The Nights (part 3)

“Stephanie, where have you been? Momma has been looking for you. If you have been in the quarters again momma is going to be upset. You know she has been feeling faint, tires easily and according to the doctor should not put a strain on her heart. Why can’t you be a lady and stop running around Divine Mercy like a savage? Look at your clothes. You’ve surely ruined your dress.” 

Even though her name means crown, I say crown of thorns. She often says, “I just want to be free!” Free? Being a lady is freedom. Being the middle daughter is freedom. Being the child of a wealthy businessman is freedom. Momma doesn’t require her to do the same things as I. That’s freedom. I would love to ride my horse or hangout in the quarters or sit in the barn loft thinking of our recent trip to Paris. As the oldest child the expectation is for me to keep an eye on Stephanie. 

Momma wanted her to be a boy so much that she named her Stephen. Poppa said no girl of his would have a boy name. Who would marry a woman named Stephen? She says she plans to runaway one day and explore the world. I have no time for such foolishness. 

I do as momma says and I try to watch her and Sally. Sally is a sweet quiet girl. She is always reading a book or sewing something for her hope chest. She filled mine with the most delicate doilies with beautiful details. I like to open the chest and look at them and run my fingers over the edges. They are a thing of beauty. I pretend I’m the mistress of the house and lay these out for our guests. One day, after I’m married, Divine Mercy will belong to my husband. I look forward to those days. Running a home will be easier than keeping up with Stephanie. 

“Poppa”, Stephanie yelled. Mattie, one of the house slaves, told her to hush because it’s not proper to yell in the house. Stephanie kept walking and yelling. When he rounded the corner he looked at her with amusement at first then quickly changed his expression to one of concern mixed with slight disapproval. “What is it daughter?” Poppa asked. “Will you please come down to the slave quarter and tell Moses to jump a broom with me?” Poppa’s expression changed to irritation with a bit of anger. Jumping a broom was what the slaves did to signify a marriage union. Our slaves were not allowed to marry. When they married they had children and the males became protective and therefore a nuisance. We kept our males and females separated. No need in creating a problem unnecessarily. 

Moses was one of the slaves that had grown up here on the plantation. He was learning to play the fiddle and was a natural. Due to his caramel skin color and slight build he would be easy to hire out for parties and other occasions. 

Stephanie said, “I love him and want to marry him.” To which father replied, “I will sell him if you go near him again.” Stephanie’s hands clenched together by her side. Poppa’s jawline was tense as he squinted his eyes. They both stood their  ground staring at each other until momma, who had been listening and watching, walked up and shook Stephanie. Momma promised to lock her in the cellar if she said another word. Stephanie never challenged momma. She knew momma would keep her word and lock her up in the root cellar. Stephanie let out a stiffled scream of frustration and stomped off. 

This scene had become a regular occurrence since Stephanie turned thirteen. She was becoming more belligerent by the day. She seemed to pick fights and willfully disobey. 

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The Nights (part 2)

Momma loved to tell the family history after supper. As little girls we would gather in the drawing room and listen. If we had guests over, as we often did, the stories were more animated and even boisterous at times. 

“Isn’t that devine! Have mercy! My eyes have never see anything as beautiful as this before!” My great grandfather Hubert and great grandmother Willowmene exclaimed these words when they first saw the land they had purchased and planned to farm. This land represented their hopes and dreams to become landowners, raise a family and serve our Lord. “Devine Mercy has been in our family for generations and will continue to be forever more. One day one of your husbands will inherit all of those hopes and dreams and continue to make them a reality.” 

“It’s time for bed my little doves.” I had become the storyteller after mother’s illness left her unable to speak above a whisper. I had become many things during her illness. I now realize it was preparation to become the mistress of Divine Mercy. 

By the time daddy and momma died I understood how to run the home, the house slaves, create menus and host parties which were talked about in neighboring states. The governor and his wife were regular attendees. Our slaves played the best music and our food was the most coveted. Poppa use to always say, “A man who beats his slaves is no man at all.” Because we didn’t beat them, they produced the finest of everything for us. They were loyal to us. Well, at least most of them were. I do not believe I will ever understand why any of them would want to run away from here. It was the best plantation around. The ones who ran were immediately sold upon capture. We would not allow them to come back and poison the minds of the others. We posted the paperwork in the quarters for several nights. Although they couldn’t read they understood the meaning. The runaway had been captured. Because we didn’t beat or mistreat our slaves they were sold at the highest prices. 

Momma had taught me to use my head when making decisions regarding how I ran the house. She would often say to us, “Never allow jealously to rule your emotions. The good books says a man who is unable to control his emotions is like a city without walls.” I stopped going to the slave quarters after seeing the children born from the slaves we bought from a few counties over. My heart broke each time I saw another brown, male version of my husband. I prayed faithfully to God for a son. During the nights when John left our bed for the quarters I would silently cry out to God. “Please allow me to birth just one healthy boy, an heir like Isaac.”

My cries were often drowned out by their cries. 

The Nights

I hated the summer nights more than anything. It had nothing to do with the long, hot and humid nights. Growing up in the Deep South I was as accustomed to the heat as anybody could get. 

In the winters all of the shutters were pulled to and latched. The windows were closed. The heavy curtains were drawn at night to keep out the draft. Three layers of wood, glass and the best material this side of the Mississippi kept the house silent at night. But in the summers, sometimes in the late springs, curtains were pulled back and windows were open and the shutters no longer blocked the night sounds. This was the beginning of my sleepless nights each year. 

The land we lived on and the house we lived in was my granddaddy’s and his daddy’s before him. My mother was the only surviving child of six. When she married the land went to my daddy. Since my mother only birthed girls this beautiful land went to my husband when poppa died. It helped that I had married well and he proved to be a good business man. Poppa loved John like a son and better than his own daughters. 

I never paid much attention to the sounds until I was older. It was after John and I married that realized what was going on. I went to momma. I cried tears of despair in her lap. She stroked my hair and told me it was not my place to ask John any questions. This was business and the best way to keep a plantation thriving was through the labor of the negros working the land. The way we kept cost down was by creating our own laborers. That’s one of the reasons we had huge profits. She tilted my chin up until I was looking her in the eyes and she said, “Never mention this conversation or cry another tear. This is our way and has been for generations. Now get up and make yourself presentable to your husband when he walks through the door.”

I did as I was told. In all the years of marriage I never said another word. But the night cries kept me awake. The seasons held me hostage. No amount of singing, cotton in my ears or strong drink could drown out the night.

It was not love, she told me. It was business. It was how we as a family continued to thrive. It was necessary. 

I believed every word until I saw a mulatto baby boy toddling around the quarters. He was an exact replica of John. Only with brown skin and curly hair. I had yet to give him an heir. Much like my mother I was cursed with girls. Three beautiful girls who adored their father as much as he adored them. But still, only girls. 

5:37 PM

There it is, the garage door is opening. I glance at the beautiful clock on the mantle. It was a wedding gift from one of my friends. I am not sure why I bothered to look. It’s always the same time everyday, 5:37. I sit there wondering. How does he manage to get home at the exact same time. I wonder if he ever gets home early and just sits around the corner waiting until it’s time to open the garage door. He never runs late, never. It’s always the same time.
When we were first married we would commute together, well to the bus station at least. He would drop me off in the mornings then pick me up in the evening. It was a great time to get to know each other better. We would talk about a variety of things, there was no limit to the conversation. When he picked me up from the bus station in the evenings, he would hop out of the car, greeting me with a kiss then and open my car door . He asked about my day and listen to me as I filled him in on the ins and outs of my daily adventures.
When the first baby came, we agreed I would stay home. That was the same year we moved into our first house. I was always excited when he arrived home. The sound of the garage door opening meant so much to me back then. It meant adult conversation, somebody else to hold and change the baby and time with my honey. It was great. We were a happy family of three until the other baby came along. Then we were a happy family of four. 

The kids and I would run to the back door when we heard the garage door open. I would lead the way yelling, “daddy’s home!!!” and they would follow saying the same thing in their cute little toddler voices while clapping and smiling. He would walk in the door with a big smile. After kissing me he would pick them up and kiss them. Daddy was home. 

Then one day or maybe over the course of a few months, something changed. I no longer led the charge. I did not feel like being the head cheerleader. I stopped running to the door. Without me leading them and encouraging them the children stopped too. 

I looked at the clock, 5:39 pm? He’s late? He’s never late. I wonder if something happened to him. 

He Loves Me He Loves Me Not

Lauren was no more than about eight when she learned about this practice. Her best friend told her it would work and if she said so then it was true. She closed her eyes and giggled. She could see his face and laughed at the thought of him running from her as she chased him all over the play ground. As she sat in the middle of the field she picked a flower with lots of petals and began the ritual. As Lauren plucked a petal from the flower she said out loud, “He loves me”, then she pulled another and said “He loves me not”. She continued this pattern of plucking flower petals and reciting the words until she reached the last one, “He loves me not!” She picked up another flower and started again. He just had to love her.

Twenty years later she was sitting in a coffee shop thinking about her fiance Mark. She absent mindedly picked up a flower from the vase in the middle of the table and started plucking the petals and reciting the words. She knew it was a silly game but she continued until the last petal lay on the table, “He loves me not?”

She thought about the six years they had been dating. He was not perfect but then who is? They met her senior year in college. She has just ended a six year relationship year with her high school sweetheart. She was going through a tough time. Jeff had been her world since the end of their sophomore year. She would find herself sitting on a park bench crying. It wasn’t just any bench, it was their bench. At least they claimed it as theirs. It’s where they sat and talked for hours. It served as their dining room table. This bench was where they discussed their futures. It was also the place of their breakup. 

As tears slid down her face she had an overwhelming sense of being watched. She raised her head and looked into his eyes. Those eyes were beauitiful, intense, questioning and sympathetic. She tried to smile but according to his version of the story it was more of a painful grimace. He did not say anything that day but he came back a few nights later and gave her a lace handkerchief. He later revealed to her why he brought her the lace handkerchief instead of tissue. He told his mother about her and she said a brokenhearted woman needs permanence in her life, not temporary.

The List

She walked down the driveway towards her mailbox. The sun was peaking from behind the clouds. There was a slight breeze that moved the leaves on the oak tree.  A couple of blocks over someone was mowing their lawn. A few of the neighborhood kids were laughing and talking as they threw a football to each other. It was the end of a normal day but the beginning something unexpected. 

As she contemplated her day her lips curved into a slight lopsided grin. She always had the same smile when she accomplished her tasks for the day. She felt good about herself. She felt accomplished. Today she managed to cross off every single item on her list. She admitted to herself that she was slightly neurotic about her daily list. She planned her days carefully starting the night before. She read over and over again, “Successful people are organized. Successful people make lists.” Her list was on her phone. She found an app that made it easy to see the lists from previous days. From those lists, meetings on her calendar and todos provided by her manages, she composed her nightly list. Sometimes it took over an hour to determine the seven items then to rank them in order of importance. Neurotic but efficient. According to the books she read she was successful. Her system worked. 

She arrived to the mailbox at the same time as her neighbor. She broke away from her mental celebration to say hello. As she pulled out the mail and began to flip through she noticed a purple envelope. It was addressed to her but was void of a return address. She mentally went through her calendar. Was somebody getting married? Was this an invitation to a party? She tried, in vain, to to recall what event was coming up that would explain why someone would send her something in a lovely purple envelope. Her name and address were hand written in calligraphy. Something formal. She got excited at the thought of buying a new dress. 

As soon as she walked in the house she performed her regular routine of hanging up her keys placing her handbag on a hook and sliding off her pumps exchanging them for comfortable socks. As she sunk into her sofa cushions she held the purple envelope on her hands. She opened the envelope still thinking about the possibility of a new ensemble. What she read confused her instead of providing excitement. 

Dear Sofia;

Beginning at 9 pm on this day, you will have 48 hours to compose a list of twelve things you want to accomplish. As each item is completed you are expected to check that items off of your list. Enclosed you will find a check for $100,000. When those 48 hours expire, your life will end. 

The Unseen

She didn’t believe in things that go bump in the night. But sometimes, when she was home alone, she heard a noise upstairs. It sounded like somebody running from one room to another. That sound gave her chills.  She could hear the impression of the feet as they touched the floor above her. The first time it happened she blew it off. But it kept happening. She finally grew curious and brave enough to walk upstairs. Although she was unarmed and ill prepared, she knew it was time to confront her growing fear.