فصل 06کتاب: پیش از آنکه مال شما باشیم / فصل 7
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In my dream, we’re free on the river. The Model T engine Briny fixed to the back of the boat drives us upwater easy, like we haven’t got any weight at all. Queenie sits up top of the cabin like she’s riding an elephant. Her head’s tossed back, her hair flowing out from under her feathery red hat. She’s singing a song she learned from an old Irishman in one of the shanty camps.
“Ain’t she pretty as a queen?” Briny asks.
The sun is warm, and the song sparrows sing, and the fat bass jump out of the water. A flock of white pelicans flies over in a big old arrow shape pointing north, which means the whole summer’s still ahead of us. There’s not a paddle-wheeler, or a flatboat, or a tug, or a barge in sight anywhere. The river is ours.
“And what’s that make you?” Briny asks me in my dream.
“Princess Rill of Kingdom Arcadia!” I yell out.
Briny sets a honeysuckle flower crown on my head and pronounces it so, just like the kings in the storybooks.
In the morning when I wake, there’s a sweet taste still in my mouth. It lasts until I open my eyes and think about why we’re all five in Queenie and Briny’s bed, flopped across the mattress like a fisherman’s catch, sweaty and slick.
Queenie’s not here. It barely gets through my head before I know what’s pulled me from my dream.
Somebody’s knocking on the door.
My heart jumps up, and I jump with it, tugging one of Queenie’s shawls over my nightgown while I cross the shanty floor. It’s Zede on the other side of the door, and even through the window glass, I can see that his white-whiskered face is long and sad. My gut turns into a slipknot.
Outside, the storm’s gone. It’ll be a nice day. The morning air’s turned warm and steamy, but I open the door and step outside and feel cold right through the old cotton nighty Queenie sewed a ruffle to because I’d gotten so tall. Queenie said a girl my age hadn’t oughta have her legs showing so much.
I pull the shawl tighter over my chest, not because of Zede or because I’ve got any woman parts to hide—Queenie says that’ll happen when it’s time, and it just ain’t time yet—but because there’s a boy in Zede’s jon boat. He’s a skinny thing, but tall. He’s got dark skin like a Cajun or an Indian. Not quite a man yet, I’d say, but older than me. Maybe fifteen or so. Zede’s always got somebody under his wing. He’s the grandpappy of the whole river.
The kid hides his face under a raggy newsboy cap, looking at the bottom of the boat, not at me. Zede skips the introducing.
I know what that means, but I wish I didn’t.
Zede’s hand feels heavy on my shoulder. It’s meant for a comfort, but I want to run away from it, scat off somewhere down the bank, my feet flying so fast they barely leave tracks in the washed-up sand.
Tears shove up my throat and I swallow hard. Fern’s face presses against the window behind me. Figures she’d wake up and follow along. She never lets me get far.
“Queenie’s babies didn’t make it.” Zede’s not one to chase round the bush with his words.
Something dies inside me—a little brother or sister I was planning to hold like a new china doll. “Not either one?”
“The doc said no. Couldn’t save neither of ’em. Said it wouldn’t of made no matter if’n Briny’d got yer mama to the hospital sooner. The babies just wasn’t meant for this world, that’s all.”
I shake my head hard, trying to wick those words out of my ears like water after a swim. That can’t be true. Not in Kingdom Arcadia. The river is our magic. Briny always promised it’d take care of us. “What’d Briny say?”
“He’s pretty broke up. I left him there with yer mama. They had some hospital papers to sign and whatnot. They hadn’t told her ’bout the babies yet. Reckon Briny will when she’s woke up good. She’ll be all right, doc said.”
But I know Queenie. She won’t be all right. Nothing makes her happier than a brand-new, sweet baby to cuddle.
Zede tells me he figures he’d better go back to the hospital. Briny wasn’t in a good way this morning. “I was gonna see if’n there wasn’t a woman down in the river camp who’d come look after y’all young’uns, but the pickin’ was sparse. Been some trouble with the police, and most all the shanty folk done took to the river. I brung Silas to watch out over ya till I can git yer daddy back home.” He motions to the boy in the boat, who looks up, surprised. He didn’t know that Zede meant to leave him, I guess.
“We can look after ourselves all right.” Mostly, I just want Queenie and Briny to come home and get us on down the river. I want that so bad, I hurt for it deep underneath the knot in my belly.
“We ain’t got nothin’ to feed him.” Camellia is in the door now, offering up her two cents.
“Well, good mornin’ to you, Miss Rosy Ray a’ Sunshine.” Zede calls Camellia that all the time on account of she’s the exact opposite of that very thing.
“I was gonna go gig us some frogs.” She announces it like she’s been made captain of the Arcadia.
“No, you ain’t,” I tell her. “We’re not supposed to leave the boat. None of us.”
Zede points a finger at my sister. “You kids stay put.” He narrows an eye back toward the river. “Don’t know what’s spooked the folks out of Mud Island camp. It’s good y’all are over in this li’l backwater by yerselves, anyhow. Just keep quiet. Don’t be callin’ any attention or nothin’.”
Something new weighs on my chest. Something heavy. Worry scratches a setting spot inside me and takes up nesting. I don’t want Zede to leave.
Fern sidles over to hang on my leg. I pick her up and snuggle her wild curls under my chin. She’s a comfort.
Gabion comes out, and I pick him up too, and their weight pins my feet to the floor. Queenie’s shawl binds tight around my shoulders and squeezes into my skin.
Zede puts me in charge again, and he brings the boy, Silas, onto the Arcadia. Unfolded, Silas is taller than I thought. He’s skinny as a rail, but he’d be handsome if it weren’t for the busted lip and the shiner. If he was hoboing trains, like Zede said, he’s lucky the railroad bulls didn’t do worse to him.
He hikes himself up on the porch rail, like that’s where he means to stay.
“You watch after them now,” Zede tells him.
Silas nods, but it’s clear enough he ain’t happy about it. A Cooper’s hawk flies by looking for prey, and he watches it pass, then keeps his face pointed toward Memphis.
Zede leaves food behind—a bag of cornmeal, a bundle of carrots, ten eggs, and some salt fish.
Silas watches as Zede climbs into his boat and disappears.
“You hungry?” I ask him.
He turns my way, and it’s then I remember I’m in my nighty. I feel the sticky air touching my skin where the neck pulls low from the babies on my hips.
Silas looks away, like he noticed. “Reckon.” His eyes are dark as midnight on water. They reflect everything he looks at—a heron bird fishing nearby, branches drooping from a half-broke tree, the morning sky with its foam-white clouds…me. “You cook?” The way he says it makes it sound like he’s already decided I can’t.
I lift my chin, square up my shoulders. Queenie’s shawl cuts in deeper. I don’t think I like Silas much. “Yeah. I can cook.”
“Pppfff!” Camellia spits.
“You hush up.” I set down the little kids and push them toward her. “And watch after them. Where’s Lark?”
“Still in bed.”
“Look after her too.” Lark can slip off quick and quiet as a whisper. One time, she laid up in a little clearing by a creek and fell flat asleep, and it was a whole day and half the night before we found her. Scared Queenie clean outa her mind.
“Reckon I better make sure you don’t burn the place down,” Silas grumbles.
I decide it right then: I don’t like this boy at all.
But when we go through the door, he looks my way, and his split lip turns upward on one side, and I think maybe he ain’t so bad.
We light a fire in the stove and cook the best we can. Between Silas and me, neither of us knows much. The stove is Queenie’s territory, and I’ve never cared a thing about it. I’d rather be outside watching the river and its animals and listening to Briny spin stories about knights, and castles, and Indians out west, and far-off places. Briny’s seen the whole world, near’s I can figure.
Silas has seen a bit himself. While we cook and sit down to eat, he tells tales about riding the rails, and thumbing his way across five states, and scratching up food in hobo camps, and living off the land like a wild Indian.
“Why ain’t you got a mama?” Camellia asks as she finishes the last of a hoecake that’s just a little bit burnt on the edges.
Lark nods, because she wants to know too, but she’s too shy to ask.
Silas waves a fancy silver fork that Briny dug up in the sand by the wreck of an old riverboat. “Had a mama. Liked her all right, till I was nine. Then I left and ain’t seen her since.”
“How come?” I look hard at Silas to see if he’s teasing. As much as I miss Queenie already, I can’t imagine being away from your mama on purpose.
“She married a fella that liked drinkin’ whiskey and handin’ out whippin’s. I took me a year of that, and I figured I was better off makin’ my own way.” The sparkle leaves his eyes for a minute, and there’s nothing left but dark. But quick as it’s there, he shrugs and smiles, and the little dents come back in his cheeks. “I struck off with a harvest crew that was movin’ through. Went clear up to Canada, pickin’ apples and combinin’ wheat. After that was over, worked my way back south again.”
“When you was just ten?” Camellia smacks her lips to let him know she’s not believing a word of it. “You done all that? I just bet.”
Smooth as a cat, he turns in his chair, lifts up the tail of his faded-out shirt, and shows us the scars across his back. All five of us jerk away from the table. Even Camellia hasn’t got a smart-mouthed answer now.
“Be glad if you got a nice mama and daddy.” Silas looks hard at her. “Don’t ever get it in your head to leave them behind, if they’re good to you. Some sure enough ain’t.”
We all go quiet for a minute, and tears build in Lark’s eyes. Silas sops up the last of his egg and drinks a swig of water. He looks at us over the rim of the tin cup and frowns like he can’t figure what we’re so long faced about. “Say, li’l bit”—he reaches out and tweaks Lark’s nose, and her lashes flutter like butterfly wings—“did I ever tell you about the night I met Banjo Bill and his dancin’ dog Henry?”
Just like that, he’s off on another story and then another. Time goes by in a wink while we finish the last of the food and then clean up the mess.
“Your cookin’ ain’t half bad.” Silas licks his lips after we’re done washing dishes in the pail on the porch. By then, Fern’s got her dress on wrong side out, because she’s changed herself out of her nighty, and Gabion’s running around half-naked, looking for somebody to clean him up after he sneaked to the outhouse off the back of the shanty all by himself. It’s a good thing he didn’t fall right through into the river. There’s no bottom on a shantyboat outhouse, just the water.
I tell Camellia to take him on the porch and dunk his rear in the river and then dry him off. It’ll be easiest.
Camellia’s nostrils flare. The only thing that scares her in the whole wide world is poop. Which is exactly the reason I’m making her go clean Gabby. She deserves it. She hasn’t helped with a thing all morning.
“Mellia! Mellia!” our baby brother cheers as his fat little legs wobble him toward the door, bare bottomed. “I metsy!”
My sister sneers at me, then whips open the screen and drags Gabion out, pulling him up by one arm, so that he stands on his tippy-toes.
“I’ll do it,” Lark whispers, hoping to end the fight.
“You let Camellia see after it. You’re not big enough.”
Silas and I look at each other, and he smiles a little. “Ain’t you ever gonna get dressed?”
I look down and realize I never did change and never even thought about it, I was so caught up in Silas’s stories. “Guess I better,” I say, and laugh at myself and get my dress down from the hook, then stand there holding it. “You gotta go outside, though. And no peeking.”
There’s been a funny little thought in my head while Silas and me been cooking and taking care of the babies. I’ve been play-pretending like I was the mama and Silas was the daddy and this was our house. It’s helped me not think about Queenie and Briny still being gone.
But there’s no way I’d get undressed in front of him, or anybody. I’ve come up big enough this past year that I dress behind the curtain in the shanty, like Queenie does. I wouldn’t stand still for somebody seeing me in the altogether any more than I’d let somebody whip me across my back and leave scars.
“Heck,” Silas says, and rolls his eyes, “why’d I be lookin’? You ain’t nothin’ but a kid.”
My skin goes hot from head to toe, and my cheeks boil.
Outside the screen door, Camellia laughs.
I blush harder. If I could, I’d knock her and Silas both off into the water right now. “And take the little kids out with you,” I snap. “A woman needs privacy.”
“How would you know anythin’ about that? You ain’t no woman. You ain’t nothin’ but a li’l curly-headed Kewpie doll,” Silas teases, but I don’t think it’s funny, especially when Camellia can hear. On the porch, she’s lined up with Fern and Lark, enjoying the show.
Every muscle in my body goes stiff. I don’t get mad easy, but when I do, it’s like a fire inside me. “Well, you ain’t nothin’ but a…a stick! A stick boy. The wind don’t even have to slow down to blow around you. That’s how skinny you are.” I square up on him, hateful as I can, and poke my fists into my hips.
“Least I don’t got hair that’d do to mop a floor with.” He grabs his hat off the hook and stomps out the door. From someplace near the gangplank, he yells, “You oughta join the circus. That’s what you oughta do. You could be a clown!”
I get a look at myself in the mirror on the wall, and there’s blond curls flying everywhere, and my face is red as a woodpecker’s head. Before I can even catch hold of how I look, I’m running to the door to holler out, “Well, you can just keep walkin’, Silas…Silas…whatever your last name is, if you got one. We don’t need you anyhow, and…”
Onshore, he drops down to a squat all of a sudden and bats a hand at me. I can’t make out his face under the hat, but it’s clear enough there’s trouble. He’s seen something in the woods.
The heat in my skin changes direction and sucks inward.
“Yeah, you can just keep walkin’!” Camellia shouts, jumping into the wrangle. “Git off our boat, stick boy!”
Silas glances over, shoves his palm at us again. The brush closes around him as he scoots in.
“You ain’t hidin’! I see you there!”
“Hush, Camellia!” I whip open the screen door and yank Fern and Lark inside.
Camellia gives me a crosswise frown. She’s bent over the rail, dangling Gabion by his arms. His bottom swirls in the water while he kicks and giggles. Camellia pretends to drop him, then catches his arms again, and he lets out a squeal before I can get to them.
“Come on inside.” Leaning out, I reach for my brother’s arm, but Camellia swats me away and lets Gabby dangle by one hand.
“He’s havin’ fun. And it’s hot inside.” Her thick, dark hair falls forward, the tips reaching to the water, touching it like a spill of ink. “You wanna go swimmin’?” she asks Gabby. For a minute, I think she’s gonna climb into the water with him.
Onshore, Silas pokes out of the brush and puts a finger to his lips, trying to throw quiet our way.
“Somethin’s wrong.” I catch Gabion’s hand and swing him up like a wishbone, bringing my sister with him.
“Owww!” She’s mad when her elbow hits the rail.
“Get inside!” Down shore, the leaves shiver apart, and I see black—a man’s hat maybe. “Somebody’s out there.”
Camellia snorts. “You just want that boy to come back.” She can’t see Silas, but he’s probably not ten feet from where a branch snaps and a raven takes off, cawing out complaints.
Camellia catches sight of the black. It’s somebody coming, for sure, but instead of going in the door, Camellia slips around toward the other side of the boat. “I’ll sneak off the back and check who it is.”
“No,” I hiss, but the truth is I’m not sure what to do. I want to toss off the lines, and push the Arcadia out of the sand, and take to the river. The water’s still and calm this morning, so it’d be easy for us to put her out, except I wouldn’t dare try it. With nobody but Camellia and me and maybe Silas to keep the Arcadia from hitting a bar or getting plowed through by a barge or a paddle-wheeler, there’s no telling what could happen to us on the river.
“Let’s get inside,” I say. “Maybe he’ll think the boat’s empty and move on about his business.” But who’d have business down this little backwater where there’s nothing around?
“Maybe it’s just somebody out squirrelin’,” Camellia says hopefully. “Maybe he’d give us one for dinner if we’re nice.” She knows how to be sweet when she wants to, when somebody’s got sugar candy to hand out or fry cakes to share around a campfire.
“Zede told us to keep quiet. And Briny’d tan us good if he found out.” Briny’s never tanned any one of us, but he threatens it sometimes. The idea worries Camellia enough that she hurries across the porch with me, and we go inside.
We bar the doors and climb up in the big bed and pull the curtain and wait and listen. I think I can hear the man walking onshore. Then I think he must’ve left. Maybe he was just a hunter or a hobo—
“Hallooo, the boat!”
“S-s-shhhh.” My voice trembles. Wide, worried eyes turn my way. You grow up on the river, you know to be mindful of strangers. The river’s a place men take to sometimes when they’re running from the bad things they done someplace else.
Camellia leans close. “That ain’t Zede.” Her whisper ruffles the fine hairs on my neck.
The hull rocks a little. Someone’s trying the plank.
Lark scoots close, and Fern crawls into my lap, her cheek pushing against my heart.
The Arcadia sways toward shore, tipped by the man’s full weight. He’s big. Whoever he is, Silas isn’t any match for him.
I push a finger to my lips. The five of us freeze the way fawns do when the doe leaves them behind so she can go feed.
The man is on the porch now.
“Halloo, the boat!” he says again.
Go away….There’s nobody here.
He tries the door, the handle turning slowly. “?’Loo, in the boat?” The door hits the bar and can’t go farther.
A shadow hovers in the square of window light on the shanty floor. A man’s head, the outline of a hat. There’s a stick or a bat in his hand. He taps it against the glass.
A policeman? I’m afraid it is. The police come after shantyboat folk when they feel like it. They raid the camps, rough up the river rats, take what they want, send us on our way. That’s one reason we always tie up by ourselves unless Briny’s got some particular need for other people.
“I help you, Officer?” Silas’s voice stops the stranger as he crosses to the other window to look in. Their shadows stretch along the floor together, one a head longer than the other.
“You live here, son?”
“Nope. I’z just out huntin’. My daddy’s over yander a ways.”
“Some children live here?” The voice isn’t hateful, but it means business. What if Silas gets himself arrested for lying?
“Don’t reckon I know. I just now seen the place.”
“That so, is it? Think you might be handing me a fib there, little river rat? I heard you talking to somebody on this boat.”
“No, sir.” Silas sounds sure as sunrise. “I seen these people go off in a skiff…oh…couple hours ago maybe. Must’ve been somebody down in the river camp you’z hearin’ just now. Sound goes a long ways on the river.”
The man takes a quick step toward Silas. “Don’t tell me about the river, sonny boy. This is my river, and I been hunting these kids half the mornin’ on it. You get them to come out, so I can take them into town to their mama and daddy.” When Silas doesn’t answer, the officer bends close, their shadows connecting at the face. “Sonny boy, I’d sure hate to see you land yourself in trouble with the law. How’d you get that shiner on your eye anyhow? You been into somethin’ you shouldn’t be? You got folks lookin’ after you, or you a stray?”
“My Uncle Zede. He looks after me.”
“I thought you said you came out here hunting with your daddy.”
“You lie to a policeman, you’ll find yourself in jail, river rat.”
“I ain’t lyin’.”
I hear other voices nearby now. Men yelling in the woods and a dog barking.
“Tell the kids to come on out. Their mama and daddy sent us after them.”
“What’s their daddy’s name, then?”
Camellia and me look at each other. Her eyes are big as walnuts. She shakes her head. She’s thinking the same thing I am: Briny wouldn’t send the police here, and if he did send them, they would’ve known right where to find the boat.
What does this man want with us?
We stare out the gap in the curtain as the big shadow lifts the little one up by the shirt collar. Silas coughs and gags. “Don’t you sass-mouth me, boy. I didn’t come for you, but you gimme any more trouble, we’ll just take you with us. You’ll see where scrawny little guttersnipes like you wind up in this city.”
I’m out of the bed before Camellia can latch on and try to stop me. “No! Rill, no!” She grabs at my nighty, but it slips through her fingers.
When I open the door, the first thing I see is Silas’s feet dangling six inches off the deck. His face is purple. He tries a punch, and the officer just laughs. “You want at me, boy? How about we put you under that water a minute or two and cool you off.”
“Stop! Don’t!” I can hear other men coming. There’s some onshore, and off the starboard there’s a motorboat rumbling up. I don’t know what we’ve done wrong—other than being river gypsies—but we’re caught for sure. It won’t help for Silas to get himself killed or hauled off with us.
The officer drops Silas all at once so that he lands against the shanty wall, hitting his head hard. “Go on, Silas,” I say, but my voice shakes so bad the words are barely anything. “You go home now. You ain’t even supposed to be here. We want to go see Mama and Daddy.” I figure it’ll go better if we cooperate. By myself, I might be able to jump off the porch and get away to the woods before the men could catch me, but with my little sisters and Gabion, there’s no way it’d work. One thing I know about Briny is he’d want us to stick together, no matter what.
I straighten my back, look at the police officer, and try to be as grown up as I can.
He smiles. “That’s a good girl now.”
“Is my daddy okay?”
“Sure he is.”
“And my mama?”
“Real fine. She asked for you to come visit.”
I don’t even have to see in his eyes to know that’s a lie. It ain’t possible that Queenie’s real fine right now. Wherever she is, she’s heartbroke about the babies.
I swallow hard and feel it go all the way down, sharp like a piece of ice chipped fresh off the block. “I’ll get the other kids.”
The officer steps up, grabs my arm like he means to stop me. “Ain’t you a pretty little river rat?” His tongue slides across his teeth, and for the first time, he’s close enough that I can see his face under the shiny hat brim. His eyes are gray, and they’re mean, but they’re not cold like I thought they’d be. They’re interested, except I don’t know why. His look moves from my face down my neck toward the shoulder that’s hanging out of the nightgown right now. “Somebody oughta feed you up a little.”
Behind him, Silas wobbles to his feet, blinks, and staggers. He settles a hand on the axe that’s standing by the woodpile.
No, I try to say without saying it. Doesn’t he hear the men down shore and the motorboat coming closer?
From inside the shanty, there’s a soft, high squeak, just loud enough that I catch it. The outhouse door. Camellia’s trying to sneak away through the back.
Do something. “M-my little brother just got off the pot. I need to clean him up before we go, or there’ll be poop everywhere. Unless y-you wanna do it.” It’s the only thing I can think of. Men don’t like messy babies. Briny won’t touch one at all except to dunk it in the river if Queenie or Camellia or me aren’t there to do it.
The officer curls his lip, lets me go, and turns to listen over his shoulder. Silas jerks his hand away from the axe, stands with fists gripped at the ends of his skinny arms.
“Better hurry along.” The policeman’s lips spread into a smile, but there’s no kindness in it. “Your mama’s waitin’.”
“You go on now, Silas. Just git.” I stop in the doorway, stare at him, thinking, Go. Run!
The officer looks from me to Silas. He reaches toward his belt, toward the gun, the club, the black metal wristlets. What’s he planning to do?
“Go on, git!” I yell, and give Silas a shove. “Briny and Zede wouldn’t want you here!”
Our eyes lock. He shakes his head a little. I nod mine. He closes his lashes real slow, then opens them again and turns and runs down the gangplank.
“There’s one in the water!” another policeman yells from the riverbank. The men in the motorboat holler, and the kicker throttles up.
Camellia! I spin around and rush inside, the officer’s heavy footsteps coming after me. He shoves me, and I land against the cookstove, and he thunders to the back, where the stern door is hanging open. Fern, Lark, and Gabion are clustered along the rail. The man throws them back inside, hard, and they land in a pile screaming and crying.
“Mellia! Mellia!” Gabion wails, and points toward the outhouse, where our sister has shinnied down the privy hole into the river. She’s slogging her way toward shore now, her wet nightgown clinging to her long, sunbrowned legs. A police officer runs after her, and the men in the motorboat follow along in the water.
She climbs a drift pile, as quick and nimble as a doe.
Gabion lets out a high-pitched scream.
The policeman on the back porch yanks his pistol from its holster.
“No!” I try to lunge forward, but Fern’s got my legs. We land on the floor, toppling Lark with us. She lets out a sharp cry, and the last thing I see before the woodbox blocks my view is the man onshore leaping over a branch, stretching out a hand, and catching Camellia by her long, dark hair.
When I come up again, she’s fighting like crazy, kicking and screaming and growling. Her arms and legs flail as the policeman holds her away from his body.
The guys in the motorboat throw their heads back and laugh like drunks at a pool-hall fight.
It takes three of them to get my sister in the boat and two to hold her down once she’s there. When they pull up to the Arcadia, they’ve got Camellia pinned on the floor. They’re muddy and mad because she smells like the bottom of an outhouse, and she’s gotten it on everybody.
The officer on the Arcadia stands himself in the doorway, crossing his arms and leaning like he’s comfortable there. “You get your clothes changed real nice now…out here where I can see. We’re not gonna have anybody else running off.”
I’m not about to get dressed in front of him, so I take care of Gabion, Lark, and Fern first. Finally, I just put my dress on over my nighty, even though it’s way too hot for that.
The policeman laughs. “All right, if that’s the way you want it. Now you come on real sweet and quiet, and we’ll take you to see your mama and daddy.”
I do what he says and follow him from the shanty, pulling the door closed behind us. I can’t swallow, or breathe, or think.
“Good thing the other four weren’t so tough,” one of the policemen says. He has Camellia stuffed to the floor of the motorboat with her arms pinned up behind her. “This one’s a wildcat.”
“Smells more like a wild hog,” the other officer in the boat jokes. He helps us settle in, lifting Gabion and then Fern and then Lark in and telling them to sit on the floor. Camellia gives me a wicked look when I do the same.
She thinks this is my fault, that I should’ve fought back and stopped it somehow.
Maybe I should’ve.
“She’ll like these, all right,” one of the men hollers as the motor kicks up and pushes us away from the Arcadia. He puts his big hand on Lark’s head, and she ducks away, crawling up against me. Fern does the same. Only Gabion doesn’t know enough to be scared.
“She likes the blonds, don’t she?” The officer who came on the Arcadia laughs. “Not sure what she’ll do with li’l stinky there.” He wags his chin at Camellia, and she hocks up a wad of spit and sends it at him. He lifts a hand like he’ll swat her, but then he just laughs and wipes the mess on his trousers.
“To the Dawson Warehouse lot again?” the man running the motor asks.
“Last I heard.”
I don’t know how long we’re on the water. We travel across the river, then toward the channel where the Wolf pours into the Mississippi. When we round the tip of Mud Island, Memphis comes into full view. The big buildings stretch toward the sky like monsters waiting to swallow us whole. I think about jumping out into the water. I think about making a run for it. I think about fighting. I watch boats pass by—tugs, and paddle-wheelers, and fishing boats, and barges. Even a shantyboat. I think about yelling and waving my arms and calling for help.
But who would help us?
These men are the police.
Are they taking us to jail?
A hand settles on my shoulder, like someone’s been reading my thoughts. It stays there until we finally dock. Up the hill, I can see more buildings.
“You be real good now, and keep your brother and sisters out of trouble,” the officer from the Arcadia whispers against my ear. Then he tells the other men to hold the wildcat back a minute, till she’s seen the four of us.
We march up the boardwalk in a line, me carrying Gabion on my hip. The clang-clang-swish of machines and the smell of hot tar catch me, and I lose the scents of the river. We cross a street, and I hear a woman singing, a man yelling, a hammer striking metal. The loose fluff from cotton bales floats in the air like snow.
In a scrappy bush at the edge of a parking lot, a cardinal sings his sharp song. Weep, weep, weep.
There’s a car nearby. A big car. A man in a uniform gets out and walks around to the back door and opens it so a woman can heave her way out of the seat. She stands looking at us, squinting against the sun. She’s not a young woman or an old woman but someplace in between. She’s thick and heavy, her body settling in rolls inside her flowered dress. Her hair is short. Some of it’s gray, and some of it’s brown.
Her face makes me think of a heron bird. That’s the way she watches while the policemen line us up. Her gray eyes move quick and jerky, tracking everything that’s going on. “There should be five,” she says.
“The other’s coming, Miss Tann,” one officer says. “She was a shade more trouble. Tried to get away in the river.”
Her tongue clicks against her teeth, tsk, tsk, tsk. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?” She fingers Fern’s chin and leans down until they’re almost nose to nose. “You wouldn’t be a bad girl, would you?”
Fern’s blue eyes go wide, and she shakes her head.
“What a lovely little bunch of foundlings,” the woman—Miss Tann—says. “Five precious blonds with curls. How perfect.” She claps her hands and folds them under her chin. Her eyes crinkle at the corners, and her mouth presses tight, so that she’s smiling but her lips are gone.
“Only four.” The officer nods toward Camellia, who’s coming up from the river with a policeman holding her by the scruff of the neck. I don’t know what they’ve told her, but she’s not fighting anymore.
Miss Tann frowns. “Well…that one didn’t get the looks in the family, did she? She’s rather common. I suppose we’ll find a taker for her, though. We almost always do.” She pulls back, putting a hand over her nose. “Good heavens. What is that smell?”
Miss Tann isn’t happy when she sees up close what a mess my sister is. She tells the officers to put Camellia on the floorboard of the car and the rest of us on the seat. There are two other kids on the floorboard already—a blond-headed girl about Lark’s age and a boy who’s a little bigger than Gabion. Both of them look at me with big, scared brown eyes. They don’t say a word or move an inch.
Miss Tann tries to take Gabion out of my arms before I climb in. She frowns when I hold on. “Behave yourself,” she says, and I let go.
Once we’re all in the car, she holds Gabion in her lap, standing him up so he can see out the windows. He bounces and points and babbles, excited. He’s never been in a car before.
“My, my, look at those curls.” She slides her fingers along my baby brother’s head, pulling his corn-silk hair upward, so it has peaks on the top like the baby dolls at the county fair.
Gabion points out the window, cheering. “Ohsee! Ohsee!” He’s spotted a little girl having her picture made on a black-and-white pinto pony in front of a big house.
“We just need to wash the stench of the river from you, don’t we? Then you’ll be a fine little boy.” Miss Tann’s nose crinkles up.
I wonder what she means by that. Who’s going to clean us up and why?
Maybe the hospital won’t let us in this way, I tell myself. Maybe we have to wash up first…to see Queenie?
“His name’s Gabion,” I say, so she’ll know what to call him. “Gabby for short.”
Her head turns quick, the way a cat’s does when it’s seen a mouse in the pantry. She looks at me like she forgot I was in the car. “Restrain yourself from answering questions unless you’re asked.”
Her arm snakes out, fleshy and pale, and surrounds Lark, pulling her away.
I look down at the two scared kids huddled together on the floor and then at Camellia. My sister’s eyes tell me that she’s figured out what I already know, even though I don’t want to.
We’re not headed to the hospital to see our mama and daddy.
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