Late Spring-Early Summer 1881- Natchez, Mississippi
I couldn’t tell Orpah what I thought. I couldn’t tell Miss Isabelle what I thought I knew! I knew there were nigras hung for the ‘picion of something like I was thinkin’! I had heard about what happened to that slave on that plantation in L’sana. Sister Anne said they took her ear, then hung her in the living room ’cause she killed the Massa’s family.
Isabelle had gotten so big, and hurting so bad all she could do is lay in her big feather bed. I remember what Sister Anne said about that. This labor was gon be hard. When Ms. Victoria had come back from her visit last week, she asked if the baby had stirred in her. I lied. I needed a few more days to think. There was too much to think about now. If Ira was this baby’s Pap, there was too much else to worry about!
The day the baby come into the world? It was early morning. I was up with Orpah hanging wash ’cause I han’t been seeing much of my own bed for the last three days. Miss Victoria had moved my room from the otherside of the parlor to upstairs in her dead husband’s study. “I need you to be close by for the baby, Tally.” She didn’t know I hated when people called me Tally that didn’t know me from when I was little. I sat in that big ole room in that old white shift Miss Victoria give me, in that old bed and looked out the window. I looked out on the quiet night from the upstairs window, and saw my Daddy swinging in them trees ‘neath it. “God, gimme the faith to do what I need to do.”
I didn’t know who was hollering louder or who started it. My new room overlooked the backyard on the west side of the house. All I could hear was screaming. “Tally! Tally! Where the hell are you, Tally! Dammit! Tally!” I went through the back door and up the stairs forgettin to wipe off the boots from the leftover mud from two days before. “Here me! Here I come!” I thought about how I told Isabelle to breathe, told her how to sit in the bed. How to keep her head about her when the pains hit.
I got to the top of the stairs, and Ms. Victoria was rushin around like wind trying to keep her still. Isabelle was pullin at her hair and the covers! I went to my room for the birth linens. I went back to her, holding her hand. “Tally! Tally!” Isabelle’s blue eyes were wide, looking at me to make it stop. “Breathe, Missus. Breathe.” Isabelle let me call her by her proper name when we was alone or her Mama was gone. “Imma have to check you, Missus, okay?” She shook her head, holdin my hand real tight. “Where is the water, Tally!” I turned to Miss Victoria, trying to remember not scream and curse her to Hell where I’m sure she come from. “It is hot water on the stove still, Miss Victoria. Just brang that to me.” she nodded her yellow hair in a pile on top her head. The morning sun making the whole room shine. I got to the foot of the bed, and looked under her sheets. There was blood already on the sheets. “Breathe, Belle.” I whispered. “Calm yaself and breathe.”
The baby’s head was comin’ and coming fast. I got a sheet from the top of the pile, and wiped the blood from her thighs. the top of the baby’s head had dark hair. I bit the inside of my lip, breathing to make sure I catch the baby when he came. I said it was gon be a boy, and I was hopin all my learnin from Sister Anne would help me. I looked up from my perch at the end of the bed. “Belle, get your towel. He comin’.” Isabelle grabbed the towel I had her soak in the liquor and water. “Okay, Belle. Push. Push, like you pushin water out of that well pump.
She screamed, she kept her legs tight. Miss Victoria had brought the water in the big white bowl and set it by me. I hear her feet behind me, walkin and prayin. She was soundin like a han’t. The head was out, and I wet another towel and wiped his face. “Push, Isbella!” her mother sounded like she was crying. I dipped my hands in that hot water and reached around the baby’s shoulders. “Push, Miss Isabelle!” I heard her muffled cry, and she pushed. Shoulders were out and I heard the bed rattle. I heard the footsteps go from behind me to the top of the bed. I looked up, Isabella was red as the water in one of the bowls and tears all over her face.
I looked at the baby, half inside her and half in the world. “Tally! Is my grandbaby here? Hurry up!” I looked at her as if she would die right there. “Almost, Missus. Almost.” I got new a new towel. In two pushes, this baby would be here! I looked at him, heavy and pink. “Breathe in one more time, Missus. He’s almost here!” I heard the bed rattle. I heard Isabelle screaming. I kept tellin her to breathe! Instead of two pushes—it took four. With all her strength, and all Sister Anne taught me, the baby was out.
Not a boy.
A big ole healthy girl. I put her on my lap like Sister Anne told me. I wrapped her in a blanket, warming her up like I had all those babies in the brothels Sister Anne took me to. From purple, to blue to pink. When I wrapped her back up, I gave her to Isabelle. Her mother just a cooin over her and the new baby. She was crying the strong cry healthy babies do. I went to my room and got the salve Sister Anne taught me how to make. The salve was supposed to draw her back together. I took the towels from the room, and let them to themselves. “I’ll be back to help you make sure she latch, Miss Isabelle.” If this girl was Ira’s, I would know soon.
I woke up to moaning, this moaning from Isabelle’s room. I crept up out of my bed, thinking that she was up and nursing the baby. I stepped down that hall, foot after foot feeling colder as I went. I looked into the room, the cold going from my feet to my heart. I closed my eyes and looked at the bed. “Please Jesus.” I saw the baby in the bed. Isabelle sleep. And Ira, tall and dark as a hickory tree, wrapped ’round her, fast asleep. I almost cried.
Ira might have just killed us all.