Sliver Lees was no stranger to hard times. Any meaning life held, to his way of thinking, had vanished before he had even been born when the glorious confederacy had fallen. Good times, bad times—it didn’t matter—everything was irrelevant.
String-bean thin, grizzled, and white-haired, Sliver was a walking ghost, who spent his days and nights closeted inside his ancestral home, Hawk’s Grove, on a craggy hillside in a tumbledown mess of crumbling pillars, hanging shutters, and rotten gutters, suffering the latter stages of strangulation by kudzu vines.
One chilly morning, Sliver got up shortly after dawn, as was his usual practice, to perform his daily ritual of washing, trimming his white beard, and dressing in his Great-Granddaddy Jackson Lees’ moth-eaten confederate uniform. Having performed his toilet, Sliver made his way down a winding, rotten staircase to a small breakfast parlor where his housekeeper, Wilson, was hacking a walnut chifferobe into firewood.
The housekeeper had not drawn wages for several years, electing to take residence in a converted slave cottage as a means of payment. On a small, rocky patch, Wilson cultivated potatoes, beans, and corn, and kept a few chickens and a milk cow in the barn. The rear fields, planted in burley tobacco, he rented out, providing the plantation’s only source of income.
Wilson’s ancestors, as it happened, had been the Lees’ slaves, and he believed he had as much right to lay claim to Hawk’s Grove, as did Sliver Lees.
“I’ll have my tea and eggs now, Willie,” Sliver commanded, sitting down at a small table in front of a bowed window, overlooking a tangle of brown rhododendrons, azaleas, and hibiscus—all neglected and wild.
“How many times I have to tell you my name is Wilson?” Wilson complained throwing a piece of chifferobe onto the fire. “Sometimes I think you are just plain stupid,” he mumbled, going into the kitchen to fetch the tea.
“I shall be working on my memoirs after breakfast,” Sliver said to nobody in particular. “I believe I will write about Laura.”
“You say something?” Wilson said, juggling a tray of toast, eggs, and a pot of tea. He placed the tray on the table, sat down in the chair across from Sliver, and poured two cups of tea.
“What do you think you’re doing, Willie?” Sliver said, frowning across the table. “You take your breakfast in the kitchen.”
“I’m just sitting here like I always do, Mr. Lees,” Wilson said, tapping a boiled egg. “It’s cold in the kitchen.”
“Well, upon my honor, I never heard of such goings on, Willie,” Sliver said, buttering a piece of toast. “But very well, today you may breakfast with me. You can help me sort out my memoirs.”
“What memoirs? You ain’t done nothing except rot away in this old house,” Wilson said. “That ought to fill about two sentences.”
“Au contraire. I shall write about the last vestiges of that gentle bygone world, burning within this beating breast as a flame glowing in the darkest night.”
“I ain’t no book critic, but that sounds like a bunch of manure to me,” Wilson said, shaking his head.
“And I will, naturally, write about my relationship with Laura,” Sliver continued, getting up from the table and taking a framed photograph from the mantle.
“Never happily,” Sliver said, kissing the photograph. “Oh the misfortune of that awful war that left my family destitute and broken! Had it turned out otherwise, she could never have married that awful man with his crude bearing and store full of hardware.”
“You are as crazy as a loon,” Wilson muttered, as someone pounded on the front door. “I’ll get that,” he said throwing his napkin on the table and getting up to answer it. “I could stand talking to somebody sane.”
It was the town sheriff, Joe Skeens.
Skeens shifted from left foot to right foot on the front porch, clearly uncomfortable with an official-looking scrap of paper in his right hand. “Morning, Wilson,” the sheriff said, tipping his hat. “I guess Sliver’s inside?”
“Where else?” Wilson said, opening the door wider and motioning Skeens inside. “Company’s calling,” he yelled to Sliver.
“Show him into the parlor, Willie,” Sliver called into the hallway.
“It’s Wilson, dimwit,” Wilson muttered. “Come on Sheriff, his highness is having tea in the counting room.”
“Morning, Sheriff,” Sliver said extending his withered, white hand, “Can I assume this is a social call? Willie, bring another cup and some more hot tea.”
“Nothing for me, Wilson,” Sheriff Skeens waved the paper. “Now, Sliver, this isn’t easy for me, but I’m here to deliver an eviction notice from Judge Fuller.”
“Is that a fact?” Sliver took the paper, examined it, and tossed it into the fireplace.
“Come on now, Sliver, why did you have to go and do that?” Sheriff Skeens said, sighing. “I’m going to have to go and arrest you for destroying a court order.”
“Be gone carpetbagger!” Sliver said, waving his hand. “That paper is nonsense. Generations of Lees have spilled blood here. I am not about to let our honor be besmirched by a Yankee sympathizer.”
“Now, Sliver,” the Sheriff said, patting his holstered gun.
“Willie, get my sword!” Sliver yelled.
“Would that be your imaginary sword, cause I sure don’t see one hereabouts,” Wilson said, smiling.
“I’m sorry, Sliver,” Skeens said, patting him on the back. “You just owe too many years of back taxes. When times get tough, people start to wonder, and we just can’t let you slip by anymore. I can give you the rest of the day, but if you’re not out by midnight, I’ll have to bring my deputies to evict you.”
“Over my dead body,” Sliver said, seething.
“You have till midnight, then,” Skeens said, walking towards the hallway. “Sorry, Wilson, but you’ll have to vacate with Sliver. Let me know if you need any help.”
“Thanks, Sheriff,” Wilson said, walking with Skeens to the door. “I’ll make sure things get taken care of.”
“I shall not budge, thank you very much,” Sliver said from a wing chair by a moonlit window, clutching the photograph of Laura. “This will be my final stand, dear heart. I shall pray that we meet in a better world.”
“All right then,” Wilson got into the driver’s seat and started the engine. “I suppose it’s about worthless to ask you for travel suggestions.”
“As a prisoner, I refuse to cooperate,” Sliver said crossing his arms.
“Well then, I guess we’ll just follow the road.”
Wilson had been driving for about two hours when patches of fog began to rise beneath the Buick’s headlights. Sliver was snoring loudly from the passenger seat, sound asleep. They traveled a few miles down the road, and the fog thickened, causing Wilson to hunch over the steering wheel, desperately searching the dark, mist-filled night.
Finally, Wilson saw a road sign proclaiming an oncoming town. His attention wavering, he tried to make out the words in the dense fog and the car skidded off the road, landing in the ditch. Cursing to himself, Wilson got out of the car and examined the Buick for damages. The right rear tire was flat.
“Now, ain’t that just about the way things go,” he grumbled, opening the trunk and piling their belongings onto the roadside. He searched the bottom of the trunk, but a spare tire was not to be found. They would have to walk.
“Come on, Mr. Sliver,” Wilson said, opening the passenger door and tapping Sliver on the shoulder. “We got to walk into town and get a tire.”
“Nonsense. Let me get back to sleep,” Sliver said, shoving Wilson’s hand away.
“I should just leave you here. Let the dogs get you. Or better yet, wolves, big and hungry with sharp claws and fangs.”
“Wolves? Fangs?” Sliver sat up, blinking. “Where have you taken me?”
“There’s a town just up ahead. I saw the sign a few yards back. Now come on. I’ll see if we can find a place to spend the night.”
“I shall certainly dock your wages for this, Willie,” Sliver grumbled, hobbling alongside Wilson in the fog-shrouded, moonless night.
“That will leave me pretty much the same as now,” Wilson said, taking Sliver’s arm and draping it over his shoulder. “Best be careful, might be snakes in the ditch over there.”
“Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under. If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me," Sliver muttered into the darkness.
“You sputtering nonsense again?” Wilson asked, puffing from half-carrying Sliver.
“It’s from Macbeth, a kindred soul,” Sliver said.
“Quite charming,” Sliver commented, as he and Wilson climbed the brick steps from the street to the antebellum mansion. Sleeping porches wrapped around the upper and lower stories of the white house. Freshly painted delft shutters hung from the windows, geraniums bloomed in window boxes, and soft spotlights bathed the entire structure, providing a welcome retreat from the ubiquitous, foggy night.
“Charming and expensive is my guess,” Wilson said, shaking his head. “We might ought to look for another place.”
“Nonsense,” Sliver said, smiling. “It’s just the sort of place that would welcome a gentleman traveler. Come on Willie, our fates await us.”
The entrance was a wide hallway, floored in black and gray marble tile. Silk pastoral paper hung from the walls displaying hoop-skirted southern belles with lifted umbrellas frolicking beneath moss-laden trees. A broad staircase led upwards to the bedrooms.
A curved archway led from the hallway to the lobby, a converted parlor, where a white-haired, plump, little woman was busily applying lemon wax to the furniture.
“Good evening, Madam,” Sliver said, bowing deeply.
“Good lord,” the woman spun around, jumping. “You almost frightened me right out of my shoes.”
“Please accept my apologies,” Sliver said, taking her hand and bowing again. “We are two wayfarers, thrust into the night, and at the mercy of your hospitality.”
“Are you with the re-enactors?” The woman asked, staring at Sliver’s gray uniform.
“That’s just how he dresses,” Wilson said, “like a fool,” he muttered under his breath.
“How much do you charge?” Wilson blurted.
“Pardon us, Madam,” Sliver said, frowning at Wilson. “Willie doesn’t understand that gentleman don’t discuss financial arrangements in front of a lady,”
“No need to apologize,” Hattie said, lifting one of the keys. “I can let you have the Colonel’s Suite for two hundred, including breakfast, lunch, tea, and mint juleps on the veranda in the afternoon.”
“The Colonel’s Suite sounds perfect,” Sliver said. “We’ll take it.”
“Hold on,” Wilson said. “Do you have anything cheaper?”
“Willie…” Sliver said, nudging him.
“Well, let’s see,” Hattie put the key back, and studied the wall. “How about the Appomattox then? It would be one hundred fifty.”
“Splendid!” Sliver said, brightening.
“How much would a plain, old room with no name cost?” Wilson said.
“Well, there is one, but it isn’t as charming as the others. I don’t think you will like it as much. It would be fifty dollars, and only includes breakfast.”
“No mint juleps?” Sliver said.
“We’ll take it,” Wilson said pulling a wallet out of his pocket. “Do you happen to know if there’s anyplace open where I can buy a tire?”
“Not tonight, good heavens. You can hop over to Carl’s Gas and Service in the morning. Carl will take care of you.” Hattie said, taking a small key from the board. “If you could sign the register, I’ll show you to your room.”
The following morning, Wilson was up early.
Sliver opened his eyes and studied the room, confused. “Where am I?”
“Magnolia Lane, remember?” Wilson said, checking his wallet to assess their remaining cash. He had managed to save a few hundred dollars selling eggs, butter, and milk. It wasn’t much, but if he was careful, they might be able to get by until he could find a job somewhere. Wilson knew that he could manage better on his own, and sometimes wondered why he put up with the old fool. Sliver was family, and that was that. “I’m going out to buy a tire,” he said, putting the wallet in his pocket, “and then I’ll need to go and fetch the car. It should take a couple of hours.”
After Wilson left, Sliver got up, performed his morning toilet, dressed in his uniform, and made his way downstairs. Smells of bacon, hot coffee, and fresh bread wafted up from the kitchen.
“Good morning,” Hattie greeted him in a ruffled white apron and cap. “I hope you slept well. Breakfast is on the side porch.”
“Thank you, Madam,” Sliver said, kissing her hand. “I enjoyed a most restful night.”
“I’m pleased, then. Please follow me and I’ll show you your table,” Hattie said, blushing.”
The table, laden with a creamy tablecloth, polished silver, and floral china was beyond a set of French doors on a wide veranda overlooking a rose garden and fishpond.
“Would you like coffee or tea?” Hattie said, after Sliver was seated.
“A cup of tea would be delightful,” Sliver said, looking around the porch. “I see you have given me a private retreat. How thoughtful.” The other tables were deserted.
“It’s been a bit slow,” Hattie said, looking embarrassed. “I’m afraid, you and your friend are my only guests, at present.”
“Oh heavens, surely, you didn’t take Willie for my friend! He’s my manservant,” Sliver corrected her.
“I am so sorry,” Hattie apologized.
“Fret not, the fault is Willie’s. He is a brash fellow, who sometimes forgets his place.”
“I’ll just get your tea, then,” Hattie said. “Breakfast is on the side bar. Please, help yourself.”
Sliver felt surprisingly vigorous, he discovered, as he loaded bacon, eggs, and a fresh blueberry muffin on his plate. He really should not have let Willie keep him cooped up in the house, denying him the pleasures to be found in places such as Magnolia Lane. He should take a walk after breakfast and see the town. Perhaps, he could find a suitable residence. Yes, the town just might be acceptable for his breeding and lifestyle.
“I should like to walk about the town,” Sliver said, as Hattie poured steaming tea into his cup. “Do you have any suggestions for my promenade?”
“There’s a sweet shop, if you like candies, and lots of boutiques, specializing in local crafts,” Hattie said, thoughtfully. “And I always enjoy a visit to Grambarger’s Oddities and Ends Museum.”
“A museum!” Sliver said, brightening. “Just the thing.”
“It’s two blocks north and three blocks east on Ferry Lane.” Hattie explained. “If you like, I can call and let them know you will be stopping by—in case it might be closed.”
“The very thing, then,” Sliver agreed.
After he finished breakfast, Sliver struck out for his walk. He found the museum on Ferry Lane without problem.
Grambarger’s Oddities and Ends Museum was housed in a Tudor building, which resembled a large, gingerbread house with lots of awnings, bric-a-brac, and herringbone patterned bricks. A pair of gargoyles looked down from the upper cornices.
A little bell chimed as Sliver entered the front door and surveyed the establishment. Items stood piled everywhere beneath a heavy layer of dust. Sliver was somewhat disappointed. The Museum looked rather like a junk shop.
“Howdy do,” a tiny woman with her hair pulled into a bun popped out of a rear door marked “private”. She wore button-top shoes and a white apron over a calico dress. A corncob pipe was clutched between her teeth. “You must be that feller Hattie sent over.”
“I’m sorry, I think I’ve changed my mind,” Sliver said, turning to leave.
“Pshaw,” the woman said, lighting the pipe. “You ain’t even looked around yet. You never know what might take your fancy.” The woman held out a tobacco-stained hand, “Grania Grambarger, at your service.”
“Sliver Lees,” he said, taking her hand. “Perhaps, you might have memorabilia from the civil war?”
“Nothing come to mind,” Grania said, thoughtfully. “Hold on, there is something, now that I think on it. Come on.”
Sliver followed her through a narrow aisle along a wall decorated with preserved animals and birds to a small table covered with old magazines. She lifted the pile and removed a sheathed sword.
“It is exquisite,” Sliver said, examining the hand-tooled hilt and the silver sword.
“I could take that uniform off your hands,” she said, tugging at his sleeve. “I couldn’t give much. There’s a world of mending needed to put it right.”
“Madam, I would sooner part with my life,” Sliver said, putting the sword down. “This uniform belonged to my great granddaddy. It is not for sale.”
“Now, we’re getting somewhere,” Grania said, placing a leathery hand on his pulse. “It sometimes takes awhile for me to figure out a body. I see what you are looking for.”
“I think it is time for me to depart,” Sliver said, removing her hand. Why would that nice lady at Magnolia Lane ever think he would like this place? It was tacky, the owner was uncouth, and he did not belong here.
“I have something in the back. It’s something special, not for everyone, but just the thing for a certain gentleman. Come on, nobody’s going to bite you,” Grania motioned for him to follow her to the door marked “private”.
The door led into a long, dark hallway, narrowing into a cornucopia with no end in sight.
“Now, this here is an alternator,” Grania said, patting a machine, resembling an old treadle sewing machine.
“That’s it?” Sliver said, unimpressed.
“You’ll see,” Grania said, sitting down in a chair and turning a wheel attached to the side. She placed her feet on the treadle, and pushed it up and down. There was a whirring sound and then a pop. “It’s done,” she said, rubbing her hands.
“What’s done” Sliver said.
“Go on into the shop,” Grania said, smiling.
“Very well,” Sliver said, turning his back. “I shall see myself to the door.”
He opened the “private” door, walked out, and stopped, dumfounded. The shop was transformed. The floors were polished, and the dust had vanished. What was most surprising—no, delightful—was the merchandise had somehow transformed into a treasure of civil war relics. Confederate flags and framed battle charts decorated the walls, along with a plethora of hilted sabers. There were pressed uniforms on dressmaker forms, cases of weapons, buttons, and soldier’s diaries. Hats, scarves, mess kits, and gloves neatly filled more polished, glass cases.
“This is amazing,” Sliver said, fingering one of the stiff uniforms. “How did you do this?” He turned and stared at the strange, little woman.
“The alternator did it.”
“How is that possible?” Sliver said, picking up a saber and brandishing it.
“Well, it’s a secret,” Grania said rubbing her chin. “I’m not sure I can trust you. Can you keep a secret, I wonder?”
“I am a gentleman, Madam,” Sliver said.
“Well, then. The alternator is a path shifter. It changes things, so to speak.”
“I don’t understand,” Sliver said, looking confused.
“Let’s say, you get to an intersection, and there are two roads to choose from. You take the first road, and travel on. What if you wanted to go back and travel that other road, and follow a different path? The alternator allows it to happen.”
“That’s impossible,” Sliver said, shaking his head.
“If you say so,” Grania said, puffing on the pipe.
“But it has to be impossible,” Sliver said, taking a diary from one of the cases. It was real. The old woman had performed some kind of magic.
“You just look around and let me know if you need anything,” she said and disappeared behind the “private” door.
Sliver wandered around the shop, examining the impossible collection. Each item filled him with wonder. He was glad Hattie had sent him. Examining a Spanish American War pistol, he had a sudden revelation.
“What would you charge for that?” He burst into the “private” room and pointed to the alternator.
“It’s not for sale,” Grania said from a chair, softly rocking back and forth.
“I must have it, Madam,” Sliver said brandishing the pistol.
“Hogwash. Do you really think you can scare me with an unloaded gun?” Grania laughed. “However, maybe we can strike a deal.”
“Ha! It is loaded,” Sliver said.
“Don’t be a fool. Here’s the bargain. I’ll sell you one chance to use the alternator,” she bargained.
“You will trade it for the uniform?” Sliver said, unbuttoning his jacket.
“That ain’t exactly what I had in mind.”
“How much do you want?” Sliver asked, worried that he wouldn’t be able to afford it.
“It’s not how much, it’s what do I want,” Grania said, getting up from the chair. “The price is your dearest companion.”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“You can never be friends with that person again.”
“Well, that’s easy enough,” Sliver said, wondering if the old woman could read his thoughts. Would she know that Laura was the dearest to his heart? He couldn’t, he wouldn’t give her up for anything. “I’ll give you my manservant, Wilson.”
“Done. Which road will you choose to alter?”
“I want the South to have won the Civil War,” Sliver said.
“Well, that’s a tall order for sure. Might have some unintended consequences. Are you prepared to take that chance?”
“Absolutely,” Sliver said, nodding his head.
“Get into the tunnel then.”
“What?” Sliver said, staring into the dark, foreboding space.
“It will spin you into an alternate reality. Everything here will stay the same.”
“All right, then.” Sliver lowered his head and entered the tunnel.
“Now the disclaimer,” Grania said, placing her hand on the wheel. “This is a one way ticket, non-refundable, and you must be willing to accept whatever happens.”
“Yes!” Sliver yelled from within the tunnel.
“So be it,” Grania said, turning the wheel faster and faster and moving the treadle up and down. The machine, whooshed, popped, and emitted an explosion of dust and light.
“That’s done,” Grania said, as the dust settled and she relit her pipe.
Sliver’s body stretched like rubber, as the tunnel pulled him into a vacuum. His ears popped, his legs tingled, and then it was over. With a thud, he landed in a tree, dangling above a tobacco field.
Sliver climbed down and looked around. He was at Hawk’s Grove. Home!
Had things really changed, he wondered, walking across the fields. The sounds of singing drifted up from the tobacco rows, and he realized there were workers in the field, their backs bent, as they tended the plants for worms and disease.
Sliver discovered he felt younger, better, stronger than he ever had before. He ran, stumbling, across the fields, hardly able to contain his excitement. Where was the house? Where was Hawk’s Grove?
Sliver arrived in the yard, bent over and puffing. He had a stitch in his side, as he limped through manicured lawns, clipped hedges, and a profusion of blooming flowers. The house was pristine, immaculately tended, and a vision that almost broke his heart.
Sliver limped, holding his side, up the front steps, and tried the front door. It was locked. “Not to worry,” he said, lifting a brass knocker and letting it fall.
It was Laura! He had always known they would get together somehow. Laura, the lady of the house! Of course, they had married in this alternate world! How would he ever thank the odd, little woman, who had made his fondest wishes come true?
“Oh, it’s you Sliver,” she said, frowning. “How many times do I have to tell you to use the back door?"
“Laura?” Sliver said, taking her hand. “I’ve waited so long to see you standing in that door.”
“You stop that talk right now, Sliver,” Laura said slapping him across the face.
“What’s going on?” A male voice called from the hallway.
“It’s just Sliver, Wilson,” Laura called over her shoulder.
“Wilson?” Sliver burst through the door and ran into the parlor. He found him seated in a wing chair—Sliver’s wing chair—reading a newspaper and drinking a cup of tea. But it couldn’t be Wilson. How could Wilson be white?
“Is something wrong Sliver?” Wilson said, looking up from the paper.
“Willie, get out of that chair!” Sliver yelled.
“What is the matter with you?” Laura said, glaring at Sliver. “You call him Mr. Lees!”
Sliver limped out of the parlor, confused. He stopped in front of a hall mirror, his jaw dropping in stunned silence. Sliver was as black as coal.
“You get on out to the fields and get to work, now,” a dark woman came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on an apron. “You got to learn your place in this world.”
Unintended consequences, that’s what the old lady had warned. Sliver limped out the front door, and headed towards the tobacco field. Someday, he would find that old woman and wring her neck. He would make her change things back. Right now, joy was further away than it had ever been before.