The Thin End of the Wedge
by Liza Nash Taylor
May knew that a ringing phone at midnight would not bring good news.
“Hello?” she asked, tentatively. There were a series of clicks, then the voice of the operator: “Please hold to be connected.”
A male voice came on the line. “Miss Marshall?”
“This is she.”
“Miss Marshall, this is Tuck Saunders, at the Fry’s Spring Club? I’m mighty sorry to be phoning you so late, but well, ma’am, your daddy’s down here and he’s been carrying on something terrible. I don’t want to be calling the police, you understand. I was hoping you might be able to come fetch him. I’m getting ready to close up.”
“Oh, Mr. Saunders, I’m terribly sorry. I’ll leave right now. Thank you for calling.” May hung up, hoping that no one else had been listening on the party line. Shame crept up her body, tickling her legs and stomach and back, working its way up her neck, settling finally in her face in a furious flush. She hurried through the house to the back porch, and across the yard.
A light still burned in Delphina’s cottage, and the sounds of laughter came from her porch. Blue had been courting Delphina for years, but Delphina’s condition for marriage was that he give up drinking, and his was that she stop practicing Voodoo. Neither of those things was ever likely to happen.
“Delphie? Blue?” May called out.
“What’s the trouble, Chérie?” Delphina asked.
“I have to go get Daddy. Only the truck’s at the Market. He couldn’t get it to start this afternoon.”
“Don’t you fret,” Blue said, “I’ll go.”
“Thanks, but … ” May twisted her hands. “I’m not sure you’d be welcomed in there, alone. Will you come with me, though?”
Blue nodded. He understood where he was welcome and where not. “I’ll get the truck and come back for you.”
“It would be faster if I go with you. I’m sorry,” May said. Blue kissed Delphina on the cheek and squeezed her hand.
Taking a shortcut through the front field, Blue held a flashlight and helped May climb over the fence. He was humming as they tramped through the knee-high grass toward the road. “You all right?” He asked.
“I’m fine. Sorry to ruin your evening.”
“I was fixing to leave soon anyhow. Besides, can’t be having you traipsing across the fields at midnight like a lonesome polecat. Might be some haints out here.”
It was not quite a mile to the Market. The air felt static, and as they continued a breeze picked up. The sky lit with another distant flash. Blue said, “Tell me about the picture you saw tonight. I like those pirate stories.” Clouds obscured the moon as they entered the patch of pines behind the Market, their steps silenced by a carpeting of needles. May began to describe the picture, but stopped, startled by a clap of thunder. Rain began in earnest; large warm drops pattering on the undergrowth, releasing the scents of cedar and pine. Blue stopped abruptly, switching off the flashlight. “See that? Hurry along now.” Ahead, a light blinked between the pines. “Probably just a hobo campfire,” he whispered, “But let’s have a look-see.” As they drew nearer, voices could be heard, muffled by the rain. Blue squeezed May’s arm, leading her behind a clump of rhododendrons. Through the branches, she saw figures standing in a circle, each shielding the flame of a candle. She wiped the rain from her eyes and counted again. Ten candles, ten figures, all wearing spectral, peaked hoods and long, white robes.
“Be still,” Blue whispered.
May’s calf muscles twitched with the impulse to flee. Nine of the figures faced one, in the center, who wore a more elaborate hood. The figure spoke. “That will conclude old business. Thanks to our esteemed Klabee. Our sister treasurer reports that all members are in good standing with dues paid. Now, on to new business. We’ll assemble in front of the Market.”
Women? May and Blue exchanged looks. A high voice said, “Wait! Who gets to break the window?”
“Hush!” the leader said, “We’re following proper procedure here.”
Someone else said, “My candle went out! We should get lanterns.”
“I carried the brick all the way here. I think I should get to throw it,” the first voice said.
“Sisters, sisters, please!” The leader spoke again, louder, “Where is your dignity? We’ll draw straws. The Klokard will now lead us in reciting the Creed of the Klanswomen.” Candles flickered in the rain, casting long shadows over the blank hoods.
A train whistle pealed in the distance as the figures began to chant, “WE BELIEVE … ” Minutes passed, crouched behind the rhododendron. May’s legs began to cramp, but she did not dare change position or swipe at the mosquito that whined near her ear. She had heard about the Klan, but she had not imagined the malice that radiated from this circle.
“WE BELIEVE,” the women continued, “that the current of pure American blood must be kept uncontaminated by mongrel strains and protected from racial pollution. WE BELIEVE that the perpetuity of our nation rests upon the solidarity and purity of our native-born, white, Gentile, Protestant men and women. WE BELIEVE that under God, that the Women of the Ku Klux Klan is a militant body of American free-women by whom these principles shall be maintained, our racial purity preserved, our homes and children protected, our happiness insured, and the prosperity of our community, our state, and our nation guaranteed against usurpation, disloyalty, and selfish exploitation.”
The whistle became louder as the train neared a crossing and its light blinked through the woods. Thirty feet from where May and Blue squatted, the huffing engine passed in a blur of yellow light, its vibrating cacophony overwhelming the droning chant. Blue tugged her hand and they ran, staying low at first, following the tracks, the clamor of the train masking their flight. In the darkness, May tripped on a pine root, her arm dragging against the rough bark as she fell. Blue pulled her up and they leaned against the tree, gulping breaths of acrid, metallic air.
“You … all … right?” he whispered.
She nodded, cradling her arm. The tingle of abraded skin began to register as needle pricks of pain. Her chest burned; she could not fill her lungs. Pain brought clarity. May pushed her dripping hair from her face. “If they think they’re going to break the windows at the Market they’ve got another thing coming.”
Blue said, “We should leave.” His eyes darted back toward the woods. “You don’t mess with the Klan, May.”
“They can’t do this.”
“Shh. Listen.” Blue held up his index finger.
Blurred by the downpour, the beam of a flashlight played upon the road, visible through the undergrowth. More voices. Male voices. Blue held May’s arm, leading her, scrambling down a slippery bank into a cement culvert that ran between the train tracks and the road. They crouched, hidden by overhanging brush, and counted eight more white robes passing above, marching toward the Market, peaked hoods drooping in the rain. May pitched forward, her hands on her knees, as if she would vomit, but she only tasted bile. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. A rustling in the underbrush caused them both to jump, and she held her breath. A deer emerged and looked down on them. May blew out a long, shaking breath, and the doe froze, then bolted.
May whispered, “We need to call the police.”
Blue ran his hand over his head. “Can’t do that.”
He squinted through the rain in the direction of the Market. “Can’t call the police because of the moonshine. If they poke around they’ll find those jars you been making and go looking for the still. Federal agents would be down on us lickety-split.”
Thunder boomed, followed by a streak of lightning. Grasping at saplings, they pulled themselves out of the culvert. May nodded toward the woods. “I’m going for the truck.”
“Don’t be crazy, May.”
“You get to the bridge at Black Cat Road. I’ll pick you up there. No telling what they have planned.” When Blue started to speak, she stopped him. “Go, now, and do not follow me.” He disappeared into the woods.
May wiped her eyes, trying to orient herself toward the Market in the darkness. The thrumming of the rain on the underbrush reverberated through the woods. As she started toward the lights in the distance, a floating detachment took over, as if she were watching herself from above, operating on pure instinct. At the edge of the tree line, she crouched behind an oak. The whole group, eighteen in all, faced away from her in a semi-circle in front of the Market, men in front, women behind. She could hear raised voices.
“It won’t light. Wood’s too wet, damn it all.”
“Who was supposed to bring kerosene?”
Two of the men attempted to light a wooden cross. Staying low, May sprinted across the parking area behind them, then edged her way from the side of the building to the back. A light burned beside the kitchen door, and the truck was parked nearby. Time seemed to slow as she eased open the screen then fitted the key into the lock, feeling for the slot, her hands slick with rain. The kitchen was warm and dim, lit only by the pilot light on the stove. Feeling her way, she unlatched the shotgun from its hiding place beneath the work table, then crept back outside. The rain had stopped. Slowly, she opened the truck door. As she was climbing in she heard voices, coming around the corner from the front.
“His room’s in the back here,” one said.
May pulled the truck door almost closed, not wanting the latch to click, and ducked between the steering wheel and the seat. Her pulse pounded in her ears. Please start, please start, please. A silent litany. The voices were nearing. Still ducked down, she pushed the accelerator and the starter switch. The engine sputtered but did not turn over. Please, oh please, just this one time. The men called out. May sat up fully, bracing herself against the steering wheel, and stomped on the gas pedal. The engine roared. Pressing the gearshift forward, she leaned close to the windshield to see through the rain droplets.
Still accelerating, she drove around the building to the front, switching on the headlights at the last minute, illuminating the group as they rotated like stick puppets, toward the truck. The blank white hoods revealed no emotion as she screeched to a halt, so close that two of the figures jumped out of the way. The cries of frightened women were unmistakable. Shielding his eyes from the headlights, one of the men called out, “Henry Marshall, is that you?”
May opened the truck door and stood on the running board, pointing the shotgun toward the sky. She fired. The women screamed, then babbled quietly, then hushed. May’s ears rang. With the kick of the gun, her anger solidified, moving from her gut to her throat, and her voice came out clear and strong. “Y’all hear that?” They all faced her, waiting. “Scary, isn’t it? It isn’t nice to scare people.
“Now that I have your attention,” she continued, “I want you to listen. My family has had this business for seventy-five years. I’m sure some of you are farmers, too, although I can’t see your faces. The last years have been tight—no question of that. All we’ve done here is taken our best product and sold the hell out of it, to folks who want to buy it. We’re not hurting anybody. And y’all ought not hurt anybody—or their property—either. Just get back into your cars, and drive away. Now. And pray to Jesus that nobody’s coming to your house.” May shifted the gun barrel to scan the group. The women’s robes varied slightly, but the larger male figures were indistinguishable, except for their shoes. One man knelt, holding the cross upright, and beneath the mud-browned hem of his sodden robe, May could see leather gaiters, with mismatched laces. She pointed the gun at him and said, “And take your damned cross with you when you go.” When she fired again, into the air over their heads, they skittered into the woods in the darkness, two of the men stumbling beneath the weight of the cross.
They had broken one of the front windows, but otherwise the Market appeared to be intact. May sank onto the seat, the gun suddenly heavy in her arms. She laid it on the floor with shaking hands. Grasping the steering wheel, she rested her head against it, blowing out a slow, ragged breath. Oh, God! She sat up, wiping her face, and leaned into the gearshift, heading toward Black Cat Road. There might be more of them. What if they went to the house?
At the railroad bridge, she pulled over and cut the lights. Blue came out of the shrubs and climbed in. “Hurry up,” she said, “We need to check on Delphina.”
“Jesus, May. I heard shots.”
“They ran like rabbits.” May’s dress clung to her chilled skin and her teeth began to chatter. By the time they pulled up to the farm, the sky was clearing and the moon was out. Everything looked peaceful.
“That you, Chérie?” From the porch, Delphina called into the darkness, her voice alarmed. “Where’s Blue? Mon Dieu, child, what happened?”
May sank to sit on the porch steps, exhausted. Water dripped from her hair onto her face. “The Klan,” she said. “They were having a meeting, in the woods.”
Blue sat, wiping his forehead. He said, “There were women, too.” The sound of tree frogs and rain dripping from the gutters punctuated the quiet.
“I wanted to telephone the police,” May said, plucking her wet dress from her legs, “but Blue said no. And Daddy. I still have to get Daddy.”
Delphina put her hand on May’s forearm, saying, “Somebody dropped him off ‘bout ten minutes after you left. I got him upstairs. He’s out like a light.”
May started to stand. “He’s got to do something about this.”
Delphina’s voice was stony. “Leave him be. He can’t do a thing. Let me see to that scrape on your arm.”
“It’s nothing. How can you be so calm?”
Delphina ascended the front steps with a slow deliberateness. “The Klan doesn’t like moonshiners, and it doesn’t like colored folks. Your Daddy can’t do a thing without it coming back in trouble. Most likely for Blue and Otis. That’s the way things are, Chérie. You know that.”
“But we have to do something,” May said.
“One thing I know,” Delphina said, “Hatred is a powerful thing. You let us watch out for our own. We’ve got ways.”
“You mean your Voodoo? Do you really believe that Voodoo is going to change anything?”
Delphina sighed. “Most likely not. It’s more important to believe in the possibility of change. It’s all we have.”
Morning sunlight streamed through the shutters on the sleeping porch. May rubbed her eyes and stretched her sore back and bruised legs. The events of the previous night lingered in her muscles and blood like venom. She pushed herself up from the mattress with a groan. She had kicked a hornet’s nest.
Barefoot, she trudged down the stairs and to the kitchen. Delphina worked at the sink, scouring a pot with savage energy. Silently, May took a smaller pot from the drain board and began to dry it.
“Let God dry ‘em this morning,” Delphina said, turning off the taps. May sat heavily in a kitchen chair and rubbed her palms over her face before examining the scratches on her legs and arms. Her shoulder was bruised purple from the recoil of the gun. Delphina turned May’s arm over, examining it. “Lord, I hope you didn’t get into poison ivy or chiggers. You need a poultice. Come on.”
In the small garden outside her cottage, Delphina picked a handful of leaves. May followed her inside. From the rafters, herbs and plants hung in bunches to dry, along with a snakeskin and something spotted and brown. “Hold this,” Delphina commanded, passing the fresh leaves to May.
May sniffed the bundle. “Smells nice. Is this Voodoo?”
“Just plain old comfrey and chamomile. Good for bruising.” Delphina rummaged among the glass and earthenware jars that lined the mantel.
May said, “Who’s that for?” She nodded towards Delphina’s Voodoo altar. When she was little, May had found the altar frightening. It was still eerie. Five candle stubs sat in a circle, in dried puddles of wax. Letters had been carved into the black wax, and although she could not make them out she knew their significance: Black and white candles return evil to the sender. Purple to cause harm. In the center of the candles was a small folded square of fabric; a lady’s handkerchief. On top of that, small bones and black feathers were arranged to make three X marks in a row. Delphina pounded leaves in a mortar, mixing them with green powder. She wrapped the crushed leaves in muslin.
May said, “What’s this all mean?”
“Black Dot of Vengeance. Only I got to wait for the moon phase.”
“How soon till you know if it works?”
“Hard to say. Sometimes, it simmers for a while, and boils over when you least expect.” She dusted her hands together. “Now, leave that and come here.”
May carried the photo and propped it on the mantelpiece. Delphina tied the fabric around her arm and pulled the muslin knot. “Lord,” she said, returning to her usual brusqueness, “you’re a nosy one. Now, let’s get you something to eat before you blow away. Get on to the kitchen.”
“I’ll get my own breakfast.” May paused at the door, her hand on the handle. The truck’s noisy brakes ground to a halt outside.
“There’s your Daddy now,” Delphina said.
May glanced back at the altar. She said, “When I was little, I used to think you could read my dreams. Was that Voodoo?”
“Naw,” Delphina’s expression softened. “That was just reading your sad little face.”
May met her father coming across the yard. She held the porch door open as he carried inside two cardboard cartons, then set them on the table. May sat, and he touched her arm with an expression of concern. “You all right, little gal? Bet they scared the Devil out of you last night.” He smoothed her tangled hair, and she leaned against his side. He patted her shoulder, then crossed to the sink to wash his hands. “We’ve taken all the hooch out of the Market. I’ll keep it up at the still.” He glanced up at the clock. “I need to get back and open up. Otis is sweeping up the glass.”
May’s eyes flitted toward Delphina’s cottage. “No telling what they had in mind.”
“Blue told me you ran ‘em off. I’m not sure if I think that was brave or just plain crazy, but I reckon I’d have done the same.” He leaned back against the sink, staring at the floor. “I’m going to quit drinking. That’s a promise.”
“That’s not enough. We need to stop—not just selling out of the Market—we need to stop making it. Last night was a warning.”
“We’ll talk later, all righty? You take it easy today.” Henry grabbed a cold biscuit and bit off half of it.
“Telephone if you need me.” May followed him out to the porch and sat in her rocker, drawing her knees up beneath her nightgown. A red-winged blackbird settled on the fence rail, its plaintive cry sounding like a fretful baby. The summer landscape looked as if it had been washed clean in the rain, with tufts of vapor, like cotton candy, rising through the trees on the distant mountains.
Overnight, things had shifted. Everything. A heaviness of guilt weighed on her very skin. Guilt, that she had involved herself in something that could bring harm down on people she loved. She wanted to believe that her father was sincere, when he promised to stop drinking, but she was unable even to attempt to convince herself that he would change. Clarity, unlike self-deception, was harsh. No wonder he had become so adept at blurring the lines. No, he wouldn’t change. This place was not going to change. Delphina had said so herself. The thought crystalized that she, May, was powerless to change anyone except herself. Shame could be buried, along with regret, and left behind. The scars on her heart could only be felt, not seen. She had to leave. But leaving required money. She wondered how far she could get on twenty-six dollars.
Liza Nash Taylor is a native Virginian. This excerpt from the Thin End of the Wedge is part of her first historical manuscript, set at the farm where she lives in Keswick, outside Charlottesville, Virginia. The story follows May Marshall as she flees from Prohibition agents in the summer of 1924. From her rural home in Keswick, May travels to Jazz Age New York, finally landing in Paris, reinventing herself along the way. Liza was the 2016 winner the San Miguel Writer’s Conference Fiction Contest, and in 2018 she was named a Hawthornden International Fellow. In January, she finished the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Microchondria II, the literary magazine of the Harvard Bookstore; The Copperfield Review; Seven Hills Review; Gargoyle Magazine #66; and others. Find her online at lizanashtaylor.com, on Facebook and Instagram @LizaNashTaylor.