Nessie had bustled back and forth all night with the rest of the Help. I haven’t told you about them, you see, for Ness Henry was so deft at her job, the rest of the Help were scarcely heard from or seen. She had a quiet, peaceful way about her, but if you happened to be in the right place at the right time, you’d hear her cursing somethin’ awful under her breath and making it clear to the rest of her charges that she was not to be trifled with. In spite of this (and perhaps, as a result of this), it was a great testament to Nessie’s character that she was so well-liked and respected among her crew.
Her crew, I say, meaning:
Jolene – the first housemaid and errand girl, a limber and gawky, taupe-headed white woman.
Boone – the groom for the stables, a stout and kind-eyed young black man– Ness’ cousin.
Chauncey – the valet who doubled as a butler, an older black gentleman who was quite blind, but knew the driveway and grounds like the back of his hands, and therein managed to keep his deteriorating eyesight hidden from the Masons so as the retain his position. Ness knew and looked out for him, keeping his secret as well as she kept those of her own.
Neena – Ness’ niece who was a kitchen maid, petite and charismatic and in her mid-twenties.
Of course, Theodore Wentworth was also under Ness’ charge, but you already know all about him….
And this is all to say that Ness was a well-trusted employee and though she knew everything (and I mean everything) about the Mason family (and about many of the other families in town by whom her relatives and friends were employed), Ness had managed to keep her own private things private. No one went snooping around about Nessie, because she gave no one cause to mistrust her.
Yes, Ness had bustled back and forth all evening with the rest of the Help, but she hadn’t forgotten about the mangled mess of animal remains from the day before in the yard. Everyone else had shaken it off, but she knew more about it than she had let on (as usual), and nearly every time she passed the large downstairs glass doors she let her eyes scan the yard outside. And every time she leaned over the kitchen sink to wash a dish, her ear tuned in to the sounds of the night coming through the cracked kitchen window….
Cicadas were the loudest. Then the sudden wind bristling gently through the soft, green leaves. She listened harder. Geese honking somewhere in the distance– most likely at the horses, since they were grunting and whinnying as irritated horses do. Crickets. The motor of a car passing by.
She closed her eyes.
Listen past the running water. Listen past the wind and the motors. If the stars had made a sound she’d have heard it and listen past that, too. And then, she found it. The nothingness. The stillness. The stale, hollowed-out absence of sound– and it was getting closer. A chill shot up her spine. She never liked to talk about it, but her heritage was rich in Cajun culture and she had inherited a magic of sorts. Most folks these days called it witchery, but Ness knew it was a gift. She could feel things. She could sense them. On occasion, she could touch something and it would spark to life, if only for a moment. But Ness was a level-headed woman, without time for unnatural nonsense. And when this –gift– presented itself to her (usually by interrupting something important), she indulged for only a moment before pushing down deep inside and willing it to stay put for at least a little while longer.
“Hee hee ah haaawww!” A disruptive laugh bellowed through the house. He was obviously drunk, whoever he was. “Uh-haaaaah!” Ness’ sixth sense was halted by the ungodly sound that was, I’m sure, meant to resemble laughter. She turned off the hot running water and poked her head into the parlor to see if she was needed. With everyone fawning over Annabell who, as it looked to Ness, must have walked into a wall or something akin, Ness thought she might have just enough time to sneak back to the servant’s house with a plate of leftovers.
She slipped off her white apron so she’d disappear into the backyard bushes unseen in her black frock. She crept out the side door, and never took an eye off the party inside or from Mrs. Mason who was arguing with Junior in a corner– most likely about why he wasn’t in bed when he was supposed to be and, “No, you are not old enough the join the party.”
The rest of the servants were attending to the guests, so the Help’s house was quiet as a mouse. She lit no candle, so as to remain unseen, even from a distance as great as it was from the main house. She felt around in the dark for the latch to the basement door, and then twisted the little black knob to the left, opening the door and stepping down a few stairs. She shut herself in the stairwell and then struck a match, lighting the little kerosene lamp that hung from a small chain attached to the ceiling. It was hot and musty, and the scent of the leftover chicken in her hand was overpowered by the smell of sweat and dirt. When she arrived at the bottom of the stairs there was another hallway to her left leading to the septic pipes. Instead, she turned to the right. She reached up and dug her finger into a little dip in the molding where the paint was scratched away. She pulled. Hard. The wall popped open. She stepped into a black room and stale air soaked with pain and secrets. A small tea candle flickered in the corner.
“I brought you some chicken,” said Ness, stepping further into the room, and she closed the wall behind her.