Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

O Sinner, Let's Go Down, Down to the River to Pray

Rebekah Cowell

Summer skies breed violent thunderstorms as thunder and lightening couple, their offspring hail and lashing rain.

This 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.

Her 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.

Her fine bone structure whispers, "I am not a hobo, a gypsy, a tramp."

She 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.

She 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.

The 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.

Swaddling 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 to flow.

The 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.

Abigail 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.

Wading 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.

Abigail 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.

And to go back to what? The beatings, the anger.

Richard 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 now.

And 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 Rose.

Richard 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.

The midwife left to get Abigail an herb.

Richard 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 bleeding uterus.

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 man.

Two 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.

She 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.

Emma Rose looks like Jim as the days pass. Richard never looks at the baby; he has become an animal.

She 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.

And 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.

The 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.

Richard 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."

A 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.

"Forgive 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


Rebekah 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!).

© Rebekah Cowell

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012