from ... "Natchez"

Isaac slalomed through the bustling crowd. He pulled his scarf tight around his neck and adjusted his hat. It was cold, the wind blowing off the Mississippi River chilling him to the bone. He passed boutique shops with ladies' clothing displayed in the windows in fine fashion, cafes filled to overflowing, the aroma of hot coffee and pastries lingering on the cold air. And butcher shops with Christmas turkeys and chickens and ducks and an occasional goose, clean-plucked and hanging naked in the windows.

Isaac couldn't help but laugh. When his mother wanted chickens for supper, he just went to the barnyard and called two or three up with a handful of corn and wrung their necks on the spot. If it was turkey she wanted, Jonathan could always bring one in from the woods, shot through with his squirrel rifle, never disturbing the meat.

But times were changing,
and he quite liked it if only in this moment.
He thought about Joab, wishing he could see
the sights with Jennie and him.
One day he would take him
on a steamer ride to Natchez.
That's exactly what he would do.

He picked up speed, retracing his steps on the streets he had taken. He stopped in front of a quaint little boutique. Sleigh bells jingled when he opened the door, and it was too late. He was one with the shoppers, his spirit soaring.

The shop smelled of balsam. Live branches of evergreen hung lavishly draped from side to side with red velvet ribbon intertwined; bunches of mistletoe dangled at intervals. What was it about mistletoe that was so enchanting? Maybe it was the little clear blisters that took on the image of ice crystals forming in perfect clusters, surrounded by the tiniest of olive green leaves. We have it in spades in the hills, he thought, leaching to the top branches of every tall oak tree in Calhoun County.

He could find what he wanted in this shop. The clerk inquired of him, and he told her what he would like to purchase.

"It has to be gray. Gray wool. Confederate gray, if possible. And the finest you have."

"Of course, come with me." She laid the fine piece out on the counter and asked, "Does this interest you?"

Isaac looked it over good, admiring the smooth finish and fine stitching.

"I need a comparison, please ma'am."

"You're a good shopper, sir."

She brought three more.

Isaac smiled. He had never before been told he was a good shopper. Quite frankly, he had never shopped before. Only at the Mercantile in Sarepta. For thread or something else his mother may have requested. His mother had always made his clothes, and when he was in the Cavalry, what few things he had were Confederate Army issue.

"I'll buy the first one, please. When you wrap it, could you tie a red velvet ribbon around the paper?"

"Certainly," she said.

Isaac, pleased to have gotten exactly what he wanted, wished the clerk a Merry Christmas and walked back out into the busy holiday throng, the package wrapped in brown paper tucked under his arm. His heart beat fast. He hoped she loved it as much as he did.

It's almost hypocritical, he thought. Things are bad in the South, the secession states are still outside the Union. But Natchez looks untouched by the War, the wealthy still making purchases, even though the tariffs continue to escalate. He was sure there had been some damage, but not so much that you could see it. For a moment, poor as he was, he felt like a rich man, blessed beyond mention.

Tomorrow he would bring Jennie to see the sites around the Riverfront. They had come in to Natchez Under the Hill, but had been so caught up in his grandmother and Ned and getting home that they had not seen much.

Ned would bring them back downtown in the carriage, glad to do so. He loved showing off his city. He was truly a southern Negro gentleman. He had taken his freedom, he and Sally, with reluctance, not wanting anything to change regarding their relationship with the Beauregards. He and Sally would still be their people, they would live in the house built for them, and they would work for Jonathan and Madeleine Beauregard until their dying day.

Isaac cantered his grandfather's horse to the stables and headed for the house. He took two marble steps at a time to reach the back portico, followed it around the house to the front entrance, and quickly ran the stairs to the second floor before Jennie knew he was in the house. He wanted to take the gift to their room and to be alone with her when she opened the package. He ran back down the stairs and got Jennie.

"This is for you," he said. "Sorry it took so long, but I wanted to get it in a special place. And I think Natchez is pretty special, don't you?"

excerpt from the manuscript, Isaac's House
Jane Bennett Gaddy


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