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Excerpt from novel, The Ebony Tree by Maxine Thompson


As Jewel drew near the house set twenty feet off the sidewalk, she hesitated. Drawn venetian blinds with a tired yellow hue gave the dilapidated house a vacant look. Jewel felt a slight trembling inside of her, but she took it to be her nerves. She watched the day darken and could have sworn she was walking through a cemetery at midnight Although everyone whispered behind her back, calling Miss Mamie ''The Butcher,'' the number of notes which had passed surreptitiously between hands, but which directed one's path to this dark house, could not be counted over the years. Miss Mamie was rumored to be related to the Seven Sisters in New Orleans. She was also said to be a root woman, conjurer, number lady, and abortionist. The latter two claims were the most established. Not only did Miss Mamie pay promptly when one hit the number, she also sent away many relieved customers who left her door in a much lighter condition than when they first arrived. Miss Mamie led Jewel back into the kitchen, a dim dank room, reeking of camphor and sulfur. A white enamel table, with folded-down sides, stood in the middle of the room.

''Climb up.'' As she examined Jewel, Miss Mamie's face froze into a waxen mold. Her eyebrows, slanted in consternation, looked like furry black caterpillars. Yet her eyelids were shutters over her protruding eyeballs

''Pull your dress down,'' Miss Mamie finally said. Jewel eased her dress down, wondering what the next step would be.

''Why'd you wait so late?''

''What?'' Jewel thought she'd heard wrong. What was Miss Mamie talking about? Was it too late to do it today? It wasn't sundown yet.


''You're too far gone.''

''What do you mean? I only missed two months.''

''Well, looking at your life line on your stomach, I'd say you're about four months along.''

''I can't be.''

''It happens like that sometimes. You have a period when you're actually pregnant. . . .Did you take the nutmeg ball or the quinine?''

''Yes, I did.'' ''It didn't bring you down?''

Jewel's stomach plummeted through her legs to the floor. The room began to swirl.

''I wouldn't be here if it had.''

''Well, I've never lost a patient, and I don't intend to start now.''

'I'll be all right. Please - Miss Mamie. I can't wait another day.''

''Well, I don't see why you waited so long in the first place.''

Out of the glazed windows of her eyes, Jewel watched the oasis of Miss Mamie's silhouette waver, flicker, and recede. At first, a moan, similar to that of a wounded animal, escaped from what sounded like a voice in her bowels. Then, the strange noise worked its way up to her throat. The sandbags holding back the dam of tears behind Jewel's eyeballs burst open.

''You've got to help me,'' she balled in protest, like a lusty baby as it was being thrust into the world. ''I was breast-feeding, and I thought I couldn't get pregnant again.''

Miss Mamie's voice softened.

''What's the matter, honey? It's not for your husband?''

''No, that's not it.''

''Well, then don't worry about it. This baby may end up being somebody. In the spring, or early summer, I'd say, you're going to have a little papoose.''

''But is there anything I can take?''

''You done took enough stuff to kill yourself and a baby. I think this baby was just meant to be. Like I say, if the cotton root mixed with tansy didn't work or the nutmeg and quinine, you just might as well be ready to welcome your new visitor. Jewel thought of the bitter tea which had made her vomit until she couldn't retch out anything more than a white foam. All for nothing. Thoughts began to scurry around in Jewel's head. Baby Boy was not even out of diapers yet, and another one halfway here. At one time, she'd enjoyed babies, but now that she'd had a baby in diapers for the past nine years, she felt like her head would crack open. Endless visions of soiled diapers, clabbered milk bottles, and overflowing toilets (where the kids had accidentally dropped soiled diapers down the stool,) made her head feel as if it had helium in it. One day, it would surely rise up off her shoulders like a balloon let loose by one of her children and float all over the city. How come she had to be such a breeder? Her mother, Luralee, had only had two children. Even in her mother's second marriage, Jewel was unaware of any pregnancies. Saying ''Water and oil can't mix,'' Luralee swore by vaseline as a contraceptive. Well, in that case, Jewel's last two babies had been ''vaseline babies.'' Two of her mother's sisters, Mercy D and Sunday, had each been married over twenty years and never had given birth to a baby. Luralee always told Jewel that her younger sisters were barren as mules because Mama Lovey and Papa had borne them so late in life.

''They came from old seed,'' Luralee would say.

But worse than that, she could just hear her neighbors, who were known for their outspokenness.

''I saw you down at the welfare office, Jewel. Too good to speak, but you on welfare just like the rest of us.'' Low-life riffraff. Jewel couldn't help it. She would never be like those women. She hated being on public assistance which primarily consisted of food commodities. Standing in line all day had made her lose a baby about six months earlier. She recalled the miscarriage she'd had earlier that year. She'd bled enough blood to fill the Red Sea. Jewel had been so weak, she'd seen death's furry shadows lingering around the corner of her eyes. But the needs of her children had superseded the pale horse.

''Mama, we hungry.''

''Mama. When you gon' get up?''

''Mama, Baby Boy's diaper done went down the toilet and it's running all over the bathroom.''

Jewel needed an extra set of hands on her time and energy. ''Mama, can I have a glass of milk?''

''Mama, tie my shoe.'' And"Lord, Have Merciful Fathers"--worse yet--''Can my friend come over for dinner?''

A moist blanket of gray mist fogged up the streets, as Jewel stumbled home in a blind blaze of despair. Her face was clammy with the sweat of regret. What could she do? How would she make it?

Jewel felt as ancient as time. Here she was, only twenty-nine years old. Solly was too much of a goodtimer, himself, to make having five--no six--babies an easy lot. What a fool she'd been to have wanted a large family! Well, never again! If she got through this fix,--she didn't know how,--she would have to stop having babies. Sometimes, Jewel just wanted to sleep, unmolested by someone's nagging cough. She just wanted to get through an entire night without rubbing a menthol salve on one of her children's heaving chests, or cleaning up slimy vomit which looked like raw eggs. In order to break fevers, Jewel had discovered that if she took the heated iron and glided it over the top of the blanket, whoever the patient was would usually sweat out his cold and get well. Jewel never slept a complete night even when the children were well. She could never forget that the family had no health insurance. Because of this, her knees were darker than the rest of her body, since she stayed down on them so much. Even when her children were well, Jewel could always hear the specter of their sick whines behind the screen of her mind.

"Mama, I threw up."

"Mama, I got a sore throat. Look down my throat. Daddy don't know how to do it. I want you, Mama."

"Mama, I got a fever. Feel my head. I'm burning up."

Jewel never knew exactly how she made it home. She didn't come to herself until she stood in her garden. A few straggly sunflowers, which had survived late fall, weaved and bobbed their saffron heads at her. Jewel dropped down to her knees and languidly ran her hand over the gray topsoil. She pulled some up to her tongue. She just couldn't take another step. She glanced absently over at her bare rose bush, which without the swaddling of its pink, red, and yellow skirts, looked as ravished as she felt. She had planted the rose bush the first spring they had moved to Delray. Every year, the children trampled it, picked off of it, and in general, abused it. But every year, in the spring, it returned like a faithful lover.

Absently, Jewel looked up at the sky, just as a light feathery snow began to fall. Filaments of pink light streaked the evening sky. Jewel knew that she was at the nadir of her life. There was no lower ebb that she could sink to. But she was going to have to put up with this situation until she could do better. If she would have to have this baby, somehow, she'd make it. Jewel knew she'd just have to swallow her pride and go on down to the welfare office the next day, since Solly had not worked long enough to draw an unemployment check. The mortgage was due, as well as she needed coal for the furnace. Old man winter was breathing down their necks, easing up under every crack in the house, and climbing under the covers with you at night.

In the spring, she'd have her garden again. That would help. She always went to the Farmer's Market and bought bruised pears, apples, or apricots by the bushels. That which they couldn't eat, she made Mason jars of jelly or jam out of. She also bought dented can goods from the Salvage up on Jefferson. From the harvest of her garden, she usually had plenty of canned vegetables laid up for the winter.

Suddenly, an idea, as fructose as a warm syrup spreading over the waffles of her brain, invaded her mind. The upstairs of her house was empty. She could take in boarders. Why hadn't she thought of that before? The redolent scent of sarsaparilla from an old vine in her garden made her think of Mama Lovey, and the last winter of her life as she lay dying. Mama Lovey's sickroom smelled of sarsaparilla. Although Mama Lovey still loved her tea with sarsaparilla in it, she had been too weak and too sick to even hold the amber liquid down. Jewel had been with her grandmother when she drew her last breath, but sometimes, she could swear that Lovey had never died, she sensed her presence so. Jewel often dreamed of Lovey whenever she was troubled. Somehow, Lovey was a fly buzzing around in Jewel's head. Remembering Mama Lovey's last words, she said to herself, ''This too will pass.''