(This story originally appeared in Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s collection of short fiction, The Love of a Bad Man.)
Our crops fail, but our babies grow strong and sweet, like the sweetest pea-snaps. Every colour imaginable, every mix of every colour. God never intended to keep the races separate. Such prejudice could only come from the hearts of men, their infinite fear and folly. Sometimes, wandering through the nursery, I think of those stories of babies found in bulrushes, cabbage patches, and it’s a nice thought: that babies might truly crop up that way, from the pureness of the earth, free from the frailties of men.
Thirty-three born right here in Jonestown. Did you ever see such healthy, happy babies? And not one of them who ever has to experience America’s racism.
Our cribs are reinforced with mesh to keep out creepy-crawlies. Our wall hangings and hand-braided rugs are made of red, green, yellow, black: the colours of our adoptive nation. On the verandah, picture books bloom in the laps of our women, who nurture our babies’ minds with daily storytime. Many of our three-year-olds already know their ABCs. Of course this’s the first they ever heard of NBC.
Some of you men laugh. A tight, showy kinda laugh, but at a time like this that’s to be expected.
We didn’t want media. We didn’t want congressmen. We wanted to be left in peace. That you all couldn’t give us that much is proof of the enormity of what we’ve done: a thousand men, women, and children turning our backs on the United States for a simpler life down here in the jungle. But we’re making the best of this intrusion. Last night when the congressman came onstage to praise our community, the applause was so loud it almost brought down the roof of the pavilion.
We are nothing if not a proud people, an optimistic people.
Here we have the kitchen, where Sister Liliana and her crew prepare three thousand nutritious meals each day. The woodshop, where Brother Ernie and his crew construct everything from bunk beds to pull-along toys. The piggery; see how good and fat our sows are, our beauteous Blissie who is mother to eighteen piglets. Each plank we walk along was measured, sawed, and laid by our construction crew. Each person treading these paths is brother or sister to the next. Such close-knit community you’d be lucky to find nowadays even in the smallest Midwestern town, where people no longer feel safe leaving their doors unlocked.
There is no crime here in Jonestown, no dispute that can’t be resolved communally.
That knot of people by the pavilion, drawing more in like a tornado; I wouldn’t pay it any mind. There are fewer of you than when this tour began. Stay behind me, please; don’t stray. I know the sun is hot, and these flies are a nuisance, but we have many more sights to see, people to meet, refreshments awaiting us at the end of the line.
A pair of sisters whisk by. Another sister, our Esme who works so hard in the laundry, whispers in my ear, and what she says — well, that’s not for you to know. Maybe you few who haven’t yet snuck away notice my face tense; you newsmen are trained to notice every frown, tic, averted eye. But when I next speak, it’s with a smile.
A good first lady, in the face of crisis, always finds some way to smile.
* * * * *
In the pavilion’s shade, the afternoon looks hourless. I see my husband’s face from afar, the broad slack lines of it, and want nothing more than to lay him down and cover him with a cool sheet, tell him to sleep away this defeat. Sleep, Jim, just sleep. It’s true what Sister Esme said; there’s folks deserting, and the who and how many of it doesn’t matter because it’s plain he’s taking it personally. Always, in the more than thirty years I’ve known him, he’s been the kind to take things personal: the sufferings of others, their individual pains, but most of all their betrayals.
You can’t keep them all, Jim, I’ve tried telling him. You can’t hold them like cards to your chest.
The Morrises, one of our oldest white families. With us since Indiana, those ugly pre-integration days when just the claim ‘all men are equal’ could have folks burning crosses on our lawns, painting swastikas on our church stairs. So many hard times lived through together: Sister Judy, surely you recall how you came to us weeping after the drowning of your little boy in ’59? Brother Gerald, the years of alcoholism and the friends who got you through it, friends who are still here today? Will you truly leave behind all us here who love you? Will you truly turn your back on this life we’ve made?
It isn’t what we expected, Sister Judy says grimly. It isn’t what we were told.
Her eyes holding mine, glassy blue-green like mine, the skin around them cracked with wrinkles like mine. After a certain age, women like us — women who’ve worked hard and suffered much — we all start looking the same.
Brother Gerald can barely look at me, but when he does, his eyes are the sad brown of a dog with a broken leg. Then he lets them drop in my husband’s direction, and without planning on it, I’m seeing what they see: Jim, a dry-lipped ghost, hiding behind his dark glasses. He’s trying to squeeze little Billy Barnhart’s shoulder, frowning into his pimento-red shirt when Billy flinches. Nearby, his California college girls huddle with our lawyers, their slim legs crossed, lips working quick and snide. The big, bearish congressman whispers with his aide. Our security detail keep watch over the media, arms folded and faces gloomy as the gathering clouds.
There’s no words for it. No happy words, anyways.
You’ll always have a place here, Sister, Brother. That’s what I tell them, and I open my weary arms. All traitors shall be forgiven. Come back anytime. We love you still.
* * * * *
The weather turns as sudden as one of Jim’s moods, and there’s a part of me that wonders if he isn’t to blame for the crashing rain, the sky whipping like a black sheet in the wind. An itty-bitty part, though I know he can’t control the heavens, isn’t even in control of what’s going on down here.
I’ll kill you! One of our sisters is screaming herself hoarse. Bring those kids back here! Don’t take those kids!
Then she’s rushing her husband from behind, tugging her little boy from his arms till it seems they’re gonna tear him limb from limb, and it takes both our lawyers and two brothers from security to separate them. After all that, the whole family turn back to the pavilion together, soaked through and grumbling. I make my way over, my voice low and sure as I try to soothe some right back into this wrongness.
Shhh. How’s about we take these babies to the TV room? I betcha they got some friends in there watching Willy Wonka.
The media flank the remaining deserters, all huddled under clear plastic ponchos, as they track through orange mud to the truck that’ll take them back to the airstrip and, from there, the capital. My own boys, full-grown and strong as warriors, are in the capital now. I feel a prick of yearning that they could be here restoring order, and it’s selfish. I feel a prick of relief that they’re far from this mayhem, and that’s selfish too. I push all thoughts of them from my mind and focus on shushing, stroking.
You hear? one sister says to another. Congressman wants to stay overnight ’case there’s more traitors.
Fucker’s got a death-wish.
Sisters, I cut in. Take these kids and their mama someplace quiet. Brother … we’re real glad you decided to stay with us. Let’s get you dried off, huh.
Jim slumps muddy-legged in the playground, watching them board the truck. One of his college girls, the favourite who stole his heart ten years ago and pumped it full of political ambitions, shields his head with an umbrella. If it weren’t for her, he’d probably be crouched in the mud like a frog. So I guess that’s something.
A dozen outta one thousand isn’t nothing to feel bad about, I say, coming up beside them, though I know well enough that’s not how he sees it.
Sixteen, Jim’s favourite corrects, not looking at me.
The truck grumbles. Jim’s second-favourite stands in the mud beside it, blouse drenched see-through, cussing out the passengers. I sigh to myself and head for cover under the swingset, managing a thin smile for the nearest brother from security.
Lord. This’s some rain.
I never saw it like this, the brother says. Not in all the time I been here.
A shout sounds from the pavilion, and the gathering beneath its roof swells to one side. What the fuck? the brother mutters, breaking into a jog. A couple of newsmen leap down from the truck, cameras at the ready.
Jim turns slowly, mouth agape, one college girl at either side.
My hair’s sticking to my face by the time I get in eyeshot. A pile of our brothers are holding down burly Brother Ujara, whose chest is heaving, eyes bull-mad and glazed. A little ways off, the congressman is rubbing at his Adam’s apple, grumbling to the lawyers. I see the blood on his shirtfront.
Mother’s comin’! one of our sisters hollers when she notices me bustling closer.
Make way for Mother Marceline!
Mother Marcie’s here!
I’m within a foot of the congressman, close enough to see the little silver curls on his back, to smell the slick salt red of him. It hooks me the way the smell of blood has since nursing school, narrowing my field of vision and quieting the shouting to a hush.
Congressman, I coo. Let me take a look at that.
He flinches. Grimaces like I just suggested sticking my fingers right in his neck.
Nothing more than a razor nick, he says. A little arrogant, but then you’d have to be to come down here all guns blazing, quoting the constitution.
Mother’s a damn fine nurse, assures Brother Tim, our head of security, as he escorts us out of the crowd.
On behalf of our entire community, I want to apologise, I go on. I hope you’ll forgive folks for acting out of turn. Emotions are running high.
The rain is ricocheting off the aluminium roof, off our cheeks as we wade into it, college girls chasing behind us with another couple umbrellas. The lawyers are saying it wouldn’t be wise for the congressman to stay in Jonestown tonight, not with the mood of hostility, and he’s agreeing, fumbling with his shirt buttons, and I’m agreeing, too. My husband is coming to meet us with that same half-dead expression, and I don’t know if it’s just the muddle of his mind these days, but I wish he’d look more surprised.
Jim holds out his hand. Does this change things?
It changes some things, the congressman says, shaking Jim’s hand just the same.
And of course every one of us knows it’s true. Once blood is spilled, no matter how little, things are bound to get a whole lot more serious.
* * * * *
EVERYONE. PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR COTTAGES TO REST. I REPEAT, PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR COTTAGES TO REST.
The echo of my voice over the PA makes me prickle with its own thin jaggedness. Not a voice to soothe any more than the voices of the college girls muttering under their breath as they tap out Morse code to our people in the States. It’s coming on dusk here; midday in San Francisco.
Did you get a hold of the boys in the capital? I ask Jim’s favourite, the dark auburn bun at the back of her head.
We spoke to Sister Sharon, she says with a lemon-suck of her lips. They’ve been given the order for retaliation.
Then she gets right back to fiddling with the radio.
I turn away, stifle the sob in my chest like a yawn during one of Jim’s all-night sermons. Could my boys kill? It’s something we’ve whispered about when their father is at his sickest; what it means to keep this community alive, to protect it from threats outside and in. I’ve seen the rage in my boys, their potential for mutiny, and how it’s always stopped just short of strangling Jim in his sleep. To kill a sick man would be too easy for our kind, so used to doing things the hard way, to weathering the sickest storms.
To kill on a sick man’s orders? Well. I hope not.
Jim’s second-favourite slams in, her dark eyes huge and with more rings than Saturn. So skinny it’s hard to believe that wild wind didn’t blow her in.
Father wants everyone back at the pavilion, she declares. Lord, I sigh. It’s like musical chairs here.
There’s no time for rest, she says. She sticks out her chin, looking almost pleased with herself for knowing what I don’t: Some of the brothers from security took the guns and went after the congressman’s party.
Oh. Good Lord. I close my eyes. When I open them she’s looking at me like I’m foolish to use the Lord’s name, even in vain. I look away and go to the mic before any of those girls can.
EVERYONE. PLEASE REPORT TO THE PAVILION. I REPEAT, PLEASE REPORT TO THE PAVILION.
Jim’s favourite hunches into her headphones, spine lizard-bumped, not looking at all like a woman who’s borne him a child, though she has. His second-favourite tinkles the chain of keys around her neck, wrests open a filing cabinet, her elbows baubled with bones thicker than the arms above them. These are the women my husband likes best: thin, and tireless, and scornful of all other gods.
I push outside.
The rain has stopped, but the wind is still screaming and thrashing the fronds of our palms and plantains. Toward the heart of the pavilion, our people course, young brothers sprinting ahead, sisters trailing with the kids, old folks bringing up the rear.
We’re gonna commit revolutionary suicide! a brother booms, face dark and wet as he grins over his shoulder at a group of sisters. All brightly-dressed, long-necked, heavy-lidded, hair in cornrows or naturals or bandanas.
Except for a blink, maybe an eye-roll, they don’t react.
* * * * *
The past and future are burning sunrise and sunset, and the day between them keeps getting smaller. It’s swallowed up in shadow. THOSE WHO DO NOT REMEMBER THE PAST ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT, reads the black-and-white sign above my husband’s head, the same that hung over the congressman when he stood up and praised us not 24 hours ago.
The congrethman’s DEAD, Jim slurs into the mic, and he looks so slack, so heavy, rolling his shiny black-haired head. Pleaaathe get us some medication. It’th thimple … No convulthions … Get movin’, get movin’, before it’th too late …
I remember the past, for what it’s worth. That year of going steady, when he was just a moon-faced slum kid working nights as an orderly, unafraid to speak up about the injustices he saw, the failings of the church and government. That first year of marriage, how he so hated seeing me pray he threatened to throw himself out the window of our Indianapolis apartment. Those first infidelities in California, how he alternately wept and grinned telling me of those liberated college girls, ready to slit their wrists if they couldn’t have him. The first time I tried to take the boys and leave him, how easily he blocked my path: told me he’d sooner have us all dead than not by his side.
I remember the past, but that doesn’t keep the same old patterns from repeating.
Our Dr Larry, who delivered all those beautiful babies now bundled at their mothers’ breasts, oversees the other nurses at the wooden table as they squeeze purple liquid into the plastic syringes. All that’s left of this day is a damp, moonish glow beyond the pavilion. The mothers are looking around with thousand-year-old eyes, looking as I do at the jungle and all its lurking violence. That congressman dead on the airstrip. Traitors and newsmen, dead. Authorities ready to storm our dorms, our schoolhouse, our nursery. America, coming back to claim us with a vengeance.
Don’t be afraid to die! If theeth people land out here, they’ll torture our children! They’ll torture our theniors! We cannot have thithh! Jim’s voice, sputtery and drug-muddled as it is, still has some of that old music that first got me listening. Are you gonna theparate yourthelf from whoever shot the congrethman?
Hell no! our people cry.
No, no, no, no!
That big metal vat with the purple drink inside is almost close enough for me to reach and touch. The leg of the table, to tap with my sandal. Someone elbows me, Sister Kathy sterilising a hypodermic needle, her cropped hair stringy with perspiration. She looks at me, apologetic. Surely as the night is coming I should be doing something. Something other than getting underfoot. Standing by him, assuring our people what’s best, to leave this life of suffering together before they tear our babies from our arms.
I drift around the front of the stage, my body moving tall, pale, and weary. It will be a blessing to cast this body aside, its private aches and indignities. It will be a blessing to be among those shiny faces, smiles twitching at their cheeks.
I’m ready, Father, a young sister whispers, sweet and hoarse, touching her heart.
A hurrah rips through the pavilion as the brothers from security drive back in, jump off the tractor, and swagger over, guns high above their heads. Our toughest young men from the ghettoes of Watts, East Oakland, the Fillmore. They disperse to the edge of the pavilion and the crowd gets tighter, a few whimpers rising up from the back, a smothering of whoops and applause. I think again of my boys in the capital, the killing they’re supposed to be doing, and the sting in my throat says: no, no more.
We kilt the congressman! an older sister calls out. We kilt him an’ I’m GLAD he’s DEAD!
It’s his fault! cries another sister. He did it himself, comin’ where he ain’t wanted!
An act of provocation … Jim agrees. We been provoked too much …
Father, I appreciate you for everything! You are the only … the only.
Jim? I murmur, coming up beside him. I don’t mean to challenge him, only to put some quiet into the moment, maybe give us all pause to think.
Hurry up! another sister shouts, and she’s aiming her words at the table, the women herded closest to it hugging their babies. Our sweet, strong, beautiful babies.
Jim? I’m close enough now to smell the sweet heaviness of him.
Pleathe, pleathe. Can we hathen? Hathen with that medication? Jim leans against me like he would a crutch, tilting his head at the newest flutter of applause. Pleathe. I’ve tried. You know I’ve TRIED. You’ve got to move. Oh, hathen.
Jim, I say, right in his ear. Small ears. Neat black sideburns. Those small neatnesses, what are they worth now?
From over the table, Sister Tina calls, high and tinny: You’ve got to move. Everybody get in line and don’t push and shove. There’s nothing to worry about, so long as you keep calm and keep your children calm.
His shoulder under my freckled hand feels soft, like something boiled, but getting to him is harder than anything. After all those meetings we’ve had on the subject, all the votes, all the suicide drills, all the times my voice has shrunk smaller in my throat, all the years of swallowing grief, why should he listen to me?
Our first sister in line is holding her baby out, her lovely young face taut and brave. Yellow blouse crocheted with little white daisies; surely her best blouse, as surely so many of us are dressed in our finest today. Her cloud of dark hair glows violet at the edges. She pinches that button nose.
Jim. Don’t do this.
That little mouth that’s only ever tasted mother’s milk opens in a tight, angry O. The purple liquid shoots in. Others, not mothers, might mistake those few seconds before he wails for peace. But for us, the waiting is a clenched fist to our ovaries.
Peace at latht, Jim drawls. Free at latht. They tried to take our freedom, but we won’t let ’em. We won’t be enthlaved again. Hell no!
No, no, no!
The sister accepts a paper cup of purple. She drinks of it deep, winces, rocks her squalling baby. To joyous cheers, she turns from the table and walks out to the darkening fields, her head high. The line inches forward, more mothers and babies.
Jim. No more.
Thirty-three born right here in Jonestown, and not one of them who’s ever had to experience America’s racism. My sob is tiny as a kitten’s bell, but somehow it’s enough to get people noticing: our mothers in line flinching, our security brothers closing in.
For the first time in I don’t know how long, he looks at me: through the shade of his glasses, from the sides of his eyes, and truth is, there’s nothing going on behind them.
Mother, he croons. Mother, Mother, quietly, pleathe.