She was a country girl, accustomed to life’s cavalier attitude about death. Some folks sure seemed to get upset about it; but the world didn’t pay death too much mind. Things kept chugging along.
Sometimes, she and her cousins would take a magnifying glass and burn worms to their death. Then the flies would come, as if on cue, for their daily bread. When a sick fox or raccoon would wander onto their property and make it their resting place, they knew that the vultures would circle, land, and finish every bit of the creature before the smell got too pungent.
In much the same way, when Momma died, people swarmed Frankie. They wanted to see what she died of and what they could get; though Momma never stunk. When Daddy lifted Frankie up to give Momma one more hug and kiss, she still smelled like the honeysuckle lotion daddy would buy her every Christmas. But Frankie soon learned, while vultures ate the dead; people preyed on the living.
Word of momma’s death spread faster than hot syrup. Not many folks had phones, but church ladies, cousins, and late night gossip at the pool hall worked better and faster than any obituary. “You know Billy wife gone.”
Then they showed up, carrying casseroles, pies and cakes; voicing their sympathies; pitching their questions: “Did her heart give out?”, “Who gonna take care of Frankie?”, You reckon you still need that sewing machine?”.
Momma’s sisters showed up the day before the funeral, all 4 of them in wide skirts, starched shirts and practical, black shoes. Though they had always had good relations with Billy; now that their baby sister was dead, he became their enemy. They felt betrayed. There needed to be somebody to blame and it certainly wasn’t going to be the good Lord. He was all good; but not Billy. Billy let their sister die. Good men don’t let their woman die.
So they came into Billy, Frankie’s and Annie’s house and started cleaning, directing, fussing and cutting their eyes. It was a lot of hate for the 3 room house to hold—it made things too crowded— so Frankie was pushed out to the farm where the chickens still ran up her for feed because that’s what they did everyday. Frankie found comfort in the sameness of the farm.
One evening, she lay her little body on its side, amongst the long green weeds that grew by the white, wooden, horizontally-planked fenced and tried to cry because she had watched her aunts take turns wailing and rocking, while the others gathered to rub the griever’s back and to “there there” them. She felt the rock in her chest; it hurt, but it wasn’t soft enough yet to turn to liquid. So she just lay and looked at Mamie and Lolo, their two cows, sleeping peacefully, one facing west and one facing south, as they always did.
Some time early the next morning, long after Frankie had fallen asleep, the moon was singing her final song, and the raccoons were starting to tire, Billy grabbed his brown checked flannel of the hook by the door, touched the inside pocket to ensure his flask was in there, and carefully opened and closed the squeaky screen door so it wouldn’t tell his business. As soon as the soles of his shoes moved from the wood floors of the house to the wooden floor of the porch, the muscles in his shoulders eased; the quiet outside felt welcoming contrasted with the accusatory chatter of his sister-in-laws cutting eyes.
His long strides quickly took him down the driveway and to “the land.” Billy was the most successful Black farmer in town; no one would say it aloud, but he faired better than many of the White farmers. People said it was because of his relationship with the soil—almost as if he talked to it and it talked to him. Oftentimes one would witness him picking up a handful and pensively sifting it though his hands, staring at it as a school boy does math problems. His answers were in the soil. Billy rarely said a word aloud, talking mainly with facial expressions, but he would often say, “ain’t nothing more solid than this here ground. Has held me up more ways than one my whole life.”
He felt calm here—being on his foundation—the only one he had left. Even in his dreams he dreamt of her; his guilt didn’t rest. Annie wanted a baby so badly; but having Frankie nearly killed her. So when they had relations, Billy always made sure to do his business outside of her instead of inside, which would cause her to roll to her side and sob. But one night, four months ago, when Billy had come in from a night of celebrating a particularly good corn crop with a few rounds of brown liquor at the No Name Spot, he crawled into bed, slid the strap of Anne’s nightgown a little lower and started kissing Anne on her neck and shoulder. Immediately, she turned over, grabbed him around the neck and kissed him hungrily—as if she wanted not just a taste of him, but also a taste of Jack Daniels.
He got up and took off his clothes, while she stared appreciably at him — under the moonlight, filtering through their thin, white curtain; working the land had chisled his large frame. He slipped back into bed, slid onto Annie while yanking up her nightgown, and forcibly entered her with a grunt. Annie bent her knees, raised her legs, arched her back to receive him fully. As their breath and movement became more rapid; their moans a little louder; he started to pull out of her as he’d always done, but Anne wrapped and crossed her legs tightly around his back, and grabbed his butt with her hands and firmly pulled him back into her.
Under any other circumstances, Annie was no physical match for Billy, but his mind and body were weakened by liquor and passion. He started to protest and pull back harder but she quieted him with a kiss. He came inside of her, while sucking hard on her bottom lip. She clasped her legs even more tightly around his back and moaned loudly when she felt the heat of him coating her insides. He released her lip, his body released all tension, and Billy quickly fell asleep on top of his wife.
He woke up early the next morning, had a large bowl of oatmeal and went to work on the farm as he did every day. And he did the same every day after that. Life ticked and tocked along; until last week when Frankie found her mom in her tan house dress with little pink flowers, splayed out in the middle of the family room, with a pool of blood underneath her. When she saw her, Frankie didn’t call out to her as some would have. Instinctively, she knew that she had to go get her Daddy fast. She bolted out the door, through the fields where she found him tending to a broken fence.
When she told him- stumbling her words and out of breath-it was the first time she saw fear in her Daddy’s face. He dropped his tools, didn’t say a word, and ran—leaving Frankie standing and starting at the broken fence.
After examining her in Annie’s and Billy’s dimly lit bedroom, Dr. Tim confirmed that Annie was pregnant—or rather—had been. At some point, the baby had died and was now poisoning Annie. They needed to remove the baby immediately.
Billy sat completely silent on the porch on the top step, with Frankie between his legs one step below. He was a praying man, but he was hopeful. The two of them sat out there watching the earth handle its business and just as the crickets started to warm up their instruments, Lou Anne, one of the neighbors who had helped birth many babies and sometimes helped Dr. Tim, opened the screen door and rested his hand on Billy’s shoulder. They way she left her hand there—far too long—let her know that things didn’t go well.
Billy got up slowly, like his body was hurting. Frankie remained still on the bottom step, looking at the earth handle its daily business.
Billy walked into his bedroom, which was still dimly lit—the wood slightly creaking under his feet. On the bed lay his dead son wrapped in a white pillow case curled in his dead wife’s arm. It was actually beautiful. He kissed the top of Annie’s head and then softly touched the top of the head of the son he didn’t know he had until just 2 hours prior, and walked out of the room, back onto the porch, sat on the same step as Frankie, and held her hand.
That was 6 days ago.
Since then, he had become even more dependent on the land. For the most part, you always knew how the land would react. You knew when you planted a seed and provided the right amount water and sun, that something would grow. You relied on the sun rising and falling; the seasons changing; the regular cycle of life. Billy had made his living— understanding these patterns.
He walked towards the chicken coop — the collar of his coat pulled up around his ears and his hands stuffed in his pockets as the evening hadn’t kicked in it’s full chill yet. He was a little early for feeding, but the chickens and rooster would be forgiving. He knew his land, the hills and valleys, the rhythm, so he sensed something was different before he saw her—his baby girl, Frankie, curled on her side amongst the dandelions and wild grass.
He stopped and looked at her for a moment; then walked over, bent down and softly tugged one of her loosely-twined braids. She stirred slightly, but didn’t wake up. He tugged again—this time a little harder. She opened up one eye — the other was resting on her arm — and gave him a sleepy, half-smile. “Hey Daddy.”
“Hey Ladybug. Sorry to wake you,” he whispered as well as his baritone voice would allow. He moved from his squat and sat down, placing his back up against the fence. “You feel like laying on your old Pops for awhile,” he questioned.
Frankie moved up and placed her head on his lap. Billy took the bright yellow barrette that was at the bottom of her braid off, placed it on the ground and began absent-mindedly playing with her hair, just as he did every night as he read to her—until 6 days before.
They sat there—father and daughter—survivors, until they heard the rooster yell out, “cock-ca-doodle-dooo,” as it did every morning. Time to feed the chickens.