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Kingfolk

Kingfolk
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Excerpt from Kingfolk, a novel.

 

 

This excerpt takes place midway through Kingfolk, a historical novel. Kingfolk is set in 1874 in a fictional town of ex-slaves in Southern Louisiana during the Reconstruction Era. The novel follows Beah, a freedwoman traveling to the town of Banias, Louisiana in hopes of finding her mother; Prophet Moon, an itinerant vision-seer who offers to help Beah with her goal; and the founder of the town, Claude Banias, who struggles to protect Banias from bloodthirsty radicals. The three lives intertwine and clash, against the backdrop of the Coushatta Massacre. At this point in the excerpt Beah and Prophet have reached Banias, separated, Beah has found out her half-brother Able is alive, and has finally been led to meet her mother after ten years of wondering if she was alive or dead.

Jaimie Eubanks, Inspicio Fiction Editor

 

Banias air was a beast. Able and Beah stepped out into growing light. The town was still alive and living its fullest life. Horse hooves kicked up hoary clouds; the wagons groaned, sounding like an old man unfolding. Smatterings of blue snuck out through the dense white clouds. The moss, looking like elder hair swinging, cooed, “shhhh” when the wind animated fat branches. Inside the Banias cabins cornmeal churned, outside wet trousers flailed on clotheslines. The day-bugs were still yammering on, but the Banias folks themselves were quiet, save for a stray child-whine or old man’s hoot. Men and women passed each other and nodded heads. Lovers shuffled down earth roads fast. They didn’t touch but the spaces between their shoulder bones spoke enough about their love. Two women, regal in cotton headdress, passed Able and Beah. They fluttered their eyes at the brother and sister. The women, ex-slave girls like Beah, had their chins up, like the cream-skinned coloreds in New Orleans. The women could act like that in Banias, it was all right for them to act high. Beah didn’t recognize the ladyfolk, or most of the people out that day.  She couldn’t remember the names of the few folks she did recognize. She knew all of the lines in Overseer Tallant’s face, but she didn’t remember the coloreds in Banias. Still, in this new, free place, she had the time to unlearn Tallant’s face-lines; she could get to know all these Negro names.

Able led Beah past the town center, past rows of quarter cabins, past men with straw field hats coming back to Tillie’s inn for a meal. A couple of these men elbowed Able and waved hello at Beah.

“Hey there, Able.” One little-lipped man pointed at Beah. “Saw that gal yesterday with our Prophet. She his woman?”

“Don’t know ‘bout that. She’s my sister,” Able said. Beah blushed. It was sweet to be known as someone’s kin.

“Well, that’s special, isn’t it! That’s a good thing to find your relations,” the man said. The wrinkles in his face scrunched into a pattern of sad envy. He gave Beah his hand and said, “My name be Mr. John Freedman.” She shook it. He patted Able on the shoulder, and walked away fast.

“Thank you, Mr. John Freedman,” she said to his back, still tasting the man’s new name in her mouth.

It was a good thing. A good thing to find her family. A thing most weren’t blessed to have. And to find Mama. Mama.

Beah tried to put all of her focus on Banias’s surroundings to keep her fear of near-future at bay. Still, the cicadas screeched even louder, the outside-noises filled Beah’s head with deafening sound. The wind smelled like a fish belly cut open. Able hooked a left into a little swamp-forest. Beah and Able walked down a muddy path, just wide enough for two people. The ground was low and flat; green water drifted between cypress trees. Gnarled weed stems stretched to the bottom of the bank, a bed of water hyacinths clung to the face of mossy water. White fern and Spanish moss hung in scaly bunches from swamptrees.  A dark mist got thick in the air, made the forest feel like a hothouse.

They approached three cabins on stilts, wider than the houses in central Banias and painted white. The homes were separated by vegetable gardens, marshplants, and hackberry trees. Able led Beah by the elbow to the third house on the left. Grackles and gulls, off somewhere Beah couldn’t see, squawked their daily complaints. A muskrat slipped by her heels and ducked into a mash of drenched leaves.

Beah slowed down. Her feet weren’t moving right, one foot in front of the other wasn’t working out. Able was ahead of her, moving confidently to that place. Mama’s place.

Able stopped and turned around.

“Are you all right?”

“All right,” Beah panted. All. Right.

“Beah?”

“I’m right,” she said with too much of a whistle in her mouth.

This was Mama’s house, Beah knew it. Mama was inside, alive, doing Mama-things. All those years of dreaming, all the visions and ghosts and nights where she’d reach for just a sliver of dark skin to stroke, all of her wishes were about to be fulfilled. She let her feet sink into the wet earth.

Her half-brother came back toward her, and smiled, enormously, grotesquely. The smile had far too much pink and red gum. He looked too much like Master Rund, the man who’d taken Mama again and again. It wasn’

The smile vanished, and Beah was glad it did. She nodded at her brother.

Able watched her carefully before he turned and walked toward the cabin. Mama was inside.

Able reached the porch before Beah. He waited for her on the second step and rested one arm on the porch rail. Beah clutched her elbows and strode forward. She blocked out all of the forest sounds, concentrated on Able’s face.

One more step and she had joined Able. He looked down at her, looked at the grey cabin door.

“You all right?”

“I said I’m right.”

Able pulled out a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. He turned to Beah, gently pulled her wrist. Beah snatched her hand back.

“You ready? If you ain’t ready…” There wasn’t much softness left in his eyes.

Beah opened her mouth but then that other voice came. It sounded broken and high, sugar-sweet and ragged. Beah’s body chilled fast. She couldn’t move again.

“Able?” A pause. “Able? Able, I hear you, you got me some apples?”

The voice had the same tone as before but it was lower. Mama, different, newer. Mama, after so long.

Able turned to Beah once more, his eyes coal-colored, almost unreadable. He tapped her shoulder. “Come on,” he whispered. “Go, go, little one.”

“Able?” The voice again. It struck Beah like a lash every time it came out. Beah was immobilized. Able spun around, away from her.

She saw her half-brother advance into the house, but she kept staring at the little mat in front of the door. It was made of straw, woven. The edges of the square were foot-tramped and wooly. She counted the little ants trickling over the mat. Twelve. She counted twelve, and they moved in loops. She admired their uniformity. She noticed a few splotches, a crumble of dirt, probably from a broken potted plant. Beah could sweep away all of this if she had a good broom.

“I got a guest for you,” Able’s back said to the room. “Little gal came to see you.”

The voice said, “Purple Gal? That lovely of her to come back, if she did. I was wonderin’ ‘bout her last evening while Mrs. Allen and me was staring at sky-color. Mrs. Allen told me she came on back. That Purple behind you? Bring her in.”

“Nah, Mama. It ain’t Purple.”

Another pause. Beah kept staring at the mat, she wanted to hold it up to the light, see if the ants clung to it. Would they roll off? Would they cling on with their hooked little legs? Beah clutched her skirt.

“Well I see a little head behind you. Shy gal? Bring her in. You telling me that ain’t Purple? Purple didn’t come by to see me if she ain’t in town? Oh, Lord.”

Why was Beah so damp? She could smell herself, the rank wet underneath her pits, the smell of fragrant cream commingling.

“You heard wrong, Mama. Purple ain’t…she didn’t come. You got another visitor.”

Able turned to Beah, and this time his eyes were a different kind of dark. Hot-black, like burning coals. He tugged the collar of her straw bonnet and yanked it up so she could see his face.

“Come on now,” he mouthed. “Come.”

Beah shook her head. Able laid a hand on her little face and said, “I’m trying to be kindly, trying to be slow, but please don’t be so stubborn.”

“What going on o’dere?”

Able closed his eyes, opened them, then turned around and walked right behind Beah, so he no longer blocked her small body. He placed his hands on both of her shoulders and pushed her into the dim little room.

Beah’s legs went limp. Able had to guide her in. The inside of the place was tiny, but impeccably clean. The floors swept to shining, the curtains, burgundy, hung at just the right length  from every window. There were normal things here: wooden bowls, preserves on shelves, plates on a rack on the wall, spoons on the counter from a meal just-finished. There was a brick wall above a hearth, a stove, a lemon-colored rug shaped like an oval on the floor. A bouquet of magnolias stood in the middle of the dinner table. The whole place smelled like mayweed.

Beah looked, too-fast, at a woman hunched over the kitchen table. The woman had food laid out on a mat in front of her…something with corn, in a clay bowl. What was it? What was her Mama eating?

The woman’s eyes were on Beah, she could feel them strong. Lots of folks’ eyes had been on her over her life; Beah was used to heavy looks. She was the sort of person who didn’t like meeting eyes if she didn’t know them and folks thought if they stared hard enough at her she’d look up. These eyes, though, were irresistible, but she didn’t know them either, did she? They felt scorching and wonderful and terrible, they felt cool and sweet and heavenly. Beah wanted to savor whatever was radiating from the woman’s eyes, but Beah couldn’t because she wanted to see what Mama put in her mouth. Beah couldn’t tell what the chunks were in the soup; they were covered with rich sauce. She wanted to know what sort of meat Mama ate now.

Able’s hands were still gripping Beah’s shoulders. Able knew. He probably knew what she was eating because he was around her all of the time. He probably ate the same meat, all the time, and knew all about the sauce. Had he made her sauce? Had he made her food? Did she say thank you and look upon Able with love? He’d probably laid the mat down in front of the door, probably stamped on all the ants when he walked into the house.

The chair scraped against the wooden floor. A fork clattered to the floor and nobody picked it up.

Able was looking at Beah, along with Mama. Beah still couldn’t rip her eyes away from the bowl.

“The girl coming in wasn’t Purple. It was this little one. You know her name?”

Beah couldn’t stand it any longer. She raised her eyes to meet the wide, white eyes of her Mama.

Mama was thin, disturbingly so, as if a stretchy layer of brown had been fitted closely around all her bones. Her cheekbones jutted out from her face, her lips were thin and inkberry-colored.

She had black, baby-soft hair pulled back into a greased bun, a cluster of white frazzled around her ears. She wore a simple blonde shift that stopped just above her knee and worn house slippers. Beah knew her Mama couldn’t be too-old, only ten years had passed, but this woman felt old. Layers of dark wrinkles cluttered her face, she was missing the top half of her ear and her left thumb. Her skin, despite all the lines and craters, was a lovely chestnut; it shone.

She looked the same, just like old Mama, like the one in the slave cabin, on the floor, like the one who slept near her, in the cabin,  like the one who sang about peaches and held her hand as they waded through green rivers. She also looked different, unrecognizable, a woman older than her years that was sucked dry of the life-light that most folks had. Something about her was misshapen.

Beah didn’t care. Here it was. What she wanted. Who she’d made this journey for. She could just go home now and clutch this memory close to her heart too, but that wouldn’t be enough. Because here she was.

“That girl ain’t Purple. She got too much face to be Purple.” The woman croaked, the lips separated, showing silvery teeth. “Who that girl be?”

Able said, “That’s your child, Mama. You can’t see it?”

The woman arched an eyebrow and the left eye got red and got to shaking. “How it be my girl? How that?”

“Well…” Able said. “She just is.”

Mama came over to Beah, slowly. She faced her daughter with that red, left eye shaking. Beah tensed her jaw, her head dizzy from holding her breath for so long.

The woman reached out and touched Beah’s cheeks. Her hands were cold and hard and bony. Tough up those eyes, Beah, she told herself. Tough em’ up.

Oh, but Mama was touching her. How Beah had dreamed of those skinny hands, and here they were. The woman was Beah’s size but she stood on her tiptoes and kept inspecting Beah’s face. She drew a line from Beah’s forehead to her nose, from her nose to her mouth, from her mouth to the underbelly of her chin. The woman laid her fingers on Beah’s throat and then removed her hand as if Beah’s neck was afire.

“That girl’s got his nose and my man’s lips. I thought all his parts were in the ground, but she got some of them.”

The woman closed her mouth. The right eye got red and shivery now too. “She got some of my face too. She’s walking around with my face.”

“Hey, Mama. You know that….” Able said.

“My face,” the woman said, “I never.” Her voice turned tender. “I never…never, never…” She blinked away the red in her eyes and reached for her son, not Beah.

“Able! I’ve…got to…sit down…”

Able released Beah, and rushed forward to help his mother into the chair nearby. Beah didn’t move, still feeling the ecstasy of Mama’s handprints on her face.

Able squatted to one knee and picked up the fork from the floor. He placed it on the table and stayed on one knee, in front of his Mama. He motioned toward Beah and said gently, “Mama, you know who this is? I know you do. It’s your daughter, Beah. She the one who here from the city. She came all the way here to see you.”

Mama let out a little heaving sound. The shaking from the eyes went down to her shoulders and hands.

She said, hoarsely, “She ain’t little.”

“No,” Able said. “She ain’t.”

“But they killed her. When she was little, they killed her and my other one.”

“But not her,” Able said. “She’s alive. Like me.”

Mama stared at Beah and said, “Not like you. She like me. She look just like me. And him. Only one left who look like him, the man I true-loved. No, no. She look more like me than him. I couldn’t see me much in your face, Able, but I see all of me in hers. All my past in her. You don’t see it?”

“This is Beah,” Able said.

Mama came to her feet, slowly, and Able helped her. She pushed Able away and walked back toward Beah.

“You a ghost? Some lying devil?” Mama asked.

Beah croaked, “No.”

Mama grabbed the girl’s sleeve and pressed Beah’s head hard against the bones in her chest. Beah could feel Mama’s thinness, and for that moment, Beah was in heaven. She didn’t care about anything anymore. Nothing. Everything was turning white and golden; all of this seemed very un-true, a lie, but here it was.

Beah wept. She let all the tiredness and the tears out on Mama’s rug, she inhaled all the wondrous smells in the cabin, all that heaven and joy.

“Say something,” Mama said. “Don’t just cry like someone weak. Say something.”

“What?”

“There you go. Say other things. Your name. Beah-ah.”

“Mama?”

“Your voice different,” Mama pinched Beah in the back. “Don’t…” Her voice cracked. Her body stiffened like she was on alert. “You call…don’t you…you be callin’ me…”

“You mean ‘Mama’?”

“Not that name. I can’t cry now, baby. You should know that. I can’t cry for you, ‘cause my eyes can’t do that no more. Hope you forgive me for that.”

“Mama, I been…”

Mama released Beah from the embrace. Mama’s eyes were the color of blood now, the white hair above her ears wild. “Oh,” she said and looked upon Beah as if she were a new girl. Mama’s eyes stretched in horror. “Oh! You look so much like me. Too much. Oh, I see so many old things in you.”

Beah didn’t know what to say. “I…Mama.”

“You got breasts now. Hips, a woman waist. Long legs that some man’ll spraddle. Them eyes. Oh, look at how easy them eyes cry, like a weak woman. Baby, I thought you were impossible.”

“Mama…”

“You…” she rasped, “Were my only girl and they killed you and I thought, ‘Well, at least she won’t suffer nothing else now.’ Ah, this is a time I should cry. But I can’t. You can’t see why… You’re a woman now, full grown, and that’s so…oh and you look so much like me. But…but…I see a little bit of him. You make him exist again, you just being here. And you make me exist, younger, back when all of that was the worst…Oh, Jesus….”

Able reached out a hand and said, “Mama, you should sit down.”

Mama said to Beah, “Why you come, gal? Why God send you back?”

Beah decided to say all the things she’d rehearsed in her head, on the floors of forests, at the dress shop, and in the maids’ bedroom while a Prophet slept nearby.

“Mama,” she said. “Nobody sent me. I came looking for you. I always been looking for you. Whole life been looking for you, Mama. Part of me thought you left me because I was naughty, other part of me thought they got you and you was bleeding somewhere. I kept the hope that you was…”

“Hmmm, hmmm…” Mama cut her off. She held a hand up, and one of the red eyes got wet too. “All right.”

“Mama?”

Mama turned from her and pushed Able away roughly, and she fell back in her seat. She peered into the cold soup, frowned then buried her head in her hands. “I see everything that happened in you. You look so much like me. You do.”

Beah licked her lips. She didn’t know what else to say after she’d said it all.

“I was sure when they snatched me…” Mama said, “…and the little one, when the little one got trampled on and shot, I was sure they’d shoot me too and I hoped so hard they’d shoot me. Most of me hoped you’d get away. I fought hard to distract them, to make sure they didn’t go back and look for you, but part of me wanted you to die, and die fast so they wouldn’t touch you. Then that Rund’s men caught me, and threw me right back in his place. I knew you was dead and it was me alone, with my Able. My Able stayed with me, and he was the one I left first. Left him because I knew he was beautiful and favored and had that cursed man’s face and I knew he’d be all right.”

Able looked down, and shifted uncomfortably.

“Part of me wanted you to live because I loved you. Other part of me wanted you to die, ‘cause I didn’t want you to suffer none. I prayed you got dead. Many times. I loved you, but I prayed you would die young so you wouldn’t grow into those hips and breasts you got now.”

Love. Ed.

Loved.

Beah tried to block out the hurt of Mama’s last words. She didn’t want to feel it; she wanted to understand Mama, but that hurt was rising up, feeling familiar, like back when she and Mama fled the plantation, back when she woke up and didn’t find her Mama nor kin.

“I don’t know how you got saved. How? How you do it? I was out in the morning, getting water for the gourd with your baby brother and they found us. They dragged my little boy and me, dragged us too far, then they took that little one and smashed his head when he bit them, shot him once more. They smashed my boy’s head into a tree and he bled. He bled right in front of me.”

Beah’s eyes got wet, nausea and pain squeezed her stomach tight. Sweet Davey. Sweet Davey, her sweet brother Davey. And Mama had to see such horror. Beah was spared it. She shouldn’t have been spared. She should have been there to help. Perhaps she could have helped.

Mama said, calmly, her voice a straight line. “My Davey were too small to do a thing, too tiny, didn’t need a bullet. I raised that Davey too much like me, taught him to bite and that’s what killed him. I don’t know how you got saved. How you got saved?”

“Slaves found me,” Beah said, her voice breaking. “Other slaves did, from another place. Took me to the city.”

“Well, damn. God did good for you,” Mama grinned darkly, a bad smile.

Beah stepped forward, and slowly took a seat next to Mama. She reached for her mother’s skeleton fingers, her own wrist wobbling left and right.

“I always, always been thinking of you, Mama.…”

“Stop that foul talk.” Mama’s eyes darted back and forth her daughter’s face, like she didn’t trust her. “Don’t say that right now. Make me hurt too bad.”

“I remember your songs and hands. Songs in your hands.”

“You sound foolish,” Mama hissed and took her hand away from Beah. She said to the ceiling, “Oh, Lord this is too much. Too, too much. Ain’t I got enough that plagues me? Now You done showed me her face and the world thrown to confusion.”

“Why?” Beah whimpered. “I don’t understand why you sayin’ that now.”

Mama said, hardly, “I didn’t want you to grow up.”

“Then why you take me with you?”

“ ‘Cause I didn’t want you there back with Mr. Rund. I didn’t want you having that life.”

“Ain’t that love?”

“Who cares? You came back too late.”

Beah’s head turned quick, like she’d been slapped.

Mama nodded to herself as if she had found the answer to her problems. “That’s it. You too late for me to love right. Davey died trying to protect me, but you just kept running didn’t you? You didn’t come looking for me, did you? And Able, he came just in time, and he saved me even though I left him. Even though he knew I didn’t like his Master Rund-ness, he came, at the right time and he just…did it best. He showed love at the time I needed it. You came back too late and too much looking like me so I didn’t get enough time to get used to you growing and swelling in those places. You came back bringing the memory of that man and me, you came back looking like a walking memory. And how that memory walk!”

“Mama…” Beah’s body felt like it was going dark, not colored folk dark, but the dark of dead things and ash.

“Look, girl!” Mama shouted. She clasped her hands, hard, until her knuckles got white. “I can’t cry! I can’t be happy to see my own child come back. I want to cry out my happiness, but I’m too bothered and bad inside and can’t. Lazarus only took three days, you took too long. It was better you stayed dead. That way I didn’t have to imagine what might happen to you if you grew up. I don’t think I can love you now, it might be too difficult because things are different.”

Beah wanted to say more but pain stitched her mouth closed.

Mama saw that hurt in Beah’s eyes and she turned away from her daughter, “Dear God…I …Able, please take her away. Will you?”

Able whispered “I’m sorry” to Beah and touched his Mama’s sleeve. “Mama, don’t work yourself up now. I know you upset, but…”

“You was always with me, Able, so I could get used to you. I know I didn’t take you with me, but you showed your forgiveness by doing everything at the right time and not having breasts and hips and woman-parts. You did right by me, by being a man with light skin who can do things easier so I didn’t have to see you suffer. Did you suffer?”

Able paused, helplessly looking back at his frozen sister then back to his Mama. “I…no, I didn’t suffer, Mama. Why don’t we just calm down now and see things clearly. This is your living daughter…”

“You mean, boy. You knew how I’d react.”

“No, I didn’t. I thought…”

“What you think? What you think, Able? You know me, don’t you? Do you? Why you do this now? “She has to go. I don’t…want her to see me like…I don’t want her to see me. I don’t want to see her.”

Able was speechless. He blinked at his mother.

“I was looking for you,” Beah said, and lamely tried to say the right things, once, when she needed to. “Always been loving you, Mama. You never left my heart.”

Mama raised her head and looked at Beah. Mama’s face looked haggard, done-over.

“There. That. The look on your face. On the face of a child that looks like me and him… that face is gonna break me. Able…”

“But that’s not my fault,” Beah said, her voice small, growing smaller. “I’m happy I look like you. I knew I looked like you, and it made me so happy, Mama. When I looked in a mirror, I felt you was coming along with me wherever I went.”

Mama slammed her hands on the table, “Take her out! I swear to God you take her out! And make her hush up! Take her out!”

“Mama…” Beah tried again.

“How can a woman with my skin survive? What can she do? Take her out!”

Mama picked up the full soup bowl and raised it threateningly. Able slid his eyes back at Beah, and Beah saw it. For a swift moment that strange thing she’d been seeing on Able’s face for some time became very clear. There was a little sharp flicking up of his lips. For a fast moment Beah saw Able’s look of superiority. He won. Able was true-kind and loved Beah and missed her, yes, but under all that good there were layers of obsession too, weren’t there? He was just like her. Clinging to Mama, clawing for her love.

“Beah, maybe we should go—”Able, said in his kind-Able voice again, and when he reached for her, she yanked her hand away.

“Mama…” she said again, but Mama had already pitched the bowl at her daughter. A nick in the bowl caught Beah in the neck and tore a little line in her skin before it smashed to the floor. Soup spread out on the floor, dampening the rug. The floor looked like its own kind of soup, with all those jagged bowl pieces, ugly shreds of meat and thin sauce. The meat, Beah could see, was hog jowl. It didn’t matter that she knew it was pork anymore.

Beah lifted her hand and felt warm blood on her neck. Mama let out a long, throat-deep growl. Able, horrified, looked to the floor, then to Mama and Beah. He didn’t know what to do next. Who to tend to.

Beah turned and drifted out of the door. She heard Able’s shoes slapping her way, but she just sped up her pace, stumbled down the porch steps. When her shoes hit the grass, she ran. Beah knew Able was calling, but the problem was that Mama wasn’t calling, and she would never ask for her to come back.

Beah didn’t know who to curse, the Southern States, bad whitefolk, blackfolk chains, her plantation, the end of the war, her old master, being alive, not being alive enough, her body, life, or face. Then, there was nothing or nobody to blame. Beah’s mind shut off, her head filled with nothing, and her legs carried her somewhere, and she didn’t care where they went. She let the rest of her tears rip from her eyes, let the neck blood and soup sauce splash into the Banias wind. Again, she ran.

 

 

 

 

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