"Samuel's Wife"

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 ta