Sometimes she thought it must be loneliness that made her see things. She could see the dark lord’s face peering down from the clock tower on top of the courthouse. His red eyes followed her. No matter how tightly she closed her eyes she could not rid her mind of the image. Sometimes she thought it must be loneliness that made her see things. She had plenty of folks around her. The house was full of kids like her; some small and some big. Seven in all and she was the youngest. She was small and round and runty and slow. This was the third place she had been in a year.
“Unsuitable,” they said, as they looked her up and down. They gave her a halfhearted try and then the pure difference in her made them quit. She made up for these deficiencies with grit, pluck, and stick-to-it-iveness. She gave no quarter and asked for none. Her temper could flame up like a struck Lucifer match and could just as quietly fade like an extinguished lamp. The one thing she could never forgive was contempt.
This was her last stop, after that there was only the road. She’d been thrown out before, never no more. She was determined that this would be her last stop. Miz Lila’s was it. That’s all there was.
Miz Lila was fierce when she got riled up, and when it came to Emma she was riled up like a too tightly wound spring. The other kids would walk on eggshells waiting for the storm to pass but Emma, full of pluck and courage or maybe just hardheadedness, charged right on through regardless of the headwinds.
“Emma, git out here now.” Miz Lila’s voice was full of Tennessee twang when she got mad.
Miz Lila had hands like hams and arms like clubs. Emma was not interested in becoming reacquainted with them.
“Where are the eggs?”
“The basket is empty.”
Emma was confused. She looked down at her six-year-old fingers and remembered counting five eggs with them early this morning, but now there was not one egg in the egg basket. She was confused. She looked at the others standing around the dirt farmyard looking at her. There were staring, open-mouthed, eyes full of eagerness.
She looked at each one of them Benjy, John, Adam, Riley, WalterJames, Rebedal, and Sweet. She knew right away who done it. Cross-eyed Benjy; mean as a mule and twice as dumb, he had picked on her since she came last Saturday. He threw a rock at her and she threw a bigger one back, hittin’ him upside his head. He cried and ran in the house to Miz Lila. She got whipped good for that one. At ten he was the biggest boy and the rest of them followed him around in a wolf cub pack. She knew there wasn’t no way out of another whippin’ but she was gonna fix Benjy good for this.
I didnt run, wasn’t no use rushin’ the inevitable, the first whuppin Igot was for eatin’ blueberries we was pickin’ and the second was for wettin’ my pants in church but I couldn’t hep it. I dint know no one and the preacher kept lookin’ at me whenever he said ”Chile of sin” and I dint know what it meant but I knowed it was bad the way everybody shook they head and the other kids smirked; him, lookin’down at me lak a big black dragon I seen in a pitcher book.
I walked toward the porch but Miz Lila motioned me to come ’round the back to the woodshed, guess she dint want nobody hearing me screamin’ bloody murder. I could feel my breakfast biscuit churning up from my stomach but I swallowed it down; I knew I was in for a bad whuppin but I dint want to be kilt.
“Git a switch”
I walked over to the small crab apple tree and tried to pull a switch off.
“Not there fool chile, git one of those.”
She pointed her thick calloused finger toward the hickory tree. That tree was so big and tall it had a thousand arms and thick roots like a giant bird with claws digging into the ground. The leaves watched daring me to take a branch. I pulled one off and handed it to her. Her look burnt a hole in my forehead. She grabbed the flimsy branch out of my hand and slapped me across the face with it. Tears rushed to my eyes, but I swore I wasn’t gonna cry. The wolf pack was standin’ round and that Benjamin twisted his head this way and that trying to git his cockeyed head to focus on the coming entertainment. His lips curled in a smirk like an oyster’s beard.
“This is what I mean,” she said.
Benjamin sauntered over and give Miz Lila a branch he broke off. He bent it back and forth between his hands.
“Go over yonder to that stump.”
I walked over and sat on it.
“Not that way, lie across it.”
I scrambled to lie across it. Hot tears hit the ground but even the dirt didn’t care. Miz Lila took that hickory switch and whipsawed it in the air. It whistled like a bird and then it came down, slicing through soft flesh, crackin’ open the skin sending shivers of razor-sharp pain to all the nerve endings.
But I dint feel nothin’.
I look around. William James’ hand was cut open to the quick. He held out the other one, waiting for the next stroke.
“Look Miz Lila. I done it, but I fixed it.”
“What you mean boy?”
He took his bloody hand, reached inside his shirt and took out four eggs wrapped in a kerchief.
“Where you git these?”
“From Mr. Mabry. He say if I hep him plow he give em to me.”
“William James I oughta knock you into next week.”
“You chillum, git to that field. We got work to do.”
Benjamin cocked his head sideways promising to get even with the both of us; but not today,
“Come on Emma” William James said helpin’ me pull up my drawers.
We walked to the pump. He washed my face and rinsed off his bloody hand and wrapped it in a rag. He took my hand and we walked to the cotton field, together.
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