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“Steal away, Lord. Steal away. I don’t have long to stay,” Ma sang as the rain came pouring down on the tin roof of our little brown house.
“Tell Mama and Papa I will see them in hev’n,” she said to Mr. Bro. Wiley. “Go on home to be with Jesus.”
I could barely hear her words over the thunder and lightnin’. Ma hated to see the former slave go away from here. He had been like a daddy to her ever since he moved into our one-story house. I reckon he felt like her daddy long ’fore he came here in 1935, ’cause she had known him all her life. Mr. Bro. Wiley, Ma, and all our kinfolk were born in the Low Meadows, just like me. Most folk born in lowland of Northampton County died there.
I was peeping through a small hole in the wall at my mama, Magnolia Jewel Jones, because I wasn’t allowed in the room of death. She was sitting in the wooden chair beside Mr. Bro. Wiley’s rusty old iron bed. Hurt and tears filled poor Ma’s high yellow freckled face as she stared at our friend. His dark wrinkled skin looked worn. His hair was as white as the snow that fell last January. Time and sickness had taken all the meat off his long bones.
To get a better look at Mr. Bro. Wiley, I reached in my overall pocket and pulled out the small knife I found in the cornfield a few weeks earlier. The knife my folks didn’t know I had. I cut a bigger hole in the newspaper Ma used to cover the walls. We didn’t have money for real wallpaper but Ma was always bringing something home from Miss Remie’s house. She washed for the white lady twice a week. I cut in between the picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. They were announcing that more help was coming for poor folk to see us through the Depression.
I saw Ma lay her head on the pillow right beside Mr. Bro. Wiley. My papa, Stanbury Jones Sr., was in the room too. He rubbed Ma’s back as if he was trying to make the pain go away. Mr. Bro. Wiley could barely lift his hand, but he managed to touch Ma’s head. His long skinny fingers had more wrinkles than his one-hundred-year-old face. His nails were long too, ’cause he said he didn’t want Ma troubling to cut them no more after he took sick a month ago at the Fourth of July fish fry. We didn’t have much to eat but the menfolk caught enough fish to feed us while we sang songs and roasted fresh corn from the garden out back. Mr. Bro. Wiley never seemed well again after that day. He said he just wanted to be left alone.
“No . . . no, no!” he said when he saw Ma pulling the nail clippers out the drawer. We were listening to Edward Murrow talk about the Great Depression on the radio that evening. Mr. Bro. Wiley loved listening to him. He said Mr. Murrow was a smart man. What we didn’t learn about the outside world from Miss Remie’s day-old newspapers, we learned from Mr. Murrow.
“Ain’t no need to cut my nails again, Magnolia. I’ze working on gettin’ right with Jesus, not my hands,” Mr. Bro. Wiley said that night.
Then he looked across the room at Papa, who was polishing his Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes. “Stanbury, I don’t want my hair cut no more either. My time on this here earth is drawing near. Leave me be while I get ready to go home to be with my Jesus.”
Papa never looked up. Never even answered Mr. Bro. Wiley. Maybe his heart was too full to talk. He just cleared the lump out of his throat and kept on shining his shoes with a breakfast biscuit and an old rag. There was no money for shoe polish, but bread could put a shine so bright on our shoes that we could see our faces right at the toe.
I didn’t say a word. My heart was breaking too.
I thought about that night as I stood and watched Mr. Bro. Wiley preparing to leave this earth.
“Stop your crying, Christmas,” Mr. Bro. Wiley said. That was the nickname he gave Ma because she was born on Christmas morning, 1899. I put my ear closer to the hole. His voice got lower and lower, but his breathing was louder. It sounded like the train coming to a slow stopover in Weldon when it arrived from up North.
“Child, I want to thank you and Stanbury for all you done for me. I thank Bean too,” Mr. Bro. Wiley said. It made me feel good that he remembered me in his final hour.
“We done what we were supposed to do,” Ma said.
“That’s-that’s the truth and we-we gonna keep on doing right by you.” Papa sometimes said his words two at a time, because his ma, Grandma Ethel Mae, dropped Papa on his head when he was a baby. Papa said he don’t remember the fall, but he know he broke his leg. He’s walked with a limp ever since and sometimes he moans late at night because his bones hurt him so bad.
Papa said he was lucky to have a woman like Ma since he couldn’t half walk or talk. Me and Ma were lucky too. It didn’t matter to us that he limped or how he sounded. We loved him, and he loved us, including Mr. Bro. Wiley. As the thunder roared outside, we all knew we could do no more for our dying friend.
Mr. Bro. Wiley was leaving this earth for sure.
“Stop trying to talk. You need-need your rest,” Papa said. “Don’t thank us. You-you are family.”
“That’s right. We are a family,” Ma said.
I know she meant those words because Ma was real happy when Mr. Bro. Wiley came to live with us after his wife, Miss Celie Mae, went to heaven. Before moving in with us, he lived down on the riverbank in the log cabin where he was born in 1840. He said most slaves didn’t know when they were born, but the Wiley family that owned him wrote his name and birthdate in a Bible that he found years later. Mr. Bro. Wiley’s boy Peter read the dates to him the best he could with the little schooling he had. Peter and Mr. Bro. Wiley’s other eleven children were in heaven with Miss Celie. He outlived them all.
Mr. Bro. Wiley never moved his furniture into our house. Just his clothes and a rocking chair that used to be brown till Papa painted it white. He left Miss Celie Mae’s rocking chair on his back porch facing the river. Mr. Bro. Wiley said he wanted to keep his log cabin, along with his furniture. He said he always wanted to keep a place of his own.
Ma thought Mr. Bro. Wiley should rent the log cabin out for ten dollars a month.
“The Wileys gave you that house but all the other Low Meadows folk have to pay him fifteen dollars a month. Why don’t you rent that place?” Ma asked him one day.
“I got a head, don’t I, gal?”
“Yes, Mr. Bro. Wiley. You got a head.”
“Well, a real man always keeps a roof over his head.”
Ma didn’t say nothing else about that log cabin ’cause she knew Mr. Bro. Wiley had spoke his peace.
Sometimes Mr. Bro. Wiley would go back to his own roof and sit on the porch from sunrise to sunset. If I didn’t have fieldwork or school, I’d join him no sooner than I’d finished my chores. He didn’t think much of folk going in his house. Mainly us children. Said he preferred we sit outside away from his personal belongs. His home place is where he went to remember Miss Celie Mae and their children. So we would just sit on the porch and look at the river together. It was really named the Roanoke River, but Mr. Bro. Wiley called the forty-eight miles of water at the end of the Low Meadows “Ole River.”
One evening while he was sitting in Celie Mae’s chair and I was sitting on the stoop, I asked him, “Mr. Bro. Wiley, why do you call the river old?”
“’Cause, boy, it’s the only thing in Rich Square, and probably all of Northampton County, that’s just as old as me.”
“Even the trees, Mr. Bro. Wiley?”
“Yep, even the trees.”
If Mr. Bro. Wiley was as old as the river and the trees, I reckon he was tired and ready to go on to glory. He seemed tired. I gathered he must be ready to go to heaven from the way he always talked about seeing Miss Celie Mae again. He talked about seeing his Jesus face-to-face.
“Here, Mr. Bro. Wiley, take you a sip of water,” Ma said as Papa held his head up. Death was so thick I could almost see it.
“That’s enough, Christmas. I’m ready to rest now.” Right then my heart fell apart as if it were the brown crust on one of Ma’s apple pies.
Ma started saying the Twenty-Third Psalm over and over. That’s when Mr. Bro. Wiley reached up and put his hand over her lips. The house was as quiet as a mouse. Just the sound of thunder. It reminded me of one of my books falling on the floor at the schoolhouse, but much louder.
The old slave man took one long breath. No pain, nor a cry for his soul. His shoulders, that used to sit high, kind of shuddered down in the bed. Just one breath and it was all over. Over for Mr. George Lewis Wiley. He went away from here. Our friend went to glory. I felt a gust of wind go past my shoulder like the summer I got caught in the windstorm. I knew it was Mr. Bro. Wiley leaving the Low Meadows. I got excited in my heart. I was talking but no words came out. “Off you go, Mr. Bro. Wiley; off you go to see Jesus.”
“Steal away, Lord. Steal away, Lord. I don’t have long to stay.” Ma managed to sing out Mr. Bro. Wiley’s favorite song one more time. Tears ran down her sad face. Papa was crying too, so he didn’t notice when I pushed the door open and walked in. The lightnin’ struck again and lit up the room.
I had never seen a dead man before. I was kind of scared, but I felt I needed to be with Mr. Bro. Wiley. He told me he sat outside that same room when I was born. Because he was there for me when I was born, I was proud to be there for him when he took his last breath. It was the right thing to do.
I wasn’t standing there long before Ma and Papa heard me crying.
Ma turned around while Papa watched over Mr. Bro. Wiley. She held her chest as if her heart might jump out and roll on the floor. Then she rubbed her belly that was filled with baby; a baby that no one bothered to tell me a thing about. Low Meadows folk never said a word when a woman was gonna have a baby. Not one word. Maybe they think us children don’t know where babies come from. You just go to school or the fields one day, and when you come home, a new baby’s living in your house. It was a shame ’fore God to keep a secret about a baby that had my blood in their veins.
I took my mind off the secret baby and looked at Ma. I tried to catch my breath and stop the tears from rolling down my face. The lightnin’ struck so low that I thought it was coming through the window. The whole room lit up again. I could see Ma’s swollen eyes as she stood up.
“Go back, Stanbury Jr. Go back. Death done come for Mr. Bro. Wiley. Go back, child.” Ma never called me Stanbury Jr., unless she was upset. Papa didn’t say a word. He never turned around. He wrapped Mr. Bro. Wiley’s body up real slow with the white bedsheet. Ma sat down in the chair so hard that I heard a thump. I walked backward into the hall and closed the door. I looked at the president and first lady torn apart on the newspaper. Torn apart just like my heart.
“Good-bye, my friend,” Papa said.
“Rest on, Mr. Bro. Wiley. Rest on!” Ma cried out.
Papa reached across his body and grabbed Ma’s hand. They were quiet for a while. Then Papa said, “I best-best go out to town and get Joe Gordon to pick up the body.”
“Wait till morning, Husband. I want Mr. Bro. Wiley to stay here tonight. Let him stay home. Besides the weather is too bad for you to go outside.”
Ma turned her whole body towards the window.
“I reckon it’s a good night for dying. My mama used to say when it rains this hard, the Lord is washing a soul to hev’n.”
“I-I believe that, Wife. I truly do. I need to check on Bean. Will you be all right for a minute?” Papa kissed her on her cheek as she nodded her head. Ma never stopped studying the rain carrying Mr. Bro. Wiley to hev’n. Papa didn’t mention going to the colored undertaker again as he came in the hallway. He pulled me close to his chest. Close to his heart. His voice was sad.
“We’ve done all-all we can for Mr. Bro. Wiley on this side of the mountain.”
“I know, Papa.”
“It’s late. You go on to-to bed.”
“Please, let me stay out here. I want to be near y’all. Please!”
Papa didn’t argue with me. He was too sad and he knew I was hurting all the way to my bones.
“Fine. Get-get your quilt. You can sleep out here if it makes you feel better. I will leave the door open, but do not-not come in Mr. Bro. Wiley’s room. It’s filled with death.”
“I ain’t scared, Papa. I ain’t scared of death.”
“This is grown folks’ business, child. You will see him when the time come for the funeral, but not now.”
Then Papa turned around and went back inside.
“Bean will be all right, Wife,” Papa told Ma.
“Poor child. He loved Mr. Bro. Wiley,” she said with her gaze still fixed on the window.
They cried together. Then Ma began shouting till she couldn’t shout no more. Up and down she jumped just as the folk do at Sandy Branch Baptist Church on Sunday morning. She stomped her feet. Up in the air her hands went.
Then she cried.
There was nothing I could do for Ma, so I lay down beside the door just in case my papa needed me to get her a glass of water. Papa lay on the floor on the right side of the bed.
“Please come on down here with me, Wife.” Ma didn’t move. She kept sitting in the chair, watching the storm. Every now and then she would stand up and stomp her feet.
“Thank you, Jesus! Thank you for the life of Mr. Bro. Wiley,” she said. As I watched Ma carrying on, I thought about how upset all the Low Meadows folk would be when word got out that our friend was gone.
Now, if Miss Lottie Pearl Cofield was at the house when death knocked on the door, it would have been a mess as sho’ as you born. She was Ma’s best friend and our neighbor that lived right up the road on Stony Hill. Stony Hill wasn’t a real big hill, just high enough for me and my best friend, Pole, to slide down when the snow came each winter.
Pole is Miss Lottie Pearl and her husband Mr. Jabo Cofield’s youngest child. Their only son, Willie, is a porter for the railroad and lives up North in a place called Chicago. Pole’s real name is Martha Rose, but we called her Pole because she didn’t have no meat on her bones. Skinny as she can be. Skinny as one of them poles in our string bean patch in the backyard. I didn’t care nothing about Pole being skinny though. She been my friend all our days on this earth and that’s why they nicknamed me Bean. Folk in Low Meadows said me and Pole act as if we couldn’t live without each other. Mr. Bro. Wiley said we stick together the way a bean vine stick to a pole. Mr. Jabo thought that was some kind of funny, so he decided we were officially Bean and Pole.
He was Papa’s best friend. Papa said you could search the world over and you wouldn’t find a better man than Jabo Cofield. He was quiet and gentle. I never heard him raise his voice in my whole life.
Miss Lottie Pearl was the closest thing Ma had to a sister ’cause all her sisters dead and gone, except the baby girl, Aunt Juanita, who lived up North. Everybody knew they weren’t really sisters. Ma was a pretty woman, and Miss Lottie Pearl was not fit to look at. She had a long nose with a lump on it and her skin just as rough as a potato sack. She had good hair, but she was shaped up like a man. I reckon the worst thing of all about Miss Lottie Pearl was she talked too much to be a so-called Christian. She would say “Amen” every time the preacher opened his mouth, but she talked about folk before she got outside the church good. She had ugly ways.
Yes, a blind man could see that Miss Lottie Pearl and Ma didn’t have the same blood running in their veins, but they surely loved each other. They both loved Mr. Bro. Wiley too. We all loved him. We loved him because he treated us as if we were his children and grandchildren. Nobody in the Low Meadows made one move without getting advice from the old slave man. Folk asked him how to heal the sick and folk talked to him about the dead. Mr. Bro. Wiley taught us children to fish and put us in our place when we forgot our home training. He taught the menfolk to coon hunt and he taught the women how to make molasses cakes. Even Miss Lottie Pearl admitted she couldn’t out-cook the old slave man.
I peeped in the room filled with death one more time and wondered who would break the news to Ma’s best friend. I suppose she felt she could do no more for Mr. Bro. Wiley, so Ma finally lay on the floor beside Papa, where they slept all night.
Lord have mercy! I knew Ma would do some shouting with Miss Lottie Pearl when she got word that Mr. Bro. Wiley had met his Maker.
Come Saturday morning, Ma and Papa woke up at five thirty just like they always did. I was still lying in the hallway when they walked past me. I pretended to be asleep because I wanted to hear them talk about the funeral plans. I wanted to know when they would have the sittin’ up for Mr. Bro. Wiley. Papa went on the porch to get some water for them to wash up. Then they disappeared into the bedroom. When they came out Ma headed to the kitchen. She was wearing a black dress. Papa had on his Sunday-go-to-meeting white shirt and the black pants to the only suit he had in the world. I closed my eyes again when Papa turned towards me.
When I peeped, I saw Papa carrying some of the dead folk fabric that Mr. Joe Gordon’s wife, Mrs. Duvall Gordon, gave Ma. Mrs. Gordon was always giving the women on Low Meadows Lane leftover funeral fabric. I appreciated her kindness, but I wanted her to keep the fabric they used to line the caskets with. Ma used that dead folk fabric for everything. She made curtains, clothes, and tablecloths with it. You name it.
“What you gonna do with the dead folk fabric?” I asked Papa as I jumped to my feet, wiping the sleep from my eyes.
Instead of giving me an answer, he handed me one end of the fabric.
“Hold-hold this,” Papa said. Then he covered the mirror in the hallway. He reached in his pocket, got his knife, and started cutting the fabric at the bottom.
“Why you doing that, Papa?”
“Well, folks say it’s bad-bad luck to look at yourself when someone dies in your house. So-so we got to keep the mirrors covered.” I followed Papa to the mirror in my room.
“For how long?” I asked.
“Till-till after Mr. Bro Wiley's funeral,” he said, covering my mirror.
If my folks had let me go to just one sittin’ up I would have seen the mirrors covered and knowed all this stuff I was nagging him about. The Low Meadows rule was you had to be twelve to go to a sittin’ up and a funeral. Not a soul had died since I turned twelve.
“How am I gonna get dressed if I can’t see myself?”
“Just-just wash up and put your clothes on, Bean. I want you-you to look out for your ma while I go to town to get Joe Gordon.”
“Yes, sir.” I didn’t say nothing else ’cause Papa’s light brown eyes were filled with tears just saying Mr. Bro. Wiley’s name. He tried to hold up but water was already running down his dark face and gray mustache.
I followed Papa to the back porch, where he covered the mirror that he used for shaving each morning. I watched and wondered how in the world he was gonna shave with no mirror.
“Pump you-you some bathwater and come to breakfast,” Papa said as he disappeared into the kitchen.
“Good morning, Mama,” I said as I walked past her, holding my face tub.
“Mornin’, Bean. You all right this morning?”
“I feel sad in my heart, Ma. Real sad.”
“Death is a sad thing, child,” Ma said.
I went to my room to wash up. I put on my Saturday clothes since Papa told me I would be staying home with Ma and not working in the field. We always worked till the clock struck twelve on Saturdays.
But when I got back to the kitchen, Mama made an announcement.
“Husband, soon as y’all eat breakfast I want you and Bean to go get Mr. Gordon.”
“Wife, I-I ain’t leaving you here by yourself.” Mama kept on taking the hot biscuits out the pan and putting them on my plate with one egg and two pieces of fatback from the hog we killed last winter.
“You hear me, Wife? I-I ain’t leaving you here by yourself.”
“Mr. Bro. Wiley is gone to be with the Lord. I ain’t scared of the dead. Now, take Bean with you. He’ll be thirteen come December. It’s due time that he learned the ways of a Low Meadows man. We bury our own. Bean needs to know what to do when death comes for us.”
I could hardly eat after Ma mentioned dying. That would hurt worse than anything in the world, including losing Mr. Bro. Wiley.
After Ma said her piece, we ate in silence. She wept from time to time. As soon as my belly was full, I started cleaning off the table. I wanted to be ready when Papa got his last piece of fatback in his mouth. I somehow felt grown up because I was going along with Papa.
Ma kissed me good-bye as I walked onto the porch where Mr. Bro. Wiley would sit after breakfast. She gave Papa a kiss right on the lips, and he walked out the door. That tickled him. My papa loved Ma and they loved me. Together we shared our love with Mr. Bro. Wiley. I felt sad knowing I was leaving him in the house dead, but I still had my folks.
Ma stood in the door watching me and Papa walk down to the barn to hook Mule Bennett to the wagon. Mr. Bro. Wiley gave Papa that mule when he moved in with us.
“Why you giving me your mule?” Papa asked Mr. Bro.Wiley.
“That’s my rent, boy.”
“You-you know good and well you don’t owe us no rent.”
“Ain’t nothing free in this world, Stanbury Jones. Don’t you ever forget that. Ain’t nothing free.”
Nobody argued with Mr. Bro. Wiley, so Mule Bennett belonged to Papa from that day on.
Mule Bennett was old and couldn’t do much fieldwork, but he could get us to town and back. That morning when I opened the barn door, Papa’s mule never raised his head. He just kicked his left leg like he was mad or hurting inside.
“Papa, Mule Bennett looks some kind of sad. You think he know Mr. Bro. Wiley is dead?”
“Don’t know, Son. He-he might. Mules are smarter than us humans give them credit. They love their owners and this here mule knew he belonged to Mr. Bro. Wiley long before he belonged to me.”
“I think we should leave Mule Bennett and take the truck. Surely Mr. Thomas wouldn’t mind,” I said. Thomas Wiley was the white man Papa worked for. Mr. Thomas got the same last name as Mr. Bro. Wiley ’cause his grandpa owned the ole slave man and all of his kinfolk during slavery time. He claimed he thought so much of my daddy but he didn’t let him drive that truck unless it was for Low Meadows work.
“No, Son, it ain’t all right for us to use Mr. Thomas’s truck. I give-give Mr. Thomas my word that I only-only use his truck when I’m working. A man’s word-word is all he got. Mule-Mule Bennett will be fine.
“Ain’t that right?” Papa asked the mule like he was going to answer.