130. The Black Camp

Supper.

William had come
Back from scouting town.
“Still no people.
Just white folks is all.”
Sallie sat
Beside the boiling pot,
Braiding one girl’s hair.
Other young ones,
Darla’s, and Verdeen’s,
Mary’s, Darla’s
Cousin’s, dashing
Near the food-pot
Playing tag.
“Still?” Sallie said.
“Why, we passed through
Five–no, ten years back,
Way to Oklahoma,
Picked a little
Here, Will, you recall?
No one here then,
Too. Shoot.”
She tied up those
Corn-rows. “Sure don’t
Want to be
The first–or, yes I
Would,” she smiled,
“First with sack of
Dollar bills,
Take those to their
Store. I hear it
Now: ‘Yes
Ma’am, Mrs. Johnson!'”
William laughed.

To the left, their
Car–John and Verdeen
Clattered underneath–“The axle’s
Wrong,” they said.
Darla walked up
Silently as always–Sallie’s
Grandniece and her
Favorite:
Full grave mouth and
Watchful brownblack eyes, baby
At her hip. “Aunt
Sallie–”
With deliberation, Darla’s
Way–“I went
In with William.
Sold a quilting
Square. To that same
Uppy woman,
Asked me do her
Wash.”
“Did you?”
Silent, Darla
Handed her a dime. Sallie’s
Smile grew somber:
“Praise Lord for you,
Darla–” Darla’s
Eyes were down–
“We’re near out of
Meal. Which square’d you
Sell?”
“Showed a few. She
Picked Lone Star.
Made from scraps I
Got in Honey Island.
Figured I could
Trade it in this
State. Sell it
Maybe. But that
Lady had some
Square she’d stitched
Herself. Tried
Not to let me
See it–colors
Nasty–looked so
Sorry!” Sallie
Laughed while Darla
Stroked the baby.
“That was good work
I done on my
Star.”
Touched the baby
Softly. “It was
Mine.”

Crouched
On her heels,
Sallie frowned,
Heartsore. With this
Angry girl, this Darla,
Always danger:
She would brood.
Sallie thinking,
Send her to
The moon to keep her
Safe. No,
She would not have
Made it where I’ve
Been….”Darla!
Ever tell you
Of the quilt in
Georgia? I was only
Just knee-high,”
Sallie laughed,
Cajoling, “size of
Sarah here.
But I can
Remember plain as day.”
Darla smiled:
“I believe you!”

“Was your ma’s friend
Made it, Auntie
Bye.” Sallie’s
Eyes grew wide:
“Darla, you have
Never seen the like!”
“What squares?”
“Never were such
Squares! Squares of
Miracles, of mysteries!
Ever hear of
Dark Day?”
“No–”
“Yes ma’am, Dark Day,
May nineteenth in
Seventeen and eighty.
Sun grew sick and
Died on that Dark Day. Stars
Shone at noon.
Aunt Bye sewed them
In there, that sunk sun,
And the chickens roosting
At mid-day. And trumpet
Blowing–”
“All one square?”
“Yes ma’am!
Next one, Eve and
Adam in the Garden.
Up above them
Staring: God’s Big Eye.
Even bigger,
Floating in the air,
God’s Merciful Hand.
I saw those five
Fingers almost
Move.”

“Then what?”
“Squares that showed
Creation, earth and sea.
Jonah in sharp
White teeth of the whale.
Turtles swimming,
Each with sixteen legs–I
Counted them to
Show off I could
Count. And did you
Hear of eighteen
Thirty-three–day
In November
Known as Falling Stars?
Thought it was
The end of time, folks did.
Somersaulting
Stars, she sewed their
Sparkler-tails,
Rats and varmints
Rushing out of holes.
But way in
The corner there it was–
Hand Of God.
That Hand stayed those
Stars. And no one
Burned.”
“I seen
Stars that fell.”

“Next square was
The ark all two by two,
And the Red Lights,
Those of ‘forty-six–
In the sky, she
Stitched lights, buzzing
Scarlet! And showed
Giant bells that
Warned the folks to hide.
But above them
Always in that square:
Hand Of God.
And no one was
Hurt.” Darla
Nodded Sallie on.
“And beside that
Square, she sewed Cold
Thursday!–
February, eighteen ninety-five.
Showed a girl froze
Over while she prayed.
And a drunk froze
Stiff there with his
Jug.” Here Sallie
Grinned. “And that
Mule!–wish you could
See it! Look just
Like a mule,
But its cold breath–
Silver-blue
Icicles from its
Mouth!”

Darla laughed so
Loud the baby woke.
She soothed its thin
Arm. “Gracious,”
Sallie wiped her
Eyes. “Guess that’s most
All. All comes to
Mind. Oh yes, two
More: she stitched Christ
Crucified with
Blood red from His
Side–from my ma’s
Petticoat, that
Red. And last,
Betts the Independent Hog.”
“What?” shrieked Darla,
“Why a a hog?”
Sallie reared back:
“Sure! It fits!
Full five hundred
Miles, all way from
Georgia to
Virginia, that hog
Run! Miracle that
Hog was, too, my
Sweet! So
She gets to be
On it–that’s some
Quilt! And that’s some
Betts.”

Mary came up,
Hand pressed to her
Stomach: “Lord,
The curse.” Sallie
Blew her nose.
She was in no
Mood to hear complaints:
“Girl, I told you
Once, a thousand times: be
Glad! My mama
Always said–”
Sallie, in her
Normal scolding tone–
“I told you that
Ma’d been sold off
To the Barts’ plantation,
Wed my daddy
There when picking’s
Done. Had Will and
Me. She always
Said–” to Darla,
Rocking with the baby–
“‘Don’t you all be
Whining ’bout that
Curse.'” Sallie
Lifted up her
Soup spoon, took
A taste. “‘Why?
Them coins you got
In that purse inside you,
Not a living
Soul can ever steal.
Curse?'”–she sniffed–
“Ma said, ‘It’s your
Safe. Means you can
Have another
One, another
Day'”–tugged baby’s
Toe–“‘And Hon, you
Never know.
Could be next one
Just might be born
Free.'”

Mary shrugged, and
Sighing, walked away.
Deep in silence
Darla stirred
The fire.

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