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Introduction

In 1895, the town in the midst of our story no longer existed. Like so many wonders of human endeavor, it failed and left a confusion of rubble that its residents mistook for a township. They stubbornly imagined their home could be more than a tainted playground for their wealthy neighbors, but in time the Port became so much less.

The Port had a long, peculiar past that no one person knew. The songs and legends of its original people were lost, along with all of their jokes.

For those original people, the fishing was always superb and the climate, while swampy at times, was rarely severe. The river could be tricky and rough, but it was ordinarily a placid place for fishing and more protected than the wide Chesapeake Bay.

Over time, people murmured the Port was cursed and the evidence of some dark spell piled up until only the most deluded would argue there was no curse.

When the Port was thriving, crops had shipped out nearly every day of the growing season. Feisty stevedores and tea merchants had secretly participated in a revolutionary Tea Party. It was much like the one in Boston, only more sordid. George Washington was said to have supped in the Port, although there was only the vaguest confirmation in his diaries.

The Port was slowly superseded by the newer, greater port to the north. Their tobacco negotiations failed, and so much worse, the harbor was relentlessly filling with silt from the farms. Finally, the large ships could no longer reach the harbor at all, and to its embarrassment, the Port was then a port in name only.

The original people would not have recognized their home. None of the ancient trees remained, since all of them had been harvested for lumber long ago. Great sections of forest had been cleared for farming. Even the enormous stones that had marked paths and magic places had been disturbed and broken and utilized.

A few wars had touched the Port, but none marked the current populace as much as the Civil War. No fighting took place nearby, no piles of bodies were left on the roads, but the town was changed completely by the exit of all its brightest women and able-bodied men. Over four years, they returned in much smaller number, many of them missing limbs.

Technically victorious, their hopefulness was hollow compared to before. As they returned, the things that truly interested them were prosthetics and a means to dull their pain.

The underground railroad of little General Tubman passed through regularly, even throughout the war years. As viewed from the outside, the abolitionist network seemed entirely fortified in the Port, but the truth was entirely more complicated. Confederates mingled quietly there, too.

Many of the passengers of the underground railroad returned south after the war, only to be terrorized and run back to the north when they attempted to secure political office or any other ordinary endeavors of citizenship. The Port became home to them on their return; its Negro School was as attractive as its sense of relative safety.

The local newspapers of the day listed racial designations like a title, but only when the person was unknown and likely to be mistaken for someone else. “Mrs. Marchbottom, colored” was kept distinct from “Mrs. Marchbottom, white.” Help-wanted and position-wanted ads would likewise list races to avoid misunderstandings. A “respectable colored doorman” avoided answering an ad where he wasn’t safe and expressly requested. The many disadvantages of this practice hadn’t been revealed or brought to courts just yet. At the dawn of the 20th century, the purported good intentions of the editors were only warming up to hell.

Once compared to a “facetious pettifogger” by an Illinois newspaper, and having transformed into “The Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln was photographed under a great oak at the Port after the war was all but won. His speech wasn’t regarded as one of his best. He’d had some bad shellfish and was unusually curt.

In the historical record, there might not have been proof Washington ate at the Port, but it was beyond dispute Lincoln had spewed there.

The loss of the shipping business had led to a thriving trade in gambling and prostitution. Their professional pandering ranged from the routine to the most esoteric of erotic whims. But even as the town excelled at vice, violence was not routine; people had had their fill of killing.

The earliest railroad line had originally ended at the Port, so travelers to the Capitol had to hire a carriage to complete their journey. The business owners crafted an unnecessarily indirect route from the station to the livery, and somehow the carriages were never waiting for travelers at the station. They had to pass all of the attractions in order to continue their journey. They couldn’t get away without at least a glimpse of the shooting gallery, a few brothels and other games designed to lighten their wallets.

State authorities ignored the Port. They were occupied with installing water works in cleaner towns and keeping other places safe for upstanding citizens.

The few powerful types who took an interest were content to keep the town limping along in the shadows. It became a haven for their own scandalous wants, where anonymity was prized and protected.

Despite all the industrious grift, the residents didn’t make enough money to inspire the county to bother with them, either. Most of the men there couldn’t afford a family and all the women had a profession. If they weren’t educated or otherwise skilled, only one profession remained to keep them well fed.

When the railroad completed trestles and extended through to the city, the trains didn’t stop at the Port on schedule any longer. The “grand march of progress” swept up all the municipalities around them and still skirted the Port.

The surrounding towns, if they regarded the Port at all, considered it a place that had died but didn’t quite recognize it was dead yet.

 

Chapter 1—Helen

No reasonable person would have looked at eleven-year-old Helen Driscoll and thought, “Why, there’s a future undertaker.” She was too disheveled and too female for such a vocation and her liveliness would never suggest such a livelihood.

Helen burst into the front room of her home where her family was quietly gathered, to insist they look at the sunset. She didn’t wait for an answer, and she did not appear to notice when only the children followed her out to the wide wooden porch steps.

“It’s like the world is on fire,” whispered Helen’s little brother. The sunset was a strange, vivid red and the vermillion light ringed all of the horizon they could see.

She stood with her arms resting on the shoulders of her transfixed sister and brother. “I think it’s a very good omen,” declared Helen, with the certainty that children often decide such things.

Helen could not have been more mistaken. The weird sky was, in fact, a token of horrible disaster. Ten thousand miles away, Krakatoa had erupted with such vast destructive power it had altered the islands, the sea, and the sky around the world.

“Did you know she was outdoors?” asked their irritated father, speaking in the direction of their mother. “It’s a neverending ruckus. I have been telling you she reads too many adventure books meant for boys.” Their mother only sighed in reply. The sigh signified every debate they had ever had about latitude bestowed on children.

“Reading about it will keep her from sailing off for treasure,” said her grandmother, Gertie, her voice holding a conviction she did not feel, “Unless you want another pirate in the family.”

Gertie, who was not very reasonable on the subject, might have seen the future Helen would claim. She watched her, as Helen listened to terrifying bedtime stories meant to mold her into a dutiful and moral citizen. Her grandmother saw the sparks in Helen’s eyes. They weren’t only thrown from the flame in the lamps. This girl, whose strong and tiny hands pulled at her grandmother’s skirts and begged, “More about the goblins, please,” this girl was made of wonders.

***

Helen and her siblings enjoyed more freedom than their peers. They were tasked with incidental farm labor intended to build their characters, and they attended lessons at the little country school, but on long summer days they ranged much farther than their parents would have guessed. All that despite their mother’s laconic warnings from her sick bed about tramps and bear traps.

They charged through the shimmering fields and climbed unsuitable trees, bothered the neighbors’ weary livestock and lost shoes in the river. They lied and said the shoes must have been eaten by goats.

Helen’s sister, Fannie, liked to eavesdrop on her family, creeping unseen under the furniture, imagining she was a barn cat set on stealing scraps. Wally, their younger brother, struggled to keep up with the girls and was never, ever able to triumph at a day-long game of hide and seek.

Their father was stern and more than a little frightening to the children. They were grateful that he was usually distracted by delegating his responsibilities. He had a chief hand and a business manager, both of whom he was required to manage, and they in turn had staff to direct and complain about.

So as Helen’s father, also the paterfamilias, sat back in his favorite chair, comfortably engrossed in his newspaper, he was not inclined to look up as the children ran past him. He was focused and intent on enjoying a hard-earned moment of pure contentment. As they bolted through the front door again, their passage ruffled his newspaper, but still, he did not look up.

It took five tries before they disrupted his attention and caused him to rise and shake the newspaper after them. They heard him bellow, “What in thunder does a man need to do for some peace!” Scared, yet satisfied, they hid in the hay loft until their grandmother called them to dinner.

While their father grumbled, he rarely roused to action by these rituals. Ahead of his time in many respects, he preferred to leave all things parental to his wife and his mother.

The children’s mother, Margot, recognized that a lack of fearfulness was at the root of their unruliness. She watched Helen carefully during dinner. She believed that if Helen were more cautious, the other children would follow suit, as they followed her in everything else. Margot decided on a scheme and felt very satisfied with her inspiration.

When Helen came to her mother’s room to bid her goodnight, Margot would have a word with her. It had been one of her best days and she was relatively energetic. On her bad days, Margot stayed in bed and refused food all day, lamenting that nothing was worth the chewing. On her good days, she spent most of her time in bed but allowed the meals to keep her company. On her best days, they wheeled her to the porch for fresh air and to the table for dinner.

Her mother stroked Helen’s cheek affectionately. “I don’t mean to alarm you,” Margot lied, “but you must not allow yourself to become too excited, you know. Ever.”

Helen peered at her quizzically, asking why. Her mother’s eyes were dark and serious with worry.

“It’s your heart,” Margot said. “It’s not strong and I am afraid for you, the way you’re always running and climbing. Living with a terrible illness means that you must forego many sorts of entertainment and many sorts of strain.”

Helen was confused. Her mother often remarked bitterly that Helen should never become a farmer’s wife, it was too much drudgery and despair. The despair was evident, but her Margot didn’t engage in any drudgery that Helen had observed. For years, Helen thought that “drudgery” was another word for “delegated.”

Despite the complaining, Helen adored her mother. Unlike other adults, Margot listened patiently and Helen always knew where to find her.

So, she wondered, was her mother saying that Helen should avoid strain as she did?

“Do you mean I can’t jump rope?” The thought made Helen suddenly terribly forlorn. Jumping rope was her favorite occupation.

“You may,” Margot replied, “but only a little. Too much excitement could be deadly.”

Helen had a brief bout of despair of her own after that.

She lounged on the porch steps when it was time for children to churn the butter and told them dramatically, “Mother says I’m not to strain myself.”

Hearing this, Gertie stopped with her hands on her hips, “You had better churn,” she said, “otherwise you had better fetch a switch and then you can churn after your beating.”

Helen was moved to forget about her health for a little while.

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