Bladen County, North Carolina May 1926
Lizzie must've smelled the smoke. She was running across the field, her long feedsack gown pulled up high around her waist. Barefoot, she leapt like a deer across the newly planted rows of corn, her black skin glistening in the moonlight.
Leaning against the smokehouse, his breath coming in short raspy huffs, Tate Ryan watched the fire roar up, licking and splitting through the attic, rolling the old tin roof back like a sardine can. No need to come running, he thought. There's nothing nobody can do now--not even God Almighty Himself!
Maggie and the boys were huddled in their nightclothes beneath the shelter of the oak grove, their eyes wide and unbelieving as they watched the house sputter and cough up great clouds of black smoke. Ashes rained down on the canopy of ancient trees, covering their moss-bearded limbs with a peppery dust. No one said a word or moved until the old colored woman who had brought Maggie and her children into the world gathered Maggie in her arms, turning her away from the flames. "Don't look," Lizzie cried. "It don't do no good to look."
William and Lenny, Maggie and Tate's two teenaged sons, stared at the flames, mesmerized by their savage roar. "P-p-papa. M-m-my b-b-books, Papa," William said. His stuttering had started when his little brother Yancey died a year ago, but tonight there was an added tremor of fear in his voice.
"It's all right, son," Tate said, reaching out and pulling the boy beneath his arm. "Papa'll get you some more books."
Lenny, the younger of the two boys, gaped at the burning house, the flames reflected in his frightened eyes. "This is gonna kill Mama. It's just gonna kill her."
"Hush up now, Lenny. Don't let your mama hear you," Tate said. His second son was almost as tall as he was, but Lenny still lowered his eyes and shifted his feet when his father spoke sternly to him. "Come over here," Tate said, catching hold of Lenny with his other arm.
Lizzie tightened her grip on Maggie, fixing her eyes on the burning house. "There now, ain't no need to cry, Missy. I seen more'n one old house go up like dat. It be a mean thing to watch, but you and Mr. Tate and the chil'ren is safe, dat's alls matters to me."
Maggie sobbed. Her muslin nightgown was streaked with soot, and her long red hair, let down and brushed smooth at bedtime, had been singed and bobbed by the greedy flames when she crawled across the hot floorboards and pulled her trunk to safety. "It wasn't just any old house, Lizzie, it was Aunt Mag's house that Uncle Archie built for her."
"Hush now. Jus' hush. It don't matter whose house it was. Mr. Tate can build you 'nother one, can't you Mr. Tate?"
"I'll build it back, Maggie," Tate said, touching her on the shoulder.
Maggie whirled around in Lizzie's arms, glaring at him. "You can't build Aunt Mag's house back!"
"Me and the boys can build us a better house, can't we?" He looked to his sons for approval and they nodded, their tear-streaked faces brightening.
"We will, Mama," William said.
Before Maggie could protest again, Lizzie took her arm. "C'mon now, Missy, you can talk about that in the mornin'. Right now the boys need a place to get some sleep. We'll jus' go back t'my house and be back over here with some vittles and things when it gets light." She took Maggie's hand, pulling her along like a child. Stopping abruptly in front of an old steamer trunk, Lizzie stared hard at an old Olivetti typewriter sitting on it. "Is that the onliest thing you gots out, Mr. Tate?" she said, her dark eyes flashing.
Tate looked away, watching the fire blister and melt the old piano and gobble up the rose damask settee. He had tried to stop Maggie from going after the trunk, but she had wrenched away from him, crawled through the smoke, grabbed the trunk's handle, dragged it out, and shoved it down the steps, toppling the typewriter into the sand. "Maggie pulled the trunk out, Lizzie. The typewriter was on it. Everything else is..."
"I should've known. Why'd you let her go in dere, Mr. Tate? She could've been burnt up."
"I couldn't stop her."
Lizzie held Maggie's face and strained to see it by the light of the fire. "Here, lemme look at you, chile." She ran her hand over Maggie's hair. "It'll grow back, Missy. Ain't nuthin' won't grow back 'cept your life. Don't look so worried now, Lizzie'll take care of you, jus' like always."