Five Rocks, Pennsylvania
Olivia Killion sucked in her breath and grimaced, waiting for the contraction to pass. Eighteen and unmarried, she was sitting at the bottom of the stairs in the home of Jettie Place, the woman who had been her father’s mistress.
A few more hours and it will be all over
, she thought. I’ll know
. She closed her eyes and prayed, Please God, let it be Mourning’s. But how will Jettie react if the baby is colored? I don’t care. Let her throw us out in the snow. It has to be Mourning’s
. Then she bit her bottom lip and forced herself to accept the other possibility. White or black, I am responsible for this helpless little baby. No one else is going to take care of him, stick up for him.
Jettie rushed in and gathered up the blankets and pillow that lay on the steps next to Olivia.
“I’m taking these out to the buggy,” Jettie said. “I’ll be right back. You sit there and wait for me. Don’t you move. Them steps out there are fearsome slick.”
Jettie’s voice had grown steadier and she no longer sounded on the verge of hysteria. When she came back in she pulled a thick knit hat over Olivia’s head and wound a scarf around her neck. Then she all but carried her down the steps, hustled her into the backseat of the buggy, and covered her with the blankets.
“You don’t have to suffocate me.” Olivia struggled out from under the blankets and set the pillowcase in which she had stuffed her belongings on the seat next to her.
Jettie got in the front seat and turned around to train a frown on her. “You sure you want to do this? It’s a long drive to Weaverton, and we don’t even know if that old goat of a doctor is at home. What if we lose a wheel? It’s dark already. Ain’t gonna be a soul on the road.”
“Jettie, I told you, I didn’t spend nine months hiding in your house so everyone in Five Rocks would know I had a baby. Quicker you stop talking and drive, quicker we’ll get there.”
Jetty hung a lantern on the post and said, “Giddap.” She hunched forward, peering into the black ahead of them. “I can’t see a darn thing. Not five paces in front of me.”
“You don’t need to see five paces ahead. All you need to see is the spot where the horse is going to put his foot down next.” Olivia quoted what Mourning Free had told her, when she’d complained about driving at night.
The back seat was deep, with plenty of legroom. Olivia knew the next contraction would come soon and turned around to kneel on the floor, with her arms and head resting on the seat.
Jettie turned in her seat again. “What’s the matter, you gonna be sick?”
“No. Stop worrying about me and watch where you’re going. I just want to see if it’s easier to take the pain like …” Her own low cry cut her off as the contraction took her by surprise.
It was close to ten o’clock by the time they knocked on the doctor’s door.
“Yes?” Only his nose was visible through the crack.
“Thank God you’re home. It’s her time.” They huddled on his dark porch, Jettie holding onto Olivia as if she were a rag doll.
“You brought a birthing mother here? In the middle of the night?” He didn’t open the door any wider.
“Yessir, that’s what I did and here she is.”
“No, Madam. No. No. I deliver babies in the mother’s home. You should have sent for me. You don’t get a woman in labor out of her bed, and I’m not running a hospital. Or a hotel.”
“Well, we’re here now and her contractions are coming right quick.”
Olivia bent forward as the next one hit her.
The door didn’t budge. “Certainly you have relatives or friends who can accommodate you.”
“We had family hereabout, we sure wouldn’t be on your front porch,” Jettie said, losing patience. “Can’t you see she’s fixing to drop her baby right here on your doorstep?”
He pulled the door wider, but did not invite them in. “Look here, I can’t be delivering babies in my home every day. I wouldn’t have a towel or blanket left in the house.”
Jettie put her foot over the threshold. “We ain’t plannin’ on coming every day. And we got our own blankets you can spread on the bed. Is it more money you want?”
“You certainly can’t ignore the inconvenience, not to mention the expense of the laundry or replacing the bedding.”
Jettie let go of Olivia and stepped toward him, looking like she might take a swing. He shuffled a few steps back.
“Let’s see … two dollars might just about cover it. Of course, that would be in addition to my regular charge of a dollar and a half.”
“All right. Just show her where she can lie down.”
“You said you have blankets?”
Jettie left Olivia hanging onto the doorjamb and rushed back to the buggy for the blankets, pillow, and towels.
“Come with me,” the doctor said.
He gripped Olivia’s arm with obvious distaste and she moved down the hall with him, taking tiny steps. He was apparently unmarried. At least no wife came rushing to assist him. That’s good
, Olivia thought. One less mouth flapping
. Jettie followed them into a room that held only a single bed, a nightstand, and a small table and chair. The doctor released Olivia’s arm and removed the coverlet and sheets from the bed, heaping them on the table. Then he spread one of Jettie’s blankets on the mattress and gestured for Olivia to lie down.
“There you go,” Jettie said. “You lie yourself down there. Everything’s going to be all right now.”
After Olivia was arranged on the bed, Jettie fiddled in her pocket and handed the doctor some coins. “There’s four dollars,” she said. “I know we can count on your discretion.”
He pocketed the money and for the first time looked at Olivia’s face.
“Oh, it’s you. Mrs.
Springer.” He sniffed. “Yes, I thought you might be back, wanting me to clean up the mess.” He turned, gathered up his precious bedding, and left the room.
While the doctor was gone Jettie helped Olivia remove her clothing, except for the shirt of her long johns, and covered her with the other blanket. He soon returned, carrying his doctor’s bag and a stack of towels. While he spread a white towel on the table and arranged his instruments he muttered a string of unkind words – young girls can’t keep their legs together, it’s always a man’s gotta suffer for the stupidity of some female.
“I left a pan of water on the stove,” he said to Jettie. “Go wait for it to boil and bring it here.”
His voice was harsh, but by now Olivia was in such distress that she didn’t care how mean-spirited he was, as long as he got her through this alive. It went on until after three in the morning. All Olivia remembered later was the tremendous relief of that last push. She hadn’t asked anything about the baby, didn’t care if it was white, black, boy, girl, or frog – as long as it was out of her. But there was no need to ask what color it was.
Jettie had been next to the doctor, down there between Olivia’s legs, saying, “Come on, girl, push, you’re almost there, just once more, you can do it, that’s a good girl.” But a moment before that last tremendous flood of release Jettie grew quiet. There were no shouts of joy when Olivia felt the doctor pull the baby away from her. So she knew it was colored, even before Jettie laid it across her chest. The room was silent except for the doctor coldly instructing her to push once more so he could finish up down there.
“It’s a boy, Olivia,” was all Jettie whispered.
The doctor soon stood and ordered Jettie out into the hall. Olivia squeezed her eyes shut at the ugliness of his words – “nigger bastard … slut … worst kind of trash … respectable house.” Then she heard Jettie declare that she’d had no idea.
“Here,” Jettie said to him, “take another two dollars and keep your trap shut. We’ll be gone before dawn.”
Olivia gently put her hands on the tiny wrinkled creature – who had no idea he was the object of so much hatred – and lifted her head to look at him. “Hey Boy,” she said softly and moved one hand to his head. “Don’t you pay him any mind. Are you feeling all right Little Boy? You ought to be. You could have had a monster for a daddy, but the one you got is a wonderful man.”
The doctor never returned to the room. Olivia pulled the blanket over the baby and lay still, terrified of hearing the sound of Jettie’s heeled boots as she stomped out to the buggy and abandoned them. But when the door opened Jettie was there, carrying a bucket of hot water. She said nothing as she lifted the baby from Olivia. He fussed while Jettie cleaned him up, but made more contented sounds when she wrapped him in the clean towel that had been warming on the stove.
“Here, lean forward so I can tuck this behind you.” Jettie was cradling the baby in one arm and holding out a second pillow in the other.
When Olivia was settled, Jettie lowered the baby into her arms. Olivia peeked at the tiny face hidden in the folds of the towel. He was the same lovely color as Mourning, black coffee with a touch of cream. Soft black fuzz covered his head. She had never smelled anything so lovely and new.
“I’m gonna see to you now, so don’t you turn all shy on me,” Jettie said.
She pulled the bloody blanket away, wetted a rag, and washed Olivia as best she could without getting everything sopping wet. Then she rolled up a towel and shoved it between Olivia’s legs, pushed her knees together, and covered her up with the blanket.
“You’re gonna bleed. That ain’t nothing to worry about,” she said and then poked Olivia’s shoulder. “Nudge over a bit, will you.”
Jettie rested her hip on the bed and neither of them spoke. Olivia felt she should say something, apologize for lying, but she was so tired.
She slouched back down in the bed, with the baby lying across her chest. Before she dozed off, her eyes flew open. “The horse. We left the poor horse outside in his harness.”
Jettie stroked her forehead. “He’s all right. I seen to him. You get some sleep.”
It seemed that barely a moment passed before Jettie was shaking her. “Olivia, wake up.”
“Go away. Leave me alone.” Olivia turned on her side. She could hear some horrible squalling, but it seemed to be coming from far away.
“Come on now. There’s a good girl. You want all this howling to stop, you got to give that little feller something to suck on.”
Olivia pushed herself up in bed, blinking. On the table was a drawer Jettie had taken from somewhere and lined with towels, to serve as a tiny bed. Jettie tucked a pillow under Olivia’s arm and then picked up the baby and settled him with his mother.
“Just look at him, will you? Latched right onto you like a tick. Most girls have a time of it, till they get the first one feeding.”
“How would you know?” Olivia asked grumpily as the baby clamped down hard on her tender nipple. “Ouch! This baby was born with teeth!”
“You’re all sore and sensitive now, but it’ll get easier, don’t you worry.”
Olivia collapsed into the pillow with her eyes closed, grimacing. “What time is it?” she asked.
“Don’t know. Sun ain’t up yet.” Jettie sat at the foot of the bed. “So, it would appear that you and Mr. Mourning Free were slightly better acquainted than you let on. At least now I understand why you were so set on having this baby anywhere but Five Rocks.”
Olivia felt her face flush and was ashamed to look at Jettie. “It only happened with Mourning one time. Just the once. I got real sick with the fever and he took care of me. Then after I was feeling better … it just happened is all. A day or two after that I went over to the Stubblefields and that’s when they . . . you know, like I told you. Everything I said about that was true. I swear.”
Jettie patted her leg. “Sure it was. Ain’t no girl gonna make up a story like that, ’bout some monster raping her over and over.”
“I couldn’t tell you about Mourning. I promised him I’d never tell anyone. You know what some folks would do to a colored for being with a white girl. I didn’t mean to lie to you, Jettie. Honest, I didn’t. I just thought it was likely to turn out to be Filmore’s baby anyway, so there was no reason anyone ever had to know about Mourning. I’m sorry for keeping it secret from you.”
“Best you did, child. Best you did. You go on holding that secret. You ain’t done nothing wrong by not telling me. Best thing for you, nobody knows you been with a colored. I ain’t judging you, but it sure is best that no one else know.”
“You probably don’t believe that it only happened with Mourning the one time.”
“Yes I do. I think I do. And a damn shame at that.” She slapped Olivia’s thigh and grinned. “That Mourning Free is a right handsome fellow. Got that strong chin and all them muscles. I don’t think I’d have lasted past the first time I saw him take his shirt off. He did take it off, didn’t he?” She opened her eyes wide.
“You’re awful.” Olivia giggled and looked at Jettie with something close to adoration.
After a night without sleep and with her face unpainted, Jettie looked tired and used up. Everything on her that could sag did. But Olivia had never seen a more beautiful face.
She always says people never fail to surprise you by behaving worse than you imagined they could
, Olivia thought. But she keeps surprising me the opposite, by how good she is. No one but Jettie could have gotten a laugh out of me today. Poor Jettie. She was so hunched over all the way here, her back must be killing her. And now she has to drive all the way back home
“You’re the best friend a person could have,” Olivia said. “There was a time I felt sorry for you, but I don’t any more. The ones who need feeling sorry for are all those mean-hearted women who don’t talk to you. Not one of them will ever have a Christian heart as big as yours.”
That was the only time Olivia ever saw tears in Jettie Place’s eyes.
They both dozed off, Jettie seated in a chair with her head resting on the foot of the bed. The baby’s fussing soon roused them. Olivia felt a pleasant tug in her stomach with every suck he took. She lowered her head to breathe in his sweet milky scent and ran her fingers over the soft fuzz of his hair, marveling at the little hand poking out of the towel. He had the tiniest pink fingernails. When he fell asleep she loosened the towel and ran her fingertips over his soft body. His skin was perfect except for one small mole on the side of his neck. That was when Olivia started crying, her resolve from the night before abandoning her. How on earth was she going to look out for a black baby?
“Oh Jettie, what am I going to do? Who’s going to take care of this poor little boy?”
“Shh … shhh.” Jettie stroked her head. “Right now you are, darling. You brought this little feller into the world and you’re going to give him the best start you can. You got plenty of time to think about what’s to come. Right now you got nothing but time. No hurry about anything. You rest and get your strength back and let that baby get working on turning into a person. One day at a time. For the both of you. That’s all you got to worry about.”
The house was still silent when Jettie said they’d best be leaving. First she went into the kitchen and made two cups of tea and sliced some bread.
She set Olivia’s cup and plate on a chair next to the bed and said, “I bet the good doctor ran off to stay somewhere else, waiting for the white trash slut and her nigger bastard to vacate his respectable premises.” She reached for the baby so Olivia could eat.
“He left us all alone in his house?” Olivia asked as she hungrily devoured the bread. “Two strangers?”
“Probably figured the last thing these two strangers are looking for is the trouble and attention they’d stir up by stealing anything.”
It was a long way home. Not wanting to arrive before dark, Jettie turned in the opposite direction, thinking they could stop for a few meals and while the day away. She soon realized how exhausted she was and how ridiculous it would be to drive around in the cold with a newborn.
“To hell with this,” she said and turned the buggy around.
The baby seemed to like the rocking motion and slept when he wasn’t nursing. Jettie stopped once for dark ale, which she told Olivia would help her produce milk, and brought bowls of beef soup out to the buggy. Then she headed for home, worried that they might find customers waiting outside her bake shop. But there was no one in sight when she pulled the buggy close to the back door and hurried Olivia and the baby through the kitchen and into the parlor.
“You sit. Let me take the baby up first,” she ordered Olivia.
Jettie held him tightly to her breast with one hand and clutched the banister with the other. Afraid of tripping on her long skirt, she stopped on the third step and reached down to grab a handful of fabric and wrap it around the handrail. Olivia had never seen Jettie’s legs and noted how shapely they were. Then she closed her eyes in exhaustion.
Jettie laid the baby on Olivia’s bed and removed a drawer from the bureau. She emptied it, lined it with towels, and managed to settle him in his new bed without waking him. Then she went back down to help Olivia up the stairs. On her third trip up, she carried two pitchers of water. On the fourth, she had rags and towels tucked under her arms, a lantern and matches in one hand, and a plate with a piece of pie and two slices of bread in the other.
“I got to go return that buggy to the livery and then I got to lie down. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to do with just that to eat.”
When Olivia woke to feed the baby the next morning Jettie’s door was still closed. The clock in the hallway said it was almost 10. Wincing in pain with each step, she tiptoed downstairs to light the stove. Then she peeked out the window and wondered how many customers had come today and found the Closed sign still on the door of the bakery. How many days would Jettie’s house have to remain closed up and silent before any of those good women would think to knock on the door and see if she needed help?
Later Jettie came down and poured a cup of the coffee Olivia had made. The baby was awake on the table in front of Olivia, surrounded by rolled up blankets and towels, he and his mother cooing at one another.
“Look at that. He’s looking right at me,” Olivia said.
“He can’t see you yet. Can’t see nothin’ but shadows and light.” Jettie worked the pump for a glass of water.
“Then he’s looking right at my shadow. His skin isn’t all that dark, is it?”
“Dark enough.” Jettie set her water and coffee on the table next to Olivia and sat down. “Sure is a cute little feller.”
“But people could think he’s a dark-colored white person. Like an Italian or Greek or something. With real curly hair.”
“Don’t you even try to convince yourself of such foolishness. That child is colored and ain’t no one going to mistake it for nothing else. That nanny goat doctor knew the minute his poor little head started crowning. Don’t you let your mind go in that direction, Olivia Killion. Not for a minute.”
“But there are dark-skinned white people that aren’t colored. Arabs. What about Egyptians? Don’t they have dark skin?”
“Maybe a dark-skinned Egyptian ain’t exactly colored, but he sure ain’t white and ain’t gonna be asked to tea in any parlors in Five Rocks. You can’t pass this baby. Not in this world. Don’t even think about it. You’d only break your heart trying. And his.”
Olivia bit her lip and fought tears. “At least he didn’t turn out to be Filmore’s,” she said, her voice shaky. “I wouldn’t be able to stand to look at him if he were Filmore’s.” She leaned over and put her elbows on the table, both palms on her baby’s head.
Olivia kept her son with her at Jettie Place’s house for three months, but never gave him a name. Jettie referred to him as the baby; Olivia called him Little Boy. Jettie had made a point of mentioning to one of her customers that her niece and the niece’s baby were staying with her for a while, in case anyone heard him crying.
One June night Jettie put down her needlework and peered at Olivia over her eyeglasses. “It’s good you kept the baby this long – he needed his mother’s milk. But it’s time to let him go to folks what can be parents to him. He can’t stay locked up in this house forever and you got to get on with your life.”
Little Boy, sticky and sweet, was in Olivia’s lap, laughing as she made faces at him. Olivia had no interest in what was left of her pathetic life. She had been clinging to one hope – that Mourning would come back and raise Little Boy up. Olivia would give them money. All the money she had, and Uncle Scrugg’s farm, and she’d get a job. She daydreamed about Jettie hiring Mourning to help in the bakery. Olivia would go on hiding in Jettie’s house and look after Little Boy during the day. Mourning would take him to his own home at night. After folks got used to the idea that Mourning Free had a son Olivia could “come back” from Michigan and take a job as Jettie’s housekeeper. They could all be together and Olivia wouldn’t have to hide anymore.
“I’d say the sooner was the better.” Jettie interrupted her thoughts. “For the both of you.”
Olivia felt numb. She blurted out her daydream about Mourning coming back.
Jettie let out a deep sigh and picked her needlepoint back up, speaking as she worked. “Sure. That ought to work out just grand. So what if the two of you disappeared from here at the same time? Who’s gonna notice Mourning coming back with a motherless child and you turning up just in time to all but adopt that child? Nothing strange about that. Person would have to be a real busybody to pay any attention to that. It’s not like you and Mourning was ever friends or anything. Like any of them ladies ever thought you was too good a friends. Lucky we don’t got any nosy ladies like that around here.”
“So I’ll move to some other town, someplace no one knows anything about Mourning. With the orphan child I’m bringing up –”
“Stop it, Olivia. Ain’t no point to that kind of dreaming. Strange white girl in town with no family and her bastard nigger child. Neither one of you’d have any kind of life at all. You got to let him go. He needs to be with his own kind.”
“Who says colored is his kind? He’s just as much white as he is colored.”
“Longer you wait, harder it’s gonna be.”
“I can’t do it. How can I let him go?”
“How can you not? Why would you want to do that to him? Look, it ain’t like I don’t know how hard it’s gonna be on you. But you know better than most that life is hard. The choices we got to make ain’t hardly ever between good and better. You did a stupid, irresponsible thing, lying down with Mourning Free. Now you got the results sitting in your lap. So do what you gotta do to make it right. Give that child a chance to live his life like a whole person, not half of anything. What you want to happen don’t count for nothing.”
Olivia stared at the floor for a long while. When Jettie spoke again the stern look on her face and the harshness of her voice had relented.
“Who knows, you might get to see him after he’s grown. His new daddy might work here in Five Rocks, like Goody Carter done. Or maybe Mourning will come back and want to go get him. But you can’t hold this child prisoner, waitin’ on that happening.”
“I know, Jettie.” Olivia laid the baby down on the rug and hugged her arms to her chest, feeling empty. “Let’s do it tomorrow,” she heard herself say. “Let’s just get it over with.”
“Tomorrow? You can’t do it tomorrow. You got to learn him how to eat something ‘sides what comes outa your titty. I suppose there’ll be plenty of wet nurses in whatever nigger town he ends up in, but what’s the little feller going to do between the time you leave him and the time he lands with his new parents? That ain’t gonna happen in five minutes.”
“All right, we’ll start teaching him that tomorrow,” Olivia snapped and clomped up the steps, leaving the baby with Jettie.
The next day Jettie came in for her noon break and set what looked like a misshapen ceramic teapot on the kitchen table. It was white with a pattern of delicate blue flowers, though that was barely visible through the layers of crud that encrusted it, and its spout was long and open.
“What the heck is that?” Olivia asked.
“It’s a pap feeder. For the baby. I got it out of a crate of my mamma’s old things.”
Olivia frowned at it.
“Oh, stop looking like that. Course it’s dirty. It’s only been up in the loft for about a thousand years. But while I’m out in the shop this afternoon, you’re going to get it all cleaned up. Nice and shiny. And get some pap ready. Then this evening I’ll show you how to use it.”
“Pap? I don’t even know what that means. How am I supposed to know how to make it?”
“Ain’t no thing. Just grind a bit of cornmeal, fine as you can get it, and mix it with water.” She turned to reach up to the cupboard for the pestle and mortar. “Then you grind up some walnuts to add to it. Little Boy here is gonna like it just fine, aren’t you darling?”
After supper Jettie said, “You nurse him a bit now. Enough to keep him from fussing, but not so much that he ain’t got no appetite left.”
While Olivia obeyed, Jettie squinted at the bowl of pap Olivia had prepared, stirred some more water into it, and poured the mixture into the pap feeder.
“You just put this in his mouth.” She pointed to the spout. “And then you tip it up like so.” She demonstrated and a few blobs of pap fell into her palm. “It also has this special spoon.” She held it out for Olivia to examine. “See how the stem is all hollow? That’s so you can blow into it, case the pap ain’t getting into his mouth.”
Olivia looked dubious and her skepticism proved to be justified – her first attempts resulted in gobs of mush dotted all over the baby and his shirt. As far as she could tell, nothing had gone into his mouth.
“You keep at it,” Jettie said as she began grinding more corn meal. “Once you get the hang of it, we can try putting some milk in there.”
“That too. But mostly yours. You gotta learn how to squeeze it out, less each day, till it dries up.”
Over the next two weeks Little Boy gradually got more pap and milk from the feeder and less nourishment at Olivia’s breast. Then one evening Jettie announced, “I think I’d best get a buggy tomorrow.”
Olivia nodded, walked silently upstairs, got into bed, pulled the covers over her head, and tried to convince herself what a good thing this was. By this time tomorrow I’ll be free – as if none of it ever happened. This baby is nothing but a rock around my neck and I should be celebrating. The best for him is best for me too. Besides, colored is colored and white is white, and this child and I would never understand one another. He doesn’t belong with me
She fell into sleep, but started awake in the middle of the night and sat up. Who says he doesn’t belong with me? Why doesn’t my half count for anything?
“I’m not going,” Olivia said the next morning.
Jettie had risen before her and there was already a buggy standing outside.
“That would be best,” Jettie replied, avoiding Olivia’s eyes, “but I can’t see me managing both the reins and the baby.”
“I didn’t mean I want you to go alone. I meant I’m not going to abandon him.”
They were standing in the front hall, Olivia at the foot of the steps with her arms crossed, Jettie with her back to the open front door. Jettie stared at Olivia for a moment and then loudly sucked her front teeth. She reached behind her to push the door shut, went to her chair in the parlor, and sat back, eyes closed.
“I can’t, Jettie.” Olivia stood in front of her. “He’s mine to care for. I’m the one who’s supposed to stick up for him. Like Mr. Carmichael always stuck up for Mourning.”
Looking exhausted, Jettie opened her eyes. “Don’t you see that you’re the one person on earth what can’t do that? Because he’s yours. If he’d been born to someone else, you could be that kind-hearted stranger lady, always willing to lend him a hand. But being his mother, you won’t be able to do that. All you’d bring him is grief. Let him go, Olivia. If you really care for him, you’ll let him go.”
It was a long drive to South Valley, where a community of coloreds lived in The Bottoms. Neither woman had anything to say on the way. Olivia held Little Boy limply, as if he were a bundle of napkins. Jettie had no trouble locating the colored section of town. Find the unmarked turn-off that’s never been graded. The one that leads to a cluster of weather-beaten cabins.
They were soon parked facing the colored Baptist church, but far enough away to give Olivia some privacy. She handed Little Boy to Jettie, climbed into the back seat, and opened the buttons of her dress to express milk into the feeder, which she carefully set in the baby’s basket. When she had finished and climbed out of the buggy she took Little Boy back from Jettie.
“Hullo!” she called into the empty church. “Hullo! Anybody here?”
Jettie strode past the altar and peeked around the corner. “Don’t seem to be no one. Let’s have a seat for a few minutes.” She nodded at the simple pews.
They sat in silence, staring up at Jesus. “Died for our sins,” Jettie muttered. “Lot a good that done, way folks keep replenishing the inventory. And I ain’t talking about you.”
Olivia said nothing. Neither did she smile at Little Boy when he wiggled to get her attention.
Finally Jettie spoke. “Might be best if we left him up there on that table in front of the altar. I’ll go get the basket out of the buggy.”
“We aren’t going to go off and leave him, Jettie. What’s the matter with you? There’s no one here.”
“Someone’s bound to hear him crying and come before long. The door ain’t locked.”
“Have you lost your mind? I’m not leaving him here all alone. Suppose there are rats in here? Or some nasty old cat gets in?”
“Can I help you ladies?” a deep voice said from behind them. It belonged to a heavy-set colored man whose stained white collar proclaimed him to be the preacher.
“Hullo, Reverend.” Jettie rose and nervously stepped into the aisle. “Pardon us for barging into your church, but the door was open. We were looking for you, hoping you could help us. You see we found this baby.” She turned and nodded at Olivia and Little Boy. “Poor thing was totally abandoned. Someone just left him lying in a basket, right by the side of the road. He was crying his little heart out, so we stopped and picked him up and drove right straight over here, hoping you’d know some good Christian colored family might be willing to take him in.”
The preacher walked toward them. “Where did you say you found this child?” he asked and looked down at Olivia, who was still seated holding Little Boy. The Reverend’s eyeglasses were so thick she couldn’t see the expression in his eyes, but his voice was kind.
Olivia looked into his face as she spoke. “By the side of the road. In a basket. There was a bundle of clothes, too. We’ve got those and the basket out in the buggy.” She held the baby up for him to see. “He’s a real sweet little thing.”
“Yes, I can see that.” He emitted a soft grunt as he sat down on the pew next to her. “It happens there is a couple in my congregation that hasn’t been blessed with children of their own.”
“That’s plain wonderful,” Jettie said, looking ready to run out of the church like a bank robber making his get-away. “So I guess you can arrange everything.”
“It’s not that simple,” the Reverend said. “This baby has parents somewhere. Perhaps they didn’t abandon him. Could be someone stole him from them, or he was left at the roadside by accident and they’re looking for him, frantic with worry. Please, come into my office, so I can make a note of the exact place you found him and any other details you can recall. I’ll have to post advertisements. Someone may well show up to claim the child for their own. I’ll need your names and addresses too, so we can get in touch with you, need be.”
“Reverend, we’d like to accommodate,” Jettie said and edged toward the door, “but we’re in an awful hurry. We didn’t have the time it took to bring him here. This was way out of our way.”
“I hate to impose,” the Reverend said, his voice revealing the anger he was trying to hide, and stood up with another soft grunt. If Olivia hadn’t been so miserable, she could have smiled at the way he had Jettie shaking. Not many folks managed to intimidate Jettie Place. “But you have to understand. I can’t ask anyone to adopt a baby I know nothing about. How do they know that a year from now someone won’t show up wanting to claim him for their own?”
“Reverend …” Olivia struggled to her feet, one arm around the baby and the other hand on the back of the pew in front of her. She looked directly into his eyes. “This child’s mother is never going to come to claim him. She couldn’t, even if she wanted to. Not in this world.” She was sure he understood what she was saying and held Little Boy out to him. “I hope they’ll be good to him.”
The Reverend reluctantly accepted the baby. “I must insist that you give me your names. There are authorities I need to notify. It will only take a few minutes.”
“I’m sorry, Reverend, but we gotta be on our way,” Jettie said. “We got all the way back to Philadelphia to go. We could have just left him here by the altar. Probably best you tell them authorities that’s what happened. You found him right there.” She took Olivia’s arm and dragged her out of the church. “Get in that buggy and let’s go.”
“I’ve got to give him the basket with the clothes and things.”
“Never mind about that. Let’s get out of here, ‘fore someone else comes along wanting to know our names.”
“I’m not leaving him here without any clean clothes. Without a thing to eat!” Olivia angrily yanked her arm out of Jettie’s grip, leaned into the back of the buggy to retrieve the basket, and strode back to the church.
“He’s three and a half months old and perfectly healthy. His birthday is March 24. These are his clothes.” She turned to leave, then stopped to ask, “What’s your name, Reverend?”
“Jameson. Reverend Harold Jameson.”
“Thank you, Reverend Jameson. I can’t –” Her voice broke, but she didn’t cry. “The name of this baby’s father is Mourning. Mourning Free. He has no idea that he has a son. But Little Boy should know who his father is and be proud of it.”
The Reverend stared at her.
“There’s money in the bottom of the basket. Fifty dollars. It’s for Little Boy, when he’s grown. Or if this couple – his parents – come on hard times, it’s to help them through. There’s milk in there too. In one of those pap feeder things.”
Without looking at her son again, Olivia turned and fled.
Jettie drove away from the church as fast as she could. Olivia sat behind her in the back seat, her lips clamped in a tight frown and her gaze frozen on the scrubby fields they passed. At first she felt nothing. Then she turned her head slightly to glare at Jettie’s back, wanting to pound her fists against the older woman.
The old bag can’t wait to get out of here
, Olivia thought. Just can’t wait to be rid of Little Boy, have my bastard colored baby out of her house. Why did I listen to her? She doesn’t care two cents about what’s going to happen to him. She pretends to be so nice, but look how she shamed my mother, didn’t care if the whole town knew she was “Old Man Killion’s whore.” The busybodies are right not to speak with her. The selfish bitch made me give my little baby away. No one would ever have known that Little Boy was in her house. Not in a million years. Someone would have to visit her for that to happen, and no one does. Everyone hates her. I hate her. How did I spend a whole year with her?
Olivia did not speak a word. Neither did Jettie. Again Jettie pulled close to the back door. Again Olivia slipped into the house while Jettie drove off to return the buggy. But this time Olivia was unencumbered. Her arms and heart were empty.
She dragged herself up the stairs and shut the door to her room with a soft click. She removed her outer garments, leaving them as they fell, and crawled into bed, where she remained for the next three days. She shed no tears. When she sank into sleep it was dreamless. Mostly she lay awake, either curled on her side, hugging her knees to her chest, or stretched on her back with her hands clasped behind her neck.
July 15, 1842
. That was her first coherent thought. She mustn’t forget the date. She had to write it down. The day she’d gone to the South Valley First Black Baptist Church and placed her three-month old baby boy in the arms of Reverend Harold Jameson, a man she’d never before laid eyes on. She could still hear the crunch of gravel under the wheels of the buggy as they fled the churchyard. Lord, what kind of mother abandons her baby to his fate, just because his skin is the wrong color?
She felt sick, remembering how she had handed Little Boy over and walked away without looking back. She could think of nothing worse a woman could do. Why should she trust the Reverend? Just because he was colored? That didn’t mean he couldn’t do something terrible to a colored baby. What was to stop him from selling Little Boy to one of those slave catchers? Some people would do anything for money. She’d heard there were even free colored folks down south who owned other colored folks as slaves. She’d laughed the first time she’d heard that ridiculous notion, but Avis said it was true. A free colored man was entitled to own property same as a white man, including slaves. She broke into a sweat, imagining the Reverend’s kind features contorted into evil ones. Lord, how had she left her helpless Little Boy with a complete stranger?
She remembered the rage with which she had glared at the back of Jettie’s neck, at the wisps of gray that escaped the bun of blond hair. But Olivia’s anger – and the need to blame someone else – had quickly passed. She burned with shame. Jettie had shown her nothing but great kindness. Olivia had no call to blame Jettie for the mess she had made of her life. No, she could find fault only with herself.
She felt ill with longing, remembering the tiny face, the way his bright eyes opened wide whenever she picked him up. So trusting. Never suspecting his mother capable of such a grand betrayal. But Jettie was right about one thing – if she tried to keep him, she’d likely be doing him more harm than good. She needed a plan.
I don’t have to hide in Jettie’s house any more
, she thought. I’ll go home, but won’t stay with Avis and Mabel for long. I’m free to waltz around wherever I please. I’ll ask everyone in town if they know where Mourning Free has gotten to. I’ll say I need him to do some work for me. Surely Little Boy will be all right with the good Reverend long enough for me to do that. He looked like such a kind-hearted man. And if I can’t find Mourning and tell him he has a son? Then I’ll go back and get Little Boy. I’ll rent a buggy and tell Avis and Tobey that I intend to drive to all the towns around here, see if any of them are looking for a schoolteacher. And that evening I’ll return home with a little colored baby. Say I found him abandoned by the roadside. I promised Reverend Jameson that I’d never come back, but he’ll just have to understand. Little Boy is my blood
Olivia had grown accustomed to blaming Iola and Filmore Stubblefield for every bit of the disaster her life had become. The overly-helpful, nosy, Bible-thumping couple she’d thought herself lucky to have as neighbors had violated her, humiliated her, and tortured her. Tried to force her to bear a child for them. Probably would have succeeded, had she not already been carrying Mourning Free’s son. She had no idea what they’d done to Mourning, except that it had been awful enough to make him flee in panic, leaving her alone and vulnerable.
Yes, for all those things the Stubblefields were to blame,
she thought. But the rest? What happened between Mourning and me is nothing to do with them. If we’d never met the Stubblefields, I still would have borne Little Boy, and still be unable to care for him. The blame for that is all mine. It was my big mouth that talked Mourning into leaving Five Rocks, the one place he felt safe, and going to Michigan with me. And then it was me went and put my arms around his neck. I chose to lie down with Mourning Free. No one made me do that. He would have stopped any time. All I had to do was say, “No, we can’t do this.” I could see him waiting for me to say that word. “Don’t.” But I never did
She closed her eyes and remembered his scent and the warmth of strong arms around her. It was a memory she found impossible to regret. How could that be a sin? But she knew the answer: because it begat a child who was now alone in the world.
But it isn’t our fault the world is filled with stupidity and hatred. Isn’t that the real sin? And if I hadn’t lain with Mourning, Little Boy wouldn’t have been there to protect me, to make my womb safe from Filmore’s assault. But then how did I repay that sweet baby? Left him to grow up just like his father – on his own, from meal to meal.
Jettie waited patiently. Each mealtime Olivia heard her set a tray out in the hall, rap lightly, and tiptoe away. Olivia always waited for her tread on the stairs before opening the door. Then she ate some of the food, barely tasting it.
Toward noon of the fourth day Olivia descended the stairs, her breasts painfully swollen and large wet circles staining the front of her nightdress. Jettie was in the kitchen preparing a meal, and Olivia stood silently in the doorway, waiting for her to look up.
“There you are. Hungry?”
“Sure you are. Come sit. Ain’t you been doing nothin’ about that?” She nodded at Olivia’s chest.
Olivia dished herself a bowl of the beef stew simmering on the stove top, too hungry to politely wait for Jettie to join her at the table.
“How was business this morning?” Olivia asked between bites, as if this were any other day.
“Oh, same as usual. I miss your help, I can tell you –” Jettie stopped abruptly and turned from the counter where she was slicing bread. “Not that I mean … I want you to get all the rest you need. I was just saying … you been a big help and good company, and I miss having you out there.” She took the few steps to put her arms around Olivia.
“I smell bad,” Olivia said, leaning away.
“My nose has survived worse. You should a smelled old lady Sommers this morning. Her girl must be off, or she’d never drag her old bones all that way for a loaf of bread. Must be years since that woman had a good scrub.” She ladled a bowl of stew for herself and sat down, slipping into a stream of idle gossip and occasionally sneaking a wary glance at Olivia.
Oblivious to Jettie’s chatter, Olivia devoured the stew as if she hadn’t eaten in weeks. She mopped the bowl with thick slices of Jettie’s rye bread and then stood to get herself a second helping.
“I want you to wake me for work tomorrow,” Olivia said when she had finished, pushing her chair back.
Jettie put a firm hand on Olivia’s arm. “You stay put. You ain’t leaving this table yet. I got a peach pie out there, got your name all over it, so stay stuck to that chair while I go get it.”
The door banged behind Jettie as she hurried out to the bakery in the barn. Olivia stared blankly at the pictures tacked to the kitchen wall, feeling hollow. Iola and Filmore had carved a hole inside her, but this new one, the one Little Boy left in her heart, was a gaping void. Olivia thought it would tear her to pieces. She suddenly felt faint with exhaustion and rested her forehead on the table.
She was in no hurry to leave Jettie’s house. There was no place she wanted to go, no one she had any desire to see. She could imagine her brother Tobey’s face and the boyish grin that would spread across it when he saw her. And then she heard herself feeding him a fat pack of lies. Him and everyone else.
By the time Jettie returned with the pie, Olivia was sobbing.
“Oh honey.” Jettie came to stand at Olivia’s side and rub her heaving back. “There, there, now. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Olivia lifted her head and turned to put her arms around Jettie’s waist, clinging to her. “No it’s not. Nothing is ever going to be all right. I wish I could just die.”
“None of that now. What a thing to say. You got a whole life ahead of you. And you got your family. Course you’re feeling awful low, but you’ll see, it’ll get better with time. You got to put Little Boy out of your mind. I’m sure he’s gettin’ all kinds of good care. Most all colored folk I ever known are right kind-hearted. Must come of havin’ so many troubles of their own. I bet his new mamma’s got him out in the yard right now, enjoying the sunshine. All the neighbor kids are crowding around to see him, giving him a tickle, and he’s laughing the way he does. He’s fine. Believe me. Much happier than he was here, no one but the same two women to look at, and never a breath of fresh air. I don’t mean to say that you ain’t done well by him. You made him a wonderful mamma. You ought to be feeling nothin’ but proud for having the love and courage it took to do right by him. And you did the right thing. You know that without me telling you.”
Olivia sat up straight, dry-eyed. Her mouth was set in a hard line, and she said nothing. Courage
, she thought. It takes all kinds of courage to discard a tiny baby in a basket
“You’ll go back to your life and before long you’ll have your own family. You’ll still think of him every day, probably till the day you die, but it won’t hurt so much. And who knows, maybe when he’s grown or after Mourning comes back, you might get the chance to see him. See how good he turned out. How happy he is.”
She continued to rub Olivia’s back for a few more minutes, then said, “I got to get back to the shop, or I’m gonna have Mrs. Brewster banging both fists on the back door, yelling for her bread pudding. Meanwhile, you see how much of that pie you can put away. And about gettin’ up for work tomorrow … you best go on taking it easy for a while.”
“I don’t need any more rest. You wake me. The busier my hands are, the less time I’ll spend crying.” Olivia paused and then asked with a quiver, “Jettie, did I say anything mean to you?”
Jettie opened her eyes wide and shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean, child.”
“I was . . . while we were driving back, all I could think was mean things about you, for taking me there. Like it was all your fault. I was so mad. I’m sorry for even thinking like that, but I hope I didn’t say anything out loud to hurt your feelings.”
“No, child, you didn’t. You had your teeth clamped so tight, horse couldn’t a dragged an unkind word outa that mouth.”
The next morning Jettie rapped on Olivia’s door and they slipped back into their old routine – baking together in the barn in the early morning and Olivia cleaning the house and preparing their meals in the afternoon. Olivia stuffed rags in the front of her dress and expelled less milk each day, waiting for her breasts to realize that there was no longer any need for what they yielded. When she’d been dry for two days she stood staring at herself in the mirror. Now there was nothing. The last remnant of Little Boy was gone, as if he’d never existed. She attempted to garner some appreciation for the freedom she would soon reclaim. I am a nineteen-year-old woman with my life ahead of me
. She tried to smile, but her face seemed to be set in stone.
The next evening at supper Olivia said, “I’ve got my things packed to go home tomorrow. I’ll wait until after dark, say I came on that delivery wagon.”
Jettie paled and froze for a moment, then carefully arranged her knife and fork across her plate and wiped her mouth with her napkin. “Yes, it does seem to be time.” She looked up, smiled brightly, and began chattering about Mrs. Reese and Mrs. Monroe. Her voice was so strained, just listening to it made Olivia’s throat hurt. After a few minutes Jettie rose, left the dishes to Olivia, and went upstairs. Later she came back down to sit with Olivia in the parlor. She peered at a piece of needlework and mumbled about how good it felt to be off her aching feet.
“It’s awful, the way I’ve got to say good-bye to you,” Olivia blurted out. “Tomorrow I’ll still be living right here in the same town, but it feels like I’ll never see you again. I mean, not the way it is now.”
“No.” Jettie looked at Olivia over her glasses and spoke stiffly. “You won’t. Not like now. You gotta go back to nodding when we pass on the street. At least you never used to cross to the other side when you saw me coming, like them other ladies.”
“Oh no, Jettie, I can’t ignore you like that. We’ll be friends. Maybe not right at first, but we’ll find a way to spend time together. We have to.”
“That brother of yours and his Lady Mabel ain’t never gonna let that happen. You can bet your life on that.”
“I don’t give a whit what Avis and Mabel think.”
“I know you don’t want to care but, like it or not, them and Tobey are the family you got.”
Olivia rose and went to kneel by Jettie’s chair, so she could rest her head in the older woman’s lap.
“You’ve been more of a family to me than they ever were. You’re the only person in the world who’s ever made me feel like they’ll always be on my side. No matter what. No one else would have taken care of me the way you did. You’re the smartest, strongest, kindest woman I’ve ever known. Best thing I could hope for myself is to turn out to be as good a person as you are.”
“Thank you for saying that, child.” Jettie softly stroked Olivia’s back. “Seems you’re all the family I got, too. Best thing Seborn Killion left to me was this friendship with you.” Then her voice lost its wistful note and she gave Olivia a pat, saying, “You get on up now. You’ll have us both blubbering. Heavens, you ain’t goin’ but three blocks over. You’ll come to visit. You get yourself up off the floor. I’m way too old for this kind of carrying on.”
Olivia lifted her face up before she rose. “Jettie, are you still so sure it was the right thing to do?”
“More than sure. Far more than sure.”
The next evening they ate most of their supper in silence. Then Jettie said, “I think I feel like going up early tonight. I’ll leave these dishes for you to do up, if you don’t mind. Before I turn in, I’ll bring the wagon around to the back door, help you load your things onto it.”
That afternoon Olivia had emptied her two wicker baskets and lugged them down to the parlor where she repacked them. Now Olivia and Jettie each grabbed one of the handles of the first basket, carried it outside, and balanced it on the hand-drawn wagon that Jettie used to bring her groceries from Killion’s General. It was a lovely night, the air cool and crisp. Olivia took a deep breath, deciding to take the bracing weather as a good omen. They went back for the second basket and then Olivia sank down on the back steps and said, “I think I’ll sit out here for a while. Collect my thoughts.”
Jettie gave her shoulder a squeeze and said, “I’ll be saying my good night then. You keep safe.”
come to see you,” Olivia promised before Jettie disappeared into the kitchen.
Olivia waited for the house to grow silent before going in to do the washing up. Then she paced in the dark, impatient for the time to pass. By 10 o’clock she could stand it no longer and donned her cloak, pulling its hood so far forward that she almost tripped down the back stairs. Wouldn’t that be perfect – after hiding in Jettie’s house for a whole year – to fall and break her leg now, on the very last day? After she caught her balance, she set both feet firmly on the path, bent for the handle of the wagon, and dragged it toward the road. Before emerging from the shelter of Jettie’s backyard she stopped and threw her head back – one hand holding the hood in place – and gazed up at the night sky. Masses of dark clouds had begun to gather and the stars that were still visible shone like bright saucers against the blackness. She wondered what kind of sky Mourning was under.
Once out on the road, she moved quickly. When she reached Main Street she paused and squinted into the black shadows, but saw no one. All the downstairs windows were dark and no curtains seemed to be moving. Then a door creaked open, causing her heart to thump frantically. The willowy figure of Mr. Carmichael emerged from his office. He descended the steps and halted when he caught sight of the hooded creature lurking farther down the street.
Olivia remained motionless, not daring to draw a breath. The lanky lawyer paused a moment before he nodded, put a finger to his hatless forehead, and said a clear “Good evening.” Then he turned and walked in the other direction. Olivia exhaled slowly as she watched the familiar gait of his long, thin limbs, knees jutting out to the sides, looking like a spindly-legged water bird. Like a crane, she almost giggled, remembering how the school children always shouted “Ichabod Crane” when he passed.
She assured herself that he couldn’t possibly have recognized her. Not at that distance, in the dark, with her face half-covered. Anyway
, she calmed herself, better to have been seen by Ichabod Crane than by anyone else in this town. At least he knows how to mind his own business.
Someone had torn out the bushes that used to grow around the sign in front of the Episcopal Church, so she dumped her baskets by the shrubbery along the side of the building. Then she dragged the empty wagon up Main Street and lifted it onto the wooden sidewalk outside Killion’s General. Jettie would find it there early the next morning, allegedly abandoned by the mischievous children who had taken it from her yard. Then Olivia stood in the dark, back pressed against the side of the church, waiting for the arrival of the delivery wagon. For once she was not impatient. She felt painfully alone and disconnected, not yet prepared to make an appearance on the street as Olivia Killion.
When she heard the clop-clop of the horses she opened one of the baskets and removed the straw bonnet that she had packed at the top of it. She plopped it on her head and then wadded her cloak into the basket and closed it back up. The delivery wagon drew near and the driver reined in the horses and climbed down to let them drink from the trough. Luck was with her; he had no passengers. Olivia watched from the shadows, waiting for him to finish spitting tobacco and scratching himself. After he drove away she stepped out into the moonlight. Now all she had to do was walk up the street.
A light rain began to fall, but she didn’t mind. She clamped one hand to the crown of her bonnet and turned her face to the sky, opening her mouth wide and savoring the warm drops. For a moment she felt like a little girl again. In the morning the street would be swarming with juicy pink worms. Ugh. She could smell them already. She walked out to the middle of Main Street and studied the town. Everything seemed to be the same, so why did it look so foreign?
There was the store, where she had sat at her father’s feet playing jack-stones. She turned and looked behind her. From where she stood she couldn’t see even the roof of Jettie’s barn. Was Jettie asleep already? Olivia imagined her waking in the morning, once again alone in the empty house. She let out a sigh and walked slowly past Killion’s General, up to the next corner. There was Avis’s house, just a few steps away. All she had to do was knock on that door.