BY BETH BROWN
News of what happened near Farmville spread quickly. The retreating wagon train had slowed because of the narrow bridge, and the Union cavalry gained ground. It was destined, Virginia had made certain of it, and the soldiers would be arriving to put an end to things soon.
She and Ophelia had gone over every detail this time—there had been too many lives lost for there to be any mistakes. The cryptic letters Virginia exchanged with friends farther south had all advised her in the same manner. Their housemaids knew of the dark and hidden ways to make crops thrive or die, make their masters ill, and how to prevent carrying a child. Virginia was certain they also knew how to undo the mess she’d made.
It had been nearly seven days, but she tended the spell without rest. Ophelia made sure that she ate, and she sat and talked across the little side table with her through some of the long nights, but Ophelia needed to keep the house running and divert Wilmer’s attention when his curiosity hinted at cat-like.
Virginia sat by the oval side table. It was demure, unassuming, even with its spool-turned legs. The table was one of the few things she made sure had traveled with them on their coach from Manassas instead of with the other furniture. Wilmer had believed her when she told him that it was a favorite piece and she simply wanted to see that it arrived at Appomattox without damage.
The chess board and carved soapstone pieces that sat atop the table belonged to Wilmer. He was suspicious about her interest in the game at first, but then he seemed almost proud at how much she studied and practiced it. Virginia had no idea the excuse she’d use to explain why it needed to be destroyed when she was finished. Ophelia told her that haints like to cling. She supposed the table would have to go, too.
Virginia had tried to be a good wife, to support her husband like he’d helped to support her. A widow who could bear no sons was no good to a successful wholesaler like Wilmer, but he’d married her anyway. “Out of love,” he said.
She wondered if he would love her if he knew that she’d turned away from the church and taken up the slaves’ superstitions? The first spells she had worked were small thing— the speedy arrival of a letter she was expecting, plenty of eggs from the hens that one spring, a new contract for Wilmer’s trade. When his business fell slim and tension with the northern states increased by the day, Virginia decided to work something larger, something that would make Wilmer happy and tide them over for a while. She never counted on it being a battle that would eventually turn into a war.
The army had moved down from the north. Everyone in Manassas could tell that something was about to happen, like how the scent of rain and lightning carries in the air long before the sky darkens with a storm. Then General Beauregard arrived at the front door, and her house was no longer a home. A cannonball fell down the kitchen chimney to let everyone at the McLean plantation know that no one was safe. Wounded men screamed and cried from the barn while the filthy doctors did all they could to soothe them, even if it meant inflicting more pain first. The dead lay strewn across the fields and along the hillsides. Their blood ran in the creek all because Virginia dabbled in something she couldn’t control.
She had to make it right. Four years and hundreds of thousands of lives lost was just too much, and the very thought of it churned her guts and made her hands tremble.
“Miss Ginny,” Ophelia whispered, “Thomas down at the Anderson house says the army gonna be here by morning.” Virginia had only to hold out for one more night. Keep up the little heathen prayer and make the last move on the chess board, and then she could rest after it all came to pass.
She didn’t know what time it was, but darkness had fallen and Ophelia had lit a lamp long before she came to tell her about word from the Anderson farm. The day weighed heavily on her bones and pulled at her eyelids, but the pain in her chest of the heartaches she’d caused helped to keep her focused.
“You want me to stay here in case you nod?” Ophelia asked. Virginia shook her head and continued the prayer in a quiet whisper. She repeated the words so many times in the course of that long week that they came from her lips on their own. The hours and the words swirled together after Ophelia went to her room.
A lavender glow pulled the sky out of slumber, and Virginia looked up just as a glimmer of sun shone above the fields outside of the east window. With great effort, she stopped her chants and took the carved soapstone knight in hand and seized the queen. The monarch felt cold and dead in her grasp.
“A fine game.” The low, smooth voice came from behind her, close enough that she would have sworn she felt the breath on her neck. Virginia turned slowly and found a gentleman resting in an armchair by the darkened fireplace. “Fine, just fine,” he smiled. His hair glinted copper in the ripening sunlight, and his pale skin was dotted with freckles that drew together when he grinned.
“Who let you in?” Virginia was exhausted and felt that she had been drifting in and out of a dream all night. Maybe the dream had followed her into the day.
“Why, you did, my dear. You let me in when you buried that loaf of bread so your hens would lay plenty. You let me in when you set out that honey and whisky for a lucrative season of business for your husband.” One side of his mouth tilted upward and his eyes sparkled with something dangerous. “And you let me in when you started that game of yours and lay waste to thousands.”
Her dress began to cling to her arms and back, and a cold sweat made her hands go slick. This stranger claimed to know about things that she had not dared mentioned to anyone. Even if Ophelia had known, this man’s fine black coat and clean, polished boots told her that he was too proper to be gossiping with slaves.
“I assure you, you’ve done fine work, Virginia,” he said, “And now it’s time for us to go.”
Panic rose in her throat, “I’m not going anywhere with you, sir. I don’t even know who you are.” She struggled to hide the trembling in her voice.
“It’s true that we’ve never met, but we’re better acquainted than you think. You can call me Jack.” He stood and Virginia barely had a chance to blink before he’d crossed the room to take her hand. She flinched at the heat from his touch. “And you, Ginny, have been most loyal and productive. One of my finest pawns yet.”