The men nod as we pass but the women, wearing ragged, dirty housedresses, turn away, ashamed to be seen looking so destitute. These are not vacationers camping along the river for the fun of it; they have nowhere else to go.
It’s been only a few weeks since we adopted the Hucknell children and we three families have gathered on the bank of the Hope for a Sunday picnic. Even Sarah Maddock has come, wearing her braces and leaning on a walker that her husband ordered from Sears. Reverend and Mrs. Miller are here too, with a boy and a girl from Hazel Patch, to talk about their school.
“It would actually help us to have you participate,” Mrs. Miller says. “There are only twelve students, ages five through fourteen. It’s a cooperative, certified by the Union County Board of Education. The closest other school for coloreds is on the far side of Delmont.”
“And the Hazel Patch folks won’t mind white children at their school?” I have to ask the question.
“Then it’s settled,” Daniel comes in. “We’ll all volunteer and you can expect four new pupils in the fall. . . .” He turns to the children. “Now, how about a game of Duck Duck Goose?”
While the kids and the men play the silly circle game, Patience and I wander downstream. She made a new sling, a smaller flowered one, so that she can carry Mira everywhere, and we find a flat rock where she can sit with her bare feet in the water and nurse the baby. I lie there looking up at the clouds and listening to the river as it sings below.
“How are you going to do it?”
“Be a midwife with a baby, a toddler, and two school-aged children.”
“I’ve thought about that. It will be harder, but maybe you’ll help me.” Here she grins. “I know how you love childbirth.”
I can’t help but smile back. “Helping women have babies when you’re in charge isn’t so bad.”
“So you’ll be my partner, like Bitsy?”
I don’t answer at first, trying to pull all the pieces of my life together, mother, nurse, midwife. Then I shrug. “I guess I could.”
Patience cheers and kicks water up like a little girl. “Yay!” And the drops come down like diamonds, sparkling in the sun.
“Dinner!” It’s Mrs. Maddock calling from the riverbank.
Our picnic, on blankets, isn’t exactly a feast, just whatever we could throw together; potato salad from Patience, deviled eggs from me, fresh home-baked bread and bean pickles from Mrs. Maddock, and cold milk from Moonlight, the Hesters’ cow.
I’m waiting for someone to say grace and am surprised when Sally begins. “God is great. God is good.” All the little girls chime in. “And so we thank Him for this food.”
I catch Isaac’s eye and well up with tears.
Chain of Fools
“Who wants to wade to the other side of the river?” Daniel jumps up when we’ve eaten our fill. “Who’s with me?” Most of the children raise their hands and start taking off their shoes.
This is an adventure. None of us has ever crossed the Hope before, except over the bridge into Liberty. Daniel and Blum are scouting for a shallow place and immediately I start thinking of danger. Someone might drown! But then I see Patience kicking off her boots and handing the baby to Sarah Maddock for safekeeping.
Fools come in all sizes, those who heed no caution and those who heed too much. I unlace my shoes.
“Are you going across, Sally?”
“I don’t know. I’m afraid.”
“I’m scared too, but there’s a bunch of us. I think we’ll be all right.”
Even the Reverend and Mrs. Miller come in. We are all barefoot with our pants or skirts hitched up high, and then two more children from the homeless camps run over. They want to join the fun, and their parents, seeing the number of adults participating, wave them on.
Here we are. Can you see us? All holding hands, brown and white together, a chain spanning the river? Daniel leads the way, little Danny on his shoulders, with Mr. Maddock at the end, thirteen of us crossing the Hope, ice-cold water up to our knees and no one falls.
The other side of the Hope River is not beautiful. The ground is bare and brown where the flames scorched the earth, but we can look back at the green where we came from. For a while we lounge on rocks or play in the sand, the boys and girls wading and splashing in the cool shallows.
Then as the kids become hungry or bored, the grownups begin to shepherd them back. Braver now, they cross in twos and threes. Sally returns hand-in-hand with Mrs. Miller, who has become her friend.
“When you come to our school, Sally,” Mildred Miller confides, “I will be your teacher. Have you ever played with colored children before?”
“Not until today. I never touched a brown hand before today, but my daddy told me that there isn’t no difference. He said we’re all the same under the skin, same blood, same heart. He worked with plenty of coloreds in the PWA.”
I think about that. Despite his violence, Alfred Hucknell gave a legacy of equality to his daughter.
“Dessert, everybody!” Sarah Maddock calls, getting her famous strawberry cake out and cutting pieces for the children, even the homeless kids.
Isaac and I are the last to leave.
“Come,” he says, standing. He reaches for my hand and we wander down the bank away from our party, where the river runs fast and deep. There are rocks here as big as autos and I’m hoping he doesn’t want to go for a swim. I’m not that big a fool.
“Look! The land is already healing.” He bends down and pulls me to my knees next to the river. “Green plants growing up through the ashes . . . some of the seeds had probably sprouted before the fire, but some were dormant and released by the flames.” He’s talking like a professor again.
“Shhhh,” I say, putting one finger to his lips. “Shhhh. Just worship. From devastation comes new life.”
We look into each other’s eyes, but it’s too much for me and I shift my gaze.
This is a man I’ve lived with since his wife died and he fell apart, a man I worked with for seven years before that, but a different man now, rising from his own ashes. And I am a different woman.
“Lying with you that first night when I first brought Sally home,” Blum says, “I felt I’d come home myself.”
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