fiction by Barbara Diggs
Imma kill ‘im, Mr. P.J. Danlow says, his voice low and rough in my ear. His hand lies atop what he calls my nightdress; a fancy name for something as raggedy as an old cobweb. I know he can feel my fear, thumping away under his touch, rattling my rib cage. Just let ‘im come here, Mr. Danlow says, it gone be the last thing he do.
I stroke the wrinkled ridge of scarring on his shoulder. Even though his words ain’t more than a puff of air, they seep into my skin and warm me up like they was made of sunshine. They make me feel so warm, I forget myself and crack open that door in my mind, the one I keep slammed shut and locked up tight.
On the other side of that door, ain’t nobody else in the cabin with me and Mr. Danlow. No rustling of other tired people trying to get comfortable on pitiful thin pallets on a bare dirt floor. No whispering, babies crying, or love-noises. Just me and him, lying together on a hay-stuffed mattress set on a wooden bed frame that he made with his own hands, covered with a soft quilt I made with mine. Even on this side of the door he smells tangy with sweat and pine, and the money we make from my sewing and his carpentry sits in a jar hidden under the floorboards.
On the other side of the door, we rest easy. The rifle leaning against the wall is oiled and ready. Won’t be no banging on the door ‘til it flies open. Won’t be no master filling the doorway calling, Sairy, up now wit’ya. Git on out here, girl. No need for me to feel Mr. Danlow go stiff beside me, rage and humiliation rising from him like steam, leaving scorch marks on my soul as I force myself up and out into the night.
On the other side, I call Mr. Danlow the name his momma give him, Peter or Petey, or maybe by another sweet name. Ain’t no need for me to make him feel like more of a man by calling him ‘mister’, or giving him a last name. Here, he’s a man who has a home, can protect his woman, can be certain that any child in my belly won’t come out the color of a brown hen’s egg or get snatched from my arms once he’s strong enough to work.
Stumbling footsteps somewhere outside the cabin makes the door in my head bang shut. Silence falls in the shack like God struck us all dead. Mr. Danlow’s arms tighten around me. Just let ‘im. He don’t say it aloud, but I hear the words clear as day. We wait.
Sairy. The voice comes slurred and thick with drink.
I don’t move. I feel Mr. Danlow’s muscles gathering snake-like underneath his skin. I touch the puckered scar on his shoulder again. If he turned on his stomach, I could follow that fold all the way down his back, feel nine others like it. He got a fever after that lashing. Nearly died.
Sairy. You gone make me mad, girl? Shuffling sounds closer now.
Mr. Danlow sits straight up. Fear stabs me in the chest. I wish with all my beat-up heart that we lived on the other side of the door where Mr. Danlow can pick up a pistol, or tell that man he’d be better off visiting his momma, or even leap up, turn into a wolf in mid-air, tear that shambling drunk to pieces, and then walk away. Licking his bloody snout.
But that’s not where we at. If he so much casts his shadow tonight, there won’t be no other side of the door. Not even to dream about.
I sit up, lay my cheek against his warm, scarred shoulder, and say, real quiet:
Do what you got to do, Mr. Danlow, but this just work like any other. No more than picking or mending. Ain’t no different. You gonna leave me by myself for something so small? We bigger than that, ain’t we?
We both know I ain’t telling neither the full truth nor a lie, but he gets my meaning. After a moment, his shoulders bow and the fire that was burning so bright and fierce in him drains away. He lies down on his mat and turns away from me without a word. I hurt so bad for him, I could die where I am. Ain’t no little thing to swallow a fire like that.
Sairy! Right outside now.
I get to my feet as slowly as I dare. Low voices start up again behind me now that they know there’s not going to be no trouble. Mr. Danlow don’t make a sound and I know that I haven’t done a thing tonight; he’s gonna leave me, explode right on out of here, sooner or later.
But it ain’t the time to reflect on that. As I reach for the slatted door of the shack, my mind is already busy searching for a different door; one that opens to a world where, from the moment I step into the thick night air, I’ll turn into a curl of smoke from a bonfire in a distant field or a shaft of the moon’s clean light. On the other side of this door, I can become the music of crickets, the glint of a star, the small stirring of a breeze among the pines. Beyond this door, I am as big and mighty as the black sky itself, and can’t no one touch me no matter how hard they try.
Barbara Diggs ditched her job as a corporate lawyer to spend her days time-traveling and swimming in words of her choosing. She is the author of “Race Relations: The Struggle for Equality in America,” a history book for middle-schoolers, and is currently writing another on civil rights protests. A Washington, D.C. native, Barbara lives in Paris with her husband and two kids. Catch her at the corner café or @bdiggswrites.