Absalom's Daughters - Suzanne Feldman


Cassie and Lil Ma and Grandmother lived in a house at the far end of Negro Street in two rooms over the laundry that they ran in Heron-Neck. Whoever had lived there before had papered the walls of the upstairs rooms, every inch of them, with newspapers, spread-out magazine pages, and letters. One crumbling page of newspaper showed a white man with a rifle standing over an animal, which Lil Ma said was a lion, which Grandmother said was a wild animal from Africa that would eat you in one bite. Below the lion a page torn from a magazine showed a rabbit eating a head of lettuce. Underneath the rabbit the words said, Ridding your garden of pests. Over by the back window were pictures of ladies in beautiful dresses, all tall and slender, like Lil Ma. There were no pictures that looked like Grandmother, who was short and round. None of the ladies on the walls were colored either.

Lil Ma taught Cassie to read by showing her the words on the walls and making her say them properly. Before bed, she and Cassie would find a patch of wall and sound out the letters. There was a picture of an elephant by one of the front windows with words underneath that said, Tuska Lives on Coney Island. Coney Island was a long way from Heron-Neck, Mississippi, Lil Ma said. One summer when the circus came to town, Lil Ma took Cassie down to the other end of Negro Street and across the railroad tracks to see the animals, but said Grandmother wouldn’t want them to spend the nickel to see the show. They watched an elephant sway in its chains and a lion pace in a cage. Clowns sang a funny song; a monkey in a little suit danced and caught peanuts in its mouth. Music started inside the tent, and the white people went in with their ice cream cones. Cassie and Lil Ma went home, across the tracks and back to the laundry, where Grandmother was waiting with a stack of linens to be pressed.

Negro Street had houses on one side and railroad siding on the other. Instead of trees there were electric poles that had been standing beside the tracks for years without wires. Beanie Simms, who lived in the house next to the laundry, had three shoeshine chairs in front of the barbershop on the white side of town and a falling-apart truck in front of his own place. In the spring, when everyone on Negro Street planted greens, melon, and tomatoes between the electric poles, Mister Simms was the only one who didn’t put up a wire fence to keep the rabbits out. The rabbits got into the other gardens anyway, but Mister Simms said they left his alone. When Cassie asked him why, he showed her a stick carved to look like the head of an animal poking out from between perfect heads of lettuce.

“It’s a fox,” Cassie said.

“It only look like a fox,” said Mister Simms. “But th’ rabbit think it real.”

When Cassie told Grandmother about Mister Simms’s fox, Grandmother said that Beanie Simms worked his soil with chicken innards before he planted, and the smell of blood was what kept the rabbits away.

Beanie Simms was sought after on account of his advice and his magic. Sometimes people would come in from other towns and wait at his door all day for him to come home from the shoeshine so they could ask him for guidance when they’d been ’witched. Because she was only six, Cassie was allowed to sit unnoticed