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In a rich and compelling recreation of the black experience in the South, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Keepers of the House, two extraordinary, enterprising women make places for themselves in the world--and make themselves into people to remember.
This is what she knew.
Light and dark. Long nights and short ones. Long days and short. Rain, soft and fine, brushing your cheek like fog. Rain, hard, riding the wind, running you down with its weight. Round hot summer suns and thin yellow winter ones. Sweat and shiver and the mildew-smelling insides of haystacks, warmed by decay.
The pitch of the land beneath her feet, steep or flat, up or down. Stretching, reaching. Slopes and gullies. Always. Endless.
She knew the surface of the earth. Head down, hour after hour, she studied it as she walked. She knew all its forms: dry and blowing with each of her steps; wet and oozing through her toes with a sucking sound. And the grains of the earth: sand fine as sugar; soil black and oily. And rocks, all kinds of rocks, some small as mockingbirds' eggs, some speckled like thrush eggs, others with tiny flecks of mica shining in the sun. Rounded edge and knife edge.
Also she knew in passing: dry wispy tufts of animal fur. Scattered bones of rabbits. The small white shape of a squirrel's skull. Dead birds, feathers flattened and smeared by rain. Clumps of brown grass, with stumpy stiff seed heads, rooted in stiff red clay. Clumps of green grass on the bottom of streams, current streaked across the gravel beds. Low creeping meadow grasses with flowers of pink and white and bright red berries.
She knew fear in the snapping of branches and the thudding of boots on leaf mold. She knew how to run in darting zigzag rushes, how to find cover in thin flickering shadows. How to go to ground like a fox, frozen, immobile, not even eyes moving. She knew the unbelievable joy of escape when her whole body shivered with spasms of delight.
But especially she knew wonders.
She had seen them, all of them. The signs and ghosts and marvels.
A jacaquaré, an alligator, crawled out of the scum-coated swamp and stood upright on the bank—tall as a man, straight up, balanced by its tail, scales shiny and dripping—and fixed bright yellow eyes on her. At full moon a hoop snake held tail in mouth and rolled down a white shell road, singing loudly—a special song, high and shrill, like wind around fence posts and barbed wire. A rooster, ash gray and ten feet tall, perched on the very top of a white oak tree and crowed like thunder. Round green formless lights chittered like squirrels as they played tag across the sky. She had seen them, all of them.
She knew the ways of a campfire at night, how it grew and gained strength, baby into man, as it moved from dry grass to twigs to kindling sticks to logs. She heard fire's voice and she saw into its world, into the heart of the burning.
She knew that safety was with others, around a fire, packed close together, partly for warmth, partly for the comfort that huddling and the feel of another body gave.
These were things that she herself knew, the fruits of her few years on the earth.
She knew other things also, things beyond the short reach of her memory. Things that her sister Sylvie told her.
"We call you Baby," Sylvie said, "but Mama gave you a true name, a secret name, she whispered it in your ear the day you was born."
Baby nodded seriously. She liked Sylvie's stories, which were always about the family they had once been.
They were six children and a mother and a father and they all lived in a house with their grandparents. The house had four pecan trees in the yard, and every fall they gathered the nuts and shelled them, all the children together, evenings, sitting on the floor, in a circle around the kerosene lamp. Their grandfather worked as a porter at the feed store until he was run over and killed one night by a bootlegger's car that was driving fast without lights. The very next day that bootlegger sent their grandmother a hundred dollars and four bottles of likker so that their grandfather had a proper funeral. A year or so after that their father, whose name was Joshua, took up with another woman. When she cheated on him, he strangled her in her bed and then ran off, leaving behind his wife, whose name was Lannie, and his six children. He promised to send back for them all, but they only heard from him once—a postcard from Mobile, without an address. Baby was born just about then. Lannie named her secret name into her ear, nursed her for six months, and then one day she packed all her things in a croaker sack, walked out, and disappeared. Sometime after that, they all caught the summer fever and the grandmother died.
The six children were left in the house with the yard and the pecan trees. They sold the pig and the chickens, they sold the beds and the chests and the chairs and the enamel-topped table and the washtubs and scalding tubs and the jelly pan and the woodstove and the kerosene lamp. They sold the doors and the glazed windows to Amos Hartley, who lived just down the road. He needed a woman too, so the oldest girl, whose name was Corey, decided to move in with him.
The five of them started out: two boys, Buster and Joseph. And three girls: Sylvie, Delia, and Baby. They went first to their father's brother, who sharecropped near Johnson Springs. They stayed there for over a year, keeping out of the way, quiet, shy, eating whatever was left. Buster took up with the old woman who owned the sweet shop. Delia fell into a rain barrel and drowned. No one heard her—she didn't make a sound, didn't cry out, she was that afraid.
Sylvie and Joseph and Baby left without saying goodbye to their kin. They had decided to go to their Aunt Rosie in Greenville. It was two long days walking. They took turns carrying Baby on their shoulders.
Greenville was the biggest town they'd ever seen, and they were bewildered and lost for almost a whole day in the unfamiliar crowded streets. Sylvie remembered the address, and they just kept asking until they found the house.
Rosie recognized them the minute they turned the corner—they seemed to be wading through the heat which shimmered and danced in the air like a living thing. She was sitting on the front steps; her husband was sleeping in a rocking chair on the porch; her two children were playing jacks in the shade by the side of the house. She waved them to come on.
Rosie and her husband, whose name was Vernon, lived in a house with two bedrooms and an inside bath, the first the children had seen. The kitchen stove was kerosene, and an iceman came twice a week to slide a chunk of ice into the top of the icebox. Vernon was a stevedore on the river docks and made good money when he wasn't on strike. Rosie cooked for an Italian family across town. She worked six days a week and always came home with her shopping bag filled with food for their supper. She said, "This is Italian food and it is too good to waste." But her husband never even tasted it. He ate meat and potatoes and potgreens and most evenings he sent the children to buy ice cream for everybody. He wore a truss and his belly gurgled when he poked at it. Each evening he stretched out flat on his bed and pushed the lump back inside his body while the children stood around watching.
One day two policemen came looking for him. Rosie told them the truth, that he had gone to work that morning and she hadn't seen him since.
"He ain't coming back here," one policeman said to the other.
Rosie screamed and kicked and cried facedown in her bed, but then she got up and went to work, leaving the five children to watch her go in silence.
At the end of that month they didn't have the rent money, so they moved across town to live with the Italian family, in a small house at the back of their property. Sylvie and Joseph and Rosie's two children went to school. Because the black grade school was a long way off, and because there wasn't any money for carfare, they left very early in the morning. After school they played on the swings until the custodian ran them off, so they never got home until long after dark. Baby, who was too young for school, stayed by herself, digging small holes in the soft ground next to the steps (splintery and rotten wood), singing quiet wordless songs to herself.
So Sylvie said. And her stories went on....
It was a fine happy time, the two years they spent with the Italian family. The best they'd ever had. The house was crowded, there was only one bed, they made pallets on the floor, but there was plenty to eat and they liked school and the company of other children, they were doing well at their books and their numbers.
The Italian man died, tumbled from his chair one night at dinner. His widow moved away to her family in Chicago.
Aunt Rosie said they were all going to Atlanta. She had a cousin there who worked as a Pullman porter, and he would take them in.
It was farther than she thought. Her money ran out and she had a hard time feeding the six of them, but they kept going, heading toward Atlanta. She was a pretty woman, and she had no trouble hitchhiking, even with five children along. On one of those rides, Joseph and Sylvie had to go into the woods. They'd been chewing peppergrass, and it gave them the trots. When they came out, they saw that Rosie and her children hadn't waited for them. The truck was gone. They could see it in the distance, appearing and reappearing, up and down the rolling road, getting smaller and smaller until it finally vanished into the black heat haze at the horizon. Their bundles were at the side of the road. Baby was standing next to them.
The three of them sat on the ground, silently. The white shell dust stirred by the truck's passing sifted gently back down through the still air. Finally they picked up the bundles and began walking. They weren't following their Aunt Rosie; they only walked that way because they could think of no other direction to go.
So the three of them lived, and travelled, according to the season. Baby grew older and became aware that she breathed and was alive on the earth.
She learned to count time: by intervals of light and dark; by intervals of movement along roads, across plowed fields; by intervals of weather, of rain and wind and thunder, of frost and cold.
That was the way she reckoned. Not by days, nor hours. Time did not lead one day to the next. Her days were like a hoard of bright-colored beads, their connecting thread broken, lying loose, single, jumbled.
She grew still older. And she learned how to live.
She learned to stand at the edge of the road and beg passing cars for a lift. They didn't get picked up very often, though people often slowed down to look at them carefully. Once they got a ride in a surveyor's van. "You all stink something awful," the white man said. "Get way off in the back and keep that door open." He took a long gulp from the quart jar on the seat next to him, coughed, screwed the cover back on. "You hear me. Hold that door open." The gears caught and grated every time he shifted, but he did not seem to notice. He drove with his elbows and played the Jew's harp and every now and then sang at the top of his voice: "Hang down your head, you're bound to die." And tears ran down his cheeks.
He finally fell asleep, head on the wheel. The car slowed, lurched, stalled, and finally drifted off the road to stop with a gentle thump against a small pine tree. Sylvie ran her thin fingers through his pockets: money, four dollars, neatly folded in a square; a pocket knife, a plug of tobacco, a pair of glasses in a snap case. (They each tried on the glasses, then left them lying on the seat.) Joseph found an ivory-handled knife in a leather sheath. Baby pulled a monkey wrench and a tire iron from under the seat. In the back of the van there were two pairs of rubber boots, a green raincoat, a jar of strawberry jam, a loaf of bread, two screwdrivers, and a chisel. They took everything, including the jar of whiskey and the Jew's harp. They ate the bread and jam, found the boots too big to walk in, tasted the whiskey, grew tired of carrying the heavy tools, and left everything in a heap.
Now and then they'd see a sign that said MOBILE, and they would remember that their father once sent a postcard from there, and they would follow whatever direction the arrow pointed. For a while.
One early spring day, air fresh and bright with green new growth, they walked through a little wood of oak and hickory; they were looking for a honey tree and turning over fallen logs for the fun of seeing what was under them. When they came to a wagon road—two tracks through the grass, deep rutted—they followed it over a little rise of ground to a gate and a pasture. There was a coat hanging on the gatepost, below it a tin lunch box and a thermos jug. Sylvie picked up Baby and hurried back the way they had come. Joseph waited, listening, his head twisting side to side like a bird's. Nothing. He put on the coat, grabbed the lunch box and thermos, and ran back into the cover of the woods. They ate the sandwiches, one was fried egg and one bacon dripping, and drank the sweet milky coffee. They threw the empty lunch box and the coat into a brushy ravine. Joseph kept the thermos, for a few days, until the liner shattered. He shook out the wedge-shaped pieces of silver glass, and the three of them pushed them about with their fingers, making patterns in the gravelly red dust.
Food did not often come so easily. Some days they saw nothing to steal. Baby learned to make rabbit snares, the braided grass loops curled around her fingers so delicately.
Joseph laughed at her skill. He hunted with his knife, struck as silently as any owl. He'd wait, endlessly patient, unmoving, hardly blinking, until a rabbit edged into the open, twitched its ears and nose, and lowered its head to the grass. With a motion so small that the air barely stirred, Joseph threw his knife, and the rabbit was dead.
He had half a dozen other knives in the baggy pockets of his clothes, he'd stolen them one place or the other—clasp knives and switchblades, pig-sticking knives and sheath knives—but that throwing knife was his favorite. He kept it wrapped in a piece of cloth inside his shirt and practiced with it hour after hour, every single day.
He whittled too. He'd take out his clasp knife, test the blade against his thumb, then curl up his legs and lean back, whistling. He whittled faces and animals, sometimes from small pieces of wood, sometimes from peach and plum pits, and traded them as charms to the children they met at the summer gatherings.
Baby remembered those times—no need for Sylvie to tell her stories. She remembered the short summer nights, a dozen, two dozen children sitting in silent circles, firelight washing their faces like a yellow river as they rocked back and forth, slightly, lightly, half dozing like cats watching each other.
Fire was the world. Its yellow light burned through Baby's days shaping and forming them. Children came and went constantly, appearing, vanishing. The center fire stayed the same, the large dancing fire of summer, fed with branches and bushes and fence posts.
Fire was their keeper and their enemy. Their life and their destroyer. Sometimes Baby picked up a little burning twig and sang to the nubs of fire gathered along its length, a wordless humming song of praise and love.
Fire pushed away the darkness and left them safe within the round cave of light. Fire showed faces, companions for as long as the glow lasted. When a fire went out, when a sudden burst of rain turned it into sizzling small plumes of gray smoke, they were all frightened, and they scrambled into their shelters of brush and canvas. The night smothered them, sucked their breath, as a black cat would. Times like this Baby hid behind her eyelids like drawn curtains, envisioning fire, tremendous fire, so that the inside of her head blazed with light and she was safe within its sphere.
As soon as the rain stopped, they hurried to build the fire again, to make it even brighter.
During the large gatherings, there were often shouts and curses and shoving and fighting and sudden blood on rock or knife.
And there was sickness: red crusty spots of measles and chicken pox, coughing and retching and gasping for breath. Bones grown crooked after a fall. Sores on elbows and lips that would not heal.
Like darkness, sickness frightened them all. There'd been one boy, ten or twelve: thin face, heavy lips, and hooded sleepy eyes. Dirt-stiffened overalls stood out around him like a barrel. His black skin had a shiny polished quality, as if there were a greasy stuffing inside it. When the group moved, he could never keep up but straggled along behind, coming in long after everyone else had settled down in their places. He had a friend, a bigger boy, who brought him food, but he took very little except water. He was always thirsty. Once he drank so long at a creek that he lost his balance and pitched in headfirst. He seemed not to remember how to get up but lay facedown, creek water running across the back of his neck. His friend pulled him out and shook him until he sputtered and strangled and began breathing again.
Excerpted from Roadwalkers by Shirley Ann Grau. Copyright © 1994 Shirley Ann Grau. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 2, 2005
The luminous prose of Pulitzer Prize winning Shirley Ann Grau is enchanting to read. In this, her sixth novel, she brings each scene to vivid life with her prodigious gifts of narrative description. Six young black children are left homeless after their parents abandon them during the Depression. They become transients, 'roadwalkers' or, as some call them 'frog spawn,' trudging their way across the South. Before too long, Baby and her brother, Joseph, are the only ones left. They do whatever is necessary to survive until refuge is found in an old plantation. The landowner captures Baby and sends her to an orphanage, where she is given the name of Mary Woods. Some 40 years later, Nanda, Baby's daughter tells the story. Baby has become a seamstress and then a dress designer, thus providing an insulated, privileged existence for her daughter. It is only when Nanda integrates a white Catholic school in the East that she finds herself an outcast in an unfriendly world. 'Roadwalkers' is not only the story of the black experience in the South, it is an account of adjustment, acceptance, and survival. - Gail Cooke
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