My legs and feet were aching sore from racing to fetch Judge. My arms threatened to fall off on account of holding Leon’s weight for so long. Emptiness of thought filled my head. My heart was numb, exhausted from tears, and then bathed in love. And yet I could not sleep.
Long before the sun broke next morning I was awake upon my pillow. Contentment was wrapped around me with the smell of Leon’s body mixed with mine among my linens and the memory of his kiss upon my lips. Abbie’s words hung over the moment the way my mother hovered over her grave in my dream. It was my mother, however, wrested me from my sleep as she had many nights before.
Notions I had once thought laid to rest stirred into motion. My head was filled once more with the memories of my mother from that dream and with the mystery of the words she’d asked me to find. The truth of how she died had lain hidden in my mind until the story of Alice’s fire set it free. Times I had held a child’s belief she was not really dead, and one day I would find her again. Memories belonging to youth are fleeting things, threatened by times and events. Excitement of moving pictures and hangings now preserved, my anxious mind wandered about.
And so it was on that morning, I rose early, and went to finish my worried thoughts in the company of my looking glass. My mother’s face in my reflection held endless moments of fascination. It was a great mystery to me how I’d come to look like her, but so seemed the fortunes of children. I must have been tiny to once fit in her womb. What a sight she must have been, carrying me that way, like the round lady I saw before Mr. Andruss rode up in his motor wagon. She smiled at my confusion.
Strange to see a smile on that face, and I took the moment to feel its warmth. My hands held my womb trying to feel what I knew could not be. Leon’s seed would not grow, and yet I smiled. In my smile, in my mother’s smile, there was something made me want to smile the more. I’d spent two years immune to the smiles I saw in the Velvet Inn’s bar. Leon and then Alice had warmed me with their smiles, however on this morning, it was my own smile brought me warmth. Laughter came from my voice, and with it came another piece of my missing life.
I could not have been more than three years of age, yet I remembered plain as my face. Walter, for his hard ways, likely already missed it in those years, but for me, my mother showed her smile. She was sat at her piano playing. The same feeling pulled at me as when I first walked in the doors of the Velvet Inn to hear Willie play. I began to turn around and around to her music, laughing as I turned, and when she heard, she stopped playing and smiled at me. “No, Mama, don’t stop!” I ran to put her fingers back on her piano keys again.
My reflection in my boudoir stopped smiling. She looked concern deep into my eyes. Noises had come from downstairs. I knew there was something amiss beyond the unrestfulness had drawn me from my bed.
I got up from the stool in my boudoir, wrapped a robe around my shoulders, and walked slowly, quietly to the stairway. A woman sat alone in darkness below me on a stool at the end of the bar. Her image stopped me on the stair. For a moment, it was my mother, followed me from the mirror, a sight I had not seen while awake. I stared quietly at her, half in a dream. I could sense it was really Abbie, though no words were said, and my thoughts shifted to what had brought the both of us from our sleep in the darkness before dawn.
A sound of a single horse shifting on its feet outside on the street crept in to fall upon my ear. Abbie turned her head to look, not at the sound, but at me on the stair. The uneasy feeling had drawn me from my boudoir grew heavy in my chest. I raced on bare feet down the final steps, past Abbie’s silent visage, and out onto the street.
Leon stood loosing the reins of a horse from the hitching post. A pack was tied to its rump. Even in the changing sky, he was near invisible. I walked slowly to where I was close enough to see him and stopped. His face was filled with the darkness of the morning. I struggled with indecision over the sight before me.
“You’re hurt,” I said after a long wait “You ought to be restin.”
“Yes, Miss Kate,” he nodded. “I rest in time.”
His pack loomed in the darkness, an ominous burden on my heart. I knew the meaning of Walter’s pack, tied behind me on Trissie’s rump on a long hot summer day two years prior. A thick lump began to form in my throat.
“What ‘d Abbie say to you, Leon!” I started back inside. “Abbie!” But Leon reached quickly and caught my hand. He let it go again as quickly, as if he’d grabbed William Andruss.
“Miss Abbie gots nothin to do with this,” he said quietly. “She up worryin on you when I lef’ is all.”
My anger at her made it impossible for me to understand. “She’s sendin you away on account of what she saw!” I raged. “She’s got no place!”
“No Miss Kate.” His eyes were bright. Frightening dark black circles hid the accustomed beautiful brown in the dim dawn. “It’s time I go now.”
“What did Abbie say to you?!” I repeated, struggling not to feel the heartache that threatened me.
“She only asks me take her horse here,” his head shook sadly. “Say it’s the leas’ she can offer.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I gots to be movin’ on, Miss Kate. See if I can’ fin’ my way up Indiana now. This ain’t no place fo’ me here. I saves all my money. I gots family up they.”
“You said I was your angel.”
Leon’s wide mouth grinned. “Is it true you’re a demon?” he asked, repeating the first words I’d ever spoken to him as best he could mimic my voice. “A angel and a demon! I reckon we a pair.” But then the smile left is face. “They ain’t nothin but trouble me stayin here.”
“You can’t just leave,” I pleaded.
“I shoulda lef’ a long time ago. I was fixin to leave befo’, but then you come. It don’t take much to observe a thing. You asks yo’self, when you first here, why I stay on with no friends or family. Already then I stayin on cuz of you.”
“And now you’re leavin on account of me?” It was growing difficult to restrain my tears.
“You was right askin. I got no friends round here, or no family neither. Some folks I know work up Les Clochers up no’theast…” he paused a long time. I could hear the thumping of my heart in my chest. “Only place for nigger folks round here is at that Hangin Tree. I reckon I done swung they once. Twice prob’ly more ‘n a man called to do.”
“Take me with you then,” I begged.
“Where I takes you? Ain’t no such place a angel and a demon both call home.”
I stared desperately into Leon’s eyes. He was right. I knew he was. Deep beneath my feelings, I understood for the first time: Abbie’s brothel was a strange place caught between changing times, the only place Leon and I could ever have met. Alice and Judge had both said I didn’t belong there, and I could see that moment Leon didn’t belong either. I’d been so quick to anger at Abbie, I could never see past her partiality to witness the protection she was offering.
“I never forget you. Miss Kate. Never while I see the mornin.”
I wanted to go with him. But somewhere up in Indiana, Leon was headed for a world I would no more fit into than he fit mine. Realization pulled the bones right out of my body, slow and painful. My knees began to shake like a meadow grass under the weight of a fat bumblebee.
“You weren’t gonna to tell me,” I cried.
“No. Bes’ I jus’ go quiet,” he said softly.
“How you figure that’s best?”
“If you don’t come after me, my las’ memory with you be the bes’ one I ever hope fo’. Now you come, give me tears in its place.”
“I cry ‘em the same, whether you see ‘em or not,” I snapped.
“Tha’s true, I reckon.” Leon glanced up past me at the Eastern sky. “I bes’ be up Les Clochers ‘fo the sun get full up…
Even on a dark empty street, he wouldn’t dare touch me with public affection. I could see the longing in his eyes as the blue seeping onto the horizon finally crept a little color to his skin. He put a foot in a stirrup and swung up into his saddle. One last look at his angel was all I was afforded. He slapped the reins and rode off, never looking back.
They say you can’t lay with a man and still be his friend. I expect that’s more true if his skin is the wrong color. I watched him, still trembling, until his horse disappeared around the bend toward the far end of town. The tears rolling on my cheeks carried down the memories of the events once brought me to Leon, and the ones drove him away. Anger filled me toward a world set a man against the color of his own skin.
Confined in a back room, unwelcome to dine in company, forbidden to bathe in facilities, Leon had been an animal more than a man in that world. He was a man though. He was a big man. It wasn’t his height that made him so big, but the pure strength of him, and a man’s real strength is in his heart.
A part of my heart rode off with him down the road through Willow Bend that morning. I knew then I was destined to follow it one day. Leon had never spoken of Les Clochers before. What else lay beyond that bend was a great mystery, a strange land where horseless carriages came from.
Abbie had come from the Inn at the sound of his horse and she was stood by my side. I managed to tear my gaze away to look at her, my anger and my tears still painted on my face.
“I’m truly sorry, Kate,” she said, lifting her skirt to wipe my eyes.
I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came from the hollow ache where my voice was supposed to be. I’d wanted to believe Abbie was to blame before Leon set me straight. How I wished it could be that simple once more. She put a comforting arm around me, and led me back inside.
© 2013 Anne Schilde