Fiction · 08/19/2009

The First Colony Inn

Elizabeth Baum, Joseph Baum, and Samuel Baum were buried in a cemetery south of Caffey’s Inlet near Duck. A migrating dune was threatening to bury the cemetery. In June 1909 Josephus exhumed his brother, Samuel, and his parents, with plans to reinter the coffins in the Baum Family Cemetery on the Whitehall farm near Grandy.
— Records of the University of North Carolina Press

You might wonder how it is I know what happened that night Josephus moved the coffins, seeing how I was snug downstairs in the First Colony, my windows boarded up against the storm. There are things God can tell a man. Suffice to say: it’s easy to put together that Josephus was out there shoveling while the storm surge came ashore. I know about things, running the First Colony Inn and all. Like when that earthquake in Jamaica killed a thousand people. I knew about that before the newspaper came. Visitors fill in the details. Bet you didn’t know that exactly a month before Josephus dug up his family, a German astronomer named Augustus Kop identified an asteroid he named Brambiller.

Josephus’s wife, Lucy, wasn’t from Duck, or Caffey’s Inlet, not even from the island. Her folks had up-rooted from Savannah and moved to Charleston after the War. My daddy met her and her mama after the Metropolis went down, taking a hundred souls. The two of them shivered barefoot on the busted hulls of beached crustaceans, and Josephus’s daddy, Joseph Baum, tossed a woolen blanket round their shoulders. Joseph Baum saved shipwreck survivors, like his daddy Daniel Baum had, and his granddaddy, Daniel Baum, too. That’s what folks do out here, where ships seem to come to die. The seawater dripped from the ends of Lucy and her mama’s noses and made tiny gray globes that clung to the black-as-snakes tendrils of their hair. Joseph brought them up to the First Colony to get them warmed by the fire, and that’s when I got my first look at them, in the warmth and the fire’s yellow glow. Their black hair caught the light from the flames and their heads looked like puddles of oil flecked with gold.

After they settled in I’d sneak stares at Lucy in the schoolroom, until she caught me, her eyes leaking toward their corners during Algebra lessons, or while reading Hamlet. I’d try to switch my gaze to the blackboard or my book. After we finished school, after Josephus and Lucy married, I didn’t see her as much, not besides church, and on occasion at the Inn. She took to her kitchen, and sewing up socks. That’s what Josephus said. She’s a good woman — as I know — but I could never picture her the type to cook and sew all day.

Me and Josephus go back to when we were about eight or nine. My daddy, being owner of the First Colony, was influential in Duck. Josephus, just another crab man from a long line of crab men, would josh, calling me a rich boy, always gets what he wants, and never has to work. I always looked to the future — to progress. I knew I’d take the First Colony and turn her into a star-rate hotel. Josephus couldn’t let go of tradition. He’d be a crab man and stay a crab man, and eventually his sons would become crab men like him and his daddy, and his daddy before him.

A tropical storm hit South Florida earlier that week, and brushed the Outer Banks on its way to sea. Josephus didn’t care about the wind and driving rain. He lugged his shovel and spade out there and started digging into the afternoon, then night, like something out of one of those Poe stories. He felt he had to save his daddy, like his daddy saved those folks on the Metropolis when the waves broke her up along near the Currituck Lighthouse in ’78.

Years before the storm even he’d come into the Colony in the evenings, dumping sand out his boots on the front porch, before he warmed up with a brandy beside the fire. I’d say, Josephus, you’re crazy to go digging against those dunes every August. You might as well move your folks out to the mainland. He didn’t hear any of it, though. My Daddy brought us up out here, where he made his home… On he carried. In this way, in this losing war, Josephus staged battles against the migrating dune to protect the graves of his family.

Finally, reality hitting him — not to mention continual jabbing down at the First Colony by yours truly — Josephus belted up his waist overalls and slipped into his rain slicker. God willing, he’d disinter the coffins before the coming hurricane, which promised to bury them, the headstones under the weight of sand.

So Josephus went out there and the wind howled in his ears, streaked his hair out behind him and over his face like cobwebs. The waves hit as hard as a West Virginia coalmine explosion (the one in December sent 400 souls packing for Heaven). But he did it, dug up those coffins, just like how, for generations, his family had saved lives. His little brother Sam had only been twelve when consumption took him, so his box wasn’t too big. Josephus hauled them out with a stretch of hemp line tied to his mule. Lifting them up to the wagon, as I said, the brother — most recently dead — not too heavy. But that thick oak box for his daddy he hefted like a boulder from a riverbed.

Lucy sat home, soft oil lamplight dancing on the walls. All by herself, the poor thing. The winds tore at the house eaves, wrenching them, a giant mouth gnawing the roof. Just like a dog saws away at a rib bone. The windows shattered. Her oil lamp snuffed out.

Still she never complained. I can’t say I blame her. Late Sunday afternoons, over tea, her gloves slipped off like snakeskin and piled as she might pile a handkerchief on the fireside table: “Mr. Griggs,” she would say. “I refuse to discuss my husband. Frankly, it’s none of your business.” Class. Lucy is nothing but class.

Josephus woke his cousin, old T.A. Baum, to ferry him and the coffins to the mainland. Dangerous work crossing the sound, especially in a storm like that. Mountainous waves. When the ferry went down, the seawater knocked the coffins into Albemarle Sound (the darkness, and the waves, had driven them far south, off course) and it looked like Josephus, still trying to save the dead, dove in after them. The capsized ferry made a rapid descent and followed the coffins to the bottom. T.A., Lord knows how he made it, crawled up into the reeds near Kitty Hawk.

So Josephus finally lost his epic battle with sand just a few miles from where those long ago colonists disappeared, leaving history nothing but questions and scratches on a live oak. The converging currents make this area the Graveyard of the Atlantic, for all the shipwrecks that stranded us and our ancestors here. The Indians are long gone, but the storms still come, winds tearing through here like God himself blowing into the sand dunes. Josephus and his family were not rich, but not poor. Working folks. Lucy couldn’t fathom that devotion to family. Morbid, she said. She let him go. She packed up his mama’s hope chest, filled with a sixty-year-old quilt and a faded daguerreotype of his granddaddy in a flop hat.

Lucy sits with me by the fire at the First Colony. I’d have thought she would want to get far from the Atlantic now with her husband gone, and the sunken hull of the Metropolis that she survived sometimes visible during low tide. But she sips her tea, here with me, the lights a dim glow mingling with the firelight. Both of us snug and warm in the First Colony Inn of Duck, North Carolina.

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Jamie Iredell’s Prose: Poems, a Novel will be available this fall. His writing appears in The Literary Review, Chattahoochee Review, Zone 3, Descant, and many others. He lives in Atlanta and designs books for C&R Press.