for Dr. NCB
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
—from “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Langston Hughes
She took her time, walking like a fawn, careful not to make a twig snap. It was getting dark, but she could still see plenty. The voice grew and rose, and was the color of mint, like what Aunt Inez grew in a pot. Cool. Spearmint she called it.
She caught a glimpse of him, standing out in the middle of the creek, and he was quite a sight. Darker than she, with a wild head of hair. Big, berry dark lips. And his eyes seemed to flash in the dimming light. He was not exactly singing, more like humming, but in tune and to a rhythm foreign to her ears, yet familiar.
The water came up to his belly button, and he seemed to be doing nothing but standing there, in the water, humming and bathing, his dark skin glistening with water, and he spooned handfuls upon himself, humming his ditty.
“What you doing out yonder?” she called to him.
The man turned toward her with his flashing eyes and grinned in a playful fashion.
“Who you?” she said. “What you doing out there?”
“And who are you, little girl?” His voice was deep, deeper than Old Man Pharaoh’s.
“I ain’t no little girl.”
The man waded closer to the shore, but stopped, and said, “How old are you?”
“They tell me I’ll be ten and four come the next moon.”
She stood on the shore, he stood in the water, for a quantity of minutes eyeing each other, she with curiosity, he with placidity.
“What you doing out yonder then?”
“What you watching for?”
“You possess a great many questions for a fourteen-year-old girl.”
“Aunt Inez says I got gumption.”
“I suppose you do. Do you like catfish?”
“Another question. Come back tomorrow and I’ll have one waiting for you.”
“Where you live at?”
“Wherever I take a notion.”
She grunted. It was getting dark, and she did not want to be down there at the creek’s edge in the dark.
“You better come outta there, son.”
“It ain’t safe.”
“You think you’re safe where you are?”
“Safer than standing in that black creek. Ain’t you ’fraid of gators and moccasins?”
“Not really. Come back tomorrow.”
With that she backed up, slowly, until her back came against a tree. She turned and dashed up the trail. When she got back to the camp, Aunt Inez was standing by the kitchen.
“Where you been, gal?”
“I seen a rabbit. Went a-hunting it.”
“You aim to catch a rabbit bare-handed, gal? You ain’t never caught no rabbit, why you rabbit-crazed today?”
“Seemed like a smart thing to do.”
“Girl, I have told you time and time again not to stray too far from camp. Alone without menfolk with you. You never know how far them dogs and catchers will come out here.”
“You and Uncle Pharaoh say they ain’t gonna come this far into the swamp.”
“Ain’t no telling. We always got to be ready to run.” Aunt Inez looked her up and down, taking her all in. Amanda could not tell if she was approving or disapproving. The older woman sucked air in through her teeth. “Go fetch me a pail of rainwater from that barrel over there, and bring me more wood, and be quick about it.”
It did at this point occur to her to tell Aunt Inez about the humming, bathing man out in the creek, but when she opened her mouth to speak no words fell out. This worried her the way a mosquito bite worries. She went to fetch the water and the wood. She could smell the fish stew on the fire.
That night, her dreams were populated by dark men with broad shoulders emerging from the creek. They were not nightmares, but they left her feeling uneasy and querulous inside. And to feel curious things in curious places.
The next day, after a breakfast of leftover fish stew and cornbread—the crawdads were even sweeter the next day—she spent the morning splitting wood and weeding the corn rows. Aunt Inez sent her down to the creek to do some pot washing, with a cake of lye soap and a rag. She fully expected to see the man, but no man was there. All during her washing and scrubbing, she kept looking up and all about, but no man. Mandy felt the way she felt when Pharaoh didn’t come back to camp after a visit back to the plantation. She lingered on the banks, but gave up, by and by, thinking hard thoughts of the well-made bather as she hauled the pots back to camp.
Rastus had caught a rabbit that morning, and Aunt Inez helped Mandy skin it. She allowed as how this was probably the rabbit she had seen the night before, a lie. Aunt Inez only moaned a moan neither in the affirmative nor in the negative, communicating that it did not matter one way or the other. ’Twas just the way things were. She now had another rabbit hide to tan and add to the quilt. Mandy loved to spend time rubbing her hand up and down the large tapestry of rabbit fur, black, brown, snow white, and mottled, so strong over you against the cold. Was a time she would feel bad for the murdered rabbits, but nowadays she got lost in the soft luxury of the thing. Plus, rabbits were good eating. She could not deny it. But the quilt reminded her of pretty things the Mistress owned back at Charybdis Plantation, expensive and lovely to the touch. Mandy did not like to think too much about the plantation. She reckoned she liked it better here. No. She did not reckon, she knew.
The sun commenced to go down, the shadows stretched out, and Mandy looked about for Aunt Inez, who was in the kitchen house, the smoke light as it tended to waft, and she snuck down the trail toward the water. A fat, long black snake crawled across the path a distance in front of her, and Mandy suddenly wished she had shoes, though she liked going barefoot when it was warm like it was. She heard the humming before she could see the water. She stopped stock-still. This time she decided to hide herself and fell to her knees and crawled into the thick cattails to the east of where the man bathed and hummed to himself.
He stopped humming. “Amanda. Why do you hide, child?”
Mandy stood up. “I ain’t no child.”
“But you are hiding?”
Arms akimbo, she asked, “Who is you, fool?”
The laughter was made of many things, and Mandy did not know what to think of it: Was he funning her, or was he just having fun? Was he happy out there, all wet and fixing to get et? Was he laughing because she called him a fool and he wasn’t? It was a deep rolling laugh, the color of molasses, and his body shook. Ripples swam out from him in round, wavy circles.
He stared straight at her, bobbing up and down, lightly like a stick. “I am one of you.” Now he was still and staring at her. “I promised you a fish, didn’t I?”
It rose up behind him without sound, no water slurps or splashes, slowly. So beautiful it was, see-through and bright. Two round things, a point sticking up at each top. It was bigger than his head, wider than his shoulders, and covered the all of him like a great big oak bough full with leaves. The thing shone in the fainting light, the last rays of the sun danced on it like pixies or fairies. It looked like it was waving at Mandy, gently, as if in a breeze, but there was no breeze.
A holler came up in Mandy’s throat, but no sound leeched out, only a puny grunt. And with that grunt the big thing flipped down into the water, made a scary loud SLAP against the flatness and went under. The water behind the man seemed to boil and rumble. Directly it came back up with force and direction, over his head. And right in front of her, with a loud, wet thud there wiggled the largest catfish Mandy had ever seen in her life. She ran. She ran hard, and stopped behind a catalpa tree, tall and skinny, but wide enough to hide her small frame. She was breathing rough, and her heart was beating harder than even the night of the fire and the raid when she was taken away from Quarters. That dark night full of flashes. Full of smoke and full of screams.
Mandy peeked out to see. The man was still standing there, grinning. The dog-sized catfish was still wriggling on the ground, its whiskers, each, looked longer than her legs; the mouth big enough to swallow her whole.
She struggled with it, carrying it in her arms, trying to avoid the whiskers, which looked mighty sharp. But it kept slipping from her grip and she kept having to stop to catch her breath. By the time she made it back to the catalpa tree, she’d stopped and looked back, but the fellow in the water had gone. Mandy felt angry with him. But was glad to be hauling back a big fish.
Aunt Inez was the first to see her clambering up the trail with a beast slipping around in her arms.
“Wheeooo!” Inez called out. Rastus came running and, much to Mandy’s delight, lifted her slimy burden from her.
Uncle Pharaoh was standing there at the top of the trail. She knew what his return meant: he would commence to learn her the proper way to cypher and call letters as he did every time he returned to camp. Mandy was not exactly sure she enjoyed this reading and writing business, but she knew it was important to learn.
“You catch that fish, gal?” Uncle Pharaoh didn’t look like he was either impressed or worried, just calm.
“Yes, sir, I did.”
“Now, why the Sam Hill you want to lie to me, child?”
“I’ll tell you the plain truth, Uncle. That there catfish jumped straight outta the water, right high. Just as pretty as you please, and landed on dry land. Right at my feet. I ain’t even seen nothing to beat it.”
Pharaoh grunted the way annoyed bulls sometimes grunt.
By now Rastus and Inez had nailed the catfish down to a board, hacked off its head, and commenced to peel back the thick hide, which Rastus had to put great effort into doing.
“I heard you talking to somebody out there by the creek earlier. Who was it?” Uncle Pharaoh asked.
“Just this fella, out there swimming.”
“And you were gonna keep this a secret from the rest of us, were you? Was that your plan, Amanda?”
“I assume he’s a niggra like us.”
“He give you that catfish?”
“It’s a biggun.”
Pharaoh joined Rastus and Inez, who were gutting the fish. “Looks like we got a friend.”
“What you talking bout, Pharaoh?”
“Down by the creek. I prayed to her and she sent a friend.”
“Now, there you go again talking all that African foolishness,” Inez said. “Ain’t nobody believing in them overseas magic people but you, old man.”
“How you reckon that skinny little gal catch a catfish that big?”
Aunt Inez sucked her teeth dismissively. “Mandy, go fetch me some water, gal!”
Upon her return Pharaoh put his hand on Amanda’s head. “You need to be on the lookout all the time, gal. Especially when you wander away from camp. I ain’t gonna try to clip your wings or nothing, but I need you to tell me you’ll be careful. You hear?”
The next day, Mandy had been itching to go down by the creek since she woke up, but figured she’d wait till the dimming of the day just like the other times.
This time as she approached the water, she saw the man rise to the surface, head first. “Hey, Amanda.”
“Was the old fish good?”
“Sho nuff.” Mandy found it difficult to look him directly in the eye today. “What was that yesterday? That thing you brought up out of the water?”
“That was me.”
“What you talking about, ‘that was you’? What does that mean?”
Of a sudden the man cocked his head to the side at a peculiar angle. “Ssssshusssh,” he said, listening to Mandy did not know what.
“What’s the— ?”
“Be still, child.”
Sternly: “I said, Be still!”
By and by, she heard, in the distance, the baying of the dogs. Hounds no doubt, and a great crashing not too terrible far away it sounded like.
“You need to come with me. Right now.”
“I need to do what?”
“Don’t be afraid, child. I will protect you.” The man spread his big arms wide open. And Mandy felt herself impressed by how wide they were.
Pharaoh always said they were bound to be found out, to always be ready to pick up and run deeper into the swamp. The dogs were getting closer and she could hear the voices of the catchers, hollering. She figured she couldn’t run back to camp in time. Besides…
“Come to me, child. Get in the water.”
Mandy could hear the dogs louder, closer, crashing through the brush. She peered into the woods to see what she could see.
“Mandy. You must come now! Time is a-wasting.”
Mandy was not thinking as she dipped her bare foot into the water and stepped in. Not too cool. Not cool at all. Warm like rabbit fur. Warm like a belly full of hot chicken. Warm like a freshly picked ear of corn. Warm like a ripe tomato. Warm like Aunt Inez’s hands.