There is no record of the name that the island’s native inhabitants gave their home. The Spanish paused there only long enough to kill and plunder. Any name they gave it did not survive. The French stayed long enough to christen it appropriately— Isle Dernier. The English, though accomplished at empire building, were not original thinkers. They merely translated the French name into their own tongue. English-speaking Americans knew it only as Last Isle.
Nature was never kind to Last Isle. It was inundated by hurricanes time and again; each storm surge trenched further through the land, leaving it broken into pieces that over time acquired names of their own. Some of those pieces can no longer even be called islands.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, cartographers renamed the remains of Last Isle to acknowledge their plurality. Current sea charts no longer show a Last Isle. Instead, they warn mariners wishing to explore the crystalline waters off the Florida Panhandle to beware treacherous shallows around the Last Isles.
Long ago, life on Last Isle was idyllic. Its natives had no need of agriculture, given its abundance of fish and shellfish and waterfowl. Unfortunately, people whose lives are easy attract the attention of people whose lives are not. Their isolation had long protected the people of Last Isle from invasion, but the barrier of distance fell before the European conquerors in their tall ships. When they arrived, the massacres began in earnest.
Before the Americans finally wrested West Florida—and Last Isle with it—from the Spanish, the slaughter had tapered off. There was no one left to kill. Then the slavers auctioned their human wares to the local planters and misery returned. It took a great war to end it, one that touched even this tiny, remote spot. But despite the Last Isles’ primeval beauty, ugliness is not yet vanquished. Its old trees have presided over centuries of killing.
The Last Isles are even now an attractive haven for a killer looking for a place to conceal a crime. No witnesses to murder lurk there, so far from civilization. There could be no more convenient place to rid oneself of an inconvenient corpse. With such a history, it is not surprising that the past and its bones sometimes surface. It would be more surprising if they did not.
Faye Longchamp was digging like a pothunter and she hated herself for it. Pothunters were a bare notch above grave robbers. They were vultures. Once a pothunter defiled an ancient site, archaeologists could only hope to salvage a fraction of the information it had once held. And information, not artifacts, was the goal of legitimate archaeology.
Pothunters, on the other hand, only sought artifacts with a hefty street value, and to hell with egg-headed academics who condemned them for trashing history as they dug. There was no more precise description of what she was doing; therefore, she had sunk to the level of a pothunter. The fact that she was desperate for cold, hard cash did not absolve her.
A narrow beach to her left and a sparse stand of sea oats to her right were all that stood between Faye and the luminous turquoise of the Gulf of Mexico. Since pothunters couldn’t excavate in the open, in front of God and everybody, they worked in places like this, patches of sand too small to have names. Not a soul lived in the Last Isles, and the island chain paralleled a thinly populated stretch of Florida Panhandle coastline. It was a good place to do work that should not be seen.
Looking up from her lucrative but illegal hobby, she glanced furtively over her shoulder at Seagreen Island. Its silhouette loomed like a dark whale cresting in the distance.
She knew how to excavate properly. During her abortive college career, she had tried to learn everything about field technique that her idol, Dr. Magda Stockard, could teach her. Even ten years later, working as she did on Seagreen Island as a field supervisor under Magda’s watchful eye, she still learned something new every day. And she loved it. She loved sifting soil samples through a quarter-inch mesh and cataloging the seeds, beads, and bones that stayed behind. She loved the fact that every day was a treasure hunt. She would have worked for free, if she could have ignored her inconvenient need for food and shelter. The paycheck she received for pain- staking work performed amid the heat and the humidity and the mosquitoes was always welcome, but it was insufficient.
Her work on Seagreen Island was legitimate, but it disturbed her nonetheless. Unless Magda’s archaeological survey turned up a culturally significant site, there would be nothing to stop the developers who wanted to build a resort there. The lush and tangled vegetation topping the island would be scraped off to make room for a hotel and tennis courts and a spa and a couple of swimming pools. As if Florida needed more swimming pools.
This islet where she stood was too tiny to interest developers, though the government had found it worth including in a national wildlife refuge. It was really no more than a sandbar sprinkled with scrubby vegetation, but Faye’s instincts had always been reliable. The Last Isles were once awash in wealth. The wind and waves couldn’t have carried it all away; they must have left some of it under the sand, ripe for discovery by a needy pothunter. A tiny bit of that dead glory would pay this year’s property taxes. A big, valuable chunk of the past would save her home forever.
Home. The thought of losing her home made Faye want to hurl her trowel to the ground in frustration, but doing so would require her to stop digging, and she couldn’t do that. Something in her blood would never let her quit. Faye did not intend to be the one who let the family down.
Two eager archaeology students had volunteered to stay behind the rest of their field crew on mosquito-infested Seagreen Island. Tomorrow would have been soon enough to catalog the day’s finds and mark the next swath of dig spots, but these two were too dedicated to their work for their own good. If the student archaeologists had cleared out on the stroke of five, they could have been enjoying Tuesday-night sitcoms and beer with their colleagues. Instead, they were conscientiously digging their own graves.
The sun kept sliding toward the Gulf of Mexico, and the red-haired girl kept squinting through the viewfinder of her surveyor’s transit. She barked directions to her partner as he slowly—so slowly—placed one flag after another in yet another nice neat row. They checked and rechecked the grid of sampling spots, careful to ensure that everything was exactly as their supervisor had recorded in the field notebook that the young woman clutched like a bible.
The young man, standing in the shade of an ancient tree, twisted the surveyor’s flag, yelling, “Hey, Krista, there’s so many roots here, I can hardly get it in the ground.”
The young man grunted as he pushed the flag into the soil, ignorant of what lay beneath his feet. The base probed deeper. It struck something horrible, but the young man and his companion remained unaware of it, so they were allowed to continue breathing.
Faye knelt at the edge of the evening’s excavation. She’d put in a full day on Seagreen Island. Then, after her colleagues’ boat was safely out of sight, she’d worked nearly another half-day here. It seemed like she had displaced half the little islet’s soil, and her biceps quivered from the strain. She had been so sure. Her instincts had screamed, “This is the spot,” the moment she dragged her skiff onto the bedraggled beach. This was a place for buried treasure, a place to dig up the find that would change her life. She still felt that electric anticipation, but her shovel had turned over nothing but sand. The aluminum-on-sand groan of Joe’s flat-bottomed johnboat being dragged onto the beach caught her ear, but his presence didn’t disturb her dogged work. She hardly looked up when he said, “It’s about dark, Faye. If you ain’t already found anything worth digging up, you won’t be finding it tonight.”
Joe was right, so she ignored him.
He tried again. “Faye, the day’s gone. Come home and eat some supper. You can try again tomorrow.”
Faye continued to ignore him.
Joe sighed, glanced at the last scrap of sun melting into the Gulf and squatted on his haunches beside her. “Okay, you want to dig in the dark? Let’s dig in the dark. You got another one of those little hand-shovel things?”
Faye could steel herself against displaying her emotions, even on those occasions when outbursts were expected. At funerals, Faye was the competent one who made sure that the other mourners had comfortable chairs and fresh handkerchiefs. She grieved later, alone in her car, undone by the sight of a woman sitting at the bus stop with her head cocked at her mother’s angle.
Sometimes, when forced to carry on long past any sane person’s breaking point, she found herself weeping at dog food commercials. Now, since she no longer had a TV, she was denied even that cheap outlet, so she was defenseless in the face of Joe’s chivalrous offer. The sudden tears surprised her.
“Why are you crying? Don’t do that!” Joe cried.
Faye, in her state of emotional upheaval, found Joe’s panicked squeak uproarious. She dropped to the ground, laughing.
Joe bent over her with his brow furrowed in confusion and demanded, “Why are you laughing? What’s wrong?”
“I’m laughing because you think I’m an idiot for digging in the dark, but you’re willing to be an idiot, too, rather than leave me alone with the sand fleas.”
Joe put his hand on her shoulder. His solicitous tone did nothing to quench her giggles. “And why are you crying?”
Her giggles subsided. “Because you’re the best friend I ever had.”
Joe brushed his ponytail over his shoulder and looked at the few stars bright enough to penetrate the early evening haze. “Aw, Faye. Smart, pretty girl like you—you’re bound to have bunches of friends.”
“No, not many. You don’t know how hard it is….” She swallowed the suggestion that Joe wouldn’t understand how hard life could be for a child who wasn’t really white or black, who didn’t fit neatly into any racial pigeonhole at all, because she knew better. The bronze tint of the skin over his high cheekbones said that Joe Wolf Mantooth knew all about it. Whether he knew what she was thinking or just sensed it was time to change the subject, Joe took the trowel from her hand. Humming in his monotone way, he aimlessly moved soil around the bottom of the pit Faye had excavated. They both heard the muted click when the trowel struck something that wasn’t rock, nor metal, nor plastic. On their hands and knees immediately, they saw the object at once. It was the color of the sand that nearly buried it, but its sleek, gleaming curve attracted the eye. Faye, instinctively falling back on her archaeological training, reached into her back pocket for a fine paintbrush to work the sand gently away from the surface of this human skull.
Joe jumped up, saying, “We have to go home and get my stuff, Faye. There’s a lot of things I need to do.”
Joe believed in the old ways from his skin-clad feet to his pony-tailed head and Faye respected his desire to consecrate this old grave. He fumbled in the large leather pouch that always hung from his belt. “I’ve got tobacco here, but nothing else. I need to go home and get some food, and a clay pot to put it in. And some coals from my fire and some cleansing herbs for washing. Faye—”
Faye held up a hand for him to be quiet, because she was busy assessing the skull’s archaeological context. It was unusual to find a burial like this one, one unassociated with other graves or signs of human habitation, but it wasn’t a complete aberration. She’d read that Choctaw warriors killed in battle were buried by their wives on the very spot where they fell. The burial had to be accomplished without disturbing the corpse, without even touching it. As Faye brushed sand away from a sizeable fracture radiating from the skull’s temple, she wondered whether she was the first person to touch this man since his killer had bashed his brains out.
“Faye, let’s go. This guy’s rested here a long time and we’ve disturbed him. We got to help him rest again. It’s the right thing to do. It ain’t respectful to wait.”
Faye didn’t answer Joe, because she was busy. She would discuss this with him in a minute; he’d just have to be patient with her. She was wholeheartedly glad he knew how to treat this burial with respect. She may have become a common pothunter, but she was no grave robber and disturbing the dead chilled her bones. Joe’s makeshift funeral rites assuaged her guilt a bit.
Still, she wished that he would hush for just a minute while she examined this skull.
The cabbage palms of Seagreen Island cast jagged shadows on the red-haired girl’s face as she initialed her field notebook with a flourish. She ran her fingers through an inch-long crop of spiky hair.
“Done,” she said. “I can’t believe we finished before dark.” “Dr. Stockard would probably say ‘Quick work is imprecise work.’”
“I don’t care,” was the girl’s airy reply. “Let’s go check the sample bags so we can eat supper and go to bed.”
They crossed the crest of the small hill that ran down the spine of Seagreen Island. In their wake stood a tidy row of surveyor’s flags, each consisting of a simple length of wire topped with a rectangle of orange vinyl. The flags marched straight toward a mammoth live oak tree and the last one stood in the shade of the oak’s moss-draped branches.
Early the next morning, the rest of the field crew would arrive to dig a test pit at each spot marked by a flag. If they were to dig under the live oak, their shovels would turn over more than just dirt.
Faye picked up a twig and rested it on the bone that had once underlain somebody’s upper lip. She tried to slide it into the skull’s former nostril, but the twig butted up against a bony ridge.
“You’re off the hook, Joe. There’s no need for any mystic tobacco-and-corn ceremony. This is a Caucasian skull. I’ll just cover him up and say a Christian prayer over him. If he was a European invader of the rape-and-pillage variety, even my puny prayer would be too good for him.”
Faye traced her fingertips over the soil surface, looking for artifacts she might have disturbed while digging, and was rewarded with a clod of soil that was too heavy for its size. She worked the dirt away from the solid center of the clod while she listened to Joe argue his point.
“Everybody deserves a comfortable grave, Faye. Just let me go get my—”
Somewhere in the direction of Seagreen Island, Faye heard a boat motor turn over. Pointing at the sound, she barked, “Help me cover her up. Somebody’s coming.”
Joe tended to obey authoritative voices, so he dropped his argument and began shoveling dirt back into the excavation, but he didn’t stop talking. “Why did you say ‘her’? I thought you said ‘him’ before. How do you know that this was a girl?” Faye kept shoving dirt over the skull without answering Joe. Getting caught would be an outright disaster. First, she was digging in a national wildlife preserve and removing archaeological materials from federal lands was a felony. Second, a brush with the law—and the fines and legal expenses that would accompany such trouble—would hasten the inevitable loss of her home. And third, the artifact in her hand suggested that she might be treading on legal quicksand far more serious than simple pothunting.
As they sprinted toward their boats, she held out her hand to show Joe the single item she had removed from the grave. “This is how I knew she was a girl.”
A corroded pearl dangled from an ornate diamond- studded platinum earring. Her practiced eye saw that it was machine-made and recent, but no archaeological knowledge was required to date this artifact. Any woman alive who ever played in her mother’s jewelry box could guess its age. The delicate screw-back apparatus dated it to the mid-twentieth century and the style pinpointed the period still further. The woman who wore this earring had wished very much to look like Jackie Kennedy.
Somebody had buried her in a spot where she was unlikely to ever be found. Most likely, that somebody had killed her.
Walking up the wooden stairs and onto the broad porch of her home never failed to settle Faye’s soul. Even tonight, after violating her professional ethics, breaking several laws, and disturbing the dead, she was soothed by the gentle sea breeze that blew through the open front door.
The old house and its island had both been named Joyeuse by one of Faye’s ancestors whose name she didn’t know. The old plantation house on Joyeuse Island was more than home to her. It was a treasure entrusted to her by her mother and her grandmother and her grandmother’s mother and, most of all, by her great-great-grandmother Cally, the former slave who had somehow come to own the remnants of a great plantation.
Cally’s story was lost to time. No one remembered how a woman of color had acquired Joyeuse Island and held onto it for seventy years, but Cally had done it, and her descendants had preserved her legacy and her bloodline. Something of Cally lived on in Faye, maybe in her dark eyes or her darker hair, but another, essential, part of Cally survived in the home she fought to keep. Joyeuse was a decrepit relic of antebellum plantation culture, built by human beings laboring for people who believed they owned them. Even so, it was a calm, beautiful place and Faye had learned to live with the ambiguity of that. Sometimes Faye thought Ambiguity should have been her middle name.
If race is the abiding conflict of the Americas, then Faye considered herself the physical embodiment of that conflict. Her great-great-grandmother Cally had been born a slave on Joyeuse plantation, the product of the master’s assault on her mother. Unprovable family lore said that the master himself was not as white as he might have believed; his grand- mother was half-Creek. There were surely people who died on the Trail of Tears with no more Native American blood than he.
Faye’s ancestors had sprung from Europe and the Americas and Africa and God-knew-where-else. The casual observer, noting her darker-than-olive skin, tiny build, delicate features, and stick-straight black hair, would be hard-pressed to name her racial affiliation. Faye was never too sure herself.
Settling herself on a ramshackle porch swing, she studied the earring in her hand. She couldn’t call the law. How would she explain why she was digging on federal land?
Faye tucked one foot under her and pushed against the floor’s cypress boards with the other, ever careful to maintain her balance. How many times in her childhood had she leaned back too far and felt the old swing dump her onto her head? Then, once she’d learned the trick, how many times had she done it on purpose because it was fun to fall, heels over ears, into a giggling heap of little girl? All those memories would be sand under the feet of anyone but Faye. There was no way in hell she was going to let Joyeuse go.
She swung herself gently back and forth. What harm would it do to forget she’d ever seen those bones? One more good hurricane and they would be swept away, anyway. She hated to think about someone getting away with murder but, in reality, someone already had. What was the likelihood that a critical clue had survived for decades under damp, wet sand? Still, her sense of right and wrong said that she ought to tell somebody. The dead woman’s family would derive some comfort in knowing, with certainty, that she was never coming home.
Her sense of self-preservation wouldn’t let her go to the police, but her conscience wasn’t quite ready to let her destroy evidence of a murder. Keeping the earring at least gave her the option of doing the right thing someday. But where could she hide the evidence? There was no available nook in Joyeuse’s above-ground basement. It was built of tabby, a durable concrete concocted of oyster shells, lime, and sand, and it would survive a direct atomic strike. After more than a hundred and fifty years, there were still no crevices large enough to serve as a hiding place in its rock-like surface.
She climbed the staircase tucked under the back porch roof, leaving the service rooms in the basement behind. The main floor sat a full story above ground level, a form of house design that was prudent in a hurricane zone. Faye wandered around the main floor, poking around in the ladies’ parlor and the gentlemen’s parlor and the vast room that had served as both dining room and ballroom. The fine furnishings and draperies were long gone and the cavernous empty chambers offered no nook to house the old pearl earring. There was really only one place in the whole house that offered hiding places which she didn’t already use to store her everyday necessities, and it was two stories above her.
She climbed the porch staircase to the next level, which had housed the bedchambers and music room back when the house served as a home for a family and its servants. She’d converted the two largest bedrooms into her temple to legitimate archaeology, two treasure rooms where she stored artifacts that made her black-market customers sneer.
The walls of her own bedroom and the adjacent master bedroom were lined with glass-fronted shelves loaded with unsalable finds. Cracked pottery, broken bone tools, the bones and shell of a turtle—the discovery of each of these things was described in waterproof ink on the pages of the field notebooks stacked on the topmost shelf. Any of these shelves could have served as a hiding place for the earring, but Faye had another spot in mind. She reached in a broom closet for a long-handled implement tipped with a metal hook, but before she could use it, she heard Joe coming.
Faye listened to Joe climbing the spiral staircase that rose through the precise center of the old house, piercing the square landing that provided access to the rooms on this level. Joe’s footfalls were quiet and fast. The ordinary listener wouldn’t have heard him coming. His moccasined feet made no percussive tap as they hit the treads, but there was a faint creaking in the old wood that Faye, attuned to any disturbance in her cherished home, couldn’t ignore.
Joe rose through the floor and stepped onto the landing, saying, “I made something for you, Faye. I was saving it for later, but I think you’ve had a hard day.”
She took Joe’s gift and turned it over in her hands, unable to think of an appropriate response other than, “You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble for me.”
The workmanship couldn’t be criticized. Joe was very, very clever with his hands. There was no way to tell him that it was wrong to alter something thousands of years old; she didn’t intend to try.
Joe had used new materials to reconstruct fragments of an atlatl made by west Florida’s Deptford people before the birth of Christ. Starting with a stone weight and a shell trigger that he’d taken from her display case, Joe had whittled and chipped the missing pieces of the atlatl, an archaic type of spear that was thrown by slinging its hinged spearthrower in a whiplash motion. The crowning glory of Joe’s gift was a finely flaked stone point crafted out of chert, the same native stone Florida’s original inhabitants had used in their tools. Given his penchant for stone tools and homemade glue, she couldn’t hazard a guess as to how much of Joe’s time she held in her hands. There was nothing Faye could do but thank him sincerely and resolve to keep her artifact cases locked in the future.
Joe, embarrassed by the encounter, disappeared down the stairs. Faye hefted the atlatl, choosing a prominent place for it in a display case in her bedroom, then she returned to the landing and lifted the hooked tool above her head. It grabbed hold of a recessed ring in the ceiling and she pulled hard. A hidden trapdoor opened, and she unfolded the rickety wooden ladder that dangled from the door. This was why she rarely ventured into Joyeuse’s cupola. It was so dang hard to get up there.
Once she had struggled up through the trapdoor, she saw the cranny she’d had in mind. By standing on a windowsill and stretching upward, she could reach her hand into a gap between the top of the wall and the rafters. It was the perfect hiding place….
…And someone had found it before. There was a wooden box there, about the size of a shoebox, and she gingerly lifted it down to her eye level. Aside from an inch-thick layer of matted dust, the box was in good shape. Carefully dovetailed together without a visible nail, the box itself was an exciting find. She tucked the earring atop a rafter and sat down to study the box.
Faye knew how Howard Carter must have felt, clearing rubble day after day from the staircase leading to King Tut’s tomb, knowing that wonderful things awaited him, but savoring the anticipation. She hefted the box in her hands a moment—it wasn’t empty, she could tell—then she lifted the lid and her breath faltered.
It was an old book bound in leather and canvas, and handwritten across the cover were the words, “Journal of Wm. Whitehall, begun on 15 May, 1782, to commemorate the Birth of his Daughter, Mariah.” William Whitehall had formed each f with a long, vertical curve shaped like an s. Time wrought changes in everything, even the alphabet, and that sometimes made manuscripts of this age devilish to interpret. The penmanship made Faye think of John Hancock’s unrepentant signature on the Declaration of Independence, and her breath left her again. A man who was an adult in 1782 was a contemporary of John Hancock and his revolutionary friends.
The journal was stuffed full of stray sheets of paper. A palm-sized portrait of a man in a powdered wig slipped free and drifted toward the dusty floor, but Faye, who had the instincts of a museum curator, caught it without so much as crinkling the yellowed paper.
She opened the journal and saw that William, like others of a time when paper was hard to come by, had inscribed each page in the normal left-to-right fashion, then turned the book a quarter-turn to the right and written another full page of text atop the first. No wonder neat penmanship was so valued in those days. It was going to take her quite awhile to decipher what William had to tell her.
# # #
Excerpt from the journal of William Whitehall, 15 May, 1782
My Woman—that is to say my Wife, for we are as Married as two people can be in the absence of proper Clergy—demonstrated true courage today, whilst I cower’d in the meadow alone, except for my pipe & my tobacco. After the hard labour of the day had been done by others, I stood—hat in hand—outside my own home and humbly begged permission to enter in. The Creek midwife acknowl- edged my presence with a bare nod, as is her way, and I stumbled into a house of miracles. As I thanked the Almighty for this hale and healthy Child, that most precious of gifts, the Sun lay lightly on my Susan’s flush’d cheeks, and she lifted the Infant toward me so gently, so slightly, that the motion was hardly visible. I seized the invitation & I seized the child. “A girl,” my Susan murmur’d. I would have known the Baby was female merely by the shape of her dainty face.
I search’d that face, endeavouring to assess the shape of the eyes, the colour of the skin, tho’ unaware that I did it. Then Susan, who has attended the births of Creeks and of Whites and of Half-breeds like herself, said, “All Babies look the same, puffy and red. After a time, you will see whether she looks like you or like me, but you will have to wait.” She looked strait in my eyes & I was shamed.