washing clothes by a creek that didn’t have a name. She lived with him all the rest of his life, the next thirty years.
Living with him, she lived with us all, all the Howlands, and her life got mixed up with ours. Her face was black and ours were white, but we were together anyhow. Her life and his. And ours.
F IRST THERE WAS NOTHING but cold and the noisy rustling crackling nights. Those were the earliest things she remembered.
Then she remembered the shapes of the floor boards and the way the undersides of tables looked, streaked and dirty. And she remembered being stepped on and stumbled over; and pinched by the rockers of rocking chairs. She even remembered the weight of her diaper—hippin, her mother called it—sagging behind.
It was funny though, she could remember all that, and she couldn’t remember her mother’s face—only a vague black shape and a name. Sometimes Margaret wondered how she had come to forget a face so completely. Why, she even remembered the way her mother’s hands looked—holding the rusty, greasy handle of an iron skillet at the stove; skinning and gutting catfish on the back steps. … She could even remember one day when her mother stood on the edge of the porch, light behind her. She, the baby Margaret, had been in a corner of the rail-less porch, hemmed in by chairs laid on their sides, and the whole world of woods and the swamps and the shining sky lay beyond her. She had looked up and saw her mother standing on the edge of the porch, black figure against the bright stretching world. And she had never forgotten that. The small neat figure, bare feet jutting out from under the almost ankle-length dress.
That was finally the way her mother stayed in her mind—just hands and a shape against the light. A stark figure, lonely and slight. An outcast, by her own desire. Sheltered by her family because she had no place to go, but part of nothing. Living in the house, the small house that rose like a boat with the spring rains and the floods from the swamp. Living there, but not being there. Waiting. A whole long youth of waiting. Who would have thought a small slight body would have so much determination in it?
The stubborn head, the steady shaking no. He will come back. … He said he would come back.
A youth of waiting. With a child, first a baby and then a girl, growing, day after day, like her mother, so like her mother. No trace of white blood showing. No trace at all.
A black baby with kinky hair and knobby arms and legs. … A black girl, like the other girls of New Church. … A woman, tall and angular and black. Her father’s rangy build, but none of his coloring.
By the time she was three or four, her mother was smearing her face with buttermilk, was dampening her hair and sitting her in the blazing sun to bleach, was sending her to the voodoo woman for a charm to bring out her white blood, to bring it to the surface. …
When Margaret was eight, her mother left. And they never heard of her again. She went south to Mobile, they thought. She was looking for somebody. She left her daughter Margaret in her grandfather’s house, in Abner Carmichael’s house, to be raised with all the other children, only more alone.
Margaret was eleven or so before she dared ask about her father. She was afraid. She saw how the other people deferred to her, how they pretended she wasn’t there. But in the end, she got up her courage, and her great-grandmother told her all about it. Half a dozen sentences, that was all.
It began when the state decided to run a new highway down from the capital to the Gulf coast. Everything about that highway was bad luck. It came through Wade County the same summer weevils first really destroyed the cotton, the time people went hungry with their whole year’s work eaten out. Some thought that cutting and grading for the road brought the weevils out of the earth where they had been sleeping. Some said the damage wasn’t weevils at all—that