Dark Swallows

As you know, I don’t normally write fiction. But I challenged myself to write a snippet for the Writer’s Eye Contest at UVA in 2015, and this is what came out:

“We live and die by them shadows,” she said. She pointed as though the sun had melted into a pile of butter along her windowsill. As though I could dip my finger in it and drag the salt of disappointment across my lips. “I figure we born to live that way. We come out as babes and somebody—maybe God, maybe the devil—they set us right up on that shadow’s edge.”

Nannaw’s hands seemed too large for the pomegranate seeds she plucked from each cradle. Her faith in God too small to recognize. The woman who baked Jesus a full Texas sheet cake every Christmas and insisted we sing “Happy Birthday” unto Him who is able sounded unsure—if not betrayed.

“Spent all my days figuring that, guess ‘til I got tired and left.”

It would have been romantic, her story of leaving the South, of coming of age on the seat of a “colored only” train car, if she hadn’t been chased out by the one thing she feared more than death.

Hers wasn’t the kind of story our family celebrated. We knew it, but we learned it bit by bit. A photograph here, a hushed conversation there, an uncle saying much more than he should have. Each version had its own spin, but you couldn’t spin away the blunt truth. Once you heard, it no longer mattered that your pops was a CPA or your mom a tenured professor in New Haven. That story had the power to suck you under the roots of a live oak tree you wished had been ripped from the earth before Creation.

“Nannaw, would you do it again?”

“Do what?” For the first time, she stilled her hands. She lifted her head; her cataracts fractured my confidence.

“Like if you could go back. Be nineteen again. Would you make the same choice?” I had no right to make this demand. I had no right to request that she weigh her life and measure how much grace, if any, was left spilling over. This wasn’t one of my grad school classes, yet here I was asking her to stand nude before me while I memorized her scars and sketched out a thesis on the arc of redemption.

“Winnie, you know there ain’t lookin’ back. Not in that way, anyhow. There’s tomorrow if you lucky, and you best off worryin’ on today. That’s enough for one soul.”

Nannaw’s family had sharecropped their way into debt over sixty years ago in South Carolina. They weren’t the first and certainly weren’t the last generation to be swallowed up by all the “freedom” that came with emancipation, but what made them different—

or dangerous—was Nannaw’s father, my great-grandfather Wynston. And what made him dangerous was knowing basic math. After seven years of coming out in the red at harvest time, he resolved to bring his own ledger to show the planter. He and his wife and children, Nannaw being just one of six, had come out ahead that year. There was no mistake about it. He would owe no one.

The planter was willing to let it go. He could forgive one haughty nigger, write it off as the Yankee fever of the day taking hold. He simply corrected my great-grandfather’s notes: Wynston Langford still owed. He always would.

We don’t know if he left that planter’s house feeling broken and dehumanized, or maybe angry, even determined. I wonder if he suffered from depression the way I did and if you could even call it depression in 1940 as a black man in the South. I wonder if he ever wanted to grab a pistol and end it. I’d chosen a mélange of SSRIs, sat down to email Mom a one-line goodbye, and instead found myself like a stone, sitting on my grandmother’s back porch.

They say that when Nannaw found her father, she could see the plow marks on his face. The planter’s older brothers, feeling less forgiving than their younger sibling, had caught up with Wynston that night and beaten him near death before tilling the ground with his mangled body. In the end, he’d been rolled up against an old oak, as though the brothers couldn’t decide whether to hang him or hide him and, so, chose neither.

They say when she found her mother, rolling around in the leaves next to her father, trying to make herself a shallow grave out of fall, Nannaw grabbed nothing but half her soul and ran. She didn’t leave for good that day. She waited for the burial, waited to see her mother in fits of scary laughter, then she wrote a note and slipped away. Took only a change of clothes and two younger brothers with her. She had split her mother’s load clean in half and left the planter’s brothers with their plows.

“Drink this,” she said, handing me a glass of mint lemonade with an island of pomegranate seeds floating at the top. “There ya go. That’s it, Winnie.”

I swallowed as deep as I could, hoping a seed of hers would take root. As a child, I’d been terrified that a watermelon would swell within my stomach or an orange grove erupt from my throat. Now I begged something greater than myself to sprout from my chest and shade me. If another’s thoughts could blossom in place of mine, if clean, strong branches could grow where I’d cut my forearms, I might stay. As with Nannaw, it wasn’t death that scared me the most. It was the threat of death that made me run.

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