Book Excerpt: Enemy Women

ByABC News via via logo
July 11, 2002, 7:15 AM

July 11, 2002 -- In Paulette Jiles' new book, Enemy Women, 18 year-old Adair Colley finds courage and love while searching for the truth.

In the following excerpt from the book, Colley has been accused of "giving aid and comfort to the enemy," arrested by the Union Army and sent to the St. Charles Street Prison for Women in St. Louis. There she meets her interrogator, Major William Neumann, and the two fall in love. Before leaving to return to the front, the Major helps Adair plan her escape from the prison, and gives her his signet ring and two $25 gold pieces .

She would go over the wall today, when they went out to the washing. As in Acts 5:18-20, when the angel of the lord came and opened the door of the prison, and told the apostles to come out and go and preach to all of the people the words of this life. What life? Adair wondered. What life did that mean?

She sat in the sun, trying to stitch the Log Cabin quilt back together. It had nearly come apart. She told herself she was not ill. She told herself a little fever burnt out the bad humors and was good for a person from time to time. That when she was over the wall she would begin to get well in the fresh country air.

It was not until late afternoon that the wagon came in with its supplies of hardtack and pork, sacks of white beans and cornmeal. Adair watched them unload the barrels and stack the empty ones in the middle, away from the wall. Kisia and a young mulatto girl were playing some kind of dice game with the ham bones.

Kisia, roll one of those barrels against the wall, behind the washing. The blonde girl put down the ham bone dice. I am going over the wall in the next fifteen minutes.

Kisia stuck out her lower lip and looked at Adair very doubtfully, her pale, tangling hair corkscrewing in the breeze. You are in no condition, she said. Go on

So Kisia rolled one of the empty hardtack barrels against the street wall of the courtyard, behind the washing lines of dresses and petticoats and stockings. She jumped up on it, her ragged skirts flying. She called to a young mulatto girl.

Kisia shouted, You are the Moorish Battalion and I am the Queen of the Barrels! The mulatto girl laughed and grabbed her by the ankles to pull her down. A guard watched from his position on the wall on the other side of the gates. Get that barrel away from the wall, he said. Soons I pull her down! Said the mulatto girl. Get in there and get your washing done! the matron shouted at Adair. She stood looking at her with her hands on her hips. So Adair stood up and carried the green camisette and her shawl with her behind the lines of washing and shoved it into the pot of boiling, soapy water. There was no help for it. She would have to leave the green dress behind, but Adair knew she had to go now. If she were going to go. But it didn't matter. When she was in the sickroom somebody had stolen her diamond-and-sapphire earbobs, and the mandarin jacket, but what were they as compared to her life?

Adair rolled the quilt tightly. She was sweating. She looked at the dress in the boiling water and realized she had left the pass in the pocket and it would now be paper mush and the ink washed away. Oh my God what have I done? She grabbed at a sleeve but the water was too hot and the pocket was sewn shut, and she knew the paper was boiled to nothing. There was no help for it. Kisia, she said. Go start a fight with somebody. The child jumped down and ran to her. She took one of Adair's hands in both of hers. She said, Good-bye, Miss Adair. I love you. And I love you too, Kisia. The Lord keep you.

The two girls ran under the lines of washing. Then darted away among the stacks of barrels being unloaded. Adair stood up to go over the wall and was overwhelmed with fright. A crash of panic went through her. Suddenly Adair felt as if she were going to die in the next moment. She shut her hands tight and waited for the feeling to pass. But it began to build inside her. As if her interior was something like a nautilus shell, building and building a terrible pearl of overwhelming dread. They would shoot her. She was going to be extinguished. She was going to be lowered into a grave and the earth shut over her. Electricity of some kind ran in waves through her, and everything, every object, seemed very distant and false. The matron's big dress was hinging on a long pole. Adair turned her face up to it, and it seemed like an angel in the wind, as if it were going to open the doors of the prison for her. The dress cracked its silks in the wind and opened its arms and said, I will devour thine enemies! Adair looked up at the great flying dress. It ballooned up on another gust of wind, a wild and buffeting angel, and held out its arms and said, Come with me now! Suddenly there was a great noise of screaming and shouting from the lower windows that gave into the General Ward. Adair heard Kisia shouting You will not, Cloris! I will pull ever hair out of your head! Everyone in the courtyard began to run toward the door into the ward. Even the guards jumped down from the wall and began to walk across the courtyard, and then in the door. Adair stepped behind the clothesline and pulled off her dress and drew Mrs. Buckley's petticoats over her head. She tied them with the drawstrings. Then she pulled Mrs. Buckley's big dress over her head and jerked it down straight. It was a glossy, brass-colored silk twill with a navy blue figure in it, and there must have been eleven yards in the skirt alone. She took up her waist purse from the heaps of folded material that was her old plaid dress. Then the plaid dress and the quilt and its wrapping. Adair stood up on the barrel and glanced right and then left. The outside guards were all down in the street buying some old wormy last year's apples from a cart. Except for one. It was the man with one arm. The grinner. He stood on the street, looking up at Adair on the wall with a somewhat amazed expression. A great swirl of the limestone dust rose into the air and surrounded her. Cloris's terrier had jumped up on the barrel and was barking at her with its red mouth open as wide as a bat's mouth. Adair reached down and grabbed it by the lower jaw and threw it over the wall and into the street. She was possessed of a kind of lunatic strength. The terrier ran wildly between carriage wheels, heading down the street, and was never seen again. Adair said, Let the found be found and the lost stay lost. She swung over the wall and dropped to the sidewalk. The guard came up to her. Looking at her with curiosity as if wondering what she was going to do. He was perhaps on his forties, grizzled and his Federal uniform somewhat shabby. I thought you were the matron or I'd have pulled you off that wall, he said. Adair slipped one of the double eagles out of her waist purse, and held it in the flat of her palm and showed it to him. There is something down the street that needs your attention, she said. Her hand was shaking violently. He stared down at the double eagle for what seemed an eternity while her freedom leaked away drop by drop. Then finally he nodded. Well, I had better go see about it, he said. He took the gold coin from her palm with his only hand. He grinned. Good luck, girl. She went off walking down the street without a hot or anything she owned except her waist purse and the ungainly wad of quilt and dress under her left arm. It was all back in the cell. It didn't matter. She strode off and her skirt hems dragged along behind her like dogs.

There were no shouts or shots or whistles. She clutched her skirts with her right hand. It was shaking. She was walking, miraculously down the streets of St. Louis. She was afire with a kind of feverish panic. It was so sudden that for a moment Adair did not exactly know how she got where she was. She held her head high and kept walking. Adair felt as if she were running away from her own execution. She did not hear anyone shouting or calling her name or calling anything. It was now sunset, and clouds with precise, hard edges skated across the early-spring city sky looking as if they were infused with some sort of aerial foxfire, gleaming on the edges like white silk.

She stepped up on a white limestone curb and kept on. Still no one shouted. She held herself as stiffly as if she were carrying a gloss of water full to the brim. She was about to spill. She went on down St. Charles Street. Adair wondered which way was south. Her heart was racing and despite its terrible smashing she thought she might be drifting several inches off the ground and this was a dangerous feeling. She walked past a cast-iron horse head with a ring in its mouth and touched it, for iron was of the earth and it grounded you. She was a silent, drifting bolt of lightning. She might come apart at any moment. A peculiar ragged man with a great wen on his forehead came past her, nodding, screaming Ratbane!! Adair held up the bundle of cloth like a shield and dodged to one side and kept on.

A troop of Wisconsin infantry came past, shining with banners and buckles, taking up the entire street width and making incoming vehicles from Sixth and Fifth Streets pull up. They stormed past in files with their flag, which was blue and had a man chopping wood on it. They smelled of woodsmoke and tobacco. They were gone on past within a minute like a brief, moving vision of triumph and order, and she crossed the street as the last rank went by.

As she walked along, a miraculous thing happened and that was she began to recover herself. It was as if she was gathering herself up. She felt like she had gone to pieces and was now back together. She kept her calm and continued to walk.

Check out the reading guide for Enemy Women on Harper

Excerpted from Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles, courtesy of William Morrow. Copyright Paulette Jiles, © 2002.

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