|November 2015 fiction issue|
BirthingExcerpted from the novel God's Red Clay
On the straw a newborn lamb staggers to its feet, crying with forlorn little baas. Nearby, the ewe lies grunting and bleating, pushing out the second lamb. Old Rye kneels and eases out the head and forelegs. Once the baby is free, Rye startles Anner by swinging it by its hind feet. “Hit’s to git ‘er breathin’.” Then he lets the ewe lick off the caul and blood. With his boot he buries bloody straw under clean straw. “Easy as rollin’ off a log, mos’ times.”
Lambing’s a simpler matter than birthing a human baby, Anner thinks, stooping to pick chaff from the hem of her long skirt. And the sheep do a better job of begetting, too, at least than she does. Fifteen months since her wedding day, and she and Tom have not slept together as man and wife a single time. It must be her homeliness, her awkwardness, her not being Sarah, that make him turn his back to her. She’s angry at him, but even angrier at herself. How stupid not to have known that she’d always be a poor second to her cousin, who now lies in her grave. So much did Anner desire this wiry, stubborn, copper-haired cotton farmer that love dulled her wit.
Dusk has gathered. Tom’s out walking the boundaries with the dog, as is his restless habit after supper. Passing the negro cabins on her way up to the house, Anner sees snaggle-toothed Zilpah crouched on the stoop of the cabin she shares with Margaret. “What are you doing here?” she asks.
“Nuffin’,” says the shivering girl.
“Did you have a spat with Margaret?”
“No, Missus. I be lookin’ at de stars.”
“The stars! For goodness sake get inside, before you freeze to death.”
Anner doesn’t wait to see whether Zilpah complies. She has an idea why Zilpah has been banished to the stoop. Margaret’s belly has begun to show a gentle swelling under her apron.
Last June, in order to pay his debts, Tom sold off half their land, the north tract, upon which they’d been living. An odd time of year for such a sale, but Tom made an arrangement whereby he could cultivate and harvest the cotton crop he’d already planted in return for ten percent of the price at market. While the days were long Tom and Anner moved to the house on the south tract, which hadn’t been occupied in years. Bats hung upside down in the loft when they first arrived, mice nested in every corner. Window glass smashed and dead leaves blown in. At the end of each day in the fields Tom and the hands sawed, nailed, plastered, and whitewashed, repairing the house and barn and constructing two cabins and a privy. A hard worker, Tom, and none can say otherwise.
Meanwhile Anner and Margaret and Zilpah swept and scrubbed, hung curtains and laid carpets. On the west side of the house was an apple tree, green fruit dangling hopefully from its branches. At least somebody cared enough to plant the tree, Anner thought. Amidst the garden weeds she recognized mint and rosemary battling to endure.
Through the property winds a stream called Ham Creek, and cutting through the northeast corner is the road to Huntsville. “The road will be handy for taking the crop to the gin-house and to market,” Tom likes to say. However, without the north tract, their crop will be much smaller. Now, in February, Tom and the hands spend as much time girdling trees and burning brush to clear new acres as they do plowing. Making them fit for planting will be a long, tedious process. The corner acres cut off by the road have rocky soil, one reason this tract of land is less valuable than the one Tom sold. Beyond the rocky corner are the gravel pit and the quarry, and beyond that is , a wooded slope that passes for a mountain in , Alabama.
It has come around to summer again. In the fields the squares—the cotton buds—are opening into blooms.
The girl loiters in the doorway until Anner looks up from her work. In her lap is a heap of stockings to darn, belonging to husband and hand alike. “What is it, Zilpah? Have you nothing in the world to do?”
“Margrit’s waters done broke, Missus.”
“Then you’d better go help her. Never mind your chores.”
The girl scratches the back of her calf with her toenails. “Don’ know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’, Missus.”
Can Zilpah really be so simple?
“All right, I’ll see to her.”
Anner says a quiet prayer, asking God to help her in this task. Towels, she thinks. A pitcher. A paring knife and some string. Outside, the sun is already hot in the sky. She winds up a bucket of well water and washes her hands, then fills the pitcher. As she walks down toward the cabin, chickens are pecking for bugs in the hard red earth.
When she was last inside the cabin, a year ago, she deemed it more comfortable than her own wretched house. Now, as she ducks to enter the one-room shack, it is hot and close, with an unidentifiable rancid smell. On the corncob-stuffed mattress Margaret lies on her side, moaning softly. Anner removes her bonnet and sends Zilpah off to collect the eggs before they spoil in the heat.
Kneeling, she wipes Margaret’s sopping brow with a towel. And then Margaret’s face contorts. She rolls to her back and there, as she strains with the pain, is a bloody black-haired head, barely visible in the opening between her legs. Anner’s grateful now that her mother dragged her, at age fourteen, to witness one of their negroes giving birth. Pay attention, Anner. These babes are valuable commodities. She grips Margaret’s hands and tells her to push and lie back, push and lie back.
At last, with one giant heave, the head pops out, along with a gush of blood. Anner guides the shoulders and the slimy little body onto one of the towels. “A girl,” she tells Margaret. She thinks about Old Rye swinging the lamb by its hind legs, but this one needs no such encouragement. All on her own she gasps and cries, her fists in tiny knots. Anner ties the cord and cuts it with her paring knife.
She soaks a towel with water and cleans the baby as best she can. This infant looks white, as white as anyone in Anner’s own family. She begins to shake, in relief that she has so far managed this feat without disaster. And in fear, hidden before now in some cranny of her soul, that this baby is Tom’s.
“Thank you, Missus,” Margaret whispers.
“The child seems healthy. You did well, Margaret.”
Still trembling, Anner swaddles the baby in the last of the clean towels and puts her in Margaret’s arms. When, after some more grunting, Margaret has expelled the afterbirth, Anner wonders what to do with it. She has no memory of her mother making any disposition at all of the nasty thing. Margaret sleeps, the child at her breast.
Anner wraps the afterbirth untidily in a soiled towel and carries it into the yard. She spots Zilpah lurking near the tool shed. “What am I to do with this?”
Zilpah stares into the towel. “Don’ know, Missus Anner. Ain’t nevah had no baby.”
The other negroes are all out in the fields, and besides, this isn’t the kind of thing that men, nigger or white, know anything about. Sheep and horses, yes—womenfolk, no. She touches Zilpah’s brown arm. “You go on in and sit with Margaret.”
In the shed Anner finds a shovel. With the rewrapped bundle tucked under her arm, she carries the tool down the rough path to Ham Creek. She walks along the water’s edge until she comes to a patch of uncleared land that stretches back from the stream. Nearby is a large red oak that has been girdled with deep hatchet cuts in order to kill it.
Choosing a place that has no brambles and not too much brush, she begins to dig. At once the mosquitoes find her. In the dense clay are all kinds of roots and suckers to chop through. Sometimes she has to hitch her skirts up and get down on her knees and hack at them with the paring knife. By the time she digs a hole deep enough, she’s as soaked with sweat as Margaret, her shoulder muscles ache, and blisters have risen on her palms. Without pausing for breath, Anner thrusts the bloody bundle into the hole and covers it with clumps of clay, stamping hard on the surface with the heels of her shoes. She prays to God: let no roaming dog or wild animal scent the thing out and claw it up and eat it.
The sun is high overhead now, and Tom will be back from the fields wondering where his dinner is, where all his help has gone. He’ll just have to make do with cold biscuit, she thinks, and be satisfied to learn he now holds seven negroes instead of six.
September. In the heat of the day Anner begins to doze in her chair, her dinner of bacon and greens, sour with vinegar, lying uneasily on her stomach. Startling her, Shadrack bursts into the sitting room. “Marse Tom,” the boy says, panting, his raggedy-brimmed straw hat pressed against his chest.
“What about him?”
In the hallway she pulls on her heavy brown shoes without taking time to lace them properly. Carrying her bonnet by its ribbons, she follows Shadrack down the porch steps and around the house, past the chicken coop, the negro cabins, the barn, the piggery. Evidently they are heading for the creek. The boy runs ahead of her, looking back every now and then to make sure she’s behind him. Once she nearly falls, but rights herself before sprawling in the red dust.
When they reach the creek, they trace its course south, stumbling through brush and tall weeds. Mosquitoes and flies buzz and dive at them. Her skirts catch on brambles and she must often stop to untangle them, her fingers pricked with thorns. It seems a long way, the air so heavy with moisture it’s a struggle to breathe.
And then they come upon him, lying in the sun, his eyes closed. In the grass beside him are patches of vomit. Nearby is a huge snake, its head hacked off. The fanged mouth is still open, puffy white inside. Beside it is a hoe, crusted with dried clay and blood.
“Cottonmouf,” Shadrack tells her. “I kilt it wif dat hoe.”
Tom’s arm, flung out on the grass, is already swollen hideously. Plainly visible in the forearm are the two holes made by the fangs. Get the poison out, a voice screams at her. Snakes swarm in Alabama. She knows what to do.
“I must have a knife.”
Shadrack fumbles through a pocket in his trousers. He comes up with a little folding pocketknife. “Only one I got, Missus,” he says, handing it to her. “I be usin’ it fo’ whittlin’.”
“Hurts…” Tom says, as if from somewhere far away. He makes a strangled sound, and more vomit runs from the side of the mouth, down his neck, into the coarse grass.
“Lie still.” With her thumbnail she extracts the hinged knife blade from its bone handle and wipes the blade clean on her apron.
“Poison a-travelin’,” Shadrack says in dismay.
He’s right. The inflamed swelling is spreading up Tom’s forearm and will soon reach his elbow. Abruptly she drops the knife and kicks off a shoe, pulls down a cotton stocking, not caring whether Shadrack sees her bare leg. She wraps the stocking around her husband’s arm just below the elbow and knots the ends.
Shadrack lays the knife in her hand, and with the tip she carves a cut across the fang holes. Thank God Shadrack keeps the knife sharp. She puts her mouth down on Tom’s arm and sucks hard. She spits into the grass, blood and venom, a horrible metallic taste in her mouth. She takes a deep breath. Bending down, she sucks again, and spits again, a dozen times or more. Then she vomits, all her dinner mixed with blood and bile and venom, the mess speckled with green bits of collards. She hears herself whimpering with nausea and fear.
“Best git Marse Tom out de sun,” the boy says.
A ways back from the stream is a large red oak. Somehow she and the boy half-drag, half-walk Tom to the tree, whose dense canopy of leaves grants them blessed relief from the sun. Underneath, layers of rotting leaves form a kind of bed. Here they settle him. He is barely conscious. However, Anner sees that his arm seems less engorged, and the spreading has ceased. As she’s loosening the stocking, the boy says, “He need water now, Missus.”
“It’s so far back to the house.”
“My bonnet won’t carry the water, nor your hat.”
He glances down at her shoes. One of her legs wears no stocking. Her ankles are scraped raw from weeds and brambles.
When the boy has left with her shoes, she eases herself under Tom so that his head is cradled in her lap. With the hem of her apron she wipes his mouth, and then her own. Gently she strokes his damp hair, which is the color of a copper penny that has tarnished some. “You’ll survive this,” she whispers. “God will help us, I promise.”
His eyes are shut, and she doesn’t know whether he hears her, but his breathing is steady. As they wait under the tree for Shadrack to return with her shoes filled with water, she prays, as earnestly as she is able. The words come readily from a hymn: Lord, if thou the grace impart—poor in spirit, meek in heart—I shall, as my Master, be rooted in humility.
Humble, she vows to be. It’s a kind of bargain, meek supplication in return for Tom’s life. But then, interrupting her prayer, a thought insinuates itself into her head. The spot near the creek where Tom was bit is very close to where she buried Margaret’s afterbirth, digging and digging amid the roots to rid the world of that ugly, misbegotten thing. Why wasn’t Anner struck by the cottonmouth, punished for the anger she cannot shake?
After a week Tom still lies in bed, his wound ulcerating, unable to move his arm. The doctor prescribes specially compounded tinctures and salves, herb teas. Bleeds him daily to drain the poisons from his body.
Though it’s now mid-September, there’s no relief from the heat. The negro London has become de facto overseer, reporting to Tom every evening. Tom paid five hundred dollars for London, which he could ill afford, but perhaps the purchase was not foolish, after all. The cotton picking continues, all the hands in the fields from sunup to sundown.
“I never saw it,” Tom tells Anner one day. “Shadrack and I were taking a shortcut home, walking along the creek. I saw something bright, a bird maybe, and started up the bank to investigate. And then I tripped on a root. Next thing I know there’s a pain in my arm like a gunshot, and Shadrack is hacking at this thing with his hoe, and I’m on the ground writhing. Then the boy runs off and I’m left to lie there, thinking now I’m going to die, and I must be ready.”
No Methodist can face death without seeking to make peace with God.
“But instead of my sins, all I can think of lying there is the terrible pain. And there’s the snake beside me, its head off but still laughing at me. And the sun so hot I think I’m going to catch fire. For a while I’m in another world somewhere between here and death, and then you’re tying a cloth around my arm, and I’m confused because we wear armbands when somebody else has died, but I’m the one dying.”
Margaret brings soup, and clumsily Tom spoons it into his mouth with his left hand. “I should’ve been watching where I was going,” he says, “and beating the brush with a stick. Tarnation! I know better. Now I’ve got a useless arm to show for my stupidity.”
“The doctor promised that when the wound has healed the paralysis will go away.”
“Well, we’ll find out about that, won’t we?”
“Every day the wound closes up some.”
“So I never got to ask forgiveness for my sins, and now it appears I’m going to live.”
“God is always willing to listen and to forgive.”
The preacher says this in chapel, and at class-meeting the ladies reassure one another with these words. But is He? Perhaps no more than Anner can forgive her husband. Tom has not troubled to thank her for saving his life. She loves him dearly, but no matter what she does, it’s impossible to please him. She has more poison roiling inside than he does. She ought to be bled a pint a day, until her life’s blood is gone.
She takes the empty soup bowl to the kitchen. There Margaret is rolling biscuit dough, the baby cradled in a cloth sling at her side. The little face peers out at Anner, her skin nearly as pale as the dough. The child gives Anner a pink-gummed grin.
London comes to report to Tom about the day’s events. They’re in the sitting room, Tom now well enough to be out of bed. Anner’s sewing is in her lap and she has lit the oil lamp. London’s first words are: “De mule’s gone lame.”
For some reason the word “mule” recalls to Anner a conversation she overheard at class-meeting weeks ago. If you want to know what color they’ll turn out, look at the tips of their ears. Instantly Anner understands that it was not Indian corn, nor mules, being referred to that evening, but human babies. Negro babies.
She slips out of the sitting room and into the kitchen. Margaret is scraping out a kettle into a bucket of slops for the pigs. Her child is asleep in a basket near a bushel of apples, harvested from the tree outside the house.
“Master Tom asked for an apple. I’ll get it.”
The apples are small and wormy, fit only for cider. Anner takes so much time picking through them that she can give the child a good long look. The tiny ears are darker than mahogany. Her father is not Tom.
At sometime after midnight on the , Anner is awakened by a commotion. For a moment she lies listening. There’s a rumble of voices from the direction of the creek. The negroes, must be. A riot? The insurrection everyone has been dreading since Nat Turner picked up a hatchet? She hears the dog’s hoarse bark amid the shouts. Worried, she pushes back the quilt and steps onto the floor with bare feet. At the window she lifts a corner of the curtain.
Astonishingly, the sky is full of light. She pulls the curtain along its rod, exposing the whole window. A thousand stars are streaking toward the earth. “Tom,” she calls. “Tom.”
Quickly they dress and go down the porch steps and out into the yard. The stars in their hundreds of thousands have unhinged from their moorings and are plunging downward, leaving long glittering trails as they fall. A fireball large as the moon sweeps across the arc of sky. Tom grips Anner’s hand.
Now all the negroes are here, Shadrack in his frayed straw hat, Margaret with her baby in her arms, barefooted London beside her. In a knot they stand together in the dusty yard and gaze at the shower of fire. “A sign, fo’ sho’,” old Rye says. “Jesus a-comin’ back to earf. He on his way.”
“Amen,” they murmur, in awe.
“Deliber us fro’ ebil, Lord. Dine be de powah an’ de glory.”
More and more stars explode through the sky. And yet, weirdly, these stars make no sound. For an hour, or two, or three, masters and chattel stand together in the yard, transfixed.
Finally, near dawn, God seems to tire of the spectacle He has created. The number of shooting stars dwindles. Margaret has crept into the shadows to nurse her baby, and Shadrack vanishes, too. The slaves are beginning to remember the cotton bolls that yet await them in the fields, whether or not Jesus is coming on the morrow. They straggle back to their cabins.
Tom and Anner climb the porch steps. In the bedroom, Tom unwraps the shawl from his wife’s shoulders and lets it fall to the floor. He buries his head in her breast.
|© Elaine Ford, 2015|