|Publisher:||University of Arkansas Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Vivienne Schiffer is a novelist and filmmaker who grew up in Desha County, Arkansas, and lives in Houston, Texas. She is currently at work on various film projects, including Relocation, Arkansas, a documentary about the Arkansas camps, as well as a second novel.
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Camp NineA Novel
By Vivienne Schiffer
The University of Arkansas PressCopyright © 2011 The University of Arkansas Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTo understand the story, one must understand the place, for the events could not have transpired anywhere else. Just as the beginning of life itself was dependent on the peculiar environment that made possible its first spark and flash, the story of Camp Nine is a product of the surroundings in which it occurred.
The afternoon it happened, in July of 1942, my mother and I had taken our dinner of watermelon and toast on the porch. Both the menu and the location were, in themselves, manifestations of that custom known as summer, where conversations were shorter and slower. The heat, a tiresome, unwelcome guest in every room, drove us outdoors into the shade whenever possible, and dictated a conservation of energy from the earliest hours. It spread over us at sunrise, informing our dreams before we'd even roused from sleep, and sapped our strength at noontime. By suppertime, few philosophies were so keenly felt that one could be compelled to expend the breath to argue. Even our nighttimes, spent tossing in our beds, were made fitful by the heaviness of the air.
I was an odd child, tall for my age and gangly, the color of October wheat. My plain features were not improved by my uneven, homemade pageboy haircut. I might have found comfort in having inherited the exotic black silk of my mother's hair or the patrician blond of my father, but I was dealt instead a mousy and unremarkable brown. My eyes were the deepest, impenetrable black, the kind that took in light but reflected nothing in return. Everything about me seemed to fade into the wallpaper around me. I studied my beautiful mother's habits, observing her closely for clues on how I, too, could be as fine a lady as she, but it seemed then impossible to attain. I could follow her, but only as a shadow.
She was a lovely woman, despite the gray, shirtwaist dress she wore as regularly as a uniform. In those days before Camp Nine changed everything, gray and black were the only colors I recall her wearing, as if she were still in mourning for my father, who by then had been dead for more than five years, or trying to mask the fact that she had once been, and still was, regarded as a great beauty. Her dark eyes were the shape of almonds, and her thick brows were curved and peaked, giving her the appearance when she spoke of being extraordinarily attentive. She wore her lush hair pulled back loosely, the ends curling slightly across the plain fabric on her shoulders.
Mother and I took our dinner in small, languid bites. My thoughts at that moment are frozen in time: I was studying a red wasp navigating the spiny crown of a purple coneflower. I don't know what Mother was thinking. She was probably already contemplating what we would have for our supper. In any event, the last normal, ordinary thing that happened was that my grandfather's black Lincoln Continental emerged from the cypress bend in Rook Lane and barreled past in a cloud of dust. The wall clock inside our living room sounded once to note the hour.
Mother shook her head. "Dinner time in the big house. You can set your watch by Walter's stomach."
No matter where in the county he was when dinner time approached, my grandfather appeared every day precisely at one o'clock, as if he had internal springs and dials. The Lincoln slowed and bounced up into the concrete drive across our gate, disappearing from view behind a grove of oaks.
Mother and Grandpa feuded famously, about things trivial and important alike. Though she was only his daughter-in-law, I now realize they were more alike than not, but at the time that was one of the many things about which I was unaware. I was just twelve that summer, but Mother often treated me as if I were much older, probably because she had no one else with whom to share her thoughts. She had confided in me that her latest quarrel with Grandpa was over Hammond Ryfle, our plantation foreman.
Mr. Ryfle was supposed to have already cleared Mother's hundred acres upstream of Black Bayou, but spring had come and had passed without him attending to it. He was, instead, occupied with clearing the poorest of my late father's land, a large plot of virgin timber and swamp that was known as Camp Nine. He swore it was on instruction by Grandpa, whose refusal to answer Mother's questions aggravated her like a knotted neck muscle. Just seeing Grandpa's Lincoln pass caused her lips to draw up tight.
"Is Mr. Ryfle all done at Camp Nine?" I asked.
Mother leaned back and set her plate, littered with rind and crust, on one of the glass-topped wicker end tables that flanked the flowery cushioned swing. "I saw him driving the bulldozer off yesterday," she said, flicking a stray crumb from her lap into her hand and crushing it with a napkin. "It's too late to plant anything, but I suppose he could start laying by the fields. I don't know what Walter's got planned." She gathered a corner of the napkin and worried it into the table, wiping the ring left by her iced tea glass. "I quit asking."
We rocked for a few minutes, occupied by our own thoughts in the pleasant quiet, but then it happened. A faint sound rose in the distance, down Highway 1, a tiny rippling of the air that was unfamiliar. We looked at each other, Mother frowning.
"What's that?" I asked.
She blinked in consternation, less alarmed than puzzled. "Sirens?" she ventured.
Try as I might now, I can't say that I had ever heard a siren anywhere other than from the radio shows I loved to listen to at night, while the crickets sang outside. There was no police force or hospital in our town of Rook. We never had emergencies that required any hurry, and if we had, our lack of basic infrastructure would have left us unable to respond with sirens. But as the alien sound approached, the whirring turned into an ear-splitting cry. I scrambled to the edge of the porch and pressed my nose against the screen, staring through the pale pink and blue hydrangeas, fascinated by the novelty but unwilling to leave the safety of the house.
Two state trooper vehicles passed on the highway, lights flashing. They moved slowly, crawling to a stop at the dirt road that crossed the tracks, leading to Camp Nine. Behind them bundled a line of twenty or thirty trucks, each bearing a long trailer piled with mountains of lumber.
"What on earth?" Mother shouted, wrenching the screen door nearly from its hinges and taking the steps down into the brittle yard. I thought she might be heading on foot to Camp Nine, but as I sprinted behind her, she turned and marched the length of Grandpa's driveway, pausing only once to take in the spectacle of the procession passing through town and vanishing from our sight.
She burst through the door of Grandma's cookhouse and stalked to the middle of the room, but I remained just inside the door, obscuring myself in the shadow of a punched-tin pie safe. Grandpa sat hunched over a wooden table draped by a worn checkered oilcloth. Odessa, my grandmother's housekeeper, stood before the sink, her hands submerged in soapy water. She was startled by our sudden intrusion, but Grandpa pretended to notice nothing.
We were all accustomed to knock-down, drag-out fights between Mother and Grandpa. With his only son dead and gone, Grandpa now had to deal with Mother in matters of my father's estate, which included me. Their sensibilities could not have been more opposed, but I believe that deep down, he admired her spunk and spark. What was certain was that he enjoyed a skirmish with her as much as a good bird hunt.
"Walter?" Mother demanded. "What in hell is going on over there?"
Odessa pulled her hands from the water and ran them over her apron, then made a hasty exit out the back door and onto the wash porch. Grandpa's eyes darted sideways at Mother, but the fork continued its arc into his mouth. He chewed and glanced at a clock. "Less than five minutes," he said, swallowing. "That's some kind of record, even for you, Carrie Morton."
Whatever was happening at Camp Nine was something Grandpa had orchestrated, and she demanded to know what he had planned. In my lifetime, not so much as a new house had been constructed in Rook, and the lumber being delivered that very moment was enough to build an entire city.
Grandpa set down his fork and lifted a linen napkin. "You know, yourself Carrie, that land my son bought has no value for farming. It's as worthless as a Confederate dollar."
"It's not yours," she said.
He waved the napkin at her. "Now don't start that again."
"It belongs to Chess," she said.
"Used to," he said.
In the plantation world in which we lived, land was power. Those with it controlled those without it, pure and simple. I'd overheard snippets of conversations between my mother and our own beloved housekeeper, Ruby Jean Monroe, that I had some measure of fortune of my own, but I'd never known her to address it directly. And now, before I'd even known I was in possession of such entitlement, it was gone, sold out from under me. I backed against the screen and pressed into the door jamb, hoping for more information.
Grandpa lifted his sweating glass of iced tea and took a sip. "Where the hell'd Odessa go? This tea needs sugar." His eyes searched the table for the sugar bowl.
His unwillingness to argue with Mother was a sure sign that she was defeated. She sank into a chair. "You've sold it."
Spying the bowl behind the napkin holder, Grandpa popped two cubes of sugar in his glass and stirred it. "To the gov'ment," he said.
The deal was done, and there was no use in her fussing about it. Although she pressed him, Grandpa refused to answer her questions. It might have been a military base, but there was already a new airfield near Little Rock, and one of the South's largest military installations, Camp Shelby, was not that far away in Mississippi.
The issue of Grandpa's stewardship of my land aside, we might have welcomed a military presence, we'd grown so fatigued of our own insecurity. In those early days of the war, how were we to know that we wouldn't be invaded, as had Poland and France? Talk had already been growing about the combatants in our midst. There was a new prisoner-of-war camp for Italians fewer than thirty miles to our south. And when Mother asked if Camp Nine were to become a German prisoner-of-war camp, the suggestion seemed to hit pay dirt with Grandpa. The faintest hint of surprise passed underneath his glasses.
"Now, Carrie," he said, settling back in his chair, "it's not my business now. I got a pretty penny for it."
Her face contorted. "Is that all you care about?"
"What else is there to care about? I can't make any money farming it. I told Little Walt not to buy it in the first place. If you'd had any sense, you'd have told him that, too."
"You've lost your mind, Walter Morton."
Their little squabbles had always seemed to be of little consequence. She was a Progressive—my grandmother dismissively called her that to her face, much to Mother's concealed delight. By contrast, it was entirely in Grandpa's best interests that the status quo of our community remain as unchanged as possible. But those were just ideas. This time, ideas translated into things, things we could define. And this time, she could not win. The contest was over before she even knew it had begun. I watched her realization of that fact color her features as we trudged toward home.
It was the first time I understood the ways in which my grandfather controlled us. Other than the small parcels that Mother owned herself, he owned this county, and the crops from that land provided the only income my mother and I had left to live on. Looking back, I should have taken comfort in Grandpa's refusal to be dominated by something as paltry as a world war. To him, that conflict was just another chance to profit. Regardless of the life-and-death struggles being waged on foreign soil, ours was his world, and by that July evening word had spread as far as nearby McHenry that German prisoners of war were coming to Camp Nine.
* * *
It had been ten years since our president had told us that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. He'd been speaking of the Great Depression, an event that hardly anyone in DeSoto County had even noticed. Here, where the few of us who were wealthy were exceedingly so and everyone else was desperately poor and always had been, the financial crisis was just a newspaper headline. But the terror and uncertainty that accompanied the war was different. Even though it was being played out across vast oceans, every boy going off to war, every bit of news that filtered back to us of Axis victories, every mention of Pearl Harbor, brought a heightened anxiety about the outcome.
But life had to go on, if not as usual, then as a narrative in which there were repeated threads. Ever since my father's death, my mother had been engaged in silent wars of her own, not just with Grandpa, but also against Hammond Ryfle. As a farmer myself, married to a farmer, I now understand her dilemma. No foreman was going to take orders from a woman. It simply wasn't done, and I'm sad to say not much has changed, at least in that regard. She may have been free to employ someone else, but using my grandfather's foreman gave her some small measure of protection, and she tolerated him as best she could.
On the surface, it seemed Mr. Ryfle tested her patience with his broken promises, baleful conduct, and deceitful talk, and I know she suspected him of keeping more of her crop than he accounted for. But running beneath these complaints was a current of something deeper. They avoided each other, and when they were forced to interact, their exchanges played like a game that had secret rules.
Any visit by Mr. Ryfle or mention of the Ryfle name brought a cloud across my mother's brow, followed by a loud click of her tongue against the back of her teeth, a gesture of derision that she had inherited from her mother. Sometimes, the tension drove her to take to her bed, felled by what she called a sick headache which might last for days. I endured those episodes silently, stoically, choosing not to risk her ire by asking her why she put up with him when she could just hire some other foreman from the levee to work our land.
Instead, I retreated to Ruby Jean. All the questions of life that I needed answered I lay at her tired feet while she ironed. Cornering her while she was involved in a steady, repetitive task made my questions easier to ask, and if she didn't feel like answering or couldn't find a way, easier for her to ignore.
I'd asked about Mr. Ryfle just days before. Ruby Jean sighed and gave the same response, as if my questions were part of a short-answer quiz which she'd already memorized. "Bad blood is what it is," she said, sprinkling the stretched and starched cotton with dots of water from a Coca-Cola bottle, the top of which had been punctured in several places by an ice pick. "It's bad blood that started a long time ago and you best stay out the way of that whole Ryfle family." She propped the hot iron on the edge of the board, twisted her arms about her waist, and began to hum, withdrawing as if just talking about the whole Ryfle affair was bad luck that needed to be opposed by her peculiar combination of Christianity and the voodoo that was still prevalent in the black community that lived along the bayou. Once Ruby Jean was in that place in her mind, there was no use to try further conversation.
Although the Arkansas side of the Delta was more lush and fertile than the Mississippi side, it was still largely wild and possessed none of the graceful history of the Old South. Civilization may have spread west to the Pacific more than a century before, but it had leapfrogged over our little pocket of forest and swamp, leaving us to survive in a different kind of frontier.
In the Arkansas Delta, one's daily encounter with a dozen different things could result in tragic death—from the most common and ordinary things like a rusty nail, a sleepy water moccasin, or a plain fever to the extraordinary, such as a tornado or a laborer, drunk and aggressive after a payday binge. An ordered community, as small as it might have been, was paramount to keeping catastrophe at bay.
Excerpted from Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer Copyright © 2011 by The University of Arkansas Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Arkansas Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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