June 16th 1934
The phantom of a breeze that would not come idly threatened to rustle filigree curtains as the sun beat a sluggish tempo across the room, glowing fingers grasping over the floorboards of what was once a respectable plantation; empty now save for the screaming cicadas clinging to the weathered shutters tapping offbeat rhythms into worn paneling.
The grounds below had long since been sown, and left unchecked had come overgrown with thistle and weed. A veritable gnarl of hidden snake pits, bathed in the sickly sweet aroma of honeysuckle, waiting for the less wary to stumble, too many miles away from help and hope.
A languid path sloped down the acreage into the surrounding wood, curving abruptly to skirt the areas where swamp water had crept too far inland, making safe passage impossible.
The sot and sill of the wetland was broken only by the slosh of weary feet making their way through a well known groove; the breathy exertion of a man no longer accustomed to Georgian air. Looking out unto his ownership and the discord that had befallen it, Balam Hux allowed himself one last deep breath before stepping proper into the past he thought he’d escaped.
Hux quickly discovered the odiousness of the task that was reassembling what was left of his life. His possessions arrived days after he did, an ancient cart strung to a whipcord horse creaking its way to a stop well and away from the sprawling shadow of the house. The wild eyed driver spluttered and slurred from drooping lips what Hux could only assume was an adamant refusal to pull further toward the bog. The movers, an unsightly group he had then attempted to hire from the back of the cart, had crossed themselves.
“Ain’t no one goin’ out that far.”
Irritated, Hux dismissed them with the practiced roll of his sleeves. Wiping the sweat from his otherwise immaculate brow, he bent to the back breaking work of hefting crate after crate across the muggy terrain, soundlessly grateful for the low tide as the caravan behind him shifted and stuttered gradually away.
By the time the last of the boxes had found themselves secreted to their corners, the furious burn of the sun had seeped low, bathing the house aureate in a vainglorious attempt at keeping away the shadows twisting a bruised staccato across the yard.
Inside, Hux collapsed breathlessly onto his bed, sweat pasting damp amber locks across his now burnt face, body spent and weary. Eyes closed and fingertips pressing rhythmically into the tender flesh of his nape, a half-hearted attempt to alleviate his growing headache, Hux set about correcting the regulation of his breath.
After a time spent with only menial success on either front, Hux rolled onto his back and stared blindly at the ceiling, considering again if coming back here hadn’t been a mistake. He hadn’t had much of a choice; receiving the inheritance bestowed upon him at the timely demise of his father had hinged completely upon his claim to the estate. It was easy enough to manipulate his superior officers into allowing the transfer; a General for the U.S. Army, in peacetime, could operate anywhere, and on an army pension he couldn’t afford to decline the money. So, for better or worse, the prodigal son had returned.
Too soon, tendrils of inactivity bred anxiety coaxed Hux back into a standing position. Mind wandering, he passed down the labyrinthine halls of his childhood home, the dinge of must permeating his senses as his fingers tripped over the pebbled walls. He was vaguely aware of the vibrations rocking gently up his arm as his fingernails snagged where the wallpaper had bumped and bubbled, exposing yet another expense he was loath to deal with later. While what his father had left him had made him preposterously wealthy, Hux’s stomach clenched hotly at the notion of using it for repairs that should never have been an issue in the first place. Setting him up as the heir apparent to his ruined estate was not made easier when the discrepancies of his father’s life could be found rotting in the very walls.
The weight of his responsibilities settled squarely over his shoulders as he picked his way neatly downstairs, palms chafing over the warped railing. Hux felt he had done exceptionally well, in so short a time, at restoring some semblance of order to the cavernous front hall. He had spent the days before his luggage arrived endlessly on hands and knees, scrubbing the shine back into the foyer before methodically working his way through the rest of the floor, washing, waxing and polishing until the ghost of what he remembered this house to be became that much more corporeal.
Hux drew his strength from his control, both emotional and physical, a fact to which his meager belongings were testament. He could not speak for his parents, who had neither flaunted nor taken measure to hide their wealth. Every room in the derelict estate was fully furnished, lavished in riches and ready to play host to any sort of flattered debutante. Now the only soul haunting these halls had less interest in extravagance than any Hux before him.
He did, however, concede himself his books. Rationalizing the bulk weight of his collection as an expansion of mind, he began, at last, the final chore of lugging every single box up the grand staircase and into the library, before gently pressing each individual book lovingly into place. Hours later, when the eternally setting sun finally gave way to the serene blanket of night, Hux made his way back to his room and found bliss in the escape of well earned sleep.
When the weather was fair he would walk the miles between marshes and town, careful to sidestep the meals flies had made of skinned fauna he found along the way. He made a point to endear himself to the butcher, Floyd, a portly fellow with an austere temperament, and his assistant, a young man named Aren whose intimidating height was belied by his sweet nature. Benefit could be found in their unusual companionship in that Hux, for a small sum, would no longer have to endure the sweltering trek all the way to town for something so trivial as food; Aren would gladly meet him halfway for the chance to escape the rancid stench and oppressive heat of the butchers in favor of fresh air and the soft shades of cypress.
From where he stood now Hux could see the town in its entirety. On either side of him were the Butchers and the Grocers, and just ahead the post office leaned precariously close to what was once no doubt a fine church. Sparse around them, ramshackle homes provided an altogether uninviting scene; all dust and tin and rusted copper nestled up to cabins with porches and lattice fences, sun stripped whirligigs spinning slowly around the posts of mail boxes that curved at an alarming slant. What looked from a distance to be ornamental charms hanging from windows and shop signs became, on closer inspection, greying bones; bound and strung in increasingly bizarre patterns that Hux thought it best not to question.
Melodious tolling rang from the bell tower as the squat church before him emptied its attendants in a solemn procession of heavy lidded eyes and grimacing mouths. Hux was satisfied to finally lay eyes on these people, having found little time yet to do so. He took carefully inventory of each person, noting the subtle indications of friendships, the dour glances of rivals, filing away any information he could gather as to whom it would be beneficial to approach, and which of these people were to be shunned. It seemed to him that a great deal of them would consider new acquaintance an unwelcome affair.
The sun glaring ominously over head threatened to burn him further as he made his way into the grocers, inclining his head to the towheaded woman sweeping outside, only for her to scowl and retreat to the shade of her shop. Sighing, Hux considered it a small victory that she acknowledged him at all. He was beginning to suspect that appeasing the suspicion of these people would be an exercise in glacial patience.