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By R. J. King
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 R. J. King
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMatlin, Mississippi 2010
Up highway eighteen, then turn right on Sugar Hill. The area hadn't changed much. Magnolia trees with huge white flowers lined the road. Even the burned out juke joint—called by the same name—was still there. At the beginning of a long driveway, a sign read: Claremont Community Center. To the right of the sign behind two small white columns stood a one story building made of deep red brick with green shutters bordering all the windows—a wrought iron fence circling the entire place making the place look warm and inviting.
Inside down the hall on the left pass the nurses' station, was room 22 the numbers on the door were made of brass, bronze nails held them there like two tiny eyes peering into the hallway. Like the numbers, everything on the other side of the door was in pairs; two beds, two bureaus, two nightstands,—both made out of fabricated wood, two wheel chairs and two call buttons, but only one occupant, occupied the eight by ten room.
Teresa Monroe sighed, she felt like a prisoner as she sat in her wheelchair staring at the sterile walls. There were no pictures on the walls because she had hoped that one day she would be able to leave but her knees frozen from the rheumatism invading her body like a parasite told her different. She shifted as the pain came. Sighing again, her gaze taking in the room she had come to know well, living in such a small space suddenly made her think of a quote she had heard a long time ago. "I am the master of my fate I am the captain of my soul." Teresa smiled. "Whoever said that didn't have to live here."
It was 2010, ten years into the new millennium, ten years, and Teresa was still alive. Born in 1915, Teresa was the oldest and the last of twelve, all girls. Rubbing her knees as she leaned forward trying to get comfortable she tilted her head as if listening to the past. She could almost hear the growing frustration of her papa as he watched yet another girl scream into the world. She felt sorry for him back then because she saw both joy and disappointment knit his brow. She chuckled to herself remembering all the trouble the twelve of them got into when they were together. All born two years apart; how her mother timed it she would never know. When Teresa and her sisters walked down the street on Friday nights, people would stare and whisper, "Here come those Monroe girls." Their faces, high yellow, caramel, deep chocolate—a rainbow of a different color; earth tones against a cloudless sky. They were close, a closeness which gave them strength. After all it was the early 1900's. A time when being colored and being raised in the South meant you were disposable.
Falling like leaves in autumn, one by one Teresa watched those same sisters pass this life. In 1986 when her youngest sister Sarah died at fifty two from acute asthma she was devastated but she barely had time to grieve because two other sisters died the following year, one of a heart attack and the other from ovarian cancer. There was something to be said about everything happing in threes. And just this past Thanksgiving, her sister Belinda left this world leaving Teresa alone. Teresa had outlived them all. As she sat there, waiting for her chance at heaven, because all she could do was to wait, she pictured all eleven sisters perched on the fence of the pearly gates wondering why heaven didn't have a juke joint that sold moonshine. She laughed despite the tears that fell down her cheeks. She missed them so much. Teresa shook her head. She should be the one turning in her grave, many times over.
By the time Teresa's sister Sarah was born, Teresa had become a fully-fledged midwife at the age of fifteen. Back then 15 was not considered young most people were married and some even had children. You didn't need some kind of fancy license to practice like women need today. You just needed the skills and the love to do what Teresa had done for almost seventy years in Matlin, a rural community along the Mississippi River where Teresa had lived all her life. Also back then there were no doctors for colored folks. A midwife was all they had.
Being a midwife ensured Teresa that she would always be busy. Colored folks knew how to have babies and babies they had as her mother could attest to. Teresa had only stopped long enough to get married and soon after to become a mother. Surprisingly Teresa had only one child, Michaela. When Michaela came Teresa thought she had everything, a job she loved and a daughter she loved beyond measure. That is until her only child had two girls of her own. When her granddaughters came into the world, Teresa knew she had been blessed.
Teresa looked down at her hands, calloused now, and rubbed them as the memories kept coming. She had begun as a midwife's assistant traveling around the countryside along with two other midwives, Meira and Melana. Teresa had spent most of her life with those two old ladies. Both women had been in Matlin Mississippi for as long as Teresa could remember.
She hadn't thought about them in forever until several days ago. Teresa had begun to dream of yesterdays; memories once trapped now came unbidden, reminding her of what she was told all those years, what she needed to do. She was afraid at first which was a first for her, thinking it was all just a dream, but she knew better.
No one in Matlin knew what really transpired as she, Melana, and Meira did what was ordained. No one knew what the three midwives held. Something that had been locked in Teresa's subconscious until recently. Why had God spared her? It wasn't a question, not really, she knew the reason. Could she do it? Time was not her friend. Unconsciously touching her heart as if trying to erase something only visible to her, Teresa straightened her shoulders when she heard the knock at the door it begins. "Come in," she said.
Peeking around the door was her youngest granddaughter, Kayamia. Teresa shook her head. She still couldn't get over the names people gave their children these days. Everybody called her granddaughter Kay. At least it came off her tongue without causing Teresa to twist herself in a knot trying to remember the pronunciation.
* * *
As always Kay was astonished as she walked through the door. Her grandmother was beautiful. You had to look hard to find wrinkles in her face. Even after 96 years, time had not stamped those lines on Teresa. The long gray hair cascaded down her shoulders like a waterfall shadowed in moonlight with its brilliance. Kay was sure Miss Clairol had something to do with the way it looked, but to her knowledge she had never seen her grandmother's hair any different. Kay's mother told her once, "Mother would go to her grave with the secret." Although her grandmother could no longer get around without her wheelchair, she was very healthy. Kay hesitated when she saw the familiar melancholy look on her grandmother's face. The look told Kay that her grandmother had been thinking about her great aunts. But when she stepped all the way into the room, Kay was startled the look she saw now was one of urgency. "Hi, Granny," Kay said as she bent down to kiss the cheeks of her beloved. When she raised her head the look of urgency was still there. "Granny, what is it?"
When her grandmother didn't answer right away Kay got worried and started to say something but before she could she watched as Teresa reached into the drawer by her bed and to Kay's astonishment, pulled out a tape recorder. What was her grandmother up to now? Where could she have gotten a tape recorder? And from the looks of it, she knew exactly how to use it. Kay had never seen her grandmother with anything like that. Teresa didn't even like using the phone. She once told Kay that she was allergic to the stuff the world made. She never said manmade. She always said "world made" so how and why ..., as the question was beginning to form Teresa said, "I made this recording so I won't forget anything. I need you to listen closely." Teresa looked at Kay to make sure she was listening. Too shocked to say anything Kay nodded as she sat down in the chair facing her grandmother's wheel chair as Teresa played the tape.
The click that sounded the end of the tape was loud in the silence that had engulfed Kay as she listened. She was speechless. Her grandmother turned off the recorder, took out the tape and gave it to Kay to put in her jacket pocket. Kay realized the whole time she was listening; she hadn't bothered to take her jacket off. She started. "How am I supposed to understand what just happened?" Kay asked. She jumped up and started pacing she couldn't get very far in the small space. She stopped and looked at her grandmother as if seeing a stranger. "And all this time you kept this? What am I supposed to do with it?"
Unperturbed by her granddaughter's outburst, Teresa said "You'll know what to do. Why do you think I chose you? You're the strongest of my children. Now it's up to you." She didn't tell Kay that she herself had forgotten only to remember it recently in her dreams.
"And what is it you expect me to do?" Kay shook her head trying to understand. What she had heard was ... her grandmother was 96, maybe Teresa's mind was playing tricks ... no ... Kay knew better. "I can't promise ..." Her grandmother started to say something when Kay interrupted her, "Granny, you have to give me some time to absorb all of this." The anxious look Teresa gave Kay almost made her promise anything. Her grandmother was always there for everyone.
Teresa was the matriarch of the Monroe family and Kay didn't want to let her down but this was way too big. Right now all Kay wanted was to be as far away from the Community Center as she could get. "I have to go granny. I have to run another errand. Please I have to think about this before I can give you an answer." Kay bent over and kissed her grandmother again. Kay turned, opened the door leaving her grandmother staring at her back.
Teresa watched Kay leave. She wasn't surprised at all by Kay's reaction. If someone had told her these things, she would have reacted the same way. She was glad; however that Kay hadn't dismissed what she heard outright. Alone again in her room, Teresa buzzed the nurse so she could lie down. She was suddenly tried. Judging by Kay's response Teresa wondered if she had done the right thing but it was too late. Only fate could intercede. She only hoped what she told Kay would be enough to find them. As Teresa lay in her bed, she stared at the walls once more. It was time. As she drifted off to sleep the visions came, transporting her back to the time when her life changed forever.
Chapter TwoMatlin Mississippi 1931
Teresa held firm to the squirming baby as she washed the tiny body. After she wrapped the baby in a blanket she turned watching Melana and Meira. Teresa watched the two midwives closely, as she had done for the past year. She was always awed at how close the two women seemed, almost as if they were extensions of each other. When Melana started a sentence, Meira often finished. But how could that be? Melana and Meira were different not because they were midwives who practiced together. Midwives sometimes practiced together. What was unusual, in fact unheard of, was Melana was Negro and Meira was White and by the sound of Meira's voice she was not from Matlin or anywhere else in this country. How both of them ended up in Matlin Mississippi together was still a mystery.
Matlin rested along the shores of the Mississippi, population two thousand, if you counted the people who lived beyond the incorporated area. General Ulysses S. Grant was rumored to have called Matlin, "The town to beautiful to burn." Antebellum homes, once plantations, stood out as stark reminders of what Teresa's ancestors had endured. It was 1931 and Lincoln had long since signed the Emancipation Proclamation, almost seventy years ago. But here in the south it might as well have been 1831. Jim Crow was in its heyday and the Klan, or Night Riders as they were sometimes called, was terrorizing the countryside in Matlin as well as all over the south.
Because of this, Teresa was sure every person in town, including her, was wondering how it came to pass that no one tried to stop Meira and Melana, not even the Klan. She called Melana and Meira old, because they had been a part of the town for a long time, but in reality, she didn't think they were that old. They looked so young. Teresa believed they were both in their early forties. The two of them had delivered almost every Negro as far back as Teresa could remember. And Meira delivered both Negro and White, the poor ones that were isolated miles into the woods.
When Teresa decided she wanted to become a midwife, her mother had balked. "I don't know why with all the children I have. Besides I need you here."
Then twelve, Teresa stood in the door of their small house. "Mama, I want to be a midwife so I can help other people." Teresa's parents were sharecroppers so they didn't really own anything. Sharecropping was just one step up from slavery. Teresa wanted to do something besides picking cotton and cucumbers especially since it seemed like her parents would never be able to pay their debt. If she became a midwife maybe she could help them.
By Teresa's fifteenth birthday, she felt she was ready. She went to Melana and Meira. She knew they would teach her everything there was to know about being a midwife. Teresa remembered the day she asked permission to study with them. They had looked at her for what seemed like forever—to a fifteen year old at least, and then by some silent consent they told Teresa they would train her. She had prayed for this but she was still surprised how quickly they agreed. She remembered how they looked at her that day, like a puzzle piece was falling into place, the last piece that completed a picture. At the time, Teresa didn't know how foretelling her thoughts were.
Drawn from her thoughts, Teresa looked down at her "first catch." The little girl felt wonderful in her hands. She could feel the tiny heart beating, pumping life's blood to the heart. Every beat, every tiny breath washed over Teresa. The small face looked up at her. The wide smile, the eyes that looked like brown cinnamon were shining like topaz. She caught her breath when the baby blew tiny bubbles. It was this beauty of creation that Teresa wanted to always be a part of. She knew in that moment, this was what she was meant to do. She gave the baby to its mother and gathered her things.
Melana and Meira instructed the young mother on things she would need to do like how to put a small amount of camphor in a jar with warm water for colic, to also take a straw from a broom, breaking it in half, burning the tips and placing in the baby's head to make the hole in the top of the head close up. When they finished, they turned to Teresa and smiled. "You did well." Teresa was over the moon.
Curiously, Teresa had noticed as she watched the two women, not unlike tonight that every time a girl baby was born, Meira and Melana touched the babies and whispered some kind of strange words. Teresa didn't understand or know what the words meant, but she heard them. But like always she had put her curiosity in the back of mind to think about later. And tonight was a special night Teresa had gone from apprentice to midwife. Teresa would remember this moment for the rest of her life.
* * *
As the months past, Teresa didn't have time to think about what she saw or thought she heard because little by little Meira and Melana allowed Teresa to make decisions. Being a midwife was indeed a craft. Teresa couldn't be happier.
Later that year, however Teresa found herself in a situation that all midwives dreaded, a breeched birth. In that instant, Teresa understood being a midwife was more, so much more.
Chapter ThreeTeresa trembled as she reached inside the mother's womb to turn the infant around. She was so scared she wouldn't be able to do it. Melana and Meira watched her carefully ready to jump in at any time. They had to let Teresa attempt this. It was hard. If this situation came up again Teresa might be alone, so they needed to know if she could do it. Both looked on as if this was Teresa's biggest test. It was.
Sweating, hand deep inside the mother's womb, Teresa slowly turned the baby. She was mindful of the umbilical cord; she could feel it. She prayed that it was not wrapped around the baby's neck. If it was, she was in more trouble. As sweat poured down her forehead almost reaching her eyes Teresa gently turned the small body until the baby's head was pointing south. She asked the mother to push as she guided the baby into the light. Teresa looked into those beautiful eyes staring back at her. She could have sworn the little girl acted as if she knew her.
As usual Melana and Meira put away everything while talking to the mother. Teresa cleaned the infant and placed little girl on the mother's stomach. This was the best part. Being able to hand a mother her child, after all the hard work that both mother and midwife had to do, was worth it in the end. "You have the gift," said Meira as she touched the infant, "and I must say it was a bit of a miracle."
Excerpted from Moonshine by R. J. King Copyright © 2012 by R. J. King. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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