It was guilt, Anette realized, that had caused her to slip up on her visit with Oscar. To go behind Erlon’s back, to have a conversation that was his to have, with his own brother, and well before he was ready to have it…it was something of a betrayal. Or it would have been, had she stayed much longer or found out anything of substance. Perhaps Oscar had realized that at the time, too.
Her conscience raked at her that weekend, when she and Erlon were together at home. Even when the week after came, Anette avoided thinking too much about Tannile.
It couldn’t last, though. Whenever she looked at that photo on her phone, there again was that glare.
She put it off another week, then finally called the number Oscar had given her. Oscar was one thing—her husband’s family, Tannile’s family—but Keturah Jenkins, the island matriarch and source of local lore he’d mentioned, was quite another.
She called one morning from her office an hour before the day’s second class. “Hi, Ms. Jenkins?” she cleared her throat. “This is Dr. Rivers from the city college. How are you today?”
“Oh, the college, huh?” The woman’s voice sounded younger than she’d expected, with a lilting cadence that sang like liquid sun. “Well, I guess I’m doing fine.”
“Good, good to hear it. Listen, I was given your number by my brother-in-law, Oscar Rivers. He said you could maybe answer some local history questions I have for a…for a research project I’m working on.”
“Oh, Oscar! Yes, yes, fantastic set of lungs on that man You’ve heard him play, I’m sure.”
“I have,” Anette smiled. “A couple times, though it’s been a while.”
“Well, you’re luckier than most. Few people remember his name around here. Too few.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true. Listen, do you think we could meet? At my office, maybe? Or I’d be happy to come to you, whatever you prefer.”
“And this is…research?”
Anette hesitated. “Yes,” she said.
“Well, all right. I’d be happy to help.”
A few days later, Anette drove out to the woman’s home on the island, an old wooden one-story raised a few feet above ground. In the front yard a live oak shaded the narrow drive, and her feet crunched tiny acorns as she neared the front steps.
She found Keturah Jenkins on the porch, waiting, a glass of sweet tea in hand. She offered one to Anette, who took it and smiled a gracious “Thank you.”
Anette stole a quick glance away from her host, noting the yellow pots of violets, bright blue shutters, the flaking white paint on the house’s siding. Out at the edge of the yard, some twenty feet from where she’d parked, a young boy crouched at a planter set on the stump of a wide tree long ago felled, pulling out weeds too small to see from where she stood.
“My grandson,” Keturah nodded with pleasure.
“He looks good. Did you teach him?”
“Me? No. His mother. I ain’t got the green thumb.”
Anette turned to face her host again, who waved her to the other chair. She sat. “Thank you for having me, Ms. Jenkins.”
“Mm.” The woman swallowed a drink of her tea and set down the glass on a little table between them. “Well, I admit I’m a little curious about this research project. It’s been a minute since anyone from the college called me. And Oscar’s sister-in-law… I can tell you, that name brings me back some good memories.”
Anette smiled, then frowned. “Actually, Ms. Jenkins, I may have misled you a little on the phone. My research interest…it’s not actually for academic purposes. It’s more…personal. And since you mention Oscar, it’s, well, it’s about his family. My husband’s family.”
“Mm-hm. Mm-hm.” Jenkins leaned back, eyes narrowing. “You misled me on the phone,” she stated after a moment. “I don’t know why. I might have still had you out here if you’d been honest. Tell me, then, why I should answer anything to your face when you couldn’t speak the truth on the phone?”
Anette swallowed. She couldn’t meet the woman’s eyes. “I—Well,” she stammered, then made her gaze rise. “I was afraid. I don’t know who else to ask, or where to go, and I can’t tell my husband because—because he won’t understand—I think I’m going—It doesn’t make sense, not even to me, and I was afraid. Afraid you’d say no.”
The woman looked her over for a long time. “Okay. Okay. Well, first thing. Call me Keturah. And second, I do remember the Rivers family, though I was never more than church friendly with them. But I’ll tell you what I can.” She shifted in her seat. “What is it you want to know?”
Anette took a small notebook from her handbag and held a pen poised above it. She took a breath. “Tannile,” she said.
Keturah nodded, not breaking eye contact. “The Rivers’ daughter.”
“Who was she?” Anette covered her lips with the tip of her hand. She hadn’t meant the question to sound so much like a plea.
The woman nodded again. “Well. I did say I never knew them well personally. But I can tell you some things.”
* * *
Will Rivers, according to Keturah, had married Collette Deas as soon as they were of legal age. They each had been a refuge to the other through hard, tragic adolescences, comforting each other through a long illness and an unfair eviction, respectively. When Oscar had come along a few months later, there were rumors on the island that his mother had been unfaithful, that Will had knowingly taken the child as his own; but Will would not stand for such talk. Whatever the truth, he had loved the child dearly. He and Collette, after all, were beacons of love and hope to each other that no tragedy could put out—until it did.
“It was a sad ending to their story,” Keturah shook her head. “A white driver, drunk, and of course he never faced any consequences. After that the grandmother took in the three children. Had to take on extra work to support them, too, since she’d been living alone twenty years by that time.”
“How old were they when it happened?” Anette asked.
“Let’s see, I don’t recall exactly. Erlon—Early as they called him back then—he was youngest. Tannile was six or seven years older, and Oscar at least a couple more. There were a couple more that didn’t make it. But I think little Early would’ve been…six or so? Maybe younger.”
“Wow,” Anette breathed. She knew some of this already, but it hit her freshly to hear it in detail, as opposed to the broad strokes her husband had painted with.
“Mm-hm,” Keturah nodded, looking far away. “So if you want to know about Tannile, I’d say that’s the place to start. She never really had a childhood. Had to grow up fast. Her parents gone, Oscar only around a few years more before he left for north, and with their grandma always at work, she was the only one there to raise Early.”
“What an incredible sacrifice.”
“Maybe, but it cost her. Whenever I saw her in a room, she always seemed desperate to get out of it. And whenever I saw her under the sky her eyes looked hungry. That’s the number one thing I recall about that girl.”
“And what do you think it was?” Anette leaned forward. “What was she so hungry for?”
“Hmm. Well, I couldn’t offer more than a guess. But if you want mine, it would be a road to travel. A horizon to gaze toward. Never to reach—I think reaching it might have been the thing she feared most.”
Anette frowned. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
Keturah shook her head. “Child, I can’t tell you what I mean. I’m not sure I know myself. It’s just a guess, and really just an impression. Could be entirely wrong.”
A silence fell, peaceful against the faint breath of breeze through green leaves. The air felt clean and young in Anette’s lungs, yet heavy as well with the scent of lilies. “What could be wrong with reaching what you wanted? As long as it was worth having, worth doing,” she murmured, more to herself than to her host.
“The thing about arriving,” Keturah said slowly, “is when it happens, you’re there now. And now is a place some people can’t stand. They’re afraid of what’s in it, or isn’t. Afraid it’s barren.”
Anette did not understand that. Looking around her, the feast of life in the trees and yard, in the violets, in the planter, in the boy working it—sure, it was far from perfect, but that was life. Always work to do, always farther to climb. And that could only ever be done now. Couldn’t it?
“And what about this Shem character,” she said at last. “Who was he?”
“Real name was, let’s see—it was Alder Byrne. I never heard how he got the name Shem. But his daddy, he was a member of the farmer’s lodge. Played the drum to call meetings. He was always with his old man, looked up to him like a saint. But I guess that changed at some point, probably when he started drinking.”
“Do you think there’s anything to the idea that he…maybe not killed Tannile, but had something to do with her death?”
Keturah laughed. “Killed her! Whoever told you that?”
“Well…no one, I supposed. But it does seem a little suspicious. She starts seeing him, the next thing you know she’s gone.”
The woman gave a baffled smile. “Child, they lived together years before she died.”
Anette looked away, uncertain what to say next. The riddle of Tannile was vanishing, it would seem, clarifying into something tragic, to be sure, but hardly uncommon. Hardly mysterious. Yet something about it still bothered her.
Finally she fished her phone out and pulled up the photo. “One last thing,” she said. “This photo I found of Tannile…do you think she looks…angry here?”
Keturah squinted into the screen, adjusted her glasses. “Let’s see.” She leaned closer. “Amused, maybe. Or like she got something up her sleeve.”
“But not angry?”
“Not especially, no.” Keturah again gave her a mystified look.
“Well,” Anette said as she rose, drinking the last of her tea, “I thank you for your time, Ms. Keturah. It’s been a huge help.”
The woman nodded, still a little puzzled. “Call me again if you need anything else, honey. I mean it. And next time, ask for what you want.”
“I will,” she smiled, her cheeks warming.
In the car, Anette pulled up the photo again. Tried to see Tannile as amused or sly. But no, the girl’s face nearly glowered at her. What was wrong with her? Why did she see this young woman so differently from everyone else? It did not look as though Tannile was merely angry. Rather, it felt personal. Her glare was for her, Anette, in particular. It was as if she were saying, with the kind of seething voice that could catch in your throat, Have you forgotten?
Anette nearly dropped the phone. Where had that idea come from? She picked it up again, but then quickly threw it into her purse, started the car, and backed out of Keturah Jenkins’ driveway. The boy was still working in the planter, heedless of her, but the old woman, when Anette glanced back up at the porch, still watched her serenely. Anette swallowed, waved, and drove quickly away.
* * *
Have you forgotten?
Forgotten what? Anette wondered as she crossed the bridge to the mainland, heading back home. She had no answer for the question. Not even the beginning of a hint.
Maybe she was taking the wrong tack. Instead she asked herself, what could Tannile have to be angry about?
Well, a lot. Losing her parents at an early age, never having anyone to really protect her, always having to protect others. To protect Erlon. Being left by an older brother who just wanted to make music, left to raise her younger one alone, herself scarcely a teenager. Dying early, not getting to live a full life. Not being missed by the wider world, not enough to warrant a mention in the papers. A poverty and dispossession that stemmed from centuries of chained ancestors, a whole nation that did all it could to block their every attempt to rise once freed.
A whole lot.
But why anger at her?
In the week after, she did more digging. Anette searched the college archives, filed requests for public records at city hall. She expected to find nothing, and nearly did. There were stories about the farmer’s lodge on the island, how it’d been restored a few years back and turned into a museum; but no mention of Shem or his father. She found a deed to property owned by Shem on the north end of the island, but nothing to explicitly show Tannile had ever lived there with him. She even found the name of the man who had killed the Rivers while driving south to the beach. But nothing useful, nothing revelatory. She made copies of everything, though, and kept them in her desk at work.
She did find one thing. A search for Alder Byrne showed he had worked as line cook at a hole-in-the-wall on the west end of town, Ed’s Diner, that had enjoyed a lot of press some thirty years back. Maybe he still did. Anette debated for weeks whether to go and visit. She didn’t want to disrupt the man’s privacy, to drudge up old griefs decades after they’d passed.
She was beginning to think, though, that she might not have a choice.