(c) Cherokee Roses by M. S. Gaines
At the conjunction of Habersham County and White County, where the Chattahoochee River lies and nourishes, Mammy Kane wades through the high cluttered fields of corn and soybeans, measuring the steps of the young white boy she is with. As they approach the porch of their house, a middle-aged woman and a man who appeared to be in his twenties hop from the swing and come to greet Mammy Kane. The man, whose name was Josiah, grins at Mammy Kane and waves at the boy, but the boy doesn’t wave back.
“He don’ know how to greet or white folks where he come from don’ greet like us folks do”, Josiah whispers to Harriette who was now feigning a smile.
“Shhhush”, Harriette says, “maybe da boy jus’ shy or scared”.
As soon as Mammy Kane and the boy get inside the house, Harriette pushes a chair towards the white boy, but the boy rests silent and sits like a lump on a log.
“Da poor boy don’ know how to use his eyes”, Mammy Kane says. “I find him at the river an’ thought da boy need a hand. He sure look like he ain’t eatin’ nuthin’ for days.”
“But he white, Miss Kane, milk white, bread white, WHITE, an’ dat can git us into big trouble. Wat us gonna do wit som’ white boy who don’ even know how he call himself?”, Josiah tells Mammy Kane as he was still waving his hand three inches from the boy’s face.
“Kelton”, mumbles the young man. “That’s my name. I’ve been traveling for about a week now. I come from the North. Word goes I got some relatives down in Georgia, so here I am. I don’t mean to intrude or anything…” He spoke these words fearful, his head bowed in respect and obedience. His face spoke of youth, and yet his reverence and the grey strands hidden under his blonde hair gave him the appearance of an old man who has walked most paths of life. His tiny fragmented figure contrasted the resonance of his voice and the startling blue of the eyes.
“Sure da boy can spend da night ‘ere”, Harriette says and smiles at the boy before she remembers he cannot see her.
“Thank you, Ma’am”, Kelton says, bowing his head in appreciation.
“Oh, naw now don’ Ma’am me. I ain’t never heard a soul ‘round her’ callin’ me dat. It don’ sound home to me.”
Within weeks, yellow jasmine trumpets blazing freedom and cherokee roses have covered most part of the county landscape. The scent travels for miles and fetches every villager, worker or foreigner to the Georgian feast. Whenever Kelton was not helping Mammy Kane and Harriette around the house, he would seek the company of the cornfield where he would collapse, mute and forgetful, lingering.
“White folks is still mystery fo’ me. Ya’ll folks got watcha y’all need up there in da North an’ y’all come ‘ere to mess us up an’ cause trouble, take our land, work our land. Ya’ll don’ know wat ya want. But you sure love Jim Crow.” Josiah says while kneeling down next to Kelton.
“Everything’s pretty much dead up there”, Kelton replies. “The scent is alive here, and that gives me a great deal of pleasure.”
“Dead? Whatcha know about that?”, Josiah asks the boy and then continues. “Ain’t much to do ‘ere anyhow, wasteland everywhere us look. Thought it’d be sumthin’ else. Least wat my folks thought when dey left dey land, back in Africa. Bet dey was da only black folks dat got ‘ere ‘cause dey wanted. Nobody didn’t force dem or tie dem, came ‘ere all by demself. ‘Dey seen how dey brothers and sisters was treated. Guess dey didn’t like it, got some white folks mad so dey git lynched in the worst riot us ever known. Mammy Kane and Harriette is family now, da only one I knows, da only one I needs.”
Kelton keeps silent for a while and thinks of his reasons to leave the North and the life he led there. Sure and safe, but empty.
“Did you ever think of going back there, maybe search for other relatives, see for yourself what’s left of your homeland?”
Instead of answering, Josiah arranges his hat as he stands up and walks away from where Kelton lays in the field. He looks at Kelton again, hesitant, but before leaving he takes Kelton’s arm and slow-paced, they head home, their backs pierced by the sunset.
“Let us git goin’. It gits dark soon”, Josiah says.
At dusk, Kelton swallows the last piece of baked bread that was left from his breakfast, jumps up out of his stings chair, rushes through the staircase and stops in the threshold. Josiah was half-asleep but Kelton made sure he announced his presence in the room.
“I want you to write this letter for my sister, back home. I’m sure she’s pacing the floor right now, waiting to hear from me”, Kelton says in one breath.
“I’m afraid ya sista gonna pace all da floors she can find ‘cause I ain’t gonna write no letter,” Josiah says.
The following day Kelton visits Josiah’s room again, this time carrying three rugged books. He places them on Josiah’s bed without saying a word.
“Oh hell naw. Whatcha bring dis books fo’? Books is white folks’s way of poisoning black folks’s mind.”
“How do you think little people like us get big? Those who never read are bound to a miserable existence; no scent, no higher purpose. Nothing ever gets better for them. If you wanna get white folks mad, you know what you have to do.”
Josiah never questioned the power white people had over his people, but he had always been puzzled by what gave them so much power in the first place. “How could a bunch of signs enslave and liberate?”, he thought. Then he thought about how Mammy Kane and Harriette had told him about how the slaves were forbidden to learn how to read and write and then it all made sense for him.
On Sunday morning, Josiah puts on the finest pair of pants, a light yellow shirt and the most playful of bow ties, and heads for the fields. He plucks as many cherokee roses as he can, makes a bouquet, goes to the porch and sits in the swing, gripping and juggling the flowers, waiting.
“Wa’s goin’ on ‘ere?” Mammy Kane asks. “Whatcha doin’ wit dose flowers, boy? Y’all boys got som’ fine lady comin’? Why don’ y’all tell us us got guests? Dey fo’church? Oh, brin’ ya butt down ‘ere an’ lemme water dem ‘fore dey die!”
As the words of Mammy Kane echoed beyond the fields all the way to the river, Josiah sees Kelton on the front porch, breathing in the morning air and turning towards the fragrance. Josiah takes Kelton’s hands, joins them and places the cherokee roses bouquet he has arranged all morning right between Kelton’s hands, and says:
“Thought us can go to church together today. It’d kill som’ black folks seein’ us there together, but I ain’t afraid of ‘em. These are to celebrate. Ya.” As he says that his skin turns the blackest shade of white and the whitest shade of black, pale as never before. Kelton knows the cherokee rose by its scent, but he has never thought about how they look like. He takes one out from the bouquet and feels it with his fingers:
“It ain’t whiter than ya skin, it ain’t softer either”, Josiah says as he takes Kelton’s hand and feels the texture, the softness, the unwrinkled skin.
“It’s five petals an’ some small black things right in da middle, don’ know how dey called. But dey black. Not blacker than ma own skin. Never did ma eyes seen a more perfect flower. Wish us had it growin’ back in Africa. Now let us git goin’ an’ pray to da Good Lord dat ya will git to see da miracle of it wit ya own eyes.”
Later in the evening, Josiah and Kelton are wandering through the kitchen, waiting for Mammy Kane and Harriette to return from their Sunday meeting with God. Josiah sets the table, and, as he turns, forks and knives in hand, he listens to Kelton’s gentle pace. Before either of them manages to say a word, Josiah gently places the forks and knives on the table and turns on the radio:
As we enjoy a cigarette
To some exquisite chansonette
Two hands are sure to slyly meet beneath
With cocktails for two
“Tell me more about Africa”, Kelton spoke as their dancing fed the room, the floor, moving in a zig-zag towards nowhere.
“Us is cradle and us is bondage back home. Things be better if all white folks was blind. Would’ve saved lots of ma people.”
“Would’ve saved your parents.” As Kelton draws closer towards the voice, he reaches for Josiah’s shape, puts his arms on his chest and rests his head on Josiah’s abundant shoulder, in a child-like manner, seeking for refugee. In that embrace, Josiah winces as he feels the freedom of the enslaved released from bondage getting hold of him. He himself feels released and as he turns to take a look at Kelton’s demeanor, he sees the ardor and ecstasy of the newly freed slaves, their enlightened faces, gleaming with spirit and free life.
“When do white folks start seeing in color? Why dey choose to see in color? When ya look at me, ya can see me. All the others can’t. Let us git goin’.”
He takes Kelton’s hand and they both stride towards the safest place they know.
“I wanted to write my sister and tell her I found my relatives so she could know I am safe now. Kelton says in a little voice, while resting his head and body on the aching grass.
“Some relatives ya got yaself. What do ya See?”, Josiah asks abruptly.
“I See darkness instead of sky. Darkness instead of trees. Darkness instead of cornfield. Darkness instead of red cedars. Everywhere I look I see darkness. Nothing but black.” Then he pauses and looks up. “Except for you. When I look at you, I See light. Color. But a different kind of color. The one of the trees, the cedars, the sky and the cornfield. Fresh. As if all things in nature were reflected in you, reflected on your surface, carved in your skin.”
They were lying on the damp grass now, laced, a whole continent between them, encroaching an all-encompassing loneliness. Cherokee roses feel squashed beneath them as their bodies point towards home.
First published in 2014 by the Howl Literary Magazine