Family plots fenced in the backyard, kept tender with care, yellow flowers so there's always light, green grass so it's always living, watered with stories and remembrances long after the tears of accepting have dried. A great and a great-great, a little baby girl, and a bunch of somebody's loves in between. Some stones got names, some names been worn away, but they're all there, inside parts of remember-whens.
On evening time, the breeze come heavy with the chatter of folks meandering through life-stories they lived through today. Meandering through those stories on wooden back porches, with wives and younguns sitting on the stoop, or slow-rocking in chairs, listening and interrupting as they please, though they know its disrespectful.
Peace. Fields plowed just so. From a red-wing's point of view, it looks like God reached down and stroked his fingers 'cross the earth. The summer air hangs so thick with the smell of wild onion, it makes folks want to stir up a pot of something. When the rain comes, us all watch it walk right up to the porch, and over the house, and on. Every house gets quiet 'cause everybody knows that God is doing His work.
Peace. A place where two folks with not even a name of their own made them a world.
Set yourself down. Here come that breeze - sighing heavy, whispering full, scattering tales of years gone by, just like it spread new life seeds come spring. If you listen - shut your eyes, be still as the trees before a storm, and God's honest listen - I'll bet anything you'll hear the sweet singing of a wooden sparrow, the praising of Grove Baptist's Negro congregation, and the "I will. Forever. Yes, I will" of Isaac and Adaelah.
Be still. It'll smooth right over you, and into you, peaceful-like, on a sweet evening breeze.
Isaac pushed his way through scrub pine and thistle. Sunlight had reached through pine tops and red oak to drip cured tobacco gold on the log cabin that stood in the clearing just ahead. For a moment he hesitated. He'd promised Adaelah he wouldn't see Miss Bess anymore. Said the last time would be just that. But he couldn't give her what she wanted. Not now. Maybe not ever. His work boots made quiet sounds as he crossed maple leaves anti mossy ground.
Miss Bess appeared in the doorway as if she'd caught his scent. More than likely she had. She was like no conjure woman Isaac had ever heard tell of. She filled the narrow, rough-hewn doorway with rounded hips and overfull breasts. Stood there looking like somebody's mama, which was something she claimed she was never going to be. Leastwise not till the Father sent her a "good man." But up till then - and as long as the pines and moss, asafetida and herbs, kept on whispering their charms to her - she claimed a right to her men friends, and a right not to end up as somebody's mama. Which was the self-same reason Isaac came to her, and planned to keep coming.
Her welcome smile reached him before her words. "Isaac, when is you gone choose a last name? Me and you is carryin on serious business here. Ain't fight for me to be callin you by your first name."
Isaac chuckled. She'd asked him that almost every time he'd come for almost three years. "You know namin take time, Miss Bess. I wants to choose a good strong name for me and Addle. If I chooses the wrong one, that's that. You know once them Negroes up at the court house pen somethin down ain't no scratchin out."
"Now that's the truth! They the most stubborn-minded group of niggahs I ever did see. But do it soon, hear? Free man got to have a name." Stepping back into the cabin, she motioned for him to follow.
Isaac pulled off his sweaty hat, and glanced around the room. Like always there was a big black pot bubbling in the open hearth. It seemed to Isaac like the same pot, giving off the same scent every time he came. Miss Bess didn't ever offer him a taste, and Isaac never asked, because, to his way of thinking, "She's a conjure woman and won't no tellin what she'd goophered-up in that pot."
"What can I do for you today?" She settled in a cane-backed chair near the fire, and started stirring her pot.
"Well, Addle didn't like them berries you give me for her tea. I guess we gone go back to them sheaths you give me."
Miss Bess stopped stirring, and stared at Isaac, "Boy, when is yall gone stop this foolishness? You and Addle been married long enough now that a youngun or two wouldn't hardly hurt you."
The rim of Isaac's hat crumpled in damp hands. "Now, Miss Bess, I done told you. Addie had three younguns sold away from her. She ain't ready, and I'm gone wait till she is."
Bess looked cross as she heaved out of the chair. She opened the doors on a battered maple dresser, and filled a paper sack with lambskin sheaths. Bess tucked the folded bill Isaac offered into her bosom, and scowled as she handed him the bag. "Biggest bunch of foolishness I done heard. Tell that girl I say it's time to move on. May'hap them younguns is lost to her. May'hap they ain't. Either way, it ain't got nothin to do with a new man and new younguns."
Isaac smoothed the rim of his hat. "I sure will tell her, Miss Bess. I sure will." Outside the cabin, Isaac shoved the hat onto his head, and let go of the breath he'd held tight in his chest.
Firelight made amber hollows and shadows on Adaelah's skin. With rough fingertips Isaac traced her full breasts, massaged the calf she'd thrown over his hip. He kissed her.
Pulling away slightly, he felt between the feather-ticked mattress and the maple bedstead, searching for a brown paper sack filled with the softness of lamb's skin. Addie's hand slipped over his, stilling his fingers.
"Please, Isaac. Not this time." He brushed her hand away and felt deeper between the bedstead and the mattress.
"They gone. I threw 'em away."
Isaac's hand stilled. He turned his head to look at her, "Stop foolin. Where they at?"
"Ain't foolin. I threw 'em away."
"Do you know how much Miss Bess charge for them things?"
She smiled at him, trying to head off an argument. Trying to get her way.
"You promised me, Isaac. Said no more after the last ones and that tea." She grazed his chest with the softness of her breast. "It don't matter, Isaac."
"It do matter." Ignoring the plea in Addie's voice, and the demands of his body, Isaac pulled away. His feet hit the pine floor with an angry thud. Shoving fingers through his kinky hair, he rested his forehead on his palm.
"Would it be so terrible if you and me was to make a little baby?"
Isaac was still. So still that Addie imagined he looked like one of the ebony carved warriors from her mama's stories.
"Yes." Isaac slipped into overalls and work boots and moved toward the bedroom door. Addie's words reached him just as his hand closed over the brass knob.
"You got to let it go, Isaac. Don't you know if there gone be a me and you. You gone have to let it go." She heard the clop of his boots on the stairs; then the front door slammed shut, as he walked out into the November night. Rising onto her knees, Addie peered through the cold window pane behind their bed. Isaac was headed toward the fields. He stopped every few feet to pick up pieces of his land, hold them in his hands, and gently lay them down again.
The sun was bright, like a new penny hanging in the morning sky. Adaelah and Dora-Mae grabbed the handles on the tin laundry tub and headed for the line out behind the white-pine house. Dew wet the hems of their skirts as they took a short-cut through Addie's garden. Their chatter - about how tender the collards would be, now that the frost had hit them; about how the boiled roots made good tonic for fever - mixed with the fussing of early birds.
The clothesline was two smooth poles settled so snugly into the ground they looked as if they'd grown up there. Isaac had strung wire between the poles, after he'd positioned them just shy of the woods. While Addie hung wash in the spring, she was showered by drifting white dogwood blossoms, and the smell of honeysuckle mixing with the sunshine in their clothes.
On that morning, the woods seemed to glow with browns and golds that filled their world, looked as if sunset had melted onto the leaves. Dora-Mae let her end of the basket drop. She piled her market basket and bonnet on an old stump.
"Addie, I know you done heard 'bout Sally Willis."
Before Addie could answer, she caught sight of Isaac moving across the fields. He hadn't come back to bed last night, though she knew he'd come back sometime. The clean work shirt and overalls she always laid by the hearth were gone when she rose to make breakfast, breakfast that she ate alone.
"Is you listenin to me?" Dora's gaze followed Addie's. "Lord! Is yall so in love that the man cain't be out of your sight long enough to get some work done?"
Addie tucked her worries back into their keeping place. She smiled at Dora and said, "It's you and me what better get some work done." She stooped to pick up a wet petticoat. "What the Reverend Mrs. gone and done now?"
"Well, you know I ain't one to go round carryin tales, but this happen to be the truth, or as close to the truth as Mamie Watkins is likely to get." She tossed Addie a look that said, "And you know how that woman can lie!"
"Anyhow, we all know that the Reverend Mrs. Willis think she this and think she that, but she really gone this time, Addie?
Addie laughed. She pulled one of Isaac's wet shirts from the laundry tub as Dora delivered her news. "That woman ain't been pregnant but a minute, if'n it's been that long, and Mamie said she seen her the other day, up in the Mercantile, moanin to Miss Slade. Like that poor woman ain't got troubles of her own with that aggravatin, no-count husband of hers, and them eight younguns that act like they gone be just like him."
"You mean to tell me that man ain't plowed under that east pasture yet?"
Dora-Mae stopped wringing the water out of a shirt. "Chile! That man so lazy he wouldn't work in a pie-shop come winter time! And them younguns is too lazy to eat the pies!"
Addie shook her head and laughed. "You know you ought to stop. God don't like ugly!"
"Well, we wasn't talkin bout Mamie's granddaughter Angel was we? We was talking bout the Reverend Mrs. Mamie said she was just puttin on, moanin, 'Lord, Miss Slade, I just don't see how you beared eight younguns. I is sick all the day, an half the night. I can barely get up to make Sam a decent supper.' Two things now, Addle. Pregnant or not, that woman ain't never made no decent supper. Second, it don't seem she too ailin to switch that flat tail of hers into the Mercantile to order a baby cradle all the way from Saint Louis! Saint Louis, Addle! Wonder how much of our tithe money goin to that! I guess she come by them ways of hers honest though. She only part field niggah, seein as how her papa owned the field."
Addie laughed full, but not her fullest. She hadn't needed to be reminded that the Reverend Mrs. was expecting, not today. "You go on with that, Dora-Mae! Ain't right to speak ill of the dead, or of the sickly." She held one shoulder of the flannel shirt to the line and clipped it tight with a sparrow peg-pin.
"Lord! You sure you ain't been beatin the path up to the Mercantile yourself? There's 'bout the fanciest clothes-pins I ever seen."
"Isaac made 'em for me."
Dora picked up a little wooden swallow. She handled it as though the bird might flutter to life. "You gone put somethin pretty as this out on the washin? You know the sun gone fade 'em. And what if the rain catch 'em?"
"Isaac said he ain't made 'em so they can lay round in no box. He say I should have pretty things to use just 'cause I deserves 'em." She pinned a rough woolen sock with a sleepy thrush.
Dora ran rough fingers over the carved, brightly painted feathers of a cardinal. "He sure do love you. He all the time makin you things, and Lord knows he done built you the finest house in Peace. Make Sally Willis' place look like a pile of sticks!" Dora chuckled, then smiled at her friend and said, "And it ain't even a little hard to see how you loves that man."
Addie smiled. "I do. He talk to me like I'm somebody. All the time touchin my face, and holdin my hand."
"Seem like with all this touchin and holdin that's goin on, yall'd have a passel of younguns by now. You and Isaac been married pretty near three years now. Got all these fields to plow, this big ol' house to keep up."
Addie looked away from Dora-Mae's eyes. Her gaze drifted across the fields and settled on Isaac. "Isaac don't want younguns right away. Say he ain't ready to share me."
But Dora-Mae would not leave it alone. "How long he plannin on keepin you to hisself? Seem to me like he could use a son round here, help plow these fields. Besides, what kinda man ain't hankerin after a son of his own blood?" Smiling, she nudged Addie with her elbow, and asked, "Ain't nothin wrong with 'im is there?"
"Ain't nothin wrong with 'im! Isaac just want to enjoy his wife and his home, without a gang of chaps running around. Everybody don't want the same kind of brood you and Henry got, all the time underfoot and barely fed!"
Dora-Mae dropped wet overalls back into the basket. "I see my welcome done come to an early end today. I'ma trust you can get the rest of your washin done by yo'self. I'll see you another day, Adaelah, when you ain't so tetchy." Dora's back was up as she gathered her bonnet and market basket from the stump. She stalked across winter-brown grass to the dusty, orange path.
Addie watched her friend go. The pain of a splinter piercing her skin caused her gaze to drop. Uncurling her fingers, she found that her blood had dripped onto the broken wing of a bluebird.
Isaac dried his face on a cup towel. With clean hands he smoothed a curl away from Addie's face before taking his place at the table.
"Dora-Mae come by this mornin," Addie said, as she placed biscuits in front of him.
Isaac asked, "Whose business is that old bitty-hen scratchin in this week?"
Addie sat down in the ladder-backed chair across from him. They bowed their heads in grace before she answered, "She want to know how it is that we been married near 'bout three years and ain't got no younguns. I myself would 'preciate an answer to that."
Isaac picked up a biscuit. He smeared butter on the snowy inside, before looking at her. "Ain't in no mood for baby talk this evenin, Addie. Blade on the plow broke today, had to go all the way into town for another one. Horse throwed a shoe on the way. Ain't in no mood." He bit into the biscuit.
Addie pressed rough palms against the wooden table. "That horse and his throwed shoe ain't got nothin to do with what I just asked you, Isaac."
"If Dora-Mae ain't got nothin better to do than come round here stirrin up trouble and bringin headaches into other folks homes, I'ma talk to Henry bout how she need to be spendin her time."
"She ain't done nothin but spoke what I was thinkin."
"Hell she did! We'd done settled this, Adaelah."
"We ain't settled! You said! And tryin to keep peace in this home I shut my mouth. Shut up my heart. No more, Isaac. You give me a good reason why you don't want a chile. A good reason! Ain't slavery no more. Ain't no more goin long with things that hurt just 'cause somebody say so!"
"What you sayin, Addie?"
"Sayin I love you. Sayin I want to be here with you, carin for you. But that ain't the only want I got."
Isaac pushed away from the table, headed for the front room. He grabbed his work hat from the peg beside the door.
Addie would have let him go. She knew it was his way, to leave when they had an argument, to come back when he was settled. But not tonight. He'd walked out on "baby talk" one time too many.
She followed him into the front room, stood blocking the door. "Don't you walk outa here, Isaac. You know bout them younguns what was sold away from me. Three babies, Isaac! Out there somewheres! Only God knows where! Don't you walk away from me!"
"An you know bout the fifteen that was stole from me 'fore I ever even seen 'em!"
Addie pleaded, "Why won't you let that go? How we gone ever be a family if you won't let go? What's past don't matter, not to right now."
Isaac slammed the hat back onto the peg. "You sayin them three younguns that was sold from you don't matter? Then why you want another one?"
"I ain't never gone forget them babies. Wherever they is, everyone of 'em is still mine. But losin them don't mean I'ma lose the next one. And they ain't got nothin to do with you, and me, and right now." She grasped his arm, when he would have turned his back to her. "If you cain't let it go, Isaac, don't none of this matter." She waved her free hand, pointing to the room. "This fine house, them fields you works so hard in, pickin us a last name - it don't count for nothin. We still slaves. Still ain't free."
Isaac's jaw clenched, then loosened as he asked her, "What your younguns' names, Addie?" She pressed her lips together. "What their names is, Addie!"
"You know their names."
"Tell me again."
"Josiah. Mirendy. Jonas."
"You already got more of your younguns than I'm ever gone have of mine. Ain't nobody gone ever again force me to make no babies. Not even you, Adaelah. Whatever reasons you got, mine is five times stronger."
Isaac stood on the back steps, trying to knock some of the field dirt off of his clothes, when he heard the sound of wood being chopped. Cutting across the yard, he ducked under the clothesline and headed for the woodshed in the clearing beyond.
The shed smelled of drying hickory, sweet maple, green pine. Addie picked up the ax and swung at the piece of wood she'd placed on the chopping block.
"Adaelah! What is you doin? Give me that ax 'fore you cut off a foot!"
She hadn't heard him come up. Or maybe she had, and just ignored him. Catching her breath, she turned to explain, "There won't enough firewood to last the night, and I . . ."
Isaac cut her off. "I cuts the wood 'round here. You don't see me up in your kitchen tryin to bake no bread, do you? Why ain't you just ask me to chop some wood?" He took the ax from her.
"You and me ain't been talkin much these last few days." Addie hated the quiet. It wasn't the comfortable kind she was used to. Like when everything was easy between them, and nothing needed to be said. It was another quiet. The kind where nothing was right, and they were both holding their peace, on account of enough hurtful things had been let loose.
His answering "Umph" could've meant anything. Addie decided to take it as a sign that he was as tired of the silence as she. He picked up the ax and set his motion. She started where the hurt was the greatest. "You said your reasons for not wantin younguns is five times stronger than mine. Mayhap you right, but I don't think so. Losin younguns is losin younguns. Three or fifteen, they gone. Ain't nothin left in their place but pain."
He stopped chopping, turned to look at her. "I ain't meant to say that, Addie." Gathering her cold hands into the warm roughness of his, he said, "I know your hurt is every bit as strong as mine. That's why I cain't understand why you want to go there again." Letting go of her hands, he shook his head as he pulled the ax from the chopping block.
"We cain't change them things that was done to us, or the things we done to make it. But we can leave 'em behind. Make peace with 'em."
"Just it let go, huh? Forget about them nights, all them babies I ain't seen. Wouldn't know 'em if they walked up and spit in my face. Which would be 'bout what I deserves. Just let it go." He barely broke his swing to place uncut pieces on the block.
With balled fists, Addie clutched her shawl closer against her breasts. "It ain't that easy, Isaac. I know. But you gotta make a start . . ."
He cut her off, "An you think havin another youngun is the start I needs?"
"The baby wouldn't belong to nobody but you, and me, and it's very own self." Her voice was strong, quiet.
"What if I don't want no new start, Addie? What if all I want is me and you, and what we got right now?"
"Then you ain't the man you claiming to be. You as much slave to Marse John as when he brought you home in leg irons!"
Isaac let the ax fall from his shoulder to the ground. He faced Addie. "Mayhap you right. Mayhap I'm just a dumb niggah. Mayhap that's all I wants to be."
"Slavery took most everybody I loved. Look like it still takin you," she said. "But I tell you one thing, Isaac. I ain't let slavery take my hope, and I ain't gone let you take it neither! Ain't spendin nary 'nother lifetime in bondage." Addie slammed out of the shed and ran across the yard.
Sitting down on the block, Isaac pulled his knife from his pants pocket. He picked up a hand-sized square of pine. He sat for a long time, shaving off little bits of wood, being careful not to gouge, rubbing at the rough spots with a little bit of sandpaper he'd found on the shelf. He used the tip of the knife to carve feathers. Digging in, he fashioned small eyes. He would stain them black. A sharp little beak, thin legs that would support the orange breast that he'd color with clay. Wings stretched in take off, wings that looked as if the wind were up under them. Chicory. He would boil chicory root, use it to color the wings.
As sunset seeped into the shed, he sat the robin on the ground between his outstretched feet. Melted colors of skin and sky crept across the dirt floor, caught the robin in their light. For just a moment, it looked almost alive.
Isaac inhaled the smells of potato pone and fried mullet as he stepped into the kitchen. Dinner was on the table. The kitchen fire crackled like everything was right in the world; dish rag hung over the pan drying, skillets and iron pots the shelf. Addle, nowhere in sight. Crossing the hall, he headed up the stairs, stopped in the doorway of their bedroom.
Addie was shoving dresses and petticoats into her battered carpet bag. Isaac crossed the room to sit on the maple bed, placed the robin on the night table. For a while, he said nothing, just fingered the hem of a dress that was the color of the chocolate drops he sometimes bought her in the Mercantile, watched Addie move between the bed and the bureau, emptying drawers, filling her suitcase.
Isaac closed his fist around a handful of the dress. "When I heard tell one of my younguns been born I'd go. Slip away soon as night fall. Barely have time to hold the baby 'fore time to head back. There was a little girl, and two little boys I seen like that."
He cleared his throat and let the dress slip from his hand. "But there was one, Addle, one boy I seen 'bout every month till he was near three years old. We called him Malik. Clara, his ma, she said it mean king. Marse Eric, man what owned 'em, he called him Pete. They lived 'bout twenty miles away from Marse John's farm, up the other side of Finely's Ridge. I slipped out to see 'em one night, and when I gets there, he just squallin. Clara was sittin on the edge of her cot, and she rockin him, and cryin too. Come to find out she been in the fields all day, and come knock-off time her Missy set her to makin candles. Clara fell asleep while the tallow was heatin, and the baby had pulled it down on his chest."
Addie sat down in the rocking chair near the fireplace. Isaac fastened his gaze on the tin bathtub that stood propped in the corner. "I stayed just as long as I could, cleanin the baby's burns, helpin Clara make more tallow, and them candles, so Missy won't whip her come mornin. When I sets off to go back, I was mighty late, rushin and tired. Won't as careful as I shoulda been. Moon glossed off them 'bacca leaves, lit everything up like daylight. The pattyrollers catched me up near the Ridge." Isaac laughed, a hard sound with no smile in it.
"When I woke up three days later, the Mammy what was tendin me said Marse John had got Marse Eric to sell Clara and Malik. Sold 'em to a slave trader headed for Kentucky. After that I ain't seen no reason to try and know none of my younguns. Just won't no sense in it." He looked at the robin. "I cared, Addie. Cared bout them younguns, what come of 'em."
Isaac met Addie's tearful gaze. "After they was sold, I couldn't do it no more. One night, Marse brung a girl, I swear she won't no more than thirteen . . ."
"Before that night, I ain't never knowed that Marse had blue eyes. Hadn't never looked him in his face before. But I looked at that girl, standin there all scared and hunched over. Thought about Clara and Malik. Thought about all them other younguns that I just won't never gone see. I said no. Kept on sayin it, even when they was shovin my head between them posts, latchin up my hands. I had decided. If I couldn't be no father, least I was gone be a man."
Addie moved from the rocking chair and sat beside Isaac. "You always been a man, Isaac. A good man. Them things you done, that was done to you, you couldn't help. Now it's time to be a father, be my husband."
Isaac touched their broad noses together. He eased apart the buttons at the throat of her dress. The rustle of her dress and the husk of overalls pushed the quiet from the room. Isaac's woolen work shirt swished against the molasses-colored floor, as their weight dipped the feather mattress. And Addie's hands. They kneaded the puckered skin of Isaac's back. Traced healed welts that raised and crisscrossed until they were woven into the man. She patterned his lips with her tongue, and entwined her fingers in the nappy tangle of his hair. Joined together, they were gentle hands and soft breasts, tangled legs and sweat, smelled of soap, sun-colored leaves, and black earth.
And later, when they lay in soft darkness, face to face, their hands joined between them, Isaac asked, "Was you really gone leave me?"
Addle laughed her fullest laugh, then answered, "Where in the world I'ma go where I won't love you still?"
Letting go of one of his hands, she traced the curve of his cheek, then asked, "We gone be alright? If I'm pregnant, we gone be alright?"
"I don't know. But cain't nothin good come of us being apart. Only happiness I got, you give to me."
"You hope I ain't pregnant?"
He shifted against the pillows, settled her across his chest. "Know what I hope? I hope you right. Hope there is such things as lettin go, leavin behind, makin peace." Her arm tightened around him. "There is, Isaac. There is."
Princess J. L. Perry is an M.F.A. student, fiction emphasis, at Old Dominion University.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Author:||Perry, Princess J.L.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
|Previous Article:||"Kin' o'rough jestice fer a parson": Pauline Hopkins's 'Winona' and the politics of reconstructing history.|
|Next Article:||Enacting difference: Marita Bonner's 'Purple Flower' and the ambiguities of race.|
|The Wind Done Gone.|
|Don't fall for phony headlines.|
|The Red Bra. (Short Story).|
|Short stories for long moments of peace.|
|Short stories for long moments of peace.|
|The creative writer and peace.|