The orphan mother, p.1
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       The Orphan Mother, p.1

           Robert Hicks
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The Orphan Mother


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  In Memory of Tom Murdic

  I can still hear you

  Prologue

  Mariah

  December 12, 1912

  To the shabby house on Columbia Avenue they came, the four of them, all in black, narrow ties fastened with jeweled stickpins about their necks. One wore engraved cuff links, real gold, she suspected, just like a white man’s. Their shoes were burnished and clean, and they all wore socks. As they stood on her doorstep she looked them up and down, thinking, I made you. It is because of me that you can wear a tie.

  “Mrs. Mariah Reddick?”

  The man asking was small, with quick nervous gestures and a pencil-thin mustache. He looked bewildered and kept glancing around and past her into the depths of the house, as if he were expecting some other Mariah to step forth. He spoke with borrowed confidence.

  “Yes.”

  “I’m Reverend Erastus Cravath,” he said. “From the university. Now your university.”

  “I figured that’s who you be. But I didn’t figure you’d come yourself.”

  “Miss Mariah—”

  “Mrs. Reddick.”

  “Mrs. Reddick, then. We’ve come because we’ve just received a letter from—well—we’ve received a certain letter, and we wanted to come ourselves to ascertain the veracity of the claims and to meet you, according to the terms of the bequest.”

  “If you think I’m fooling in that letter, you just need to talk to my lawyer,” Mariah told him, leaning now against the doorframe.

  “We don’t think that at all,” one of the others interrupted, craning forward earnestly. “Not at all. But the terms of the letter made it quite clear that there was an additional request, that a representative of the university should meet you in person. So here we are.”

  At that, Mariah nodded. “You gentlemen have come a long ways. You want to come in?”

  “We would indeed,” the second one said. “Pardon the intrusion, Miss Mariah—Mrs. Reddick.”

  Mariah stepped back from the door, but the man, Parmalee Edwards, kept talking. “Just to be clear and legal and so forth, you are the Mariah Reddick whose attorneys wrote us last week?”

  “I am Mariah Reddick, I just said it. Don’t know another one,” she said. “Come on in. Wish you’d sent me a note or something, I don’t got much to feed you with. I baked this morning, so I still have some cold biscuits around.”

  One by one they followed her in, stickpins glittering. The house felt very full when they were all inside, sitting uncomfortably in the small parlor: two on an old sofa of a certain age, the other two in armless mule-eared chairs. They left the armchair by the fire for her. Edwards followed her back into the kitchen to help with the biscuits and the tea. (“We cannot have her serving us,” he had whispered to the others.) “Really, ma’am,” he said, “we are just fine. No need to trouble yourself.”

  “No trouble at all,” Mariah told him, laying out plates and biscuits and heating water for the tea. She had set out tea for others for nearly eighty years, she could do it again for herself and her important guests.

  When they were all settled, teacups in hand, biscuits to the ready, a fire now blazing in the hearth, Erastus Cravath got down to business.

  “Mrs. Reddick, we are amazed at your generosity.”

  “No trouble at all,” she said.

  “The school’s never seen a gift of this sort…never. This is going to change everything for us. We shall have a new library, the Reddick Library, how does that sound to you?”

  She laughed. “I ain’t never sat in a classroom or a library, not even in a Negro school like your’n. No sir, you don’t need to put my name on nothing.”

  “We could have a new dormitory, even a new chapel—the Reddick Chapel?”

  Her face tightened, and suddenly the kindly old lady had disappeared. Now she became fierce and formidable, and they were perhaps beginning to understand how this frail former slave might have amassed such a fortune.

  “I don’t want no chapel and no dormitory. I want things just the way the lawyer spelled out. Spent a long time figuring this through, and that’s how I want it to go.”

  “But this kind of generosity—surely there’s some way of recognizing your charity and good works?”

  “You know your Bible, Reverend Cravath,” she said. “Matthew 6:3. Jesus says when it comes to giving, But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. I don’t want a mention of me or a building named after me. God help you if you ever name a chapel after me.”

  They all spoke at once, voices tumbling over each other. “But Mrs. Reddick, think of the example you’re setting—”

  “—a shining example for both whites and for Negroes, if they knew what you’ve done—”

  “You have a higher responsibility,” Cravath interrupted, “to set an example to others of how men and women of color have risen from the depths of despair and broken the chains of slavery to rise to the pinnacle of prosperity!”

  “Look around, Reverend. It look to you like I’m living in any pinnacle of prosperity? When I was allowed to choose, I chose to live my life the way I chose to live it. I’ll die the same. That I got money don’t say nothing about my life.”

  “And that’s how you wish to be remembered?” the reverend asked. “Your obituary—that is, if the white folks decide you are even worthy of an obituary—will tell of another broken-down former slave, a penniless Negress who served her white family faithfully, and really nothing more.”

  “That may be,” she admitted.

  “What an opportunity you are letting slip away.”

  Mariah stood up and walked to the window to the left of the parlor stove, and then back to her seat. She took the last biscuit and cupped it in her hand like it was something precious and not to be eaten, like she was saving it for someone.

  “I had a son once. He was all about opportunity. Hardworking young man who hoped and dreamed of a better future. This thing I’m doing is the opportunity he should have had, it’s his opportunity. Not mine. If I can just help other young Negroes like him, that’s my opportunity, Reverend.”

  “May I ask why you’re not bequeathing your fortune to your son?”

  “He died. Long time ago now.” She looked directly at him, gray-eyed and clear, and did not look away.

  “I’m sorry for your loss.”

  “So am I.”

  “We just want to tell you how very grateful we are, how much we want to recognize your enormous generosity—”

  “Then do what I ask. Nothing more.”

  “As you wish.” His face pinched sour and tight. He was not a man used to being turned down by other Negroes, Mariah thought.

  “Reverend, I’m a simple midwife. I bring healthy babies into this world—that’s what I do. I don’t know nothing about educating and teaching and speeches. My neighbors just need to know me as the midwife. Nothing more. Imagine the world if the bottom rail was the top rail, hear me? I’m good being on the bottom rail.”

  This was the world, the life, she had chosen. Perhaps once she could have had fine clothes and diamonds and a trip to Paris or London, but she ha
d remained true to a world that had chosen her. And she had found joy in it, bringing new life into this world. No matter how flawed it all was, no matter how filled with anger, prejudice, and death, there was nothing as sweet to her as the fontanel of a newborn. The possibilities that existed in a baby! The places and the dreams and the hopes that such a child would have! No library or chapel could equal it.

  A penniless Negress. Nothing more. This is how you will be remembered. His words rang true. She would choose to seem just another poor broken-down Negress. She saw nothing wrong in that, nothing to be ashamed about. In this small way, she would live and die as she wished. That was a sort of freedom.

  “You want more tea?” she asked them. “I can still find the roots myself. This here tea you can’t find in a big city.”

  They nodded and thanked her.

  It pleased her that she was using the tea service she’d gotten long ago, in another world, with a delicate pattern of leaves chasing each other across its surface. She had nothing new: her possessions now were few, and growing fewer. For many years she had saved every penny she could to put into the endowment, to give to this university of strangers who did not know her and would never know her name.

  This was not about names. This was, always and forever, about that one child—that hope, that possibility—who had hoped someday the world could get better, for Negroes especially, but maybe even for whites, too.

  She stood up. “I’ll go get the tea,” she told them. “And I’ll bring out more biscuits. It’s a long trip back to the city.”

  Chapter 1

  Mariah

  July 2, 1867

  That morning, just as the world stirred in a light breeze, there had been a difficult birth. The new mother gasped in pain, but at bedside Mariah listened beyond that, she listened to the air around her, trying to breathe so slow and light that she could hear only the blood in her head. She heard the rest of the world clearly, the sounds of cutlery on plates in the nearby fancy house and the rattle of feet far off out on the street. When a baby was on its way, right when it was about to enter her world, Mariah became vigilant, her senses more powerful. She was the guard at the gates, the lioness with her nose in the wind and her teeth bared. It’s a hard, hard world, child. You will need help. And then she heard the servants whispering in the kitchen by the woodstove. She heard, out in the street: Won’t be no nigger speeches here, you mark my words. They’ll lose the gumption, you’ll see. They’ll run away. They don’t know what’s coming. One of the maids—Emma May, whom the family had brought from Nashville—whispered to one of the kitchen boys, Go run and get Dr. Cliffe.

  She would have the whole thing finished by the time Dr. Cliffe staggered down the street. She took stock one more time: the sounds spun around her, none of them threatening. The way was clear and safe, the signs were right. Come on, child, come into the world.

  She didn’t believe in spirits, but whatever it was that charged the air between Mariah, mother, and baby—what the old souls had called haints—spoke. Now Mariah felt the threat, which she wanted to deny but couldn’t. This one isn’t like the rest. There’s something wrong. The life has flowed from her, the blood has gone.

  In all things but this, Mariah had left talk of haints and powers behind. That was old business, her mama’s wisdom and tradition. Her mama had never known freedom.

  Believe this, though: better get that baby out right now or it dead.

  The top of the baby’s head had appeared. She slid her long fingers on either side of the child’s head, guiding and not pulling.

  “Missus, here it comes. You got to help me now.”

  Evangeline, the magistrate Elijah Dixon’s much younger wife, all of twenty-seven years old, had her eyes closed and would only shake her head. Mariah slapped her hard on her thigh, twice, and Evangeline struggled and clenched and wailed. The voices got louder but Mariah couldn’t make out the words. The top of the baby’s head had gone a deep, deep purple.

  “Missus!”

  Evangeline pushed. Mariah inserted her fingers between the baby’s neck and the cord she knew must be drawing closed around its throat. The baby slipped a little farther out. Mariah could see the cord wrapped and knotted like a snake, and when she stretched it away from the child she thought she saw the purple fade. She coaxed the baby on, just a little farther, until the whole head had emerged.

  “It coming, missus!”

  She heard a voice behind her. Dr. Cliffe. How did he get here so fast? “The cord!” he shouted. “Step aside!”

  Mariah knew what needed to be done and would not move away. Where was her knife? Too late for that now. She got her teeth on the cord just at the side of the child’s neck. She felt the baby’s cheek on hers, smooth and soft. Afterward she would think of this as the true moment of the child’s birth, when she bent down and felt him on her skin, barely alive but whole and true and human, his soft and crumpled ear folded up against her own. A woman could live her whole life and never be so close to a child, not even one’s own. Not like that.

  She bit hard and through, freeing the cord, and the baby began to slide fast into her hands. Dr. Cliffe tried to push her aside and she cursed him like she’d curse a mule. The child wasn’t breathing, so she put him up to her shoulder and began to coax the breath from him, squeezing, patting, and humming.

  I don’t have a lick of magic and I don’t need it.

  The child was breathing and starting to pink up by the time Dr. Cliffe finally managed to get the baby from her, ready to pry and prod with his shiny new tools in the black satchel. The room had seemed so dark and empty before, just Mariah and mother and her baby, but now the doctor and some of the other children had crowded in. Not the husband, though, Mariah noted. He hadn’t attended the other births either.

  Mariah went to the mother, took that pale, gray face scattered with freckles in her hands, and whispered, You’ve got a boy. When she returned to the foot of the bed to assist the doctor with the towels and the rest of it, he glared.

  The child lived because of her. It had been fate that had tried to kill him, and Mariah had taken fate in her own hands and run it off. She decided who would live and die. How did the doctor not understand that? That baby wasn’t the first, not nearly, among those who owed their lives to her. She could still feel the child against her face, and that first flush of blood that had ever so slightly warmed her cheek.

  Chapter 2

  Tole

  July 2, 1867

  There had been a heavy summer rain the night before, and the smell of early July rose in the air, a heady scent of sweet olive, daylilies, and the rich earth that bore them. The dirt smelled different in the South, George Tole thought, not like back east—not bad, but it didn’t smell like home either. The summer had turned muggy and endless, with long bouts of daylight and dancing fireflies. Tole would listen to the children outside of his window, horsing around past their usual curfews, up to no good, probably, the way children of a certain age could be.

  Tole didn’t have a lot of reasons for leaving his house, but the summons from Mr. Elijah Dixon was undeniable. One of the children had brought it. He had knocked and then dropped the envelope before racing back to his friends. The note was short but clear. Come see me. Elijah Dixon. Mr. Dixon was an important man, a magistrate, maybe someday a judge, and had important friends. Tole had heard the name Elijah Dixon way back when he lived in New York, seen his name in the newspapers. He didn’t know what to make of the summons. He considered whether maybe all that trouble had followed him to the back wilderness of Middle Tennessee, but then he talked himself into believing that there was no way Mr. Elijah Dixon could know anything about that or care if he did.

  Now Tole made his way down Fourth Avenue, weaving through horse-cart traffic and a parade of businessmen headed to work, newspapers snug in the crook of their arms, a whole block of black coats and bowler hats. You wouldn’t know Tole was a freeman by the way he walked: a tall, dark Negro with a scar above his eye shuffling like
a ghost, heavy-footed and head bowed, eyes fixed on the street. But he was as free as any man walking south toward South Margin Street that day. He never was anything but free.

  He continued past the southernmost commercial block and into the residential streets, stopping only to lift his pant leg and scratch the small mosquito bites around his ankle. He kept on, turning onto South Margin, a quiet street of cherry brick houses. This was his favorite block, softened by trees, sourwood and sugarberry, river birch and American beech. The leaves seemed to burst with a new shade of green, revitalized by the previous night’s rain.

  Tole stood at the corner house on South Margin, a stately brick Victorian with a pitched slope for a roof and a cupola just above it. After looking it over he walked up the dozen steps, holding the black iron railing, and knocked on the door.

  An older Negro woman, white-haired and proper, answered.

  “Here to see Mr. Elijah Dixon,” Tole said.

  “He expecting you?”

  “Uh, yes. I was to be here at ten o’clock. His wishes.”

  “Wait there.”

  The woman closed the door and Tole waited outside. When the woman returned, she asked him to walk back down the steps and around to the side of the house where he’d find a latched gate that would lead him to the backyard shed, where he was to wait. Tole did as he was told. Inside the shed he found some wooden pallet beds, a couple of wash buckets, a few pieces of rough furniture. He pulled a stool over and sat down.

  When the door finally opened, Elijah Dixon stood in the doorway, a large, heavy man, well over six feet, with a drum-tight belly that hung like a sack over his belt buckle. Dixon was older than Tole by twenty years. Tole guessed he was close to sixty, but he didn’t look much older than Tole himself, despite that auburn beard, marbled with gray and white, that had spread like wild grass over his jowls, onto his second chin, and down his neck.

 

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