“Oh, my Lord!
Ilsie Stone’s breasts were gorged with milk because the baby had hardly nursed. The child’s fever-bright eyes widened then half-shut as Ilsie’s milk dripped down its cheek. “Have mercy, Jesus,” Ilsie whispered, cradling the baby to her bare skin, feeling the breath of the child for whom they had fled home and kin. Ilsie set the baby on her pallet. She buttoned her blouse, bowed her head, and prayed up what few reserves the last months hadn’t worn away.
Ilsie glanced at her grown sons, asleep on their pallets. A familiar sadness seized her when she looked at the misshapen ear of her oldest son, Jake, her sweet-natured favorite, deaf from birth. She held her breath while her other son, Jerusalem, turned over. She hoped he wouldn’t awaken and ask why the hell she was creeping around like a chicken thief. Jerusalem didn’t have a temper; he had a bonfire.
Ilsie froze till he snored again, then tiptoed to the rickety chair. She wolfed down the three sweet rolls on it Jake and Jerusalem had likely begged them off bakers working at their ovens all night then drew a faded blue shawl off the chair’s back. With the ease of long habit she fashioned the shawl into a sling to carry the baby. She recalled old Aunt Viney teaching her how to do that, make herbal cures, and many another thing.
Thoughts of the homeplace made her eyes swim with grief, though she praised Jesus to be gone from it. But she despaired at their room, barely bigger than a horse stall, choked with summer heat, the walls stained and pocked with gouges. “Talk about out the frying pan and into the fire,” she said. “Look like we done jumped in hindparts first.”
She couldn’t stop talking to her husband, dead for six weeks and two days.
Ilsie put the baby in the sling on her back, donned her wide brimmed hat, then picked up a tin pan and a clean rag and stepped into the grimy hall. A roach fled ahead of her. The boardinghouse smelled of slop jars full of nightwork. The big red-haired owner stopped spreading sawdust on main room’s floor as Ilsie passed. He looked her up and down, his gaze settled on her breasts.
“Pig turd,” she muttered, once out the door.
It was dawning. The same pink sky as down home, if nothing else.
She made sure the owner hadn’t followed her, then headed down a muddy alley to a courtyard hemmed in with squat, wooden houses. She went to the water pump, then ducked into a yard, put the baby on the ground and cleaned her up. The baby had the minty smell of the oil of pennyroyal Ilsie had dabbed on her to keep off bedbugs, but red marks dotted the child’s café-au-lait skin.
“Name of God!” Ilsie clenched her fists.
The baby felt more feverish. “Ben, help us, sugar,” she said, ghost-talking again.
When she eased back into the room her sons still slept. “Thank the Lord.” Jerusalem was grinding his teeth, something he’d done since seeing his father killed. She studied his face, then Jake’s, both grown thinner, and reached toward Jake’s cheek. She drew it back before she touched him. She’d eaten little these past days, but Jake and Jerusalem had had even less, for they pressed on her most of what they scrounged up. She would see their hunger if they opened their eyes and weaken, buy them food. That would ruin her plan.
She patted coins, wrapped in a handkerchief in her skirt pocket. If Jerusalem saw the money, he’d go off like a thunderclap because she’d held out on him. But she’d given him everything else. She laid the tin pan aside, spread the wash rag on the windowsill to dry, took a knife from her knapsack, and put it in her pocket. Ready to leave, she stopped and threw her sons another look. “Won’t nothing happen to ’em. I ain’t going far.” But her chin quivered.
At the market the yardgoods beckoned her like an old friend calling her name. She had ironed and made clothes at Bellaire, the plantation they had fled. The sight of good cloth untied knots in her shoulders. She ducked around buggies, farm wagons, and lumbering drays on her way to the stall. It bloomed with bolts of checks, calico, muslin, and linen.
A woman held yards of apricot silk to her huge belly while a servant girl sneered behind her. Spools of satin ribbon—strung on a cord tied at both ends of the stall—hung like a captive rainbow. There was a glory of buttons: shiny brass ones, silver ones with a brickwork pattern, some that looked like jewels, others like flowers.
Ilsie glanced around, saw no one watching, and fingered some lace. She had made hominy starch for Mistress’s lace-trimmed dresses and ironed the lace till it about said amen. Even so, Mistress would slap her for poor work. Ilsie released the lace. Close as she would come to having any. Blessing enough to shuck that scratchy Bellaire tow cloth.
Ilsie reached over her shoulder into the sling and stroked the baby’s cheek. The fever was creeping up.
At the poultry stall, hung with red, white, and blue bunting for the Fourth of July, Ilsie overheard talk of a parade. She moved on as a vendor wrung a hen’s neck for a young housewife.
Ilsie bought hollow candy sticks, then raced to the other side of the market ahead of road-hardened drovers driving cattle. One of them cracked his whip at a straying cow. Ilsie cringed—the sound had meant that someone’s blood was running—and bumped against a fish stall. A catfish and some ice chips fell to the ground.
The beak-nosed vendor charged out and shook his fist. “Clumsy wench!”
Ilsie ducked away, pushed through the crowd. Cow dung and rotten food overflowed the gutters. The stink thickened with the rising heat.
The baby cried.
Halfway down the block pyramids of oranges caught her eye. Coming closer, she saw lemons. She elbowed housewives and servant girls for the choicest ones. Two dozen would make a good display. She hesitated before paying the fruitseller.
“You buying or not?” the woman said.
Fear lumped up Ilsie’s throat. The last of her money. What if the sweetsours didn’t sell? At Bellaire, she’d waited table at the Master’s poker parties. She’d seen his friends hold their faces almost as blank as slaves could theirs, but falter before betting. It lost them the game. She sucked in a great breath and gave over her coins.
Lemons and candy sticks in hand, she picked up two fruit crates from a heap, then headed for Chestnut Street. She found a shady corner, sat on one crate, and set the lemons in front of her on the other. With her knife she sliced the top off each lemon, cut into the pulp, and poked in a candy stick.
“Sweetsours! Get your sweetsours!” she sang.
A small boy approached with his father.
“How much?” the man said.
“Two cent. Ain’t none bigger than mines.”
A moment later, she got out the brown handkerchief and tied coins in it. She put an arm under her breasts to ease the pressure when she leaned forward to rearrange the lemons.
Soon she sold two more sweetsours. Her plan was working. She could sell here every morning, and they would all eat hearty every night. “Praise His name!” She said.
“Praise it,” someone said behind her, “but get moving.”
Ilsie swiveled around. The butter-colored woman behind her looked wide as a barn door, her arms big as Christmas hams. She was round-faced, double-chinned and wore a pink dress and a long white apron. She handled four buckets of strawberries, two to an arm, as if they were four cat hairs. “This is my corner.”
“Don’t see no sign saying so.”
“You hear me telling you.” The strawberry woman set her buckets down, put her hands on her hips. “The other corners is taken too. The parade’s coming right past here.”
Ilsie turned away, ignored her. When the woman reached toward the sweetsours, Ilsie jumped up. “Don’t touch ’em.” A few people stopped, stood watching.
“I’ll stomp you and them lemons into the street,” the strawberry woman shouted, fists raised.
Blood pounded in Ilsie’s head. Her brothers had taught her how to fight, but here she could lose even if she won. The baby might get hurt, the sweetsours ruined. The police might come. Ilsie’s mouth quivered and tears of rage spilled hot down her cheeks.
The strawberry woman looked dumbfounded. She lowered her fists. The onlookers shrugged to one another and walked away. The woman seemed disappointed, like she’d been set for a tussle, but when she heard the baby’s thin cry the high color and hard lines left her face. “That child don’t sound half-good.”
“She ain’t.” Ilsie patted the baby. She recalled the downpours that had soaked them running north. Try as they could to avoid it, sometimes the baby got wet. It had worried Ben, but now he couldn’t help the baby, the boys or himself. Ilsie wiped her tears.
“Worry’s like flies,” the strawberry woman said, “plenty to go around.” The woman stepped toward Ilsie, who flinched away. “Sorry your baby’s sick,” the woman said. “I ain’t giving up my corner, but I wish you luck. Be careful ’round here, ’specially at night. These streets can be rough.”
“Ain’t no pillows on ’em by day, neither.”
Crates in hand, Ilsie turned away.
“Sweet strawberries!” the woman cried at her back.
Ilsie trudged south to Spruce Street and settled on a corner under an oak. After she set up her crates, she reached in the sling and patted the baby. The child was quiet, her skin still warm. “Go ’head, sleep. Rest’ll mend you.” She would stand the pressure in her breasts a little longer.
An hour passed. Ilsie sold one sweetsour. She imagined the strawberry woman raking in money. The day grew hotter. If the baby didn’t nurse soon, it felt like her tits would burst. And she wanted a look at the baby, who wasn’t acting right.
Ilsie crated up her sweetsours, then walked to the alley that ran behind fine-looking, three-story houses. She heard music and realized that it came from the third house. The music and the open back door decided her. She peeked in and saw a brownskin woman, not much older than her own thirty-three years, holding up a big spoon and letting the gravy fall from it back into a pot. The woman threw in a fistful of flour.
“Please, sister. I been setting outside most all day trying to sell these things. Could you kindly spare me a sip of water and let me nurse my baby.”
The cook drew back, wrinkled her nose.
Ilsie knew she was dirty from the street. Her shoulders drooped. The baby gave a soft cry that thinned into silence. Ilsie’s heart dropped to her knees. She looked down, turned to go.
The cook shot out a floury hand, caught Ilsie’s shoulder. “Won’t take you but a minute.” The cook stepped out of the doorway. “What harm can it do?”