Reliable as the Stars

By Jasmine Evans

May rested on a hay-filled cot, her head touching the crown of her younger brother’s head, and her feet gently relaxing against the older brother’s shins. The hay poked through the gray material of the cot and pinched her legs in a way that was more annoying than painful. She heard one brother’s stomach growl and felt him roll over to try to quiet it. The rumble triggered a similar nose in the other boy’s stomach. Being the baby of the family, he didn’t wake from his sleep to quiet it.

She rolled on her back, tried to ignore the pinching hay, and looked out into the dark in the direction of the ceiling. In her mind’s eye, she saw the meat and produce her father kept locked away.

She could almost hear his voice, “This food is for making money, not for feeding greedy children.”

“Theo?” she whispered. Her voice was soft—or at least as soft as it could be in the face of rebellious, hungry thoughts.

“Yeah, May?” he didn’t bother whispering. Their small cabin was several yards away from the cabin where his parents slept. And Paul, the youngest, slept so hard a stampede of cows wouldn’t wake him.

“Were you awake?” May asked.

“No.”

May sensed the anger that pushed its way from his abdomen, through his throat, and emerged in the form of a lie. She wanted to take his mind off of things.

“Why did they kill Clarence last night?”

May regretted her question as soon as Theo snorted.

“Because he’s black,” he spat out. “Why else?”

“I thought maybe…maybe he had done something to provoke them. I’m not saying he did anything wrong, actually wrong. But they usually have a reason—even if it doesn’t make any sense.”

“They don’t need a reason.”

May sighed before he got the full sentence out. Theo snorted again. Their reactive noises hung in the air. He rolled over and May could feel him searching for her eyes through the darkness. She couldn’t see her own toes but she knew just at the end of them, Theo was watching her. She tried to think of something honest and reassuring to say, but her mind was empty. What could she say about the neighbors and friends that swung high from the trees every few days? What could she say about the postcards that white men would send home with children standing in front of lynched bodies (‘look what I did in Mississippi, Ma’)? What could she say about the hunched shoulders and downcast eyes they had all adopted just to stay alive?

There was nothing she could say that he didn’t already know. This was, in some ways, more his reality than hers. For a moment, she hated the South. It was the only home she had ever known and in it, she communed with nature, found God, and learned survival. But it also threatened each day to claim her life—or worse, her brothers’.

“We have to leave,” she whispered.

“What?” Theo said for a moment. It was as if he was sure he couldn’t have heard her right.

“We have to leave. There’s no good in staying here.”

“Don’t be foolish. Where are we going to go?”

“North! Where else?”

“These aren’t slavery days, May. We can’t just follow a star and hope for the best.”

May shifted her legs, trying to get comfortable around the hay. “If we stay, we’ll never have the life we want.”

“And what life is that?” Theo raised up on one elbow and glared at her. “You have some fancy life in mind? Huh? You going to take your light-skinned self and find a white man up North to treat you nice?”

May told herself it was just the lack of food talking. He didn’t mean it.

Her stomach screamed, and Theo’s anger deflated.

“I didn’t mean it,” he whispered.

“I know.”

“We can do just fine here. People do just fine.”

She didn’t respond.

“It’s not a wonderland, May. It’s not some magical place where all our problems disappear. We hear some bad things too.”

“I know.”

“You can’t live where you want. They have rules about that, you know.”

“I know.”

“And it’s crowded. We could be stuffed into a tiny apartment with a bunch of other people that we don’t know. And—and—you couldn’t work outside anymore. You would have to work in a factory all day long with dangerous machines.”

“But you hear people say all the time that it was the best decision they ever made. They say it in the Defender all the time.”

“Doesn’t make it true.”

“So many people come back and say it’s terrible. That the crowds and the smells are too much, that white people still won’t treat you right, that you can’t see the stars at night.”

“Doesn’t make it true.”

Theo balled up his fists and punched his cot. “We can’t just leave because you’re hungry.”

May ground her teeth. “Why not? What’s so wrong about wanting my body to feel right?”

“That place will destroy our souls.”

In the heavy silence, the crickets’ nighttime orchestra reached a crescendo. In the barn next door, the cows groaned as they shifted in their sleep, a couple of insomniac chickens clucked softly to each other, the dog’s snores mimicked what May imagined the train sounded like.

“If you stay here, they will kill you.”

“You don’t know that,” Theo whispered.

“I do know that. And I can’t be in any place that could steal you from me in a second.”

Theo opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and closed it again. He bit his lip, chewed on it, licked it roughly as he rolled May’s words around in his mind.

May listened to the soft grunts and slurps of saliva and smiled. She knew he was right. And in that moment, she knew he knew too.

“Papa’s not going to let us leave. I’m barely sixteen. You’re a child.”

It was her turn to snort. “I’m a woman. And since when does Papa tell you what to do?” She spat out each word, reached up and wiped the spittle away with the back of her hand.

She peered into the darkness and tried to see him. But her mind wandered to thoughts of slabs of beef, baskets of corn, and bins of fruit from other farms that they would help put into trucks to transport away in the morning. She thought of the hunger that clung to her like a thin dress after tripping into the creek.

The only time they had ever really felt full was on a special trip to an uncle’s house for Thanksgiving. The men hunted, shot, plucked, and cleaned a turkey the size of a small child. The women added greens, corn, biscuits, gravy, and potatoes to the table. May had never had so much fun—or smelled so much goodness—in a blazing hot kitchen.

Since then, the hunger reminded her that she was still alive. The act of forced deprivation felt more human, more true than the gluttony of the holidays. But maybe, just maybe, she thought, it was time for something else to make her feel alive.

“I bet they have good food in Philadelphia,” May said, giving some weight to her thoughts.

“What do you know about Philadelphia?” Theo responded, half-teasing.

May shrugged in the dark. Theo didn’t need to see her to know she was doing it. “I know we hear more about Chicago, but I think we should go to Philadelphia.”

Theo flopped onto his back and let out an “ahh” and a hiss as the hay poked into his rear. May turned on to her back as well, much more gracefully than her brother. They rested in silence—almost silence with Paul and the dog then competing for the loudest snore.

“We hear more about Chicago,” he repeated.

“I know.”

The sun began to peek through the slats of the cabin. Theo rose slowly and tried to shake off the discomfort of the cot.

“I bet they have better beds in Philadelphia,” May whispered.

Theo let out a breath, long and slow. “Let’s find out,” he said.

May sat straight up so quickly she saw flashes of light in front of her face. “Really?”

Theo didn’t respond. He just pulled a shirt over his head and searched for his shoes.

May changed out of her sleep clothes and into her best dress. Theo grabbed his pack, which had a knife, two dollars in coins, a pen, and a Bible. May reached under her cot for the piece of almost stale bread she had been saving for an emergency. The bread and the Word would have to sustain them during the long train ride.

They looked at Paul at the same time. Before Theo could ask what they were going to do, May leaned over her baby brother’s closed eyes and kissed his forehead. He didn’t move or skip a snore. Theo waved even though Paul could neither see nor wave back.

In the light of day, they could see each other’s gaunt cheekbones, frown lines, and protruding collarbones—signs of a lifetime of hunger. Theo wanted to see his sister get old and fat. And he knew that would never happen if they stayed.

Slowly creeping out of the cabin, they climbed up a small hill to the main road.

“Do we go back and say bye to Mama?” Theo asked.

“We keep going.”

“Where do we stop?”

“Don’t ask me about stopping before we even start.”

She glanced up at the sun. Thousands, if not millions, of people had made the exact same decision they had made overnight. It was a long walk to the train station, and after that, she would just have to follow her gut—only marginally more reliable than the stars—and hope for the best.

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Jasmine Evans is a freelance writer and MFA student at Mills College. Her work has been published in Heater and Bread for God’s Children. She’s also a reader for Sucker Literary Magazine. When she’s not working on another story or article, she loves to browse thrift stores for “new” books.

 

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