Book One: 1943
I was born in 1904, so that when I was pregnant in 1943 I was near enough to be past the rightful age to bear children. This would be my sixth, and on that morning in February, the first morning I'd known I was with child, I'd simply turned to Leston in bed next to me, the room gray from a winter sky outside the one window, that sky not yet lit with the sun, and I'd said, "There'll be no more after this one."
He rolled onto his back, his eyes still shut, the little hair he still had wild and loose on his head. He put his hands behind his head, and gave a sort of smile, one I'd seen enough times before this. Five times before, to be exact.
He said, "Another one," and kept the smile. Then he said, "What makes you think so?"
I said, "Doesn't take divining, not after five," and I paused. I reached a hand up from beneath the quilts, felt the chill of the morning on my skin, that skin the same color gray as the small strip of sky I could see above the box pine and live oak outside the window. I touched Leston's cheek, did the best I could to smooth out his hair. He was still smiling.
I said, "I just know."
Then came the morning sounds, sounds of the everyday of our lives: first the slam shut of the front door as James, our oldest, started on his way to work at Crampton's Lumber; then the scrape of our other two boys, Burton and Wilman, from their room above us, the first sounds of tussling and fooling that started now and ended only after dark, the boys back in bed. Those two, I thought as I lay there, my hand back under the quilts to keep warm as long as I could, we'd had too close together, Burton seven, Wilman almost six. Billie Jean, my second child, would not be up for as long as I would let her sleep, around her on the bunched and rumpled blankets of her bed the movie magazines she lived for, fanned around her like leaves off a tree. And Anne, my baby, would be stirring soon, then following Burton and Wilman around like a lost dog, wanting only to be one of them, blessed by the rough and tumble of pinecone wars and whittling knives.
I heard Wilman say, "That's not yours," then Burton putting in, "But it was," and then the pop and crack of the heart pine floor above us as the two started in on each other.
"Boys," Leston called out, his voice as deep and solid as every morning.
The fighting stopped, the room upstairs as quiet now as when they were asleep.
"Sir?" they called out together.
Leston smiled, though on my boys' voices was the certain sound of fear. He said, "Chunk up the stove. The two of you."
"Yes sir," they gave back to him, and then their whispering started, and I knew whatever they were fighting over wouldn't be settled until sometime late in the day, if at all.
Leston sat up in bed, turned so that his back was to me, his feet on the floor. He looked to the window, then down to the floor. He brought a hand to his face, rubbed it, ran that hand back through his hair. Wisps of it still hung in the cold air, copper going gray, the line of his shoulders still the same hard and broad line I'd seen the first time I met him, the same shoulders I'd held while we'd conceived each of our children this far. But now, his head hung forward, his hands holding tight the edge of the mattress, I thought I could see for the first time the weight of age upon him, those shoulders with the burden of our years and our five children, one of them already set to working his way through the world, and me with a brand-new one now on the way.
Leston had left the quilts pulled back, my face and shoulders and arms out there to the cold. He lifted his face to the gray window again, gave out a heavy breath that shone in a small cloud before him, the room so cold. Leston said, "No more after this will set fine with me."
Copyright © 1991 by Bret Lott
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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