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By GUY REID
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Guy Reid
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Maude!" he croaked as Brody Slaughter stood by his wife's grave. It was an ugly red gash in the earth, surrounded by several inches of cold virgin snow. There was an uncharacteristic slump to Brody's posture that became a defining feature the rest of his life. His wife died at age twenty-three, giving birth to their second child. "How can I live without you?" he mewled.
Maude Saddler's love had saved Brody when he returned from World War I in the fall of 1917, physically sound but sick in his soul. Her devotion to him had softened his heart and Brody had begged her father to let him marry Maude. Mr. Saddler reluctantly gave them his blessing when Maude declared her eternal love for Brody and they were married in November of 1917. The bride honestly wore white, a vision of unsullied loveliness.
It was late January of 1924, Brody peered across the grave of his wife at his son Billy Jack, who was five years old. Brody showed him no outward affection. One quick glance at his pa's stern expression forced Billy Jack to choke back hot tears demanding to be shed.
When the funeral ended, the living returned to the Slaughter home, a large white farm house with forest green shutters. Brody sneaked a fortifying nip of whiskey, but it did nothing to take the edge off the enormity of his loss. He shuffled toward the parlor to face grieving relatives and neighbors though he needed to be alone. "Maude," he moaned.
Annis Crenshaw, the Slaughter housekeeper was sitting in the kitchen, near the wood-burning range to keep warm. She was holding the newborn child who slept peacefully in Annis's arms. She was little angel God had sent to give her daddy comfort, Annis was convinced. "Expect kindness done died wif th' missus," she mused.
Annis had already begun breast feeding the little white infant along with her own baby Rufus. Brody glared with raw hatred. Brody had conveniently forgotten the doctor's warning that they should never have another child after her pregnancy with Billy Jack almost cost Maude her life.
Brody loathed the very sight of the newborn. He could only manage to live with his own otherwise unbearable guilt by transferring blame to the baby, as if she had sprung out of her mother's womb without any help from him at all.
Annis sighed and wiped tears from her eyes. She was crying for the baby. "Lord, he don't want this chile! Oh lordie, lordie, lordie!"
Annis assumed the role of surrogate mother from that day forward, though it was white and she was a negro. No matter: Annis loved the child as if she were her own. It was actually Annis who gave the baby her name. "Savannah. I be from Savannah, Georgia. Yore pa don't give no name, so I gives you Savannah." And Savannah it was.
Annis and her husband Seine were sharecroppers on the Slaughter farm near Oxford, a small County Seat in the tobacco belt.
Brody Slaughter never used the child's name, though his hatred for Savannah was mostly diluted with time. In fact, when he finally admitted (only to himself) that Savannah was innocent of any wrongdoing, the pattern was already set, and Brody did not know how to change his strained relationship with his daughter. In spite of the dark cloud of her father whom Savannah feared as if he were God Himself, she had some happy childhood memories. In the first place Annis was loving and kind, and doted on the little "White Angel" as she referred to Savannah. The large old house where she lived was comfortable and well appointed. It was set in the middle of a grove of ancient oak and pecan trees that had wisely been spared by her grandparents when they first erected the farmhouse. It was handsome and homey.
Around the farm, there was ample room for Savannah to play and she delighted in the beauty and bounty of the earth around her. There were blackberries in season along the pasture fence next to the yard, and honeysuckle sprawled in sweet profusion along the drive leading to the front of the house. They added a heady luster to long, languid summer days.
Also, while he had his shortcomings, Brody was a good provider. Though it was the Great Depression, neither Savannah nor her brother Billy Jack lacked material comforts.
Annis did the housework, but she was more than the household servant: She was Savannah's mammy and confidant.
Billy Jack was withdrawn most of the time, and along with Brody, he seemed to blame Savannah for their mother's untimely death. This manifested itself whenever Savannah tried to approach him. Invariably, he would put her off and say something like, "Go find Annis. You're too young to be tryin' ta hang out with me."
"But I'm your sister," she would wail, wanting him to love her because she loved him. Savannah was by nature a loving and caring child.
Fortunately, there was Elsie Watkins, a neighbor who was filled with kindness and maternal love that spilled over and engulfed Savannah, too. It was through Elsie that Savannah learned the intricacies of the social graces Southern style that Annis simply did not know.
Savannah was also the recipient of charitable love from the religious community, and was treated with special kindness by the members of the Baptist Church, which she attended each Sunday.
Brody Slaughter was always too busy to go to church on Sundays. He worked instead on his farm or at one of his several tobacco auctioneering warehouses in Oxford and Creedmoor. "God didn't show my Maude any mercy, so I don't have the time of day for givin' Him," he always spat when he saw his neighbors dressed in their Sunday best, and heard them singing with a blend of inspired voices. "My Maude could sing better'n any of them. But no, God didn't let her stay here to use that sweet voice singing hymns. I guess He is the loser on that count."
Annis would click her teeth when she heard Brody's blasphemy. "Lord, he don' mean it. You knows he don'," she would cry, hoping God would not reach down and strike Brody dead in his tracks, leaving all of them in the lurch.
Chapter TwoIn spite of the attention from the church and Elsie Watkins, Savannah still felt lonely. She needed her father's love—and her brother's, too. This dichotomy represented a painful void in Savannah's emotional wellbeing. Coupled with adults who not too discreetly mentioned within earshot that Savannah's mother died giving birth to her, their remarks were chronic reminders that she was responsible for the untimely demise of her mother.
The resulting loneliness was reflected in a faint, melancholy edge that haunted Savannah's personality. She began to believe in the expression most often used by adults to describe her in her formative years: "Poor little thing."
Savannah was frequently left to her own devices, and as an unwilling loner, she developed a sense of foreboding, as if something terrible was about to befall her, an almost palpable sense of dread. Then, as if fulfilling a self-styled prophecy, one night Savannah was suddenly awakened by the screams of her brother Billy Jack.
Savannah was jolted wide awake from a restless sleep. Fear gripped her insides, a vise which would not let go. "No Pa! Please stop!" Billy Jack pleaded, his voice heard from downstairs, carrying to Savannah's second-floor bedroom. In a panic she ran toward the mews of her brother's pleas, and the sickening sounds of the thrashing he was getting from their father.
She stood paralyzed in the shadows of the upstairs hall. "I told you never to go in that parlor! If it weren't for you and her," he gestured with his head towards Savannah's upstairs bedroom and Savannah shrank further from sight, "my Maude would still be alive today." He continued to flail abuse on Billy Jack who was trying to protect his face from his father's belt buckle.
"I'm sorry, Pa," Billy Jack wailed between thrashes. "I promise I'll never do it again. Please, please stop!"
Brody finally gave Bill Jack a half-hearted kick as he looped his belt through his trousers and said, "Git up! Go clean yourself up. And don't defy me again!"
Brody shuffled to the back of the house. Savannah flew down the stairs. She was still terrified of her father, looking over her shoulder, but the birth of a maternal instinct in her prevailed. "Billy Jack," was all she could think of to say as she draped her little arms around his neck to offer comfort.
At first Billy Jack was surprised and touched. But the seed of hatred for Savannah that he had been fed by his father prevailed. He pushed her aside, feeling the bridge of his nose which was bleeding and in great pain. "Git off me! I don't need your help," he hissed.
"If it wasn't for you, he wouldn't be like that. I hate you!" he said between clinched teeth and stalked out of the house.
Stunned, Savannah felt the dark stain on the hall rug where Billy Jack had lost control of his bladder. She busied herself with cleaning up the evidence, crying convulsive tears of distraught misery.
The next day and for the next several weeks Annis did not understand why Savannah tried to cling to her at every opportunity as if her very life depended on it.
"Lordie, Lordie, Lordie, what be the matter wif you, chile? What done be come over you these past weeks? Come on, now, you can tell your mammy!"
Savannah snorted and Annis handed her her own handkerchief, wrinkled but clean. "Nuthin', really. I'm just—Billy Jack hates me. And daddy hates me! I can't help it if she died," she wailed, burying her face in her own hands.
"Of course you can't chile," said Annis, biting her lip to refrain from saying what she really thought: Savannah's father and brother needed whipping for the way they treated her.
"Come on now. Dry those tears. Why don't you pretend you're all grown up and on your own. You can do it."
Savannah gave her a blank stare. "Tell you what, I'll git the farm younguns to meet you in the barn cover. Then you can play-act for them. You can be the grand lady I know you goin' ta become one fine day."
"Like a play? With costumes?"
"Sho. With costumes. But you have to make 'em cause I ain't got no time ta be foolin' with no sewing," Annis said, but in a good-natured tone of voice.
"Okay. I'll find some things to use and you git the children. It is going to be a good play, you wait and see," called Savannah, rushing to the stairs to dig up costumes and props.
When Savannah performed for the children that day, it became a potent escape mechanism for her. When she was playacting, all of her problems evaporated and she was transformed to a world where she was always safe and happy.
Thus emotionally fortified, Savannah began to embellish her lines while she improved her makeshift costumes and props. At first, the children had been told to humor her by attending her productions. But soon they willingly came to watch these skits that evolved into amusing, entertaining pastimes for them, too.
Chapter ThreeSavannah retreated more and more into her make-believe world. Annis clicked her teeth, sorry she had suggested the idea since the child's grip on reality was clearly threatened.
But an event soon brought Savannah back with a thud. When she was told she was not allowed to go in the parlor, Savannah had blindly obeyed her mammy. But since the Billy Jack beating, she viewed it with all of the allure of the sirens of danger tempting her to break the rule. Why couldn't she go in there?
Every time Savannah almost got the nerve to satisfy her curiosity, she would get interrupted. Either someone would show up or Savannah would step on a squeaky board, sneeze, or make some other noise which she was sure was going to bring her father down on her head in all his wrath.
But one day, feeling bold, Savannah stood hesitantly at the parlor door. She managed to forget that she had been recently warned by Annis that Savannah was never to go into the parlor by herself.
The room was kept in darkness during the day by heavy velvet drapes pulled tightly together. It was as if daylight was the enemy and would surely compromise the sanctity of the space.
Savannah looked up and down the deserted hall. Silence. Savannah held her breath and pushed the door ajar. It creaked, causing her heart to pound even louder in her ears. But no one seemed to be within earshot. Savannah tiptoed into the room. She eased the door shut so that it barely made a noise.
Savannah stood against the inside of the door, to catch her breath. While she was standing there and her eyes were adjusting to the dim light, Savannah's fear began to turn into curiosity. She marveled at the beauty of the things that began to command her attention. Collector's items painstakingly accumulated by her late mother. Now they lay useless and mostly unseen in this stuffy shrine to her memory.
Crystal gleamed. Silver shined. Fine China was on display. There was a veritable fortune behind protective glass, on tables, on chests, on the piano.
Piano? Piano! Delighted, Savannah turned her full attention to this discovery. She stared in fascination at this grand instrument placed in the bay window, from which filtered tiny streams of dusty light across the glossy rich wood. Savannah found herself standing between the bench and the piano. She lightly ran a finger down the cover hiding the keys. Freed of dust, a thin line of shiny mahogany appeared. Savannah looked furtively around.
Savannah carefully lifted the piano lid. The keys seemed to wink invitingly at her in the pale light. Savannah was hypnotized by the lure of those keys. With a palpitating heart, she gave one key a tentative touch. She jumped back at the sound it made, unconsciously placing a finger to her lips as if to silence the offending key. She stood still and waited.
The house was as quiet as a tomb. After a couple of minutes that seemed like several hours, she sat on the bench.
Ten minutes later, the sound of piano music chased the silence out of the large old house. The tune was light and lovely, if inexpert. It caught the attention of the field hands bent over their work. They stopped, stretching stiff backs and shielding their eyes from the sun as they looked towards the Slaughter house.
Seine, Annis's husband, was the first to speak. "Been long time since we hear music 'round these parts from that piany. Reckon it be th' li'l white youngun Annis done raised. Savannah. Reckon she be skinned alive if'n her pa catch her.
"That youngun got more guts than sense. Wonder how she know how ta play like that? It sound right purdy."
Brody Slaughter's dour expression changed to one of surprise as he wondered, too, how "she" knew how to play that piano. Brody's pants whipped in the wind as he made his way to the house, his face red with rage.
But when reached the living room, something in Savannah's expression stopped Brody Slaughter and his fury in his tracks. He screeched to a halt in the middle of the room and stood there, transfixed by the beatific expression on his young daughter's face. He knew she had never touched a piano before. Yet her fingers danced magically across the piano keys as she played by ear. She was so rapt in her playing that she did not notice he was standing there in the middle of the room, the embodiment of her nightmares come to life.
Slowly, Brody removed his cap and backed out of the room. "I'll be goddamned. She looks just like her mama," he said in hushed awe. "Jest like her," he said as he took a dipper of fresh water from a galvanized bucket on the kitchen counter.
Savannah appeared behind her father, gripped by fear. She stood in the doorway leading from the dining room to the kitchen. She did not dare speak, waiting with threaded breath for Brody.
She was in the all too real world now. There were unshed tears shining in her eyes. It was too late to wish she had left the parlor and the piano alone, after all. Miserably she prayed her father's belt would not be unbearable when he thrashed her for her unpardonable sins.
Mr. Slaughter's expression was unreadable as he started out of the back door without even casting a glance at Savannah. But he said, "Reckon you can tinker with the piany. Jest don' go gittin' inta nuthin' else in your ma's—in that there parlor.
"Now go on and play with those nigger babies." He jammed his cap down on his head and gave Savannah a quick look. His eyes registered shock all over again over her remarkable resemblance to her mother.
Savannah sobbed a sigh of blessed relief, an unspoken prayer nonetheless answered. "Yes, sir!" she croaked as she slithered past her father and flew down the back stairs. She had a smile on her face: It was all right for her to play the piano!
Excerpted from Birthright by GUY REID Copyright © 2011 by Guy Reid. 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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