A Short Story by Mary Nico
The stylish manor houses and the cobblestone road disappear as my daughters and I step onto the
soft dirt road. The sun beats down from a sapphire sky and moisture covers our skin in a blanket of
We talk softly amongst ourselves as we traverse the road. What lace should we put on my
youngest’ new dress? What new gloves would my oldest like for church? Simple stuff, yet important.
The dust puffs up from under our feet, dusting the girls’ shoes and my laced up boots with a soft red
shell. Even our legs will be red by the time we reach the gathering.
“Let’s stop under that oak tree and have some water,” I suggest. “There’s a creek running behind that
hill.” I point to the huge oak standing sentinel over the road, sitting court on his throne of green
grass and crickets.
The shade is cool and a soft breeze comes up from the water trickling quietly behind us. We remove our shoes and stockings’, sighing as the cool air dries the sweat from our toes. We walk to the bank of the small creek and dip our feet in the icy water, splashing our faces, red from the sun, and quench our parched tongues. I smile as the girls giggle at the minnows nipping at their toes. We rest quietly for a while under the huge oak, listening in silence to the raucous of insects, birds and bees. Slowly I rise, “Best put our shoes on and be going if we want to make it by supper girls.”
Obediently they obey and our trek down the red dirt road continues.
The smells reach us before we turn our last bend in the road. Laughter tinkles on the air followed by the smells of down home food. Ham and greens, butterbeans and pinto’s, cornbread and biscuits, sweet pies and cakes, their smells assault our senses topped with the pungent scent of cantaloupe and fresh tomatoes, all drawing us in like fish to a fly. Reticent smiles and gentle waves greet us as we approach, the chatter so loud there is no reason to speak.
“Betsy lost her dad,” I hear. “Might not see her for a while; we should take her some food before it gets late.”
A woman with a shiny black face, eyes white with jet black centers, lips full and glossy pink shakes her head in a sad gesture. “Um hmm, we should do that.”
The group of women seems young, although their not; yet their spirits fill the place with joy and youth. They sing their hymns, their songs of a life gone by as they cook and gossip. Their smooth skin, polished and unwrinkled, is in direct opposition to the men who sit on large wooden stumps, smiling with teeth yellowed from age and the sweet smelling tobacco they chew. Their bodies are worn down to rails, their bones crooked and jutting, but their hearts are as sweet as the big women who cook and sing for them.
My children have deserted me, finding their way amongst this familiar foreign place. I hear their squeals as they meet friends and the thud of their feet as they run into the field of tall sweetgrass behind the gathering tent. The heavy scent of pine mixes with the sweet scent of the grass while the chirp of crickets lends their tune to the cacophony of the crowd.
A small wrinkled man sits upon the stump of a tree long gone, its seat shiny from the polishing of many a bottom that has shifted upon it. The spirit of life oozes from him, contagious and viral. There is no fear, no: just a joyous welcome and an offering of sweet ripe berries as big as my thumb. The juice flows down my chin, staining my mouth and hands along with my white dress. He laughs, as do I, parts of me now as dark as he.
My youngest runs by and he claims her to himself; she smudged with dirt and berry stains, her eyes shiny and wild, her spirit intoxicated with the freedom of this place. An ironic gift from this coffee colored people so long bound.
A bony hand clasps the plump fingers of my girl and places a stone, a tiny diamond in her sweaty palm. He then closes her fingers tightly with a wink and a half smile.
“Keep it safe, one day you will need and you should remember my face.”
Her brilliant green eyes peer into mine as I slowly nod approval. She slips the gift into the pocket of my dress, looking back to the withered old man with a wisdom in her gleaming eyes too old for one so young.
She gives him her biggest smile then dashes away.
“That little one gonna be the humbling of that woman,” a coffee and cream colored woman with toffee eyes declares.
“No more than her oldest!” replies the woman beside her as she stirs the greens and checks the breads. “She may be quiet but she’s trouble brewing. That’s all I’m saying.”
I smile softly behind my hand. All children are doomed to lives of despair according to the multitude of cooks, their heads adorned in brightly colored kerchiefs, the edges soaked with their sweat.
From somewhere in the fray, my oldest has found an old slip she’s wearing as a gown. Slender stems with leaves gleaming in the hot southern sun have been woven into a crown that sits askew atop her tousled curls. The old man on the wooden seat laughs, motioning her over. She skips freely, jumping on his knee as he wraps withered arms around her tiny waist. Her hair curls at her temples, her cheeks glow in the heat. The wizened old man smiles gently, his eyes black puddles, red veined and yellow orbed.
“Open your hand, honey,” he tells her softly. She spreads open her hand, his palm as white as hers; and with blackened, withered fingers he places a pearl in the center of her palm, closing her fingers as he did her sister’s.
“This here pearl comes from the wood. Everything comes from the wood. We cut down these trees with our own hands. Built your house, my house, the town, it all comes from the wood. Never forget that. These pines, they died to give us life. Every one we take, we plant one. You gotta give to get."
Here he paused and gazed up at the tall trees, creaking as they slowly dance in the wind. He looks at my oldest with sad eyes and a soft grin. “One day you will need, and when you do, remember my face.”
She lifts her eyes to the tall, thin pine trees swaying in the wind, whispering unintelligible tales. She kisses the old mans cheek, hands me the jewel, then runs to play.
“Here miss, you come eat. We got more than we need; you take some home with you. Take this for those girls, they too skinny,” the beautiful ebony woman smiles, her brilliant white teeth gleaming as she hands me a basket full of food.
“Thank you, mam,” I say as I bob my head.
Our lives are a world apart but oh, how I wish I could find the joy and peace that they exude. She slips a piece of coconut cake into the basket, golden on the inside, white as angel’s wings on the outside.
“This here’s for you. You enjoy it tonight on your porch swing while the rain falls. My knee is telling me it’s so.”
“You are too kind,” I say.
“Nah,” she says. “It’s just the right thing to do, that’s all. We all God’s children and all God’s children got to eat!” Her gold flecked eyes twinkle in the fading light.
“Girls, time to go. Don’t forget your shoes. I can’t afford new.”
I wake on warm sheets, rain falling quietly outside. I blink, shake my head and sigh. How sweet the dream.