from Indigo Landing

by Jean Sexton


Indigo Landing, South Carolina; September 2011

There’s a storm coming, Dora Church thought, looking out toward the water. The dark pines that sheltered her cabin didn’t know it yet, and neither did the gulls probing the muddy shores of Duck Creek that wound its way, snake-like, through the whispering acres of waist-high grass that lay between her and the sea.

Not even the sun knew a storm was coming as it swung lower toward the horizon, resting its lower half in a few wisps of peach-colored clouds in an otherwise clear sky that was just beginning to fade toward aqua in the east. Brown pelicans were still skimming the surf in a relaxed formation and the breeze was warm, with none of the freshness preceding a blow.

There was no sign of the storm to anyone but Dora Church; nevertheless, she knew it was coming. She knew it in the same way she had known many things in her long life. She felt it in the palms of her hands, telling her whom to touch, and in the soles of her feet, urging her sometimes to flee, sometimes to stay firmly planted where she was.

It was said of Dora Church that she could tell with one touch whether a sickbed would become a deathbed, and whether a child was just beginning to flutter in the tiny ocean of a woman’s womb. Other things were said, as well, and some were whispered, but only Dora knew the truth of it all, and only in her feet and hands, which could not lie.

Storm’s coming, Dora thought again, and her feet ached to run away from it, but she stayed still, rubbing her palms around and around each other with a dry, papery sound.

Storm’s coming and I can’t get away.

Chapter 1

Charleston, South Carolina; September 2016

Why do some people’s lives intersect with yours and stick, while others simply slide past you without leaving a trace?

Ruth wondered this while she and Omi waited at the Charleston Marina. Beyond them, boats of all shapes and sizes bobbed listlessly in their slips. Sails hung limp with little hope of a breeze. The whole marina seemed to be holding its breath under the sweltering weight of the afternoon sun, watching the two women who hovered on the dock, strangers to the rhythm of the winds and tides that ruled this floating kingdom.

They were watching for some sign of the ferryman who was to take them to Indigo Landing.

A week had passed since Omi’s unexpected call to Ruth in New York, asking if she could possibly leave work on short notice to meet her in South Carolina where Omi had been asked to take care of some family business. Old business, to do with her great-grandmother.

“Have they found her then?” Ruth asked. Several years earlier, Dora Church had disappeared. People on the island had seen the lamp lit in her window, a sign that she was in safely for the night, but the next day no one could find her, and the community had not seen her since.

“Not that kind of business,” Omi said briskly. Though she’d known Omi since childhood, there were family estrangements that Ruth couldn’t keep straight, and she figured Omi had told her about her great-grandmother’s disappearance only because she knew it was a mystery that Ruth would find intriguing.

“It was a man named Lee who called,” Omi continued, “a developer. He said he had some things he wanted to show me. Parts of the property, I guess. I didn’t really think there was anything to see besides a few houses that have been there forever, but he’s started work on the resort already.”

“Is that where we’ll be staying?”

“No. There’s not much more there than a sales office right now, he said. That’s part of the reason he wanted me to come. A complication with the property deed I think. Apparently he had a verbal agreement with my great-grandmother, and he finally got her to sign something, but then, when she disappeared, everything was put on hold.”

Omi was perfectly capable of dealing with the situation, but there was something in the tone of her voice that sent Ruth scrambling. After making sure her staff could handle an unexpected absence, she booked a flight for Charleston.

Now here she was, barely keeping up with Omi, who was charging up and down the dock, peering through designer sunglasses for any boat that might be considered a ferry. Last night, a message arrived at their hotel, written in careful script on the back of a business card for Sharon’s Ferry Service: “Dear Miss Naomi, I will be pleased to ferry you home tomorrow, at four o’clock.” Mr. Lee had arranged this, they assumed, and Ruth appreciated the courtly wording of the invitation, but Omi had fumed at the scant details, especially the lack of a phone number.

“Maybe somebody here knows him,” Ruth suggested, giving Omi a task on which to focus. They approached a man who was loading a jumble of boxes and totes onto the deck of a sailboat. With a bright smile that Ruth knew hid her aggravation, Omi asked if he knew where to find Sharon’s Ferry Service.

“Well…” The man, who looked as if he’d stepped out of an ad for sporting equipment, rubbed the stylish silver stubble along his jaw. “If you mean old Mr. Sharon, he does make a run into town sometimes, but I haven’t seen him in a while.”

Omi thanked him, but the lines bracketing her mouth tightened, and Ruth saw that she was about to push the man harder. Ruth was used to feeling like an outsider. She had learned early in life that patience and lack of complaint could make her almost invisible, giving her greater freedom to observe others and process information before reacting. By comparison, Omi was always ready to speak up, to question, to make things happen.

“Wait.” Ruth held up her hand now to stop Omi’s impatient words, turning toward the faint burbling of what might be a diesel engine coming toward them.

A low aluminum craft rounded the far line of moored sloops and continued its slow approach in their direction. A single figure was visible at the helm, guiding the boat past pilings posted with “no wake” signs that marked the lane of travel.

“Come on.” Ruth began walking back toward the bench where they’d set their bags. “I think this must be our ride.”

There was a safe place inside herself where Omi went in times of trouble. She had gone there earlier when she saw Mr. Sharon’s boat and pictured herself bouncing across the ocean in a flimsy tin pie pan. She didn’t know where the fear of water came from, but it had always been there, lurking in her polite refusals to attend friends’ pool parties and her lack of enthusiasm when her ex-husband had wanted to take a cruise.

“Breathe in Jesus, breathe out sunshine,” a long-ago vacation Bible study teacher had taught her. The teacher’s voice was always with Omi in her safe place, reminding her to breathe through the trouble, whatever it was, like enduring the past hour bumping along over the water.

Mr. Sharon had said something to them, motioning toward what looked like a stretch of beach toward the left. Omi just kept breathing, focusing on the texture of the flotation cushion between her and the sharp edges of her metal seat.

The open water began to give way to a world in between liquid and solid, with coarse tufts of green-gold grass rising higher than the sides of the boat. Mr. Sharon throttled the engine back to barely more than a throbbing idle, nosing carefully through what looked like marshland.

“Duck Creek,” Mr. Sharon called over his shoulder, indicating the weed-choked channel ahead. It was indistinguishable—to Omi—from all the others, but she remembered having heard that name before, maybe in one of the few mentions her grandmother made about the odd, isolated spot in which she’d been born.

A weathered dock came into view, and without apparent effort, Mr. Sharon cut the engine and wheeled toward it, drifting past the pilings to land the boat nose first into the muddy bank. Coarse vegetation crushed underneath and scraped like fingernails along the hull.

After tying off the boat to prevent it drifting, Mr. Sharon stepped back to where Omi sat, unmoving.

“Miss Naomi,” he said, reaching for her hands that were still clutching the cushion, “you’re home now. Let’s get you settled.”

Knowing that Mr. Sharon was assisting Omi and eager to see what lay beyond the dock, Ruth stepped into the bow, gauging the distance she needed to jump to keep from sinking into the mud. Not nearly as far as her distorted shadow cast by the lowering sun behind her, wavering across the grass. She put one foot on the rail and shifted her weight, preparing to launch.

As if it had been holding its breath, Duck Creek gave a hissing sigh, lifting the boat on an unexpected gurgle of dark water, propelling Ruth over the side to land with a soupy splat on hands and knees.

Scrabbling crab-like on the bank, she floundered up to see Omi leaning over the rail, sunglasses pushed up on her head and all traces of the storm that had been brewing earlier erased by concern for her friend. And something else—Ruth suspected laughter—trying not to show itself.

Mr. Sharon bounded over the bow a moment later, reaching for her elbow to steady her. Close up, Ruth was drawn into the maze of wrinkles and lines on his face, like an old map, refolded a thousand times. Shivers danced along her arm at his touch, and his grip tightened perceptibly as if he, too, felt something pass between them.

“Who are you?” he seemed to ask, but his lips never moved.

After Mr. Sharon helped Omi off the boat, he led the women up the bank and through the sandy scrub toward the darkening tree line. Ruth noticed how he was politely shouldering Omi’s bag, since it was larger and heavier than hers, but he seemed distracted. Almost as if he’s listening for something, she thought.

A house sat in the shadow of the trees where the last straggles of the marshy grass gave way to sand.

“Your great-grandmother’s place,” Mr. Sharon said, indicating the house and the frowning pines beyond. “Your grandmother—that was Miss Amelia—was born here.”

“You knew my grandmother?” Omi asked.

“Knew her well,” Mr. Sharon replied. “She was something else. Always asking questions, even as a little girl.”

“Like you,” Ruth murmured to Omi.

“Here we are,” Mr. Sharon said, preceding Ruth and Omi up the steps onto the porch.

Floorboards creaked underfoot as he moved to the door, fumbling with something at the handle.

“Not many locks on the island,” he said, “but most folks have a latch to keep the door from blowing open.”

It was dim inside now that the sun had given way to twilight, but Mr. Sharon flipped a wall switch and a lamp sprang to life, chasing the gloom to the corners of the room.

“We got the electric back in the 70s,” he said with a touch of pride. “Some didn’t take to it, at first, but I think it made things easier.”

It took only a few moments to show Omi and Ruth the layout of the small, narrow house. The room they’d entered was open all the way to the kitchen; Ruth thought it must be what was known as “shotgun style.” Halfway back, stairs disappeared into the dark, indicating the presence of what was probably a pair of bedrooms under the steep peak of the tin roof.

“Folks been in to make sure things was ready for you,” Mr. Sharon said. “Put something special in the icebox, too. Nobody never went hungry in this house.”

He began taking his leave of Ruth and Omi despite their invitation to stay and share in whatever the icebox might offer.

“Miss Naomi,” Sharon said, pausing at the door, “you maybe don’t know how good it is to have you here after all these years. And your friend, too.” He nodded in Ruth’s direction. “But keep close to the house now that it’s dark. Can’t never tell what’s in them woods at night.”

He hesitated a moment longer, then spoke directly to Ruth. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t believe I caught your name.”

“That’s my fault,” Omi said. “I forgot to introduce you back at the marina. This is my friend Ruth Giovanni, from New York. I guess we’ve known each other just about forever.”

Mr. Sharon nodded and Ruth smiled at him, feeling the weight of his gaze running over her face. Was he looking for something particular? Memorizing her features? She had a flash of the same odd, tingling sensation she’d experienced earlier when he’d helped her up from the bank of Duck Creek.

Something stretched out between them as surely as if she’d walked through a strand of spider web she hadn’t known was there. She didn’t offer him her hand after Omi’s introduction, and she was relieved when he turned to go.

Omi shut the door behind his departing figure, pulling in the latch as he’d shown them earlier.

Upstairs, as Ruth had suspected, were two bedrooms with a small bath tucked in between them.

“Cozy,” Omi said, looking at the twin bed covered with a clean, faded quilt.

“Look at the handwork in this quilt,” Ruth said, hoping to interest Omi in the details and distract her from the lack of amenities. Neither of them had checked their phones since they arrived, but Ruth doubted there was much of a cell signal in this isolated place, and even if there were, she wouldn’t be surprised if the sheets of tin on the roof blocked it.

“It’s old,” Omi said, running her hands across the soft cotton, dimpled with tiny stitches, each pulled through by hand. “And there’s a pattern, but it’s not traditional.”

Both women had a love for handmade crafts, with Ruth engaged by the stories woven into objects and Omi interested in how form and function created an intricate matrix of desirability and financial worth.

“And this iron bedstead would be worth a fortune in Atlanta,” Omi noted. Ruth was sure Omi imagined it as a daybed in her sunroom, covered with the same quilt. “I wonder if all these things belonged to my great-grandmother.”

Later, after indulging in the wonders of the icebox and watching the moon wash over the sand from the shelter of the porch steps, Omi and Ruth went back in the house.

Ruth started up to her bedroom but Omi hung back. “I want to light the lamp in the window for a little while,” Omi said. “For my great-grandmother.”

For the first time in years, a light burns in the old woman’s window. How is that possible?

Hands—not mine, yet bent to my will as surely as bone and blood—drove the spark out of her with no more effort than snuffing a smoldering candlewick. She’s gone, I tell you, but some part of her spirit—her power—is there.

The last of that line left this place long ago, running for her life, carrying secrets down deep inside her. I thought she’d been lost, dragged down into nothing, like me. I feel the old words rising in my throat, clawing their way to the surface, forcing themselves into my mouth in a rumble of rage that etches my tongue with acid, spilling out to tangle around me in clinging spirals of poison.

Trapped and bound to this spot by treachery and half-truths, I can only look out through others' eyes, see what they see. I felt the life fly from that old woman, but now it’s back—a burning coal heaped on me, blinding me to everything but my rage.

Smoke shifts and swirls behind the bubbled glass surface of an apothecary jar on the mantel. I can still hear the children chanting as if they were just outside, swaying hand in hand in the dark, calling down the power that binds me here, between their world and the one in which I once belonged.

I raise my hands to the spirit jar, seeing fingers small and strange to me, nails varnished a harlot’s crimson. My own were twice as wide, burned to saddle leather by the sun. Strong hands for a day’s work and more, strong enough to have carried my family’s name forward into all the generations that should have come after mine.

But these tiny, pale hands are all I have, and they’ll have to do.

Jean Sexton is an Asheville, North Carolina, native who believes Thomas Wolfe was wrong—you can go home again. A graduate of UNC-Asheville, Jean currently serves as editorial manager for The Biltmore Company. Her writing has appeared in literary magazines including Appalachian Heritage and Wild River Review.

About Indigo Landing—This excerpt is from a Southern novel of friendship, family, and fate through which a thread of magical realism is woven.