Chapter 1: Jar
Chas Freeman ask me to marry him.
Take me by the hand. Take me in his arms. Lift me on his horse and jump up right behind me. Show me a letter say he got duty with the Ninth Cavalry at Fort Robinson Nebraska. Got to ride out there and chase down them savage whites and Indians.
I real happy for Chas. He so proud. But I dont wants to go to Nebraska and I tells him so. Cloud come over his face and he get real quiet.
You think on it he say. Me I cant sharecrops no more. I aint born a slave and I aint gonna live like one.
Who gonna keep the land I says. But he aint got no answer.
I comes back for you Sunday after next he say. You come if you want me. You the one I wants. Chas always sure bout everything. Me I aint so sure and I cries when he leave me at Nanna Sadies cabin.
Nanna in there shucking corn.
Why you all the way crying she want to know. You ever seen a bird crying. Here you sitting free as a bird and crying like a beatdown dog. What your name she say.
You know my name I tells her.
I knows it. You the one forget. She look at me real hard cause she mad now. What your name she say again.
Marianne. I can hardly answers. Her asking make me weep.
Marianne what. She sound like a preacher on Judgment Day.
You Free Marianne. Got a freeman asking for your hand. What you gonna say gal.
I cant says nothing so I looks down at the floor.
What year we in she want to know.
She never know the year. She say it aint important. But she know I counts the year and she make me tell her when she mad. Nanna reckon I reads and writes and figures but I aint gots no more sense than a lightning bug.
1884. I says it to my feet.
When you born gal.
How old you now.
What you waiting for then.
I aint crying no more but I still cant finds my words. I hates to think bout leaving my nanna. She cant hardly see but she see my fear.
Dont worry bout me she say. Your uncles gonna come round and help me with my crop. Dont bother yourself bout me none. My spirits and my songs surrounding me.
She chewing on her pipe.
But how I knows Chas the one I asks.
He sing dont he she say. Goodlooking fella and strong. Want something for hisself. Never get with nobody dont want nothing for hisself. He sing and he know how to wear a hat. I likes a man know how to wear a hat. I bets he wearing that hat when he ask you for your hand.
She light her pipe looking at me out the corner of her eye. She see with that corner. If slaves can love you can love she say. Chas love you and he want you to marry him. I gives you two my blessing.
I aint sure I loves Chas Freeman. He almost a man but I aint through being a child.
Nanna take a long smoke. She blow heavy on her pipe.
You scared to love cause you scared to lose. You want to stay here forever. Washing white folks dirty linen. Slopping they hogs. Nursing they children.
Far as I can sees it aint so different at Fort Robinson I says. After doing all them soldiers laundry I still gots to nurse my children and slop my own hogs.
I sees you still got that tongue in your mouth Nanna say. You marry you got to watch that tongue. She put down her pipe and put down the corn. She take my hand like when I was little. She pat me on the hand.
Dont make me go Nanna. I throws my arms round her neck. We stands that way a long time till the light start to leave. We aint gots no candle and not one Liberty nickel. No oil for the lamp or Indian head penny. It summer in Shreveport and plenty hot. Moon sitting low in the sky and two of us thinking bout never seeing each other no more.
After awhile I feels my nanna crying. Aint never knows her to cry. Not even when Papa Duban die last winter. His heart fail and we finds him on the floor.
Long time ago I wants to stay she say. I wants to stay and they aint let me.
She sobbing a low moan. I tries to comfort her but she old. I cant says how old now. I helps you make the crop I says. I aint wants to leave you Nanna. They gonna take our horse and plow and chickens cause Papa Duban done sign the paper. Thats why you crying aint it Nanna.
She shake her head. Papa Duban good to me all his days she say. She move away from me. Aint love make you lose everything. Life just mean thats all.
She talking real soft now. I sees her eyes looking far away. I aint cries for Papa Duban she say. I cries thinking bout how they force me to leave my husband. How they tear my children from me. All them years ago. I wants to stay and they aint let me.
What husband I says. What children. I never hears you call they names.
My Jim she whisper. My Lizbeth. My Jonnie. Been years since I calls they names.
It so hot the door standing open. Spirits come in and fill the room with the cool of they loneliness. First Nanna Sadie rile. Then she peaceful. Singing her trance song. Rocking side to side. Her hands waving round her head.
She back in slavery days. Back fore the war. Some old people talk bout them times but they grandchildren aint want to hear it. My nanna never talk bout her captive time. I scared to trouble her bout it. She mad at me for bringing back the shame of them days. But I almost a woman and I wants to know my nannas heart. Maybe its cause she thinking I gonna leave that Nanna Sadie decide to talk. Maybe she just want to tell somebody.
She fall to the floor. I runs and gets her some water and holds the cup to her mouth. Then I takes my knife and slices a peach. I puts it under her nose and lets it rest on her lips. I calls her back to this suffering world so the spirits aint carry her off. She look at me like she seeing me for the first time.
I helps her to sit and I sits down at her feet. She rest her hand on my head.
What you recall of your mama she ask.
I picks up her pipe and takes a smoke. I draws the tobacco in deep so my throat and chest burn with it. When I talks bout my mama my throat and chest all the way burn.
Her feet in shoes I says. When she leave she got her feet in shoes walking away from me. I still hears the sound of her feet.
Nanna Sadie look tired. How long it been she say. How many years since she gone away.
How old was you then.
Your mama bout that same size when them Union troops come through New Roads. All the children jump and shout. Your mama follow along skipping and dancing. And some years later when them Union soldiers run out of Louisiana she follow them again. Leave you with me.
She smell like leather and dye I says. She work for the saddlemaker and he give her a old pair of shoes. One day she just walk off in them.
Your mama born walking. You late walking Marianne Libre. Still scared to touch ground. Like the mud gonna swallow you up. It aint swallow you yet. But it hold you firm to this place. Time for you to go and your feet dont want to move. Better get you some walking shoes gal. Stop all your weeping and go on with your soldier boy. Life bound to be better in the territories. Cant be no worse. When he coming back for you.
Say he coming Sunday after next.
How many days from now.
You some good at counting aint you. Lets see what else you can do. We gonna sew you a memory quilt. Cant lets you go off to no prairie less you got your family with you. They say aint nothing like that cold wind coming off the prairie.
In the heat of the day when its too hot to move we takes to sewing the quilt. I brings Nanna pieces from the gal who sew for the white seamstress. I gathers scraps from the families I takes in washing for. They say Mary you get us another gal if you running off.
Gonna back this quilt with something heavy Nanna say. Take Papa Dubans old work clothes and your mamas old apron. Gonna put something of myself in there too. Long as you got something of love to hold onto you know you a person of worth. Only folks really own theyselves the ones know what they worth.
Go get my jar she say. I gots some things I wants toshow you.
They the things she keep inside a canning jar on a shelf above the stove. All these years I never knows why they there. Just a few small things you can hold in one hand. I feels them with my fingers. Knife so small. Piece of felt. Bottom of a clay bowl. Childs tooth. Shiny gold button. Corn pipe thick with tar.
I carries them things from a long time ago she say. From up the Mississippi I brings them. How old I be.
I dont know Nanna Sadie. Old as Grant I spects.
We gots to pray for the General she say. I be some sad when he go. You children cant never know what he mean to us old ones. I a grown woman fore I believes theys a white man want me to be free.
For more than a week Nanna tell me what grown folks scared to talk bout. Sometime her voice tremble sometime it shout. I listens to all she say. When she tell it in a small voice I leans close to hear. We cuts the squares and pieces our stories. I writes down everything she say.
And at the end of the telling I knows what to do.
Copyright © 2005 by Nancy Rawles. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.