Those were bad times, tough on all and no one could see their way clear for a future hope. Might just as well have considered jumping off a cliff and suddenly flying as expecting any better than what we had then. It was the same damn meal three times a day: cornbread, milk, some dried fruit. And you be thankful for the lot of it, Mama would say.
Up early and to bed early. Hated to see the sun dawn and hated to see it go down even though it meant we could finally head in from the fields and rest for the night. So sore all over, even down into my teeth. I asked my brother Roy one night, Always gonna be this way? He grunted and told me to go to sleep.
Gonna be this way always. The grunting told me so.
Sometimes Daddy drank too much corn liquor and got all mean to Mama and some of us kids. You could hear him raising the devil when he came in from the fields. Roy said Daddy used to lay out naked with black women from the place down the road from our little patch. But he was my papa, and I couldn’t see him doing something so wrong to Mama. He only beat me a couple of times, and when he did he always said he was sorry. He was a pretty good old man in all, I guess.
Then Claude got sick and there was no money for a doctor. Old woman who could heal with herbs and spells came by and brewed up some bad-smelling tea that Claude had to drink. God, he was so tiny! I don’t think he ever ate enough, and he may have been four, but he was small enough to be half that. I used to look at him across the room and wanna go hold him real close, tell him it was all gonna be good in time, but we were supposed to stay clear of him just in case we might catch what he had. I never did know what it was he had. The old healing woman never said a word about that.
Around March, Claude got lots better outta nowhere. No idea what it was made him feel right again. Mama said it was the teas and the prayers of the old healer woman, but Daddy would just shake his head when she went on about that. Roy told me Claude got better because he had no choice. When you got nine kids and one gets sick, the rest gotta pull more weight. Claude knew we couldn’t work any harder than we did, so he set his mind to it and got better for his brothers and sisters. We were counting on him, and that brought the healing. Praise God and all that stuff.
But in April you could tell Claude was feeling bad again. He was spitting blood in the fields and said his chest hurt like there was fire in it. Or maybe Mama said it must feel like fire in his chest. I don’t remember now; it was all a long time ago. Back in the golden times, some folks like to say.
One night I heard Daddy telling Mama that if there weren’t so damn many of us, maybe then he could find his way clear and have a dime to his name. But goddamn, he said as he beat his fist on the table. Goddamn! How’s a man supposed to get even in this world? How? How does anyone ever get even or get ahead? Seems like such a waste of time. That was the first and only time I ever heard my Daddy cry. Cried just like he was a kid or something. Made me feel dead inside to hear him crying and Mama trying to calm him. They didn’t know I had snuck outta bed and was hearing them. They were so good to all of us. They worked so hard. Gotta be a way. Gotta be a way.
When May came, I had my plan, and even now I can see that I just wanted to do what was best for us all. I waited until we were all asleep and walked over to Claude’s bed. I woke him up and told him to come with me to the other room. He never said a word. Claude was always the most agreeable kid in the world.
Got to the big room off the two tiny bedrooms and I kissed Claude’s forehead. I shouldn’t be that close to him, might catch what he had, but I needed him to know I loved him more than anything in the world. He laid his head down on the floor and when he closed his eyes I reached for the pillow I brought with me from the bedroom and put it over his face, held it there, felt him struggle a little bit, but not much. He was so far gone that he was weak. Couple of minutes and he was still, not a sound from him.
I sat there for a long time before I took Claude’s tiny body into my arms and carried him back to his bed. I pulled the covers up on him and went back to my own bed. Closed my eyes and could hear it just as plain as the night air in the room: Connie, not even three yet, was coughing just like Claude had done when he started those months before.
I put my fingers to my ears and tried to scream. Nothing came out but hot tears.
Copyright 2016 by Andrew Bradford. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.