Grandmammy talks about her in the evening gloaming, as the band of crickets warms up their violins and the gossipy birds settle like ripe feathered fruit in the cypress and willow trees. It’s an hour when just about anything seems possible and even the shadows press closer to hear the stories of the old woman with skin like a raisin and eyes like banked coals. She puffs on her corncob pipe, the smoke twisting through the wide gaps between her teeth, and she just smiles like she knows everything you ought not to. (She probably does, because Grandmammy’s seen it all, lived longer than anyone else on God’s earth, and hasn’t forgotten a single ounce. Mind like a mousetrap snapped shut on a thick pink tail.) “She was the youngest daughter of the richest master,” so Grandmammy tells it. “He near owned the whole damn state—and bits of the next. Cotton fields so big you’d swear you was living in the clouds, all that cotton and that big white house in the center. She had hair red as crabapples, the red of a fresh boiled crawdad, and eyes like a clear sky after a bad storm. Had a spirit to match, too, just as loud and hot and unyielding. When she set her mind to a thing, she had it, or it was done, and there weren’t no time wasted. “That is, anyway, until she clapped those blue eyes on Bram. Course her daddy wasn’t gonna suffer that match—he could mess about with any of the pretty dark girls that worked his fields all he wanted, naturally, but he weren’t about to let his pretty daughter slip into a slave’s bed. Didn’t matter that Bram was tall and strong and handsome, with a smile that could part the seas; or that he was clever as a fox and the hardest worker to ever shoulder a task. Didn’t matter that he sang like a nightingale and had clever hands, that he made toys for the littles and baskets for their mamas, and was so kind he regretted stepping on ants. No. All that mattered to Mr. Grey was that Bram had dark skin and was property, never mind that he walked and talked and felt like any white man. “But the girl wasn’t about to be denied the one thing she’d wanted most. The love bug bit her good and hard, and all she had eyes for was Bram. And even though Bram knew better, even though he’d always been careful, he couldn’t help looking back. So one night, when the moon was like a full bowl of cream overhead, the two took one another’s hands, took to their heels, and ran. Ran like the hounds were already at their heels. Ran until they reached the river, where the girl had left a rowboat tied to the old sycamore stump. You know the one? “But Mr. Grey, he wasn’t about to lose his prizes. When their boat was halfway across the river he lifted his old coon rifle and pulled the trigger. And good, strong, handsome Bram fell. Bullet went clean through him and kept whistling on into the night, and the girl caught him without a word. She knew he was gone the moment she touched him, knew what real cruelty was in that heartbeat, and so she stood—spread her arms wide like the arms of the cross—and stepped out of the boat. Sank under the water and never surfaced. “But it wasn’t long before she was seen again. Three weeks later, when Bram’s mother and little sister fled the whip and their sorrow to put their eyes on the North Star, she appeared. Lantern in hand, casting a light only they could see, she guided their steps to the waiting boat. Stood watch as they made it to the other shore and set off north to freedom. Every time one of Mr. Grey’s slaves found the courage to flee, she was there. Their guide, their protector, there to right the wrongs her father had done to them. He’d taken her man from her, so she’d take all the rest. Until the fields were empty and the cotton rotted on the stalk. Until Mr. Grey’s great fortune was nothing but angry letters from the bank demanding the interest owed, and the man that had once been master of everything put the old coon rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger again. And that was the last anyone ever saw of the red-haired girl. With her work done, she was free to be with Bram at last.” We ask if the story’s true, if it all really happened, and Grandmammy just looks at us like a snake enjoying the sun. And we know that’s all the answer we’re gonna get. (Sometimes it don’t matter if the story’s real or not—just so long as it’s a good one.)
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