Natchez, Mississippi- Winter 1880
I made her tell me all she knew. All she thought I may ever need to know. Sister Anne said I took to bein low like a duck to water. Good, I had to be as good as perfect would let me be. I knew if that ole witch was gonna ever let me in her house, I had to be better than any girl that looked like me to be the least bit considered ‘fore a white girl would be.
Most of the white folk lost they fortunes once the Yankees came through Atlanta and Vicksburg. Sister Anne said it looked like Hell had opened up it was so much fire. There were still some successful farmers in Natchez, and some that still sold cotton. As I dodged the briar patches low cypress trees, I thought about my my Nan. I thought about how she and Sister Anne met. She never told me the whole story or truth as to how they met. But it was her and my grandmother that made their way from Vicksburg to Natchez as young women by way of the Union Army. I never had the nerve to ask my Nan why she didn’t just go North. I wanted to ask her on those quiet mornings where she made bread for the white family she used to work for, why didn’t she just leave.
I wanted to ask her why, do many times. I didn’t know what I was more afraid of if she ever answered me: the answer or the silence.
I saw the house just as it had never changed. I walked up the road in the last dress my Nan ever got me. It was red, with an apron. The house was a day’s walk from my Nan’s cabin. Sister Anne’s instruction’s were in my head, echoing like the ha’nt she sometimes called at night. “Make sure you don’t look nobody in the face.” I stepped slower, watching the house get bigger as I walked. “Make sure you don’t look the Missus in the face, ‘less she ask yuh somethin.” I walked through open gate, towards the Big House. “Member yuh come juss to offer help, dass it.”
I clenched the end of my white apron, calming the storm in my belly. Sister Anne had told me all that she knew. She told me how to hold my head. How to act with the Missus of the house looks me over. Sister Anne told me how to act when the Mistuh of the house tries to ‘be a like a man on yuh.’ I got to the front door and looked at my dusty boots. I decided the dust was okay, and hoped they had a dust rag I could use.
I held my breath as I knocked on the door. I remembered to keep breathing, relieved when the door opened. There was a woman that came to the door, and I was shocked when she looked like me. Her hair was up like mine. She had my Daddy’s eyes and looked at me and through me. Her pecan colored skin looked so much like mine, that I had to bite my tongue to ask if she was my kin. She gave me a smile, before she opened her lips that still looked like mine. “Back door.” I swallowed, mouth too dry. I couldn’t find strength to swallow again. “The lady of the house wants all servants to come to the back door.” She said it slowly as if she didn’t want me to forget, in the tone a child could remember. I found my voice, just low enough to answer hers. “Just around the back?” She nodded. “Be careful of the beans and roses. Miss Victoria is ‘ticular about her flowers. Her babygirl in her delicate state.” I nodded to her, stepping off the porch, and walking to the back door.
I looked at the white sheets on the wash line in back of the house. I looked at the magnolia trees that were in the back along with the fruit trees. This big house still with all these trees set around it. I saw the rose brushes around the back door and step. “It be that life left in that afta birth, that make flowers grow big and pretty. Always bury that deep in a flower bed, Tally.” I took another breath, hoping my boots weren’t dirtier than they had been before. I knocked on the door, still surprised that the woman that looked like my kin answered the door again. “You must be the girl Ira told Miss Victoria about.” I nodded. “Malathe.” She opened the door wider. “I’m Orpa.” She made a motion for me to come in. “I’ll let the Missus know you here. Come with me.” Orpa walked in front of me, leading me to a small salon room. She pointed at the chair, with a pot with what was probably rags and water in it. “Wipe ya boots off, girl. The missus is ‘ticular about how everything look.” As I sat, she looked at me, almost mean. “She wanted a nigra midwife for her daughter. Wasnt no white ones in this county.” I sat in the high backed chair, reaching for a rag in the small pot. “If you stay, she gon treat you like that ole chair: you got use, and as soon as you don’t fit, you gone be gone.” I squinted at her, trying to figure out what ‘gone’ meant how she said.
Cousin Ira said the girl wasn’t due to show yet. That meant I had 6 months. That was enough time for foxglove and them Doll’s eyes seeds I brought with me to grow. “If God be for me, I ain’t gon be gone.” She looked at me, smiled a little, before she left to get Miss Victoria. “I made it to her house Daddy. Imma get her Nan. I know vengence is the Lord’s, but revenge gon be ours.”