Cough her up! Cora-Nell stood as still as the cypress that lined the muddy river banks. Only the voice inside her stirred. Cough my baby up and spit her out! Her eyes scanned the dark water searching for a glimpse of honey skin or a strand of corn silk hair.
The river didn’t even hiccup.
She don’t belong to you. She mine. Cora-Nell’s soul burned, her heart pounded, her lips clamped tight. The leather soles of her thick copper feet barely registered the sharp rocks embedded in the bank. She turned a large dusty stone over in her hand and squeezed letting the jagged edges bite into her fingers.
My sweet baby girl. Her soul moaned. My sweet, sweet baby girl.
Sunlight topped the trees and danced on the dark water. Cora-Nell’s round hips swayed. Her faded cotton dress swung from side to side. She fingered the scab behind her ear where sweet little Maybelline liked to twist her hair before she went to sleep.
Cora-Nell tightened her fist around the rock until her hand shook and blood ran down her palm. She hefted her arm over her head and flung, ripping a grunt from her gut. Cough. Her. Up. The rock sailed over the center of the narrow river bend and hit with a plop in the tea colored water on the other side.
The river didn’t even hiccup. But the old covered trestle over Cora-Nell’s head creaked.
“What you doing down there, girl?” Sida hollered.
Cora-Nell didn’t look up. She kept her eyes on the river. Come on home baby girl. Come on back to Mama.
Sida stepped off the trestle, slid to a stop near the top of the embankment and put her hands on her hips. “Gone make me break an ankle getting down there to you,” she griped. “Now get on up here!”
Cora-Nell crawled up the bank, grabbing hold of the rocks when her foothold failed. She got herself back on the dirt road first then held her hand out to Sida. Sida grabbed on and pulled herself back to solid footing.
The gray sand dusted the tops of Cora-Nell’s feet as she followed Sida home in silence.
In Sida’s front yard, little Macy had a scraggly cat in her arms holding it like a doll baby. “You gone get ringworm,” Cora-Nell yelled as she walked past Sida’s two-tone Chevrolet.
Sida opened the car door. “Come on back here. You going with me.”
“I’m putting you to work.”
“I don’t know nothing about no cafe.”
“You can chop collards and maters, can’t you?”
“Well, you going to work then.”
Cora-Nell climbed into Sida’s car. The vinyl stuck to the back of her thighs where her dress rode up. “Mama gone worry about me.”
“I told her I was gone take you. Miss Mamie gone work me to death if I don’t get some help. You fifteen now. You can work.”
Sida’s car stretched out down the road. “Hold it between the ditches,” Cora-Nell said. She kept her eyes sharp on the wood line in case the river had laid Maybelline out after the rains.
Sida parked behind Mamie’s cafe and led Cora-Nell in through the back door. “Don’t get under my feet.”
In the tiny kitchen Sida turned on the stove and started a pot of chicken, then floured up the counter and rolled out dumplings while Cora-Nell cut a tub of okra and washed a bushel of tomatoes.
Within the hour the bells over the restaurant door started to ring and Mamie sang out her “good mornin’s.”
Out back a truck rattled to a stop. Carl Walters pushed through the kitchen door and dropped a bushel of collards on the floor. The stench of sweat and chicken shit rode him like a bicycle. Wet and stuck to his head, his red hair was nearly brown. His shirt hung open down the front and darkened with sweat under the arms. Cora-Nell buried her nose in her shoulder and swallowed back the bile that rose in her throat. She turned her back to the door, grabbed a fat ripe tomato and a paring knife.
“I’ll get your money from Miss Mamie.” The door swung shut behind Sida.
Carl came up behind Cora-Nell and pressed against her. “Seen you down at the river.” His voice was low as a bullfrog’s.
Cora-Nell’s thumb busted through the tomato skin and sank into the seedy pulp.
“Ain’t no reason to be mad.” He pushed his hips against her. “Made you a pretty little negro baby last time.”
The tomato split, bleeding out on the counter. Cora-Nell tightened her grip on the knife. Carl’s laugh rumbled in the back of his throat. “Go on. Get riled up. Fightin’ll just make it more fun.” He moved on her like a dog after a bitch in heat.
The tomato lay flat beneath Cora-Nell’s palm. She raised her other hand, fist wrapped tight around the handle of the knife.
Sida pushed through the door, faded green bills waving in her hand.
Carl backed off, sniffed and spit tobacco juice on the floor. He took the money and left without saying another word.
“You all right?” Sida asked.
Cora-Nell’s hips swayed.
“The devil,” Sida said.
Cora-Nell flung the flattened tomato against the wall.
“You ain’t about to start throwing nothing around in here.” Sida’s voice was firm but low. “This ain’t no river and there ain’t no rocks. You hear me.”
Cora-Nell tucked her lips into her mouth and pressed them together until she could feel them bruise.
“It don’t do a bit of good to throw something if you ain’t gone let it go.”
Cora-Nell stared straight at the wall. “How’s a soul gone let go of its own self?”
“You either got to let go or throw yourself in there with her.”
A fat tear fell onto the cutting table. More rose in her eyes.
Sida walked over so quietly, Cora-Nell jumped when her old friend’s hand landed on her arm. “You holding onto every one of them rocks you throw. You supposed to let them go. They gone carry you to the bottom of the river if you don’t.” Sida picked a tuft of hair in front of Cora-Nell’s ear. “Girl you got to let go.”
“You can’t bring that child back,” Sida said. “Only the good Lord can bring a baby into this world.”
Cora-Nell swayed on her feet. “The devil makes them too.”
“You can root a rose in dirt and chicken shit so I reckon you might be right,” Sida said with a laugh. “Now get them maters sliced. It’s time to get them in the pan.”
Cora-Nell wiped the tomato off the wall and swallowed Sida’s words like the only meal that would ever fill her up. She made it through the day letting those words sink into her bones.
“You done real good today.” Sida steered toward the trestle that separated her side of the river from Cora-Nell’s.
“I’ll walk from here.”
Sida stopped the car. “Be at my house in the mornin’. I ain’t gone come down here looking for you. You got a job now. You gone have to be responsible.”
Dust billowed up behind Sida’s Chevrolet and Cora-Nell made her way back to the river.
On the bank she lifted a heavy red rock and worked it into the pocket of the apron she still wore. Clay dust covered her hand and stained the white fabric. Her eyes burned with unshed tears as she found another rock and put it with the other, holding her arm below her bosom to support the fabric. More rocks. So many she almost couldn’t carry them. Still no tears. She made her way to the water, one slow step at a time.
The cold river covered her feet, then her ankles. It bled up the hem of her dress turning the faded fabric dark again. A chill ran up her spine as the cold water hit the sensitive skin behind her knees and swirled around her thighs, then higher, touching the place Maybelline had come from.
She took one step after the other, holding all the stones. She was done throwing. She slipped and the current snatched her feet out from under her.
The tea colored water blurred her vision and burned like fire in her nose. Don’t cough me up either.
The river didn’t even hiccup.