Dangling from the taffrail above infernal autumn seas, Abeona Browne’s precious seconds comprised of three thoughts: pitiless mitts digging her slender fingers and wrists; silent glide of shark under moonlit murk below; and thrum of life which beat in her ears as had her delicate palms on the African drum she bought the day her father died.
Seven weeks earlier, before the secrets, the lying, the broken bones and blood, the girl rose in the house of fey determined to break the spell of bleak and heartsick lonesome.
Her father had been ill for some months. So she decided that fine summer day he might be stirred from his present languor by some preferred confection and perhaps a nice gift.
In truth, Abeona Browne was the only city soul of consequence yet unaware of the great Jon Browne’s imminent demise.
There was nothing deceitful about hoping for the best. Still, the old man’s words rang in her skull a fire bell. “Is it true?” That’s what her father, could he have spoken, would have asked. The query beat upon her brain as accusation. For honesty was a burden she wasn’t sure she could bear if even she had cared to.
Abeona Browne tried always to be truthful, even when she wasn’t. Pretending to be cheerful, respectful, sympathetic. Wasn’t a lie if no one got hurt. And the best way to ensure none ever lamented was to keep on smiling. When her mother died, she kept on smiling. When her father slipped away, she kept on smiling. When the pretty faces with the blue eyes scowled, she smiled and smiled and smiled—for their grace, for the privilege of their company, and for her own rage.
“Sure is an ugly, scrawny little thing,” said one white lady to the other.
“Uppity as the day is long,” said the other to the one.
“Don’t even get me started on that father of hers,” said the third.
As much as she hated the pale coven for its rancor, Abeona despised the women for their shrewdness: she was a bit skinny and immature for her age, she did have skin as dark as their hearts; her father was an unapologetic rabble-rouser; and, in her fine blue-flowered dress and red button-down boots, ordered special from France no less, she was the best-dressed woman of color in town.
“Aaand, a dime’s worth of peppermints,” Abeona told the graying lady with the pained grin other side of the counter. “Daddy’s favorites.”
“Yes, Ms. Browne.” Clerk blew in a slim paper sack and counted out the red and white fingerlings from a large glass jar and jotted the item and its cost on her notepad.
“‘Beans’ will do just fine. I do find formality utterly boring. Don’t you?”
“Indeed.” Clerk shrugged and widened her eyes at the women far end of the counter. “Suppose it all depends, Ms. Beans.”
Fashionable girl of their contempt worked to appear too busy to notice them by searching her handbag. However, Abeona did hear the tapping of nails out of rhythm from each other, as well as the venomous whispers, loud enough for all.
“Ms. is it?”
“Right with you, ladies.”
“Please, take your time,” said one of the women shoppers before turning to her companions. They were huddled before floor-to-ceiling shelves of tea tins, sacks of cornmeal, canisters of baking powder, jarred honey and strawberry preserves. Abeona had planned to pick up some orange pekoe for Uncle George but it would have to wait.
Harpies resumed their conversation in sharp derision.
“What’s she think she’s doing in here?”
“Getting out of control, if you ask me.”
“Used to know their place.”
Abeona closed her purse and stared at the sign below the counter: “Nine Fine Cigars for 25 Cents.” But the words did not register.
Clerk spoke to Abeona much louder while watching the counter more than she ought to have. “How is your father? We’d heard—”
“Just fine. Stronger by the day.” Abeona noticed a rustic drum on a shelf behind the clerk. It was mahogany in color, cinnamon animal skin drawn about with black cord, and the base was carved with some hypnotic arabesque of old. Thing would easily have stood knee high from the floor. “What can you tell me about it?”
“They call it a ‘djembe.’ Authentic African.” Clerk massaged the item’s aura with salesmanly reverence. “Bought from a merchant who traded two pair of children’s shoes for it when he was in Maryland, around Port Tobacco way. Imagine that. Made over here by someone from over there. Salesman assured me of its authenticity. A fine piece indeed.”
“It’s so big.”
Clerk disappeared behind the counter and came up grunting with a smaller version of the drum, an oversized wooden chalice just under a foot tall. “There were two in the set but I don’t see why we can’t simply split them up.”
“Perfect late birthday present for Daddy. What do you call it again?”
“A ‘djembe’ but don’t ask me how to spell it.”
While the clerk wrapped the gift in newsprint and again in heavy brown paper, Abeona waited patiently, pretending not to notice the conversation which centered upon her.
“I heard he’s already dead in the ground. Waiting until the election to tell.”
“Ploy to curry sympathy, if you ask me. Dreadful cause.”
“Nonsense. He’s in hiding. Knows he’s been beat.”
“Actually,” Abeona took her change and stacked the packages on one arm, walked past the trio and opened the door. “Actually, he’s on the mend. I’ll be sure and tell him you send your best.”
Jingle and clunk of the closing door silenced their baleful hisses.
Out on the street, Abeona trotted quick and steady, keeping pace with a horse and buggy. Her pigtail braids jostled out of time with the chamber music she hummed. She tried to appear as though nothing were wrong, but her cheeks were wet.
Girl stopped in an alley a few stores away to wipe her face and whip up a convincing smile when she was interrupted.
“Child. You there.”
The word was faint. Over Abeona’s shoulder. It came again from within the alley. Peeking over a stack of crates, a tall forehead and eyes which accused her with the faraway look of a dead thing.
“Yes?” Abeona backed away.
“Please child, don’t go.” A deep voice once feminine.
“Food. You got’ny? Just a little. So hungry.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t.” Girl took another step toward the street when the tattered figure lunged from hiding. The woman had large rough hands and a pink checkered dress and smelled of garlic and tallow.
“Wait.” The woman’s voice decayed from meek whisper to angry growl. “You can’t tell no body.”
“No.” Abeona tugged her arm, trying to pull free without upsetting her stack of packages.
“Gimme sumpin, you little bitch.”
“Help!” Abeona jerked so hard she fell back in the street with the crazed woman on top. “Help! Please! Robber!”
Shrill report of a whistle.
“Why you couldn’t just help.” Woman hiked her dress. Iron cuffs above gray ankles connected with heavy chain drooped between bare feet. Children screamed. Raggedy figure short-stepped-it quickly between buildings. Cop with his club drawn tore after, shrieks and slapping footfalls echoing off the brick.
“Shoot. You good?” Paperboy helped Abeona to her feet.
Girl looked around, dumbfounded. “One of each.”
She took copies of the Friday Aug. 3rd, 1860, Jackson Sentinel, and a Browne’s Gazette. Front pages of both featured photos and headlines announcing the upcoming visit of a presidential candidate. Tall fella from Springfield.
“Miss Browne.” The boy tipped his flat cap. “No charge. Give Mr. B my best.”
“Yes. Of … of course.” Abeona strained to see down the alley, but her attacker and the policeman had vanished along with the commotion. Eaten perhaps by some natural force as morning sun consumes frigid haze. She stuffed more than the cost of her purchase into the boy’s shirt pocket and went on.
An elderly white couple, ruddy-cheeked from the day’s heat, wished Abeona and her ailing father well as they passed. Others, too, echoed the heartfelt sentiments. The girl responded without thinking, wondering who the woman was and where she had come from.
“Beans!” A group of small, straw-haired girls jumping rope. “Beans!”
Abeona stacked her packages neatly atop the newspapers to keep the breeze from stealing them. She jumped a few times before becoming snagged. The sisters giggled and promised to show her, “how gooder jump-ropers jump rope.” Abeona clapped and cheered as they hopped and sang but still her mind was on the woman in the alley.
Tornado of white boys, elevens and twelves, appeared across the road. Shouted their warrior names and pledged their deadly oaths and swung sticks in some decisive battle.
When they were closer, one of the boys called, “Get offa my castle!”
The little girls scattered, ropes trailing, like some wounded albino squid giddy with escape. Abeona gathered her things and bid the jump-ropers goodbye.
“I’m talkin to you, mutt. Whatta you doin over here?”
Rocks caromed off the brick wall and hit Abeona’s foot. She pressed on, face forward, steps quickening as she pretended to admire the pink paver stones moving steadily underfoot, appreciating the white pickets below the gas lamps asleep in their black iron cradles.
“Leave me be,” she said in a voice no one heard. Trembling, Abeona glanced over her shoulder. Boys were distant now, congratulating one another for such bravery.
She stopped to rest at the edge of town before making the journey home. Should have let Jimmy drive her in like he’d offered but there was nothing to be done now. There, on the corner in front of the city’s other general store sat a small crying child. Abeona knelt next to him and tapped the drum.
“Whatta you want?” Boy looked up with wet cheeks, brown eyes, precious scowl.
Boy wiped his face angrily.
“Why so sad? It’s a beautiful day.”
“Mama gonna whup me.”
“Why would she ever do a thing like that?”
“Posta bring home sugar.” He spoke in sobs. “But they stoled it.”
Abeona didn’t ask which “they.” She thought of the hungry slave woman and dug around in her pocketbook.