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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 frazzle.”

“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 stan'!”

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 ter starve.”

'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 overhanging vine.

“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 her.

“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 her han'.”

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 came up.

“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' Miss Nannie?”

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 dark curls.

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 drowned.

“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 boy.”

“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 loose change.

“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 carriage.

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 intruders.

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 cheeks.

“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. Yass'm!”

 
 
 

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