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The sun was setting, and young Willie was not yet home.
Flora, his mama, glanced out the window again, and felt an old, familiar knot in her stomach when she could not see him.
She opened the door and called out through the fly screen.
She counted to ten. The sun disappeared below the horizon.
"Willie!" she called again, and could not keep the fear that disguised itself as anger from her voice. "You hear me callin' you, boy? Willie!"
Still there was no sign of him, but she could see the setting sun, and it was her enemy, the coming of darkness scared her.
Daylight was no friend to her, or to any black she knew, but night was a frightening place. Bad things happened at night. All the woes of Flora's life had happened at night. Her grandparents, who had been slaves, called night the Devil's Time, and told of the many slaves and, later, free blacks who had simply disappeared at night, never to be seen again. In many ways her grandparents thought freedom was worse than slavery, because at least as slaves they had been of value to their massas, if only as livestock.
When freedom came it brought with it the dark riders of the night, who swept down on blacks for slights real or imagined, and carried them away, to burn or hang or drown. Flora's earliest nightmares were of the silent screams of thousands upon thousands of vanished dead crying out from the mighty Mississippi, which had been their watery, unwanted grave. The Delta Lullaby, her gran'ma called it, and it gave Flora a focus for her fear, and it was white.
Raised on this fear, and in the belief that she was safe only among her own kind, she had no armor against Lincoln, who was her own kind, and who had come to her at night. Lincoln had charmed her into giving away her most precious possession, and when the child was born, he had stolen him from her and banished her from home.
The train that took her away from Mississippi left at night. Flora had waited at the depot at midnight, with only her mama and her younger sister, Josie, beside her to wish her farewell. Her pappa was long gone, no one knew where, North, probably, to Chicago or Detroit, and her grandparents were old and infirm.
Flora had grown up in a tiny settlement of less than fifty people, and she could not bear the thought of arriving, alone and friendless, in a big city like Memphis. In the early morning the train pulled into Stockton, in Tennessee, and Flora made her decision. She got off the train and made her way to the church, where the preacher's wife found her a room in a cheap boardinghouse. Flora took what work she could find, cleaning at the hospital, doing laundry and ironing shirts for white folk, or planting and picking cotton in the seasons. The people at the church were friendly, and Flora settled into a semblance of life, but she always locked her door at night.
Because of Lincoln she distrusted men, and for five years she lived without close contact with them, except for Reverend Jackson.
Then she met Booker. A fine, handsome sharecropper, Booker was, if only in golden memory, the man of a young woman's dreams. They married, and for a while Flora was happy.
Night took Booker from her, soon after their son Willie was born. Their tragedy was not of their own making, for no two people could have struggled harder to carve out something from almost nothing, from the wispy, white gold cotton that sustained them at subsistence level. Their tragedy was that they were poor and black in a world ruled by whites, and they had no way to escape from either condition.
Willie was another mouth to feed with food they did not have. In their despair, they imagined a future bleaker than poverty.
Booker was young and strong, ready to turn his muscle to anything that might earn money, but winter in a Southern country town is a mean provider. Booker drifted to the twilight world, and began "snatching cotton," stealing pitiful quantities of the unharvested crop, in dark of night, to buy food for his wife and son.
He was discovered and shot.
He struggled to the little shack that he called home, to Flora, and died in her loving arms. Not knowing what to do, or to whom to turn for help, Flora had crawled to the apple box that was Willie's crib, took him to her bosom, and held him there all night, safe, she hoped, from darkness, beside the body of his dead father.
Willie was ten now, and it was nearly night and he was not home.
Flora banged open the sagging fly screen and went onto the tiny back porch. She put her hands to her mouth, a megaphone.
"You, Willie T. Palmer!" she yelled. "You don't get in this house, I'm gon' take half a tree to you! Wil-lie! Get in this house!"
Across the street, Flora's friend Pearl chuckled to herself, snug in her own little shack.
"That Willie," she said to no one. "He be the death of Flora."
Flora began tidying the already neat back porch, muttering to herself. She took the old galvanized washtub from its nail and put it back again. She moved the frazzled and nearly worn-out mop to a different place. She rearranged the garden produce she offered for sale, the braided tie strings of red onions and dried hot cayenne pepper.
She did all this by rote, without plan or thought, for she was watching the gathering dusk.
"Every day got to hog-call him in here," she told the bunches of sage dried for sausage. "Runnin' with them young 'uns 'til he come in here tired and hungry."
She looked beyond her kitchen garden again. There was no sign of her son.
"Don' wanna study," she complained to drying ears of rainbow-grained Indian corn. "But he gon' get them lessons if'n I have to skin him!"
She banged back into the kitchen. With luck there might be some Pepto-Bismol left for her now raging stomach, or she would have some milk. It was an ulcer, Pearl said, caused by worry, and there was no cure except the thick pink liquid, or a glass of cold milk, and chewing every mouthful of food forty times. But who could remember to do that with all the other chores, and so much else to worry about?
She heard him before she saw him, the approaching panting breath and the slap of running bare feet on the ground. He burst through the screen door, a ten-year-old bundle of energy, in a ferment of apology.
Flora grabbed him before he could speak, fear for his safety totally supplanted by anger for the worry he had caused her.
"Where you been?" she yelled, cuffing him, but not too hard. "Me out there hollerin' my head off all evenin'! Ain't I told you to be in this house afore sundown?"
She cuffed him again, but not too hard, and Willie yelped again.
"Din't hear you, Mama," he cried. "I 'clare I didn't hear you!"
It became a kind of a game, as both knew it must, as it always did, but a game with serious purpose, for it expressed love in the only way that Flora knew how. Willie escaped from her clutches and sought refuge behind furniture while Flora chased after him, cuffing him when she could, but not too hard.
"Look at you! More I wash, dirtier you git!" She pointed accusingly at his grubby knee-length cotton pants and his open-neck shirt, smudged with dirt. "Think I'm playin' with you, don't cha? You git over there an' wash up an' set down an' eat."
Her anger was subsiding, and she turned her attention to the simmering pot of butter beans on the stove.
"Cook for you, then got to hunt you down." She waved the wooden spoon at him. "You hear me now? Where you been at?"
Willie headed to the sink, hugging the wall to avoid the spoon.
"Yes'm, yes'm, I hears ya," Willie said, moving quickly to wash, to calm his mama and to give her good news.
"We was down by the railroad, huntin' scrap iron. Makin' money, Mama?"
He was rewarded by a smack on the butt with the wooden spoon.
"Stealin'," Flora said, "nothin' but stealin' that railroad's iron. Done tol' you about that, boy. I'll tear you to pieces!"
Hands wet, Willie danced away, out of range of the spoon. He fished in his pocket and pulled out a quarter and a nickel.
"Wasn't on the track, Mama, was off to the side. We sold it down at the blacksmith shop. I got thirty cents!"
He threw the money on the table, still dodging the wooden spoon. The chink of the coins calmed Flora somewhat and, in her mind, they went straight into the money jar she kept buried in her garden.
Lord knew they needed it. Times were as tough as any Flora had known. A year earlier some catastrophe had happened in New York, in a place called Wall Street, and since then jobs had become increasingly scarce. Flora did not read newspapers because she couldn't read very well, and couldn't afford them, but rumor was her messenger. She heard of hundreds, thousands thrown out of work in the big cities. She heard of riots and breadlines and soup kitchens. She knew the crisis must be enormous because it even affected the white community of Stockton, whom Flora had thought were all well-off and impervious to financial insecurity. An increasing number of hoboes drifted through town on their way somewhere, anywhere, California most often, where there might be work. That most of these hoboes were white was astonishing to Flora, and sometimes she felt a small sense of satisfaction that these proud and cruel people had been reduced to such awful circumstances.
Yet her heart bled for the blacks of Stockton, who were the ones most affected, Flora thought, by the crisis. The price of cotton had fallen to an all-time low, and dozens of men could not find work. Several of the white people for whom Flora did laundry had cut back on the amount or had canceled her services altogether, and she knew that some white women who had employed her were now doing the unthinkablewashing their clothes themselves. Flora still had most of her cleaning jobs, but even at these houses she heard whispers of worries about money, so it was a matter of some pride to her that she was still able to put food on the table for her boy.
She did not tell Willie this. No matter how dire their circumstances, he would be kept honest.
"Don' care what you got," she said, going back to the stove and the bubbling pot. "It's stealin'. You mess around with that railroad again, gon' beat you to death. Now git over there an' wash up an' set down here an' eat. Then you got lessons."
Willie did as he was told, hoping he had won.
"Mama, this Friday," he said smugly. "Ain't no school till Monday."
But it was a war he could not win.
"Hush up," Flora snapped. "You git them lessons tonight. You young 'uns be runnin' loose all day tomorrow, and I ain't gonna be Sunday beggin' you to get no lessons. Not hard as I'm roun' here washin' an' ironin' all these white folks' clothes tryin' to keep us goin'. I know you gon' learn somethin' in yo' head if I have to beat it in!"
To make her point, she gave him a final tap upside the head with the spoon, then turned back to the stove. She dished up a big plate of the butter beans and okra flavored with salt pork for Willie, and a smaller one for herself.
She set the plates on the table, but before she sat down to eat, she went to the back door and locked it.
Neither of them would be leaving the house again that night. She sat down with the washed Willie, who bowed his head.
"For what we about to receive, the Lord make us truly grateful," they prayed in unison.
As Flora spoke the words she watched her son, and saw a young image of his father. She was proud of him and of the learning he had, which neither she nor his father had ever known.
Her determination came from Booker. Looking at Willie, Flora could still hear his father's voice.
"We gonna see this chile get educated, so he can be better than we."
He said it the day she told him she was pregnant, and he said it once a week at leastsometimes, it seemed to Flora, he said it every dayfrom then until his death.
They ate their meal mostly in silence, for Willie knew that his mama had not quite forgiven him for coming home late. He knew she was scared of nighttime, and although he thought it was sillyhe had been with friends, perfectly safehe respected her fear and moved cautiously to idle chatter about his day.
When they were done eating, Flora saw to the dishes and, even though it was Friday, insisted that Willie read his books. It was his part of their penance. The rest was stories, told before his bedtime, of the dark deeds of night, remembered from her own childhood, told to her by her own mama, and her gran'pa and gran'ma, the things a black child in the South needed to know, and luridly colored, in Flora's telling, as warning to her boy.
Eventually, she drifted into silence. The stories had become something other than she had intended. Memories of her mama and her grandparents flooded her mind, and of growing up in Mississippi, and this had led her to thoughts of the demon Lincoln, who had stolen her firstborn. Tears smarted in her eyes.
Willie, without speaking, filled a bowl with water and brought it to his mama. He set the bowl beside her, knelt down on the floor, and with a cloth washed her aching feet.
He did it because he knew that she was tired and knew that her feet hurt. He did it because he appreciated all she did for him. He did it because he loved her, and he wanted to show her something of that love.
And he did it because he hoped that she would let him leave school. He did not say this yet.
Flora stared at him as his gentle hands massaged her feet, as Jesus did, she thought. Her heart blazed with the fire of love.
When he was done, Willie stayed sitting on the floor.
"Billy Nelson leavin' school," he muttered.
Flora stared at him, not wanting to believe that he had been kind only to be cruel. She knew exactly what it was all about. It had been hinted at, like this, several times before, and she knew that gradually the subtle suggestion must become an outright demand.
"No," she said.
"Why, Mama?" Willie whined. "I's ol' enough."
"'Coz I said so," Flora snapped, wondering why he could not understand the importance of school, and of the dreams for him. He glared back at her with stubborn, pleading eyes and a tiny bolt of lightning burned her heart, for it was his father's look.
"It was yo' pappy's dream," she whispered.
Willie knew this. He had heard it every day of his life. But it flew in the face of a simple fact.
"I ain't no good at school."
She slapped him lightly, eyes locked with his, as if willing him to learn. "You gon' be good at school. You gon' study an' get good grades, an', Lord help me, you gon' go to college."
Willie stared back, and Flora saw in her eyes something that frightened her. Something that one day she might not be able to resist.
She saw laughter. It was his father's way of winning an argument.
The laughter in his eyes became a grin, and then a chuckle, and she laughed with him, because she loved him. It was not time for the argument yet. He had a few more years of boyhood in him.
"You git to bed," she said. "Busy day tomorrow."
Willie stretched and yawned and kissed her and told her that he loved her, and she nodded her head, because in that momentapart from the matter of his schoolingall was right with her world. It was night, but Willie was home, and the door was locked.
He went off to the closed-in porch that was his room, and Flora sat for a while, thinking of the past, and allowing herself small dreams for Willie's life, which somewhere in her heart she knew were useless.
From the day that she first enrolled Willie, when he was six, at the Stockton Colored Grammar School, Flora had seen to it that he missed no day for any reason, unless he was demonstrably sick, and he was a willing student, at first, if not a very good one. Once in a while, something occurred of which she could boast to friends.
"'dog," she said to Pearl, "if that boy ain't bet me a nickel 'taters' start with a p and proved it in a book."
If his achievements were few and she was proud of them, it was not enough, not nearly enough. His grades were only average, but she would not let Willie leave school now, in his tenth year, as most of the other boys did to work in the fields supplementing the family income. That was not why Flora worked all the hours of the live long day, to see her boy pick cotton. She wanted more for him, even though she had begun to realize that he wanted something different for himself. She let herself imagine he would stay at school, and perhaps, in the fullness of time, even do something more. There were colleges for Negro boys, and hard work and good gradesand a scholarshipwould get Willie into one of them. He would get his degree, and then a job, a regular job, a well-paying job, one not dependent on the seasons or the white man's whim, and he would be more than his mother and father could possibly have imagined.
But not more than they had dreamed. She was determined, if only for his father's memory, to push Willie toward education as hard as she could, and if later, in a few years, he rebelled against her, he would have to fight her hard.
When Booker died, Flora thought she could not bear to go on living. She had shouted her grief to Jesus, and, perhaps ashamed of what He had wrought, He relented and was kind to her. He couldn't ease her painthe awful, aching emptiness that swept over her, and like an unpredictable tide returned to her for days, weeks, months, years to comebut He gave her the strength to continue the struggle of life, alone, without Booker, for the sake of the child, Willie.
When Flora looked at her son, she saw only her dead beloved, and she raised him to the remembered image of his father, unaware that no boy can flourish to manhood in such relentless sunlight.