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A Crippled Hope by Grace E. King

 

You must picture to yourself the quiet, dim-lighted room of a convalescent; outside, the dreary, bleak days of winter in a sparsely settled, distant country parish; inside, a slow, smoldering log-fire, a curtained bed, the infant sleeping well enough, the mother wakeful, restless, thought-driven, as a mother must be, unfortunately, nowadays, particularly in that parish, where cotton worms and overflows have acquired such a monopoly of one's future.

[Illustration: “THE QUIET, DIM-LIGHTED ROOM OF A CONVALESCENT.”]

God is always pretty near a sick woman's couch; but nearer even than God seems the sick-nurse—at least in that part of the country, under those circumstances. It is so good to look through the dimness and uncertainty, moral and physical, and to meet those little black, steadfast, all-seeing eyes; to feel those smooth, soft, all-soothing hands; to hear, across one's sleep, that three-footed step—the flat-soled left foot, the tiptoe right, and the padded end of the broomstick; and when one is so wakeful and restless and thought-driven, to have another's story given one. God, depend upon it, grows stories and lives as he does herbs, each with a mission of balm to some woe.

She said she had, and in truth she had, no other name than “little Mammy”; and that was the name of her nature. Pure African, but bronze rather than pure black, and full-sized only in width, her growth having been hampered as to height by an injury to her hip, which had lamed her, pulling her figure awry, and burdening her with a protuberance of the joint. Her mother caused it by dropping her when a baby, and concealing it, for fear of punishment, until the dislocation became irremediable. All the animosity of which little Mammy was capable centered upon this unknown but never-to-be-forgotten mother of hers; out of this hatred had grown her love—that is, her destiny, a woman's love being her destiny. Little Mammy's love was for children.

The birth and infancy (the one as accidental as the other, one would infer) took place in—it sounds like the “Arabian Nights” now!—took place in the great room, caravansary, stable, behind a negro-trader's auction-mart, where human beings underwent literally the daily buying and selling of which the world now complains in a figure of speech—a great, square, dusty chamber where, sitting cross-legged, leaning against the wall, or lying on foul blanket pallets on the floor, the bargains of to-day made their brief sojourn, awaiting transformation into the profits of the morrow.

The place can be pointed out now, is often pointed out; but no emotion arises at sight of it. It is so plain, so matter-of-fact an edifice that emotion only comes afterward in thinking about it, and then in the reflection that such an edifice could be, then as now, plain and matter-of-fact.

For the slave-trader there was no capital so valuable as the physical soundness of his stock; the moral was easily enough forged or counterfeited. Little Mammy's good-for-nothing mother was sold as readily as a vote, in the parlance of to-day; but no one would pay for a crippled baby. The mother herself would not have taken her as a gift, had it been in the nature of a negro-trader to give away anything. Some doctoring was done,—so little Mammy heard traditionally,—some effort made to get her marketable. There were attempts to pair her off as a twin sister of various correspondencies in age, size, and color, and to palm her off, as a substitute, at migratory, bereaved, overfull breasts. Nothing equaled a negro-trader's will and power for fraud, except the hereditary distrust and watchfulness which it bred and maintained. And so, in the even balance between the two categories, the little cripple remained a fixture in the stream of life that passed through that back room, in the fluxes and refluxes of buying and selling; not valueless, however—rely upon a negro-trader for discovering values as substitutes, as panaceas. She earned her nourishment, and Providence did not let it kill the little animal before the emancipation of weaning arrived.

[Illustration: “LITTLE MAMMY.”]

How much circumstances evoked, how much instinct responded, belongs to the secrets which nature seems to intend keeping. As a baby she had eyes, attention, solely for other babies. One cannot say while she was still crawling, for she could only crawl years after she should have been walking, but, before even precocious walking-time, tradition or the old gray-haired negro janitor relates, she would creep from baby to baby to play with it, put it to sleep, pat it, rub its stomach (a negro baby, you know, is all stomach, and generally aching stomach at that). And before she had a lap, she managed to force one for some ailing nursling. It was then that they began to call her “little Mammy.” In the transitory population of the “pen” no one stayed long enough to give her another name; and no one ever stayed short enough to give her another one.

Her first recollection of herself was that she could not walk—she was past crawling; she cradled herself along, as she called sitting down flat, and working herself about with her hands and her one strong leg. Babbling babies walked all around her,—many walking before they babbled,—and still she did not walk, imitate them as she might and did. She would sit and “study” about it, make another trial, fall; sit and study some more, make another trial, fall again. Negroes, who believe that they must give a reason for everything even if they have to invent one, were convinced that it was all this studying upon her lameness that gave her such a large head.

And now she began secretly turning up the clothes of every negro child that came into that pen, and examining its legs, and still more secretly examining her own, stretched out before her on the ground. How long it took she does not remember; in fact, she could not have known, for she had no way of measuring time except by her thoughts and feelings. But in her own way and time the due process of deliberation was fulfilled, and the quotient made clear that, bowed or not, all children's legs were of equal length except her own, and all were alike, not one full, strong, hard, the other soft, flabby, wrinkled, growing out of a knot at the hip. A whole psychological period apparently lay between that conclusion and—a broom-handle walking-stick; but the broomstick came, as it was bound to come,—thank heaven!—from that premise, and what with stretching one limb to make it longer, and doubling up the other to make it shorter, she invented that form of locomotion which is still carrying her through life, and with no more exaggerated leg-crookedness than many careless negroes born with straight limbs display. This must have been when she was about eight or nine. Hobbling on a broomstick, with, no doubt, the same weird, wizened face as now, an innate sense of the fitness of things must have suggested the kerchief tied around her big head, and the burlaps rag of an apron in front of her linsey-woolsey rag of a gown, and the bit of broken pipe-stem in the corner of her mouth, where the pipe should have been, and where it was in after years. That is the way she recollected herself, and that is the way one recalls her now, with a few modifications.

The others came and went, but she was always there. It wasn't long before she became “little Mammy” to the grown folks too; and the newest inmates soon learned to cry: “Where's little Mammy?” “Oh, little Mammy! little Mammy! Such a misery in my head [or my back, or my stomach]! Can't you help me, little Mammy?” It was curious what a quick eye she had for symptoms and ailments, and what a quick ear for suffering, and how apt she was at picking up, remembering, and inventing remedies. It never occurred to her not to crouch at the head or the foot of a sick pallet, day and night through. As for the nights, she said she dared not close her eyes of nights. The room they were in was so vast, and sometimes the negroes lay so thick on the floor, rolled in their blankets (you know, even in the summer they sleep under blankets), all snoring so loudly, she would never have heard a groan or a whimper any more than they did, if she had slept, too. And negro mothers are so careless and such heavy sleepers. All night she would creep at regular intervals to the different pallets, and draw the little babies from under, or away from, the heavy, inert impending mother forms. There is no telling how many she thus saved from being overlaid and smothered, or, what was worse, maimed and crippled.

Whenever a physician came in, as he was sometimes called, to look at a valuable investment or to furbish up some piece of damaged goods, she always managed to get near to hear the directions; and she generally was the one to apply them also, for negroes always would steal medicines most scurvily one from the other. And when death at times would slip into the pen, despite the trader's utmost alertness and precautions,—as death often “had to do,” little Mammy said,—when the time of some of them came to die, and when the rest of the negroes, with African greed of eye for the horrible, would press around the lowly couch where the agonizing form of a slave lay writhing out of life, she would always to the last give medicines, and wipe the cold forehead, and soothe the clutching, fearsome hands, hoping to the end, and trying to inspire the hope that his or her “time” had not come yet; for, as she said, “Our time doesn't come just as often as it does come.”

And in those sad last offices, which somehow have always been under reproach as a kind of shame, no matter how young she was, she was always too old to have the childish avoidance of them. On the contrary, to her a corpse was only a kind of baby, and she always strove, she said, to make one, like the other, easy and comfortable.

And in other emergencies she divined the mysteries of the flesh, as other precocities divine the mysteries of painting and music, and so become child wonders.

Others came and went. She alone remained there. Babies of her babyhood—the toddlers she, a toddler, had nursed—were having babies themselves now; the middle-aged had had time to grow old and die. Every week new families were coming into the great back chamber; every week they passed out: babies, boys, girls, buxom wenches, stalwart youths, and the middle-aged—the grave, serious ones whom misfortune had driven from their old masters, and the ill-reputed ones, the trickish, thievish, lazy, whom the cunning of the negro-trader alone could keep in circulation. All were marketable, all were bought and sold, all passed in one door and out the other—all except her, little Mammy. As with her lameness, it took time for her to recognize, to understand, the fact. She could study over her lameness, she could in the dull course of time think out the broomstick way of palliation. It would have been almost better, under the circumstances, for God to have kept the truth from her; only—God keeps so little of the truth from us women. It is his system.

Poor little thing! It was not now that her master could not sell her, but he would not! Out of her own intelligence she had forged her chains; the lameness was a hobble merely in comparison. She had become too valuable to the negro-trader by her services among his crew, and offers only solidified his determination not to sell her. Visiting physicians, after short acquaintance with her capacities, would offer what were called fancy prices for her. Planters who heard of her through their purchases would come to the city purposely to secure, at any cost, so inestimable an adjunct to their plantations. Even ladies—refined, delicate ladies—sometimes came to the pen personally to back money with influence. In vain. Little Mammy was worth more to the negro-trader, simply as a kind of insurance against accidents, than any sum, however glittering the figure, and he was no ignorant expert in human wares. She can tell it; no one else can for her. Remember that at times she had seen the streets outside. Remember that she could hear of the outside world daily from the passing chattels—of the plantations, farms, families; the green fields, Sunday woods, running streams; the camp-meetings, corn-shuckings, cotton-pickings, sugar-grindings; the baptisms, marriages, funerals, prayer-meetings; the holidays and holy days. Remember that, whether for liberty or whether for love, passion effloresces in the human being—no matter when, where, or how—with every spring's return. Remember that she was, even in middle age, young and vigorous. But no; do not remember anything. There is no need to heighten the coloring.

It would be tedious to relate, although it was not tedious to hear her relate it, the desperations and hopes of her life then. Hardly a day passed that she did not see, looking for purchases (rummaging among goods on a counter for bargains), some master whom she could have loved, some mistress whom she could have adored. Always her favorite mistresses were there—tall, delicate matrons, who came themselves, with great fatigue, to select kindly-faced women for nurses; languid-looking ladies with smooth hair standing out in wide bandeaux from their heads, and lace shawls dropping from their sloping shoulders, silk dresses carelessly held up in thumb and finger from embroidered petticoats that were spread out like tents over huge hoops which covered whole groups of swarming piccaninnies on the dirty floor; ladies, pale from illnesses that she might have nursed, and over-burdened with children whom she might have reared! And not a lady of that kind saw her face but wanted her, yearned for her, pleaded for her, coming back secretly to slip silver, and sometimes gold, pieces into her hand, patting her turbaned head, calling her “little Mammy" too, instantly, by inspiration, and making the negro-trader give them, with all sorts of assurances, the refusal of her. She had no need for the whispered “Buy me, master!” “Buy me, mistress!” “You'll see how I can work, master!” “You'll never be sorry, mistress!” of the others. The negro-trader—like hangmen, negro-traders are fitted by nature for their profession—it came into his head—he had no heart, not even a negro-trader's heart—that it would be more judicious to seclude her during these shopping visits, so to speak. She could not have had any hopes then at all; it must have been all desperations.

That auction-block, that executioner's block, about which so much has been written—Jacob's ladder, in his dream, was nothing to what that block appeared nightly in her dreams to her; and the climbers up and down—well, perhaps Jacob's angels were his hopes, too.

At times she determined to depreciate her usefulness, mar her value, by renouncing her heart, denying her purpose. For days she would tie her kerchief over her ears and eyes, and crouch in a corner, strangling her impulses. She even malingered, refused food, became dumb. And she might have succeeded in making herself salable through incipient lunacy, if through no other way, had she been able to maintain her role long enough. But some woman or baby always was falling into some emergency of pain and illness.

How it might have ended one does not like to think. Fortunately, one does not need to think.

There came a night. She sat alone in the vast, dark caravansary—alone for the first time in her life. Empty rags and blankets lay strewn over the floor, no snoring, no tossing in them more. A sacrificial sale that day had cleared the counters. Alarm-bells rang in the streets, but she did not know them for alarm-bells; alarm brooded in the dim space around her, but she did not even recognize that. Her protracted tension of heart had made her fear-blind to all but one peradventure.

Once or twice she forgot herself, and limped over to some heap to relieve an imaginary struggling babe or moaning sleeper. Morning came. She had dozed. She looked to see the rag-heaps stir; they lay as still as corpses. The alarm-bells had ceased. She looked to see a new gang enter the far door. She listened for the gathering buzzing of voices in the next room, around the auction-block. She waited for the trader. She waited for the janitor. At nightfall a file of soldiers entered. They drove her forth, ordering her in the voice, in the tone, of the negro-trader. That was the only familiar thing in the chaos of incomprehensibility about her. She hobbled through the auction-room. Posters, advertisements, papers, lay on the floor, and in the torch-light glared from the wall. Her Jacob's ladder, her stepping-stone to her hopes, lay overturned in a corner.

You divine it. The negro-trader's trade was abolished, and he had vanished in the din and smoke of a war which he had not been entirely guiltless of producing, leaving little Mammy locked up behind him. Had he forgotten her? One cannot even hope so. She hobbled out into the street, leaning on her nine-year-old broomstick (she had grown only slightly beyond it; could still use it by bending over it), her head tied in a rag kerchief, a rag for a gown, a rag for an apron.

Free, she was free! But she had not hoped for freedom. The plantation, the household, the delicate ladies, the teeming children,—broomsticks they were in comparison to freedom, but,—that was what she had asked, what she had prayed for. God, she said, had let her drop, just as her mother had done. More than ever she grieved, as she crept down the street, that she had never mounted the auctioneer's block. An ownerless free negro! She knew no one whose duty it was to help her; no one knew her to help her. In the whole world (it was all she had asked) there was no white child to call her mammy, no white lackey or gentleman (it was the extent of her dreams) beholden to her as to a nurse. And all her innumerable black beneficiaries! Even the janitor, whom she had tended as the others, had deserted her like his white prototype.

She tried to find a place for herself, but she had no indorsers, no recommenders. She dared not mention the name of the negro-trader; it banished her not only from the households of the whites, but from those of the genteel of her own color. And everywhere soldiers sentineled the streets—soldiers whose tone and accent reminded her of the negro-trader.

Her sufferings, whether imaginary or real, were sufficiently acute to drive her into the only form of escape which once had been possible to friendless negroes. She became a runaway. With a bundle tied to the end of a stick over her shoulder, just as the old prints represent it, she fled from her homelessness and loneliness, from her ignoble past, and the heart-disappointing termination of it. Following a railroad track, journeying afoot, sleeping by the roadside, she lived on until she came to the one familiar landmark in life to her—a sick woman, but a white one. And so, progressing from patient to patient (it was a time when sick white women studded the country like mile-posts), she arrived at a little town, a kind of a refuge for soldiers' wives and widows. She never traveled further. She could not. Always, as in the pen, some emergency of pain and illness held her.

That is all. She is still there. The poor, poor women of that stricken region say that little Mammy was the only alleviation God left them after Sheridan passed through; and the richer ones say very much the same thing—

But one should hear her tell it herself, as has been said, on a cold, gloomy winter day in the country, the fire glimmering on the hearth; the overworked husband in the fields; the baby quiet at last; the mother uneasy, restless, thought-driven; the soft black hand rubbing backward and forward, rubbing out aches and frets and nervousness.

The eyelids droop; the firelight plays fantasies on the bed-curtains; the ear drops words, sentences; one gets confused—one sleeps—one dreams.

 
 
 

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