When dat night wind blew, de old cabin shook. And it hissed and howled through them wood boards like demons was outside wantin’ in.
The li’luns get scared it’s monsters, no matter how many times Chloe told them no. Well, this world sure do got monsters. But that dreadful howling wasn’t dem. It’s just the wind, she say.
Chloe waited until all her youngins were asleep. The hard dirt floor felt cold ‘neath her feet, but her old toes was tough as leather. She had shoes once, but they took ’em away. Took everything away lest she get too uppity. Everything but the babes, and now they wanted dem too.
Her four little angels slept on the straw in the corner.
Ben, her oldest. Too old to be a boy, too young to be a man. A man. Wasn’t no mens here. You could be a hundred and they still call you boy. Ben was so worn out from a day in the field that not even the skeeters could wake him. And Louisiana skeeters, fat little devils they was, they could drain a grown pig.
Ruth, sweet young thing, with her hair in little knots, her little black hands caked with flour from grinding meal. Little Sammy, went right from crawling to running like he got a fire in his feet. Always getting into things, always jabbering away. And baby Lucy, not ten moons old. Sweetest face you ever saw, just giggling and a smiling. Still don’t know nothing.
They all had a beauty Chloe once had, before the world took it, dried her skin all up into ash, turn her hair as rough as dat straw on the floor, cut hard lines in her face.
Chloe placed a kiss on the forehead of each of her chillins. “Mama loves you so.”
She looked up at the half moon shinin’ in the window, which was just a hole in them rotten wood slats, wasn’t no glass to make it a proper window. She wiped away tears and set to it. No time for crying.
Start with the littlest first. Lord, how her heart knocked out of her chest. Like it wanted to break out and run off, didn’t want nothing to do with old Chloe.
She tucked a hand behind Lucy’s sweet head, then pinched down tight on her mouth and nose.
“Off to heaven you go, my sweet angel.”
The baby hardly kicked up her hands and feet before she went down to that long sleep. Chloe held on a while after it was done, just to be sure. Oh, how she wanted to pick up Lucy and hold her tight to mama’s bosom. She wanted to cry, not at the terrible thing she done, but at such a world where the best she could give her baby was death. But she’d fall into a deep hole and not have the strength to climb out and finish what she started.
Her heart ached like a stab, and her belly begun a ruckus like some demon was fittin’ to scratch its way out. Wet, burnin’ sickness come up her throat and she was set to run outside to throw it up, but it passed.
She lay the baby down and looked at little Sammy, his mulatto skin glowing pale in the moon. “A thing’s started now, might as well see it through. They can only kill me but one time.”
Sammy got to fussin’ when she scooped him up and laid his little knotty head in her lap. “Hush, chile, this’ll be done quick and you’ll be with the Lord. Watch your baby sister for me.”
The boy flailed and flapped about when she fixed on his mouth and nose. Dreadful strength. It was harder than with Lucy, for his soft little eyes opened wide and dug deep into his mama, all afraid as a rabbit in wolf’s teeth, the poor li’l guy. But it had to be done. This wasn’t no world to live in.
A hard hot pit caught in Chloe’s throat. She tried swallowin’ it down, but it held tight.
“Hold still, Sammy.” She could hardly speak as she locked an elbow on his kicking legs.
“Mama?” a soft voice spoke with a tug to the hem of her old worn out dress.
Chloe shrieked and jumped, then turned and saw Ruth rubbing her sleepy eyes. She held the little black doll Massa bought her, held it tight to her chest like it was feedin’. He was nice once. When she was born and her skin was light, Massa used to hold her up to the sky and blow kisses on her belly. And Chloe thought he be different to her cause she his blood and she a quadroon, mostly white. But when she grew and got dark, den she was jus another thing.
“Go back sleep,” Chloe snapped, looking away and choking down that bitter lump. Please, Lord, no. Old Chloe wasn’t that strong.
“Is Sammy sick?” Ruth asked.
“No, he’s just fussin’. You go on now, mind yaself and go sleep.”
Sammy’s arms and feet stopped swinging and kicking, then his body got still.
“Want me to sing him a song?”
Chloe bit the inside of her mouth until the blood came. She couldn’t talk, so she just shook her head as she laid Sammy down beside Lucy.
Little Ruth started to sing anyhow, in her li’l voice sweet as honey. “De river run wide, de river run deep, O, bye-o, sweet li’l baby.” It was an old song Chloe sung to all her babes, jus as it was sung to her.
“Stop that. He already sleep.”
“Lay your head upon my breast. Jus snuggle an rest, li’l baby.”
Chloe turned and grabbed the girl by both shoulders, digging her nails in. She gave one good shake, with a fire in her eyes, and Ruth hushed up. Chloe smiled soft and tilted her head. “Ruthy, don’t wake the baby.” She stood and held out a hand. “Come with ya mamma for a walk down to de river.”
Ruth looked at the hand. “It’s not a snake. It won bite.” And with that, Ruth put her little soft hand into her mama’s big thick one, and they went outside into the cool night.
“Mama, who coming tomorrow?”
‘What you talking ’bout? Ain’t no one coming tomorrow.”
“Ben says the Riverman come. That he comin’ for me and Sammy and the baby. Maybe fo him too.”
Chloe stopped dead in her tracks, knelt down and looked at Ruth with both hands on her shoulders. “Listen. As long as there’s a breath in me, I will not let the Riverman come fo you. Ya hear?”
Ruth nodded and they keep on walking.
“Not everyone evil like Massa and Missus and the Riverman. They’s good people out there. I was brought up by a good Christian woman. Up in Kentucky. Treated me like her own blood. Taught me how to cook, to read a little, and how a lady is s’posed to act. I had a husband and a little cabin where we had Ben. An Mista Sheldon was a kind man. He read the Good Book to us.”
“So, why we here, then?”
Chloe didn’t like to think about it. Hard times was even harder once you got a taste of good times. But once she started talking, it all came out in one wallop.
“Mista Sheldon read us the Book of Exodus, and said Moses made him see his wickedness. Say he set us all free. He caught typhus one winter, but he kept his word and signed the papers on his death bed. But he was sick, they say too sick to know what he doin’, that it was up to Missus Sheldon, and she couldn’t run the farm without us.
“That spring, Mista Sheldon passed and Missus Sheldon fell on hard times. Had to sell my husband. She say I get over it, find a new one, and he would too. Then they came for Ben, and I begged them to take me with him, wherever he go. I din’t know how bad…” She missed that man so. How many years she wanted to see him again. And now? How could she look at him after what she done? But he know it’s the only way out.
Clouds passed by the moon and it got fearsome dark. Crickets and all the swamp critters was whoopin’ it up. Night birds was screechin’ in the sky. Chloe walked a few steps ahead, cobwebs on the tree branches got stuck on her face.
“Mama, does God watch over us here? Paster Saul say He do, that He everywhere. But Ben say he forgot this land, that He don’t care ’bout no Louisiana swamp niggers.”
Chloe stopped again and clutched Ruth by the cheeks. “You looky here, you ain’t no nigger. You’s a child of God and He din’t forsake you. His kingdom is open for you. Hear me?”
“Now hush up and come on. I want you to see something.”
When they got to the river, the moonlight twinkled like them shiny diamond earrings Missus wore, the ones Chloe stole. Chloe walked on the bank, felt the muddy sand between her toes, the cool water up to her ankles.
Ruth stood back in the grass.
“I can’t swim.”
“Can’t nobody swim. It don’t matter.”
Ruth stepped closer to her mama. Mama reached her hand out. And Ruth looked at that hand like it was a snake. That child, she could see. Boy, she could see. But she took her mama’s hand and mama pulled her close. And they stood in de river, holding hands under God’s moon.
And they was free.
Chloe heard the scream before Ruth. “Mama!” It came from back at the cabin. Shit, Ben must a woke. “Mama! Mama, help!” Almost a man, but his cry was all boy.
“Ben?” Ruth said.
Ruth ripped her hand free, cupped around her mouth and hollered, “Ben!”
Chloe took hold of the back of her head and spun her around into the water, then held her face down. Ruth kicked and splashed like mad and the bubbles came up. The strength you get when you fightin to live ain’t no trifle. That girl bucked and fought and got her head up to breathe a couple times. Chloe pushed down with both hands, then put a knee to the child’s back.
The bushes moved. It wasn’t the wind, it was Ben.
“Mama! Sammy and Lucy ain’t breathing!” He pushed through the forest and came out into the open and stopped. Chloe didn’t look up but she felt his eyes on her. Ruth was still thrashing but not as hard. She was slowin’ down.
“Mama! Mama, what you doin?” Ben come a runnin’ so fast he tripped and fell on the wet grass, got back up and kept running. He run through the mud and sand and into the water. “Ruth! Ruth!” he cried.
Ben grabbed at Chloe’s arm, and she smacked that boy mouth so fierce it done stung the back of her hand. He fell to the water and sat there crying, no. He got up and rammed into Chloe with his head against her side and they both fell in. She spit out the dirty water. Ben was crying ’til he made hisself sick.
The moon came back out, bright as ever. And it shined down on Ruth, floating face down. Ben dragged her to shore by her arms, pulled her up into the mud and worked on her, screamed and shouted her name.
Chloe sat in the river and watched. It all hit her, all that misery. Like a big black wave washed over her, swallowed her up. She screamed and slapped the water. So much pain, it was like being on fire. And then she felt like that blackened wood after the fire done burnt out.
Ruth was gone. Sammy was gone. Lucy gone.
Only Ben was left. Only Ben was brought into this world through love. The rest of them was just Massa using Chloe to get the evils out. Missus knew. She knew the whole time and never said nothing to Massa. She was pious and amiable. Until she got Chloe alone. Then, the fangs come out.
But now they gonna see. They all gonna see evil beget evil. She spit in the muddy water then looked over at her boy trying to bring the girl back to life.
“Ben. Let her rest. She gone.”
“Why? Why?” And he turned and had that anger, that beast his father sometimes turned into on Brandy. She could see it. That boy wanted to kill his own mama. And he’d be right to do it. She wouldn’t mind one bit. But then he’d lose his soul, too. And that was all she could save of him. She’d go down to Hell and sit next to Lucifer hisself to save her babies from all this. But she couldn’t bring them too.
“I had to do it. Riverman coming to take them. He come for you, too.”
Ben looked up, even more scared than ever. Everyone know once the Riverman take you, ain’t no comin’ back.
“You got to go,” Chloe said.
“Across the river, into the swamp. Go to the red men.”
“The red mens with the painted faces? They’s gonna eat me!”
She shook her head. “No that’s more Massa’s lies to keep us here. Ain’t no river dragon accept the Riverman who take you and sell you. And them red men just as scared as you. But they see you’s a boy. And they see you wearin this.”
Chloe took off her necklace, held it up and looked at him through it. It had turquoise beads around four strings that were a little knotted. The feathers were matted and black from dirt but the red men would see it was true.
Slowly, she walked out of the river. Her clothes clung to her and water dripped down her legs. Ben sat in the grass beside Ruth. Her skin turned pale and clammy, but when Chloe saw her up close, she felt nothing. Whatever heart she had was now a curled up black little slug of a thing. She couldn’t feel no more pain, so nobody could harm her now.
“Why, mama? I could of taken her, saved her from de Riverman.”
Chloe dropped the necklace over Ben’s neck. “She was too small. They all was. Don’t you know if there was any other way…” She swallowed the last bit of pain as it struggled inside her, just as Ruth had struggled in the water. “They’d a slowed you down and the dogs would come. Massa would have hisself a good hunt and they’d raise the flesh off you.
“But now, they’ll see what I done. They knows I’s crazy. That ole crazy nigger witch they call me. So they’ll see I sent my own babies home, but you gonna be long gone, through the swamp, with the red men. From there, you keep the sun to your back and keep going west. There’s freemen in Texas, some even gots they own ranches.”
Chloe reached in her pocket, found the earrings she stole, and held them out. “If you need to pay your way anywhere, use these.”
The diamonds shined in Ben’s wide brown eyes.
“But you best get going.”
“Mama, come with me. I don’t want to go all by myself.” Ben wrapped his arms around her, hugged her tight and sobbed into her bosom.
She pulled his arms off her and pushed him back. “If I go, the dogs gone come. So you go and you be strong now, you here? You’s a free man and you ain’t never be nobody’s nigger no more.”
Ben looked at her with them sad eyes, the same sad eyes his daddy made whenever he stepped out and longed to crawl back into her bed. How many times she took that man back. But she loved that man like no other. Riverman coulda bought ’em all together, she begged him to. But he don’t care none ’bout that.
Ben pulled away and waded into the river, until he was just a head bobbing in the moonlight. And then he swam, just the way she’d showed him how to do all those nights down here. He swam until he could start walking up the other side, then he looked back one last time and was swallowed up into the mist.
Chloe dragged Ruth out to the river and shoved her off downstream. Then, she went to the cabin and picked up Lucy in one arm and Sammy in the other. They was cold, and their heads flopped back as she walked, and she thought she heard them moan, but she knew it was their spirits haunting her.
When she got down the bank, Ruth was just a little ways downstream, stuck under some river bush. Sammy and Lucy soon joined her in their watery graves.
Then Chloe waited. She waited ’til the sunrise.
They came at dawn. Popped out of the woods without a sound. Them dogs tracked Chloe down here, and she didn’t move when those sharp teeth growled and leashes went tight.
“Where are they?” Massa shouted. His red beard look like it could burst into flames, and he shook with anger. The Riverman stood behind him. A white tower of a man, that one. His face never changed when he was buyin and selling niggers, ripping babies from they mama’s arms, sticking his dirty fingers in children’s mouths and looking at they teeth. He a cold one, dat man. But Massa was hot.
“Woman, you best loosen your tongue. I’ll lash every inch of skin off you and let my dogs pick the meat off your bones!”
Ole Chloe had one more trick holed up, a vial of laudanum, enough to drop a mule. It was an old field hand trick, take a sip ‘fore they strap you to the post so you don’t feel the lashins.
“Or how bout I tie you a post and let the sun dry you out a few days. Let the bugs and what else have at you. Let the heat fevers bring the truth out.”
She turned to the river, popped off the cork and drank dat bitter serum, drank it all down
It didn’t take long till she felt herself sinking in the mud. Massa and Riverman had her by the arms, draggin’ her this way and that, Massa shouting this and that. But they was all far away now. She couldn’t tell if those dark spots was the laudanum or from Massa’s kicks to the head.
And they they stopped, dropped her face down in the mud. They stopped and they saw the babies floating. “What the hell did you do? Them’s my property, wasn’t none of your business there. You had no right!”
“They belong to Jesus now, Massa.” Chloe got on her hands and knees and starting laughing, as loud and crazy as she could. Massa kicked her face so hard that she flew onto her back, and the blood flowed from her nose and lips. She spit it out and kept laughing, like the Devil was laughing through her.
The world was spinning. And Massa and the Riverman was arguing over who gots to pay back who, for property that was bought but not delivered. And the dogs was barking but they somewhere else, somewhere far.
The sun was rising as night was setting on Chloe. But she saw Massa pull his pistol on the Riverman. She never saw Riverman pull his, for he quick as lightning, that one. He don’t let no plantation man get over on him. Massa fell in the mud and his eyes rolled back, and Chloe cackled some more.
She’d see him in Hell, that one. Yes she would. But couldn’t nobody hurt her in this life no more. Old Chloe couldn’t feel nothing now.