I waited until I heard Papa’s loud snoring erupt in the house. I had already placed the brown paper bag by the bottom step to avoid disrupting the silence and being caught red-handed sneaking out into the night. The first night I snuck out, I was terrified that my folks would catch me and skin me alive. This was one month ago and they never did. They slept peacefully as I ventured out into the darkness to find my peace. Ever since that first night, I grew fond of that peace, that alright feeling.
The door creaked as I made my exit. My heart was beating a mile-a-minute as I grabbed the brown paper bag and ran into the darkness on my adventure. Everything was different at night. The world seemed still, but mine was turnin’ and racin’, trying to catch everything it had thought it missed. Like the fireflies that shed their light in the darkness. Like the frogs that croaked their songs because the birds’ beguiling songs drowned out their raw rites of passion during the day. Like the muffled cries I heard from Ms. Tannie Mae’s every once in a spell when I passed her place on my Sunday night journey. I slowed my pace as I passed the graveyard with the scattered oak trees. I drew in deep breaths, exhaled, drew in more of the dry air, and released again. A silent tear fell from my face as I remembered my baby sister and how she had brought so much life and light into our lives in such a short amount of time. Soon, the tears stormed my face and I began to run down the dirt road for my dear life. I ran away from the memory of that drunken night and the muffled screams. I reached the sugarberry tree and kept running to the shack that sat off in the distance. I didn’t hear anyone singing but I felt it anyway as I knocked on the door.
“Me,” I faintly replied, catching my breath.
The door opened and I handed the brown paper bag to Duane. He gestured for me to come in and I made myself comfortable on the same milk crate I usually sat on. He sat on the floor and opened the brown paper bag. The aroma of collard greens and cornbread filled the air as he made a mush caused by his mouth and fingers squelching and chewing the food.
“You’ve been crying again,” Duane said in between bites and staring at me deeply.
“No,” I stammered, sheepishly wiping the remnants of tears from my face.
“Mmmhm,” He mumbled as he devoured the last of his greens and bread. I didn’t know if that was a reaction to the delicious food or the obvious lie that slid off my lips and into the humid air.
“Ms. Rose put her foot in these here greens! Lawd-a-mercy!” I breathed a sigh of relief.
He had been referring to the food. Thank you, Jesus.
“Mama loves cooking,” I replied. “She says it makes her soul feel good.”
Duane placed the bowl back into the brown paper bag and moved it to the side of him. His dark brown eyes steadied on mine. Papa would skin me alive if he knew I was out with a man.
“Tell me something, Ella Jean…”
“Hmm…?” I said as we gazed into each other’s eyes.
“What makes your soul feel good?”
The question hit me like a tonne of bricks. I moved my body back onto the milk crate as I searched the depths of my mind for an answer. Nothing came.
“I don’t know,” I retorted. “What makes your soul feel good?” I watched intently as Duane placed his head against the wooden wall, eyes fixed to the heavens.
“Pain,” his voice boomed unapologetically as my mind scrambled over the word. How could pain make his soul feel good? “You got time for a story?” He asked, interjecting my thoughts. I nodded and slithered down to the floorboard next to him to meet him in his moment, his story.
I lifted my eyes to the heavens as he began to recount his life story.
“My ma was a hardworking woman; did whatever she could to make folks happy. She would dance to a cool ditty down in Dallas County, five miles from Selma. She and the other womenfolk would hum and make quilts in the day, supper in the evening, and they made sure their menfolk was satisfied at night. Well, everybody except for my ma. Papa died when I was 10. Somebody just shot him cause he carried the air of a rich man. Nobody in Dallas County wanted some fast-talking Black man being confident and happy that he was a Black man. No way, no sir. Shot him like he was a skunk in the summer day. I remember that day; ma in the middle of her ditty with the other womenfolk and boy, they were getting down. Making quilts and cutting a rug at the same time. Soon as that shot rang out, the record skipped. It had never skipped and they had played it many times before. My ma said something tugged at her heart. Just didn’t feel right when that record skipped. So she ran out of that house, arms flailing, feet reaching her buttocks. Quarter of a mile down the road— my papa’s blood draining out of his body around him. And guess who was right there waiting for my ma on the other side of the body? Me. Lil 10-year-old me.”
The humidity in the air thickened as I searched for words to give Duane comfort. The silence enveloped us. His eyes were still leveled to the heavens as his chest heaved up and down in rapid motion, and then slowly he grew calm.
“What happened? How did you and your ma carry on after your father’s death?”
Duane gave me a faint smile. “We prayed to God and the ancestors. And you know, the village carried us through it all.”
I nodded my head and rubbed his hand as I noticed a hint of sunlight playing hide and seek through the crack in the wooden door. The village carries.
“You seemed to keep to yourself now. Do you still believe in having a village?” I asked as I gathered myself from the floor.
Duane joined me and walked me to the door.
“I’ll always carry the village in my heart, Ella Jean. That is what keeps me a-going.”
A faint smile formed on my face as I walked out of the shack to face the world.
The village must be carrying me, too. I’m still engaged in this slow dance.