Why is it men make such a to-do about things? Nan wondered. She’d had to rock the Abey boy back to sleep twice now, what with Charley Gozey and Salai Ringwater shouting at each other in the road outside her window. She put the toddler down on a blanket out of the sunlight and headed out to see what all the fuss was about.
“Goddammit, Sal, you know I don’t drink!” Charley shouted. His pop-eyes blazed. “I ain’t touched a drop in my life!” He stood at his full six feet height, ramrod straight and arms at his sides. Nan saw the beginnings of fists curling into Charley’s nine thick fingers, though.
“Not what I hear.” Nan didn’t have to see Ringwater’s face. She could hear the smugness, could see the narrowing of already piggy black eyes. Salai Ringwater was always right; even when he wasn’t, the rest of the village treated him as if he was and he lorded it over them. He set meaty hands on woman-thick hips. “You been seein’ things again, Charley. Things only a drunk man sees. I heard John Bitty telling you he didn’t see nothing the other night.”
“Bitty don’t want to kick up trouble,” Charley grumbled. “But I saw them black shapes clear as I see you.” He shook a finger in Salai’s face.
“In the middle of the night? What you got? That X-ray vision?” Ringwater’s voice now got mean. Nan wanted to come up behind Ringwater and kick him in his back pockets.
“I had my watchman’s flashlight,” Charley told him. “I heard something and I put the light on the island and I seen them. Black, they was, with legs and arms, like stretched out human beings and they dropped off the cliffs of the island into some kind of dark holes.”
Nan sighed. Charley was a good man. He had one of the best jobs in town for nearly ten years now: night watchman at the government warehouse outside of town, since before his midnight black hair had taken in a few gray streaks. But Miss Fortune had had her way with him, too: he’d lost his wife and baby son to the old witch not three years ago. Still, Charley stood tall and helped anyone who asked.
Which was more than anyone could say for the Ringwaters, who only helped themselves. Like this here Salai Ringwater, whose mind was always half across the river with the Others in the County seat and businesses. This was a man who bayed after women older than Nan, and he had a wife and newborn son at home.
“I don’t care who saw what,” she interrupted, placing her spare body between the two men. “But I’m telling you, my young’uns don’t need to be hearing all this fightin’ and feudin’ when they’re supposed to be napping. Both of you, git along!”
Both men topped Nan’s height by at least a head, and Ringwater was probably twice as wide as Nan, but they backed up a step or two, hanging their heads like scolded boys. They moved off in different directions and quiet returned.
Nan put her hands on her hips and watched them slink off. Most folks in Grand River did not argue with Nan. And the men generally walked a wide circle around her, which suited her fine. She saw no point in getting friendly and then tied down to a man the way her ma had done.
She knew most of the village thought she was crazy or just touched in the head. That she saw Little People and River Spirits – or thought she did. Her pa would have agreed with the people. “There’s something not right about that girl,” she’d heard him many a time tell her ma.
“You hush your mouth,” her mother would snap at him. And she’d have snapped at anyone who said as much to her in town. Her brother Jonah would have defended her, too, by letting his fists do the talking.
But they were all gone now. Her parents died five years ago, within a day of each other, from some infection or virus or some other bad thing her ma brought home from her cleaning job. The fool doctors over to Capaha City wouldn’t give either one of them more than a look before they said there was nothing to be done. There were patients who could be saved and those white coated men weren’t going to spend time with a Grand River couple bound to die anyway.
Nan and Jonah buried their parents and then Jonah left. Five years and not a word had she from him. Not a letter, not a phone call, nothing. He’d said he was going to find a good job. Nan hoped that he had, but she didn’t give him much thought anymore.
She’d sold the family’s home and bought this newer place on the main road with a bigger sitting room floor for her daycare business. She wore her hair just as she always had, even as a child: pulled back with a long, black braid down her back. She looked at the world with her mother’s wide, black eyes and sniffed the air with her father’s chunk of a nose. And sometimes she smiled, though no one, not even her parents could say where she got those thick lips and the rounded off chin. She wasn’t pretty and she wasn’t rich, but neither was she about to let a man come sniffing around her for a quick time, even if he paid. Most days, she tried to be happy.
Nan watched Ringwater’s bulk disappear into the general store and wanted to kick him again. Men were not worth the flesh it took to make them. They might avoid her and badmouth her behind her back, but the women of the village believed Nan saw things, heard things, and knew things other people didn’t. That made them trust her with their children. If the Spirits liked Nan, no harm could come to their babies in her care.
A soft, almost mewing sound came out of the open window in her sitting room. One of her babies was awake and crying. She shook her anger off and went back to the children. Not of my body, she thought and yanked at the old screen door. But of my heart, every last one of them.
All six of the little ones slept on her floor, their soft breathing interrupted only by a sniffle here and there. Hard to say which one, unless she bent down and listened, which would wake them all. Children got colds all time of the year and two of her charges had some kind of allergy that kept their noses running the livelong day. Nan kept her pinafore apron stuffed with tissues and her heart stuffed with love for every one of them. She stepped over two boys to a little girl, who’d turned onto her back and was crying softly. This was Ayita, the Byrds’ youngest girl, just three years old. Nan had cared for her since Ayita was six months old and Nan had nursed her and her mother through pneumonia.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Nan cooed. She bent down to pick the child up into her arms and held Ayita’s small body close. She smoothed the little girl’s black mane out of her wet face and kissed her round cheeks.
“Them Llurkers bit me,” the child sobbed. Nan walked her over to a big rocking chair by the door to the kitchen. Sitting down with Ayita on her lap, Nan looked at the raised bump on her arm.
“Oh, now, Ayita, Llurkers don’t bite. They’re nice Little People and they love little girls like you. That there’s nothing but a skeeter bite.” Nan hugged her. “I bet you that skeeter came in the open window and thought to himself, ‘There’s that sweet Ayita Byrd. I want to taste her.’”
Ayita’s eyes widened, but she stopped crying. “Tell me story about them Llurkers, Nan.”
Nan chuckled and cuddled the child closer. She started in singing the lullabies her mother sang, her voice low and almost in tune. She rocked with the rhythm of the song and she sang.
Sally Abey was late coming to pick up her boy that night. Something about a supervisor making her work an extra two hours and a ride that wouldn’t wait so her husband Mal had to drive all the way to pick her up and then back to Grand River to pick up their little one. Nan did not mind. Some of these soft summer nights, it was good to have a little one around pulling at her skirt and wanting “up” so she didn’t have to think about things.
She watched the Abey car drive away. Sunset was still an hour or so away. Nan walked into her kitchen. She had a bowl of chicken broth and a heel of the squaw bread loaf she’d bought from Ella Bitty four days ago. Cooking was Ella’s blessing. She sold Nan soups, venison stew in season and squaw bread on the side from the restaurant and it was good enough for Nan. Nan wasn’t much on cooking, aside from heating up the food her mothers brought for their children and always said Nan could have what the babies didn’t eat. Nan took a bite from the heel. The sweet graininess filled her mouth and she smiled. Nobody made squaw bread like Ella. Not ever. Not Nan’s mother, not even Ella’s mother Leotie, who was home dying of the cancer in her belly.
Dying like so much of Grand River would be, Nan thought. Maybe not in the coming days or even the next year or so, but she’d felt a turning in the world. People who didn’t have much would have less. People who had a lot would take more and Grand River would suffer worst of all. The county commissioners had little use for the small town, even though it generated tax money and supplied workers for the low-paying jobs white folks left for brown- or red- or just differently-colored people. But when money got tight, those bottom-rung jobs went away first. Nan often wondered how those pale-skinned people across the river would ever figure out how to mow their lawns, mop their halls, or haul their garbage. They might have to learn how to get their own food or automate the restaurants over there the way her mother said used to be during The War. Oh, they’d get by, those pale-skinned folk. They always seemed to get by. But the people of Grand River would suffer. The town would suffer, maybe shrivel up and die if nobody could earn a living.
She slurped the broth. She couldn’t say when or why, but it felt like Miss Fortune was about to wake up and start troubling the people again.
She took a cold bath and dressed in the cotton nightgown she always wore to bed or to the woods after sunset. Her friends in the woods seemed to prefer it to her day dresses. Less spit-up and other baby stains, she supposed. She hunted through a long drawer next to her pots and pans cabinet for the old flashlight as the sun sank over the trees.
Nan kept to the main roads, the fronts of the houses along the roads she had to cross to get to the back yard of her old family home. Most folks were in their kitchens towards the back of the house and she didn’t need them watching her out in the night barefoot in her shift. Not even the ones who understood.
What would her mother say? Nan thought with half a smile.
The family who had lived in her parents’ house moved away after just a few months. Nan asked no questions, but she listened. To all the talk at Bitty’s, to the gossip of the mothers picking up their babies, to the talk on the road that rode into her front room on the cool morning breezes. Somedays she wished she hadn’t heard. She wished she did not know that the actual owners of her family home was some greedy-guts who collected properties and then rented them for just enough to keep a family from getting comfortable, no matter how many jobs they worked. Jobs lost, and the families were evicted. No warning, no extensions; miss the rent one month and they were out.
Her family’s home sat over on Fourth Road with a few furnishings she hadn’t wanted and the tenants couldn’t take with them, and it held Nan’s memories rattling the windows on a breezy or rainy night. No one had rented it for years now. And it looked it, with weeds taking over the yard and some bored teenagers breaking out the glass in the front windows. Children coming home from school screeched in voices kept silent for too long in hot stuffy classrooms that the old Wicket place was haunted. Anybody moving in there best have a million dollars, or they’d be out of work and homeless before the seasons changed. Sometimes Nan wondered if she and Jonah shouldn’t have set fire to their family place, but that was no good. Her father never kept a job long enough to have house insurance and, the winds being as fickle as they were in spring when her parents died, someone else could have lost their house, too. Or worse. No, it was better the house should be empty. She could skip into the backyard and into the woods unseen.
And they were waiting for her.
“There you are!” she cooed to the small lights, the small people she saw in the brush. “Now, now, don’t pay Ayita no mind. She’s still young. She don’t know no better.” Nan found a soft patch of moss where the trees sheltered the ground. She sat down and turned off the flashlights. “Yes, I know. I got a lot to teach them babies. Folks just ain’t doin’ it right no more.”