dontravis.com blog post #414
The story about NIGHT FRIENDS seemed to go over well. I had over 10,000 hists for the month… small potatoes to some, but a bunch for me. Hong Kong readers still held the lead at the end, the the interest we spread pretty well around the globe.
This week, I asked my other fellow scrivener from Oklahoma to do a guest post. I know he’s working on a new book and thought he might want to try out some of it. Sure enough, he did. Attached is the prologue and first chapter from a novel entitled MIASMA, the story of an unusual friendship between and old White man and a ten-year-old Black girl in 1940s Oklahoma when Jim Crow was king.
Warning, some of the language might be offensive to some, but Don wants to remain true the times. Let’s get started.
The Photo above, Courtesy of pbs.org.
By Donald T. Morgan
December 1832, Western Arkansas Territory
The old Cherokee’s phlegmy voice barely reached Bantu from the sled. “Stop. I gotta get some rest.”
“Not yet, Massa Elder. Soldiers won’t let us. But I hear tell we’re almost there.”
Bantu knew no such thing. His hearing was fading, along with his strength. Days of walking over mountains and crossing deep rivers in the dead of winter did that to a man. Even a strong one. No longer aware of the crusted mud and fallen branches beneath his heels, pulling the sledge without spilling his master in the slick muck grew almost impossible in a steady drizzle of sleet and snow. His eyelids stuck together.
The muted resonance and spicy redolence of the familiar broad meadows and thick forests of his southern African homeland momentarily enveloped him, bringing a false sense of warmth. In the distance, a lion roared, a hippo grunted. A vervet disappeared into the foliage. He blinked. There was no monkey, no lion, no river horse.
He longed for a loving voice crooning his name. “Bakari.” The Cherokees hadn’t called him anything but Bantu. He’d not heard his name in the four years since his own chieftain had sold him to slavers for his lack of respect. He’d had a big tongue on him for an eighteen-year-old warrior. He swiped the crust from his lids, cursing softly at the realization tears, not sleet, had frosted his eyes this time.
Ghostly figures on all sides of him plodded along with stiff, gaunt faces hiding the hunger and sickness and pain of the trek. He abandoned the path to go around a body lying in the snow. The Indians had a name for this road. The Trail of Tears. This particular band of Cherokees and their slaves started the long walk in Eastern Tennessee, and many had already died. The old Indian on the sled, known to his tribesmen as Dull Hatchet, was all that was left of the Elder family except for a grandson who’d eluded President Andrew Jackson’s troopers and fled into the hills.
The old man cried out again, and Bantu laid down the shafts of the pony drag—nothing but two lodge poles supporting a deerskin bed—to check on his master. “Yassuh?”
Elder’s chest rattled as he spoke. “Get me Tall Pine. He’ll make you stop. I need my rest.” He rarely called his family by anything but their American names.
“Massa, yo boy is dead. He set after a soldier and got stuck with one of them bayonets for his trouble. And the missus passed right after that”
Elder fell back on the deerskin sled and closed his eyes, his breathing syrupy. Bantu picked up the poles and began dragging the sled once again, as he had in the two days since the mare died.
Hours later, as the soldiers called a halt for the day, a three-striper tapped him on the shoulder. “Boy, how long you gonna haul around a dead man?”
Bantu put down the drag and stood puzzling over how he felt about the death of the old Cherokee. He was unable to come up with an answer.
While others ate and tended sores and wounds, Bantu hacked a hole in the frozen ground and laid out Mr. Elder as best he could before sorting through the bundle of belongings that had ridden on the sledge with the old Cherokee to salvage what he could for his new master. Most of it, Bantu abandoned, but he was careful to hide a small bag holding silver and copper coins and one big gold piece—as beautiful as anything he’d ever seen—inside his ragged jacket. An English pound, the old man had once told him.
Bantu halted and chewed on his swollen bottom lip.
Who was his master now?
Dull Hatchet’s family was dead except for a grandson called Robert Elder or Long Shadow, who was hiding out back in the hills of Tennessee.
Was he free now? A shiver stronger than anything the cold had laid across his back shook him. The muscles in his exhausted legs trembled. Should he run before some Cherokee realized there was no one to claim him? Run where? Fretful and avoiding the others, he ate what little food remained, picked an isolated spot, and settled in his blankets… the cold damp night made a little more bearable by adding Mr. Elder’s to his own.
Early the next morning when the soldiers roused their flock of human sheep, Bantu was gone. But a warrior called Bakari rose and marched westward with the others toward an uncertain destiny.
Colored section of Horseshoe Bend, Oklahoma, Wednesday, May 31, 1944
Miasma Elderberry wasn’t afraid. Not exactly. But every time she set out for Honky Town her nerves played tricks, making her go all jerky at times. And it never got better, no matter that she had to go every two or three days to check for mail down at the post office. It didn’t have a colored entrance, so she went round to the alley and knocked on the back door. That was better than standing in line with Whites, even if she could of. She kept a sharp eye out for boys. They were the nastiest. The big folks mostly didn’t even see her unless she got in their way. Little girls looked at her like she belonged in a zoo or stuck out their tongues, but the boys? She had to watch out for their feet. They’d trip her if she wasn’t sharp. Curling their lips at her was worse. Seemed like a promise of something to come.
She glanced up the gravel road to the top of the hill. Two blocks up and then three down right into a different world. Today, she didn’t mind any of it, up or down. Today was her tenth birthday, and she had a shiny dime in her pocket, enough to get five whole jawbreakers. Should she have one a day or one a week or one a month, so they’d last longer? Or maybe she oughta share them with her friend Tizzie. Miasma frowned. A birthday present ought not bring a problem along with it. Her scowl deepened. She didn’t like giving her money to Whites, but doggone it, Mr. Dinkins’ little neighborhood store, didn’t have jawbreakers as big and sweet as Whitten Grocery downtown.
As usual, when she took her first step out of colored town on the way to the white part of Horseshoe Bend, she broke out into song to ease the tension. “Onward Christian Soldiers” seemed right because she was passing the Baptist Church. Her clear, strong voice stayed true to the notes but played with the tempo. She liked making each song her own.
As she neared the top of the hill, her eyes went to the big house to the left of the road. Sometimes the old White man who lived there came out to watch her pass. He liked her songs, probably. And sure enough, there he was, standing at the fence under the oak tree at the back of the house.
She raised her voice as she switched to “The Old Wooden Cross,” and took pleasure in his wide smile. An old smile but a good one. He raised his hand in greeting, and she wiggled the fingers of her left hand in return. When she started down the other side of the hill, she mused on the fact the White man lived in a white house. Did that mean anything? Guess not. ‘Cause, she was black, but she sure didn’t live in a black house. It was white like the one on the hill but more faded.
Some of the downtown stores had signs saying “No Negroes Allowed,” and there was one a block to the west that went all the way and read “No Dogs, Indians, or Negroes. Whitten’s just had one side entrance labeled for the coloreds. That was better than standing in the alley for buying what she wanted.
Miasma entered and stood patiently for five minutes before a man sauntered over and exchanged her dime for six jawbreakers. She thought the clerk had miscounted and started to hand one back until he smiled and winked at her. She returned the smile and left with enough candy for six whole months if she just had one on the last day of each month. Problem solved.
Whenever Miasma was in her own neighborhood, she had trouble keeping from skipping everywhere or busting out in song, but here, all she wanted was to be invisible. She should have gone up the alley, but she walked straight up the sidewalk covered by an overhang to protect against rain and the hot sun. The stores she passed sure looked more interesting than they did from the alley. At the corner in front of the drug store, she crossed the street and began the five-block hike home. She couldn’t sing because she had a whole month’s worth of candy tucked in one cheek and didn’t want to risk spitting it out without meaning to. The jawbreaker was still there—although considerably smaller—by the time she passed the white house on the hill. Didn’t matter if she was singing or not. The old man was nowhere about.
After two more blocks she ran into Tizzie right in front of the Baptist Church and hammered her plan by handing her best friend one of the pieces of candy. That was all right, it was the extra one the clerk had given her. She still had a four-month supply.
Tizzy’s real name was Letitia, but nobody ever called her anything but Tizzie, and it fit her. And Miasma figured a person’s name ought to fit her. Her friend’s mama had done her hair in a long pigtail right down the back of her neck. Miasma’s braids ran down behind both ears and rested on her shoulders.
Tizzie shifted the big jawbreaker to the other side of her mouth and wished her a happy birthday before handing over a cut-out book of paper dolls. Miasma recognized it as Tizzie’s favorite toy and half the figures were missing, but Miasma didn’t mind. They always played paper dolls together, so it wasn’t no matter who owned the book they came out of. They found a patch of grass struggling to survive the Oklahoma heat and settled in the shade of a big live oak beside the church to choose new dolls to play with. Getting them out of the book without tearing them sometimes presented a problem, but the big husky man and the girl with a teasing look cooperated and came out whole. Of course, they were white, but that didn’t matter. Nobody made black paper dolls. One time, they took crayons and painted the faces black, but that wiped out all the features, so they’d quit doing that.
An hour or so later, James Hugh Dinkins wandered over and plopped down beside them. Miasma didn’t particularly like James Hugh. He was bigger than they were—not much older but way bigger—and played rough. Sometimes he used words the preacher in the church wouldn’t approve of. Of course, so did Mama, but it wasn’t Miasma’s place to judge her mother. Now James Hugh was another matter. The first time he said “shit,” Miasma told him straight off not to talk that way around them. The second time, she pinched his arm right near the elbow where it hurt a lot. He jerked away and got to his knees wild-eyed.
“Hey! You stop that.”
“Will when you stop talking that way.”
“None of your business how I talk.”
“Is when you talk it around girls.”
She knew he wanted to hit her, but if he did the other boys would come down on him and claim he had to fight girls ‘cause he wasn’t tough enough for boys. Wasn’t true. James Hugh was bigger and meaner than all of them, but that didn’t matter. Funny how what others thought about a boy put a halter on him. But she didn’t want to pursue the matter, because James Hugh’s father owned the only store in this part of town. And sometimes he shared some of the things his dad gave him. That was funny too. How a boy could be mean one minute and generous the next.
Frustrated because he couldn’t whop on them, James Hugh snatched the two paper dolls out of their hands and ripped them in half before stalking away. Since Miasma didn’t want to use up two more of the dolls, they put the bottom halves out of sight, and stuck the torsos in the sand and played like the two figures were swimming in a lake and flirting. Tizzie objected because they weren’t dressed in swimming suits, but Miasma had her way. After all it was her birthday.
A few minutes later, James Hugh sneaked up on them and tossed something on the ground before running away. Tizzie yelled at him, but Miasma was more interested in what he’d left. It was another cut-out book, smaller and thinner than hers and still wrapped in a cellophane cover. As Miasma opened the book and thumbed through it, she gasped in surprise. One of the figures was a Black boy. Well, he was brown anyway. There wasn’t a colored girl to go with him, but he was handsome and smiling and looked a little like her dead father’s picture that sat on the table beside their ratty old couch. Right on the spot, Miasma decided to take a crayon and make a girl for him. But she’d do it better this time. Not so heavy. Maybe a gray crayon instead of black. But she had to do something. She sure couldn’t have that handsome Black man running around with a White girl. Even if it was just paper dolls, it wouldn’t be right.
I don’t know about you, but I learned something in the Prologue. I didn’t know the Five Civilized Tribes owned slaves just like their European neighbors. You might want to let Don Know if this is a story you’d be interested in reading. Thanks, Don.
Now my mantra: Keep on reading and keep on writing. You have something to say, so say it!
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