Except that she’s not.
I bend down by the bare foot I can see sticking out from underneath her carefully made bed.
“Minnie, you drop something?” I tap ever so gently on the ashy grey of her callused foot. “Come on now, we got to go.”
The foot pushes out, becomes a knobby knee as Minnie slides herself to the edge of underneath, so that she can see me and I can see her.
“Girl, you need to get under here with me.”
She snakes a hand out to me and I grab onto it before it disappears, remembering the whispers about her and how she should be moved to the crazy people building. I don’t think she’s crazy, just scared, so I keep a hold of that hand and stare straight into those wide white eyes of hers.
“Minnie, you need to come now. Father Jim’s waiting.” I give a little pull on that hand I’m holding and she slides the rest of the way out, light like a sheet sliding off the clothesline.
“I don’t want to die.”
Minnie’s staring at me with those eyes of hers and crumpling up the hem of her housecoat with the brown bony fingers of both her hands. She follows me as far as the doorway and stops, her eyes searching for something or someone over at the pavilion. It’s hard to see over there, so many people are congregating around, both underneath the tin roof and underneath the late afternoon Guyanese sun.
“It’s time, Minnie....” I softly pry her hand off the wood door frame so we can start walking. She grabs ahold of me instead. Her fingers pale up, her grip surprisingly strong for an old woman.
“I saw your momma walk over to the medical.”
Minnie catches me with those words. My mother’s a nurse, became one through the generosity of the Peoples Temple and Father Jim, some years back. Since Jonestown, she’s become caretaker of all medical supplies and holds the keys to one of the two places we keep locked. The first being the supply building, where her keys keep the drugs safe from those who quit them not that long ago, and the second is Father Jim’s office, with the ham radio. The only communication with the outside world, and with our people in Guyana’s capital of Georgetown, spills through that handset.
“Come on now, Minnie.” I shake off her words like a puppy coming in from the rain. “You know she was just getting Father Jim’s medicine, right?” We’ve all watched my mother hand him a pill and a cup. Lately though, it’s been needles and a pushed-up sleeve on the sly.
Minnie releases her fingers from my arm and turns those wide white eyes my way. “I don’t know nothing anymore.”
From the corner of my eye I catch sight of Thaddeus and Billy, two members of the Jonestown security team. They’re still carrying those rifles, even though the congressman and his defectors are gone. Except they’re not looking out toward the jungle, waiting for the CIA attack Father Jim said will follow the congressman’s leaving. Instead, they’re walking with purpose, fast and strong, in and out of each cottage. They’re rounding up stragglers and pushing them toward the pavilion, no sign of a smile on either of their faces.
“You hear what he’s saying, girl?”
I’ve prodded Minnie along as far as the boardwalk, those bare feet of hers picking their way across the worn-smooth boards from trees we cut ourselves. I can feel the hum of Father Jim’s words, that continuous flow I’ve shut my mind to most times, so I miss whatever Minnie’s heard.
Her feet shuffle along, slow, like they’re tired. This time she doesn’t bother looking at me.
“He’s calling for the babies.”
That stops me. I open my ears to take in the words crackling over the wet-feeling air.
“Bring them up. Bring up the babies first, mommas.”
Our heads jerk to the right in time to catch sight of a single-file line of small fluffy heads, some sunshiny yellow and others glossy black, and still others that hopeful combination of both. The reason we all came to Guyana and Jonestown—freedom.
From that same right side moves Thaddeus, heading our way and walking fast. That’s also when I see Randy, in my own mother’s arms, at the end of that long row of children. My baby brother, born here not long ago. The most beautiful soft caramel color skin, hair, and eyes, all the same shade of sweet.
“Save yourself,” Minnie whispers hot and strong right in my ear, just as the first wave of crying makes its way to us. High-pitched screams of those babies in line. I’ve lost sight of baby Randy and even though we’re still a ways off I can taste the fear of those children, raw and real. Father Jim’s voice increases in pitch, trying hard to rise above the wave of crying.
“Tell them it’s not going to hurt. Not at all.”
The he loses the smooth altogether.
“Get the mommas to hold them, and do them next.”
“If it’s the end, so be it.” I pull Minnie forward with no thoughts in my head. Thaddeus slings his rifle to one side, points the tip away from Minnie and grabs her by her other arm as her legs go soft. He’s here now, strong and capable, could pick her bundle of bones up and carry them if he had to.
Minnie looks up at Thaddeus’ sharp tanned face, gives him that grandmother look that defies disagreement. “I need my shoes.”
I glance down at her dusty toes, aware she loves her bare feet, here where it’s always warm.
“Girl, go get my shoes. They deep under my bed. Then find me in line and give ‘em to me.” Minnie says all this as she starts again that slow walk to the pavilion. “Want my shoes on at the end.”
Thaddeus knocks his head back toward Minnie’s cabin and without meeting her eyes I turn away, my feet slapping down on the boards as I make a quick run of it back for those shoes. Shoes Minnie has not ever, even once, worn since she arrived at Jonestown.
People must get a little bit crazed at the end, is what I’m thinking as I reach around underneath her cot for her shoes. Minnie’s forgot those shoes won’t fit over her egg-sized bunions. I grab a hold of the shoelaces tied together and pull them on out.
I’m stopped at that same doorway, watching the backs of Minnie and Thaddeus, almost at the pavilion, when I shake those shoes. Feel a rattle, like something loose inside.
It’s a knife.
Slim black handle, sharp enough to cut kitchen vegetables where Millie works on the off day. Hidden away, stolen, waiting.
Waiting for me.
Minnie got Thaddeus to walk her up to the pavilion. To get in line to drink the punch and lay her life down for something she stopped believing in. All so she could save me.
I see that now.
I rub quick at my ear, wiping off the rest of Minnie’s spit but those two words won’t leave me.
I’m holding shoes that wouldn’t fit her, with a knife she tucked away for her own self. I pulled her out of her safe hiding spot, made her walk, and still she wants to save me.
Minnie and Thaddeus are at the edge now, close to the lines of adults that are starting to form. In a minute he’ll turn back, remembering that he’s left the back gate unguarded.
With the sounds of those babies forever burned into my mind, and the sight of Minnie burned into my soul, I run.
I run toward the back gate, shoes in one hand and knife in the other.
Time to let thoughts in later.
Right now, I run.