Opening Chapter of SKIPJACK by Mary Fox
- Category: Excerpts from Our Books
- Published: Sunday, 08 September 2019 16:12
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Before the Depression, the land near the Chesapeake Bay was a major producer of “stoop crops,” melons, tomatoes, cucumbers and beans, crops that had to be hand-picked. Between 1930 and 1960, these truck crops were largely replaced with the “new” industry of chickens raised for meat production, and of grain needed for poultry feed – crops that could be machine harvested. (Levy, Civil) (For all headnote citations, see Works Consulted.)
The first time Celie Mowbray saw Isaac, she was only ten years old. It was a typical day in the Tidal Basin — steaming, stinking hot and airless, one of those days when the humidity is so high your body sticks to everything, including itself. Celie had been doing the worst possible chore for a day like this — cleaning the chicken yard. She’d spent most of the morning navigating what her brother Frank called The Chicken Shit Trail, a straw path of sticky yellow-green sludge that lined the entrance to the chicken coop. The straw was supposed to absorb the droppings, but in this heat, vile-smelling poop would congeal around the straw, becoming so slippery it inched up the sides of her muck boots and even onto her calves. Her hair, usually Shanty-Irish coal-black, had picked up dots of chalky poop.
As disgusting as the chicken yard was, it wasn’t the main reason Celie hated working with the chickens. The hens weren’t so bad. They’d pretty much scatter themselves as she walked and scooped, but the roosters were nasty in general and apt to develop peculiar vendettas. When they weren’t fighting each other, they might get a notion to come charging across the yard for no reason other than meanness and a craving to poke a hole in something — another chicken, a dog, or the hand of the fool holding out scoops of poultry feed. To protect yourself from these devils, you had to stare them down first, eyeball to eyeball, before they got themselves going toward you. Celie was pretty good at this, but there was one grizzled old bird she could rarely outsmart. Frank had dubbed him ‘The Old Dastard.’ (Mom had tried to make him change the name to Mr. Dastard, her futile attempt to reign in Frank’s talent at finding words that were not-quite-swearing.) The evil-spirited rooster would wait around corners until some unwary victim made the mistake of crossing through the yard, rather than going around. Celie was sure the bird knew when his target couldn’t see him coming, which gave him a running start. Wings in an awkward, flapping mess, he would heave himself up into the air, his beak aimed toward the victim’s head.
Of the three children in her family, she was the one least likely to take chances. People mistakenly thought of her as bold because she had what Daddy called “the Irish gift of gab.” Today, however, she was in the right mood to fight with a rooster because everyone else had gone off the farm, leaving her to care for all the livestock. In addition, she faced the indignity of having to make dinner for her father, brother, and male cousins, whenever they all got back from hunting rabbits in their cousin’s woods. Normally, she’d be with them, but on this day, her ill-tempered uncle Bob from Philadelphia had shown up to tag along. Uncle Bob had some lame-brained notion that girls couldn’t be trusted to use guns. When Daddy informed him that Celie was quite a fine shot, Uncle Bob had escalated his argument. “Girls with guns are just plain bad luck, Guy. I’d be too nervous to shoot straight.”
Celie wasn’t sure which felt worse, missing out on the trip or being stuck cleaning the chicken yard. She was furious that Daddy had been taken in by such a lame excuse. She ‘d glared at the red pickup truck as it wound past the cucumber vines and disappeared behind the rows of tall corn stalks, sending it her strongest possible negative energy. She hoped to influence Providence so that Uncle Bob might trip and break something – an arm or a leg — or maybe he could be in the wrong place and take a butt full of buckshot.
She grabbed a shovel and started walloping oyster shells to bits to scatter along the feeding grounds, a chore that suited her mood perfectly. She glanced up from time to time, basically keeping an eye out for Old Dastard. In the bare edge of her line of sight, at the darkened edge of the woods, she saw people, five or six of them, coming across the fields on foot. She stopped hacking the shells to get a better look.
There was an old woman, short and stooped over. Behind her came two young men, one tall and skinny, the other short and pudgy, bouncing along and poking each other. They’re just boys, she thought as she saw one of them take a tumble and spring back up. Trailing behind the three of them was an old man wearing a straw hat, a wide-brimmed Panama, holding hands with a young girl who was taller than he was.
They came through the soybeans and crossed over to a field of cucumbers, fitting themselves carefully between the rows. The way the mid-morning sun was pitched, aimed at their eyes, it was unlikely they could see her yet. They’d stopped, all of them bending down to look at something on the ground, conferring about it, when Celie dropped her shovel, shed her apron and walked toward them, her hand extended.
“Howdy, how you all doing?”
Right away, she realized that by approaching them from behind, she had just about scared them to death. Not that they would stay startled for long at the sight of a grinning ten-year-old girl.
“We – why, just fine, ma’am. Uh — miss,” said the old man. “And it’s a fine farm you have here. Yours?
“My Dad’s. I’m just in charge today.”
“Seems it’s in good hands,” the old man said, hooking his thumbs through his suspenders and leaning back on his heels. The woman who’d been in the lead before, now stood behind him. She was exactly his height and both of them had dark brown skin, wrinkled with age. Except for the man’s hat and pipe, they looked like twins.
The woman yanked off the old man’s hat and mumbled something Celie couldn’t make out. “Oh, that’s right, old woman,” the man said when she’d finished whispering. “I got to apologize, miss, for meeting a lady with my hat on. My name’s Isaac Jackson.”
“I’m Celie Mowbray, nice to meet you. The sun’s so high you probably should put your hat right back on, though.” He did so, then put his hand on the old woman’s shoulder, guiding her forward. “This here’s my wife Minnie. This fine-looking little gal here, holding on to my hand, is our niece, name of Ava Skipton.”
‘Little’ Ava was the tallest of them all, slim and with the darkest skin Celie had ever seen. Her face looked like it had been chiseled from stone, all angles and lines, except for the lively eyes shining out. Usually, Celie took note of what other girls wore, but not with this girl. Her clothes were insignificant (a word Grandmom Mowbray used to describe garments which she thought were too plain.) No matter what clothes Ava wore, they would look insignificant next to her glorious face and piercing eyes.
“How do, Ava,” Celie said and stretched her hand to where Ava could reach it.
“How do,” Ava said back, her eyes almost meeting Celie’s.
Celie turned back to Isaac. “And the boys?”
Isaac rubbed his chin with the palm of his hand and tilted his head sideways, as if trying to figure out which boys she meant. Meantime, that pair had run off and sat themselves down in the dirt to play a silent game. Even poking and scuffing about, they had yet to make a peep.
“Boys?” Isaac lifted his hat, scratched his head, and snugged the hat back in place. “Oh, I clean forgot – yes. They’re a pair of boys alright.”
“No – I mean what’s their names?”
“Names? Oh, well, nobody makes no mind of their names,” he said good-naturedly. “They’re just a coupla’ boys like to hang around.”
Celie didn’t believe this for a second. Here was a story. She was dying to know the reason Isaac didn’t identify them. Probably to hide them from someone – a mean parent? A truant officer? Her imagination soared. She wanted to learn more about Isaac and Minnie, and most of all, to learn about the girl who seemed to be her own age.
When they’d finished shaking hands, Ava had kept her hand holding Celie’s. She accepted the girl’s gesture as a pure sign of friendship, unbound by the usual social customs. It was a gesture that said, I like you and I hope you like me. Maybe just being in a new place, she imagined, Ava had to act on every chance for friendship.
She’d soon find out. She was already thinking of this family as hers, like when you are the first to spot a new kid at school and introduce yourself, and then you have a responsibility to keep looking out for him. She’d “found” a family out for a walk and was lucky enough to have been outside when they passed by.
Isaac’s next words sliced through her daydream. “You think your Pop needs help with the picking? I see you got cucumbers about ready.”
This was the question she should have expected, of course. Her stomach sank. It wasn’t an enchanted encounter after all. Me and my silly daydreams. Always thinking there’s magic of some kind when the real business of life is so often just practical. Find a way to get food for your family. That done, next comes shelter. No time for strolls through woods and farms just to say hello. She felt foolish and moved her mind to where it should be, to business. She said, “you must have heard we lost our crew last week.”
“Yes’m. Friend of your Pops told me to come on over, get to know each other a bit. It’s me and Minnie and Ava here – maybe twelve, fifteen others. We got a late start this season and just got up here yesterday. We got a good truck, too . . . had to send my folks out in it for wood, in case we’d be staying outdoors tonight. You reckon your folks will be back this evening?”
“My daddy will — and Mom . . . my mother and my little sister are visiting family, but she’d never forgive me for my bad manners. I didn’t even offer refreshment, and all of you out here in the hot sun. Do you think that…the no-name boys over there . . . might like to come up to the house for some nice cold tea?” She smiled at the boys and they returned wide grins.
Celie felt dizzy with excitement, partly from the excuse to have left the chicken yard, but mostly because it looked like they’d get some labor for the crops. Pop would want her to move forward in the deal, he was that short of help since their one hired hand, Big John, had busted his leg and was laid up for the summer.
“You got any year-round help?” Isaac must be reading her mind.
“No sir. One hired hand, but he’s laid up.”
Isaac hesitated and then asked, his voice soft, “That hired man. He got family needs taking care of?”
“A wife, Willi, and two kids, almost grown. My dad’s got them covered. If you come tomorrow, you’ll meet Willi; she’s helping my Mom make the pickles. She’ll also be picking with us when the crops come, to earn some extra.” As was usual for her when she wanted something badly, she’d begun chattering. “Their cabin is right down the road. One of my uncles owns it and he’ll let them stay free until Big John is back on his feet.”
Isaac breathed out easy and his eyes opened wide. He said, “Well that’ll be fine, then. Reckon we can work together real fine, your pop being a man like that.” He had put the smile back in his voice.
Celie was charmed. A barrier had been lowered, a friendship made. With family to feed and his own living hard to find, he refused to take advantage of another man’s bad luck, even a man he didn’t know. He was more like her daddy than he could possibly know.
“Ain’t my business, miss, but your daddy must be something special. To get by with just his family and one hired hand to work a farm this size.”
Celie thought for a minute before answering. She didn’t want to come across like she was bragging. Sister Mary Emily called this, The Sin of Pride.
“My dad has been moving more to grain crops. He and his brothers have a harvester and they rent it out. It was my dad’s idea and it pays for the bad times.” She watched Isaac process the economic upshot of such a thing, a farmer who could make his land pay in the winter.
Her gabbing, what Grandmom called her blarney, had been partly to put Isaac’s family at ease, but mostly to cover up her uncertainty about the right thing to say to protect Daddy’s interests. She wondered …
Oh my God – her manners! “I almost forgot our drinks! While I get them, won’t you please come up on the porch and sit?”
“That’s mighty nice,” Minnie answered, “but if you don’t mind, these kids’d just as soon run around in the grass. Ava might like to walk up with you.”
Celie had nearly forgotten Minnie. The social question Celie just asked must have crossed into her realm. She said, “As to me and Isaac, we’d be dearly pleased to pick a spot of shade under that big old oak tree over there. To us, it’s coming up on the best part of the day.”
Celie ending up bringing out two trays, one with iced tea, the second with peach pie. She made them all sit while she served them, Ava quietly helping. When they’d all finished, she excused herself, put on her coverall and boots, and aimed herself back toward the chicken yard to finish her work.
“Hold on a minute!” Ava said, with no dialect at all; her accent as smooth as that of any white town kid. “I’d be pleased if you’d let me work with the chickens and maybe get the eggs for you. I miss my chickens back home.”
Celie helped Ava suit up. As she tied the back of the apron, she thought her eyes must be playing tricks on her. Now that the sun had shifted and cast her in shadows, Ava’s face was highlighted with intense shades of deep blue. Again, Celie felt she might be looking at a statue. Maybe one carved out of ebony. While she’d never actually seen any ebony, it just sounded right. She’d never been so close to anyone with skin so black. Her hunch was that Ava probably didn’t have a single drop of mixed blood in her, unlike most of the folks around here. Celie’s own great-grandmother had been a full-blooded Nanticoke Indian, which was originally listed on her birth certificate as Mulatto, as had been the law at that time for all persons of color – no distinctions in those days. You were white, or you weren’t. The family story was that when she married Celie’s great grandfather (a white judge), her birth records and even her first name were altered. Only their wedding portrait, showing her leather dress and her long shiny braids with feathers woven in, gave away the truth. That and the name on the back of the photograph; “Victoria Mowbray” had been written across her name, “Littlefeather,” which had been eliminated both from the picture and from history.
There was a sudden scuffle over in the long grass by the tool shed, the two boys fighting. Isaac grabbed them by their collars and held them tight. Both boys reacted quickly, one coiling back his right arm and holding it across his face like he expected to be hit, the other folding his arms over his head and rolling into a ball.
“Lord help you, Jim,” Isaac said, putting them both down and patting their heads good-naturedly. “Ain’t nobody gonna hit you around here, or Tom either.” Word by word, Isaac’s voice had gathered sadness. The no-name boy (named Jim) was sobbing like a baby.
Isaac laid a hand on his shoulder. “None of us ever gone to beat you, no matter how dumb-ass you are. Isaac’ll see to it. Now stand up and be proud.”
Jim sniffled and scrambled up, but he looked more sorrowful than proud. Minnie poked a finger into Jim’s arm muscle, patted Tom’s head, and grinned at them. “We’ve been feeding you boys long enough to get some of our outlay back – don’t fold up before we get at least one season’s labor.” Minnie’s teasing seemed to loosen up the boys. Even then, with them smiling a bit, they were two of the scaredest boys Celie had ever seen.
Ava had gone into the chicken yard while Celie was watching the human drama with the no-name boys, or else she’d have warned Ava about Old Dastard, who now came hop-jump-sailing from behind the barn. He’d angled himself straight toward Ava’s shins. Celie didn’t have even a second to warn her. Darned if Ava didn’t have that feed bucket in front of her legs before Old Dastard got within three feet of her. His beak bounced off the steel bucket, flinging him back, landing him upside down on the ground. Ava picked up the rooster and smoothed his feathers, set him on his feet, and made clucking sounds.
“You’re not so tough,” she crooned, and the bird simply walked away, calm as an old hen. Ava looked up and winked at Celie. “I’m pretty good with chickens,” she said, smiling. Celie found herself once again chattering like a magpie, while Ava picked up one hen, then another, like they were pets or something, stroking their feathers until their eyes closed. With the chickens done, Ava crossed back along the lawn to Celie, with not a particle of yard waste outside the boundaries of the apron.
“Your family been farming here for a long time?” she asked.
“Not so long. My dad comes from carpenters; my Mom’s kin were coal miners up north.” She bit her tongue to avoid adding that her mother had studied music at University for a year, just before falling head over heels for the charmingly funny farmer she met at a bar. “The sin of pride,” again. Instead she said, “There were too many brothers for Daddy to work in the family business, so he took up farming. You from around here too?”
Ava’s eyes narrowed. “Sort of. Long, long time ago.” She’d kept the friendly tone, but her face had closed up and Minnie, listening in, reached over to pat Ava’s shoulder. Ava relaxed and said, “Minnie is my Aunt. My mother is . . . still on her way from Florida, where I’m from. Minnie and Isaac will take in anybody’s child.”
Minnie had already turned her attention to the pile of dishes, giving them a hosing before stacking them on the porch step. From there, she moved on to the kindling pile, rubbing her hands briskly, like you do when you’re about to grab an axe and chop.
“Hold on, Ma’am – Mizz Jackson,” Celie called.
“Just need to call me Minnie. Mizz makes me feel like an old woman.”
“No need to chop. That’s my brother’s chore.”
“My way of thanks for the pie,” she said. Celie wanted to argue back but knew it’d be taken as ungrateful. She watched the old woman’s swift, strong strokes, like she only wished she could do. She took a harder look at Minnie’s wiry body. She was by any standard, a bent-up old woman but her strength hadn’t left her. She had dozens of small scars on her arms and hands and on her wrinkled face, the latter so jagged they distorted the shape of her brow. Celie couldn’t help but wonder who – or what – had put them there. She tried to imagine her as young and beautiful, tried to picture Isaac as a jaunty young man bringing her a handful of flowers. She couldn’t. As with her own parents, it wasn’t possible to see any of them any other way than they were now.
It was pitch-dark by the time Daddy came home and he and Isaac worked out a contract. Isaac signed “ISAAC JACKSON & FAM” in neat block letters and then tipped his hat to Celie – nobody else, just her – before gathering his folks and leading them back through the fields, staying between rows, like when she’d first seen them. She badly wanted to go with them and help them settle into the camp to make sure their cabins were clean and that there were enough cots and blankets, but it couldn’t be. It wouldn’t be tolerated by either of their two families.
Celie believed there was something special about Ava. Something between them would go past the usual criteria like who their kin was or where they were born, or the color of their skin. She knew she wouldn’t be allowed to ignore those things for long, but she and Ava, coming into each other’s lives today, had felt a mutual connection. She was sure of it.