Cass Wakefield was born in a double-pen log cabin just at break of day, and before he was twenty minutes old, he was almost thrown out with the bedclothes. The midwife, Queenolia Divine, heard him squalling, however, and so it was that Cass, blue-faced and complaining, was untangled from the wad of bloody sheets and saved for further adventures.
The first light he saw fell on the northeast corner of Yalobusha County, Mississippi, in a cleared place among ancient oaks and hickories and sweetgums called Lost Camp. By the time Cass was born, the frontier had passed the village by, and the westerly road was busy with travelers. Ox-drawn wagons filled with bewildered women and children groaned and creaked through the settlement, the men riding beside with long rifles laid across their saddle bows. Soon Texas beckoned with the Possibility that always burns so bright over a revolution. Captain David Sansing—he was not a real captain, but he seemed like one, so that is what they called him—left early, invited by Sam Houston himself to join the fray. The balance of the Lost Camp men—including Cass’s daddy, John, and his uncle Estes Burke, and the elder Wakefield brothers, Augustus and Rome—formed a company, twenty-three men, which they called the Yalobusha Yellow Jackets. With a retinue of Negroes for the camp chores, they rode away to fight for Texas independence, promising to return in glory with land grants that would make them rich. As it turned out, they never returned at all. They got lost on the way, and six of them died of fever before they got out of Arkansas. The rest found Texas finally, but before they could lift a hand in its defense, the Mexicans captured them and shot every one, even the Negroes, at Goliad in ’36.
Months later, the Memphis post-rider appeared in Lost Camp accompanied by a wagon. In the bed was a wooden crate bound with tin straps and tight as a cedar skiff, lettered “General Delivery, Lost Camp, Yalobusha County, Mississippi.” The post-rider was in a bad humor, for the box swarmed with flies and sugar-bees and had a musky smell about it. The women and children and old men gathered about under the oaks, and it was decided to let the post-rider open the box in the presence of them all. The man’s crowbar grated as he prized at the lid.
All his life to come, Cass could remember the smell that burst from the opened box when the lid fell off. The people lurched back, and some of them ran away. The women set up a keening, grabbing at one another, at their children. One went mad on the spot—they were never far from madness anyhow. The old men, after a while, laid them out in the sun: twenty-two yellow roundabouts trimmed in red, smeared with blood, and punctured with ragged, smoke-rimmed holes where the musket balls had entered, then left again on the other side.
Cass’s mother, Prudence, recognized the stitching in the jackets she had made. She sat in the dust, took one up, and pressed it to her face while Cass stood by, trying to understand what it all meant. Prudence, her eyes dry, her voice steady, made it plain to him. She said, “Your father is dead, and your uncle Estes, and Rome, and Augustus.” Cass knelt beside her, in the hot dust that swarmed with fleas, and spoke in the language he had learned early from the men. “I will see to it, Ma,” he said. “I will find them who did this, and you will have your—” But he never finished, for Prudence slapped him hard across the mouth, another lesson learned, then drew him to her hard and held him and the jacket both so close that Cass lost his breath and could not have cried had he wanted to.
At first, no one could imagine who had done this thing, and all wondered what happened to the twenty-third jacket. Certain ones began to look to Estes Burke.
Cousin Sally Mae Burke was the first girl Cass ever fell in love with, and the first, but not the last, to discourage him. Sally Mae’s mother, Diana Maria Velez, was a Spanish woman who gave her daughter eyes and hair and skin that might have suggested Mediterranean twilights to the Lost Camp lads, had they known of such. Sally Mae Burke strode among her pale Anglo-Saxon neighbors, tossing her black hair, scorning the boys, especially Cass, and igniting the girls with jealousy—teaching them all (and quick they learned, and early, for life was often short) what it meant to be beautiful. Many were the miniature fights Cass Wakefield fought to defend his cousin against boys who loved her, were rejected, and thus grew bitter in their learning. “Nigger girl” they called her, and “Greaser,” and other things, while the girls, learning their own ways, shut her out with cold silence.
On the hot afternoon when the jackets came, the people of Lost Camp forgot, if they ever knew, the distinction between Spanish and Mexican. A single thought, born of whispers by night, ran through the settlement.
Next morning, just after daylight, a crowd of women stormed up the road to the Burke cabin. It was a mob of despair, all the women red-eyed from crying, their hair in disarray, some with suckling babes, intent to revenge themselves on the Mexican. The madwoman came tottering behind, tearing at her hair, her mouth a dark oval. Prudence Wakefield counseled reason and was shouted down. Annie Frye counseled reason, but she had lost no one and so was scorned to shame. Cass Wakefield ran beside the column, among the packs of barking dogs; he cried for his cousin, pulled at the women’s faded dresses, at last was cuffed into the roadside ditch by a hand that might have petted him once. Young Alison Sansing, toting her baby brother, discovered Cass there. They held tight to one another and wept while Perry squalled for milk.
The women found voice in the yard. Prudence and Annie moved among them, pleading, touching hands and faces, all futile, for someone had to carry the blame. The women shook their fists, held up their infants in accusation, cried terrible things from throats grown raw with weeping. They cried foolishness, how Burke was spared because he had married a Greaser. His was the lost jacket, they cried. He was a coward and betrayed the rest, they cried, for this was what had come to their minds as reason. They shouted until their voices were harsh, but received only silence in return. The cabin was empty; Diana Maria Velez, with the foresight common to those who are different, had vanished with her daughter in the night. The women burned the cabin anyway.
No glory or riches, then, for the widows and orphans of Old Yalobusha, nor even anyone to bury among the cedars. They learned months later, by home-traveling men, that the Mexicans had burned all the bodies, including Estes Burke’s, way out yonder in the Land of Promise.
Cass’s mother went to work at Frye’s Tavern, cooking and cleaning and serving meals to the people filling up the new country, who came with slaves and cottonseed to make riches in the Leaf River bottoms. Times were flush then, and Lost Camp became a Land of Promise all its own. Meanwhile, the widows married again, and new ground was cleared at such a rate that, in a few years, a tree was hard to find anywhere but along Leaf River or in the cemetery.
Prudence Wakefield did not marry. She scorned her few suitors, who were tubercular or crippled anyhow and could find no prospects among the more robust women. In any event, Prudence and all her suitors, and a good many wormy children and broken-down old people, were struck by the scarlet fever of ’44, as if Providence had decided to tidy up the place once and for all.
The fever came in a warm November, a season of drizzling rain, low clouds, deep mud, when the sun, the moon, the stars seemed to have deserted the heavens. The prosperous holed up on their farms, where they died just the same, or fled north into Tennessee. Smudge fires burned day and night on the square, blanketing the town in a dingy gray pall meant to drive the miasma away. The Presbyterians owned the only bell, and it tolled constantly to keep the atmospheres stirred. Every day, droves of blackbirds came from their roosts along Leaf River, and more crows than anyone could remember. Dogs roamed the deserted streets, licking at the mud, and the wheels of the dead-cart creaked through the nights.
Cass’s mother lay dying in a room above the tavern. All the boarders had fled, and the place groaned with emptiness. Only Mister Frye and his wife remained, and their black girl, Queenolia Divine, who changed the sheets and emptied the bedpan until only gravelly vomit was left to empty. Miz Annie Frye did the cooking right on the hearth, spooning broth between Prudence Wakefield’s cracked lips, around her swollen tongue.
Once, Prudence said, “Leave. It will come on you, too, if you don’t. Take the lad and go.”
“Why, Prudy,” said Mister Frye, “you don’t really want that, do you?”
“No,” she said. Her eyes were hot and glittering. “I can’t stand the thought of bein’ alone.”
“Then don’t think it,” said Mister Frye.
So they stayed, all of them, in the close loft smelling of bile and wood smoke, and of their own bodies, while the rain hammered at the shutters. The clocks had long since wound down, and Mister Frye did not bother to wind his watch, so time was only light and dark, passing almost imperceptibly, one to another. By night, Miz Frye read Psalms aloud by candlelight, but only the pretty ones, and over and over again the story of the woman at Jacob’s well, for Prudence loved to hear about the living water and the dauncy girl with all her husbands.
Meanwhile, Cass sat by his mother’s bed, bathing her face or listening to her voice ramble through other times, among people he did not know. Now and then, she clutched his hand tight, her eyes moving, watching some shadow pass before her. “I am so sorry,” she would say to someone in the shadow. “I am so sorry.” At such times she wept.
Sometimes, when she was sleeping, Cass left the tavern and wandered along Town Creek, going down to where it joined the little river Leaf. The living water went its way, slow and indifferent; only the birds seemed interested in his passage. He felt aloneness like a physical pain, and now and then he would call on God to see if He was anywhere around. No answer ever came that he could tell.
On the last day of Prudence Wakefield’s life, a minister came by: a little round man with half-spectacles who rode the Hardshell Baptist circuit. The regular Baptist man was gone off somewhere, the Methodist and Presbyterian shepherds were dead, and the mission priest had yielded up the ghost among his scattered flock down on the Natchez Trace. So here was the circuit rider in his muddy boots and clothes, come to ease the soul of the dying woman.
Evening was coming on, and the gloom in the loft was thick, even with a candle burning. The minister took the dying woman’s hand. “Sister,” he said kindly, “what’s on your heart?”
“I am grievin’,” said Prudence, her voice no louder than the hissing of the fire. “I am afeard. I have not done well in most things. I want to . . . make confession.”
“Open your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ,” said the minister. “Bring your sins to Him.”
“I done that,” said Prudence.
“And what did He tell ye?” asked the minister.
The dying woman thought a moment. “I . . . well, never nothin’ in words. But you can say ’em. I want to hear you say ’em.”
“I can’t speak for the Lord,” said the man.
“Yes, you can,” said Prudence. “I want . . . I want you to tell me I am goin’ to heaven.”
The minister leaned forward in his chair. “Well, Sister, have ye been . . . bip-tized?”
“A long time ago,” said Prudence. “By the old church in Albemarle.”
“Ah,” said the minister. He laid her hand back on the counterpane and leaned back in his chair. “Romish?” he said.
“English,” said Prudence.
“The same,” said the minister. “Sprinkled, I reckon?”
“That was our custom,” said Prudence.
The minister leaned forward in his chair once more. “Well, that is the custom of false teachers,” he said. “Ye must be bip-tized in the way of Jesus. Ye must be buried and raised agin.”
Cass began, “She told you once already—” but Mister Frye laid a hand on his shoulder.
The minister said, “Woman, will ye be bip-tized in the way?”
Prudence Wakefield’s eyes were bright with fever, and a little flame of her fear leaped up in them. “It says once is enough,” she whispered.
“It says true,” answered the minister.
“I fear goin’ down in the cold river.”
“Then I can make no promises,” said the minister. He stood up then, scraping the chair back. “Hit’s a narrow gate,” he said.
“Now, wait a minute,” said Prudence. She held out her hand; it trembled in the space between them. “You promise me I’ll go to heaven. You say it!”
“I won’t say it. I can’t say it. ’Less you be bip-tized in the way of the Lord Jesus Christ—”
Cass shook off Mister Frye’s hand and moved against the minister. He closed his hand on the man’s sleeve. “My ma is afeared,” he said. “You tell her.”
The man shook his head sadly. He looked at Prudence. “You best get your heart right,” he said. “You best get ready. Hit’s a long time in hell.”
“Get out, sir,” said Mister Frye.
The minister shook his head again and looked at them all. Then he was gone, clumping downstairs in his muddy boots.
“Don’t you be worryin’, Prudy,” said Annie Frye. She took the dying woman’s hand. “We’ll all meet by the river one day and listen to the angels sing.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Prudence. “I don’t know.”
Cass left the tavern and walked blindly through the foul, smoky afternoon until he came to the river. He could hear the trees rattling and the soft chuckle of the water as it moved over a tangle of fallen logs. He looked up at the yellow sky smeared by a ribbon of smoke or cloud. “Is that the best You can do?” the boy said. “Ain’t it enough You are takin’ her? You had to send that man to punish her too? What did she ever do to You?” He listened, but of course no answer came. “What did she ever do to You!” he cried, but heard only his own voice echoing off the clay bluff.
That night, Cass woke from a troublesome dream. He had been among some trees by a dark shore, where a great bird visited him. He could hear it coming a long way off, then all at once it lit high in a spindly oak. There it stirred, restless, a black shape among the branches. Cass woke with the rustling of the bird in his ears. The room was hot, the window a pale square of starlit clouds. The fire was licking at a new log and made a dancing light on the walls.
“Ma?” said Cass. He listened, but no sound came from the bed. He understood then. He could not imagine God, but Death was another matter. Death was always in evidence among them; he had a smell, a substance, that followed him. Cass knew he had been here, had passed his wing over Prudence Wakefield and taken her soul away. He was about to rise when something fluttered on his chest. It had no weight, but he could feel it resting over his heart. He thought it might be a chimney sweep—the little birds got inside sometimes. Cass raised his head and saw, on his bare chest, a moth, wings outspread, eyes glittering in the firelight. The warm weather had brought it out, or the heat of the room, perhaps. When Cass moved, the moth fluttered aloft and batted against the pale square of the window. Cass could see the dust from its wings floating in the firelight.
“Ma,” he said again, and rose from his pallet and peered into the low bed. At that moment, the moth flew again from somewhere, straight into the flames on the hearth. Cass heard it sizzle and pop, though he could not see it. He touched his mother’s hand and found it cold. He took it anyway and held it until dawn, when Mister Frye arose and prized their fingers apart.
“Let her go, lad,” said Mister Frye. “Let her cross.”
“Do you think she was afeard?” said Cass.
Queenolia was there then, and enfolded the boy in her strong black arms. “Yo’ mama wan’t afeard,” said the woman. “She was all right when she heard the angels come.”
But Cass knew it was no angels that took her away. He looked to the hearth and the glowing coals; they moved and glittered, but the shell of the moth was nowhere among them. Then he went to the window where the dawn was growing and put his hand against the cold glass. He pushed the palm of his hand against the glass until it broke, drawing blood. Annie Frye came to him, wrapped him in her arms, told him that his mother was peaceful now, in a better place. Cass wasn’t listening. He watched the blood drip from his hand and cursed God—silently, for he had not the words.
They lit candles at his mother’s head and feet, and Queenolia washed the body. Cass and Mister Frye dug her grave among the cedars. They had no coffin, so Miz Annie fixed a winding sheet of her good table linens, and in this way Prudence Wakefield went into the earth. It was cold now, and their breathing made wisps of fog in the air. In a drizzling rain, they struggled with the heavy spadefuls of mud until the grave was a low sodden mound, the rain already cutting rivulets in the mud. The fresh-turned earth seemed to have a light of its own, so that it glowed among the gloom of the cedars.
“We’ll plant some periwinkles in the spring,” said Annie. “It’ll look some better then.”
Mister Frye, splattered and caked with mud, squinted at the sky. A big flock of blackbirds was streaming over, going to roost, and the sight filled Cass’s heart with a new measure of sorrow, until his cup runneth over, as the Psalm said. Then he looked over Mister Frye’s shoulder. Huddled in the branches of a big cedar was a redbird, bright against the green. It was the only one Cass had seen all winter, and it watched him now with its quick black eyes.
“Pray, Annie,” said Mister Frye. “Pray for her, if you would.”
Miz Annie nodded and folded back her shawl. Queenolia did the same, and the two women stood with the rain streaming down their upturned faces. When Miz Annie lifted her voice, it was steady, mostly. Forever afterward, Cass wished he could remember what she said. But he did remember this: when she was done, he looked at the cedar again. The redbird had flown.
Copyright © 2006 by Howard Bahr