On Agate Hill

A Novel


By Lee Smith

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A dusty box discovered in the wreckage of a once prosperous plantation on Agate Hill in North Carolina contains the remnants of an extraordinary life: diaries, letters, poems, songs, newspaper clippings, court records, marbles, rocks, dolls, and bones. It’s through these treasured mementos that we meet Molly Petree.

Raised in those ruins and orphaned by the Civil War, Molly is a refugee who has no interest in self-pity. When a mysterious benefactor appears out her father’s past to rescue her, she never looks back.

Spanning half a century, On Agate Hill follows Molly’s passionate, picaresque journey through love, betrayal, motherhood, a murder trial—and back home to Agate Hill under circumstances she never could have imagined.




The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed

Something in the Wind

Fancy Strut

Black Mountain Breakdown

Oral History

Family Linen

Fair and Tender Ladies

The Devil's Dream

Saving Grace

The Christmas Letters

The Last Girls

Guests on Earth

Story Collections


Me and My Baby View the Eclipse

News of the Spirit

Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger

For my son


December 23, 1969–October 26, 2003

30-B Peachtree Court Apts.
1900 Court Blvd.
Atlanta, GA 30039

September 19, 2006

Dr. Thomas Ferrell, Director

Documentary Studies Program

Institute for the Study of the South

Carolina State University

266 College Ave.

Charlotte, NC 28225

Dear Dr. Ferrell:

Remember me? Well, I know you have not heard from me in a long time because I dropped out and all (that was so slack), but now I do want to finish and I hope you will let me back into the program and give me another extension on my thesis considering what I have been up to.

I am not going to do "Beauty Shop Culture in the South: Big Hair and Community" after all, despite my background in pageants.

I want to turn in this box of old stuff instead, see what you think! I believe you will be as excited as I am.

Also I am truly a changed person, from reading it. More on that later.

But first I guess I need to tell you how I got a hold of all this, and some things about my family, which is not normal, though we used to be.

The family was me Tuscany Miller (actually I picked the name Tuscany myself, in high school), my older brother Padgett, and my little sister Louise, the brain. My mother was an elementary school principal while my father owned and ran his own furniture store The Aesthetic in our hometown of Lookout, NC. Our grandparents live across the street. So you see what I mean by normal.

Even that name The Aesthetic did not give a clue. We were totally surprised when Daddy came home from the store one spring day bringing a young man named Michael Oliver with a spiky haircut and a black leather jacket. "I want you to meet Michael, a wonderful person," Daddy said, standing in the front door holding hands with him. Mama put down her purse, she had just come in from school. Luckily Padgett was at baseball practice. Louise was doing her homework and I was watching Jeopardy on TV, I will never forget it.

Daddy went on to say that Michael Oliver was a designer from Chicago and that they had first met in 1999 at the Furniture Market in Hickory, where Daddy went every year, and that their friendship had continued and ripened to the point where they must be together.

"I can't believe you used the word ripened," said Louise who has always been kind of weird.

As for me I did not say one thing but put the TV on mute.

"I have heard so much about all of you," Michael Oliver said.

Later my best friend Courtney would say that he is hot.

"Oh for God's sake, Wayne," Mama said walking out of the room.

Things got even worse after that. First Daddy left and went to live with Michael in Asheville, where anything goes. Mama quit her job and started running the furniture store, which has been a big success. She buys the more traditional lines, like Bassett. I won Miss Confederacy then went off to college so was not there when Daddy came back to visit one day and announced that he was now becoming a woman so he could marry Michael.

"Oh Wayne, why don't you just be gay?" Mama asked him. "It would be a lot easier and not hurt." But Daddy said he has been a woman all along deep inside of himself. A woman just waiting to happen.

"Well I give up!" said Granddaddy who was over there bringing us some tomatoes.

Anyway Daddy did become a tall thin woman named Ava because Michael loves Ava Gardner.

Then Michael got a big inheritance. Louise has kept in touch with them all along but neither me or Padgett has had anything to do with them at all, even though I have to admit that Daddy has left me a long sweet message on my cell phone every week since he left. Now Daddy and Michael have bought this old completely run-down plantation out in the country between Hillsborough and Burlington, NC, and they are fixing it up into a very fancy bed and breakfast.

So I was surprised to get a message from Michael instead of Daddy on my cell phone right after my little marriage ended in a disaster which I will not go into.

"Tuscany," Michael said, "I know that you took that documentary studies class at the university and I wonder if you might be interested in looking at a young girl's diary from the 1870s which the carpenters have just found out here at Agate Hill. It was in a secret room up under the eaves. Let me know. We would love to have a visit from you too."

So I got in the car and drove up there, and the rest is history.

Or I hope you will think it is history.

There is a lot of other stuff in this box too including letters (some mailed and some not), poems, songs, and sheet music, a Bible, a catechism (I never saw one of these before, it is very depressing), old newspaper accounts, court records involving a possible murder, a hand-tooled leather case with a silver clasp, a little heart-shaped stirrup, marbles, rocks, and dolls, and a large collection of BONES, some human and some not. So I will just put some stick-it notes and stuff here and there as we go along and then tell you some more at the end.


Tuscany Miller

Agate Hill

Dear Diary,

This book belongs to me Molly Petree age thirteen today May 20 in the year of our Lord 1872, Agate Hill, North Carolina. I am an orphan girl. This is my own book of my own self given to me by the preachers wife Nora Gwyn who said, This little diary is for you my dear unfortunate child, to be your friend and confident, to share all your thoughts and deepest secrets for I know how much you need a friend and also how much you love to read and write. I do believe you have a natural gift for it. Now it is my special hope that you will set down upon these pages your own memories of your lovely mother and your brave father, and of your three brothers as well, and of all that has befallen you. For I believe this endeavor might help you, Molly Petree. So I urge you to take pen in hand commencing your diary with these words, Thy will be done O Lord on Earth as it is in Heaven, Amen.

Well, I have not done this!

And I will not do it either no matter how much I love pretty Nora Gwyn who looks like a lady on a fancy plate and has taught me such few lessons as I have had since Aunt Fannie died. NO for I mean to write in secrecy and stelth the truth as I see it. I know I am a spitfire and a burden. I do not care. My family is a dead family, and this is not my home, for I am a refugee girl.

I am like the ruby-throated hummingbird that comes again and again to Fannies red rosebush but lights down never for good and all, always flying on. And it is true that often I feel so lonesome for all of them that are gone.

I live in a house of ghosts.

I was born before the Surrender and dragged from pillar to post as Mamma always said until we fetched up here in North Carolina after Columbia fell. Our sweet Willie was born there, into a world of war. He was real little all waxy and bloody, and Old Bess put him into a dresser drawer while the fires burned red outside the windows. Mamma used to tell it in that awful whisper which went on and on through the long hot nights when she could not sleep and it was my job to wet the cool cloths required for her forehead which I did faithfully. I loved my mamma. But I was GLAD when she died, I know this is a sin. I have not told it before. But I am writing it down anyway as Nora Gwyn said and I will write it all down every true thing in black and white upon the page, for evil or good it is my own true life and I WILL have it. I will.

I am the legal ward of my uncle Junius Jefferson Hall who is not really my uncle at all but my mothers first cousin a wise and mournful man who has done the best he could for us all I reckon. We arrived here during the last days of the War to a house running over all ready thus giving Uncle Junius more than thirty people on this place to feed, negro and white alike. Uncle Junius used to be a kind strong man but he is sick and seems so sad and lost in thought now since Fannie died.

This is his wife my dear aunt Fannie who is recently Deceased it has been seven months now, and the baby inside her born dead and backward.

I will NEVER have a baby myself!

I sat out in the passage all night long on a little stool and listened to Fannie scream then moan then watched them run in and out, the negros and old Doctor Lambeth who stayed here for three days all told. He is a skinny old man with a horse that looks just like him. He came riding in at a dead run with his long gray hair streaming out behind him under his high black hat. He has always been Uncle Junius best friend. At first I did not get to see the baby though Old Bess thrust him out the door past me wrapped in a bloody cloth then Liddy took him away and washed him and wrapped him again in a clean white sheet like a little bundle of laundry. They put him on the marble top table in the parlor.

What is his name? I ventured to ask Uncle Junius once when he came out of the bedroom but he cursed and said, He has no name Molly, he is dead.

But then Mister Gwyn the preacher arrived and said, Now Junius, you must give him a name, for I cannot baptize him without a name, and he cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without baptism.

So then they unwrapped him, and I got to see him finely, pale blue but perfect, he looked like a little baby doll.

Mister Gwyn dipped his hand in the special water in the rose china bowl and touched the babys little blue head and blessed him saying, Lewis Polk Hall, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

Amen, Uncle Junius said, Amen, then gave a great sob and rushed over and knelt down and kissed the babys little cheek then went straight back into the bedroom.

Nora Gwyn held the baby for a long time while the servants and some of the neighbor people came in to see him, then they laid him out on the table again with dimes on his eyes and a little white lace dress that somebody had brought him. Uncle Junius had named him for his oldest boy Lewis that served in the Twenty-second North Carolina Regiment under Colonel Pettigrew. Now he is dead, and Uncle Junius is old, and Fannie was old too, she did not have any business with any more babys, Old Bess said. Babys are always dangerous but it is even more dangerous when you are old. But everybody except me wants them, it is hard to see why.

The things that people really want are the most like to kill them, it seems to me, such as war and babys.

More and more people came. They sat in the parlor and gathered outside on the piazza and all over the yard in the shade of the trees. Why do they keep coming? I asked Liddy in the kitchen but she just wiped her face and gave me some parched corn and said, Here, go on, take little Junius down to feed the chickens. Little Junius is a snivelly little boy who looks like he is about a hundred years old. I got his hand and took him out the door and down the hill to the henhouse where all the chickens came running. He threw out the corn like it was a job of work.

Then I heard hammering from inside the barn.

So after he finished feeding the chickens little Junius and I went into the big barn to find Virgil there making something, with Washington helping him. Washington is Liddys son and my best friend on this place, he is milk coffee color with gray eyes and a big smile. Virgil and Old Bess came all the way from South Carolina with Mamma. Old Bess is what they call a griffe negro but Virgils face is as round and shiny black as that globe our uncle Harrison brought back from the Cape of Good Hope, I believe you call it obsidian. Virgil is real old now, but he can still make anything.

By then it was late late afternoon and the sunlight fell through the golden dust to make a shining block in the air and a shining yellow square like a magic carpet on the old barn floor where Washington sat planing a long piece of wood. Yellow dust flew everywhere. A little wooden box sat on the straw beside him. Virgil was fitting two wide planks together up on the sawhorses.

What are you doing out here Missy? he said.

That is her coffin, isnt it? I asked him. Nobody told me, I said.

Dont nobody have to, Virgil said.

Junius held tight to my hand and looked all around the barn like he had never seen it before. He is four years old.

The time will come when it come, Virgil said. He reached into a deep pocket of his overalls. Here now Washington, see can you teach this here little white boy something.

Washington jumped up and Virgil gave him the leather bag full of marbles.

Washington whooped. Come on, he said, and got Junius other hand and led us both to a level spot just outside of the door in the shade of the big hickory tree. This ought to do us, Washington said, so we all sat down in the crackly leaves as it was November. Then he took a board and scraped off the leaves and made a round place in the dirt, then used the edge of the board to draw a big deep circle around it. All right now, Washington said. Then he put all the marbles down in the middle of the ring. They were mostly made from the agate and quartz on the hill, but one was sort of silver and one was greeny gold, and another blue as the sky.

Little Junius clapped his hands.

Now this how you do it, Washington told him. He picked up a white marble and held it cupped in his fingers with his thumb behind it. I picked up a clay marble and held it the same way. Junius reached over and got the blue one but he couldnt hold it in his little hand like we were doing so he started to cry.

Now thats all right, Washington said. You dont got to do that honey. Why looky here. You can just roll it. He showed little Junius how to roll it to hit the others and Junius got the hang of it right away.

As for me, I am just as good as a boy at everything.

So we sat there in the dirt playing marbles for the rest of the afternoon until the sun went down in a red ball of fire, and color spread across the whole big sky. I could smell leaves burning someplace. A little cold wind came up.

It got dark in the barn but Virgil kept on hammering. Its about time for supper now aint it? he called finely, and the minute he said it, I was just starving.

I pulled little Junius up by one hand and Washington pulled the other and like that we walked kicking leaves up the hill to the house where they were laying out little Junius mother in the bedroom and big Junius was beating his head bloody on the brick kitchen wall behind the house. We walked right past him into the kitchen.

I bet yall are hungry aint you? Liddy said. She set us all down at the table and gave us some chicken and dumplings out of the big black pot. We ate like wild animals as Fannie used to say. It was nice and warm in the kitchen with that big fire glowing. Here honey dont you want some more? Liddy asked and even little Junius ate another whole plateful. I dont know if he knew his mamma was dead or not.

That was seven months ago, and things around here have gone to hell in a handbasket ever since. Nora Gwyn and Mister Gwyn do not know the half of it. But they have come only to say good bye to Uncle Junius as they are moving to Tennessee where Mister Gwyn will be the headmaster at a new boys school, old sourpuss Presbyterian he has got a poker up his ass as Selena says.

Uncle Junius and Mister Gwyn and Nora Gwyn are sipping sherry wine in the parlor down below me as I write.

Now dont you want to know where I am? For you could never find me in a million years. This is my number one hiding place in all the world, a cubbyhole right in the heart of the house yet invisible and unknown to all. Come see. Nora Gwyn says you will be my friend and now you will be my guest, I have never had one before.

But first you will have to come out here to Agate Hill so you will be riding up from the Haw River on the road and then along our dusty lane with trees and fields on either side. The land will rise as you come up and up, yet so slowly that it will surprise you to turn and look back to see the countryside spread out like a dreamy quilt below you now, orchards and woods and overgrown fields with piled-up rock walls between them. White quartz rocks stand out in the fields. You can find agate and fools gold too at the very top of the rise behind the house where I often climb though I am not allowed to.

I love to sneak down the back stairs in the night time and run across the yard from tree to tree and up the rocky path to lie on the big flat rock which stays warm from the sun long into the night. I call it my Indian Rock. I love to lie there flat on my back and let the wind blow over me which is not like any other feeling ever felt by anybody else in the world I am sure of it, known only by me and now by you, my friend of this diary. Sometimes the moon is so bright it is nearly like day and casts shadows among the rocks. One time I fell asleep on my rock and slept there all night long until King Arthur started crowing in the dawn, THEN I had to skedaddle. Liddy and Old Bess both saw me from the kitchen door but they did not tell, they gave me a corn pone and sent me on my way.

I am like a ghost girl wafting through this ghost house seen by none. I truly think I would blow away save for this piece of fools gold I keep here in my pocket for good luck. Often I take it out and turn it this way and that in the sun just to see it shine. Mamma loved gold jewelry but I am not a thing like Mamma. I am NOT. I like rocks instead. All of her jewelry is gone to the Yankees now except for a few pieces which Selena has wheedled out of Uncle Junius. I have to say, it kills me to see Mammas jade ring from the Orient on the little finger of Selenas fat hand and the coral bead necklace around her neck, I wish it would choke her dead.

Anyway you will come up the lane past the falling down sawmill and the gin and the two big barns one empty now, and then you will ride into the grove of cedar trees where it is always dark and the soft needles rustling. It smells good in there too. When you come out you will be here at Agate Hill plantation which was never a real plantation at all in Mammas opinion, not even before the War, not such as Perdido which she left behind in South Carolina.

This house was once white of course but now the paint has peeled off leaving the old brown wood which I like better anyway. The top piazza is held up by plain square posts while the floor of the one below is made from great flat stones brought in long ago from the fields. The top piazza is another place I love for it is there I often sit rocking and reading or dreaming or watching a thunderstorm roll across the land with its lightning that stands like a tree in the sky and its corn wagons rolling. This is what Virgil calls the thunder.

Myself I love a thunderstorm better than anything. Sometimes I will run to the top of the hill to whirl around and around on my Indian Rock in the wind, it is like a dance I can not stop. The smell of the lightning goes into your nose and down your whole body. Old Bess says if you get hit by lightning yet live you will have special powers, well I could use some of those. So I dont care if I get hit or not. Many times I have got wet clear through and been scolded for it though lately nobody cares.

All around this house you will see out buildings such as the corn crib, the red carriage barn with its two stables, the pigpen, and the old blacksmith house which has fallen in, you cant hardly see it for the honeysuckle which has run all over it now. And watch out, you will fall into the icehouse hole if you are not careful, so stay out of there! The brick kitchen is right behind the house, with the four-room tenant house on back.

Negros still live in that row of cabins, some of them work here and some do not, but Uncle Junius hates to send any of them packing for where would they go? Not a one has got what they were promised, that we know of. Besides Virgil and Old Bess and Liddy and Washington there is Daddy Rex the old root doctor who is dying now, I reckon he cant cure himself. In addition there is always negros coming and going or staying awhile, and often they have made off with our things such Aunt Fannies Mexican silver candle sticks won by her daddy in a poker game, and the worst, the curved saber my father carried in the War as he was Cavalry. I hate this for I would like to have it so much, I do not remember him anyway. But it is easy to steal from us as Uncle Junius leaves the house unlocked now since Fannie died, he says if anybody takes anything, why then they need it more than we do and they are welcome to it.

So the door is wide open.

Come on in.

This house is not really very big with only one parlor and a dining room and the middle room and Uncle Junius and Aunt Fannies bedroom down stairs, then a jumble of bedrooms up stairs fitted out with lots of feather beds and ticks that can be spread out on the floor for it was Uncle Junius and Aunt Fannies pride that they never turned any one away, such as Nora Gwyn and her poker ass husband who have stayed the night.

Come into the passage which goes clear through the house as you see. It is our sitting room in the summer, cool and breezy when they bring the chairs out, but freezing cold in the winter time. Then we must hurry through it. Take the narrow door to your left and climb up the wooden stairs.

Do not be afraid in this dark staircase for no one will bother you, no one is here.

But of ghosts we have these:

Alice Heart Petree, my mother, b. 1822, Charleston, South Carolina, d. New Years Eve, 1869, Agate Hill, North Carolina.

Charles William Petree, my little brother, b. 1865, Columbia, South Carolina, d. March 25, 1869, Agate Hill, North Carolina.

My baby sister never named so I know for sure she has not gone to Heaven if there is such a place, this breaks my heart. I see her sometimes in the high dim air up near the ceiling in the parlor before we light the lamps, and once I saw her fly through the trees in the woods among the rising fireflies, just at dusk. B. and d. summer 1866, Agate Hill, North Carolina.

Charles Pleasant Petree, my father, a soldier and a scholar. They say I take after him. If so it must be in spirit not flesh for see, here is his image made in camp on the eve of war. Does he not look dashing and daring with his long mustaches and this fancy hat? He looks like he is French, like he is going to a party. With him is Simon Black a friend of his youth then a scout attached to my fathers Company C, Sixth Regiment, South Carolina Cavalry. See how solemn they are staring into the camera as if into the awful future which has now come to pass. My father was b. Edgefield, South Carolina; 1823, d. March 20, 1865, at Bentonville, North Carolina, where he is buried in pieces.

Tennyson Polk Petree, my eldest brother, b. 1843, Perdido, South Carolina, named for a poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, d. May 5, 1863, at Chancellorsville, Virginia.

Henry Heart Petree, my other brother, not but seventeen upon his death, b. 1846, Perdido, South Carolina, d. July 1, 1863, Winchester, Virginia.

My beloved aunt Fannie Ogburn Hall, b. 1826, Four Oaks, North Carolina. d. October 30, 1871, Agate Hill, North Carolina.

Their son Lewis Polk Hall, b. 1838, Agate Hill, North Carolina. d. July 3, 1863, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

And their baby, Lewis Polk Hall, b. October 30, 1871, Agate Hill, North Carolina. d. October 30, 1871, Agate Hill, North Carolina.

And of the living we have these:

Uncle Junius

Spencer Wade Hall, Uncle Junius and Aunt Fannies son who walked home from the war Insane. He lives out at Four Oaks with Romulus. But Spence is nice and not dangerous, he bothers no one, working in the field with Rom. His moon face is scarred by grapeshot.

Little Junius, that I told you about.

And me.

This is all of us here at the present time. Now you know why I say, I live in a house of ghosts. It was not always so. Alive yet gone from us now, we have these:

George Jefferson Hall, known as Georgie, gone West to seek his Fortune, estranged from Uncle Junius.


  • "Big, sweeping,epic. "- MSNBC.COM

On Sale
Aug 28, 2007
Page Count
384 pages
Algonquin Books

Lee Smith

About the Author

Lee Smith is a veteran journalist whose work appears in TabletReal Clear Investigations and The Federalist. He’s worked in media for thirty years, writing about national politics, foreign policy, and the press. Smith reported from the Middle East for a decade after the 9/11 attacks and wrote the critically acclaimed The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations. Smith is a frequent guest on television and radio, national and international, including Fox News, CNN, and France 24. Smith was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and was raised in New York City. He now lives in Charleston, SC.

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