It was one of Miss Tolliver's dusty days. The heat hung unbearably, blistering the green leaves that sheltered small gnats and flies. The air was thick and filled your lungs with the heavy fumes of the hibiscus and gardenias blooming under the sweltering sun. Miss Tolliver called it a dusty day because by nightfall even the brownest of skin was coated ashy white from the dry dust that rose in large swells.
Everyone in Delacroix knew Miss Tolliver, the Voodoo woman whose eccentric manners frightened and enthralled the most sincere skeptic who doubted her abilities and questioned her sanity. Although she professed to have drawn her first breath on the shores of France, somewhere along the Baie de la Seine, the elderly brethren of Delacroix would attest emphatically that Miss Tolliver had instead been born and raised right there in their small town some forty odd years ago. Of course no one, except Mr. Henry, would dare contradict Miss Tolliver to her face and even then, his normally booming voice would sometimes drop to a faint whisper, barely audible over the chirping of the small birds high up in the tall cypress trees.
As long as anyone could remember, Miss Tolliver had been a Voodoo woman. She paid tribute only to spiritual beings she insisted had stowed themselves aboard slave ships to help the captured black bodies survive their unholy fate in the New World. She believed these spirits had blessed her with the gifts of seeing what others could not and knowing when to tell what one might not want to hear. And, whether you chose to believe Miss Tolliver or not, you could not deny that she was somehow different from the other righteous citizens of Delacroix.
So on this particularly hot day, there was no surprise when Mr. Henry opened the back door of his old home to find Miss Tolliver perched in the branches of the dark, oak tree in his yard. He’d risen from his bed earlier than normal, wakened abruptly from a sound sleep by a cool hand that stroked the peppered hair along his chest, brushing lightly against his full lips, finally coming to rest along side his weathered cheek. His ebony skin pressed against the imagined touch and as his eyes opened widely, greeted only by the rising sun outside his window, he’d heard her laugh, a deep, vibrant laugh that could warm the coldest of hearts and send chills down one's spine.
Rising from his bed he slipped his massive frame into a tattered wool bathrobe and his large feet into a new pair of slippers he'd recently purchased for his birthday. His bowed legs had peeked naked from beneath his vain attempt at modesty, his limbs as solid as the trunk of the tree Miss Tolliver looked down from. Unlatching the screen door, he cursed loudly, the venomous words spewing past teeth stained lightly from morning rot and his nightly fix of tobacco.
Staring up at her seated atop the branches, the foliage brushing against her thin body, he could only shake his head with disbelief. He reached up to scratch the bristly curls atop his head. Her eyes met his, still laughing and as he turned to go back inside he heard her drop easily to the ground below, following him inside.
"It's too early in the morning for yo’ foolishness woman," he said, heading into the bathroom to wash his face and brush the film from his mouth. "What you want with me so early?"
"Never too early," she responded smiling, a wicked grin spreading across her face. "It's gonna’ be a dusty day. We have a lot to get done, you and I, and the heat's already rising. The earlier we get movin' the better ‘cause the sun hasn't found its seat between the stars yet and we need to get done befo’ the rains come."
Mr. Henry raised his eyebrows, silently questioning the "we" in her statement. Passing a damp washcloth across his face and under his arms, he watched her out of the corner of his eye as she made herself comfortable in his small kitchen. Searching his refrigerator she pulled four slabs of thick bacon and three large brown eggs from the small cooler drawer. Watching her break the eggs carefully into a black, cast-iron utensil, he marveled at her beauty.
Her distinct features had been kissed by many an African ancestor. Her ebony skin was the color of rich, dark coffee and her large, bright eyes were pools of black ice. Jet-black hair coiled meticulously atop her head, the thick braids accentuating the length of her neck. Staring, he imagined the silk of her cheek brushing against his and as she turned, meeting his gaze with her own, he shook lightly, suddenly unnerved.
Settling himself in front of the full plate she'd placed down before him, he ate vigorously, devouring the meal as she sat watching him.
"Delan Mae Tolliver, what do you want with me", he asked again, calling her by her full name, crumbs falling from his mouth onto his chest.
"Following the ancestors", she responded, rising from her seat to fill the sink with warm, soapy water.
Mr. Henry shook his head. "What's that got to do with me?"
"The Loa called me to you", she responded "Now hurry up and eat. It will soon be too hot to get anything done."
"What am I supposed to be doin' woman?"
"Keeping up with me, nothing more, nothing less. Now get dressed", she finished, resting her wet hand atop his knee, his robe draped open over his lap.
Knowing that it would be of no use to argue Mr. Henry did as he'd been told, throwing on his only pair of denim jeans which fit him too snugly through the hips, and a clean white tee-shirt snatched from the dryer on the porch.
Walking down the road side by side they made an odd pair, Mr. Henry and Miss Tolliver. He was a large man, his muscular frame developed from years of manual labor; she an itty-bitty woman, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulder, her lean frame easily lost behind his. As he strolled with his hands clenched tightly in his pockets, her arms swayed easily by her sides, brushing against the canvas sack tossed over her shoulder. He walked in silence, pausing only to grunt hello to Frankie Addison, who sat rocking in front of the convenience store, and the Moten sisters, Aretha and Roberta, who watched them curiously as they headed across town towards the school yard.
From their porch on the corner of Delaney Street and Franklin Boulevard the two women stared after them as the pair entered the children's play area. Miss Tolliver had sat easily on the swings, pumping her legs high up into the air as Mr. Henry rested on a bench to watch her.
"She right crazy she is", Aretha said to her sister, as the other woman shook her gray head.Excerpted from The Tears Of Delacroix All Rights Reserved © Deborah Fletcher Mello
"Uh huh, and why you suppose David Henry followin’ her?"
"Always been somethin' between um you know since ‘dey was real young. He 'da only one can look at her sideways without worryin’ about her workin’ her 'hoodoo on him. I heard it said that they was real cozy long time ago, just before she disappeared all that time. Say she went up North and had his baby. 'Dat what dey say."
"Who say 'dat?"
"People talk sister. You just don't never listen", Aretha responded dismissing her sister's question with a slight wave of her hand.
Roberta nodded. "He still a nice looking man ain't he Aretha. I wonder how come he ain't never got married?"
Aretha sucked her teeth. "Tch. Some people say it's cuz' he done had some 'hoodoo worked on him. I think it was just cuz' he won't the marryin' kind. Too wild spirited. Didn't like nice girls. Only wanted them easy one's to do you know what with so he could just pick up and move on."
Roberta giggled lightly. "Cud a done you know what wit' me", she muttered under her breath. "Yes, yes, yes. David Henry a nice lookin’ man."
They sat staring, watching as Miss Tolliver continued to swing in the air. Mr. Henry, he just sat quietly, saying nothing, the first sign of the rising heat flowing from the perspiration across his brow. His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the sound of children flooding out into the yard. He looked towards the red brick building as the first grade class ran out for recess, their loud chatter carrying their small bodies. On seeing Miss Tolliver swinging high on the swings, they rushed over to greet her, throwing odd glances in his direction.
He grunted lightly. Mrs. Thomas, their teacher strolled out behind them, calling them to quiet down.
"Good morning Mr. Henry", she said greeting him curiously. "What brings you here today?"
"Mornin' Louise. And I have no idea", he responded, nodding his head in Miss Tolliver's direction. "How yo’ daddy doin'?"
"He's just fine thank you sir", Mrs. Thomas answered as a small hand reached up to pull on her skirt.
"Miz Thomas, Miz Thomas, is Miz Tolliber gone tell us a story", a freckled face little girl asked.
"Is she, Miz Thomas? Is she?”, the other children chorused.
Mrs. Thomas looked towards Miss Tolliver who had ceased swinging and had gone to sit under the low tree that offered the only bit of shade from the sun.
"Why don't y’all go ask her nicely", she responded.
Mr. Henry rose to his feet. "Does she come here often", he queried.
Mrs. Thomas nodded, smiling. "She scared me at first, but the children love her. Even I look forward to her coming now", she said, guiding him by the elbow to go stand within hearing distance of Miss Tolliver and the twenty-three cherub faces peering excitedly up at her.
Looking deep within her large bag, Miss Tolliver hummed softly to herself. Reaching inside she pulled out three handmade dolls and set them down upon the ground beside her. Made from dark fabric in varying shades of brown, they were each no more than ten inches tall with large bulbous heads that had no facial features. Scant wisps of yarn adorned the heads and each was elaborately dressed in a long flowing robe of brightly colored silk and intricate laces.
As the children sat, waiting patiently for her words, she passed her hands over the tops of the dolls' heads, then laughed eerily. A low hush fell over her captive audience. "They were sisters", she started, "three very brown girls, born right here in Delacroix. Each was very beautiful, with dark black hair and large bright eyes. On the day they were born an angel came down from the heavens, and kissed each one. And with each kiss, she blessed these three sisters with a gift. Shenaba, the eldest sister was given the gift of wisdom. Tealecia, the middle sister, the gift of spirit, and the youngest, whose name was Malika, was given the gift of goodness. Their parents were very poor, but they worked long, hard hours so that these three beautiful little girls could have everything they would ever want. They always wore the finest robes and ate the very best foods and each night before they would drift off to sleep, their parents would hug them and kiss them and tell them how much they were loved."
Miss Tolliver picked up the doll closest to her holding it out for the children to see and continued. "One day, Tealecia, who was guided by her gift of spirit, decided to go searching for an adventure. She told her sisters her plan and hugged them both good-bye. "You must not go alone", said Malika, whose gift of goodness would not allow her to let her sister be by herself. "I will go and keep you company," she said. "You must not go at all", said Shenaba, whose wisdom pointed out all the dangers that could befall her. "But if you must," she said, "I will go with you too." And so the three sisters left Delacroix to help Tealecia find her adventure.
"Along the way, they met an evil man, who whispered evil lies into their ears and gave them presents that were not good for them. He wanted only to steal their precious gifts of wisdom and spirit and goodness and when he had won their trust, he swept them up into his arms and whisked then away to his cold, dark home where he kept them hidden away from the sunshine."
As she proclaimed their capture, Miss Tolliver scooped all three of the dolls up into her arms and dropped them back into her sack as the children sat with wide eyes staring at her. "And now," she continued, " if you listen carefully on a clear night, you can hear the three sisters calling out for help, hoping that one day someone will come and rescue them." Laughing her wicked cackle, Miss Tolliver rose to her feet, throwing the canvas bag, back over her shoulder. As she turned away, the freckled faced little girl, whose tiny olive marks sparkled against the warm sepia of her complexion grabbed her by the hand, staring intently up into her face.
"Miz Tolliber? Is that it? What else happened? Does their Mommy cry for them? Does she Miz Tolliber?"
Looking down at the child whose wide eyes glistened ever so slightly, Miss Tolliver reached back into her bag, pulling one of the dolls back out. Pressing it tightly into the small hands that reached out to her she kissed the child lightly atop her neatly plaited hair and gently stroked the side of her small face. "Well Miss Alaura, mommy's always cry when their babies are gone, but they know the angels who kissed them when they're born will also watch over them when they're away. Don’t you ever forget that."
Behind them, Mr. Henry smiled slightly, nodding his head. Catching his eyes Miss Tolliver laughed, then pointed in his direction. “This is Mr. Henry and he’s come to play today,” she said. “You children do nice and go say hello.” The youngsters rose to greet him. Mr. Henry greeted each of them as they grabbed his hands and pulled him into the center of their group, chorus’ of hello ringing through the air.
“Play a game with us Mista’ Henry, please”, the small voices implored.
Looking about anxiously Mr. Henry searched for Miss Tolliver, who had gone back to sit beneath the tree, searching the contents of her bag. She smiled back nodding, then called out to him. “Yes Mr. Henry, play. You have not played for some time and it will be good for you.”
Mrs. Thomas watched the two of them curiously, then interjected. “It’s okay Mr. Henry. Don’t bother yourself. The children can finish their recess by themselves...”
Miss Tolliver interrupted, raising her voice ever so slightly. “Mr. Henry will play today. It is no problem. Now you leave him be and come sit with me Louise,” she finished, her tone commanding.
Obeying, Mrs. Thomas shrugged her shoulders in Mr. Henry’s direction, a faint smile upon her face, then went to sit down beside Miss Tolliver. The older woman patted her hand gently, then turned her attention back to the inner contents of her bag.
Looking about, Mr. Henry studied the anxious faces that stared up at him. He grinned broadly, a fountain of mirth rising from the pith of his stomach until an infectious laughter spilled out over his large body. Within moments the children were laughing with him, their tiny frames quivering like raspberry Jell-O under a warm breeze.
“Let’s play hide and seek”, he said finally, “and I’ll be it.”
Squatting low to the ground, he started to count quickly, his hands pressed over his eyes. “One, two, three,...” Around him he could hear the patter of small feet racing about in every direction. “...nine, ten.” Rising, he looked about, his eyes scanning the perimeter of the playground. Smiling broadly at the two women, he turned, then scampered after the youngsters whose loud cheers begged him to seek and find them. Minutes later when the bell sounded, announcing the end of recess, Mr. Henry dropped to the bench, his breathing heavy, his tee-shirt soaked from sweat. The children all rushed to hug Miss Tolliver good-bye, and waved anxiously in his direction as they followed their teacher back inside.
Mr. Henry and Miss Tolliver smiled at each other. Rising, she tossed her canvas bag over her shoulder, then sauntered over to sit beside him. Her leg brushed gently against his, as she leaned easily next to him. They sat in silence, the sun overhead toasting the dark brown of their complexions. To Mr. Henry the brief moment seemed like an eternity. Large beads of perspiration fell from his pores and just when he started to silently question whether he could endure any more of the heat, Miss Thomas rushed back outside, two bottles of spring water in hand. Accepting them graciously, they both savored the flow of moisture which quenched their parched throats, Mr. Henry splashing the last few ounces across his face.
“Are you ready to move on?”
“Hell no. ’Um hot and ’um tired. ‘Da only place I want to move on to is my front porch. Woman you done wore me out.”
Miss Tolliver laughed. “But you feel good don’t you my friend?”
Mr. Henry rolled his eyes. “I said I was tired now.”
Miss Tolliver ignored him. “What we needs now is a swim. The water will make you feel better.” She rose to her feet, gesturing for him to follow her. “Let’s go, the rains will soon be coming.”
Shaking his head, Mr. Henry watched her as she raced ahead of him. Cutting across Delaney Street, she paused to glance back over her shoulder, her look piercing. Still shaking his head, Mr. Henry came to his feet and hurried to catch up with her. He followed as she led him past the Delacroix Public Library and Musethal Copage’s Antique Shop.
There wasn’t much to Delacroix. It was a small town with an odd quaintness. People who were born here, inevitably died here. Every so often someone might leave, but it was rare that an outsider would find his way to Delacroix and make a conscious decision to stay.
Reaching the end of Delaney Street, Miss Tolliver cut through Arthur Pitcher’s fields, disappearing into the thick brush that bordered the property. Hesitant, Mr. Henry followed, swiping at the green fronds that slapped against his body. Pushing through bushes which quickly germinated into massive trees, he recognized the area, though he had not walked this land for a very long time.
It was not long before they came to the edge of Lafitte Bay, a crisp blue body of water, that flowed down through the crevices of Metan Creek, out into the Mississippi Delta. The bottom was a dark visage of brown sand, emerald and olive vegetation, and on occasion, dependent upon your misfortune, nests of black water snakes. As children they had played here often.
Stopping, Miss Tolliver spread her arms outward, inhaling deeply, then hugged her arms about her body. Pulling her cotton sun dress over her head she stood naked, dipping her toes anxiously into the water. Mr. Henry inhaled sharply, unable to take his eyes off of her. She turned towards him, her hands clasped atop her stomach. “The water feels wonderful”, she sang, throwing her body under the watery blanket.
Nervous, Mr. Henry looked about. The water did look refreshing and although he welcomed an opportunity to splash naked in the cool liquid beside her, he was suddenly embarrassed.
“What you actin’ so shy about David Henry? This water feelin’ real good now!”
Turning his back towards her Mr. Henry stripped out of his clothes, then backed his way into the water. Behind him Miss Tolliver giggled, fluttering her hand along the top of the water.
“David Henry, you actin’ like an ole’ fool”, she shouted, her voice echoing off the trees.
“Leave me be Delan Mae. Why you got to be messin’ wit me anyhow? We too ‘ole to be doin’ this foolishness.”
“We ain’t doin’ nothin’, yet, “she chuckled again as a flush of red rose to the man’s cheeks. He shook his head.
Lying back, Mr. Henry finally gave into the cool spray surrounding him. The wetness was relaxing as he floated atop the water, the expanse of his nakedness spread above the pool below. Mr. Henry bobbed easily as Miss Tolliver splashed about like a young child in a wading pool. There was no sense of time as they each drifted off into their own worlds.
Oblivious to what she was doing, he jumped when she came up behind him, wrapping her arms about his head and shoulders. She’d been prepared though as she splashed away from him just missing being struck by his arm. “Why you so jumpy David Henry?”
“Damn woman! You got to ask? You scared the mess outta me is why. Hell, I though you was a snake or somethin’.”
“Ain’t no snakes in ‘dis water. You was always talking ‘bout snakes in ’dis water and we ain’t never seen a one.”
Mr. Henry shrugged. “Probably ‘cause you done scared ‘em off.”
Miss Tolliver smiled, swimming towards him. “How come you ain’t never been scared off?”
Mr. Henry shrugged again, as she swam into his arms, wrapping her thin legs about his waist.
“Tell me David Henry. How come I ain’t never scared you?” She brushed her hands along his chest, wrapping her arms about his neck.
Mr. Henry pulled her to him, cradling her in his arms. Pressing his face into her shoulder, he kissed the soft flesh, the taste of salt water upon his lips. “Why you always askin’ me so many questions”, he whispered, gliding his mouth up the length of her neck, along side her cheek, towards her lips. She kissed him lightly, her lips warm against his, a low moan her only response.
Mr. Henry was suddenly hungry for her. It had been a very long time since they’d last wrapped themselves about each other. He had accepted this arrangement many years ago, knowing that she would only be his when she dictated the terms. When she wanted him she came. The rest of the time he could only possess her in his dreams. It had been this way since she’d been fifteen and had given her virginity to him under a full moon during a summer rain shower. An eternity had passed between them since that late August night and he could easily count, with vivid recollection, each and every time they had made love since that first time.
As easily as she pressed against him, she suddenly pushed him away. “You must come play wit’ ‘da children again David Henry. They liked you.”
He shook his head, slightly bewildered. “Damn woman. Why you talkin’ bout ‘dem children?” His hands fell to his rising manhood, shielding the dark flesh that stretched towards her.
She laughed, swimming away from him. “You promise me David Henry. Promise me you’ll come play wit’ ‘dem children again.” She stopped, the water’s edge brushing against her chin as she treaded water.
“Why? Why you botherin’ me ‘bout ‘dem children?
A shadow passed across her face, her eyes pleading. “It’s meant to be. You need ‘dem children as much as they need you. They make you feel alive again David Henry and you need to remember what it’s like to be alive. That’s why I goes to play wit’ ‘dem and tell them stories. So’s I can feel alive. So promise me. Please?”
Her stare was intense, piercing his heart. Nodding, he wiped at his eyes. “I promise. You knows I’ll only do it for you Delan Mae Tolliver. I’ll only do it for you.”
She shook her head. “No. Do it for you David Henry. It won’t mean nothing if you don’t do it for you.”
Pausing only momentarily, he nodded again, knowing that she was right. “I promise, and I’ll do it for the both of us,” he finally responded.
Satisfied she smiled, then swam back towards him. As she reached his outstretched arms he molded his large hand around her small breast, dropping his head to suckle at the yielding flesh. Wrapping her arms about him, she tossed back her head and laughed wickedly, the sound reverberating through their bodies.
Hours later, Miss Tolliver and Mr. Henry made their way out of the heat, her hand clasped firmly in his. And on the corner of Delaney Street and Franklin Boulevard, the two Moten sisters watched with amazement as the unlikely pair danced under the summer sun, the dust settling against their skin, just as the tears of Delacroix came thundering down.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
THE TEARS OF DELACROIX - PART 2
Rereading all of this after so many years brings back many memories. Two women in my critique group actually told me not to give up my day job. They said I couldn't write because they didn't understand or like the story. Oh, well! Enjoy!