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Wednesday, November 18, 2009
I was sitting on the porch when I heard the sound of the dove come from the old millpond. The dove's mournful call stopped, and then I heard death coming down the country road that ran passed my grandparent's farm. It broke the Sunday afternoon apart and silenced the dove.
My grandmother’s name was Gloria Roberts. My grandfather was already dead by that fall, finally killed by the gas that began to eat his lungs in the trenches of France in 1918; buried with his Croix de Guerre.
My grandparents lived in the tobacco country of eastern North Carolina, in a place with a name you couldn't find on a map. They lived in the midst of horizon-to-horizon tobacco fields that grew over my head; hid me in forests of green like the jungles of Tarzan, and where I ran wild, invisible to the world, feeling the hot sand of the fields between my bare toes.
I was ten year old, sitting on the porch of my grandparent’s house and dreaming a boy’s dreams, when the call of the dove stopped.
I heard screaming metal, an engine trying to tear itself apart, howling like a tortured animal. I looked toward the road. I could see the small white dot of my grandmother’s mailbox, atop its post and leaning a little to the right, on the other side of the road.
Then I saw it. It came from the left, a flash of blue. And it began to fly. If left the ground and climbed toward the sky over the tobacco fields, trying to fly over the ditch by the side of the road. The sky and the car were almost the same pale-blue color.
Halfway up the arc of its climb, the car rolled, like an airplane doing stunts. I could see the workings beneath it. They were lewd, as if the car was naked. The car seemed to hang at the top of the arc, its black belly exposed, and then it fell.
The car fell into the ditch and kicked up dirt that floated and drifted in the air around it. It landed on its top and the wheels kept spinning. The roaring engine died when the car hit the ditch and I could hear the spinning wheels. They made a rumbling and whirring sound.
I jumped off the porch and ran. I don’t know why I didn’t run to find my grandmother. She was in the garden in the back of the house, bent over her black-eyed Susan’s. But I didn’t run for her, I ran toward the upside down car, its wheels starting to slow down now, but still spinning. I was thirteen years old and I was running toward death. But I didn’t know it.
There was a breeze ruffling something; making something pink move and dance. I kept running. I saw a woman lying on the white line in the middle of the road. The breeze was moving parts of her pink dress.
I stood in the middle of the road, breathing hard from the running, and felt the heat from the asphalt on the soles of my bare feet, like standing in my grandparent’s fields. I looked down at the woman in the road. She was an older woman; she was a thin black woman dressed in her Sunday church best.
I looked both ways down the road. There were no other cars. The whole world was filled up with me and an elderly black woman in a pink dress lying like a rag doll in the middle of a road surrounded by North Carolina tobacco fields.
Then, a car came. I didn’t know it was there until I heard the door slam and a man came toward me.
“Son?” the man said. “Better get out of the road, boy. I’ll go on down to Pappy yoke’s Store and call an ambulance. You’d better get out of the road, son.”
“I know,” I said.
“You Van Robert's grandson?” the man said.
“Yessir,” I said. Now, I wanted to cry. As long as it was just me and the woman lying in the road, as long we were all there was in the world, I didn’t think about crying. But now, I wanted to cry.
“"You’d better get out of the road, son,” the man said again. “You come on with me; there ain’t nothin’ you can do for her."
“No,”" I said. “"Somebody’s got to keep the cars from running over her."
"You reckon you can handle that, boy?”"
"Yessir,"” I said.
The man looked at me and said, “I reckon you are Van Robert's grandson. You just stand on the side of the road and wave ‘’em down. There ain’t likely to be any on this road on a Sunday, and I’ll be right back."
“The store ain’t open on Sunday,” I said.
“"I know, son, but they live in back and I know your gramma ain’t got a telephone."
The man got into his car and drove toward Pappy "yoke ’s Store, but I didn’t watch him go. I didn’t watch him drive around the woman lying in the road.
Because I saw the woman’s eyes. Maybe they were closed before; maybe that’s why I didn’t see them sooner.
Her eyes were open and she was staring at me like I was the only thing in the world. Her mouth began to move, too, like she was talking. She was staring at me, her eyes wide-open and not blinking – staring at me and her mouth opening and closing. She was talking to me, but she couldn’t make the words come out.
I looked up and down the empty Sunday road; I don’t know what I was looking for. Maybe just for someone to come and take this woman away, to rescue me from her staring eyes and her silent moving lips.
But, I had to look at her, to look straight back into her eyes – I had to – because I knew that if I looked away it would be like I just left her to die. So I looked back into her eyes, trembling and wanting to cry again. And her mouth kept moving. Talking to me. Telling me not to leave her. I felt that inside. I didn’t have to hear it. I knelt beside her and held her hand and would not leave her.
When I heard my grandmother holler, I jumped. For a second I guess I thought the sound came from the woman on the road. But it was my grandmother.
She was waddling down the dirt road from the house as fast as she could go. She hollered again; “”Lawd God a-mighty!” as she came, trailing little clouds of dust at her feet. My grandmother was a great fat woman with huge all-encompassing breasts and upper arms as big as a pro-wrestler’s. She could envelope the whole world, hold it all tight against those huge bosoms. “”Lawd God a-mighty!”” she yelled again, even though her mouth was bulging with snuff.
Then my grandmother stood next to me on the road, breathing hard. She put her hand on my shoulder. “”Charlie?”” she said, and I started to cry. If she hadn’t put her hand on my shoulder and called my name I would have been all right. But now I was crying.
The woman lying in the road kept looking at me, her eyes never leaving my face.
“”We got to get out of the road,”” my grandmother said.
“”No,”” I said, and my grandmother kept standing in the road beside me until the man came back from Pappy Yoke’s store. The ambulance was right behind him. The highway patrol came too and the road was full of cars, blue and red lights flashing; all gathered around the old black woman lying broken in the road in her pink dress.
They put the woman on a stretcher. She didn’t move until they rolled her into the ambulance and she turned her head a little so she could keep looking at me. I heard one of the ambulance attendants say; “Nice Chevy. Too bad she tore it up like that.” Then they were all gone. All the cars drove away and the flashing lights were gone and silence fell again, like a blanket, over the tobacco fields. Not even the sound of the dove over at the old millpond. The woman couldn’t look at me anymore.
Nobody ever taught me how to pray. But I tried to learn that night. My grandparent’s farm was nine miles from Snow Hill and at night it was swallowed in darkness. I could lie at night and hold my hand to my face, almost touching my nose, and not see it.
That night, in my feather-bed, I looked at the blackness over my head and tried to pray. “Dear God, please help that poor old negro woman,” I said. But my prayer didn’t seem to go anywhere; it just went up into the darkness over my head and disappeared.
I don’t remember how long I prayed like that. But I do remember why I stopped.
I stopped when I saw the woman’s eyes, shinning in the dark above my bed. Luminous, and staring at me. The woman’s eyes stayed in the darkness above my bed until morning; they melted away with the first dim light that seeped into my room.
I watched them all night. I could have reached up and touched them. But, I just lay there and looked back at them until morning came.
It was when the first filmy rays of light broke into my room, when things were just beginning to turn into clumps of gray, that the woman spoke to me. “”My name is Marlie Robinson,”” she said. “”You remember my name,”” she said. I said I would remember. Then the eyes and the voice were gone and the day had come.
I told my grandmother the woman’s name.
“”She tell you while she was layin' in the road?”” my grandmother said.
“”She told me,”” I said.
My grandmother didn’t know any Robinsons. She said they must be from over in Yellow Springs, or maybe Greenville.
After a while, I quit thinking about the woman. Sometimes, in high school, when I talked about her my friends laughed, punched me in the arm, and said; “”bullshit!”
But, I could close my eyes anytime I wanted to and see that pale-blue Chevrolet on its top, its wheels spinning like the legs of a bug on its back moving and trying to find the ground. I could close my eyes anytime and see the woman’s pink dress blowing in the breeze that came softly down the road that Sunday afternoon. It was a memory I would always have. And I would always have the woman’s name too. And every time I heard a dove’s cry, I remembered.
Even though I never once doubted the eyes and the woman’s voice that night were real, they never came back again. Many times I wondered why I wasn’t afraid that night. The woman’s eyes were soft and brown, with the whites of her eyes shinning bright, and her voice was soft too. – “You remember my name.” Other than that, I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid. In 2001, I went to the woman’s grave. It wasn’t hard to find, there was only one black cemetery in Yellow Springs. I took some flowers and laid them on her grave, in front of the stone that had her name carved on it.
I was wearing my uniform. I was in the Army and on my way to Iraq. I knew I would run toward death again; toward bodies tossed like rag dolls and lying broken on the ground.....I knew I was looking down at my own broken body. I looked up to see Marlie Robinson standing above me looking down at my broken body, I asked her not to leave me. I asked her to remember my name. Marlie Robinson held my hand, she never left my side.