Written for the SKOW December prompt marathon 2:
"All he asked for was one perfect day before the inevitable happened."
Summary: "If this is the last time I see you, I want you to remember that there are men who can touch without hurting. There are even those who give without asking. Kindness might be hiding, even in the darkest of chests." – An interracial one-shot set in the South during the Great Depression.
The Bear and the Pecan Tree
My grandma used to tell me about the bear and the pecan tree.
A hungry bear found a pecan tree so rich with nuts its branches brushed the ground. Here I can live comfortably, the bear though. 'I'll have all the food I can eat, shade and a nice spot to sleep on. There ain't nothing more a bear could ask for.'
But the nuts on the ground were soon eaten and so where the ones he could reach by standing on his hind legs. He tried to climb the tree but was stopped by the little orchard oriole that had made its home there.
"The tree won't stand for your weight, brother Bear. Why don't you let me help you out?" said the little oriole. "I'll throw down the pecans and there won't be no need for you to come climbing up."
And so it was that every day the oriole would work hard to feed the bear beneath the pecan tree. No longer hungry, the bear began to stare wistfully up into the pecan tree. It was awfully lonesome there on the ground and though his stomach was full and the oriole threw him all the nuts he could eat, the bear was no longer content.
"I'm gonna' come on up," the bear said to the oriole. "We can sit on a branch and eat pecans - together."
"But you belong on the ground brother Bear, and I in the tree. That's the way it must be."
But the bear was a hardheaded beast and wouldn't listen. The tree swayed and griped under the bear's weight, but he continued to scale its trunk.
"Please, brother Bear. You best stay down there where you belong. I'll give you all the pecan nuts I can gather. I won't sleep, I won't keep any for myself, just as long as you remain on the ground."
But the bear wasn't hungry, he simply longed for the oriole's company.
That was the sound of the pecan tree toppling over, crushing the poor oriole against the ground. The tree never sprouted pecans again and in the end of my grandma's story the bear was both hungry and lonesome and I cried every time. Each time, stupidly hoping for a different ending.
"Ain't no need for tears," she'd say, scant patience for such fuss, especially from a boy. "Every creature has its place and that foolish bear had no business climbing up that pecan tree. All beasts will be sticking to their own kind. That's just the way it is."
I'm ashamed to say that my grandma's words went in one ear and out the next, or perhaps that isn't true since I'm still thinking of them. What's for sure is that I have long since scaled my own pecan tree and here I am now - an ugly big bear waiting for my pretty little oriole. Too much of a fool to see the vainness of wanting, wishing, yearning for the day that we can occupy the same branch.
So I wait for you. I wait at the old fishing camp like I always do. You'll come when you can get away and I can't wait – I can't wait. My heart is swollen and heavy with thoughts of you and the sunshine you bring. How you'll light up the old hovel, fluttering in with your wings in a tizzy. Fretting, casting anxious glances behind you. Did someone see you? Does anyone suspect?
We never talk about 'what if'. We don't need to. You and I both know what they'd do to us if we were caught. A colored man - a white woman. Someone's wife to boot. Here in this land of burning crosses and wilting cotton, no punishment would be harsh enough.
But we squeeze our eyes tight and refuse to see, press our hands hard over reason.
So come quick, little songbird, I've been waiting so long. And tomorrow - tomorrow I'll have to leave you behind. One last day at the cabin, where we can be birds of a feather, where we can shut the door and forget for a while that our kinds should never mix. Not the way we do.
The cabin is nothing but a ramshackle shack on stilts, out in the middle of the swamp. It's filthy and worn down and smells of mildew. But I don't care. Don't care that beetles have eaten through floorboards and that the wood rot has set in. It belongs to us. It's where we first became something else than two opposites, two creatures that can never meet.
Where our colors bled into night and blurred at the edges.
We could have lived a lifetime beside one another and never had reason to speak were it not for the great flood of 1927. Our kind was never meant to mingle but nature has a way of erasing borders, of breaking down levees. Mississippi, the greedy giant gorging herself, swelling over, eating up land, houses, cattle, people. And while the land was swathed in sorrow, mother Mississippi drowning her own children, I sought refuge at an old abandoned fishing camp. Just a shack, like the Cajuns make them, its tall stilts keeping it above the surface during the flood and I prayed it would remain so and that no one else would come along and claim my safe haven.
You - I found you in a tree not far off, just like in my grandma's story. It wasn't a pecan tree and you were not a gaudy little songbird, but scarcely alive, having clung desperately onto that tree branch for days. How many days you never said but I knew then that you were stronger than your scrawny limbs let on. You were white-faced and numb as I picked you off that tree like shriveled winter apple and transported you back to the cabin.
I remember making you a fire. You, shivering in wet clothes and I, petrified that someone would arrive and find me there, alone with a white woman. People have been strung up for a lot less around these parts.
Perhaps you were as frightened of me as I of you. We had good reason to fear. You, like all your kind, taught to regard my sort with contempt and unease. And the flood offered no excuse for me to be around you. I ought to have thrown myself in the murky waters rather than subjecting you to my presence. I tried to be respectful and I kept a separate tin mug and bowl for you. Out of habit. My lips should never sully something you'd eat from. Things instilled in my kind from our mother's milk.
We spent two weeks there at the cabin, waiting for the water to subside, the rain to stop. Two weeks when you went from being a strange creature of a different species – to being just a girl. Perhaps it was that word you chose to describe me, sitting on your cot, watching me as I busied myself around the cabin.
"You look just like a big bear," you said suddenly.
You could have chosen to call me any other animal, God knows I've been called fouler things and for sure I've been a monkey more times than I can count. But you chose to call me 'bear'. And perhaps I took it as a sign. Maybe it paved the way for what came later, made me protest a little feebler, try to resist you a little less.
Truth is, I did not say a single word that one night you came to me. I was scared rigid, I can't lie. Bewildered and baffled lying there on my cot, stiff as a floorboard as I felt the dip of you climbing into the cot to me. There are limits you don't cross. Ever. Behind my closed eyelids I saw my big, clumsy shape dangling by the neck off a branch of a tree. Perhaps it was a pecan tree, I don't know.
But the oriole came to the bear – insisting. And even though I thought you might have lost your mind, I couldn't refuse you. The way you had about you, trembling, arranging my arms around your shape, steering my hands to your naked skin. There in the darkness of the marshland with the insects playing their sleepy song, I might have blamed the night for cloaking my vision. My hands on your slender hips with its tender curves, your breasts just breast in the inky cabin cot and all my good sense must have taken flight because I couldn't say a mumbling word, couldn't say no. Every touch telling my mind that what we were doing was not so wrong, not a death trap. The surprise of finding that you were not so different from me. Your skin – that scent of woman, all I could make out in the shadows.
Not colored not white. Just woman.
A bright singing bird in the night. You actually sang me a lullaby afterwards or perhaps you sang it to soothe yourself, because you knew that where you'd ventured, hell's almighty fires awaited you. We both know that it's a sin to mix the races.
But I wasn't thinking of that as I lay there listening to your childish, gumdrop sweet voice. In the darkness you were a dazzling yellow orchard oriole. Your lips moving against my neck, your arms wrapped all around me as if I were that tree keeping you safe in the flood. And waking up, the cracks in the walls leading little rivers of light to your skin, I studied you in your sleep, taking in everything from the flush on your face to the sturdy, hardened soles beneath your feet. Just woman. Just girl. I knew then that what we had just done would ruin you. Me. Us.
And so, now I wait on you. It seems it's all I ever do. Wait or watch, either one or the other. At times I run into you downtown. When you're not with me the songbird becomes a sad sparrow. You're tiny and skittish, slinking by me on main street, making sure you make no sign of noticing me. Your sparkling eyes downcast and your proud back bent. Your face gaunt, your dress cheap and threadbare, your hair too long to be fashionable. Since your husband lost his job you flitter all over town, trying to scrape together enough. You pester the richer houses of the town, beg them for odd jobs, cleaning, cooking, anything. And I pity you. Pity you for the shackles you carry, chains as real as any and perhaps worse than mine. I'm glad not to have been born as womenfolk.
You best come now.
Soon. I've waited for hours. I fear you won't be able to slip away and you know this is where it all ends and we've got to see it to the end. An impossible task, to make today enough, to contend with this crumb. One last day with you – if I even get that. You'll have to remain with him. You've made your bed and you've got to lie in it with your legs spread wide, that brute on top of you and your heart far, far away. That's the way it is. Each creature to his own destiny, as pitiful as it might be. And tomorrow I leave for the north, to find work, to get away from this place and its sugar cane fields steeped in generations of hatred, saturated in sweat and inhumanity.
I have brought some sweet potatoes that I roast in the iron stove while I wait on you.
You're late, but you'll come – I know you will. You've got to. I strew a pinch of salt on the sweet potatoes, wishing I'd had a slab of butter for your sweet mouth. I want to fatten you up, plump out your cheeks.
My grandma, the one who still waxes on about her childhood as a house slave, used to say that freedom on an empty belly is no freedom at all.
"Leastways back then you could be sure to be fed," she'd say and suck her gums in. Mama hated that talk and would bang pots and pans and grumble in the kitchen.
"Old fool," she'd mutter. But then came the hard years when Mama no longer argued with her. The Great Depression, when we all felt it in our bones, the way our fate weighted us down, trampling us deeper into the mud. Colored or white, hunger is all the same, makes us all into scavenging beasts.
And I have to leave. Have to go north where there's at least a chance of finding work. No employment to be found anywhere around here and if there were, they'd give it to white folks.
And if I have no hope here, how are you to carry on? You, who have nothing, no skills to speak of, no profession and even less schooling than me. There are no choices for you, married off to your husband barely weaned from your mother's teat and still wet behind the ears. That's all your kin thought you were worth. One less mouth to feed. Let her burden someone else.
Your future now under the boot of another man, a cruel man just like your daddy. Not much has changed. You've got nothing to look forward to but to bear his children, endlessly toiling, working, sacrificing yourself so that your brood will have a scrap to eat. There is nothing else. Nothing more for you from here till the grave than hard work and drunken fists.
Still, you make me promise you that I won't come back, won't ever return to this land with its suffocating gloom, it's miserable swampland, the cotton pickers starving in their dilapidated shacks. This has to be the end, we both know it. There is no place for people like us.
I hear your feet on the landing outside the cabin. You're here. You're here.
I wait until you're inside because someone could see us from the open canal. You're eyes are rimmed with pink. But you turn your head away. Don't want me to see,
"It's the wind," you say when I remark on it. I pull you in close and you reek of poverty. Every bit of you skin oozing dearth. And if a man never has to learn to recognize that grey smell of defeat, he's indeed a lucky man.
I sit you down on the cot, the sweet potatoes on a paper in your lap.
"I don't want to eat," you say but you put a big piece in your mouth anyway.
I boil you water on the stove. Want to rid you of that smell. His smell. Your eyes are hollow and your skin pretty near see-through. Your skin, your only vanity, how you pull your hat down far over your forehead, covering your neck with a scarf not to burn. You hate the little freckles that seem to invade as soon as a ray hits you sideways. Your arms are a lost cause, so freckled, the flecks float together. And your poor hands, I can hardly bear to look at them. Cut and calloused from working your husband's land. He works you harder than that mule of his, harder than the lowliest, poorest of sharecroppers.
But the sweet potatoes bring the color back to your cheeks. You live up, light up, become my bright yellow songbird. Twittering, singing and turning the bleakness of the cabin joyful. No reason to be happy - and still you are. Perhaps because this is what you want to leave me with. The color and brightness of your face in this grime.
I love you then. Though we never speak of such things. Never speak none, except for whispering tender words in one another's ears.
I undress you in front of the pail of hot water, carefully lifting up your arms, untangling the shift from your hair. You wear no stockings. You can't afford such luxury or perhaps your husband prefers to spend his money on liquor, not caring that your thin legs take on a bluish hue during the raw winter months.
I fold your undergarments and your camisole and place them on the cot. Would never crumple them up and throw them on the floor. How they are painstakingly mended, grey and stretched thin from so many washes.
And then I clean your skin. I rub your ears, poke my finger with the washcloth inside of them. I stroke the length of your neck as you stand with your chin pointing south, arms slack at your sides as if you're a child and I'm your mother. Light and dark. My hands big and imposing on your porcelain skin, cantering over you as if it isn't a crime, what we're doing. But you relax, let your shoulders fall and I love you then. Love you when I lift your arms up, one by one and wipe your armpits clean. The musky scent of sweat and soil on you. I don't mind it so much now that the dreary clothes are gone and the smell of poverty with them.
I wash your belly too, my hand with the washcloth moving - a little startled by an unfamiliar curve.
"What's this?" I ask and you close your eyes for an instant.
"Nothing," you say because any other answer promises tragedy.
A colored baby from your womb. I can already imagine it being taken squealing from your breast. Smothered by a kind midwife. Or hauled out, and held up by the ankle to be shown to all and sundry by a crueler kind of woman. And you, you – either way your life won't be worth living. There would be no way up, no way out.
So I wash your swollen stomach as gently as I can. Because whatever it is, whoever is in there, it's not that poor soul's fault that we didn't know to respect that there are lines not to be crossed, worlds not to be mixed.
So this is how that dumb bear crushes the oriole, I think. This is how it all must end.
I wet the cloth and come back up your legs. If this is the last time I see you, I want you to remember that there are men who can touch without hurting. There are even those who give without asking. Kindness might be hiding, even in the darkest of chests.
You cover your face in your hands. Maybe you're shy or perhaps you're weeping. I don't want to know. I want to wash you like this, one last time. I want you to recall one perfect day, one perfect day that will last a lifetime.
I lay you down. You're clammy and sticky and you smell like woman. You smile while you weep and I don't know if I can do this now. I sniff you, draw my nose all over, everywhere. I'm going to bring it with me, this scent of yours. I'll tuck it in, hide it and I'll bring your fragrance with me wherever I go.
"Come with me, Ada." I wasn't aiming to say it, just running my mouth off. But my nose is in your belly button, my hand between your legs and your belly is a rounded hill of hopes and fears and I can't defend it, can't leave it behind either.
"It won't work," you say but I can hear something flickering within you. Hope. Foolish, foolish hope. "Whatever would we do?"
"It's different up there. Up north. It ain't like here. We could find a little place, you and me. They don't hang people up north."
I have no idea what I'm talking about but suddenly it's all I can think of. You have to come. I can't leave the dream of that pecan tree behind. Can't let it crush you.
I wait on you behind a shed near the station. I'm plenty early, hoping to get to see you come down that road toting a small bag of your belongings in your hand. I'll remain here in the shadows and watch you approach the ticket locket. One-way ticket to Chicago. I left you the money buried under a stone behind my grandma's house. Checked this morning and they were gone so you must have come to collect them.
You must be thinking on it at least. Considering running out on your sorry excuse for a husband. Leaving your home, your town, your family - for a life in shame. With a colored man. Because I'm not naïve enough to believe that Chicago will be all that different. My black hand around your pale fingers, a colored baby with kinky hair won't be welcome there either. Still, I stand here, my hand pressed against my chest to still my galloping heart.
Fearing you'll come. Fearing you won't.
Either way it's impossible. But then I think of your stomach and of the bear cub it might hide. Your husband's hands on you or on that rounded belly. He won't forgive you – won't hesitate to snuff you out and not the bear cub either. Just because he can.
And here you come. Oh, Lord. You came.
Dressed in your best coat and that's not saying much. But you are beautiful with your bare legs and dusty, scuffed shoes. Skittish and jumpy, antsy glances over your shoulder. I catch your eyes as I hoist my bag up on the steps of my carriage. A fleeting contact, for a second or two, but I see it - I see my oriole blush. A sparkle of life that wasn't there before. You'll ride in one compartment and I in another. Our kinds ought never to meet and still we did.
In my heart I make you foolish promises I know I won't be able to keep. I'll meet you on the other end. I'll be there with my hat in my hands, waiting for you as I always wait for you. I promise you that all will be different when we get off this train, that we'll be safe, you and I.
I'll take your hand there at the station. Let them all gawk and stare at the strange pairing we make, the little orchard oriole and the bear. We won't care. There'll be no lynching mob waiting to snatch me up. There'll be no husband to beat you bloodless. We'll walk with our heads held high and we'll have no fear. We'll plow a furrow through the city, put down seeds for a new life, I promise you we will.
We'll find our pecan tree.