From Divine Play, pp. 690-693
First was brown dirt. Next, Willie’s back was aching. Third, she was wearing a tow-cloth blouse and skirt and torn-up, dust-colored shoes. Her raggedy red apron was filed with cotton balls. “Uuuhhhohh!” she groaned, straightening up.
“What you be stoppin’ fur?” the man beside her whispered hoarsely. He wore a stained white cloth shirt, too large for him and ripped at every seam, poorly tucked into light brown pants. A bag full of cotton balls was slung across his chest.
“My back hurts . . . badly,” she answered.
His small eyes, beneath a narrow, bulging brow, widened and then narrowed. “Whut you say?”
“I said my back—” Even as she spoke, she saw him turn away and hurriedly pluck a white ball from the nearest spindly branch as the lash snicked and stung her back, tearing an opening in her blouse. She felt pain and shame intermingled, and swung round to the white-suited, white-hatted, white-bearded antebellum demigod.
“Lula Mae, I must assume the heat has further addled your wits. Are you so foolish as to laze about with such effrontery in my very presence? And you, Gabriel, need not linger when I am not speaking to you.”
“You hit me with that whip again, and I’m gonna shove—” Abruptly she could not remember what she meant to say.
The colonel leaned forward reflexively, both hands clutching the whip handle. “What―? What did you say to me?”
“Ah’m sho sorry, Kuhnel sah,” she heard herself speak. “Musta been some evil spi’it tuk control uh me of a sudden, tuh make me say sech foolishness. En den deh gout’s been causin’ me mos’ grievous pains deh las’ few days.”
The colonel stared at her, scowling. She heard violins mewling and a male chorus humming and “awing” a song that amalgamated “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Dixie,” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” She discerned, behind the colonel, in the distance, the white columns of the colonial manse.
“It saddens me that such a sturdy young girl can be so shiftless,” the colonel said, lighting up a slender brown cigarillo from a golden case and carefully stowing the spent wooden match in a narrow glass container. He puffed a bit, sucking reflectively. “You need to fix your mind to the task at hand and not let woolgathering slow your pace. Or—” A narrow-faced, swarthy man with close-set eyes appeared beside him. He wore a long-sleeved undershirt with hemispheric armpit stains, suspenders, and a battered hat. “—we’ll have to ask Mr. Betty to see what he can do.”
Mr. Betty scrutinized her avariciously, his crescent eyes glittering above the unshaven shading around the lower half of his face.
“Ah hope you ain’t been givin’ the colonel no sass.” Mr. Betty had gripped her left upper arm and shook her twice, severely. “Hope” was a guttural growl uttered through gritted teeth. “When I visit yo’ quarters tonight, I’m own hep you tame that evil spurrt.” He dragged a portion of the whip back and forth across his tobacco-colored, rutted left palm. “Yep, I bleeve tonight we gon’ hafta ride thait demon till iss broke.” The colonel rumbled hilarity at this, and Mr. Betty manifested gapped, yellowish teeth, like stained-glass windows with broken panes.
She was several centimeters taller and substantially more muscular than he and dearly wanted to thrash him, but as her body tensed to effectuate the desire…she felt herself cringing and quivering. “Thank ye, Mistah Betty, but I’m shet of all dat craziness. Baby Jesus got His sweet arms roun’ me now.” As she bent down, a pointed stalk scratched her cheek. She put her left hand to it, and with the right, patted the dew rag into place on her head.
“I think it advisable that we both pay a visit, to keep you firmly on the paths of righteousness,” proclaimed the colonel, eying her body through the shapeless cloth. “I believe you will continue to incite men with desire and draw them into perdition, lest your soul be sanctified by mortification and prayer.”
She plucked the white blossoms from the red spears. “Ah don’ mean t’ cites nobody, sah. Ah’s a good Christian woman.”
“Here, you, boy!” shouted Mr. Betty, frowning and clutching his whip handle. He strolled with large steps across the rows. “Here, you boy!” The colonel strolled after him. She heard the whoop and smack of the whipand a young boy whimpering.
False chemical messengers have been muscling into my epinephrine receptors, she thought. Or genes are messing with my amygdala. Or mebbe I jus’been hypmotized! As the men distanced themselves, she felt a lessening of external controls. She discovered in the soil a rusted blade. She groaned quietly in bitter hilarity. In a hundred years, a hundred thousand years, they’d still be convinced that black folks were dumb ugly. Well, she wouldn’t disappoint them—she was gonna use that goddam knife. She bowed down, in a demiplié toward Gabriel.
“I want you to create a diversion,” she murmured to him, watching Mr. Betty thrusting his foot against the sweat-stained back of a gangly youngster.
Gabriel did his expanded-contracted eyes again. “What you talkin’ bout, girl? You lost your mind?”
Same movement as before―invariable. An abstracted gaze, adjusted in a millisecond to an expression. An ant [anthroid], of course . . . . But implanted behaviors could be useful. She glanced beyond him and sucked in breath. “Lawd God!” she prayed (and cursed). “De moon is up yonder. Dey’s a man in dat moon fo’ sho! Look like de cuhnel’s pappy. Aw, dat man was deh evilest man dat ever walked de earth. Lawd, be mah witness! I believe I heah him speakin’.” She glanced at the two white men, who were lashing, striding, shouting. What did the Nazis call it? Schrecklichkeit, a policy of frightfulness. “He sho’ ’nuf callin’ out fo’ somebody.”
“Who?” Gabriel demanded, aghast, enacting the “superstitious darky” of yore. “Who is he callin’ out fer? No!” He covered his eyes with his flour-white palm. “I dast not know!”
“Lemme see . . .” She skimmed over the ground to a tree a few meters from the field’s edge. The colonel and Mr. Betty had not yet turned this way. “Oh mah Lawd!” she cried out, in muted urgency. “He be sayin’, ‘Gabriel! Ahm comin’ for ye! Gabriel! This very night I shall drag thee down!’”
The pitch of Gabriel’s shriek rose so high it became a whistle. He trembled fiercely, stumbled into cotton plants, and fell and rolled about in the dirt, intermittently raising his hands, palms forward, to cry, “Save me, sweet Jesus! He’p me, Lawd! Don’ let him ca’y mah soul to de pit!”
Mr. Betty strode toward him, the swarthy skin of his face acquiring duskier tones. She gripped the rusted blade. The colonel followed, holding a Colt pistol. They were focused on Gabriel, at a forty-five-degree angle from her. A few more feet, and she could stick the knife deeply into Mr. Betty before the colonel could fire. And if his initial aim was hasty, she could skewer the colonel, even with a bullet in her gut.