MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Cassie and Lil Ma and Grandmother lived in a house at the far end of Negro Street in two rooms over the laundry that they ran in Heron-Neck. Whoever had lived there before had papered the walls of the upstairs rooms, every inch of them, with newspapers, spread-out magazine pages, and letters. One crumbling page of newspaper showed a white man with a rifle standing over an animal, which Lil Ma said was a lion, which Grandmother said was a wild animal from Africa that would eat you in one bite. Below the lion a page torn from a magazine showed a rabbit eating a head of lettuce. Underneath the rabbit the words said, Ridding your garden of pests. Over by the back window were pictures of ladies in beautiful dresses, all tall and slender, like Lil Ma. There were no pictures that looked like Grandmother, who was short and round. None of the ladies on the walls were colored either.
Lil Ma taught Cassie to read by showing her the words on the walls and making her say them properly. Before bed, she and Cassie would find a patch of wall and sound out the letters. There was a picture of an elephant by one of the front windows with words underneath that said, Tuska Lives on Coney Island. Coney Island was a long way from Heron-Neck, Mississippi, Lil Ma said. One summer when the circus came to town, Lil Ma took Cassie down to the other end of Negro Street and across the railroad tracks to see the animals, but said Grandmother wouldn’t want them to spend the nickel to see the show. They watched an elephant sway in its chains and a lion pace in a cage. Clowns sang a funny song; a monkey in a little suit danced and caught peanuts in its mouth. Music started inside the tent, and the white people went in with their ice cream cones. Cassie and Lil Ma went home, across the tracks and back to the laundry, where Grandmother was waiting with a stack of linens to be pressed.
Negro Street had houses on one side and railroad siding on the other. Instead of trees there were electric poles that had been standing beside the tracks for years without wires. Beanie Simms, who lived in the house next to the laundry, had three shoeshine chairs in front of the barbershop on the white side of town and a falling-apart truck in front of his own place. In the spring, when everyone on Negro Street planted greens, melon, and tomatoes between the electric poles, Mister Simms was the only one who didn’t put up a wire fence to keep the rabbits out. The rabbits got into the other gardens anyway, but Mister Simms said they left his alone. When Cassie asked him why, he showed her a stick carved to look like the head of an animal poking out from between perfect heads of lettuce.
“It’s a fox,” Cassie said.
“It only look like a fox,” said Mister Simms. “But th’ rabbit think it real.”
When Cassie told Grandmother about Mister Simms’s fox, Grandmother said that Beanie Simms worked his soil with chicken innards before he planted, and the smell of blood was what kept the rabbits away.
Beanie Simms was sought after on account of his advice and his magic. Sometimes people would come in from other towns and wait at his door all day for him to come home from the shoeshine so they could ask him for guidance when they’d been ’witched. Because she was only six, Cassie was allowed to sit unnoticed on her own front stoop and watch as Beanie Simms dispensed special charms. All his business was transacted in front of his house in a couple of lawn chairs; Beanie Simms never let anyone inside, and Cassie learned a lot from what she heard. For example, there was a special way black folks could turn white, but it required a long trip east of town, and once you went there, you could never come back. She was so captivated by this information that she asked Grandmother about it. Grandmother gave her a hard look.
“If that’s true,” Grandmother said, “then why doesn’t he leave town and take his hoodoo with him?”
Lil Ma was neighborly enough with Beanie Simms, but after Cassie told her story about how black folks could turn white, Lil Ma told Cassie never to sit on the front stoop while Mister Simms was out there with his eager listeners. When Cassie knew Lil Ma wasn’t watching, she sat out by Beanie Simms anyway.
As for schooling, when she was seven, Cassie went to school for one whole day. Since she already knew how to read and count, the teacher let her sit in the back of the classroom with a group of older boys, who ignored her, talking in low voices about girls and money. The way they talked sounded improper, but Cassie couldn’t keep herself from listening. Finally, one of the boys noticed her and said, “Ain’t you the laundry girl?” When she said yes, he said, “Ain’t your mama Adelaine?” The other boys snickered. The first boy said with a knowledgeable air, “You know what we call your mama? ‘I’da Lain’ down with any ol’ white man.’” The other boys hooted with laughter, and the teacher looked at them. The first boy leaned closer to Cassie. “So how come you ain’t any lighter than your ma?”
When Cassie got home that day, Grandmother asked what she’d learned, and Cassie said, “I ain’t learned nuthin’.” Grandmother decided it was the last of school for her.
That same year Cassie noticed the southern Mississippi heat for the first time. On dry days the dust rose in weightless puffs when Cassie stepped her feet in it, and stayed in the air around her, sticking to her sweaty legs and to the hem of her dress, to her hands, and to the white sheets when she took them down from the lines strung in the yard behind the laundry. Dust flavored the collards and sweet potatoes Lil Ma cooked. Dust lay on the walls and collected in the creases of the papers, letters, and spread-out pages of old magazines, drifting into a thin layer over everything. On wet days, when the air was too heavy even to rain, the heat turned the distance into a white haze, and the dust became a damp grit. On those days it was impossible to run; no one went out to play.
On summer evenings, the houses on Negro Street cast shade over their own front stoops, and the maids, the oil men, and Beanie Simms would come home and sit out front until after dark. Grandmother sometimes pulled a chair out in front of the laundry’s plate-glass window to peel potatoes or snap beans. Men would walk by and nod to her. Lil Ma would come out from the storefront after doing the ironing, shiny with sweat, her blouse as wet as if she’d just washed it. Other colored women would stop and talk to Lil Ma and Grandmother. Every one of these women called Lil Ma Lainey instead of Adelaine, and every time they did, Grandmother would correct them. She was unfriendly about it, as though she was the only one who knew what was proper. Eventually, the only people who stopped by were the colored women who brought the laundry from the big houses across town. None of them stayed to talk, and after two or three weeks without conversation out front, Grandmother took her chair to a shady spot out back of the laundry and snapped beans and peeled potatoes there.
One afternoon while Lil Ma was cleaning collards and Grandmother was peeling potatoes, Cassie heard Grandmother tell Lil Ma that the Negroes in Heron-Neck were the most rude of any, anywhere they had ever lived. Cassie asked, “Where did we live before?” And Lil Ma told her that she and Grandmother had been in another part of Mississippi before Cassie was born. Cassie asked if that was where Lil Ma was born, and Lil Ma told her, no, she had grown up somewhere else, and Grandmother had been born and grown up in a place even farther away. Cassie asked where those places were, and Grandmother would only say that they were farther south in Mississippi and that it only mattered where they were right now. Other children on Negro Street had aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandfathers. “Where is the rest of our family?” Cassie asked. Lil Ma got down on her knees and hugged Cassie and said this was the only family Cassie would ever need. Grandmother sliced the skins off the potatoes with short, angry strokes, and the subject didn’t come up again until well after Cassie discovered her father.
Cassie’s father and his real family lived on the other side of town, but not in one of the big houses. She found out about him the same summer she noticed the heat and dust. She and Lil Ma and Grandmother were walking across the hot street between Saul’s Grocery and the Mobil station. Lil Ma had been saying something about rain coming on when a fat, clean-shaven white man passed them, crossing the other way. He barely glanced at the three of them, but Lil Ma, holding Cassie’s hand, tightened her grip and stopped talking. Cassie said, “Who is he?” and Grandmother said, “You’ve got everything you’re ever going to get from him.” From that, and from murmurs she heard on the rare Sundays when they went to church, Cassie knew the fat white man was her father and that his name was William Forrest, and that what had happened, in order for him to be her father, had happened before she was born, when Lil Ma had been doing laundry for the oil men south of town.
After that, Cassie noticed him more often. She noticed his family. His flushed wife, Miz Helen, came to pick up the wash for the wealthy white women in town whose colored maids were too busy to do it themselves. Miz Helen loaded the cloth sacks into two faded red children’s wagons and took them, rattling along the street, all the way across town and up the hill to where the big houses idled under big trees. She earned pennies this way. Her children came with her, in patched hand-me-downs. One was a boy named Henry. The other was a girl, Judith, a year older than Cassie, who had the same look as her father—as Cassie’s father—and who stared over the counter at Cassie as if she saw something she recognized while Cassie folded white handkerchiefs. There was a mirror upstairs, and when Cassie was nine, she was tall enough to see herself without having to stand on a chair and see only the top half of her face. She tried to see what Judith saw. Narrow jaw. Wide-set eyes. The color Lil Ma had said was cinnamon, when Cassie was little, and Lil Ma had given her the wonderful-smelling stuff on the tip of her tongue. Cassie grimaced, thinking of the spice’s dry, sweetish taste, and in the sudden twist of her mouth saw William Forrest and also saw Judith. She stared at herself and understood why Judith stared.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, when Miz Helen came for the laundry, Cassie couldn’t take her eyes off Judith. There was a week when Judith came in every day, and the two of them would study each other. It was all Cassie could do to keep from saying something. She was never sure what that something would be, but words were about to spring out of her mouth. One Friday when Judith came in, Lil Ma took Cassie’s chin between her fingers and, as Judith watched, pulled Cassie’s face around so Cassie could see the expression on Lil Ma’s face. It was different than any she’d ever seen before, or maybe it was the same look she had been too little to understand when William Forrest had walked by on the street two years ago or when she’d asked Grandmother about Beanie Simms’s magical destination where colored folks could turn white. Lil Ma let go, and Cassie concentrated on her folding until Miz Helen and her children left.
* * *
William Forrest left his family the year Cassie turned ten.
One morning in August, Judith came to pick up the laundry without her mother. Mrs. Duckett, who cleaned for the Clements, was there with her big son, James. Mrs. Duckett, who was in a gossipy mood and didn’t seem to mind calling Lil Ma Adelaine, said, “Watch if Miz Helen show up.” Miz Helen didn’t.
Judith was eleven and thin. She stood outside in the heat with her hands at her sides while James Duckett, whose mind, at seventeen, had grown no older than five or six years old, took the heavy bags of laundry down from the counter and out to the two faded red wagons. Cassie and Lil Ma and Grandmother and Mrs. Duckett watched through the plate-glass window
“How she gone haul all that up the hill?” said Mrs. Duckett.
“Maybe she thinks your James’ll do it,” said Grandmother.
“I ain’t sending my boy no place with that girl,” said Mrs. Duckett. “Let the whole town talk about her daddy ’fore she gets to makin’ up stories about my James.”
James patted the bags into place and smiled his big little-boy smile and walked back into the laundry. The screen door slapped behind him, and the hot breath of the day followed him in.
Outside, Judith picked up the handle of one of the wagons and then the handle of the other. She turned and pulled like a plow mule. The wagons barely budged. She pulled again, arms stretched out behind her, eyes on the hot white concrete sidewalk. She certainly knew the faces behind the plate-glass window were watching.
Cassie stood at the screen door, feeling the heat behind it. Judith moved away, slowly, down Negro Street.
“Don’t you think about going out there,” said Lil Ma. “She’s doing just fine.”
Cassie pushed the door open and stepped into the hot, humid morning. The words she felt finally formed and came out of her mouth. “She didn’t know who her daddy was gone be!”
She ran and caught up to Judith at the corner, where she was waiting for a break in the scant traffic.
“Git away,” said Judith. “I don’t need no help.”
“I ain’t here to help you.”
Judith kept both hands locked around the wagon handles. Sweat ran down her neck. There were purplish circles under her eyes. Her lank brown hair looked uncombed. Her dress was a grimy pink, falling just above her knees, like she’d grown out of it too fast for the next hand-me-down to catch up. Cassie wore hand-me-downs too, but hers were freshly laundered, and Lil Ma hemmed them properly.
Judith jerked the wagons over the wooden planks of the railroad crossing and across the next road. Cassie followed her into the shade of the trees lining the old neighborhood streets. The houses had been nice once; they were shabby now and broken up into apartments. The white men who worked in the oil fields lived here. Their wives and daughters did what they could for money, and those who couldn’t find work watched what went on outside from their windows. The colored maids who kept the big houses on the hill walked through this neighborhood every day. Judith and her family lived around here somewhere.
Judith stopped and wiped her face on her sleeve and held one of the wagon handles out to Cassie. “Well, it don’t look right, do it?” she said and angled her head at a clapboard house with peeling paint. In one of the upstairs windows, a flowered curtain fell back into place.
“I ain’t here to help you.”
“Why the hail are you here?”
All Cassie’s life there had been a laundry counter between the two of them. This close, the family resemblance seemed less clear. Cassie knew she’d be punished when she got back to the laundry, which made her less in a rush to get back. She took a wagon handle and pulled.
Each wagon was heavy enough where the street was flat. Judith could not have managed both once the road angled upward. The two of them walked along, the wagons rumbling behind. It was so hot, even the birds were quiet, and the leaves of the old plane trees hung limp.
“You wanna know where my daddy went?” said Judith.
“He run off with ’nother woman.” Judith changed hands on the wagon handle. “Rich woman, my momma said.”
“What rich woman?” said Cassie.
“No one ever said her name.”
“Why a rich woman wanna run off with a oil-field man?”
“My momma said she was a hoor.”
“A rich hoor?” said Cassie. The rusty wagon handle felt gritty in her fist. “I never heard of a rich hoor.”
“I seen ’em dressed real nice.”
“I seen ’em wearin’ the same clothes all the time.”
Judith wiped a damp hand on her grubby dress. “You know any? I mean personally.”
“One. But I only see her in church. My mama don’t mix with her.”
“We got three come to our church.” She aimed a thumb over her shoulder, back toward town. “I hear the Catholics got half a dozen.”
Cassie laughed and then stopped herself. “Jesus prob’ly didn’t laugh at the hoors.”
“Prob’ly not. Here’s the hill, now. Pull!”
* * *
Cassie had never been up the hill or anywhere near the mansions. The first house sat well back from the curb at the end of a driveway lined with rosebushes and azaleas. The front yard was like a forest, filled with spreading maples. The front door, which Cassie could just see through the canopy of leaves, was framed by tall columns. Pots of flowers lined the front porch. Wisteria in full bloom hung from the eaves like bolts of purple bunting.
Judith flipped through the tags on the laundry sacks until she found the one she was looking for. “Leave that wagon,” she said. “Come on.”
Cassie followed Judith down the cobbled driveway. The wagon rattled between the trees, and Judith slowed, concentrating on noiselessly approaching the house. The driveway split as they came out from under the trees, one part leading to a side entrance where there was a low roof. Cassie came to a stop in the split while Judith labored on, dragging the wagon along the drive to where it disappeared around the back of the house. Cassie had seen pictures like this side entrance to the house on the walls at home. The side entrance was a place made for carriages and horses. Carriages and horses and white women in silks filled Cassie’s mind until she noticed that the sound of wagon wheels had stopped. She saw the white face in the window of the side door, looking right at her. Was it a man or a woman or a tall child? The face vanished, and the door jerked open. Cassie turned and ran down the drive, to the other wagon, pushed up against the curb.
Judith clattered back while Cassie waited, pulling up her wilting socks. Judith hauled her wagon into the street. She had something clenched in her fist. Nickels.
“Why you run off?”
“There was someone at the window.”
Judith put whatever she’d been paid into the pocket of her dress. There wasn’t even the clink of two coins. “You supposed to be helpin’ me.”
“Then you should pay me.”
“I ain’t payin’ you nuthin’.”
Cassie eyed the road ahead. It was long and steep. “Guess I’ll go home.”
“Your momma sent you to help me.”
“My mama said you doin’ just fine. She gone whup me when I get back.”
“I give you three—no, two cent.”
“How much you get?”
“A nickle each house.”
“You had nine bags.”
“MacReedys’ get two.”
Judith pushed her hands into her hair. “Cain’t,” she said, and Cassie thought Judith might start to cry. “Mah daddy ain’t left us nuthin’.”
* * *
The next house was well out of sight of the first one, though only partway up the hill. Judith took the wagon Cassie had been pulling. Cassie waited, sweating at the curb. Even the driveway went up, vanishing into a forest of lilacs, oak, and hydrangea. Cassie could barely see the house. Judith returned with money in her fist. She held her palm out to Cassie, and Cassie took the hot nickel.
The transaction felt strange. “Thanks,” said Cassie.
“Don’t tell nobody I’m payin’ a nigger girl.”
“You say that again, an’ I’m tellin’ everybody you my sister.”
Judith worked her fist around the handle of the wagon. Her mouth tightened and made a little twist at the edge, not like a smile, not like a reflection of her father. The meaning in the look wasn’t something Cassie could identify.
“All right,” said Judith.
This felt strange, like Judith had been waiting for Cassie to say what they were.
“You swear,” said Cassie.
“I swear.” Judith looked at her. “You think people can tell?”
“Only if they want to.”
Judith turned to plod up the rest of the hill.
* * *
Cassie came home late in the hottest part of the afternoon through the white part of town, past Tawney’s Store, past Beanie Simms’s three shoeshine chairs in front of the barber shop, past Saul’s Grocery, where Mister Saul would wait on white folks in the front and coloreds in the back. She crossed the tracks and made her way to the end of Negro Street, where the front door of the laundry was propped open for whatever breeze there was. Inside, Cassie pushed through the swinging gate in the laundry counter and through a second door, which opened into the tiny kitchen in the back room. An old coal stove took up half the space in the kitchen and got hot enough to warm both rooms upstairs in the winter. There was room for a table with three chairs. Two shelves for dishes and cups fit into the space under the staircase that led up to the second floor.
The kitchen was blistering: The stove burned high, lined with half a dozen irons, which Cassie would be using after supper to press shirts and trousers. Cassie wiped sweat from under her lip. She opened the back screen door into the small dirt yard. Even the heat of the evening seemed cooler than being inside.
Grandmother was pinning up the day’s wash—mostly sheets. Bleached and starched, the sheets hung in tight rows. Before Grandmother clipped each sheet to the clothesline, Cassie was supposed to dampen the small dirt yard with a watering can to keep the dust from rising up to grime the clean white seams. Dampening the ground had been Cassie’s job even when she was too little to do much else. Today she had forgotten to do it, so Grandmother probably had. No doubt Cassie would hear about it. Once, when she was six or seven, Beanie Simms had told her that his father had owned the shoeshine chairs before him and had told Beanie Simms when he was a boy that the business would be his one day. The thought that something might be hers when she was grown had struck Cassie—the watering can, the newspaper pictures on the walls upstairs, even the laundry itself—all of it hers. She had asked Grandmother about it, and Grandmother had taken the clothespins out of her mouth and said, “When you have your own child, we’ll go away and raise it in some other place.” When Cassie thought about that conversation later, she was never sure she hadn’t dreamed it, but the force of Grandmother’s reaction had seemed real enough.
Grandmother shaded her eyes at Cassie and pointed to a pan of yams and a bowl of green beans sitting on the back steps. There was a knife to peel the yams. Cassie sat and took the pan of yams in her lap and slid the knife under the clay-colored skin.
Grandmother sat next to her. She took up the bowl of beans.
“You shouldn’t have gone off with that white girl,” said Grandmother. She began snapping the beans, pulling out the tough threads. “You made your mother and me very unhappy.”
A window rattled open in its sash upstairs. Lil Ma, in the heat of the second floor.
“You went with her because you think she’s your sister. Did she act like your sister?”
Cassie wasn’t sure what the correct answer was, but she knew what to say. “Nome.”
“She never will.” Grandmother broke a bean neatly in half. “You want to know where you come from. I’ll tell you where you come from. From Lil Ma’s blood, and Lil Ma came from my blood, and my blood came down through your great-great-grandmother, who was a slave woman named Cassandra, just like we named you.” Grandmother took up another handful of beans and snapped their ends off. “Cassandra’s father was a white man. He seeded the land with cotton, and he seeded his slave women, and he got him a white woman for a wife, and he seeded her too. He had two children by her, a girl and a boy. The girl died of sickness, and the boy grew up into a murdering criminal. The boy had to run from the law, but while he was running, he took after his father and seeded his way all around the state. His descendants are all around here. I’m one of them. You’re one of them. That white girl is too, I’d bet, which would make her your half sister and your cousin. But no matter how twice-related you are, she’s no kin to you. Kin has a feeling for how far back the blood goes.” She rifled the beans, looking with her fingertips for any that had escaped with their ends on. “She’ll never have that feeling for you.”
* * *
Later that summer, Lil Ma sent Cassie up to the Wivells’ to give Mrs. Hill a package of table linens, which had been specially pressed. At the Wivells’ big fancy house, Mrs. Hill’s daughter Bethel opened the kitchen door. Bethel was eleven, a year older than Cassie, and was allowed to play the organ in church. She wore black-and-white saddle shoes, which were always spotless no matter how dusty or damp the ground.
“Them the linens?” said Bethel.
Cassie handed them up. Bethel examined the package, wrapped with paper and string, but didn’t open it. “My mama have to check ’em,” she said.
“Check ’em for what?”
“Wait here.” Bethel disappeared inside. The screen door slammed behind her.
The late August air was hot and thick. Bethel’s shoes clumped away and then returned. She opened the door and came outside. “Mama’s busy,” she announced. “She be here presently.”
They stood together on the threshold of the kitchen in the heat. Cassie’s eyes wandered downward to Bethel’s shoes again. “Where’d you git those?” she said.
“Mama brought ’em home.”
Which meant they were castoffs from one of the little white Wivell girls.
“You like ’em?” said Bethel. She cocked her hip so one shoe stuck out farther than the other. “Mebbe you should ask your daddy t’git you a pair.”
“I ain’t got no daddy,” said Cassie.
“You know who your daddy is.”
Cassie looked past Bethel at the gleaming kitchen to show that even if she did know, she didn’t care.
“My daddy got a wood shop,” said Bethel. “He fix stuff for folks.”
Cassie had once overheard Beanie Simms tell Lil Ma that Bethel’s daddy couldn’t put a broken-down, two-dollar chair back together proper.
Bethel shifted and stuck out the other shoe. “Wanna hear who I’m a’gonna marry?”
This shoe had a dent in the toe, but the dent was mostly hidden with white polish. “Who?” said Cassie.
“You know Tommy Main?”
“His daddy got ten acres o’ good lumber. You know what lumber is?”
“Trees. Tommy’s daddy make wagons and such. He sell ’em to the white folks. Tommy gonna take over the business one day. I’ll be his wife, an’ we gonna have some money. Money and ten acres of good lumber.”
What would happen when all the trees were cut down? Bethel would probably consider that a stupid question. Any eleven-year-old who already knew who her husband was going to be would probably have thought that far ahead.
“I’ll be Bethel Main,” said Bethel.
“That sound nice,” said Cassie.
Bethel pulled her dented saddle shoe back. “Who you gonna marry?”
She said it in such a mean-sounding way, Cassie had to look up from the fascinating shoes.
Bethel gave Cassie a nasty little smile. “You ain’t gonna git married. Your granny gonna find you a white man an’ make you have a baby with him.” She waited for Cassie to say something, but Cassie was too surprised to say a word. “She made your mama do it. She gonna make you do it. She gonna find the whitest boy in town for you—ghost-white if she can. Ever’body in town know it.” She took a step closer. “You think it gonna be one o’ the Wivells? Or maybe Joey MacReedy—that blond-headed boy plays football?”
Cassie reached for Bethel’s arm, meaning to grab her wrist, to squeeze it hard enough to hurt. Bethel yanked back, tried to turn, and fell in the dirt outside the kitchen door instead. She kicked at Cassie with the hard saddle shoes, missed, and jumped up to let fly with both fists. Cassie hit her first, in the shoulder. Bethel staggered. Cassie swung again and caught the girl’s mouth with the edge of her hand, and Bethel fell hard with a split lip. Bethel touched her mouth, saw the blood, and screamed. The screen door opened, and Mrs. Hill came down on the two of them like a thundercloud. She jerked Cassie up by the yoke of her dress and shook her hard. “What’s the matter with you, crazy gal? What is the matter with you?”
Cassie opened her mouth to say what Bethel had said, but what came out in a hot rush was “What she said!”
Bethel, on her feet and quivering, hand over her mouth, said, “I tol’ her the truth, Mama.”
Mrs. Hill let go, and Cassie jerked away. Her head felt like it was boiling and light and ready to float off into the trees. She ran down the long drive and out into the street. A breathless wind was rising from below. She ran from it, past the big rich houses, until she was at the top of the hill.
There was a sharp twist in the road, with a metal guard to keep cars from going off the edge. Cassie climbed over the metal guard and pushed her way through the weeds until she had a clear view of the river, where it bent, here and there, like the neck of a heron. Below, in the overcast afternoon, the railroad tracks paralleled the river to where it bent, then crossed the water and headed east alongside a macadam road. The tracks and the road narrowed to nothing and vanished into the forested hills in the distance. Gray clouds hung over everything.
* * *
That evening, Lil Ma was waiting for Cassie downstairs in the kitchen, heating irons on the stove. “You took your time.” Cassie came through the swinging door in the counter. “What happened to you?”
Cassie touched her hair, which felt wild, and her dirty clothes. “Nothing.”
“Mrs. Hill was by. She said you hit Bethel in the mouth. I didn’t believe her.”
There was no denying it. “I hit her.”
Lil Ma rearranged the irons. Her hair had gone frizzy in the humidity, but her dress, her shapely arms and legs were like the pictures of the ladies on the walls upstairs. Behind her, half a dozen bridesmaids’ dresses, pressed to perfection, were on hangers over the back door like a dark purple curtain, as though Lil Ma was on a stage. “I told her I didn’t raise my girl to be violent.”
“I did hit her,” said Cassie, “because of what she said about us.”
“People say all kinds of things,” said Lil Ma. “You can’t live your life by what comes out of ignorant mouths.” Her tone was cool in the hot room, level, like the irons on the stove. Everything Bethel had said, Cassie now understood, Lil Ma had heard before.
Upstairs the floor creaked under Grandmother’s feet. Lil Ma moved two of the dresses, unblocking the door to the backyard. “You look tired,” she said, “and it’s awfully hot in here. Why don’t you go out and sit for a while?”
“Yessum,” said Cassie. She slipped past Lil Ma, past the rustling purple curtain of bridesmaids’ dresses, through the door, and into the dusk.
She sat where she could hear what was being said inside and not be seen from the door. “I thought I heard Cassie,” said Grandmother. “She’s not home yet,” said Lil Ma. “I heard another voice,” said Grandmother. “You must have been dreaming,” said Lil Ma.
Grandmother’s footsteps creaked across the floor and back up the stairs. Cassie listened to the hissing of the irons as Lil Ma worked. She looked at the stars and the thin sliver of moon. The back door opened, and Lil Ma stepped out into the narrow frame of light that fell across the back steps. She sat next to Cassie.
“What did Bethel say?”
“She said that you … and Grandmother … and I was supposed to…” She couldn’t bring herself to say anything more.
Lil Ma ran the hem of her apron back and forth through her fingers. She looked up at the second-floor window where Grandmother had been and lowered her voice to a whisper. “It’s true.”
“Now listen to me. Your great-great-grandmother Cassandra saw how the lightest of the mixed children could escape. She made a plan to take whiteness, bit by bit from the white man.” Lil Ma gripped her apron. “Not every daughter could keep to the plan. Your grandmother couldn’t. She fell in love with a very dark man.”
“Who was he?”
“I never knew him. Your grandmother left that part of Mississippi before I was born, and she told me my daddy was dead. Maybe he is. Maybe if she’d thought about what she was doing, she would have fought harder against her feelings. But here we are.”
Lil Ma looked into the dark. A wind rattled the empty clotheslines against their metal poles. “What Bethel said to you, I’ve been hearing all my life. I would have said, ‘You’ll understand one day.’ But I don’t understand it. Things change. Just because someone keeps insisting on something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing.” She wrapped her hands in her apron, so tightly Cassie thought the fabric might tear. “I won’t let it happen to you.”
There was some comfort in that.
Copyright © 2016 by Suzanne Feldman