Dying ain’t as hard as living. No siree. My only regret is I’m goin first, and we’re not goin together. Ain’t should be like that. Damn it. How I hollered at that dear husband of mine not to use that damn word “ain’t” and here it is, set right in my heart like a vampire stake. Wish I could find myself somehow, somewhere.
Find myself, after blowin to bits by Hollis, that damn son of mine. I was one of the sweetest-tempered girls in the county. Until that son grew up, wild. I’ll never knowd what made him so mean. Didn’t come from my side of the family, that’s for sure. He could just break me in two, my daddy warned me, my husband too, when he saw what’s was goin on….
It’s not as if I wasn’t educated in my family. Heck, we went back a longs way. Gave that grandson who rode off with Sinbad, that great stallion, the picture of me as a new mama, cradling his pa in my hands, way back in 1824. Sons. Girls are always better to bring up, but they don’t seem to bring in the money. And there I was, high and dry, needing to get married in the worst way. Not that anybody but me noticed. Sure, if my mama had lived, she’d knowed what was goin on in my head. He’s kept me here on this farm since she was laid to rest. I ain’t seen no good boys, men now – that’s what I want. No men out here. Not even my daddy is a man. Not since she died.
I mean, time is where your heart goes and mine’s been goin right along with my mama and papa’s since everyone else died, when those Injuns passed by with that smallpox. The newspapers sayin we gave it to ’em. In blankets. Well, neigh I hear that would be foolish, seeing as how many of us died too. Still, it makes me wonder what my grandma used to say, talking about Indians as if she were one of ’em.
I asked Daddy, a nice gentleman, without a bone in his body, some folks say, to teach me to play cards. I’d heard him playing them cards with Mama, laughing and talkin all night long. Lordy, how she liked to talk! He musta liked listening cause it was her voice telling the stories. Now me, here, I can’t tell no stories.
“Come on, Daddy, let’s just sit down right here at the table, and play some cards.”
“Caroline, you know I don’t play no more.” The man looked more like a young girl’s husband than a father. He came from farming stock from the Old Country. Good farming stock, that is. Not like those wild, whiskey mountain boys out West. He was a small, dark haired man without a whit of white. God-fearing, farming man, not like most the men around these parts. A handsome man who spoke few words but had romanced the hearts of every woman a hundred miles away. Could do it again, Caroline thought, if he’s stop moaning about Mama.
“Aren’t I good enough for you to play with?” Caroline asked, removing her homespun apron, and putting it on the nail by the big kitchen basin. She’d taken to shortening her skirts so they wouldn’t drag summer’s dirt on the ground, something her mother had forbade her to do. Since Mama wasn’t in charge anymore, Caroline was acting more and more “American” and less lady-like.
“It’s just that….” and Old Andrew, as he called himself, looked at his fifteen year old daughter for the first time in months. How could that sprite, running wild just last week, be the spittin image of the woman he had married, loved, and now grieved for….
“What’s the matter, Daddy?” Caroline asked, worried that his clear blue eyes were racing around their comfy cabin like he’d go wild, like the horses.
“Day? What day is it?” Old Andrew asked Caroline, his daughter, who stood before him in her grey workin dress. His eyes traveled to the hem. Annie had made that dress. All from cotton brought up north from down south. Annie sure could spin a tale, playin cards or spinnin cotton. Hey, did he just see a bit of black ankle? Stockings showing! On his daughter!
Caroline saw his eyes flash. Their brilliance clear and straight at her heart. He lifted one eyebrow. Now, if he’d only….
“Well, I’ll say,” he slowly smiled, a crooked smile, “now isn’t that a fine ankle on a young woman. Maybe it’s about time I went courting….I mean you went courting….” He actually blushed.
Caroline, ankle or no ankle showing, wasn’t sure what her father Old Andrew was saying, exactly. Then he smiled, hugged her, and danced about the cabin.
“Here I’ve been groaning and moaning about losing your mother, and keeping you tied to me just so I could look at you, and remember her. I’ve been one heck of a selfish old man, my dear daughter. Let’s sit right down here and play us some cards. I think we need to do some talkin.”
So that’s how she learned to play all the old riverboat games. It wasn’t long before he was talkin up a storm. She kept her eyes lowered. She didn’t want him to stop. No siree. She never heard him talk like this. He was going on and on about life before Mother, life during Mother, and sure as you could bet the farm, he was talkin about life after Mother.
And that’s how Old Andrew finally stopped grieving after two years, three months and five days. And that’s also when he started courting for a wife for himself, and searching for a husband for his only daughter. He wanted a family, this time out. Lots and lots of kids, youngins to help on the farm he and Annie were gonna buy, but kept getting lazier and lazier, so in love with each other. Didn’t wanna work hard and ruin a spring day plantin acres and acres when he could be spoonin with his wife that made him feel she was still wondering if she’d marry him.
She nearly dying in childbirth, like one of his ancestors, made it clear he wasn’t going in lose her to another child, no matter what anyone said. And they had said a lot. Like he wasn’t a man. That her eye would be wandering all over the territory. That he’d live to regret the day….
Now, awakened from his stupor, he re-greeted the nights they had love, and all the stories she had told him.
Every night for months, after finishing work in their modest dry goods store, Caroline and her father would sit down after dinner and play poker, he talkin up a storm.
“I’m not sure I want me a widow, even at my age. I think your momma was right, that I’m young enough to marry a younun like you. What do you say?” he asked Caroline, but then he answered himself – well, maybe it was her mother’s mind answering for them both. “Depends on what you want too. You’ve got every right to want something. Just because you’re a girl is no reason to act as if you’re not my flesh and blood grown adult. But I do want me some boys. No offense, Caroline. Looky here, you just lost another hand! What am I gonna do with you? I know.”
Sprightly, Old Andrew left the table. Thirty-five, and thinking he’d live to be ninety like his ancestors, Andrew liked calling himself “Old Andrew”. Caroline watched him, her small hand holding her chin. She was surprised at how handsome he was, although short. “Being short kept me outta fights. Kept me alive, it did. You’d be grateful you’re short,” he had told her when she had come crying to him once she realized she’d never be as tall as her mother.
“I’m goin out for a few days, Caroline. I’ve got some business to do. You keep after the store, and play your poker hands. It’s in your blood. That’s how I met your momma – the only woman, heck, the only person, who ever beat me!”
“But!” Caroline whispered, jolted back in her chair, twin blue eyes like her father’s. There it was, one of those rare smiles of his.
“It’s not good for a daughter to know too much about her parents’ life before she was born. But seeing how you’re going to be leaving me soon, and you’re not a big, strapping boy, I gotta help you take care of yourself. Now don’t you worry none,” Old Andrew continued, putting on his bearskin hat and buffalo coat traded from the Indians, “I’m myself now. You just keep practicing. I’d teach you how to shoot,” he said, taking one of the three rifles kept by the door, “but Annie Oakley you’re ain’t.”
“Father, you can’t leave me like this!”
He spun from going out the door. “I’ve always left you like this for a few days, don’t you remember?”
“That was when Mother was alive. This way I’ll be alone!”
“No need for that. You’re as pretty as your mama. Work hard, and practice your poker. I’m sure someone will come courtin.”
Caroline leapt to her feet, knocking the chair over. She stormed, then slowed her gait, then stood before her father, head to head.
“Who in the heck do you think I am? I’m a good woman. I don’t entertain men.”
“Maybe you outta. Or make some friends. Be nicer to our customers. You think I’m the only one who changed when Annie died. No siree. You were so sullen, if I hadn’t worked so hard in the store, we might have lost it. Smile. Chitchat. Ask questions if you don’t have anything to say yourself. Back in the Old Country we always talked about the weather. Safe. Not like you Americans and all that yelling and shouting about politics. Now, kiss me on the cheek like a good, little girl, and I’ll bring you home something so sweet, you’ll never doubt me again!”
Off he went. Caroline bit her tongue, trying hard to control a temper that was inherited from some damn warrior ancestor he had told her about playing cards, and now, here she was. A woman alone in the Territories. She couldn’t hit a rabbit, but she sure could hit a man. Much bigger target. ‘Just keep one rifle here, and one in the store,’ she told herself.
The bell over the door rang, boots stomped on the hard, wooden floor, followed by the soft hush of a woman’s feet following the man’s thunder. He lifted his hat, twin blue eyes in the sky, “Good morning, miss. I’m looking for Old Andrew.”
Caroline dragged her stunned face from the man to the woman. A ghost. It must be a ghost. She pushed her palms into the calico, spread before her on the counter. Only when she feared she might break the expensive glass did she stop.
“We’ve been told he lives out this away,” the man said softly. Some kind of power was flowing between all three of them. She must have startled them too, she realized once the woman put her gloved hand to her face. Lace glove. Not practical.
Caroline found herself, straightened her willowy spine more, and looked back at the man. He may have looked like her father, but he sure wasn’t. He was a dandy. And he talked funny. And he had a fancy lady with him. But that didn’t explain…. unless he was….
“You can see for yourself, Caroline. Must be you aren’t much of a talker, just like Andy.” That’s when she noticed the bags, and the coach outside. They hadn’t come in a covered wagon. Now that bothered her a lot. That needed a heck of a lot of explanation.
The woman sighed, removed her gloves while looking at the dry goods store. Annie traded a lot with the Indians, so a lot of beaded clothes and jewellery was about. Something rare in these places. “So this is where it all came from, Joseph. I can’t believe my eyes. I’m finally seeing how that gambling fool did so well. I told you to trust your brother. He wasn’t going to leave us behind.”
He had sent for them! Caroline realized. The woman’s voice was too educated. Too high and mighty.
Her father had taught her if she waited out, people would say everything they needed to say. When he had told her to talk to them, ask them questions, it was hard going. Now, with the wind knocked out of her, she just stood, gripping onto what had been and what would be her life.
Joseph, whose voice wasn’t nearly half has bad as the woman’s, held out his hand. “Guess Andy didn’t tell you. I’m his twin brother Joseph, and this is my wife, Mariam. He sent for us. All the way from Scotland.”
Caroline shook his hand, then offered it to the woman. Her warm, firm handshake, and twin sky-blue eyes brought Caroline onto the brink of tears.
“How can we all look alike?” she asked her new uncle and aunt.
Everyone laughed, but then the bell rang again, and a customer entered. Mariam gracefully moved to Caroline’s side, squeezed the girl’s hand and graciously asked Mrs. Springfield what she’d like, who for, what occasion, suggesting an Indian piece of jewellery that the old lady declared was not right, until Mariam’s soothing voice convinced her it was all the rage on the Continent.
Both Joseph and Caroline sighed. They knew when someone had found their element. “Let’s say you and I go over and have a drink,” Joseph suggested, nodding across the way towards the saloon.
Never had she stepped into that saloon. Never. She slipped her hand through Joseph’s arm, and high-stepped into her new life.
Family, that’s what it had all been about. Settled now in her dying bed, Caroline realized she had been lonely back then as a girl. Heck, she saw maybe ten-twenty people a day, but she hadn’t been like the other girls. They had brothers and sisters so they knew how to talk to each other. She just knew how to listen like her father. Seems her mother told stories, keeping little Caroline at her side. Now, laying in that dying death bed assured, she realized those stories had been for her just as much as they had been for the customers. Old Caroline’s heart leapt. A million and one pictures flooded her mind. Now she saw her mother, the plain-and-beautiful woman she had really been.
All those lonely moments, alone with her mother, while her mother worked and worked at that shop, doing the papers and talking to the customers, all the time, pouring love into her little ears too young to know the sound of love.
Love had made her average looking mother beautiful to Old Andrew. “Joi de’viv” as Uncle Joseph and Aunt Mariam had described their deceased sister-in law. Love of life had kept wrinkles from her face, frowns from her mouth. Only now did Caroline remember how Annie used to take her face in both hands and kiss her goodnight, on the chin, nose and forehead. Old Country way. Every morning. Every night.
Old Andrew eventually returned as the three of them sat at the dinner table, playing cards. His few days had been his longest ever trip. One whole moon and then some, ‘cept this time, he hadn’t brought back any trading goods. Just walked in from the church-like silent falling snow, plopped a big bag of gold coins on the table and hugged his long lost twin brother and sister-in-law. Caroline didn’t mind much, ‘cept how his voice started sounding exactly like theirs – all foreign and uppity. Maybe that was why he had kept silent so long.
They taught her. Everything about cards, from the Old Country. Old Andrew divided the gold into four sets, then pushed a set before each of them. “Let’s play some real poker,” he said, rubbing his hands together. At the end of that first evening, Andrew had most of the gold and Caroline with none, everyone laughed. “Just like the old days, eh, Old Andrew,” Uncle Joseph said.
“Shhh. You’ve got his little girl upset,” Mariam said.
Here Caroline was, for years sharing her father with her greedy mother, and now that Mother was gone, and her father had gotten out of his grief, he brought in HIS family to share himself with. And all that gold! Where’d he get that?
Old Andrew lengthened the moment. “Just like your mamma! She had the exact same reaction when I took her back to London!”
“Oh, Andy,” Mariam said, getting up from her chair and hugging Caroline who was weeping. “You haven’t told her a thing! How could you do that to the poor child, especially when she’s old enough to get married and leave. When were you going to tell her? This is just terrible! You men and your damn secrets!”
That’s when Mariam truly became Aunt Mariam. Having a strange woman hug her while she cried made Caroline feel real to herself. All the strangeness since her mother’s death, father’s escape, and the weeks with these look-alike strangers…. then her daddy acting like somebody else’s daddy, and making up stories like her Momma used to do for the customers.
“Just sit down, Mariam. You’re gonna ruin the show.”
Caroline’s eyes pleaded with Mariam. Mariam tapped her on the shoulder. “It’s okay, honey, you’ll see,” she whispered before sitting opposite Caroline.
Old Andrew took the three separate piles of gold and put them back into one big one. “Put our money away, honey,” he gently instructed Caroline.
“Ah, she talks!” Old Andrew said. “Put it away. Where do you think it should go?”
Caroline stared at the gleaming gold. Yes, she knew all too well about that kind of stuff. Funny how it being called “our” had warmed her heart, and then her whole body. Staring at it quietly, she felt she was in church. Then she felt something else, between her legs. She kept all these thoughts from her face. Didn’t want them to guess her hand.
“Land. We should put it in land. Out West. Further out West.” Her glazed eyes looked at all three of them. They nodded their heads, although Caroline heard, for the first time, the voices. They weren’t exactly happy about that idea. Seems they had had other plans. But in respect of their older brother who had done so much for the family, they would go along with Caroline’s decision.
“Why?” she asked them, rather than they her.
“Oh, God, she’s got the Gift!” Mariam said, covering her mouth with her hand.
Old Andrew smiled at Caroline. Caroline now knew why her father never did much talking. He didn’t have to. “I liked the sound of your mother’s voice. So I asked her to talk, rather than just mind-talk.”
“Didn’t she like your voice?” Caroline asked sadly.
“Said her ancestors had killed people who spoke like me. Made her blood boil.
“Caroline,” Uncle Joseph said, touching her hand lightly, “In London, we did this with your mother. She didn’t like the Old Country, and my brother here didn’t like the New World. So we decided we’d all place our gold on the table, and whoever won made the decision. In honor of her, and her wisdom and love for our brother, we decided we would honor you, and let you make the decision.”
“Why did you wait so long to come here? Why didn’t you come earlier? Why did you wait until she was dead!”
Old Andrew and Uncle Joseph restrained Caroline’s hands. No one moved or spoke. She felt it then, that warm, thick, snake-like energy circling the table. Joseph was holding onto Mariam, and Mariam onto Andrew.
Even now, Caroline thought, waiting for the sun to rise and her old ninety-something body to rest, even now, witchcraft is a dirty word. How often she had to hit her only son just to stop him from using that devil left hand! If the neighbors saw that they would have started seeing just about everything else strange about them. No way in heaven or hell did she want her son to suffer from the Old World’s prejudice. Caroline saw flashes of witches burning alive, a lucky few strangled before the faggots were lit.
We all wanted to go Out West real bad. Taking me without belonging to a man was invitin trouble. From Injuns, from other settlers, from the mountain men, and all that. Old Andrew himself wanted a woman to take with him. Make the journey and the living easier, and add some laughter to the group. He knew Joseph and Mariam would be moving on – all the way to San Francisco. Not him. He just wanted some healthy farmland, better than the rubble he’d left back in Scotland….
Once Uncle Joseph and Aunt Mariam started him talking, he started singin too, like the choir he had been in as a boy in the Old Country, and quite a bit of Robbie Burns. So, here he is, walking up and down the river, waitin for the riverboat. He’s thinking exactly how unfaithful he is being to my momma, but he’s a man, and a good-looking man. Lots of old ladies have been invitin him around. He’s no fool. He’s gonna find a woman on the riverboat, just like he found momma.
As he’s up early, like the farmer he is, he hears a sound down by the bank of the river, where the cotton willows can hide just about anything. Boy, was my daddy surprised when he tiptoed up to the sound and whisked those willows apart.
“Don’t do nothin! I ain’t bad, no siree. I’m just sittin here, sir.”
Sure enough, that’s all the Negro slave said and was doing, sittin on the bank of the river, trying to catch a fish. When his line wiggled, my pappa saw him grab that thin fishing stick and yank out breakfast. My daddy also saw the iron chains around his wrists, and how black they looked against the Negro’s “high yellow” skin.
“Looks like you’ve got yourself in a heck of a lot of trouble, boy,” Papa said.
“You call this five pound bass “trouble”? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet! You gonna share it with me, or don’t you eat river fish?” the Negro man asked my father, not talkin like a Negro at all. My daddy done like that. He likes spirit in a man.
The riverboat came and went while the two men chatted. Despite the handcuffs and the ankle irons, the Negro was quite adept at cookin that there fish. He wouldn’t let my daddy do nothin to help him. When the fish was almost baked on some hot rocks, the Negro pulled out some sprigs and stuff from a leather pouch, and sprinkled it on the fish.
“That superstition or what?” Old Andrew asked.
“New Orleans special, coming right up,” the Negro said.
Whatever it was that Negro Tom had put on the fish, kinda made the fish taste like something from France my daddy said later. Unbelievable unfish-tasting.
“Where’d you’d learn to do something like that?” Old Andrew asked.
Negro Tom looked away. Up until that very moment, the men had been equals, but now Negro Tom felt like slave Tom.
My daddy looked at Negro Tom real close now. All that silence left a lot a time for lookin’. Handsome Negro. Andrew never saw one with such high cheekbones and small nose and mouth. His hands too were delicate, not all thrashed and ripped apart pickin cotton. If it weren’t for the location and those irons, maybe he’d never believe Negro Tom was a runaway slave.
Tom turned his face to my daddy. He took his time staring at him too, even eye to eye. My daddy says right then and there he felt a kinship with that there slave. My daddy put both his hands on his thighs, raised himself up, and said, “Let’s get those irons off ya. They don’t belong there.”
For the life of me, I don’t know how they got them off, but when they did, the men shook hands and introduced themselves. Then my daddy fell silent, sat on the river bank as the sun set, and let Young Tom talk on and on, braggin and what not, about being so high yeller. Until my daddy stopped him.
“You ain’t one thing or another, Tom. Why you go lyin to me? You don’t have to pretend with me. I can see the Injun blood in you as much as I can see the blue eyes of myself in my daughter. How much of what are ya?”
Nostrils flared. Tom stood akimbo, angry someone had seen through him. Not many could, did, or even tried.
“You askin about my breeding?” Tom asked aggressively.
Daddy just sat on the riverbank, skipping stones across, thinkin. He turned his head back to the handsome, mixed Indian-Negro and God knew what else man. “I ain’t askin about your breeding. I aim to ask about you. Where you came from? What you want to do with that brain and delicate fingers you got? And seeing how you know how to use the herbs like the Indians do, I figure one of your parents mustov been Indian. My wife was Indian.”
Tom heard the “was”. Another long silence pulled itself between the two men. Tom sat down. “Indian, Negro, White, and some Arab slaver captain.”
“Mighty interesting combination. You gonna look for a tribe that will take you in?”
Tom too skipped stones on the river, but not nearly as well as my daddy.
“Ain’t thought that far ahead.”
“Thinkin’s a mighty good habit. I say you’ve thought about it and ain’t telling me. Heck, who am I any way? I couldov freed those irons from you – took nigh near the darn day – just to sell you downriver again, right?”
Young Tom looked at Old Andrew. “Why do they call you “Old Andrew”?
“It’s me name.”
“No. It’s not.”
“You callin me a liar?” Old Andrew shouted, standing and ready to fight.
It was the Negro-Injun-White-Arab’s turn to sit quietly. “No, you ain’t old enough to be “old” and Andrew sounds too formal. There’s something about the way you twist your mouth around that word that makes it ring false.” Tom shrugged. “Men keep their secrets. Ain’t no problem with me.”
Old Andrew wished he was on that riverboat, any riverboat, looking for a wife when he suddenly thinks of somethin wonderfully new. He sits next to Tom, both staring out onto the water. Moonlight had risen, and its path from the heavens to them filled both men’s hearts.
“You’ve been bragging all day about how good you are with the ladies. Said even the Master’s lady tried to snare you, but you kept clear. Now, me, seeing you, and knowing how some women are as hot as some men, I’ve been meaning to ask, how comes you ran way from such an easy job, cooking in that New Orleans plantation?”
Tom looked at Old Andrew, his eyes narrowing. “You’ve got some dirty mind there. I don’t crow about…”
Old Andrew touched Tom’s shoulder. Tom flinched and ducked his head. Old Andrew patted his back. “Now, you be about 19, 20 years old, am I right?”
“Twenty-two! Long enough to learn how to please a woman – Indian, white, or slave. Them whites just don’t take the time to make a woman all comfy and wet, just about begging for my lovin. All I heard was complaints about their white men. The Indian women, now they….” He was quiet.
“Let me see your thing,” my daddy asked Tom, while he pressed his strong arm down on Tom’s shoulders, not lettin him move.
“Hell, man, this is like children. I show you mine, you show me yours. Ain’t no different.”
“I wanna see if you’ve got any sickness on it, from being with all those women.”
Tom sprang up, pulled his pants down and swung his thing before my daddy’s eyes. “Clean as a whistle,” both men said in unison, then laughed.
“Tom, I’ve gotta apologize. I didn’t mean to insult your healthy manhood. It’s just that I’ve been thinkin of somethin real important. Now if you tell me the truth, I may just be the man to give you a new life, and not just some empty freedom. If you had one good woman, could you love her? Or would you be needin to run around on her?”
Again Tom’s Arab nostrils flared as he inhaled and exhaled. His eyes watered. Old Andrew pulled the man into his own arms and life. Tom hadn’t felt such human warmth in a long, long time.
“I’ve been used for breeding,” he admitted between sobs. “They thought I was so handsome, they’d like a lot of mes around. Wouldn’t let me love anyone. Put it in, play around some, and take the woman and my child away before even the belly swelled. That damn white Master’s wife!”
Old Andrew had given Tom his handkerchief.
“What about the white Master’s wife?” Old Andrew encouraged Tom.
Tom blew his nose, and blew it again, not wantin to answer. But then came that warm, comfortable silence again. Tom just stared at my daddy’s eyes and told him the whole story:
“She heard how the women I bred with talked about my lovin’, like I was not just a stud animal, but a god, a man, an angel, and on and on. You see, being of so much mixed blood, none of the other boys would play with me, so I hung around my Negro-Indian mother, whose mother came from the ship with the Arab captain slaver. Anyways, when women think no one’s around, they sure do talk about what they did the night before! I had heard it all before I was able to understand any of it.
When my momma found out what the Master was gonna use me for, she thought I could get my freedom by being extra special at my job. So she took me to her Indian friends, and had an older squaw teach me. A lot. About nearly everything a man and woman can do. Sure can keep a teepee warm acting like we did that week. Momma had always counted on me going to the Big House, being a cook. That’s why she had taught me how to gather herbs and stuff.
I ain’t been able to love no woman except my mama, and that wonderful squaw whose body I have never touched since then. God, how I miss that woman!”
Another comfortable silence enveloped the two men.
“So?” my daddy egged on Tom.
“So? So I was damn good at my job! Soon everyone within a hundred miles knew I was so damn good! They sent me to New Orleans, sold me, naked, standing on that stone block, the price goin higher and higher. Damn, would you believe, my thing kept getting bigger and bigger as the ladies looked me over. I was so ashamed, the blood finally left that place and went to my head.
They’s wouldn’t let me put my head down. Wanted to show off my nose and mouth, cheekbones and all. I had to look straight ahead and just cloud over my eyes, and think of nothin. White out.”
Tom gritted his teeth. “A restaurateur bought me. A really old restaurateur, Old Andrew,” Tom chuckled. “Had him a young wife. Damn if that woman wasn’t still a virgin in her flesh, she was like the hottest, finest, red-ruby lipped cherry a man could want. Wouldn’t eat. Nothin. Mighty strange woman.
She took to lookin at me when her husband was teachin me how to cook. We liked each other, the old man and I. But even he could tell what his young wife was after. He was a practical man, yes, he was. But she wasn’t. So he tells me, if I want, I could warm his wife’s bed, seeing as she wanted a child and after three years he hadn’t been successful.
Breeding, he said. His heart broke every time she came back into their bedroom, and cuddled next to him, him all limp and useless down there, but his heart, his belly, his hands as magical as any Old Country song.”
Tom shook his head. “Fool. Foolish woman. I almost started to like her. I liked her husband well. But even after another year with me, she still wasn’t with child. I says to the restaurateur, “I can’t do this no longer. I respect you too much. She ain’t good enough for you. Your heart is breakin’ and sooner or later, you’re gonna want to kill me. Say it was all my fault. That wife of yours, I think she’s runnin around on you.
She was too. I wasn’t lyin. I showed him. He started choppin her up into pieces with a butcher knife. I yanked it from him, but I was too late. She was dead.
All that screaming brought a lot of white folks to the scene. Didn’t look good for me. Would have been okay, but the restaurateur went crazy. Couldn’t remember a thing. Didn’t think I’d done it. l kept telllin the judge I couldn’t kill her ’caused I loved her just like he had loved her.
I mean, I told him I loved her to make him happy, although I didn’t. Like I said, I only loved my momma and my Injun squaw.
But the judge didn’t have it in his heart to believe the restaurateur, him being famous and all, with this waterfront restaurant, exotic good and stuff. So the judged sentenced me instead.
Now this restaurateur finally got his wits back. He saw this was wrong. So he and the judge and sheriff had a little talk. Exchanged some money, or favors, he wouldn’t say. Didn’t tell me any of this. I’ve been sittin here all night long figurin it out. Seems the posse taking me to be hung just accidentally left me on this here riverbank and rode back home.
Old Andrew just shook his head. “Now, you think I’m gonna believe that story!”
Tom shrugged. “You said you’s gonna give me a life if I told you the truth. What kind of story have you got for me?”
Old Andrew removed a blanket from his sack and spread it over both their shoulders as the moon moved further and further away. Lucky it was just a cool autumn day, no cold winter had yet set in in that part of Pennsylvania.
“You said you never loved a….”
“Why’s you returning back to this love stuff all the time! What’s on your mind?” Tom asked, worried.
“Sorry, I ain’t bein fair. Okay. I got this daughter, see. She’s pretty. Young. She thinks she’s a quiet one, but she hasn’t had a chance to bloom yet. I’m a worried when she does. Bloom that is. And me, my brother and his wife and her want to go West. My brother and wife want to go really Far West, to San Francisco. That would leave me and my daughter alone. Unprotected. The Territories are too wild for that. I’d be worried she’d come to harm – on the trip out, or even when we settled.
“See, I’m a good farmer. It’s in my blood. Only had rocks to practice on. Been saving my riverboat earnings and dry goods store, just awaiten to go out West when the time was ripe. But my wife died on me.”
“Then you lost all hope….” Tom said quietly.
“I just lost. Everything. But me brother and his wife showed up and showed me I better get going. I was gonna look for a wife for me, on that riverboat,” he said, pointing to the boat comin’ upriver. “Instead, I think I’ve found my daughter a husband. That is, if she’ll have you.”
The river boat’s horn filled the air. Twenty-four hours had passed, and a new life might begin, if only Tom would agree.
The men stood, did their morning abolitions. Tom had to encourage Old Andrew to take off all his clothes and jump into the water for a cleaning. Tom caught another fish, while Andrew went to pick some fresh apples and buy a few eggs from the riverboat. Together the men ate, laughed, and walked home.
“What if she doesn’t like me?” Tom said, afraid as they got closer to town.
“Ain’t a matter of liking,” Andrew said. “We’re just gonna march in there, and leave you two alone for a week or two. See how good you are at making a real woman fall in love with you. Now don’t you go pouncing on her the first night! You be gentlemanly. I ain’t lettin no Nigger-Negro into my family. I’m inviting in another Indian, Arab-Negro. You understand?”
The men walked in silence.
Old Andrew pointed to the house. “I can tell you now, she’s gonna fall in love with you. You just don’t break that little girl’s heart. She’s gonna free your soul just like I freed your body.”
Then Old Andrew opened the Dry Goods Store, seein’ as it was a Saturday, and Joseph and Mariam and I just stared at the handsomest man in the whole wide world. Didn’t take but a second for me to fall in love with him, and immediately get jealous of Aunt Mariam who was flushing with lust too!
“That’s when my daddy announced, “Joseph, Mariam, we gotta go gambling. I need to find meself a wife.”
“Now?” Mariam chocked.
Daddy just came up to me, his arm around Tom’s shoulder, “This here young man is looking for some work. Since Joseph, Mariam and I are goin gambeling, you might need his help. He’s to do the cookin’ too. He can sleep in the house too. Don’t you be afraid of him. He’s a good man.”
It hit me then. The rest of my daddy’s thought, ‘If you want him for a husband, let’s hope you both love each other even half as much as your mom and I loved each other.’
I heard that other voice, right in my head. My daddy saw I heard it too. Damn, if Tom didn’t hear it too. Mariam was right mad, and Joseph was laughing in his head too.
They left, we loved, and all of us went out West to the Territories. Mariam and Joseph wanted a city life. They argued about returning home to the Old Country. Andrew told them if they didn’t stop arguing, he’d go into the local Choctaw camp and sell them to the Indian, and they could roam the Plains rather than bothering him all day.
We all raised our eyebrows, and sure enough, Old Andrew left and came back with an Indian bride. That’s when Joseph and Mariam decided they’d go Further West. They did. We only got one letter from them. We don’t know what happened. But Tom and I, we were married a lot longer than Old Andrew was to Annie.
Everybody’s dead it seems now.
And now it’s my turn.
Like my mama, I didn’t have but a few children. All grown. We all live into our nineties. Long enough to see most everyone we love die, and see into the next two generations too. Guess lookin backwards is like lookin forwards. We don’t talk about Tom being Negro. We never said that. People wouldn’t have taken kindly to that sort of thing, now or before. It ain’t showed up in any of the kids, grandkids or great-grandkids. We’ve been lucky. Tom and I. Old Andrew and Annie, and then Morning Sun, my second mother.
Dying is like living. You do all your best loving all over again, and it feels your heart with a kind of peaceful sadness. Then the sun rises, and death is no longer a dream, but a friend, comin to carry me home.
Now this here story really surprised me. It’s like when I typed up a William Faulkner story, afterwards, when I tried to write something all I had in my head was Faulkner’s voice!
This story confused me too. People time travel while dying. Besides, I don’t know who was ESPing (mental sharing pictures) the husband or the wife. I just left it like that.
The murder sure surprised me! I am so happy the restaurant owner was so smart!
Personally, I didn’t inherit blue eyes, but got a strange mixture of blue and yellow that sometimes look green, sometimes blue. I guess the ‘Old Country’ was Scotland. Even my father, many generations from these folks, loved Bobbie Burns. My father had a fear of witches and yelled at me at the dinner table. When I used my left hand to eat – too hungry to put both the knife and fork down and switch hands for the fork.
In grammar school, I had a crush on a boy for years, a left-handed boy. I’d copy how he folded his thumbs differently when we prayed. Seems left-handed people may be like dyslexics – top/idea down to bottom/facts.
https://madebydyslexia.blog/2017/08/16/dyslexic-thinking-skills-explained/Dyslexic minds process information in divergent, creative and lateral ways, and have created some of the world’s greatest inventions, brands and art. But education systems aren’t designed for dyslexicthinking and typically measure success by how accurately students regurgitate facts in an exam or test.
As for ESP, since the human body is up to 60% water, and runs on electricity, it is likely before electricity was worldwide that everyone had ESP. My parents had it. They argued whether it was a curse or blessing. Once my father said, over the telephone, he could see the colors in my aura. I expressed surprise. He then yelled, “If you tell anyone I said that I’ll say you’re lying!”
Family truth, in many families, likes to be denied.