Award-winning writer Ntozake Shange and real-life sister, award-winning playwright Ifa Bayeza achieve nothing less than a modern classic in this epic story of the Mayfield family. Opening dramatically at Sweet Tamarind, a rice and cotton plantation on an island off South Carolina’s coast, we watch as recently emancipated Bette Mayfield says her goodbyes before fleeing for the mainland. With her granddaughter, Eudora, in tow, she heads to Charleston. There, they carve out lives for themselves as fortune-teller and seamstress. Dora will marry, the Mayfield line will grow, and we will follow them on an journey through the watershed events of America’s troubled, vibrant history—from Reconstruction to both World Wars, from the Harlem Renaissance to Vietnam and the modern day. Shange and Bayeza give us a monumental story of a family and of America, of songs and why we have to sing them, of home and of heartbreak, of the past and of the future, bright and blazing ahead.
The first orange light of sunrise left a flush of rose and lavender on Betty’s hands as she fingered the likenesses of her children. There were tears she was holding back and cocks crowing, as well as her granddaughter’s shouts, “Nana, you ready?” Betty sighed and closed the album reluctantly. Time had come for the last of the Mayfields to leave Sweet Tamarind, the plantation they’d known as home for generations. Talk was some carpetbaggers had bought all the land and paid the white Mayfields a smidgeon of what it was worth and left the poor blacks high and dry. A rough white man, whip and rifle in hand, had passed by a few days before, warning Betty and hers to be off the land by evening of this very day. So off they planned to be, not wanting to know another moment of the whites’ wrath. The colored Mayfields were familiar with what that meant, and with no slavery to hold them back they were off to Charleston, where others awaited them.
There was nothing odd about two colored women racing the rhythm of cicadas and the tides at first light, busying themselves with order, a sense of the day to come and dreams of what it might bring, yet this day felt different. This day the cicadas were louder, purposely taunting Betty and her grandchild with their steadiness. Betty set her album down for a second and went to the window to be sure what she was hearing wasn’t a band of washboards and gourds being played by some fool-ass folks with tongues in they cheeks. There was no one there. Only the density of Betty’s imagination, the palms, some lily o’ the valley and nightshade-snugglin’ magnolia and giant oaks.
Well, music is not a bad omen, Betty thought to herself. Then she wondered did God mean for her to hear the glory of Gabriel in the morning machinations of insects, the breeze caressing dew on leaves left to themselves all the dark night, waves breaking how the drum popped if African Jeremiah wanted to change the gait of the ring shout, change the dancers’ direction with three strong beats and a quick run of his palms on the face of the skin before beginning another rhythm demanding other movements, other oblations, and peace in the energies of the spirits spilling from his fingers to their bodies through the rings of soft clouds round the dawn moon. Sometimes the drums, fiddles, and washboards saluted the giant rose-orange sun, taking up the whole of the horizon like nobody had anywhere to go but to the center of the universe. Yes, the Lord’s set the gulls to calling over the ocean’s irrepressible going and coming, midst the cicadas’ crescendo, to let her know to listen to this blessing, before she and Eudora made this wild—some would say this wild and thoroughly foolhardy—change in their lives. Moving to Charleston.
Why, on Sweet Tamarind everybody understood everybody else. The mélange of Yoruba, Wolof, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and a hint of English left the words of men, free or slave, soothing the air from mouth to mouth, left history in place, content with the comings and goings of her children. Nothing was lost, no one madly pounding gainst a vacuum of silence, nothingness that comes of being of nothing, nothing in particular. When she looked out from her tabby hut, oyster and clam shells cemented with sand thick enough to withstand the might of a cyclone, Betty saw the ruins of the Big House of Sweet Tamarind. She kicked something, not knowing what, thinking to herself, I got no call to leave here. I belong right up there. We all do. Belong right here where I stand.
And what was to become of the graves, the bittersweet memories of her mother, sisters who had been fortunate enough to pass over to the other world before the rigors of this island beat them down, smashed their spirits, left them but ghosts of themselves before it was time. She would have to go to their final resting place before she went anywhere. Sacrilege was not only the province of the white, but could fall upon the unmindful of any of God’s children. This Betty believed with her whole body, her body knowing no separation from her soul, ever close to the breath, past and present, of all those whose blood was her own.
But she would have to hurry to pay her respects secretly and gather strength from the loved ones who were no more. Her grandchild Eudora had no sympathy for any who’d come before and had managed to find some joy in the throes of bondage, those who’d thrown away the rigid color codes and property laws to find warmth, love, passions too rich to suppress, so fertile that Eudora owed her own life to them. Perhaps it was this debt of her very being with which she was yet uncomfortable that led Eudora to reject all Betty held so close. Don’t for the life of me know why. What for? She ’most white, ain’t she? How could all of Africa get so deep in her granddaughter when Mayfield blood flowed just as readily in her veins? How’s all this come to be? And if she not all niggah, why not rejoice in that? Eudora’s cheeks had known the back of Betty’s hand more than once for voicing her defiantly blasphemous thoughts. No matter. Both women were deeply rooted, like Carolinian cypress wondering and massive, to views of themselves that knew no connections other than the words Grandma and chile.
Slipping quietly from the house, Betty hid in her bosom her precious album of daguerreotypes and photographs from wandering carnival sideshow artists. She’d searched futilely for her apron pockets, but she wasn’t in an apron. She wasn’t going to be cooking in her very deliberate way in her own home anymore. She kept forgetting her future, but refused to forget her ancestors.
Betty swept by purple and white globe amaranth that clung to her skirts like weeping toddlers. She pushed further into the wooded areas she knew to be the resting places of her mother and sisters. Of course she didn’t know for sure which of the mounds overgrown with wildflowers and weeds. Were wildflowers weeds? Betty’d asked herself that a thousand times. Was she a wildflower? Was her mother wild? Was she beauteous? Was she full of life like good soil, or empty like dirt? There’s a difference tween soil and dirt. There’s a difference from coming from nothing and coming from something simply not known. Betty’s mother, Monday, was not known to her but she’d clearly come from something. It wasn’t true that there was an emptiness. She felt her mother in the fiddle’s melody, in the dried gourds ancient women shook until the spirits of somebody from somewhere drove secret sounds from mouths twisted in foreign shapes, squealing and growling a birth of a soul that had no choice but to shout. Then those shouts corralled the bent women and young heifers into a circle that shuffled along, weaving something like Spanish moss around some unseen skeleton the size of God’s toe. Or she saw her mother possessed under the arch of God’s foot, beating the air with her hips, the soles of her feet afire with the rhythm of the forbidden. Betty knew about the forbidden, therefore she knew her mother. She’d just picked a grave site and called to her. Ma . . .
When the azaleas or camellias rose up from the earth for the white folks to pick and pretend love of nature, Betty’d covered her mother’s grave with flower petals and danced the dance of longing that became sated only when her body fell, fingers digging for arms to hold her, digging for a womb to bury her tears. But the grasses cut her face, left her limbs grimy with wishing for the impossible. Yet Betty made that real enough to hold sacred, to hold as her beginnings. She sang her mother. Betty let her fine dark hair hang from her head like a mantle of audacity.
She sang her mother when leading other blacker ones through the marshes cross to a safe boat on the way from where she belonged. The darker ones weren’t left suspect of their very being. Least that’s what Betty imagined. She had to imagine a lot because once she was free and then she was not. Once she wore satin and the finest lace, then she washed someone else’s. Betty tried to imagine a reasonable world. She found that harmony by the graves she chose to call her family. She was entitled at least to that. All the others had kin, some that died or were sold away, but they existed somewhere. They knew the smell of magnolias and dogwood blossoms. They knew the songs she sang with them to calm the spirits, to move God’s foot in time to the gourds, especially the fancy dangerous ones that woke glory in the tiniest child, the oldest mammy, the fastest picker, chopper, all succumbed to the glory gourds in their gleaming colorful beads, their white feathers and blessed frog’s legs. Betty let the music make her belong. She knew her mother. She knew her God danced.
That’s what Eudora never found, a place she belonged, and now she was going to force the world to just accept her. Eudora could not bring herself to feel the fiddler’s lyric, the gourd’s invitations; her own limbs resisted harmony with anything that quelled the dissonance she knew to be herself. Betty jumped once, no twice, round and about the place where she knew her mother’s bones waited for her words of love and reverence. She was saying good-bye in silence which broke her heart. Betty became the multitude of sounds and gestures she knew to be safe for those who’d crossed over. The music of a people tumbled from her till only sobs and a writhing body grabbed to hold on to her life. Betty rose weaker than she’d ever been when a child fell from her. Barely breathing she knew the song of her was, indeed, so much a part of her she’d be humming it in her own grave one day. So averse to silence she’d become, the butterflies were clapping bout her head, only no one else could hear them.
Her own daughters’ graves were a bit more trouble to identify. Elma, so fair and pampered by the Mayfields she took to despising her mother and her mother’s mother, simply disappeared one day. No more than seventeen, she determined that green eyes and silken hair made her ready for whatever the world had to offer. Heavens, no! Not the world of her mother and her mother’s mother, but the world of the father, who thought her beauty set her free. Pity. How Betty saw her child’s life or death depended on her mood when she looked at the clouds over the horizon. If the clouds were thick, white, billowing, Betty figured the white world was treating her daughter good. It was those thin fast-moving wisps of cloud that troubled Betty. Didn’t leave enough for a soul to hold on to. The world was moving too fast and free with Elma, which to Betty signaled a mighty probability of stillness, the silence of the unmourned. And she’d just have to wait to get to Charleston to visit with her dear Blanche. Juliet, her youngest, was lost to her. Juliet, Eudora’s mother, who simply had no song. She’d let love fly off with her voice and she had nothing to say to Eudora. Now Eudora was going to Charleston to set something straight that wasn’t crooked, going to Charleston to make herself known to the world, when the world was full of young gals like her and dealt them no easy hand, no dance cards or honor.
Shame, Shame. She had to steal away, play half mad to get to the grave of her lover and owner, her master and partner, Julius Mayfield himself. How could he die fighting to keep his own enslaved, children he played with, inspected and vowed never to sell, but own was no contradiction. What kind of man had she shared so much of herself with, did he know she’d done that? Laid open her womanhood and soul as much as any wife anywhere ever had. Over and over she’d gifted him with healthy, never before seen children. Girls whose eyes suggested fog-laden dawns, whose skin was opalescent, whether bronze or ivory. Girls so wantonly free a sane soul couldn’t conceive of them as some white’s slaves. Yet they were property, like chattel or so much hog entrails, these girls, begat with joy sometimes, from power other times. Either way, how could he at the mere suggestion that she, Betty, the one who laid naked gainst the blond hair silken on his chest, whose legs entangled themselves with his arms and calves, have their mother re-enslaved because he, Mayfield, the planter, heard something about a wench close to him aiding troublemakers to make their way north? He’d heard. He’d heard her screams at childbirth. He knew her sighs of pleasure or terrible release from ecstasy. But what he’d heard from some anonymous white man or maybe a niggah was enough to take those same soft hands of hers that pulled the damp hair on his neck late in the night, holding on for a different kind of glory call, those same hands could now be shackled and set back to boiling lye, washing the undergarments of the white lady who thought she was his wife.
It was not right. It was not wrong. It was. Like stars are. There. Like men and women are. No different from rivers or ravines, caves, hills. Betty didn’t care about notions that divided men and women from rocks and fish. It was. She was. Her children were blessings because she had them. She couldn’t watch her offspring with disdain the way she’d seen other women look at their master’s broods. The pain of carrying hatred round in her body, in the hair that flowed down her back, was too ugly to leave any room for her. She had to be because her girls were, because the wind blows and stars decorate the night, sometimes falling into the laps of lovers, the currents of twisting creeks, the moist black of dream, and the song of her mother. Crepe myrtle spread over the grave of the father of her children like her arms and hair use’ta cover them after the act. He never touched her mean then, with the stinginess folks assumed. There was no hate between them. There was a chasm of fate, cowardice, and the inevitability of men and women seeing nothing but one another, smelling nothing but the scent of the other. That’s all Betty understood. It was enough for her to curl neath the flowing crepe myrtle and let the pulse of his breath calm her. He was good for that.
She carefully laid the pictures of their children over the granite carved with the letters of his name, Julius Mayfield, and told him all she could about each child because he would hear from her no more.
I’m still amazed how somebody standing way from me that I never seen before, with his head under some black cloth, bad luck there for sure, makin’ poofs, puffs, whatever, some dusting of the sky with soot, with smoke, with my soul maybe, hope not. Stranger come and we give up hard-earned money to look at pictures of ourselfs. Like mirrors wasn’t enough. Like the reflection of you in my eyes to your eyes wasn’t the Lord letting our insides out into the other. There are ways to remember and put back together whatever it was you want to recollect. Seems to me a laziness come over folks preventin’ them from going deep down to the gut of all they ever been and tellin’ somebody, if somebody want to know.
Don’t know why Julius was so taken with these here whatchu call em, oh, photongraphs, no daguerrographs. Oh, who in the Lord’s world want to know what they callt? All I know is Julius went to Paris, France, as a young man and came back besotted with this newfangled invention. Done built hisself a black room to fiddle around makin’ em, an invited every wandering ’tographer on the road to the house to make more, talkin’ bout they “art” all night long. But I found a path through them black-and-whites thinner than pastry dough, less supple than bark, more costly than lace, I say I found me a way to put some blood life back in the still of my children’s eyes, they limbs caught in the air like dead folks shaped the way a fool wan to remember, with they smiles pained or pushed way past a lie. Oh, yes, Saints be praised, I can read some life into these pictures, make my family come back to life. Only funny thing bout it, they still coming back in black and white, that the only true thing bout em. Black n white. Niggahs n peckawoods. Enough to make me find some dark funny in all this. Can’t get through my children’s eyes. If you can’t make your way through black and white in a heap of entanglement and haints, good and evil, always nearby to help us, or at least me, find my way through what all I done or what done come up with me. No matter.
Whoa! That’s a tellin’ one, this one with all them niggahs and white folks favorin’ one nother. We relatives, but cain’t tell nobody. All them fancy white women—they all cousins or aunts or some kin could be named for sure. The black one to the right in the muslin skirts, that’s my Ma, but she paid for them skirts what was given to her by the white man, yes, the one in the center with authority like he God, he reignin’ over the land. That’s the world of a plantation, Sweet Tamarind, where this was took. My chirren there, too. His chirren, but cain’t tell nobody (like you cain’t tell by lookin’). Anyway, Ma she paid for all them slips and the lace by her wrists with plenty strap marks down her back. Some so raw the cloth stuck to her flesh where it turned inside out from the lash and the weft of the cloth liked to growed into her like she was a new kinda crop they playin’ round with to see what’s more productive. Well, you can see lookin’ at her, lookin’ at me and my young ones, we was sure nough productive. Shame. Shame on a man who is Grandpa and Pa to his own kith n kin. Then goin’ to turn round an ignore em, like she wasn’t his daughter cause she was dark like indigo, like the night quiet ringin’ with sounds of water courtin’ the winds, tree limbs rockin’ niggahs to sleep or shakin’ em wake if they gotta gal to visit fore sun-up. Keep tellin’ myself ain’t no sin in bearin’ no child when there ain’t no choice. And the Good Lord know, I got respect for the living and the dead. Cain’t nobody come sayin’ my babies ain’t gotta right to live. Slave or free, they’s the bounty of God. That makes em worth lovin’ and lookin’ after, whether you, Julius Mayfield, ever come to realize you wasn’t the Almighty or not. My chirren deserved respect cause they alive. How could that be such a hard idea to get to? Even if we was jus’ a pack of hounds. Folks love they dogs. I love my daughters. My ma loved me when she could, fore that witch Master Mayfield callt a wife most beat her to death and left her in her good dress bleedin’ blue and no more a distraction to her than some dust on a table leg. Said she didn’t notice no bleedin’ negress nowhere. Couldn’t recall any colored woman missin’ that mornin’ neither.
That’s what threw my Pa, my lover, over the line, so he finally found some of himself in me and mine. That’s why I saved this here picture of everybody. Cause everybody didn’t last till the next harvest. That’s a sad thing to say. It’s a sad thing for me to remember, but it’s the truth. Buried my ma and took her place for the next white man with black cloth over his head and flashes like bits of God’s wrath come to capture our souls. Pa-lover said wasn’t true, was darkie legend that souls end up in these here pictures. But if that’s so, why am I cryin’ now?
Gotta go on ahead and find myself somethin’ else to do. Get tired visitin’ the way back times, I do. Yet I cain’t get to the nowadays less I go way back. Sides, I done enough for one woman in two or three lives of anybody. I guess I got me a right to set here and look at what I come from and what I beget to this world.
Now look at that stirrin’ young gal! That ain’t no show turkey vaudeville somebody. No. That ain’t nobody’s outside woman, either! That’s me in my calico matchin’ with my girls. Didn’t mean to look over em so at first, just I surprised myself, so good-lookin’ I forgot, anyway all three of those lil beauties is mine. Mayfields to the bone, I say. They all look so different I worry sometimes that a body might not put em all together as one. And that there hurts a woman’s feelin’s. I know. I seen folks peekin’ to check if they all favor Julius Mayfield or not, or even if they favor me! I swear for glory I take for a wonderment a child God’s done let out the heavens. Got no time to be creepin’ bout the Devil’s doorway, seein’ if he been up to mischief or not. Besides, a Mayfield’s a Mayfield however they turn out. Can spot em a mile away if you close to the right circle and got any idea of what blue-bloods is.
Look at how that rose from the sleeve of her dress bring out the red in Elma’s lips, look to be painted but they not. I got me a mind to get me a brush or an embroidery needle so I can show all the colors them dresses bring out in my daughters’ hair, they cheeks, even they eyes take on different kinds of lavender if they wearin’ rose at dusk. There’s always been more to my girls than black n white, else they faces wouldn’t look chiseled like a Ethiop one day and flat like a Cherokee the next. They changin’ constant, sorta how no one day come out jus’ like some other day, but more like one day slips into another with a slower rhythm or a brighter sound to it. I live some muffled days now, when I barely hear anybody even when I listen close. Then I got days I could hear a stranger’s dreams like they was my own. My girls are like that. One day Blanche the whitest niggah wench I ever set eyes on. Next day I find myself callin her “missie,” cause I ain’t sure if she French or Irish or whatever else kinda white done took to these parts. Now, Elma can look tawny, her eyes blue or purple dependin’ on the time of day. And Juliet is a deep bronze with a set of veins all different colors pulsin’, filled up with the spirit of her blood so she look like one of them twirlin’ mirrors at the travelin’ medicine show. But don’t none of that matter cause I getta swellin’ in my heart which is what the ol’ folks say is truly a African heart if I hear any one of my chirren a-callin’ for me. Ma, Mawmaw, Mama, I answer to everythin’. Girls gotta way of callin’ for they mother let you know if they happy, in trouble, in love, or foolin’ with the haints or a wish they done felt crawl from they toes to they mouth and out comes the call for me. Ma, Mawmaw, Mama, and off I go without even turnin’ my head round to see who might be about. Slave or free, my girls got the best of me. If somebody don’t like that they can whup me later, if they dare. And sometimes, one of them evil niggahs or a white trash beyond they station might very well go on ahead and do that very thing. All I got to say is nigh everythin’ close to God can be beat out a soul, but they cain’t whip the Ma outcha. I know that.
I’m just gonna sift through these here pictures a bit longer to see if anything jumps out at me. Jesus knows my body’s a vehicle for the Holy Ghost or any other kind of somethin’ we cain’t actually see but can get right up on ya and change your whole life. I never know what or when some creature from the other side gonna need me to get somewhere or tell somebody somethin’. That’s why I keep those bottles hangin’ round my porch, sometimes I want just a little warnin’ if a body from the other side or a African borned soul needs to speak through me. Hard on a body to be in this world and the next world, goin’ back n forth at a stone’s throw, like I ain’t got enough to do. Oh, I found me somethin’ to be right proud of. Wish time didn’t make sucha brittleness in my bones and these here pictures. Life ain’t like that, not really. Well, got fits and starts, but memories don’t break off at the edges, crack up the middle leavin’ scars where they weren’t none. Pictures sure nough do damage to a body’s recollections, even though I could see how sometimes they help me go back quicker to what’s no more, yet close as breath. So, I guess I’ma do my best to handle em more gentle. Cause this one right here got a big markin’ comin down Blanche’s face, like a knife been took to her. My chirren may have lived some full and dangerous lives, but that you cain’t tell by lookin’. Real seein’ is a art, but like everythin’ else you got to have a gift. This is Blanche with her beloved Roswell Sr. A woman dressed in lace that fine and coiffed just like somethin’ from a New Orleans magazine don’t have no knife scar down her face. Look at my Blanche! Did so well for herself! Though Roswell was a mite older than what I woulda picked, they’s benefits to taking up with a man what’s settled. Got everybody in Charleston respectin’ the ground he walks on. There is somethin’ could be said for that.
Oh my, cain’t hide from the gaze of a sorrow-filled child. It shouldn’t be but it is, my sweet Juliet with that Willie, Willie Chisolm to be exact. He didn’t mean her no harm in the beginning, but the Lord’s got a way of undoin’ deceit. I tried to tell my chile that, but she trusted in guile, not the truth. I know I couldn’ta laid up next to a man so all the time angry with me, hurt and wild with suspicions, while my lil one, Eudora, was there in the next room, never imagining her presence was like a venom nobody took the time to stop from poisoning . . . Oh, Juliet, however could you believe gainst the truth so much, or want the lie to be the truth so much, you’d write “Eudora is Happiness” neath that child’s face. A Ma can set her eyes on only so much pain in her chirren, then comes time to do somethin’ else. Leave em in the Lord’s hands. Ask the ancestors for guidance. Tend to what I got cookin’ in the kitchen. That works most of the time for me. Fussin’ with my pots, turnin’ down the fires.
Betty cupped her hand and swept a fistful of soil from Julius’s grave into her purple satin pouch, tied it closed, and tucked it into her bosom. Then she slowly gathered up the pictures, inspecting them carefully to make sure nothing that didn’t belong in there was there and wrapping the album back up in the cloth. With head held high she gazed at the headstone of Julius Mayfield, for whom she still held both an indignant passion and mightily felt connection. Then off she sauntered toward the shouts of her granddaughter, whom she had left shouting in the first place. Betty shook her head, chuckling about how a body could shout about the same thing with the same words for so long when it didn’t bring an answer. Finally, Betty yelled back, “Heah I’ma comin’. Put your bonnet on. I’ma comin’ to ya now.”
“Good Gracious, Nana! Where on the earth have you been? Don’t you know we’ve got to get a move on or the ferry’ll go right on without us? All this packing I’ve done, all this planning up to this very minute, and off you go without so much as a how-de-do.” Eudora was vexed.
“Well, a body can’t just up and leave without some good-byes here and there. A couple of thanks for years of friendship and such.”
“Grandma, you didn’t have time to go so far as to find a soul. Next folks downstream are more than an hour away, but judging by how you lookin’ right now, maybe you did go crawlin’ through the marsh to say a fare-thee-well to somebody. Don’t know who. Don’t know who’d receive you in a mess of briars and weeds as a bustle. Less you got a beau back up in them woods who don’t know he’s free yet.”
“Young lady, mind your mouth first off. I got rights to go from hither to yon, if that’s my choosin’, and whatever kinda courtship I got goin’ on is more than the one you ain’t got goin’ on anywhere.”
Eudora smarted from her Nana’s words, but pride pulled the pout of her lips back to her teeth, let the red blush fade fast enough for her to regain her composure. “Now, see here, Grandma, we’ve no call to taunt one another today. Why don’t you make yourself presentable again. Then we’ll be off to Charleston.”
Betty pulled some of the red amaranth still tangled in her slips away from her comely but scarred legs. “I was lookin’ just fine, and I wasn’t tauntin’ you. I was simply speakin’ the truth. In the ol-timey days, a gal with your blessed health and keen smile’d be surrounded by young bucks hankering after a wife.”
Eudora was losing her patience. “Nana, the ol-timey days, as you see fit to call them, were slavery days. And those young men, bucks as you choose to call them, weren’t lookin’ for a wife. They were lookin’ for a good breeder. So they’d be more valuable to . . .”
“Julius Mayfield, that’s who.” Betty glanced at Eudora’s frantic attempts to create order, seeing only a mass of confusion. “Can’t bring yourself to say his name, I see. Well, huh, that surely tells me somethin’.”
“And what might that be?” Eudora’s anger was slipping out of her control. Her greatest desire at this moment was to pull her skin off and suck the Mayfield out of herself. Yet the best she could muster was to clamp her teeth like a hound on a niggah.
“You can’t get very far, can’t get nowhere, without takin’ all your self. From the way you soundin’ to me, looks like you plannin’ on leaving your grandpa out of who you are. You telling me you some creature made outta smoke and mirrors? You best check yourself again, gal. If all this talk proves anything, proves you a Mayfield.”
“Nana, please stop. They owned us. They owned us. That’s not a family. It’s . . . like harvestin’ niggahs ’steada rice or cotton. Don’t you see that, Grandma? We’re some by-product of nights when decent white women would have not a thing to do with the likes of Julius Mayfield.”
Before Eudora could get another word out, Betty grabbed a switch, took it to her granddaughter’s cheeks, hands, any visible flesh. Thinkin’ to finally break this girl of disrespect, living in a dream where folks was not folks just cause they allegedly belonged to somebody. Don’t a soul belong to nobody but God. Betty knew that. She just been visitin’ with her gods, her companions, the only family she knew about. The switch landed on Eudora more ferociously, but Eudora wouldn’t give up insultin’ her Nana. “Is this how he loved you, Nana, with the threat of the whip, a fist, being sent downriver? Am I here because you believed love and violence could sleep in the same bed?”
Betty raised the switch up once more. This time to teach this gal a lesson in respect, but somethin’ held her hand back. She almost believed she felt Julius grab her wrist to stop her, sayin’ Enough is enough, my dusky love. Everthin’ the chile says is not untrue. Betty dropped the switch. Her eyes sought out the darkest corners of the room, not Eudora’s eyes waitin’ for her Nana to hold her. Too much’d been said, more razor-thin scars set to swellin’ up. Betty’s anger was spent. Her body seemed to shrivel right in front of Eudora, who reached for her grandma. A gesture of reconciliation, but Betty’d have none of it.
“Don’t touch me, gal! I ain’t got the strength to carry your misery away from what I love. Get yourself lookin’ like somethin’. We can get on our way like you say, but you still takin’ yourself and all this land, whatever come with it is in you, you takin’ that to Charleston, too. All anybody’ll have to do is look at you sideways and know you a Mayfield. You don’t know you a loved one. You the only one don’t know.”
A diffident Eudora disappeared to tend to her wounds. Betty chuckled to herself. That chile don’t even know what a good beatin’ is.
Lijah-Lah handled his canoe like a woman’s body he knew well. The weight of the Mayfield ladies’ goods was a challenge, especially with Eudora all the time fidgeting this way and that, like her looking round would wind her in Charleston’s harbor any sooner than the way folks always go, no faster than the breeze, no slower than the tide allowed. Lijah-Lah knew his waters from the Ashley to the Cooper rivers. His knowledge was formidable. Was born under the light of a different God, folks said. Lijah-Lah came out his mammy praising the Infidel, but not the Devil. The Infidel made his mark on him and gave Lijah-Lah a firm hand on an oar, direction, and a quiet confidence that too many times nearly undid a white wanting to go someplace. Somehow Lijah-Lah could only understand where the whites wanted to go. After that he didn’t respond to anything they went on about. Went back into his mother’s spirit, they whispered, where the tongue of the Infidel had never been silenced, brought to praise the name of the Lord Jesus, Almighty, son of God and Savior of us all. No, Lijah-Lah was one of the last to know the other Holy Book. The one he read five times a day, prayed on and beseeched the souls of his ancestors to show him the true way. Lijah-Lah was, therefore, a man prone to long periods of introspection and meditations; the less he opened his mouth, the longer he would live to find his fate. There were only a few of his kind left, who didn’t eat crab or pig’s meat, who shied away from the jamborees likely to seduce every other river soul. Eudora found him peculiar, but Betty’d ride with no one else. Betty’s reasoning was questionable, but consistent. “I like being in the company of those whose God protects em. Long as the oars in Lijah-Lah’s hands I’ma get wherever I’m fixin’ to be goin’.”
Somehow, Eudora became the one who didn’t speak or listen, least not to Betty and Lijah-Lah. Today, of all days, Eudora was full of voices in her head, smells of the marsh, the blackness of the water. If she could help it, she’d never come back here again so long as she lived. No matter the mystery of the whiteness of the lily pod, or was it truly white with its honey-colored center where its sweetness lay, in the sepia sway of the creek, rippled with shadows of ancient cypress, the surprise of silver moons winding toward the sun. Eudora felt herself part of all this, and that caused the auburn hair on her arms to stand on end. She was only from these islands, not of these patches of sand begging the salt marsh, rivulets, the rills, to let them join.
“Hey now! Hey!” swept through the air like the dance of dragonflies. Mama Sue-Sue ’long with all her kin were waving Betty and Lijah-Lah toward them. Eudora snapped, “Ignore them, just keep rowing.”
“What you want I do, Mah Bette?” Lijah-Lah erased Eudora.
“I say we say good-bye to our neighbor folk, that’s what I say.” Betty almost got the canoe tipsy with her excitement.
“Mah Bette, please, let me get us there,” replied Lijah-Lah. Betty had nothing to say to that. Her eyes, old as they were, wandered the glistening blue of Lijah-Lah’s veins pulling the oars. Betty was enough of a woman to imagine Lijah-Lah pulling her toward him through the night, through sweat and weeping that blessed women are familiar with. Shaking her head, getting Lijah-Lah out of her bones, left Betty with nothing to concentrate on but Eudora, pouting so she competed with the Spanish moss, lips ’most dangling from her face.
“What on earth is on your mind, chile? We all set here to do what you got your heart set on and look at you. You look meaner than dirt.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talkin’ bout, Nana. How’re we going to have a new start if we carry all this back here with us? We don’t have time to visit every soul you know on these islands if we want to get to Charleston at a decent hour. Brother Diggs and Blanche should be happy to see us, not come draggin’ from their beds to greet their vagabond relatives.”
“Speak for yourself, missy. Blanche presented her little blue-veined behind to me in the middle of the night. And she coming out backwards weren’t no delight of mine either. I’m that girl’s mother. The two of you may forget that, but God Almighty and I sure haven’t.”
“We most there, now. Mah Bette, don’t worry yourself.”
“Not me worrying, Lijah-Lah. It’s this gal here thinks she can catch up to her future or outrun the past, I don’t know which. Anyway Charleston’s not going anywhere, and neither is Blanche, bless her poor shallow soul.”
“Don’t talk like that, Nana.”
“Lijah-Lah, do you hear this, now my gran’s gointa tell me I can’t call upon the Lord for one of mine I know needs His help. Ain’t that something?” Betty was amusing herself again with Eudora’s anxiety, her fear of what to do with herself. They were doing just fine, the Lord saw to it. They were breathing. What else that girl want?
Long strokes and a few grits of his teeth, Lijah-Lah brought the overloaded canoe into Sue-Sue’s landing. They made a number of other stops ’long the way to Charleston. Betty greeted her weaver friends, her basket-making sisters, and the woodworkers who’d been kind enough over the years to fill her house with all manner of cypress and walnut furniture. Betty stopped to sanctify the kindness shown to her for so long. No matter what her children looked like, no matter who their pa was.
Eudora imagined herself in Brother Diggs’s grand house in Charleston with Blanche, her aunt, to show her the finer way to live. To know the opera and the ballet that Charleston boasted before any other colonial center. Why, her Aunt Blanche was cultured, had escaped the sin of her birth, she thought. All I have to do is refine my outside qualities and no one will ever know. They’ll never know. Not thinking, Eudora answered Sue-Sue’s daughter, Maribel, in Gullah. She didn’t even hear herself. The part of her that was the islands spoke at will, with ease. Eudora actually smiled every once in a while when they passed a tabby hut she recognized, but she’d never tell her Nana. Nothin’ rushes water but the water alone. Eudora was no fool, simply a girl aching to feel dreams she could hold, that she could touch.
And there was a whole lot of holding of folks and plucking and beating of instruments every time Betty and Lijah-Lah stopped at a half-hidden old place set behind loping magnolia trees dressed in wax myrtle and nestled in circles of spartina and palmetto. The music’d get to going and Betty’d set to dancin’ with young men and old, blue black and ivory, toothy or toothless, limbs whole or withered. The whole of the waterways knew something was up or over. The last of the Mayfield colored women was gettin’ on away from here. The swamp sang ’long with the folk, and Eudora, still as she was, was singing because the choice was no longer hers. It was up to the growing things, the flying and biting creatures, now. Hurricane time come soon enough. Though brooding, Eudora knew she too was a force of nature like all the Mayfields. Time would come when the winds would sing her song.
Lijah-Lah whistled to Max, the oyster man. Max, upon hearing, cocked his head and cooed back smiling to himself, knowing it was his friend Lijah-Lah even before he could see him. Through the darkness he made out three figures. By Gawd, one was Betty Mayfield, whose outline he knew as well as his own hand. So they were the cargo, the Mayfields. Max would be taking the last of the Mayfield clan from Tamarind to Charleston. No wonder Lijah-Lah had not mentioned who or what he wanted Max to carry. Betty Mayfield was leaving Tamarind!
On Emilena, the oyster man’s bateau, the strange mixture of salt water and fresh gave the air Eudora huddled in a depth like a blanket everywhere she moved, stretched, arched her back. Max the oyster man was an industrious fellow, finding a way to make himself a bit more independent any old way he could. Folk talked bout that. Max was a bachelor, one past his prime, so what was he making a legacy for, who was to benefit from all his work beyond what had to be done? Max’d reply in his slow and sly way, never letting on whether he was joshing or no, “Can never tell who’ll be in need, I looks at it this way.” Betty knew Max most of her life and all of his, she wasn’t surprised. If the Yankees could wipe clean the riches of planters, who knew what could disrupt a niggah’s fortune? Best to have more. Wasn’t nothing to be said about having enough.
Betty couldn’t help herself. She started counting, picking out the green growing things she loved and might never see again. You could tell, she thought, almost exactly where you were by the growing things lacing your path, flirting with the tides, murmuring honest “forget-me-nots” to the bateau and her passengers. Betty wanted to share her good-byes with Eudora, but the child had decided to absent herself from her own life’s turning-point, too full of tomorrow to pay homage to yesterday. Betty, missing conversation, decided to let her graying hair down out its braid. When she was through slowly unwinding the heavy mass rarely seen in public, never by menfolk, even Max, who paid women no mind at all, believing they didn’t have any, was hankering to get his thick knobby fingers to running through that fine-looking old gal’s head of hair. What nets he could design with the like of black and white strands Betty shook atop the water so they set the water lilies to dancing, got the wax myrtle giggling, the spartina and star marsh to putting on airs. Azaleas backed up gainst palmetto looking to mask themselves in the face of such wanton abundant growth. All this was goin’ on, Betty smiling, feeling the energy from the river in the pit of her groin.
All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
St. Martin’s Press, September 2010
ISBN: 978-0-312-19899-2, ISBN10: 0-312-19899-X,
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches, 576 pages