The fine folks at Flash Fiction Friday have gifted personkind with many things, not least of which is a flash fiction challenge, this week involving hidden treasures, whether blessings or curses. This story is called "All You Are Is All You Are".
Andrea Price was right on time. They usually were. Some were treasure hunters, others history nuts or real estate speculators, and still others eager, fresh faced grad students, but whoever it was, she demanded they call ahead and set up an appointment. Cornelia Knight knew it made her seem eccentric and uptight, an old biddy holding fast to the old days, but it was her house, her rules.
The Knights had built this house, old Titus Andronicus Knight building it shortly before the war of 1812, on the side of a hill about 30 miles south of where the battle of Manassas would break out a half century later. It had been finished and refinished, admitted to the modern age with better plumbing and electrical systems, and later with cable TV and WiFi, but it was still, fundamentally, the same house that had been put together by hand when America was more a new idea than a globe straddling colossus.
Cornelia heard the door of Price's rental car shut, and the mild, soft crunching sound as she walked towards the front door. Cornelia stood up slowly, feeling all of her years in her knees and hips, arranging the folds of her cotton dress across her thighs. The doorbell rang, and she walked across the room, opening the solid, dark front door. The girl was there, dirty blonde hair pulled back into a ragged ponytail, tight denim shorts, black basketball sneakers and an oversized white shirt.
"Mrs. Knight? I'm Andrea Price. We talked on the phone yesterday?" Her voice was even and serious. Cornelia tried to imagine the girl being playful, but she had difficulty. Something in her manner implied emotionless competence. Andrea Price would be an excellent coworker, but she wouldn't give a flirt the least satisfaction.
"Of course, dear. Come right in and have a seat." Andrea walked in, looking briefly at the living room wall, where Cordelia had left up her late husband's decorations, things like a captured Confederate sword, framed duty rosters and Confederate money, and several oil paintings of Titus. Cornelia watched Andrea gaze at the history, holding a three ring binder under one arm. Cornelia could see the younger woman looking at each item in turn, carefully examining them, like a good scientist, noticing everything without comment.
"Would you like some tea, dear? I've just put the kettle on. Or we can go right downstairs and see it, if you're in a hurry."
The younger woman took a moment to answer, as if she was lost in thought. "Tea? Tea would be fine. I have something to show you, actually."
"You do? Fascinating. Well, come into the kitchen, sweetheart, and we can sit and chat." This was nothing new. Occasionally, some bright university person would rush up here, full of vigor and sure that this old lady had no idea what she was sleeping on top of. Cornelia was able to set them straight. Every adult Knight was able to recite the family lore by heart.
Andrea sat down, looking at the flowers at the center of the table. "My mother always said," Cornelia said, pouring hot water into two cups with tea bags in them, "no matter how bad things get, you can always afford fresh flowers. I buy new ones once a week." Cornelia brought the cups to the table, then brought cream and a bowl with some cut lemon wedges and set them down.
"Have you heard the story of this house already, dear?" Family lore went that Titus Knight II, the son of the builder of the house, with his own son's birth due any day, decided he could no longer countenance treating some humans differently from others, and started hiding slaves on their way North, joining up with the Underground Railroad. The story went that the neighbors didn't appreciate Titus' stance, and he had to use his musket more than once to dissuade those who disagreed. They continued doing it until a Confederate cavalry unit learned of the house's role, and threatened to burn it down if they continued. Titus I, standing tall at nearly 70, told the commander to his face that they would order his family around over his dead body, and the commander drew his sword and obliged him. After that, and since the hiding place was no longer secret, the basement and the tunnel fell into disrepair.
"Oh yes, ma'am," Andrea said quickly. "I was here two years ago with Professor Landstone." Cornelia remembered him, a very sharp dresser with an upper class British accent that she adored listening to.
"So what do you have to tell me?"
Andrea opened the binder and began turning pages. "Well, ma'am, there was a find. An estate sale in Taos, New Mexico, and there was this chest filled with papers. Fortunately, the guy who bought it was an amateur historian, so he called the right people and the papers got protected and catalogued properly. Scans of them are all posted on the web."
"What was on the papers, hun?," Cornelia said, sipping her tea carefully.
"Well, ma'am," Andrea said, swallowing and tucking some stray hair behind her ear. "The papers were all from the CSA archives. Second copies of a lot of things we already had, but also journals and diary pages and ledgers that we hadn't seen. One of them involved a unit that was around these hills around the time your ancestor, Titus, was killed."
"The story is it was the Second Virginia. But we never knew."
"Well, we're pretty sure now, ma'am," Andrea said. "There were letters, and diaries, and a lot of things we thought were true we can now pretty much prove. And one thing we had no idea about. Titus' son, your...great grandfather?"
"Two greats. Great great grandfather in law."
"Yes, well....Titus sold out the Railroad. To the Confederates."
"Sold out? What do you mean?" Cornelia's voice sounded tight.
"He was in debt to a couple of members of the unit. They had been playing poker in the front room here, and Titus II lost, and lost big. So he told the unit about the Underground Railroad, in order to get his debts forgiven, and they caught the next couple of groups that came through. Then the Railroad stopped using it."
"And his father?"
"That's unclear," the younger woman said. "It may have been just an unfortunate side effect."
Cornelia drew in a deep breath. "How do you know?"
"A letter from the unit commander telling the story. A second letter telling the same story from another member of the unit. And a ledger entry involving the commander being rewarded with 5 silver dollars for cutting off that branch of the Railroad."
"So you're sure."
"As sure as we can be about events that happened 150 years ago," Andrea said. She sipped her tea. "I'm sorry to have to be the one that tells you."
"Not as sorry as I am. How old are you, dear?," Cordelia asked.
"24," Andrea said.
"You're not married?"
"No," Andrea said.
"Only child," Andrea said.
"I'm turning 72 next month, dear. 72 years. Three times longer than you. Members of my husband's family have lived here since the Madison Administration. I have four kids, 14 grandkids, and a great grandchild due to be born this fall. You have no idea what it is like to have a lineage. To have a bloodline that is yours. It's all you are, really. And I won't have it tarnished. I will not allow the Knights to believe they come from dishonorable men. I forbid you to publish this."
"Ma'am, with all due respect. It's history."
Cornelia looked at the younger woman hard. "I forbid it. If word of this appears anywhere, you will hear from my attorney."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Knight. But you can't do that."
"Get out," Cornelia said coldly, and the younger woman did, folding up her notebook and making her way to the front door alone. Cornelia kept staring into the space where Andrea used to be, wishing she had never come, watching the girl's tea cool, and trying to erase 72 years of lies.