Shakeah stood unseen.
She’d watched CHAEAH ride off on Able’s horse and waited until they were folded into the forest and far enough away before she laughed out loud. Oh, how she laughed!
She’d had to hug herself to hold it in while she watched Able working to heft her Mamman onto Tahal’s saddle. What a sight it was to see him in the midst of his struggle! She wiped at running eyes. How silly to see her Mamman grin toward the trees where she knew Shakeah stood. The two of them would share a good laugh when she returned.
Of course, CHAEAH would never have allowed Able to witness her seating herself. No one, other than Shakeah, was permitted to see such things. But the girl knew. CHAEAH needed nothing more than to utter a series of sounds and she could rise up and settle wherever she pleased!
Shakeah smiled and re-played the sight of Able’s plight over and over again. Her Mamman would say he’d borne the burden ‘for the greater good’. After all, as Shakeah had been told many times, too much exposure of the gifts she and her child had been blessed with would strain the minds of common folk. And men, she’d told the girl, were the simplest beings. It was one of the first lessons Shakeah had come to know as truth.
Those who showed themselves to be more intelligent, or better suited to a task, or capable of feats others could not do (or could not yet imagine), were troublesome to folk with lesser minds. Special gifts, blessings from the Creator, were known to breed envy. Envy grew to become jealousy—jealousy bred hatred—it had been so through generations of slaves.
The special ones, endowed by the Creator’s blessings, were known to divide the strongest families, the best of friends. Even strangers would covet what they believed they would never have.
Shakeah had stood witness to it.
She wiped sweat from her neck and walked across the clearing toward the dusky shadiness of a Beech tree, lush and lovely beneath an expanse of shapely green leaves. Its shadow was settled over CHAEAH’s largest boiling pot, where the two of them did most of their talking. Her Mamman would time her day so she could use the shadow as protection from a relentless sun.
Shakeah had thrown ropes over the tree’s lower branches and knotted them beneath a flat piece of wood. On her swing she would fly backward and forward and listen to the many stories CHAEAH would tell while she worked up her tonics and potions.
Shakeah ran her hands down the thick ropes and sat on the swing. As her feet left the ground and hot air pressed her face, she reawakened the morning’s anticipation. The feeling rose within her, high as the swing. Again the twinge of promise. Whatever it was, was coming. She could feel it. Very close. She closed her eyes to better see all the wonderful things it might be. Back and forth. No better way to pass through the heat…or await news of CHAEAH’s patient, the girl-child who’d been in labor since dawn. It was the child who needed to have her baby cut from her womb.
In the absence of her Mamman, Shakeah alone was responsible for the needs of anyone who came through the trees. For the girl-child, it could be many hours before she might be called upon. CHAEAH had dosed her the night before, and measured her again. She’d told Shakeah night would fall before all feeling was lost in the little girls’ legs. There could be no cutting until then. The hours until delivery, her Mamman had said, were opportunities to practice patience.
Shakeah had been praying for a chance to show CHAEAH that she too could bring a baby by cutting into the womb. Perhaps this was the excitement she’d felt since dawn. Whatever was coming, she felt ready.
Back and forth.
CHAEAH would not return until Able and his troubles were tended. He always commanded her special attentions though the reasons for this were unknown. For years she watched her Mamman take great care in the making of his tonics and salves. His were more potent than any they made together, and whenever Able saw trouble of any kind, it was CHAEAH who eased them. Shakeah had long since dismissed the notion that the magnificence of Able Handy had anything to do with her mother’s attentions. CHAEAH had never shown interest in any man, and when Shakeah asked about her own father, or found a way to bring up his name, CHAEAH would say only what a good man he had been, or how kind he always was to everyone who knew him. She’d asked where her father had come from and where he’d gone and earned a stern reply.
“Where someone comes from is not important,” CHAEAH had said, “it is the direction they take, the choices they make. These are the things that reveal who they really are. Your father’s choices took him away from me. There is nothing more.”
Shakeah knew then there would be stories CHAEAH chose never to share with her. Stories about her father, and her Mamman’s bond with Able Handy were two of them.
She pushed the swing higher and smiled at the breeze it made. She would not—Shakeah laughed out loud—hold it against her Mamman if a very small part of her heart was set aside for Able. He was beautiful. His skin was beautiful. He looked like silken dusk and was nearly as dark as Shakeah herself. His body was perfectly shaped. Her mind’s eye could see his shoulders, set wide to balance the weight of his thighs and the length of his legs. His large hands that were always grabbing and shaking other men’s hands, patting backs, working with tools. She so enjoyed looking at him; the shape of his head, his laughing mouth. But more than that, it seemed to Shakeah he seemed to want the best life for everyone living in the town, and that was the reason (she also believed) he had a hand in everything happening in there.
Able was the heart of Cabbage T., and there were many women, Shakeah knew, patiently awaiting an invitation to walk at his side.
Her feet soared back and forth above the ground. She sang along with the rhythm: He is beautiful; mind and body, heart and soul…mind and body…heart and soul. Back and forward, again and again, and in her mind’s eye images of them together, the two of them. Pure bloods living among too many folk with white blood flooding their veins.
As she thought about it, she realized how much she enjoyed culling through versions of the daydream, and gathering a new one every time she made a delivery to him in town. The memories helped dismiss the way the girls acted toward her. Clawing cats. Whenever they saw Able take her arm and her basket (she giggled at the thought) they’d all hiss and stare. Now she knew. It wasn’t her friendship with Able the girls hated—it was how beautiful the two of them looked together.
She leapt from the swing and ran to her room to pull a hand mirror from the cupboard drawer. It was gilt silver and heavy, a gift from her mother. She’d received it from a doctor, grateful to CHAEAH for saving the life of his own daughter. Shakeah placed it on her bed and looked down into it. She pushed long braids back and away from her face and turned her head from side to side. She laid across the bed on her back and held the mirror up to see how she might look to someone lying on top of her. In the sun, the brightness of white sheets was blinding. In the mirror Shakeah saw the blackness of her face in sharp relief. She tilted her chin for the very best view of her nose and was pleased at how straight and slender it was. She liked its sculpted tip. Her leaf-shaped eyes sat below a wide forehead framed by loosed strands of long black hair.
She wondered what she might look like inside brown skin, or yellow skin and moved the mirror upward to watch her fingers comb through her many braids. Her thought turned to the girls in town to compare what they had to what she didn’t, and what she had to what they didn’t.
She rolled on her bed to feel her braids fall against her face, then rolled back again to grab a pillow, imagining holding onto a man so he could feel braids on his face as well. Maybe the man would be Able… maybe not.
Shakeah stood and held the mirror at arm’s length. Her breasts and arms were well-shaped and slender as far as she could see, and when she positioned the mirror behind her, could just make out the back of her waist where it narrowed then swelled again into the heart shape of her behind. To see herself better she loosed her tunic so it dropped to the floor. There it was, shaped like a heart, upside down. She smiled at the prettiness of it all.
Her tunic was pulled up and the mirror returned to its place when she heard a rider approaching through the trees.
An unfamiliar voice called out “CHAEAH! CHAEAH you be here?”
Peering through the curtains, Shakeah could see the back of a skirt and apron strings disappear around the side of the cabin. She backed away from the window and stood as quietly as she could, her back against the wall.
This was someone new, someone she’d never met before. She didn’t like meeting people for the first time when she was alone. Her Mamman had a way of easing the way the first time Shakeah met someone new.
White or Colored, everyone acted the same way when they saw her the very first time. They would look at her blue-black skin, they would stare, and, more often than not, ignorance would spill from their lips—it was always the way.
Shakeah covered her face with her hands.
CHAEAH was not home. Shakeah did not answer.