dontravis.com blog post #511
Good hits on “Blank Slate,” but few comments. Sorry if I didn’t stimulate your imaginations as much as I thought I would. Ah well, on to another week.
By Donald T. Morgan
“Honest, he just give it to me. Said he appreciated my singing. Told me to sing every time I wore it.”
Willa Elderberry’s eyes narrowed. “He take you in his house?”
“No, ma’am. I stood at the fence line while he went and got them.”
“You know, the pin and the book bag.”
“Y’all ain’t lying to me, is you, Miasma Elderberry?”
“No ma’am, I don’t lie.” Her voice took on an edge. “And I don’t steal, neither.” Her mother’s face flushed, making Miasma figure she’d been too sassy.
“Well, we gonna see about that.” Willa snatched the jewelry from Miasma’s hand and started out the door.
“Mama, don’t. Please don’t.”
“Come on. I wanna see what your Mista Ace has to say about this.”
Her mother clutched her hand all the way up the hill, dragging Miasma along. They halted alongside the house while Willa scanned the fence. “He don’t have no back gate?”
Miasma shook her head. “No, ma’am. We ought not bother—”
“Don’t y’all say bother to me. I gonna talk to the man and see what he’s up to. Now you hush up.” Willa marched through the front gate with Miasma in tow and stalked around to the rear of the house.
“What if he ain’t home?” Miasma said, a hopeful note in her voice.
“Then we’ll just come back.”
But Mr. Ace answered Willa’s sharp rap on the screen door, looking a bit startled at finding an angry Black woman in his face.
“Well, hello, Miasma. This must be—”
“Her mother,” Willa finished his sentence for him and thrust the pin in his face. “Take this back and don’t go givin’ her nothing else.”
Mr. Ace waved her hand away. “Why? It’s a reward to the child for the pleasure of hearing her sing as she passes my house.”
“That’s something she does natural. She don’t need no reward.”
“Come now, Mrs. Elderberry—”
“Willa,” her mother said.
“Willa. Everyone I know earns a reward for something she does well. Some people earn a living using such talents. I won’t accept the brooch, Willa. You can leave it on the porch or give it to the next person you see on the street, but if you do, I’ll be disappointed… and so will the child. The gift carries no obligation, just my gratitude. You have a very talented young lady there.”
Her mother’s voice lost its hardness. “Y’all don’t need nobody to clean your place, does you? I do a right good job at it.”
“I’m afraid not. Bertha Mills comes in on Mondays, and that’s all the help I need. Do you know Mrs. Mills?”
“Sure do. A right nice lady. She comes to my church.”
“She’s been taking care of me for over a year, and I couldn’t possibly drop her without cause.” He cleared his throat. “Mrs. Elderberry… Willa. You have a very special daughter there. She has a fine voice, but she needs training.”
“She gets training. Down at the church. She sings in the choir ever Sunday.”
“And I’m sure she learns a lot. But she deserves more.”
“Can’t afford no more.”
“Then you shouldn’t object to a few gifts occasionally. Perhaps they’ll help.”
Willa said nothing for a long while. She seemed to be scanning the man, looking for something, perhaps. Finally she nodded. “All right, but don’t y’all never try nothing with my little girl.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. And thank you?”
Her mother’s eyes opened in surprise. “For what?”
“For letting me know Miasma has a mother who cares for her. And next time, you don’t need to come to the back door. Not at my house.”
Willa didn’t seem to know what to say, so Mr. Ace bade them goodbye and closed the door.
Her mother was silent until they were walking back down the hill. “I’ll swear girl, you’re twice-blessed. Ain’t many men—‘specially White men—just give you something.” She fell silent for a few steps. “Anybody else live in that house?”
“Never see nobody but Mista Ace. And sometimes a young fellow. I think he comes to play the piano. I seen him go in the house once, and then the most beautiful music came out of there. Not like at the church, but rolling music.”
Willa’s face puckered. “Rollin’ music?”
“You know, notes like water flowing down a stream. Really pretty. Wish I could sing like that.”
“Well, all right,” Mama said as they entered the house. “Y’all can keep the doodad. But I’m going to wear it tonight when I go back to help out with Miz Willis’s party.”
A jolt ran through Miasma. Jealousy? Resentment? She swallowed it—whatever it was—and nodded. “All right, Mama. But… but i-it’smine, you know.” Something clawed at her stomach as she said the words. They sounded selfish.
“I know, child. But you wear my earbobs sometimes. So y’all can let me wear your stick pin.”
Miasma’s throat dried up at the reproof. And that’s what it was, even if Mama’d made it sound nice.
After her mother left to help out with Miz Wallis’s party, Miasma turned off all the lights but one so the electric bill wouldn’t be so high. She glanced at her daddy’s picture on the table beside her before settling down with the Geographic. This issue had a map of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, reminding her of the war. Tizzie’s daddy was fighting in it, but he was over on the other side of the world. He’d been in the invasion of Sicily last year. That was a place near Italy; the National Geographic had told her that.
Miasma worried about Tizzie’s daddy sometimes… and Tizzie did all the time. But worrying didn’t bring him back. She toted up all the men from Colored Town who’d gone off to war. Would they be the same when they came back? Everbody left behind had done their part for the war too. Before school let out last month, all the kids and teachers walked for miles collecting scrap metal for the war effort.
An article on Anatolia caught Miasma’s eye, and she discovered it was over in Turkey. Were their men fighting over there too? Anyway, she could tell Miz Loring she’d learned something.
But no matter how engrossing the articles, her mind came back to the pretty pin her mother was wearing. That bothered her some, although she didn’t know why. Maybe because she imagined it falling off Mama’s dress and getting stepped on.
She was asleep with the magazine in her lap when the sound of the door opening woke her. She blinked and swiped her eyes as her mother entered.
“Baby! What y’all doing still up? Oughta be in bed.”
“Fell asleep reading.” Her eyes searched her mother’s bosom. And there the pin was, winking at her in the dim light.
Willa’s hand went to the brooch. “Is that what you was waiting for? To see if I sold your clasp?”
Miasma’s eyes widened. “Never thought that. But… but….”
Her mother laughed, a good, strong belly sound. “Well, I could of. Lotsa times. Just about everybody took on over it. Why, I believe Miz Willis was jealous, and she has lots of fine play-purtys.”
Miasma glowed when she heard that. “Really?”
“Know what I told ‘em? I said my daughter got it for her singing. Fine voice she has.”
Miasma set about cleaning up and getting ready for bed. She didn’t think she was sleepy, but she only looked at the pretty pin twice before she dropped off with it clutched in her hand.
She knew she shouldn’t, but Miasma couldn’t resist putting on the broach the next day as she got ready to go meet Tizzie. While admiring the jewelry in the cracked glass of her mama’s dresser, she noticed something funny. The little diamonds and emeralds looked super, but they made her dress look drab. And it was her favorite pinafore too. The white one with tiny yellow flowers scattered all over it. It was second hand, but it was pretty, until the glittering bauble put it to shame. Still, the jewelry piece remained in place when she skipped out the door and headed down the dirt road.
Tizzie didn’t even try to pretend she didn’t see the pin. She walked right up and ran a finger down the shiny stones. “Where’d you get that?”
Miasma puffed out her chest. “Pretty, ain’t it?”
“Bee-ootiful! Where’d you get it? I know, it’s your mama’s, and she’s letting you wear it. Ha! Or maybe she don’t know. Did that snooty honky woman give it to her or did she steal it?”
Miasma stamped a foot. “It ain’t hers! It’s mine. She didn’t steal it, and I didn’t, neither.”
“Well, it hadda come from somewhere, and you sure don’t got enough money for something like that.”
“Somebody give it to me.”
“Who? Nobody has nothing like that, except maybe Miz Dinkins,” Tizzie said. “They the only ones able to afford it.”
“Wasn’t Miz Dinkins. It was that White man who lives at the top of the hill. He called me over and told me how much he likes my singing. And then he give me this and said to sing every time I wore it.”
Tizzie Dean scrunched her eyes up and curled her lip. “You ain’t singing now.”
“I did when I put it on. He didn’t say sing all the time I had it on.”
“He just give it to you? He didn’t want nothing back?”
Miasma shook her head. “Nope.”
Tizzie’s black eyes took on a calculating look. “You suppose he give me something?”
“Dunno. You go past his house singing for a year, and he might have something.”
“That’s how long I been going past his house singing. A whole year.”
Tizzie lost interest. “Let’s play jacks.”
“We don’t have no jacks.”
Tizzie stuck her nose in the air. “Do now. My mama bought me some yesterday.”
Miasma knew Miz Dean got some money every month from the government because Tizzie’s father was in the army. “Okay. Where?”
“In the house. I don’t want my new ball gettin’ dirty outside.”
Monday morning, it rained after Miasma’s mother left for work. A spring shower was lots better than the warm summer storms that made a lot of mud but did nothing to relieve the heat. In fact, they made it hotter. Humidity, her fourth-grade teacher had told her. Didn’t make sense, but Miz Holloway didn’t lie, so it must be true. Miasma smiled to herself. Miz Holloway was going to teach the fifth-grade next year, and that was good.
Miasma had to go down to the post office, but she’d wait out the rain. Nothing she could do about the mud, so she went barefoot. No use ruining the one pair of shoes she had. When the clouds looked like they’d quit dumping water all over the place, she took her musical notes—as she’d started calling Mr. Ace’s gift—and clasped it right in the middle of her blouse where she could glance down to see it was still there. After that, she stepped out into the red-brown Oklahoma mud.
Like always, the muck between her toes felt icky, but by the time she started up the hill, she didn’t mind so much. She had a hollow in the stomach when the old man wasn’t nowhere to be seen. But on the return trip, she started belting out “Go Down, Moses” as soon as she spotted him puttering around under the oak tree. A shiver of pleasure rolled down her back as he beckoned to her. The verge beside the fence was grassy, so the caked mud on her soles was almost gone by the time she stood opposite him.
“My, you’re looking pretty today, Miasma. That brooch looks nice on you.”
She glanced at her dirty feet and giggled. “Thank you, sir.”
“What do you know about that beautiful song you were singing?”
“It’s one of the old hymns,” she said.
“‘Go Down, Moses’ is a slave gospel. Harriet Tubman—do you know who she was?”
“Yes sir. She was a hero.”
“Indeed, she was a great heroine. An escaped slave who started the underground railway to help others to freedom. At the risk of her own life, she sang that song to let slaves know she was in the area.”
“How you know that?” Miasma asked.
“I’m something of a reader. I like to know what went on in the world before I got here.”
“My people was slaves.”
“Yes, your people were slaves. Do you know your family history?”
“Some. Like I know who got brought over in chains. Mama used to tell me stories about him.”
“Ah, oral history. Fascinating. Do you know his name?
“Josiah Elder. He was a Bantu. A brave warrior who got caught in a battle and sold off to the White slavers.”
“Do you know his Bantu name.”
Something clicked in her brain. “Baker or Bakery or something like that.”
Mr. Ace frowned up at the sky. “Hmm, Baker or Bakery. Ah, it was probably Bakari. The Bantu were a proud people.” He glanced at her through greenish eyes with lots of brown in them. “Do you know how old he was when he came over the ocean?”
She shook her head. “Uh-uh, but I know he come over that Trail of Tears in the history books.”
“Interesting. But it’s ‘he came over,’ child.”
“Yes sir, I know.”
“If you know, why do you speak like that?”
“I can conjugate and all that, Mista Ace, but I live where I live.”
He drew back and looked her in the eye. “Very perspicacious, young lady. We all do what we need to do to survive in our own environment, don’t we? But back to your ancestor. If I recall correctly, the Five Civilized Tribes were moved across the Mississippi River by Andrew Jackson between 1830 and 1840. And they brought African slaves with them. That’s how most of the early Negroes came to Oklahoma. Did you know that?”
“What you’ve revealed tells me something. You have the most beautiful skin tone with a bit of a rosy glow. I’m willing to bet that Bantu slave who came to America over a hundred years ago married an Indian woman. Maybe even from the family that had owned him.”
“Mama says he married a Cherokee. And he was supposed to be a young’un when he done… uh, did it.”
“Fascinating, but you better head on home. The sky looks as if it’s about to open up again.”
Miasma skipped away without thinking of her pin or even of singing. Her head was full of questions about a Black slave called Bakari who magically turned himself into Josiah Elder. But if he was named Elder, where did the “Berry” in her own name come from?”
Do you get the feeling Mista Ace is beginning to open doors for this bright little girl’s mind to explore, to think beyond her small world of Colored Town to Honkey Town and the road in between.