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.
From Walking Back Up Depot Street, copyright © 1999 by Minnie Bruce Pratt. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.