Sweetgrass, Excerpt

Chapter One

“Until fairly recently, the coastal region of islands, marshes, placid rivers and oak-shaded roads had seen relatively little change—but now change is widespread, often overwhelming and sometimes devastating.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation


March is a moody time of year in the Lowcountry.  On any given day, seemingly by whim, the weather is balmy and sweet smelling and can lure reluctant smiles from the hopeful who dream of cool, tart drinks on steamy afternoons, creamy white magnolia blossoms and scented offshore breezes.  Then, overnight, everything can change.  With a sudden gust of cold wind, winter will reach out with its icy grip to draw a foggy curtain over the gray marsh.

Mama June Blakely had hoped for an early spring, but she was well seasoned and had learned to keep an eye on the sky for dark clouds.  A leaden mist hovered close to the water, so thick that Mama June could barely make out Blakely’s Bluff, which stretched out into the gray-green Atlantic Ocean like a defiant fist.  A bittersweet smile eased across her lips.  She’d always thought it a fitting symbol of her family’s turbulent history with the sea.

Perched high on the bluff was a weather-beaten house that had been in the Blakely family for generations.  Bluff House had withstood countless hurricanes and storms to remain the bastion of family gatherings long after most of the old Charleston family’s land holdings were sold off.  Each time Mama June looked at the battered house, waves of memories crashed against her stony composure.  And when the wind gusted across the marshes, as it did now, she thought the mist swirled like ghosts dancing on the tips of cord grass.

Thunder rumbled, low and threatening. She tugged her sweater closer to her neck and shifted her gaze to the lowering skies.  Weather moved quickly over the South Carolina coastline, and a front like that could bring a quick cloudburst and sudden winds.  Worry tugged at her mouth as she turned on her heel and made her way across the polished floors of her home, through the large, airy kitchen, the stocked butler’s pantry, the formal dining room with glistening crystal and mirrors, the front parlor appointed with ancestral furniture and straight out to the front veranda.  Gripping the porch railing, she leaned far forward, squinting as she searched the long length of ancient roadbed bordered by centuries-old oaks.

Her frown lifted when she spotted a broad, snowy-headed figure walking up the drive, a lanky black dog at his heels.  Mama June leaned against the porch pillar, sighing in relief.  At that pace, she figured Preston would beat the storm.  How many years had she watched and waited for her husband to come in from the fields?  Goodness, could it really be nearing fifty years?

Preston Blakely wasn’t a large man physically, but his manner and personality made him imposing to anyone who knew him.  People called him formidable in polite company, bullheaded in familiar–and she couldn’t argue.  He was walking with a single-minded purpose, heels digging in the soft roadbed and arms swinging.  His square chin jutted out, cutting the wind like the mast of a ship.

Lord, what bee was in that man’s britches this time? she thought with a sorry shake of her head.

On reaching the large, white house, Preston sent the dog to the back with a jerk of his index finger. “Go on, now.  Settle, Blackjack,” he ordered, then, raising his head he caught Mama June’s gaze.

“Hellfire,” he grumbled louder than the thunder, raising his arm and shaking a fist full of crumpled papers in the air.  “They’ve gone and done it this time.”

Mama June’s hands tightened on the railing as her husband pounded up the porch stairs.  “Done what?”

“They done got me by the shorthairs,” he said on reaching the porch.

“Who got you, dear?”

“The banks!” he roared.  “The taxes.  The whole cussed economy, that’s who!”

“Sit down a spell, Press, before you pop a valve.  Look at you. You’re sweating under that slicker.  It’s too hot for such a fuss and, I swanny–” she waved her small hand in the air “–I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Taxes and banks and shorthairs…”

“I’m talking about this place!”

“There’s no need to shout.  I’m old, not deaf.”

“Then listen to what I’m tellin’ you, woman.  We’re going to lose it.”

“What?  Lose the land?”

“Yes, ma’am, the land,” he said.  “And this house you’re so fond of.  We’ll lose it all.”

“Press,” she replied, striving for calm.  “I don’t understand any of this.  How can we lose everything?”

Preston leaned against the railing and looked out over his land. A cool wind rippled the wild grasses like waves upon the ocean.

“Remember when we were reassessed a few months past?”  When she nodded, he continued.  “Well, here’s what they say this property is worth now.  And here’s how much they say we’ve got to pay.  Go on,” he said, waving the papers before her.  “Read it and weep.”

Mama June reached out to retrieve the crumpled papers and gingerly unfolded them. Her mouth slipped open in a soft gasp.  “But…this can’t be right.  It’s three times as much as before.”

“Four times as much.”

“We can’t afford that.  We’ll appeal.  They can’t force us to accept this.”

“They can and they will.”

“There are lots of folks round here that won’t stand for it,” Mama June said, hearing aloud the indignation she felt stirring in her breast.  “This can’t just be happening to us.”

“That’s true enough.  It’s happening all over.  And there’s nothing any of us can do.  Folks keep coming from the north in a steady stream.”  He shrugged.  “And they all want to live along the water for the beautiful views. Trouble is, there’s only so much property to go around.  So property values just keep climbing and developers, like my own sweet, avaricious sister, are licking their chomps just biding their time.  They’ll wrestle away any and every acre of earth so they can turn around and plow it over with cement.”  He raked his thick, short white hair with his fingers.  “Hell, I knew it was coming–we all did.  I reckon I just didn’t think it would be so quick.”

He gave a rueful smile.  “Kinda like a hurricane, eh?  Well,” he said with resignation.  “Looks like we miscalculated on this one.  Just like we did with Hugo.”

“We’ve always managed to hang on before.  Through the war, the gas crisis, the bad economy, even Hurricane Hugo.”

“I know it.   I’ve done my best—God knows I’ve fought the good fight.  But I’m old now.  And I’m worn out.   I don’t have it in me to fight them anymore.”

Mama June stepped forward to rest her hand on his drooping shoulder, alarmed to her core to see her usual bear of a husband so defeated.   She was about to offer some platitude, to say “don’t worry, we’ll be fine,” when she felt his shoulders cord up again beneath her palms.  He exploded in renewed fury.

“Maybe if that no-good son of ours had stayed home we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Mama June dropped her hand and wrapped her arms around herself.  “Let’s don’t start in on Morgan…”

“Don’t you go defending him,” he said, whirling around to face her.  “Not to me!  He’s my son, dammit.  He should be here, helping his father run this plantation.  It’s too much for one man.  I need his ideas, his energy…  Is it too much to ask my only son to take his father’s place?”

“He needs to take his own place in the world,” she countered softly, even as she felt herself harden against her husband.  This was an all too familiar argument.

“The hell with the world!  It’s Sweetgrass that needs him. It’s his duty.  His heritage!  A Blakely has run Sweetgrass Plantation for eight generations, and though there may only be a few hundred acres left, by God, Sweetgrass is still in Blakely hands.”

“He’s got his own land,” she reminded him.

“His own land?” Preston’s eyes widened with incredulity.  “You mean those few measly acres in the wilds of Montana that he hides out in when he’s not out breaking some laws?”

“Oh, for pity’s sake.  He’s not doing any such thing.  He’s protesting!

“And for what?  To protect some bison?   Hell,” he said with a snort.  “Bison…He grew up calling them buffalo like the rest of us.”

“He’s trying to protect them.”

“He’s playing around.   He’s not working that land.  He’s not working, period.”

“Stop, Press.” His angry words were shredding her composure like razors.

“Worthless,” he muttered, ignoring her.

She turned and began walking away.  “I can’t listen to this.…”

“What did I bother working for all these years?” he called after her.  “That’s what I want to know.   I have no one to pass this all down to.”

She stopped and faced him with a cold stare.  “You have your daughter.”

Preston scoffed and brushed away the suggestion with a sweep of his hand.

“You can’t keep brushing Nan aside.”

“Didn’t she do just that to us when she sold off her land?”

“Her husband…”

“That weasel!  He only married her for her land.”

“What a thing to say!”  She’d thought as much herself, but had never granted it voice.  “Lest you forget, I sold my land when I married you.”

“That wasn’t the same thing at all, and you know it.”

“I know no such thing.”

“See, there you go.  You always take their sides over mine.”

“I do no–”

“I’m your husband!  I should be your first concern.  For once!  I’ve worked all these years like a bull in the harness to keep this land intact, to keep hold of this house with all those antiques you love so much.”

“Don’t even…”

“All of this.”  His arm swept out in a grand gesture.  “I’ve sweated from dawn to dusk.   I’ve spilled blood.  I’ve given my heart and soul to this place.  My dreams.  My youth.  And now…” He stopped, clamping his lips tight and looking out at the land with desperation shining moist in his eyes.  “And now, it’s gone.”

“Good!” she replied with heart.

Preston spun around to look at her.  “What’d you say?”

“You heard me.  I said good.  Good riddance!” she cried out with a strained voice.  She saw the pale blue of his eyes swimming with pain and shock at her outburst.  But rather than take it back or soften the words, as she ordinarily might have done, she felt years of anguish burst forth with a volcanic gush.

“All you think about is the loss of this land!” she cried, thrusting the papers into the paunch of his belly.  “What about your family?  What about that loss?  You haven’t spoken with your son in years.  Your daughter feels like a pariah.  They don’t come around any more.  You’ve driven our children away.  But you don’t care about that, do you?  You didn’t fight to keep the family, did you?  All you care about is this piece of earth.  Well, it won’t be long before we’ll die and we’ll be buried on this precious land.  But who will mourn our passing?  I ask you, Preston, will our children weep when we’re gone?”

His face went still before he swung his head away, averting his gaze.

She took a breath to gather her strength and stepped closer to her husband, narrowing the distance.  Pounding her breast with her fist, emphasizing each word, she said in a voice betrayed by a shaky timbre, “This land has stolen my children from me.  And that is a far greater loss to me.  Good riddance, I say.  I despise this land!”

“You don’t mean that.”  Preston’s voice was low and husky.

She took a long, sweeping glance at the landscape she’d called home for close to five decades.  The roiling line of clouds rolled overhead like the closing of a curtain.  She met his gaze and held it.

“I surely do.  From the day I first stepped foot on it, all this land ever brought me was utter and complete heartbreak.”

They stood face-to-face, silently recollecting the wide swath of years cut low by that statement.

Around them the storm broke.  Fat drops of rain splattered loudly on the dry ground in gaining crescendo.  With each gust of wind the grasses swayed and shook, rattling like castanets.  Then the sky opened up and the heavens cried.  The roof provided no shelter from the torrents of rain and both felt the lash of water whipped through the air.

Mama June doubted the rain hid from Preston the tears coursing a trail down her cheeks. Yet he did not move to console her or offer any word of either argument or comfort.  Her shoulders slumped and she retreated inside the house.

Preston stood rock still and watched her go.  He was unmoving as he listened to his wife’s tread on the stairs, knowing she made her way to her bedroom.  She would likely cloister herself for hours, perhaps for the rest of the evening, shutting him out.

Same as always.

He wouldn’t go after her, wouldn’t try to talk things through lest the words drag up the past.  She couldn’t handle that, and he didn’t know if he could any more, either.  Besides, it wasn’t worth the risk of her retreating to a place far more inaccessible than her bedroom.

He put his hands on his hips and lowered his head. “Mary June…”  He sighed heavily, her name slipping through his lips.  He’d spoken harshly and was sorry for it.  She was delicate when it came to matters of the family.  He’d always tried to shelter her from bad news.  But this…  He squeezed the papers once more in his fist.  This had hit too hard.  He couldn’t bear this alone.  Hellfire, he’d needed someone to share this burden with, and who better than his wife?  She was his wife, wasn’t she?

He cast a final glance up toward her room, where she was crying, and knew a sudden pain, like the lightning in the sky just shot through his heart.

“To hell with it!” he cried, drawing back his hand and throwing the cursed papers into the storm.

The wind caught the papers, hurtling them toward the marsh faster than a cooper’s hawk.  They landed tangled in the tall grasses, beaten by the rain.  Lightning flashed in the blackening sky, and by the time he heard the rumble of thunder, he was in the house, reaching for the snifter of brandy.

*                      *                      *

The storm passed quickly on its march from the mainland to the sea.  Now the air was fresh and the pastel pinks of the sunset had deepened to a rich ochre.  Preston sat on the porch, his clothes damp and his skin cold, staring out at the purpling sky while the brandy did its work.  Usually Mama June sat rocking beside him in a companionable silence.  He felt her absence deeply.

“At least you’re here, aren’t you, boy?” he said, reaching down to pat the black Labrador retriever curled at his feet.  Blackjack, who had sneaked back onto the porch the moment Mama June left, raised his dark, melting eyes and gazed at Preston with devotion while his tail thumped with affection.  “Good ol’ dog.”

With a heavy sigh he turned his gaze back to the westward slide of the sun.  In the years past, he used to relish these waning hours of the day, just rocking and watching the sun set over Sweetgrass, knowing that, at least for one more day, he’d kept the Blakely heritage intact.  The plantation once consisted of 1300 acres, yet over the span of three hundred years, one thousand of those acres were sold off.  He’d always felt it was his duty as the last remaining Blakely male to try to hold on to what was left so that a Blakely would always have a place to call home.  Thinking about this used to bring him a bone deep satisfaction.

Tonight, he felt no satisfaction in anything.  Tonight, he felt that all his efforts had been in vain.

Mama June’s words had cut him to the quick.  They’d extinguished the flicker of hope he’d harbored deep in his heart that someday, in the not too distant future, his prodigal son would return.   Though he’d told no one, night after night he’d see that dream in the hallucinatory hues of the sunsets.  In that dream he would be just like that father in the bible he’d read about.  He’d see his son coming up the road and go running out of the house to greet him with outstretched arms.  He’d call for a feast to be held, for music to be played, for riches to be shared—all to celebrate his beloved son’s return home after years of fruitless wandering.  In his dream he would smile at Mama June and quote, “My son was lost but now is found.”

Preston’s frown deepened.  Tonight he couldn’t see his dream in the shadows of the sunset.  His rays of hope had extinguished along with the sinking sun and all that was left was this cold, dark silence.  He felt like he was already dead and put in the earth.  Mama June’s words came back to him:  Will our children weep when we’re gone?

They would not, he concluded bitterly.  Then he downed his drink.

Gripping the sides of the chair, he pulled himself out, tottering as a wave of dizziness swept over him.  Too much brandy, he thought as he plodded across the porch. Inside, the warmth of the house enveloped him. Glancing up at the tall clock, he realized with surprise that he’d been sitting out on the porch for several hours.  It was no wonder he was chilled to the bone.  He moved closer to the staircase and cocked his ear, straining to hear sounds from Mama June’s bedroom.  All was quiet.  She must have fallen asleep, he thought, resigned to the fact that he would not likely be getting a hot meal for dinner this night.

Truth was, he wasn’t hungry, anyway.  All that fighting and drinking made his gut feel off. Besides, he was feeling too restless to eat.  He never could settle down after a quarrel with Mama June.  Couldn’t rest until they’d made peace.  That woman had his soul in her hands and he wondered if she even knew it.  Some days, it seemed that she hardly even knew he was here.

He felt his aloneness acutely tonight.  It was thrumming in his brain with a pulse-like rhythm.  He removed his slicker, letting it lie on the back of a chair, and wandered restlessly.  His damp feet dragged and his blurry eyes barely took in the rooms as he meandered.  His mind was fixed on Mama June’s words.

I despise this land!

Could she have really meant that?

From the day I first stepped foot on it, all this land ever brought me was utter and complete heartbreak.

For him, the day Mary June Clark first stepped her tiny foot on Sweetgrass land was forever etched in his mind.  His boyish heart had never known such infatuation, and later, much later, that youthful adoration had matured into a man’s utter and complete devotion.

He’d never heard her speak so plainly.  She usually kept strong opinions to herself, never wanting to make another person feel uncomfortable.  But these words…it was like they all bubbled up from some deep, dank well.  Very deep, he thought with a grimace.  What was it that Faulkner had said?  The past is never dead.  It isn’t even past.  It nearly broke his heart to think that his life’s efforts had been for naught.  No man could bear that.

During one circle of the house he poured himself another drink.  After another, he headed toward the small mahogany desk in the foyer and dug out Mama June’s blue address book.   His eyes struggled with the letters and he fumbled for his reading glasses, an indignity of old age he’d never reconciled.  After a brief search through her feathery script, he picked up the phone and dialed the number in Montana.

His heart beat hard in his chest as he waited. Steadying himself against the wall, he listened to the phone ring once, twice, then two more times.  At last he heard a click and the dreaded pause of a machine.

Hi.  This is Morgan.  I can’t come to the phone right now.  Leave a brief message and I’ll call you back. 

Preston was unprepared for the impact of his son’s voice after so many years of silence.  He fumbled with the phone cord a moment, his tongue feeling unusually thick in his mouth.  When the beep sounded he skipped a beat, then blurted, “Uh, Morgan, it’s your dad.   I, uh…”  Preston felt a sudden confusion and struggled to put his thoughts to words.  He gripped the phone tight while his heart pounded.   “I called to…to talk to you.  Anyway, I –” This was going badly.  He had to end it.  “Well, goodbye, son.”

Preston’s hands shook as he hung up the phone.  He leaned against the desk, panting as if he’d just plowed the back forty.  Damn, he was even sweating!  What bad luck that on his first call in years he got some damned answering machine.

The sadness in his heart weighed heavy in his chest.  He couldn’t catch his breath and he felt as weak as a woman, barely able to bear his own weight.  He pushed back from the desk, straightening, then felt again a surge of lightheadedness, as if he might pass out.  He staggered out to the porch, determined to let a few deep breaths of the cool ocean air balance him.

At the creak of the door Blackjack leapt from the cushioned settee and came trotting to his side, tail wagging.

“Back, boy,” he mumbled, stumbling past him.

The dog whined and pressed his muzzle persistently against his leg.

“Back!” he cried, swinging his arm.  He lost his balance and reached out in a panic, searching for something—anything–to hold on to.  His eyesight went blurry and with frightening suddenness, he was teetering in the darkness.  The thrumming in his head became a brutal pounding, building in crescendo, louder and louder.  He was going down.  His arms reached out toward the house as he hit the floor and it felt as if the lightning struck in his brain this time, jolting him, seizing his muscles.  Everything went white with blinding pain.

“Mary Ju–”

The white faded to black. Then all was still.