In the end, Pearl never tried to kill anything or anybody, but no one wanted to believe that after all these years because small things, like the way a woman’s flesh slowly moves beneath her skirt or her lips curve upward over a gap-toothed smile, can mark that woman for life. The food on her plate that comes from nowhere but makes a full belly is a sign and talk that has slowed down to a bare whisper can hurry up loud again. Talk runs like water down a road leaving mud in its rutted wake.
It’s simpler than that, though. No one could explain Pearl or how she and Brother got here, what cabbage leaf their mother, Rosalie, had overturned to retrieve them and no one was going to know because the mother was gone now. Rosalie was dead and had been for years so how was somebody going to find out who had been walking in and out of that back door for thirty years? Pearl wasn’t talking. Rosalie dead. Brother gone up North someplace, the best thing for him really.
So Pearl starts working in the white folks’ kitchen when she didn’t have to. Pots and pans can stop bullets, an apron is a second, rougher shell of skin and you can say “no matter” to what happens outside or what is said. If you don’t need the money, you can take it, as long as you conjure nothing with your body or hands but a meal. Because then you can prove the daughter is nothing like the mother.
She got to be working some root just like her Mama cause how her mama get her own house? How she get all that land?
And how Pearl still staying on that place? Where she get the money?
Ain’t no man coming out the back door now but you can bet they’s one sniffing round. The mama ain’t never had no shame, you know that girl don’t either.
And if they ain’t sniffing, what’s wrong with that girl Pearl? Why can’t she find nobody? She think she too good for a colored man or she saving it for somebody else?
Umph. It’s a scandal. Something in that milk ain’t clean.
Pearl is glad she is finally five and the first day of school isn’t at church either. Pearl and Mama and Brother come to Red Mound Primitive Baptist early most Sundays so they can get a good seat and there are so many colors of people, a field like flowers in it. Different colors like her and Brother and Mama. The best part is the singing when Sister Jones stands up and closes her eyes and then starts singing a song about running along and running along and the Hand of God comes out of the mountains and sweeps the sinner away like dust and sometimes Mama starts crying, “Jesus!” in the middle of the song and sways her body back and forth. The worst part is after service, Mama smiling peace at the women, never the men, and speaking, “Hey y’all.” And there is smiling back with mouths and the women fan away heat with handkerchiefs but the women’s eyes cut at Pearl and Mama and Brother. And the women suck their teeth when Mama walks on past them down the middle aisle. Mama holds her head straight above the buttoned-up collar and she won’t look down at Pearl or Brother. Mama’s fingers squeezing Pearl’s small hands and making red marks on her skin.
The first day of school Mama calls softly to Pearl in bed, “Pearl. Pearl? Get up now,” and walks around gathering clothes, heating water in a tin pail to wash Pearl’s and Brother’s face and hands. Ten more minutes and then again, still softly but a little louder. “Pearl. Come on now, baby.” Grits and fried chicken and biscuits with cane syrup sweet and hot lemon tea and Mama is singing a made-up silly song and laughing and promising all the letters to Pearl. Pearl will be just like Brother, so smart and eating those books like they were cake. Yes she will. Mama lets Pearl wear her favorite dress that is too short, coming up to her calves and Brother making a hooting sound at the sight of Pearl’s legs. Mama says, “Stop it now. My baby girl looks good to me!”
Pearl knows the way to school; she has walked down the road every morning with Brother and Mama before she stays all day this first time. Mama thinks two miles is too long for the both of them to walk alone and too long for Pearl anyway so Mama picks Pearl up in her arms and strides fast across the dirt road. “Mama, I can do it; put me down!” Mama not listening and kissing Pearl a hundred times on her forehead and Mama looking at Brother beside them and ruffling his loopy curls with her long fingers and then putting them back in place. The first day, Rosalie drops them off at eight and picks them up when Teacher rings the big bell at two and those hours in between Pearl longs for Rosalie. Brother sits on the other side of the room out of reach, his round glasses sitting on the tip of his nose. He reads a book because Teacher lets him do as he pleases since he has moved past the other children. Pearl tries to sound out the words like Mama taught her. Where are the letters Mama has promised Pearl will be hers?
At noon, Pearl follows the other children in looking underneath the seat for her lunch pail and then the door to the schoolhouse is opened. A white man opens the door and comes inside, points his finger at several children in the room. He does not remove his hat. “You and you and you and you.” Pearl looks over at Brother shaking his head back and forth at her and his finger at his lips. “You and you and you. Come on now, y’all; I ain’t got all day.” He points to a child, a girl, sitting in front of Pearl and Pearl rises with her. “No, uh-uh, not you.” Pearl scuffs her shoes back and forth on the floor and then sits down. The children leave with the white man on a wagon heading for Mr. Big John Pinchard’s fields and they won’t be back until November.
These are the lessons Pearl remembers about a father: first rule of thumb is there is nothing wrong with a rich man as long as he is sweet. As long as he walks the miles after dark to see your mother, his shiny shoes coated with red dust, the brow of his face streaming with sweat. Waits for your mother to finish feeding chickens and slopping hogs and says a grateful “Thank you, Rosalie” for the pail of hot water she brings to him to wash the dust off those shiny shoes. Wipes his mouth with a clean white handkerchief after every bite of her simple food. Smiles and watches his children eat that food as if his nourishment depended on their own. Reads to Pearl and Brother from the big book he brings with him each evening. Kisses the heads of his ivory son and yellow daughter and pull the covers up to their chins. Opens the quilt of his and Rosalie’s bed when the thunder and rain starts and lets his frightened daughter climb in between them. Rises well before dawn, holds the mother’s slender chocolate and cream hand over his heart and then quietly closes the door of the house. Promises the mother that she and their children will never have to work the fields, that the house and the land will always belong to her. As long as he keeps his promises.
When Pearl took over for Aretha as cook, the whispers got louder. Even though Pearl kept to herself and fanned away men like so many dragonflies, only worked hard and brought home honest money, they would not let her the daughter forget the mother. She is too young to have moved that quickly through the ranks in five short years. From freelance washerwoman to maid to cook, and by the time she was twenty-four, there was Pearl. And there was Aretha “retired” at the young age of sixty-three. A joke really since Aretha had at least twenty more years of work left in her.
Aretha’s footprints on the floor of the Pinchard kitchen, her mother’s footprints before her and if the old folks’ had been there, they could have told about the women in Aretha’s family back to the plank of the ship, the ones who had stirred their spoons in Pinchard stew but now Mr. Big John had taken to his sickbed and Aretha was out. The doctor telling Mr. Big John straight out for a while now that sweets were off-limits, and now that he thought of it, bread, potatoes, and too much meat might be better left off Mr. Big John’s plate as well. It wasn’t that Mr. Big John is too sick to move; it was that the man is too fat to get up and walk. Lazy. Even a thought of getting up off that featherbed made him sweat.
Sometime after Mr. Johnny Junior’s Mama died, Mr. Big John just seemed to lose the need to move. Funny. Devotion hadn’t seemed one of the couple’s excesses but Mr. Big John laying his fat self up in bed all day long was proof of his oddity. Grave dirt was nurturing his love.
Miss Lucy, Mr. Johnny Pinchard Junior’s wife, trying to get rid of Aretha for five years anyway, ever since Miss Sally died and here was her chance. Could Aretha read the special recipes for foods that Mr. Big John requires? No? Oh, well, then. The truth was Miss Lucy was scared of Aretha. Miss Lucy remembered—who can forget?—that one afternoon before Miss Sally’s death when Aretha lost her mind and forgot where.
There wasn’t any actual digging in the soil and dirtying of the fingernails that day it happened, only an admiration of the yellow blush roses and azaleas in the outside beauty. The black servants performing their magic trick, the presenting of iced tea in high balls and the clearing away with no tinkling of silver on glass. Black invisibility is so cherished. The sun hot and white female pecking orders being established and that will make anyone hungry. Miss Sally and her ladies sat down to eat dinner at two o’clock and that’s when they found Aretha’s strange gift. Between the slices of the thinnest light bread, coated by the most aromatic of homemade mayonnaise: dark meat chicken salad. Some of the more delicate ladies who had never tasted dark meat a moment in their lives (never mind about their husbands) took sick and it was almost a year for the post office to stop losing Miss Sally’s invitations in the mail.
Make a cook happy and keep her that way; a family knew it well, and Miss Sally should have known it better. Suppose one day the lady of the house starts looking in the pots. That makes a cook get all crotchety, like a woman discovering the obscene truth that little boys follow close behind her with mirrors on the tops of their shoes. The kitchen is a cook’s domain even if she does work for a family. A black woman has to have peace somewhere in this world but a white lady can forget herself and start prying open lids and sticking her actual nose two inches from bubbling food. Now you know that’s plain nasty. Next thing, the cook’s nerves get frayed and she might forget herself as well, leave a jar of homemade mayonnaise out the icebox all night long, then serve the whole batch in some dark meat chicken salad the following day at a garden party.
What remained in the front of folks’ minds was a strange gratitude for Aretha’s situation. At least seventy years after emancipation they could call it Aretha’s “retirement” instead of “sold further down South” or “taken out in the woods and left to starve.” Come on and thank God for little favors. In the front of their minds, though, was another thing.
Just let a body take sick with the rheumatism for a week before Thanksgiving season and some folk will have your job before you can say jack rabbit.
Aretha got her moods but what is Miss Lucy thinking bringing Pearl’s mess into her house. That’s like trading the devil for the witch.
Ain’t nobody never been worried about Mr. Big John before. I bet you Mr. Johnny Junior the one who thought of this.
I guess Mr. Johnny the real one who need some healing.
There were accusations of left-handed activity (what mojo had Pearl done to make Aretha take sick in the first place?) but neither Aretha nor Pearl responded to that talk. Aretha always had a real even disposition; it took one to deal with Miss Lucy. Besides, Aretha was sanctified, never cheap with her church donations at Red Mound because she did believe in tithing. In the time-honored tradition of generations of house servants before her, Pearl cultivated a smirk starting in the corner of her mouth.
Aretha couldn’t let it go and showed up the day of sewing circle. Maybe Pearl was getting tired of the cooking of breakfast, the boiling of water to wash the dishes, the preparation for dinner and supper, the boiling of water to wash those dishes. Maybe Pearl was tired of Miss Lucy and her airs. Miss Lucy sitting around on her sofa draining glass after glass of iced tea with the other ladies, drawing pretty pictures of dresses, then handing them to Sister Jones who kneeled for hours on the Oriental rug tracing and cutting out the elaborate patterns from tissue paper and then took the patterns home and transformed them into beauty.
May Lois saw Aretha through the window and rushed downstairs to the kitchen. Uh-oh now, here it comes but Miss Lucy rang her bell and May Lois had to hurry up and carry out a tray of sandwiches and sliced pound cake to the parlor. There was a bare-bones “How do, Miss Aretha” and then a hurrying away. When May Lois got back, running, Aretha was turning redder than usual—she was a meriney colored woman in the first place—and struggling to stand up from her chair. Aretha was taking in breath hard but none coming out and the old woman’s fallen bosom rose higher and higher. A hissing noise in her throat like a snake about to strike. The air finally rushed back out and that’s when she lost her religion. Called Pearl “a evil yellow heifer that ain’t got no daddy” and starting calling down on Pearl’s head curses shaded with the Lord’s name. Then she yelled out Mr. Big John’s name over and over, but how was he supposed to hear her two floors above the kitchen and probably asleep anyway?
Pearl stayed still up until Aretha’s last conniption, until Aretha flopped on the big oak table face first in a plate of pound cake May Lois had been saving to take home. Then Pearl turned Aretha over, brushing the crumbs of cake off her mouth and chin.
These are the lessons Pearl remembers about a husband: There is nothing wrong with a poor man as long as he is sweet. As long as he will walk the miles barefooted to see you on Sunday evening, your only time off, his creaking brogans tied together by the laces and dangling from the fingers of his hand. Wait for you to finish feeding chickens and slopping hogs and say a grateful “Thank you, Pearl” for the pail of hot water you bring to him to wash the bottoms of his aching feet. As long as he doesn’t ask about your father or mind your light brown skin and your stick-straight hair. Follows you around like you are Jesus Risen.
The next time Pearl showed up to church was six years later, the day of her marriage to Henry Collins. Folk didn’t think Pearl would have the nerve to come back to church, even to get married. When Pearl walked into Red Mound the day of her wedding, wearing that white linen shirt waist and skirt—and a veil!—and escort by Mr. Johnny Pinchard as she walked down the aisle, the people would have stopped in the middle of shouting Holy Ghost if there had been preaching that day.
Way past thirty and trying to marry Henry so soon cause she scared that mojo she working gone wear off if she didn’t hurry up.
You know that satisfied look on Henry’s face don’t have nothing to do with Pearl’s cooking. She might be bright-skinned with good hair, but that big butt of hers come straight from across the water.
I don’t care if she do get married. She gone turn out just like her mama. Hear me, now.
Won’t it Henry himself said he wouldn’t be caught alive or dead with no bright yellow woman? That ain’t right. You know his people liked to died. They them Siniglese niggers, ain’t they?
Wait a minute, now, don’t put the bad mouth on Henry. Henry put up with a lot. Ain’t it Pearl done gone somewhere and brought back that damned hawk tied out back of the house?
Henry a brave man, you got to give him that. Most men be scared Pearl gone get mad one day and feed him something to make him lose his nature.
I tell you one thing, I wouldn’t want no leftovers from Mr. Johnny’s plate. Got the nerve to be walking that girl down the aisle.
Henry Collins, the man whom Pearl married. The man who saved for six months to give Pearl on their wedding day a silver-backed brush for the strange, dark corn silk on her head. The man who waited, back straight, by the altar while Mr. Johnny Junior walked Pearl down the aisle. The man who does not ask Pearl to work her mother’s land with him, but throws off the covers of his side of the bed before dawn each morning except Sunday and strokes the heads of each of the three children before leaving; alone, he harnesses the mule. The man who feeds the strange hawk tied up out back, the beak stained from its meal. Who talks to the hawk in a mumbled language all his own, asking forgiveness for the gift of its talon. The man who saved the baby girl from dying.
No one wished the sickness on Pearl’s last child, but there was a certain satisfaction to it all. After the grief she had caused on both the black and white sides of the railroad tracks and her silence in the face of it, at least she is not immune from bearing that grief herself. The sickness crept inside and one morning in spring, Annie Mae came down with a high fever and her eyeballs rolled up in the back of her head. She cried out for her mother and Pearl knew she wasn’t taking Annie Mae with her to the Pinchard’s kitchen or leaving her at home either, not this morning.
It was as if the dark skin of other two children, Rose and Brother Junior was armor against the sickness, that the girl who resembled Pearl the most must have been vulnerable somehow. Late at night, the measles crept into Annie Mae’s mouth, pursed even in her sleep with a kiss for the trumpet her daddy had bought for Brother Junior but that Henry had taught the eager Annie Mae to play instead. “This is an angel’s horn, boy,” Henry insisted. “If you blow that God will come.” Brother Junior gave Henry solemn gratitude then gave the battered trumpet to Annie Mae.
That spring morning Pearl woke up early with Henry. A pebble formed across the smooth surface of her mind and Pearl had dreamed of strange colors. She stood over Annie Mae’s bed and saw the rash everywhere on Annie Mae’s skin, the forehead hot enough to fry one of Mr. Johnny’s breakfast eggs, but his breakfast now forgotten. She bathed Annie Mae in cool water every hour. Henry gave her his portion of meat to make a clear broth; as a child he was used to hunger, eating nothing but the feet and necks of birds his father discarded after taking the rest for himself. Henry is used to small sacrifices. Pearl spooned the broth into Annie Mae three times a day but the skin stayed hot and the rash wouldn’t leave.
If women would tell their daughters about the pain, invasion in one’s womb three-quarters of a year, the marks formed on one’s waist, the flaps of skin never to tighten again, would there be any children? And if the rest was revealed, that one day you could stand above a creation wrought from your own blood, only to discover it was dust, surely the earth would be barren. Death come creeping in the room crouching in a corner, laughing. Think again, girl, that this child belongs to you.
The first morning Miss Lucy shows up at the door, whining. Where has Pearl been? Doesn’t she know Mr. Johnny Junior gets cross when his break-fast isn’t on the table and on time? Then threatening. Mr. Big John has been asking about Pearl. He’s going to be angry. Then whining again.
The first night May Lois shows up. She’s been promoted again and now she is crying. Miss Lucy be yelling today, did Pearl know that? Well, then, did Pearl know Miss Lucy done broke six of her own good china dishes trying to make one meal for Mr. Johnny and Mr. Big John and now she be taking that china out Pearl’s wages?
The second morning, Pearl falls on creaking knees. She hasn’t been to church since her wedding day but she prays every night by her bedside so she won’t forget how. She prays and prays and prays the second day into night, falls asleep on her knees and dreams of thunder and the screaming of broken-legged hawks. A man chanting. Gabriel come down with his trumpet to play a muted song, mumbled praise muffled. Angel’s feathers bloodied by God. The third morning Pearl awakes, her back aching. She smells soup bubbling on the stove. Her good Henry trying to cook the baby’s last meal, trying to save his Pearl an hour’s sleep. No matter, Pearl knows her child is dead. She has dreamed of blood, her womb has sighed its last. She should be crying but no matter, God’s will be done. His will be done. His will be done. His will be done. She rambles through her basket; she will sew the prettiest dress to bury her baby in, one that Annie Mae would never wear if she was alive. Gathers. His will be done. Lace. His will be done. The lavender colors of sky. His will be done.
She hears Henry talking. “Drink this, baby. Drink it all up, now. That’s right. Don’t Daddy cook a good soup, better than your mama’s?” Henry’s rusty laugh and Annie Mae giggling, a dead child rising again. “That’s right. That’s Daddy’s good girl.” His will be done.
After Pearl quit the Pinchard’s kitchen, saying Henry and her children needed her on the farm full-time, Mr. Big John just went downhill and gained more and more weight. Pearl seemed to be the only one who had kept him together but now Miss Lucy just didn’t have the backbone to say no to Mr. Big John’s sweet tooth or his demands for full meals six times a day, no matter how many lectures she heard from the doctor about Mr. Big John’s diet. Mr. Big John was not to be denied and every other morning, he sent a wagon to Pearl’s and Henry’s house to pick up Pearl and Annie Mae and bring them to the Big House to spend the day with him in his room, listening to him read out of a big book to Pearl and the baby girl. He tried to intimidate Pearl into making her famous pound cake for him, too. Obviously Aretha couldn’t come out of retirement, and bless her heart, May Lois had to be the worst cook God ever set down on earth. Won’t she come back, even for Mr. Big John? No? Then Pearl was a heartless, cruel creature.
Pearl refused to cook, at least for Miss Lucy’s kitchen and Mr. Big John’s dessert plate, so Miss Lucy took to riding shotgun once a week when May Lois drove to Macon to pick up special cream cakes from the Italian bakery. Miss Lucy was the only one surprised that in less than six months after Pearl’s quitting her kitchen, Mr. Big John died from some kind of attack.
Mr. Johnny got the house and pretty much every other business in town, but Mr. Big John had not forgotten to be generous to others as well. He left two hundred acres, a small house with hardwood floors, and a yearly stipend of five thousand dollars to Rosalie Driscoll, Pearl’s mother, his “good and faithful servant, whose daughter, Pearl Driscoll, and son, John Thomas Driscoll, I have considerable affection for. In the event of Rosalie’s death, the land and the house are to be passed down as Pearl sees fit as long as they remain in her family. The yearly stipend is to be split between Pearl and John Thomas until their deaths.”
The problem was that Rosalie never had worked as a servant for Mr. Big John Pinchard or his mother and father, either; she’d never even been in the Pinchard Big House. At least to anyone’s recollection, Rosalie never had worked a day when she alive, period—outside of her own small farm feeding a few chickens, some hogs, and milking the one cow. A woman that good-looking with a face and neck chiseled out of black stone, breaking a sweat and getting calluses on her fingertips for five dollars a week working for white folks? Not likely.
Mr. Johnny Junior wasn’t bothered by the confusion of the will in the least, said it simply was proof that what folks had been saying about his daddy behind his back was wrong. Mr. Big John did not squeeze a dollar until the bird hollered after all.
There Pearl is, up on the wall there.
Now you don’t hear me, you just seeing a picture of some old lady born over a hundred years ago.
Don’t be fooled by that dress hanging long past her ankles.
Don’t be fooled by them eyes turned gray in the middle, long hair plaited up close to her skull.
Yeah, her and her husband dead and gone but that one-legged hawk still tied up out back.
Stories about that woman up and down these dirt and paved roads. Mud running along the path since the time her waist was small.
She won’t nothing but trouble. I’m telling you what I know.
That girl Pearl had a mojo strong.
Copyright © 2004 by F. Brett Cox and Andy Duncan