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The young man swung his little girl up into the air, her laughter bubbling lightly. The mans wife embracing them as they sat beneath a young cherry tree enjoying a perfect evening. I blink and the memory is gone, replaced by the current image of my father trudging through the mud of several days rain returning from mother’s grave of five years. Thunder rumbles across the sky, a giants belly grumbling for food. I can already tell by the way he walks that he’s in an unstable mood. He pushes Rosie, the slave who tended to me since mother died, to the muddied turf. Lightning flashes illuminating their silhouettes under the shadow of the ranch house. The fear in her eyes matches that of an animal which sees its death in a predator closing in. Our escape will have to be tonight.
“Stop father! Stop,” my words are snatched away by the growing wind with greedy fingers. The heavens crack wide open and the rain turns even more rogue than it has been for the past few days. Through blinding sheets of rain I remember mama. She loved the slaves as she did me. She loved our slaves like family always treating them like equals. At least she would try. I remember the loud fights momma and papa would have on cool summer evenings about the right treatment of slaves. Papa was pressured by the other men at town gatherings and auctions to show discipline and rule with a manly fist. That was the only thing they ever disagreed on. Then she caught the fever from a visit to the slaves quarters and passed away. Not only did father’s fist harden but his heart did also. He hated his slaves. Over the years he would increasingly beat them and drink strong liquor with other hardened men. In his stupor sometimes he would set on me. I remind him too much of mama so I suppose that’s why he hits me too. The same face, the same love for slaves.
“Stop!” I tug on his drenched sleeve, my long hair plastered across my face, and my dress clinging to my slender frame. He glances at me and falters, a look of hope alight on his face.
“Mary...” he whispers, and then the look of one pain too many re-enters his eyes and he roars, “You! You're just like her!” and threw me to the ground beside Rosie. “You love them more than you love me,” his voice cracks, “Your own father beneath a slave!” He raises his fist to Rosie and I block him from striking her. He spits on me and stomps off through the mud, cursing.
Why me? why did God have to take mama away? Why did father have to go crazy with the weight of his grief? I weep as I realize that I will never truly receive the love I once did from him. I had hoped, but it was in vain.
“Its alright ma’am that man may break out bodies but he can never break our souls.” Rosie's motherly voice is soft but strong with age, one that I’ve come to appreciate on many a lonely painful night. A blow is dealt to my heart as I look at her. My own Father did this to her...
“Come, we must go. I have a satchel of food and supplies ready for us in the ranch house at the servants quarters,” I said, voice cracking. I will never let this happen to her ever again. She’s taken care of me when I needed it most, now it’s my turn to repay the favor. I look out through the rain: no longer a stinging downpour, at my home of seventeen years. Rolling fields, and my gnarled favorite cherry tree planted at my birth, now stand in the shadow of my fathers might. Trees cannot grow in shadow so I must search for a light. Rosie and I enter the small but expensive door to the servants quarters. I grab the satchel and swing around to see my father standing in the door with a wine glass and half empty decanter in his hands. His slightly numbed senses take in the scene of me and Rosie standing frozen in fear over a bulging sack. He roars and starts towards us crashing through the room like a beast through a forest.
Away from my home, away from my mother, cold and stiff in the ground, and away from my father hot on our trail with all of his demons following behind. Sprinting past my cherry tree I notice a thrush sitting still on the topmost branch, silent. I remember Rosie telling me as a child that birds sang from their souls to the heavens to make the world beautiful. She called it soul singing and told me they remind us that everything has a song to sing. Rushing through the rolling fields of cotton that line our valley I envision my home as the thrush's nest, rolling cotton as the downy feathers and the hills the branches supporting it. Is it time for me to fly away? We approach the old wooden bridge that spans Russett River and the way off our land. A sagging sight awaits us as we reach the crest of the last small hill. The old wooden bridge is swallowed up by the swollen river, only the ends are above the water. The wooden fibers sagging into the open maw of a hungry turret, we hesitate.
We hear my father before we see him. “Coria you ungrateful little girl why would you ever want to leave your old papa,” His words slur together and he stumbles slightly as he runs at us, a glaze to his eyes.
“Come on Coria!” It’s Rosie beckoning me in the middlee of the bridge, water up to her knees. “He’s past you savin him, only he can fix himself.” I rush into her arms and the bridge sags even more. The current biting at our clothes trying to drag us off and into its hungry clutches. I hear Rosie praying,
“Dear lord please let us pass unharmed,” as we head through the cold water, now up to our waists. The bridge lurches and I glance behind me, its father, he is here. We rush forward caution thrown into the wind, and make it to the other side. Rosie gasps and I spin around,
“Father!” the cry escapes my lips unbidden. He stands in the water on the center of the bridge clinging onto the glass decanter: now empty. I remember in a flash a memory laying dormant in my mind. I reach for it and tear away the layers of filth and damaged scar tissue to reveal a memory of a laughing papa.
On this bridge seven years ago he held me carefully in his arms and told me he’d love me forever. That was before too much pain fell on his shoulders for his spirit to support, his soul song died with mama. A muted groan escapes from the bridge as it folds in on itself, like that of a dying animal, the jaws encompassing my father. Time seems to bend and twist around the bridge an expression of contemplation on its ageless face, of weather to stay still or rush away. Time decides to stay still and everything slows down as if moving underwater. The world turns dark and the sounds become muffled as I lock eyes with him. I see papa’s familiar anger flash in his eyes. He curses the bridge as it pushes him under the muddy water and sinks away. But not before I catch a glimpse of his old self, all of the parts that loved me, when the evil was crushed out of his body, and the light could shine out.
One single tear escapes from my eye as I gaze at what was my family. I realize now that this is the only way that he cannot hurt another soul, black or white. He had to meet his maker and his demons and choose between the two. As his body disappears it seems a great weight lifted off of my shoulders and disappears with him. I jerk with the realization that I still have Rosie and the others. The rain stops and the sun pokes out of what is left of the angry thunderheads.
“How are we going to get back to the ranch house Rosie?” I ask.
“By God’s will child. By God’s will.”
A thrush alights in a nearby tree with a cherry blossom in its beak. I smile as it tucks the flower into its nest and begins to sing its soul song again.