Warren County, North Carolina
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.
At first, the people did not believe; not when they were gathered together, the music of their whispered prayers, their plaintive sighs, silenced; hoes in hand, their faces expectant; their feet caked with the red mud of the field, the lush, May grass beneath them, they listened but did not hear the message, the messenger, through lies and deceit, having lost the faith of the congregants many decades ago. They could go, or they could stay--it was up to them entirely. The people stood stunned, the messenger thought, into a silence of incredulity and joy. But it was only the silence of disbelief, and the fear of deception kept their feet frozen to the grass. The fear of lashing and the loss of children, limbs, bound their feet to the muddy soil, and flattened the grass of a fine spring day, when freedom came four months late to taunt them, pitiless and unkind.
It was not until they were dismissed, by the nod of the messenger, his face crimson, his eyes afraid, that they turned en masse to return to the fields, the stables, the kitchens, and parlors of their labor. In these, their places, they resumed their work--the mindless, often backbreaking toil that blunted their senses and made possible the breaking of their spirits, that part of them which might have otherwise been free. They would not believe. They set their faces. They would not believe until God himself said it.
Sister, too, did not believe that she was free; not when she ventured alone, with caution, to the edge of the field, unsure whether she was seen, then wandered back to the high, dense tobacco field, feeling foolish and sweating, her heart beating wildly. She paused for a moment, her hoe in hand, and placed her free hand on her pounding chest. No one spoke to her. No lash came down on her back, the onerous heat her only oppressor, the silence of the people a void resounding. You may go, or you may stay. Sister would stay. She would wait until a sign came.
She had not thought of liberty. She had not thought of bondage. She had worked, her mind numb, not daring to confront the betrayal of a god who had enslaved. She had been offered this god. She had not received him. She did not think of him. But alone in her cabin, alone in a room filled with others--others numb to all things except the fear of an unknown almighty--she closed her eyes and allowed herself, briefly, to peer into heaven with anxious eyes, eyes fixed on the inner, the eyes of her heart, not her mind. Eyes that heard--freedom whispered. And in the field of her labor, freedom whispered. It did not shout. It did not come.
When freedom came, its name was Prince. On loan to a nearby farm, where he had sired a brood, he had not heard until his return. People saw him running, 'way out across the field. Some took off their hats and stopped to watch him, their hands shielding their eyes from the sun, from whence there came a more acceptable messenger, his shirt loose and flapping, his arms flailing.
He arrived to stand before them breathless, his eyes dancing, his face aglow. He smiled, displaying the empty spaces where there once resided three teeth kicked out by the boot of a Negro overseer; and God spoke in the voice of a fool.
"We free!" he shouted.
The people stood stunned in the silence of incredulity and joy.
"We free!" he repeated, and tilted his head in puzzlement at their silence. Sister set down her hoe. She leapt into his arms, her skirt entangling her legs. He spun her around, chanting. "We free! We is free!"
She lost her hat. Her knees were exposed. She did not care. Freedom had come.
They were married the next year, on an April day, beneath an elm. Sister wore a crown of hibiscus and juniper. A garland draped one shoulder and encircled her narrow waist. Barefoot in a gown made of bleached white sacks, she felt like royalty beside her Prince as they recited their vows in the setting sun, beneath the elm.
They came back to make love there when the guests had dispersed and the sky had grown dark and starry; and again on the night of their first anniversary, and the next year and the next.
Until the babies became children, and her life an uninterrupted blur of domesticity and toil. An overtime schedule of parenting and hard work made the frivolities of youth an indulgence she could no longer spare the time for, much less the energy. Besides, they had moved to town for a time, and the pebble-strewn dirt road to the elm made for an inhospitable journey. And so it was honey let's just do it in the yard it's more convenient; and then honey let's just do it on the floor; and then honey I'm tired let's just do it tomorrow; and finally, they did not do it at all or talk about doing it or, eventually, even think about it.
But when he was gone, she could think of little else: his hands his mouth his breath and his eyes, wide with wonder and excitement when he came.
Sometimes, she recalled the smell of hibiscus and juniper, on a dew-soaked April morning, beneath the elm.
And there lived in Sister the memory of things horrid to recall; things she had lived in her own time; things passed to her from her mother, and her mother, who had received them from hers. Sister chose not to recall. She would not cause her daughter to recall. They would be free of this memory, and pure. The former days were past, carefully interred, and securely, she thought; and all things had become new.
Lickskillet, Warren County, North Carolina
There had been a time when life was new, and love untried; when love, in fact, had filled these very rooms. That had been when she was young and thoughtless. She had assumed that things would always be this way. Never had it occurred to her that he was not "future-minded." The too lavish gifts during the early days of their marriage, she had accepted eagerly and with appreciation. He was a good man, hardworking and devoted. Maturity, purpose, and a vision for their future would come later. She had been sure of it, as she squeezed his large brown hand, dry even in the sweltering summer heat. She had envisioned growing old together.
But not so soon, and not like this. She could not recall just how or when the fabric of their well-woven love had become frayed at its edges, the delicate porcelain bracelets and carved figurines becoming relics of a long past and foolish time of extravagance. The babies had come in rapid succession, leaving her strained and impatient, as cruel, cold winters, scant meals, and past due debts ushered in a harsh reality.
They whispered of her Sunday mornings, supposing that she did not hear: He be wit' his woman on Thursday nights, while she prayin'. Straight-backed, steely-eyed, Sister brushed past these women in their severe white dresses and, one child's small hand held tightly in each of hers, she lowered herself stiffly onto a pew, all the while staring straight ahead at the mammoth cross that lent a calculated austerity to the otherwise humble schoolhouse, which on Sundays doubled as the Bull Swamp Methodist Church. Thus seated, she would squeeze her eyes shut against the hot torrent of tears that pushed past her lashes to stream down her carefully powdered cheeks. Always, she thanked God first for her height and carriage. They communicated a haughtiness and indifference that she did not possess but needed desperately to convey, enabling her to disguise her pain as piety until it subsided, finally, mercifully, if only briefly.
And after a time, she would no longer wonder about his paramours, about who, how long, how frequently, or how many. These questions, like most others, would cease to matter. Gone--the artless girl of so many hopes and unspoken pleas ago; gone, her eyes would tell him each time he looked at her, to some distant place where his touch no longer melted her and his tears no longer moved her and his words, thankfully, could no longer hurt her.
This morning, as on many others, she rose before dawn to begin her washing. But this time, she paused in the doorway of her shotgun hut, squinting at the darkness that stretched ahead, listening, but hearing only the breathing of her sleeping children.
Last night, she had dreamed an indecipherable dream of yellow-eyed witches and devilment, and things unspoken, unheard of. She had dreamed of pirates and thieves transporting human treasure stolen from another continent; of loss and sorrow and heaviness too awesome to bear; and of a broken heart, and contrite spirit. She had dreamed of a great black bird, its wings spanning an ocean. Without understanding, she had nodded and said: Yes, Lord. Thy perfect will be done.
Neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child . . .
Lickskillet, North Carolina
I cry in the daytime,
but thou Hearst not;
and in the night season,
and am not silent.
This night Sister did not pray. She had deliberately not prayed for weeks now, taking care not to whisper thanks in the mornings or before she ate her meals, as had been her custom; not leading the children in prayer as she tucked them in at night. They looked at her curiously, and she felt all the more the glaring omission, the absence of God in her daily routine.
But she had felt God's absence from her heart for some time now. She was angry. Mama is angry at Daddy, the children thought. Or at God. She kissed them lovingly, the boy a replica of his father, handsome and sly; the girl a reddish brown, testament to a Cherokee ancestor whose name was not recorded in the family bible. Another child, a burnished boy with blazing eyes, had succumbed to cholera in infancy. She wondered if that loss had been the beginning of their end. Her eyes closed for a moment as she queried God for the thousandth time. Then she reminded herself, as she blew out the lamp and closed the door against the puzzled expressions on the faces of her children, of her own resolve not to think on such things, to not think or care or feel, and above all, to refrain from prayer, from the thought that anyone would hear her if she prayed. Faith involved risk, and she lacked these days the fortitude to believe.
Night after night she steeled herself against the need to vent, to cry and labor before God as she had been taught, to unburden herself and fall to thankful, restless sleep. She was angry.
For a decade, she had done all things correctly, a soldier of faith and humility, her citizenship celestial, her allegiance to her man and her God--not the god of her oppressors, but the God of her longing, her prayers. And him. She had withstood his self-indulgences and insults to her personhood, his myriad small betrayals, those countless accumulated injuries. She had been the obedient servant, mopping up his messes, both literal and figurative, defending and excusing his transgressions, stopping just short of calling him Lord.
She had been studious and attentive to God's will, careful to select a God-fearing man, and still, he had turned suddenly, it seemed to Sister, into someone else; someone who could leave her behind as offhandedly as a man changing his clothes, discarding her as soiled laundry, yet another mess for her to clean up: the wreckage of her own visage to tidy up and hide, again atoning, her own blood covering his sins; the malady of her own spirit to heal alone, unloved, and untouched.
Wearily she lay down and blew out the single candle that gave light to her room.
My God, my God
why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far . . .
Slowly, she succumbed to sleep, and a woman appeared quite suddenly, either in a dream or in the backyard. Sister was not certain. Intrigued, she rose to her knees to better view the scene outside the small, square window that faced the backyard. The woman, slight but muscular, with an oddly cunning, almost insane look about her face, was kneeling on a dirt floor strewn with straw. She was quite dark, with striking features and a muslin scarf askew on her short, tight locks. Sister could, she felt, almost reach into this other world, both real and surreal, and touch the bony, earnest face, trace the outline of the bulbous lips the color of raisins that moved silently. The woman leaned over suddenly, doubled over with her face to the ground. She appeared to be praying. Then, she sat up resolutely, and Sister noticed for the first time one small breast exposed by a savage tear in her dress, one ashen knee scraped bloody, and ten broken, dirty fingernails as the woman brought her hands to her face and cried. Touched by the woman's distress, Sister searched for words of comfort. A slight movement not six feet from the woman caught Sister's eye; and there, on the dirt floor, lay a tiny bloody mass of human flesh and exposed bone, gasping desperately and hopelessly for life.
The woman vanished with all of her surroundings.
Sister awoke with a start.
Each morning thereafter, Sister awoke with an aching jaw and grinding teeth, surprised to find how tightly they had been clenched throughout the night. Her back began to give her trouble. Her hair fell out in clumps.
And a spirit came to rest upon her. Subtle at first, it went unnoticed as she went about her tasks: Aloneness; then Sadness followed. Before she knew it, they had settled comfortably, growing sturdy and rotund.
The others, Anger and Worry and Death, also flourished unnoticed. Each day began to blur into the next as Sister slowly came undone, detaching herself from her children, her surroundings, her miserable reality.
Before long, her absence from the pews at Bull Swamp caught the attention of the overtly righteous: Those who with practiced eye sought out and discovered opportunities for public displays of charity and compassion. This vanguard brought the following disturbing report to the Bull Swamp Motherhood Board and Missionary Group Number Two: Sister had been feeling poorly. Her usually tidy home was in disarray, and the children needed tending to. Certain of their heavenly reward, the women determined that they would visit Sister at home.
From the Hardcover edition.