NADA BIRTHED ME RIGHT THERE on Black Mountain. A Christmas baby born with a caul. Nada called it a face veil. Either way, the thing was supposed to give me power through a special gift. That’s what Nada told me, and she was the smartest woman I ever knew. So, I watched for my gift like a girl at her own birthday party. It wasn’t until I was ten years old that I understood there wasn’t bows and wrapping paper involved.
I lost my big brother Will the last week of August that year. Just after Arleen Brown was buried in the cemetery, he up and left without a good reason or even a word. I cooked and cleaned just like Nada. It was expected. Will had turned nineteen, a grown man. That whole month he had brooded around, having words with Nada more than once. It was like all of a sudden he just couldn’t find his footing on Black Mountain, like he was headed off that mountain.
There was a secret hanging in the air at our cabin, and I figured it
had something to do with the way Faith—that was Pastor and Mrs. Dobbins’s prissy daughter—followed Will everywhere. Stupid old girl caused more problems than she was worth. I’d seen her and Will with their heads together, hushing every time I came near, shooing me away. Faith loved Will. A colored boy could die for anything a white girl said—didn’t matter one bit if it was true or not—but especially if that white girl’s father was Pastor Dobbins. Faith had turned into a beauty, or so everyone on the mountain said. But seeing how she was the pastor’s daughter, what was they going to say? I thought she was downright ugly ’cause pretty is as pretty do. And that girl didn’t do one thing pretty.
The morning the folks were supposed to view Arleen, I slipped over to the church for a peek in the window. It was the last place in the world Nada would have me be. The most mournful music floated out the windows. That old piano made a sound that stopped me right there in my tracks. Sweet and all tangled with some unspoken words, begging. And who was sitting there playing? Pastor. Lord have mercy, one look at him and I forgot just how mean and hateful he was. He was so lost in sadness. His fingers was long, pretty, like one of them paper-thin plates Mrs. Dobbins was always making me wash.
In that music was the man a woman would want to marry, the softness, the person who could mourn a young dead girl. Everyone had a decent side.
That whole afternoon Will didn’t show his face, Nada festered like something had crawled up under her skin and was burning her from the inside while she worked in the kitchen of the main house. “This mountain be turned sour over this here death,” she mumbled under her breath.
“What did you say, Amanda?” Mrs. Dobbins was hovering over the silver, touching each and every fork, spoon, and knife so I had to polish the dern stuff again.
“Nothing, ma’am,” Nada lied. Lying to white folks was just necessary. A colored couldn’t always guess what actions they might take next.
So, it didn’t surprise me none when Nada went to our cabin before
I finished washing all them dern dishes we’d messed up. There was a turkey cooking in our oven. Lord, the food that would be placed on that dining room table would be enough to feed the whole mountain and still leave some. A lot of to-do over some old white girl that looked like she might break in half. Shoot, when Arleen looked at a person, it was like she wasn’t really seeing them but something way off.
The sun was gone, and all that was left was the grayness that spread from the sky to the ground. The water was almost too hot to scrub the mixing bowls, but I tolerated the burn just to be finished and out of the house. A flicker in my side view made me look out the back door. A black shadow passed by the glass. One of the tin measuring cups on the counter clattered to the floor.
“Shelly, why are you still here?” Pastor stood in the hall door. Nothing about him seemed like that music he was making earlier.
“Washing dishes, sir. We made us a right big mess getting that dinner ready for tomorrow.”
He stared me down and then looked outside. “Have you been moving things around on the porch?”
“No, sir. Been right here most of the day.”
“I left my prayer book there on the porch rail.”
“I haven’t seen it, sir.” What in the world would I do with his prayer book?
Meanness was written all over his face. “Let me know if you do see it, and Shelly, if you’re lying, I’ll find out.”
By the time I got to the cabin, Nada was sound asleep. Will still hadn’t come home. Pastor had made him dig Arleen’s grave earlier. Lord help, Pastor might have met his match with Will, who looked real calm and sweet, but if a person made him mad, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
On my bed was a little green book I’d seen a hundred times. It wasn’t a funny joke. The dern thing was opened to a prayer called “Lost Sheep.”
When in need, one only has to look to the Shepherd, the caretaker,
the trusted one. Who will tell the truth. He will point you in the right direction and keep you close, safe.
Maybe Faith put the prayer book on my bed. She was known for slipping around. There was only one way not to get blamed for the mess.
I cut across the field through Daniels Cemetery and then scooted in the back door of the church. The room was dark except for the two gaslights on the wall near Arleen’s burying box. The thing wasn’t homemade like most burying boxes, but shiny as a pond of water on a clear, still day. Store-bought from Asheville and delivered by truck. All the fine church ladies had been chewing on this since the truck drove away, a dead girl in a shiny box while her whole family was so poor they struggled for food. And no one was sitting with the body. Somebody always sat with the body before a funeral. It was mountain tradition.
I ran to the pulpit and placed the book where Pastor kept one of his Bibles. Now I could get home and in bed. But no, oh no, that burying box drew me to it, pulled me like it had hands and arms. I ran my fingers over the smooth wood. The lid squeaked. Arleen looked like she was hurting with her mouth drawn up. Death caught her in the middle of a horrible pain. In the curve of her arm was a tiny blue baby boy. Smaller than one of Faith’s old baby dolls.
“This was a mean thing to do,” I whispered to the Jesus hanging on a little gold cross.
“It’s not his fault.” A girl’s voice spoke out of the shadows. “Don’t go blaming the wrong one.”
I dropped that lid. The sound echoed through the dark, causing the gas flames to jump. I ran out of that church without looking back. I never did tell a soul about hearing that voice, not Will or nobody.
THEY BURIED ARLEEN and that baby of hers the next day while I set the dining room table in the main house. Each fork was put in the right place. That big old fancy dinner for people who loved plain and
simple seemed silly. The sky turned black like a storm was coming. The mountain was mourning Arleen Brown, a simple mountain girl. Her death brought a push of wind that started and never stopped. A whisper scooted through the air. “My story ain’t been told.”
BY THE TIME THAT BIG hailstorm found Black Mountain, Will had been gone almost three weeks. Me, I was wishing I could go to school like other kids, make some friends, learn to read better. But there weren’t no colored schools for miles. Nada ordered me to sit on the front porch of our cabin while she gathered clothes from the line. I’d been underfoot and no help that whole day. The pure white sheets from the main house snapped in the hot wind. Nada wrestled to free the clothes before the rain let loose, and it didn’t take a smart person to see the bottom would drop out any second. One long, angry black cloud stretched as far as I could see across the sky. The air turned thick and sticky, and the light became a yellow-green. On the edge of the woods stood a woman bent over hobbling along, wearing a dress of blue ticking that was long to the ground. “Get up from there, silly girl!” She pulled a cane out from behind her back and waved it. What had I gone and done now?
“Go in that there house!” The woman narrowed her eyes, and when I didn’t move, she bared her sharp witch’s teeth at me.
I jumped to my feet, thinking I might cut across the porch and head for Nada, but then I thought better of it. Just as I ducked in the cabin, a flash of purple light splintered the wooden boards where I had been. Lord be, I thought I’d never hear again. I thought I was dead. The noise shook the cabin under my feet, and a charred hole opened smelling of a crackling fire. I was sure the cabin would burn down to the ground with me in it.
“Shelly!” Nada screamed, and then she ran faster than I’d seen her run. She’d been right slow and quiet since Will left. Lordy, that woman who always bossed the world had lost her footing, worse than when Daddy was killed in a moonshine deal gone bad.
She ran up the steps, stared at the hole, and came to me. Her look stayed on me for the longest, like she was counting all my fingers and toes. “I do believe you be the luckiest little girl I know.” Now, Nada didn’t cotton to Pastor’s god. She believed mostly in hoodoo, with a little Jesus nailed to the cross on the side. She wanted no part of a god that made a person rant and rave like Pastor was known to do when he was on a roll. But that afternoon she looked at the sky and said, “Thank you, Lord God, for my girl.”
Me, I believed in God and figured Pastor had just conjured him a bad spirit to listen to. He was always talking about souls being crushed for their sins and all. God didn’t crush souls. He loved them. Anyway, Pastor never knew a thing about Nada’s gifts. He wouldn’t have tolerated any magic in his house, but Mrs. Dobbins—now, she be a different story—liked the spells Nada conjured. They made a fine pair, Nada and Mrs. Dobbins. Nada always said hoodoo wasn’t about good or bad magic. It was about working out your own life, the story we live on this earth. That kind of story was powerful no matter if it involved money, health, or sweet, sweet love. Nada’s magic could bring bad on folks who were bad and good on those that walked the right path, but her spells couldn’t fix everything ’cause Will was gone, and nothing, nothing Nada tried brought him back.
“No, ma’am. Ain’t luck or God that saved me. A scary woman with sharp teeth told me to get.” I was ten, almost eleven, and had a habit of sucking two fingers when something on my mind went to worrying me silly. I slurped and pointed at the woman still standing near the porch. The woman turned and hobbled back to the woods.
Nada took a breath like she might tell me I was fibbing. The sky turned pure green. “You seen a spirit, Shelly.” The words tingled in the air. “She be a person that passed on.”
Now, that ain’t what I wanted to hear, but it told me why the old woman was wearing clothes from a long time ago. I’d always saw me plenty of people—strange and a little off to look at. Only Will and me
could see these folks, but he told me they was nightmares and not to worry over them. So, I never thought on them too much until he wasn’t there no more.
“A soul without her body. They can look just the same as you and me.” Nada spoke softer.
My slurping got louder. “A haint.” I spit the words out around them two favorite fingers of mine.
“She saved you, Shelly. That means she’s been with you for a while. See, these spirits can be attached to you without your knowing. You been seeing ghosts?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered.
“You best act grateful. She’s probably one of your daddy’s peoples. They lived all over this mountain at one time.” Nada rubbed my cheek like I might just be something real special. Then she pulled soft-like on my two fingers. “Don’t be fretting. Be thankful. You be way too old for this sucking mess.” She looked at my fingers. “See there”—she pointed to dark spots on my skin—“you be leaving marks. Ten is nearly grown, child.”
I hugged her tight like some kind of dern old baby and buried my face into her bosoms. The smell of talc powder mixed with spices from the supper cooking on the stove in the main house eased me. In that place, I was grateful. Time, the storm, everything, stood completely still like we didn’t have nothing to worry on.
“You got sight.” Nada sounded proud.
So if I had this so-called gift, Will did too, and since we both had different daddies, that meant we got our abilities from Nada and I liked that part.
“Sight be the best gift of all. You got to show it respect. You’ll find a place to rest in it. I promise.” I almost believed her sweet words as I played with the loose threads on her white work blouse. I guessed maybe I’d known for a while this mess was with me.
“Amanda!” That hateful Faith Dobbins ran toward the cabin. Her white dress blew in the wind.
Just that week while Faith was downstairs in the front room visiting with her mama’s company, I went upstairs to straighten her bed and collect the dirty clothes for washing. That’s when I slid that white lacy dress right over my head like some kind of dumb fool. I don’t know what got into me. It was way too big, but for the longest time, I stood hungering after the thing. What in the world could a colored girl do in such a dress? I took me a deep breath and moved in front of the long looking glass. Lordy be, what a poor sight stared back at me! Some old dark-skinned girl dressed in lace with nappy hair that couldn’t be tamed, much less combed decent. Nothing would ever change who I was. I studied the girl a minute more. The last person in the world I wanted to be was Faith Dobbins. I yanked on that dress, and a button popped off. For a minute I got scared, but then I figured I’d be the one to sew it back on, anyway. “No more of this mess,” I told myself. “You be just fine like you are. Amen.” Then I got on my hands and knees and looked under the bed. There it was. Not the button, but Nada’s sewing basket, the one that belonged to my great-grandmama. Nada had hunted for it since Will left. I stood up and brushed off. I figured I had me something to tell if Faith started whining around about the dress.
And there she was running to Nada like she be hers instead of mine. She tumbled down the grassy hill that separated her world from mine and got back up. She ran so hard I could have sworn the devil was licking her heels. Hate be a strong word, but Lord, I hated Faith Dobbins all the way down to her old lacy doll babies lined up against the pillows on her bed. All I ever had was corncob toys and blisters on my hands from scrubbing those fancy clothes on the washboard out back of our cabin. Faith had everything a girl ever dreamed of. Everything but my Nada.
The sky turned pitch-black. She scrambled up on the porch with us.
Nada pushed me from her. “Miss Faith, get over here.”
Faith buried her face in my Nada’s neck. Stupid old cow.
“What you thinking, leaving your mama and heading over here in this weather?” Nada asked.
“Who did this?” Faith looked into the burned-out place on the porch. I wanted to rip out one of her yellow curls by the root. Nada said she was one of the rare white folks who could tolerate sun without burning. Mrs. Dobbins only clicked her tongue at Nada and would yell to Faith to cover her arms and wear a hat. Ladies did not allow their skin to turn brown. My skin being a fine shade of brown let me have all the time I wanted outside.
“A bolt of lightning came out of the heavens and nearly hit my baby. Then what would I have done? All my children would be gone.”
I could have pinched Nada for calling me a baby in front of Faith.
“Your daddy would say someone on this mountain made God angry,” Nada said.
Faith clicked her tongue like some grown woman. “Daddy would say it was Shelly who did the bad thing. Mama says God gets blamed for way too much that people bring on themselves.” She looked at me with that smirky smile of hers. She thought she was grown at fifteen and tried to boss me as much as she could.
“I wish your mama could act as sensible as she sounds sometimes.” Nada shook her head. Her look landed on me. She was telling me to keep my mouth closed and to quit having such hateful thoughts about Miss Faith. And she told me not to say a word about my sight or the haint that saved me. She kept that stare on me long enough to know I got her message loud and clear, then patted Faith’s ugly, prissy head like she be a puppy. Only Nada and me could talk without speaking. It was our secret.
I was Nada’s treasure, better than Will. ’Cause I was still here. Daddy’s own flesh and blood, not that that counted for much. I was Nada’s reason to keep working for folks like Pastor and Mrs. Dobbins.
Without warning, hail poured down, bouncing off the ground.