It was late afternoon when Devin arrived at Laurel Oak. The air was thick with sun, the plantation wide awake, yet still and quiet as well despite the tension of a thousand planned efforts each falling into place.
It was not her first plantation wedding, though she had never been to this one. She hadn’t known there was one on the peninsula, hidden as it was on the water, behind subdivisions of small midcentury houses: the last sort of place she would expect to find it. Yet that was the way things could be in the older parts of the Lowcountry, the rich side by side with commoners. Not like the newer developments, so thoroughly segregated by wealth. Typical of plantations, it had once spanned the entire neighborhood. Over time it was carved into smaller and smaller tracts, sold piece by piece until only four acres remained.
Devin passed through the gate onto a narrow gravel road. The house held its breath. A specimen of symmetry, it stood near the river at the cusp of an oystershell walkway, roofed in blue-green tile. A piazza ran the upper length, while below a fanlight crowned each window and the set of lantern-flanked French doors. A live oak, one of many on the site, stood off to the left, its canopy an expansive dome.
Devin found the bridal party upstairs, watching and waiting as a blonde, black-clad woman did the bride’s makeup. Drab teal walls fell away before their bright blue dresses, the color of a spring morning above the harbor. She greeted them, then wandered around the room, shooting everyone and everything there. Every detail that stood out.
“You must be Devin,” the bride, Sasha Boyd, welcomed her.
“I must be,” she quipped. No one chuckled.
“Make sure you get a photo of the dress before I put it on, and the shoes, and of course the venue itself!” Sasha ordered. Devin nodded, grateful when the woman doing her makeup made her face back toward her again.
She soon left in search of the groomsmen, but found herself drawn to the piazza instead, looking out over the wide lawn. A checkered dance floor was set up nearby, with a white pavilion, chaise lounges, and many spot lights surrounding it. Farther off, just beside the dock, rows of wooden chairs stood under a wide oak, its long, moss-clad arms shielding them from the river and marsh. At the head of the chairs stood a driftwood arch where Drew and Sasha would speak their vows.
Devin smiled. It was beautiful, a finely crafted backdrop. She loved it when a wedding was well-planned; it made her own job that much easier.
She turned as Drew and a few of the guys emerged from their room down the hall, clad in khaki-hued suits and collard leaf boutonnieres. Devin grinned, aimed the camera with both hands. The shutter flashed.
* * *
Like they all did, the ceremony passed quickly. The wedding party had retired to the house while guests rose from their seats and began to mingle, filtering toward the reception area with a muted buzz. The sun had begun to set. Near the pavilion a violinist began “The Book of Love,” its melody soaring over the candle-lit tables, building a mood.
Devin wiped her brow. A pair of long lenses bobbed at her side, their straps weighing on her shoulder. Though the light was fading the heat still pressed at her, drawn by the black of her knee-length dress. A little boy — Ethan, the ringbearer — trailed shyly behind her, watching as she snapped a few frames of the guests, their surroundings, the constellations of cocktails set before them. She hid a smile, pretending not to notice him.
After an hour the DJ had geared himself up to announce the bride and groom. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…Sasha Marie and Andrew Barton Leefair!”
Devin’s camera let off a burst of fire as they appeared: she in her crown braid and empire-waisted, V-necked chiffon dress, and he in his light summery tux and blue tie, beard smartly trimmed. The guests whooped, whistled, clapped.
She spotted Lamar at a far left table in the pavilion, seated with two couples, one pale and the other dark. Probably friends of his from his college days. Was one of them Casey Holbrooke? She felt a stab of jealousy but pushed it away.
As the dancing began, she hovered around the edges and fired off shots in short torrents, pausing to switch out lenses from time to time. The third song ended. Devin let the camera drop, staring across the floor through the crowd. Was that really—?
Now she couldn’t see him anymore. Through the telephoto lens, it had almost looked like—the reddened face, narrowed eyes, the stiff, clenching fingers—but no, Ron Holbrooke shouldn’t be here tonight. Or should he? She hasn’t seen the guest list, so for all she knew he might be a friend of the Leefairs, or the Boyds, or some other relation. Still, it unnerved her. Not so much the possibility of him being here, as that he had vanished somehow into the small throng.
She shook it off, letting her lens wander the dancefloor again. She paused as it lit on Lamar, who was out there now with the bushy-haired girl he’d been sitting with. The shutter clicked twice. He seemed to be having fun, and she was glad for that.
Devin swallowed, blinked. Often she could shoot weddings with an unaffected eye, following the energy and flow of the crowd and documenting its peaks and ebbs, but not being drawn into them. Tonight was different. The romance of it all affected her, and she felt a wave of loneliness strong enough to carry her away on its crest.
And there he was. Eyes shining, face brimming in a soft glow somehow both warm and cool, as if he were bathing in the faint light rather than lit by it. His body moved with an assurance she had never seen before. Or she had seen it, maybe, but hadn’t known it for what it was. Had he known? He Had to have, and yet something told her that Lamar, above all other people she knew, might have gone for much of his life unaware of the essential substance and beauty and worth he carried, intrinsic to himself, apart from anything he could ever do or say or neglect doing or leave unsaid.
Devin blinked, only now feeling tears sting her eyes. She wiped them away; the night was nowhere near over, and there was much work yet undone.
* * *
The first round of dancing ended and the caterers laid out the meal. Devin shot a few frames of tables filled with people and food, then found herself filtering toward the edge of the crowd, searching for an empty seat. The evening meal was often one of the few opportunities for a break during weddings, and she made a point of taking every one she could find.
Idly she scanned the throng. She had lost sight of Lamar, and hadn’t caught a glimpse of Holbrooke since that first time. It had to have been her imagination. Nerves, perhaps.
She turned away from the celebration, off toward the live oak and the marsh’s edge. Maybe she would take a walk over there, clear her mind, give herself some space.
She heard yelling. A small crowd stood on the dock above the marsh. Devin’s eyes narrowed, and she thought twice about wandering off that way.
She did a double take, picking out a tone and cadence from among the raised voices. Devin stood. Strode toward the marsh, toward the yelling. By the time she had drawn near she could see Lamar was there after all. They locked eyes. His brow was straight, hard.
The others gathered with him did not see Devin yet: the bushy-haired girl Lamar had danced with, and a tall, dumpy white man. Devin stopped short, hand flying to her mouth.
It was Ron Holbrooke.
Behind them the sun’s last rays shot over pines and the broad river and spartina grass, spearing Devin in the eyes. Below them the ghost of oaks reflected up from still waters, watching, listening.
“You have no reason to accuse me,” she heard Lamar saying. “Your daughter’s not here, and it’s been a good minute since I’ve seen her.”
“I lost her,” Ron slurred. “My own daughter. And all on your account.”
“And why do you think that is?” Lamar’s voice grew quiet.
Devin’s feet stirred at last. She moved closer.
“What, because she didn’t want a bigot controlling her? Listen, man, I don’t know what you’re trying to prove, but you’re making her point for her.”
She was close enough now to smell the cloud of cheap beer around him. Lamar’s glance flicked over Ron’s shoulder to meet her own. She could see his eyes widen momentarily, then fly back toward Ron.
“Anyway,” Lamar said, “it’s been three years since we dated. You know that.”
“You don’t get off free,” Ron was growling. “You—you stole my dog.”
Lamar laughed. He didn’t deny it, but he laughed.
“You’ve never shown me the respect I deserve, boy.”
He stumbled, and Devin moved to catch him. She flinched, bracing under his shoulder’s weight.
“Mr. Holbrooke,” she offered, drawing his glance away from Lamar and the girl with him. “Why don’t I take you to your car?” Ron’s eyes burned nearly as hot as his flushed cheeks.
“Geroff me!” He shoved her away. “This ain’t nothing to do with you.”
“Hey, hey! Don’t take this out on Devin!” Lamar yelled. “You’re the one—”
Ron laughed loud. His eyes flashed with delusion or drunken insight. “He’s…he’s in love with you,” he spat.
Devin froze. Her cheeks burned, and she couldn’t make herself look at Lamar. At last she did. It was hard to read his face.
“He’s in love with you,” the man repeated. He turned to Devin. “You know how fucked up that is? A fucking—”
He staggered and fell to the ground. Lamar scoffed, shook his head, backing away out onto the dock. “Come on, Ivette,” he beckoned. The two left both of them behind, Devin and the doctor.
Devin breathed heavy. She could hear the sounds of oysters spitting water, fiddlers scuttling up the marsh grass. The tide was on the rise. She could smell something faint yet sweet and strong on the air.
Holbrooke lumbered down the dock. Devin hesitated, then she, too, followed after, passing beyond the treeline. She looked back and could not see the pavilion anymore.
“Come back here, boy!” Holbrooke yelled.
Lamar turned, full of fury. Devin had never seen him like this before. His lips parted, but she never heard what it was he would have said.
He fell silent. They all did. A dark movement had caught the corner of their eyes.
A shape like the shadow of a pine trunk, or of a telephone pole, long and rigid, leaned over the marsh. Then it changed. It grew straight, no longer slanted across the spartina, as if all perspective had vanished. Its edges pulsed a single time, then melted altogether. There was no more semblance of narrowness, straightness. It curved and swirled, an undefined shape. A form cast of rippling shadow.
It deepened till blacker than the space behind stars, then wavered, now lighter as if a shred of cloud between the marsh and the sun. But always it glowered, trembling with purpose. Devin felt its hostility in her skin, dark rays from an inverted sun.
Her breath stopped in her throat. She stepped back, feeling a throb of pain again in her right foot. No. It couldn’t be here. Not now. Her eyes darted to Lamar. He had scared it off once before, but that seemed unlikely now.
The cloud moved toward them. Out of the marsh, over the boardwalk. It seemed to regard each of them in turn, then fell slowly toward Ron Holbrooke.
The man lurched and fell back against the railing. “Lamar,” he whispered, the sweat beading on his brow. “Devin!”
He shot a last pleading look before the shape swallowed him whole. His back arched, then arched more. Devin saw his eyes whiten before he fell over the side and into the mud.
Still Devin could not move. Ron made no sound, gave no hint he was still alive. Nor could she wrench her eyes away from Lamar to see.
The black shape hovered between them. Lamar’s eyes were wide and shimmering, his mouth parted. What was he doing? She wanted to shout, “Run,” but her own lips were dry, unmoving.
But there was no fear in Lamar. No dread. Instead, something like understanding seemed to rise in him. He stepped closer. The cloud, considering him in its pulsing, quavering depths, drew nearer.
No. This couldn’t happen.
A spark flared in her chest. “Lamar!” she shouted. His eyes broke away and met hers. “I’m sorry! I was wrong.”
She rushed into the dark and hovering form, crying out in pain.
In pain. Pain. It filled her whole body. Her eyes dimmed, sight gone blurry and wan. The fire in her right foot eased, though, and it seemed as though the pulsing thing she had thought had infected her came out and met with the shadow’s form and vanished into it.
Don’t take him, she willed. Take me instead.
A wind rose. Not from any weather of the marsh: it was the shadow itself that she heard — if hearing was the right word. There was no sound, no motion. Only flashes of suffering, anger. Something like intention, though far beyond thought.
Memory. Older than the eldest live oak, branches dipping and sinking beneath earth and rising again. It had been here before the Lowcountry had its name, would be here still long after the land sank under seawater again. And it had been hurt. Mined, blasted, poisoned, choked with sweat and blood and things far fouler. Still it endured. Clung to its place in the world, an oyster fixed to its bank, part and parcel with it, nearly of the same substance.
Yet not quite. And like an oyster, it gave its home fabric and form and soul, even as it drew its own substance from the place.
And the part of it that had come out from her foot whirled around with it, orbiting her. The cloud wavered. Its motion stilled, and the dark grew less deep. The turmoil waxed, then waned, and the thing seemed to hesitate, as if really seeing her for the first time. Now it felt different, transformed: no longer a corruption or infection. Maybe it never had been.
Lamar stepped closer. “Devin,” he murmured. She heard it in the midst of the shadow in spite of the agony. Hers? Its? She didn’t know, couldn’t.
Hear own fear was gone. Would she die? Maybe.
If so, it was a good way to die. Staring into the deeps of Lamar’s eyes.