Fall 1881-Jackson, Mississippi
Laudanum. Oleander. And my own mix from them Doll’s eyes that grew and the foxglove I got from the washer woman that visited sometime.
I had gotten the lavender and oleander from the tallow man that had come around Mr. Benjamin’s house more than I would like. He was sellin lye, needle and thread and buttons and tallow. I was determined to get outta Mister Benjamin’s house as fast as God would let me.
In the sermons that old man with hair white as cotton my Mama had to pick said, “Sometimes the Good Lord gives us all the tools we need for our freedom. Sometimes those tools come from the most unlikely sources.”
They shole do, Reverend Hunter. They shole do!
I walked around with that powder in my apron pocket for more than a week, after being here 4 months. I held in my pocket with this doll-like child asked me for something. When I had to hide from her father. When I went outside to hang wash. I kept it, I kept it. I don’t know if I was unsure or scared. I knew what would happen if I gave the girl who thought I was a Christmas toy this. I knew what would happen if I gave all of it to her father that watched me sleep from the door.
But the day, I ran from that house? I ain’t ever felt as free!
I don’t know how I decided I was going to give to either one. But I knew something had to happen when I woke to feel his hand on my hind part. I sat up, looking at him stock straight. If I had a pistol, he was far enough away from me that I knew I could hit him. And kill him. I had to leave! When he left the room, I felt my breath caught deep in my chest. I closed my eyes, feeling the tears come out. I covered my eyes and tried to sleep.
Mister Benjamin took tea when he went to bed. He always wanted me to brang it to him. I knew that if I gave him enough of this powder he would be gone to the world. I needed him either gone or dead. I needed some time to leave, gather my wit and myself and steal a way back to where I needed to be. To what my mission was. I couldn’t forget that. When the tallow man came midday on Wednesday, I asked him to come back that night. “What time?” he say, lookin at me like the ole tom cat he was. “When the moon up. Immabe in the back.” He nodded, tippin his hat to me. Any other time, Idda fought wit’im. Idda told that dark dirt Black nigra go to back and find some other hussy to paw on. But I needed whatever fire he still had for me to burn one more night—and take me to Natchez.
I put the Rebecca to bed, played with her all day long. I put lavender, with a lil bit of that laudanum in her milk to make sure she slept deep. Her big ole eyes got heavy as I pulled the quilts her old Mammie made up ’round her cheeks and ears. “Tally,” she said soft. “Mm hmm?” I say soft. “You’ll be here when I get up in the morning, like always?” I heard her breath get low. “I’ll be where I know I’m liable to be.” I left her room, when to mine. I leaned against the back of my door, making my body still so I could get ready to be the honey in the lion.
I walked in to Mister Benjamin room, slow, with the tea in the white China cup I wasn’t supposed to touch. I held by breath, felt like he was drinking me while he looked at me. “Exquisite.” he said, he bit his bottom lip like his daughter did while waiting on her tea cakes. I walked slow, feeling how cool the floor was, and the heat from my neck my hair covered. He liked my hair down, told me so all the time.
I walked to him, not smilin, not thinking–just walking. When it seems the further ‘way I got, the closer to Hell I got! All this heat was just all ova me– feeling sweat ‘tween my bosom and tracing ’round the back of my neck. I knew with the way the flowers was going, some of my herbs was already sprouting. The fall was about to be hot–Sister Anne always told me to watch those hot Indian summers. I got close to him, feeling like I crossed the Jordan. I stretched forward, like a black walnut tree branch and handed him the night tea. He touched my hand, and I felt his heat for me. It was pourin off of ‘im. He touched my hands and licked his lips as I moved away from him. I stood there, in my shift and alla this moonlight, and wished him to die faster. I wanted this swift, and knew, in the deep part of me, that this was not gon be.
I smiled at him, him looking like the kitten that slept on the back porch: all sweet and wanting what I had. As he sipped out that cup, I left his eyes on me. I thought bout the lamp oil in the hallway. I thought about how he tried to have me a month after me bein here. Tried to come in on me in the night, like a ol wolf or coyote. I grinned. He grinned. I listened when he told me to sit next to him. I watched as he sipped and drank me with his eyes. “Stay here, Tally.” he say, his voice sounding all heavy.
I remembered the story my Mama told about her cousin, the girl she thought was her cousin that got way from her old massa the same way. Mama say he tried to have her, and she ran from him. Until one day, Mama say, right after her first blood come, she sent him where he come from. That same man tried to have her, had her Mam. My Mama say, ‘she used that light skin and sent him back where massas like him come from!’ I wasn’t light, but I was gon be free of this man. I had to get back to where I had to be at.
His eyes got heavy, telling me to ‘lie with me, Tally. I have so always loved the exotic!’ His eyes started rolling in his head, as he purred and touched my leg. My breath kept catchin’, knowing that once he got still I was gon leave. I was gon leave this man here with that child who, too, thought she owned alla me!
He tried to kiss on me, and I shivered in alla that heat. His lips, like splinters, on my cheek and he cupped my bosom. I remembered where his pistol was. Knew it was ready. Knew how to aim it–all I hadda do, if it come so, to aim it.
I thought of the sleeping child. I thought of the tea, the pistol and what would happen once I was far from this place! The child wasn’t mines, and there was nothing I could give her. I thought about the stories Mam told, about the same cousin–whose same massa had her own Mam, had his own blood girls like he had her! That tea she gave her was to save her and dem girls!
Tools. Tea was a tool for this freedom.
He started twitching like a hog, coughing and sputtering, his sweat and spit on my own neck. I got up, the heat all over me again. He fell off the bed, and my chest was thumping like rabbits run! He was all over the floor, grabbin and coughin. I got up to watch him, hand on the spread, room lit like the day by the moon. I fell over post at the end of the bed, watching him like a crow. He was coughing and I reached into the bookcase by the door, near the side of the bed. I prayed, felt the tears from my eyes making my face slick. “Tally!” he screamed. Hush up, for you wake her! I say to myself. “Tally!” He screamed again. I went over to the door, my eyes found the box where the pistol was.
There was this strength that come to me when I had got close to it. My back to this coughin, cryin white man on the floor didn’t give me no care. I wasn’t scared no more. I turned at him, pulling the pistol to my bosom. He on his back, floppin’. I walked over to him, slow and quiet. I pulled the hammer and aimed it. All I had to do was aim it. Just aim it. I grinned thankin Jesus for the tallow man sellin Mister Benjamin this pistol–making him buying cause it was so new and ‘made just for a man who gotta have power!’ That pistol, this Colt the tallow man called it, would be my key.
He started grabbing at me, look like lye soap comin out his mouth then. All I had to do was aim. I was wishin him to Hell in my head so he could hurry up and leave this world! I didn’t want to have to shoot him too. I didn’t want his daughter to come find him like this, but I had to go! I put both hands ’round that cold tongue on that Colt, looking at his head. I closed my eyes, and aimed–and waiting for the thunderclap to be over.