A short story by Cynthia Dettman
South Carolina, 1953
It wasn’t until she fell out of an oak tree on a late Sunday morning on St. Helena Island, the air smelling of pine and smoke, and got her first hot kiss from Cousin Miranda, that Marvelle Howard knew she had the curse.
It started out a happy day. Marvelle had just turned fourteen, and now she was in her favorite spot at the top of the biggest oak on the island, after church, in her faded blue shorts, wearing her grandfather’s old green shirt that hung past the knees of her black skinny legs. She was staring across the water at the mainland but saw nothing there. Her mind was on the Sunday sermon, with Jesus and the woman at the well. But then she was distracted by Cousin Miranda, Mr. Henry’s granddaughter, who came sauntering towards the tree. She carried a bright pink parasol and a small brown bag, swinging it back and forth as she walked down the path. Her white dress shimmered. Miranda was a housekeeper for a rich family in Beaufort and Marvelle hadn’t seen her since the winter. She was ahead of Marvelle in school a few years, now married, a beauty everyone talked about, good and bad. People told all kind of stories about Miranda and what went on when she worked on the mainland, far from island eyes.
A crow called loudly from branches above Marvelle, and Miranda looked up. She fixed herself on Marvelle and gazed, her eyes floating in her face like full moons. Miranda’s hair was pulled back in a bun and the bun was encircled in white flowers. Tight fabric covered her bodice and arms. Marvelle could make out round nipples on her chest and the curves of muscular biceps under the creamy fabric of her dress.
“Marvelle Howard, what you doin up in a tree on a Sunday?” Miranda called, her white teeth shining in the sunlight. As she spoke, Marvelle, who had been thinking intently about Jesus, forgot him entirely. She felt like a man inside, strong and bold. A deep longing came over her to touch Miranda. She wanted to roll her on the ground with Marvelle on top. She could feel Miranda’s firm muscles, her smooth skin. Warm liquid oozed somewhere between Marvelle’s thighs and she was frightened.
A breeze curled its way up and she could smell Miranda way down below, earthy, sweet, musky. She was smelling Miranda’s warm body, the flowers in her hair, the odor of hard working armpits and the mysterious places that Marvelle could only imagine underneath the long Sunday dress.
Marvelle’s head went light and funny, and her hands got weak. She tried to answer Miranda, but her legs loosened around the branch in spite of her effort to hold on. Her tongue was paralyzed from speech. Then she was falling. Tumbling down through the hard branches and hanging moss, she landed hard, scratched, shocked, but cushioned by a thick layer of leaves and dirt under the tree. Miranda came running and attended to Marvelle, checking her arms and legs, patting her on the head.
“Nothing broke,” she said. Marvelle tingled. The smell of Miranda’s body was overpowering. Marvelle wanted to heave up and run.
“I’m fine,” Marvelle said. “You be on your way, Miss Miranda. I’m sorry to have bothered.”
“I’m walking you home, girl,” said Miranda. “But we’ll tell your auntie something. Maybe you tripped on a log?”
Miranda laughed, and her voice was like music, like the first chorus of frogs in the spring, like the sound of the schoolteacher’s violin coming across the waters from the next island, pure and sweet and piercing. Marvelle didn’t know right then that the devil’s work could be covered with such a sweet coating of pleasure and anticipation.
Miranda got down on the ground, put her arms around Marvelle, lifted her up, and said, “I’ve been wanting to help you for a long time, Marvelle.”
Miranda placed her parasol carefully across her legs, hiding both of them from the road. Marvelle closed her eyes, unable to speak. “This will make you feel better,” Miranda whispered, and touched her lips to Marvelle’s. Marvelle was paralyzed. The older girl just kept kissing and didn’t let go.
“You are a right pretty girl, Marvelle,” whispered Miranda. “I been watchin you. Open your pretty eyes!”
Marvelle forced her eyes open and Miranda looked deeply into hers.
“Climbing those trees and running wild. I like that in a girl, don’t you?”
Marvelle had to give in. Her whole body arched up to meet Miranda’s lips, her sweet gold skin, to drink in the rich odor of her hair. As they kissed, Miranda held Marvelle with one arm and began gently stroking her throat with the other hand.
“Why don’t you come on over to Beaufort and get a job with me?” said Miranda. Her voice was soft and purring. “Get away from this funny little place where we growed up!”
Just then, Marvelle heard a familiar squeaking of metal against wood coming from the road. Aunt Beulah’s voice, loud and clear and sharp, spoke.
“What in Jesus name going on here?”
Miranda pushed Marvelle away and smoothed her hair. She failed to move the parasol laying across her legs and the bag she had been carrying lay asunder beside her. She just leaned back and smiled towards Beulah.
Marvelle sat up quickly and pulled away from her cousin, mouth still alive with Miranda’s wet lips. She watched as Aunt Beulah got down quickly from her horse cart in the curve of the dirt road.
Miranda spoke loud and clear. “This girl done fall out of the tree on a Sunday morning. What she be doin up in a tree? Fell right on top of me, yes Lord.”
“You no good liar woman,” said Aunt Beulah, who now stood next to Miranda. “I know you, you sinner woman.”
Miranda got herself up and brushed leaves off her dress. She picked up her parasol and bag. Aunt Beulah reached over and grabbed Marvelle’s arm and yanked her towards the cart. "Ow,” cried Marvelle. “I’m hurt.”
“You’ll be hurt soon,” said Aunt Beulah, pulling Marvelle down the path.
“Don’t be touching this girl again,” Aunt Beulah turned and shouted to Miranda, who smiled.
“Goodbye Marvelle, now you listen to your auntie,” called out Miranda sweetly.
Aunt Beulah laid into Marvelle, cracking her whip against the cart. “That girl Miranda, she be touched. Touched with evil ways, Marvelle. What was you doin behind that parasol? Hmm?”
Aunt Beulah shook her head, turned to Marvelle and slapped her on the head.
“Ow,” said Marvelle. “Auntie, I'm hurt. I fell out of that tree. Cousin was helping me. Marvelle showed Aunt Beulah a long scrape on the side of her leg.
“You deserve that and more,” Aunt Beulah said. Her voice was bright with anger. “You wait and see.”
No more words were spoken until they arrived at the parish house outbuilding, where Beulah lived and Marvelle had to live too. The old woman started quoting the Bible and then went crazy. She chased Marvelle around the kitchen and ordered her onto the kitchen table, where she continued whipping until Marvelle’s could feel blood dripping and her buttocks on fire with painful stripes.
As she whipped, she yelled at Marvelle, “It’s the Devil. It’s inside your mind, inside your belly, what you gotta battle.” Marvelle squeezed her lips and did not cry out. “It’s like a little seed that will never go away. You cain’t water that seed nor feed that seed nor show it the light of day, because it will grow.”
Beulah raised her whip again. “It will grow inside you big as a tree, and it will push out Jesus. Don’t you push out Jesus!”
The old woman tired and dropped the whip with a sigh. Marvelle pulled up her shorts and ran.
When she got to the shore across from Grandpa’s little island, the rowboat was stranded. She knew it wouldn’t float for hours until the tide came in. Marvelle tried to sit on the big rock where she always sat when she needed to think hard, but it hurt too much. So she stood, and paced. Back and forth her mind stormed, running away from her aunt as far as she could get, maybe to the glittering port of Beaufort, and then back to the island, safe with her old Grandpa, chasing the gulls and catching fish and watching him and his conjures. She could taste Miranda on her tongue, and then she remembered the beating and angrily wiped away tears. If she ran to the mainland, Beulah wound find her. If she stayed on the island, Beulah would tail her from one end to the other with her clucking tongue.
She got tired of waiting for the tide and walked the whole way around the marsh to Grandpa Israel’s. The familiar twisting path, the waving reeds, the cool squish of mud between her toes, the blue arch of sky doming overhead, they comforted her. She would never leave the islands, Marvelle told herself. Beulah would die. She would grow up and make her own decisions. She had no cause to move to that strange world where Miranda worked, across the green waters, to work for white people on the mainland, where she imagined streams of cars honked and sinners walked and the people scurried like ants trying to outrun a storm. But she still could taste the salt and sweet of Miranda on her tongue.
Her grandfather didn’t ask at first, he just put grease on her stripes and wrapped her up in a soft old blanket. Marvelle told him that she fell out of her tree onto Miranda and Beulah got the wrong idea and whipped her good.
He shook his head at Marvelle. “Honey,” he said, “you just a boy, ain’t you?” He paused and his voice got soft and pure. “You done have to get a long way from here, you know that.”
Marvelle lay on the shack floor and lifted her head up to shout at him.
“Ain’t goin nowhere, Grandpa,” she yelled. “I stay here with you. I take care of you, Grandpa.”
And then they both wept, Marvelle sore and tired and angry listening to her skinny, shrunken grandfather as he blew his nose. She knew he was hiding his own tears.
Just a few weeks later, when Cousin Margaret Roosevelt Turner came to the island, driving a pale green convertible Packard, smoking cigarettes, with her hair straightened and cut like a man’s, a white woman with red lips at her side, the whole island was abuzz with the news. Beulah’s sister, who had a boarding house, had gotten the letter that she was coming. Marvelle played sick the day they arrived so she didn’t have to clean the church with Beulah, sneaked out of Beulah’s and followed Margaret’s car off the ferry onto the island when they arrived on the late morning run. Soon the car outpaced Marvelle, so she ran and rowed to her grandfather’s, knowing that the two New Yorkers would be heading there too.
“Big city done turned her head bad,” Aunt Beulah had said when she heard that her cousin was coming with a new woman from the big city. “Look at that girl, dressed like a man, talk like a man, now she bring that white girl with her from New York City, Lord have mercy!”
Margaret was Aunt Beulah’s cousin. Her mama, Mabel, had left St. Helena Island for New York City when Margaret was twelve. Mabel was a dancer, gone bad with liquor and men. They only heard from Mabel when she needed money, and no one had any money to send. Margaret had grown up in the big city, her mama singing and dancing in the clubs. Now here she was again, showing a white woman the island where she was born.
That afternoon they all sat on Grandpa Israel’s rickety porch, the two women beside Grandpa’s rocking chair and Marvelle glued to the steps right by Cousin Margaret.
“Grandpa,” said Margaret, smoking a Camel cigarette, “what you mean, y'aint never heard of Langston Hughes?” Marvelle watched Sophie fan herself, languidly drinking her lemonade, one finger sticking up like a flag, her other hand draped like a cat along the arm of her chair. Margaret’s friend wore a long white lacy dress, a white cotton shawl around her shoulders, bright red lipstick on her full lips, and red nail polish on long pointed fingernails.
“Aint never heard of any of yo people up there in the north,” Grandpa said. “Too cold up there, chile. Now why don’t you just come back and live here on the island, where you belong?” He laughed and showed his rotted teeth.
“Ooh Lord no, sir,” said Margaret. “This island still living in the dark ages, Grandpa. People still eating coons and gators, talking funny talk, painting their doorways blue to keep out the devil, all that Africa stuff.” She flicked her ashes onto the porch, and brushed her pant leg delicately, “All that chicken bones and stuff. I’m talking about you, Grandpa!”
The old man said nothing, he just rocked and spit. His eyes switched from Magaret to Marvelle to Sophie back again, following their conversation and movements through slanted eyes.
Margaret turned to Marvelle and smiled. “I’m gonna take Marvelle up to the city so she can see the sweet life,” said Margaret. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you now Miss Marvelle?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Marvelle. “I’d like a ride in your car, for starters!”
So the next day Margaret and Sophie took Marvelle on a ride all around the island, honking and waving at the people, who stopped their gardening and their fishing and their porch talking and hop scotching to stand and stare, to comment on the Packard and two women who looked like husband and wife, so bold and big. Margaret wore a black round hat and Sophie a purple hat with long white feathers. Marvelle felt free and happy, sitting in the front with Margaret, smelling her cigarettes, watching her big hands steer the wheel, her loud laugh and her eyes flirting with Sophie, looking back and smiling at her friend, telling jokes.
“I want you to start reading some of Langston’s poetry,” she said to Marvelle. “He’s a great man, Marvelle. You just watch. If you come to New York with us, you’ll meet him.”
The subject of Beulah came up, and Margaret spoke her mind. “That old hen, she never was kind to my mother. Used to peck at me when I was little. Clean this, wash that, don’t talk back.” She turned to Marvelle and said with a serious look, “ Mama and I was sleeping on park benches - that’s where I had my 12th birthday, I remember that, Central Park. Mama wrote to Beulah and she sent nothing, not a dime.” Margaret flicked her cigarette ash off the side of the car and took a long drag, then exhaled to the wind. Marvelle watched the smoke vanish like a ghost.
Margaret didn’t listen much. But Sophie did. Sophie asked questions, and she watched with her big blue eyes as Marvelle answered breathlessly. She asked about the fishing, the school, about the ghosts that Margaret had told her roamed the island. She never interrupted, just listened like it was the most important thing she had ever heard. Marvelle’s heart swelled up like a blue cornflower blooming in the spring. Her words tumbled eagerly towards Sophie, imagining her words would go all the way to Harlem.
She took the big city girls to the Praise House, to her favorite swimming spot at the marsh, to the live oaks along the south beach, where they had a picnic of smoked fish and fried potatoes and fresh sliced tomatoes that Grandpa’s girlfriend had made, in a big basket. Margaret bought drinks at the main store and drank beer on the beach. Marvelle watched the two older women’s every move. Their clarity, their lack of embarrassment, their confidence was a tonic for her soul.
“I am the best bartender in Harlem,” said Margaret. “Mix the best drinks for my customers. Just the other day I made a Rum Collins for the mayor, yes I did.” She smiled at marvelle and took a draw on her cigarette. “Gave me ten dollar tip, how about that?”
“Silly woman,” said Sophie. “You aint got no ten dollar tip! I saw your money that night, we needed milk and eggs! You got eight dollars and thirty five cents, and that weren’t from one customer. Don’t you believe a word she says, Marvelle.”
“Where do you live?” asked Marvelle.
“Hole in the wall, that’s where we live,” said Sophie, her nose wrinkled. “Rats at night, cockroaches in the day. Margaret didn’t have no job for the longest time.”
“Well neither did you, Missy,” said Margaret. “You aint got nothing to brag about neither.”
Sophie went into her purse and pulled out a card. She handed it to Marvelle, who read with amazement out loud, reading Sophie’s last name slow and awkward:
Sophie Bergerofsky Hair Stylist 44350 Main Ave. Harlem, New York
“I used to be a barber, but now I'm a stylist,” Sophie said. “Actually my name is Berger, but Bergerofsky sounded better, don’t you think?” She patted her red lips with her napkin, which were fading from the eating, and reached in her bag. “You can keep that card darling! You write to me!”
Marvelle looked back and forth as Sophie applied more bright red lipstick to her mouth, and both women drank beer and smoked. She pictured them in an apartment high above the ground, Margaret sitting at the window smoking, Sophie cooking grits and eggs in the kitchen, music on the stereo, wearing a pretty blue apron and stroking her shiny bobbed hair. She could see Sophie cutting hair in a high class salon serving white women only, Margaret looking debonair mixing drinks in a dimly lit bar full of men with moustaches.
Aunt Beulah came to Grandpa’s island the morning after the picnic, claiming she needed some throat tea. Marvelle was home for the weekend from her summer work, and she knew Beulah was there to chide her. “It’s not right,” said Aunt Beulah. “Two women living together like that, no man, no chillums, that girl wearing man’s clothes, it’s sinful. You better go take a good bath, girl,” she said straight at Marvelle. “Go wash them offa your skin, cuz that’s the work of the devil.”
“Mabel got off to a bad start, and it just got worse.” Aunt Beulah started picking up steam. “She started dancing over in Beaufort, and she started drinking, and soon that no good Elwood Whatshisname took her off to New York, with little Margaret. No wonderin her chile would turn out working in a bar, driving that fancy car.” She shook her head.
“Get in there and wash yourself, child, and get down on your knees and pray for those sinners. Right now!”
Marvelle boldly looked at Beulah, knowing she didn’t have to do anything while Grandpa was there.
Marvelle never saw Margaret again. She heard that the women left in a whirl of dust on Monday after a fight with Beulah. They said goodbye to no one. Margaret and Sophie just stared ahead and said not a word to each other, people said, as the Packard raced to the wharf to catch the ferry into Beaufort.
Marvelle retraced every word, every look, every detail of Cousin Margaret’s visit as the summer moved slow and hot and languid into the autumn rains, remembering it all: the sweet smell of the shiny lotion Margaret applied to her short hair, the dirt under her nails, the gravely voice with which she spoke like a man, the sideways tilt of her hat. And she longed to smell Sophie again, a rich lavender smell mixed with something like fresh baked biscuits, and to see her apply another layer of red lipstick to those lips that ate the smoked fish and tomatoes so delicately, as Marvelle handed her bite after bite from the basket on the beach.
She imagined herself moving off the island, riding the ferry to a small green and white trimmed house in Beaufort, then to an apartment in New York City, where she would get herself a Packard and drive slow and deliberate and strong, with a beautiful white woman at her side, the white woman a dreamer, Marvelle the practical one. Then she forced away the fantasy. She knew it was wrong, to have the Devil at her side, driving straight to hell and fire and fury.
When school started up again in the fall, Marvelle refused to wear a dress. Grandpa fought with Beulah.
“She only a chile,” he said to Beulah, waving his skinny arm at her over the corn they were shucking. “You let her be.”
Marvelle felt her stomach clutch.
She knew. Grandpa’s words awakened the truth, that she would leave her home, she would go to the mainland, she would wear trousers, and she would go to a big city someday. She would say goodbye to the big oak, to the black and grey clouds of storms, to the gulls, the salty, reeking smells of the marshes at low tide, the roses in Aunt Beulah’s little yard, the gossip and the sweet congealing of love and hate and jealousy among the people of the island, the ghosts, Marvelle’s own dreams of the worlds to the East across the ocean. All of those delicious memories would stay with her as she became the human she really was. She was black, she was a Negro, and a boy in a girl’s body. The mainland would not welcome her. But the island was too small for her bigger green Packard dreams.
Cynthia Dettman has been developing her writing skills in retirement, writing short stories and drafting her first novel. She will travel to India this winter to complete research for another novel about an Indian policewoman in modern India who faces an "honor killing" in her own family. The book will address sensitive including caste, women's oppression and the continued repression of homosexuality. Cynthia grew up in South India and speaks Tamil.