The moments of lucidity were rarer and rarer, but when they came, he regaled me with tales of swallowed teeth, basement brawls, and AIDS tests administered at midnight in ramshackle midtown health... [+]
Ain’t no such word as “slomp” Jessey had scolded me just yesterday. But a crawdad pokin’ outta the deep mud ditch alongside the river always made kind of a slomp sound to my ears. That’s how you knew it was exactly the right time to scoop your butterfly net down real quick an’ haul yourself up a good meal. Then you’d run home with your thatched willow bark basket slung over your shoulder full to the brim with squirmin’ crawdads ready to throw into that huge boilin’ pot of water hitched over the flames.
But tonight in my willow basket there were no crawdads headin’ home for a boil as my bare feet squished quietly through that ditch. Nestled deep in the basket was my baby sister, just newly born a few hours ago. Mama had been smoothin’ out the wrinkles while peggin’ Miz Chesterton’s favorite lacey pantalettes on the line when her pains had slammed up so hard she’d doubled over, vomitin’ bad, an’ fallen to the ground. She’d been ill with the fever, hadn’ been able to eat now for days. Josefina an’ Octavie had grabbed her, beggin’ her to stay shushed, her legs scarcely able to walk as they shuffled her along the well-worn path down to the cabins.
“Don’ tell ‘im,” whispered Mama, pantin’, as the two women dragged her over the rough stoop into our squalid cabin. “If it a girl agin, don’ tell ‘im she’s here. Please! Tell ‘im she dead agin, like I tol’ ‘im ‘bout the others! You know he sellin’ them little girls out tuh dat bawdy house or worse!” I trailed behind, watchin’ a trickle of blood move down Mama’s leg an’ drip onto the packed dirt floor as they carefully stretched Mama out on her filthy straw pallet.
Him was Mister Chesterton. That much I knew. He’d come ragin’ down from the big house into our cabin like an angry bull night after night, throwin’ me out the door then set on mama. She’d shriek sometimes he was so rough with her, end up with black bruised eyes or a bloody nose as she silently attended to her chores the next day. Then them real light babies would come, one after another, with yellow brown curls an’ blue eyes. Same as this one in my willow basket right now. They’d been girls every time. Mama had always told ‘im them babies was born dead. Showed him a pile of fleshy pig bones. That man would never know the difference, she’d shrug. But my father certainly would’ve known, she’d grin, touslin’ up my thick black hair. He’d been proud to see how smart an’ strong a boy I turned out though I was only nine, Mama said. Both Mama an’ I knew that we’d never see him again though. He’d been sold away just after I was born. An’ more’n likely he was dead takin’ part in that uprisin’ down river several months after.
Mama was delirious with the fever after the baby had come, cryin’ out words that made no real sense. After she’d had them other babies I knew she hadn’ been bleedin’ like this either. Octavie brought over every rag she could collect from the other women, but still the blood just wouldn’ stop. She was gettin’ weaker an’ weaker, scarce breathin’. “Chil’,” Octavie had said quietly to me, her arm aroun’ my shoulders, “ain’ no way she gonna throw off this fever.” She told me how to help the baby nurse, get somethin’ into her. I gently curled the baby around Mama’s breast, movin’ her tiny pink mouth into place whenever she failed to grasp. Her pale little hands were shakin’, clenched so tight into fists, determined to survive.
I’d gone with Mama when we’d taken them other babies to that river house. I knew the way. I also knew I’d have to take this baby tonight before Mister Chesterton came down after his dinner guests’ carriages had departed. Mama wouldn’ be able to produce for him a blanket of fleshy pig bones this time an’ the other women would be too afraid to do it themselves. And so we had begun this journey just as the first stars had appeared over the darkenin’ fields, walkin’ along to the occasional screech of an owl flappin’ over or a big-throated bullfrog’s bellowin’ down in the mud ditch.
The swamp miasma was so thick it was chokin’ me when we got to the narrow bend in the river where I was to cross over. The river was high, the current slappin’ over my waist at times. The baby’d cried out twice when that cold water had swamped up over her but quieted within a few moments. After another mile or so I could see that old river house mostly hidden back in the shadows, the jagged chimney kinda twisted over like always. Just past the chicken coop I looked up at the small birdhouse nailed to a tangly old swamp oak. A scrap of yellow rag had always been tied aroun’ the slender perch pokin’ out from the birdhouse. Mama’d said that yellow rag showed it was safe to go up to the house. If there was a red rag it meant to stay away. There’d always been a yellow rag whenever we’d come. But tonight there was no rag at all.
I huddled down in the thick bushes by the river watchin’ the dark house. It’d been almost a year since our last journey here. Could these people’ve moved away? Or maybe got caught? Were they no longer usin’ the rag as a sign? The most important thing Mama had always stressed was that we didn’ let no one follow us to or from the river house. If we failed, we failed, but we had to do our best so’s others comin’ along after us would still have a chance.
I listened closely but heard only a faint chirpin’ of crickets, the only light a flickerin’ of greenish lookin’ fireflies. I walked up to the door as Mama had always done an’ knocked quickly four times. Then I carefully placed my sister, sleepin’ peacefully in that willow basket, into the large battered up washtub near the door. I stole back into the bushes again, watchin’. I swallowed. Sweat snaked down my back. I thought I saw one of the curtains at the front window flutterin’ slightly, but I wasn’ too certain. Finally the door opened very slowly. A small woman holdin’ a spirit lamp emerged, glanced quickly towards the bushes, then picked up the willow basket, disappeared back into the house, an’ bolted shut the door.
I eased my way down along the bushes towards the river an’ followed it back towards the narrow bend. Crossin’ over was more difficult since the current was now movin’ along real strong, fillin’ my mouth with water, makin’ me cough. When I finally got to the other side I heard ‘em. Dogs. Still in the distance yet, but gettin’ closer an’ closer. On my scent I was certain. Mama’s calm voice came over me. If we fail, we fail, but we have to do our best so’s others comin’ along after us still has a chance.
Back into the mud ditch I continued steadily movin’ towards them, towards the dogs, away from the river house. So others comin’ along after me still had a chance. My feet made their slomp, slomp, slomp sounds occasionally feelin’ them crawdads’ sharp claws squishin’ up between my toes. By the time Mister Chesterton would’ve caught up to his dogs tonight, I knew them dogs would’ve already torn me into fleshy pig bones. But he wouldn’ have no idea the baby’d escaped. Or that now we was all free.