Just after I turned eighteen, just before I left home, I killed a man. I told myself it was an accident, but no one in town would have believed me—not with my reputation, nor his.
There was no way I was going to hang for his death, so I chucked the lantern down the hallway toward the back of the house and watched for a moment as yellow flames raged across the wooden floor and climbed the walls. At the time, the whole thing made perfect sense. I figured before anyone would notice the fire, gather help, and haul in water, there would be nothing but a heap of ashes and smoke, and I'd be long gone.
If you were to ask me to pinpoint the day my life changed, I'd say it was my tenth birthday, August of 1918, the same day my father died.
Eight years later, I buried my mother, the darkness taking her as the wind carries off the flicker of a candle. She said she loved me, but at that point in my life, after I'd learned the truth, I didn't know what to think, and since I couldn't ask her, I guess I had to figure it out for myself.
Being poor didn't begin to describe us. Mother worked, but Finley owned the house, the land, and just about everything else, and at the time, I thought he was a kind man. After she died, I found a tin box full of the lies that my mother had kept hidden under her bed; All the things you don't want anyone to know. All the secrets kept hidden while you are alive. All the things that can destroy any sense of faith or respectability or unconditional love. But because of my curiosity, I opened the box and released the Pandora curse that filled all the evil things of her life, exposing the lie she lived, the truth of my father, and Finley and what he did. If I had never known what happened, how just one man destroyed my family, how he murdered my father, perhaps my life would have been different. Then I think of where I would be today. If I'd never left that town, I would have never met Savannah or your mother, and our lives would have never touched. I suppose that hope rebounds within each life of tragedy and brings us to the right path of our existence, providing us with our purpose.
Still, this made me realize, everyone lies, and, in the end, everyone gets what they deserve, and Finley, without a doubt, got his.
Since the only thing mother had left me was a whole lot of nothing left to lose, I did what I had to do and walked out the front door as flames began to spread through the tiny house and looking back, it was in that moment that I understood, death is sometimes the perfect substitute for life.
My years have taught me that lies, even ones you tell yourself, hide nothing, and if you lie long enough, the deceit becomes the truth you will carry within your heart until it kills you.
I could go on about the other crap; voices through thin walls, over the shoulder looks, deceit from someone you should be able to trust, or the conflict she'd held within her heart that, I believe, killed mother faster than any cancer, but I'll save that for later. I have covered most of my life in the journals on my desk, and they are yours to use as you wish. It's my hope you will learn from the mistakes I've made and the undeserved absolution I've received that showed me, love, although rarely perfect, is a gift that you can only receive when you open your heart to the truth.
It's a sure thing that you are confused, so it's my hope you will see, through these journals, how we all ended up in this particular place. The last thing I expected after all these years was to find my son.
I folded the letter, placed it between the pages of his journal, and turned off the lamp. I tried to sleep, but my restless mind thought only of how quickly life could change course.
My family and I had arrived in Brantôme earlier in the week. We visited my father as we often did and enjoyed the area where he and Savannah had retired. We did not intend to bury him on this trip, but as Lucas Colby would've told you, you can never predict the destination of your journey.
I awoke sometime later, knowing it would be hours before the sun would rise. The hearth fire at the far end of the bedroom created a ginger glow across the elaborate ceiling as shadows danced above my bed, entertaining my tired eyes. A soft radiance in an otherwise dark room reflected the surroundings as sleep escaped me. I examined the intricate artwork thinking of the gift found within the hands of the aging master, skills lost through the ages, along with the art, hope, and romance. I was restless and with a slight headache.
My wife slept, and I watched her and thought of how fortunate I was to have found my love so easily when some men try all their lives, searching for the perfect love. She clutched the bedsheet in her slender hand and pulled it closer to her chin. I slid my cover down and lifted myself from the bed.
I stood and raised the sash at the window, hoping to relieve the stale air in the warm room. A light breeze drifted across a marbled sill, and silk curtains billowed as cool air chattered the wooden blinds. Looking through the black of the morning, I closed my eyes and inhaled the taste of morning dew and thought, darkness has a scent all its own.
I stared into the distance, and soon, it seemed, night faded as the sun peeked over distant hilltops, and I watched as the sky transitioned from starry black to shades of red, orange, yellow and blended into the cerulean heaven.
The sound of rushing water beyond the surrounding stonewalls drew my attention. It splashed against the water wheel and delivered a souvenir memory reminding me of perhaps, how life itself works; lifting, pulling, and turning while the ever-changing tide of the river ebbs without thought to patience or circumstance. Turning away from the window, deciding to go downstairs, I recalled how he was always the first to rise.
The hinges of the oak door creaked as I pulled it open, and my wife shuffled and pulled the sheet closer to her face. In the quiet of dawn, passing the library, I remembered the endless joy and laughter created from his engaging stories that always ran deep into the twilight hours as we sat near the warmth of the fireplace. Time advanced quickly and without notice as it does when one is enjoying occasions occupying mind and spirit.
The aroma of fresh coffee, which welcomed me each morning, was absent. A cold pot sat alone in a kitchen lit only by sunlight streaming through the paned window. Typically I would've found my father sitting on the portico overlooking the banks of the river, as if in anticipation of a guest long overdue from a journey. I started the coffee and returned upstairs, peeked in on my wife, still sleeping soundly.
Entering his room, I sat at his desk and called to mind our last conversation.
I had entered his room after a soft knock on his bedroom door. He'd appeared to be asleep upon large pillows against an immense headboard, his hands folded across his stomach. He opened his eyes as I approached and turned his head.
"Running a bit late this morning, are we?" I had asked.
"A bit. I'm a little more tired than usual."
"Well, we have no plans for the day, so just rest, and when you are ready, ring me downstairs. I'll bring you coffee." I stood, and his hand touched mine.
"We had a good time last night, didn't we?"
"Yes. It was a lovely evening, and the children enjoyed it as well."
"Do you have a moment?" he said, and I knew there was only one answer.
"Of course. What is it you would like?"
"I want to tell you a story."
"You've told us many stories," I said. "Yet, there is still another?"
His expression changed, and his eyes wandered to a place in the past, beyond my view.
"I had a dream last night . . . about Savannah. She reminded me of something I hadn't told you. Not that I haven't wanted to, it's just that—"
"I can't imagine what it would be," I said. "You have shared so many stories."
"True, but this story is different. It's the story you don't know; how all of this ends."
The lines on his face, like a map of life, told a tale few have lived, and I knew it was my time to be quiet.
"Take this advice with you if I teach you nothing else," he said. "Never let deceit stay within your heart and allow a lie to come between you and the one you love. What you hold inside your heart will define you. It will define your life." His eyes glistened, like emeralds in a treasured life, showing happiness and yet, some regret as he continued, "I have lived my life believing everything I did had a purpose. Before those times, before I met Savannah, the world bowed to me. I had wealth, power, and everything a man could want. I was that man before Savannah. Now, I am not. What the world saw in me was only the shell of the man. What Savannah saw in me was the man I could be. I refused to listen to her, broke the rules, made my own, and treated people who loved me without compassion. I have paid for those deeds many times."
I realized this was his confession, truths from a man believing his time would soon pass. I felt a tinge of discomfort knowing of secrets not shared but understood. Perception is an odd companion. As you grow up, innocence allows you to believe so many things as truths only. In time, you may discover things are not as they seem.
My mother and I had shared many talks; her love for Lucas was evident. Together, the gazes shared between them, something in their eyes one rarely sees in a relationship, told of a secret only they knew. Now, I was beginning to understand.
"There is no reason why you should share this with me, Lucas," I said to him.
"There are many reasons," he said. "Some of which you know nothing of." He continued as if this conversation must persist without close. "Over the past few years, we have talked of a great many things. There is still so much you don't know about my life, Savannah, and even your mother."
Trying to evade the unavoidable conclusion, I said, "We have time. We have today, tomorrow, and even next week before we leave."
"It's nice to think so, but I am an old man and afraid tomorrow may not come." He paused for a moment and then said, "I have mostly finished my journal, and I would like for you to have it."
He raised his arm and pointed to five brown leather notebooks neatly stacked on the corner of his desk. I stepped across the room to look over the books.
"Sit down," he said. "No need to stand."
His chair held me like embracing arms as if coming home from a long passage. I felt oddly at ease as if I belonged behind this desk. My eyes scanned the mahogany desktop covered with mementos, traveled recollections of his life. His typewriter was at my right, the keys worn and faded, a picture of Savannah capturing her spectacular beauty, a picture of Lucas and my mother from more recent times, and a hand-carved wooden tray holding a Conway Stewart pen.
"Your mother bought that pen for me," he said.
"I've written a few stories with it."
"I bet you have." I placed the pen back into the tray.
"When she gave me the pen, she had placed a note in the box, it simply said, 'Lucas, Write your story.' So, I did, and the results are the journals before you. All my sins, all my confessions. All you need to know about our lives together and how we ended up in this particular place."
I turned the pages of the first journal; it reflected a life not experienced by many. I understood this was to be his gift of eternity.
"This is your life?"
"You could say that."
I read the first few pages of his journal and looked up to see my wife, Maryann, standing in the doorway.
"Good morning, men," she said as she entered the room. "Am I interrupting?"
Lucas smiled and said, "Good morning Maryann. No. No interruptions. I was just giving Luke something to read."
She walked to the desk and stood behind me. "What are you reading?"
"Lucas wrote these journals," I said as she scanned the pages.
"This is wonderful, Lucas," she said after a few minutes of reading over my shoulder. "Will this be your next novel?"
I felt the warmth of her hand on my shoulder and heard the casting tone of her voice as she broke the silence, whispering my name. I looked up to see the glisten in her eyes telling me the end of another story, and the last chapter broke my heart.
In a quirk of fate somewhere around 1903, Martha, my grandmother, from whom my father inherited his writing curiosities, wrote in a letter. It said that "staying in Thurmond, West Virginia would've spelled an early death," and yet, she and my grandfather died before the age of forty.
Recent from shaking off the innocence of youth, William Colby, my grandfather, expressed determination to make a new life, unwavering in his conviction to be a good father to carry the family name to a better future.
Martha's letters said that the Colby clan made Thurmond home for over a century, and everyone knew only two ways to survive the hills of West Virginia. The honest way, carving an existence from the coalmines—the families joked of your first toy; a chunk of black gold dug from deep within Capital Mountain—or the dishonest but lucrative making of moonshine.
William didn't want their children to follow the death walk of a coalminer's life or the unlawful dangers of running white lightning on moonlit nights through the Appalachian mountainside. He and Martha shared dreams and long talks while planning their future as the evening sun fell beneath the tall ridge leaving a hint of twilight for hours.
"I hear Ohio is full of land that's rich with crops of corn, hay, and barley. It would be good work, Martha, and safe," William said.
"I'd like that, but what about our kinfolk here?"
"Them that ain't dead's making shine in the hills. Coal mining is dangerous, but that stuff'll kill you. And if the law gets you, that there's a whole bigger trouble yet."
Moving to a better place offered the chance to find a better life not consumed by the darkness and dust of a coal miner's existence. More importantly, Martha could see the dangers of moonshine and the effect on the families of Thurmond. She just didn't know those problems would follow them to Ohio.
I've never met any of my relatives. Both great-grandfathers died in the Red Ash Mine collapse and forty-six other miners, all of them friends or relatives. Not much later, there were six more mining accidents—the last one killing many relatives, and then death knocked once again, taking my great-grandmother.
William made his way while working the mines. Intelligent, strong, and tall, he worked hard and saved his money. With the last days of winter closing in, the snow melted from the lower elevations father hitched a small, covered spring wagon to the back of the family mule, gathered Martha and the few possessions they owned, heading north toward Ohio.
Martha said the narrow mountain trails of West Virginia cut along the steep sides of the gorge. Deep ruts formed in the hard-packed ground making for a rough ride, and the steepness of the mountain trails proved a challenge to the old mule. During weeks of travel, my grandfather would stop and find work along the way.
Each morning the rutted path continued. In the distance of grassy fields, stumps from timber long since felled looked like sentinels guarding their path. Back home, their field of vision blocked by high mountains and thickets of the forest was unlike the open land stretching across a quiet countryside with small hills and narrow valleys. Their path turned west, pointing them toward Anstead.
Growing weary of the long days, Martha asked, "Will this never end?"
William, sensitive to the needs of an expecting wife, held her close, keeping a hand on the reins. His mind ignored Martha's scripture, but he comforted her fears and said, "Soon, my good wife. Soon we will reach our destination."
The journey ahead seemed without end until they came upon the small town of Mapleton.
William guided the small wagon through the town's narrow street. They smiled and waved politely at the local folks walking the paths outside the small stores. They passed a small dress shop, a church, a barber, and a blacksmith shop. William stopped the wagon and tied the mule to a post outside a small supply store.
He pushed the door open, and the bell hanging from the door jam chattered. The proprietor—a small man with large sideburns and an even more prominent mustache—stood at the rear of the store. William could see him balanced on a small stool, his clothes covered with a long apron.
Busy stocking shelves with bagged goods, he glanced over his shoulder and said, "Howdy stranger. What can I do for you?"
William smiled and said, "Need some supplies, a place to stay for a bit, and hopefully some work. I hear there is plenty work on the farms around these parts for a man willing to put his back into it."
"I see," said the owner as he approached and extended a friendly hand. "Name's Jenkins." William noticed the grip was firm and his hands calloused. "That your wife in the wagon?" Jenkins said while looking over William's shoulders and through the front window of the store. "Looks like she's in a way."
"In a way?" Lucas asked, puzzled. "She's having a baby if that's what you're sayin. Due in a few months, we think."
"In that case, sir, your travel should be limited."
"Yes, sir, I agree, but I need to find some work before we can settle in."
"Not a problem, young man. It just so happens that I can put you to work right here if you like. Ain't much, but it will get you by until the little one comes."
"That'll work, I suppose, and we could use some time off that wagon."
"Well then, welcome! This town is truly nice. If you like, I have a small room available above the store."
"That sure is nice of you, thanks."
"Nothing to brag about, son; I can use a hand around here if you're much to working the retail trade," Jenkins said.
"Can't see why not, and I think Martha would appreciate us stopping for a while and stretching our legs."
My grandparents found that life in the small-town promising. Martha spent her time helping when she could, and in the evening, they enjoyed time with the folks living in town. During the day, while William worked, Mrs. Jenkins and Martha would knit under the store's porch.
"Are you two looking for a boy or a girl?" Mrs. Jenkins asked.
Martha smiled and rubbed her swelling belly and said, "Doesn't matter, but I think William would love to have a son."
Mrs. Jenkins agreed and said, "By the way you're carrying, looks to me like he will get his wish."
Martha shifted in her seat, trying to be comfortable. "I hope he gets his wish soon. I don't know how much longer I can handle all this hot weather."
Martha and William’s new son was born within the week. Lucas Colby was healthy and full of life.
A few weeks had passed as Theodius Finley rode into town with a need to replenish his supply wagons. He and his crew were returning from a long haul delivering his corn to the neighboring towns.
He stepped onto the store's porch; Martha sat on a rocking chair with Lucas bundled in her arms. He tipped his hat as he passed, and she smiled.
As he entered the store, he eyed William working behind the counter.
"Damn Jenkins. They build 'em big in Mapleton," he declared.
"Not from here," Jenkins replied without looking up from his account books.
"That so," said Finley. He sauntered over to where William stocked the shelves with the canned goods and stuck his thumbs in the upper armpit of his vest. He rocked back on his heels and affirmed in his booming voice as if he expected the world to bow before him, "I'm Theo Finley." William smiled at Finley while keeping on task.
Finley directed his conversation—to no one in particular—and boasted of his land holdings across Ohio. "I am the largest landowner in this part of the State. So much, the Governor wanted to name the town after me, but I told 'em no. I am but a humble servant of this glorious State not in need of special treatment or honor."
William rolled his eyes and continued working while listening to Finley's rhetoric, and from time to time, Jenkins looked up and shook his head in wonder at the arrogant chattering.
Finley approached William once again and said, "Listen up, son. I own some land, a big farm, up in Independence, and I'm looking for someone like you to help me manage my men in the fields."
"Do you now, Mr. Finley," William said.
"Sure do, and it's a big one. Not too far from here, as a matter of fact. Anyhow, I'm looking for someone that could help with running my boys. They're a good group but need some direction. Do you have any experience in handling crews?"
William stood and glanced over to his boss, and Jenkins gave a look of approval. "I ran some crews back home in the mines," he said.
Finley, interested, asked if William if he would move west and work on his farm.
William agreed it could be what he was looking for, and he promised Finley he would give it some serious thought.
"Good, good," Finley said. "How about I expect you at my farm in two weeks. That enough time for you, Jenkins?"
William ended the day speaking with Jenkins about Finley's offer. Jenkins said, "He's a boastful man, but he will make good on his promise. Besides, he can give you more than I will ever be able to offer you."
The following morning, William hitched the wagon and readied their supplies for travel. He filled the rear of the wagon with two sacks of cornmeal, three pounds of salted beef, flour, and a bag of dried beans.