This is a short month, but it conjures so very much. I started the short writing I’m about to share with you all last year sometime. It was to enter into a competition and of course due to wearing so many hats, I missed the deadline. BUT! I did finish the work. I’ve been drafting it, sharing it with trusted readers, going off their suggestions to improve it and drafting it again. So, what you’re about to read is not finished (is any writing ever?), but this is Black History Month and if I don’t share this with you all, my heart might explode.
Here’s an excerpt. If you want to read the whole work, send me a message here. Enjoy:
By Erina Ludwig
“Quick, bring her over here,” a voice whispers over me.
I feel hands lift me up, like I’m hovering and move me out of the outside night and across creaking floors and into a room. My eyes still can’t open, my mouth is slack like Ol’ Obadiah’s that time when all his hair went white overnight. But I can smell. This ain’t no cabin, with a wood stove turning the walls black like charcoal. There are flowers here and something else, something soft and lingering.
“There, there, gentle now.” It’s that voice again. “David, you stoke up that fire again,” it orders. This time they grab my hands. Theirs are small and careful. A woman’s hands. A white woman’s hands. My mama’s were small too, but coarse like stripped bark.
She rubs her palms over mine as if she’s rubbing flints to start the fire itself.
“The rest of you, go on up that way.” A lower voice. Thick with that muddled accent between the two states. “I’m sure you can see in the dark.”
“Yessir.” That one’s, one of mine own kin. Not that I can tell for sure.
“No need for any of that here. You’re to call me Lewis.” He’s met with silence. What are we supposed to do with that?
Their roughly shodden feet and bare in some cases, shuffle away until I hear creaking overhead and in the walls.
My teeth start chattering. It starts small and then builds up until my whole jaw is clattering. I’m likely to chomp my own tongue off like this.
“Now, how d’you pick up a fever like this in July?” She asks feeling my face. But there’s no burn or sweat there.
“Ain’t no fever, Mistress,” a tiny voice speaks.
“It’s Edmonia. Then what is it?” I feel her eyes taking in my features and frame; the same as I used to, looking in the creek before bath time.
“Broke heart. Edmonia.” She stumbles on the name and I can’t blame her. First name basis in not something we’ve been given before.
The girl leaves and joins the others before anymore questions can be asked of her.
Edmonia turns back to me, moving slowly as if it were possible for her to wake me. Her warm small fingers turn upside down and gently brush against my cheek; taking with it a line of tears.
That night I dream, the way I used to when I still shared a bed with mama: deep, long and full. I am back at Anatok and its tall trees have climbed higher into the sky, their leaves so webbed, they’re blocking out the sun. There is the sound of Beatrice’s voice carrying over the white fields and into everyone’s ears. Sometimes she hits a bad note, but it’s always strong, rising and falling with the sun. Flies and butterflies play in the air with birds, but I don’t see a single person, just Beatrice’s voice.
The doors to the house are open, like someone ran and forgot to shut them. I walk in waiting to get a clobber around my ears for being brazen and bold, but it doesn’t come. The stairs covered in carpets lead upwards and I know to go there. I follow hallway, after hallway, finding my breath stuck between my rib cage and waiting to be caught, but I’m alone. The old grandfather clock chimes and I stop in front of it, watching the hands move in memorized fashion. I don’t hear him behind me, but the space grows darker and hands rest on my shoulders and run along to find my neck.
“It’s been in my family for generations,” he says. I don’t dare turn around. Even though it’s a dream I don’t dare.
His fingers reach each other all around my neck and I wish I could make myself breathe before. He hasn’t even tightened them yet when I see my mama’s reflection in the clock’s glass belly. She’s running to us with a long stick raised over her head and everywhere her feet touch, turns to flames that don’t burn her but catch everything else.
He sees her too, but not before she swings the stick with all her weight.
I shoot upright, my eyes open and seeing, my face and body wet with sweat. The smell of acrid smoke still clings and I stare at my hands expecting to see blisters, but all that’s there is the same honeyed pale brown that’s always been.
The room is dark and at first, I am sure it is still night. Night is when we wake and walk, but there are streams of golden light on the ground. Gingerly, I lift a heavy black curtain and see streets and houses with big windows and dusty roads; no horses or carriages out yet. But there river is there. It’s off at a distance, but I know exactly which direction it is. Perhaps mama was right about me being born in the rains, forever connected to water.
“You gon’ get us caught. Close that curtain.” I hear a voice. I look and find the same girl who spoke last night. I say girl, but really Gus, Augusta is a woman, a small one but full grown and older than me. She’s had three husbands and lost them all. Not that she cried one iota for any of them, but she did her children. She sits up in her cot and rubs the sand from her eyes.
“You dreamin’ now?” Her deep brown eyes settling on me.
I flush. I hate how the pink covers me in a blink from cheek to forehead. And then I remember how much he loved it.
“Long as you keep waking up,” she chides.
“I do wake up.”
“Not before your eyes are all rolling to the whites and you as cold as Cormick’s creek,” she shivers like a chill has just run down her.
“I don’t do it on purpose.” I sound sullen and like a child, and maybe there is some truth in that.
“Maybe not, but you sho’ do it a lot.”
“What? I’m just sayin’. Here we are trying to head North and all you be doin’ is falling over heels up, eyes glassy like you seeing something we ain’t.”
I sit back on my cot, it gives a little and the linen is freshly laundered and smells of lavender. I remember because the Mistress had bottles of the stuff. Only from France, she would tell us because we couldn’t read, or at least weren’t supposed to. I learned with the children of the house, something she had never been able to forgive.
“How long have we got here?” I ask meeting her eyes. She narrows them at me.
“Well that depends on someone not fainting and needing smelling salts every step.” She plumps her pillow.
“If I bother you so much, why’d you tell Edmonia I had a broken heart?”
“You think even these good folks would let us under their roof if they’d known we were bringing darkness in here?”
“This isn’t darkness…”
“It’s a gift from your mama,” she finishes sharply and clicks her teeth with her tongue. I’m close to biting back a fitting barb for her, but Gus has plenty of reasons for her acid, I don’t need to add to it.
“We’ll be gone soon enough,” I say quietly instead.
She harrumphs and her face loses all character. “Unless they find us first.”