There were nights when she had a humming bird sleep as she hovered above the bloom of oblivion, dipping a moment to suck its sweetness, then hover again. But there were the nights, black holes of Calcutta, from which she emerged with a weight on her chest, her limbs in chains, and a weariness that was deep in the bone, as if she had labored the livelong night. After such nights she would sit in her chair in the breakfast nook, still a bit in chains, her mind a blank, and let the sun creep over her hands, and slowly she would begin to think, pushing her mind like a grocery cart from one thing to another thing, gradually filling it up with the children, the long afternoons they had spent in the park, the beach, the sand, and the flash of waves . . .till she had a paper sack full of things to feed upon for another day. When this was done, she removed the blue plate from the bowl of cereal Hattie had poured her the night before. She rummaged around with her finger for raisins and ate them slowly, one by one, remembering the water, the children, the sand. Till Hattie came in and found her there and exclaimed, “Miss Coralee, honey, how come you eatin’ that dry old stuff?” And then she would carefully drown it in milk. Hattie came smelling of scouring powder and ever so faintly of bacon and corn. During the day it would all wear off. Or Coralee got used to it.
“Hattie, you ate up my raisins again.” And the two would have them a wonderful laugh. There was nothing better than Hattie’s laugh. It was gingerbread-colored like herself and full of spice, all kinds of it. And she would say, “I must of forgot to shake up that box. They sinks to the bottom, they bad about that.” Then she would get down the box of raisins and shake a handful into the bowl, and she would say, “You the raisin-eatinest woman I know.” And she would add, “They good for you. They full of iron, how come they black. They put the stiffenin’ in your bones.”
To encourage Miss Coralee to eat, she would pour herself a handful of raisins and eat them thoughtfully, one by one. And the two of them would remember the children. Hattie had never known them of course. She had come to work eight years ago. But she knew everything that Coralee knew, even things Coralee had plain forgot. Often she said she dreamt of the children. Sometimes in her dream she was struggling against the undertow and snatching Billy by the tail of his shirt and knocking the water out of his lungs. For it was she who had saved the child and not some stranger who happened along. “He was a chil’ you got to watch out for ever minute.”
“Yes, he was,” said Coralee, shaking her head, “but bright as a button, that he was.”
“Bright as a shiny blue button,” said Hattie.
“You remember the way he would screw up his face when somebody cornered him and kissed his cheek?”
“Sure do,” said Hattie. “He was a sight.”
“He got away from us once, you know. We were headed somewhere. . . .” She stopped and puzzled. “You remember where we were headed, Hattie?”
“You was headed for Mississippi that time. To see your cousin lived in the Delta.”
“That’s right, we were. We certainly were. We had a wonderful time that year. The whole long trip was one big picnic. . . . Do you think we could have a picnic today?” As soon as she said it she knew they would. The weariness went out of her bones. She was full of glistening leaves and sky. The children were running beneath the trees. But she waited for Hattie:
“Don’t see why not. Ain’t fixin’ to rain. What kind a san’wich you got in min’?”
“Any kind as long as you fix it with olives. But I want it to be a surprise.”
“Well, it ain’t that time. I got to straighten up. You be all right settin’ here till I through.”
Then she brought the album with all the pictures and found the ones of the Delta trip. She opened it beside the cereal bowl. “You set here and study it while I finish up.”
Coralee would turn the pages, savoring each, while Hattie, moving from room to room, would sing to herself snatches of song she had learned in church. She made heaven sound like a happy land with a life as happy as life with the children ages ago. When Hattie came close, Coralee would say, “You remember Mindy’s first bathing suit? She wanted to sleep in it all night long.”
“Sure do. It was pink, real pink. And when it got wet it turn plum’ red.”
“Wasn’t she funny outrunnin’ the waves?”
“And all a time shriekin’ fit to kill. . . . It’s like I birth them chirren myself.”
Coralee sighed. “Where did they go?”
“Where did who go?” And when Coralee didn’t answer, she said, “Your chirren growed up, that’s the trufe of it. Ain’t even move off and lef’ you, now, like mos’ chirren takes a min’ to do. I reckon they prob’ly comin’ by today.” She brushed up the crumbs at Coralee’s feet. “My baby lef’. But not for good. One day I looks up and he be there. He stay long enough to git what he want. And then no tellin’ how long it be.”
“Hattie, my babies left for good.”
“Now, who you think come by las’ week? Got the same name. Talked like he growed up here to me.”
“The ones comin’ by are not the same.”
Hattie shook her head. “I better he’p you on with your clothes. Case they takes a notion to see ‘bout you.”
“I don’t want to wear that dress with the jelly.”
“That jelly dress done put in the wash. I gone find me somep’n bright for you. Summer done got here all the way.”
And Coralee thought, Is it summertime? Summer was children and happy time, the world of water and sun and sand. Summer had waited for Hattie to say it.
In the late afternoon Mindy came by. “Knock, knock,” she said, bursting into the hall, not knocking at all. Coralee was sitting in the living room. She had gone to sleep over television plays and didn’t wake up when they went off the air. Mindy switched the damn thing off. She wandered around the house for a bit, as she always did whenever she came. She skimmed the mantel with her pink-nailed fingers. Her hands were plump. “I’m checkin’ on Hattie,” she said when asked. “Hattie, I’m checkin’ up on you,” she called aloud in a jolly voice.
“Yes, ma’am, I know you checkin’ on me. You have a nice trip?”
“Oh, that was over a month ago.”
“Yes, ma’am, but we ain’t seen you since.”
Mindy was large, with lively hair. Gold with a rapturous streak of white that swept her brow and was up and away, her sole concession to middle age. Coralee watched her, half asleep, as if she were peering at a curious fish inside a tank. Mindy stayed a while in the dining room, opening drawers and cabinet doors, slamming them shut. Coralee watched her and wished her gone. Whoever she was, she had no business rummaging around. Coralee hadn’t let her own children play in the dining room. Mindy called Penny up on the phone in the hall and said she had something to talk about. “Well, pretty soon. I’m leavin’ now.”
“Mama, be good,” she said as she left. But Coralee was dozing again.
“What did she want?” said Coralee, startled out of her sleep when the front door shut.
“Nothin’ much. Jus’ checkin’ on us.”
“I wish she’d tell me what she wants.”
Then Hattie brought her an early supper. She stuffed some pillows at Coralee’s back and rested the tray on the arms of the chair and stayed with her in case she spilled.
“Eat somethin’, Hattie,” said Coralee. “You know I do better when you eat along.”
“Well, maybe I sip some coffee,” said Hattie. “But I got to feed my baby at home.”
“Is he here for long?”
“No tellin’,” said Hattie. The skin beneath her eyes went dark. Her eyes grew older than 38.
“My children are gone,” said Coralee. “But they were a pleasure for many years. I think of Penny and how she hated to have her food cut up for her. She wanted to cut it up herself. The fuss she made! You remember that?”
“She’d snatch the knife right out’n your hand. Try to grow up fast. Like to cut herself.”
“Oh, my! I remember that. She was such a lively child. We have a picture of Fourth of July and barbecue all over her face.”
“You want me to find it?”
“Let’s have a look. I forget just who she was sittin’ next to.”
“She was settin’ nex’ to her Uncle Dave. But you can study it while you eat.”
She got the album and found the place. And Coralee ate and sipped her tea, while Hattie fed her bits of the past. The children were with them and nourished her.
The next day Penny came with Mindy, and the two of them went through her things, through all her closets without asking her. They even pulled down the attic stairs, and Mindy climbed while the rungs cried out beneath her weight. Penny stood at the foot and called, “My girdle says I’m stayin’ here,” and Mindy replied in a voice too muffled for them to hear.
They had left the front door wide to summer and filled the house with air still chilly to Coralee. They said the house needed airing out. The ceiling creaked. The woman in the attic sounded like a squirrel got in from the roof, but bigger than that.
“What do they want?” asked Coralee.
Hattie muttered grimly, “They ain’t said yet.” She seemed to feel the chill herself. Her hand shook dusting a china doll.
They stared at Penny out in the hall with her high heels and her slender form in a yellow silk and her short brown hair in a stylish cut. She was like a girl high-strung with youth till she turned around. A torpor was in her olive face, which looked like something stored away. Coralee one time had said in a wondering voice, “She doesn’t look familiar to me.” And Hattie replied, “I reckon a doctor done made that face.” But a doctor had never made her voice, which was deep and vacant, to match her face. It tended to wander away from thought.
They went away. Hattie swept the hall of the attic dust and swept their footprints off the porch. “How ‘bout a picnic, Miss Coralee? It warmin’ up outside real good. You rather have music on the stereo? Them songs you was singin’ that time you was all campin’ out at the lake.”
“Why don’t we have both?” said Coralee. She was past the age when you had to choose. Hattie understood and gave her choices, then gave her both.
But Mindy and Penny struck next day. They had Billy with them out of the bank. Hattie went to the kitchen and shut the door, but they sent her off to the store for food. They opened windows to let in air. Coralee couldn’t think who they were or why they were always coming by. Whenever they came they made her cold. She pulled her sweater across her chest.
Mindy came right clown to the point. “Mama, we’ve got a situation here. You’re fond of Hattie. She’s good to you. On the surface she is, but she’s stealin’ you blind behind your back.”
Coralee heard the words like so many stones that were dropped on her.
“Mama, your silver is just about gone. Now, where did it go? Did you put it somewhere and then forget? I don’t think you’re able to carry that stuff. You don’t see well, and Hattie’s been stealin’ it from under your nose.”
Coralee was staring into their faces, trying to think what right they had to accuse her of stealing. For it seemed they were accusing her. She said at last with dignity, “Why would I want to take my own silver?”
“Not you, Mama! Hattie’s been takin’ it, robbin’ us all.”
“Mama, that silver goes to me and Penny after you’re gone. Grandmother told us before she died.”
“I never heard that.”
“Well, she said so, Mama. You just forgot. She’s robbin’ us all. Billy says it must be reported and we go from there.”
“The police,” said Billy. He was short and stout, with minimal hair, but sideburns the color of weathered granite came to a point like inverted tombstones framing his face. Coralee thought they looked pasted on. There was something about him she didn’t trust. “The thing is, Mama, we could get it back if she hasn’t done something untraceable with it. And that may be. It well may be. We’ll have to dismiss her in any event. That works a hardship on all of us. We’ll take turns staying here with you until we can find somebody else.”
She listened, dumbfounded. “I don’t want somebody else.”
They said at once, “You don’t have a choice.”
She was thinking in the depths of her bewildered mind that Hattie always gave her a choice.
Mindy said in a placating voice, “Wouldn’t you like to have your children come stay with you for a little while?”
She looked at them, at their stranger faces. “No,” she said.
Their faces tightened and then relaxed. “You don’t mean that, Mama.”
Her mind grew dappled with flecks of fear. “You can’t take Hattie. She’s all I have.”
“Nonsense, Mama. She’s just a maid, and we’ll get another”.
“I don’t care what she did. If she did anything.”
“But we care, Mama,” Penny broke in.
“She has broken the law,” Billy said with decision.
She was almost in tears. “It’s not a law if it isn’t stolen.”
“You’re not being rational,” Penny said.
And Mindy said, “Where is it, then? Where has it gone?”
She closed her eyes to shut them out. “I put it away. I can’t remember.”
“Where?” Penny said. In her deep, vacant voice the word was like God’s.
“We have searched the house. Tell us where,” said Mindy.
“I can’t remember.” They had her at bay. She began to cry.
They circled the room. They walked to the window and bunched together like a flock of birds. Their thin legs waded knee deep in sun. “Here she comes,” they said. “Comin’ up the walk. Why doesn’t she ever use the back?” They turned to Coralee. “Mama, we’ll give you till tomorrow to remember. And if you can’t, then she’ll have to go. Mama, don’t tell her why we came. Don’t tell her, Mama.”
They went away.
Hattie laid the groceries on the kitchen table. Then she put them away. Coralee, weeping, could hear her stashing them on the shelves. She could hear milk sliding to the coldest part of the refrigerator. She could hear water running into the kettle. She was trembling all over and willing herself to have taken the silver and put it somewhere that she couldn’t recall. She was willing herself to recall where it was, to recall long enough to tell Hattie where. She was saying, Please, God, let me be the one did it. I want to be the one, please, God, please, God.
By the time Hattie came with their cups of tea, God had let her be the one.
Hattie looked at her hard. “Miss Coralee, honey, them chirren a yours done made you cry?”
Coralee sobbed aloud.
“Honey . . . honey . . . don’t you fret none about ‘em. They done gone down the drive and outa your sight.” She drew up a chair and stroked Coralee’s arm. “Sometimes chirren can aggravate you so you got to let it out. My baby can git me so mad at him.”
“These people don’t seem like my children to me. The things they say. They don’t like me, Hattie.”
“Honey, it jus’ the way chirren can be.”
Coralee took the tea and drank a little. It made her feel better and even more sure she had taken the silver and put it somewhere and then forgot. She grew almost happy to think how her memory had played her a trick. “Hattie, I know you’d rather have coffee. You don’t have to drink the tea for me.”
“I likes ‘em bofe. And it don’t seem right to be drinkin’ different. My husband was aroun’, I took to drinkin’ whatever he said. Exceptin’ his likker. I didn’t like that.”
“You think he’s ever comin’ back to you, Hattie?”
“No’m, I don’t. He gone for good.”
Coralee sighed and sipped her tea. It seemed to her that a darkness waited. She thought it had something to do with the silver. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to recall. But she wouldn’t try to remember yet. “I get to thinkin’ they can’t be the same. They look so different.”
“Your growed up chirren? They the same, all right.”
“Penny was sweet with her little curls. For the longest time she didn’t know how to give you a kiss. She would just touch her little tongue to your face. . . . They can’t be the same.”
“They is the same. Ever’thing that be gonna change some day. Some way.”
“Change to worse, you mean?”
“Ain’t for me to say.”
“Look at me,” said Coralee. “I couldn’t be worse than I am today. They say I can’t manage by myself. I guess I can’t.”
“You a fine, upstandin’ woman,” said Hattie. “Your mem’ry ain’t good, but it could be worse. And mostly what all you disremember ain’t worth the trouble to call it to mind.”
“I could get it back if I tried hard enough.”
“Sure you could. But it ain’t worth the trouble. It mostly trash.”
Coralee’s hand with the teacup shook. Hattie took the cup. “Hattie, you got to help me remember what I did with the silver. They want to know.”
Hattie got up and took away the cups. Coralee could hear her rinsing them out. When the water stopped running, “Hattie,” she called, “you gotta help me remember.”
“Right now I gotta fix your dinner. Then I goin’ home. But I fix you up for bed Tore then.”
Coralee was frightened. When she tried to think she came to a wall that stopped her mind. “Don’t leave me,” she said, “not knowin’ what to say when they come tomorrow.”
Hattie came then and stood in the doorway. Her face was dark. “You tellin’ me you done took your own silver and put it somewhere and cain’t recollec’?”
“Yes, yes. But I don’t know where. If you could look in some of my things. . . .”
“I he’p you tomorrow. Soon’s I come.”
“But they’re comin’ tomorrow. They said . . . they said . . . if I can’t remember they know it’s you.”
Hattie put a strong, firm hand on the door. “I seed it comin’. They ‘cusin’ me?”
“If I can’t remember. . . .” She began to cry. “I got nobody but only you.”
Hattie’s voice was cold. “You got them chirren that ‘cusin’ me.”
“No, I don’t. The children I had are lost and gone.”
“Jesus, I wisht I could be like you and see my chil’ as someun’ different what he was long time ago. I know he be the same one chil’. All that time he stay so sweet, this troublesome was growin’ there. No way, no way to weed it out. Sweet and troublesome. Sweet and bad.”
Coralee was struck with fear. “I want to go to bed,” she said.
“You ain’t the onliest one want that. Pull the cover up over my head and when I wake it all be gone . . . I took it,” she said, “to keep my baby outa jail. He owed a man gone git him put in jail for good. And now they gonna git me first. Serve him right he got no mama come runnin’ to, keep him outa the trouble he make. ‘Cause this trouble ain’t gone be his last.”
Coralee pled, “If you brought it back. . . .”
“It gone aready. My baby done sold it off for cash. He stole some money and had to pay it back.”
Coralee cried, “I’d a give you money. All you had to do was ask.”
“Miss Coralee, I couldn’t take your money. Them chirren a yourn don’t give you hardly enough to count. But you never looked at them silver things. I thought you’d never come lookin’ for them.”
“I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I never cared about things like that. Those people who came here said it’s theirs. . . . I don’t know. I can’t think.”
She rocked in despair, the rocker creaking, leaving the rug, slapping the floor till Hattie grimly pulled her back. “Don’t git nowheres a-travelin’ in that.” Her face was darker than ever now. “I bes’ clear out and head on home.”
“Hattie . . . I’m gonna call that lawyer. He made me a will long time ago. What is his name? Started with “B”.”
“Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no lawyer.”
“He made me a will long time ago.” Coralee rocked with her eyes closed, and the tears seeped from under the lids. “Get the telephone book and read. . . . Read the names till I say to stop. Look up lawyers and read the names. Just keep on till I say to stop. . . .”
Mr. Barnhill said he was much too busy and couldn’t come. It was out of the question. Not today.
“Then come tonight, You have to come before tomorrow.”
“My, my,” he said, and was she sure it couldn’t wait? At last he agreed to come at four. “I hope you have a good-sized piece of that gingerbread left.” And he had himself a good-sized chuckle, because it had been some 20 years. Lately his memory had sprung a leak, and he was pleased to recall details.
“Fix me a cup of coffee, Hattie, and make it double, double strong.” While she sipped she was trying to find her mind, where she had dropped it along the way. Beneath her breath she recited the multiplication tables—the twos, the threes. She found she couldn’t finish the fours. The fives had wholly disappeared. She tried to name the capital cities, but they had gone with the tables she’d lost. She wept for them. I used to think straight. What happened? she asked. She recited the 23rd Psalm aloud. She whispered the rhymes the children had loved.
“Bring the children, Hattie,” she said.
And Hattie, looming like doom in the doorway, laid the album in her lap. “What good they gone do us now? You rummage aroun’ and pickin’ ‘em outa the book like raisins. Raisin faces is all they is.”
“I remember things when I’m with them. I touch their faces and think of things.”
“Things done happen long time ago ain’t gonna he’p us none today.”
Coralee drank the bitter brew. “I let my mind get away from me.”
When Barnhill came—he was running late—she didn’t know him, he had changed so much. He seemed too old, no match for the people she had to fight. And had to beat. She peered from her chair with anxious doubt at his bushy white brows, at his pink cheeks as pink as a brick, his creamy moustache like a piece of pulled taffy scissored off. He hadn’t had any of this before. Even his voice had a sandiness that sounded old. She was afraid he was as old as she, and if he was, then he wouldn’t win.
He patted her shoulder in a knowing way and, sitting before her, fixed her with an indulgent eye. “Now, what can I do for you?” he said.
She was conscious of Hattie harbored in the kitchen, sounding each word for a prison ring. “Did you make me a will?” she asked in a voice as firm as she could make it sound, and just to be sure he was the same.
“Miss Coralee, I made you an excellent will. I reckon it was 20 years ago.”
“Did I sign it?” she asked, for something to say.
“Of course you did. And got it witnessed. All of that.”
She gazed into space. “I want it changed.”
He pulled his watch chain, slid his thumb and finger down it, dropped his eyes. “I wouldn’t think there’d be a need.”
“People change their wills. I want it changed.” Then as he made her no reply, “The telephone book is full of people who can change a will. All it takes is run my finger down the page and stop when I come to the best in town. I want it changed and changed today.”
He smiled at her. “Well, now.” he said. “I see it’s a matter of some concern. . . . You tell me how you want it changed.”
She pulled her sweater over her chest. “I have this maid who looks after me.”
He inclined his head. “I believe you have children in town,” he said. “Perhaps they should. . . .”
“I don’t have any one but her.”
“Surely. . . .” he said.
But she hurried on. “She took some silver to sell for me. I didn’t have any use for it. I never have company in to eat. Most of my friends have moved away. Some have died. . . .”
He listened to her with his bushy eyebrows slightly raised and his fingers touching across his vest.
“Certain people . . . have got the notion she sold the silver without askin’ me.”
“I see,” he said with a knowing nod, and he seemed to be looking at rows of cases, similar ones.
“They want to make trouble. . . .”
“Prosecute?” he said. “On your behalf?”
She grew confused. “Make trouble,” she said. Her hands were shaking. “I thought if you would change my will and let it say I leave it to her. . . .”
He interrupted. “That wouldn’t do.” He seemed to consider. “If she broke the law . . .if she took the silver when she shouldn’t have, and that would be easy to prove, you know, then willing it now wouldn’t make it right with the law, you see. . . . A lot of silver? What value?” he asked.
Her mouth was dry. “I don’t recall.”
“You don’t recall what you told her to sell?”
She shook her head. Her mind was beginning to slip away. Into the threes and then the fours. . . . She began to tremble. “I just don’t want any trouble.” she said. “Please, no trouble. I just don’t want her taken away.” Her voice choked. “I can get the money to pay your bill.” And then she was thinking how little she had, and how did she know what it would take.
“Well, well,” he said. It was plain to see he had counseled a thousand old ladies before and knew at what point they began to cry and knew at what point he would say, “Well, well.” He drew out his watch and studied it. “This watch belonged to my father,” he said. “Haven’t had it worked on in 20 years. Wonderful the way they made them then.” He put it back and fingered the chain. “Miss Coralee, I see you’ve got strong feelings here. There is a little something we could do. It might be a little . . .but in this case. . . . You could sign a deed of gift dated back to a time before she took the silver. It would mean you had already given it to her. So who is to say what she does with it?”
She couldn’t help crying with joy and relief. “Can I sign it now?” she said through tears.
“Hold on,” he laughed. “I have to draw it up, you know.”
“I’ll have to have it before tomorrow.”
“Well, what if I send my girl from the office around real early? You can sign it then. She can witness it.”
He stood up then and patted her shoulder. “You dry your eyes. It’s gonna be fine.” At the door he added, “I hope she’s grateful to you for this.” And then he let himself out the door.
“Hattie,” she called with joy in her voice, “did you hear what he said? He’s goin’ to make it all right for us.” When Hattie came toward her across the room, it was as if she had lost and found her all at once. She hadn’t ever seen her before, not really seen how fine she was, tall enough for the highest shelf, her skin the color of fresh-brewed tea and her gingerbread laugh that was full of spice.
“Miss Coralee, honey, you done so good. You spoke right up to that lawyer man.”
“I did, didn’t I, Hattie?” she said.
But it wasn’t going to be right at all. The girl from the office never came. Coralee sat before her cereal. The raisins in it were hateful to her. When Hattie arrived, she was full of tears. “Did you call that office place?” asked Hattie.
Coralee had never once thought of that. “Hattie, you dial.” He had seemed too old to remember things. She tried to recall the things that were said the day before. She only recalled it would be all right.
But the line was busy and busy again. When Mr. Barnhill was finally there, he said, “Good morning, Miss Coralee. Well, well. I’ve given it thought. It won’t be possible to proceed as we said. I’ll have to get back to you later on.” She heard the never in his voice.
She could scarcely report his words to Hattie. Betrayal was all she could recall. Hattie was grim. “Them chirren a yourn has got to him. I heerd in his voice he got a mind could be changed for him. It don’t matter none how they done it. Lord, Lord, what I gonna do?”
“Maybe another lawyer would do it. That one seemed too old to me.”
“Ain’t no time, no time for that. Your chirren be here any time.”
Coralee began to cry.
Hattie said in a high, tight voice, “How’m I gone think with you carryin’ on?” Coralee choked down her sob. “You got some kinfolks lives outa town?”
Coralee closed her eyes to think. She remembered the capital city of Maine. She whispered a line of the 23rd Psalm. . . . “There’s a cousin a mine . . . in Jacksonville. I never did like her all that much.”
“Never min’ that. You tell ‘em how you done recollec’ you sent that silver along to her. You tell ‘em you give her a piece at a time. I wrop it and took it down to mail. And you done sent her that gifty deed. It hold ‘em off for a little spell. Till I can git myse’f outa here.” She picked up her purse.
“I won’t say it right. You know I won’t.”
Hattie laid her purse down with a joyless cry. “You tellin’ the trufe. I got to fill in what you forgits.” She sat in a rocker facing the door. “I mostly skeered a that banker man. Anything money they cain’t turn loose. . . . I gits to dreamin’ it was me done fished him outa the water that time. Shoulda lef him to drown hisse’f.”
That was my Billy. It’s not the same.”
And suddenly they were on the porch and letting themselves in with a key they had. Billy and Mindy were in the room. They seemed to fill it with Judgment Day. They stared at Hattie as if they thought she had her nerve.
“Well, Mama,” said Mindy, “did you remember?” It was plain she had not remembered her girdle. The streak in her hair fell across her cheek.
Coralee sobbed a single breath. “Remember what? If you’re talkin’ about the silver, I did.” She told it all, her fingers clutching the arms of her rocker. When she had finished she shut her eyes and asked God please to forgive her lie.
“A gifty deed?” said Mindy to Billy.
“I think she means a deed of gift.”
“Well, what about it?”
“I don’t know how she got the thing, if she got it at all. But she knows the term. I don’t think Barnhill would draw it up.”
They spoke as if she were not around or couldn’t hear or had no sense.
“The whole damn thing is just insane. I don’t think I believe a word. I’ll have to check with Cousin Mabel. I haven’t heard from her in years. I have her address somewhere at home. Or Penny has it. We’ll try to call. What if Mabel does have the silver?”
He ruffled a sideburn and smoothed it flat. “We’ll talk about that when we know the facts.”
Without even saying goodbye they left. Hattie raised the curtain and peered outside. “Sweet Jesus, they got the po’lees! They talkin’ to him. And now they bofe of ‘em drivin’ off.” She turned to the room. “But they be back, direc’ly they speak to that cousin a yourn. Merciful Jesus, they be comin’ back!” She sat abruptly, unable to stand. “They comin’ to git me pretty soon. I got to git outa town real fast. I got to leave. I got to go.”
“Where? Where?” said Coralee.
“Jus’ git me a bus ticket somewhere fur. Fur as I got the money to pay.”
“Take me with you,” said Coralee. The words came out as if they had been in the roof of her mouth for a hundred years. And she was back to a little girl saying them to her black mammy that time whenever it was she left. Nobody told me why she left. She had to go was all they said. Coralee climbed the gate and screamed. Screamed to go and was left behind. Nobody ever took care of me and rocked me to sleep the way she did.
“You crazy?” said Hattie. “You talkin’ crazy. I got no time for studyin’ you.”
“Take me with you,” said Coralee. “I got nobody but only you.”
“You got them chirren is causin’ this trouble.” Coralee cried, “My children are lost and gone for good. How many times do I have to say? You’re the only one remembers them and knows what page to find ‘em on.”
Hattie stood and grabbed her purse. She looked around the room they were in, at fine chairs backed with linen squares and the table with china dancing dolls and curtains of lace and picture frames of shining gilt. “You got in your min’ to leave all this? You mighty crazy to swap all this. What you think you swappin’ it for? Ride on a bus no tellin’ where.”
“What good is it? What good to me?” She began to rock. “It’s like . . .it’s like I get to losing who I am and when you come I know again. . . . I rather lose this than who I am. In the night it’s like I lose my name. It’s like I’m born all over again and all they say is stuff me back inside again. At night you’re gone off home but here. I need someone gone home but here and comin’ closer all night long.”
“Ain’t no way it can be that way. Things done changed the most can be. You be nothin’ but trouble to me. White and black don’t mix no way. I got no money comin’ in. The work I gits, it might be long time comin’ my way. You ain’t do nothin’ but slow me down, so likely they cotch us and bring us back and claim I done stole you ‘long with the silver.”
Coralee was shivering, winter cold. Too cold to climb the gate and scream. She held her handkerchief pressed to her eyes, pressed so hard that her eyeballs ached. She heard no sound, nothing at all, till Hattie was whirling about the bedroom, opening drawers and slamming them shut. Then she was back, saying, “Take that handkerchief down from your face. I brung the money, what little you got.”
Hattie was standing there holding a suitcase, holding her purse and Coralee’s. “We got to hurry. I brung them raisins for you to eat.”
But in the doorway Coralee turned. “We have to take the children,” she said.
Hattie gave her a look of bleak despair. “We got no room for that heavy thing. I got your grip here packed to the brim.”
“We can’t go off and leave them here.”
Hattie stood still and shut her eyes. “Jesus, give me strength,” she said. She put down the bag and opened the album. She ripped the pages out of the binding and stuffed them into her own handbag. . . .