I came to live among the dead after Daddy fell off his old mule into the river. Mama had died a couple of months before, and I figured he did it on purpose. When that mule found his way home, I knew something bad was wrong. I searched and searched but I couldn't find him. Seven days later he washed up on one of those mounds the ancient Indians built in the middle of the river, where the current was the softest. I would have left him right there. Folks didn't make such a big deal about burial grounds back in those days. But Mama would have haunted me the rest of my life if I left his body in the hands of heathen spirits. She was a good Christian unlike me and Daddy. We didn't much believe anything except what stood right in front of our faces.
Daddy was buried right along side of Mama in Daniels. It was a free cemetery, donated by The Daniels Family. They lived in the big house under Pearl Mountain. They were rich by valley standards. Old Mr. Daniels didn't have a problem with coloreds choosing themselves a plot as long as they kept to their corner and didn't go picking a place among the white families. I had to laugh at a cemetery being separated into colors. Lordy, what did they think? That we'd rub off on them in death? I took me a slab of slate—just like Daddy had used for Mama—and buried part of it in the ground so it stood nice and straight at the head of his grave. But for some reason, I couldn't bring myself to leave the slate blank like he had Mama's, so I wrote his name on the front with a piece of white chalk, knowing full well the first decent rain would wash him away.
All I was good for was planting. I could plant anything and it would grow like weed. But folks in the valley didn't need my services. The country was in a depression and the valley was feeling it worst. So I just went up to the graveyard and took to living. It seemed just as natural as wildflowers growing in the woods. I worked me a full day each day and before I knew it that place looked like a show yard. That's how I came to meet Miss Amelia Daniels. Old Mr. Daniels had died and she came to visit him every day. Mr. Daniels had been a decent man. He always checked in on me and left me food along with a pouch of three coins.
Miss Amelia was my age, but you sure couldn't tell by looking. I never had looked young. There wasn't time for such things. Miss Amelia was the youngest of the three children with no prospect of marriage. Some folks said she just hated men. Others said their wasn't no good ones left in the valley for the likes of a Daniels. The day I got my first good look at her, she wore a pink dress covered with tiny rosebuds. On her feet were a pair of soft pink slippers like flowers in bloom. She moved around like a wood elf. Her dark red curls fell over forehead. I wanted so bad to touch her hair. Coloreds didn't have hair like that unless their mama or daddy was white. Me I was ugly. I knew it. I'd been ugly my whole life. That made three strikes against me: a girl, colored, and ugly. Most folks if they didn't know me, always thought I was a boy.
She carried herself like a bird flitting in the trees. What I would have given to find that kind of grace in my soul. Now a soul is a funny thing, all tangled up in this worldly life, speaking in the most quiet of languages that can't be heard with the human ear. Once in a while it yells loud enough to stir you and then takes up housekeeping in the mind. Miss Amelia had that kind of soul.
My soul was old, old, old. That was the words I knew about me. So it was a true wonder that I walked right up to Miss Amelia. Most of the time I kept off in the woods when others came calling.
She looked right at me. "There you are." It was that simple, like she'd known all along I'd come to her.
"What are your plans for Daddy's grave? I think..." Her voice broke in half and I wished her silent. Her pain soaked into my bones and ached just like Jesus hurt when he saw Martha and Mary crying over Lazarus. "I think he needs something real pretty." She finished.
Life could rip a person up and leave them to recover on her own. "Some wildflowers." I dug the toe of my old work boot in the lose red clay.
"Please." One long curl pushed down over her eye.
"I'll do it today."
I sewed a whole slew of seeds into his mound, working my fingers into the cool dirt. The knees of my overalls had big dirty patches. The evening sun stretched out and touched my shoulders as I worked. My job was to make them seeds stay put until they took hold.
"I had me a beau once. He was pretty as he was tall." Miss Amelia watched as I tended the seeds two days later with water I hauled from the river.
"If we don't get some rain, these will never grow."
"He had eyes as blue as robins eggs. Do you know what color that is?"
I just looked at her. She needed to talk and I needed to listen.
"He just up and left for Atlanta. I don't blame him none, but I was surely dumb, Lolly. He just wanted me. You know what I mean?"
I turned my head. It wasn't right to be telling me such things. "I reckon."
"He used me right up. You got to be careful, Lolly Blume. Men are snakes." She dug her bare feet into the dry dirt. "Mama says I need to find me a man and just get married. She says there ain't no use of loving someone."
My heart hurt for her, but I pretty much sided with her mama. What was love? I'd never really known it. I guess Mama and Daddy loved me, but shoot they were too busy working to show me much touching.
"Love is right here." I nodded to our surroundings.
"That's sad, Lolly. We're in a dern graveyard." She kind of laughed, but I didn't take a bit of offense to it.
Miss Amelia came knocking at my door a good week after I planted the flower seeds. She had seen the seedlings peeking up even though we was drier than a hot wind.
"Mama sent you fresh bread and eggs." She pushed the basket at me. "I have this I want you to take." She pulled a package out from behind her back. It was wrapped in pink tissue paper and a yellow ribbon.
My heart flipped, but I just stood there with the basket in my hands.
"Put that down and open this." She held the package out to me.
The tissue paper was the prettiest I'd seen in my whole life.
"Go on silly. It's just paper." But she wore a big smile on her face.
I pulled the paper away. The cloth was pale yellow with tiny white dots. It was a color that would celebrate my dark skin. A dress. I ran my fingers across the flimsy skirt. Lord, I'd never had a dress that wasn't meant for scrubbing floors at some white woman's house. And it was for this very reason bile pushed into my chest and up my throat. That dress was a heartbreak waiting to be thrown on me. That's what Mama would have said. It was so pretty it was a sin. Miss Amelia thought she was doing good. She was trying to make me better. A white woman with good intentions was the worst thing to come up against in life.
Miss Amelia took the dress from me and shook it out. "I think it will be perfect fit. You'll look so nice, Lolly."
My name coming out of her mouth sounded like a soft wind rippling through the leaves.
I held the tissue paper.
"I know you're thinking you don't need to look pretty, but that's just not so. Every girl should look her best. Anyway, surprises happened every day. You never know when you might need a good dress."
Now, that was the apple on the tree of knowledge tempting and tauting me. "I'll wear it to the next party I'm invited to." I cut her a grin so as not to hurt her feelings.
She smiled. "You never know, Lolly."
"I ain't looking for nothing to make me pretty, Miss Amelia." There were some things she'd never understand; like what it was to be a colored in a small Georgia town, not only colored, but ugly and built like a boy.
That night I spread the pink tissue over the one window in the shack. The evening sun turned the room a soft fancy pink. It was a bad omen to add color to such a plain peaceful place. It was like the offering in the church plate waiting to be used up by those good-doers.
The day the angel came the rain had been falling for a week. The river lapped at the trees close to the shack. I watched it like a stranded person. All I had to do was walk out of the cemetery to higher ground. Not one soul was keeping me there. The air had turned cold. Mama called those kind of spring days blackberry winter. "Days you just have to trudge through, Lolly. It's the devil that sends us frost after the flowers start to bloom. He's trying to break our spirit. But remember life always comes on anyway, even after a late frost."
I was dreaming on leaving for good, making me a life somewhere else—that's what that pink paper had done for me—when that fancy panel truck pulled up to the iron gates like it might pull straight through. The tires were spinning red mud all over the fine paint job. It was plain as day that the truck came from Atlanta. The horn sounded several times, but I held my ground. A man jumped down from the driver side. His skin was the color of honey and his hair was straight black.
I stepped out of the shed.
"Excuse me!" He yelled through the gates. "I'm supposed to speak with Miss Lolly Blume, the caretaker of Daniels Cemetery."
That made me sound so important, I lost my thoughts about leaving. I ran my hand over my nappy hair. I stood in a puddle that came halfway up my boot. "That's me."
"You're the caretaker?"
"I'm Lolly Blume." The wind cut through my flannel shirt. "I'm hoping this rain don't freeze and kill my plants." Now this was the most I had spoken to anyone in months.
The rain was standing in his hair, big drops here and there. He took his time taking in the cemetery, like he wasn't even getting wet. "I don't regularly like graveyards. But this is nice, real nice."
I studied the ground. "The river is high." I didn't make a lick of sense.
"I can see why. I don't think it's rain this much in five years." He laughed in a soft way. "I got a delivery and Miss Amelia Daniels said you would know where to put it." He was looking at a clipboard.
"What kind of delivery?"
"I'm Richard Matthews. Why don't you come back here and I'll show you what I have." He circled around to the back of the truck.
I opened the iron gate and followed him.
She was as tall as me. Her wings were almost as long as her body. They arched back as if she might be showing them off or about to take to the sky. I could count the feathers overlapping each other. She was made of pure marble. Her hair was pulled into a knot on the top of her head like Miss Amelia sometimes wore hers. Her dress fell around her feet hiding them. A belt was tied around her small waist. In her arms, she held a bunny. Mama always said white rabbits were special and shouldn't be bothered. They brought good luck. Without even thinking, I reached out and touched her.
"She's a beauty. Don't you think?"
Heat moved up my neck, and I thought of how that fancy dress might fit me. "Yes."
Richard Matthews touched the angel on the arm. "I made her. How far have we got to go with her?"
Richard Matthews smiled at the angel. "We'll get her there." He grabbed a hand truck.
The rain wasn't even bothering me anymore. "We could try using some wood planks I got out behind the shed."
"Now that's a girl with a plan." Richard Matthews nodded.
I looked at the angel again. She looked like she might speak.
"I don't get to carve what I like too often." Richard Matthews touched the wings. "It took me a good six months."
I looked at him hard. "But Mr. Daniels has only been dead for two."
He shrugged. "Maybe they knew he was going to die. Maybe they just wanted a nice angel in honor of their daughter. Rich white folks are strange creatures. I learned that a long time ago."
I shook off a shiver and wondered who ordered the angel. Was it Miss Amelia? For some reason I thought it had to be. If she did, that had to be the saddest thing about her yet. "I'll go get them boards."
The job was slow. I took the wide planks and placed them as far as they would reach. When we reached the end, I'd bring the planks we ran over to the front and start again. This went on for a while and somewhere along the way the rain stopped. Just as we got to the grave, a gust of wind pushed a cloud to the side and one ray of sun spilled into the plot.
"We got to put her so the sun hits her." The sun went behind the clouds.
"You know, Miss Blume, you might just understand my angel." Richard Matthews smiled at me as if he'd always known me.
"You can call me, Lolly."
Richard Matthews winked at me and then pointed to the spot where the sun had been. "Let's put her there."
In less than thirty minutes, the angel was standing proud and gentle. The sun broke out again and washed over her like a holy light. A tingling started in my toes and spread up my body, straight into my mind. Something changed in the air and a chill squeezed through my heart.
Back at the truck, Richard Matthews turned to me. "Is there a place around here that a colored man could get a decent meal?"
I stood there with my feelings showing. What was this man thinking? But I never raised a fuss. I never said no.
"You could spare me a little supper and a dry place to sleep couldn't you?" Richard Matthews never stumbled over his words.
"It will be a simple meal. I live a simple life, Mr. Matthews."
"Rick, please." He touched my elbow as we walked back through the gates. "I'd love to clean up." His pants were muddy up his calves.
"I take my baths in the river. It's right high now. You'll have to be careful." The river was slower than before. "Come on I'll give you some soap and a towel."
I gave him the rosemary soap I made for myself. He held it to his nose and breathed. "It smells like you."
My cheeks warmed. "Here's the towel." It hung right by the dress Amelia gave me. He looked at the dress for a minute and the room filled with silence.
When he was gone, I had to stand still for another full minute and smell his scent, dampness mixed with musk. The room was fully pink as the late sun worked its way through. I moved the paper to the side and looked out. The angel was on the other side of the cemetery, but I could feel her watching me. The river moved steady and swift. He stood in the water up to his waste. The cold didn't seem to bother him. Soap suds clung to his chest. I wanted time to stop right there. Nothing would ever be this good again. Life would crash forward and leave me behind knotted in those feelings. I turned from the window and removed the dress from the nail. The softness slid over my head and stuck to my body, becoming a new skin. I smoothed my wet hair as best I could, pushing it into a piece of string.
He walked into the room wearing wet pants, carrying his shirt.
I took the shirt and hung it on the nail and then I looked at his pants.
His hand was warm against my arm. "Mama always said my carving was a gift from God. I didn't believe her. Where is God in this world, Miss Blume? But then I saw you. I knew that you are the angel. You're pure inspiration."
I ran my hand over my hair again. My skin was so dark next to his. The angel was Miss Amelia. She was the inspiration that I could never be. But my heart wanted to believe him as he kissed my fingers. My mind stilled. The dress fell into a puddle on the floor. He carved my details: the skin that had seen only hard work, my bushy hair free from the string, and best of all my wings. They came last in layers and layers of feathers. Each one in complete detail.
Richard Matthews was gone the next morning as I figured. For the longest time I stayed in my cot. The cold was soaking into the walls, into my skin, into my heart. Toward evening I got up and put the dress over my head. The blackberry bushes were in full bloom, white-pink blooms with the innocence of a first snow. The river had moved around to the front of the shed, lapping at the front stoop. I walked through the water to dry ground, barefooted, until I reached the angel.
"Come," she whispered into the air. "Come to me child and rest."
I curled up at her feet.
Ann Hite's Black Mountain stories were featured in the May 2008 Issue of The Dead Mule, and her story "The Christmas Tree Hunter" appeared in Christmas Through A Child's Eyes (Adams Media). Her essay, "Surviving Mom," was part of Marlo Thomas' latest collection, The Right Words At The Right Time, Vol., 2. Find Ann Hite online.
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