The Zark by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis
“You, 'Lijah!” called Aunt Cindy from within the cabin, “ef you doan
keep out'n dat water, I is sholy gwine ter w'ar you ter er plum
“Yass'm,” replied 'Lijah, continuing to wriggle his small dusky body
about in the water, and feeling with his toes for the ground, as he
swung by the tips of his fingers from the gallery. But when his mother
suddenly appeared in the doorway, with a well-seasoned bunch of
switches in her hand, he crawled, chuckling, up on the wet planks, and
stretched himself there like a baby alligator in the warm noonday sun.
Three days before the levee over on the big swollen river had
broken, and the waters from the crevasse were swirling about Aunt Cindy
Washington's cabin, and rushing away, yellow and foaming, in an angry
current that was cutting a huge channel for itself across the very
heart of the country. From the high gallery it looked like a vast sea,
spreading as far as the eye could reach to the south and west, and
gaining hour by hour upon the line of forest trees far away under the
eastern horizon. Back of the cabin the ground rose a little; in one
corner of the straggling turnip-patch a bit of green even showed itself
when a breeze rippled the waves.
The first swift onslaught of the flood had carried away nearly all
the cabins and out-houses scattered about the isolated negro settlement
of Bethel Church; those that remained threatened every moment to topple
over into the widening stream, on whose surface floated the forlorn
mass of wreckage—beams, shingles, doors, window-shutters, odds and
ends of household goods, bales of hay, chicken-coops, tree-stumps,
animals living and dead—that told its own pitiful story of
destruction. The inhabitants had been removed to a place of safety by
the relief-boats that passed and repassed, distributing provisions and
caring for the needy and homeless.
But Aunt Cindy had stoutly refused to abandon her cabin. “De
onderpinnin' o' dish yer cabin,” she declared, “ain' lak de
onderpinnin' o' dem yander triflin' no-'count cabins. 'Caze Sol
Wash'n'ton, my ole man, is put up dish yer cabin wi' his own han's
befo' he was tuk'n ter glory, an' I knows hit's gwine ter
The queer ramshackle little structure which Uncle Sol Washington had
put up “with his own hands” had one room and a front gallery, and in
ordinary times its peaked and lop-sided roof amply sheltered Aunt
Cindy, her four well-grown girls—Polly, Dicy, Sal, and Viny—and her
one eleven-year-old boy 'Lijah. Just now, however, it must be
confessed, the cabin was somewhat crowded. At the first note of
warning, Pomp, the old white mule which assisted in the making of Aunt
Cindy's modest “crap,” had been guided up the rickety steps, and
quartered on one end of the gallery, where he munched contentedly all
day long from the pile of corn and fodder supplied by the government
relief boat. A new-born calf, which had drifted against the back door,
and had been lifted in and warmed to life on the wide hearth-stone,
stood beside him, or trotted like a kitten in and out of the open
doorway. A big flop-eared hound-dog had buffeted his way, swimming, to
the edge of the gallery, and looked up with red, appealing eyes; he now
lay in a corner of the fireplace, sleek, brown, and dry, and sniffed
hungrily at the frying-pan. A turkey-cock strutted about the floor. A
litter of pigs grunted in a corner.
“I 'clar' ter goodness,” said Aunt Cindy the second morning, as she
fished out a coop of half-drowned chickens, which came bumping against
the wall, “hit's edzackly lak de Zark dat ole Noah done builded at de
comman' o' de Lawd!”
A few hours later a 'possum crept in, and made his way stealthily to
one of the blackened rafters under the roof, whence he looked gravely
down; and a lame blackbird hopped upon the snowy counterpane of Aunt
Cindy's big four-post bed, and nestled among the pillows.
“Hit's er Zark!” repeated Aunt Cindy, cheerfully, “an' I knows
dat de onderpinnin' is gwine ter stan'. An' wi' gov'ment bacon an' de
catfish dat me en' de chillen kin ketch frum de gall'ry, we ain' gwine
'Lijah sunned himself in his wet clothes, now staring dreamily at
the soft blue March sky overhead, now watching Polly, who was fishing
from the other end of the gallery close to old Pomp's inoffensive
heels. Suddenly he scrambled to his feet and gazed intently out over
the yellow sea. The next moment he plunged headlong into the water,
where for a second he disappeared, then rose, spluttering and blowing.
Polly threw down her pole at the splash and ran forward. “You,
'Lije,” she gasped, “come out'n dat water dis minute! Does you wanter
drown yo'se'f? Mammy gwine ter w'ar you ter er—”
She stopped abruptly; her mouth remained wide open and her eyes
dilated. 'Lijah was pushing his way slowly against the incoming waves.
The water, at first a little below his shoulders, presently lapped
against his chin. Once or twice he slipped, and then only the top of
his woolly head was visible in the foam. Finally he struck out, and
swam with unsteady, childish strokes towards the object upon which his
eyes were fixed. It was a whitish mass, which floated slowly, as if
driven by a light wind, towards the rapid current of the deeper channel
a few yards away. As 'Lijah approached it caught in the scraggy tops of
some altheas that marked the boundary of the cabin door-yard; there it
stopped a moment, swaying from side to side, as if about to sink; then,
caught in an eddy, it turned suddenly and shot forward. 'Lijah made a
desperate spurt and laid hold of it, drawing it cautiously to him; his
lean, brown arm glistened in the sun as he stretched it out. He turned
with difficulty, and labored back, pushing the drift before him. As he
came up, Polly, who had been too terrified to utter a word, seized him,
and drew him upon the gallery, where he dropped, exhausted and panting.
Then she looked down at the jetsam he had towed in, and gave a screech
which brought Aunt Cindy, the girls, and the dog flying out.
It was indeed a strange little craft which lay alongside the Zark—
a tiny cradle mattress, water-soaked and stained. Lying upon it—its
single passenger—was a four or five months' old girl baby, white and
delicate as a snow-drop. She was clad in a long night-gown, which clung
in dripping folds about her plump little body; it was open at the
throat, showing her round, dimpled neck, encircled by a string of coral
with a broad clasp of gold. The soft rings of brown hair that curled
about her forehead were wet and glistening. Her eyes were closed, her
lips were blue, and her cheeks cold and pale. In one tiny benumbed fist
she grasped a green leaf, which she had probably caught from some
“Get de kittle er hot water, Dicy,” ordered Aunt Cindy, as she
lifted the mattress in her arms and carried it into the cabin. “Stir
yo'se'f, gal! Polly, fetch 'Lijah er smaller o' pepper-sass. Punch up
de fiah, Sal. Po' li'l' gal chile! Deir ain' much bref let' in yo'
body, honey. Is de worl' comin' ter er een?”
Half an hour later the baby, lying on Aunt Cindy's lap, opened her
blue eyes languidly, and looked at the wondering group gathered around
“Dar now!” said Aunt Cindy, comfortably, “I gwine ter git her
somefin ter eat, an' den I be boun' she gwine ter be lively.”
The little creature pursed up her pretty mouth and began to whimper
as her eyes went from face to face. But catching sight of 'Lijah, who
had recovered his breath in rebellion against the pepper-sauce, some
mysterious sense within her seemed to stir; she smiled, reached out her
little hand, and clasped a finger of one of his brown paws with a
gurgle of content.
'Lijah picked up from the hearth the bit of green vine which had
dropped unnoticed from the baby's unconscious hand. “Hit's de dove,” he
said, “dat de Lawd is done saunt inter de Zark wi' 'er green leaf in
From that moment the baby grew and thrived in the water-girt cabin.
Its inmates, from Aunt Cindy herself down to Viny, the youngest child,
adored her. Viny declared that even the pigs tried not to grunt when
she was asleep. But it was to 'Lijah most of all that she clung with
all the strength of her baby heart, and 'Lijah never wearied of
“toting” her around the crowded room, or up and down the littered
gallery. Aunt Cindy, mindful of the past grandeurs of her own white
folks, cast about for some high-sounding name for the precious waif.
But they called her Dovie; and there she abode, a white flower ringed
around by dark, loving faces, while the water rose and fell and rose
again as the crevasse was partly closed or the levee broke afresh.
One morning, nearly two months later, Aunt Cindy, carrying a basket
of fresh eggs, and followed by 'Irish, approached the little railway
station a mile or so from Bethel Church just as the train whizzed away.
A light carriage, drawn by two sleek horses, was waiting at the
station. Its owner, busy about the harness, looked around as Aunt Cindy
“Dullaw!” she exclaimed, breaking into a broad grin. “Ef dat ain'
li'l' Marse Jack Mannin'! Howdy, Marse Jack?”
The young man shook hands with her heartily.
“Why, Aunt Cindy,” he said, “who ever would have thought of seeing
you away up here?”
Aunt Cindy laughed. “Sol Wash'n'ton wuz er pow'ful han' ter travel,”
she replied. “Huccum you here yo'self, Marse Jack? An' whar is you lef'
His bright face clouded anxiously. “I have bought the Four Oaks
Plantation, over on the river,” he said. “Nannie is inside. Go and see
her, Aunt Cindy.”
The young and delicate-looking woman who was seated in the little
waiting-room threw herself with a wild sob into the arms of the
faithful soul who had nursed her when she was a baby.
“Oh, mammy! mammy!” she moaned.
“What's de matter, honey?” Aunt Cindy asked, tenderly stroking her
The story which Mrs. Manning told, through her tears, was a sad one.
Four Oaks Plantation, where they had been living but a few months, was
quite near the river. When the levee gave way, and the water began
rapidly to rise, they had taken refuge, with their baby and some of the
house-servants, in the manager's cottage, a short distance in the rear.
There they passed a day and part of a night in the greatest anxiety.
Towards midnight the rush of water became so threatening that they
determined to take again to the skiffs that had brought them over. She
herself was on the gallery, helping her husband and the negroes to get
the boats ready, when the house suddenly parted in the middle, as if
cleft by a knife, and in the dense darkness one end of it crashed down
into the roaring flood. The baby, sleeping in her crib within, was
“And oh, mammy,” the young mother sobbed, when she had finished the
story, and told how they were finally taken, half drowned themselves,
from the wreck, by a relief-boat, “if I could only have seen my baby
once more! But her little body was swept away with the broken timbers.
The deepest channel of the crevasse now is just where the house stood.
My baby—my little baby!”
Aunt Cindy started involuntarily. “Miss Nannie,” she said, after a
moment's silence, “hit wuz er pow'ful 'fliction de losin' er dat baby
“My baby was a girl, mammy,” interrupted Mrs. Manning, sobbing
afresh, “with blue eyes, and brown hair that curled all over her head.”
“Jes lak yo'n useter, honey.” Aunt Cindy's voice had a ring of
excitement in it. She got up, and went out to where 'Lijah sat on the
edge of the platform swinging his heels. A moment later he set off,
whooping, by a short-cut towards home, with the hound running
alongside. Mr. Manning was walking dejectedly up and down the platform.
“Marse Jack,” said Aunt Cindy, in a wheedling tone, “you knows dat I is
knowed you an' Miss Nannie sence y'ou wa'n't knee-high ter er duck.”
“Indeed you have,” said Mr. Manning, feeling in his pocket for some
“An' dat I nussed Miss Nannie when she wuz er baby; an' dat I close
her ma's eyes when she died.”
“Yes,” he said again, kindly.
“An' I wants you ter 'suade Miss Nannie ter drive down ter my cabin.
You has plenty o' time. Hit ain' fur, an' Miss Nannie might be hope up
by seein' o' de chillen.”
It needed no coaxing to induce Mrs. Manning to go. She clung to Aunt
Cindy, whose familiar presence seemed to soothe her, and they got in
The road was a roundabout one, owing to the gullies and pitfalls
left by the flood, and by the time they came in sight of the cabin the
young woman was quiet and almost cheerful.
The Zark looked forlorn enough; a dingy line around the walls showed
the point at which the water had stood for many weeks; the gallery was
rotting and falling in; the steps, which had been swept away, had been
replaced by a shaky contrivance of boards. The fences were all down,
and the door-yard was heaped with tangled drift. But the garden-patch
was thriving; and neat furrows in the field showed that old Pomp and
Aunt Cindy had been at work there. The cabin door was closed, and no
one was in sight.
“Sol Wash'n'ton is put up dish yere cabin wi' his own han's,” said
its mistress, proudly, leading the way up the steps. “De onderpinnin'
is made fer ter stan'! Ever' cabin in Bethel Chu'ch is squish
down 'cep'n' jes mine. We done call hit de Zark, 'caze—” Mrs.
Manning's eyes were filling with tears again at the mention of the
fatal crevasse. Her husband gave Aunt Cindy a look of warning, but she
went on, cheerfully: “We done name hit de Zark, 'caze we tuk 'n' tuk in
ever'thing dat come er pass dis way, same ez ef hit wuz de comman'er de
Lawd! Yes, honey, we tuk 'n' tuk in chickens an' dawgs an' mules—
ever'thing! 'Possums an' 'coons— ever'thing! Birds an'
calves an'— babies; yes, honey, ev-er'thing!” She had
her arm around her foster-child, and was drawing her gently towards the
cabin door. A deadly pallor had crept into Mrs. Manning's cheeks, and
her eyes were wide with entreaty. “Yes, chile, ef er li'l' white
gal baby come floatin'—or long— on er crib mattress—“
she pushed open the door.
The stained mattress was in the middle of the floor. Dovie, clad in
the little gown—which she had sadly outgrown—that she wore when she
came to the Zark, had been placed carefully upon it. But she was in the
very act of crawling off; one bare, rosy foot was thrust out, her
dimpled hands grasped the torn sheet, her lips were parted in a roguish
smile, her blue eyes sparkled. Polly, Viny, Sal, and Dicy hung around
the mattress, giggling; 'Lijah stood guard over her; the hound by his
side looked gravely on. Dovie looked up as the door opened, and frowned
inquiringly; then, as usual in any emergency, she reached up and laid
firm hold of 'Lijah, stuck her thumb in her mouth, and stared at the
Mrs. Manning stumbled forward, and sank with a cry to the floor.
“Doan you be skeered, Marse Jack,” said Aunt Cindy, “she ain't gwine
ter die. Dat kin' er joy doan kill.” She laid the frightened child in
the mother's outstretched arms. “Why, honey, I might er knowed dat dis
baby b'long ter we-alls fambly. Polly, 'ain' you got no manners? Fetch
er cheer fer Marse Jack! An' Dicy done read de plain word 'Nannie' all
de time on dat gol' clasp! I 'ain' shout sence Bethel Chu'ch is tumble
inter de flood, but I sholy is gwine ter shout now. Glory! Glory!
“ And the high, triumphant cry of the old regress went echoing away like
a trumpet tone on the clear morning air.
Second only to Dovie herself in importance at the Four Oaks
Plantation great-house is 'Lijah Washington. He waits on Marse Jack and
runs errands for Miss Nannie. But for the most part his business is to
walk around, in company with the flop-eared hound, after Dovie, who is
just beginning to walk. Sometimes he proudly “totes” her in his arms.
“What a beautiful baby!” a visitor exclaims, patting Dovie's dimpled
“Yass'm,” 'Lijah responds, showing his white teeth in a delighted
grin; “dish yere is de dove dat come ter de Zark endurin' er de flood
wi' er green leaf in her li'l' han', an' I done tuk 'n' tuk her in.