Young Mary had only known Mrs. Elizabeth Carawan for a month when she left her mother’s side in Craven County to be a servant in the Carawan household. They traveled by boat up Pamlico Sound along the green shores of North Carolina under the warm summer sun. An occasional faint breeze swept across the still waters, but it was never enough to cool the air around them, much less disturb the wide straw bonnet on Mrs. Carawan’s head. Still, she persistently tugged and tightened its yellow bow under her chin anyway.
The mad-dog call of a blue heron standing amid the reeds sounded more like a warning than a welcome on their way into Rose Bay where Mrs. Carawan's husband waited on the dock, the warped and weathered planks beneath his boots. He was pleased to see his wife and held out his hand to help her navigate down the boat's narrow ramp as he greeted her. “Welcome home, Mrs. Carawan. I am glad to see that you had a safe journey.”
She was painfully polite in her reply. “You needn’t have come. You could have sent Sawyer or simply had Seth come on his own.”
At the mention of his name, Reverend Carawan’s most trusted slave Seth tilted his broad tan hat in Mrs. Carawan’s direction and began unloading luggage from the boat and loading into the back of the green-and-black carriage, all while pretending not to hear the Reverend admonish his wife for making such a remark.
“Don’t be ridiculous, my dear. I couldn’t possibly send anyone in my place.” He then explained that his nephew Sawyer had already returned to work on the farm in Swan Quarter earlier that day anyway. “Besides,” he added, “it would have been unsuitable to send someone in my place to retrieve you after you’ve been away for so long. Is it too difficult to imagine that I wanted to greet you myself after feeling your absence so deeply? It is not an imposition, and you mustn’t suggest otherwise.”
He looked at his wife with such intensity that Mary envied her for it, but no look of admiration crossed Mrs. Carawan’s face. She gave no indication at all that she was pleased to see him as well or that she cared one iota for his attention.
What a terribly cold wife she must be not to show him any affection in return, Mary thought. After all, Mrs. Carawan was a rather plain woman with dull brown hair and nothing notable about her features or figure. How could she not be delighted to come home to such a husband? He was confident and dashing with a clean-shaven face and a generous smile. His eyes were bright blue, a shade so light they were impossible not to notice, and his thick dark hair was stylishly swept to one side beneath his silk hat. He was tall, considerably more so than other men, and his broad shoulders were expertly fitted into his tailored summer coat. Mary was captivated.
When he finally noticed her standing there, gawking at him, he tipped his hat and bowed his head in a gentlemanly fashion and said to her, “Good day to you, young miss.” He couldn’t resist feeling a little playful at the sight of her innocent wonder. “I am Reverend Carawan. And who might you be?”
She deserved no such formality from a man like him, not only a gentleman but a man of God, though he didn’t seem the sort, and a small giggle escaped her lips. Mrs. Carawan shot her a severe look of disapproval, so she swallowed her silliness and stood there awkwardly in her faded gray dress and worn shoes, looking much younger than her twelve years. She nervously tugged at her blonde hair and attempted to speak, but her mouth was too dry to mutter anything audible. Her cheeks flushed, and this amused him even more.
“Her name is Mary,” Mrs. Carawan answered for her. “She is the daughter of Cousin Cora’s housekeeper. She has been allowed to work in the house alongside her mother, but now she has come to attend to me. I did not send a letter to you in advance about hiring her, and I apologize for it, but the decision to bring her was made only hours before my departure.” She guided Mary to stand in front of her husband so he could inspect her and added quietly, “Cousin Cora felt it would be best for the girl to make her own way now, and I’m happy to say that she has some experience caring for children as well.”
Reverend Carawan had been smiling, but upon the mention of children, his lips drew into a harsh thin line and his jaw tightened. He stood there for a moment glaring at his wife with increasing aggravation, and at first, Mrs. Carawan’s posture stiffened in defiance, but she eventually diverted her eyes away from his and said nothing more about it.
Mary had never heard of Carawan children mentioned before and had no idea how many she would be expected to care for or how many bed linens she would be expected to wash. In all honesty, she had more experience with the latter. She looked down at her raw hands, the sting of the washboard still fresh on her cracked knuckles. Mrs. Cora Wallace had five children, and Mary had been expected to clean up after all of them. This wasn’t quite the same as looking after them, as Mrs. Carawan had implied.
She was tempted to ask the Reverend and Mrs. Carawan how many children they had, but she was in no position to ask, and even if she had been, it was obviously not the time to do so. Reverend Carawan still glared harshly at his wife, and Mary thought he must be extremely displeased with her for having hired a white girl without consulting him first. When Mr. Wallace had agreed to hire Mary’s mother with her in tow instead of buying a negro woman, Mrs. Wallace had called him a fool right in front of them. “This woman and her child will end up costing us more,” she had said. Mary’s mother told her that she didn’t blame Mrs. Wallace one bit because she was right, but she was thankful for the chance to work just the same.
“Is that all of the luggage?” Reverend Carawan asked Seth.
“Yes, sir,” Seth answered, holding the carriage door open. He did not look in the Reverend’s direction.
Reverend Carawan once again offered a hand to his wife. His previous charm returned as he helped her into the carriage and the tension between them lessened. Even Mrs. Carawan’s posture eased a bit. No one spoke of Mary’s expected duties again, and Reverend Carawan commanded Seth to urge the horses forward.
“It’s a beautiful day, Seth,” Reverend Carawan called out. “Let’s ride up to Lake Mattamuskeet, so we can survey our little piece of heaven that is Rose Bay along the way.”
“Yes, sir,” Seth replied from his seat at the front of the carriage. He cracked the whip, and they were off.
Mrs. Carawan wrung her gloved hands impatiently and pursed her lips. She was irritated again. The thought of an addition being made to her already-long journey did not please her. She tried to explain how she was tired and just wanted to go directly home, but Reverend Carawan would not hear of it. He was dressed for a leisurely excursion. It was a lovely day, and with Mary being new to the area, they had a perfect reason to ride up the public road before going home.
“Don’t you want Mary to see Rose Bay, now that she’ll be living here with us? Aren’t you proud of the life I have provided for you?”
He never stopped smiling, but something in his tone silenced his wife immediately. She looked away as he spoke. It was evident that his words weren’t forming into any real meaning for her; she simply heard his voice grinding along with the carriage wheels as they dug into the dirt beneath them.
“Don’t be upset, my dearest,” he said. “I’m not angry. I only want to enjoy a pleasant ride with my wife.”
She said nothing.
Aware that he was unable to appease her, he chose to continue as if there had been no quarrel between them. He happily announced the landmarks to Mary as they drove past them, including the small estates of neighbors that lived not too far from the bay.
When he proudly pointed to his home, Pine Manor, a surge of excitement filled Mary. In contrast to the busy streets of the Wallace home in Craven, the Carawan home had no immediate neighbors. It was a bright white manor standing majestic and pristine amid a sprawling green field, a gloriously romantic landscape like the paintings in Mrs. Wallace’s parlor.
Mary had dreamed of living in such a place many times over and could picture herself gliding around a dance floor and taking long walks in a garden in the arms of a fine gentleman, but the words her mother had often said crept into her thoughts. “You better learn it now, girl. There are those whose life is handed to them on a silver platter, but that’s not you. That’s not us. We were meant to work for everything we have, and don’t you forget it.”
It hadn’t pleased her mother to say it, but Mary knew she was expected to understand and accept it. The world would never be hers for the taking, and there was no reason to waste time wishing for things to be different. But nothing her mother said kept her from desiring a different life. Mary dreamed of splendor.
The songs of cicadas rang loudly as the carriage rolled by acres of fields and farms. On one side, the land was covered in white specks of cotton stretched to the blue horizon, open and wide, and on the other, rows of bright lemon-yellow tobacco leaves waved their tiny bouquet caps toward the sun.
Reverend Carawan nodded to a neighbor now and again, beaming from his tufted black leather seat.
The farther they went along, the fewer people they came across. The seemingly endless fields eventually gave way to clusters of trees and overgrown grass where an odd-looking building stood in isolation, too narrow in the front for anything but a slim red door beneath a steeply pitched roof. A large cast-iron bell suspended from it.
“That’s our local schoolhouse,” Reverend Carawan explained to Mary. “I helped to have a school instituted not long after establishing myself here, and our schoolteacher Mr. West holds a permanent position in Rose Bay, unlike the surrounding counties. The children here receive a fine education.” And then he winked and said, “Not as fine as the education they learn from my sermons, of course.”
He smiled so wide that his eyes crinkled at the corners, and Mary’s cheeks flushed red again as they continued on their way, enjoying the smell of earth and salt marsh emanating from the warm breeze until it abruptly stilled. As they drove through the woods, the shade of towering trees grew thicker and darker until one tree was barely distinguishable from another, all but two pines near the road that wound together in a determined embrace.
Reverend Carawan noticed Mary’s fascination with them and had Seth stop the carriage. “They are known as the Twisted Pines,” he said, gesturing toward them. “They mark the end of my property line in Rose Bay. Everything from here back to the house on this side of the public road is mine. We don’t know what could have made them grow in such a way.” Then he leaned closer to Mary and in a low voice said, “But I’ve heard it said that they watch over young lovers.”
Mrs. Carawan was quick to disapprove, so he apologized for any impropriety on his part, but the grin he flashed at Mary said he wasn’t sorry at all.
Mary did her best to ignore them both as she was used to having done with Mr. and Mrs. Wallace and continued to admire the pines. Exposed roots spread across the ground like fingers digging into the dirt, and two individual trunks repeatedly wrapped around each other toward the heavens where their thin branches united and eventually vanished into the green canopy above.
One of the horses whinnied and shook his head, and only then did Mary notice the cicadas had grown eerily silent. Despite the shade, the air felt heavy and moist. All was quiet until the carriage started up again, and then only the clopping of horses’ hooves and the turning of wheels could be heard on the path through the dense woods.
A few miles down the road and around the bend, a clearing emerged. A stark-white egret waded among the tall marsh grass that surrounded the water Reverend Carawan called Lake Mattamuskeet. The still waters stretched out before them, deep green sheets of algae floating across a vast reflection of blue-and-pink sky. Trees peppered the shoreline in the distance and birds swirled overhead. A small ferryboat bobbed lightly in the water, tethered to the end of a long, battered deck.
One could get lost in the beauty of this place, but it was getting late and the time had come to turn around and make their way back down the same road towards home.
As they rode past the schoolhouse again, the day’s session was ending, and children were leaving with books and slates in hand. They were happy to be free from school but lingered a little longer than necessary in the schoolyard, knowing their evening chores waited for them before dinner. Mr. West was an older man with slick gray hair. He stood just outside of the red door and waved in the direction of the carriage, so Reverend Carawan acknowledged him with a nod.
Mrs. Carawan seemed fascinated with the children, watching them as they ran and played. She waved and spoke to them when they approached, making them promise to work hard in their studies and be helpful and good at home. Their smiling replies to her showed a genuine fondness, and it was evident that this wasn’t the first time she had stopped to dote on them. One of the little girls asked for a kiss on the cheek, which Mrs. Carawan gleefully provided.
When it was time to go, Mrs. Carawan’s expression instantly turned melancholy. This didn’t go unnoticed by her husband. He placed his hand on hers, but she moved away from him and shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She was tired, she reminded him. She had said so when they had first arrived home from Craven.
Not another word was said as they rode past the workers in the fields, laboring under a cloudless sky. Cows grazed near a white picket fence that ran alongside the road in front of the Carawan estate, and the sound of cicadas filled the air again.
Seth pulled the horses to a stop and proceeded to take Mrs. Carawan’s luggage into the house. The wind blew softly over the wide porch, sweeping small pink flowers from a nearby crepe myrtle over the bright white floorboards that creaked under Seth’s feet as he navigated his way through the front door.
Mrs. Carawan expressed her desire to enjoy a brief walk so she could stretch her legs after such a long journey. She asked Mary to accompany her. They walked quietly along the fence near the road, down which Mrs. Carawan gazed longingly. Perhaps she was looking to see if any children would walk by while they were there. She reached down and ran her fingertips across the grass, searching carefully. Finally, she plucked a dark green blade out, long and fat, and held it to her mouth between her thumbs. Her pink lips formed into a small kiss, and she blew into the blade. A high-pitched whistle rang out.
Mary had never seen anyone do that before. How wonderful, she thought.
“Go ahead,” Mrs. Carawan said to her. “You try it.”
Mary picked her own blade, but try as she might, she could not make it whistle.
Mrs. Carawan tried to show her several times over, but each time Mary failed. This amused Mrs. Carawan. She threw her head back and laughed with her nose crinkled and her cheeks flushed pink. The sky, yellow and rose from the setting sun, glistened behind her, and for the first time, Mary realized just how lovely she was. Plain as Mrs. Carawan might seem at first, her beauty radiated from within when caught in a moment of joy.
Mary hoped she would find happiness in her new home after all, but there was one thing noticeably absent as she surveyed her surroundings. Despite Mrs. Carawan having mentioned children, there were no children to be found, save for a few stone lambs in the family plot under a large elm tree.