They Took Her Away
by Elise Stuart
It way past suppertime, the first star almost out―and here come the wagon, bumpin’ the same old way down the road. But mama, she ain’t in it. Only Mister Baxter, he drivin’, and no one else. They took her away this mornin’, and I know they musta sold her.
I go to my daddy and look at him. He knows. Before I say a word, he knows. His eyes get soft for a minute and then he turn away.
“Hey, Charles, pass that jar over here.” That jar of corn brew, he mean. It smells strong and makes my daddy weak. I call him “snarlin’ man” when he has a hold of that corn liquor. ’Cause that’s what he turns into—his words hurt, just like that whip he hate so much. Worst thing is, my daddy can’t do nothin’ ’bout anything. He can’t stop Mister Jack, the overseer, from hittin’ me. And he can’t get mama back.
The dark pulls me outside. I’m no child. I don’t cry. I’m 12 year old. The blood started last spring—and that means I’m almost growed.
I see the moon on her back. She’s always there. She stay in the sky, far away, but she always lets me see her, except for a night or two. I figure she needs a rest sometimes. I sing her a song, ask her to watch over me, ’cause my mama gone.
“Wake up, girl. Come get some corn mush.” It’s Daddy, lookin’ down at me.
I stand up, brush out my dress. I musta fell asleep watchin’ the moon. The sun, he risin’. Another day of workin’—it looks like a long tunnel stretched out in front of me. All there is is pickin’ cotton, day after day, row by row. There be Sundays off, but by then we all so tired, we just sleep. Sunday nights, though, there is singin’ ’round a fire in the evenin’. That’s the best time. During the week, I hum by myself or sing out in the fields with the others, my voice just startin’ to be my voice.
Late in the day, I come back to get the water bucket to carry out to the field, and Evan, the oldest boy of Mister Baxter, stop me. He say, “Come here.”
I don’t want to, but I do. He say, “You’re grown up now, aren’t you, Callie?” And I, proud, say, “Yes, sir.” Then he grabs me and pulls me over to the smokehouse and I know I can’t scream and I don’t like what he is doin, pullin’ up my skirt and puttin’ his thing in me and hurtin’ me bad, and then it’s over and he pushes me down and says: “Don’t you tell.” And buttons up his pants and walks out. I just sit there. A little bit of blood runs out of me and I close my eyes. Then I know I got to get up and get water before Mister Jack notices I am gone too long. It hurts when I walk but I can’t care now. I got to get water.
There are other times when Evan pulls me off somewhere. When my belly starts to grow, I know what it is.
Auntie Jo look at me one day when I tying on my apron loose, tryin’ to keep it hid, but she sees. She look me straight in the eye and say: “I’ll help you when it’s time, Callie.” I nod to her and put my head down quick before she sees the tears. My shoulders let go, jus’ knowing someone will be with me.
It’s almost time. I can feel it. My belly skin stretched tight and I walkin’ slow. Auntie Jo call me over the other day and she tell me what to do in case it happen and she not there.
It twilight, the time b’tween the bright and the dark, and I on my way home from the field and water starts comin’ down between my legs, surprisin’ me. I see the little patch of woods with trees and a spring and I head that way, to sit a while. When I almost to the old stump, the pains start. Not too bad. Then a sharp one come that make me sit down right on the ground.
“Oh,” I say, careful not to be too loud. Then it’s as if somethin’ takes over and it isn’t me. There is another big hammerin’ pain and then the baby moves down. Auntie Jo said to squat, so I do, hangin’ onto the old stump with one hand and the ground with the other. Lay my apron on the ground under me. And what else did Auntie Jo tell me? Oh, breathe and pant out like the dogs. Then push. So I do. And I feel somethin’ comin’ and it is comin’ out of my body, and it is big and I cry out, forgettin’ all ’bout careful. Then another pain and then something harder come out and I feel the baby’s head with my ground hand, and almost fall over, so put my hand back and start to push some more. It easier, and then I feel it all out of me and I remember there is more, the afterbirth, she say. So I wait and then push hard, and it wriggles out too.
Everything connect to that cord―the baby, my life, but I have to separate it now and I have nothin’ so I lean over and bite the cord in two, close to its belly, and pick the baby up. It not cryin’. It lookin’ around, peaceful-like. But then I look closer―it white. White skin and dark brown eyes, with a mole by its mouth, just like the one Evan has. God, no, it white . . . I look away. I don’t want to see it. I can’t keep a white baby. Jesus, what can I do? I look at it and hate it so much I could spit and love it so much I want to hold it to me.
It look at me. How’m I gonna take care? Mister Baxter would know when he saw it. I breathin’ hard and I bleedin’ and I cryin’. And then I see, clear as day, “Baby, you got to go.” And I crawl back a ways from the stump and I dig a hole, with my hands, and she start to cry and I rip a piece of my apron and stuff it in her mouth, and she just look at me. She don’t hate me. She just look at me and I look at her—for the last time. And I cover her up with dirt and I cover her up with some of my heart, and give her to God.
I wash myself in the little spring and I say “Good-bye, baby” and I make a little cross of twigs and then I get scared and throw leaves on the grave and more dirt and oh God, I runnin’ out from there, runnin’ until my legs buckle under me and I fall. Still the woods hold me, and I sob and sob and wait–wait for the moon but it is one of the nights she doesn’t show herself. She’s not there.
It Sunday now, and Auntie Jo give me herbs to drink and help to clean up proper. I tell her what I do and she say, “You not the first. There many girls and womens do what you do.” And she put her arm around me. I look up at her and say: “Really, truly?” And she nod and say, “You did what you had to do.” And then I cry and see she cryin’ too, for all the lost ones.
Then the singin’ start. I see the fire outside and people around it. Daddy there. The sound comes in the open door and raises me from my bed. “Up above my head” is the one they singin’. I go outside and sit on the step and listen. Sometimes the music is the only thing that make me go on. It take the sad feelin’s and mix it up with the love feelin’s, and things make some kind of sense in my head.
Sometimes I sing, but tonight I just listen and wait for the moon to show herself. And there she is, my moon. I watch when she come up and ask her to watch over me ’cause my mama gone. The singin’ keeps goin’ and the sweet sound goes inside of me―to fix what is broken.
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Elise Stuart became Poet Laureate of Silver City in 2014-2017, holding numerous poetry workshops for youth in schools around Grant County. Students made poem flags or their original poems, which graced libraries, coffee shops, old folks' homes.
Her first collection of poetry, Another Door Calls, came out in the spring 2017, then she published a memoir My Mother and I, We Talk Cat in the fall of the same year. She continues to write poetry and short stories, host an authors' radio show and work with youth, aware of how vital it is their voices be heard in every community.