Them Damn Cows
by Liz Kelso
She was 15 years old when the pox took the last of them. All her life, she shoveled up shit and milked the tits of their damn cows. “Them damn cows,” she said and spit on the ground. “I shouldn’t cuss them cows though, they the reason I be alive.”
Mary took her first breath on April 8, 1889 as her mother Fannie exhaled her last. Grandma Belle had now lost all of her children. Fannie was her last child and she was the only one who lived long enough to bring life into the world.
“How you gonna raise this child when you sick all the time?” Her friend Sadie asked as she sat on the porch and fanned her fat shiny brown face.
“I’ll make do,” Grandma Belle replied.
“You’ll be dead before this child is five, what she gonna do then?”
“The Lord will provide.”
Before Grandma Belle’s box hit the bottom of the grave, Sadie snatched that child up and took her into her home.
“You live here now girl; you do what I tell you…understand?”
Five year old Lunetta looked up at Sadie with a black still look and nodded. “Yessum. Where my Mama Belle at?” she asked.
“You’re Mama Belle be dead, she gone to the Lord. You ain’t got no one. No one want you. So I’m stuck with your nappy black ass.”
“You my mama now?” Lunetta asked.
“I ain’t your mama girl. You here to work, you my servant girl now.”
Lunetta didn’t know what that word meant. Servant. Sadie might as well said she was a puppy, it was all the same to Lunetta.
“And Lord, let’s get rid of that countrified name. Lunetta.” Sadie grimaced. “Your poor mama name was Fannie and here they go calling you Lunetta. You be Mary now, like Jesus mama, you know who Jesus is girl?”
“That be your name then. And you better thank Jesus, ‘cause if I weren’t here, you’d be in one of them Negro orphanages, and they ain’t know how to take care of no young ‘uns.”
Mary remembered her Grandma Belle talking about her days as a slave on the Porter Plantation. She was too young to understand what a slave or a plantation was, but she knew her Grandma Belle was a slave, whatever that was. She knew that her own mama, Fannie, was born a slave, but she didn’t die one and Mary was born free. Free was a term she wouldn’t know for long. Sadie called her a servant girl, but she was a slave; a black slave with black Masters. Slavery had ended in the South many years before Mary was born, but she was left behind. Mary knew in her bones that God had forgotten her.
When the marks showed up on her arms and legs, she was sure the devil finally got a hold of her.
“Miss Sadie these itch,” Mary said as she showed the open sores on her arms.
“Get away girl, you is diseased.”
“But they itch, what do I do?” Mary started to cry.
“Take your dirty behind out to the barn. Doctor’s ain’t cheap girl, but I don’t want you to up and die on me, I suppose I need to get one here.”
“It isn’t the smallpox,” Dr. Townsend said after he examined her.
“What it be then?” Sadie asked.
“It’s from the cows. “It’s the pox they get.” He took Mary’s arm and lightly stroked her oozing sores. Then he showed Mary the scars on his arms. “I done had this myself as a young ‘un. It won’t kill her, she’ll itch and be sick for a while, but she’ll be all right in a few weeks.”
“Is it catching?” Sadie asked.
“It is, but only through contact. Have you touched her?”
Sadie gave a deep belly laugh. “Lord no, I ain’t touch her.”
“Then you should be fine. Just keep her away from the rest of the family.”
The doctor gave Sadie some salve. “This will help with the itching,” he said.
“I can’t pay for this here medicine, she’ll make due,” she said as she handed it back to him.
Dr. Townsend looked at Mary. Something in her small round face and defeated posture made his soul cave.
“Take it, no charge. Just make sure she puts it on her sores twice a day.” He turned to Mary, “Sweetheart, can you remember to put that medicine on your sores two times a day?” He held up his hands and displayed two of his fingers, pointing to each one as he spoke.
“Once in the morning after you wash up and then once before you go to bed at night?”
“Have a good day ladies.” He tipped his hat and left.
“You has to stay out here till you is better. And don’t touch the cows or nothing. I don’t want your disease to get into the milk.”
Mary nodded. “Can I get the stuff for my sores?” she asked.
“I’m not wasting this on you. I may need it later if one of my own fall ill with this sickness you got.” She placed the salve into her apron pocket. “You be OK.”
Sadie left Mary in the barn. The smell of cow shit hung in the air as she lied down on the dry scratch hay to try and sleep. The barn was so hot during the day, Mary couldn’t breathe. She sweated continually and smelled worse than the cows. At night it was so cold, she thought she’d freeze in her sleep. She’d cover herself with the hay and a piece of burlap, but it did little to warm her. She talked to the cows, but they just mooed, chewed their cud and shit where they stood.
Only Sadie’s daughter Clementine would pay her any mind. Tiny, as everyone called her, was a year younger than Mary. She was in charge of brining Mary food three times a day. Sometimes Tiny would stay and talk to her.
“You feel better today?” Tiny asked.
“You need something? I can get it when mama ain’t looking.”
Mary had thought about it, but Tiny was being so nice to her, she didn’t want that to stop and she knew if she asked Tiny to do something and she got caught, the daily visits would stop, and then she’d really be alone.
“I be alright Tiny, I don’t need nothing. But I thanks you.”
Their talks would always be cut short by Sadie’s barks from the house.
“Girl what you doing out there? Get your narrow behind back inside this house before I take a switch to it.”
Mary would watch Tiny high-tail it back to the house. She felt so alone. She never thought that she would long for her mama or her Grandma Belle to threaten to take a switch to her. Although she knew that it would mean she was in trouble, it would be a threat out of love and concern. Sadie had taken a switch to her many times. Every sting to her legs felt like a snake bite filled with hate.
Mary knew something was wrong with Mr. Wise the minute he walked through the door. She didn’t see much of him. His Pullman job kept him away from home most of the time. When he did come home, he didn’t pay Mary no mind. This time was different.
“Get me some water girl,” he said as he slumped down into the chair. His shiny face melted down onto his uniform.
Mary ran out to the well and brought back an entire bucket. When she walked into the room, Mr. Wise was on the floor, stiff as a dead dog.
“Mr. Wise, Mr. Wise?”
He didn’t move.
Mary ran next door to Mrs. Atkins house where Sadie said she’d be.
“What you want girl?” Sadie asked.
“It’s Mr. Wise, he ill,” she said through breaths.
“What you mean? He home?”
“Yes ma’am and he be sick. He be on the floor and he ain’t moving.”
Sadie laughed, “Oh hush up girl, that man done got into some moonshine.” She pushed Mary toward the door. “Get on back to the house; I’ll be along in a minute.”
Mary walked back into the house and Mr. Wise was still on the floor. “He don’t smell drunk,” Mary said as she moved closer to him and sniffed. “He wet, like he just come out the river Jordan. He wet and still.” Mary put her hand to his head. “Ooh, he hot like bacon grease.”
The screen door flew open and Sadie’s round shadow eclipsed Mary as she was bent over Mr. Wise on the floor.”
She stomped in and pulled Mary up with a jerk. “Move girl,” she said. “Luster, Luster?” She kicked at his limp body. “Luster?” her voice now had a hint of concern.
“He hot ma’am,” Mary said.
“Hush up girl.” Sadie put her hand on his forehead. “Oh Lordy be. Mary, go run and get Doctor Townsend.”
Mary left the house, but she had a mind to stroll on up to the doctor’s house. Why should she concern herself with it? But then she thought of Tiny without her father, and picked up her pace. She still didn’t run, the South Carolina heat put molasses in the blood. Mary walked thick and heavy just like the brown sweet syrup.
“It’s them cow pox, like the girl got a few years back ain’t it doctor?” Sadie asked as she kneaded her knuckle-less hands together.
A black look came over his face.
“Miss Sadie, this is much worse than that. This time it’s the smallpox.”
“What you mean?”
“Luster has smallpox, must’ve picked it up on the Railroad up North.”
Sadie body stopped breathing, “What that mean then?”
“Miss Sadie, Luster is very sick. He may die. I’m sorry.” Doctor Townsend started for the door. “I’m going to have to quarantine this house.”
“What that be? Quarantine?”
“Ya’ll can’t leave this here house.” He pulled a nail and a paper out of his bag. He took off his shoe and nailed the paper to the front door.
SMALLPOX KEEP OUT OF THIS HOUSE
“I had to quarantine James Johnson and his family up on County Road last week for the smallpox,” he said.
“J.J.? I didn’t know, they all right?” Sadie asked.
He straightened the sign and made sure it was secure.
“Miss Sadie,” he started, but wasn’t sure how to tell her that none of the Johnson family lived. He saw Tiny standing behind her mother, listening with her hand on her large belly.
“What about my baby, will my baby be OK?” her voice cracking with fear.
Doctor Townsend rubbed the nape of his neck with his handkerchief. He seemed to be weighing his answer. “It’s a good chance all of you will get it.”
He forced his foot back into his still tied shoe. “Don’t remove this here sign ‘til I say it’s all right. Some of ya’ll might get through it, might not even get it; but we have to wait until the incubation period has passed.”
“What’s that?” Tiny asked.
“I’ll be back in two weeks to check on ya’ll, he said not at all answering Tiny’s question.
“Wait Doctor, what we do then? How we care for him?” Sadie said, her voice laced with panic.
“Just keep him comfortable Miss Sadie. Just keep him comfortable.”
Mary watched him walk up the road.
“What about my baby? It be here any day,” Tiny yelled after him in a panic. She didn’t step outside. Her swollen body filled the door frame as she watched him walk up the path. He didn’t turn around. He just waved his hand as if to say a final and painful good-bye.
“Lord have mercy, we gonna die,” Sadie wailed up and down the living room.
“Mama what about my baby?”
“Child worry about yourself first. You only fourteen, if this one dies, you can make more. As long as you still alive,” Sadie said as walked out of the room seeming to go nowhere in particular. She picked up the drinking gourd and her hand shook as she put it to her lips. She whispered, “We be fine.”
“Mary, wet a rag with cold water and put it on Mr. Wise’s head. You take care of him,” Sadie said.
Mary felt like a pillar of salt, stuck in place from fear. “What you mean?”
“You do what I say girl, get.” Sadie pushed her so hard, she stumbled over the table. “I ain’t got time for your foolishness.”
Mary scrambled off of the floor and went to the bucket. It was half empty. She wondered how they would get more water. They couldn’t leave the house, and the well was up the road a piece. They would all die; one by one. She asked God for one final blessing that she live long enough to watch Sadie suffer and die in agony; and that He not hold this evil thought against her and still let her into Heaven.
Mary sat at Mr. Wise’s bedside, watching his endless bumps ooze. He looked like he smelled -- dead. Mary put cold cloths on his head and tried her best to keep him comfortable but his fever was high and seemed to get sicker with each hour.
Then he grew cold and still.
She wrapped his body in the sheets he died on. His body still smelled like a dead dog, but they weren’t allowed to bury him, and they were unable to let anyone know he died. They were prisoners to the illness. They had to wait for Doctor Townsend to return.
When Tiny soaked through the sheet on her bed, crying in pain from the smallpox and the labor, Mary did all she could to help her only friend. She rubbed her brow with a cold rag and talked to her softly, “You be OK Tiny, I be here.”
Tiny’s eyes flickered up at Mary between every moment of pain. Her heart was saying thank you but her body just cried out in pain.
Mary tried to catch the baby but it never came. Tiny died in the middle of it. Its head stayed stuck, half in and half out. She never knew if it was a girl or a boy. Mary never thought she would cry for any one in that house, but she did when she saw her only friend lying in blood, sweat and shit.
Sadie was the only one left. She lay on her bed, sick as sin but too stubborn to die.
“You’s a devil,” Sadie said. “Why you ain’t get sick?”
“I dunno Miss Sadie, maybe God done deliver me after all?” Mary said standing over Sadie’s puffy decaying body.
“You bring Satan into this house, you black devil.”
“Satan was here long before I got here Miss Sadie.”
Sadie didn’t say anything. It was hard for her to breathe and even harder for her to talk.
“You the evil one Miss Sadie. You save your last breaths to cuss me. I hope God let you into heaven, ‘cause you needs you some mercy.”
Sadie’s eyes burned into Mary with a rage that was brought up from the latter black remains of her soul. She died with her eyes locked on Mary’s black face.
Mary packed her two dresses and her undergarments in Sadie’s valise. She went into the room Tiny was still lying in, stiff and cold but no longer in agony. The November air just started to bite but it didn’t come soon enough to stop the smell of all the dead bodies lying in that house.
She went into the barn and dug up the money can. Sadie hid it behind the cows, in the ground, under their shit. Mary had always known it was there. When she was sick and forced to live in the barn, she saw Miss Sadie come in and dig it up. Sadie had thought she was asleep and delirious, but Mary was present enough to see what she did. There had been many times Mary wanted to dig up that can and run away, but Sadie knew too many people in Saluda, Mary knew she wouldn’t get far. She wasn’t sure how much was in there, but it was more than enough to get her out of this little corner of Hell.
Mary took one last look at the barn that stole her childhood and spit on the ground and said, “Them damn cows.”