Tzipporah was mine. She had been since we were so much younger. I had phased in front of her. I had marked her. She was mine. Who did my brother think he was. I splashed river water on my face, thought of her cinnamon brown face. I thought of her hair, how she smelled always of jasmine. I though about the night I had counted the eyelashes on her right eye. She was mine.
I remembered the conversation I had with my father the week before. “Farron, I know he is after me. I want you to know the mantle is yours. I know you are the younger, but the mantle was yours.” I remembered how week he had sounded. The age then evident in his voice. I could only picture him, attended to by his second wife, haunted by visions of my mother, Ariah. He sounded far away as he continued to speak. “Come home son. Come home.” I walked back to my cabin, the hallow, as Tzipporah called it. I wanted her near me. I wanted the comfort of her body. I wanted her taste, I wanted to be inside her again. I needed her.
I tried to connect with her two morning ago, and I couldn’t get to her. I sent my essence form to her as a comfort. I knew she could feel my pain. I needed her to know I was okay. The Open Plane was the only place I could have her, keep her safe from Narmon. I had to keep her safe from Narmon. “Not this time!” I felt the wolf inside of me shift and groan. I placed my hands on the ground, felt the heat radiate from my belly and down my arms. I closed my eyes, ready for the wolf to take over. I couldn’t handle the loss of my father, the Second–my Alpha as well as my Chosen.
I knew that Narmon still had attachment to her. I knew that with what she carried she was more susceptible to that connection. My body began to phase, the hands that caught footballs, and freed slaves became paws. My nose a snout and heard my voice quiet and the growl come from my throat. It was easy to think in this form. It was easier to plan and think when I was hunting. I had noticed a group of rabbits along the other side of the river, and once I was fed. I could think.
I sat on the side of the full-sized bed. The bed Tzipporah and I picked out. I thought about the last time we were together. I thought about how ample her breasts were. How sweet her lips were. I thought about how she was on top me, all of me impaled inside her. “Tighten.” I had growled. I kept my right hand on the small of her back. I nipped at her chest. I felt her body open and her release imminent. “Please, love. Please!” With a firm swat on her rump, I heard her sing my name through the walls of this cabin. I knew what Narmon would try to do when we got home. I knew what the elders would say. I knew that the mantle ritual would take one week.
I stared at light of the setting sun on my feet, still covered in grass and dirt. “Not this time brother. Not this time.”
The mantle is was to be passed to Farron was to be made the Third on the next full moon. This was custom for weres of my land. The Second was the Alpha, and had been for a century and more. There was no disease or illness in him. The fact that he was gone from us, so soon, and so suddenly was devastating.
I felt his death, the weight of his loss before my phone rang in my house in Myrtle Beach. I knew who it was before I picked up the phone. I felt rocks settle into my stomach as I picked up the phone in my bedroom. I heard his voice, and all of me roared. “Love.” His voice was low, hungry. I felt heat wrap around me, like his arms were around me. I swallowed. “Narmon.” Silence. I heard him sniffle, and breathe. “What is it?” I forced my eyes open, the warmth of the connection was lulling, dizzing me. I sat on the side of the bed, willing myself to keep breathing. “You shouldn’t be calling me.” He didn’t answer me.
“Tzipporah.” It was a growl then. The same way he growled the first night we were together. The night where he found out I was his, I was his Chosen. The imprinting is always made stronger with lovemaking. I closed my eyes and laid back, the warmth caressing my neck. “You need to come home. You need to be here. You are an amshun.” I felt my eyes water. “The Second is dead. The Third is to be crowned. As the amshun, you need to be a part of the Council.”
I couldn’t breathe. I listened to him go on about the history of amshun, and weres. I heard him plead for me. The tears flowed down into my ears. His voice faded, as my mind went to the Open Plain. I saw Farron, focused on him and his dark skin, and his over six-foot-tall frame. I saw his beard, his gold eyes. I heard his voice louder as Narmon’s faded. “Tzipporah.”
My eyes opened. “Either I am getting you a plane ticket, or I am coming to throw you over my shoulder and bringing you to Nambia.” I stared at the ceiling. “Narmon, I will talk to Farron and we will be on our way. Give me a few days.” There was a low growl. I rolled my eyes. “I need a few days. I’ll be there.” I put the phone on the receiver. I rolled on my left side, closed my eyes searching Farron and the warmth again. I knew who I belonged to. I knew Farron felt what I did. I had no idea if he would confront me about it later.
I knew that he was out at his hallow, he had been since the death of his father. He had left me a note the morning it happened. No warning. No kiss. Just a note. I felt my chest ache. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to see Narmon. I didn’t want to melt in his gold eyes. I didn’t want him to touch me, see me or feel my presence on the plane.
I took me a whole three days to get back. Three days on back of the Tallow man’s horse and his cart fulla thangs no one wanted. He didn’t even ask me what happened. When he saw me standin in that do’ on the po’ch looking like a han’t was after me? He looked at me. And I looked back at him. “I’m ready.” He smiled, and I got my tow sack, a pillow case with my thangs in it. I ran to his cart, hid under the blanket and held my chest. I took the pistol with me.
We rode at night. I couldn’t think of that child’s name then. I had hoped I had done enough to make sure she would stay out her Pap’s room. I listened to the horse trot, and alla could do was cry. I took the tow sack to me, feeling the pistol in the tow sack. My room in Mister Benjamin’s house? I threw everything down, put another thunderclap through the pillow, and put the pig’s blood I kept hid 3 days ago over the bed. Over the pillow, the mattress, and prayed to Sister Anne.
Run like a demon gotcha!
I knocked shelves over, an unlit lamp. I look out at the window, put my eyes on the moon–big as a sun. I had to get outta there. I took the money I found out his formal study. I used all that steam I had to push over the desk. I tore papers, kicked over what stood in my way. I took plants to the flo’. I took jewelry and put the front door open like a barn door. The tallow man be by for the moon went tuh bed. I had only to wait. I was gettin good at it.
Tallow man was Ira’s brother. How I not know? Why he ain’t eva say?
I sat in Ira’s cabin, frontuh a small stove. I ate the biscuit he gave me. Him and Isabelle had stopped the cart, looking at me like the dead. Miss Victoria was gone again! Him and his Tallow brother got to talking while Isabelle went ‘side the house. Ira looked at me, back tuh him. I looked into the fire, just lookin’. The coals was coolin, I could tell. I drank the water, the honey fresh on the biscuit.
I didn’t care I shot the pistol. I didn’t care Rebecca, Mister Benjamin’s only daughter, was gon’ wake up to a house wit no soul in it. Ira went over to me, touched the toppa my head. I looked up at him. I didn’t say nothing. Looking at his eyes lookin into mine. He grinned at me. “We gotta get you North.” I went back to lookin into the dyin fire. I thought about if that is what Hell looked like right ‘fore you went in.
Miss Victoria was gone he said. Orpah was tending her Nan. Ms. Victoria back by week end. She was gon see her brother after she rested, he said. “We need to get Tally as fah as we can get her!” Herman, the Tallow man, sounded sour about me leavin. They was over there talkin bout me like I wassint here! From the porch, not carin it that white girl wit her half-breed baby heard me. “I ain’t leavin till I do what I come here for!” I, still in them three day old clothes, no bath and hair lookin like a sheep. “That woman, Victoria, her Pap killed my father!” I heard the snake venom come out my throat. “This land aint big enough fo’ us both to live on! If I gotta go see the devil, she bout to knock on that damn do’ first!” They looked at me. Justa lookin at me. “She lied on my Pap, tellin her Pap he touched her. He aint never seen her!” Ira and Herman looked at me, readin me.
“They took my Daddy, snatched them through my Gram’s house, lies on they lips, and made my Daddy a hog!” I felt that same heat when I pulled that thunder to take Mister Benjamin from the world. The night was too quiet, I was breathin hard and listening for crickets. “She took my Daddy from me. She can’t get away wit’it!” Herman walked over to me, then Ira after him. They wrapped they big arms ’round me, and I just howled.
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.
I had been in this strange place with this too soft bed, with the Master of this house looking a little too long, and a little too hard at me. I looked at out window of the old slave shack I was in and thought about how all had happened, happened to me.
I had been at Mister Benjamin’s house for a week. I had overheard Miss Victoria tell him that my usefulness with her and Victoria was over. “I don’t like how she and my girl get on! She listens to her more than me!” I was in the hallways of this big, ole house, playing with this girl with the big eyes and brown hair. She kept callin my name, and telling me her name was Rebecca, just like in the Bible. She was pulling at me, and telling me all about some doll her Daddy give her. “Tally, and we are gonna have so much a time, Tally!”
I stood there in that window, and just thinkin. I had been at this place a week. Seven days and thought about how else I could get back to Natchez. I had a room in the house right next to Rebecca’s. But the first time that Mister Benjamin come in there on me? I had to make sure everyone was hard sleep before I could rest good. He just stood at the door, just looking at me. He looked at me, closing that big heavy white door after him. Standing there in his night clothes, gaze so hard that thought he’d set me on fire! I thought I saw him looking at me, and I squeezed my eyes shut. I hoped he was a dream, and would go as quick as he come.
Tonight, this night I had to sneak out and think. I had to get back to Ira. I had to tell Orpah what I knew she knew. I had to leave fore Mister Benjamin really tried to come in on me, and take what was never gon be his. I looked down at my hand, looking at the red rag in it. I thought about what had come to me, and what I was about to do. I knew that if I took what was in my hand, I wouldnt have but a day or so ride to Natchez where Ira was. Or else they’d try to bury me while I was still breathin. But it was too far to walk, and too dark to try. If I didn’t take this big pinch of oleander and foxglove, I might as well be dead for real.
Once that baby in that ole house get to bein, lookin, just like Ira, I knew Miss Victoria had just enough evil in her to kill Ira just like she did my Daddy. The only thing keepin Ira, Tabitha and Orpah from the Good Lord was time. And I ain’t know how much more of it we had. I sucked in a big breath of wind, and walked back to the house. If I was gon do this right, I needed a snake to catch a bigger snake! Mister Benjamin was the brother of the woman that killed my Daddy. He was gon be just what I needed to get back to Natchez.
My Missus wanted me to go with her out of town. The baby,T abitha, was big enough that me being gone for a while–at least two days was alright. I hated to leave Isabelle and Tabitha. And Even Ira. I was scared out my head. I was jumpy for weeks. Weeks! Watchin to see if the baby color would change all the while.
I sat in this hot coach ‘cross from the woman that had caused my Daddy to hang lower than a tree limb. I thought about Sister Anne. I thought about my grandmother. I thought about the last piece of advice Sister Anne told me ‘fore I left her house almost three years ago.
“You got to be careful ’round dem folk, Tally. Stay low. Be low. And if something not of the Most High happ’m? Run like a demon gotcha, baby!”
Miss Victoria was sleeping. Eyes closed and hands all perfect in her lap. Orpah was left in charge while she was gone. I still didn’t know why this woman asked me to go with her! “For company.” she said. “Tabitha needs some time with her own Mama! She always hanging on you!” It was how she said that. Like I was dirty or somethin that should be livin outside. I watched her hand on my shoulder, lookin like a claw off some crab in a basket. I made my mouth break into a smile. “Yes, ma’am.” Those words tasted like vinegar.
We hit a bump that broke me free of the memory. I wanted to talk to Ira. I needed to talk to him. Orpah mighta known. The way she looked at me in early July while she was hangin the wash let me know she knew! How she made sure she was never in a whole lotta light. It was getting to be the thick of summer. And Orpah and I was just watching Tabitha to see if she would turn as brown as bread. If she did, I didn’t know what lie I could tell to save her, me or Ira.
I took in the whole sight of Miss Victoria. Gold earrings. Stringy hair that she made Orpah fuss over into this pile on her head. She wore blue because her Nan told her that ‘ladies always wear blue for luck.’ Her dress was hemmed, and she had a new corset. I looked at her chest struggling to keep her breath in it. I got this sick feeling way down deep in me, stirrin and rollin like.
I aint never had to be sold. But I knew that fear made my Mama run. That rollin, sick feelin is what I had the last time I thought I was gon be taken from my Nan. I closed my eyes. I thought about Ira. I thought about how he looked at me as I had gotten dressed that morning. He was looking like I was about to blow away outta open window. “You really going?” I looked at him, looking at me in the little vanity I had in my room. “Yes, Ira. I’m goin’.” He shivered, still in his dirty field clothes, in my hot room. “I jus thank you about to be fed to a spider is all.”
Fed to a spider.
Sister Anne told me about at time she had almost been sold. Sold to a man that all he did was, ‘keep and breed’. That was why she had to run. I thought about the house. I thought about Isabelle. I thought about Ira and Tabitha. I thought about never seeing them again. I thought about how I couldn’t leave yet, she had to pay for what she did to my Daddy. To my family. I wouldn’t be tricked or satisfied till I did what God hadn’t done yet!
I woke up to a hand on me, and pulling at my dress. There was this small child pulling at my dress, with these big ole grass green eyes and brown hair. “Tally! Tally!” I squinted, making my mind settle. She wore green calico and her face was dirty. “Come inside and see your room!” I looked at her, and her dirty little hands. “Room?”
The little girl looked at me, her eyes as big as the moon over the big house we were in front of. I thought she was looking for the lie floating on the inside of me. “You are going to stay with us now, Tally! Daddy made sure of it! For my birthday, I got you!”
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.
It wasn’t gon be long now. I watched Isabelle on that back porch just a’rockin. Not a care in God’s creation. She was doing a needlepoint, something her Gram had taught her how to do. All that restlessness she was havin, I knew she was gon have a boy. I told her to make sure she counted the kicks ever’time she felt ’em.
I had a little patch of dirt off to the side of Orpah’s clothesline. It was just enough light to grow my foxglove and oleander. A stray dog had eaten my Dolls eyes seeds and died not long after I got to Ms. Victoria Folson’s house. Ira was still a groundsman at the house, even though there wasn’t much ground for him to man. We buried that ole dog in the winter garden. It wasn’t until after Christmas that we found out that ole dog wasn’t a stray. It belonged to Mr. Andrew across the road. When he came to call on Ms. Victoria about the dog, Ira hid behind the door when Orpah answered it.”Girl, have you seen my dog? I ain’t seen him in a coon’s year!” I remember being in the parlor when he said that. I pictured that lil beady eyed man in them dirty duds talkin to Orpah. Before Christmas he tried to take me at Ms. Victoria’s. He saw me coming from the upstairs tending to Isabelle. He looked at me like a was a sweet in a window sill! I walked passed him, and he grabbed my apron–in his dress clothes no less!
He moved to grab my face when Ms. Victoria caught him. He was looking like a field mouse that caught sight of’a big ol’ owl. Them beady blue eyes lookin back at me on the step and Ms. Victoria by the door. He let my apron go, and went towards the great room. I felt all my breath leave my chest. I heard Ms. Victoria head down the hall while “That cad! Caint even keep his hands off the nigra girls!” I heard her stomp away so loud I thought she was bout to come through the floor.
But, that didn’t change my plan. I knew what I had come here for. I knew the foxglove would be ready soon. Sister Anne told me that at first it’ll look like a weed, and when got a real pretty blue, like the sky? Then, it would be ready.
Isabelle was sleeping more, eatin more, and I knew that that big boy was gon be in the world by end of the Spring! Right before May. Isabelle had already had me walk with her up and down the hallway by her room because she thought the baby was coming four nights ago. Sister Anne told me when women do that the labor was gon’ be hard.
I thought about all of this, while I watched her with that needle in that chair on that porch. Ira had come in and tapped me on the shoulder, covered from chin to knees in dirt. Ms. Victoria had asked him weed and plant some roses along the East side of the house. he looked at me for a hard minute fo’ went through the back door, leaving me in the kitchen ‘tween the stove and sink. I stared, kept staring at how Ira looked at her when he passed Ms. Isabelle in that chair. He brushed her hand, and she didn’t move. Ms. Victoria was calling on Ms. Violet up the road a’ways, and would be back fo’ Orpah could make supper. I just watched. She didn’t look up, didn’t flinch. Her dark brown hair was down because she wouldn’t let me or Orpah fix it. But I knew her mama would fit to be tied if she come home and saw her all indecent.
But it was somethin about how Ira touched her hand. Something about how they were never in the same place. If they were, one would hurry up and leave. I know that Ms. Victoria talked to spirits and the like. Sister Anne said alot of them old White missuses did. But I knew that Ms. Isabelle’s husband died for I come here. But I knew no woman could be pregnant mo’ than a year. I felt my eyes get big as the moon, and I put my hand over my mouth.
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 come 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, so 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 come 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, ‘fore 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 walkin 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 Orpah.” 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 gon be gone.” I squinted at her, tryin to figure out what ‘gone’ meant how she said.
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.”
I remember the day I heard my Mama say she was leaving, that she would be back for me and my siblings. I never saw her along the Mississippi Delta again. I remember when she ran, how the men came out our cabin to find my Daddy. How they drug him from the arms of his Mama and down the stairs that his own Daddy made. They hung him over a lie the wife of my Mama’s master told.
We still lived on this land, only 2 families out of not being free. That mean man that owned my Mama, and her Mama was dead and his wife hated God for not letting her die with him. She had let these men kill my Daddy over a lie. This evil white woman, whom I just knew as Miss Victoria, said my Daddy had been ‘indescent’ with her. “This all smell like Hell-baked lie!” My grandmother said. “Malathe, they killed yo Pap on a lie!” I remember she looked at my Daddy, her son, swing from that big ol’ elm tree in front of her house ‘neath the blanket of stars. “Over a lie!” she said, knocking over her candle into the dying grass.
She hated Victoria until she died, four winters later. “I don’t care if I don’t see God, ” she said, the fever making her mind slip, “I just won’t to see that harpy wherever the Lord lay me!” I was sixteen. That mob of white men killed my Daddy over a lie. And that lie killed my grandmother. After the war, my brothers went North to find our Mother. The last anyone hear she might have been a washerwoman in St. Louis or Chicago. I decided to stay home in Natchez. I wasn’t about to be run off.
I was gon fix Miss Victoria and her daughter, Isabelle. Just like she took from me. I was going to take from them!