Fiction contest winner: 'The Cliff'
By Charles McRaven
They rode in as if they owned the place, and within five minutes, they did. Thirty Union soldiers, commanded by a captain, spreading out over the farm, posting sentries. Ophelia stood on her porch and watched it happen, knowing absolutely that there was nothing she could do, or should have done, to stop it.
There’d been no warning, no frightened neighbors rushing by to safety to scream at her to get out. The men had the bold ruthlessness of invaders, the certainty that nothing would oppose them.
The captain rode up to the porch. He was perhaps mid-thirty, unshaven, his uniform stained. The kind of man she’d never notice, if… His eyes were hungry.
“Morning, Ma’am.” He didn’t remove his hat. “I’m Captain Joshua Kirk. We have orders to secure this area over the river and occupy it till further notice. You an’ your family will be safe with us here.” He looked beyond her, expecting others, his hand on a heavy revolver in its holster. Two other soldiers flanked him, rifles at the ready.
“There’s only me, Captain. And I’ll go, as soon as I can gather a few things and get on a horse.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Ma’am. We’re instructed to confiscate all mounts for the U.S. Army. We’ll give you a receipt, which you can redeem after the war’s over.”
The worthless promise these invaders make whenever they raid, steal.
“Then I’ll walk. I’ll just take a few things.” She saw some of the men start to dismantle a rail fence for cookfire wood, while others cornered chickens.
“Just a few questions: Are you or any members of your family engaged in aiding th’ rebel army against our forces?” It sounded as if he’d memorized it.
I don’t know where David is, or under which commander now. And this is a trap: they want an excuse to burn us out, at least… She chose what she hoped was a lesser evil, but immediately regretted it.
“No, I’m a widow. No close family. I’m not from this region.”
“A widow.” At that the captain let his eyes move all over her, and something changed in the air. It was as if a thin veneer of civilization began slipping, or being pushed aside. “Well then, maybe we can be of service here. It can’t be that easy, bein’ on your own this way. We’ll camp in th’ barns and away from th’ house. We may not be here but for a few days, anyway.”
A lie. A damnyankee lie. Even if I could believe–trust–this man, his troops are surely savages, and I have not a shred of protection.
“Thank you, Captain, but I’ll leave. I assume there might be a skirmish or even a battle here, and it wouldn’t be safe, I’m sure.”
The man’s eyes roved on down the dirt track, opposite the way they’d come. No other habitations were in sight. The cliff above the river was only a hundred yards ahead, pierced by the small stream from the spring above and behind the house.
When he turned back to her, any trace of politeness had vanished.
“We can’t let you leave. You’d warn others that we’re here. We’ll search th’ house, now. Confiscate any weapons, and I hope you haven’t lied to me ‘bout bein’ alone.” He swung out of the saddle, signaled to the two men behind him, and mounted the steps.
Ophelia was tall. This man was just a shade taller, and his features were coarse, his eyes bloodshot. A sour odor of sweat and stale tobacco clung to him. He brushed past her, followed by one of the men. The other lounged against a porch post, running his eyes over her. She turned away, staring unseeing out over the cliff to the Confederate-held farmland and woods beyond the river.
I know what’s going to happen, here. These are no gentlemen soldiers. And I don’t know how much control this Kirk has over them. And I must accept that he’s a predator, too.
But no plan, no escape came to her in the minutes her house was being tramped through, to the sound of doors slamming, drawers being pulled out, muttered voices.
The men returned.
“What is your name?”
“Mrs. David McAlester.”
“Well, Miz McAlester, my men will g’on an’ make our camp, while you tell me about this area. Who lives where, all about ‘em, and whether any of ‘em’s apt to endanger our force. And I’d ‘preciate a drink of water, too.” He sat, uninvited, on a porch chair, motioned his men away.
She walked into the house, dipped a glassful of water from the wooden bucket at the dry sink, returned. Then she leaned against a porch post.
“The Comptons live a quarter mile on down, back some distance from the cliff. Beyond them a mile are the Ledbetters, where the land slopes down and a creek drops into the river. Both couples are elderly. The Ledbetters have a servant man and wife. She does housework, and he tends the farm.”
“Slaveowners. Too proud t’do their own work.” The man spat over the porch rail.
“They’re both crippled by arthritis. Mrs. Ledbetter can’t even hold a plate any more. The Comptons are alone, but don’t farm any longer. They had a hired hand, but he left them in the spring. And you’ll have passed the Singleton place on your way here. Mr. Singleton, if you saw him, has only one leg.”
She finished her recitation of the neighbors and their situations.
“I see. And you? You don’t talk like people around here. You said you were from someplace else.”
“I was orphaned early on, and was reared by a cousin of my mother’s, in Tennessee.” She didn’t tell him the place was a prosperous plantation. “As to your other question, I can’t imagine any resistance or attack on you here.”
“Neither c’n I. We want this high ground, ’cause we c’n see a long way out over Reb territory, before they c’n see us. Rest of our army might be along soon, or might not be. Dunno what the ones in charge’ll decide.
“Now, we’ll have to keep watch on you, an’ there’ll be a man here all th’ time. You c’n come and go as needed, but don’t get any ideas ‘bout sneakin’ off. We have to treat all you people as th’ enemy, until you prove you ain’t.”
“And how do I prove that?” Again, she regretted having asked.
“Oh, let’s just say I’ll make that decision.” Again the hungry eyes. He rose, handed her the glass, and stepped off the porch. She watched him indicate her and shake his head, then order his men in their systematic takeover of her farm. She knew there would be virtually nothing remaining when and if these soldiers left.
Now she must concentrate on saving herself, forget any possessions. A plan: she must have one. And soon. She had no doubt this Kirk would force himself on her, drunk or even sober, at the earliest opportunity.
Am I being paranoid, here? No, I’m a quarry, just an object, for men far from home, angry, bound by no laws or fear. I must accept the fact that I’m to be violated, debased, possibly even killed.
But she knew she absolutely must not let the wave of revulsion that washed over her, cloud her thinking. She must chart her escape, and do it now.
The road was out, either direction. They’d ride her down, and then it would be over. The hills behind the farm were a tangle of brush beyond the narrow fields, and that direction led nowhere.
That left the cliff. Two miles of vertical rock, 300 feet above the looping river, sometimes close, sometimes beyond trees. She and David had looked for a way down, but there was none. The water from the spring took sheer leaps a dozen yards down at a time. Nothing grew from the cracks in the stone but some stunted cedars. It would be suicidal to try that route.
She let her eyes search the soldiers’ equipment. Three wagons were here now, one obviously a cookwagon, another with tents, ropes, uniforms. The third seemed to hold additional guns and ammunition. The men were unhitching the mules, turning them and their horses into the pasture with her own two.
Then she looked again at the middle wagon.
She couldn’t do anything at night: get herself killed surely. So how in broad daylight, when they might relax their watch on her? She concentrated on the problem as hard as she’d ever thought about anything in her life. So hard she could feel the blood moving in her head, as idea after idea came, was shredded, discarded.
It was late afternoon now, and the soldiers had cookfires going. Ophelia walked with the water bucket past the guard to the springhouse, he following silently. Then she went out to the henhouse, where a few had been left. She herded a pullet into a corner, caught it, wrung its neck deftly. Then she turned away from the guard and let the blood flow into a small jar she’d taken from her apron pocket.
Back inside, she plucked the chicken, cleaned it, put the washed and battered pieces into a frying pan. Stoked the cast-iron stove, began mixing biscuit dough.
She heard a step on the porch, saw the captain push the door open. Too soon.
“Believe I’ll just invite m’self to supper, Miz McAlester,” he announced. “Sure y’won’t grudge a little hospitality.” He flung his hat onto a chair. She could smell alcohol on him, from the kitchen doorway he now filled. He didn’t seem drunk, just emboldened by drink. That would make it even harder to deal with him.
“All right, Captain. You may wash up on the back porch.” She dipped hot water from the stove’s reservoir into a wide pan, handed him lye soap and a towel. He stepped out onto the porch, began to wash hands and face.
And another phase of her plan came into focus.
“I’ll be doing wash in the morning,” she told him. “I don’t have much, and I can do clothes for you and your men too, if you want.”
He seemed surprised at this, but nodded.
“We’d ‘preciate that, yes. Getting’ a mite ripe, we are.” Then, apparently not knowing what else to say, he sat, watched her at work. She sensed that there was a trace of civilization in this man, though roughed over by months in the field, among coarser comrades. Just maybe she could appeal to…
He took out a heavy pocket watch, flipped it open. She caught a glimpse of a woman’s face inside the cover.
“Well, yes. Haven’t seen her in almost a year, this damn war.”
“Any children?” Try to get him talking about home and family.
“Two. Boy’ll be ten b’now, and th’ girl, she’s seven.”
“We had two, but both died at birth.” The memory still hurt her.
“Oh, that’s bad, Ma’am. Then y’lost yer husband, too. Reb soldier?”
“No, he died of smallpox, in that epidemic we had last year. I’ve been trying to hold the place together since.” The lie didn’t concern her in the least.
Again he didn’t know what to say. Finally:
“Well, if this war gets over with, maybe t’won’t be so hard.”
“I imagine we’ll all have to start over then, with whatever’s left us.” She’d been frying potatoes and onions in another skillet, and now they were brown. The chicken was ready, and the biscuits smelled done, too. “We’ll eat, now.” She set plates, forks. “Do you drink sassafras tea? It’s all I have.”
“I’m learnin’ to, since there’s not much coffee or real tea t’be had, this far f’m our supplies.”
She served them, then bent her head in a silent blessing. She could feel his awkwardness at this, and deliberately prolonged it.
He asked a few questions as they ate, and so did she, to try to draw him out, let whatever humanity was inside him come through that armor of conqueror’s arrogance. But he seemed unchanged, made no comment about the food.
Ophelia knew she was considered attractive. Back on the plantation, she’d been courted by several beaus, spoiled, prideful scions of the wealthy. None of them had seemed to be more than caricatures, empty suits and polished boots, scornful, quick to take offense. Dandies. And most of them too short, anyway.
And then David had come, trading the fine horses he and his father bred. There had been an open honesty in his brown eyes, his sure movements. He had let those eyes stay on hers at that first meeting far too long, but she’d read the promise, the steady resolve in that look. And at twenty-four, she knew then that she would be his wife, whatever and wherever that might be.
It wasn’t to be on the horse farm, but here on this high flat above the river, a pleasant if small place for the two of them, where they could be independent, self-sufficient, live only for each other, plan a family, begin one.
Then, of course, the war had come.
The captain sat back, sated. And his eyes fastened on her face: eyes so different from David’s.
Outside, darkness was falling, and the cookfires of the troops danced in a light breeze. Their talk came faintly. Kirk rose, went out the front door, told the guard he could join the others at mess, gave a few orders.
Ophelia slipped into the single bedroom, lifted her dress, and sloshed some of the chicken blood. By the time the man returned, she was clearing away the dishes. Again he sat and watched her, this time taking a small flask from a pocket and drinking. The smell of whiskey hung in the air.
She lighted a tallow candle, then another.
“I’ll begin that washing in the morning, Captain.”
He rose, clamped a hand on her arm.
“I think you know we’re not through here, just yet.” He put his face against hers as she turned it, avoiding his lips. The rough whiskers rasped.
She drew back, but then looked him steadily in the eyes, noting the fatigue, the strain in them from too much sun, too much riding.
Too much war.
She would not cry out, not fight him, not try for one of the keen knives in their holder above the dry sink. With thirty men outside, that would be certain death.
Instead, she removed his hand, untied her apron, and reaching back, began unbuttoning her dress. He smiled, removed his shirt.
She slid the dress away, then looked down at her shift.
“Oh. I…I’m sorry, I…” The stains from the blood shone fresh. She put her hand to her mouth. He looked, too.
“Ah…that is, I didn’t know…” And then he seemed to turn a thought over in his mind for a long moment.
Will this deter him? Or is he too much of an animal? No, maybe, knowing this will pass, he’ll wait…
He reached for his shirt again, drew it on. She pulled her dress back up. Then he turned without a word and strode out. She heard him calling for a replacement guard.
Next morning, Ophelia kindled a stick fire under the big cast-iron pot, filled it, took lye soap and a wooden scrub board from the springhouse. Walked over to the wagon with the uniforms in it. Kirk had told this guard what she was to do, and he watched from a distance. Woman washing their clothes: damned boring, that. He let his eyes stray to the other men, lounging about, smoking, playing cards. A detail with the captain had gone scouting the area, and the men were doing what a soldier does most of his life: waiting.
She deliberately set a few soiled shirts on a sizeable coil of rope, then lifted both burdens and set them on more shirts. Took them into the springhouse, stepped inside. She hid the rope behind crocks in a dark corner, then set most of the shirts to soak. Back outside, she put others into the washpot, began soaping them and rubbing them on the board.
After washing several, she filled another kettle with rinse water, put the shirts in, swished them about. Nothing she did could possibly cause any alarm, she knew, and resolved to carry out her plan brashly, here in broad daylight.
The guard had sat, filling a pipe, over closer to his comrades. He became engrossed in their card game, and only occasionally glanced at the woman at her washing. She went regularly for more shirts, and into the springhouse often for more water and on other errands. Sometimes she closed the door partly behind her for a moment, to get the guard used to that. He didn’t seem to notice.
She’d selected a uniform she thought would do, smelly as it was, and a stained kepi she hoped would cover her piled-up and pinned hair. She looked around guardedly: the men ignored her.
Then she stepped inside the springhouse, closed the door partly, quickly stripped off her dress and shift, wrapped the rope around her from hips up to her breasts. Then she put on the pants, luckily not too long, and the roomy shirt over the rope. The kepi fit tightly, but it’d stay on, she hoped. She stuffed her dress and shift into pockets.
Then Ophelia McAlester slipped out the springhouse door, around behind it, and put several yards between her and the lounging men. Her skin prickled, and she tensed for a shout, pursuit, pandemonium.
None of that came. She turned, walked casually toward the cliff. No reaction.
She bent down out of sight above the sheer drop. Here was a gnarled cedar near the edge, and she unwound the rope with frantic fingers, hung it at its middle over the bush, and saying a silent prayer, let herself down, gripping the doubled rope in both strong hands.
She was able to steady herself with her feet against the stone face, and drop hand-over-hand toward another cedar. When she reached it, she balanced on its thick, horizontal trunk, pulled the rope down, looped it again, swung down again. And again and yet again. A feeling of exhilaration rushed over her at the thought that she’d actually escaped, but it was quickly banished in the realization that she could fall to a grisly death.
After just the briefest rest where the little stream pooled, she shed the uniform, dressed, worked her way down to the next sheer drop. Other sturdy sprouts grew here, fed by the water and whatever soil had collected. Again she hung the rope, again let herself down, again felt the rasping of the rope and the rawness of her hands.
Then again, often having to stop long before the doubled rope played out, because here was an anchor, and none reachable below. She lost count of the times she repeated her rappel, her descent into what she hoped was freedom.
Nearing the bottom, she saw there was no other shrub or sprout within rope’s length below. Here the river curved close to the spring branch, and the clear water turned green with depth. She searched for another way: perhaps she could crab sideways to get above another anchor.
No. And no ledge, nothing but smooth rock all the way down, perhaps eighty feet.
Her rope could lower her past halfway, she estimated. From the end, she’d be thirty feet above the water. Maybe…
She stepped off into space one more time, gripping the single thickness of the tied-off rope in pain, fearing that this time she’d let it slide and she’d hit rocks below, or even the water, wrong. Hand-over-hand, strengthened but also frightened by the determination that this would be the end, one way or the other.
She reached the knotted end. Looked down: far still, and there were rocks at the base of the cliff. She hung there a moment, weakening.
No! There’s no going back, here. I must gather my strength for this last effort.
She drew her knees up, planted her feet against the cliff face, and gave a mighty shove out. At the apex of her swing, she committed herself to God and let go.
Keeping her body upright with arms straight above her, Ophelia struck the water feet-first, knifing down into cool, dark depths. She thought she’d never stop, but she did, her arms and shoulders flaming in pain then as she stroked upwards. When she burst above the surface, she took in great gasps of the sweet, summer-scented air.
Then she rolled over onto her back and floated, seeing the white-clouded sky, the cliff above her. As the current caught her, sweeping her toward the far shore, the sun on her face felt like a kiss.