Mom Cely's Wonderful Luck
MOM CELY is a very old woman, — so old that she cannot estimate her age exactly, but she can distinctly remember hearing the big cannon fired when Christopher Columbus first came to this country. The white folks had but one cannon at that time, Mom Cely says, and it burst in honor of the great navigator’s arrival, and the noise of it so scared the Indians that they never came back from beyond the Mississippi, — except “a scatterin’ few.” If inquired of concerning George Washington, Mom Cely truthfully acknowledges that she never saw him, though she was “ raised ” in Virginia; but site affirms that she has heard of him many a time, when he was no more than a baby, and she herself “ jest about growed.” “ He hacked his paw’s cherry-tree, I mind,” she comments; “ an’ hukkom dee let de chile meddle wid a hatchet, I ’d lak ter know ? S’posin’ he ’d ha’ chopped his feet, an’ died o’ lockjaw spasms, whey’d ha’ been dis country den ? ”
The contemporaries of Christopher Columbus and George Washington being dead and gone, nobody undertakes to dispute Mom Cely’s chronology ; and indeed her appearance is convincingly suggestive of a fabulous age, so small, so black, so wizened is she, with a little tuft of snow-white hair standing out over each temple from under the many-colored bandana that binds her brows.
Now, though Mom Cely prides herself on the distinction conferred by the weight of years, she makes it her boast that she is “as spry as any gal o’ sixteen, an’ beholden to nobody for a livin’.” But this is one of her innocent delusions. She lives, rent free, in a little cabin that might clatter about her ears any windy night, did not “ Mars Romney ” keep it in repair; but “Mars Romney,” Cely argues, is bound to do as much, seeing that his “ paw ” was a gentleman, “ fustclass, wid nary stingy bone in him.” Besides, for every favor that “ Mars Romney ” or “Miss Ellen” confers, Cely makes scrupulous return, — sometimes two or three eggs, sometimes a dried gourd, or a bunch of sassafras root, or a string of red peppers.
Cely’s cabin is on the edge of a wood, in the heart of which bubbles a. spring of clear cold water ; just across the road is a cornfield, where she may watch the crows and the blue jays taking their pickings. Her little domain is inclosed by a wattled fence, within which she cultivates a “garden patch.” and raises a few chickens. Sunflowers towering rank, with prince’s - feathers and “ old maids,” make a riot of gaudy color about her door, and behind the house a “ martin-pole ” dangles four gourds aloft, as security against the depredating hawk. Nevertheless, Mom Cely has no great luck with chickens ; if she raises enough for her own eating, and sells a dozen or so in the course of the year, she thinks she does well. But Cely does not know what it is to lack, for her home is on “ Mars Romney’s ” land, and “ Mars Romney’s ” own house is within so easy reach that she receives almost daily attentions in the way of buttermilk and “risen” bread from ‘ Miss Ellen,” and all the “ medicine ” she requires from “ Mars Romney.” And she requires a good deal; for Cely’s extraordinary doses are compounded by herself from roots and “ yarbs,” which, to be rendered efficacious, need to be steeped in a potent fluid known as “ honest John.” “ Whiskey straight ” Mom Cely professes to abhor as a draught of the devil, but “ whiskey doctored ” into abnormal nauseousness is one of the necessaries of life to this aged crone.
The old woman has outlived all her children, but she has grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the town, five miles distant. These, however, are so given over to the extravagance of picnics and the pomps and vanities of “ s’ciety funerals ” that they have neither time nor means to expend upon the lone old grandam in the country, who holds them all in contempt for a degenerate progeny.
Yet when Zubah Danell, Mom Cely’s youngest granddaughter, died, two summers ago, Mom Cely begged a black veil of “ Miss Ellen ” and borrowed the buggy from “ Mars Romney " to attend the “ burial,” to use her homely word.
It was a very imposing affair ; for, as Zubah had long been prominent in the Zion Travelers, it was decided by unanimous vote that the deceased sister should be “ put away with all pomp and circumstance.” The entire membership turned out, in full regalia: the women in white, with purple capes and black sashes ; the men in black, with crimson baldrics and white rosettes. They paraded a gorgeous banner of green and gold, taking the longest route to the graveyard, and shouting The Road to Zion all the way.
Mom Cely was deeply impressed by this display. “ I reckon dee ain’t been nothin’ ter beat hit, not sence de big cannon wuz busted fur Mist’ Christ’pher Columbus,” she said.
But when Zubah Danell’s estate was inquired into, it was found that there was no inheritance for her one child, an imbecile boy of twelve years, whom all the uncles, aunts, and cousins, upon one pretext or another, disclaimed. Mom Cely, therefore, was moved to assume the charge of Bostro the undesired, an arrangement joyfully applauded by Bostro’s kinsfolk, who were thus rid of an unprofitable burden.
With the adoption of Bostro Mom Cely’s trouble began. Not that the boy was to blame; be was a gentle, doglike, submissive creature, perfectly competent to do as he was bid; but it was many a year since Mom Cely had had the care of a family, and providing for two was a problem that bewildered her judgment. With a pathetic sense of the responsibility she had assumed, she was bent upon doing her duty by Bostro to the utmost of her ability, and she switched him faithfully every day, for Conscience’ sake, being a devout believer in King Solomon’s code; but she made amends for these chastisements by indulging the imbecile inordinately in the two things that gave him supreme delight, dainties to eat and finery to wear. Mom Cely was betrayed into this folly by a perverted sense of justice. She had a shrewd suspicion that the Zion Travelers had absorbed much of Zubah’s savings that ought to have come to Zubah’s child. “An’who gwan mek hit up ter de po’ lack-wit, of I don’t ? ” she argued.
Therefore, for Bostro’s sake, Cely opened an account with the " sto’-man ” at the cross-roads, the result of which was an accumulation of empty tin cans at her back door, and an array of brass jewelry, gaudy handkerchiefs, and gorgeous neckties adorning her cabin walls when not adorning Bostro. Mom Cely kept a tally of these purchases by means of a string, in which she tied commemorative knots. Her conscience was very easy upon the subject, because, for one reason, the day of reckoning was a long way off, and for another, the “ sto’-man ” had been so obligingly and ingratiatingly ready to credit her. Astute “ sto’man,” who knew very well that “ Mars Romney ” would help old Cely out in any emergency of debt. But when the account of six months’ standing was presented at New Year’s, Cely was appalled at the amount.
“ Ten dollars ? Naw, suh ! ” she quavered shrilly. “You must be jokin’. Mars Romney hisse’f don’t tote mo’n dat at a time. You mought sell me out fur all I ’m wuth, an’ hit won’t fetch no ten dollars. You is made a mistake, sholy.”
The “ sto’-man,” being possessed ot a fund of humor and a surplus of leisure, undertook to make the matter clear to Cely’s comprehension, but he had to proceed upon a system of her own devising. A small notch was cut in a smooth white stick for every dime she owed, and a large notch when the dimes amounted to a dollar ; for every five dollars a string was tied in the fifth big notch, Cely keeping tally by the knots in her bit of twine : thus, when two strings were tied about the stick, the ten dollars were seen to be an indisputable fact.
“ Name o’ glory, how I gwan pay hit all?” she exclaimed, in despair.
“Oh. you’ll pay it. little by little,” the “ sto’-man ” declared. If she did not, “ Mars Romney ” would, he knew.
“You ’ll ha’ ter gi’ me time, den,” sighed Cely.
“ Well, you c’n take time,” the complaisant “sto’-man” told her. “Ain’t you got chickens to sell, or eggs, or any such truck ? ”
“ I’m gwan see,” Cely answered. She went home in great perturbation. “ Wish’t I’d ha’ kep’ offen dat crossroads,” she bemoaned herself. “ Mo’ you gits, mo’ you wants. I is pampered dat boy too much, an’ dat’s a fac’. I got ter tek down his stomach an’ his pride.”
So, acting from a sense of duty, she called up Bostro, and forthwith administered a switching, not for any special delinquency, but for “seasoning.” Then she sat down in her chimney corner to “ study ” on the situation.
Now “ Miss Ellen ” had given her two silver dollars at Christmas to buy herself a Sunday dress, which “ Miss Ellen ” had promised to make or to have made ; but Cely, mindful of her indebtedness while yet she was ignorant of the amount she owed, had thought to settle her account at the “ sto’ ” with “ Miss Ellen’s ” gift and her own small savings of a dollar and a half, and yet leave “ two bits ” (twenty-five cents) for the purchase of a head handkerchief. But the head handkerchief was now impossible, and all the money she possessed had gone to reduce her debt to six dollars and a half. “ Which hit mought as well ha’ stayed at ten, for all I kin pay,” Cely grumbled despondently. “ An’ de sto’-man, he ain’t noways minded ter tek back dem battered chains an’ rings an’ breas’pins, an’ dem empty cans what dis ole fool is gorged Bostro wid. An’ as ter de pig — Naw, suh! I ain’t gwan let loose my holt on dat pig whey Mars Romney gi’ me fur Christmas, not ter pay no ole beguilin’ cross-roads sto’-man, — not ef I nuver pays him ! Howsomedever, I gwan do my bes’, ’cause s’posin’ Mars Romney wuz ter die, de law mought git dat pig away from me.”
“ Mars Romney ” was ill at the time, and for this reason Cely was unwilling to take her trouble to “ Miss Ellen ; ” moreover, she was ashamed to confess her extravagance. Therefore she set her wits to work to solve for herself the problem how to pay the “ sto’-man.”
In her youth Mom Cely had acquired some useful handicrafts, such as weaving baskets and mats. Her fingers had lost their suppleness long ago, but her knowledge remained, and she determined to teach Bostro. It would he easy enough to sell such wares, if once Bostro could learn to “lay two and slip one,” and to “fasten off the third round.” Then, in the spring she might have better luck with her chickens, and make a little money by the sale of eggs and broilers. From season to season Cely was always hoping for better luck with her chickens, and always being disappointed. She had not that knack with poultry which seems to be a kind of instinct with most old women of her race, and eggs and broilers were always scarce with her. Scarcer than ever they threatened to be now, with the insatiate Bostro for a consumer. But Cely had resolved to restrict Bostro’s rations.
Bostro, though deficient in intelligence, had the imitative faculty largely developed, and by dint of plodding effort he mastered, after a fashion, the art of weaving baskets and mats, by the sale of which, and fagots of kindling-wood, the debt was gradually reduced, until, at the beginning of spring, the “ sto’-man’s ” claim amounted to no more than two dollars and thirty cents. Yet the debt was a nightmare to Cely still, since Bostro had now supplied the neighborhood with baskets and mats, and the demand for kindling had fallen off with the departure of winter. Her chickens were not doing well, not oven as well as usual, for Bostro surreptitiously appropriated many eggs. But the pig had grown to noble proportions, and Cely was more averse than ever to sacrifice him for debt ; wherefore she devoted her attention to a watermelon patch. “ An’ when dee gits ripe,” said she to Bostro, “ le’ me ketch you swipin’ into one on ’em. Hit 'll mek you mighty sick,” she prophesied grimly. She never missed the eggs that Bostro made his own, but it was to be hoped that a watermelon might be protected by its dimensions.
All winter Cely had borne her anxiety in secret, for, as “ Mars Romney’s ” illness had been prolonged, it was no time to be troubling “ Miss Ellen.” However, in the spring there came a ready sympathizer. This was Elsie Bruce, “ Miss Ellen’s ” pretty young niece, who made a visit to the old plantation.
Elsie Bruce is not the kind of girl to slight the acquaintance of an old woman who has heard the bursting of the cannon that welcomed Christopher Columbus to these shores, and who discourses familiarly of the babyhood of George Washington. She became a daily visitor to the little cabin between the wood and the cornfield, finding there an unfailing source of amusement. For Mom Cely’s memory is stored with curious lore derived from her African ancestry. She knows signs and wonders; she knows, too, strange tales of bygone days, stories of family feuds, of romantic courtships, of mysterious visits and unaccountable disappearances. It was Elsie’s delight to make the old woman talk ; and as Mom Cely is " garrulously given,” it came to pass that she was led, almost unawares, to speak of her own experiences, and to reveal her indebtedness to the “ sto’man " and her struggles to pay " the uttermost farthing.”
“ But why.” Elsie asked, “ why did n’t you state the case to uncle Romney and aunt Ellen ? I’m sure they would have helped you out.”
Mom Cely drew herself up superbly. “ I is s’prised at you, chile! ” said she, with indignant rebuke. “What you tek me fur ? A ole Faginny-raised 'oman ter go pester my white folks wid my consarns, an’ dee in trouble wid sickness ? ”
“ Why, no, surely,” Elsie made haste to appease her, “ not with the raising you’ve had, Mom Cely.”
The old woman bridled with pride and pleasure. “ Tubbe sho’, honey, tnbbe sho’,” she assented graciously. “ I is come o’ de fust fam’lies in de ole State, an’ I don’t furgit my raisin’, if I is sot down here in Alabama, ’mong a lot o’ free niggers, full o’ sass an’ uppishness. An’ how de doctor say Mars Romney is dis day, I pray ?” she inquired, with an air of ceremony, ostentatiously mindful of her best manners.
“ Oh, he is all right again ; nothing to do now but ‘ eat, drink, and be merry,’ so Dr. Jones says.”
“Well, I bless de Lawd ! Ef Mars Romney had ha’ died, I mek sho’ de law mought ha’ tuk my pig fur dat debt. As hit is, I is puttin’ my trus’ in my watermillion patch, an’ countin’ ter clear myse’f by de Fo’th o’ July, anyhow.”
“ How much do you owe now ? ” Elsie asked.
“ Well, le’ me see,” grunted Mom Cely, as she reached behind the door for her tally-string. “Nigh ez I kin mek out, hit ’s ’bout two dollars an’ — an’ " — frowningly considering the manifold knots — “ fifteen cents. Yaas, dat’s 'bout hit. I paid him a dime an’ a nickel las’ Sat’day.”
Elsie, though she sympathized, had no mind to mar this unique little drama by an inconsiderate liberality ; she preferred to help it on to a legitimate dénoûment. “ Mom Cely,” she said, thrusting a quarter-dollar into the old woman’s hands, “ let this help you out. I must have some eggs, for to-morrow will be Easter Sunday, you know, and I ” —
The shriveled fingers closed over the silver with a convulsive clutch. “ Lawd love de chile ! Nairy a aigg! Bless yo’ soul, no, honey.” (But she held on to the money.) “ ’Pears lak I has de wuss luck, an’ de merest of it. Dat hukkom I planted watermillions so plencheous. Don’t seem ter be no profit fur Cely in hen’s flesh — which hit puts me in mind,” she interrupted herself, rising, “dat crazy ole Speckle whey I sot on thutteen aiggs fur luck in de odd number, she ain’t made out ter hatch but fo’, an’ I done tired waitin’ on her fur de yether nine. She ’ll ha’ ter come off. Whey dat boy, I won’er ? Oh — Bos-tro ! ” she called, as she went toddling across the yard to the little hen-house built of rails, whither Elsie followed.
Old Speckle sat upon her nest in the far corner, clucking with content and importance. She uttered a remonstrant squawk when Cely grabbed her.
“ Shet up ! ” said Cely crossly. “ I got a sizable notion ter wring yo’ neck, you ole disapp’intment. But some is chicken-lucky, an’ some ain’t, an’ hit’s plain I b’longs ter de some what ain’t. I got you from Sorrowby Jones, an’ her hens don’t do so. Hukkom you ain’t hatched mo’n fo’ chickens sence day befo’ yistiddy ? Dese nine would ha’ made nine br’ilers, an’ I ’lowed ter sell de whole caboot at three dollars an’ clear me out o’ debt, wid one ter spare fur my own eatin’. But dese aiggs ain’t no good ter nobody. Hold yo’ hat here, Bostro, an’ tek ’em an’ bury ’em under de bresh-heap. Shovel jes’ ’bout a sprinkle o’ yeth atop of ’em ; dat’s all de gumption you is got,” she growled morosely, giving the boy a push. She was exasperated by the necessity of appropriating Miss Elsie’s twenty-five cents without rendering an equivalent. “ Wuz you special pretickler ’bout dem aiggs fur ter-morrer, Miss Elsie ? ”
“ I wanted to dye them for Easter eggs,” Elsie explained. “ But it is no matter ; my not having the eggs won’t keep the sun from dancing on Easter Day.”
“ Wha’ dat you say, honey ? ” Mom Cely inquired, with startled interest. “I is a mighty ole ’oman, yit I ain’t nuver hear tell o’ dat.” She stood agape with wonder, her beady eyes twinkling, the hen under her arm wriggling for release, the four chicks cheeping in her apron.
“ Why, Mom Cely, you surprise me. Never heard that the sun dances when it rises on Easter Day ? ”
“ Nuver, honey, as I stand here, a-livin’ an’ a-breathin’ de breath o’ life,” Mom Cely asseverated solemnly. “ Is you ever seed hit, Miss Elsie ? ”
“ Why, no,” answered Elsie ruefully. “ I’ve never seen the sun rise any day. I’m always so sleepy in the morning, you know.”
Mom Cely turned away, and deposited old Speckle and the chicks in the little coop of reeds awaiting them under the plum-tree. Elsie thought the old woman was offended ; but when the hen was secured in her new abode, Cely rose up, and announced with great deliberation :
“ Tell you what. Miss Elsie, I ain’t one o’ de kind dat is hard o’ belief ; an’ dis you tell me mought be true ’bout de sun on Easter Day. Hit sounds natchul, ’cause de Scripcher tells how Joshuway, he commanded an’ de sun stood still, an’ I minds how de cattle bows down an’ groans at midnight on Christmas Eve. I ain’t seed hit myse’f, but I is seed dem whey have: an’ ef de Lawd spares me ontel another dawn, I’m gwan be up ter-morrer an’ watch how dat sun behave.”
“ And then you come and tell me,’said Elsie.
“ Sho’ly I will, honey ; sho’ly I will.”
The next morning Elsie was called downstairs before breakfast to see Mom Cely.
The old woman sat on the piazza steps, her apron gathered protuberantly into her lap. Her beadlike black eyes winked, and blinked, and rolled, and twinkled in an ecstasy of repressed excitement.
“‘Stonishment, chile, ’stonishment!” she announced, one withered hand uplifted for solemnity of emphasis.
“ Oh, then you saw the sun dance ? ” cried Elsie, in glee.
“Naw, honey,” Mom Cely answered, with pious resignation. “ Dat sight warn’t fur dese dim ole eyes. I wuz up betimes an’ a-watchin’ ; an’ sho’ly I mought ha’ seed him, but jes’ ez he got him ready fur de motions my back wuz turned.”
“ Oh, what a pity! ” lamented Elsie.
“ Well, I dunno, honey. De Lawd be praised. You see, chile, somethin’ s’prisin’ happened,” she hinted, with mystery.
“ What ? ”
“ Hit wuz ’most a meracle,” Cely declared. “ You see, Miss Elsie, de beas’ creation is mighty cur’us, ef we could mek out ter on’erstand ’em. Dee knows signs an’ wonders a heap mo’n we do. De Lawd, he made ’em dat-a-way. Now dis what come ter pass wid me, a-watchin’ fur de sun dis inawnin’. I wuz standin’ befront o’ de bresh-heap, lookin’ tow’ds de east, as de light wuz a-streakin’, when I hear somethin’ ahind me go ‘cheep! cheep! cheep! ’ Well, hit made me hop, honey, ’cause I thought sho’ I wuz tricked by Satan; an’ I turned me round, an’ lo an’ beholes! de sunlight jest flittered on a little pile o’ dead leaves, an’ hit wuz a-movin’, an’ a-movin’, an’ a-movin’. Fac’ ! ”
She paused a moment to gloat on Elsie’s big eyes and suspended jaw.
“ ’Member dem nine aiggs, Miss Elsie ? ”
“ Oh ! Oh ! Oh ! ” Elsie gasped ; and Cely began to laugh, but with a certain sober restraint.
“ Dem s’prisin’ aiggs, dee is chickens dis mawnin’,” Cely announced, and opened her apron to display the brood. “ Goodness ! ” ejaculated Elsie.
“ You see, chile, Bostro, he’s a mighty ’bejient sort o’ boy. Ef I ’d ha’ told him p’intedly ter heap on de yeth, lak hit ought ter lie in common wid discyarded aiggs, we’d nuver heard no mo’ o’ dese chickens. But I talked spiteful and contrariwise, I was dat fretted. I told him, scornful, jest ter sprinkle ; an’ he jes’ did no mo’n sprinkle, so’s ter keep ’em warm, yet not smodder ’em; an’ dat minute de sun struck ’em dee cheeped. Dat sun must ha’ danced on dese aiggs, Miss Elsie, an’ dese ain t no common chickens.”
“ No, indeed ! ” Elsie assented warmly. “ I hope you may raise them all.”
“ Naw, chile,” said Cely soberly. “ I ain’t gwan pizen my luck wid no seek rcsk. You gwan buy dese chickens.”
“ But,” objected Elsie, “these are not broilers yet.”
“ What bender de gwan be br’ilers ? Feed ’em, an’ dee ’ll grow.”
“ That is true,” Elsie admitted, remembering Mom Cely’s harassment of debt. “ What do you ask for them, Mom Cely ? ”
“ Br’ilers is two hits apiece,” answered Cely promptly. “ But you done gi’ me one two bits yistiddy.”
“ It is dealing in futures,” said Elsie, opening her purse, “ and awfully extravagant of me ; but here are two dollars ; and now you can pay the store-man, and have ten cents left for yourself.”
“ Naw, suh ! ” exclaimed Cely, as she clutched the money. “ Dis is a Sunday trade, an’ none o’ dis don’t go ter no ole cross-roads sto’-man, not ef I nuver pays hit. I gwan rest my trus’ in de watermillion patch ontel de Fo’th o’ July.
Leastwise, Mars Romney, he is done up an well ag’in, an’ he gwan be my security beginst de law. I is done harried my soul too much ’bout dat ole sto’-man, anyhow. Dis here is Sunday money, an’ he ain’t gwan teth hit.”
“What will you do with it, then, Mom Cely ? Keep it for luck ? ”
“ Well, I tell you, chile,” Cely explained condescendingly. I ’m gwan pacify my long desires. I’m gwan git myse’f tooken, so ’s I kin hang over my fireplace, onto de chimbley.”
“ What ? Oh, you mean your photograph ? ”
“ Dat’s hit, honey, — my phodygrab.”
Elizabeth W. Bellamy.