Standing eye level with the ragged hem of Aunt Edie's black dress did not raise my confidence. Swollen feet on matchstick legs gained no sympathy from me or expectation of it from her. A swarm of flies following her wooden school desk dove into the chamber pot on the bookshelf beneath her.
"What you lookin' at, Boy? You never see feets?"
I dropped my gaze to the collapsed stair that led to the porch. "Gusta said to bring these."
I held out a man's wool overcoat and a heavy blanket reeking of mothballs. My arms itched where the wool had touched my bare skin.
"You brought Aunt Edie a present," she mimicked, hard, nasal, and punctuated. "You got any money?"
"No," I said, meaning none for her. The quarter my aunt had given me for cutting the grass was in my pocket. It was Sunday, the week before Thanksgiving, and nothing like fall. Midday sun radiating off her tin roof was broiling me alive. The load had seemed light when my walk began.
"Come up here!" Turning the school desk on its casters, she dragged herself toward the front door on heavy brogans. They were work boots that had been cut off at the ankles, their toes like Li'l Abner's, high and round. I measured the porch, the collapsed steps.
"Crawl up de' corner," she said, neither looking nor pointing, each word as independent as she was.
After a failed attempt on the left side, I bent down under the porch and found a rusty coal-oil can strong enough to stand on. The fierce, far away eyes of setting hens met mine. Where was the rooster that my friend, Raymond, the old woman's supposed grandson, had warned me about? Pushing the mound of clothes ahead of me, and using the can and the rotten corner post, I shinnied up.
Aunt Edie had gone inside. As I stared into the yawning fissure where the porch was pulling away from the house, I heard running feet, an exultant cry as the rooster's needle-sharp spurs drove deep into the blanket I had thrown up to cover my face. Hanging upside down, spurs trapped, the big Rhode Island Red flapped violently as he pecked my bare legs. Stumbling over the coat, I threw the blanket, rooster and all, off the porch.
"Come in here," Aunt Edie commanded. She rolled noisily over rough boards, thock-thock-thock, through a back doorway. I dropped the coat and followed.
The front room was without furniture. Straw-filled nesting boxes nailed to the walls pictured happy children picking fruit. On one, wearing shorts with shoulder straps like mine, a child held a huge pear aloft. Sullen hens watched me, their yellow, lollipop eyes as hard as Aunt Edie's. Many nests held a single egg. The rest of the flock scratched and squabbled under the house below my feet, dusting their fleas and mites.
"What else you brung Aunt Edie?"
"Nothing. My aunt..."
"Yo' aunti Gusta be weak'ning." Light gleamed in the old woman's eyes. Dense sclera puffed from the corners.
"I don't think so," I said.
I had seen few sign of weakness in my Aunt during the three years I had lived with her family, eaten her food, slept in her bedroom. The women that I knew in my father's family, my aunt and grandmother, neither weakened nor grew at all, but rather shrank further under five feet tall as they aged, hardened, adamant.
On leaving us, my real mother had held me reluctantly, brushing dust I had picked up beneath Black Addie Monroe's house. "You'll be good, won't you, Sugar," she said, more to my brother than to me, half question, half demand. "I'll be back soon." More deceit. Soon was four years later.
To escape the stink from Aunt Edie's chamber pot I walked to the kitchen window. A chinaberry tree pushing against the kitchen wall shaded a rain barrel where she dipped drinking water from a rusty tin can tied with rusty wire to a length of cane. Mosquito wigglers dimpled its surface. Bloated chinaberries, drawn together by reflective gravity, rafted together. Far away a hedge row of brambles disappeared into a brown and distant wood. A bayou I knew lay deep among the trees, unseen.
The old lady was snoring, her chin on her breast bone, ribs pushed to the surface. My eyes roamed the kitchen. A rough plank shelf behind a cast iron, single burner wood stove held a can of Pork-n-Beans and one of Little Letter soup. Several cans warming by the stove on a wooden box had no labels.
Someone, probably Raymond or Jimmy, had dropped a pile of chinaberry limbs through her back window. Near the kindling lay four stalks of field corn and a wet corn cob withering on top. An iron skillet with the remains of fried eggs and grated corn sat on a side-turned wooden box. An iron coffee pot without a top, its handle long rusted away, rocked on the stove's narrow surface. Water droplets sputtered around the stove-top like beads of mercury. She had thrown a handful of coffee into the pot from a Folgers can that nested like one of her chickens on a pile of straw inside the wooden box. Egg shells rose and sank into the dark, steamy water.
"You lookin' to steal something?" Aunt Edie asked, not really questioning.
"No'm," I said, offended.
"Maybe you lookin' to run off then."
Running away hadn't crossed my mind. First, I had to retrieve the wool blanket I had brought and which now lay in the front yard. I also had to find something to hang the coat on. I couldn't leave it lying in a pile on the porch.
Aunt Edie saw something was bothering me. "You fraid'a that rooster," she cackled, premonitory of a worse attack.
"Yes'um," I admitted. Why lie to a clairvoyant.
"Take one of them sticks 'n break his fool neck. I kin eat him." She pointed to the pile of chinaberry limbs, none strong enough to break anything. Then, with a snoring grunt, Aunt Edie's head fell back onto her chest again.
I thought about what it would take to kill Aunt Edie's rooster and I felt the line of sweat running down my back turn cold, syrupy. My neighbor, Carolyn, no older than I was, had done just that to a rooster that Addie Monroe had given me as a tiny chick. I had raised him to be my friend, but like all roosters I knew, he had become an assassin too.
Beside the chinaberry limbs was a stack of oak split small enough to slip into the Airtight Stove. Some of Asberry's work. Chinaberry limbs immediately turn pulpy, useless, their berries poisonous. Through the back window I watched mosquitoes dancing on the rain barrel's surface as they lay their eggs. The rotted end of a mop used to spread tar on rusting metal roofs stuck out above the water line. At one time a gutter had slanted into the barrel from the eave. On the ground beside the rusted-out gutter was a torn screen wire cover. I thought about the rain-filled tar barrel behind the woodshed at my aunt's house.
The cap pistols and other things my mother had sent sometime after my fifth birthday...a cowboy hat, vinyl gauntlets, a holster and belt...I sank, along with her, past the frozen mop and into the black depths of the tar barrel. Sometimes I stood peering down through that black portal into a deeper world where blind, primordial creatures, trailing rows of winking lights, glided further and further into the abyss until they were lost to sight.
At a sound near my face I jumped back from the window. Peering out again, I found a rabbit staring at me through the side of its cage, a wooden affair that someone, probably Asberry, had nailed to the side of her shack within the old woman's reach. I wondered if the two were kin, maybe brother and sister. Asberry had come back from the State Sanatorium for the Feeble Minded again, and we were forbidden to ride on the back of his wagon as he delivered firewood up and down our road. He seldom brought wood to us, but his bald, narrow head seemed always on a swivel as he watched the children...Carolyn, Douglas, and me...playing together in the yard.
Being told to stay away from Asberry didn't stop our sneaking up the road to catch his wagon. We would sit on the back, legs dangling, ever ready to jump off and run. If he was angry, which most of the time he was, he muttered curses at us or ranted to himself. Or, if we were noisy, as we always were, he swore he would choke us, ride over us with the wagon, boil us in oil, and that all they could do was, "...sin' me back to' da hospital, me!" For some reason we paid no attention to his threats, laughing insanely ourselves and sometimes throwing split chunks into the ditch to make a better seat. Our housekeeping filled him with rage, like the over-full caldron wobbling and bubbling on its chain above the forever smoking fire-pit in his side yard, but he never stopped the nameless, plodding mule to retrieve them. Sometimes, as though there was an unspoken truce when we were all out of the wagon, we helped him unload and stack the wood.
Watching the fat white rabbit, I imagined Aunt Edie tearing it apart alive, stuffing gobbets of meat, fur and all, into her mouth. A spasm ran through her sleep. Perhaps she caught my image in her mind. I thought it probable.
I don't know how long she slept. I watched out the window from an upturned bucket for a long time. The hens flew back to the porch as afternoon wore down. I heard a solid thump as the rooster landed. His tread was heavy, uneven, as though one foot...like Asberry's...was made of wood. He strutted into the front room, surveyed us, turned and walked back to his harem. To leave I would have to pass him or jump from the window.
A light breeze picked up. As the house breathed in, I caught the faint smell of honeysuckle. Its outward breath carried the acid stink of chickens, molding straw, Edie's chamber pot.
"You keeping watch on that ol' rooster?" I jumped. The old lady laughed.
"No," I said.
"Come here." The old lady motioned to me. I walked over and stood near her. "Closer."
She slipped her hand into the left pocket of my shorts, then the right. Her hand was quick, slim, and strangely unwrinkled. I felt her fingers crawl across my thigh onto the quarter. Her hand closed beaklike over it. I stood rigid, not looking at her.
"It's my money," I said.
"Then you tell Raymon'n Jimmy t'bring my money." She leaned back in her chair, pursed her lips. For a moment I thought she would hand back my quarter, but she pulled a ragged handkerchief from the pocket of her shift, unrolled it on the arm of the school desk and put the coin into it alongside a small pile of others. The rag disappeared back into her dress. As though to trade, she pulled a knobby walking stick from behind the stove and handed it to me. "You point this at de bugger man, he won't do nothing," she said. "He know this stick."
I walked behind Aunt Edie as she rattled across the front room to the porch, picked up the overcoat and handed it to her. She stayed between me and the rooster as I climbed from the porch, but he came to the edge of the porch as I handed up the wool blanket. I expected him to fly straight into my face, but he crowed fiercely, once, twice, then stalked off muttering to himself.
Carrying her stick, I walked up the path away from her house. On the top of the first rise I turned to wave but the porch was empty.
The winter that finally gathered that year was very cold and snow fell before Christmas. More than a foot of snow covered a sheet of ice from the storm that had preceded it. Every limb and twig was coated thick in ice, the road a skating rink. No one could drive. My uncle's sister was dying and we walked from the country to the hospital on eerily empty streets. The patients had been wheeled into the halls where logs blazed in great fireplaces at each end of the Infirmary's three floors. The hall where Sister's bed stood was stiflingly hot under my new, grownup jacket. I was afraid someone would steal it if I took it off. Even in this heat the frail lump beneath her blankets shivered, and sometimes complained about the cold.
Watching Sister's wasted frame, so thin she was hardly thicker than some of the wrinkles in her bed, reminded me of Aunt Edie. I had not returned since the fall and felt guilty about not delivering her message to Raymond and Jimmy.
The next morning I scuffed south along the roadside through heavy snow. The road was still an icy lane, but had a double wagon track where Asberry had delivered wood to someone nearby. The light rain falling would turn into another sheet of ice tonight. Nearing the creek at the bottom of our hill, I saw nothing coming from the chimney of the one-room house that old man Kimble Ferguson had given to Lou Hamlin, his common law wife. Lou and her sons, Raymond and Jimmy, must be fighting the cold in Ferguson's derelict plantation house. I wondered if the old man had covered the big hole in the kitchen floor, the aftermath of his getting drunk and setting a rug on fire. Raymond, who was Kimble's son, and I, had more than once crawled under the kitchen floor to spy on Lou and the old man. Beneath the hole...through which our spying was a great success until Raymond was caught smoking a cigarette one day...was a compost pile where Lou threw not only corn shucks and butterbean hulls but worse garbage.
As I crossed the bridge, the torrent below crashed so high up on the concrete abutments that I could have reached down and touched it. Upstream it had spread from hill to hill in a wide valley where a portion of General Grant's Army had camped on its trek from Jackson to the siege of Vicksburg. I slogged uphill past Ferguson's. A mile later I fought open the ice-crusted barbed wire gate that guarded the pristine track to Aunt Edie's.
Aunt Edie's house was not visible until the third hill-crest past which the wagon road led downhill and around her house to a stock pond. Cresting the ridge I saw no smoke rising behind the covering stand of sweet gum trees that guarded her house. Walking nearer I saw the reason.
Like many others that week, the roof of her house had been unable to support the weight of snow after the last soaking rain. It had collapsed, as suddenly and with as little remaining space to move or breath beneath it, as a house of cards. I watched the pile of rotting boards for a long time. I may have called her name. I probably did. I can't remember now. I do remember the icy gray silence that settled, as though all sound and light had been blotted out beneath the burden of snow, how the ice-bound chinaberry tree loomed shadowless above the iced-over water barrel. Everything that the house had been, everything contained within it, the hens, their rooster, the rabbit, her memories, lay crushed beneath the roof and walls into the frozen ground.
I was in the ninth grade the next time I walked to Aunt Edie's down the grassy slope that had once contained the old wagon road. Summer was coming on. Pewsy Bell's cattle grazed on the new grass. Through the quickly budding row of sweet gum trees I saw that the collapsed house was completely covered in a dense tangle of blackberry bushes. It was like the patch into which Brer Rabbit was thrown by Brer Fox.
But Aunt Edie was not Uncle Remus, or her rooster like his animal friends. And, as much as I might have struggled, had I been able to see other parallels at that age, I would have understood how unlike I was to the wary rabbit. I had been thrown into a patch of razor sharp thorns and, though I survived, I still bear the injuries of their having cut me to the quick in places I have only now, and in the right light, been able to find the scars.