Clara’s Baby by Akil Wingate

Excerpted from the novel gas-food-lodging

MY HEART IS A HEAVY STONE. IT CARRIES ME UNDER. I CAN’T SLEEP FOR PRAYING. EAT MUCH NEITHER.

I watch the train conductor carry the bags of the little old ladies from Myrtle on board. I hear them talk about their boxes of chicken they want to eat up good. But I just close my eyes and lay my head down on my suitcase. I don’t want to think about Myrtle. I don’t want to smell chicken. I don’t want to hear the door slide closed in my car. I want to see pink knit yarn and white lace and smooth porcelain…like Annabelle.

Annabelle says she can sing the alphabet backwards. I don’t believe her. I don’t believe her because she told me she saw Billy Ray’s ghost one night when we were coming home from meeting house. She say she sees all kinds of haints. She say she can swim the river back and forth and not get tired. She also say she got the fastest pitch for stick ball.

She say a lot. It don’t mean nothing though.

Billy Ray ain’t been dead nary two years now. His mama done stopped leaving flowers at his grave. And his daddy stopped standing out on that porch waiting for him to come home from that factory up yonder in Mission. Folks stopped waiting altogether. They stopped waiting cuz they got to thinking there ain’t no more Billy Ray to wait for—even though there ain’t no body to send home to Jesus neither.

But Annabelle swear by her good sense she done seen him move in the grace of a haint. A restless haint. Ain’t that a blip.

I hear the good folks say you walk by the riverside at moonlight come witching hour you can see your loved ones walking with you on the other side of the river bank. And until the moon goes, you can talk to them, see how they been doing. I suspect Annabelle been out to that river one too many times. I suspect she just a little light in the head for staring at that blue moon. But I don’t care none. She still tells me good stories about Pigeon, her little bird dog.

I can feel the train move. It feels like it done belched one good one and jumped forward, lost its balance—and heave ho! I curl up on the sleeper bed and lay my head down on my suitcase. My little pink knit gloves ain’t warm enough to keep one bit of cold out. But I like how they look on my hands, like the little gloves on Annabelle’s white porcelain doll baby’s hands.

My eyes close so tight I can’t let none of my dreams out. I hear someone else come in the car. I hear them cough. Anna maybe. Yep. Sounds like a man. But I ain’t opening my eyes.

I can feel his old rough hand brush my leg. Mama told me to wear stockings today. But I was in a hurry. I didn’t have no time to put on no stocking-just cocoa butter. And I can feel his wrinkled old fingers slide up my leg like they looking for my goodness.

Then I kick those old dirty fingers like I’m playing kick ball down by the church lot. He make some kind of yelp. But he don’t cough no more. He don’t make no more noises. I can hear the door slide open again and close.

Then I don’t hear nothing else except my dreams.

I dream about Annabelle and Billy Ray and me sitting under the old money tree weeping willow up on Gracie’s Hill. We sit up there and watch the sun go down and see all the lights in every house in town turn on.

Annabelle say, “What yo mama cooking tonight, Clara?”

“Probably salt meat pork and taters.”

She lay on his chest and I can hear him snore. She nudge him so he won’t snore so much.

“We havin’ greens and pintos.”

“Y’all ain’t havin’ no meat tonight?” I ask her.

“Nah. Daddy been complaining about bills. And Mama worried. I watch her brush some of her hair into the sink this morning, Clara.”

I get quiet. I stare up at the stars. They come from every point of the sky. They look like a right pretty painting. And the grass feel like a soft down pillow under my head.

“You can come to my house to eat, Annabelle. And take some home to your folks.”

She don’t say nothing. She just look at Billy Ray’s soft face. He look like one of them movie picture folk…only colored. She like to play with his hair and put little dandelions in it while he sleep. I laugh. And she tells me to shush.

I start rooting round the tree on my hands and knees. I got on my blue and white Sunday meeting church dress. And when I get home it’ll be green and yellow from all the daggone grass and dandelion stains.

“What you lookin’ for, Clara?”

“Money.”

“You ain’t gone find none.”

“I always find me some, gal.”

Them drunks come up here in the middle of the day and fall out under the eye of the sun. And all their good two bits roll out of their pockets under the weeping willow. And if’n I look hard enough I might find me enough to get two or three bottles of Coca-Cola, and salty peanuts at the country store on the way home. I find me a quarter and a nickel. Then I find me a strange looking copper coin. The face look like it done been burned off. It ain’t no penny. It so peculiar.

“Annabelle, look what I done found.”

I shine that coin up nice like on my dress and crawl over by Annabelle and Billy Ray. His eyes are rolling under his eyelids. And his chest just poking up and down. Yeah, he fast asleep.

Annabelle sits up on her hands and looks closely at the coin.

“Hum. What you ‘spect that is?” She say.

“I don’t know. It look like it been burned or something.”

“It ain’t no penny. Maybe it one of them gold dublooms from Africa.”

I start laughing. And she look at me crazy like.

“My dog Pigeon used to hunt for gold dublooms by the river cuz it run clear to China. He got a good nose for that.”

“How it going to be a gold dubloom and it’s as copper as them pipes at Warhol’s Factory?”

She don’t say nothin’ for a bit. She just turn the coin over in her hand and look at it real quiet like.

“If’n it is gold, I’m gonna buy me a big house with lots of flowers and willow trees and doll babies in a china closet.”

She stop talking.

“I want a doll baby.” She say.

I ain’t say nothing.

“I want a real doll baby…with Billy Ray.”

“Chile, you better stop talkin’ that foolishness. You ain’t never gone git out of this town you git yo’self pregnant like.”

But she ain’t listenin’ to me. She lay back down on his chest and close her eyes and sleep some.

I turn that coin over in my hand and hold it up to the sky. It still shine pretty; face or no face, it still shine pretty.

When it get dark just enough, Billy Ray and Annabelle and me, we all head down the hill to the River. Sometimes it so clear with the moonlight and all you can see the fish swimming just below.

They walking so slow behind me holding hands and whispering like. I just keep on, turning my coin over in my hands.

I’m gonna get me a Coca-Cola and some salty peanuts tomorrow with my change. But I’m gonna keep that there coin.

I think it’s a magic coin. It gonna bring me good luck.

“Clara, why you walkin’ so fast. You gotta pee?”

“Naw, Billy Ray. You walk so slow.”

“Ain’t nobody studyin’ you none. Gone on ahead. We catch up with you.”

So I do. The River goes forever. Sometimes I wonder if it like one of them rivers in the Good Book. If I bathe in the river will it wash my troubles clean as snow? I don’t know. I ‘spect not. Last time I dropped my feet in the river, I ain’t got nothin’ for my troubles but a cool feelin’ on my toes. But that okay too.

I can’t swim nary as good as Billy Ray or Annabelle. One night they got down to nothing but they birthday suits and done swim all the way down to the big open mouth and back. The big open mouth what we call the mean part of the river. Chirren come out here swim some, don’t know no better and that big open mouth get it a taste for flesh. It sucks ‘em down and spit out they bones like chicken legs.

Reecie Johnson lost her only boy there last summer. But good folks talk about how they think she drowned that child. On account of she ain’t got no man and all.

And two little high yalla gals washed up one morning when old Clem came out here fishin’. He liked to near have a heart attack. They done looked like they faces been burned off, just like my coin.

I look at my coin again and think. I wonder if the coin come from the big open mouth just like them high yalla gals.

Maybe it did wash all the way from Africa. Maybe it really is magic.

I turn back to see what Annabelle and Billy Ray done got up to and all that left of them is their Sunday best on the river bank. But no sight of them.

“Annabelle.”

Nothing.

“Billy Ray.”

Not a peep except the moonlight wind in the trees over my head.

“What yall done got up to?”

I ain’t hear nothin’. So I keep walkin’. I walk clean far enough to see the big old crusty lips of the big open mouth of the river. It goes wide and runs mean and hard. I’d never let a chile of mine swim out in this river. It’s unforgiving and so is them town folk.

I bend down to the river and begin to polish my coin. But the more it shine, the more it look like it face been burned clear off. And the cool waters just run clear over my fingers.

“There is a fountain filled with blood.” I sing.

One day I want to be a singer. I want to sing like them pretty ladies on the TV.

I dip the coin again and then hold it up to the moonlight. It sparkles like one of them stars up on Gracie’s Hill.

I love my coin.

I bend down again and dip it. And I can see all the rocks clear of the bottom of the river and the fish swimming east to west and almost clear to the other side of the river. And I can see my face. I look skinny, Mama tells me. I look like I ain’t eat in three days. But I do eat. And my little black eyes make me look so young.

But I be sixteen in a week. I be a woman then. And I stop wearing pony tails and let my hair down then. Cuz I got good long hair. I brush it every night when I go to sleep, right before I say my prayers.

I smile at my reflection. Only I ain’t the only one smilin’. I can see another face under the water, smilin’ up at me…a brown face with plump cheeks and porcelain doll white teeth and brown eyes and nappy hair. And I jump back and look round. But they ain’t nobody up here.

“Annabelle.” I call. But she ain’t answer.

I look again and the little brown baby boy look like he giggling at me, like he saying to me, “Scared you, huh?”

And that just tickled me so I just get to laughin’ and he laughin’ with me. He farther in the river than I can get to but I wave to him. And he wave back.

And then he just fade away.

I must have sit there a good hour waiting for the little boy to come back. But ain’t nothin’ happen. I must have near dozed off. Cuz when I wake, Annabelle and Billy Ray next to me, pulling they Sunday Best on and drying off.

“Where yall get off to?”

“The big open mouth.” Billy Ray chuckle.

“You can’t swim none,” Annabelle says.

“Yes, I can.”

But she doesn’t hear me. She be lookin’ in Billy Ray’s eyes the same way I be lookin’ up at them stars in the sky up on Gracie’s Hill. She don’t hear nothin’ but what Billy Ray be whisperin’ to her.

“Well, come on. Let’s get home. Dinner should be ready if yall comin’ over.”

Next day Annabelle was combing her white doll baby’s hair on her front porch.

“Why you playing with that doll baby?” I ask her. “You got school work to do.”

I drop my satchel of books at her feet. She just roll her eyes at me.

“I ain’t studying you or dem books none, Clara.”

She just rock back and forth on that porch and comb that doll baby’s hair.

Cicely, she call her.

Cicely. Sounds like some fancy spice them good folk put in their gumbo or on they chitlins.

“Ain’t she pretty?”

I just look at her and her white porcelain doll. She saved up all her tithing money and bought it one day in town. She tell me she was walking to go see ol’ Billy Ray after work at Warhol’s Factory and on the way she got wind to near hearing someone call her name—

Annabelle. Annabelle.

And she said it was the sweetest little voice you ever did hear, sounded like angels singing. And she stopped in front of this old antique shop and there in the window was that porcelain doll baby staring back at her. And she say that baby spoke to her, told her secrets.

And every day she would walk into town on her way to see ol’ Billy Ray after work and she stop at that ol’ shop to hear what the doll baby had to say.

And one day she took little Ms. Cicely home. And ever since she been cradling that baby doll, hugging on that baby doll, and humming to that baby doll like she the real thing.

“Alright, Cicely. I’m gone put you in your crib. It’s time for grown folks talk.”

She gets up to go inside. I hear her giggle to herself. “No, Cicely, we ain’t gone talk ‘bout no boys.”

She disappears inside and then comes back out. She got a real peculiar look on her face, like she done tasted something awful and she need some yak to wash it out.

She take my hand and she say, “I gotta tell you ‘bout last night. Me and Billy Ray seen something.”

She get all low and quiet like. She just a whisper now. And I got to dip so close to her lips to hear what she saying, she practically kissing me on the jaw.

“We see something.” She say again.

“What?”

“An angel.”

I don’t say nothin’. She always seen something. One day she told me she and Pigeon were out by the old Mill House and she seen some haints crawl up out the dirt road and go inside the Mill House. They came a stumbling back out drunk and crawl back into that earth. And I ain’t said nothin’.

“We seen an angel at the river.”

I get to thinkin’ about the brown baby boy in the water. I get to thinkin’ maybe he was an angel. But my Daddy say you ain’t supposed to be staring up into the moon too long. That be the devil’s moon. And he say it’s to guide them restless haints back to they graves. He say you stare at it too long, you can’t see straight ‘til come sun up. He say you be seein what ain’t really there.

“We seen a golden lady. She real pretty. And she come up through the water in a white dress. And she stare at us. So we sat there and we stare right back at her. We must have near sat there a good hour or so. Den she walk back down into the river. And Billy Ray get the idea we go swim after her. And I wasn’t gone go. But he went after her. And I just get to fuming cuz he left me up there on the bank. So I went after him.”

She get real quiet. Then a tear come down her face. And she just get to trembling.

“When I find Billy Ray, he tell me that golden lady came to take him away to heaven. But he say he ain’t ready to go. He got business here first. And I tell him we ain’t never comin’ back to that river none. But he say we come back because she has so much to tell us. So tonight we gone go back there, Clara. I just ain’t letting my Billy Ray gone on to heaven without me. Ya hear? I ain’t.”

She gets so worked up, I have to hold her and tell her softly, “Hush now. Hush. Ain’t nobody taking Billy Ray to heaven. You just let that foolishness go.”

But what if he go, I think. Ain’t it his time to go? I ‘spect an angel ain’t gone lie. If’n she seen an angel.

I just hold her in my arms until she ain’t cryin’ no more. And I don’t worry none ‘bout them school books. Ain’t nobody gone be reading no history lesson today.

Sometimes night falls like teardrops here in the south. That old blue black devil moon be peeking through the clouds and black sky like a swole up ole eye. And it just be a starin’ down at me.

“You gon’ to yo’ Aunt tomorrow.” My mama says.

I’m sitting here on the porch pulling my hands through my thick hair. It’s twisted and dry. It’s been so hot these days I ain’t care to do nothin’ but keep to my school books.

“Ya hear me, Clara?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“She gone take care of you.”

I don’t say nothing. I can’t think of nothing to say. My mama been so tired these days.

I can’t even look up.

“You finish yo’ schoolin?”

“Yes, ma’am. I finish reading and studying.”

“Good. This weekend, yo aunt will get you straight.”

I hear her go in. She walks like she steps on little bitty branches in the woods. Everything cracks. But it’s not the little itty bitty branches. I hear her cracking. And then I don’t hear her no more tonight.

What I do hear is the crickets under the porch. They just a singing to me. And I hum a little back to them. But they don’t like my music. So they seem to get louder. They change all the tunes.

I’m drinking a Coke and chewing on some boiled peanuts I got from the country store. I ain’t hungry. But I like the taste of salt and Coke in my mouth. I like the sound of the peanuts crunching in my mouth and the Coke just a fizzin’ in my mouth. It sound like little fireworks goin’ on. But it ain’t the 4th of July. Not yet.

I can’t wait for the 4th. I love me some hot dogs and ham burgers and grilled corn and potato salad. I love when the parade come through and the marching band be playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I love when Mama lets me get dressed in my Sunday white picnic dress. She keep it clean in the closet. I get to wear it only a few times. But when I do, all the boys be just a starin’ at me.

Ain’t no more Coke or peanuts left. But I blow in my little bottle. It’s like junkyard music. It make a sweet low moan…just a hummin’. That’s what the men be doin’ at the church. Sometimes when they ain’t got no organ to play they just a tap they feet and hum. And they make the good Lord’s music that way. And someone get to shoutin’ and testifyin’ in the Name. Sometimes that all we need. Someone to tap they feet. Someone to hum them low notes. And someone to sing the Good Word.

And I blow again in my little Coke music bottle. And I hear a good sound come blowin’ back. It like the good folk in the church, callin’ and praisin’

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away,
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.

I’ll fly away.

I go to the river where Annabelle and Billy Ray say they gone see this angel lady. I ain’t think nothing of it, ‘cept to be there to calm Annabelle down if’n she get upset.

“You gone swim, Clara?” Billy Ray ask. He just a laughin’ when he do. I don’t think nothing of it. But I watch him take off his clothes ‘til he in nothing but his drawers. And he slip into the river. Annabelle do the same. She coos like a bird when her toes hit that water.

“It cold?” I ask.

“Yeah, it cold.” Billy Ray say.

“You ain’t comin’, Clara?” asked Annabelle.

I shake my head. I’m twiddling my coin in my fingers and watching the blue-black devil moon overhead just look back at me. It watching me careful like.

They just ease down the river some more until I can’t see them or hear them. And I just lay back on my back and hold this coin in my hands. It feel cool and smooth in my hand.

And then I hear a sound. It sounds like music. It sounds like those wind chimes you hear at the church just before service. It sounds like a breath of air just blowing through them wind chimes to tell the congregation to come in for service.

But there ain’t no wind chimes out here. There ain’t no breath of air neither. It everything but that. It be calm and silent like. There ain’t a peep.

And I still hear music.

It’s peaceful like. I close my eyes. And the music just fill my ears. I want to cry because I feel so good. I feel like I am back in church again. I feel like the Spirit be in me.

And a voice say “Don’t be afraid.”

And I’m not.

I’m not afraid. I ain’t got reason to be afraid. I’m smiling. I can feel my tears roll down my face, like night done told me to go to sleep.

I’m just twirling that coin in my hand. And the next thing I know, it get so hot in my hand it like to near burn a hole there. But I hold on to it. It like a Holy Smoke or something.

“Don’t be afraid,” the voice say again. “Everything will be different now…”

And at first I don’t understand.

But then I do.

I feel a warm feeling, like a gentle fire start to creep up my legs. And it pin me to the ground. But it gentle. And I ain’t scared none. It feel good. It touches me and creeps on up higher on my legs. Me, I’m just crying from the goodness of it. I ain’t felt this good before.

I want to say “Thank you, Jesus.” But I can’t move my lips. I can’t find a voice to speak. I can’t much do anything. Because I feel so good, the Spirit is all over me…and it feels like I’m in that river…like the river is washing over me, drowning me in its goodness. And this heat is creeping into my special place.

I can’t breathe when it touch me there. I feel like I’m going to go to heaven.

“Don’t be afraid…”

I want to open my eyes. I want to see my angel that come to me. I want to see.

And the coin is just burning in my palm. It so hot, it feel like the sun is in my hand.

I slowly open my eyes.

Yes. I am in the river. I am in the baptism. I know it. This is holy flood. I know it. And there be white light and gold light all around me and in me. And I can see the blue-black devil moon above me, looking down on me.

Then I feel these strong arms come round me. And they hold me, protecting me, loving me. And then I’m filled with the spirit of this angel from inside. He is inside me and I can’t even speak to say “Thank you, Jesus.” I can’t speak.

But I know the angel know I am grateful.

And then the burning feeling get so hot, I close my eyes again.

“Sleep.” The voice say.

I wake.

Myrtle is like one of them dreams you get after you been eating a late night rib plate with lots of Tobasco sauce. Sometime it don’t make sense. Sometime it scare the chitlins out of you. Sometimes you feel like you’ll never wake up.

It feels like a bad dream when I wake up and Annabelle knocking on my bedroom window. I can tell she been crying. She probably been fighting with Billy Ray all night ‘bout nothin’ or having babies. I tell her a million times babies ain’t worth the bibs they wear or the teething syrup they drink for all they trouble.

“Billy Ray gone.” She say. And she climbs in the room.

She sobbing into her hands. And I hold her tight. But it’s hard to hold her because she shaking so much. And she wet too, soaked through to the bone.

Some folk say Annabelle got the devil in her; that Annabelle done drowned Billy Ray in the Big Open Mouth.

I don’t ask no questions. If’n it was the devil he can sure dress up pretty when he like.

I do as Mama tell me. I read Psalms and pray the devil don’t take no liking to my soul. Mama had me on the train early in the morning, not long after the sheriff come poking round asking questions.

I slipped my angel coin into my Coke music bottle. It go clank. It make music, like the river music. And when I put my ear to that bottle, I can hear the water. I can hear that goodness that wash over me. I can hear my angel that come into me telling me “everything will be different now.”

And I am filled with the Spirit. I close my eyes like night wash over me like teardrops, and this train just a rockin’ back and forth like I be in them pews in the church and the good folk tapping they feet and someone hummin’ them low notes and someone singing the Good Word.

And I am filled with the Spirit.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Akil Wingate is a singer-songwriter and writer based in Paris, France. When he isn’t devoting his time to touring, composing or writing; he likes to spend it creating exciting dishes in the kitchen. He also runs a vlog dedicated to all things music, la mode, and social activism called Rock N Soul Army.

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