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 B o r r o w e d 

 D r e a m s

 C O M I N G

 

 S C R E E N P L A Y  TO  N O V E L

 

 

 

 

 

The novel is narrated by the protagonist herself, in a style infused with all the wit and wisdom she needs to draw on to survive the trials she encounters. The music of the prose  captures the verve and passion of the lives it traces, and the arc of the narrative follows  an epic trajectory, encompassing a vision as broad and embracing as the love that animates her awareness.         

                              L E W A R O   R O A D

 

 

OPENING CHAPTERS

 

 

  

 

 

Nearer Than A River

 

Farther Than A Dream

___________________________

 

 

1.

  

 

My folks' place was down on the swampy side of the Burney plantation, only a bit higher than where the Mississippi rose come the rains. We all knew the shadows down there were inhabited by those tortured souls who came before; their spirits still wandered between our days and their nights. Were they yet searching for that part of their soul that had been wrenched from them? Well, the Burney place might have been a stone's throw out of Delta, yet it remained deeper in the heart of the South than you can imagine. Even in my early years I spent my dreams wondering what could be past that river for me?

 

My daddy was born to Grandview and never left till death provided an escort. He was still young and yet old when the day came that he never arose from his stone sleep. Owen was tall and soft-spoken. Seemed like he never got worked up 'cept when Minerva was. Oddly, Daddy getting worked up is what seemed to soothe Momma. He could pull her back merely by turning down the corners of his mouth when he'd had enough of her fussing over things. Things that she could never have fixed anyway. With that she'd let loose of the moment that had tormented her. It was the only serenity that momma probably knew, her surrender to his powerful arms.

 

My Daddy and Samuel, Ella's cousin, went fishing most Sundays and sometimes late summer nights. Alex trailed along when he was old enough. I remember once asking Brother if they talked to the fish down there. He claimed they only talked about not talking to me. Well, perhaps, but even as Brother didn't say much he still made sure I knew he'd heard every word I uttered. At times I wondered if he could hear between my very thoughts as he would shake his head one way or another before I'd finished my sentence.

 

 My momma was a tiny woman. Granny said Minerva was the runt of her kids and that's what made her tough as pig's hide. Guess you got to be to hold your place at the table if you're barely five feet tall and got five brothers near a foot taller. What food there was went to those who reached the fastest.

 

Up in the big house where my friend Jackson Burney lived and Ella, his nanny worked and slept, it was always cool, wasn't it? Through Ella's eyes I could see through the vistas of her fantasies of life up there. She once told me that up in Burneys' there were the purest of white clouds that drifted through a hundred rooms to cleanse them of the powdery field dust that sifted through our lives and often settled at the bottom of our dry throats come sundown.

 

 "Just like them snow-white clouds," she told me, "they comes with the summer rains and fills up the rooms in the big house and float gardenia petals all the way up them stairs to Miss Burney's bathin' tub like she tol' 'em to."

 

Ella's explanations came in the whispered hush of a sacred truth.  Or was it merely the same kind of untruth that had so long bound our lives to the plantation class?

 

"You carry water up for Miss Burney's bath?" I once asked.

 

"No, Chil'e. This is how it is; sweet summer rain pours into her bathing tub bigger than a pond it is. Comes straight from heaven through a secret window ain't no colored can see through. Then it lifts all them white petals till they near float over the top of her tub. But they never do, 'cause they ain't 'pose to."

 

 Ella knew that nothing happened at Grandview if Melinda Burney decreed it wasn't to be. Didn't we all know of this truth?

"I bring 'er white linen towels beaten soft as silk."

 

I believed everything Ella told me. Wasn't it a version of the truth that Melinda Burney's world at Grandview was a whole lot closer to heaven than mine?

 

"Don't the rains down at the shacks come from the same clouds?" I asked.

 

Yes, the Burneys' was a world where warm white suds laundered the white linen shirts Master Burney favored. He'd sit up there on that white veranda, ten times the size of my shack, where daily there was a finely set breakfast table covered with glistening white china. Up there so close and yet so far from me was my friend Jackson, a white child with white hair playing in all that fragrant white gardenia-fragranced coolness. Those softly scented flowers were bigger than my hand and grew in well-tended pots on Miss Burney's veranda. White flowers cut daily to float aimlessly in a crystal bowel as clear as tears so much like their lives at Grandview had floated from day to day for a hundred years. Effortlessly, like clouds lilting through the rooms of their mansion. I never stopped wondering why my world was so close to theirs and still so distant.

 

After breakfast, Master Robert Burney never seemed to do much more than watch as Isaac, the Burney overseer, groomed his horse as Miss Burney stood up there on her veranda like a porcelain doll wrapped in fragility. Melinda was that certain kind of plantation woman that evolved from the deepest secrets of the South.  At times I could see her up there cooing at Burney as she tossed her fine honey-colored hair back waiting for Ella to fetch the brushes and arrange it high to reveal her long neck.

 

One summer night, peering through the bottom of a glass of bourbon he was tipping, Burney swallowed an eyeful of my older sister Louvenia. She'd blossomed that spring along with the peach trees on Orchard Hill. Lord, didn't we pay a high price to the same people who banked that our lives had no value? Seems that Miss Burney saw the twinkle in Burney's eye and told ol' Isaac to send that girl-child packing. It was all done quietly. Louvenia was sent off Grandview with nothing but her lost innocence to inoculate her for a life off the plantation she was born to. Like a stray dog, Isaac prodded Sister with a stick all the way down the oak drive that led away from Grandview. She never saw Owen and Minerva again. Nor did she ever forget or forgive Isaac for his violation.

 

 

 

Broken Whispers

______________________

 

2.

 

 

When I turned seven summers or so, I'd trail off from the fields and head back to the shacks where I'd try to own a chore or two for Momma. Come sundown I'd be standing there at the door impatiently watching for my folks to drag in, their faces outlined in sweaty dust. It was a mere pat on my head, nod, or touch of their eyes that greeted me as it would take a while for words to form in their parched mouths. As she lowered herself onto a stool, Momma's words sounded dry like they were coated with the field dust she'd inhaled that day.

 

 "Sarah, you soak them beans like I tol' ya?" 

 

Daddy sighed and looked about but seemed to see little. Even as a young man his eyes were going bad from the glare of the sun he said put a haze over them. Was there enough wood at hand to cook a pot of beans, he asked again? Like so many other nights, his question went unanswered.

 

Seemed like his feeble words were all but lost in our shuffling about the shack. It had been another day that crumbled under our exhaustion. If we somehow got to it, the next day would bring only more of the same. Yet a small portion of that night awaited and would deliver sweet morsels of the Lord's bounty for our drudgeries.

 

"Yeah, Momma. Picked ever' bit of rock out of them beans like you tol' me."

 

"Alex, go find some wood and get the fire goin', Son. Your daddy is tired sick tonight."

 

Her words barely escaped her chaffed lips before she collapsed against her intentions and fell over their moss-stuffed bed motionless, her legs dangled stiffly over the edge. My daddy reached for her worn shoes to ease them off without paining those swollen ankles and raw toes. He poured out the jagged rocks the size of peas and cursed every one. His voice wasn't gentle that night, but I knew it was only because his wife ached so much, and he was helpless to gather up those drops of salty blood that burned between her raw toes.

 

"Why you in such a hurry, woman? We ain't gonna be hungrier if you rest a bit."

 

Holding on to Owen, Momma struggled to her feet to put food on our table despite the weight her eyelids had taken on.

 

"Tonight…" her words stumbled into broken whispers. "Tonight…me and Sarah … We's going up to Orchard Hill. Gonna make this family some peach jam for Preachin' Day..."  she said dry-mouthed, bit-by-bit under her breath.  "We gonna… Ella says she gots near a pound of sugar hidden back for us."

 

Minerva could have just whispered halleluiahs so softly only the Lord could hear and yet still I'd know! It was orchard night and the summer fruit waited.

 

Yet there were no halleluiahs coming from Owen. He saw things differently and knew that Momma being out in the Burney orchard could easily provoke another confrontation with Isaac. The thought of Burney's overseer at his wife's throat surely got him worked up.

 

"Minerva, you know what Isaac 'll do if he catches you in his orchard 'gain."

 

At times it seemed as though his words emanated from his flaring nostrils.

 

"And he knows what I do back at 'im!"

 

Momma's voice was not strained to a dust-ridden hush no more. No, it came from her depths like she truly meant for Isaac to hear her if he was out there prowling between the shacks again.

 

"Isaac done seen me cut up a hog with a butcher knife before it even knowed I been followin' it! Sarah, pull some of that salted pork out for the beans. Just size yer fist, chil'e — no more."

~~~~~

 

The summer of our last night up on Orchard Hill remains the most vivid memory of my childhood. I wasn't sure if it would happen because as soon as I picked up my first spoonful of supper, Momma seemed to collide with her exhaustion all over again. But later she stirred as she always did for us. I laid there on my pallet till she stiffly pulled up from her bed. For long moments Momma  looked to be waiting for something. Maybe for her thoughts to spring alive again. When her head stopped weaving on her weary neck, she nodded to me and then gently touched my daddy's cheek to know if he was deep in his sleep again and  wouldn't notice her pulling her old boots back on.

 

Used to be Alex came with us, but not that last time. I was thinking was because at seven I was big enough to carry a bunch of them ripe peaches back to our shack along the river.

 

"I too tired, Momma," Alex moaned from his pallet as he turned over to catch the tail of a dream that probably hadn't waited for him.

"Go back to sleep, Son. This be a time just for Sarah and me."

 

Momma whispered and patted his dusty hair.

 

"Like you go with your pa and Samuel down to fish. Like that."

 

Stay in the dream as long as you can Momma's kiss to the back of his neck signaled. She was right. A few moments of sleep was the only reprieve we ever had. I was glad Brother got to stay in bed as by then the ever longer days of cotton picking had started working his young body hard. Yet, his twisting and turning in his sleep wasn't much compensation for the hours of abuse the fields had put on his back. You see you got to let them muscles be a few hours before you bend over in the cotton so low you can inhale that dry dirt another day.

 

In his half-sleep, Daddy heard Brother stir.

 

"Isaac gonna cut the blood out 'a you, woman!"

He swallowed hard the dryness in his mouth and turned over. Momma's words were surely lost to his stone sleep.

 

"Then I cut 'im's throat good! That's what!" she whispered his way. "Now don't be worryin' none. I gots to show my girl how to survive — survive a whole lot of Isaacs that'a come her way one day!" she said. "Come Sunday this family's gonna have us some biscuits and jam from them ripe peaches the Lord saved from the pickers this morning."

 

I guess the real moment began when Momma took down the apron covering the window. It always carried our bounty from Orchard Hill.

 

"We's goin' now." Momma's broken whispers signaled we were readying ourselves for the passage over Burney lands to the promised one. "We's goin'!" At least in the dreams I harvested from that day on, this was one I borrowed from the most.  

 

On the way up the hill, I could feel the soil clinging between my toes where it had sprinkled earlier. I paused to wipe the mud off my feet.

 

"Ain't that soil cool to your feet? Not like that dry dirt up in them cotton fields yesterday."

 

"But why?" I asked.

 

"'Cause the rains fed the orchard and washed away the dust for us."

 

"Gonna wash off, Momma?"

 

She chuckled and reached for my hand.

 

"That grime, it never comes clean from us 'croppers, chi'le. And we still don't never learn to live with it..."

 

"Why it never washes off?" I wondered.

 

"I reckon so white folks can keep they's own feet clean of it. Ain't that what they been tellin' us? And they can say it with no words," she whispered like maybe ol' Isaac might hear.

\

With that we wandered into the thick of the orchard under the canopy of the peach trees. Momma gestured up the arching branches.

 

"See them strong branches? Don't they arch over us like angel wings? Gonna protect us."

 

"How, Mama?"

 

"From the Burney's overseer, that devil Isaac. You see, he don't know 'bout what he can't see us doin'. Then he can't go runnin' off his mouth to Mas'er Burney."

 

"Ol' Issac's mean!"

 

"He near as mean as Burney! Folks say him's soul is black as the Devil's."

 

"But how they know?" I asked.

 

Momma bent close to whisper.

 

" ...'cause he ain't got no soul!"

 

Momma smiled as she put her hand over my eyes and whispered for me to see where we were simply by inhaling the sweet smell of ripe peaches. Then she pulled one apart, held it to my nose and with my eyes closed. I inhaled the fragrance of that sweet moment and kept it forever. How I still love fruit fresh off the tree that holds on to the sun long after it lets go of the day. Those peaches were so ripe they 'bout melted in my hand.

 

Momma squeezed one between my fingers and told me to lick off the peach sugar. I still see those moments, all caressed by Momma's look of utter joy as we partook in this ritual, the sharing of the Lord's bounty. This sacred place up on Orchard Hill may have belonged to the camellia class, but truly the moment belonged to us, and I would lay claim to it for the rest of my days.

 

I asked Momma why her voice dropped to a hush even in the stillness of the night?

 

"Can ya smell them peaches? Go on now and keep recitin' yer verses," she whispered.

 

But why whisper? Who but the Lord could hear us?

 

I recited the verses Momma taught me while gathering the peaches she was hitting to the ground with a stick.

 

"Though I walk through the shadows, Jesus will see me forever in his Orchard. Momma, what's forever?"

 

"Today, tomorrow and all the days that come af'er."

 

"Will you be here all that long, Momma?"

"Yes, chil'e, just like Jesus. Gonna be with ya deep in yer heart whenever ya call for me, I be there waitin' and listenin'."

 

We gathered peaches till momma swung 'round like the whisper of an angel had cautioned her Satan was on the prowl. It was said down at the shacks that ol' Isaac could hear what we were up to even in his darkest drunken stupors.

 

Momma grabbed my hand and led me to the edge of the Orchard. Up there at the big house Ella appeared on the veranda where she slowly waved a candle like a warning from the Underground Railroad. The angels tell 'er to do that?  Or for Momma to be vigilant and look out for the one who always stalked us?

 

Hurriedly, Minerva tugged me to where the apron lay with our peaches, grabbing up as many as her small arms could hold.

 

I broke the silence.

 

"But why the verses?"

 

I struggled to hold on to as many soft peaches as her.

 

"Yer life's gonna be a long journey. Only the Lord knows how far he wants ya to go or where he wants ya to end. Along the way them verses gonna protect ya from evil."

 

 Soft peaches rolled out of the apron as she dropped to her knees and took my hands into hers.

 

"The verses and my dreams for a better day to come for my chil'ren is all I gots to give ya. Ain't my dreams so big nobody can steal 'em? Yes, chil'e, they too big to haul away with 'em."

 

"Why you cryin', Momma?"

 

"Why, I ain't chil'e! No need for it 'cause we got the best dreams in the world. No matter what comes at ya in life, folk's gots the freedom to dream on anything they can set their mind on. So, you gots to set it big."

 

"Where I get a dream then?" I asked.

 

"I tell ya what I knows. What my own mammy tol' me. Sometimes ya got to run and catch yourself a dream even if the currents is pullin' you under. 'Cause maybe they's all gonna escape ya if you don't keep 'em close by. Like when you try to catch a fish in the stream with your bare hands, them dreams is. You gots to run hard all your days to catch up with a dream. Then when you catched a big bunch you bundle 'em up to make 'em bigger. As many dreams as you can make. Big as a bridge to get yourself to the better side. Sometimes, now hear me chil'e, the other side is the place they don't want folks like us 'cause that's the good side and they's savin' it for their own. So, you got to be keepin' plenty of dreams bundled up tightly in yer soul."

 

"What's a soul, Momma?"

 

"Ain't it a place to hide your dreams from the white folks?"

 

The spell was shattered with sounds of Isaac's cursing. Likely he'd been running from a nightmare only to awaken to an empty bottle staring back.

"I's dreamin', too, 'bout havin' an orchard so's we can make jam ever'day."  I struggled to hold my skirt filled heavy with peaches. "Momma, how come we only pick fruit at night?"

 

"I told ya. 'Cause it's better for us. The Lord protects us at night. And 'the Lord is my Shepherd...'"

 

"Where's Jesus waitin', Momma?"

\

"In the Lord's Orchard…"

 

 Yes, I surely knew it was His bounty we were hauling down the slope even if the price tag was still stamped "Burney". 'Bout that then we heard Isaac howl when he stumbled over his rage. His rage only intensified.

 

Momma took us deeper into the orchard darkness but through his drunken agony, Isaac still deciphered our scrambled movements up there. It must have stirred his ugly imaginings as we could count on Isaac's rabid hatred to vanquish his inebriation long enough to put him stable on the path that could lead him to inflict the horror of his severed soul on to ours… if he caught us.

 

"Minerva! I know it's you up there in my orchard 'gain. Huh? Now ain't it you?"

 

Momma tugged us down the slope heading for the shacks. Through the trees, we got a glimpse of Isaac hobbling behind us with his sprained ankle.

"Come, yer daddy's waitin'!"

 

Daddy might be there for us, but if Jesus had been waiting in the Lord's Orchard, I was sure ol' Isaac had surely scared Him off. Well, Momma told me the devil is ugly, mighty ugly; would scare anybody off. She knew I would face him disguised in many forms along the journey ahead. Some forms filled with running blood gone toxic with hatred and then, too, some devils as empty as a stack of whiskey bottles in an alley waiting to be shattered over my hopes and dreams. I would find out that getting through those broken shards would let blood again and again. But then didn't we all bleed in torrents looking for the bridge that would take us over to a better life?

 

Through the crackle of Isaac's big boots crushing the twigs he'd pruned that morning; I knew this nigger dog was as near as his rage.

 

 "I finally caught you, woman!" he yelled. "Now what are you gonna give ol' Isaac to keep your shack?"

 

His voice crackled and hissed like it was from the very depths of the sputtering hell he wanted to pull us down to; down for his lusts to gorge on.

Momma grabbed my arm and dragged me down a path of weeds that scratched my legs and stuck to my thin dress. She looked behind for the nigger dog and heard his boots pound the hard dirt. Nearly there, a peach dropped from Momma's heavy apron. But as I pulled back to grab it, she yanked my arm and hauled me into the shack. That very door we'd fled behind had but one defense to the outside world and Momma went for it. Granny's rusty scissors were kept  hidden under the bed for such a time of terror.

 

"Now get to bed! Don't make a noise no matter what ya hear out there," she commanded. Her glance pierced my thoughts more than the severity of her whisper. "And don't get your pa up for nothin'!"

 

Momma slipped back out into the darkness. I crawled up on the table to peek out the naked window. Minerva had disappeared into the shadows between the shacks.

 

There he was. Isaac growled in dialect of obscenities Satan had taught him good. Words that I did not know but could feel the meaning of, nonetheless. From the window, I could see momma come out of the gloaming to face down his intentions and then waited while this nigger dog sniffed at her shaking flesh and undid his breeches for the feast. She held Granny's rusty scissors open behind her like two jagged knives.  One to stab and the other to follow the first wound again and again till the bloody deed was done.

 

"You been stealin' from the Burneys 'gain," Isaac slurred.  "I caught ya this time!"  His tongue was thick and sour from whiskey. "You accustomed yourself to gettin' away with it, ain't ya?"

 

He smiled a lascivious toothless grin of satisfaction and followed it with a wink and another lick of his lips with his brown tongue.

 

"I ain't stolen nothin'! It be our sweat that tends that orchard," she declared, her head raised high. "We got a right to share some of the fruit."

Isaac's voice got hard so's to punctuate his slurs with the distinction of a man wielding a stick in a woman's face.

 

"Woman, is you blind? Can't see the color of your own skin? Ain't it the color that say you don't got no rights? Now come out of them shadows so I can see you clear. Yeah, come over here and show ol' Isaac what you gonna give me to fix this stealin' problem."

 

Minerva's hand trembled so her skirt fluttered at the tattered hem where the points of granny's scissors gnarled at the broken threads.

 

"No! You come get me right here. That's what you been aimin' for, ain't ya? Now I's waitin' for ya, Satan!"

 

Isaac chuckled through his imaginings and headed for her.

 

But just as I turned for my daddy, Isaac stumbled and passed out at Momma's feet. This was the time to do it. Momma pulled out her rusty scissors to deliver her promise swiftly and hard. I would rely on the verses to clear the fog that quickly came down on me like hot steaming gravy. The Lord is my Shepherd. He leadeth me to quiet pastures. But where are them quiet pastures, Lord? I knew for sure not near the Burney orchard. Not even out there far from sight on Burney lands. Were they yet somewhere beyond unfathomable to my innocent eyes?

 

Momma took a pail of water from the mule trough and tossed it hard at Isaac's face and laughed at the nigger dog before doing it again.

 

On the ground Isaac groaned and twisted till the mud oozed up his nose. When he came to, Momma was on him. Her open scissors jammed up high under his jawbone ready to penetrate that ol' brown tongue that had abused her family so many times. At his first flinch, blood trickled down the scissor blades.

 

 "Well, ain't it like I always tol' ya? Your big ol' mouth, it ain't got nothin' to say no more? You thinkin' you'd steal from me what you stole from my oldest girl Louvenia, huh? You fouled 'er and then you put her off the Burney place with nothin'. You too drunk to 'member, but I ain't. I think on it ever'day."

 

With Isaac's every flinch Minerva's scissors let out another bright blotch of confession that trickled down his hoary throat.

 

"No! I don't know nothin' 'bout that! I never did nothin' to your girl that I 'member," he gurgled.

 

But the blood smeared over Minerva's hand said he'd lied again. Yes, he remembered every moment. Probably reused the memory over and over when he found himself all alone with only an empty bottle as companion and needed his past sins to pleasure himself with again.

 

"Maybe that's 'cause what you did to Louvenia ya thinkin' is nothin'. Is that yer meanin'? I told ya after what you did to my girl, if you ever messed with my family I'd cut yer throat, sit on top of yer stinkin' carcass and smile in yer face while ya choked on yer guts comin' up. Don't it look like I's smilin'?"

 

"Huh? No, no, it don't. She never meant nothin' to me. That's why I let her off the Burneys' like I did," he lied again.

 

Not wanting to see what I knew would be coming for ol' Isaac, I ran back to hide under my blanket. So ended another day for us in the flaming white shadows.

 

  

 

Silent Cries

________________

 

3.

 

The morning of that last summer at Grandview was unlike any other. A stillness hovered over our shack that jarred my young thoughts from the moment my eyes opened. What could be wrong? Why hadn't Daddy gotten up to head to the fields?  Momma went about getting a pot of grits on like she was sleepwalking.

 

"Alex, you, and Sarah go down by the river and pick your daddy some of them wild grapes. That'a make 'im feel better. Go on now."

 

"What's wrong with 'im, Momma?"

 

Brother didn't seem to expect an answer.

 

Silently she shuffled about shaking her head at nothing. Then she pointed us to the door. That was her signal she wanted us out of the way. There were no grits that morning.

 

I always loved  meandering down to the riverbank with my brother where a thicket of wild muscadine grapes or berries waited. It was at the river's edge where I'd listen to Alex' tales of when that river would one day carry him off on some adventure. This time Brother's words fell silent, and that silence quickly spread like a ground hugging fog. I, too, went silent watching him gaze up the slope. There stood Samuel staring back. Why'd he come down to the river, I wondered? He and Daddy only went fishing with Alex on Sundays. And then my thoughts trembled. It was like a silent cry. Where was my daddy?

 

"Alex, you and lil' Sarah come on back," Sam said. "Your ma be needin' you. Come on now."

 

At first Alex didn't move. Still his eyes followed Sam. Samuel's big boots snapped the vines that tangled over the path as he headed back. My hand searched for Brother's. 

 

"Why'd Samuel come? Daddy up there waitin' for us?" 

 

Most times Alex would rather jab me with a pointy stick than hold my hand. But, he said nothing. Our eyes darted back and forth searching for the comforting that would not be found that morning. Up ahead Samuel turned to see if we were following. His expression never broke loose from the haunted look he'd come with. I looked up at my brother, but he only mirrored that fear. You see, nobody had ever come looking for us down by the river. Why would they? It wasn't nearly dark, and the river wasn't swollen from the rains. I felt as if I was stumbling into a black dream, but it was no dream. In moments the reality of that morning would hit me as hard as a belt across my tender face.

 

Up ahead the door to our shack was open and 'croppers, most I knew, were staring in. What's they looking at?  Their heavy silences were deeper than the one I awoke to. Jane, Samuel's wife, was working near where Momma fiddled with some old bent tins. She looked into their emptiness like she was hunting for something she'd lost. Jane worked at the fireplace and mumbled bits and pieces of her thoughts to Momma. I figured it was woman talk and I didn't understand the half of. Still, I searched their sorrowful glances for the meaning.

 

Momma dropped her tin cans but couldn't seem to pick them up again. She looked down there like she'd simply lost them forever.

Jane finished filling a poultice with smelly bits of roots and herbs which she dipped in vinegar and squeezed over the fire. It quickly filled our shack with ashy steam. She took it over to my daddy and dabbed it on his forehead. There was a broken whisper I couldn't hear like she was telling him a secret. But Daddy took no notice and kept gazing at the timbers above as if he was searching for something he'd lost. Or was he merely trying to hold on to what he was losing?

 

I went to show Daddy our basket of wild grapes, but Jane, she shooed me back with one flip of her wrist.

 

"Back away, chil'e," she said and shook her head that direction.

 

With her finger pointing at my face, she looked hard into my eyes to make sure I minded. At that I knew for sure there was trouble even before Momma gasped and put her hands to her mouth. I wondered if she didn't want nobody to hear if the sadness in her eyes drained through her lips that couldn't close because of all the heavy sobs that were soon to come. Again, Momma's hands cupped her mouth when she heard Jane telling Daddy a secret about Jesus and that soon it'a be over. Jesus heard her prayer as on her last word my daddy's eyes slowly closed  and would never open again.

 

It was then that I knew what had arrived at our door that day had brought the kind of silent cries of one who has nothing and yet nowhere to hide from the void of it. Who could save us? Who even would if we could call that far? All the same, Momma reached out to him.

 

 "Sarah, go up to the big house. When ya get to the lawn, yell for Mas'er Burney." 

 

Walking about the shack like she was in the wrong place, Mama's voice faded to broken whispers like somebody done wrung her throat. 

Why'd I need to go up to Jackson's? What's I gonna tell Burney? I ain't never said a word to Jackson's daddy.

 

Jane wanted me gone, too.

 

"Go on chil'e."

 

Momma's chin quivered when she noticed Alex over in the corner with his arms twisted about his head as if hiding his eyes could push it all away. But what was it he so feared?

 

As the 'croppers were mostly all at our shack door, Burney surely wondered where they were and came looking. He headed down the path to the shacks all the while mumbling something mean about the 'croppers; the very ones whose backs provided him with a life that floated ever so seamlessly on that cool veranda hanging with the scent of white jasmine.

 

The man most of the old 'croppers had addressed as 'Master' was angry. The corners of his mouth told me so. They'd turned down so hard his young face looked crimped. Crimped and mean. There  at our door, the 'croppers swayed an open path for Burney—their eyes respectfully downcast as he walked up nodding to nobody.

 

All was silent in that dark ashy shack 'cept for Momma's wailing at the foot of the moss-stuffed bed. Then, choking on her sobs she struggled onto the bed and across my daddy's legs. She grabbed on to them like she could pull him back from the other side. But she could only lay there wailing tattered pieces of her heart. I stood wondering why my daddy couldn't pick up those pieces like he had so many times when the heat of the fields had sunk her low. Hold her sobbing head? Wipe her tears away?

 

 Because only her silent cries were left and even those were all but spent.

 

"Why ain't you out in the fields?" Burney demanded. "This ain't Sunday. Isaac's knows to get them crops in before the first rains. I'll cut you off all food credits if you don't get on out there and I mean now!"

 

But we knew what he meant. For years we'd nearly starved learning this truth.

 

Burney's words were hard, mean and therefore true to his deepest heart—that part of his soul that could not follow Jesus to the doorsteps of the downtrodden. So why do I still look back after all these years searching for a glint of tenderness in his eyes, a drop of humanity somewhere in his uttering? 'Cause there was so much from his seven-year-old son? The heat of his anger singed my thoughts for I realized where the ugly words that ol' Isaac openly spewed at the 'croppers came from; they were born from the very depths of the soul of one Robert Burney, former slave owner.

 

And I knew also why he didn't mouth them himself. For those deeds he had Isaac around so his Christian mouth remained unsullied by the coarseness that his wife would surely claim to be offended by. But then maybe a mouth roughened by coarse words cannot savor a mint julep. How could I have known?

 

 The 'croppers slowly withdrew in silence and headed out to the fields.

 

Left alone, Minerva moaned and choked as Burney stared on. His mouth twitched and his words fumbled as they reloaded.

 

"Owen, he dead…" Momma whispered.

 

Now, like Alex she cried with no tears.

 

 "He gone to Jesus. Now you ain't got 'im no more. No, you ain't!"

 

Momma's words tangled in her sobs but still hit the walls like an ax hits dry timber and landed, splinter by broken syllable. I stood there fearful of my heart bleeding me away till nobody could see me.

 

"Fever! Damn you!" Burney yelled. "You brought me to a shack with the fever! Look at you, you got it too!"

 

Burney reared back from the sight of Owen not moving to his growls to head to the fields.

 

"Owen dead..." Momma repeated; her sinking eyes still pled.

 

But Lord, it was all too late.

 

"Don't... don't separate my kids. Don't run 'em off like stray dogs. We been workin' all our days fer you. Jesus is watchin'!"

 

Momma lilted to her knees where she always prayed but there was no prayer left. She crawled over to clutch at Burney's ankles where she begged for something that was too broken to possess again. Her twisted body folded at his dusty boots, which brought the look of terror to Burney's ashen face. Still somewhere I wondered how he would comfort her. Wipe her tears on the sleeve of his white shirt like he did Jackson's nose? Was he gonna sit a spell to offer thanks for all the years of work he'd squeezed out of Owen Breedlove?  No, that was not why he'd come to our shack. There were no flowers hidden in his clinched fists or tenderly arranged among his bitter thoughts.

 

This churchgoing man's only comfort came without the weight of scriptures.

 

 "Ain't nobody in the world watchin' some nigger die!"

 

But, Lord, somebody was watching. With my own eyes I'd seen much, and no, there was nobody counting. Not the life of Owen Breedlove; nobody but Jesus that is. Tell me what dying is? Why is Burney so mad at Momma? I could no longer cry as loud as my brother but still I tried.  

Momma mumbled broken whispers to comfort Alex and me.

 

"The Lord is my Shepherd. Though I walk through the shadow of death..."

 

But I reckoned the words were too brittle for the Lord to hear.

 

"God is watchin' you!"

 

Momma's face screamed but her words only crumbled to dust and fell to the ground next to her mouth.

Minerva Breedlove died the next day.

 

Something was over but how could I have known it was my childhood?

 

 

 

  

 recognizes

 

 

 

2024

 

 

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the screenplay