and Africa. Not everybody even lives in this time period. They're still alive, in the story, but they live in a separate kind of world, of a different time. Everything you see is real only in the author's mind, and yours." Mary's voice softened. "I don't know if that makes it real or not, Sofi- I mean, that if you think it's real, it is. I would like to think so, but I don't know everything." She continued on at a more rapid pace. "When you cry, the stroke of a pen captures it; when you saved to me, it was one of your turning points, making you who you are now, who the author wanted you to be. It was an important chapter in the story. I don't know how long the book lasts, but it seems to never end, and it was so long...I couldn't even reach the beginning, or the end. Sofi...I don't know how to explain this part, but...that feeling, like something is wrong, I used to get it sometimes. It happens when you're about to do something, and the author hasn't decided how to write it yet. At least I think so. Sometimes I wonder if it happens when you're doing something for yourself, and sort of...taking control of the storyline. Or if he is making you do something out of character. All I know is that whenever I did something...strange, strange, like I wouldn't normally do, I got that feeling. And sometimes it would guide me to places...like it wanted me to see something. Sofi, I saw the book. You have to believe me."


Each second seemed to last for an eternity. A numb feeling started in my fingers and spread to the rest of my body, all the way to my toes. My awareness of the world extended to only the few things that my downcast eyes latched on to: an ordinary grey nail that stuck out of the floorboard a quarter of an inch or so, and could so easily be hammered back into place, if only someone would take the time to do so. A little flower petal rested nearby it, by the base of the railing that encircled the gazebo. It was a pretty little thing; it was pink, and dewy from the fog, and looked soft, like a half-folded blanket. It was odd, but I couldn't seem to think of exactly which plant it had come from. I couldn't think of which plant at all.


"I think I'll pick it up, Mary," I whispered. "It looks so awfully lost. But I can't seem to think of which plant it came from. Isn't that the oddest thing? You wouldn't happen to know, would you, Mary? No, why would you? Maybe...maybe there's a book on it in the library. There are lots of books in there, and don't you think some have to be about plants? I know I go in there too often for John's taste, but he's not here again, and I do so love to read... read my...novels. They're always so...they're always so real, I, I..." I tried to swallow a lump in my throat, and when I spoke again, my voice sounded as frail and cracking as snapping twigs. "The wind is so strong now. It feels...Mary, it feels just like it's cutting through my bones. I should go...I have to...I..." My words died before they reached my mouth. I couldn't keep my emotions at bay any longer. The tears that had been fighting to break free streamed down my icy cheeks. In the silence of the fog, with Mary's understanding eyes upon me, I stood lifelessly and cried. All of my beliefs, my passions, everything I cared about, seemed to shrink. The things I had been fighting for my entire life seemed as insubstantial as the fog. All feeling drained from me, leaching away with my tears. In their place gaped a hollow void.


"Sofi, do you believe me?" Mary whispered. "I wouldn't lie to you."


Silence hung so heavily in the air that it was almost palpable. Was it real; was any of this real?


"I know," I breathed. "I believe you."


The wind stopped abruptly then, exactly as the last word left the tip of my tongue. A relieved smile spread across Mary's face, and she glanced skyward, folding her hands momentarily. When the smile faded, a shadow of panic skittered across her pure, glowing features, and the dark wells that were her eyes. It showed itself only briefly, but it made my heart lurch. Mary leaned closer to me, then told me what I had to do.

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The next day, I slipped out of bed before dawn. John's side was empty already, the sheets still ruffled and lying in disorder, and his boots weren't at their usual spot by the bed. He was gone. Mary had said he would be. I changed from my nightgown and stole out the front door. Today, I left my cross on the nightstand. On my way out, I grabbed a large knife from the kitchen and hid it beneath my thick woolen shawl.


I glided toward the barn, trying to appear unhurried. Servants rose early. My feet turned up cool clouds of dust along the path. Mary, you had better be right about this, I thought. I could still hear her words in my head.


"Sofi, my son is going to die.That's what the author wrote. That's what's in the book. You're going to help him get rid of the body, the-the body of my baby." I had protested, but she had told me that it wasn't my fault, that it was what the author intended me to do. "John will kill him tomorrow, with the same whip he killed me with. He'll be drunk, so he won't really mean to take it as far as he will...but, Jer will die. He will punish him to death, for doing nothing, nothing but being in John's sight when he is in a temper." Mary looked at me, and her tone hardened. "You have to stop it from happening. I can't watch my child die. I can't!"


At that moment, I had wanted nothing more than to reach out and rest my hand on Mary's shoulder.


"How can I stop it from happening if the author already wrote it?" I had asked softly.


She had whispered back, "You can, Sofi. Just because he's written something, it isn't final. Just because it's in the book, it isn't definitely going to happen. We are in control of our lives. We can make our own choices; we have freewill, Sofi! He only provides the guidelines. We are still in control, if we try hard enough."


She had told me what I had to do, if I wanted to change the plot line of the novel, if I wanted to alter my own actions in the story. We had devised a plan, and I knew exactly what I had to do. Now I only had to carry it out, without getting myself or Jeremiah killed.


I stepped through the gaping black entrance in the front of the barn. The smell of hay and other smells, decidedly less pleasant ones, filled my nostrils. Wind howled through the spaces in the roof and walls. Just as she had said I would, I heard someone screaming. Before I heard the second voice, a voice that was shouting angrily, I knew it would be John's. I withdrew my knife and grasped the handle in my fist, pointing it forward into the blackness. My hand shook. The noise seemed to be coming from further away, so I slunk deeper into the barn. The animals were already out grazing. I passed stall after empty stall, my apprehension growing.


By the time I reached the other end of the barn, red beams of morning light were shining through the dusty air from the tiny window near the roof of the barn. The screams filled my ears. I knew whose they were. I sucked in a final breath and rounded the corner to enter the stall.


The lamp-lit scene I entered was one from hell. Even after Mary had given me the details yesterday, I wasn't prepared for what I saw. John stood with an arm raised above his head, poised to swing down the whip he clutched. On the ground below him cowered a tiny boy. Wet slashes criss-crossed his dark, bare back, and his face shone with tears.




"John, stop!" I screamed.



He lowered his arm slowly and turned toward me. The boy cried out in desperation, clawing at the ground in anticipation of the next blow. Orange lamplight flickered in his eyes. He leered at me as if I were a strange creature he had never seen before.

"What are you doing here?" he growled. He divided his glare between me and the child at his feet.

My anger began to simmer, but I smiled, stroking the knife behind my back. This would be the last time I would have to play at being his good little wife.


"Why, John, do you think I meant to sneak up on you?" I gave a horrified gasp at the prospect. "I just came to tell you that I've got some breakfast waiting for you on the table. You got up awfully early today, my dear, and I didn't know if you'd eaten yet."


"Well, well, well," he sneered. "Come to your senses at last and started to appreciate me, have you? Thank you very much, dear. I think I'll finish punishing this brat, and then have some of that breakfast you made. How sweet it was of you to think of me." He studied me coldly for a moment, and then my husband turned back to the slave boy and raised the thick leather whip again. The boy made whimpering noises in his throat.


"John, wait!"


This time, he ignored my cry, and brought the whip down to the boy's back with a sickening crack. He howled and dissolved into miserable sobs, but remained still, waiting for more. I slid the knife around and held it in front of my stomach. My anger was a white hot rage. My hands were steady now.


"John, dear, I asked you to stop. This boy did nothing wrong."


"What did you say?"


"I said, this boy did nothing wrong." I took a step toward him.


He laughed. "Are you trying to scare me, sweetheart?" He started to lift his whip. "I don't think-"


The color drained from John's face when he saw the metal of the knife glinting in the lamplight, squeezed hard in my fist. I closed in on him.


"Are you going to kill me, Sofi?" he murmured, flashing his teeth at me. He nodded to the boy below him. "That would be a nice show for the little darkie here. But you can't do it, can you?" His mouth twisted into an expression of mock sympathy. Shadows played across the angles of his face-the strong jawline and shapely contours, which would have been attractive, had they been on another man. "You can't even kill me! Oh, Sofi, I'm so sorry, but you just don't have it in you. Who will take care of you when I'm dead? How will poor, worthless, little Sofi get along when she's murdered her faithful husband?"


My anger tried to control me. It burned through every fiber in my being; it should have ignited the air. I had to do just as Mary had instructed. Without warning, the knife flashed through the air. John cried out in harmony with the boy on the ground, whose upturned eyes were focused on us.


I made for his whip and hurled it to the ground. One end was slick with blood. The blade sawed through the whip quickly. It wasn't half as thick as it looked.


"What do you think you're doing?"


In one swift movement John had yanked me to my feet and shoved me against the wall. He pinned me there, clutching the neck of my dress and leaning forward so that his elbows pressed into me uncomfortably. The stench of alcohol tainted his hot breath. The orange fire from the lamp reflected in his eyes.


"Let me go, John," I said calmly. I didn't resist him. I wouldn't give him any satisfaction by writhing and hopelessly trying to escape. From the corner of my eye I could see the boy sit up, intent on the two of us. He wouldn't try to run. John stood too near to the doorway; he could never escape that way. He would stay here, and everything would go as according to plan. As it had to go.


"Why should I?"


He pressed his elbows more forcefully into my stomach, and I couldn't help but cry out. He leaned into me, and brushed his lips across mine roughly. I suddenly yearned for my baking soda and toothbrush. He smiled in that self-satisfied way he had. I could see it in his eyes; he thought he had won.


"Because I won't kill you if you do."


Using all my strength, I burst from the wall and knocked him to the ground, and stood over him with my knife. The boy scurried out of the way, but I blocked the entrance so he couldn't leave. The plan. John worked to regain his breath as he sprawled there on the hay, flat on his back, staring up at me wildly. His mouth worked, but no sound came out.


I smiled down at him, running my fingers along the jagged edge of the blade. This was the man I had obeyed for 16 years. This was the man that had haunted my steps during daylight, and lurked in my nightmares after dark. This was the man that I bore so much hatred for. I stroked the knife.


I made my voice pleasant. "What were you saying, John? Something about how helpless I am?" I nodded cheerily. "I thought so." I reached a hand out to the little boy, who stepped slowly toward me. His brown eyes were nearly as wide as they could go. He took it gingerly, as though unsure that it wasn't a snake that might suddenly decide to bite him. I smiled at him reassuringly, patting his head gently, and together, we walked from the stall.



"Oh!" I shouted over my shoulder as we walked. "John, I forgot to tell you! Jeremiah here and his father will be heading up North, as will I. I'm still 'eternally grateful for what you've provided me,' as I believe you put it. You gave me the chance to find out who I really am. And who I am is someone that doesn't belong with you. Good luck, and goodbye, my dear. I hope you can survive without me."


All he could do was gape at me and mutter curses. I brandished my knife at him when he attempted to rise one time, and he fell back to the ground, scowling. I didn't have a thing in the world besides myself, my beliefs, and my little metal cross. I didn't know where I would go, or how I would get along. I wasn't even sure if my world was real, or if I was. Despite all that, at the moment, I couldn't have been happier. Laughing, Jeremiah and I walked from the barn into the sunlight, his dark little hand clutching mine.
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