(This is my newest short story. And, not that I particularly like trigger warnings or censorship, for those who may be sensitive, there are some disturbing moments in this story. You can jump to the post script if you’d like more information all the way at the bottom.)
“Blessed Are The Children”
Mamma is having a baby. Big and fat, stuffed full of hair and limbs, she kneads bread and puts up preserves with a contempt that turns the food sour. All of us older kids eat it anyways for fear of getting a whipping, but the little ones don’t know any better. They turn their heads and cry for their sister. They don’t cry for me. They know better. I look at their runny noses and matted hair and I want to drop them in the river like a sack of kittens. When they come out in the field looking for something to eat I push them down and tell them that daddy is going to sell them to the colored family down the road to pay for my new dress. They cry and cry and run to my sister Vivian who holds their faces and gives them some peas. She turns a face at me but I already threw her underdrawers in the barn last night after she scolded me for pinching and taking Ruth’s biscuit, hoping that daddy would find them and think she was in there fooling with Justice Holtzclaw again.
School started last month but we are staying home to help pick all of the corn that daddy planted this year. Standing in a tall thick row and filling up my sack, I listen to mamma tell her friend Ollie Mae about all of Pearl’s children getting the scarlet fever and taking it up to the school, such a shame. If we were to bring it on back up here daddy would beat all. But maybe it would take one of the little ones and do us all a service, I think. I’m sweaty and tired and my arms are all scratched up from picking, so I lay on the ground and watch the clouds move across the sky. My body starts to loosen and I sink into the dirt, planting roots and sucking up water, growing myself and stretching away, away. When I open my eyes it is dusk and a fog has settled over the hill and onto my branches. Shooting up and cursing the corn, I grab my sack and run down the row towards the house. I get to the porch and glance around to make sure that no one has seen me and I throw my sack in with the others. I peek into the window only to see a few kids scooting on the floor crying for supper and Vivian holding a baby by the wood stove, stirring apples in a pot. Our house is old and chipped and sags under the weight of all the children. A kerosene lamp lights up the kitchen and ants march around the sacks of flour in the cabinets. Once inside, Vivian looks at me all tired like and hateful and hands me the baby.
“Where in the hell have you been? I need you to make biscuits. All you ever do is wander around and think about yourself.”
“Well, I can’t make no biscuits while holding this baby,” I tell her coldly.
I sit the baby down on the wood floor and he squishes some ants under his little fingers. Daddy is out again. He’s probably sitting on Thomas Goode’s porch drinking dandelion wine and talking about Melvin Johnson’s family and how he hasn’t worked a lick in ages with all of them black children they keep having and not able to feed. I don’t remember the last time I talked to my daddy, it’s been so long. And even then, I don’t think he actually talked to me more than he spit out an order or something wrong that I had done. He doesn’t even talk when he’s whipping a child. Maybe a grunt, or a get-back-here, or a stay-still, but mostly it’s just silence. A regretful silence full of wine and moonshine. And then there’s mama who is laying upstairs with another baby sucking out all her blood. Why she can’t just stop having so many children and try feeding one she’s already got, I wonder, cutting butter into the flour.
Vivian sighs deep and picks up the baby who’s standing and pulling on her dress. I watch her stir the apples and kiss Julius on his forehead wh0 is smudged with dirt and dressed in a cloth diaper. She’s the only one who stays in this place, and all the kids know it. Katie ran away last winter, as soon as mamma got pregnant again. And Vivian just keeps stirring and buttoning and sewing and wiping. I always wonder why, but I figure that love binds her here. Juicy and thick in the pot of applesauce and snot running down the babies’ noses, it coats butts with salve, stays up with fevers and lays wet rags on burning foreheads. We can all see it sitting on her hip, holding her with a tight grasp around her fingers, never letting go, wanting to be fed. And we let it have her, afraid that it’ll cling to one of us. That’s what made Katie run. When it looked up at her all hungry and whiny, she got afraid, packed up and took off. I hate her for it. I could have packed my things real quiet and missed the creaks in the floors, too.
We spoon out hot apples and biscuits for all the kids who are sitting around the table and on the floor, saving the most for Henry and Thomas who are dragging the corn out to the barn to be put up and sold tomorrow. A boy cries that his little sister got more than he did, so I slap him on the back of the head and threaten to eat what he’s got. He pouts and crosses his arms, but he eats it all up and washes his plate with a moaning belly. Once supper is through, me and Vivian take the little ones out in the yard and pull down their pants, put them in a zinc galvanized tub of cold water and scrub their bony bodies with lye while they watch the lightening bugs and try to touch each others’ privates and giggle. The water first turns a deep pink from the field berries that stained their fingers and faces from picking earlier that day, then to a muddy brown after the caked dirt on the bottoms of their feet and behind their ears dissolved off of their skin. I pinch their white skin, making red marks on their behinds, and throw them around the tub to try and wash off their stink. Vivian is never aggressive with the children. Her gentle eyes see love naked and hungry in the tub and she tickles and sings to it – all promises of tenderness, strength, and rest – in a world filled with abandon and hunger, hitting and yelling, working and fighting. She has given herself to it and its presence, called it her own and tucked it into her heart. And it knows the cries of her soul, calling out for mercy and dreams left unfulfilled.
Evenings are always the most unbearable at home. All of my exhaustion and house work collects in my body and I want to sink low into a bed. Once all the children are finally laid up in their spots to sleep, I can sit downstairs and clean under my fingernails and rub my feet while Vivian braids my hair, humming old hymns. It almost makes me want to go fetch her drawers from the barn before daddy sees them but cold mountain rain falls on the tin roof of our farm house, dinning me to sleep. The smell of lilac from the garden fills the kitchen as a strong breeze pushes in the open window and blows the curtains across the counter. For the first time in a long time I feel warm and right.
After the refrain to “The Old Rugged Cross,” there’s a crash upstairs and mamma hollers for Vivian to come quick. Throwing down my hair, and picking up her skirt, she bounds up the stairs. I stay in my chair with my ears pricked, listening for what comes next: orders to heat up a basin of water, get some dry towels and clean off the scissors. Babies always come in a fit of drama around here so I’m not phased by mama’s hysterics. Though, it’s Vivian’s screams that startle me up.”Anna… AnnaRu! Get up here! I need you!”In the hallway mama is laying on her back, white as sin, with blood pouring out from between her legs and down the hall. All the blood that this baby sucked up must have been vomited out in a fit of rage and hunger.”AnnaRu, go find daddy and get Dr. Maury. You gotta get help! GO!”I stand, unable to move, staring at the thick blood, a mass of crimson poison that was swallowed up by a monster. Another scream shook me back and I ran outside toward Thomas Goode’s house. Barefoot, my feet sink into the soft dewy grass until I reach the gravel path where the tiny stones cut my feet with every pound. Bladed beads of water puncture my face while I run, pant, lightening lighting my way. A bolt shoots behind the Johnson house and I stop dead in the road. The house is dark except for a light shinning out of one of the side rooms and I see the black outlines of three little bodies standing next to its path. Stark still and listening to the rain patter on leaves and rocks, I hear a woman moan out. Not a labor moan. A beaten moan. A moan I’ve heard women sigh into ghosts my whole life.
Soggy and bleeding, my feet feel relief as I walk in the plush grass and startle one of the little colored boys standing under the window. His big black orbed irises are wide with fear and he backs away behind his sister who whips around towards me and falls on her knees. Begging me to be quiet or else he’ll come out and get them, my limbs shake violently and my stomach tightens in a brace. We all four kneel in the grass next to the shinning light and listen to the moaning and slapping, tears and water, soaking the earth. A movement on the porch catches my eye and I see the dark Mr. Johnson bent over in his rocker, like he sits every day, with his hands covering his ears, rocking back and forth, his back heaving. What I thought was the possessive mating between spouses suddenly turned sinister. If Mr. Johnson is out here then who in the devil is in there? I want to gesture to him, to call out to him, to ask him why he isn’t in there stopping this loud madness. But he just rocks and I just kneel. I’m afraid of him and his hands and I feel like I’ve interrupted something I was never supposed to see.
Rising to my pained feet, my head pounds and the wet world spins. Standing against the slats of the house, I close my eyes and listen, listen.
“You shut up, you black nigger bitch!” He uhs, and uhs, and uhs, while she moans, and weeps, and gags.
That voice. That voice. It yelled at me yesterday, hollering that I left the metal wash pan out in the yard filled with water and caused it to rust. That voice. It saddled my mamma against their bed and rode her until it spit another baby inside her and sucked out all her blood.
I vomit in the yard. It splatters on the children and they sit there, unmoving, holding each other. I don’t move. I don’t breathe. Leaning against the side of the house, I was ashamed to have thrown up. The rain pangs against the roof. The screen door creaks open and bangs shut. Heavy boots step down the wooden steps and the tall man stumbles across the yard to the road and walks towards Thomas Goode’s house. The children stand up and, holding each other, they slowly walk around me to the porch with their father. Inching around the corner of the house, I see him holding them close and he tells me to get on home away from here.
I get back to the house and stare at the burning kerosene lamp in the window. Still and quiet, the house settles into the soggy ground and I open the door. A soft baby cry works down the stairs to my ears but the moaning ghost keeps me from hearing it.
“Daddy? Daddy? Is that you?”
Vivian walks slowly down the stairs holding a new baby in a dingy towel, blood soaking her dress.
“Where’s daddy? Did you find him?”
I stare at the baby, little fingers holding tight onto Vivian, craning its mouth towards her breasts.
“AnnaRu, did you find Daddy?”
“What? Uh, no. He wasn’t at the Goode’s place.”
“What about Dr. Maury? Mama doesn’t look to be doing so good and she needs him.”
“Huh? What? Oh. No. I don’t know where he’s off to.”
“Christ, AnnaRu. Can’t you do nothin’ I ask?”
I shake my head. “No.”
I’m particularly interested in old family myths and stories around people of color. It seems that many white families have some distant relative that was either black or indian (specifically Cherokee) who married an aunt or a great great great grandmother or grandfather and then conceived children together. Those ethnic genes will eventually make their way to future generations and grandparents will comment on how all of that black curly hair must be from old Black Joe, their great great great uncle. Or their slanted eyes must be from a great great great grandmother who was 1/2 Cherokee. This is a fictional story that I re-imagined from an old legend that was told in my family. The story goes that my great great great great grandfather was found having an affair with a black lady down the road while his wife was giving birth to their 13th child. People speculate that some of her light skinned children were actually his. What I find very disturbing about these familial stories is that they are more often just not true, and if they are, they are more likely to be instances of rape, coercion and violence that have been romanticized over generations of story telling. We do whatever we can, at all costs, to make our ancestors look nice and kind. This story is my attempt at wrestling with a family legend that could quite possibly have been one of our family’s darkest moments. And then I ask myself: what do we do with the atrocities and sins of our ancestors?