Chapter 2: The Trunk
Clara: -August 1906-
I awoke and listened to the silence creeping into my room from the outside and for a moment I tried to fall back asleep. But my swollen eyes and pounding head prevented me from any further rest. It took only a moment for me to realize that my mother was sitting in the room with me, situated silently at my desk. I watched her for a moment, but when we locked eyes I did not hide my antipathy toward her. She looked at me with an evocative, emotionless expression.
Her flat expression haunted me, and I dreaded what was to come of the day. She left the room and I arose from my bed, reluctantly changing my clothes and following her out of the house. We walked to the remains of the barn, and I watched bitterly as my father fetched food for the horses.
“William, how are they? Did we lose any?” There was no falter in my mother’s voice. I didn’t understand how she was so incredibly calm. Did she feel no remorse whatsoever? My family visibly scurried from me like I was a disease, likely disturbed by my outburst the day before.
“No, they are all in good health my dear. Spooked, I think, but unharmed. The carriages are also in decent condition. The same cannot be said for the barn, but I think it can be repaired within a week or two. We are lucky. Worst hurricane I’ve seen in years. The house held up though. Strong as a castle,” he replied, grooming one of the horses. He was right. The house, while visibly affected by the storm, stood strong and protected us all against the wrath that mother nature had released. We always dreaded hurricane season, and it had been a long time since a hurricane had struck our state with such force. Though, it seemed to me, that I was the only person in the entire family left in the dark about it.
“And how fares our young William, I wonder,” my mother pondered aloud. I had not even thought of my eldest brother, William Jr. who was living in New Orleans. Days would pass before we heard anything of him and his family. Everybody knew that New Orleans flooded easier than the rest of our swampy state, and the fear for him worsened my lingering stomach ache. Their conversation continued but I was distracted by my thoughts and worries for my brother and stopped listening to them. The destruction surrounded us, and every branch out of place made my skin crawl. The fence was blown over, and the hay bales were scattered throughout the yard, blending with the foliage, making it choppy and uneven. There was absolutely nothing that suggested the survival of my grandmother’s house.
My siblings joined us outside, and I watched my father tie two of our horses to the carriage. He helped me and Emma up to join our mother, and we sat in silence. My brothers stayed behind to survey our property further, and the rest of us traveled to my grandmother’s home to see what had become of it.
In silence, we rode, but it was anything but tranquil. There were demolished buildings, flooded lawns, and fallen trees along the road to my grandmother’s house. The storm produced countless roadblocks, causing our journey to last a torturous two hours. By the time we reached the property, I felt miserable, sweating, and breathless with wet shoes. I held on to a fragment of hope because the house seemed intact, and optimism took me. When the carriage finally stopped I quickly jumped out into the waterlogged road not bothering to assist Emma or my mother. The water was high and poured into my shoes as they sunk into the deluged grass. It hardly mattered, my clothes and shoes were already ruined.
A faint smile crept upon my face as I imagined my grandmother rocking peacefully inside. The smile faded quickly when I arrived behind the house. Only half of it had survived. As I turned the corner I saw the remains of the other half. My optimism disappeared, and I turned to my sister who had diligently followed. Her expression worried, and she scanned the area, struggling to step over chunks of debris. I immediately forced myself through the refuse and into the standing half. The floor had split through the parlor and the piano stuck out of the house, with the keys scattered beneath. A large tree trunk had intersected the two halves, slicing through like a stick of warm butter. I climbed over the trunk to find the remains of the stairs and as I ascended to the second floor, I saw the extent of the damage. I searched upstairs but my grandmother was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t until I heard my sister’s loud cry that I assumed the worst. I slowly walked down, delaying my arrival for as long as possible but the shrill sound coming from her was unbearable. It was my grandmother.
It was the first time I had ever seen a dead body and I shuddered at the sight, completely motionless, hoping that she would move or smile at me like she did when I was a child. She had always been warm and kind, but her eyes were always sad and empty. She’d become a shell of the compassionate woman she once was. At that moment I could see the true regret and despair that my mother felt. Her usual calculating expression was sad and despondent, and she knelt to her mother’s body collapsing in a fit of tears and sobs.
Tears of guilt.
“Renée?” my father’s voice called.
He already knew what my mother would say and I assumed he asked on principle. Emma was still crying in the debris, too afraid to look at my grandmother’s body. My stomach tightened as my fears became reality. My younger brother Harvey, Emma’s twin, took her in his arms and tried to soothe her but it was useless. The men quietly moved her body from the debris and carried her to the carriage, covering her respectfully. I closed my eyes, somehow wondering if she’d be alive when they opened. Instead, I saw the large oak in the distance, standing in peaceful solitude.
I ran to the tree. The air was thick and hot but I didn’t care. With each step, I grew further from them, and the more I ran from the wretched debris the easier it was to think. The tree towered over me and I placed my hands on the strong trunk, desperate to rest when I was invaded by a sense of nostalgia as memories with my grandmother crept in.
“You are just like your mother,” she said to me, years before. I scoffed at her offhand comment but she was right. I was only fourteen at the time, and it wasn’t long after that she began losing her memories. I remembered the way she knocked her cane against the railings calling for me to return to the house, or her voice when she read to us as children. My beautiful tree was tangled within its branches and the Spanish moss was nearly gone. The old trunk remained strong but one of the large limbs had cracked at the end, forcing the branch to fall to the ground. I cried. I didn’t know or care how much time passed before my brother Harvey approached me.
“I hope you don’t mind company,” he said, sitting beside me. Most people seemed to avoid my company rather than seek it. I noticed that he too had shed tears. Unlike Emma, Harvey was gentle and pleasant. Despite being only seventeen, he displayed the maturity of a young man several years older. His kindness was inspiring, and after a few minutes he crept his arm around me and I surrendered, resting my head on his shoulder.
“I know you don’t want to…..” he paused. I lifted my face to look at him. His eyes looked glum, and their bright green color had faded into a somber, cloudy shade. “But we need to go. They’ve started sorting through her things and clearing up.” His voice was scratchy, but he knew it needed to be said.
“What is happening with her body?”
He stood up and held out his hand to me. “She’s in the carriage. Dad has already departed. He is taking her to the city morgue and we’ll hold a proper burial in a few days. Mama already left for the house to get the second carriage and she will help us shortly.” I took his hand and he pulled me up from the muddy ground and held it for the short walk back to the debris. As we approached, our mother walked toward us. I couldn’t help the overwhelming fury that drove my actions. I violently released Harvey’s hand and walked around her, avoiding her gaze entirely. It was selfish, but I didn’t let myself consider how she felt. To distract my thoughts, I climbed what remained of the stairs, grateful that no one followed me. I arrived in my grandmother’s bedroom and realized that I had never been in there before.
A combination of guilt and wistfulness overtook me as I looked around her room. The familiar musky smell of the old wood was replaced by a foul aroma of mud and humid air. Her bedroom wall was covered with newspaper clippings and the hand-stitched blankets that hid her bed were piled high and unorganized. I spent what felt like hours examining the walls until my attention settled on a portrait above the dresser. It was large, and as I studied it, I realized that it was my grandmother and my mother only much younger and full of life. Despite the portrait’s age, the paint that colored my grandmother’s red hair retained its original vibrancy and her cheeks looked full and young. I saw my own eyes in her painted ones as they smiled back at me. Why wasn’t this in the parlor? It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I spent so much time outside of her house instead of inside that I never cared to investigate the rooms upstairs. Now that she was gone I couldn’t help my curiosity.
Exploring further, I noticed the steps to the small attic. I carefully climbed them and poked my head through the opening but it was hardly an attic. A sole, round window let in the sunlight and illuminated the space. It was unusually small and there was nothing in the room except for a small trunk. I squeezed through the floor’s opening and crawled over to it but much to my disappointment it was locked. It was no bigger than a sewing machine. I handled the lock in every possible way before admitting defeat and carried the trunk down the miniature steps. I set it on the bed and as I did, my gaze fell back to the portrait. It was eerie, how realistic their eyes were. I expected their gazes to meet mine any moment. While my mother and grandmother were the centers of the piece, there was a light blue sky and vivid green grass that created a vibrant backdrop. I had so many questions about it as my fingers traced the canvas, hoping to find the name of the artist. With no luck finding an autograph or signature, my curiosity urged me to look at the back. I gently removed it from the wall and set it on the bed near the trunk. The frame was ornate and heavy and I struggled to handle it more than I’d like to admit. I searched around the back of the canvas and though I saw no artist’s name, I noticed a little pocket instead. When I reached inside there was a small, neatly folded note with a key placed safely inside. My curiosity was piqued even further. The key was attached to a golden chain so long it could be worn as a necklace. As I replaced the portrait, my grandmother’s red hair caught my attention again and I ran my fingers over it until they eventually made their way to my mother’s intense black hair. I looked just like her, though she was younger than me in the image. Doubtful that the key was related to the trunk, I inserted the key into the lock anyway, and it snapped open.
My mind was overflowing with questions and I anticipated answers within. I opened the top to see it packed with letters, photographs, and diaries. The diaries were thin, and stacked neatly in the corner, tied together with a faded ribbon. The tattered letters suggested years of reading and re-reading. Before I was able to read the note or look at anything else, Harvey called for me. I quickly closed and locked the trunk after slipping the note inside and dropped the chain with the key around my neck. I didn’t know why, but I felt incredibly attached to all of it. Perhaps because it was a remnant of my deceased grandmother and a piece of her mind that had long been lost.
The trunk was heavy and I felt my arms melt as I walked down the stairs. Much to my surprise, nobody questioned me about it. I thought about what I’d found and curiosity got the better of me as we rode over the bumpy, flooded road home which, thankfully, took much less time than the first. I immediately jumped out of the carriage and grabbed the trunk before it reached a full stop. I ran through the front door and up the stairs, ignoring the calls from my brothers. I couldn’t stop thinking about the portrait on the wall, or the hidden note and key.
Why have I found this now that she’s gone? I pleaded to myself.
My thoughts kept returning to my grandmother’s corpse and her desecrated house. We arrived home but instead of helping anyone with anything, I locked my door and rushed to my desk. After changing out of my wet clothes, I let my body sink into the mattress, eyeing the mysterious trunk. I didn’t understand why I was so nervous, but the chain that swung from my neck felt like a liquid in my hand and slipped through my fingers. I inserted the key into the lock and a tinge of anxiety crept over me, in fear that it wouldn’t work a second time. But the lock clicked and I lifted the top once more. I tucked my hair out of the way and began sifting through the contents. The diaries were thin, and my grandmother’s handwriting was small and neat and she fit several years of her thoughts in each one. The letters were bound together neatly with string, and the photographs were scattered throughout the bottom. My grandmother’s thickly stroked, graceful handwriting covered the envelopes but the dark ink was beginning to bleed through the paper. I glanced through the photographs and the familiar scent of her house filled my senses. I spread all of the photos onto the desk and realized that they included several people I didn’t know. There were photographs of my grandmother at twenty years old, same as me.
Though her hair was colorless in the photographs, I imagined her long, red locks, vibrant and radiating. After admiring those photographs, all of which I’d never seen before, my attention turned to the unfamiliar images. There were two photographs of a man and though I looked closely at his photograph I couldn’t identify him. His handsome face was clean-shaven, and he held an air of grace. His identity remained a mystery until I found my grandmother’s wedding photographs, with him as the groom. He was my grandfather.
My excitement grew. I knew very little about my grandfather and until that moment, I never thought about him, nor was I curious to know. After seeing his photograph and the adoring eyes he laid on my grandmother, I could think of little else. Within the trunk, I found photos of two other women. The first woman was photographed with my grandmother with the inscription, “Caroline and I.” There was nothing else. Who was Caroline?
The other unidentified woman was photographed in front of my grandmother’s house, although it was shot from a distance and I could not see her face clearly. As I looked closer, I saw a child on the porch.
The inscription read: “Camille celebrating the new house.”
The photographs only gave me more questions with no one to answer them. I was almost furious with my lack of answers, but I was more disappointed in myself for wasting the opportunity to know my grandmother before she died. I shuffled through the photos until I remembered the note from behind the portrait. It had visibly been read many times before being put in its resting place behind the canvas. As my eyes scanned the words, my heart fluttered.
My dearest Elise,
Should our bodies wander apart, should my mind wither away, my love for you will never cease. No other beauty in the world will ever impress upon me, for my heart is yours, safe in your hands until the end of time.
Your loving husband,
There was no date or photograph included with the note. Curiosity about my grandfather grew, and I searched for more photos of him but found none. I gently pulled the diaries from the trunk and set them on my desk. I read the earliest entry I could find, and almost felt my grandmother’s presence in the room.
June 5, 1860
I’ve generously received this diary, and I intend to fill it with my deepest thoughts. I regret that I have not written them sooner, as I have already neglected to preserve the past nineteen years of my life on paper. I believe it would take much time and several pages of my beloved diary to do so. If I am being honest, which I always try to be, the last few years have not been very interesting. Therefore, I will begin here. I am living in New Orleans in a lovely apartment just above Royal Street with my parents. The city is currently bustling on this warm Summer morning. I regret to inform you that nothing of note is happening at the moment. Regrettably, I do believe I will be an atrocious companion, diary. I have already run out of anything to say, and I am dreadfully hungry. My window is open and I can smell the bread from the bakery. I promise I will be a better writer in the days to come! Until tomorrow,