A NATURAL DEATH
FROM CHAPTER ONE:
The two children are still alive in the oven of an August afternoon. The three-year-old boy presses his blood-streaked hand against his head; the baby girl lies face down.
Heat sings with flies. Sweat glitters on the small black bodies; the children make no sound but panting breath. They are almost lost in the dimness where they lie.
Now a white man’s bald head and Roman nose come bobbing above the corn: Amzi King takes his path down to where the Santee River flashes sun back through the cornfield’s shift and shimmer. He’s no stranger here: his uncle’s old cabin is back in the pine grove. But he’s not at home in this place, either. He jams his feet along these ruts. He pulls his boot heels out of this dust.
Flies buzz and cluster on the hidden children. Amzi passes by. But his hound (sniffing dust, grass, old snake, yesterday’s rabbit, hot corn, river wet) scents man—alive and low and sharp and here! here! here! Wild yapping says Life!
Amzi steps into the corn, parts it, and crouches beside the children. Turning the sweat-slick baby over, he swears when he sees her maggoty face, whip-cut from forehead to chin. He climbs uphill to his cabin, talking to himself, the baby cradled against his linsey shirt. He kicks his cabin door open and lays Joan on a croker sack on the floor, builds and blows up his fire, swings a kettle over, and goes stamping back downhill.
Joan lies on Amzi’s floor, a naked and dimpled black child, her hands full of grass torn up in her agony, her half-open eyes full of nothing. Amzi’s bald head glistens in the sun as he climbs through his cornfield again, Will whimpering in his arms.
He sops a cloth and drips water in the children’s mouths. Will moans and takes the rag in his teeth to suck it. Amzi crawls on his knees from one child to the other. The boy gulps sugar water from a tin cup, then falls into a sleep like death.
Joan’s lips have come unstuck from her teeth; she sucks sweetness from the rag, eagerly taking life back if she can. Amzi washes her in a wooden trough, lathering soft-soap on her slashed face. Dried blood rinses from the little flat, broad nose and plump cheeks. He fuzzy hair cap comes clean; round arms and legs take on the shining blueness plums have. He finds some homespun to diaper her, wraps her in a blanket, and washes the sleeping boy.
There’s a rice plantation downstream. Slaves have dawdled and shuffled their way from dawn to afternoon in the rice swamps, then idled away the last of the day’s heat. Night is one of the few things they own. Amzi knows he will find them by a fire on the shore.
Some of these tall black slaves, crouched in smoke to keep off mosquitoes, are not quite naked. They have ground their corn ration; now they bake hoecake in the ashes. They hear the white man on the road before he sees them.
Amzi stops at dark’s edge. “Found two babies by my cabin. Boy’s ear was sliced off, and the girl’s cut bad about the face. Dyin, maybe. Won’t give em back to get cut up again,” he says, and turns around, goes back home.
The slaves squat quietly there, black bodies blown clear, then hidden, as the smoke veers with the night breeze. But later, much later, a black woman steals through the rustle of Amzi’s corn. She has a gourd in one hand, and she’s ready to run if Amzi moves there on his hearth in sight of the open door. “Jerusalem oak, Mass,” she whispers from the dark. “Put on whip cut. Creeper come out.”
Amzi sits still. The woman reaches in to lay the gourd on the floor, then stands twisting her hands. “Them ain’t like it if them find you got em, Mass,” she whispers. “That boy, him Mass Crandall boy—want em. And me-own gal-baby—“ She grins, but Amzi can feel her fear as sharp as he can smell her lashed back. “God fill teeth with lie.” So this is the brave one.
“You two want em?” Amzi snaps. “Boy’s ma and you? Take em then, or kill em. Don’t leave em in my corn.”
Scared, she’s almost gone out the door; only her eyes show in the dark, boring through the firelight to Amzi. Amzi has seen drowned babies floating in the Santee. He glares back at one of the mothers who left her child in his way, close to his water path by the river. He’d like to choke her. He wishes all South Carolina to hell. He sees black shadows eating his corn half-ripe, and sleeping by this hearth.
The doorway is empty now: she has read his body slumped there, and the hard fingers spread on his knees. She runs by the river, takes shadows along a Quarters street, and burrows in a filthy blanket somewhere. By the time a horn calls her out before dawn, Amzi’s cabin stands empty. Will and Joan lie in a hollow of hay behind Amzi’s wagon seat, rocking to the jolt of wheels on the rutted road north.