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Elemenopee. El-Emen-Nopee. El-emen-Opee. El-Emn-O-Pee. El-Em-En-O-Pee. L-M-N-O-P. I had a hard time convincing Genni, our four year old, that “L, M, N, O, and P” were actually five separate letters in the alphabet, not the single infamous letter, “Elemenopee.” But just like her dad, she always got stuck on that “N.” But for my sprightly Genni, it was the “N letter” that she had trouble with; for me, it was that “N word.” Truth is, though, Genevieve is almost certainly predisposed to difficulties with anything associated with that curious “N,” seeing as she’s descended from a long line of secretive abolitionists who made their homes in the heart of the slave south. My parents had been the start of it; they’d released their slaves because they believed there was not a possibility that the Lord in his high and cloudy kingdom would want any of his children to live as beasts of labor. My late wife Eleanor lived her life by the same law. What would be done on her farm would be done by she and what workers she could pay; she had a soft spot for all of God’s creatures unlike her folks.
And, gracious God, as I arrange the wooden alphabet cutouts for our daughter, it is as if Eleanor’s miniature is sitting on the cobblestone floor of our barn before me. Genni’s hair is just like hers, like a plume of the sharpest gold on a canary’s breast, and her eyes are the same pure boutonnière blue. Her flesh is mine though, licked golden by the sun, and her architecture is as lean and spindly as mine was as a child. As I straighten myself and stare down at the little elf, I can’t help but wonder if God recalled my wife to his kingdom when Genni left her womb because the earthly atmosphere wasn’t rich enough to support them both. But this time as I dismiss the memory of Eleanor, there is no pain that takes refuge betwixt my guts, no ache that rives my organs from within, just a wisp of her sweet honey taste left on my tongue.
“Dah-?” the taste escapes me as Genni shakes her tiny doll-like foot in my direction, the buckle on her pearly shoe flopping with her unrefined movements.
“Shoddy buckle, I’ll take care of him.” My fingers are calloused, dark, and starkly out of place struggling with the lacey buckles and buttons on my daughter’s shoe. But she nonetheless wails a sound as sweet as a songbird’s voice when I’ve fastened the buckle. “Now y’er ready to go, pumpkin.”
Genni practices her ABC’s as I shovel stalls and feed the mules at the other end of the barn. The peace is interrupted as Eleanor’s father scuttles into the barn alley an hour or so later. The man has a few tufts of white hair and cold cobalt eyes. I think he’s never forgiven me for, in the following order, loving his daughter, wooing her, and helping her to sow seed that killed her. He wouldn’t dare say so, however, as his own blood son, ten years my senior, had shamefully reversed the order of that process with his current wife.
“Patty,” he offers me a gnarled hand, the skin irregularly bleached white. I firmly shake it and offer an unreturned smile. Jacka**. “Patrick, have you considered my offer?” His offer? I pretend to struggle with a mule’s bridle for a moment while I consider what of his latest hogwash he is referring to.
“You looking to buy up a mule?” Warren glares at me with unhooded hatred.
“No, Emily. Will you take Emily as your hired girl to raise Genni?” Ah, that offer. Emily, Eleanor’s crotchety younger sister with the emotional condition of a widow thrice her age. She has the face of a porcelain doll but a heart not worth a spit.
“I’m still thinking on that, Warren.” His face contorts as if he’d sucked on a lemon.
“Y’er girl’s gonna end up a damn negro-lovin’ mule driver, ‘less she get a woman’s hand in her life!” I want to strike him. For the thousandth time, I want to raise my boot to his face and strike his mouth full of figurative and physical rot. But I learned to hold my temper with Warren Ambrose a long while ago, and this time proves no different.
“I’ll keep it in consideration.” He sputters a few further exclamations, then scuttles back out of the barn alley the way he’d come. I spit in his direction, then spin around to return to my work and steal a glimpse of Sara squatting next to Genni. I watch the two slight figures handle the cutouts and exchange female pleasantries. Negro-lovin’ mule driver. I spit again in his direction. Ambrose and the other men in town branded me just that the day his daughter died. Though they’d had these thoughts years before, Eleanor had precluded their utterance; they’d put up with me to protect her honor. But as far as they’re concerned, Genni is a mutt, and I am the unholy mule driver. As I return my gaze to Genni and Sarah, though, it hardly matters, and I can hardly believe that, with graceful Sara, Genni could become anything short of a lady, wife, and mother.
Sara is as close to a mother as Genni has ever had. She was Eleanor’s midwife, the one who made the choice to save Genni rather than prolong Eleanor’s ill-fated existence for our selfishness. Sara held Eleanor’s head up to see the baby and I the last moments of her life. She wiped the sweat from her cheeks and held a cool cloth to her neck.
I hated Sara for a long time after my wife’s death. But after the suffocating sadness lifted from my chest, I realized that the clothes Genni wore, that the braids in her hair and the shoes on her feet had, since her debut in this world, been the product of Sara’s toiling fingers. And it took me a year or so to accept that maybe Sara had been a greater gift from the Lord than Eleanor herself. That maybe the hatred I felt in my heart wasn’t really any brand of disdain, but a sore gratefulness for the woman who sustained my offspring when I was too weak to do so. And last spring I accepted that, in fact, laced in that sore gratefulness were tones of adoration, and in the heated passion of summer I’d accepted the threads of lust in my perception of Sara. And now, in the crispness of autumn, I’ve accepted the wholesale wonder I feel for her.
We drift into the tack room in an unspoken agreement. And just as our bodies meld together, her full purple lips flitting across my neck, she pulls away to leave, regret brimming in her eyes. But we both know that the barrier to our love is as great as the realm that once separated Eleanor and I. Warren is outside, hollering for her. She and his other slaves.