Scant years after the Civil War, a mysterious family confronts the legacy that has pursued them across centuries, out of slavery, and finally to the idyllic peace of the town of Rosetree. The shattering consequences of this confrontation echo backwards and forwards in time, even to the present day.
Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “The Devil in America” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent. [—The Editors]
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
for my father
Emmett Till, sure, I remember. Your great grandfather, sitting at the table with the paper spread out, looked up and said something to Grandma. She looked over my way and made me leave the room: Emmett Till. In high school I had a friend everybody called Underdog. One afternoon—1967?—Underdog was standing on some corner and the police came round and beat him with nightsticks. No reason. Underdog thought he might get some respect if he joined up for Vietnam, but a sergeant in basic training was calling him everything but his name—nigger this, nigger that—and Underdog went and complained. Got thrown in the brig, so he ended up going to Vietnam with just a couple weeks’ training. Soon after he came home in a body bag. In Miami a bunch of white cops beat to death a man named Arthur McDuffie with heavy flashlights. You were six or seven: so, 1979. The cops banged up his motorcycle trying to make killing him look like a crash. Acquitted, of course. Then Amadou Diallo, 1999; Sean Bell, 2006. You must know more about all the New York murders than I do. Trayvon, this year. Every year it’s one we hear about and God knows how many just the family mourns.
1877 August 23
“’Tis all right if I take a candle, Ma’am?” Easter said. Her mother bent over at the black iron stove, and lifted another smoking hot pan of cornbread from the oven. Ma’am just hummed—meaning, Go ’head. Easter came wide around her mother, wide around the sizzling skillet, and with the ramrod of Brother’s old rifle hooked up the front left burner. She left the ramrod behind the stove, plucked the candle from the fumbling, strengthless grip of her ruint hand, and dipped it wick-first into flame.Through the good glass window in the wall behind the stove, the night was dark. It was soot and shadows. Even the many-colored chilis and bright little pumpkins in Ma’am’s back garden couldn’t be made out.
A full supper plate in her good hand, lit candle in the other, Easter had a time getting the front door open, then out on the porch, and shutting back the door without dropping any food. Then, anyhow, the swinging of the door made the candle flame dance fearfully low, just as wind gusted up too, so her light flickered way down . . . and went out.
“Shoot!” Easter didn’t say the curse word aloud. She mouthed it. “Light it back for me, angels,” Easter whispered. “Please?” The wick flared bright again.
No moon, no stars—the night sky was clouded over. Easter hoped it wasn’t trying to storm, with the church picnic tomorrow.
She crossed the yard to the edge of the woods where Brother waited. A big old dog, he crouched down, leapt up, down and up again, barking excitedly, just as though he were some little puppy dog.
“Well, hold your horses,” Easter said. “I’m coming!” She met him at the yard’s end and dumped the full plate over, all her supper falling to the ground. Brother’s head went right down, tail just a-wagging. “Careful, Brother,” Easter said. “You watch them chicken bones.” Then, hearing the crack of bones, she knelt and snatched ragged shards right out of the huge dog’s mouth. Brother whined and licked her hand—and dropped his head right back to buttered mashed yams.
Easter visited with him a while, telling her new secrets, her latest sins, and when he’d sniffed out the last morsels of supper Brother listened to her with what anybody would have agreed was deep love, full attention. “Well, let me get on,” she said at last, and sighed. “Got to check on the Devil now.” She’d left it til late, inside all evening with Ma’am, fixing their share of the big supper at church tomorrow. Brother whined when she stood up to leave.
Up the yard to the henhouse. Easter unlatched the heavy door and looked them over—chickens, on floor and shelf, huddling quietly in thick straw, and all asleep except for Sadie. Eldest and biggest, that one turned just her head and looked over Easter’s way. Only reflected candlelight, of course, but Sadie’s beady eyes looked so ancient and so crafty, blazing like embers. Easter backed on out, latched the coop up securely again, and made the trip around the henhouse, stooping and stooping and stooping, to check for gaps in the boards. Weasel holes, fox doors.
There weren’t any. And the world would go on exactly as long as Easter kept up this nightly vigil.
Ma’am stood on the porch when Easter came back up to the house. “I don’t appreciate my good suppers thrown in the dirt. You hear me, girl?” Ma’am put a hand on Easter’s back, guiding her indoors. “That ole cotton-picking dog could just as well take hisself out to the deep woods and hunt.” Ma’am took another tone altogether when she meant every word, and then she didn’t stroke Easter’s head, or gently brush her cheek with a knuckle. This was only complaining out of habit. Easter took only one tone with her mother. Meek.
“Yes, Ma’am,” she said, and ducked her head in respect. Easter didn’t think herself too womanish or grown to be slapped silly.
“Help me get this up on the table,” Ma’am said—the deepest bucket, and brimful of water and greens. Ma’am was big and strong enough to have lifted ten such buckets. It was friendly, though, sharing the little jobs. At one side of the bucket, Easter bent over and worked her good hand under the bottom, the other just mostly ached now, the cut thickly scabbed over. She just sort of pressed it to the bucket’s side, in support.
Easter and her mother set the bucket on the table.
Past time to see about the morning milk. Easter went back to the cellar and found the cream risen, though the tin felt a tad cool to her. The butter would come slow. “Pretty please, angels?” she whispered. “Could you help me out a little bit?” They could. They did. The milk tin warmed ever so slightly. Just right. Easter dipped the cream out and carried the churn back to the kitchen.
Ma’am had no wrinkles except at the corners of the eyes. Her back was unbowed, her arms and legs still mighty. But she was old now, wasn’t she? Well nigh sixty, and maybe past it. But still with that upright back, such quick hands. Pretty was best said of the young—Soubrette Toussaint was very pretty, for instance—so what was the right word for Ma’am’s severe cheekbones, sharp almond-shaped eyes, and pinched fullness of mouth? Working the churn, Easter felt the cream foam and then thicken, pudding-like. Any other such marriage, and you’d surely hear folks gossiping over the dead wrongness of it—the wife twenty-some years older than a mighty good-looking husband. What in the world, I ask you, is that old lady doing with a handsome young man like that? But any two eyes could see the answer here. Not pretty as she must once have been, with that first husband, whoever he’d been, dead and buried back east. And not pretty as when she’d had those first babies, all gone now too. But age hadn’t only taken from Ma’am, it had given too. Some rare gift, and so much of it that Pa had to be pick of the litter—kindest, most handsome man in the world—just to stack up. Easter poured off the buttermilk into a jar for Pa, who liked that especially. Ma’am might be a challenge to love sometimes, but respect came easy.
“I told him, Easter.” Ma’am wiped forefinger and thumb down each dandelion leaf, cleaning off grit and bugs, and then lay it aside in a basket. “Same as I told you. Don’t mess with it. Didn’t I say, girl?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Easter scooped the clumps of butter into the bowl.
Ma’am spun shouting from her work. “That’s right I did! And I pray to God you listen, too. That fool out there didn’t, but Good Lord knows I get on my knees and prayevery night you got some little bit of sense in your head. Because, Easter, I ain’t got no more children—you my last one!” Ma’am turned back and gripped the edge of the table.
Ma’am wanted no comfort, no acknowledgement of her pain at such moments—just let her be. Easter huddled in her chair, paddling the salt evenly through the butter, working all the water out. She worked with far more focus than the job truly needed.
Then, above the night’s frogcroak and bugchatter, they heard Brother bark in front of the house, and heard Pa speak, his very voice. Wife and daughter both gave a happy little jump, looking together at the door in anticipation. Pa’d been three days over in Greenville selling the cigars. Ma’am snapped her fingers.
“Get the jug out the cellar,” she said. “You know just getting in your Pa wants him a little tot of cider. Them white folks.” As if Ma’am wouldn’t have a whole big mug her ownself.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Easter fetched out the jug.
Pa opened the door, crossed the kitchen—touching Easter’s head in passing, he smelt of woodsmoke—and came to stand behind Ma’am. His hands cupped her breasts through her apron, her dress, and he kissed the back of her neck. She gasped aloud. “Wilbur! the baby . . . !” That’s what they still called Easter, “the baby.” Nobody had noticed she’d gotten tall, twelve years old now.
Pa whispered secrets in Ma’am’s ear. He was a father who loved his daughter, but he was a husband first and foremost. I’m a terrible thirsty man, Pa had said once, and your mama is my only cool glass of water in this world. Ma’am turned and embraced him. “I know it, sweetheart,” she said. “I know.” Easter covered up the butter. She took over washing the greens while her parents whispered, intent only on each other. Matched for height, and Ma’am a little on the stout side, Pa on the slim, so they were about the same thickness too. The perfect fit of them made Easter feel a sharp pang, mostly happiness. Just where you could hear, Pa said, “And you know it ain’t no coloreds round here but us living in Rosetree . . .”
Wrapped in blankets up in the loft, right over their bed, of course she heard things at night, on Sundays usually, when nobody was so tired.
An effortful noise from Pa, as if he were laboring some big rock heave-by-heave over to the edge of the tobacco field, and then before the quiet, sounding sort of worried, as if Pa were afraid Ma’am might accidently touch the blazing hot iron of the fired-up stove, Pa would say, “Hazel!”
“. . . so then Miss Anne claimed she seen some nigger run off from there, and next thing she knew—fire! Just everywhere. About the whole west side of Greenville, looked to me, burnt down. Oh yeah, and in the morning here come Miss Anne’s husband talkmbout, ‘Know what else, y’all? That nigger my wife seen last night—matterfact, he violated her.’ Well, darling, here’s what I wanna know . . .”
Ma’am would kind of sigh throughout, and from one point on keep saying—not loud—“Like that . . .” However much their bed creaked, Ma’am and Pa were pretty quiet when Easter was home. Probably they weren’t, though, these nights when Pa came back from Greenville. That was why they sent her over the Toussaints’.
“. . . where this ‘violated’ come from all of a sudden? So last night Miss Anne said she maybe might of seen some nigger run off, and this morning that nigger jumped her show ’nough? And then it wasn’t just the one nigger no more. No. It was two or three of ’em, maybe about five. Ten niggers—at least. Now Lord knows I ain’t no lawyer, baby, I ain’t, but it seem to me a fishy story done changed up even fishier . . .”
Ma’am and Pa took so much comfort in each other, and just plain liked each other. Easter was glad to see it. But she was old enough to wonder, a little worried and a little sad, who was ever going to love her in the way Ma’am and Pa loved each other.
“What you still doing here!” Ma’am looked up suddenly from her embrace. “Girl, you should of been gone to Soubrette’s. Go. And take your best dress and good Sunday shoes too. Tell Mrs. Toussaint I’ll see her early out front of the church tomorrow. You hear me, Easter?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” she said. And with shoes and neatly folded clothes, Easter hurried out into the dark wide-open night, the racket of crickets.
On the shadowed track through the woods, she called to Brother but he wouldn’t come out of the trees, though Easter could hear him pacing her through the underbrush. Always out there in the dark. Brother wanted to keep watch whenever Easter went out at night, but he got shy sometimes too. Lonesome and blue.
And this whole thing started over there, in old Africa land, where in olden days a certain kind of big yellow dog (you know the kind I’m talking about) used to run around. Now those dogs ain’t nowhere in the world, except for . . . Anyway, the prince of the dogs was a sorcerer—about the biggest and best there was in the world. One day he says to hisself, Let me get up off four feet for a while, and walk around on just two, so I can see what all these folk called ‘people’ are doing over in that town. So the prince quit being his doggy self and got right up walking like anybody. While the prince was coming over to the peoples’ town, he saw a pretty young girl washing clothes at the river. Now if he’d still been his doggy self, the prince probably would of just ate that girl up, but since he was a man now, the prince seen right off what a pretty young thing she was. So he walks over and says, Hey, gal. You want to lay down right here by the river in the soft grass with me? Well—and anybody would—the girl felt some kind of way, a strange man come talking to her so fresh all of a sudden. The girl says, Man, don’t you see my hair braided up all nice like a married lady? (Because that’s how they did over in Africa land. The married ladies, the girls still at home, plaited their hair up different.) So the dog prince said, Oh, I’m sorry. I come from a long way off, so I didn’t know what your hair meant. And he didn’t, either, cause dogs don’t braid their hair like people do. Hmph, says the gal, all the while sort of taking a real good look over him. As a matter of fact, the dog prince made a mighty fine-looking young man, and the girl’s mama and papa had married her off to just about the oldest, most dried-up, and granddaddy-looking fellow you ever saw. That old man was rich, sure, but he really couldn’t do nothing in the married way for a young gal like that, who wasn’t twenty years old yet. So, the gal says, Hmph, where you come from anyways? What you got to say for yourself? And it must of been pretty good too, whatever the prince had to say for hisself, because, come nine months later, that gal was mama to your great great—twenty greats—grandmama, first one of us with the old Africa magic.
It wasn’t but a hop, skip, and jump through the woods into Rosetree proper. Surrounding the town green were the church, Mrs. Toussaint’s general store, and the dozen best houses, all two stories, with overgrown rosebushes in front. At the other side of the town green, Easter could see Soubrette sitting out on her front porch with a lamp, looking fretfully out into night.
It felt nice knowing somebody in this world would sit up for her, wondering where she was, was everything all right.
In her wretched accent, Easter called, “J’arrive!” from the middle of the green.
Soubrette leapt up. “Easter?” She peered into the blind dark. “I can’t see a thing! Where are you, Easter?”
Curious that she could see so well, cutting across the grass toward the general store. Easter had told the angels not to without her asking, told them many times, but still she often found herself seeing with cat’s eyes, hearing with dog’s ears, when the angels took a notion. The problem being, folks noticed if you were all the time seeing and hearing what you shouldn’t. But maybe there was no need to go blaming the angels. With no lamp or candle, your eyes naturally opened up something amazing, while lights could leave you stone-blind out past your bright spot.
They screamed, embraced, laughed. Anybody would have said three years, not days, since they’d last seen each other. “Ah, viens ici, toi!” said Soubrette, gently taking Easter’s ruint hand to lead her indoors.
Knees drawn up on the bed, Easter hugged her legs tightly. She set her face and bit her lip, but tears came anyway. They always did. Soubrette sighed and closed the book in her lap. Very softly Easter murmured, “I like Rebecca most.”
“Yes!” Soubrette abruptly leaned forward and tapped Easter’s shin. “Rowena is nice too—she is!—but I don’t even care about old Ivanhoe. It just isn’t fair about poor Rebecca . . .”
“He reallydon’t deserve either one of ’em,” Easter said, forgetting her tears in the pleasure of agreement. “That part when Ivanhoe up and changed his mind all of a sudden about Rebecca—do you remember that part? ‘. . . an inferior race . . .’ No, I didn’t care for him after that.”
“Oh yes, Easter, I remember!” Soubrette flipped the book open and paged back through it. “At first he sees Rebecca’s so beautiful, and he likes her, but then all his niceness is ‘. . . exchanged at once for a manner cold, composed, and collected, and fraught with no deeper feeling than that which expressed a grateful sense of courtesy received from an unexpected quarter, and from one of an inferior race . . .’ Ivanhoe’s just hateful!” Soubrette lay a hand on Easter’s foot. “Rowena and Rebecca would have been better off without him!”
Soubrette touched you when she made her points, and she made them in the most hot-blooded way. Easter enjoyed such certainty and fire, but it made her feel bashful too. “You ain’t taking it too far, Soubrette?” she asked softly. “Who would they love without Ivanhoe? It wouldn’t be nobody to, well, kiss.”
It made something happen in the room, that word kiss. Did the warm night heat up hotter, and the air buzz almost like yellowjackets in a log? One and one made two, so right there you’d seem to have a sufficiency for a kiss, with no lack of anything, anyone. From head to toe Easter knew right where she was, lightly sweating in a thin summer shift on this August night, and she knew right where Soubrette was too, so close that—
“Girls!” Mrs. Toussaint bumped the door open with her hip. “The iron’s good and hot on the stove now, so . . .”
Easter and Soubrette gave an awful start. Ivanhoe fell to the floor.
“. . . why don’t you come downstairs with your dresses . . . ?” Mrs. Toussaint’s words trailed away. She glanced back and forth between the girls while the hot thing still sizzled in the air, delicious and wrong. Whatever it was seemed entirely perceptible to Mrs. Toussaint. She said to her daughter, “Chérie, j’espère que tu te comportes bien. Tu es une femme de quatorze ans maintenant. Ton amie n’a que dix ans; elle est une toute jeune fille!”
She spoke these musical words softly and with mildness—nevertheless they struck Soubrette like a slap. The girl cast her gaze down, eyes shining with abrupt tears. High yellow, Soubrette’s cheeks and neck darkened with rosy duskiness.
“Je me comporte toujours bien, Maman,” she whispered, her lips trembling as if about to weep.
Mrs. Toussaint paused a moment longer, and said, “Well, fetch down your dresses, girls. Bedtime soon.” She went out, closing the door behind her.
The tears did spill over now. Easter leaned forward suddenly, kissed Soubrette’s cheek, and said, “J’ai douze ans.”
Soubrette giggled. She wiped her eyes.
Much later, Easter sat up, looking around. Brother had barked, growling savagely, and woken her up. But seeing Soubrette asleep beside her, Easter knew that couldn’t be so. And no strange sounds came to her ears from the night outside, only wind in the leaves, a whippoorwill. Brother never came into the middle of town anyway, not ever. The lamp Mrs. Toussaint had left burning in the hallway lit the gap under the bedroom door with orange glow. Easter’s fast heart slowed as she watched her friend breathing easily. Soubrette never snored, never tossed and turned, never slept with her mouth gaping open. Black on the white pillow, her long hair spilled loose and curly.
“Angels?” Easter whispered. “Can you make my hair like Soubrette’s?” This time the angels whispered, Give us the licklest taste of her blood, and all Sunday long tomorrow your hair will be so nice. See that hatpin? Just stick Soubrette in the hand with it, and not even too deep. Prettiest curls anybody ever saw. Easter only sighed. It was out of the question, of course. The angels sometimes asked for the most shocking crimes as if they were nothing at all. “Never mind,” she said, and lay down to sleep.
While true that such profoundly sustaining traditions, hidden under the guise of the imposed religion, managed to survive centuries of slavery and subjugation, we should not therefore suppose that ancient African beliefs suffered no sea changes. Of course they did. ‘The Devil’ in Africa had been capricious, a trickster, and if cruel, only insomuch as bored young children, amoral and at loose ends, may be cruel: seeking merely to provoke an interesting event at any cost, to cause some disruption of the tedious status quo. For the Devil in America, however, malice itself was the end, and temptation a means only to destroy. Here, the Devil would pursue the righteous and the wicked, alike and implacably, to their everlasting doom…
White Devils/Black Devils, Luisa Valéria da Silva y Rodríguez
1871 August 2
The end begins after Providence loses all wiggle room, and the outcome becomes hopeless and fixed. That moment had already happened, Ma’am would have said. It had happened long before either one of them were born. Ma’am would have assured Easter that the end began way back in slavery times, and far across the ocean, when that great-grandfather got snatched from his home and the old wisdom was lost.
Easter knew better, though. A chance for grace and new wisdom had always persisted, and doom never been assured . . . right up until, six years old, Easter did what she did one August day out in the tobacco fields.
On that morning of bright skies, Pa headed out to pick more leaves and Easter wanted to come along. He said, Let’s ask your mama.
“But he said, Wilbur.” Ma’am looked surprised. “He told us, You ain’t to take the baby out there, no time, no way.”
Pa hefted Easter up in his arms, and kissed her cheek, saying, “Well, it’s going on three years now since he ain’t been here to say Bet not or say Yep, go ’head. So I wonder how long we suppose to go on doing everything just the way he said, way back when. Forever? And the baby wants to go . . .” Pa set her down and she grabbed a handful of his pants leg and leaned against him. “But, darling, if you say not to, then we won’t. Just that simple.”
Most men hardly paid their wives much mind at all, but Pa would listen to any little thing Ma’am said. She, though, hated to tell a man what he could and couldn’t do—some woman just snapping her fingers, and the man running lickety-split here and there. Ma’am said that wasn’t right. So she crossed her arms and hugged herself, frowning unhappily. “Well . ..” Ma’am said. “Can you just wait a hot minute there with the mule, Wilbur? Let me say something to the baby.” Ma’am unfolded her arms and reached out a hand. “Come here, girl.”
Easter came up the porch steps and took the hand—swept along in Ma’am’s powerful grip, through the open door, into the house. “Set.” Ma’am pointed to a chair. Easter climbed and sat down. Ma’am knelt on the floor. They were eye-to-eye. She grasped Easter’s chin and pulled her close. “Tell me, Easter—what you do, if some lady in a red silk dress come trying to talk to you?”
“I shake my head no, Ma’am, and turn my back on her. Then the lady have to go away.”
“That’s right! But what if that strange lady in the red dress say, Want me to open up St. Peter’s door, and show you heaven? What if she say to you, See them birds flying there? Do me one itsy bitsy favor, and you could be in the sky flying too. What then, Easter? Tell me what you do.”
“Same thing, Ma’am.” She knew her mother wasn’t angry with her, but Ma’am’s hot glare—the hard grip on her chin—made tears prick Easter’s eyes. “I turn my back, Ma’am. She have to go, if I just turn my back away.”
“Yes! And will you promise, Easter? Christ is your Savior, will you swear to turn your back, if that lady in the pretty red dress come talking to you?”
Easter swore up and down, and she meant every word too. Ma’am let her go back out to her father, and he set her up on the mule. They went round the house and down the other way, on the trail through woods behind Ma’am’s back garden that led to the tobacco fields. Pa answered every question Easter asked about the work he had to do there.
That woman in the red dress was a sneaky liar. She was ‘that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world . . .’ Warned by Ma’am, Easter guarded night and day against a glimpse of any such person. In her whole life, though, Easter never did see that lady dressed all in red silk. Easter knew nothing about her. She only knew about the angels.
She didn’t see them, either, just felt touches like feathers in the air—two or three angels, rarely more—or heard sounds like birds taking off, a flutter of wings. The angels spoke to her, once in a while, in whispering soft harmony. They never said anything bad, just helpful little things. Watch out, Easter—gon’ rain cats and dogs once that cloud there starts looking purplish. Your folks sure would appreciate a little while by theyself in the house. Why not be nice? Ma’am’s worried sick about Pa over in Greenville, with those white folks, so you’d do best to keep your voice down, and tiptoe extra quiet, else you ’bout to get slapped into tomorrow. And, Easter, don’t tell nobody, all right? Let’s us just be secret friends.
All right, Easter said. The angels were nice, anyway, and it felt good keeping them to herself, having a secret. No need to tell anybody. Or just Brother, when he came out the woods to play with her in the front yard, or when Ma’am let her go walking in the deep woods with him. But in those days Brother used to wander far and wide, and was gone from home far more often than he was around.
The tobacco fields were full of angels.
Ever run, some time, straight through a flock of grounded birds, and ten thousand wings just rushed up flapping into the air all around you? In the tobacco fields it was like that. And every angel there stayed busy, so the tobacco leaves grew huge and whole, untroubled by flea-beetles or cutworms, weeds or weather. But the angels didn’t do all the work.
Pa and a friend of his from St. Louis days, Señor, dug up the whole south field every spring, mounding up little knee-high hills all over it. Then they had to transplant each and every little tabacky plant from the flat dirt in the north field to a hill down south. It was back-breaking work, all May long, from sunup to sundown. Afterwards, Pa and Señor had only small jobs, until now—time to cut the leaves, hang and cure them in the barn. Señor had taught Pa everything there was to know about choosing which leaf when, and how to roll the excellent criollito tabacky into the world’s best cigars. What they got out of one field sold plenty well enough to white folks over in Greenville to keep two families in good clothes, ample food, and some comforts.
A grandfather oaktree grew between the fields, south and north. Pa agreed with Easter. “That big ole thing is in the way, ain’t it? But your brother always used to say, Don’t you never, never cut down that tree, Wilbur. And it do make a nice shady spot to rest, anyway. Why don’t you go set over there for a while, baby child?”
Easter knew Pa thought she must be worn out and sorry she’d come, just watching him stoop for leaves, whack them off the plant with his knife, and lay them out in the sun. But Easter loved watching him work, loved to follow and listen to him wisely going on about why this, why that.
Pa, though, put a hand on her back and kind of scootched her on her way over toward the tree, so Easter went. Pa and Señor began to chant some work song in Spanish. Iyá oñió oñí abbé . . .
Once in the oaktree’s deep shade, there was a fascinating discovery round the north side of the big trunk. Not to see, or to touch—or know in any way Easter had a name for—but she could feel the exact shape of what hovered in the air. And this whirligig thing’um, right here, was exactly what kept all the angels hereabouts leashed, year after year, to chase away pests, bring up water from deep underground when too little rain fell, or dry the extra drops in thin air when it rained too much. And she could tell somebody had jiggered this thing together who hardly knew what they were doing. It wasn’t but a blown breath or rough touch from being knocked down.
Seeing how rickety the little angel-engine was, Easter wondered if she couldn’t do better. Pa and Señor did work awful hard every May shoveling dirt to make those hills, and now in August they had to come every day to cut whichever leaves had grown big enough. Seemed like the angels could just do everything . . .
“You all right over there, baby girl?” Pa called. Dripping sweat in the glare, he wiped a sleeve across his brow. “Need me to take you back to the house?”
“I’m all right,” Easter shouted back. “I want to stay, Pa!” She waved, and he stooped down again, cutting leaves. See there? Working so hard! She could help if she just knocked this rickety old thing down, and put it back together better. Right on the point of doing so, she got one sharp pinch from her conscience.
Every time Easter got ready to do something bad there was a moment beforehand when a little bitty voice—one lonely angel, maybe—would whisper to her. Aw, Easter. You know good and well you shouldn’t. Nearly always she listened to this voice. After today and much too late, she always would.
But sometimes you just do bad, anyhow.
Easter picked a scab off her knee and one fat drop welled from the pale tender scar underneath. She dabbed a finger in it, and touched the bloody tip to the ground.
The angel-engine fell to pieces. Screaming and wild, the angels scattered every which way. Easter called and begged, but she could no more get the angels back in order than she could have grabbed hold of a mighty river’s gush.
And the tobacco field . . . !
Ice frosted the ground, the leaves, the plants, and then melted under sun beating down hotter than summer’s worst. The blazing blue sky went cloudy and dark, and boiling low clouds spat frozen pellets, some so big they drew blood and raised knots. Millions of little noises, little motions, each by itself too small to see or hear, clumped into one thick sound like God’s two hands rubbing together, and just as gusts of wind stroke the green forest top, making the leaves of the trees all flip and tremble, there was a unified rippling from one end of the tobacco field to the other. Not caused by hands, though, nor by the wind—by busy worms, a billion hungry worms. Grayish, from maggot-size to stubby snakes, these worms ate the tobacco leaves with savage appetite. While the worms feasted, dusty cloud after dusty cloud of moths fluttered up from the disappearing leaves, all hail-torn and frost-blackened, half and then wholly eaten.
In the twinkling of an eye, the lush north field was stripped bare. Nothing was left but naked leaf veins poking spinily from upright woody stems—not a shred of green leaf anywhere. But one year’s crop was nothing to the angels’ hunger. They were owed much more for so many years’ hard labor. Amidst the starving angels, Pa and Señor stood dazed in the sudden wasteland of their tobacco field. All the sweet living blood of either this man or the other would just about top off the angels’ thirsty cup.
Easter screamed. She called for some help to come—any help at all.
And help did come. A second of time split in half and someone came walking up the break.
Like the way you and Soubrette work on all that book learning together. Same as that. You gotta know your letters, gotta know your numbers, for some things, or you just can’t rightly take part. Say, for instance, you had some rich colored man, and say this fellow was very rich indeed. But let’s say he didn’t know his numbers at all. Couldn’t even count his own fingers up to five. Now, he ain’t a bad man, Easter, and he ain’t stupid either, really. It’s just that nobody ever taught numbering to him. So, one day this rich man takes a notion to head over to the bank, and put his money into markets and bonds, and what have you. Now let me ask you, Easter. What you think gon’ happen to this colored man’s big ole stack of money, once he walks up in that white man’s bank, and gets to talking with the grinning fellow behind the counter? You tell me. I wanna hear what you say.
Ma’am. The white man’s gonna see that colored man can’t count, Ma’am, and cheat him out of all his money.
That’s right he is, Easter! And I promise you it ain’t no other outcome! Walk up in that bank just as rich as you please—but you gon’ walk out with no shoes, and owing the shirt on your back! Old Africa magic’s the same way, but worse, Easter, cause it ain’t money we got, me and you—all my babies had—and my own mama, and the grandfather they brung over on the slave ship. It’s life. It’s life and death, not money. Not play-stuff. But, listen here—we don’t know our numbers no more, Easter. See what I’m saying? That oldtime wisdom from over there, what we used to know in the Africa land, is all gone now. And, Easter, you just can’t walk up into the spirits’ bank not knowing your numbers. You rich, girl. You got gold in your pockets, and I know it’s burning a hole. I know cause it burnt me, it burnt your brother. But I pray you listen to me, baby child, when I say—you walk up in that bank, they gon’ take a heap whole lot more than just your money.
Nothing moved. Pa and Señor stood frozen, the angels hovering just before the pounce. Birds in the sky hung there, mid-wingbeat, and even a blade of grass in the breath of the wind leaned motionless, without shivering. Nothing moved. Or just one thing did—a man some long way off, come walking this way toward Easter. He was miles off, or much farther than that, but every step of his approach crossed a strange distance. He bestrode the stillness of the world and stood before her in no time.
In the kindest voice, he said, “You need some help, baby child?”
Trembling, Easter nodded her head.
He sat right down. “Let us just set here for a while, then”—the man patted the ground beside him—“and make us a deal.”
He was a white man tanned reddish from too much sun, or he could’ve had something in him maybe—been mixed up with colored or indian. Hair would’ve told the story, but that hid under the gray kepi of a Johnny Reb. He wore that whole uniform in fact, a filthy kerchief of Old Dixie tied around his neck.
Easter sat. “Can you help my Pa and Señor, Mister? The angels about to eat ’em up!”
“Oh, don’t you worry none about that!” the man cried, warmly reassuring. “I can help you, Easter, I most certainly can. But”—he turned up a long forefinger, in gentle warning—“not for free.”
Easter opened her mouth.
“Ot!” The man interrupted, waving the finger. “Easter, Easter, Easter . . .” He shook his head sadly. “Now why you wanna hurt my feelings and say you ain’t got no money? Girl, you know I don’t want no trifling little money. You know just what I want.”
Easter closed her mouth. He wanted blood. He wanted life. And not a little drop or two, either—or the life of some chicken, mule, or cow. She glanced at the field of hovering angels. They were owed the precious life of one man, woman, or child. How much would he want to stop them?
The man held up two fingers. “That’s all. And you get to pick the two. It don’t have to be your Pa and Señor at all. It could be any old body.” He waved a hand outwards to the world at large. “Couple folk you ain’t even met, Easter, somewhere far away. That’d be just fine with me.”
Easter hardly fixed her mouth to answer before that still small voice spoke up. You can’t do that. Everybody is somebody’s friend, somebody’s Pa, somebody’s baby. It’d be plain dead wrong, Easter. This voice never said one word she didn’t already know, and never said anything but the God’s honest truth. No matter what, Easter wasn’t going against it, ever again.
The man made a sour little face to himself. “Tell you what then,” he said. “Here’s what we’ll do. Right now, today, I’ll call off the angels, how about that? And then you can pay me what you owe by-and-by. Do you know what the word ‘currency’ means, Easter?”
Easter shook her head.
“It means the way you pay. Now, the amount, which is the worth of two lives, stays exactly the same. But you don’t have to pay in blood, in life, if you just change the currency, see? There’s a lot you don’t know right now, Easter, but with some time, you might could learn something useful. So let me help out Señor and your Pa today, and then me and you, we’ll settle up later on after while. Now when you wanna do the settling up?”
Mostly, Easter had understood the word “later”—a sweet word! She really wouldn’t have minded some advice concerning the rest of what he’d said, but the little voice inside couldn’t tell her things she didn’t already know. Easter was six years old, and double that would make twelve. Surely that was an eternal postponement, nearabout. So far away it could hardly be expected to arrive. “When I’m twelve,” Easter said, feeling tricky and sly.
“All right,” the man said. He nodded once, sharply, as folks do when the deal is hard but fair. “Let’s shake on it.”
Though she was just a little girl, and the man all grown up, they shook hands. And the angels mellowed in the field, becoming like those she’d always known, mild and toothless, needing permission even to sweep a dusty floor, much less eat a man alive.
“I’ll be going now, Easter.” The man waved toward the field, where time stood still. “They’ll all wake up just as soon as I’m gone.” He began to get up.
Easter grabbed the man’s sleeve. “Wait!” She pointed at the ruins of two families’ livelihood. “What about the tabacky? We need it to live on!”
The man looked where Easter gestured, the field with no green whatsoever, and thoughtfully pursed his lips. “Well, as you can see, this year’s tabacky is all dead and gone now. ’Tain’t nothing to do about that. But I reckon I could set the angels back where they was, so as next year—and on after that—the tabacky will grow up fine. Want me to do that, Easter?”
The man cocked his head and widened his eyes, taking an attitude of the greatest concern. “Now you show, Easter?” he asked. “Cause that’s extry on what you already owe.”
So cautioning was his tone, even a wildly desperate little girl must think twice. Easter chewed on her bottom lip. “How much extra?” she said at last.
The man’s expression went flat and mean. “Triple,” he said. “And triple that again, and might as well take that whole thing right there, and triple it about ten more times.” Now the very nice face came back. “But what you gon’ do, baby girl? You messed up your Pa’s tabacky field. Gotta fix it.” He shrugged in deepest sympathy. “You know how to do that?”
Easter had to shake her head.
“Want me to then?”
Easter hesitated . . . and then nodded. They shook on it.
The man snapped his fingers. From all directions came the sounds and sensations of angels flocking back to their old positions. The man stood and brushed off the seat of his gray wool trousers.
Easter looked up at him. “Who are you, Mister? Your name, I mean.”
The man smiled down. “How ’bout you just call me the banker,” he said. “Cause—whew, baby girl—you owe me a lot! Now I’ll be seeing you after while, you hear?” The man became his own shadow, and in just the way that a lamp turned up bright makes the darkness sharpen and flee, his shadow thinned out along the ground, raced away, and vanished.
“¡Madre de Díos!” Señor said, looking around at the field that had been all lush and full-grown a moment ago. He and Pa awakened to a desolation, without one remnant of the season’s crop. With winces, they felt at their heads, all cut and bruised from hailstones. Pa spun around then, to look at Easter, and she burst into tears.
These tears lasted a while.
Pa gathered her up in his arms and rushed her back to the house, but neither could Ma’am get any sense from Easter. After many hours she fell asleep, still crying, and woke after nightfall on her mother’s lap. In darkness, Ma’am sat on the porch, rocking in her chair. When she felt Easter move, Ma’am helped her sit up, and said, “Won’t you tell me what happened, baby child?” Easter tried to answer, but horror filled up her mouth and came pouring out as sobs. Just to speak about meeting that strange man was to cry with all the strength in her body. God’s grace had surely kept her safe in that man’s presence, but the power and the glory no longer stood between her and the revelation of something unspeakable. Even the memory was too terrible. Easter had a kind of fit and threw up what little was in her belly. Once more she wept to passing out.
Ma’am didn’t ask again. She and Pa left the matter alone. A hard, scuffling year followed, without the money from the cigars, and only the very last few coins from the St. Louis gold to get them through.
He was the Devil, Easter decided, and swallowed the wild tears. She decided to grow wise in her way as Pa was about tobacco, though there was nobody to teach her. The Devil wouldn’t face a fool next time.
The mob went up and down Washington Street, breaking storefront windows, ransacking and setting all the black-owned business on fire. Bunch of white men shot up a barbershop and then dragged out the body of the owner, Scott Burton, to string up from a nearby tree. After that, they headed over to the residential neighborhood called the Badlands, where black folks paid high rent for slum housing. Some 12,000 whites gathered to watch the houses burn.
1877 August 24
At the church, the Ladies’ Missionary Society and their daughters began to gather early before service. The morning was gray and muggy, not hot at all, and the scent of roses, as sweet and spoiled as wine, soaked the soft air. “Easter, you go right ahead and cut some for the tables,” Mrs. Toussaint said, while they walked over to the church. “Any that you see, still nice and red.” She and Soubrette carried two big pans of jambalaya rouge. Easter carried the flower vases. Rosebushes taller than a man grew in front of every house on the Drive, and were all heavily blooming with summer’s doomed roses. Yet Easter could only stop here and there and clip one with the scissors Mrs. Toussaint had given her, since most flowers had rotted deeply burgundy or darker, long past their prime.
With more effort than anybody could calculate, the earth every year brought forth these flowers, and then every year all the roses died. “What’s wrong, Easter?” Soubrette said.
“Aw, it’s nothing.” Easter squeezed with her good hand, bracing the scissors against the heel of her ruint one. “I’m just thinking, is all.” She put the thorny clipping into a vase and made herself smile.
At the church there were trestles to set up, wide boards to lay across them, tablecloths, flower vases, an immense supper and many desserts to arrange sensibly. And my goodness, didn’t anybody remember a lifter for the pie . . . ? Girls—you run on back up to the house and bring both of mine . . .
She and Soubrette were laying out the serving spoons when Easter saw her parents coming round Rosetree Drive in the wagon. Back when the Mack family had first come to Rosetree, before Easter’s first birthday, all the white folks hadn’t moved to Greenville yet. And in those days Ma’am, Pa, and her brother still had “six fat pocketfuls” of the gold from St. Louis, so they could have bought one of the best houses on the Drive. But they’d decided to live in the backwoods outside of town instead (on account of the old Africa magic, as Easter well knew, although telling the story Ma’am and Pa never gave the reason). Pa unloaded a big pot from the wagon bed, and a stack of cloth-covered bread. Ma’am anxiously checked Easter over head to toe—shoes blacked and spotless, dress pressed and stiffly starched, and she laid her palm very lightly against Easter’s hair. “Not troubled at all, are you?”
“Don’t really know what’s got me so wrought up,” Ma’am said. “I just felt like I needed to get my eyes on you—see you. But don’t you look nice!” The worry left Ma’am’s face. “And I declare, Octavia can do better by that head than your own mama.” Ma’am fussed a little with the ribbon in Easter’s hair, and then went to help Mrs. Toussaint, slicing the cakes.
Across the table, Mrs. Freeman said, “I do not care for the look of these clouds.” And Mrs. Freeman frowned, shaking her head at the gray skies. “No, I surely don’t.”
Won’t a drop fall today, the angels whispered in Easter’s ear. Sure ’nough rain hard tomorrow, though.
Easter smiled over the table. “Oh, don’t you worry, Mrs. Freeman.” And with supernatural confidence, she said, “It ain’t gon’ rain today.”
The way the heavyset matron looked across the table at Easter, well, anybody would call that scared, and Mrs. Freeman shifted further on down the table to where other ladies lifted potlids to stir contents, and secured the bread baskets with linen napkins. It made Easter feel so bad. She felt like the last smudge of filth when everything else is just spic-and-span. Soubrette bumped her. “Take one of these, Easter, will you?” Three vases full of flowers were too many for one person to hold. “Maman said to put some water in them so the roses stay fresh.” Together they went round the side of the church to the well.
When they’d come back, more and more men, old folks, and children were arriving. The Missionary ladies argued among themselves over who must miss service, and stay outside to watch over supper and shoo flies and what have you. Mrs. Turner said that she would, just to hush up the rest of you. Then somebody caught sight of the visiting preacher, Wandering Bishop Fitzgerald James, come down the steps of the mayor’s house with his cane.
So that riot started off in protest of the draft, but it soon became a murder spree, with white men killing every black man, woman, or child who crossed their path. They burned down churches, businesses, the homes of abolitionists, and anywhere else black people were known to congregate, work, or live—even the Colored Orphan Asylum, for example, which was in Midtown back then. Altogether, at least a hundred people were killed by whites. And there’s plenty more of these stories over the years, plenty more. Maybe you ought to consider Rosetree. That there’s a story like you wouldn’t believe.
Eyes closed, sitting in the big fancy chair, Wandering Bishop Fitzgerald James seemed to sleep while Pastor Daniels welcomed him and led the church to say amen. So skinny, so old, he looked barely there. But his suit was very fine indeed, and when the Wandering Bishop got up to preach, his voice was huge.
He began in measured tones, though soon he was calling on the church in a musical chant, one hard breath out—huh!—punctuating each four beat line. At last the Wandering Bishop sang, his baritone rich and beautiful, and his sermon, this one, a capstone experience of Easter’s life. Men danced, women lifted up their hands and wept. Young girls cried out as loudly as their parents. When the plate came around, Pa put in a whole silver dollar, and then Ma’am nudged him, so he added another.
After the benediction, Ma’am and Pa joined the excited crowd going up front to shake hands with the visiting preacher. They’d known Wandering Bishop Fitzgerald James back before the war, when he sometimes came to Heavenly Home and preached for the coloreds—always a highlight! A white-haired mulatto, the Wandering Bishop moved with that insect-like stiffness peculiar to scrawny old men. Easter saw that his suit’s plush lapels were velvet, his thin silk necktie cherry-red.
“Oh, I remember you—sure do. Such a pretty gal! Ole Marster MacDougal always used to say, Now, Fitzy, you ain’t to touch a hair on the head of that one, hear me, boy?” The Wandering Bishop wheezed and cackled. Then he peered around, as if for small children running underfoot. “But where them little yeller babies at?” he said. “Had you a whole mess of ’em, as I recall.”
Joy wrung from her face until Ma’am had only the weight of cares, and politeness, left. “A lovely sermon,” she murmured. “Good day to you, Bishop.” Pa’s forearm came up under her trembling hand and Ma’am leaned on him. Easter followed her parents away, and they joined the spill of the congregation out onto the town green for supper. Pa had said that Easter just had a way with some onions, smoked hock and beans, and would she please fix up a big pot for him. Hearing Pa say so had felt very fine, and Easter had answered, “Yes, sir, I sure will!” Even offered a feast, half the time Pa only wanted some beans and bread, anyhow. He put nothing else on his plate this Sunday too.
The clouds had stayed up high, behaving themselves, and in fact the creamy white overcast, cool and not too bright, was more comfortable than a raw blue sky would have been. Men had gotten the green all spruced up nice, the animals pent away, all the patties and whatnot cleaned up. They’d also finally gotten around to chopping down the old lightning-split, half-rotten crabapple tree in the middle of the green. A big axe still stuck upright from the pale and naked stump. Close by there, Soubrette, Mrs. Toussaint, and her longtime gentleman friend, Señor Tomás, had spread a couple blankets. They waved and called, Hey, Macks!, heavy plates of food in their laps. Easter followed Ma’am and Pa across the crowded green.
Pa made nice Frenchy noises at Miss and Mrs. Toussaint, and then took off lickety-split with Señor, gabbling in Spanish. Ma’am sat down next to Mrs. Toussaint and they leaned together, speaking softly. “What did you think of the Wandering Bishop?” Easter asked Soubrette. “Did you care for the sermon?”
“Well . . .” Soubrette dabbed a fingerful of biscuit in some gravy pooled on Easter’s plate. “He had a beautiful way of preaching, sure enough.” Soubrette looked right and left at the nearby grown-ups, then glanced meaningfully at Easter—who leaned in close enough for whispers.
Señor, the Macks, and the Toussaints always sat on the same pew at church, had dinner back and forth at one another’s houses, and generally just hung together as thick as thieves. Scandal clung to them both, one family said to work roots and who knew what all kind of devilment. And the other family . . . well, back east Mrs. Toussaint had done some kind of work in La Nouvelle-Orléans, and Easter knew only that rumor of it made the good church ladies purse their lips, take their husbands’ elbows, and hustle the men right along—no lingering near Mrs. Toussaint. These were the times Easter felt the missing spot in the Mack family worst. There was no one to ask, “What’s a ‘hussycat’?” The question, she felt, would hurt Soubrette, earn a slap from Ma’am, and make Pa say, shocked, “Aw, Easter—what you asking that for? Let it alone!” His disappointment was always somehow worse than a slap.
Brother, she knew, would have just told her.
The youngest Crombie boy, William, came walking by slowly, carrying his grandmother’s plate while she clutched his shoulder. The old lady shrieked.
“Ha’ mercy,” cried Old Mrs. Crombie. “The sweet blessèd Jesus!” She let go of her grandson’s shoulder, to flap a hand in the air. “Ain’t nothing but a witch over here! I ain’t smelt devilry this bad since slavery days, at that root-working Bob Allow’s dirty cabin. Them old Africa demons just nasty in the air. Who is it?” Old Mrs. Crombie peered around with cloudy blue eyes as if a witch’s wickedness could be seen even by the sightless. “Somebody right here been chatting with Ole Crook Foot, and I know it like I know my own name. Who?”
Easter about peed herself she was that scared. Rude and bossy, as she’d never spoken to the angels before, she whispered, “Y’all get,” and the four or five hovering scattered away. Ma’am heard that whisper, though, and looked sharply at Easter.
“Who there, Willie?” Old Mrs. Crombie asked her grandson. “Is it them dadburn Macks?”
“Yes’m,” said the boy. “But, Granny, don’t you want your supper—?”
“Hush up!” Old Mrs. Crombie blindly pointed a finger at the Macks and Toussaints—catching Easter dead in its sights. “All Saturday long these Macks wanna dance with the Devil, and then come set up in the Lord’s house on Sunday. Well, no! Might got the rest of you around here too scared to speak up, but me, I’ma go ahead say it. ‘Be vigilant,’ says the Book! ‘For your adversary walks about like a roaring lion.’ The King of Babylon! The Father of Lies!”
And what were they supposed to do? Knock an old lady down in front of everybody? Get up and run in their Sunday clothes, saying excuse me, excuse me, all the way to edge of the green, with the whole world sitting there watching? Better just to stay put, and hope like a sudden hard downpour this would all be over soon, no harm done. Ma’am grabbed Willie down beside her, said something to him, and sent the boy scurrying off for reinforcements.
“And Mister Light-Bright, with the red beard and spots on his face, always smirking—oh, I know just what that one was up to! Think folk around here don’t know about St. Louis? Everybody know! The Devil walked abroad in St. Louis. And that bushwhacked Confederate gold, we all know justhow you got it. Them devil-hainted tabacky fields too—growing all outta season, like this some doggone Virginia. This ain’t no Virginia out here! Well, where he been at, all these last years? Reaped the whirlwind is what I’m guessing. Got himself strick down by the Lord, huh? Bet he did.”
Preacherly and loud, Old Mrs. Crombie had the families within earshot anything but indifferent to her testimony. But no matter the eyes, the ears, and all the grownfolk, Easter didn’t care to hear any evil said of Brother. She had to speak up. “Ma’am, my brother was good and kind. He was the last one to do anybody wrong.”
“And here come the daughter now,” shouted Old Mrs. Crombie. “Her brother blinded my eyes when I prayed the Holy Ghost against them. Well, let’s see what this one gon’ do! Strike me dumb? Ain’t no matter—til then, I’ma be steady testifying. I’ma keep on telling the Lord’s truth. Hallelujah!”
At last the son showed up. “Mama?” Mr. Crombie took firm hold of his mother’s arm. “You just come along now, Mama. Will you let hungry folk eat they dinner in peace?” He shot them a look, very sorry and all-run-ragged. Ma’am pursed her lips in sympathy and waved a hand, it’s all right.
“Don’t worry none about us,” Pa said. “Just see to your Ma.” He spoke in his voice for hurt animals and children.
“Charleston?” Old Mrs. Crombie said timidly, the fire and brimstone all gone. “That you?”
“Oh, Mama. Charlie been dead. White folk hung him back in Richmond, remember? This Nathaniel.”
Old Mrs. Crombie grunted as if taking a punch—denied the best child in favor of this least and unwanted. “Oh,” she said, “Nathaniel.”
“Now y’all know she old,” Mr. Crombie raised his voice for the benefit of all those thereabouts. “Don’t go setting too much store by every little thing some old lady just half in her right mind wanna say.”
Old Mrs. Crombie, muttering, let herself be led away.
Ma’am stood up, and smiled around at Pa, Mrs. Toussaint, Señor, Soubrette. “Everybody excuse us, please? Me and Easter need to go have us a chat up at the church. No, Wilbur, that’s all right.” She waved Pa back down. “It ain’t nothing but a little lady-business me and the baby need to see to, alone.” When one Mack spoke with head tilted just so, kind of staring at the other one, carefully saying each word, whatever else was being said it really meant old Africa magic. Pa sat down. “And don’t y’all wait, you hear? We might be a little while talking. Girl.” Ma’am held out a hand.
Hand-in-hand, Ma’am led Easter across the crowded green, across the rutted dirt of the Drive, and up the church steps.
“Baby child,” Ma’am said. When Easter looked up from her feet, Ma’am’s eyes weren’t angry at all but sad. “If I don’t speak, my babies die,” she said. “And If I do, they catch a fever from what they learn, take up with it, and die anyhow.” As if Jesus hid in some corner, Ma’am looked all around the empty church. The pews and sanctuary upfront, the winter stove in the middle, wood storage closet in back. “Oh, Lord, is there any right way to do this?” She sat Easter at the pew across from the wood-burning stove, and sat herself. “Well, I’m just gon’ to tell you, Easter, and tell everything I know. It’s plain to see that keeping you in the dark won’t help nothing. This here’s what my mama told me. When . . .”
. . . they grabbed her pa, over across in Africa land, he got bad hurt. It was smooth on top of his head right here [Ma’am lay a hand on the crown of her head, the left side] and all down the middle of the bare spot was knotted up, nasty skin where they’d cut him terrible. And there, right in the worst of the scar was a—notch? Something like a deep dent in the bone. You could take the tip of your finger, rest it on the skin there, and feel it give, feel no bone, just softness underneath . . .
So, you knew him, Ma’am?
Oh, no. My mama had me old or older than I had you, child, so the grandfolk was dead and gone quite a ways before I showed up. Never did meet him. Well . . . not to meet in the flesh, I never did. Not alive, like you mean it. But that’s a whole ’nother story, and don’t matter none for what I’m telling you now. The thing I want you to see is how the old knowing, from grandfolk to youngfolk, got broke up into pieces, so in these late days I got nothing left to teach my baby girl. Nothing except, Let that old Africa magic alone. Now he, your great-grandpa, used to oftentimes get down at night like a dog and run around in the dark, and then come on back from the woods before morning, a man again. Might of brought my grandmama a rabbit, some little deer, or just anything he might catch in the night. Anybody sick or lame, or haunted by spirits, you know the ones I mean—folk sunk down and sad all the time, or just always angry, or the people plain out they right mind—he could reach out his hand and brush the trouble off them, easy as I pick some lint out your hair. And a very fine-looking man he was too, tall as anything and just . . . sweet-natured, I guess you could say. Pleasant. So all the womenfolk loved him. But here’s the thing of it. Because of that hurt on his head, Easter—because of that—he was simple. About the only English he ever spoke was Yeah, mars. And most of the time, things coming out his mouth in the old Africa talk didn’t make no sense, either. But even hurt and simple and without his good sense, he still knew exactly what he was doing. Could get down a dog, and get right back up again being people, being a man, come morning—whenever he felt like it. We can’t, Easter. Like I told you, like I told your brother. All us coming after, it’s just the one way if we get down on four feet. Not never getting up no more. That’s the way I lost three of mine! No. Hush. Set still there and leave me be a minute . . . So these little bits and pieces I’m telling you right now is every single thing I got from my mama. All she got out of your great grand and the old folk who knew him from back over there. Probably you want to know where the right roots at for this, for that, for everything. Which strong words to say? What’s the best time of day, and proper season? Why the moon pull so funny, and the rain feel so sweet and mean some particular thing but you can’t say what? Teach me, Ma’am, your heart must be saying. But I can’t, Easter, cause it’s gone. Gone for good. They drove us off the path into a wild night, and when morning came we were too turned around, too far from where we started, to ever find our way again. Do you think I was my mama’s onliest? I wasn’t, Easter. Far from it. Same as you ain’t my only child. I’m just the one that lived. The one that didn’t mess around. One older sister, and one younger, I saw them both die awful, Easter. And all your sisters, and your brothers . . .
Easter stood looking through the open doors of the church on a view of cloudy sky and the town green. The creamy brightness of early afternoon had given way to ashen gray, and the supper crowd was thinning out though many still lingered. Arm dangling, Ma’am leaned over the back of the pew and watched the sky, allowing some peace and quiet for Easter to think.
And for her part Easter knew she’d learned plenty today from Ma’am about why and where and who, but that she herself certainly understood more about how. In fact Easter was sure of that. She didn’t like having more knowledge than her mother. The thought frightened her. And yet, Ma’am had never faced down and tricked the Devil, had she?
“Oh, Easter . . .” Ma’am turned abruptly on the pew “. . . I clean forgot to tell you, and your Pa asked me to! A bear or mountain lion—something—was in the yard last night. The dog got scratched up pretty bad chasing it off. Durn dog wouldn’t come close, and let me have a proper look-see . . .”
Sometimes Ma’am spoke so coldly of Brother that Easter couldn’t stand it. Anxiously she said, “Is he hurt bad?”
“Well, not so bad he couldn’t run and hide as good as always. But something took a mean swipe across the side of him, and them cuts weren’t pretty to see. Must of been a bear. I can’t see what else could of gave that dog, big as he is, such a hard time. The barking and racket, last night! You would of thought the Devil himself was out there in the yard! But, Easter, set down here. Your mama wants you to set down right here with me now for a minute.”
Folks took this tone, so gently taking your hand, only when about to deliver the worst news. Easter tried to brace herself. Just now, she’d seen everybody out on the green. So who could have died?
“I know you loved that mean old bird,” Ma’am said. “Heaven knows why. But the thing in the yard last night broke open the coop, and got in with the chickens. The funniest thing . . .” Ma’am shook her head in wonder. “It didn’t touch nah bird except Sadie.” Ma’am hugged Easter to her side, eyes full of concern. “But, Easter—I’m sorry—it tore old Sadie to pieces.”
Easter broke free of Ma’am’s grasp, stood up, blind for one instant of panic. Then she sat down again, feeling nothing. She felt only tired. “You done told me this, that, and the other thing”—Easter hung her head sleepily, speaking in a dull voice—“but why didn’t you never say the one thing I really wanted to know?”
“And what’s that, baby child?”
Easter looked up, smiled, and said in a brand new voice, “Who slept on the pull-out cot?”
Her mother hunched over as if socked in the belly. “What?” Ma’am whispered. “What did you just ask me?”
Easter moved over on the pew close enough to lay a kiss in her mother’s cheek or lips. This smile tasted richer than cake, and this confidence, just as rich. “Was it Brother Freddie slept on the pull-out cot, Hazel Mae? Was it him?” Easter said, and brushed Ma’am’s cheek with gentle fingertips. “Or was it you? Or was it sometimes him, and sometimes you?”
At that touch, Ma’am had reared back so violently she’d lost her seat—fallen to the floor into the narrow gap between pews.
Feeling almighty, Easter leaned over her mother struggling dazed on the ground, wedged in narrow space. “. . . ooOOoo . . .” Easter whistled in nasty speculation. “Now here’s what I really want to know. Was it ever nobody on that pull-out cot, Hazel Mae? Just nobody at all?”
Ma’am ignored her. She was reaching a hand down into the bosom of her dress, rooting around as if for a hidden dollarbill.
Easter extended middle and forefingers. She made a circle with thumb and index of the other hand, and then vigorously thrust the hoop up and down the upright fingers. “Two peckers and one cunt, Hazel Mae—did that ever happen?”
As soon as she saw the strands of old beads, though, yellow-brownish as ancient teeth, which Ma’am pulled up out of her dress, lifted off her neck, the wonderful sureness, this wonderful strength, left Easter. She’d have turned and fled in fact, but could hardly manage to scoot away on the pew, so feeble and stiff and cold her body felt. She spat out hot malice while she could, shouting.
“One, two, three, four!” Easter staggered up from the end of the pew as Ma’am gained her feet. “And we even tricked that clever Freddie of yours, too. Thinking he was so smart. Won’t never do you any good swearing off the old Africa magic, Hazel Mae! Cause just you watch, we gon’ get this last one too! All of yours—”
Ma’am slung the looped beads around Easter’s neck, and falling to her knees she vomited up a vast supper with wrenching violence. When Easter opened her tightly clenched eyes, through blurry tears she saw, shiny and black in the middle of puddling pink mess, a snake thick as her own arm, much longer. She shrieked in terror, kicking backwards on the ground. Faster than anybody could run, the monstrous snake shot off down the aisle between the pews, and out into the gray brightness past the open church doors. Easter looked up and saw Ma’am standing just a few steps away. Her mother seemed more shaken than Easter had ever seen her. “Ma’am?” she said. “I’m scared. What’s wrong? I don’t feel good. What’s this?” Easter began to lift off the strange beads looped so heavily round her neck.
At once Ma’am knelt on the ground beside her. “You just leave those right where they at,” she said. “Your great grand brought these over with him. Don’t you never take ’em off. Not even to wash up.” Ma’am scooped hands under Easter’s arms, helping her up to sit at the end of a pew. “Just wait here a minute. Let me go fill the wash bucket with water for this mess. You think on what all you got to tell me.” Ma’am went out and came back. With a wet rag, she got down on her knees by the reeking puddle. “Well, go on, girl. Tell me. All this about Sadie. It’s something do with the old Africa magic, ain’t it?”
The last angel supped at Easter’s hand, half-cut-off, and then lit away. Finally the blood began to gush forth and she swooned.*
*Weird, son. Definitely some disturbing writing in this section. But overarching theme = a people bereft, no? Dispossessed even of cultural patrimony? Might consider then how to represent this in the narrative structure. Maybe just omit how Easter learns to trick the Devil into the chicken? Deny the reader that knowledge as Easter’s been denied so much. If you do, leave a paragraph, or even just a sentence, literalizing the “Fragments of History.” Terrible title, by the way; reconsider.
People presently dwelling in the path of hurricanes, those who lack the recourse of flight, hunker behind fortified windows and hope that this one too shall pass them lightly over. So, for centuries, were the options of the blacks vis-à-vis white rage. Either flee, or pray that the worst might strike elsewhere: once roused,such terror and rapine as whites could wreak would not otherwise be checked. But of course those living in the storm zones know that the big one always does hit sooner or later. And much worse for the blacks of that era, one bad element or many bad influences—‘the Devil,’ as it were—might attract to an individual, a family, or even an entire town, the landfall of a veritable hurricane.
White Devils/Black Devils, Luisa Valéria da Silva y Rodríguez
1877 August 24
There came to the ears of mother and daughter a great noise from out on the green, the people calling one to another in surprise, and then with many horses’ hooves and crack upon crack of rifles, the thunder spoke, surely as the thunder had spoken before at Gettysburg or Shiloh. Calls of shock and wonder became now cries of terror and dying. They could hear those alive and afoot run away, and hear the horsemen who pursued them, with many smaller cracks of pistols. There! shouted white men to each other, That one there running! Some only made grunts of effort, as when a woodsman embeds his axe head and heaves it out of the wood again—such grunts. Phrases or wordless sound, the whiteness could be heard in the voices, essential and unmistakable.
Easter couldn’t understand this noise at first, except that she should be afraid. It seemed that from the thunder’s first rumble Ma’am grasped the whole of it, as if she had lived through precisely this before and perhaps many times. Clapping a hand over Easter’s mouth, Ma’am said, “Hush,” and got them both up and climbing over the pews from this one to the one behind, keeping always out-of-view of the doors. At the back of the church, to the right of the doors, was a closet where men stored the cut wood burned by the stove in winter. In dimness—that closet, very tight—they pressed themselves opposite the wall stacked with quartered logs, and squeezed back into the furthest corner. There, with speed and strength, Ma’am unstacked wood, palmed the top of Easter’s head, and pressed her down to crouching in the dusty dark. Ma’am put the wood back again until Easter herself didn’t know where she was. “You don’t move from here,” Ma’am said. “Don’t come at nobody’s call but mine.” Easter was beyond thought by then, weeping silently since Ma’am had hissed, “Shut your mouth!” and shaken her once hard.
Easter nudged aside a log and clutched at the hem of her mother’s skirt, but Ma’am pulled free and left her. From the first shot, not a single moment followed free of wails of desperation, or the shriller screams of those shot and bayoneted.
Footfalls, outside—some child running past the church, crying with terror. Easter heard a white man shout, There go one! and heard horse’s hooves in heavy pursuit down the dirt of the Drive. She learned the noises peculiar to a horseman running down a child. Foreshortened last scream, pop of bones, pulped flesh, laughter from on high. To hear something clearly enough, if it was bad enough, was the same as seeing. Easter bit at her own arm as if that could blunt vision and hearing.
Hey there, baby child, whispered a familiar voice. Won’t you come out from there? I got something real nice for you just outside. No longer the voice of the kindly spoken Johnny Reb, this was a serpentine lisp—and yet she knew them for one and the same and the Devil. Yeah, come on out, Easter. Come see what all special I got for you. Jump up flailing, run away screaming—Easter could think of nothing else, and the last strands of her tolerance and good sense began to fray and snap. That voice went on whispering and Easter choked on sobs, biting at her forearm.
Some girl screamed nearby. It could have been any girl in Rosetree, screaming, but the whisperer snickered, Soubrette. I got her!
Easter lunged up, and striking aside logs, she fought her way senselessly with scraped knuckles and stubbed toes from the closet, on out of the church into gray daylight.
If when the show has come and gone, not only paper refuse and cast-off food but the whole happy crowd, shot dead, remained behind and littered the grass, then Rosetree’s green looked like some fairground, the day after.
Through the bushes next door to the church Easter saw Mr. Henry, woken tardily from a nap, thump with his cane out onto the porch, and from the far side of the house a white man walking shot him dead. Making not even a moan old Mr. Henry toppled over and his walking stick rolled to porch’s edge and off into roses. About eight o’clock on the Drive, flames had engulfed the general store so it seemed a giant face of fire, the upstairs windows two dark eyes, and downstairs someone ran out of the flaming mouth. That shadow in the brightness had been Mrs. Toussaint, so slim and short in just such skirts, withering now under a fiery scourge that leapt around her, then up from her when she fell down burning. The Toussaints kept no animals in the lot beside the general store and it was all grown up with tall grass and wildflowers over there. Up from those weeds, a noise of hellish suffering poured from the ground, where some young woman lay unseen and screamed while one white man with dropped pants and white ass out stood afoot in the weeds and laughed, and some other, unseen on the ground, grunted piggishly in between shouted curses. People lay everywhere bloodied and fallen, so many dead, but Easter saw her father somehow alive out on the town green, right in the midst of the bodies just kneeling there in the grass, his head cocked to one side, chin down, as if puzzling over some problem. She ran to him calling Pa Pa Pa but up close she saw a red dribble down his face from the forehead where there was a deep ugly hole. Though they were sad and open his eyes slept no they were dead. To cry hard enough knocks a body down, and harder still needs both hands flat to the earth to get the grief out.
In the waist-high corn, horses took off galloping at the near end of the Parks’ field. At the far end Mrs. Park ran with the baby Gideon Park, Jr. in her arms and the little girl Agnes following behind, head hardly above corn, shouting Wait Mama wait, going as fast as her legs could, but just a little girl, about four maybe five. Wholeheartedly wishing they’d make it to the backwood trees all right, Easter could see as plain as day those white men on horses would catch them first. So strenuous were her prayers for Mrs. Park and Agnes, she had to hush up weeping. Then a couple white men caught sight of Easter out on the green, just kneeling there—some strange survivor amidst such thorough and careful murder. With red bayonets, they trotted out on the grass toward her. Easter stood up meaning to say, or even beginning to, polite words about how the white men should leave Rosetree now, about the awful mistake they’d made. But the skinnier man got out in front of the other, running, and hauled back with such obvious intent on his rifle with that lengthy knife attached to it, Easter’s legs wouldn’t hold her. Suddenly kneeling again, she saw her mother standing right next to the crabapple stump. Dress torn, face sooty, in stocking feet, Ma’am got smack in the white men’s way. That running man tried to change course but couldn’t fast enough. He came full-on into the two-handed stroke of Ma’am’s axe.
Swapt clean off, his head went flying, his body dropped straight down. The other one got a hand to his belt and scrabbled for a pistol while Ma’am stepped up and hauled back to come round for his head too. Which one first, then—pistol or axe? He got the gun out and up and shot. Missed, though, even that close, his hand useless as a drunk’s, he was so scared. The axe knocked his chest in and him off his feet. Ma’am stomped the body twice getting her axe back out. With one hand she plucked Easter up off the ground to her feet. “Run, girl!”
They should have gone straight into the woods, but their feet took them onto the familiar trail. Just in the trees’ shadows, a big white man looked up grinning from a child small and dead on the ground. He must have caught some flash or glimpse of swinging wet iron because that white man’s grin fell off, he loosed an ear-splitting screech, before Ma’am chopped that face and scream in half.
“Rawly?” Out of sight in the trees, some other white man called. “You all right over there, Rawly?” The fallen man, head in halves like the first red slice into a melon, made no answer. Nor was Ma’am’s axe wedging out of his spine soon enough. Other white men took up the call of that name, and there was crash and movement in the trees.
Ma’am and Easter ran off the trail the other way. The wrong way again. They should have forgotten house and home and kept on forever into wilderness. Though probably it didn’t matter anymore at that point. The others found the body—axe stuck in it—and cared not at all for the sight of a dead white man, or what had killed him. Ma’am and Easter thrashed past branches, crackled and snapped over twigs, and behind them in the tangled brush shouts of pursuit kept on doubling. What sounded like four men clearly had to be at least eight, and then just eight couldn’t half account for such noise. Some men ahorse, some with dogs. Pistols and rifles firing blind.
They burst into the yard and ran up to the house. Ma’am slammed the bar onto the door. For a moment, they hunched over trying only to get air enough for life, and then Ma’am went to the wall and snatched off Brother’s old Springfield from the war. Where the durn cartridges at, and the caps, the doggone ramrod . . . ? Curses and questions, both were plain on Ma’am’s face as she looked round the house abruptly disordered and strange by the knock-knock of Death at the door. White men were already in the yard.
The glass fell out of the back window and shattered all over the iron stove. Brother, up on his back legs, barked in the open window, his forepaws on the windowsill.
“Go on, Easter.” Ma’am let the rifle fall to the floor. “Never mind what I said before. Just go on with your brother now. I’m paying your way.”
Easter was too afraid to say or do or think, and Brother at the back window was just barking and barking. She was too scared.
In her meanest voice, Ma’am said, “Take off that dress, Easter Sunday Mack!”
Sobbing breathlessly, Easter could only obey.
“All of it, Easter, take it off. And throw them old nasty beads on the floor!”
Easter did that too, Brother barking madly.
Ma’am said, “Now—”
Rifles stuttered thunderously and the dark wood door of the house lit up, splintering full of holes of daylight. In front of it Ma’am shuddered awfully and hot blood speckled Easter’s naked body even where she stood across the room. Ma’am sighed one time, got down gently, and stretched out on the floor. White men stomped onto the porch.
Easter fell, caught herself on her hands, and the bad one went out under her so she smacked down flat on the floor. But effortlessly she bounded up and through the window. Brother was right there when Easter landed badly again. He kept himself to her swift limp as they tore away neck-and-neck through Ma’am’s back garden and on into the woods.*
*Stop here, with the escape. Or no; I don’t know. I wish there were some kind of way to offer the reader the epilogue, and yet warn them off too. I know it couldn’t be otherwise, but it’s just so grim.
They were back! Right out there sniffing in the bushes where the rabbits were. Two great big ole dogs! About to shout for her husband, Anna Beth remembered he was lying down in the back with one of his headaches. So she took down the Whitworth and loaded it herself. Of course she knew how to fire a rifle, but back in the War Between the States they’d hand-picked Michael-Thomas to train the sharpshooters of his brigade, and then given him one of the original Southern Crosses, too, for so many Yankees killed. Teary-eyed and squinting from his headaches, he still never missed what he meant to hit. Anna Beth crept back to the bedroom and opened the door a crack.
“You ’wake?” she whispered. “Michael-Thomas?”
Out of the shadows: “Annie?” His voice, breathy with pain. “What is it?”
“I seen ’em again! They’re right out there in the creepers and bushes by the rabbit burrows.”
“You sure, Annie? My head’s real bad. Don’t go making me get up and it ain’t nothing out there again.”
“I just now seen ’em, Michael-Thomas. Big ole nasty dogs like nothing you ever saw before.” Better the little girl voice—that never failed: “Got your Whitworth right here, honey. All loaded up and ret’ to go.”
Michael-Thomas sighed. “Here I come, then.”
The mattress creaked, his cane thumped the floor, and there was a grunt as his bad leg had to take some weight as he rose to standing. (Knee shot off at the Petersburg siege, and not just his knee, either . . .) Michael-Thomas pushed the door wide, his squinting eyes red, pouched under with violet bags. He’d taken off his half-mask, and so Anna Beth felt her stomach lurch and go funny, as usual. Friends at the church, and Mama, and just everybody had assured her she would—sooner or later—but Anna Beth never had gotten used to seeing what some chunk of Yankee artillery had done to Michael-Thomas’ face. Supposed to still be up in there, that chip of metal, under the ruin and crater where his left cheek . . . “Here you go.” Anna Beth passed off the Whitworth to him.
Rifle in hand, Michael-Thomas gimped himself over to where she pointed—the open window. There he stood his cane against the wall and laboriously got down kneeling. With practiced grace he lay the rifle across the window sash, nor did he even bother with the telescopic sight at this distance—just a couple hundred yards. He shot, muttering, “Damn! Just look at ’em,” a moment before he did so. The kick liked to knock him over.
Anna Beth had fingertips jammed in her ears against the report, but it was loud anyhow. Through the window and down the yard she saw the bigger dog, dirty mustard color—had been nosing round in the honeysuckle near the rabbit warren—suddenly drop from view into deep weeds. Looked like the littler one didn’t have the sense to dash off into the woods. All while Michael-Thomas reloaded, the other dog nudged its nose downward at the carcass unseen in the weeds, and just looked up and all around, whining—pitiful if it weren’t so ugly. Michael-Thomas shot that one too.
“Ah,” he said. “Oh.” He swapped the Whitworth for his cane, leaving the rifle on the floor under the window. “My head’s killing me.” Michael-Thomas went right on back to the bedroom to lie down again.
He could be relied on to hit just what he aimed for, so Anna Beth didn’t fear to see gore-soaked dogs yelping and kicking, only half-dead, out there in the untamed, overgrown end of the yard, should she take a notion to venture out that way for a look-see. Would them dogs be just as big, up close and stone dead, as they’d looked from far-off and alive?
But it weren’t carcasses nor live dogs, either, back there where the weeds grew thickest. Two dead niggers, naked as sin. Gal with the back of her head blown off, and buck missing his forehead and half his brains too. Anna Beth come running back up to the house, hollering.
“The Devil in America” copyright © 2014 by Kai Ashante Wilson
Art copyright © 2014 by Richie Pope