Short Story: The Talebearer

This piece was chosen for a collection done by Big Black Chapters in honor of Juneteenth 2020. I am indeed a descendant of enslaved people, and as a writer? That holds a unique responsibility. With all that said, enjoy. #BlackWritersMatter #BlackStoriesMatter #Juneteenth -JBHarris

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The Talebearer

By Jennifer Bush-Harris

June 19, 1865, Massion Plantation, Galveston, Texas-

“Lord, you said if we would just wait on you, you would make the path straight!” Anna  watched her brother Luke as he prayed with the heat he had only seen my own Pap pray. She looked out the shack window, watching Luke talking and rustle of the trees answer him. Anna touched her belly, swollen and jumping as Rasp put his arms around her. Anna breathed him in, closing her eyes. “Jesus, help! Jesus come help!” Anna breathed deep as Rasp kissed her forehead. His voice and Luke’s prayer soothing as her heartbeat in his ears. “I saw them soldiers, looking like a some of the night time in the day time with all that blue.” Anna closed her eyes, the tears stinging her eyes. “But they ran, Rasp! They run from here!” Rasp held her, tight, shushing her in the way he always had. “Daddy said he seent them too.” The tears from their hiding place, tracing down the bridge of her nose. “But they ran!” 

Rasp walked around to the front of her, hands on her lap. Anna felt eyes on her, those same eyes that found her underneath the stars three summers ago. Rasp but his face in her lap, Anna petted his head. She scanned the trees for her brother, sighed when her eyes saw nothing but trees and night. “Anna, I have loved you feel like all my life.” Anna felt the air leave his body, shoulders loose, neck taut. This was how he had come home back from the field. This type of worn out her mother said, ‘Take somebody breath day by day till aint nothin left but tuh die!”

To die.

Anna had thought about that same thing, that last summer. As she scanned the trees for her brother, she closed her eyes. As Rasp held on to her, hands around her hips, she let her mind swim back to that summer. Back to the water. Back to the night she ran. Back to the night where death, that ‘good sleep’ Father Shep said was better. As Rasp breathed deep on her lap, her eyes closed. “Them is dark things in yo head, Anna. Don’t chu go chasin em.” Her father told her that when she would take off in the evening. “Imma just need to be by herself!”  Don’t chu go chasin em. The heaviness in her chest came back, the tightness of it making her head ache. The apron over her dress hard and damp from a day of candle-making. 

Don’t chu go chasin em. 

            Anna remembered how dark that night was, how cold it was. The comfort of the memory was better than not seeing her brother. Luke, the doctor. Her mother said when he was a small baby that he had an air to him, always fought to protect him. “He my Moses. Our Moses!” It was because of Luke, and Anna her mother, May Clara, was gone. The thoughts came back, the sand in her hair, the clothes torn from her, and her feet bleeding. It was the knocking on the door of the little shack Luke called the Prayer Closet, that snatched her back through time. He busted in through the door like hurricane wind. “The scouts is in the woods, Anna! The scouts is in the woods!” Anna pushed Rasp away, cold from the weight and heat of Rasp gone from her body. “What?” Luke paced the Prayer Closet, looking at the small window. “The Yankees ain’t gone, Anna!” She felt her chest ease a little, she rolled her shoulders, and went to her brother. 

            Luke held his sister, close and warm. Tears came then, as Luke spoke. “I saw one of them folk from that place Indian Jack stay.” He kept hugging her, speaking faster, lips near her left ear. “Them scouts is like God, they just be everywhere Anna! They coming in the morning. We gotta be here tonight.”  Anna pulled away, looking into the face of her brother. Tall. Dark brown. Cabinet maker, furniture maker their father and his father before that. “We gon be free tomorrow, Anna!” He blew out of the door just as quick as he had come. Anna watched him run back through the night towards the trees. “In the morning. We gon be free in the morning!” Anna looked at the sleeping Rasp beneath the small window. She wanted to wake him, tell him everything Luke had just poured all in her heart. 

Rasp had told her and Luke while they were in the cook house that he had seen the Yankees that morning. He had left the field, was missing the last two days trying to catch up with the troops. Rasp had hidden in the same forest and Prayer Closet Luke called his own to avoid the dogs and the patrollers Master Massion hired to find him. In the morning. We gon be free in the morning. Anna turned to the window, looking at the forest seeing Luke again running like he was young again. Breathing deep, Anna walked to the first big tree of the forest, leaving the door to the Prayer Closet open. Leaning against the tree, Anna wished for Luke, needing for the rest of his arms. But the thoughts came back, chasing the wisdom of her father away. She could smell the fire of fireplace in the room, candles that burned and how she had woken up, groggy and sore. The parts of her sex open and pulsing like a wound. 

Anna’s mother, their mother, May Clara tried to tell her that Master Massion’s son wanted her. “Anna Clara, there be a talebearer in this here house!” May Clara had told her this when she saw her leave the field to come to her, putting oil in the lamps in the salon room. “Be careful Anna Clara. Mind yaself, Anna Clara.”

Be careful, Anna Clara, Mama said.   Don’t chu chase em, Daddy said.

That cold creeped up her back, just like his hands did as he took off the housedress, she wore. The cold fingertips and lips that caressed her, came back. How her Master Massion’s son, Edward, took her. From that first night, and a season after. The night he, Edward, this same boy who taught her how to spell her name, took her in her own quarters. He slapped her, pushing into her as she cried. “You ain’t ever leaving me, Anna!” She smelled the liquor on his breath, through his clothes. “No, Suh! Please! Stop!” Anna couldn’t reach him through the liquor he drank. Groping in the darkness, of found the metal of a small lantern. She had grabbed the lantern with all her might, bringing glass crashing everywhere as her mother and father woke. Edward, bleeding and not moving, laid at her feet. Anna leaned again the wall of her cabin, holding her clothes together. As she held her clothes together, her parents woke up—looking at the bleeding, drunk white man on their floor. May Clara looked at the man on the floor before looking at her daughter. “Run, Anna Clara.” The calm of her mother’s voice, now a hiss, scared her. Stepping over Edward, she ran.  

Anna’s feet burned remembering how she had run. How fast she had run, how far she had run. Through that same forest, until she reached the beach. The sand a comfort as her feet throbbed and bled. As she wrapped her arms around herself, there was warmth that came over her. As she closed her eyes, she stayed in that space. Anna remembered everything in the waves that came to her that night, seeping through her head scarf and hair. The tears came again, as she pulled herself back from the sand, her blood and the water. Anna opened her eyes, pushing away from the tree. “We gon be free in the morning.”

There were arms around her then, Rasp’s voice in her ear. Her body shook as she cried, leaning against the tree, free from the memory. Don’t chu chase them. The memories of everything that happened came in waves again. She remembered Luke telling her their mother pushing Edward out the quarters. “Anna, Papa beat Mistuh Edward somethin bad! Face red as Jesus blood!” The memories skipped to the day her father, Joshua, took the lash to protect her after everything happened. Before he went with the overseers, he told her what she was scared to say again aloud: “Them is dark things in yo head, Anna. Don’t chu go chasin em.”

  Edward hadn’t remembered being hit with the lantern, but he remembered Joshua hitting him. Anna wept in Rasp’s arms like the same day her father was beat in the barn. For her. For her sake. We gon be free in the morning. She hung on to the words as the tears came in heavy sobs, tears steady as raindrops. “Papa!” she shrieked. Anna remembered Gram Hallie holding onto her from the tree near the barn. She remembered how he struggled, fought against her hug. Anna’s body shook, remembering the whip lashing against the flesh of her father’s back. “Shush, baby! Shush!” The juniper Gram Hallie worn filled her again, wrapped around her again even in Rasp’s arms. The sound of the whip fresh as Rasp held her. “Anna Clara! Anna Clara!”

Clara. May Clara’s mother’s name. Her mother was the last child she had before she was sold for spite. Master Massion’s sister, Miss Julia, lied and said Clara stole something from her. We gon be free in the morning. Her feet throbbed, reminding her of what Luke told her. “Luke wit Paul on alla his travels, dass what Father Shep say.” Her mother said. “Luke the same way. Knowin and seein. He gon be great!” Her mother vowed any daughter she could keep would have the name Clara if she could help it. “I know these white folk aint finna ever call you all that I say you is,” her mother had told her. “But yo name Anna Clara. Anna like the Bible. Clara like my Mama.”

We gon be free in the morning. 

Rasp held Anna, tight. His breath in time with her tears. She cried as the trees rustled. “There they is!” Rasp held her, turned the Anna from the sound. The smell of the hickory wood in Rasp’s clothes steadied her. “Anna Clara!” There was a weight that crashed into Rasp’s back, with a small tow sack on his back. It was Luke. “The scouts is gon be here at dawn! We gotta stay out here tonight. Be ready to go when they knock on the Closet door.” Rasp followed Luke as he set a lantern in the small window. Rasp picked Anna up from her feet, still throbbing from memory. “Tomorrow, Anna. Tomorrow already comin!” 

As he crossed the small threshold of the Prayer Closet, this small house built by their grandfather, Old Wen, before Master Massion was ever born! This place was built with scrap wood, and lumber from other trees. Old Wen, who died not knowing freedom, set a place for his grandchildren. Rasp held Anna, as she closed her eyes. “Tomorrow?” Rasp kissed her forehead. “We gon be free in the morning.”