I: Sis Hetta’s Child
The Ante-Bellum Years
Death is a mystery that only the squinch owl knows
“May Liza, how come you so restless and uneasy? You must be restless in your mind.”
“I is. I is. That old screech owl is making me nervous.” “Wellum, ’tain’t no use in your gitting so upsot bout that bird hollering. It ain’t the sign of no woman nohow. It always means a man.”
“It’s the sign of death.”
Grandpa Tom, the stable boy, and May Liza, Marster’s upstairs house girl, were sitting on the steps of their cabins in the slave Quarters. It was not yet dusk-dark. An early twilight hung over the valley, and along the creek bank fog rose. The hot Spring day was ending with the promise of a long and miserable night. A hushed quiet hung over the Quarters. There were no children playing ring games before the cabins. The hardened dirt-clay road, more like a narrow path before their doors, was full of people smoking corncob pipes and chewing tobacco in silence. Out on the horizon a full moon was rising. All eyes were on the cabin of Sis Hetta, where she lay on her deathbed sinking fast.
Inside Sis Hetta’s cabin the night was sticky hot. A cloying, sweetish, almost sickening smell of Cape jessamine, honeysuckle, and magnolias clung heavily to the humid night air. Caline, a middle-aged brown-skin woman with a head of crinkly brown hair tied in a knot on her neck, imposing eyes, and the unruffled air of importance and dignity that one associated with house servants, stood beside the sickbed and fanned Sis Hetta with a large palmetto fan. Caline knew Hetta was dying. As soon as supper was over in the Big House, Caline came to see what she could do. Aunt Sally, cook in the Big House, couldn’t get away with Caline but she sent word, “Tell em I’ll be along terreckly.” Fanning Sis Hetta in the hot night seemed all there was left to do for her, and so Caline kept fanning and thinking: Sis Hetta was a right young woman, younger than Caline, and she got with all those younguns fast as she could breed them. Caline had no children. She had never known why. Maybe it was something Old Marster made them do to her when she was a young girl and first started working in the Big House. Maybe it was the saltpeter. Anyway, Caline was glad. Slaves were better off, like herself, when they had no children to be sold away, to die, and to keep on having till they killed you, like Hetta was dying now.
Out on the Big Road, May Liza and Grandpa Tom could barely discern a man in the distance. As he drew nearer they could see he was riding a small child on his shoulders.
“Brother Zeke,” breathed May Liza.
“Yeah,” and Grandpa Tom took his pipe out of his mouth and spat.
“That’s Sis Hetta’s last child she had for Marster, Zeke’s riding on his shoulder.”
“How you know?”
“I hear tell they done sent clean over to Marster’s other plantation cause Hetta wants to look at her youngun.”
“Be her last look, I reckon.”
“Yeah, I reckon so.”
Now in the tricky light of the half-night they saw a figure wearing long trailing skirts of a woman. She was walking slowly at a short distance behind Brother Ezekiel.
“Mammy Sukey’s coming too.”
“You know she ain’t leaving that gal out of her sight. That’s Marster’s youngun they give her to raise.”
“Marster don’t care nothing bout that youngun. Mammy Sukey’s got her cause Jake won’t leave her be in peace with him and Hetta. They say he pinch that gal when she wasn’t nothing but a suckling baby.”
“Wellum ’twarn’t no use in that. Jake knowed Hetta been having Marster’s younguns long as they can remember.”
“Reckon how he knowed?”
Hetta was twenty-nine years old, although this was a fact she could not verify. After having given birth to fifteen children, all single births, she was waiting for death in childbed. Her thin bony fingers clutched nervously at the ragged quilt that covered her. Evidently her mind wandered back over happier and earlier days, for her quick beady eyes, glittering with fever, sometimes lighted up, and although she was nearly speechless, Caline fancied she heard the sick woman muttering words. Hetta was a woman who had never talked much.
Another black woman, small, and birdlike in her movements, moved in and out the cabin carrying china washbowls and pitchers of hot water; moving blood-soaked rags and clothing, watching the face of the sick woman to whom she had fed laudanum to ease the pain of these last three days. Granny Ticey was deeply dejected. She moved to keep her hands busy and occupy her mind. She had always been proud of her reputation of rarely losing her patients. Babies she lost, but mothers seldom. She had been uneasy all week about Hetta. It wasn’t the first time this heavy breeding woman, whose babies came too fast, tearing her flesh in shreds, had had a hard and complicated time. She did not like either the looks or the actions of Hetta and she told Jake and Marster, or at least tried to communicate her fears to them. Of course it was true there wasn’t anything too much she had to base her fear on. Hetta was sick every day this last time. Toward the end she rarely left her bed. She was bloated and swollen beyond recognition. But Jake said nothing, as usual, and Marster only laughed. Eight days ago when Granny Ticey saw the quarter moon dripping blood she knew it was an evil omen. When Jake came for her and said Hetta’s time had come she did not want to go, because she knew nothing was right. But she went and she stayed, and now grim and wordless she watched the night lengthen its shadows outside Sis Hetta’s door.
One thing Granny Ticey had done. When the baby was born dead, and Hetta started having terrible fits and hemorrhaging, she made Marster send for a doctor, but two days went by before the doctor came. Meanwhile Granny Ticey made tansy tea and bathed Hetta in hazel root, and used red shank. All these did no good. On the third day when the white doctor came, he barely stayed ten minutes, and he did not touch Hetta. Instead he spoke angrily to Granny Ticey.
“What you want me to do, now that it’s plain she’s dying? You didn’t get all that afterbirth. How many times do I have to tell you to get it all? Don’t know why you had John to get me way out here for this unless it was just to make him waste money over your carelessness.”
Granny Ticey said nothing. Her lips were tight and her eyes were hard and angry in an otherwise set face. But she was thinking all she dared not say: How was he expecting me to get all the rotten pieces after a dead baby? That’s exactly why I sent for him, so’s he could get what I couldn’t get. If he had come on when I sent for him, instead of waiting till now, Hetta might not be dead. No, I’ll take that back. She was going to die anyway. She had to die ...