For unto Us ...
Sweat poured down her face and burned her eyes. Even the storm raging outside refused to have any mercy. The small room was hot and humid, lit dimly by two lanterns. One behind Roberta and the other at the head of the bed. The girl jerked so Roberta thought she would knock over the light on the table next to her and set the whole place up in flames. The thought almost made her laugh. A vision raced across her mind of the three women running around the room, burning and melting like candles. Roberta wasn't afraid of death. She'd seen too much of it. She'd seen it in midwifing, even in her marriage.
Blood flowed from between the girl's legs in rivers, and Roberta's face remained expressionless as she realized that death would pay them all a visit tonight. She worked feverishly, packing towels and her good bedsheets against the girl's womb to absorb the blood she was losing.
Mattie sobbed, "I can't do this! I can't do this no more ..."
Shadows danced across the walls, mocking Mattie's torment. Elongated shapes flickered against faded flowers on peeling wallpaper. She'd anticipated Miss Roberta's birthing room, anxious to meet the growing child inside her, but nothing could've prepared fourteen-year-old Mattie King for the pain she'd struggled with for what seemed like days. But it hadn't been days. Or had it? It was like a nightmare that lasted too long. Mattie captured sleep in packets of minutes, only to wake up to her nightmare again and again.
"Momma! Please! Oh ... please!" She squeezed hard on Agnes's hand until the tips of her mother's fingers turned purple.
Watching her little girl suffer filled Agnes's eyes with tears. "Shhh, li'l girl. It's gon' be over soon, baby." She looked desperately at Roberta, hoping to see some sign of confirmation from the midwife that the promise she'd made Mattie would come true. Roberta remained stone-faced, working hard toward the inevitable.
Foolish heffa, Roberta thought to herself. Agnes always was a foolish woman. Talking about "It's gon' be over soon." Roberta knew better. It wouldn't be over until this child was born and this girl was dead. Only then would it be over. She'd been here before, watching life straddle death. Over the years, Roberta had come to know which side would win out in the end. Mattie King was losing.
The storm outside raged hard and steady like Mattie's pains. There's nothing worse than an angry god. Roberta knew this. Agnes was too foolish to know it. God was pissed off about something, punching his might hard into the black sky, then ripping it open with his will. Roberta wanted to tell Him to hush, but she knew better. No man or woman ever tells God to hush unless they want Him mad at them. Thy will be done.
"Pleease, Momma!" Mattie's body jerked against the pain of birthing the big baby. "Please! Make it stop! Momma ... !" Her eyes pleaded more than her words ever could.
Agnes prayed silently for her daughter. "Mattie," she said, rubbing her hand across the girl's head. "Hold on, baby. Please ... just hold on for Momma." She stared again at Roberta. "How much longer, Roberta? Ain't it almost here yet?" Roberta ignored Agnes. "Answer me! Please! Say somethin'," Agnes pleaded. "Roberta?"
Roberta watched in horror as the imprints of what looked like small fists pushed against the underside of Mattie's stomach. Fists trying to punch their way through that girl like God punched holes into the dark sky.
He a demon child, Roberta, a voice whispered to her. Chills ran up her spine and she quickly looked around the room to see who'd spoken to her. There was nobody there but the three women. Roberta wiped the sweat from her face with the back of her hand. He a demon child. Got hell in him, woman! God continued his attack on the universe, ripping away at the heavens, lighting up the sky like it was daylight in time for Roberta to see a tiny foot emerge frombetween Mattie's legs. Kill him! the voice whispered to Roberta. She looked up again. Agnes stared at her, confused by the expression on the midwife's face.
Agnes had heard Roberta sometimes had spells. She'd heard Roberta wasn't always right in the head. (Lord! Please don't let this woman have a spell. Not now. Not when Mattie needs her so much.)
The voice whispered again, He demon seed! Break his neck! Break his neck before he lays eyes on you, woman! Don't let him see you! Roberta's heart pounded fiercely in her chest. Killing him wouldn't be hard, except ... he wasn't turned. If only he was turned ... it wouldn't be hard at all, and Agnes would never know.
"Aaagh!" Mattie screamed. "Help me! It's killin' me! Momma!"
"Roberta?" Agnes begged. "Do somethin'!"
Roberta looked at Mattie. "Don't fight him, Mattie girl! Let him do what he got to do!" The harder Mattie fought this boy, the harder he fought back. Roberta had to turn him. Maybe, if she could just turn him ... She pushed the small foot back inside Mattie and reached inside the girl, hoping to turn the boy. Kill him, Roberta! He demon seed! Don't let him see you!
"He ain't lettin' me turn him, Agnes! He ain't lettin' me turn him!" Roberta was getting desperate. He'd be born soon, and by then it might be too late.
Tears slid down Agnes's face as she watched the life slowly leave her daughter's eyes. The girl's small body convulsed uncontrollably and grunts escaped from deep inside her. Agnes knew that Mattie, her precious baby girl, was losing this fight. She started humming quietly, then sang softly into her daughter's ear, "Precious Lord ... take my hand ... lead me on ... let me stand ... I'm tired ... I'm weak ... I'm worn ..."
Mattie whispered, "I'm tired, Momma. I'm so ..."
Agnes cried. "When my life ... is almost gone ... hear my cry ... hear my call ... hold my hand ... lest I fall ..."
Suddenly, as Mattie's body went limp, Roberta reached inside her as far as she could and delivered the child. He didn't cry at first, but his small fists punched into the air as if he were mocking God. Roberta quickly cut and tied the cord, hoping to finish before he opened his eyes, but she was too late. He stared at her with coal-black slits, then suddenly started screaming. Fear blanketedRoberta and she quickly laid the boy on Mattie's swollen stomach.
"Get him! Get him, Agnes!" Roberta demanded.
Agnes stared at a horrified Roberta, who'd backed into the corner of the small room, staring at the screaming child with black eyes. "What's wrong, Roberta? What is it?" Mattie's grip softened on her mother's hand, and Agnes knew her only daughter was gone.
"Get him!" Roberta reached behind her and grabbed an old wooden cane leaning against the wall. "Get him, 'fore I ..." He'd seen her. The demon had seen her and he knew what she looked like. Roberta's hands trembled.
Agnes didn't understand the fear in the woman's eyes and quickly scooped up the child in her arms. "Roberta!" She screamed. "What the hell is wrong with you?" Roberta's eyes were wild as they darted around the dimly lit room. He'd seen her. Lord have mercy! He'd seen her face.
"Get him outta here, Agnes! I'll take care of Mattie! You just get him and go! Get outta my house!" Roberta gripped the cane in her hands. He'd get no closer to her. She'd never let that monster get any closer to her.
Silent tears flowed down Agnes's cheeks. She turned to where her only daughter lay, giving in to her grieving heart. "My baby's dead, Roberta. My baby girl's dead." Agnes dropped to her knees next to the girl, cradling the naked boy in her arms. Roberta disappeared into the darkness in the corner of the room. Her incoherent ramblings were eventually dismissed by Agnes as nothing more than the mumbling of a crazy woman.
"I don't want him here!" Roberta swung the cane into the air. "I don't want that demon near me!"
"My baby's dead. My baby's ..." Agnes wailed. The sound of thunder could be heard in the distance. The storm had moved on, taking the spirit of Mattie King with it.
ONE DAY I SAW A BLACK KING. Copyright © 2003 by Jaclyn Meridy. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.