Have a hanky ready as you read this story of the tragedy of Melungeon ancestry. Is it any wonder that Melungeons hid who they were or where they came from?
Ididn't know what to make of it when I saw Ad come stomping into the house in the middle of the morning. He was white as a lily.
"Cordia runned off and got married last night," he said. "To Mos Arwood."
"Hit's a tale-idle," I said. "It hadn't so."
But he said Squire Newberry told him. Then he let in to fussing at me because I let her go over there to spend two weeks with Amy. Said after Amy got married and went to Hamblen County to live she had forgot how to take care of anything. Said it looked like I wanted Cordia to run off and get married. I didn't know what to do. Me and Ad had both been tight on Cordia, tighter than we were on our own youngons. We never had allowed her to go to any poke suppers or singings or anything like that. Many was the time I had stayed away from things myself just to keep Cordia at home.
Of course, Cordia didn't know but what me and Ad were her real pa and ma. I give Effena a death-bed oath that I never would tell. You know, if you tell something a dying person asks you not to tell you will be haunted by that person the rest of your life. Everybody you tell will be haunted too. It never would have done to have told Cordia--just never would.
I didn't see how I was going to do without Cordia. And having to worry about her. That made it worse. I had missed her them two weeks she had been staying with Amy--missed her worse than a cow misses a baby calf. I told Amy to be careful with her. But I could tell about what had happened. And I was right. Amy let her go to one of them Dunkards' suppers. Of course, a Dunkards' supper is the beatinest place in the world for a boy and girl to start sparking. Cordia couldn't see but what she had as much right to get married as anybody else when she was already seventeen year old. Me and Ad had brought her up with our own youngons and she never did know she was just a grandyoungon.
Effena, she died just two days after she bore Cordia. She had had much to go through on account of her man getting killed and everything. Then taking that long trip to the New Jerusalem church house in the wagon just as it was time for the baby to come. And the baby being a girl instead of the boy she already had named "Little Murf." It was all too much for her. She was always the sickliest one of my youngons anyhow.
So when Effena saw she was going to die she asked me not to ever let Cordia know that her pa had been a Melungeon. Said some folks were getting so they held it against a body for being a Melungeon. I reckon it was because of what that ignorant man from down the country said about them having Negro blood in them. Of course I don't know. I never have seed a Negro. But I've heard tell of them. Ad sees them sometimes when he goes to Newport. But other folks claimed that Melungeons were a Lost Colony or a Lost Tribe or something. I don't know. I just know Effena said for me to raise Cordia up to think she didn't ever have any other pa or ma. And she said for me not to ever let Cordia get married. I could see how Effena thought. I knowed if Cordia ever had any boy youngons they would be Melungeon-colored and her man might not understand. I knew, and I promised Effena just as the breath went out of her.
I set out to keep the promise. Many was the time it was hard to keep from bawling when Cordia would beg like a pup to go somewhere and would think hard of me because I wouldn't let her. But I made up my mind not to worry till I had something to worry about. I told myself there might not be any youngons, or if there were, they might all be girls.
Everything I looked at made me think of Cordia. The blue flowers out in the yard. Cordia had gone out in the woods and dug them up along back in the spring. Cordia liked flowers. I can remember how she liked them even when she wasn't any more than knee-high to a duck--how she would slip off and pluck wild flowers of all sorts and come toting them in. She went all over the side of Reds Run Mountain picking sweet williams in the spring. She would make little round rings out of larkspur blossoms. And press them in the catalogue.
Cordia was handy around the house. She took to cooking like a duck to water. And she was pretty. I wish it had been so I could have let her go to big to-do and have a good time. If it just hadn't been for that blood in her. I would have let her have a big time. Then when she got married she could have had an infare and everything. But there's no use crying over a burnt-up candle.
Cordia come home that evening and brought Mos with her. I tried not to let her see I was worried. But I did talk to her about all the signs there are that a woman is going to have a baby. I made her promise to come right to me and let me know at the first sign she had. I hate to own up to what I was aiming on doing. All the years that I have been a Granny-woman I never have give anybody a thing to knock a youngon. Heaps of women have begged me to. It is just one of the things I always said no to. But with Cordia it was different. What I aimed on doing was to give her a quart of hot pennyroyal tea. Ma told me about it back when she was teaching me to be a Granny -woman.
I tried to hint around and tell Cordia how to keep from getting big. But Cordia didn't want to keep from it--she said she wanted youngons. So I knew I would have to work easy to keep her from catching on to what it was for. And, on top of it all, right while I was talking to her I heard a dove on top of the house hollering hollering out its bad luck sound.
Of course I couldn't tell Ad nor the youngons anything about it. And Cordia would know when she had her miscarriage. But I allowed Mos never would know but what Cordia got too hot or jumped down off the fence or something. Then I made up my mind that I wasn't going to worry over a swinging foot-log till I was sure I would have to cross one. I didn't see Cordia eter a time during that whole winter long. Ad went over there once or twice and he said she was getting on all right. Said she was just broke into harness like an old horse.
It come spring. Spring made me feel so good I didn't stop to worry much over Cordia. I was sure she would let me know. It come a real pretty day. I got up soon that morning because I had a feeling Cordia might take a notion to come home and spend the day. The first thing I seed was Old Puss setting there in front of the door washing her face. I was sure then that somebody was coming. I hurried on and started to milk. I hoped it would be Cordia. I wanted to see her. She hadn't been back any more since her and Mos come the next evening after they were married. Of course, the weather hadn't been fitten for her to come.
I hung the milk bucket across my arm and started out the door. It seemed like I couldn't get my work turned off very well. I just poked around like the dead lice were dropping off me. It seemed like the chickens and turkeys and everything else were hungry. They all started to yelping and running after me. They got on my nerves. I stopped to feed them. Everything I saw made me think of a baby being born, of a ma trying to save a youngon. I could see the egg hanging in the old gray goose's belly. One of the old turkey hens acted sneaking, like she was going to slip off and hunt herself a nest. I seed a little robin skipping about up there in the cow field. Singing because it was fixing to build itself a nest. Happy even before its babies were hatched out. I had to go plumb to the furderest corner of the field. Old Heif always used around the oak trees over there soon of a morning.
I felt all shook up inside. I kept turning around and looking back. I could see somebody coming down the side of Sals King Mountain. I knowed they couldn't be going anywhere else save here. I couldn't think of it being anybody save Cordia. I went on to milk. I couldn't tell for sure who it was. But I knew in reason it was Cordia. Nobody else would be coming this way. I kept on looking back. It looked to me like everwho it was had on a green hat, a yellow waist, and a blue skirt, and big red shoes. She was leading a cow that had a green head and a yellow neck, a blue body and red legs. Then I caught myself.
I thought if it was Cordia she would go on in the house and make up the beds. I thought nothing had got wrong with her. She never had sent word by Ad that she wanted to see me about anything.
Old Heif was away over in the edge of the pine thicket. 1 thought I would milk her over there where she stood. It would take less time than driving her up. I seed a snake skin right in front of me. Another bad luck sign. But I had already made up my mind not to let things bother me.
Old Heif had been dry in one tit for over a week. I never had thought much about it before. But I thought about it then. That was the worst of bad luck. Then the sun hid behind a cloud and things looked dark and gloomy. I felt tired and dilitary for some reason. I felt like I was just about ready to fall to staves. The old wet filth in the gullies stunk worse than carrion. I nigh stepped on a tumblebug. It let lose of its ball quick as a frog could jump into the water. That set me to thinking again. Tumblebugs knew how to take care of their youngons. Spiders made a ball to tote their youngons around in too. And ditt clobbers.
And birds--if they thought somebody was going to pester their nests--would grab up the little birds in their mouths and hide them in the bushes somewhere. Then they would perch themselves on a limb and holler. They wanted a body to kill them instead of the little birds. Snakes--even snakes took care of the little snakes. They would swallow them. Then I told myself to stop thinking about such. And then I told myself again that any ma that loved her youngon wouldn't let harm come to it. Cordia was more than my youngon.
I moseyed on back to the house. Seemed like I couldn't hurry no matter how hard I tried. I heard somebody making a racket in the house. I couldn't help but notice that old hen standing in the door. Just as I hollered shoo at her she stuck out her head and crowed. I went over that old saying:
"A whistling girl and a crowing hen is sure to come to some bad end.''
I took note of which one it was so I could ring her old neck for her.
Cordia heard me holler and she come to the door with the broom in her hand.
"Well, howdy doo," I said. "What crooked wind browed you here?"
"I don't know. How are you all getting along?"
"We are perusing about. How are you and Mos?"
"As well as common, I reckon." she said. She went to talking ahout needing to be at home. "By rights I ought to be at home working now. But this is the first day it has been fitten to come.''
I looked at her. She looked like an old woman--tired and without color. "How many chickens have you'ns got?" I asked her.
"We've not had very good luck. We had about thirty-seven hatched off. We don't have but nineteen now."
"I'll get this milk strained so we can set down and talk," I told her.
She said for me to go on with my work. Then she said, "I guess I might as well tell you now. I'm that way, Ma."
I jumped. "You don't know for sure yet? You might not be."
"Yeah, it couldn't be anything else. I've been that way for three months now."
"Three months?" I knew I mustn't let on. I didn't know what to do. Pennyroyal tea won't do any good after a woman is that far gone. I tried to think it would be a girl baby. I begun saying to myself that I wished Cordia would die before it was born. Of course I didn't wish anything of the sort. I tried to make out like I was proud. "Who are you going to have with you, Cordia ?"
"You and Mos's ma," she said.
For the next six months that was all I could think of. I tried to tell myself it was good enough for Cordia because she didn't come and tell me sooner. I tried to think it would be sure to be a girl baby, and not be black. But soon I got to the place where I couldn't believe anything save that it would be a boy. Then when I recollected that Ad had told me Mos had a Melungeon boy from Newman's Ridge in Hancock County staying over there with him during the winter to help saw wood, I seed that would make things worse.
I had a feeling it would have to happen that night, that night it did happen. It was an awful night. A stormy night in the fall of the year. It was the worst storm I ever saw. I didn't see how Ad could lay there and sleep like a knot on a log. I had to stay up and look out the window. I couldn't have slept if I had all the jimpson weed seeds in the world in my shoes.
The water was slushing against the house. There wasn't any air--not enough for a body to breathe. I thought I was going to smother. I opened the window door and kept it open, even if the lightning did scare me. The hard splashes of water. I had to shut it once or twice--for a short white. It was a regular cloudbust.
I felt certain something terrible was bound to happen that very night. I had been feeling it all day. I dreamed of snakes the night before--green snakes. I hadn't slept any the rest of the night. The wind. I buttoned the door and the window too. And propped the door good. But every puff that come I thought it was going to blow open. I feared to breathe. If the door should blow open the wind would suck through and blow the top off the house. I felt like the wind coming through the window was about to blow me away.
"Ad," I yelled.
"Shet your mouth," he said. Then real quick, "What the hell?"
"The door. Quick," I told him.
Part II follows: