When the Barnes girls walked into the house, Grandma Duck told them to wait in the hall. She went in one of the rooms, put away her hat and purse, and returned. At fifty-six, she was a robust giant of a woman, standing nearly six feet tall and weighing over two hundred pounds. Ill-tempered and worn out from the funeral and trip, she didn’t mince words.
“Y’all kin come to the table to eat afta we git through. Bama, far as I’m concerned, them chillun b’long to you an you gon hafta keep that baby quiet. I hear enuff cryin in this house. You gon hafta see afta ’em. I dun raised all the young’uns I’m gon. Sally B kin hep you wit y’all’s washin an ironin. She kin tend to them other two while you hep in the kitchen wit the cookin.”
With hands on her hips, Grandma Duck towered ominously over the girls as she continued, “I’m tellin y’all rat now, I ain’t gon put up wit one bit uv y’all’s foolishness. An y’all bet not be sassin out none’a these grown folk roun heah neither. Ef you do, I’ll burn y’all’s hind ends up. Do y’all hear me?”
“Yes’m, Grammaw Duck,” they replied in unison.
Beckoning for them to follow, she said, “Y’all c’mon in heah an put y’all’s thangs up under one’a these beds.”
Bama’s arm was cramping from holding Elzado for so long and she asked, “Grammaw Duck, where kin I lay the baby down?”
Pointing to the open door, Louduskie said, “Take her in yonder
an lay her on one’a them beds. Make sho you put sump’n else under her so she won’t pee all over everthang.”
Grandma Duck’s final order came as she fixed her eyes on Emma. “An, Bama, you keep this lil ol Charlie-lookin devil outta my sight! I hope that low-down heathen rots in jail for whut he dun to my Lillie!”
The paintless wood-framed house, weathered gray with age, had an arched tin roof and no porches. The ground around it was feet-packed hard and bald. All the grass had been trampled away. The water well was in the backyard. The old house had four medium-size bedrooms. Two were on either side of the hall. For the married son and his wife, the brothers rounded up enough scrap lumber to build a shack with a separate entrance onto one of the back bedrooms. All the bedrooms, except Grandma Duck’s, were overcrowded with beds and single metal cots, with only narrow trails for passageways. Elzado slept in the bed with Bama and two aunties. Sally B and Emma slept in the kitchen on two single canvas fold-up cots shared by four other children.
Little by little the Barnes girls were subjugated to being the family Cinderellas. When the inside work was caught up, it was on to the washing board and tubs. Then the garden had to be hoed and the hogs slopped.
With free time on her hands, Grandma Duck taught Emma to tie her shoelaces and button the back of her dress. For a teacher’s aid she used a thin board that she had driven a nail through at one end. Every morning when the children were getting dressed, Grandma Duck called Emma up to her and pecked her hands with the nail board while she desperately tried to button her four back buttons. The pecking ended when they were all buttoned. She got the same lesson while tying her shoelaces.
When Grandma Duck let her go, with bloody hands Emma ran crying to her surrogate mother. Bama took her to the well to wash the blood away and dried her hands gently with the tail of her dress. Standing behind the well, Bama held her sister close, stroking her hair
and consoling, “Sshhh, hush up now. Don’t cry. It’s gon be awright,” while crying herself. “You know whut, Emma?”
Her lips still quivering, Emma said, “Naw, whut?”
“One’a these days when I git growed up, I’m gon have a great big ol house to live in wit room enuff for everbody. When I do, I’m comin back afta y’all.”
“I wanna go wit you, Bama.”
“If you hush cryin, I’ll come back an gitcha real quick.”
“Awright,” Emma agreed, wiping her nose with her arm.
“You be a big girl now an go on an play.”
“They won’t play wit me, Bama.”
“They call me Charlie-lookin devil an won’t play wit me.”
“Well, play by yosef.” Looking toward the back door, Bama said, “I gotta go befo Grammaw miss me.”
There was hardly elbow room on the cot with the three of them sleeping in it. Emma scooted as close to the edge as she could, trying to get out of the puddle of piss that hadn’t seeped through yet. Reaching back, she tugged some of the raggedy, wet quilt they shared over her cold back. In an effort to squirm farther away from the wetness, Emma slung her arm and leg over the side and lay sleeping, exposed to the chilling night air.
When it felt like somebody was turning her over, she opened her eyes to see who was tucking in the flimsy quilt. It was her mother! In the second it took to wipe the sleep from her eyes to get a better look, Lillie had disappeared.
Emma untucked the quilt, jumped off the cot, and tiptoed over to Sally B’s cot. Shaking her vigorously, she said, “Sally B! Sally B! Sally B, wake up! Wake up, Sally B! Mama come back! Wake up, Sally B! You tole me—”
“Emma,” one of Sally B’s cot mates interrupted, “if you don’t go back to bed, Grammaw gonna give you a whuppin!”
The many trips Sally B made to and from the well drawing up and toting wash water had taken their toll. She was dead asleep.
Emma crawled back onto her cot. She got a “whuppin” the next morning from Grandma Duck anyway when her bunk rats ran and told, “Emma peed the bed.”
* * *
A few days after Bama, now eighteen, took some jars of Grandma Duck’s watermelon rind preserves to the county fair, she ran off with a soldier and got married. Her leaving didn’t even put a dent in the overpopulated household. Grandma Duck’s two oldest daughters stayed neck and neck producing another baby apiece, and the two youngest had come up with three between them. Seemed like every time they had a revival, her daughters got full of the “spirit” and had another one on the way. After Bama absconded, Grandma Duck tightened the screws of vengeance down on Emma six more notches. She got a “whuppin” almost daily from her, and the “grown folk” were unleashed to fill in the gaps.
Grandma Duck walked into the kitchen; Emma knocked over her glass and buttermilk spilled all over the oilcloth covering on the table. “Git up frum that table an clean up that mess you made, you triflin heifer!” Hovering over Emma and watching her wipe the tablecloth with a dishrag, the mean-spirited old woman yelled, “You ol Charlie-lookin devil, you! Don’tcha lemme ketch you settin at my table no mo till I tell you. Frum now on, you eat out on them back steps.” Shaking her finger in Emma’s face, she demanded, “You hear me?”
“Yes’m, Grammaw, I hear you.” Emma bristled and flashed a defiant look.
Enraged, Grandma Duck grabbed the iron skillet from the stove and drew it back. “Don’tcha be standin there rollin them eyes at me! You betta gitcha ol Charlie-lookin sef outta heah befo I bust yo brains out!” she shouted.
On an errand to the store Emma was hailed down by one of Grandma Duck’s church-member neighbors, “Emma.”
“Stop by heah, chile,” the woman said, beckoning her to the
porch. “Heah, take this quarter an brang me a small box uv KC bakin powder when you come back. An you stand there an wait cuz you got some change comin. Now git!”
When Emma delivered the baking powder, the woman handed her a dime and thanked her for doing the errand. On the way home, mad and frustrated, Emma kicked the road. “I sho wisht she hadda give it to me on my way to the store.” She quickly crawled under the house and hid her dime on one of the rafters, then went in. With an overabundance of anxious errand runners on standby, it took a while for her turn to rotate around again. Until it did, she checked on her dime two or three times a day.
Next time she was in the store, the owner asked, “Whut else you need today, Emma?”
“An Grammaw wants a dime’s worth uv Rough on Rats.”
“Gotta rat problem, have ya?” the store owner said, walking around to the other counter.
“Yessir, Mr. Riley. They be gittin priddy bad.”
After scooping the yellow, mealy-looking rat poison from the barrel and putting it in the small paper sack, he weighed it. Looking at the scales, he said, “Well, that looks like a whole dime’s worth. This’ll surrre git ’em. You tell Duck I said be careful with that stuff.” Folding down the sack, he warned, “And don’t git any on your hands, you hear?”
“Yessir, Mr. Riley. I ain’t.”
When Emma hit the straightaway for home, she ran to keep from being too late. Closer to the house she started walking again. Before she’d left for the store, supper was on the stove and everybody was sitting out in the yard waiting for it to cool. She was glad to see they were still there.
As soon as she walked onto the yard, Grandma Duck asked, “Didja git everthang I tole you?”
Not slowing down, Emma said, “Yes’m, I got it.”
“Take it on in there an set it down an come on back outta the house.”
The oblong pan of cream corn cooling on the stove top was still plenty hot as Emma dumped in the whole sackful of rat poison. Hearing somebody coming, she had no time to get a spoon, and she burned her fingers while stirring the corn frantically.
Out on the yard, she casually played her way up to Sally B and Elzado. Without raising suspicion, she had to tell them before Grandma Duck called suppertime. “Sally B, les you an me an Elzado go over by the well ’n play.” When they got to the well, she motioned for them to squat down behind it so Grandma Duck couldn’t see them.
“Whut is it, Emma?” Sally B asked.
“I got sump’n to tell y’all.”
Glad to be in on the secret, Elzado wanted to know, “Whut is it?”
“Y’all bet not eat none’a that corn we scraped.”
“Never mind why, I’m tellin y’all, don’t eat none.”
“But why, Emma?”
“Cuz it’ll kill y’all, thas why.”
“Whut’d you do to it?”
“Never mind, Sally B. Jes don’t eat none uv it. An y’all bet not tell nobody neither.”
The threesome sat down on the back steps, waiting for the others to finish eating. All the while, Emma glanced through the screen door and couldn’t sit still. Puzzling it over in her mind, Frum the way that man wuz tellin me bout how much poison Rough on Rats is, they oughta be keelin over dead in they plates any minute now.
Every time she quit watching, Sally B or Elzado asked anxiously, “Whut they doin, Emma?”
When Grandma Duck’s army finished, she called, “Sally B, Elzado, y’all come on to the table ’n eat.”
They were too scared to eat anything and sang back, “We ain’t hongry, Grammaw.”
“Suit y’all’s sef. But don’t be ramblin roun in this kitchen afta while lookin for nothin to eat.”
“No mam, Grammaw, we won’t.”
Emma fixed her pan, minus the corn, and sat between her sisters on the back steps and ate. Disappointed, she wished she had her dime back. In a few minutes Grandma Duck called them, “Sally B, y’all git in heah ’n clean up this kitchen.”
“Yes mam, Grammaw, we comin.”
After supper, as usual, the rag buckets were lit to smoke the mosquitoes away. Grandma Duck and her swarm sat outside in the cool of the evening. With the kitchen cleaned, Sally B, Emma, and Elzado joined them. Over the noisy playing of the smaller children, Emma heard Grandma Duck cry out, “God, I’m so sick,” as she held her stomach.
Then another, “Me too.”
And another, “Mama, my belly crampin me to death.” One by one, they began sweating, moaning like sick cows, and vomiting all over the yard.
Nudging Sally B, Emma said, “C’mon, les play lak we sick too.”
They lay down and started rolling around on the ground holding their bellies, groaning and giggling. Elzado wasn’t putting on a very good act mimicking the others and drew Grandma Duck’s attention. With stern eyes, she looked at Elzado for a minute and knew she was “jes puttin on.” Then she looked at Emma, then at Sally B. Then back at Emma again. Pointing her finger at Emma, she declared, “Ain’t nobody dun this but that ol nasty, stankin Charlie-lookin devil! That heifer dun sump’n to our suppa.”
“No mam, I didn’t, Grammaw,” Emma defended quickly.
After Grandma Duck puked again, she hollered, “Sally B, run down yonder an tell Doc Hines I say come rat away. An don’t you tarry!”
As Sally B turned to go, Grandma Duck said, “Take Elzado witcha.”
“Kin I go wit ’em, Grammaw?” Emma asked eagerly.
“Naw, you set yo tail down over yonder where I kin see you!”
By the time Sally B and Elzado got back, that Rough on Rats had Grandma Duck and her gang’s bellies swole up like balloons. When Doc Hines got through pumping them out, he had enough shit to fill up a wagon. In a few days Grandma Duck recuperated, and Emma took her “whuppin” with a smile. Even though things didn’t go as planned, it was a whole dime’s worth.
* * *
Sally B was always so quiet and shy. It sure surprised everybody when she got saved at the revival. She kept it a secret as long as she could, but the “spirit” was in her and kept getting bigger and bigger until she got shamefaced and ran off with the jackleg preacher who filled her with it.
Sitting with her sister on the back steps, Elzado urged, “Emma, les run off. Bama an Sally B been gone so long. They ain’t never comin back afta us,” she said forlornly.
“I know they ain’t.”
“Well, les run off then! I’m tired uv doin all the work an me an you gittin all the whuppins, specially you. Grammaw hates you! Look at my back, Emma,” she said, pulling down the neck of her tattered dress to bare the rows of freshly inflicted coat-hanger welts.
Looking at Elzado’s shoulders, Emma said, “I know, mine looks the same way, but you too little to ru—”
“Naw I ain’t too little! I’m big is you is, an I do as much work as you do.”
“I know that, but you still jes ’leven. Hush, I hear somebody comin.”
Emma, at fifteen, had blossomed. Though her five-foot-five frame was slim, it bore the signs of womanhood, and her long dancer legs were striking. She kept her wavy, reddish, dark brown hair in a braid that hung midway down her back, exposing an interestingly beautiful face. The tiny moles dotting her cheeks were unignorable and accentuated her dark, intense eyes and pouted lips.
Unlike her sisters, Emma took her caramel-colored complexion and wavy hair from Charlie’s light brown Cajun-Negro side of the family. Bama, Sally B, and Elzado, with their kinky black hair and dark mahogany skin, resembled Lillie and the rest of Grandma Duck’s offspring.
Grandma Duck was crowding seventy. She wasn’t as agile as she used to be, but she was just as hateful. Because she’d gotten too short-winded, she delegated “Big Auntie,” her oldest daughter, full authority to do all of her “personal whuppin” while she oversaw to make sure it met her satisfaction.
Big Auntie was still sitting at the kitchen table while Emma and Elzado cleaned off the dirty supper dishes. She was just as ornery as Grandma Duck, and Emma decided now was as good a time as any. She had been wanting a chance to talk to Big Auntie away from all the others. As she raked the leftovers into a bucket for the hogs, she said, “Big Auntie?”
“I wisht you’d make them ol boys a’ yourn stop meddlin me.”
“They be meddlin me too,” Elzado chimed in.
“Shet up, Elzado, an git yo tail outta this kitchen!” Elzado glanced over at Emma. “I said git on outta heah!” After Elzado left, Big Auntie asked with indignation, “Meddlin you how?”
“They puttin they hands up under my dress, pinchin my titties an stuff.”
Big Auntie pushed her chair back abruptly and stood up. “You jes shet yo lyin mouf! They ain’t dun no such a thang! You low-down cow, none’a my boys wouldn’t even look at you!”
“They did, Big Auntie!”
“I tole you to shet yo mouf! I been seein you sassy wigglin yo high-yella tail up an down that hall lak you got sump’n special!”
“Naw I ain’t, Big Auntie!”
“You ol Charlie-lookin devil!” she shouted angrily, coming around the table to get at Emma. “Don’t you ’spute my word!”
They clashed, and the noise of their battling soon brought
Grandma Duck. Emma was fighting Big Auntie like a tiger cat and had her down on the floor. Grandma Duck rushed in, hitting at her until Emma grabbed the butcher knife off the table.
Holding them at bay with the long-bladed knife poised in a striking position, she threatened, “If y’all come up on me, I’m gon stick y’all’s hearts out. I ain’t gon take no mo whuppins!” as she eased her way out the back door.