Read Sweet Song Online

Authors: Terry Persun

Tags: #Coming of Age, #African American, #Historical, #Fiction

Sweet Song


he sharp glare of the enflamed sunset only intensified the sight of his father’s blood. Leon kneeled, then became still. He stared into his father’s black face, mesmerized by the return stare. Had Leon not been born, Big Leon wouldn’t be lying in the mud, and the blood stained grass would not be flattened against the wet ground. Had Leon not learned to read, his father would never have run from the shack, pushing Leon ahead of him, roughing his hair, knocking him over a time or two. Had Leon not loved the landowner’s daughter, his father would not have been shot through the heart and head, eyes gazing into the near-night sky as if terrorized by fear. Big Leon pleaded blankly for his son, Leon, to understand some long-kept secret that wasn’t much of a secret at all—that they were not truly related by blood. With the noise of pursuers all around them and getting closer, Leon still didn’t move.

*          *          *


Leon didn’t remember being born, but had heard often enough of the blood and gush of it. Martha referred to the sound. Edna referred to the smell. “A dark smell,” she called it. “And a white chile. Even though the father be black black coal.”

Leon had heard the story of how Big Leon tried to knock his little body out of his mother’s arms. “Just as he seen ya, after farmin’, he tried it,” Martha told him. “But Bess, she hole tight, turnin’ in
circles until the all of us come down on Big Leon, stoppin’ him. When we let ‘im up off the floor he leave the shack for two days. ‘Course he daren’t leave the farm, so he work all night and all day until after two of them he can’t see black or white, and he come back to the house. But Bess knowed not to trust, maybe the sense of it just be deeper in her than him. After that he hardly make mention of it. Always tryin’ to get her trust back, I suppose.”

Leon sat on a fruit crate while Martha talked. He listened and watched as she washed herself in the shallow sink basin in the back of the shack. Her big brown breasts hung down as she bent over. She took care to soap and wash her face and head, then her arms, shoulders, and trunk. Last, she slid her slippery hands all around and over the front of her breasts, the black nipples hardening into stacked buttons. She talked all the while she washed. She told Leon stories no one else would tell him. “I tell you these things ‘cause I have a love for you that yo’ mama’s and pappy’s grief don’t know how to give. I see things goin’ on where they spite each other even in their man-woman relations.”

At age four, Leon didn’t understand some of the stories she told. But he remembered them. As he aged, familiar phrases dropped from Martha’s lips dragged images of her handsome, swaying breasts along with them, like the words needed the image for authenticity.

Leon understood he wasn’t all black and wasn’t all white, but that’s all he understood. Somewhere between two colors he stood fenced out of the only two worlds he knew. The other Negro children called him Mix-up. Whenever he complained, Bess held him close and whispered, “They scared ‘cause you better than them.”

Martha said, “There’s nothin’ one can do about hows they look, but you got all them choices for hows you acts.”

Bess cooked for the Carpenter family. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes she’d leave well before light and not return until well after dinner and dark. Leon wondered whether she ever got to be outside at all and felt sorry for her. Big Leon, on the other hand, practically lived outside. Martha told Leon that about a year before he was born, Big Leon was made foreman of the Negro farmhands. Mr. Carpenter acted as his own overseer. “That no position easy to
get if you as black as Big Leon,” she told him. “Even after the war and emancipation.”

Leon sat with his skinny legs out straight and his back against the outside wall. Dim light penetrated the stained window, speckling Martha’s face, arms, and torso with light and dark, like pebbles at the bottom of a slow moving stream. The air brushed in chilly from the open door. Martha’s bare skin stood goose-pricked and tight. Martha had ordered the other children to gather wild mushrooms from just inside the woods.

Leon wiped a tear from his cheek. The verbal beating he had gotten from the other children now kept him inside. Martha wouldn’t let him go into the woods, “Lest you get a physical beating too,” she said. He rubbed his head where he had been knocked with a stick. He kept his mouth shut.

Soaping up, she turned to look at Leon. “Yo’ daddy deserve that position better than any man, but sometimes he don’t believe it. He think it’s tradin’ that happened. He still act like a good boss-man to the others though. He don’t beat nobody even if he get beat. You ain’t likely to see it yo’ self, but yo’ pappy got the kindest heart of any man I know, black or white.”

Leon looked into Martha’s broad face, admiring her dark eyes and flat nose. He loved her big bones and strong arms. She could hold him tight when she hugged him. Or she could shove him against a wall when she got angry. She spoke tenderly of Big Leon, more than she did for her own sister. As if it were her whole name, Martha called her sister Poor Bess.

Martha’s job was to keep children safe and to clean the six hastily whitewashed shacks hiding behind several layers of trees beyond the main house. Only in winter, when the snow lay thick, cold, and white, could anyone glimpse the leaning buildings behind the dark trunks and branches of the bare elms, white ash, and black cherry. Even then it took the black line of wood-smoke that rose through the trees to announce their location.

The children knew to say yes ma’am to Martha. As the oldest Negro woman, her child rearing duties meant that she taught the children to be respectable slaves.

After dinner, Martha cleaned up and retired to her corner of the shack where she would hum or sing softly while Big Leon, Poor Bess, and Leon would live like a family. That privilege, according to Martha, was something many slaves never got to do, as they were sold almost as soon as they were born, eliminating any family allegiances that might arise.

Most nights, summer and winter alike, Big Leon took long walks returning exhausted.

Late in the evening, Bess talked with Leon and played tickle games. Once a week she washed him and took him to bed with her.

“You my little one?” she’d ask, sniffing his hair.

“Yes, Mama.” Martha had taught Leon what his answers were supposed to be. The teasing went on for years.

*          *          *


“You a beautiful boy.” Her fingers danced over his seven-year-old face.

“That tickles.”

“Oh, does this tickle?” She ran her fingers lightly down his chest and stomach and Leon tightened up, squeezed his shoulders close to his head and bent at the waist, all the while trying to keep Bess’s fingers from touching him.

She laughed and moved her hands around to his sides.

“No,” Leon said under his breath so that Bess couldn’t hear. She didn’t hold him as Martha knew how to do. Yet those moments of play were the only times Bess seemed happy, so Leon wanted the play to last as long as it could. As long as he could bear.

When the door opened and Big Leon entered all play stopped. Outside air churned up the inside air. Candle lanterns flickered and twisted the light inside the shack. Shadows rose and dropped. Sometimes Big Leon laughed and asked the same question he always asked when he caught the two of them together, “Playin’ with yo’ beauty?”

Bess did not answer.

Although the meaning of the question changed for Leon from year to year, it finally settled into what he considered a curse.

After asking that one question, his jaw set and his hands twitching, Big Leon sat and looked out the back door. He lifted his hand for a moment and everyone fell silent, except Martha whose humming softened, but remained.

In her straw bed, Bess positioned Leon to face away from her. She ran her fingers up and down his side, his stomach, and along his neck. Leon knew to stay quiet. He tensed, bearing the sensations of his skin until near tears. His dislike for the stimulation turned to hate that night. He got sick to his stomach, too, from all the tickling and the tension it brought on. For years, Leon vomited in the evening after play, erasing everything before it, miraculously relaxing him and enabling him to enter a deep sleep.

Had Big Leon come home and asked Bess, “You my woman?” Leon would be allowed to go to his own straw covered floor space. Bess would answer, “You know whose woman I am.” Those words, too, changed in meaning for Leon as he got older. The words also saved him, many times, from his mother’s attention, from sickness, but seldom from sleep.


urdened as an only child, Leon lived in a camp where many children meant family. When old enough to understand the concept, he learned of Bess’s repeated miscarriages. He witnessed several of them himself. Each time it happened, Big Leon stayed in the fields for a day or more. Leon discovered him sleeping against a tree one night and told Martha about it later that day.

“Early up and late down,” Martha said. “He’s feelin’ failed.”

“It ain’t him, though, that lost it,” Leon said.

“No, but it him that brought it on. And he knowed it.”

Leon watched Martha as she washed herself. It was their time to talk, as Martha cleaned up after a hard week.

“You playin’ with them white boys again?”

“How you know?”

“See it in you. You walkin’ funny. Now do yo’ chores.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Before Leon could head outside to fetch water, Martha said, “Work with Big Leon?”


Two boys ran into the shack, Edna chasing them. “Here now. Here.”

Martha looked up, her breasts, Leon noticed, swaying heavily around with her body as she turned to see what came through the door. “Edna?”

Edna’s two boys, Tunny and Bud, stood there smiling. Bud stared at Martha.

“What’s it boy, you ain’t never seen no teats afore?” Martha snatched up a rag and dried herself.

Leon jumped up to hide her nakedness from Bud’s stare. “Ain’t nothin’ to see.”

Bud started laughing and Tunny joined in.

“Those evil laughs,” Martha said. “What goin’ on?”

“Somethin’ not good,” Edna said.

“Mix-up, he in trouble,” Tunny announced.

“You gonna get a beatin’” Bud said.

“Maybe hanged,” Tunny said stretching out the ‘h.’

“Ain’t nobody gettin’ hanged here,” Martha said. Mr. Carpenter never done that as long as I lived. He might beat his Negroes, but he never kilt none.”

“He ain’t never had his own boy kilt,” Tunny said.

“Shush now, I be tellin’ her,” Edna pushed at the smiling boys.

“Lord, my, what happen?” Martha pulled on her shirt and moved to stand near her straw bed in the corner. Edna followed after shooing the boys outside. The boys waited, still in view, just beyond the door.

Leon took on a fear like never before. He stood transfixed, thinking and listening at the same time.

“Little Freddy be playin’ in the barn. A plank let loose up high an’ he fall smack on his haid. I heared that the brains leak out his ears and eyes. I heared he was crumpled like a old rag, limp and lifeless.”

“Mix-up done it,” Tunny yelled from outside.

“Leon been here with me lately,” Martha said, snapping Tunny’s sentence at the end.

“Hank and Earl sayin’ it’s all ‘cause Mix-up here—”

“Leon his name,” Martha said, jutting her chin out at Edna.

“You wanna hear this?” Edna pursed her lips.

Martha lowered her head.

Edna quieted her voice and said directly to Martha, “I said evil when I smelt evil.”

Leon pretended he didn’t hear what she said. He felt Martha’s humiliation in the presence of Edna’s arrogance and wished to save her. He didn’t move.

“Them other Carpenter boys say Leon suppose to fix the planks and miss one on purpose.”

“That weren’t true,” Leon shouted. “I never been told to fix them planks!”

“What you told, boy?” Martha said.

“You don’t believe me?”

“What you told?”

Leon closed his eyes for a moment. “Freddy come out—”

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