Got extremely pleasant news a few days ago. My club, The Redding Writers Forum, ran a contest over the summer, something new to help the members stay connected in this time of pandemic distancing. Of course, I entered one of mine! I enjoy writing short stories, and I do enjoy a nice competition. Hooray! I won first place!
My story, “Let Freedom Ring,” is appropriate for the season of Halloween, with a little bit of shudder-inducing conclusions. Here is the link to the Forum site, where the story is posted under my name and bio. (The original entries were anonymously posted as they were entered)
You might enjoy going to the site and reading it, but if it’s the end of the day, and you just can’t bear clicking another link, I’ll go ahead and post it up right here.
Let Freedom Ring
By CR Roberts
I wasn’t terribly surprised to be summoned to the bedside of my dying Granny. Rumor had it that she was getting ready to croak, and the vultures were starting to gather. My second cousin, once removed, and her bratty kids were flocking around trying to kiss up to me, and relatives I’d never heard of were coming out of the woodwork. I had a pretty good idea that I would be Gran’s heir and beneficiary, being her only grandkid and all. Mom was in a nursing home, probably never to recover from that stroke, so that left me, semi-famous writer living off the residuals of a few lucky books, as the one to whom good things were about to befall.
I drove the curves of the country road as fast as the Mustang would comfortably take them. With the windows down and the radio turned up, I lazily spun the wheel with one hand while I mused about what I’d find when I got there. I’d visited her mansion before—huge, Southern Plantation style thing—when I was a kid. I always felt like I was stepping back in time, just like the books I liked to read, when I’d cross the wide veranda and step over the threshold into her house. Old brocade drapes hung down over the tall windows, and worn velvet stretched across the seats and backs of antebellum furniture. Probably highly valuable.
The monstrosity had been in the family forever, at least since before the Civil War, but not many of the many distant relatives had actually been inside to behold its fusty grandeur. Few were invited in. But I was. This time I wondered what I would find. “Ghost walked over my grave,” I said under my breath as an unexpected shudder twitched my shoulders. That was one of Mom’s old sayings, and looking around, I wished I hadn’t given in to the habit. I’d just passed under the wrought-iron entrance arch, and a cold dimness seemed to settle over the overgrown driveway. I peered through the hanging Spanish moss and tried not to wince with every pothole as my Mustang scraped bottom.
The car rolled to a stop in front of the entrance. I killed the engine. Dead silence and the humid Southern air closed in around me as I walked up the steps. I wiped my forehead with a pocket handkerchief.
“Granny?” I called. A square stained glass inset depicting plantation life was set high on the heavy wooden door. I tapped on it and peered through the translucent glass panes trying to see movement. I leaned back, lit a Camel, and waited a bit.
“Hello?” I called again, tapping this time right on the glass balls of the white plantation owner, the benevolent god, standing over the smaller colored shards of his slaves. It gave me a perverse pleasure, and I rapped on the glass again.
“Neil, is that you?” A faint voice drifted through the open casement window nearby. “Come on in. The door’s open.”
I opened the door into the dimly lit sepia foyer, pausing while my vision adjusted. In the cool darkness, something brushed my arm. I jumped and almost dropped my cigarette as a dark figure was suddenly standing beside me.
“Geez, Calpurnia!” I said. “Give a guy a little warning! You startled me.”
“Madam is in the parlor,” she said. “This way.” As usual, her deep mahogany features were calm and unruffled. The several times I’d met Granny’s live-in help, she had never been anything but polite and reserved towards me, in spite of my efforts to get her to loosen up, to laugh a little, get a joke, or even become offended by my Aunt Jemima cracks. Silently she led the way to the parlor.
I looked around me, at the grand staircase, as we rounded the corner to the sitting room. I wasn’t counting my chickens yet, but I was inspecting the basket of eggs. Although badly outdated and peeling a bit, the old girl—house, that is—wasn’t in too bad of a shape. Lordy, who’d want to LIVE here? But in this part of the genteel south, it would be prime real estate for someone to come in with a do-over and turn it into a bed and breakfast. I could take a year to go through the antiques, getting the best prices out of the good stuff, and maybe let the other stuff go with the house, sort of “value added.” Hell, I might even want to turn it around myself, sort of a second career.
Granny isn’t gone yet, I cautioned myself, shutting down the excitement that might be showing in my face. But when we entered the parlor, and I saw her lying on the sofa, a little form of bones, parchment stretched over her frame, barely moving with each breath, I thought, Not yet, but not long. Calpurnia turned, her eyes glittering, and I thought she could read me. I lowered my eyes.
“I’ll leave you two alone now,” she said, and drifted off into some other dim room in the mansion.
Granny turned her head to look at me. Her pale blue eyes burned into mine. “Sit here,” she motioned to a frail red velvet chair beside the sofa. I obeyed, easing my body into the broken-down cushion, hoping the perch would hold up to my weight.
“I’ve called you here because I need to settle my affairs. I haven’t long, you know.” Her voice was not thin and weak, as I had expected. It was strong, as I remembered from before, but hoarse and rusty.
I nodded, trying for the best expression of sympathy and affection that I could put on my face. It wasn’t totally faked. I did carry fond memories of her special attention to me when Mom would take me there for occasional visits. She would offer me gingerbread cookies, baked by Calpurnia, and she seemed genuinely interested in my life and my dreams.
“My will is drawn up and filed. There’s a copy for you on the table over there.” She gestured. “You might have guessed, and I’ll go ahead and say it. The whole estate is going to you.”
My chickens immediately began to hatch.
“And don’t worry, it’s ironclad,” she continued. “There are things… legal things, and other safeguards that, well, insure it goes to you.”
“Oh Gran,” I said, “How kind and thoughtful of you to think of me so.” I was sincere, but trying to keep the glee from rising to the top of my smile.
She paused, and it seemed she was struggling over what to say next. “I am not sure I would have chosen you to inherit,” she finally said, “But then, it wasn’t really my choice.”
I was confused.
“So don’t blame me,” Granny finally forced out.
I tried to mollify her.
“Don’t worry, Gran,” I said, “I can handle the place. I’ll make you proud. And the ancestors watching over will be proud too. I’ll do right by the family heirloom.”
She moved her head from side to side, obviously exasperated. “Where’s Calpurnia?” she furtively whispered.
“It sounded like she went upstairs,” I said.
“I haven’t got much time, maybe only minutes. I can sense my spirit drifting, floating out of this world. Maybe that’s why I feel like I can get these few words out.” She pulled out a much-folded piece of paper. “Take it. It’s about Calpurnia. She isn’t what you think.”
I skimmed over the pertinent details.
“This is a manumission paper for a female slave,” I murmured. “Except it’s been copied over, since this actual piece of paper isn’t from the 1860’s.”
“I copied it over, from another copy, which was probably copied from another copy. I have forgotten the count. But the original was from 1843, when Calpurnia was twenty-eight.” Gran looked at me closely, and I gave a little laugh, trying to lighten the intense mood that had settled over the room.
“You mean, Calpurnia’s ancestor.” I said.
“No. Calpurnia was offered her freedom at the death of her former master, OUR ancestor, but the new master refused to honor it, and instead of filing the manumission, he tucked it away in his papers.” Granny paused, “She was the best house slave in the county, they say.”
I couldn’t help a chuckle. “Are you saying Calpurnia’s a ghost?”
But Granny was serious, and she shot a dark look at me. “I don’t have time for this; just listen. You can decide whether you believe it later.” She continued in her raspy voice.
“The new master tried to honor the manumission upon his deathbed also, but his offspring was as greedy for the always-efficient and perfect house slave as his father had been, and he also refused the manumission. Until his deathbed. And so it goes. But you, you have a chance, a chance to make it right. I… I can’t say more. I…” she coughed and struggled to speak. “I just pray you to take this, sign your own name, and before you step over the threshold as the new owner, take this in and have it filed, officially.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What if I can’t find some county official to take it seriously and file this… thing? So I’m not supposed to even go in the house until I file it? How’s that supposed to work, if I’m the executor or something?”
“Don’t be an idiot. You aren’t the owner until you have the deed in your name. That takes a long time.”
I paused several seconds, thinking. “What happens if I don’t file it?”
Her pale eyes, washed-out denim, pinned me to the rickety chair like a bug on a pin. Uncomfortable, I tucked the creased paper into my suit pocket. Granny tried to speak again, but no sound came from her cracked lips. She stared at me as her throat spasmed while she swallowed. I put aside my distaste for touching her and picked up one frail hand, afraid the bones might split her papery skin.
“Don’t worry, Gran. I’ll file it.”
Her eyes shut, and her head dropped.
The coma lasted three days, and the probate lasted a year.
Funny how you think you know people, until they find out they get left out of the will, and then sweet Cousin Emily turns into a banshee, and self-proclaimed “Uncle” Bedford tries his hand at a little extortion. But sure enough, in spite of the lawyers, Granny was right—her will was ironclad. The estate was mine, all mine.
I thought a lot about Granny’s last words concerning her servant. I had a lot of occasions to ponder what she said, and also to observe Calpurnia at work during the long probate period. I wasn’t convinced that she was a ghost slave, and I found it hard to consider her as anything but the best live-in caretaker and help that a body could wish for. I spent some long weekends at the place, making notations for the court and taking measurements of the rooms. Thanks to Calpurnia, the house was cared for, a hot meal was always waiting in quiet peace upon the long dining room table at dinner time, and the linens were always crisp and clean. Once I asked her about her pay, and she just gave one of her rare smiles and said, “Don’t worry, Suh, that’s taken care of already.” I tried other ways to get her to open up about herself, but she didn’t reveal much, just continued to make herself indispensable to the running of the mansion.
Was Calpurnia a ghost? She seemed solid enough, but what did I know about ghosts? Was she a slave? A ghost slave? She never left the premises, and mostly kept to herself when visitors were over. Everyone but me only had a vague sense of her even being there.
If she were a ghost, well, so what? If I had lived back in those days, I would certainly sign off any inherited slaves I received from an ancestor! But did ghosts even suffer? Ghosts weren’t people. They didn’t get sold and have to give up their children and spouses at the whim of a master, or be beaten. I would never beat a slave! Hell, I would never beat a ghost!
I had signed my name to the folded paper Granny had given me, but I was curiously reluctant to fulfill the second part of her last request. I finally admitted the truth to myself; Calpurnia had become too important to me to give up. If she were a ghost, then surely it couldn’t matter by now, and if she weren’t, then she was free to come or go if she pleased. And for now, it seemed to please her to stay, I said to myself. I was being sensitive, I told myself. It really seemed as if she liked being there, that it gave her pleasure to serve and to tend the house. What would happen to her if I “set her free?” Perhaps she would have to hit the streets, if she weren’t a ghost, that is. Or lose her identity in the big dark place wherever ghosts go when they check out. And yes, I played the “What would happen to me?” scenario if I let her go.
She would be impossible to replace.
So there. I decided.
Final deed papers in hand, I stepped out of my mustang in front of the gaudy old mansion—MY mansion—and looked around, inhaling the rich humid air, redolent with gardenia blossoms and mossy aromas. I hadn’t decided yet whether to sell it or turn the mansion into a business, but first thing, those potholes had to go. They were way too hard on my poor little car, and I wanted a good first impression for the investors and realtors. I climbed onto the veranda and stood a moment in front of the door. As before, I followed the gaze of the stained glass white master, benevolent, yet stern, as he looked upon his black property. There was one stained glass woman who could have been Calpurnia, but honestly, most of them looked alike to me. I pulled the much-folded manumission document out of my breast pocket and looked it over yet again. According to my Dear Granny, this was the last moment to change my decision. Why was I hesitating to open the door and go in? This was ridiculous! A grown man getting getting wiggy over a kid’s ghost story!
A little shudder twitched my shoulders and spine. I kept my lips clamped, and the phrase that rose in my mouth stayed there, sour and old. I shoved the document back in my pocket, opened the door, and stepped over the threshold.
Calpurnia met me in the parlor.
“You still got them documents the Missus gave you, ain’t that right, Suh?”
I didn’t ask how she knew about the paper, nor how she knew I had not recorded them.
“Well, yes, Miss Calpurnia,” I began. “And I know that I probably should have done that, and forgive me, I am truly sorry that I did not handle that just exactly like my grandma requested me to. But I just thought it would be best to, you know, have a little chat with you before I made a big decision on that. Because, you see, I’ve sort of noticed how you seem to like your job, and stuff, and you seem pretty happy, or I guess I could say, content, about being here and… stuff…”
This wasn’t exactly how I’d planned my conversation to go. I had some comforting phrases rehearsed, like, “You will always have a home here, Calpurnia, never fear,” but I was getting distracted by the look in her eyes. It was not the calm, neutral look I was used to. It was not a disappointed look that said, Oh Dearie Me! Now I has got to wait for the next massa to get me out of this place! Her black eyes were intense, sort of fiery. Actually, I guess I’d call her demeanor gleeful. Triumphant, even.
I’d been kidding myself when I played around with the idea she might be a ghost. For the first time, I actually believed to my soul that she was a ghost.
Calpurnia leaned back into the red velvet chair. Her proud chin rose, and her eyelids closed to slits as she glanced sidelong at me.
“Ah, Young Suh, I thanks you! Does I feel sorry for you? Hmm, let me think on that.”
Three seconds passed while her lips curled into a sneer. I could not look away. I wanted to. I stared at her, so solid, so commanding.
“NO!” Calpurnia spat, and then she began to snicker. I felt my legs go weak, and suddenly I had to use the bathroom.
“Oh, poor man, you think you got you a slave to make your life nice. But truth is, now I got me my new slave. You mine now!
She went on. “Yup, I shore like it here, ‘specially with the tables turned and all. ‘Cept I need me an anchor, not being true flesh and all. And you the latest one to oblige me in that.”
I was still having trouble understanding.
“Now, first thing. There ain’t goin’ to be no selling, so get that out of your head. No strangers comin’ in. I tell you who can come in. You got a girlfriend? Forget that. You leave it to me who you goin’ to pass this place on to. You think you’ll tell someone what’s up? Try it.”
I attempted to form the words to describe the horror I was feeling, but they were stuck. My throat heaved, and I felt like I was choking. I had to quit trying so I could breathe.
“No, we got lots of years together, Boy. A lifetime.”
The words tolled in my head, a muffled bell that only I could hear.