You are invited into a world of madness, inside the gates of a home known as Brookledge Manor. Within its locked doors lies the world of a high-society family with many secrets.
Father is the all-powerful godhead; Mother the society matron, ever-concerned about protecting the family’s image, which young Raven Brookledge senses has already been tarnished--and that she is somehow to blame. Why else would she be kept much like a prisoner, hidden from the world beyond?
Lorna is the ever-present voice whispering in Raven’s ear, telling her that being the lone colored adopted person in their family makes Raven a misfit; that she was never loved or wanted. Raven struggles to understand why the family adopted her, leading her on a search for her biological family. Her father provides the answers she is looking for...or does he?
As Raven’s search for answers progresses, she finds that she is in a battle against time, for all who live at Brookledge Manor seem destined to perish before their time. The house itself holds the secrets, but will it manage to claim all of its inhabitants as penalty for her quest?
J.E. Sayles is the pseudonym for a writer, mother, and social worker. Sayles is well acquainted with adoption issues. Adopted at birth, she is familiar with the struggles adopted people face.
Her primary areas of interest lie in adoption and race issues. She currently uses a pseudonym to write, in order to provide separation of her professional life from her creative endeavors.
Sayles lives in Missouri with her three children and a possessed cat. She currently juggles parenting, social work, and, whenever possible, plotting out her next novel.
Although it was never spoken outright in our home, it was always implied that I carried the shame of the whore who gave birth to me.
Being adopted was an ingrained part of me, much like learning to walk or talk, or memorizing the alphabet. I had always known, along with other crucial bits of information that comprised my sense of identity, that I was not truly a Brookledge. I grew in another woman’s womb, although Mother and Father reared me.
My older sister Lorna, who was not adopted, loved to say that adopted children like me were unwanted rejects. According to her: “Not only are you a bastard child, but you’ve inherited your real parents’ propensities for worthlessness as well.”
I always felt that the reason Lorna disliked me so much was because of my race. In the Brookledge family, comprised of several dukes, Earls, and English noblemen, I stood out as the definite oddball. The family’s roots could be traced back to one of the earliest English settlements, but for some bizarre reason, my parents had chosen to adopt me, a little black child.
I never could make sense of this mystery, for nobody ever told the truth in our home. Lies surrounded us like a pack of thieves, settling in until finally, the house itself seemed to be one big lie.
No one would ever admit to these lies, but I knew better than anyone else that they existed, creating a heavy fog that could be seen throughout our home, but never spoken of. I knew because I lived in that fog for my entire childhood, made to coexist with the secrets that tormented me day in and day out.
Every Sunday morning, come rain or shine, the rest of my family went to church. I, of course, was restricted from going.
“We simply cannot take you along,” my mother said, whenever I pleaded with her to go, which was often. “We couldn’t if we wanted to. I’m afraid that because you’re a different race, we can’t even attend services in the same building. Colored people have their own side of the street, and we have ours.”
She spoke as if I carried the plague. That’s exactly what I have, I would think to myself, bitterly. The Black Plague. Always, when I asked why I couldn’t go to the store, why I was schooled at home while Lorna and Azriel experienced the freedom a child needs to grow up properly, the answer was the same: “Because you’re colored, Raven.”
Actually, my skin tone was what might be considered “coffee.” I certainly was not the dark ebony tone that my name implied. I had seen few other black people before (Negroes, my father called them) but I knew that many had much darker skin than I. However, in my home, I might as well have been darker than one of the cast-iron skillets our maid, Maisey, used to cook with.
“I’m afraid society isn’t nearly as enlightened as our family is,” Mother said, softer now. “Why, if we brought you along, you would have to go to the church a ways down, on the other side of the street.”
The idea sounded marvelous to me. Even a congregation filled with colored people I didn’t know would be better than the life of seclusion I led. But my eyes, brightening at the thought, darkened once more when I realized Mother fancied this notion ludicrous.
“I would be a good girl, Mother, I promise!”
“Oh, Raven, don’t be silly,” Mother chided me in a soft voice filled with love and reproach. “We’d no more leave you in a building full of colored strangers than we ourselves would enter one.”
It hurt, really hurt, how my mother’s voice, haughty with having lived a privileged lifestyle, could make me feel so inferior and stupid and small. Perhaps she was unaware of how her tone of voice sometimes stung. Though I lived underneath the same roof, I wasn’t allowed the privilege of living that same lifestyle. Because I had been brought into the family, not born into it, I was somehow different. Why else would the constant feeling tug at me that I didn’t belong here, that I never would belong?
“Can I go to church with Maisey then, please?” I begged.
Maisey, who was almost as black as a cast-iron skillet herself, was the only other colored person I really knew. She had been our maid for as long as I could remember. She lived in her own room on a separate wing of our enormous house. Every day she fixed our meals and scrubbed the house wares and did all the other chores Mother kept herself too busy to do.
Once upon a time (when I was much too young to remember), Maisey used to live somewhere else. She would travel the many miles to our home every day, until finally it was arranged that she come to live in the house that had become her burden. According to Mother, our family had the finances to afford a fleet of maids, so there was no harm in keeping Maisey on to clean our home. The truth is, there was great deal of harm being done... to me.
A stunned pause from Mother, and she managed to answer at last, “It would hardly be fair to trouble Maisey with the chore of taking you to church, darling.”
There was another reason Mother and Father refused to let me go places on the colored side of the street with Maisey, even to church. I just knew this was so, although how my child’s mind was sure of this, I could not say. However, my young mind also knew it was verboten to ask what the other reason might be, and so, that was that. Church, or venturing off our property into town, or into the larger city that lay below for any reason, was out of the question. Instead, I stayed home with Maisey on Sunday mornings, trapped in the foreboding home I knew as Brookledge Manor, just as I was throughout the rest of the week.
I grew up in the 1950s, at a time when the issue of racial tolerance was still quite unresolved in our nation. Although I was sheltered from the world outside, I did manage to sometimes catch a precious, occasional glimpse of it, enough to tell me that something about our family was not altogether normal.
Even though twelve years of my life were spent never really existing, or so it seemed to me, one day my life changed forever. On that wonderful autumn day, Father pulled me aside and said, “Your mother and I have learned that a new law has taken effect. You can now come to church with the rest of the family.”
When Mother’s fearful eyes met his, he told her softly, “We can try it, Emma. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll abandon the idea, but I hope we won’t have to. The child can’t live her life without outside socialization forever.”
I didn’t understand why I had suddenly been freed, but I learned the meaning of religion that day. God had heard my prayers. In His mercy, He had finally decided to rescue me from my life of loneliness and isolation.
And so, in a true sense, my life began at age twelve. From that Sunday on, I was seated on a hard wooden pew, along with the rest of my family, to hear one of Father Jamison’s sermons. Always, he spoke of God and Satan, and their eternal battle to usurp one another in the quest for our immortal souls. The only way for us to be on the winning side, he declared, was to live right and attend his services on a regular basis.
The words seemed rather self-serving to me, but I was not about to argue. Just when I began to feel so stifled by Brookledge Manor I was certain I would disintegrate into its fibers, the time to pay our weekly respects at the house of worship would approach.
I delighted in dressing myself in the finest, frilliest dresses for church, wearing ruffles that swirled about my legs as I walked. A bow or ribbon sometimes held back my hair, revealing my face.
“Haunting,” I overheard the others whisper, of my features. “Exotic,” said others. Whether their comments were meant to be compliments or insults, I was not quite sure.
Some weeks, I was able to escape the hold of the house we lived in only for only a few precious short hours, to attend the service. Other weeks, there were activities to follow: potluck luncheons or church family get-togethers. My parents didn’t stay often for those, but when they chose to, they allowed me to attend too, and attend I did. I participated with all the glee of a prisoner finally out on parole.
In the beginning, the other children at church, and even many of the adults who knew better than to stare, viewed me with strange fascination. I tried to ignore the whispers and glances my way, although I felt the eyes on me boring into my back like an electric drill. Once I had attended with regularity for some months, the excitement of having a colored person in their midst died down and the whispers and the strange glances ceased.
Now that she was no longer bound to me on Sundays, Maisey was free to go to her own church. Every week, she gussied herself up and would roll away in a brand new Sedan with a Negro man half her age. I had never seen him before, except for the brief, occasional glance I caught of him through the windshield of his Sedan. It was at her own church, I suspected, that Maisey learned to be on guard of all the tricks the devil and his helpers were planting at Brookledge Manor.
I found that in one way, at least, church mirrored our home: In our congregation, just as in my family, mine was the solitary face of color in the sea of white faces surrounding me.
Two of the most handsome of those faces were those of Ryan Berkshire and Beck Foster. The two were best friends, and they often sat in the row of pews opposite our family. With their own families on either side of them, they talked to each other in low voices throughout the service. Sometimes they would look in our direction, toward Lorna and me, and they would exchange a smirk or a whisper.
My parents sat to my left during the service, but that made them no more accessible to me than they were at home. Father was always beside me, a block between Mother and myself. I was not to speak with either one of them while Father Jamison preached. My younger sister Azriel usually sat perched on Mother’s other side, so that Mother could attend to her needs. Lorna insisted on sitting on my free side, toward the end of the pew, so she could have the best view of the boys in church. Now that I entered my teen years, I was often as guilty as she was of participating in the secular activity of boy-watching during church.
Lorna was indiscriminate. She would flirt with any boy who was near our age, and some men much older. I only liked to watch Ryan and Beck, though I tried my best to do so without them knowing. Beck was attractive, but Ryan was more stunning still.
Although Lorna hungered for any show of male attention, I knew it was Ryan she liked best, too. She would scribble on her program during the church service, drawing hearts around his initials and hers. I often secretly marveled that Ryan and I shared the same initials—RB—but never did I dare trace them while in Lorna’s nosey presence, for I knew she would only make fun of me.
Father Jamison’s sermons only served to further compromise my sense of identity. The Bible was the history of our people, he would declare; of mankind. The Good Book was the very legacy past generations had left for us to learn from. Yet all the murals and pictures I had ever seen of Jesus, of Moses and Abraham, depicted white men. Once again, I was left confused about where the people of my own heritage actually came from. Maisey was fond of telling me Jesus had actually been a colored man himself, but I never knew whether what she learned from her own religion, whatever that might be, could be taken as fact.
It was a mild fall afternoon three years after I had first been allowed the treasured privilege of attending church. I stood outside with Father and Mother as they greeted the parishioners. Azriel was on her best behavior as she stood at Mother’s heels. Lorna fidgeted, anxious to slip away and do her own form of mingling, to hunt down Ryan or Beck or some other unsuspecting victim.
“Daddy, I want to stay and talk to some of my friends.”
“Consort with the boys, you mean,” Father said with a snort.
“I do hope you’ll be staying for lunch,” a parishioner said. “I’m sure you haven’t forgotten, today is the day of our annual fall picnic.”
“Should we stay?” Mother asked, when the woman had passed.
“Oh, Daddy, can we please? Please?”
“I want to, Father. Mother, can we please?”
Lorna and Azriel begged in unison, Lorna’s pleas almost more desperate-sounding than our eight-year-old sister’s. I said nothing, but felt the excitement in the air. Something special would happen today, if we stayed for the picnic. I just knew it would.
“Perhaps we should stay, for the children’s sake,” Mother suggested.
“The fall picnic!” Father said. “Whatever would be the point?”
“Nathan, honestly.” How I wished I had Mother’s poise. Even as she hissed in disapproval, no one who observed would ever notice, thanks to the graceful smile plastered upon her face. “Don’t you think I’d rather be at home myself? I want to check in on my lovely garden. Soon I’ll lose it to frost for another year.”
Mother’s only interest at home, besides interior decorating, was her garden. I secretly knew she hired a gardener each spring to dig in the rocky soil and get his hands dirty so she would not have to. He came back to fertilize the seedlings, but Mother watered them and hovered over them, talking to them like little children as she willed them to grow. White and fuchsia orchids and calla lilies meshed together, framed by blue and white foxglove. There was precious little soil conducive to a garden, and a small season in which to grow it, but that never stopped Mother. A white trellis leaned against one end of the mansion, just outside her bedroom window, boasting the miniature roses she loved so.
“Then let’s go home,” Father suggested, with hope. “Plant and prune your little heart out, and spare me the drudgery of attending this entire affair.”
“We must attend this picnic,” Mother said, in a voice so soft she was almost inaudible. “These people may live beneath our means, but don’t forget, you’re viewed as a leading force in this community. Have you forgotten all the money we donated last year to help them refurbish the chapel?”
“It was a charity write-off,” Father grumbled, but in the end, he resigned himself to staying. “I’m outnumbered. We’ll stay, if you wish.” He and Mother drifted off to greet other people, most of whom they considered to be beneath themselves.
I trailed after Lorna for a bit, but soon she was gone too, after telling a boy she would let him see under her dress for a quarter, and do more as the price went up.
An unexpected voice startled me. “I don’t believe it. Finally, a chance to talk to Raven Brookledge without her sister around to keep me away.”