“Do you know the story about what happened that day? The one that makes Momma cry every time Papa tells it?”
I knew the story. It haunted my childhood. Papa only told it on his bad days when working down at Mr. McFeeney’s store got too hard because the white folks were meaner than usual. Seemed like Papa started to tell that story more and more. White folks must have been mad about something again. My little sister Cora was pestering me as always. She knew I knew the story. I was older and had heard it more.
I picked up a pebble from the dirt and threw it in the lake. It skidded across the water making a mini waterfall on the side as it glided, then sank, beneath the dark water. We had been out here all morning. Momma had sent us to pick the wild blackberries that grew on the other side of the railroad tracks. So far, my bucket was half full and Cora’s was less than that.
“Tommy, you hear me talkin’ to you?” Cora yelled. She hated it when I ignored her. Served her right. She was the only one who called me Tommy. Everyone else used my full name: Thomasina. Momma didn’t like nicknames of any kind. She said if your parents took the time to think of a proper name, it was disrespectful not to use it all the time. Cora only called me Tommy when were alone. I thought about threatening to tell Momma. That would have scared her good. Momma didn’t play with us not listening to her.
“Come on Cora, we need to finish pickin’ these berries. Ain’t got time to talk about what you already know,” I said, picking up my bucket.
Cora sucked her teeth, knowing I wasn’t going to talk to her about that story. Daddy told it enough.
I went back to the bushes and began grabbing the berries in clumps to fill my bucket quicker. Some of them smashed and stained my fingers. I ate the smashed ones, sucking off the sweet juice.
Momma made the best blackberry preserves. I could already taste the jellied sweetness spread over a warm biscuit. My stomach growled, reminding me that lunchtime was near and we couldn’t be late. I put my bucket down and crouched down on my knees to reach the bottom of the bushes. It had rained heavy the night before and I felt myself sinking into the mud. Even though I had on my playtime overalls with the patch in the knee, I knew Momma was going let me have it when I got home. I could already hear her yelling for me get a switch from the backyard.
“Oooh, Momma’s gonna get you good Tommy. You got mud all over you.” Cora laughed and pointed, jumping up and down.
Her foot kicked my bucket and the berries spilled, merging in with the mud. I was so angry I couldn’t stop the words that flew out of my mouth. “Shut up Cora! With ya ole half cripple self.” She stopped her mocking and stared at me in shock. Her face crumpled up and she turned and ran as best as she could. She was born with one leg shorter than the other. She had never really run, just limped a bit quicker than when she walked.
I felt shame come over me, knowing I had hurt my little sister. I usually was the first one in line to defend her.
No one ever picked on Cora when her big sister Thomasina was around. No one. I was known for fighting tough like a boy, and not many dared to cross that line. This time, I was the bully. I sighed and started to pick up the berries. After salvaging as many as I could, I stood up and attempted to wipe as much of the mud off my jeans as I could. It was hopeless. Nothin’ to be done about it now, I thought. I needed to apologize to Cora and head home for lunch. I knew I had a double whipping coming from Momma when she saw my clothes, and for the hurtful words I had spoken to Cora. Hopefully, I could get her to see how sorry I was and Momma wouldn’t have to know.
“Hurry up Cora! We need to get back before Momma puts lunch out!” She didn’t answer. I turned and saw she was no longer in sight. I searched the bushes and the surrounding area, but still, no Cora.
“Cora, stop playin! We need to get back!” I yelled again, knowing that if I went back without her Momma would be angry. I was the big sister and it was my job to mind her. I went over to the lake, it was still and empty. I kept searching, running through the woods until I came out across from McFeeney’s store.
I saw my father sweeping the front of the store. A crowd of white teenage boys were walking up the sidewalk. My father stepped down onto the street, waiting for them to pass so he could continue his work. He made the obvious gesture of bending his head down and staring at the ground as they walked by. I hated seeing my father like that. I knew if he saw me watching it would just make him feel bad. My Daddy worked at McFeeney’s, but neither I, my mother, nor sister were allowed to go there. He drilled this into our heads regularly. Anything we needed, Daddy would bring home to us.
I knew then why he didn’t want us there. I felt tears building up and stinging my eyes. My intention had been to tell him about Cora running off. I had hoped he would be able to leave the store and help me find her. Instead, I slunk back and kept looking.
I didn’t want to go home without Cora, but the fear that something terrible had happened to my sister won out over the possible whipping Momma might give me. I raced home.
Maybe Cora had gone home. I could finally see our little house. My chest and my legs burned, but I kept running as fast as I could. I was so tired when I got to the house that I couldn’t walk up the three steps to the front door.
“Momma! I can’t find Cora Momma!”
I leaned on the black iron rail and bent over. Putting my hands on my knees, I tried to catch my breath. My mother came out of the house, wiping her hands on her apron. She looked at me, sad.
“Thomasina, you have to stop going to the lake. No one blames you for what happened. It was an accident, you got to let it go child. It’s been ten years.” I looked at Momma confused. “We all miss her.”
What did she mean? Miss who?
We miss Cora.
Then I remembered. Cora was gone. She had drowned when we went to pick blackberries for Momma’s preserves.
I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I was a young woman, but I remembered the story about the girl who had been cruel to her little sister, and the little sister had gone and drowned in that lake. It was the story that Daddy told and made Momma cry. I tasted salt and realized I was crying. Momma held me, telling me it wasn’t my fault.
But I always knew it would be.
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Photo credit: Gabriel (Gabi) Bucataru