فصل 04

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CHAPTER 4

Rill Foss

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE, 1939

Queenie is as pale as skimmed milk, her body tight and hard as Briny lays her on the edge of the shanty porch and goes after the skiff, which is tied up to a drift pile downwater. Queenie cries and screams, out of her head, her cheek pushed to the smooth, wet wood.

Lark backs herself into the night shadows by the shanty wall, but the little ones, Fern and Gabion, sidle closer on hands and knees. They’ve never seen a grown person act this way.

Gabion leans down to see, like he’s not sure this thing in Queenie’s pink flowered dress is even her. Queenie is light, and laughter, and all the old songs she sings with us as we travel along from one river town to another. This woman with the bared teeth and the cuss words and the moans and sobs can’t be her, but it is.

“Wiw, Wiw!” Gabion says, because, at just two, he can’t say my name, Rill. He grabs my skirt hem, tugging it as I kneel down to hold Queenie’s head. “Keenie owww?”

“Hush up!” Camellia slaps at the little kids’ hands as Fern stretches to stroke Queenie’s long, gold curls. It’s the hair that first caught Briny’s eye and made him set his sights on her. Don’t your mama look like a princess in a storybook? he asks me sometimes. Queen of Kingdom Arcadia, that’s your mama. That makes you a princess sure enough, don’t it?

But my mama’s not beautiful now, not with her face sweat streaked and her mouth twisted in pain. The babies are busting her open. Her stomach clenches and bulges under the dress. She grabs hold of me and hangs on, and inside the cabin, the midwife wipes her hands, gathering her birthing tools in a grass basket.

“You gotta help her!” I scream. “She’s dyin’.”

“Ain’t havin’ nothin’ else to do wit’ this bidness,” the woman says, her heavy body rocking the boat and making the lantern sway and sputter. “No mo’. Fool, river trash.”

She’s mad as a camptown dog because Briny wouldn’t pay her cash money. Briny says she promised to deliver a baby, which she didn’t, and she oughta be glad he’s letting her take the two fat catfish he pulled off the trotlines earlier in the day plus some coal oil for her carry lamp. She’d get back at us if she could, but she’s still blacker than tar, and we’re white, and she knows what could happen if she gives us trouble.

The catfish was supposed to be our dinner, which leaves us with nothing but one little cake of cornpone between the five of us. That spins through my mind with a half-dozen other things.

Should I gather up clothes for Queenie? The hairbrush? Her shoes?

Has Briny got enough money to pay a real doctor? What’ll happen if he don’t?

What if the law nabs him? Once before, when we were hustling pool halls in river towns, he got snagged. Briny’s a good hustler. There’s nobody can beat him at a game of eight ball, and he can play a pool hall piano good enough that people will pay him to do it, but this Depression has made cash hard to come by. Mostly now he hustles pool and plays for things he can trade off to get what we need.

Is there money hid somewhere? Should I ask Briny when he comes back? Remind him he might need it?

How’ll he make the trip across-river in the dark with the storm already lifting whitecaps on the water?

The midwife turns sideways to get out the door, her basket slapping her behind. Something red hangs out the top, and I know what it is, even in the dim light—Queenie’s pretty velvet hat with the feathers on top, the one Briny won in a pool game in a dirty little place called Boggyfield.

“You put that back!” I say. “That’s my mama’s!”

The woman’s dark eyes fold up in her face, and she wags her chin at me. “Done been here all day long, and I ain’t gonna be takin’ no two fish. I gots me enough fish. I take this hat.” She looks around to see where Briny’s at, and then she starts for the gangplank at the side of the porch.

I want to stop her, but I can’t. On my lap, Queenie screams, thrashing around. Her head lands on the deck with a hollow thud, like a watermelon. I grab her with both hands.

Camellia hurries ahead of the woman and stretches herself across the gate, her thin arms stretched from rail to rail. “You ain’t takin’ my mama’s hat nowheres.”

The woman moves another step, but if she knew Camellia, she wouldn’t. My sister might be only ten, but she didn’t just get Briny’s thick black hair; she got his temper to go with it. When Briny gets mad, he’s blind-fool mad, Old Zede calls it. Blind-fool mad is the kind that’ll get you killed on the river. Zede’s warned my daddy of that more than once when our boats have been tied near each other, and a lot of times they are. Zede’s been Briny’s friend since Briny first took to the river. He taught Briny the way of things.

“You li’l saucy thang. Sass mouth.” A big dark hand clamps over Camellia’s arm, and the woman yanks her up, and Camellia clings on to the rail so hard, I think her shoulder bone’s bound to snap from the socket.

Two seconds don’t pass before Camellia whips around and sinks in her teeth. The woman howls and stumbles back, rocking the boat.

Queenie screams.

Thunder rumbles far off.

Lightning flashes, and the night turns to day, then puts on its black veil again.

Where’s Briny? Why’s he taking so long?

A bad thought hits me. What if the skiff broke loose and Briny can’t find it? What if he’s gone to borrow one off somebody in the shantyboat camp? Just for once, I wish Briny wasn’t so stuck on keeping to himself. He never ties up in the river camps, and folks who know our boat know not to come calling unless they’re invited. Briny says there’s good folks on the river and folks you can’t trust, and it’s best to figure out who’s who from a distance.

Queenie kicks and knocks Gabion over, and he bangs his arm and howls high and long. Lark bolts inside the cabin to hide now that the midwife is clear of it. Queenie’s dying right here in my arms. She’s gotta be.

At the head of the gangplank, Camellia ain’t budging. The sneer on her face dog-dares the woman to try her again. Camellia would just as soon fight something as look at it. She’ll catch snakes barehanded and scrap with the boys in the river towns and not think twice about it.

“You leave my mama’s hat!” she yells over Gabion’s squalling. “And you don’t need no fish neither. Just git off our boat ’fore we go on and find the po-lice and tell them some colored woman done trieda kill our mama and steal us blind. They’ll hang you up a tree, they will.” She lets her head go slack and lolls her tongue, and my stomach turns heavy. Just two weeks ago Wednesday, we saw the man hung in the tree downriver. Big colored fella in overalls. There wasn’t a house round for miles, and he’d been there long enough the buzzards had got after him.

Only Camellia would use something like that to try to get her way. It makes me sick just thinking about it.

Maybe that’s why Queenie’s in a bad way now, a voice whispers in my head. Maybe it’s all because Briny didn’t stop and cut that man down and find his people so’s they could bury him proper. Maybe it’s him lookin’ on from the woods now.

Queenie begged Briny to go up to the shore and take care of the body, but Briny wouldn’t. We got the kids to think about, Queen, he said. No tellin’ who did that to him or who’s watchin’. We best get on down the river.

The midwife snatches Queenie’s red hat from her basket, throws it down, and walks over it, her weight rocking the deck as she wobbles down the gangplank, then grabs the lantern she left onshore. The last thing she does is take the stringer with the two catfish. Then she wanders off, cussing us all the way.

“And the devil can come get you too!” Camellia echoes back at her, hanging over the porch rail. “That’s what you get for thievin’!” She stops short of repeating the woman’s naughty words. Camellia’s eaten enough soap to clean up the inside of a whale in her ten years. She’s practically been raised on it. It’s a wonder bubbles don’t pour out her ears. “Someone’s comin’. Hush up, Gabion.” Grabbing Gabby and slapping a hand over his mouth, she listens into the night. I hear the sound of a motor too.

“Go look if it’s Briny,” I tell Fern, and she hops up to do it, but Camellia shoves Gabby at her instead.

“Keep him quiet.” Camellia crosses the porch and leans over the waterside rail, and for the first time, I hear relief in her voice. “Looks like he’s got Zede.”

Comfort wraps me like a quilt. If anyone can make things all right, it’s Old Zede. I didn’t even know he was here around Mud Island, but Briny probably did. They always keep track of each other on the river one way or another. Last I’d heard, Zede was inland, seeing after a sister who had to move to a sanatorium because she had the consumption.

“Zede’s here,” I whisper to Queenie, leaning close. She seems to hear, maybe settles a little. Zede will know what to do. He’ll calm Briny’s wildness, push the clouds from my daddy’s eyes, and get him to think. “Zede’s here, Queenie. It’s gonna be fine. It’s gonna be fine….” I repeat it over and over until they’re pitching the line to Camellia and climbing the gangplank.

Briny crosses the porch in two steps, falls to his knees beside Queenie, and scoops her up, bending his head low over hers. I feel her weight leave me, her warmth vanishing from my skin. The night dew closes in, and all of a sudden, I’m cold. I stand up and turn the lantern higher and wrap my arms tight around myself.

Zede squats down close, looks Queenie in the eyes, unwraps the sheet a little, and there’s blood everywhere. He lays a hand on her belly, where a watery red stain rises up her dress. “Miz Foss?” His voice is steady and clear. “Miz Foss? You hearin’ me now?”

She lets out what might be a yes, but the sound dies behind clenched teeth, and she buries her face in Briny’s chest.

Zede’s mouth turns grim inside his thick gray beard. His red-lined eyes hang loose in their sockets. His breath sucks in through wide, hairy nostrils, then pours out between tight lips. The smell of whiskey and tobacco hangs heavy, but it’s a comfort. It’s the one thing about this night that’s like always.

He locks eyes with Briny and shakes his head a little. “Queenie girl, we’re gonna git you offa the boat, ya hear me? Gotta carry you on down to the hospital in the Jenny. Be a rough trip, across-water. You be a brassy gal fer me now, ya hear?”

He helps Briny lift her from the floor, and her screams tear the night like the women shredding funeral veils down in New Orleans. She goes limp in Briny’s arms before they can even get her in the boat.

“Hold her now,” Zede tells Briny, and then he looks at me and points the crooked finger that was broke in the Spanish War. “You take the young’uns in the shantyhouse, and you git ’em all to bed, sis. Stay inside. I’ll hist on back ’ere, ’fore mornin’ if’n the storm holds off, but if’n it don’t, the Lizzy Mae’s tied up downwater just a bit. Yer skiff’s there. Got a boy on the Lizzy with me. He’s a rough looker just now—tried hoboin’ the train, and the railroad bulls got after ’im. He won’t hurt you none, though. Told ’im to row on up here come mornin’ if’n he didn’t hear elsewise from me.”

He cranks the Waterwitch motor, and it rumbles to life, and I stare at the sludge churning in the lantern’s glow. I don’t want to see Queenie’s eyes closed and her mouth hanging slack that way.

Camellia casts off the line, and it lands neatly in the jon boat’s bow.

Zede points a finger Camellia’s way. “You mind yer sister, li’l spitter. You don’t do nothin’ without askin’ Rill first. You savvy?”

Camellia’s nose scrunches up so tight the freckles on her cheeks run together.

“You savvy?” Zede asks again. He knows which one of us is most likely to wander off and roust up trouble.

“Mellia!” Briny’s clouds clear a minute.

“Yessir,” she agrees, but she ain’t happy about it.

Briny turns to me then, but it’s like he’s begging me, not telling me. “You watch over the babies, Rill. Keep care of everybody, till we get back—Queenie and me.”

“We’ll be good. I promise. I’ll look after everybody. We won’t go nowhere.”

Zede turns the tiller handle and cranks up the throttle, and the Waterwitch carries my mama away into the dark. All five of us hurry to the rail and stand there side by side, watching until the blackness swallows the Jenny whole. We listen while the hull slaps over whitecaps, rising and falling, the kicker roaring and quieting and roaring again. Its voice gets a little farther away each time. Off in the distance, the tugs blow their foghorns. A boatswain’s whistle sounds. A dog yaps.

The night turns quiet.

Fern wraps around my leg like a monkey, and Gabby wanders inside the cabin with Lark because she’s his favorite. Finally, there’s nothing more to do but go in the shanty and figure out how we’re gonna eat. All we’ve got is the one cornpone cake and some pears Briny traded for over in Wilson, Arkansas, where we stayed three months and went to school until it let out for summer. By then, Briny had the itchy feet again. He was ready to take to the water.

Any normal time, he’d never bring us to shore nearby a big city like Memphis, but Queenie’d been complaining of cramps since day before yesterday. Even though it was sooner than she figured it should be, after five babies, she knew we’d better tie up the boat and stay put.

Inside the Arcadia now, everyone’s whiny, and worried, and hot, and cranky. Camellia complains because I’ve shut the door instead of just the screen, and it’s sticky hot, even with the windows open.

“Hush up,” I hiss, and get the dinner ready, and we sit in a circle on the floor, all five of us, because it doesn’t seem right to be at the table with two spots empty at the end.

“I ’ungee.” Gabion’s lip pooches out after his food is gone. He eats faster than a stray cat.

I tear off a scrap of my cornpone slice and twirl it close to his mouth. “You gobbled yours up too quick.” He opens up like a bird every time I get near, and finally I pop the bite in.

“Mmmmm,” he says, and rubs his tummy.

Fern plays the game with him, and so does Lark. By the time it’s all over, Gabby’s gotten most of the food. Except Camellia’s, because she eats all of hers.

“I’ll run the trotlines in the mornin’,” she says, like that makes up for her selfish streak.

“Zede told us to stay put,” I say.

“When Zede gets back. Or the boy comes. Then I’ll do it.”

She can’t run the trotline by herself, and she knows it. “The skiff ain’t even here. Briny rowed it down to Zede’s boat.”

“It will be tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow, Briny’ll be back. And Queenie with the babies.”

We look at each other then—just Camellia and me. I feel Lark and Fern watching us, but it’s only us two that understand enough to share the worry. Camellia looks toward the door, and so do I. We both know that nobody’s gonna walk through it tonight. We’ve never stayed alone in the dark before. There’s always been Queenie, even when Briny was gone hunting, or hustling pool halls, or gigging frogs.

Gabion topples over onto Queenie’s braided rug, his eyes closed, long sandy-brown lashes touching his cheeks. I still need to get a diaper on him for overnight, but I’ll do it after he’s out cold, just like Queenie does. Now that Gabby’s using the potty during the day, he gets mad if we come at him with a diaper.

Outside, thunder booms and lightning flashes, and the sky starts to spit out mist. Did Zede and Briny make it across-water with our mama? I wonder. Is she someplace where the doctors can fix her, the way they did Camellia when her appendix went bad?

“Batten down the windows that’re toward the river. No sense rain comin’ in,” I tell Camellia, and she doesn’t even argue. For the first time ever, she’s lost. She’s not sure what’s best. The problem is, I’m not either.

Gabion’s mouth falls open, and he starts to snore. That’s one of the little kids, at least, who won’t be raising a fuss tonight. Lark and Fern are another matter. Lark’s big blue eyes fill up, and she whispers, “I wa-a-ant Queenie. I’m skeered.”

I want Queenie too, but I can’t tell them that. “Hush up, now. You’re six years old. You’re not a baby. Close the windows before the wind starts blowin’, and get your nighty on. We’ll change the big bed and sleep there, all of us. Just like when Briny’s gone.”

My body’s boneless and weary, but my mind is running crazy. It can’t think a clear thought; it’s just spinning up nonsense words, like the Waterwitch turning the shallows, stirring leaves and twigs and bait grubs and muck.

It keeps on so that I don’t hear all the whining and complaining and sniggling and sniffing and Camellia egging it on by calling Fern a ninny and Lark a baby and another dirty word she ain’t even supposed to say.

Last thing, once they’re all in the big bed and I turn the lanterns down, I take the tin man’s cross off the floor and hang him back on the wall where he belongs. Briny hasn’t got any use for him, but Queenie does, and tonight he’s the only one here to watch over us.

Getting on my knees before I climb into bed, I whisper every word of Polish I know.

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