In Hollywood, California (she'd been told) women travel on roller skates, pull a string of children, grinning, gaudy- eyed as merry-go-round horses, brass wheeled under a blue canopy of sky. Beatrice had never lived in such a place. This morning, for instance, beside Roxboro Road, she'd seen a woman with no feet wheel her chair into fragile clumps of new grass. Her legs ended at the ankle, old brown cypress knees. She furrowed herself by hand through the ground. Cars passed. The sky stared down. At the center of the world's blue eye, the woman stared back. Years revolved, began to circle Beatrice, a ring of burning eyes. They flared and smoked like the sawmill fires she walked past as a child, in the afternoon at 4 o'clock, she and a dark woman, past the cotton gin, onto the bridge above the railroad tracks. There they waited for wheels to rush like the wings of an iron angel, for the white man at the engine to blow the whistle. Beatrice had waited to stand in the tremble of power. Thirty years later she saw the scar, the woman who had walked beside her then, split but determined to live, raising mustard greens to get through the winter. Whether she had, this spring, Beatrice did not know. If she was sitting, knotted feet to the stove, if the coal had lasted, if she cared for her company, pictures under table glass, the eyes of children she had raised for others. If Beatrice went back to visit at her house, sat unsteady in a chair in the smoky room, they'd be divided by past belief, the town's parallel tracks, people never to meet even in distance. They would be joined by the memory of walking back up Depot Street. She could sit and say: I have changed, have tried to replace the iron heart with a heart of flesh. But the woman whose hands had washed her, had pulled a brush through her hair, whose hands had brought her maypops, the green fruit and purple flowers, fierce eyes of living creatures-- What had she given her back, that woman, anything all these years? Words would not remake the past. She could not make it vanish like an old photograph thrown onto live coals. If she meant to live in the present, she would have to work, do without, send money, call home long distance about the heat.
Minnie Bruce Pratt - 1946-
At Deep Midnight
It's at dinnertime the stories come, abruptly, as they sit down to food predictable as ritual. Pink lady peas, tomatoes red as fat hearts sliced thin on a plate, cornbread hot, yellow clay made edible. The aunts hand the dishes and tell of people who've shadowed them, pesky terrors, ageing reflections that peer back in the glass when they stand to wash up at the sink. One sister shivers and fevers with malaria, lowland by the river where Papa tries to farm the old plantation. Midnight, she calls to him to save her, there's money on fire, money between her thighs, money burning her up, she's dying. He brings no water but goes on his knees, jerks up the bedclothes, shouts something she has not said, has she? Yelling at the invisible man he sees under the bed: Come out from there, you black rascal, you. Flapping the heavy sheets like angel wings, and smiling at his baby daughter who in her eighties shuffles her words briskly like a deck of playing cards, and laughs and says, We're all crazy here, lived around negroes too long. The oldest sister walks barefoot home from school trembling. At the curve by the Lightsey's house a black woman stands, bloody-handed, holding up a pale fetus from a slaughtered sow, laughing, I've killed me a baby, lookit the baby I killed. Beatrice looks past them all, sees the ramshackle houses past her grandmother's yard, the porch tin cans of snakeplants. Inside, sooty walls, from a hundred years' of pineknot smoke. Inside no bigger than a corncrib. The door shuts from outside. They can hear the board drop into the slot, the angry man shut in to stand stud, the woman on her back on cornshucks, who later, bloody, smothers her new daughter in rough homespun. Inside a white-washed, lamplit room, a man bends over a ledger: Boy Jacob Seventy-Five Dollars, Five Sows and Sixteen Piggs Twenty Dollars. His pen flickers: how fast could the pair he bought cheap increase five-fold because God had said replenish the earth and subdue it? Now the aunts are asking about her children, the boy babies who'd so pleased, with their white skin, silky crisp as new-printed money, a good thing too, with the farm lost long ago. Beatrice wonders if the youngest sister remembers the noon she snapped the bedroom door open on her, arched, aching, above the girl cousin, taking turns on the carefully made-up bed. Flushed like dove out of the room's dusty shade, they murmured denials. They ended the long kissing that gets no children. Her nipples had been brown-pink like a bitten-into fig, gritty sweet, never tasted, lost as her cousin dressed after a night they'd sunk together in the feather mattress hip to hip, hair tangled, kinky brown, springcoiled blonde, skin stuck to humid skin in the sandy damp sheets. Dressed, at breakfast, elbow to elbow, they ate biscuits and jelly. She never claimed her with a look, no wherewithal, no currency in love, no madness, no money, only a silent vacancy. Only the stupor of lying alone on the bed reading: The man takes the woman roughly in his arms, pushes her down. If she lay still enough, she might feel. Pressing herself down. The bedspread's blunt crochet cuts into her face, her cheek rouged and gouged by the thread's harsh twist. They have more ice tea, the heat almost too much. The heat at deep midnight grinds into slight motion, whir of a fan. All sleeping, the aunts, the mother, the grown daughter. While from bed to bed, slow as the sodden air, move two young girls, white not-yet-swollen breasts, white underpants, white ghosts. They stand at each bed, watching, asking, their dark, light hair drifting like fire out from their unforgiving faces.