Here she comes. Samuel’s wife. That must be her boy Isaac with the reins. I watch their arrival from the window, my grandmother’s dough bowl in my hands, the ingredients for baking spread on the table behind me. The boy drives the horse and buggy to an open area near the barn and halts.
As the dust settles around the rig, Isaac unfolds his long body from the seat and springs to the ground with the litheness of his father, in one smooth movement. He stretches beside the buggy, the sun’s rays glistening on his curls, tarnishing the copper locks with a rich patina.
Isaac takes his mother’s hand and helps her descend. After she’s planted her feet on my soil, Samuel’s wife tucks loosened hair inside her bonnet while turning left and right, appearing to take stock of my place, my land, my garden, my fruit trees, my corn crib, my smokehouse, my cabin. All mine and not a thing she can do about it.
Champ, my most striking rooster, swaggers back and forth near the buggy, the bulk of his feathers taking on a blue hue in the sunlight.
My fingers caress the marred wooden bowl, its scars and indentations honest, the result of two generations of women baking bread: My mother who died when I was a child, and my grandmother, Mala, who raised me. Today, observing Samuel’s wife, I clutch Mala’s bowl to my chest like a bible, a holy armor in an unspoken battle. I knew she would come, but I didn’t expect her so soon.
Isaac combs long fingers through his curls. If his hair smells like his father’s, it carries the unmistakable spice of his activities. After a morning of fishing, Samuel’s hair reeked of pond water; after plowing in the fields, his hair held the odors of sweat and earth; and when he slipped under my blankets at night, I read the geography of his day in silence, my nose buried in auburn hair threaded with gray, my body pressed against his.
Samuel’s wife turns to Isaac and speaks. He frowns and places his hands on her shoulders, anchoring her where she stands. A flock of blackbirds fly overhead, a traveling convoy of darkness in the sky, and a shadow passes over mother and son. Isaac’s lips convulse in a rush, words tumbling from his mouth. I wish I could hear what he’s saying.
His mother shakes her head in response, a stern negative motion, then halts and stares at him. Faced with the wall of her resistance, Isaac drops his hands and steps back. Her mouth terse, Samuel’s wife pulls a black shawl tight around her shoulders and wheels around to face my cabin head on.
Under sprawling oak trees, squirrels collect acorns too soon, the sign of an unusually cold winter to come. Champ scratches at the ground, pecking for food. Isaac leans against a wheel and rolls a smoke, pausing now and then to watch his mother’s determined march toward the porch. He frowns. Shakes his head. I suspect he is defeated in this contest of wills between mother and son.
As she nears the porch, Samuel’s wife halts and closes her eyes. Her pale lips move. She must be praying. If she believes her prayer will rise from her lips and ride on the wind to the heavens, she’ll be mighty disappointed. Not a puff whispers over this place today. Last night, death swallowed all circulating air from Arabi, Georgia. It’s as dead as a cemetery here. Without a breeze, her prayer will fall flat on my land, and the red dirt will bury it beneath her feet.
I hold the dough bowl with one hand, open the door with the other, and study Samuel’s wife as she approaches the steps. He never spoke of her to me, and I never asked. This is the first time I’ve seen her up close.
Faded beauty clings like dust to the shadows of her chiseled face. A straight-spined woman, she holds her head stiff and elevated, her chin jutting out, her lips tight and cobwebbed, as though she’s never spoken poetry, never prayed with a smile on her mouth, never licked syrup from her lips. A black crinoline dress reaches with starch and lace up to her neck, concealing her sharp angles and flat bosom. Our eyes meet. Lock. She lifts the hem of her dress and takes the steps without looking down, a risky undertaking.
On the porch, an arm’s length from me, Samuel’s wife stops. Her greenish-blue eyes pause at the black braid hanging across my shoulder and over my bosom. She lifts her chin and looks me in the eyes. The name handed down to me by my mother and handed down to my mother from her mother rolls thick and layered with purpose from her mouth. “Mahala.”
My tongue loosens a single syllable, curled, ready to strike, and I toss it between us like a rattlesnake. “Bess.”
She nods, a slight movement of her head, and I motion for her to come inside. Champ crows. He’s feisty today, perhaps warning of bad weather, perhaps disturbed by the arrival of strangers.
Samuel’s wife idles inside the door and surveys the interior of my home. Her body carries no scent of her husband, not a trace of his lye soap or his horse or his hair or his pipe or his lovemaking. With darting eyes, she plunders my belongings. I turn from her and fix my attention on Isaac. He exhales a puff of smoke, his gaze trained on me until I close the door.
Samuel’s wife pivots and watches me take the bowl to the table. She sighs, expels the sound with impatience. If this high falutin’ woman thinks I’m going to ask her to take a seat, she’s wrong. She has come to me. Let her make the first move.
Stone silent and attentive, her body too thin to hold laughter, Samuel’s wife inches closer to the table and watches me sift flour. I used to cook biscuits for Samuel after we made love, his juices sliding slick between my legs. He would eat the biscuits straight from the oven, sliced, stuffed with butter and cane syrup.
Turning from me, she loosens her bonnet and rambles into the room that serves as living area, an open extension of the kitchen that leads to the back door of the cabin. The hem of her dress drops red dust from my land onto the floors, leaving a ghostly trail behind her.
At the hearth, she warms her hands near the flames and studies the items on the mantel. She takes an arrowhead and the piece of flint used to cut the birth cord between my mother and my mother’s mother, between my mother and me, and between me and my two babies. She rocks the arrowhead and flint between her palms. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. The click of flint against flint taps out a rhythm, the steady pulsing of a heartbeat. Tap. Tap. Tap.
My fist hollows out a crater in the flour, stirring up white dust.
Still fiddling with the arrowhead and flint, Samuel’s wife turns and gazes at me, as though searching for secrets in my face. I feel the intensity of her eyes uncovering my youth, the color of my skin, my full lips, the fervor of her concentration taking in my simple dress and unadorned fingers.
I scoop lard about the size of an egg from a container and drop it into the depression I’ve made in the flour. I am hungry. Ravenous.
Logs settle and crackle. Sparks shoot up the chimney. Samuel and I used to sit for hours mesmerized before the fire, and today, his wife stands between me and the flames.
She replaces the tools, arranging them with care on the fireplace shelf, and fingers the spine of two books stacked together, one on top of the other. Without the tapping, the room is silent, as if holding its breath.
I survey my furnishings through Samuel’s wife’s eyes, my past and present laid out before me. Pottery. Vessels of all kinds. The kitchen table made by Samuel. A handmade blanket. Two books. Two handwoven baskets. A pie safe. Four cane-back chairs. The arrowhead and flint on the mantel. A rifle in the corner. A sewing box. The dough bowl carved from walnut.
When I look again, Samuel’s wife is flipping through the pages of Aesop’s Fables, her face a frown, her head shaking, as if she doubts I can read. Let her think what she will. I’ve read the slave’s book numerous times, yet it doesn’t hold a single tale as rich as my grandmother’s story.
Mala could read and write the white man’s language when Jackson and his men rounded up her and her people and forced them down the trail of death. By the time Mala was abandoned along a back road in Kentucky, her belly heavy with child, the dead and rotting bodies of her family were spread for hundreds of miles behind her, their shallow graves a rich supply of food for buzzards and wild animals. And when Mala crawled into the forest, overtaken by cramps, crying for her dead mother, not one soldier stepped out of line to help her. Jackson and his men rode on, driving their dwindling herd of human cattle, and left Mala and her unborn baby to die.
Hours after the soldiers had moved on, Mala gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She cut the birth cord with a piece of flint, nursed the infant from her breasts, and mapped out a path of survival. She kept the flint, as sacred as the dough bowl in our family of women.
Samuel’s wife whispers the inscription Mala wrote to my mother: Read, my daughter, and you will never crawl. She clutches the opened book and stares at me. Her expression makes me wonder if she came here expecting an illiterate savage with scalps hanging from the mantel. Let her stare.
I squish lard and flour between my fingers until the texture breaks into small lumps and turns grainy. This is what I do best: make bread. I spent many hours during my childhood standing on a three-legged stool, watching Mala’s fingers dance in this dough bowl, hand-carved by her white lover. I spent glorious mornings and evenings captivated by the magic of bread-making, hearing the stories of my people, listening to Mala describe how she had learned to bake buttermilk biscuits for the white man who found her and her newborn baby and took them into his home, the white man who made love to her with gentle hands and raised the baby, my mother, as his own, the white man I called grandpa. Storytelling tastes best in the kitchen, told deep inside the aroma of cooking, told with stomachs growling and mouths salivating. In Mala’s kitchen, partnerships formed, bargains began, forgiveness came with the sharing of food.
I pour buttermilk into the crater and work the mixture until it is pasty. Using my fingers, I pull dry flour into the wet ingredients, building on the dough, kneading it, drawing meal from the sides. My fingers make small circles while my hand makes a larger circular motion, working around the bowl.
Samuel’s wife pivots and the hem of her dress twirls around her. For several moments, she stands still, her skirt settling around her ankles. When she walks, it is with hesitation, the awkward timing of her feet without rhythm or cadence, her shoes striking the plank floors. She stops at the table where I work, Aesop’s Fables tight in her hands, her eyes seeming to brim with questions.
Folding dough from the top, from one side, from the bottom, from the other side, I work, the twirl of my hands grounding my emotions. Using the fingers of my left hand, I rake the sticky mixture from my right hand into the bowl, wasting nothing. I know the rhythm of this poem by heart.
Without looking at me, Samuel’s wife places the book on the table, her hands lingering on the cover. A moment later, she shatters the silence. “My husband died last night.” I wipe my forehead with the back of a floured hand. “I know.”
She recoils, her head jerking back. Surprise colors her face and alters her voice. Her words come at me stretched with enough tension to snap apart and slap me in the face. “How do you know, Mahala? Samuel went to bed with a healthy constitution and died in his sleep. I found him this morning.”
I take no pleasure in what I must say. I simply speak the truth. “Samuel’s spirit woke me during the night. If you stand near my bedroom you will find his scent still hanging in the air.”
Anguish and fear distort her face. She narrows her eyes and studies the bedroom door, closed to her.
Whether she smells these things, I do not know, but the odors of soil and pipe tobacco hover nearby, as if my man still walks these floors, as if my man still lives, as if my man is waiting for me to serve him the biscuits I’m making. And Bess has come to tell me he’s gone. I knew Samuel Story had passed from this world before she stirred from sleep this morning. Perhaps she rolled over and found him cold beside her. All I know is Samuel’s spirit found me in my bedroom, hovered above me, and breathed over my belly, over my breasts, over my neck, over my face. He placed his warm lips on mine and exhaled his life into my lungs. She can’t take that from me.
The fire hisses and spits in the hearth, and blazing arms dance high, swaying this way and that. “For thirteen years you didn’t care that he was a married man?”
I fold and knead the dough. The flurry of my fingers and hands comes without forethought, comes from deep inside me, comes instinctively.
She slaps the table with an open hand. “Mahala, talk to me.”
I shoot my eyes at hers, dark brown against blue-green, miles of mistrust rising between us. She turns her back to me.
The finished mixture is soft and smooth, warm and alive. I lift the dough in my palms, lower my face, and breathe deeply, inhaling memories of loving Samuel in the night, of cupping his most private parts in my hands while a bobcat cries in the woods outside my bedroom window. If Samuel smelled of rich earth, I must smell of fresh bread.
She spins around. “Samuel kept you here all these years. He deeded this cabin and forty acres of land to you. But my husband was never yours. Never! I am his wife. I intend to bury my husband in the family plot.”
With floured hands, I pinch off enough dough to fill my cupped palm and roll the mixture into a perfect ball. After patting the ball of dough onto a greased and floured iron skillet, I pull off another bit and repeat the process.
Samuel’s wife crosses the room, her shoes punching the floor. She snatches a lap blanket thrown across a chair, holds it against her face, and inhales.
The cast iron oven is fired up. When I’ve filled the skillet, I press my knuckles into each biscuit, leaving my mark on the dough.
“It’s a private plot for family. We buried Samuel’s parents and four of my babies there.” Her voice quivers. “There’s a place for Isaac and his wife, if he ever marries. There’s a place for Samuel and me, side by side, husband and wife.” She bunches the blanket to her barren bosom. “There is even a place for your girls. Samuel’s girls. But not you,” she whispers. “Not you. You are not family.”
My knuckle prints branded on the uncooked dough, I slide the skillet into the oven, heat rushing over me.
On tired legs I cross the room, putting space between us, trying to untangle myself from Bess and the web she is spinning around me. Idling near the window, I wipe my hands on a dish rag and spot Isaac standing on the far side of the buggy. Smoke swirls gray and ghostly around him, a sign that he’s rolled more tobacco. For a moment, I see his father. From this distance, it is hard to tell. The lines between life and death are blurred. The lines between right and wrong are blurred.
Bess carries the blanket back to the chair and folds it. With the unblemished hands of a lady, she adjusts her bonnet, as though preparing to leave, then stops when she spies Samuel’s hat hanging on a peg by the bedroom door. Her cry splits the air. “How did you get this?” She lifts the wide-brimmed fedora and examines it, her lips quivering. “Samuel slept at home last night. How did you come to have his hat?” She holds the hat between us. “It doesn’t matter. Keep it. Keep the cabin. The land. Keep it all. I ask for only one thing—leave Samuel’s burial to me. Let me bury my husband with dignity, without interference.”
The knot I’ve been carrying in my gut ignites like fatwood and sizzles me from the inside out. I have no stomach for this kind of talk. You better leave before I expose your sorrow, before I crack open the shell of your sorrow, before I force you to hold your sorrow raw in your hands. You better get yourself home and wash your husband’s dead body and lay it out for viewing before I sharpen your sorrow into a lethal weapon and turn it on you.
I check to be sure the biscuits haven’t cooked too long and take note of my knuckle prints in the dough. After closing the oven, I put away the ingredients scattered across the table.
She lowers the hat, the brim gripped in her hand. “Isaac and I saw the girls hanging clothes on the line.” She hesitates, fingering Samuel’s hat. “I’d like to meet them and tell them their father has passed away. They are innocent in all this.”
I make for her, crossing the room in a breath, and snatch Samuel’s hat. How dare she stalk through my house, dropping red dust like a trail of bloody tears across my floors, plundering through my things, talking about my daughters as though she has a claim to them. I raise my right hand to hit her but stop in mid-air and hold it there. Frozen. She steps back once, twice, three times. Cornered against the log wall with nowhere to retreat, she rakes my face with sharp eyes, as if daring me to assault her. My hand drops, and, in my rage, I ram Samuel’s hat onto the peg.
Heart racing, my mouth stuffed with words, I chew on every consonant and vowel, tasting their bitterness, before spitting them at Samuel’s wife, knowing my honesty will sicken her. “My daughters knew their father was dead before you ever crawled out of the bed this morning. You might be his wife, but you were the last to know of Samuel’s death.”
Bess sinks against the wall, legs bent, barely standing, and sobs. I wait for her to regain her composure before attacking again. “Samuel was their father, and I am their mother.” I sharpen the words she had flung at me earlier and attack her with her own ammunition. “But not you. Not you. You are not family.” I cannot stop myself. “Your stillborn daughters are buried in your cemetery, the one with plots for Isaac and his wife, the one with plots for you and Samuel. You inherited a cemetery, and it is filling up fast.”
White as chalk, she twists her head from me and groans. Tired, depleted, I take a step back.
She pushes away from the wall and stands to full height. Her chin extended, she runs her hands across her bonnet, over her shawl, down her waist, and over her dress, smoothing out the wrinkles, tidying herself. I recognize her struggle to show no weakness, but she can’t fool me; I smell her open wound.
In the silence that follows, a change comes out of nowhere. An unfamiliar air seeps vaporous, up from the floors and around the windowsills, as if something dead has arisen. Goose bumps sprout from my body, creeping upwards from my toes, over my curves, crawling over my flesh, tingling across my scalp. The cabin breathes.
Samuel’s wife shudders and inhales sharply, fear splayed across her face. She whispers, “My God.”
Warm and cold air swirls around me. I close my eyes and wait, knowing something more will come. I hold my breath, and the innocent spirits of four stillborn babies pass through me. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.
I stand alone, lost, unsure of myself in many ways, strange sensations seeping into my bones, yet I know with certainty that Bess’s babies passed through my soul like a prayer. I taste the sweetness of a blessing.
Shivering, I notice the flames in the fireplace have faded, giving way to a soft crackling sound. Turning my back to Bess, I move to the hearth and place a split log over the embers.
The wind howls, a long miserable sound, drawing me from the fireplace to the window. The sky is shifting colors, melting into shades of green, casting an eerie glow over my piece of land. During twister weather, anything can happen.
Searching to see if my daughters have taken cover from the approaching storm, I press my face against the window and look toward the clothesline. Under clouds as bloated as the breasts of a nursing mother, my girls, holding hands, race this way, dark hair flying around their faces. As I watch, Isaac sprints to them and leads them to safety inside the barn, where he has moved the horse and buggy.
The path Samuel’s wife walked to my door, the path where she appeared to pray, has begun to stir, dirt swaying, lifting, dancing in the air. The wind screams, bending trees, and breaking branches. I tell her, “Isaac and the girls are in the barn. It is sturdy.”
An anemic smile lifts Samuel’s wife’s lips and relief spreads across her face. I watch her, and suddenly I understand. This woman with no dough bowl, no stories of strong women in her family, this woman with buried babies, babies whose deaths left her breasts aching, swollen, and leaking with milk, this woman with a dead husband who never loved her—this woman stands damaged before me. We are bound together in our grief.
The wind moans and whips up leaves and red dust, whips up wisps of cotton from surrounding fields. When the twisting stops, a drumroll of rain attacks the tin roof, faster and faster it falls.
While the pummeling overhead continues, the aroma of bread fills the cabin. Bess follows me to the kitchen, her dress swishing with each step, and watches me pull the skillet from the oven and toss fat golden biscuits with crispy bottoms upside down on the table.
I pull a biscuit apart, stuff it with butter and syrup, and offer it to her straight from my callused hand. Butter melts and slides down my outstretched hand.