‘NO’M, I ain’t so well, but I’m here,’ she said, in her deep tone of voice. ‘Ain’t gittin’ ole. Done got ole.'
Nicey was very dark, and her brown skin was wrinkled like creêpe. Her eyebrows seemed to have worn off, and her eyeballs looked as if they were stained with tobacco juice. The iris was bluish and bleached.
Though she always smelled strongly of tobacco, she was very neat, and she wore now — as it was Sunday — her best dress of dark red outing flannel, with a white plaid in it. Over this a blue homespun apron reached to the tops of her heavy men’s shoes. Tightly bound around her head was a bandanna of purple, green, and blue stripes. There were rings in her ears, and pinned at her neck was her one valuable, a large solid-gold brooch.
‘Mis’ Antonia gimme my age, but I done forgot it.’
She folded her arms. The skin of her fingers was tight and shiny between the wrinkled joints, and a wide dark crescent showed at the root of each large yellow nail.
‘Got ketch pains in dis hip,’ she explained. ‘Ain’t able to wuk like I uster was. But I ’bleeged to knock erbout. I wuk to Mis’ Fultz’s offen an’ on, to git me my sumpen to eat.
‘Raise chickens? No’m. Can’t do much here wid chickens. Snakes come fum de woods an’ quirl up in de nes’ wid ’em.’
I glanced at the dark rifts in the floor.
‘ Yes’m, dee comes in yere,’ she said. ‘I wake up one night. It look like a big dog pile’ up by me in de dark. Lyin’ right yere. Col’ as ice.’ She touched her side. ‘Smelt like watermilyon. Stayed twixt midnight an’ day. All night I pray, “Jesus, you clinch dat snake’s jaws, like you clinched de lions’ jaws w’en Daniel was casted in de den.”At daybreak it slip away.’
‘Did it come back?’
‘De nex’ night. I was ready fer it — wid a pail er bilin’ water.’ Her laugh was a sudden harsh cackle.
Most of Nicey’s long life had been spent on Palmyra Island, in the Mississippi River, twenty miles below Vicksburg. There were nine plantations on the island, and she had never been to Hurricane on the other side.
‘Is I ever been off de place? Yes, mam. We all ruffugee to Alibam’ endurin’ de war. De Yanks tuk de islan’ to mek it a Freedman’s Home.’ Her tone Mas scornful. ‘Gawd knows I wa’n’t glad w’en I was sot free. Call dis freedom! I calls hit bondage.’
‘Tell me I ain’t seed hard times sence my ole Marster been daid!’
At my suggestion she lighted her pipe.
‘We had good owners,’she said, as she pulled on it. ‘Marse Henry shoe-ed you good an’ clo’esed you good. ’Lowed you chanct to mek money for yo’se’f. I was a fiel’ hank I was jes’ same ez a mule w’en I was young. I could pick my two hundered poun’ a day — an’ den some. Marster rid by de fiel’ onct. Seed me pickin’. Say, “Dat gal’s a dandy.” Dat wot he say.’
Old Nicey seldom smiled, but she could not now suppress a smile of pride.
‘No’m, I didn’t had no eddication. — Pity? Eddication don’t tek you no furder’n de grave.’
She returned to the subject that absorbed her.
‘Girls did n’t wuk like dee have to now,’ she said. ‘Eighty head er plough han’s, an’ sixty head er hoe han’s on de place. Folks wuk harder now ’an dee did in de ole times. Dee uster be ten or twelve ole people done wukked dere time out, an’ lived w’ere dee always did. Dee jes’ walk about on de place. Unk Big Harry, Unk Friday, African Jinny — she de seamster on de plantation. W’en dee constitution was broke, Marse Henry treated ’em jes’ de same. Dee was well tooken keer of.’
Her bleared eyes were wistful.
‘Do you remember young Mr. Fielding Turner, Nicey?’ I asked, having heard romantic stories of this gay youth.
‘’Member Marse Fielding? Why, he gimme my name. Berenicey.’
‘He took cold, you know, at Napoleon’s funeral, and died in Paris.’
‘Yes’m. Nuvver come back to his nated lan’. I seed him after he ceasted. He was standin’ in de back do’ of de Big House, with rays like a peafowl roun’ him. Marse Fielding sho’ was a purty man,’ she ended dreamily.
I called her back to earth. ‘Were you ever overflowed, Nicey?’
‘Is I ever been in overfloor? In '97 de skiff come in my house. I livin’ in de Lower Quarters den. — No’m, I wa’n’t scared. I thought dis side de islan’ safe. I wa’n’t insured ’bout nothin’ ’bout dat part de worl’!' She indicated Hurricane contemptuously, with a wave of her pipe. ‘ Unk Wesley, he come to my house. Ax is I afeard. I say I don’ fear de waters, bein”s de Big Man’s spared me to come dis far. He say dee ain’t gwine be no high water. W’ile we was talkin’ we heard de levee bust on de Hurricanes. Lawd Gawd, hit sounded like de tromp o’ Judgment! All de people wot livin’ out in de fiel’s put out fer de quarters. W’en dee started de water was behin’ ’em, an’ de waters got to do quarters wid ’em. I nuvver is seen such a distrus. We could hear de cows hollerin’ comin’ fum de swamp, an’ makin’ for de levee. De rats an’ de rabbits was crossin’ de fiel’s same ez horses. Befo’ night de water comin’ plum over de top de levee, white ez cotton. Nuvver did see de water bile so. Hit bile jes’ like a pot.
‘Dat w’en Kizzy’ son Ezra drownded. He try to fin’ his stock. “Dee mus’ be on high groun’ somewhar,” he say. He rid his mule, an’ de mule hoof got hung in a wire fence under water. We could see de mule splungin’. Hit th’owed him, an’t romped him to deaf befo’ our eyes.
‘Lawd, hit were de turblest time! Water comin’ in de do’. I could n’t git out to save my killin’ hawg, an’ de hencoop sailin’ by. Aunt Kizzy’ house turnt bottom up’ard, an’ look like we all gwine be los’ befo’ night. We fix a flatform on de rafters, an’ pile up on one erner. Den w’en Scald-haid Bawb come in de house in his skiff. He say Mr. Young Lovelly done sont a flat for we-all, an’ de men folks pole’ us up to de Cut-Off. Dat de highes’ groun’ on de islan’. All de folks fum de Upper Place was ’sembled dere, wid dee stock an’ plunder, an’ de levee gwine jes’ dish-erway.’ She rocked back and forth. ‘Lawd, hit was a flussful time! De young boss he row out in de river an’ ’res’ de Providence, an’ she come in de lake, smack thu de willows. Willows jes’ hangin’ wid snakes.
‘Dee tuk us off, an’ taken us down to Natchez, an’ dere we stayed ontel de waters ’suaged.
‘Unk Wesley an’ some de men folks stay on dc islan’. Us did n’t see howdee gwine mek out. Had to go to bed befo’ sundown, to save ’em fum de snakes. Dee do say a blue runner come in George Washington’s do’.
‘Unk Wesley sont us word de rats sho’ is done folks bad, cuttin’ dee clo’es an’ plunder. He say dee been fishin’ fer daid folks up dere, an’ Ezra’ body been foun’, W’en we git back, de levee kivvered wid carkis.'
‘You’ve had a hard life, Nicey,’ I said.
‘Ise toughed it out. An’ I got one thing to be thankful for. I bin had no ill name in my life. Grudgful an’ lowdown as some folks is.
‘Yes’m. I had chillen. I bin had seven chillen. De Lawd made me a breedin’ ooman. But I thankful none er my chillen had trash for dee fathers.
‘No’m. None of’em livin’. I did n’t want my chillen to live. I was workin’ too hard after Freedom, an’ did n’t want ’em to die an’ be los’. Only one of ’em live to grow up.’
She brooded gloomily.
‘Of all colors I ever is lived with, Mr. Nigger done me de mos’ dirt. My chile was cunjured!
‘B’lieve hit? I bin cunjured myse’f. I got it in milk on a Sunday evenin’. I went out de do’ to heave. Marster come an’ say, “Wot you think ail dat ooman?” Dee say, “She done been cunjured. It’s down at de do’, an’ some uv it in her bedtick.” It was Ole Dan. He some kin’ er hoodoo man. He do so much devil wuk. De whole family was cunjurers. Dee come fum ole Ferginny. Dirty devils! Dee picked it out of him dat night, an’ ef dee’d tol’ Marster, he’d ’a’ made him stan’ up, an’ de overseer shoot him, as long as powder would burn.
‘B’lieve hit? Gawd knows I know dat wot ailin’ my laig to dis day.’ She rubbed it slowly. ‘I don’ know how dee does hit, but dee does hit. Ole devils! Mos’ on ’em daid out now. Dee uster hunt groun’ puppies an’ snakes, an’ beat ’em up, but dee buys pretty much wot dee uses now. Cain’s seed.’
Her voice was deep and resentful.
‘My own chile was tricked.’
The old woman looked into the past despairingly. ‘I thought my heartstrings would bust,’ she said. ‘Yes’m. She’s daid. She was death-stricken w’en she was fust taken.'
She shook out her pipe, tapping it with a stiffened forefinger.
‘ I reckoned Gawd indained it,’ she said.
‘ I had a dream onct,’ she added slowly. ‘I don’t know whether ’t wuz Heaven I seed or not, ’t wuz such a ’remenjous place. Gawd tole me in my sleep, “Dere’s many lookin’ to see you go, an’ you’ll live to see many go.”He sez, “I nuvver is took my eyes off you sence you been in de worl’. W’en I return, I gwine marry you, an’ tek you home to live. Many snares shall hang your feet, but none shan’t hol’ you fas’.”’
I saw old Nicey last seated on the levee in the sun. I was taking lhe river boat that landed in front of the store.
I had pressed something on her palm as l shook hands with her, and I saw her, as she glanced at the shining dollar, quickly close her hand and look away, with a smile of delight on her dark face.
As the stern wheel churned the yellow water to foam, the steamer turned, and we floated out into the Lake. And I thought of her last words: ‘De worl’ belong to Gawd an’ de white folks. We under dem.'