When he’d heard her first scream, he’d dropped everything in his hands and the dinginess of the shack’s porch still held the scatter of the day’s catch. John leaned his length out of the window’s ledge. The night’s thick darkness barely let him see his hand at the end of his own wrist. More than he could see, could he sense the expanse of the land he and Grace had sharecropped for well nigh 20 years. Fifteen feet beyond the window’s ledge, rows of cotton stretched to the left and right, lining up like civil war sentries, keeping guard over old Alabama’s legacy. The blue blackness of the night sky was salted with starlight while the moon half covered itself with the shimmery sheath of the sky’s one lone cloud.
This time, the hours just before dawn had always been his favorite. He’d make his way through the darkness to the fields and there he’d kneel. John remembered those here and there days, back in the early times, when he’d let himself be distracted and missed his appointment. And damned if whatever was to be straight didn’t end up crooked.
Agitated, John pushed away from the window’s ledge and paced the too short length of the shack’s front room. This birthing seemed longer than the others, taking from daybreak yesterday until now. No, something wasn’t right. This, this wasn’t right.
Suddenly, he heard Grace let out a scream that brought his stomach to the back of his throat. Weak knees pitched him against the bedroom door, as he used it to prop him up against the now dead silence. Leaning there against their bedroom door, John Perkins’ mind began to shatter as it refused to picture a life without her in it. No, No, not his Grace.
Suddenly, the door swung wide. John’s falling weight was stopped short by the stout, grey haired figure of Miss AnnMay. John’s eyes burned when he saw where the blood saturated hem of her shapeless shift had dragged a trail across the uneven planks of the bedroom’s potholed floor. As she turned aside to grant him entry, she lost her footing, slipping a little on the bloody track and, bowing down to grab hold of the gory seam, looked as though she had accepted an invitation to dance. John remembered again why he had never liked her. John pushed himself into the bedroom he shared with his wife, ignoring the bloody shuffle still moving behind him.
In the room’s left corner, Grace lay on the pallet that was their bed, their baby, still wet with fluids, in her arms. Her oil black skin was slick with sweat, and fresh tears were running through the tracks of salt that had already dried on her face. Her head rocked against the wall that headboarded their bed and her dry, cracked lips were moving silently in what John knew was prayer. Her eyes fluttered open as he knelt beside her. Taking her hand, he brought it to his lips and whispered an old endearment into her skin.
“Hey now Gal”, he said.
“Hush now man”, she whispered, so low he barely heard the sound in her breath.
He turned back to Miss AnnMay who was washing her bloody hands in the basin holding what should have been his child’s first bathwater. John wondered if it was a sin to snap a demon’s neck.
“What’s the matter with them?”
“The matter is she’s bleeding and that baby’s ain’t breathin’ too good.”
John cursed the fate that had bought this woman into his house and hated that he still needed her. Moving to stand between her and his family, he stood up to face her.
“Cain’t you stop the bleeding?”
“Done alls I can do, I expect she’ll live, but that baby’ll be in a shroud by dawn.”
Grace’s rocking shook the wall behind her. John thought her moans sounded like she was trying to prevent something deep within from leaving.
“What do I need to do?”
“Do? Nigger ain’t nuthin’ for you to do but make another baby. This one’s done for. Ain’t no use crying bout it. If’n negroes round Macon ain’t bein buried, they doin’ the buryin’.”
John had crossed the room’s length before she could turn go on.
“I’m a say this to you one time old woman. My wife and my child are gonna be livin’ long after you and yours leave this earth. Now, I’ma ask you again. WHAT DO I NEED TO DO!?”
Miss AnnMay had backed up and was standing up against the wall underneath the opening that Grace had curtained into a window.
“Well shit, don’t say I didn’t tell you first. I expect Ma Mercy’s back by now. If’n that baby’s gonna live, you had better fetch it on over to her place.”
John had already turned his back on her and was back at Grace’s bedside. Her eyes were open now and she had wrapped their daughter in one of the bed’s woolen blankets. She held the baby girl out to him as he knelt down beside her. As he took the baby from her, he pressed his forehead to hers and for a moment, their lips moved silently together, mixing prayer with kiss.
“Take her,” she said into his mouth, again with more breath than sound.
“I will,” he answered, “I promise.”
Turning back to Miss AnnMay, he again cursed circumstance.
“I need you to stay with Grace til I get back.”
“You is one crazy nigger. You really gonna run out there wit all them crackers on the road? Well go ‘head then, I’ll stay. I guess Grace gonna be using one grave for the two of ya’.”
John had already moved off the porch choosing to cut through the cotton rather than take the road. MissAnnMay’s mouth beat at his back.
“I shouldna never told Ma Mercy I’d keep a watch over you crazy Negroes. All that talk of prayers and covenants. You is a nigger like I’m a nigger,” she yelled out, “Ain’t your god the one who ain’t no respecter of persons?!”
John held his daughter to his chest as he moved fast and low through the fields, he had about 4 more hours till daybreak and 8 miles to go before he got to Ma Mercy’s place. Ma Mercy’s had laid hands on just about every member of the community, healing and keeping half dead folks from dying. Even some of Macon’s white folks had gone to her from time to time when their high falutin’ doctors had no remedy. Covering the 8 miles wasn’t a problem; it was what was along those 8 miles that kept John low to the ground. Even now he could hear in the distance, the sound of carousing pickup trucks, carrying white sheets, shotguns and nooses. As always, the madness of the age sent John to whispered prayers and the bedrock of his faith sprang to his lips.
“I won’t be afraid of the terror by night, or of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that wastes at noonday.”
His breathe was hardly labored as he pushed past his body’s limits and plunged through his neighbor Muncie Evert’s fallow fields. Muncie had caught the noose more than 2 growing seasons ago when some white robes on with fiery crosses had taken offense to the lushness of his crops. A nigger with crops so full was guilty of a capital crime, or at the very least guilty of thinking himself too high for comfort.
John and some of Muncie’s other neighbors had spent days searching the surrounding woods for Muncie’s body. They found his wife Lucy first, naked and bound to one of the forest’s primordial oak trees. As was klan custom, her face and breasts had been had been obliterated. Her baby, an unwilling witness to murder, lay dead and discarded at her feet.
Coming to the edge of the Evert land, John stayed in a low, fast moving crouch as he remembered the sight of Muncie’s eviscerated body hanging from a tree a few yards away from Lucy. Muncie had been so badly burnt, only his proximity to his dead wife and child could identify him.
The ache of memory made John hold his newborn parcel to his heart as he whispered his prayer for her.
“…For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you up in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Cutting through miles of cotton, forest and field, John was soon within eyesight of Ma Mercy’s place. Relief flooded through him when he saw light coming from within the cabin. He could smell the acrid aroma of a built fire coming from her place. He’d almost unbent himself when he saw headlights racing down the dirt road hill that led to her door. Hunching down again, he watched as young rednecks in training stopped their trucks midway down the hill. Circling their trucks around, they pointed their headlights as if trying to see something in the distance. John prayed to God they hadn’t spotted him. He shifted the slight weight if his daughter closer to his chest. He didn’t want to have to kill a cracker tonight but he would if it meant getting his child to Ma Mercy. Precious moments passed as he watched the 5 of them exit their truck, kicking dirt and tossing beer bottles not fifty feet from where John hid. One of them dropped his pants, walked bare-assed halfway to Ma Mercy’s door, and took a piss so long, even his cracker brethren had to take their hats off to him. Finally, with one last bottle toss that shattered against a tree ten feet behind where John and the baby hid, they backed up their trucks and drove on to their next piece of mayhem. Still cautious, John waited a tortuous 5 minutes more before leaving his hiding place and moving, still low to the ground, toward Ma Mercy’s door. Her door opened before he could knock. She always seemed to know when she was needed. Ma Mercy was least 6 feet tall, and had on the same overalls John thought she must have been born wearing. She had skin the color of sweet tea in summer and her salt pepper hair fell in two heavy corn rows down her back.
“Took you long enough,” she said as she received the baby from his arms.
“You had crackers peein’ at your front,” he answered, shutting the door behind him.
“He gonna be peein a lot less when I get through with him.”
Ma Mercy’s cabin was lowlit with lamplight. Hand made furniture filled every corner and healing herbs spilled off of every available windowsill. Stew bubbled on the potbelly and the smell of it made him ache for Grace. She loved Ma Mercy’s stew.
“Grace is gonna be jus fine. I made the stew just for her. Jus’ needs some time and healin’ is all. It’s this little one we have to tend to now. Come on now, be quick about it. Too much time wasted already.”
John followed her as she moved out to the fields at her backdoor. John looked to the night sky. There were fewer stars now and day would be breaking soon. There under the changing night sky, John watched as Ma Mercy held his and Grace’s baby daughter in her arms. As she prayed in her spirit tongue, John joined his prayers with hers and interceded for his wife and daughter. Pleading blood covered covenants and promises, he prayed of words not returned void and improbable resurrections. Suddenly, Ma Mercy held his infant daughter up to the twilight.
“Lord God, we stand here just how you said we could, bold before ya’ throne. Now Lord, we don’t mean no harm and sho’ nuff no disrespect. We just want to remind you of your promises Father. You told her daddy if he returned her to you, that you would preserve her and her generations. Well Lord, he can’t give you back a dead baby. You said in your word Father that not one of them shall be broken, no not one.”
Ma Mercy had unwrapped the baby and John watched as she slid the infant into a water basin the John was sure he hadn’t seen her bring out with her. As she lifted the baby girl out of the water, John anxiously looked toward his daughter for any sign, any change.
“We can’t give you back a dead child Lord.”
Ma Mercy slid the child into the water a second time and lifted her out. Again John saw no change, nothing, just a cold little baby girl. Ma Mercy slid the baby into the water once more. As she lifted the infant out of the basin for a third time, John fell to his knees, watching as death gave way to the life he saw seeping back into his daughter’s limbs. Laughing now, even with the sounds of bitterness and bedlam motoring their way back toward her shack, Ma Mercy returned the screaming child back to her father’s waiting arms.
“Not one of them shall be broken,” she said.
“No,” he answered, “Not one.”
Thanks for reading my story! *LBD
All content © 2013 Lisa B. DuBois