Shelves lined the walls, jammed with books and papers. Gaps and tears testified to the work of mice, and lacy channels showed the paths of silverfish. Her heart sank at the thought of all the priceless words reduced to rat droppings.
Perhaps priceless was an exaggeration. Her colleagues at the university hadn’t seemed excited to learn about the hidden library the HVAC crew had stumbled across. They had a good guess to the reason the books were stashed away. Smut padded the profits of many a printer, even in antebellum times.
Savanah crept through the narrow room, snapping photos of what looked like old ledgers. Blackwater Estate had been the second largest rice plantation in South Carolina. Blackwater also had the dubious honor of having more slaves than any other plantation on the eve of the Civil War. Ezekiel Blackwater’s ledgers would be a great prize. An even greater treasure would be if the ledgers belonged not to Ezekiel, but to his bastard son Mordecai, the firebrand abolitionist who’d been hung from the ancient oak tree that still loomed over the front yard.
At the end of the room she found a desk. Curled papers were scattered over the desktop, covered by dust. A quill pen lay next to an open jar of ink, long since dried. The quill rested at an angle that made it look as if the writer had stopped mid-sentence. She pulled out a little plastic bulb from her satchel and carefully blew away the dust from the intersection of pen and paper, revealing nothing. She moved up the page, stirring the dust with little puffs of air, until she found words. She paused and took several photos, then kept puffing away the dust, uncloaking more and more of the lines, written in a precise, looping cursive. She raised her eyebrows as she made out the words “thy silken skin” and a few puffs later, “lips of ruby.” She hadn’t expected to find a love letter.
A final puff revealed the intended recipient: Dear Lucetta.
Lucetta? Ezekiel’s step daughter? If so… was this from Mordecai?
Savanah’s eyes flitted back to the bottom of the page, though she’d already seen there was no signature there. Her breath caught as she saw words next to the tip of the quill. She looked at her camera, scrolling to her first photo of the document. Her stomach tightened.
She moved around the desk, studying the letter. The old ink on the rest of the page was dull brown, barely darker than the yellowed paper. The new words glistened black and fresh.
Savanah swallowed hard, pondering the line, “Thinking of thee.”
She’s read that Ezekiel Blackwater was a vocal proponent for the practice of slavery. In his portraits, he’s a stern looking man with lonely eyes, perhaps a result of losing three wives during childbirth. His fourth wife was a young widow, and Ezekiel raised her infant daughter Lucetta as his own. Of course, it was rumored that Ezekiel had one surviving child, a bastard born to a quadroon house slave named Greta. Ezekiel apparently felt genuine affection for Greta, and agreed that their son be sent north to Philadelphia to live with her sister, an escaped slave who now lived as a white woman.
As a teen, Lucetta and her mother traveled to Europe. Touring Italy, they met a Quaker pastor named Mordecai. Lucetta fell in love with the young pastor. He agreed to accompany her back to South Carolina so he could ask her father’s permission to marry her.
During the course of the sea voyage, Lucetta became pregnant. It was now urgent for both their reputations that they marry at the earliest possible moment. But, when they met with Ezekiel, he opposed the marriage despite the pregnancy, and drove Mordecai from his land with a bullwhip. Mordecai remained in the area, delivering powerful sermons against slavery, until the local land owners put a bounty on his head. No one but Lucetta knew that, when he wasn’t preaching, he hid in the attic of her father’s house.
Realizing Ezekiel would never relent, they decided to elope. As they left the house, bounty hunters captured them. Ezekiel showed up as Mordeci was about to be lynched and begged for him to be spared, revealing that the preacher was, in fact, his son. The bounty hunters killed Ezekiel and hung Mordecai, leaving Lucetta weeping over their bodies, until she died from a miscarriage a few weeks later. Lucetta and Ezekiel were buried in the family plot behind the house. Mordecai’s body was burned, though his head was removed for the bounty.
While cataloging the library, Savanah keeps finding freshly written love notes among the papers, the ink still wet. She also finds a tintype of Lucetta and discovers that they look alike. Working late one night, she finds Lucetta’s apparition floating before her. Transfixed, she watches the phantom kneel over some loose floorboards. The ghost claws at the slightly raised nails in the warped boards, then vanishes.
Savanah pries up the old boards and finds a skull. She deduces its Mordecai’s, hidden by Lucetta before her death. That night, she sneaks into the graveyard, pick and shovel in hand. She inters the skull beneath Lucetta’s headstone and chalks Mordecai’s name.
She returns to the library, certain she’ll receive no more ghostly letters. She’s wrong. As she approaches the desk, she finds a note that says, simply, ‘Thank you.”