by Nane Quartay
The bent, old woman shuffled along madly, a rattan basket hanging from her one good arm, swinging wildly with the pendular motion of her atrophied gait. A voice from somewhere in Manhattan caught her ear and she cocked her head, straining, quickly turned and ran, escaping into the garden of stone.
Taylor Wilkens. The name stared back at her from the gravestone and she shivered with agony and pain, her palsied left hand twitching as life drained from her, falling slowly, like a teardrop.
"Hello. I'm Taylor Wilkens." Young Taylor Wilkens spoke softly, sincerely and she felt instantly drawn to him, her heart going places that were strange to her mind. She was young, a bit naive in retrospect, but when she returned the deep gaze of his endlessly deep, blue eyes, a blush was all she could manage in response. I'm going to marry this man, she thought. Taylor stepped closer, "It's not a natural thang, so let's get to it."
"What?" she replied. His eyes penetrated her.
"Where's your father?" he asked.
"My father?" she said, her eyes still drinking him.
"Yes," he replied. "I want to ask him for your hand ... in marriage."
A look of shocked disbelief crossed her face as she regarded him standing before her with an intent look of assured confidence etched into his handsome features. Quickly she regained her composure.
"Sir," she responded, "we just met. You don't even know me."
"Where is he?" Taylor asked.
"Who?" she asked stupidly.
"Your father," he answered. She looked at him sarcastically and he touched her arm in response.
"Please," he gazed deeply into her eyes. "I know whut I want. I know whut I need. One look and I know it's you." The sincere honesty of his plea assaulted her caution and she let it give way.
"Besides," Taylor smiled, "you have at least two strong children in your frame."
She blushed warmly. Two months later they had an old fashioned Alabama wedding and began their life together. Taylor Wilkens was a strong, patriotic man, and she wanted to give him a son. They tried repeatedly, with no success and soon Taylor began to seem indifferent. She took his apathy as a failure on her part as blissful nights soon became uneventful bouts of sleep. She had saved herself for marriage; Taylor had been elated to find her virginity intact on their wedding night; but once married, her appetite had awakened like a lion, roaring with ferocity. The ensuing absence of intimate love cast a pall over her life and saddened her to the point of desperation. Taylor seemed oblivious to her dilemma and she dared not broach the subject. Instead, she began taking long walks, the physical exertion soothed her and the clean, country air was invigorating.
One hot day, she wandered aimlessly and found herself at Underhill, a lake that was abandoned by the townspeople, and the promise of solitude was pleasing. She stood to the side of the path and leaned against a large oak tree, slowly sliding down the trunk until she was seated in its comforting shade. She looked up at the clear blue sky, lost in thought, when she heard someone approaching. As she turned to look, a black man sprinted past her to the pier and executed a perfect swan dive into the cooling water, barely leaving a ripple. Open mouthed, she watched him as he surfaced and began swimming to the other side of the lake with long, powerful strokes.
He didn't even see me, she thought as the man began his return to the near side of the lake. He was nearly back to shore before he looked up and saw her sitting there, unmoving and staring intently. He came up short, surprised at her presence and seemed even more alarmed at her silence.
His role in society was well defined and white women were taboo. In the silence that followed, the sounds of nature seemed amplified. Birds chirped in stereo, frogs bumped around loudly and the sun shined its rays in hot, flashy beams. The man came out of the water toward her. She saw power and passion in his stride, his chest, his arms .... Shamefully, she put away the searing thoughts that flitted across her mind, yet her heart still quickened.
"Ma'am," he greeted her with a nod and a smile. He proffered his hand and she looked at it as if it were some strange appendage before she looked in his eyes.
"You ain't from around here, are you?" she asked. "What makes you say that?" he replied.
"Well," she answered, "most Negras around here can't swim, first of all. Second, you didn't get scared when you saw me sitting here ... and you sound like a Yankee!" The man chuckled. A warm, endearing laugh.
"No. No," he replied. "I was born here. Right here in Tuskegee. I went to college up north, then I came back here to take care of some personal matters. Tuskegee is just the way I remember it, though. I'll be leaving soon enough." He turned and looked at her. She met his gaze and the feelings she had pushed away once before rushed her mind anew. The message he was sending was a universal secret between a man and a woman. Undeniable.
"That's an ugly scar," she said, changing the subject. He looked at his thigh and smiled knowingly. It wasn't a scar but he knew where she had been looking.
"Yes," he said. "I'm gettting treatment for that. One shot a day for two weeks, then I'm done."
"I don't know exactly. The doctors said that everything's fine now. I'm cleansed," he finished. A calm settled between them, no longer from separate worlds. Instead they lingered in a place of their own creation, one of warmth and sunshine.
"It's beautiful out here," he said to the plush landscape of serenity surrounding them. Large, towering oaks rimmed the lake. Nature's sentinels. The multi-hued foliage added soft colors to the picturesque scenery.
"Yes," she sighed, contentedly.
"That's what I need," he said, pointing. "The freedom of a tree." He sat down next to her, she felt heat emanating from his body even though they didn't touch. She wondered if he felt hers.
"Free," he continued. "Free to grow as tall and as strong as you like. Looking down on the life of clean, blue water and know that it is eternal. To appreciate the beauty of nature and the beauty of a woman." He turned to her, "Any woman. And feel all the feelings demanded by such a sight. Free of the fear."
A soft, southern breeze rustled over the waters. "See the branches of that big oak?" he pointed. "Stretching, reaching out. Grasping the sunlight! Every bit it needs or wants ... it takes. Freely." A deer emerged from the dense woods, resting in the shade of a giant oak. Its head swiveled form side to side, spotting the pair on the opposite shore, watchful.
"See!" he sprang to his feet excited. She stood and together they silently wondered at nature and the tranquility of its creatures. The deer turned and disappeared into the forest, leaving thick silence in its wake.
"Come on," the man whispered, his hand reaching with an open invitation. She paused for a moment, as desires and taboos battled inside her, then, slowly, she reached for his hand. Her silent acceptance like a thunderclap between two sinners.
The harsh New York night chill pimpled her skin and she shivered involuntarily. She had been so young then, her nature so strong, that when that man had taken her, her heart had trembled. Across the bay, on the shore, lights dotted the night like stars of life. Each life oblivious to the pain cowering behind a gravestone; a poor soul hiding in plain sight. She raised her trembling fingers to the engraved name on the headstone and nervously traced each letter. Her husband had been such a good man.
And he had loved her until the day he died.
She sat brushing her hair with the window open to let fresh air into the house on a hot, Alabama night. After returning from her walk to the lake she had taken a long, hot bath, alone with her thoughts.
"Honey!" Taylor sang, interrupting her thoughts.
"Yes," she answered, eyes wide in surprise.
"Why don't you go in there and put on that special dress for me? The one I like?" Taylor asked warmly, smiling at her reaction. She giggled girlishly, got up and kissed him happily, then wiggled into the other room, laughing coyly as Taylor watched her. Taylor loved her that night and for many nights after he was the amorous man she had married. Two months later she was with child. She would finally give Taylor a son! Elated she raced home to tell him the good news. She burst through the door, excited, and found him standing by the window with a drink in his hand. She didn't like the look on his face as he turned to her.
"Honey, the war has started. In Germany. I enlisted." He took her hand, "I leave tomorrow." Something inside her cracked and she screamed.
Her screams rang out in the night, echoing over the waters, bouncing off passing ships, as she shook her head to bring herself out of her reverie and into the present. She reached into the rattan basket and picked up the knife. It gleamed in the night light, the blade sharp and pretty. It held the beauty of death and she hugged the knife to her bosom like a suckling child. "I begged him," she ranted. "I begged him not to go! I need you! Our baby needs you! We need you!" But he had gone anyway. A tear slid down her cheek as she rocked the knife in the graveyard shadows. A tear for the love she lost and the love she buried.
"Any time now, Mrs. Wilkens. Soon," the nurse said as they propped her legs in the stirrups. The baby was coming and her husband was in Germany fighting the war. She had to do this alone.
"Push!" the nurse yelled. She pushed. And pushed. And pushed until she felt something being torn out of her body. The operating room fell silent. "What is it, doctor?" she panted. "Is it a boy?"
The doctor handed her the little bundle and, upon looking, she gasped in shock. The baby was a Negra! He looked through sightless eyes at her and its head was sadly misshapen. She screamed in horror.
Weary and battered, she left the hospital that day with the baby and later that night took it into the woods near Underhill. She stabbed the baby in the heart and buried it under the oak trees. Dry eyed, she slowly walked home, her legs wooden, her insides numb. She sat alone with her secret by the window as the last vestiges of the autumnal equinox faded into ghostly shadows of night. An unwelcome visitor knocked on the door and she reluctantly rose to answer. A uniformed soldier stood in the doorway, a messenger of death, standing tall and solemn, grim in his military bearing. She sobbed as he spoke, his words a desperate drone.
" ... your husband was killed in the line of duty ..."
Without a word she walked to the door and held it open for the soldier to leave. Head bowed, he marched out; the door slammed behind him with a resonating boom. Silently she went into the kitchen and came out with a knife. She spent twelve hours of the long night crying with the love of the knife.
Insanity ate at her brain. Her time was near. She looked around in the silence, her ears straining, sifting through the night sounds for unnatural noises. "Nothing," she whispered. "Nothing." The fruits of her life had been poisoned ambrosia, her path a gauntlet from hell that cut swaths of pain across her soul. No more tears! She had cried her tears for a husband lost in war, pieces of his body marked the spot of his passage to the hereafter. Her baby she had mourned years later, after she had fled Alabama for New York City. Her baby's blindness, the odd, misshaped head had been the result of an experiment. The Tuskegee Experiment. A series of test that southern doctors had run on young, unsuspecting Black men. Injecting them with syphilis, Treponema Pallidium, and studying the results. A syphilis that she had contracted. It was now eating away at her brain, driving her beyond the brink of madness. It had already eaten into the tissue in her arm, slowly but steadily, until her arm palsied into a useless hook of flesh.
Suddenly the cloud that lingered over her brain, unmoving --- moved! She looked to the heavens, thankful for the clarity, and with a resolve born of lucidity, brought the knife from her bosom and raised it to the sky. A soft, misty rain began falling, leaving wet drops on her cheeks. No more tears!
Taylor Wilkens. The name stared back at her from the gravestone and she shivered with agony, her palsied left hand quivered as life drained from her.
"I'm sorry," she whispered and brought the knife down, plunging it deep into her heart.