Corner of the Housetop
All his life Derek has searched for the truth about the parents he never knew: a father who died before he was born and a mother who followed soon after. After thirteen years of living and working on the Worthington Plantation—where his parents worked before him—he finally begins to think he'll never know who they were or what happened to them. Then one day, Jonathan, the eldest son of the household, and his wife come to stay.
As the new visitors stir up still waters at the plantation, facts surrounding Derek's heritage slowly unravel. A painting in the attic, strange dreams, a pile of letters he was never meant to find….
While Derek struggles to find the answers he has desperately wanted his whole life, Mrs. Worthington does everything she can to make sure he never learns the truth.
A quiet breeze swept over the low dunes of the beach and through the scorched reed grass. It fled up the gentle slope of the green hill at the edge of town, hurried by the church, wound through the main street, and passed the last of the shops without pause; up and up, farther and farther from the little buildings of Shady Meadows, farther and farther from the coast.
It carried the scent of salt and surf through a small, narrow grove of apple trees and up a worn, tree-lined carriageway. At the end of the weathered road, the drive widened into a dusty spread lain out before wide, wooden steps that led up to the main door of the Worthington Plantation House. On the stark-white steps stood a boy with a broom who paused at the breeze, then continued sweeping.
Working his way from one side of the entryway to the other, he swept dust and sand into the bushes that surrounded the large porch. Humming softly to himself, he moved down to the next step. When he finished that step, he took a rag from his pocket and wiped his brow. The late spring had brought a July-worthy heat wave to Southern Virginia, and with it, humidity that seemed beyond toleration. The boy just tucked his handkerchief back into his pocket and continued sweeping.
"Derek, what are you doing? It's too hot to be working! Come swimming with us!"
Looking up, Derek suppressed a sigh.
Across the yard, his clothes wrinkled and loose around his frame, stood Gabriel, a short, fair-haired boy with shining, blue eyes. He seemed to glow in the heavy sunlight.
To the best of his own knowledge, Derek had never "glowed" the way Gabriel did. His brown hair was hardly the shining mop of angelic curls the other boy's was, and his green eyes hadn't shown with that wondering, childishly amused light for so long that he barely remembered they used to. His skin, which might have been pale porcelain like Gabriel's, was instead bronzed with hours of chores under the hot, Virginia sun. He was a striking counterpart to Gabriel, whose every feature, from his looks to his personality, radiated the light happiness of an ignorant child.
And why shouldn't he be so pleased? Derek wondered bitterly, glaring down at his broom. "I have to finish this," he called back, not bothering to look up again, nor to point out other, more obvious reasons he wouldn't want to go along.
"Suit yourself. We'll be down by the old mill if you want to join us when you've finished." With that, Gabriel ran around behind the house. Derek could hear him ducking through the bushes that lined the back side of the lawn and disappearing into the shaded forest as he called after his friends who had gone ahead of him.
After all the years Derek had known him, Gabriel never seemed to change. The other boy had a thoughtless childishness that both intrigued and repulsed him.
Sweeping the last of the dirt off the last step, Derek sat down, arching his back and stretching his arms. That done, all he had left was to trim the hedges by the carriage house and feed the horses.
I might be done before it gets too late, he mused, standing and walking around the opposite side of the house from where Gabriel disappeared.
He walked by the carriage house to the small shed that stood behind it, fishing around his pocket for the key. Once he found it, Derek opened the door and stood the broom by the wheelbarrow. He stepped inside, forgoing any relief the shade might offer to the humidity that clung to his clothes. The stench of rotting boards choked him. Squinting into the dark, he lifted the shears off their hook then turned to leave, pulling the door behind him and closing the latch.
The distant babbling of running brook water floated up from the forest in the thick heat that settled over the grounds. It was the only sound aside from a soft song rising from the open front window as Beth, the slave woman who tended the house, bustled by with her cleaning rag and bucket. She seemed to be the only person the oppressive weather had not completely stifled, though her voice sounded muffled and wilted in the humidity. Even the overly enthusiastic cardinal that always perched on the apple tree outside Derek's bedroom window wasn't in the mood to sing.
Despite the weather, Derek couldn't help noticing that everyone around the housed seemed to be in a better mood than usual, though he couldn't have said why.
Perhaps, he mused dryly, it's because no one is getting yelled at today. That was something rare indeed.
Beginning to hum tunelessly once more, Derek made his way around the hedges, clipping back the stray branches that had started shooting out with the first heavy rains of the season.
Mud holes along the drive were evidence of the spring as much as the green on the apple and dogwood trees. White blossoms were coming out in small bunches here and there on the honeysuckle bushes that stood around the small pond to the right of the carriage house, drawing bees out of their hives, and the violets that grew across the side field were bright and healthy.
An hour later, Derek was back in the shed, putting the shears in their place. Only the horses to feed then he could sneak away to the river—
Any ideas of swimming left Derek's mind as he turned and saw Gabriel and two of his friends—Derek's other reasons for not wanting to follow Gabriel to the old mill—coming through the bushes. All that was left of his thought was an annoyed groan and a silent reminder to himself that getting into an argument would not be the best way to finish his day.
"I thought so, but I didn't know," Marcus Baxter laughed, shaking his head.
"How could you not have noticed—" Anthony Clayton stopped, his broad grin turning into a slight smirk. His eyes narrowed like a cat's as it sights a fat squirrel. "Derek, why didn't you come swimming with us?" he asked in an overly friendly voice. "It's awfully hot today. A swim would be nice. Especially after spending all morning working like a nigger. You're not a nigger, right? You're skin's so dark, sometimes I forget."
Without answering, Derek turned from the boys and started towards the side field where the stables and riding corral stood.
"Awfully rude," Anthony sneered loudly. "Didn't your mother teach you any manners? Oh, wait. You don't have a mother. That's right. I always forget that, too."
Just ignore them, Derek told himself, quickening his pace.
The last time he had argued with Anthony, he had ended up with extra chores and two days without meals. Mrs. Worthington had said it was idleness that bred discontent in boys like Derek, and that some good old-fashioned hard labor should work it right out of him.
"And, for extra measures"--he recalled her sugary voice vividly--"we'll just starve it a bit, too, I think."
Of all the people in the world who Derek felt he had a right to hate, Martha Worthington was at the very top of the list. She was an elderly woman with a sweet voice and a biting tongue. Having been widowed for nearly ten years, Mrs. Worthington was bitter about everything. In truth, she seemed to enjoy being bitter, and she especially seemed to enjoy taking out her bitterness on Derek.
On the opposite note, Derek also felt Mrs. Worthington was one of the few people to whom he should be most grateful. Before he turned a year old, both his parents had died. Mr. and Mrs. Worthington had let him stay in their home, and clothed and fed him out of their own pocket. His parents had been servants in the Worthington home. Dear, beloved servants who were devoted and loyal, as Mrs. Worthington reminded him frequently.
Just what sort death they met, she never said, only that it was terrible, and it was evil of him to even ask her to recount it. Even speaking of the dead was evilness because wasting breath on things that could not be changed, and which, therefore, did not matter, was idleness. Wasting good time was the worst form of idleness, and idleness was the devil's work….
After so many extra chores, and so many lectures from Mrs. Worthington about how he was evil in one way or another, Derek had given up any hope he had initially had of ever learning about his parents.
As the stables and corral came into view, the other boys' ringing laughter faded behind Derek. It was nothing he wasn't use to, especially from Anthony Clayton and the youngest of the Baxter boys. Knowing it was coming didn't make it any easier to hear, but there was some consolation in knowing that his parents had, in fact, been good and honorable people. Holding tightly to that idea, Derek satisfied his anger in knowing that Anthony's parents rarely did anything that could have been considered good or honorable. They were wealthy, conceited socialites from Richmond.
Derek smiled a little as he walked by Devon, the old slave who cared for the horses. "I know. Sorry. I had to do the hedges today and they took a little more time that I thought they would."
"Tell that to the horses. They're use to gittin' fed at a certain time."
"I know. I'm sorry."
Planting his hands on his hips, Devon shook his head, the loose skin under his chin wagging from side to side. His black, leathery face was set in a stern frown as he watched Derek take the metal pail off the nail it hanged on and fill it with oats. "Sorry ain't gon' feed them horses!"
"No, but I am. So everything's fine." Derek reached out and stroked Blueberry's neck. Blueberry was a tall horse with thick, brown hair. "Look at you, Blue. Withering away. That a rib sticking out, old boy?"
"Don' git wise," Devon snarled before stalking out of the building, pitchfork in hand. Despite being old and shrunken, Devon was fairly formidable. He had been a slave on the Worthington Plantation for nearly thirty-five years and had obviously taken a few leafs out of Mrs. Worthington's book over the decades.
Derek poured the oats into the feeding trough, patting Blueberry's nose. "He's just jealous because he doesn't eat as well as you. Brought you a carrot, but don't tell anyone."
Blueberry nudged his arm and took the offered gift.
A loud bray made Derek look at the second stall. "Jealous? Well, you're just a bullying, old bag of bones, so you can wait your turn."
The mare in the second stall was Lady Sarah Mary-Ruth Worthington, Mrs. Worthington's very own pride and joy. She was white with a dark, bobbed tail and a dusty brown mane. Pushy and demanding, she stretched the limit to which a pet should resemble its owner. It was sometimes difficult to see where the woman stopped and the horse began when Mrs. Worthington took Lady Sarah Mary-Ruth out riding, which didn't happen very often anymore.
As much as Derek would have loved the opportunity to call Mrs. Worthington a "bullying, old bag of bones" to her face, he was too happy at her sudden show of kindness earlier that morning to be very upset that he would never actually have the chance. In a rare good mood, the woman had smiled at him when they passed in the hall and offered to let him feed the horses: one of the few chores not on his regular list, but which he was constantly asking to do.
Derek loved being in the stables. Not only because that meant he didn't have to be in the house where he was an open target for criticism, but also because it was quiet and peaceful in the dim building. Also, he'd had an affection for Blueberry ever since the horse was bought as a birthday present for the then seven-year old Gabriel. Blueberry seemed to be the only one on the plantation who didn't enjoy giving Derek a hard time about one thing or another.
Lady Sarah Mary-Ruth neighed once more, kicking the stall door and snorting viciously.
"All right. If it'll shut you up." Haphazardly scooping oats into the pail once more, Derek sauntered to the other trough. "Yes, ma'am," he said with a slight bow, dumping the contents out unceremoniously.
With another snort and huff, the old mare dipped into her trough, grunting contently as she ate.
Looking at the mare, Derek asked, "Are you a pig or a horse?" Walking back to Blueberry, he hopped up on the side of the gate, perching on the wooden divider between the two stalls. He stroked the horse's neck once more. "You know, you should have been mine. When was the last time Gabriel visited you?"
Just then, Devon shuffled in, his feet slide-stepping over the dirt floor, pushing up a small pile of hay at the toes of his battered shoes. "If yer done, ya can git back up the house. I have things to do an' yer just in the way. And don' sit up there!"
"Sorry," Derek said yet again, swinging his legs over the front of the gate, jumping down, and jogging towards the door. The last thing he wanted was another lecture.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry! Sorry never got nothin' good done!" the man yelled, whipping his hat off and swatting Derek on the back of the head on his way out the door.
"Yes, sir," Derek called over his shoulder, jogging up to the top of the little knoll that separated the field from the lawn in front of the main house.
Up on top of the hill, looking down at the house, he scowled. The thought of going inside did not appeal to him, especially if Anthony and Marcus hadn't left yet. With barely a moment of thought, he turned left and ran towards the forest. No one would notice if he was a little later getting back, and the thought of a quick swim was too tempting to pass up.
Jogging along the back of the lawn until he reached the break in the bushes, Derek ducked down and scurried through the hole. He gave no heed to the few branches that caught his clothes and skin. Just as long as he was out of sight before Mrs. Worthington decided to send Gabriel and his friends out to find him, he really didn't mind a few tears and scratches.
Under the shade of the canopy, Derek left the pounding sun behind only to be choked by humidity in the midst of the tall trees and bushy shrubs, the need to breathe almost painfully persistent in the thicker air. Banana ferns and saplings leaned over the path, brushing against his legs. Spanish moss clung to the old trees as he moved closer to the water. Humidity and perspiration soaked his shirt.
As he made his way down the winding path towards the sound of the river, Derek couldn't help but feel like he was lost in some great adventure like the ones Mr. Worthington used to read to him and Gabriel out of travel journals when they were very young.
He was now wandering in the thick of some exotic jungle with nothing but his own survival instincts to keep him alive. The pines grew vines and the rush of the river was transformed into the crashing of a thundering waterfall. Around every bend in the pathway there could be any number of giant beasts waiting to pounce on him and eat him for dinner.
A rustling rippled through the low underbrush, scattering leaves as a gray squirrel popped its head out from behind one of the trees just to the right of the walk.
"Some giant beast," he muttered, chuckling at himself. Derek was not one for imagining fairy tales, but every now and then, especially enveloped in the playground of his youth, he let his mind wander.
It had been nearly eight years since he and Gabriel had first come exploring down in the forest, pushing back branches and crawling under bushes. As the years went by, their roughly hewn path to the river cleared more and more into a decent walkway.
It was also well used because it was the easiest way to get to Derek's quiet spot; the place he went when he needed to be alone and sure no one would find him. Every time he had too much of Mrs. Worthington or Gabriel's friends, he would duck into the bushes and make his way along the familiar path to his Village. It was so much his own that Derek had never told Gabriel about it, not even back when they were friends and spent their days playing and getting into trouble together.
Remembering the ways they used to torment Beth and Devon, Derek could not help but smile again. A longing gripped his stomach, but he pushed it aside as quickly as it came. Things changed and spending time wanting the old ways back was not productive.
"It's idleness," Derek told himself out loud, mocking Mrs. Worthington as he jumped over a fallen branch. "And idleness is evilness." He laughed suddenly. If it wasn't for the fact that he hated the old woman, he might find her to be the most hilarious person he had ever met.
Pushing aside another branch, Derek came out on the edge of the river a few yards down from an old, stone mill. The waterwheel stood still, moss growing on its paddles and between the outside gears. The wood was rotting and several sections had been split or broken from being climbed on. When they were younger, it was always a fun game to see who dared climb the highest and jump off into the running water.
The few windows that the building had were missing glass and shutters. The doorway was nothing but a gap between two boards that had fallen from the inside ceiling. Balanced on top of the stone walls was a concaved mass of wood and tree branches that was barely recognizable as a roof. In all the daring adventures Gabriel and Derek had been on, neither one had managed to find a way to get more than two feet inside the old mill.
Derek sighed. "You've seen better days, old friend," he told the building as he sat on a flat rock near the edge of the river. He pulled off his shoes and set them side-by-side on the ground. He stuffed his socks inside them, then took his sweat-soaked shirt off and draped it over the rock to dry.
The bank was slippery and warm, dark mud seeped up between his pale toes as he made his way to the water. Because there were thick blackberry bushes all the way up the both sides of the river bank, the only way to the swimming hole was by wading down through the water. As he made his way downstream, weaving around the larger rocks, he slipped occasionally on smooth stones and patches of moss.
As he walked farther, the current slowed and the river widening out into the swimming hole, which was a deep pool that had formed behind a beaver dam. He had never actually seen a beaver near it, so Derek thought it must be very old, its constructors long since moved out.
As he came to the swimming hole, Derek walked onto the far bank and climbed up a large, round rock which loomed over the right side of the dam. Taking a deep breath, he jumped off, sinking into the cool water. It was the first real break from the heat he'd had all week.
Derek spent several minutes swimming back and forth from one bank to the other. Diving to the bottom of the deep pool, he brushed his fingertips on the sandy rocks below before kicking to the surface, and then diving back down again. He jumped off the boulder several more times—his favorite pastime while at the swimming hole. He took no notice as he stubbed his toes and scraped his fingers on his way up the jagged, sloped stone to his diving platform. Though he knew he had stayed longer than he should, Derek was still surprised to hear an osprey cawing in a far-off tree.
Is it really that late? he wondered, sinking back into the water. With a sigh, he climbed back up the rock for one more jump before he forced himself to leave.
On his way back upstream, Derek took his time and kept close to the bank, scanning the bushes for ripe blackberries. Aside from a couple small ones, the bushes were bare of edible fruit.
"Figures. Just because I'm hungry."
When he reached the break in the sticker bushes, Derek climbed out of the water and walked over to where his shoes and shirt still set. He pulled a lady bug off his shirt and put it on, then dried his feet with his socks and slipped them into his shoes.
His socks knotted in one hand, he followed the winding path back up through the woods. As he came around the final wide bend, there was a low rustle of leaves and the crunching of footsteps on fallen tree limbs ahead on the path.
"Derek, are you down here?"
He groaned at Gabriel's voice. "Yes. I'm just coming up now."
"Better hurry. It's nearly supper. Mother hasn't noticed you're gone yet, but she will soon."
Walking around the finally large tree, Derek saw Gabriel standing at the entrance to the forest, his clean clothes slightly rumpled from having crawled through the little break in the hedges.
"Thank you so much for your concern," Derek said coldly.
"Don't be like that. I just don't want you to get in trouble."
Gabriel's eyes narrowed and he swelled like an angry bullfrog. "I could have told her that you'd left your chores"
"Which would have been a lie. I finished everything. And that's not what I'm mad about anyway, so just shut up about it." Derek pushed by the other boy and ducked through the bushes, his sleeve catching on a branch and tearing more.
Gabriel pushed his way out a second after him, being painfully careful not to snag his own good clothes. "Then what is it?"
Not looking back at him, Derek walked down the lawn towards the house.
"I can ignore you, too!" he called.
Please do, he thought venomously. If he had already forgotten what happened earlier with Anthony, Derek didn't feel like explaining it for him.
As if hearing Derek's thoughts, he asked, "Is this about what Anthony said? Because if it is, you can stop being angry with me about it. I did not say anything."
Turning on him, Derek sneered, "No. You didn't."
"What would you want me to say?"
"Absolutely nothing, Gabriel."
"He didn't mean anything by it," Gabriel said by way of a weak defense.
"Like I already said, shut up."
Derek walked into the house through the side door, kicking his shoes off in the hallway so they wouldn't track mud up the stairs. Taking the narrow, short steps two at a time, he pushed open the door at the top of the stairs, peeking out to make sure Mrs. Worthington wasn't in the hall. When he saw that the coast was clear, Derek slipped through the door and closed it quietly, then walked into the small room across the hall, which he'd lived in all his life.
It was about the same as it had been for as long as he could remember. There was the same straw bed pushed against the same wall, the window over its head to give him extra light in the evenings. A single candle holder with a wilting bee's wax candle stood on the low table near the far side of the room, which really wasn't that far from the near side of the room. A small chest sat in the corner, holding nothing more than a second set of clothes and an old Bible that, according to Mrs. Worthington, had belonged to his father.
The only part of the room Derek really liked was the section of baseboard that he had pried off when he was eight. He had built a small wooden box with scraps from the shed and nailed it into the crawl space behind the wall so when he pulled the board out he had a secret store box where he could put anything he didn't want anyone else to find. It was another of the few things he never shared with Gabriel.
Unbuttoning his shirt so quickly that he popped off one of the buttons, Derek tossed his clothes down the laundry shoot and took the clean set out of his chest. He was pulling on his second sock as he hopped out of his room, scurrying to get downstairs in time for dinner. It was one of his regular duties to help Beth set out the dishes, and Mrs. Worthington was as bad as Lady Sarah Mary-Ruth if she didn't get her supper on time.