Scathe meic Beorh
Poor was all I knew. I was poor and that was that. I thought that’s why most of the kids from across the Florida line didn’t like us. This part of Alabama where we live don’t have no school close enough, so we have to go to school in Florida. The well-off kids talk bad about us all. They say we is half-breed trash. They make light of us for being poor and from Alabama. I used to holler that we wasn’t Indians, that there wasn’t no such thing as Indians anymore, but they just made more fun of us. We is no-shoes, sack-dress, no-books, walk-to-school-muddy poor. And it used to hurt me deep down deep.
But I started feeling a lot better when I learnt that it wasn’t because we was poor, but because we really was part Indian, even though none of us really looked like one, except for my grandmama, but she never said nothing about it. Well, then it started making sense that the thought of us being Indians didn’t set too well with the rich folk what was already guilty about taking the land away around here. If they could be better than us, they would sure try.
But anyway, from the time I started school ‘til I found out the truth about us being Indians, which was after I was already fourteen years old, which was just last Autumn, I felt worse than the dirt I ran through, and I only felt like I was alive when I was with my family, and the other dirt-poor kids.
“Roy? Did you fill up the outhouse with more corncobs yet like I told you to?”
“Nope. Did you check on the cornbread like I told you to?”
“I’m watchin’ it with my nose. Anyways, you is too little to be tellin’ me what to do, boy! What you know about cookin’ cornbread?”
I was looking out at him through the back window of our kitchen, separate from the house in case of fire. He was driving a coke bottle around through the dirt making motor sounds like all get out.
“Roy Barrow! You git your butt out to that pig sty and take a armload a’ corncobs out to that outhouse or I’m a’gonna whoop you good!” I said. I only heard about people being whooped good, but I never seen it happen. Nobody hits in our family. They holler a lot and make you feel bad deep down, but there’s never no hitting or slapping or anything like that.
“I’m drivin’ my car, Sister. Cain’t you see?”
I stopped cold. He knew I was watching him, and that flat took the steam out of my engine.
“You’s tartin’ my jaws, Roy James Barrow. I don’t care if you ain’t but four.”
“You is mean to me, Sister...” my little brother said and then he bumble-bee’d his lips real loud to make his coke bottle car sound louder and louder.
“I’m a’gonna broom you, Roy James!”
I grabbed up Mama’s brush broom she’d just that morning made with the tall dry weeds across the road and raced out the kitchen and into the yard. But Roy was gone, a little tornado of dust twirling where he’d been playing, his coke bottle just coming to a rest, or so it seemed like to me, on a root from the oak tree twenty some odd feet away. For some reason this whole picture made me start to laughing so hard I almost cried. The dust coming up, the bottle car sitting there, and my baby brother Roy nowhere to be seen. I’d done scared him silly flying out the kitchen swinging Mama’s broom like a crazy lady.
I filled the outhouse up with corncobs for little Roy and never bothered him none about it, but the rest of that Saturday I was pure summertime lazy. I reckon what he had was catching. I went and rescued Novatae McKee from across the tracks and we two lazybones ran the five miles down to Twin Bridges. It was the ‘dog days’ of August, but that’s what made that cold water feel so good. We swum in the shallows down not too far and came to the bend in the creek and then dived down in ‘the Hole,’ what we call it, where it goes real deep and gets colder as you go, and blacker than Holloween night.
There wasn’t nobody else down at the creek, and I was a little bit surprised but Novatae said it was probably because Old Man Shelby said he saw something in the water, water-blacks or something like that, and I screamed when she told me and swallowed some water.
“Whglat?” I said. “Why didn’t you say something, Novatae McKee? What you mean Mr. Shelby seen something down here? And we down here by ourselfs and everything!”
“I don’t know...” Novatae said. “I just wanted to go swimming... I just... aw! It ain’t nothing. You see something? We been down here three hours now I know. I ain’t seen nothing.”
I calmed down real quick and swum over and hugged Novatae, my best friend since we was two. She hugged me back and we dived down again, and I wished we hadn’t, because just before the sunshine left my eyes I saw something in the water, and my heart stopped. Whatever it was, it was long and wriggly like a snake, but bigger, and longer. And it was black as Ol’ Henry. I shot up out of that water like a log held down and then let go. Novatae was already out and holding tight to the swing-rope, pulling herself up, her legs splayed out like a monkey’s legs, trying not to touch the water anymore.
“Get out, get out, get out!” she screamed at me, but she had the rope and I didn’t, so I swam up on top of the water like a water bug ‘til I came back to the shallows. When I stood up to run out, I stubbed my big toe real hard on the pebbles, and when I got out I was bleeding like a stuck pig. Novatae was dodging tree roots and sand pits trying to get back to me.
“Sit here at the edge and let the creek heal it up while you squeeze all the blood out,” Novatae told me, so I did, and while I squeezed and the cold water rushed over our feet we eyed the creek like hawks for the next little while ‘til my foot quit throbbing and I thought I could walk. When I stood up, I could walk good and the bleeding had stopped. I called Novatae a witch doctor, and she smiled and said she wasn’t a Indian, but she wished she was. I said what are you then, and she said she was Scotch-Irish, and I said Oh.
“More I look at you, Dottie, more I see some Indian in you,” Novatae said to me one day that next week.
“You just think I’m pretty because I get brown all over is all,” I said, and then I laughed a little.
“I know you’re pretty, Dorothy Margarete Barrow. But that ain’t what I’m a’talkin’ about.”
“I ain’t got no hook nose.”
“Who says Indians all has hook noses. I seen pictures where they just look like... well, like... darker white people... I kinda like their hook noses though. I like your middle name.”
“It was my daddy’s French girlfriend’s name during the war.”
“Really? Does your mama know he had a French gal?”
“Yes. He asked her if he could name me after Margarete.”
“Oh! That’s so romantic!”
Just then Roy raced by us while we sat underneath the big old oak tree next to our yard, and he flung up dust with his toes in our faces. Every time one of his bare feet scooped up some sand, he made a word.
While I coughed and sneezed Novatae got up and chased his little self down and was squeezing him so tight he couldn’t breathe. “You my little sweetheart, ain’t you, Roy! Ain’t you, my li’l Roy Barrow!” And she started kissing him up a storm and him squealing like he was on fire and squirming to get out of her arms and her not letting go of him for nothing in the whole wide world. I thought right then that’s the way it should be. Somebody does something, love them to death. Just love them ‘til they die!
When the show was over and Roy was good and gone, for a little while anyways, me and Novatae started braiding pine straw bracelets and just talking about lots of things. But then Indians came back up again.
“Why you always wanna talk about Indians, Novatae?” I almost hollered, something about it making me nervous. I wasn’t sure I liked to be called a Indian.
“And I bet your grandmama... I bet she’s full-blooded!” Novatae yelled out.
“She ain’t no Indian. My grandmama ain’t no Indian. She’s just... she’s just...”
“Dark-skinned as a ol’ Indian?”
“Oh! Novatae Anne McKee, I hate you! No I don’t. I’m sorry!”
“I know you don’t hate me, Dottie. I know you love me. I was just saying you’re beautiful, like in the pictures I seen a’ some a them real pretty Indian girls is all...”
I couldn’t help but wrap my arms around Novatae and hug her. “You’re pretty, too,” I said. “You look just like a China doll.”
I dreaded like the dickens school starting again, because that’s when I’d have to see them high-and-mighty kids again. I lay awake at night for the whole week before school, fighting off the mosquitoes that slipped through the cracks and praying to the good Lord to please let me not get ashamed this coming year. Course then I didn’t know what I know now, and I’m still learning. The Lord is good, if you can get Him away from church. That’s because He’s the meanest devil alive inside them church walls. And why do I say that? Because inside there He turns into something different. In church He sits back and lets us all still live the way we all do and hurt one another and get hurt without ever talking to us about it, but I’m too far ahead in my story.
The day before school started, my grandpa said he needed all us kids to help him for the next couple weeks or so getting the last of the cotton in. We was all excited. Anything but go to school. Well anyway, a few days later just as we was harvesting the last of the cotton, a storm started brewing and grandpa looked up in the sky with that eagle-eye look of his and then he turned to us children and said for us to look up at the pretty sky. We did, and it was then that I knew my favorite thing to look at in the whole wide world is sunshine coming down on the tops of tall green trees with a dark purplish-blue sky in the back of them.
Then grandpa said the storm would for sure set in for the duration, and the crops might get ruined if we didn’t hurry. So by kerosene lantern we picked all that night long, or it seemed like it anyway. I didn’t like the smell of the kerosene because it reminded me of the time when I was ten when my mama sent me down to the branch to throw away two dozen rotten eggs that didn’t hatch. So I ran down there and did that, and when I come back, I run another way and hit a string of barb wire stretched across the field to keep a cow out, or maybe in, and I sliced my eye underneath it so it flopped up and down. I liked to have cut my eye out. Mama went crazy when I got back with blood pouring all over me. She checked my eye and I hadn’t cut my eyeball, just the skin under it real deep, like down under my eyeball from my nose to my cheek. So she laid me down on the kitchen table and grabbed up the kerosene and poured it all down in my eye. I screamed. It burned so bad! And that’s the way we left it ‘til it healed up. After that, though, I have never liked the smell of kerosene.
Even Roy picked cotton ‘til he fell asleep in a furrow. Just when we was about to knock off, we found him with his head resting on a balled-up sack. I picked up his magic rock that had tumbled out of his fingers and saved it for him. Sure enough, bright and early the next morning he came to me crying, looking for his magic rock. When I fished it out of my pocket and handed it to him, the look in his eyes was like he saw a angel. It made me feel real proud. I was wearing the new white dress the well-off Mrs. Simpkins had made for me. I was so proud of it I couldn’t wait to wear it the first day of school. I kept it clean, though. I didn’t do nothing all day but walk around real slow and pretend I was a princess waiting for my prince to come. It was Sunday anyway. Nothing much to do. We don’t go to church too much, and I’m glad about that.
The week after we all went back to school, Roy turned five. I remembered when I was five. It was cold that day, and it was my birthday. I was so cold. Mama had grits and bacon cooked for me. And she said I could have some coffee with milk and sugar in it, but just a little bit.
I ate slow and drank my sweet coffee even slower. Then I ran outside, down the steps into our front yard. There was my chinaberry tree, my tire-swing, Daddy’s plow-horse eating, bluejays singing. It was early. Real early in the morning and it was so cold. Little shoots of ice had shot up from the ground... icicles shooting up like little needles all over. I crunched a few and laughed. Then I picked one like picking a dead twig, and I flung it. Then I started running. Around and around the house... around and around, around and around. I felt like I was flying. Oh. I was flying! Around and around I ran, and I kept running, and flying. I flew and flew, with my arms out the whole time and I felt myself smiling and laughing, but I was flying. I flew and flew and flew, and then I was warm and then I heard Mama calling me.
“Darthy? Darthy! You come on back in here and eat yore dinner, youngun! You been runnin’ around out there all mornin’ long. Ain’t you tired?”
“No, Mama!” I hollered, and my voice sounded like something strange and wonderful caught up in the wind. “I’m flyin’. I’m flyin’, Mama. Look. Watch me!”
I flew right past my mama, brushing her big billowy dress and apron. And I kept flying, wishing she hadn’t called me just yet. My bare feet had been cold at first, but now they was warm. I passed the chimney a million times. I was five, and I was celebrating! And flying.
I was free.
Novatae came and got me the next Saturday morning at Lord knows what time in the morning.
“I hate your guts, Novatae McKee!” I said, the bedspread getting caught up in my cottony lips.
“I hate you too. Now get outta that bed and grab a biscuit and come on. We done discovered something.”
“Who’s we?” I said as she yanked me out of bed by my arm. Then I hollered. “You pullin’ my arm outta the socket! Stop. Stop, Novatae, you crazy loon!”
“Come on then, Dottie. You got legs.”
I heard Mama coming through the front room. Then she waltzed right in the bedroom. “What’s all the racket? Oh, good mornin’, Miss McKee. I see you doin’ the Barrow clan a good turn this mornin’. Will ya let me repay ye with some hot flapjacks and bacon?”
“No, ma’am,” Novatae said to Mama. “I done eat, thankee. I just have to get this thing outta bed to show her something is all. I thank ye kindly, though, Miss Lena.”
I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and looked around. “Where’s Roy and Peggy and Margie, Mama? What time is it?”
“Long past time for your lazy bones to be up, Darthy Barrow,” Mama said with a half smile on her face. “Cow still needs milkin’ and the floor needs sweepin’. Got other chores, too. Then ye can go run the roads to your heart’s content.”
“Miss Lena?” said Novatae.
“Can I take Dottie just for a minute, and then bring her back? Then I’ll help with the chores too.”
“Now Miss McKee. Do ye think I fell off the cabbage wagon just yesterday?”
Novatae dropped her head down. “No ma’am,” she said kind of sad like.
“Well then you can help Dottie with her chores, which would be mighty sweet o’ ye, or come back ‘round and get her later.”
“Yes’um,” Novatae said, and we was done with my chores in two hours flat. Because Mama was hungry for something boiled, we also cleaned a big mess of greens and shelled a big bowl of peas for supper. All that time we talked about how it wouldn’t be any fun at all to be old like my mama. But we didn’t say that around Mama. When she was near us doing her own chores, we just fell to whispering like two nuts, Mama shaking her head slow from side to side like we wasn’t quite all there. And maybe we wasn’t. I really don’t want to be home at all ever, knowing there’ll be a blow-up of some kind before the day is through, Daddy being a hard drinker and all. He never hits none of us, nor even hollers. But Mama sure likes to holler, and she slaps sometimes at Daddy ‘til he goes to bed drunk. Life in the 1930’s ain’t very fun... except when I’m with Novatae or my cousins or some of the other kids, or when the rolling store comes by. My brothers and sisters is too little to do anything with, and they is either crying or kicking up dirt in my face all the time anyways.
While we was running through the woods, Novatae got out of breath trying to explain something to me.
“She said... she said... she said...”
“She said what, Novatae? She who?”
“The old ‘swamp lady.’ Aunt Jo.”
I screeched to a driving halt, my bare feet planting so hard in the sand I just knew I’d take root in a second.
“No way!” I hollered. “No way in Hell’s high water am I a’goin’ back through that swamp to see that old crazy gypsy witch! You and who was back there?”
But Novatae had kept running, yelling back over her shoulder. “She said... she said we can change time. Just believe and say it, and it’ll happen. She says there’s other worlds we can live in, Dottie. We can make it all better. I believe her. I believe her!”
“You done lost yore crazy mind, Novatae McKee. I knew you was a witch! And on top of it all, I’m on my period, girl. Ain’t you got no compassion? I’m weak as grass water…”
“That’s why I’m taking you out here!” she hollered back at me. “Hey! You liked to have tripped over that ol’ log, Dottie!”
I guess I’m comin’ then, I whispered to myself as I stood there like a dummy watching my best friend disappear through the piney woods on her way to the river swamp. It was then that I smelled old wet, sour rags. A water moccasin was close by, and that gave me a reason to catch up with Novatae.
It didn’t take me long to be striding with Novatae real good, us both racing like horses through the pine trees and scrub oaks. I don’t cramp up much during my time anyway. I just feel tired is all. But whatever’s happening, we all run everywhere we go. It’s just natural. Walk? What’s walking?
“You scared, Dottie?”
“Why should I be? I sat around that old woman’s fire all night last night with... um... with...”
“I promised not to tell!”
“But I’m your best friend. You can tell me.”
“Well... cross your heart and hope to die?”
“It’s crossed. Now tell me!”
“May Bird Rice. Lord, shut my jaws.”
“May Bird Rice? Novatae. She’s rich. And she’s from Florida.”
“I know that. But she’s nice. She likes us.”
“She never talks to me none.”
“That’s because she’s shy. And that’s because...”
“An’ that’s because what?”
“Aunt Jo says... well... May Bird carries t’other time...”
“What you mean, Novatae? What you mean she carries the other time?”
“I don’t have it all clear, but I think Aunt Jo’s sayin’ there’s two kinds a’ time, and we all mostly live in one kind, ‘til we dream at night, and that’s when we look in on the other kind, roam around in it a li’l bit and then come out when we wake up...”
I stopped again, my heart racing faster than my legs had been. But Novatae kept running. It was harder to catch up that time, but I did anyways, not saying a word.
“Hmmm?” I hummed like a bee.
“Don’t be scared.”
“I ain’t scared and how we gonna get back there? And what if she don’t want me back there?”
“Billy Boy’s canoe... and she said do bring you. That you is hurting worse than all us other kids put together...”
I didn’t know why, but I started crying real hard right then and my tears just kept coming like a overflowing pump.
“You might not understand me right now, Dottie, but I’m glad you is crying. You’ll see why soon enough, I reckon.”
I didn’t say nothing else, not even when we got in Billy Boy’s canoe and started on the mile or so paddle back to that old gypsy’s shack. I was glad it was still just after noon. The river swamp’s dark, though, even in the middle of the day. The water, though, was clear as moonshine. I saw a snapping turtle walk across the sand under us at a shallow part of the river, and it scared me at first. I thought of maybe falling in and him thinking my toes was tadpoles. I pulled my feet up real quick and nearly flipped us out.
“Dottie. You gonna make us tump over. Stop that!”
Novatae was in front doing most of the pulling, and I was sculling like a wild thing. We rounded Big Bend, scuttled through a few dark places getting our long hair all tangled up in the low branches, and suddenly there it was, right in front of us. Aunt Jo’s shack. She had a fire going and was cooking something in a big iron pot. But she wasn’t anywhere around.
“You ever been out here before, Dottie?”
“Last Holloween night... with Billy Boy and his brother Jackie. And Mandy Calloway. She liked to have died of fright.”
“Oh. I didn’t know. Then did y’all meet Aunt Jo?”
“Do I look dead to you?”
“She don’t kill people, Dottie. She heals people up,” Novatae whispered as we pulled the canoe up on the shore.
“I thought witches killed people,” I whispered back.
“She ain’t no witch, Dorothy Margarete. She’s a Indian. She might be a nigger Indian, but she’s still a Indian.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say that word ‘nigger,’ Novatae. It makes my heart hurt.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean nothing by it. Look!”
I looked, and right there in front of us was a snake all coiled up. He was laying in a patch of violets, my favorite flower I have picked every since I was little. I jumped back three feet. I couldn’t talk I was so scared and mad. Then while me and Novatae watched, that snake broke hisself all apart and just laid there in a bunch of pieces. Novatae screamed, but I couldn’t even do that. We just stood there, looking at that snake all broke apart. And then he put hisself back together, piece by piece, and then he just slithered away like nothing ever happened. It was the strangest thing I ever seen in my life.
By the time Aunt Jo talked to me, I was nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. We had been sitting where she said sit, in her dark little shack on a palmetto mat she’d made by hand.
“Yore mama and daddy, youngun,” she said, pointing her old twisted up finger at my face. I moved back, scared as all get out.
“Yore mama and daddy... they be children.”
I was too scared to talk, but I thought, Well, they was children at one time, but...
“They still be children, youngun. Little children. That’s yore first teachin’. An’ yore second be this: I can hear yore thoughts just like as if you was talkin’, so... careful ‘round me.”
She had me so scared I had to pee, so I got up and ran out in the yard and did that. I almost didn’t come back, but when Novatae came to the screen door, I walked back up, shaking like a silver-maple leaf. Aunt Jo grabbed up a little animal carved out of wood and handed it to Novatae. A pretty little deer or something like it. I looked, but when I did, the old Indian took it away and hid it inside her bosom.
“Remember yore first teachin’, youngun?”
“Yes’m,” I said, and I could feel sweat start to trickle down the backs of my bare arms. Now I was real scared and getting scarier. I wanted to get out of there and never ever come back.
“It be what then?” said Aunt Jo as right in front of me her old yellow eyes turned crystal clear and baby-eye blue. She looked me up and down real slow, and then she said “Oh. I see!”
I was too afraid to ask what she saw. So I just said “My mama and my daddy is children...”
“Third teachin’,” she said as she leaned over in her chair, almost like she was diving right at me. I caught my breath just in time, otherwise I would have lost my breakfast. “Third teachin’,” she said. “Know what it be, youngun?”
I didn’t like her raspy old voice. I just knew she was a witch, even if she was a old Negro Gypsy Indian. I wanted so bad for Novatae to take us out of there, but I knew it was too late. Novatae just sat there, a stupid look of happiness on her face. I could tell they liked each other, and I knew Novatae was a witch too, and I was beside myself with fear. I almost fainted, but came back out of my swoon with Aunt Jo saying “Third teachin’. You, youngun, be a Indian princess.”
“I’m... um... n-not a... Indian...”
“Third teachin’,” she said. “You is a Indian. Through and through. Girl. Listen to me. Teachin’ one. Yore mama and daddy be children. Mean they been retarded in they growin’. Get me? You is older than them. Get me, youngun?”
“Y-yes’m...” I squealed out. I had to pee again. I was half crazy with fever. I had to get out of there.
“Teachin’ two. I. Can. Read. Every. Thought. Ye. Got. Get me, youngun?”
That time I couldn’t answer. I was crying too hard, but I knew deep down that old woman was giving me something I had never had, not with friends, not with family. She was giving me something good and rich. I didn’t know what it was just yet, but it felt like warm oil in my soul.
“Teachin’ three. An’ believe me. You is a Indian. You is rich beyond yore wildest dreamin’. Bein’ poor is like bein’ in hellfire. It ain’t nowhere but in the mind...” Then Aunt Jo tapped the side of her head so hard with that old bony finger I thought she might poke a hole through it. It was then I noticed she was really old, but she didn’t have a white hair on her head. I had heard Indians don’t get silver-haired ever. Maybe she’s a Indian after all, I thought, and was so sorry I did, because...
“I be a Indian, youngun. Let there be no doubt. But right now I be here for ye. Just keep yore mind on ye.”
I saw Novatae and I didn’t see Novatae. All I could really see was Aunt Jo, leaning far, far over--almost on top of me, pointing her claw at me like a crazy lady. Like the backwoods spook she is!
“Now. Mouth, open. Heart, flow. Eyes, see. Tell me, youngun, them first three lessons. An’ everything ye know on every one.”
Of a sudden I felt real calm. I noticed the sun was getting lower, and it was like watching a picture-show screen. I was there but not there. Then I felt words come out, first little air bubbles, then like a fast stream. “My first... my first teaching... is... ah... is... my mama and my daddy is... children. They still little children. They never growed up. They act like children... they...”
“Speak it, child,” Aunt Jo said to me. She was on the floor in front of me then, holding my hands in hers. I felt like I was dreaming, and I realized that her hands was warm and soft, not chilly and rough like I would have thought.
“They... talk like children... still,” I heard myself say. “They still is children... I’m older than... but how?”
“Speak the truth, child. Foller the word o’ truth. Never make truth foller ye.”
I felt hot tears streaming down my cheeks, but somehow they felt like somebody else’s cheeks.
“My... mama and daddy... is li’l children what can’t do right, bcause they never learnt... and they think they is big, but they is lost, and...”
I fell over on Aunt Jo. She held me close and then sat me back up straight again.
“My mama and daddy can’t help the way they act, because they never learnt how to be. They never learnt how to act right. They never learnt how to get out. They is trapped. They is trapped and they can’t help it.” I heard my voice whining like a mashed puppy, but I felt good all down inside. It was a strange picture, seeing my mama and daddy in that light, but it felt so good.
“Skip yore second teachin’. Ye knows it,” Aunt Jo whispered. “Third teachin’.”
“I’m a... I’m a... Indian...”
“A Indian what? Yore a Indian what, girl?”
“I’m a Indian... princess...” I said, only a touch believing it.
“Eyes. See. Heart. Say what that mean. Say its meanin’.”
I started swimming around in that old lady’s words, and felt funnier and funnier. I remembered when I was four and Daddy took me to Twin Bridges to teach me how to swim. He’s a good swimmer. I remember him telling me his daddy taught him how to swim by throwing him in a lake, and I cried and begged him not to do that to me, and he said he wasn’t going to. He took me by the hand and we waded in. Well, it had been raining real hard for a couple weeks, and I don’t know what happened. Maybe Daddy didn’t feel the drag, or maybe he didn’t realize I was so little, but I slipped and fell away from him lickety split and was sooner than a blink swept away down toward ‘the Hole’ where all us kids swim now. I rolled over and over, tumbled this way and that, crying and screaming and swallowing water by the gallon. But for some reason none went in my lungs, and then I remember feeling joy. I remember feeling free even though I was drowning in old dark yellow water. Then I felt my daddy’s strong arms life me up, and I looked and he was crying so hard. My daddy was crying. He slung me on his back and swum over to the shore and there we sat, him holding me and us both crying. Then I looked, and I was back in Aunt Jo’ shack, but not all of me yet.
“Indian Princess mean somethin’. Say it’s meanin’, youngun.”
I coughed and choked and she handed me a mint-smelling rag to wipe my face off with. Then I said these words. “Being a Indian princess means... um... being... like being a limb... on a old tree. Or even a twig or a leaf. But being part of that tree. Knowing it’s what is important, not who or what might someday come blow it down or chop it down or whatever. Knowing it has seeds that live forever, and it’ll still grow everywhere, no matter who or what does what...”
Aunt Jo sat quiet, looking through me it seemed like, a sweet smile on her old face.
“Novatae, darlin’. Take Dorothy home. Go the long way, and let her think. Bring her back when I tell ye to, hear, child?”
“Yes’m,” was all Novatae said, and we did go the long way home. And I did do some thinking. Lord knows that’s for sure.
It was so different the next time we went I thought maybe the other time was a dream. Aunt Jo gave both of us a hug and brought us in and fed us the best food you ever had. There was cornbread and peas and collard greens and fried catfish enough to feed the whole world. We ate. Then...
“Teachin’ one. Tell me, Dorothy.”
I was taken up by surprise.
“Ye can remember.”
“I remember teachin’ two now anyways...”
I was ashamed at my big old mouth big enough to catch butterflies. Everybody laughed. Aunt Jo had read my thought, and I knew it and that’s how I remembered teachin’ two.
“Poloma,” she said low. “Poloma. Means Bow in Choctaw. Mean powerful and strong and able to let that arrow fly swift and far. Poloma be a princess name. Ye like Poloma for a name, girl?”
“I do a lot, Miss... Mrs... I mean...” I felt embarrassed. Novatae whispered in my ear. “I mean,” I said, “Miss Jo.”
Aunt Jo started chuckling so her whole body shook with laughing.
“Not Miss Jo!” Novatae hissed at me. “Aunt Jo!”
“Anyhow, Poloma,” Aunt Jo said, stopping our little snit. “First teachin’.”
I all of a sudden felt queasy. I drank down a whole mason jar full of ice tea. Then I poured another one and drank it. Then I poured another one. Then I wondered where she got the ice from.
“Go on, youngun,” she pushed at me. “Tell yore first teachin’. You got to get it in ye. Deep down inside ye. Let yore body know it. Yore body has to be set free o’ what they has done to ye in ignorance. If you don’t break free, then the Devil’s got ye. He wins, an’ ye die inside. Ye hear me? Now. First teachin’.”
My mind went blank. I couldn’t remember nothing. I knew I had a brother and two sisters, but I didn’t know their names.
“Heart. See. Eyes. Hear. Mouth. Talk.”
I started to talk, but then it was like I wasn’t me. Then Novatae’s words came rolling back through my head like a freight train gone crazy.
She said we can change time. Just believe and say it and it’ll happen. She says there’s other worlds we can live in. Oh, Dottie. We can make it all better. I believe her. I believe her!... There’s two kinds o’ time, and we all mostly live in one kind, until we dream at night, and that’s when we look in on the other kind, roam around a li’l bit and then come out when we wake up...
I felt something strong well up inside of me. I felt words already made come to the edge of my lips and spill out. I was crying and laughing and crying and crying some more.
“Mama. Daddy. I love you. I love you. I know y’all is only children... that y’all never had the chance to grow up. Y’all never even had a chance. I’m older than y’all now. Come on, my little mama. Come here, my little daddy. I’ll take your hand. You can trust me. For all the world, you can trust me. I’ll keep you safe in the arms of Jesus. I’ll keep you safe in my arms of Jesus...”
I fell over on the kitchen table and buried my head and kept crying like a baby. Novatae touched my shoulder, but then moved her hand away real fast, and a little part of me could tell why. It was Aunt Jo telling her not to touch me just yet. I don’t know how long I laid there, but when I lifted up my head, they was both sitting across from me, side by side. I had to bat my eyes a few times and wipe off the tears, but without giving me time to breath, Aunt Jo said “Third teachin’.”
My face got hot. My breath felt like ice shooting through my chest.
“Quiet now,” was all the old lady said.
Then I felt calm, like I had gone into another world. A sweeter world. A good world where I understood everything, and where I didn’t hate nobody. I saw all the rich people who laughed at me and my family and the other poor kids, but now they all seemed like lost little children. They was wandering around, lost and crying. They was all together, walking all together. But not one of them seemed to know they was with other people. Every one of them seemed like they thought they was alone. Maybe lost forever. I started crying again, looking at all that. I wanted to help them, but I couldn’t. Then I opened my mouth, and what I wanted to say to them came out in long gold and pink waves. And a few of the children turned around and opened their eyes and caught my wavy words. But the others didn’t turn around. They didn’t seem to hear me.
“Third teachin’,” Aunt Jo said. I couldn’t see her, but her voice sounded like she was talking across a wide field.
“Third teachin’,” she said again. This time she sounded closer, but I still couldn’t see her. Two of the lost children was walking toward me... a little boy and girl. They favored somebody I knew...
I took in a cold and clean breath like I had eat a whole handful of peppermint. Then I answered her.
“My name... my new name... is... Poloma. I’m a Indian princess. And I have a new life now. I will be free. And I will love when everybody hates. I will have that world apart.”
the end of my story
Scathe meic Beorh
"Aunt Jo" is an amalgamation of several stories told through the years by the author's mother Dorothy Barrow about her childhood in Southern Alabama during the Great Depression. First published in the story collection Always After Thieves Watch, this story originally served as a vehicle of family healing. 'Make sure you write about that snake breaking up and then going back together again,' she once told her son. 'That was the strangest thing I ever seen.' Dorothy turned 87 last March.
Scathe meic Beorh