I turned to the sound of the men on the porch steps, felt myself backing up too. The four of them moved toward me, struggling with the burden they bore, the wool blanket seeming heavier than anything I'd seen before. Yet they were gentle with it, eased it up and onto the porch itself and inched toward us, finally letting it down onto the wood with a grace I would never see again.
They stood back from it, four men with hands on their hips, eyes on the heap before us. Then one of them, a man with hair as black as my daddy's, hair flat and wet with strands of it long down and into his eyes, squatted, his elbows on his knees, eyes still on the blanket. He put out a hand, held it a moment above the wool, then reached down, took hold of the blanket, and pulled it back to reveal to us my dead and naked father.
His head was bent back from us, so that what I saw first was his throat, already swelled and purple. His face was gone from me, twisted up and away, and for a moment I had no genuine idea in my head who this was, or why he had been brought here. The blanket had been pulled back far enough to bare his chest and arms and stomach and one leg, the edge of the blanket left just below his waist, so that next I saw the pencil-thin line of hair that started at his navel and traced its way beneath the gray wool, disappearing there. He had no hair anywhere else, his skin already turning the milkwhite of the dead, his arms and the one leg I could see bent at the joints, him all movement and peace.
"We was swimming," the man with the black hair said. He still held the edge of the blanket, and my eyes went to his fingers, watched as he slowly rubbed his index finger and thumb together. "We was swimming, and then he just didn't come up. He was jumping off -- "
"Benjamin," my momma let out, her word choked and hard in the air. "Stop."
The man, this Benjamin, looked up. His fingers stopped moving, his eyes on my momma.
I looked up to her. She still had a hand to her eyes, the other at her throat, and then I moved toward the blanket, toward the body I still didn't know was my daddy. I wanted to see the face, know who it was, and as I made my way toward where I would see him, two of the men who'd carried him here moved out of my way, their hands still on their hips.
I stood next to this Benjamin, and looked down at my daddy's face. His lips had gone blue, his eyelids gray, his hair matted and snarled.
Benjamin let go the blanket. I didn't move, not yet certain what any of this meant.
Then he put his hand to my back, held it just below my shoulder blades. The touch was near nothing, only contact.
He said, "Your daddy and me was brothers."
But the words didn't mean anything to me. I was thinking of Sunday mornings and the smell of pomade, and of me sitting between the two of them while Pastor gave up to God our congregation's prayers, and how my God had finally answered the prayer I'd been whispering to myself while Pastor pleaded for everyone else: I wanted him never to come back.
Here was my reward for righteous, heartfelt prayer, for asking in Jesus' name what I knew would make my momma and me better off in the long run, no matter what those sounds I heard from their room meant.
Which is why I reached down and picked up the edge of the blanket my uncle had let fall, and pulled it back over my daddy, covered him up. The four men were watching me now, waiting, I figured, for whatever might happen next.
I said, "Bring him on inside." I paused, then said, "Somebody go find Pastor, too."
It would be lifetimes later before I knew what'd really kept me out there on the porch Sunday afternoons long after my momma, kept my eyes on the green and searching for signs of his life. Only after the lifetime between my daddy's death and my momma dying, two months that couldn't be measured by any means of a calendar or the movement of the moon; then the lifetime spent on the little piece of childhood I had left, spent with Missy Cook, my grandma, in a house more dead than my parents would ever be. Then the lifetime of school I spent away in Picayune, lifetimes that ended, all of them, with my first night with Leston and hearing the ghosts of my momma and daddy there in the room with me. And since then have come countless nights spent with those ghost sounds surrounding us, the strength and power and quiet warmth of Leston's hardworked body the surest comfort I have ever known. My silent husband's language grew to be my own body and how he touched me, the miracle of a callused hand placed gently to my cheek, my neck, my breast word enough of the love he held for 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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