Sinner, Let's Go Down, Down to the River to Pray
skies breed violent thunderstorms as thunder and lightening couple,
their offspring hail and lashing rain.
summer evening is no exception. Wind forces water under a bridge
and across the bank of earth almost hidden by railroad cross-beams
supporting it. A woman huddles up against a beam, her back to
the wind, while mewling sounds come from the bundle clutched to
her chest, sounds that could be kitten, puppy or baby.
clothes are caked with mud. She wears men's Levi's barely hanging
on her small frame, a threadbare cotton shirt covers her back.
She's lost the shoes miles ago, the soles worn thin, holes rubbing
blisters into her arch, she'd finally left them in a clump of
mulberry bushes. Fine coppery hair curls as it dries, a faded
blue bandanna doing its best to hold the heavy mass in place.
fine bone structure whispers, "I am not a hobo, a gypsy,
wasn't going to run away, but Richard hadn't planned on killing
her in the beginning.
When the wind slacks off she opens a canvas bag lying at her feet
and finds the apples she stole in the orchard near the mulberry
bushes, green apples that will make her sick if she eats too many.
A crust of bread is wrapped in cloth. She devours it.
spreads a quilt on her legs and out of the bundle strapped to
her chest, a small baby in a thin nightshirt is balanced on her
knees. The mewling sound is faint, and fainter still in the din
of heavy rain and thunder.
baby is small, its large eyes weakly open when its mother feels
the rag tied to its bottom, and places clean, cool hands on the
small hot chest. A fever rages in her daughter's body and Abigail
knows if she doesn't find help, Emma Rose is going to die. Her
skin feels like the skin of a potato that's been pulled out of
a fire; skin bursting with heat.
Emma Rose, Abigail pulls aside her shirt and offers her breast,
the baby, fighting against the dark things encompassing her, suckles
weakly, her small face nuzzling into the softness of her mother,
snuffling the scent of comfort, and drinking milk that lets down
in a rush, flooding her small mouth and seeping out the corner,
dribbling down a cheek the baby suckles for a few minutes,
then exhausted falls into a listless slumber.
Abigail barely shuts her eyes all night. Her mind is heavy from
lack of sleep and food, her only conscious thought to keep moving.
When dawn snakes into the sky and the mist rises up off the river,
she ties up what she has, picks up her bag and begins following
the river as it winds its way down, and she follows it to the
mouth. There are two insurmountable problems working away at her
mind the problem of her sick baby; finding a doctor means
going into a town, going into a town becoming vulnerable to Richard,
who by now is searching high and low. Secondly, getting to Maine
from North Carolina, when you're following the Tuckasegee River,
each step dragging you closer into the Great Smoky Mountains.
The only choice is to find a house, find a doctor, and find a
way to get north. North is where Jim is. She needs to get to Jim.
By mid-morning, the sun is high and hot. She wends her way through
a maze of kudzu, pine trees, oaks, and sumac, the crows and blue-jays
shouting at her, the cicadas tuning up. Weary and hot, she sits
on a rock by the fast moving Tuckasegee, the water crashing into
rocks, boulders, relentless as it follows a path down the gorge
to Lake Fontana. Abigail watches the white foaming in the middle
where huge boulders crop up and try to hold back the river. The
river fighting with the rocks pushing up from the crust of the
earth, it leaps and flies around and across, pulsating with need
baby eats again, the mother drinks from the river. She has one
apple left, the baby whimpers, her body sticky and hot. Abigail
holds her, cooing and kissing her cheeks, Emma Rose does not respond,
a slow rattling whimper reverberating from her chest.
unwraps her baby, a dark-eyed girl with deep brown eyes, that
only days ago had sparkled with a zest for living, for the hands
of her mother and the taste of her breast.
in, Abigail carefully lowers the baby's feet into the cool water.
Emma Rose does not cry. She lowers her a little more, up to her
thighs, and the baby whimpers.
watches the swift water. It tugs at Emma Rose asking to take her
from Abigail's hands, the laughing of the voices running through
the water tormenting, flashes of light and color dance past her
and everything seems to beckon for her to follow hands
grow tired, she lowers Emma Rose up to her armpits, the baby's
eyes open and she catches her mother's gaze, knowledge and compassion,
forgiveness and acceptance.
Standing up to her thighs in the river, an August sun beating
down on her head, a sick baby in her hands, a man waiting to kill
her if she crosses back into Tennessee, Abigail feels the sinking
of choices she's already made.
to go back to what? The beatings, the anger.
with the knowledge that Abigail had Jim's baby.
Her baby, dying, yes, she knows something in her daughter's soul
is tugging her farther than the river wishes to take her, that
she'll never make it to Maine. Richard's great big hand had slapped
Emma Rose out of her mother's arms and into the floor bruising
her in places Abigail cannot see, and that is when she lost it.
She would rather die out in the wilderness than live under the
roof of a man who would strike her daughter. She would rather
die herself than see Emma Rose suffer, and suffering as she is
Abigail, bruises all over her frail frame, Richard had beat her
hours after she delivered her daughter, hours after she had knelt
in the sparse bedroom and felt her body tear asunder and give
birth, the midwife grasping the soft, wet wonder that was Emma
had found her letters from Jim while she labored. He said he was
looking for her family's address. She doesn't believe him. He
was prowling through her writing box, and he found the bundle
of letters with a familiar name and he had read them while
contractions anchored her soul in pain, and nameless faces bent
to minister to her.
midwife left to get Abigail an herb.
entered, his face dark, and knowing something was wrong, Abigail
held the suckling baby a little tighter. He had not even peered
into Emma Rose's face. He slapped Abigail across the face, and
having the presence of mind to set her baby on the bed, Abigail
had spared her before he yanked her up calling her whore, liar,
adulterer, punching her into the floor, kicking her stomach, the
midwife returned to find Abigail feverish. For three days she
stayed by her side while Abigail fought to live. After Emma Rose's
birth, Abigail is afraid and she begins plotting her escape, each
day the baby grows and each day she fears the actions of an angry
weeks before she slipped off he had stopped buying food. He eats
in town and she drinks tea, and makes herself cornbread until
the cornmeal runs out Richard's farm the family
farm, Jim's rightful farm, too, is acres and acres of undisturbed
forest and fields, for miles around, no other woman to lend a
hand, to give her strength.
is isolated with a wee one who drinks her milk and coos into her
face. Abigail finds a well of strength when her baby is close
to her heart. She finds the reasons to fight, to take risks.
Rose looks like Jim as the days pass. Richard never looks at the
baby; he has become an animal.
knew it was there hiding under his skin waiting to jump out, but
by the time she knew it, she was in Tennessee, married and so
far from her home and friends in North Carolina that she could
do nothing but wait.
she waited until the fall day Jim came to see his brother, driving
up in his red Austin Healey. He stayed in town for two weeks,
every day coming to the farm, talking to his brother while he
got greasy and sweaty under the hood of his car, stopping to notice
Abigail when she brought them iced-tea with fresh cut lemons,
and one day he and Abigail picked late blackberries along the
creek and down they went into the soft grasses where body to body
they spoke another language.
color came back to Abigail's cheeks in that week, her threadbare
cotton dresses took on a life of their own, and every angle of
her body seemed to rise to his gaze as he sat drinking coffee,
eating pancakes, smoking cigarettes.
saw nothing and only treated his new wife with his familiar contemptuousness.
Richard finally produced the money he owed Jim and Jim has no
reason to stay. He packed up his backpack, stuffed it into the
trunk, and gently kissed his sister-in-law's cheek, whispering
in her ear, "Come to Camden when you get enough of this mess."
promise Abigail kept close, as she begins planning her departure
but the absence of blood derails her. Jim sends letters,
she doesn't tell him she's pregnant, instead she tells him about
the mimosa tree by the creek flowering, the kudzu taking over
the spot they had bedded in, the cornsilks reaching higher than
her forehead. She tells him about the books she's read, about
the places she's seen, she tells him about her college days at
the University of North Carolina. She tells him how she was teaching
piano, living on dreams, and then she met Richard and came to
Tennessee. "He promised me a piano," she told Jim. She
finds a farm too big for one man to manage, she becomes the help,
and working in the fields of cotton and corn the same as Richard,
she loses her soft piano hands, and she gets further and further
away from the dreams she had once dreamt.
Good Lord, show me the way!
Abigail standing up to her thighs in the river with Emma Rose
in her hands, tears running down her face.
me, forgive me, oh God, forgive me," she cries as she lets
her hands unclasp and the current sweep away her child. A wail
rises in her as the baby disappears from her view, sucked below
the surface of the churning, swift, wetness. Wailing incantations
of loss and grief, she goes into the river, walking to where the
baby was sucked deep into the darkness. The current batters her
body, the water begins inching up her thighs, up her hips, her
stomach, now circling around her milk-filled breasts, breasts
that will never suckle her baby again. The river reaches her neck,
her chin. Now it is all she can do to stay above the rushing.
She almost attempts to swim, but something else takes over. Abigail
does not fight the rushing of the water over her face into her
ears, and filling her. Weakly she lets go, and she too becomes
swept down the river, where her body rests near Emma Rose.
As I went down in the river to pray ...
Sisters and brothers sing as they journey down the riverbanks
on their day of baptismal rebirth. The Mount of Zion Church of
the Almighty God goes down to the river to have their sins washed
away, down where no one showed Abigail the way.
O sinners let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down,
O sinners let's go down,
Down in the river to pray
Cowell is a graduate of the University of North Carolina with
a degree in Philosophy and studies in Piano Performance. Ms. Cowell
has pieces forthcoming in The Dead Mule School of Southern
Literature, Mud Luscious, and Prick of the Spindle.
Full-time mother to an amazing toddler, Hannah, Ms. Cowell writes
in her spare time (i.e.; when Hannah sleeps!).