Authors: Bernice L. McFadden
More Critical Praise for Bernice L. McFadden
The Warmest December
The Warmest December
so nicely avoids the sentimentality that swirls around the subject matter. I am as impressed by its structural strength as by the searing and expertly imagined scenes.”
“Ms. McFadden is one of those rare talents who can keep a reader enthralled regardless of the topic … This is a story that cuts across all race and social strata in its need to be told.”
—Dallas Morning News
“Bernice L. McFadden has proven that she knows how to tell a story with insight and clarity … McFadden’s prose is lyrical.”
“McFadden’s voice remains refreshingly free of clichés and it’s easy to admire her fearless way with metaphor.”
This Bitter Earth
“This Bitter Earth
tells a brutal tale of salvation and adds to it a satisfying subplot of revenge. McFadden’s sensuous prose and folk wisdom conjure a memorable character with complexity and grace.”
“This Bitter Earth
resonates with the mythic patterns of an epic poem, complete with lyrical language and an omniscient narrator.”
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published by Akashic Books
©2010 by Bernice L. McFadden
ePUB ISBN-13: 978-1-936-07078-7
Library of Congress Control Number: 2009938474
PO Box 1456
New York, NY 10009
… and the end of all of our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
For my daughter, R’yane Azsà Waterton,
who is the best part of me
While this work is built on the foundations of historical events, in many instances I have knowingly altered facts and dates to suit the purpose of the story.
f Jack Johnson had let James Jeffries beat him on July 4, 1910, which would have proven once and for all that a white man was ten times better than a Negro, then black folk wouldn’t have been walking around with their backs straight and chests puffed out, smiling like Cheshire cats, upsetting good, God-fearing white folk who didn’t mind seeing their Negroes happy, but didn’t like seeing them proud.
If Jack Johnson had given up and allowed James Jeffries to clip him on the chin, which would have sent him hurling down to the floor where he could have pretended to be knocked out cold, then maybe Easter Bartlett’s father wouldn’t have twirled his wife and daughters around the house by their pinky fingers and his son John Bartlett Jr. wouldn’t have felt for the first time in his life pleased and glad to be a black man. And if Jack Johnson had let the shouts of “Kill that nigger” that rang out from the crowd unravel him or the Nevada heat irritate him, maybe then he would have lost the fight and things would have remained as they were.
Things could have gone a different way if Jack Johnson hadn’t gotten the notion some years earlier to cap his teeth in gold, so his smile added insult to injury when he was announced the victor of the “The Fight of the Century,” and that glittering grin slapped white folk hard across their faces.
And if John Bartlett Sr. hadn’t bet on Jack Johnson to win, then he wouldn’t have had the extra money to buy his wife and two daughters new dresses from the most expensive dress shop in town, and the older of the two girls called Rlizbeth wouldn’t have let her hair down and donned that brand-new yellow dress that made her look like an angel, so those white boys wouldn’t have noticed her, wouldn’t have called out to her from across the road, wouldn’t have followed her and jumped her just as she reached the bend and dragged her into the brush, where they raped and beat her.
If all of that hadn’t happened, then Easter wouldn’t have looked up to see her sister crawling home on all fours like a dog, with a bloodstain shaped like the state of Texas on the backside of Rlizbeth’s dress. Easter wouldn’t have bore witness to the bite marks on Rlizbeth’s breasts, and wouldn’t have heard the silence that streamed out of Rlizbeth’s mouth when she opened it to scream.
No sound at all.
Because after the first boy rammed his dick inside of Rlizbeth, her voice floated up into the sky never to be heard from again. And Easter wouldn’t have had to accompany John Sr. down to the sheriff’s office because her mother wouldn’t let him go alone and wouldn’t—couldn’t—send John Jr. because that boy hadn’t unclenched his fists or his jaw since it happened, and besides blood was swimming in his irises and he claimed to hear it thumping in his ears, so Easter went and then watched her father change from a man to boy right before her very eyes.
And if Sheriff Wiley had not forced Easter and her father to stare at the filthy soles of his boots, because it had not suited him to remove his feet from atop the wooden desk, and if Wiley had looked them straight in the eye like he would have his own kind instead of watching them from beneath the shade of the wide-brim hat he wore, and maybe if he’d believed John Sr. when he said, “I knows it was white boys cause we found tufts of blond and red hair clutched in Rlizbeth’s hands,” and Wiley had just gone out and found those boys and arrested them instead of suggesting that Rlizbeth had torn her
dress, bit her
breasts, and broke her
hymen all in order to cover up the somewhere or someone she had no place being or seeing—then maybe life for Easter would have been different.
But Wiley didn’t do the right thing, and Easter looked up at her father who sat next to her with his head bowed and she heard his timid voice say, “Yes suh, I suppose you could be right, but how do you explain the hair? The red and blond hair?”
Wiley said he couldn’t explain it and then dismissed them by tugging the brim of his hat down over his face and bid them a good day. If he hadn’t done that and Easter hadn’t seen the tears welling up in her father’s eyes, she wouldn’t have turned into the snarling howling thing and her father wouldn’t have caught her by the waist just as she leapt across the desk intent on tearing out Wiley’s throat.
If Jack Johnson hadn’t been quite so dark and hadn’t pumped his fists in the air like the champion he was then maybe …
If Rlizbeth had just put on one of the old, worn dresses she owned and kept her hair pulled back in a tight bun, Easter probably never would have written the word
on a piece of paper, crumpled it into a ball, dropped it in a hole in the ground, and covered it with dirt, and her mother wouldn’t have tried to go back to living as if that awful day hadn’t happened and those boys weren’t walking around as free as birds, and she never would have had the strain of pretending that everything was normal even though Rlizbeth had lost her voice and John Jr. had taken to staring down every white man in the town and John Sr. was intent on trying to make himself grow big again and thought that taking refuge in the arms of another woman would help him do that.
And if Zelda hadn’t found the love letters pressed into the pages of her husband’s Bible, letters written on fine onionskin paper that smelled of rose water, then John Jr. wouldn’t have caught her crying, wouldn’t have seen the letters scattered on the floor, and wouldn’t have hit his father so hard that it knocked the wind out of both men. If all of that hadn’t happened, then John Jr. wouldn’t have had to leave the house, the town, and the state, and Easter might have gone on loving and respecting her father. But it did and Zelda’s heart snapped under the strain, pain, and betrayal, and she died.
If there had not been a funeral, there would not have been a repast, so there would have been no need for Easter’s father to wait patiently for the last mourner to leave the house before he changed his clothes, mounted his horse, and galloped off into the night leaving the scent of his pipe tobacco hanging in the air. And if he hadn’t left, then he couldn’t have returned with the wide-eyed, milky-brown woman who smelled of rose water and wasn’t much older than Rlizbeth. He couldn’t have brought her into their home, told Easter and Rlizbeth her name—which was Truda—and then informed them that she was his new wife and their new mother.
If Jack Johnson had just thrown the fight and Rlizbeth had maybe walked down a different road and not have been so pretty, everything would have remained the same in their small home and Easter would not have known the aching sadness of a dead mother, gone brother, and mute and ruined sister. And if there were no ache and no sadness then Easter would not have taken the gown that her mother died in, laid it across the dining room table, and arranged the china, crystal, and the silverware with the scrolled handles on top of it as if it was a special holiday and the family was expecting dinner guests. And she would not have placed bunches of flowers at the neckline, hemline, and sleeves—but she did, and when Truda walked into the dining room the next morning she forgot to breathe.
And if Truda hadn’t forgotten to breathe, then maybe she wouldn’t have screamed, which of course brought John Sr. into the room to see what was the matter. After that he kicked in the door to Easter’s bedroom and found her sitting at the edge of the bed staring at her palms. He charged in and loomed over her like a great black hawk and hollered that he should have drowned her at birth. And if he hadn’t said those hurtful words, Easter would have stayed in Waycross, Georgia, married, had children, grown old, and died.
But on that summer day in 1910, Jack Johnson did beat James Jeffries and Rlizbeth did put on that yellow dress that made her look like an angel and nothing and nobody was ever the same again.
ixty-three miles of road streamed out before her like a black snake. Easter walked until an old man with a golden beard wearing a top hat pulled back the reins of his horse and invited her to hop aboard his carriage.
“Where you headed?”
The horse clumped along while the owls hooted and blinked their pumpkin-colored eyes and the darkness behind the trees rolled, writhed, and reached out to touch them.
Easter arrived in Valdosta just as dawn ruptured the night sky. She remembered the street called Cotton Way and the little stream and wooden footbridge. The footbridge was still there, but the stream had turned into a gulley, thick with mud. She remembered the house being white, but the years had streaked an unflattering gray across its once-bright, planked face.
“Who you?” the woman, who looked so much like her mother, peeked around the door and asked.
“Zelda’s girl.” Easter gripped tight the handle of her suitcase. Behind the house a cock heralded the new day. Thunder boomed a town away and the air began to whip.
The woman said, “Who?”
“Your sister, Zelda. You Mavis, right?” Easter’s voice was hopeful.
Mavis wrapped her arms around her chest. “My sister Zelda’s been dead for more than a year, so I hear.”
Easter peered over Mavis’s shoulder into the dark shadows of the house.
“Lots of women named Zelda been dead for more than a year. How you know you got the right house? I ain’t never seen but one of her chirren and that was a boy.”
“That would be my brother, John Jr.”
Mavis dug a finger into her ear and scraped. “You do, I guess, got some of her features.”
The two women eyed each other. Mavis rested her hip against the jamb of the door. She looked down at the suitcase.
“You runnin’ from something?”
“Runnin’ toward something.”
Mavis nodded, “The law looking for you?”
Easter shook her head no.
Mavis’s eyes moved to Easter’s midsection. “You in trouble?”
“Good, cause I can hardly feed the chirren I got.”
Easter followed her in and tried hard not to stare at the hump on her back.
They stepped straight from the porch into the kitchen. Stove, icebox, round table with five mismatched chairs. A rope had been strung between the walls and a sheet thrown over it, hiding the window and the bed with two sleeping children. At the back of the house was one large room, beyond that the outhouse.
“What she die from?”
Easter thought for a moment and then said, “A broken heart.”
Mavis made a face. “Sorry to hear ’bout that. Mens bring us womens nothing but heartache.” She shook her head and sighed heavily. “You gonna have to share a bed with my eldest girls,” she informed Easter as she moved to the icebox. “I s’pose you hungry?”
Mavis set the cheese on the table, walked over to the far wall, and retrieved a tin of crackers from the shelf. “I got five kids and no man, but we get by okay, better than most folks I guess. Everybody work, ’cept the babies of course, they two and four.”
Easter sat down at the table and watched Mavis light the stove.
“I’ll make you some tea. This all I got to offer you, wish I had more.”
Easter was grateful.
“Miss Olga needs a girl,” Mavis continued as she set the kettle on the stove and then pulled at the knot in the scarf she wore on her head. “She lives in town, big white house, black dog in the yard. Take a piece of meat, he’ll let you in with no problem if you feed him.”
“They call her the librarian on the account that she got like a million books.”
Easter loved books.
The next day Easter went down to Miss Olga’s house with a saved piece of bacon from her breakfast. The dog, Blackie, snarled and bared his teeth. Easter tossed the bacon over the fence and Blackie gobbled it up. His eyes went soupy and he wagged his tail and followed Easter to the back porch. A brittle, bald-headed man met her at the door. His one good eye rolled from the top of Easter’s head down to the rounded toe of her shoes and then up again. “They call me Slim.”
And slim he was. As straight and thin as a line. Easter told him that she was inquiring about the job and he pushed the screen door open and invited her in.
The kitchen was large and sunny. A woman stood over the sink, her hands immersed in dishwater; she looked at Easter and smiled.
“This here is Mary Turner,” Slim announced in a raspy voice before scurrying from the room.
Easter said, “How you?”
Mary Turner was young and stout with rosy cheeks. “I’m blessed, thank you. How about yourself?” she said as she reached for the pot that hung from a hook high above her head.
“I’m fine.” Easter pointed to Mary’s full-like-the-moon belly. “When you due?”
Mary announced that she had just four months to go.
Easter’s eyes glided over the brass pots and sparkling tile. Something good was bubbling on the stove and Easter’s stomach churned to taste it.
The door swung open and Slim called to her, “Missus say come on in.” His voice dropped to a whisper, “But make sure you keeps your feets on the floor. She don’t like people stepping on the carpet, it come all the way from India.”
Easter walked through the dining room and into the front parlor where bookshelves covered every inch of wall space and climbed all the way to the ceiling. Olga Fields was stretched out on a chaise lounge awash in morning sunlight the color of candle wax. In her hands she held sheet music, her thin lips moving soundlessly to the melody.
Olga’s eyes remained fixed on the stanza. “Who sent you here?”
“And who is your aunt?”
“Mavis Hawkins, ma’am.”
“Yes, I know her. She takes in my laundry. She seems to be a decent woman.”
Mrs. Olga raised her violet eyes and peered at Easter over the thin rims of her glasses. After a moment she summoned her closer with a wiggle of her index finger. Her mouth curled into a smile as she watched Easter carefully navigate the edge of the carpet.
“That’s good, you know how to follow instructions. Do you know how to cook?”
“You’ll be helping Mary prepare the meals among other things. Slim will advise you of your duties. I pay two dollars a week and the leftovers can be divided between yourself, Mary, and Slim.”
Three weeks later Lawton Fields, Mrs. Olga’s husband of twenty years, returned from his trip abroad. He was tall and lanky with narrow blue eyes and a bulbous nose that protruded from the center of his face like a cauliflower. He was not an attractive man by any stretch of the word. Olga was no great beauty herself, but certainly appealing enough to have snagged a better-looking man than Lawton. The truth was that the two were a perfect match. Both were liberal thinkers and curious about the world. However, Olga’s phobia of great bodies of water only allowed her to experience the world through her beloved books.
Lawton had an adventurer’s heart and traveled often and for great lengths of time. When Easter first laid eyes on him, he was returning from a four-month expedition to South Africa, where he had retraced the footsteps of his hero, the great missionary and explorer Stanley Livingston.
The sight of Easter drew his breath away, as she held a striking resemblance to the women of the Khoisan tribe.
When she walked into the dining room, a plate of sausage balanced in her hand, he looked up into her face and his memory swept him back to South Africa. The hairs on his arms rose just as they had when his feet first stepped onto African soil. It was a magical place, that Africa.
“What’s your name?” he asked, looking deep into Easter’s eyes.
“Easter.” He repeated her name as if savoring something tasty. Olga’s brow arched and Lawton sunk his fork into the plump flesh of the sausage.