Elizabeth Roberts-Hamel


Hunting for Shards

 

It is still dark outside when Bradley hits the snooze bar the first time. Ten minutes later when it bleats to life again he picks up the alarm clock and turns it off. He has noticed that it rustles now--this past winter the apartment got so cold that the cockroaches had been squeezing into it to stay warm.

First he feeds Max. Max came with the apartment, a great fat orange cat with one eye. After his shower, he puts on his work clothes; white linen shirt, blue breeches, white cotton stockings. He started letting his hair grow out when he graduated; it's almost down to his shoulders now. He ties it back with a ribbon, puts on his tricorn hat, and locks up.

The house was built in the late 1800's; it has a widow's walk, a dumbwaiter, five fireplaces, a small ballroom and an orchestra pit, (which now serves as his bedroom). Henry James stayed here once; it was built by a famous general who had fought the Indians out west. There were old pictures of this brick courtyard filled with tight waisted Victorian ladies at tea, sunlight slanting through the stonework of the high Moorish walls. If his youth and this house's had been contemporary, he never would have been invited here.

He walks over the brick streets for a block or two, then crosses the green, oak filled plaza. The light is still a soft, fading blue--only one or two cars passing along King Street, heading over the Bridge of Lions. There are two bums still asleep, one propped against an old black cannon, the other sprawled the length of a bench. If one of them were to wake right now, cracking a bleary eye in the fresh light, they might imagine they had seen a ghost, a boy in blue walking under the balcony of the old Governors house.

* * *

In the year 1782, a small group of traveling thespians came down the old King's highway, headed for Saint Augustine the capital of British East Florida. There had been little work in Charleston, and they had decided to walk south hoping for better luck and warmer weather. But ten miles outside of the city they heard fearsome cries from all around them, emanating from the bristling forest. Seminole Indian warriors melted out of the foliage, pointed flintlock muskets at the terrified band, and demanded they surrender their possessions. The performers were too petrified to tell the Indians that they had nothing of value. The four trunks full of costumes, props, and paste gems were offloaded, and the Indians left them to complete their journey.

The British officer, Lt. Nigel Trease, who took the actors report of their robbery, apologized to them for their trouble and recommended several parties in town who might assist them. He logged the report with his superior officer and thought very little about it--difficulties with the Seminole tribe had long been a problem in the area. But two weeks later he received a report from a young private who had just returned from a patrol of the area north of the city. The private, who insisted he could supply witnesses, said they had sighted a group of Seminole Indians dressed in very peculiar garb. One appeared to be wearing a black velvet cape, one of the women, a red satin gown. The Indians had raided the trunks they had stolen, and had been delighted with their contents. For several months, attired in bright plumes and paste gems, there were dark skinned Lear's and Ophelia's cavorting through the North Florida woods.

* * *

Bradley gets up to the Spanish Bakery on Saint George Street around 7:30am. They're not officially open yet, so he squeezes through the street doors and latches them back behind him.

Janine is sitting at a red painted picnic table under one of the cedar trees, her hair still down, smoking a cigarette.

"Hey, Janine!"

"Hey Bradley. You workin' today?"

He smiles. "Looks that way."

He opens the little screen door into the kitchen where Mark is baking bread.

Mark and Janine are brother and sister; their father and mother opened the bakery decades ago. Yellowed articles from the Saint Augustine Record layer the corkboard in the main room. One shows a little, gangly, toothsome Mark helping his father with the bread. He is wearing a little white sailors cap. Janine is absent from these. Bradley always had a feeling that going into the family business had always been Plan B for Janine. He wonders what Plan A might have been.

"Hey man, how's it goin?"

"Hey, Mark."

Bradley fetches a hot cinnamon bun off on one of the big trays, dribbles some maple butter on it from a plastic bucket that sits on one corner of the table.

"You working today?"

"Yeah."

Mark feeds him for free most days, trade for company, he supposed. Or maybe he just didn't have the heart to start charging him.

"Where you workin' today?"

Mark is loading balls of dough onto an enormous aluminum baking sheet--Spanish bread to go with the house peccadillo and chicken soup. For desert, estralitas, little date cakes.

"I'm over at DeMesa."

He chews on his cinnamon roll, quiet in the corner. Mark's trays clatter. He sips his coffee.

"You feelin ok?"

"Huh? Yeah. Kind of out of it. Sorry." Bradley remembers his manners, makes the customary inquiries: how's the house? (Mark and his wife were building their first), how's Dad and Mom? (Vacationing in Asheville), how's the class? (Mark taught out at the culinary school four nights a week). He nods at Mark's responses, makes the appropriate noises. Bradley looks at his watch.

"Goin to work?"

"Guess I better."

"See you for lunch."

"Thanks man."

* * *

The DeMesa house is a great pink edifice whose walls border the north end of St George for half a block. The roof leaked, the plaster bubbled and flaked from the walls, the windows and doors refused to shut when it rained. The museum had purchased it decades ago to compliment their other historic structures; the Governors house, the de Hita house, Gallegos and Gonzales house. But DeMesa was the largest, and by far in the worst condition.

It had begun as a modest two-room casa in the mid 1500s, a little kitchen in the back yard with a few orange trees. But as the town had changed hands from one to another and back again, the house had grown with each new set of owners, getting wider, deeper, adding another story. Rooms and styles were added in a somewhat haphazard fashion: Spanish, British, Spanish, American territorial, United States, Confederate States of America, then finally United States again.

The furnishings inside were all genuine antiques, but shared the house's spirit of elegance gone to seed. Hitchcock chairs with chipping paint, mahogany sideboards with water damage, table linens and cut crystal dusted in a uniform coat of gray filth from the tread of footsteps on the floors above, black shadows on the groaning wooden planks, sifting dirt and dust down over everything.

The first tour didn't start until 9:30am. Usually Bradley sat in the study with his feet on the desk, leafing through old books. Godey's fashions, proper etiquette, engravings of long dead, doe eyed Victorian damsels, with their white, rounded shoulders and modestly gloved hands. He walks into the study this morning, looks around. Then he walks out.

He goes upstairs and brings down a broom, a dustpan, rags and furniture cleaner. He sets the crystal on the sideboard, shakes out all the linens, washes the windows, sweeps out the house, wipes down all the glassware and china, brings fresh cedar boughs in from the trees outside and places them in the upstairs and downstairs fireplaces.

Bradley was only one of two guides in the entire museum who would work in the house. It was a well-known fact, a foregone conclusion really, that the DeMesa house was haunted as hell. Bradley had never felt or seen anything, but he had once heard the upstairs clock chime in the middle of one of his tours. He later discovered that the upstairs clock had no internal mechanism, it was an empty box. Last summer a tourist lady from Michigan sent them pictures she had taken in the children's room upstairs. Under the mosquito netting, near the ABC blocks and the little toy Indian canoe, a diaphanous, ectoplasmic figure seemed to lean over the bed. After he saw the pictures he started catching himself squinting at shadows in that little room, rendered to permanent darkness by the St Photios Greek Shrine next door, its walls just inches from the children's rooms only window.?

Andy called last night, Andy his roommate from college. Bradley hadn't heard from him in almost a year--the last time Andy called he had tried to set him up on a blind date with a girl in his office.

Andy worked for a big Fortune 500 company in Jacksonville, commuted along the thick veins of I-95 traffic every morning, lived in one of the new condos that were going up on the east side. He was surprised Bradley was still working at the museum. Actually, he had laughed.

"No way! Wow! How is that place?"

"Great. It hasn't really changed."

"I bet! Wow!"

Andy told him about an assistant's position that was opening up in his department.

"Man--it would be too awesome. You'd love it! Great benes, flex time, paid leave--and it starts at 35. Its way sweet!"

"Really?"

Bradley knew Andy from Flagler--they had taken Modern Film and Shakespeare together (Bradley for his major, Andy to impress girls). He was from a rich family, drove a sports car that he didn't pay for, and had a blonde tennis player girlfriend named Chris. It was a duel of the classes that Andy was blissfully unaware of, and that Bradley tried not to bring up, since Andy usually paid when they went out.

"So what do you say?"

"Um, yeah, I guess…"

"Awesome! Fax me your resume on Monday, and I'll make sure it gets to the right person."

"Um, thanks."

He felt flat and a little confused when he hung up the phone. He also felt, by turns, scared, paranoid, regretful, and somewhere in his chest, the faint ticklings of hope. It was almost as if he had dropped a penny from the top of the Empire State building and it had killed someone when it landed. He sat on the edge of his bed with the phone between his feet for some time after he hung up.

* * *

At 10:00am sharp, he opens the kitchen door to the DeMesa house to start the first tour of the day. Every surface glitters and gleams behind him in the cool, shadowy interior, the air is suffused with a warm Christmassy smell from the broken cedar boughs. Bradley stands smartly in the doorway, his hat cocked and his short cape hanging dramatically.

He opens his mouth to take a breath and introduce himself; a small boy, seeing his cloak and white shirt yells "Look Mom! It's Zero!"

Mom hisses at the boy, shakes his arm and smiles apologetically, all in one motion. "No honey, that's Zorro." Bradley manages a smile that is really more of a show of teeth, and begins.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the DeMesa House. In the year 1840, this house was home to the Loring family. Daniel and Emily Loring lived here with their three young children, and three slaves who maintained the house and cared for its inhabitants."

He shows them the kitchen, the dining room, the nanny's room, the library, the study, the sitting room, and then upstairs to the children's room, the master bedroom, and the grand parlor. He brings their attention to the Waterford crystal, the mahogany sideboards, the rope beds, the mosquito netting, the fainting couch. The dark portrait of Antonio DeMesa, hanging like a shroud at one end of the parlor. The songbooks by the piano, a pair of Emily's lace gloves, a leather bound bible; all the trappings of a perfect Victorian family. They murmur when they are supposed to, they laugh when they are supposed to. It goes perfectly. Everyone claps, and Bradley takes a small bow. Then something happens.

"What happened?"

"Sorry?"

It is a teenage girl with dyed black hair and an eyebrow ring.

"What happened to the people who lived here? I mean, after 1840 or whatever."

The group turned from the Cure groupie to look expectantly at Bradley. His mind raced for the charming, romantic answer he knew they wanted. Then, for reasons he could never articulate, he decided to tell the truth instead: "Emily Loring died of consumption in 1842. Daniel squandered the family fortune on liquor and women, and the children were packed off to live with their relatives in Atlanta. It was there that the two Loring boys died of yellow fever. Daniels younger brother and business partner, William, was so financially devastated by his brothers actions that he joined the French Foreign Legion to escape his creditors. The youngest girl, Elsie, survived to adulthood where she became a recluse in Macon, Georgia, who (legend has it), owned over 200 cats."

Suddenly, everyone on his tour is staring as though he had just recommended a fabulous recipe that included sewer rat as a main ingredient. He bites his bottom lip to suppress a rising grin and escorts the group out onto the back porch.

"Thanks folks! Enjoy your time in Saint Augustine!"

* * *

At lunchtime he locks up and walks to the Gomez house on the other side of the museum to give Anthea her lunch break. He sits on the wooden top to the well, and mentally opens up the glossy new prospectus of a life with a corporate paycheck. He imagines himself in sleek, crisp GQ clothes, confident and dashing, dancing in the trendy clubs, surrounded by the beautiful people. He sees a stylish new car, a cell phone, business cards, Italian shoes, gorgeous erotic strangers, eyes dilated in fascination with him.

He sits under the Compass oak and imagines all these things. He is staring absently at his scuffed, black colonial shoes. They do not belong to him--they were already broken in when he was hired. All of his work clothes (which he wore long after work, and sometimes to bed) belonged to the museum. His white linen shirts, one that had beautiful lace on the cuffs, the blue embroidered vest and britches, his tricorn hat with the big black ostrich feather, the velvet cape. If he left, he would be required (nay, compelled by the staff's big Swedish seamstress) to return all of it.

When it is his turn for lunch, he crosses the street to the bakery and sits at his table in the Florida Room. Its not really a room, just a yellow picnic bench behind the bakery itself, nestled between the south and west walls. This is the place Bradley sits every day, because it is quiet, and no one asks him for pictures, and Janine can slip sausage rolls to he and Smitty the cat from out the bakery's back window.

* * *

He conducts three more tours after lunch. By 4:30pm, much of the house's interior is getting dark, and the night's coolness is beginning to seep into the ground floor. He crosses the empty rooms with long strides, locking windows and doors as he goes. "I'll be out in a minute!" he yells. "Almost done! See you tomorrow!"

* * *

In the year 1761, a modest house stood on the east side of St. George Street. It was painted white with high walls, and had a single heavy oak door that led to a courtyard with a well, a garden, and three Seville orange trees. It was owned by two sisters, Juana and Catalina DeHita. Their father had been an officer in the artillery; when he was killed in an accident during the siege in 1740, they had inherited the family home.

Catalina's husband Antonio was a soldier, so both the girls worked to supplement his scarce garrison wages. Juana, the youngest, made Spanish lace, which she sold to the governor's family. Catalina sewed uniforms for the soldiers of the Castillo, and occasionally, vestments for the parish priests.

Each had been given a pair of gold earrings by their grandmother, a stern old woman who still lived in Madrid. Neither had ever met her; they'd never even seen Cuba, much less Spain itself. The earrings were small but beautifully made, and had little drops that hung from them and swung when the girls moved.

One evening Juana went out to the well to draw water. She leaned over the edge to pull up the bucket, filled her majolica pitcher, and then let the bucket fall back over the edge. She never heard the tiny golden splash. When she sat down inside, she reflexively touched her left ear and felt, below one brown earlobe, empty air.

One day Antonio returned home from the Castillo with a rumor--Havana had been captured by the British and the king had given up San Augustin to get it back. The barracks were in an uproar; two decades ago, the Castillo and her town had survived a withering siege by the British; now it looked like they had won after all. Catalina took this outside with her into the garden.

She sat on the small wooden bench until it became dark and the moon came up over the garden wall. Then she stood up and walked to one corner. Kneeling down, she dug a small hole under one of the orange trees, dropped in one of her earrings and covered it quickly with dirt. She walked noiselessly across the small yard and into her house, now warmly lit with candles and rush lamps.

Over two hundred years later, a college intern will find Catalina's earring, her old garden crisscrossed by numbered grids of string and stakes. Yards away, someone else will find a piece of a majolica plate that had shattered on her tabby floor one morning. And a button from Antonio's coat. Corroded, filthy with dirt and time. Little palm sized secrets.

* * *

Bradley girlfriend, Shawn, wakes up around 11:30. She sleeps in this late on all of her days off, not really from exhaustion, but really just because she can. From Thursday through Monday each week she works as a harem girl-cum tour guide at The Fabulous Zorayda Castle. It's not really much of a castle--it sits flanked by a tour train parking lot and the back end of "J'Amore'!" Wedding Chapel. But it has two giant palm trees up front, and funky tiles and tiny, garishly painted windows--as a castle it would fool only a small child. But Shawn loves it. She has worked there for two years now.

She lies in a heap of comforter and futon and remembers that it rained last night. This makes her get up--she puts in her contacts, pulls on a pair of shorts and goes outside into the back yard. She has the downstairs apartment of an old house on Aviles Street; this is her ritual whenever it rains.

She walks through the backyard, looking intently down at the earth. Her upstairs neighbors think she is a little touched, walking slowly and carefully, staring intently, moving like a little heron. She has a copper dish inside on her dining room table full of little pottery shards she has found. It's like a game, an Easter egg hunt, rainwater making the old colors vibrant and gleaming. Pieces of Indian cooking pots, British teacups, Spanish plates, all bright colors and worn edges. They make a scratchy, musical sound when she runs her fingers through the dish.

This time she comes back with a little piece of old green glass, maybe a piece of a British gin bottle. She drops it with its cousins, takes a shower.

This apartment is much different than the one she had in Jacksonville, a sterile, white cardboard box, right off the Arlington expressway. When she graduated college she already had a job; a technical writer for a big company. She commuted every day, carried along to the big glass building with its marble floors and planted atriums.

On her three-month anniversary, she drove to Ybor City in Tampa to party with some friends and got her bellybutton pierced. When she came back, she started walking the building's stairs on her breaks--up and down 13 flights for twenty minutes at a time. Her boss commended her--such ambition! Hard working and health conscious! Too bad more of our employees don't follow your example! She tried to take the compliment graciously. Shawn took to the stairs to escape the bland plastic landscape and the shiny little black lexan security cameras, which perched like roaches in corners and on ceilings.

On her six-month anniversary, Shawn went back to Ybor and got a tattoo. A boy two years younger named Tristan stood over the glass display case of piercing accessories as though it contained Cartier and Rolex.

"What do you think you want?"

He had a Chinese dragon screaming red down one forearm, a blue feather on the other with the name of his son. She stared at the walls, yards and yards of unicorns, roses, sunburst, hearts, teddy bears, Harley Davidson stuff. She shook her head. "Not this", she said, indicating generally with an upraised index finger. "Something drastic."

Tristan smiled. "May I show you my portfolio?"

Three hours later, she walked gingerly back into the humid Tampa night with a Maori design that covered her entire upper back and shoulders. She slept on her stomach for three nights. It reminded her of getting a sunburn on summer vacation.

The next Monday when she got in, she sat down at her desk and stared for a second at the little black security camera that pointed its little beady eye at her. She opened her planner and stared at the page long sheet of passwords and logins. She shifted uncomfortably under the heat of the new tattoo, her office clothing feeling like burlap on her newly sensitive skin. She looked at her work spread out on her desk, her coffee ready, her pens and pencils fresh; she didn't move. For some time, she regarded display in front of her like an art exhibit of some kind; perhaps it belonged to someone else, and they would be returning to finish it. She got up and headed down the hall to walk the stairs.

Later that day, she went down the hall to her boss' larger, window view cube. She excitedly explained her acceptance to a major university far away. Yes, an assistantship. So sorry to abandon you like this, yes, must be off as soon as possible. By Friday, she was gone.

Most days she walked down the cobbled streets in her gauzy blue harem girl outfit--she didn't wait to change at work like the other girls. On her way she would see Daryl, the UPS guy, Heidi and Quinn having breakfast at PK's, Moses and Ernie, the maintenance men from the Preservation Board. And strangers, and tourists, and some old friends from school. Everyone would smile and wave, stop to chat. She began to get her color back, looked more relaxed. She began collecting broken pottery shards in the backyard. She became the downstairs odalisque.

Today she spends most of her time reading "Memoir of a Geisha" and watching Mystery Science Theatre. Around three she gets up and goes through her kitchen cabinets, coming up with chips and dip and a bottle of wine.

Bradley shows up a little after five, still in his costume. Shawn hasn't been out yet today, so they go for a walk. They walk past the Spanish Military hospital, by the Governor's house, drifting towards the Lightner Museum.

* * *

In the summer of the year 1671, a small band of pirates were captured south of the City of Saint Augustine. Initially the men claimed to be castaways, poor survivors of a shipwreck who had walked up the coastline. But the quality of their clothes and the pink in their cheeks led the Spanish captain, Bernardo Gonzalles, to suspect less than

noble intentions. His men marched the group through the city's dark streets to the small jail. That night, believing their guards could not understand English, the men whispered their plans in the cell's dim candlelight. They were actually a scouting party for a larger group of pirates, three ships that were anchored just outside the pass. But their secrets were overheard and understood; the next morning, the governor ordered their execution in the town plaza.

English pirates were particularly hated in the little Spanish colony--Sir Francis Drake had looted and burned the town in 1586, and ever since the colony had been fiercely nibbled at by all manner of ocean going highwaymen. The governor decided over his breakfast that this scouting party was to serve as a definitive example for others.

The morning of the execution found the town's plaza filled to capacity. Entire families had gathered, some little boys carrying baskets full of cakes and bread their mother's had given them to sell. When the pirates were brought out by the Spanish soldiers, the crowd quieted. One by one, they were led up the fresh wooden steps of the scaffold, and garroted by the executioner. Six went up and were carried off, the jerks and shudders of each of the condemned men ending with a little collective sigh from the crowd. Then it was time for the last man, a pirate named Andrew Ransom.

Andrew was led up, tied, and the rope placed around his throat. The executioner tightened it once, then again, causing Andrew's face to flush, the rope to bite into his skin. Then the executioner tightened it a third, and then a fourth, cutting off Andrew's breath, making him gasp. And then he tightened it a fifth--and something miraculous happened. The rope broke, and Andrew fell to his knees, clawing the cord from his throat.

Here was something totally unexpected, and the town's deeply Catholic inhabitants stood unmoving for a moment, unsure of what to think. Then four men, Franciscan monks from the monastery, pushed their way to the front of the crowd. They decreed that this man had been saved by the hand of God, and before the soldiers could move to stop them, they carried the nearly unconscious man down the street, back to the monastery.

The governor was furious when he learned the news, which was the precise effect that Father Torres had hoped for. You see, poor Andrew had found himself as a pawn between the town's two greatest forces; the military might of the governor, and the ecclesiastical power of the church. The governor maintained that since the colony was a military one, his word was law. The monks maintained that since everything within the city walls had been consecrated by the Catholic Church, their word was gospel. The governor threatened to send the monks to one of the missions hundreds of miles out into the woods to minister to the heathen Indians. The padre threatened to excommunicate the governor. And back and forth it went.

One morning, Andrew was awakened by Father Torres, who sat down on a low stool in the little cell. After exchanging pleasantries, the old mans countenance grew serious, and he asked Andrew, through a translator, a simple question: "What can you do?"

The padre learned that before he began this dissolute lifestyle, Andrew had been a stone mason back in England. And he learned that during a stopover in Port Royal in Jamaica, a fellow pirate had taught Andrew about something wonderful to use when boarding a hostile ship--a mystical and deadly weapon called Artificial Fire. It was an early, and clumsy version of the first hand grenade.

Father Torres took this and marched through the dirt streets to the Governors house. The heavy black door to the official residence had been shut for almost two hours when the men emerged. Both were smiling.

To work off his punishment, Andrew would work as one of the masons in the town's most ambitious new projects, the construction of a great, gleaming white fortress. He would be free to come and go, but if he attempted to escape, he would be executed. And he had to show the captain of the artillery, Reynaldo Gallegos, how to construct and use artificial fire.

Six months later, his new wife Juanita woke up to an empty bed and a leather purse full of silver reales. There was no note--Andrew didn't know how to write. Some historians argue that he returned to his wife in Barbados. Others thought he might have gone back to his wife in Port Royal. He slipped through the city gates in the soft pre-dawn light and vanished forever.

* * *

"So what do you think you're gonna do?" she asks. They are sitting on a stone bench in the courtyard of the museum. Green ivy snakes and climbs up the brick walls towards the terra cotta minarets, and the air is filled with the chittering of chimney swifts, the splash of water in the fountain. He had told her about the phone call during their walk.

"I don't know," he said, but he did. He would be a fool not to take it. Finally have money. Finally be "doing something with his life". (He hears a 50's announcers voice in his head--Going Somewhere and Getting Ahead!)

Still, he was scared. He'd never commuted anywhere before--his car presently sat under a small carpet of oak leaves in his landlord's driveway. He'd have to buy new clothes, cut his hair, be gone from 6:30am to 6:30pm every day--he would never get to see the sun. He couldn't go outside. He'd be dressed presentably in a good job in a nice office with friendly, professional co-workers. He would become just like everyone else. The Hollywood persona he imagined became a parody--he was a Gen X sitcom character, the Art Geek. (If the Fates were kind, they would cast him as the art geek who gets laid a lot, but he didn't hold out much hope there). Bradley realized he had stopped breathing. He took a great gulp of air and sighed.

"Relax." Shawn tells him. "What happens, happens." She is studying her shoes, her blue harem girl slippers with the pointy toes and glittery paste gems. She reaches over and squeezes his hand, then pats it, before returning it to her side of the bench.

Bradley stares up at the statue of Flora in the corner of the courtyard. The fountains waves are reflecting sinuous pale blue lines over her marble body, a flickering of undersea lights. In the twilight, it seems for a moment like Flora will turn her elegant head towards these two children and for the first time, speak. The colonial boy and the odalisque sit like this, silently, for some time, each unconsciously hoping to hear a gentle proclamation, an answer, under the delicate clay towers and the darkening Maxfield Parrish sky.

* * *

Elizabeth Roberts-Hamel is, among other things, a Floridian (which necessitates a certain familiarity with Spanish, large reptiles, handguns, home made guacamole and 120 degree heat). She is also an artist and a writer; this is her second story to appear in storySouth. Her first, "The Ghost Tour", earned her a nomination for the e2ink 'Best of the Web' Fiction Anthology for 2003. She currently lives in Saint Petersburg with her husband Ray and a cat named Potato.

"Hunting for Shards" copyright 2003 by Elizabeth Roberts-Hamel.