Mama Day, page 1
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Tuesday, 3rd Day August, 1819
Sold, to Mister Bascombe Wade of Willow Springs, one negress answering to the name Sapphira. Age 20. Pure African stock Limbs and teeth sound. All warranty against the vices and maladies prescribed by Law do not hold forth; purchaser being in full knowledge – and affixing signature in witness there of–that said Sapphira is half prime, inflicted with sullenness and entertains a bilious nature, having resisted under reasonable chastisement the performance of field or domestic labour. Has served on occasion in the capacity of midwife and nurse, not without extreme mischief and suspicions of delving in witchcraft.
Conditions of Sale
one-half gold tender, one-half goods in kind.
Willow Springs. Everybody knows but nobody talks about the legend of Sapphira Wade. A true conjure woman: satin black, biscuit cream, red as Georgia clay: depending upon which of us takes a mind to her. She could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot: depending upon which of us takes a mind to her. She turned the moon into salve, the stars into a swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four. It ain’t about right or wrong, truth or lies; it’s about a slave woman who brought a whole new meaning to both them words, soon as you cross over here from beyond the bridge. And somehow, some way, it happened in 1823: she smothered Bascombe Wade in his very bed and lived to tell the story for a thousand days. 1823: married Bascombe Wade, bore him seven sons in just a thousand days, to put a dagger through his kidney and escape the hangman’s noose, laughing in a burst of flames. 1823: persuaded Bascombe Wade in a thousand days to deed all his slaves every inch of land in Willow Springs, poisoned him for his trouble, to go on and bear seven sons—by person or persons unknown. Mixing it all together and keeping everything that done shifted down through the holes of time, you end up with the death of Bascombe Wade (there’s his tombstone right out by Chevy’s Pass), the deeds to our land (all marked back to the very year), and seven sons (ain’t Miss Abigail and Mama Day the granddaughters of that seventh boy?). The wild card in all this is the thousand days, and we guess if we put our heads together we’d come up with something—which ain’t possible since Sapphira Wade don’t live in the part of our memory we can use to form words.
But ain’t a soul in Willow Springs don’t know that little dark girls, hair all braided up with colored twine, got their “18 & 23’s coming down” when they lean too long over them back yard fences, laughing at the antics of little dark boys who got the nerve to be “breathing 18 & 23” with mother’s milk still on their tongues. And if she leans there just a mite too long or grins a bit too wide, it’s gonna bring a holler straight through the dusty screen door. “Get your bow-legged self ’way from my fence, Johnny Blue. Won’t be no ‘early 18 & 23’s’ coming here for me to rock. I’m still raising her.” Yes, the name Sapphira Wade is never breathed out of a single mouth in Willow Springs. But who don’t know that old twisted-lip manager at the Sheraton Hotel beyond the bridge, offering Winky Browne only twelve dollars for his whole boatload of crawdaddies—“tried to 18 & 23 him,” if he tried to do a thing? We all sitting here, a hop, skip, and one Christmas left before the year 2000, and ain’t nobody told him niggers can read now? Like the menus in his restaurant don’t say a handful of crawdaddies sprinkled over a little bowl of crushed ice is almost twelve dollars? Call it shrimp cocktail, or whatever he want—we can count, too. And the price of everything that swims, crawls, or lays at the bottom of The Sound went up in 1985, during the season we had that “18 & 23 summer” and the bridge blew down. Folks didn’t take their lives in their hands out there in that treacherous water just to be doing it—ain’t that much 18 & 23 in the world.
But that old hotel manager don’t make no never mind. He’s the least of what we done had to deal with here in Willow Springs. Malaria. Union soldiers. Sandy soil. Two big depressions. Hurricanes. Not to mention these new real estate developers who think we gonna sell our shore land just because we ain’t fool enough to live there. Started coming over here in the early ’90s, talking “vacation paradise,” talking “pic-ture-ess.” Like Winky said, we’d have to pick their ass out the bottom of the marsh first hurricane blow through here again. See, they just thinking about building where they ain’t got no state taxes—never been and never will be, ’cause Willow Springs ain’t in no state. Georgia and South Carolina done tried, though—been trying since right after the Civil War to prove that Willow Springs belong to one or the other of them. Look on any of them old maps they hurried and drew up soon as the Union soldiers pulled out and you can see that the only thing connects us to the mainland is a bridge—and even that gotta be rebuilt after every big storm. (They was talking about steel and concrete way back, but since Georgia and South Carolina couldn’t claim the taxes, nobody wanted to shell out for the work. So we rebuild it ourselves when need be, and build it how we need it—strong enough to last till the next big wind. Only need a steel and concrete bridge once every seventy years or so. Wood and pitch is a tenth of the cost and serves us a good sixty-nine years—matter of simple arithmetic.) But anyways, all forty-nine square miles curves like a bow, stretching toward Georgia on the south end and South Carolina on the north, and right smack in the middle where each foot of our bridge sits is the dividing line between them two states.
So who it belong to? It belongs to us—clean and simple. And it belonged to our daddies, and our daddies before them, and them too—who at one time all belonged to Bascombe Wade. And when they tried to trace him and how he got it, found out he wasn’t even American. Was Norway-born or something, and the land had been sitting in his family over there in Europe since it got explored and claimed by the Vikings—imagine that. So thanks to the conjuring of Sapphira Wade we got it from Norway or theres about, and if taxes owed, it’s owed to them. But ain’t no Vikings or anybody else from over in Europe come to us with the foolishness that them folks out of Columbia and Atlanta come with—we was being un-American. And the way we saw it, America ain’t entered the question at all when it come to our land: Sapphira was African-born, Bascombe Wade was from Norway, and it was the 18 & 23’ing that went down between them two put deeds in our hands. And we wasn’t even Americans when we got it—was slaves. And the laws about slaves not owning nothing in Georgia and South Carolina don’t apply, ’cause the land wasn’t then—and isn’t now—in either of them places. When there was lots of cotton here, and we baled it up and sold it beyond the bridge, we paid our taxes to the U.S. of A. And we keeps account of all the fishing that’s done and sold beyond the bridge, all the little truck farming. And later when we had to go over there to work or our children went, we paid taxes out of them earnings. We pays taxes on the telephone lines and electrical wires run over The Sound. Ain’t nobody here about breaking the law. But Georgia and South Carolina ain’t seeing the shine off a penny for our land, our homes, our roads, or our bridge. Well, they fought each other up to the Supreme Court about the whole matter, and it came to a draw. We guess they got so tired out from that, they decided to leave us be—until them developers started swarming over here like sand flies at a Sunday picnic.
Well, them developers upped the price and changed the plans, changed the plans and upped the price, till it got to be a game with us. Winky bought a motorboat with what they offered him back in 1987, turned it in for a cabin cruiser two years later, and says he expects to be able to afford a yacht with the news that’s waiting in the mail this year. Parris went from a new shingle roof to a split-level ranch and is making his way toward adding a swimming pool and greenhouse. But when all the laughing’s done, it’s the principle that remains. And we done learned that anything coming from beyond the bridge gotta be viewed real, real careful. Look what happened when Reema’s boy—the one with the pear-shaped head—came hauling himself back from one of those fancy colleges mainside, dragging his notebooks and tape recorder and a funny way of curling up his lip and clicking his teeth, all excited and determined to put Willow Springs on the map.
We was polite enough—Reema always was a little addle-brained—so you couldn’t blame the boy for not remembering that part of Willow Springs’s problems was that it got put on some maps right after the War Between the States. And then when he went around asking us about 18 & 23, there weren’t nothing to do but take pity on him as he rattled on about “ethnography,” “unique speech patterns,” “cultural preservation,” and whatever else he seemed to be getting so much pleasure out of while talking into his little gray machine. He was all over the place—What 18 & 23 mean? What 18 & 23 mean? And we all told him the God-honest truth: it was just our way of saying something. Winky was awful, though, he even spit tobacco juice for him. Sat on his porch all day, chewing up the boy’s Red Devil premium and spitting so the machine could pick it up. There was enough fun in that to take us through the fall and winter when he had hauled himself back over The Sound to wherever he was getting what was supposed to be passing for an education. And he sent everybody he’d talked to copies of the book he wrote, bound all nice with our name and his signed on the first page. We couldn’t hold Reema down, she was so proud. It’s a good thing she didn’t read it. None of us made it much through the introduction, but that said it all: you see, he had come to the conclusion after “extensive field work” (ain’t never picked a boll of cotton or head of lettuce in his life—Reema spoiled him silly), but he done still made it to the conclusion that 18 & 23 wasn’t 18 & 23 at all—was really 81 & 32, which just so happened to be the lines of longitude and latitude marking off where Willow Springs sits on the map. And we were just so damned dumb that we turned the whole thing around.
Not that he called it being dumb, mind you, called it “asserting our cultural identity,” “inverting hostile social and political parameters.” ’Cause, see, being we was brought here as slaves, we had no choice but to look at everything upside-down. And then being that we was isolated off here on this island, everybody else in the country went on learning good English and calling things what they really was—in the dictionary and all that—while we kept on calling things ass-backwards. And he thought that was just so wonderful and marvelous, etcetera, etcetera … Well, after that crate of books came here, if anybody had any doubts about what them developers was up to, if there was just a tinge of seriousness behind them jokes about the motorboats and swimming pools that could be gotten from selling a piece of land, them books squashed it. The people who ran the type of schools that could turn our children into raving lunatics—and then put his picture on the back of the book so we couldn’t even deny it was him—didn’t mean us a speck of good.
If the boy wanted to know what 18 & 23 meant, why didn’t he just ask? When he was running around sticking that machine in everybody’s face, we was sitting right here—every one of us—and him being one of Reema’s, we woulda obliged him. He coulda asked Cloris about the curve in her spine that came from the planting season when their mule broke its leg, and she took up the reins and kept pulling the plow with her own back. Winky woulda told him about the hot tar that took out the corner of his right eye the summer we had only seven days to rebuild the bridge so the few crops we had left after the storm could be gotten over before rot sat in. Anybody woulda carried him through the fields we had to stop farming back in the ’80s to take outside jobs—washing cars, carrying groceries, cleaning house—anything—’cause it was leave the land or lose it during the Silent Depression. Had more folks sleeping in city streets and banks foreclosing on farms than in the Great Depression before that.
Naw, he didn’t really want to know what 18 & 23 meant, or he woulda asked. He woulda asked right off where Miss Abigail Day was staying, so we coulda sent him down the main road to that little yellow house where she used to live. And she woulda given him a tall glass of ice water or some cinnamon tea as he heard about Peace dying young, then Hope and Peace again. But there was the child of Grace—the grandchild, a girl who went mainside, like him, and did real well. Was living outside of Charleston now with her husband and two boys. So she visits a lot more often than she did when she was up in New York. And she probably woulda pulled out that old photo album, so he coulda seen some pictures of her grandchild, Cocoa, and then Cocoa’s mama, Grace. And Miss Abigail flips right through to the beautiful one of Grace resting in her satin-lined coffin. And as she walks him back out to the front porch and points him across the road to a silver trailer where her sister, Miranda, lives, she tells him to grab up and chew a few sprigs of mint growing at the foot of the steps—it’ll help kill his thirst in the hot sun. And if he’d known enough to do just that, thirsty or not, he’d know when he got to that silver trailer to stand back a distance calling Mama, Mama Day, to wait for her to come out and beckon him near.
He’da told her he been sent by Miss Abigail and so, more likely than not, she lets him in. And he hears again about the child of Grace, her grandniece, who went mainside, like him, and did real well. Was living outside of Charleston now with her husband and two boys. So she visits a lot more often than she did when she was up in New York. Cocoa is like he
And with him carrying that whiff of mint on his breath, she surely woulda walked him out to the side yard, facing that patch of dogwood, to say she has to end the visit a little short ’cause she has some gardening to do in the other place. And if he’d had the sense to offer to follow her just a bit of the way—then and only then—he hears about that summer fourteen years ago when Cocoa came visiting from New York with her first husband. Yes, she tells him, there was a first husband—a stone city boy. How his name was George. But how Cocoa left, and he stayed. How it was the year of the last big storm that blew her pecan trees down and even caved in the roof of the other place. And she woulda stopped him from walking just by a patch of oak: she reaches up, takes a bit of moss for him to put in them closed leather shoes—they’re probably sweating his feet something terrible, she tells him. And he’s to sit on the ground, right there, to untie his shoes and stick in the moss. And then he’d see through the low bush that old graveyard just down the slope. And when he looks back up, she woulda disappeared through the trees; but he’s to keep pushing the moss in them shoes and go on down to that graveyard where he’ll find buried Grace, Hope, Peace, and Peace again. Then a little ways off a grouping of seven old graves, and a little ways off seven older again. All circled by them live oaks and hanging moss, over a rise from the tip of The Sound.
Everything he needed to know coulda been heard from that yellow house to that silver trailer to that graveyard. Be too late for him to go that route now, since Miss Abigail’s been dead for over nine years. Still, there’s an easier way. He could just watch Cocoa any one of these times she comes in from Charleston. She goes straight to Miss Abigail’s to air out the rooms and unpack her bags, then she’s across the road to call out at Mama Day, who’s gonna come to the door of the trailer and wave as Cocoa heads on through the patch of dogwoods to that oak grove. She stops and puts a bit of moss in her open-toe sandals, then goes on past those graves to a spot just down the rise toward The Sound, a little bit south of that circle of oaks. And if he was patient and stayed off a little ways, he’d realize she was there to meet up with her first husband so they could talk about that summer fourteen years ago when she left, but he stayed. And as her and George are there together for a good two hours or so—neither one saying a word—Reema’s boy coulda heard from them everything there was to tell about 18 & 23.