When Momma died, it was like someone took the air from my lungs. Just took it away. It was a hard sighing exhale of hopeful breath I’d been keeping inside myself. Keeping from the world. Keeping for her. I’d been holding it, waiting for good news that in my heart I knew would never come.
Maybe I thought a part of her was in that air, some scent, some memory, and as long as I held onto it, it would bring her back. A piece of her was mingling inside my very lungs, more than I already had in my heart. No one can take that part away. But it didn’t bring her back. I still kept hoping and praying, and holding onto that one last breath.
I felt like everyone in Loxley was watching me during those nine days she’d been missing, though the news kept replaying a three second film a news cameraman had shot of me while being escorted out of a police car and into the youth home. That was the way all the bad kids always came, so the gossip started. Parents of kids in my class at school were more than willing to give their opinion on camera for the local news.
“I always thought that Paumans boy was strange,” some toothless hag would say in between puffs, when actually she hadn’t thought that at all. It was her dirty children who’d pulled my hair and pushed me down at recess. They punched me in the stomach for no reason.
I never fought back. I found it safer to stray away from the other children, and so I was labeled an outcast. I was ridiculed for being shy and for talking to my father, who the other children could not see because he was a ghost. Now, to them, I looked like a criminal being carried off to jail. Did they all think I was responsible for my mother’s disappearance? At least at the youth home I’d be safe from their derision, or at least that’s what I thought.
Having to stay at the youth center was like going to detention and being locked in a room with all my bullies. They were all there for a reason, a reason much worse than anything they could have done at school resulting in detention. They were unruly enough to where the school couldn’t handle them. Their parents couldn’t even handle them. I wondered why some of them weren’t in jail, but then I realized they were in jail, and I’d been sent there too. The only difference was these kids pushed harder, and punched harder too. If the forks in the lunchroom weren’t plastic, they probably would stab me to death.
But they already knew me. They knew what “I” had done to that kid at the playground. I certainly wasn’t capable of throwing a boy who was bigger than me over a swing set and into a tree, but the other kids at the center didn’t have to know that. So, they stayed out of my way. Unlike at the playground, these kids didn’t believe in ghosts. Telling them about my guardian ghost father would have done no good to keep them at bay. Luckily, I didn’t have to.
I still resented my sister for not letting me stay with her, but I resented her even more because I knew I would have to live with her once Momma was found. And I knew, deep inside, Momma would not be found alive, if she was found at all. The investigators were quick to blame the Blackwater River for taking her life, but I knew that wasn’t true. They blamed that ominous river because it was deep and scary, and it could not defend itself.
Instead, the river hid the truth and when the time was ready, and when the current was right, or the water was high, it belched the answer everyone was looking for up onto its banks for some innocent fisherman or adventurous hiker to find. In this case, the answer to my mother’s disappearance was her poor broken body.
I knew they would laugh at me if I told them the truth. I honestly did not know who had done it. Momma and I had both gone to bed at our usual time that night. I liked to read a book with a flashlight under the covers for a few hours. The crickets outside in the bushes always sang us to sleep. I pulled back the covers and turned off the flashlight when the crickets stopped singing. It was not unusual for them to stop and start again, like maybe they were just rehearsing. But they stayed quiet that night and didn’t start again.
I got out of bed and went to the window to look out into the quiet black, as if I could see the crickets and see why they had completely stopped. Pulling back the curtains a bit, I remember there was no moon that night and the stars’ shine was weak. It was just enough light to see a dark figure walking in the woods. Like the crickets practicing their songs, this was not uncommon to see spirits outside at night, shadows of people wandering in the thicket. Momma called them “Spooks.”
It was rumored that somewhere deep in the woods near our cabin, there was an old Negro cemetery, the final resting places of slaves who’d died long before me or Momma were even born. I had searched for it during many of my hikes through the woods when I went out to play or explore nature, but I never found a clue as to its location.
The only cemetery I’d ever seen was in downtown Loxley. It had an iron fence around it, keeping the dead in I suppose, or keeping the dying out. Through the cold hard bars of the fence, I could see smooth sleek monuments of granite and marble that twinkled when the sun hit them just right. Some were ornate and grand, no doubt the sharp work of a sculptor. I wondered if the dead person ever got to see the glorious dedication left in their honor. Other stones were simple and looked like Moses’s ten commandment tablets sticking up out of the ground.
Since slaves were poor and buried their dead in the woods, I tried to imagine what their cemetery might look like. I doubted they could afford a sculptor’s work or stone mason’s time. Maybe they marked the plots with wooden crosses or old coffee cans. If I was right, I guess those grave markers would have decayed or rusted away by now, and all that was left was bones in the ground below. And maybe even those bones were gone by now. The earth, or Mother Nature, or God had taken them all back to wherever they came from. Ashes and dust, from whence we came, like the Bible and the preacher man says.
In that case, like everything else in history that wasn’t permanent and could not be witnessed with the eyes of the present, it was gone. The cemetery was just a memory, if it had ever been real at all. For all I knew, our little log cabin could have been built right over the top of it. But I knew it had been real. There would be no Spooks if it wasn’t.
The souls of those dead slaves were restless and always up walking around seeking vengeance, or maybe even seeking an escape from the lives they’d lived back when they were breathing. They only came out at night, and they never spoke to anyone. Momma said they were just sad, and sad ghosts should be left alone.
But it wasn’t a ghost that broke the window. I heard the glass tinkle as it fell to the hardwood cabin floor. At first, I thought Momma might be stumbling in the dark in the kitchen, maybe trying to get a drink of water. Just to be sure, I opened the door to my bedroom to look out into the rest of the house. All the dark shapes of home that I was acquainted with were there: Momma’s rocking chair, the sofa, the table, the bookshelf, the clock, the dining table and chairs.
Momma was not there, but the door to her bedroom was open. Maybe I had just missed her. Maybe the sound of glass breaking was all in my head because if Momma had broken a water glass, wouldn’t she be there in the kitchen sweeping it up with her broom and dustpan, tip toeing around the kitchen to avoid the shards and to avoid waking me?
Had I looked closer, had my eyes adjusted quicker to the black, I might have seen a shape that did not belong there, a dark foreboding outline of a man crouched in the corner. I’m sure he was watching me with dark eyes I couldn’t see. Maybe we even made eye contact but I couldn’t sense that anyone was there because that man was real in some ways. He had to be human. He had a pulse. A breath, though maybe he was holding it at the time. Had the shadow been a ghost, I would have felt it, but because he took my Momma, I knew he still didn’t have a soul. Only soulless men hurt the living, Momma used to say.
I returned to my bedroom, quietly shutting the door. And soon, the crickets started again. I knew that meant the night must be okay. I checked outside again and the Spook was gone too. Just like always, the little bugs sang me to sleep. I slept in the next morning which was odd. Momma usually always woke me just a few hours after sunrise, but I could tell by the position of the sun shining in my window that more hours had passed than usual.
I got up and opened my door. Momma’s bedroom door was open, just like last night. I heard a thump, thump sound and looked down to see a small brown rabbit hopping across the floor, curiously coming in to have a look around. That’s when I noticed the front door was standing wide open. I knew the rabbit couldn’t have opened it. I ran over to it and looked outside. A sudden sting bit the sole of my foot. I jumped, grabbing my foot to look at the bottom of it. A small piece of glass was sticking out of it, just under my big toe. A small bright red bead of blood began to form.
I gently pinched the sliver with my fingers and pulled it from my skin, just like Momma did once with a pair of tweezers when I had a splinter in my fingertip. I licked my finger to wipe the blood away. Before putting my foot back down on the floor, I slowly stepped back to have a look around. Someone had broken a window, just as I had suspected last night. A long narrow pane divided into three small windows was in the middle of the door so it made it easy to see out when someone was knocking. The bottom window, closest to the door knob had been shattered, more than likely so someone could reach inside and unlock the door.
I turned around in a panic, frozen in place. The rabbit was there on the floor in front of me. He stood up on his haunches and looked up at me. His nose twitched. He bobbed up and down, indecisive-like. Did he sense my fear? My worry? I don’t know how long I stayed there in that one place, like a statue. It must have been long enough for the rabbit to give up and hop past me, back outside and off into the wild, giving up on whatever had made him come inside in the first place. Perhaps he was looking for the slave cemetery too.
I was alone.
And I held that breath.