The Baptism

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2008-06-03
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

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When you turn twelve in Occoneechee Neck in Jackson, North Carolina, everything changes. You get to do stuff you couldn't do when you were eleven. And it means it's time to get baptized.Twin brothers Leon and Luke Curry turned twelve last month. Ma has given them one week in which to do right -- to cleanse themselves of their sinning ways and get themselves ready for the baptism. Next Sunday they will go down to the "mornin' bench" at church, sit in front of Reverend Webb, and be saved. It will be a glorious day. But that's only if Twin Leon and Twin Luke can keep themselves out of trouble. Which is easier said than done when you've lost your daddy and have a new stepfather; when you have a bullying big brother who plays tricks on you; and when it's summertime and all you want to do is go fishing instead of working in the fields.How Twin Leon and Twin Luke stick together to face the odds as only twelve-year-old boys can do, managing to save themselves while also unexpectedly saving their entire family in a week's time, is the heart of this moving, often funny, and often poignant novel.




Today is Sunday. The only day of the week that we don't have to work in the fields. The only day we get to wear our nice, nice clothes. We do not have church this Sunday, so Ma said we can go fishing. We have fishing clothes just like we got Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. There will be no fishing next Sunday morning, because me and my twin brother Luke Curry will get baptized. We ain't saved or nothing like that. We just doing what our ma, Lemuel Curry, telling us that she wants us to do. What she calls the "Christian" thing to do. She says if that ain't reason enough for us to want to get baptized, then we best remember that she is the one who puts the food on the table in the old house where we live. She says for us to remember that she wash the clothes that we wear to church, school, and everywhere else. The clothes that she buys with money she gets for washing and ironing clothes for white folks. Money she gets for baking and walking all over town to sell her baked goods to anybody that got some money. Ma said she wash the sheets that we sleep on. In the house that she pays the rent. If all of that ain't enough, she says to think about the old oak tree in the backyard. On that tree there are many limbs. On the limbs there are many small branches that make perfect switches. She cuts three at a time. First she cuts them, then she braids them, and those switches can make you remember anything that you have forgotten.

When she finishes all her braiding, she yells, "All right, twins, these switches got your names written all over them." Now, that really ain't Christian-like at all, but me and Twin Luke get the point. We will do as she tells us as long as we live in her house back here in the Occoneechee Neck. This is the house that me and Luke were born in. The white folks who own these Neck houses don't care nothing about us or the house we live in. Oh, but the land, well, that's a different story. See, they own the land, too, and they take care of the land because that's how they make their money. That's just the way it is in the Neck.

The Occoneechee Neck is as strange as it sounds. "Occoneechee" is an Indian name that means "powerful river." Now, long before the white folks came and took the land, the Indians lived back here. White folks took the place the Indians called home and turned it into cotton plantations, including the Wells plantation that we live on now. The Vernona plantation that was once owned by General Matt Ransom is right down the road. I reckon Matt Ransom is as famous as anyone in these parts will ever get. White folks around here talk about him like he was a god. During the Civil War, when white folks didn't want slavery to end in the South, he fought Yankee Colonel S. P. Shear and his army from the North, at Boone's Mill down the road. It was there that Matt Ransom and his soldiers turned Colonel Shear and his Yankee troops around after a three-hour bloodbath. Matt Ransom and his boys could not let the Yankees into this county because they were coming to blow up the railroad over in Seaboard. The railroad that was bringing General Robert E. Lee, his Southern troops, and their guns to Northampton County to help Matt Ransom keep slavery alive and well. In other words, Matt Ransom kept my grandma and all her kin as slaves a while longer, after the big fight at Boone's Mill.

After slavery Ma said that poor colored folks sharecropped because they didn't have no place to go.

All these years later, ain't much changed. We still work for white folks and take their orders all day. At night we go home and Ma tells us what to do. But she loves us and they don't.

Ma says that the way white folks treat us ain't going to last always. She says a change is going to come, and until then, God will take care of us. But she says in order for God to take care of us, we got to do right.

Right by Ma means, "You twins are twelve now and it's time to get baptized."

Yes, we had our birthday last month on the Fourth of July and we turned twelve. See, when you turn twelve in Occoneechee Neck, everything changes. You get to do stuff that you couldn't do when you were eleven.

I knew that this was going to happen because our cousin Pattie Mae Sheals that live about five miles from here over on Rehobeth Road told us what happened to her older brother and sister when they turned twelve back in the thirties. And she knows what's getting ready to happen to her. Like us, she knew that when you are eleven, you can't say the word "lie," you can't sit on the front porch with grown folks, and the boys can't go fishing with the men. But most of all, you can't get baptized. It's a big thing to turn twelve and go down in the water and come up saved. Saved to the point that you can't lie anymore. Saved to the point that sinning is behind you.

I don't know about Twin Luke and Pattie Mae, but sinning is fine with me. For all I know, sinning don't hurt nobody but the sinner himself. So why do I have to go and get saved?

Being a sinner bothers the grown folks more than it bothers me. Grown folks like my ma and all the saved folks around Northampton County. Especially the Neck people feel you have to be saved. These folks think that life is really better after you go down in the water. After ole Reverend Webb at Branches Chapel screams the word "Hallelujah" over you while half drowning you, he says, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." If you ask me, one time in the water is not going to change nobody. But that is what they believe and that is what my grandma, Bessie Curry on my daddy's side, says will do the job to get us to heaven.

I figure I have six days to sin all I want to. Luke got six days too, if he will go along with the plan. We also got six days to get the devil out of us. But I reckon ain't much devil in Twin Luke, because he is Mr. Goody Two-Shoes most of the time. Me, I'm going to do all my sinning first and then I will pray for the Lord to forgive me. I will ask him to move Satan out of my life for good. I will tell Twin Luke to do the same thing if he feels he need to, and then we will be born again.

Maybe getting baptized won't be too bad. Miss Mary Lee, who is Ma's friend that live over in Ahoskie, is definitely going to give me and Twin Luke some candy like she give all the children at Branches Chapel after they go down in the water in the river behind Branches Chapel. Ma says Miss Mary Lee been giving children candy for years. She says she gave her candy when she got baptized many, many years ago. I will appreciate the candy, but I am going to miss sinning some kind of bad. Sinning is the main reason I get out of bed in the morning. It is the reason that I wake Twin Luke up too. He ain't no everyday sinner like me, but every now and then I can get him to throw a rock or two. He really tries to be a good boy, but sinning is surely in his blood, if he will just accept it. I know it is, because sometimes he just join in with me and we get to doing some mess around here sho'nough.

Now don't get me wrong, we twins don't do any major, major sinning like stealing. Just stuff Ma would take our skin off for if she ever knew about it. We lie when we need to. That's a sin. We take stuff like an extra cookie out of the jar if we want to. That's a sin. We beat up kids because they white. That's a sin. But the biggest sin that we do is to our big brother, Joe. Me and Twin Luke call him Joe Nasty because he don't like to take a bath every day like Ma make us do.

Getting Joe Nasty in trouble any way that we can is worth every whipping that we get. We do that because he gets us in trouble, then act like he don't know what is going on. Ma says we better leave Joe Nasty alone and stop all the mess we doing wrong. I ain't leaving Joe Nasty alone for all the money in Northampton County. Joe Nasty just spoiled because he the oldest, and Twin Luke spoiled because he came out of Ma after I did and she say he is the baby. So I am the middle child and I don't get any respect around here. Sometimes I kind of feel adopted. Ma says, "How can you be adopted boy and you an identical twin?" She says for me to stop talking crazy and tell God that I am sorry before we go down in the water next Sunday. But I ain't sorry and she don't care about how I feel no way. She has never asked me if I was sorry for my sinning ways. She just knows we are going to stop sinning and we are going to stop this week.

Ma should have asked Twin Luke and me if we wanted to get saved. She ain't asked, and she says she just talks to God and God said, "Yes, it's time, and it is time on Sunday." She first mentioned us going to the mornin' bench to get baptized when we had our birthday party last month. Right after cake and ice cream from Kennedy's dime store in Jackson she made the big announcement, and she ain't stop talking about it since then.

And she reminding us again right now as she yells down the Roanoke River bank where me and Twin Luke are trying to fish in peace.

"Come in the house, children, it's time for lunch!"

The Sundays when we don't have church, Ma lets us fish till lunchtime. We don't have church every Sunday because each of the four colored folks' churches in the county meet twice a month.

I ask Ma, "Why colored folks have church twice a month and white folks have church every Sunday?" and she said she will tell me when I get baptized. Forget that! I didn't want to wait for no baptizing, so I went to Grandma Curry and she told me the reason. She said that it ain't but three colored preachers in Northampton County, so they rotate from church to church. Grandma says that one day we will have enough preachers around here and we can have church every Sunday morning. I never told Ma that Grandma Curry told me this. But I went to Ma one more time ast week and asked her why we have to get baptized now.

"Twin Leon, you and your little brother is twelve now and you getting baptized next Sunday morning because I said so. Now, that's the last time you get to ask without me cutting three branches."

But this morning she yelling down the riverbank about lunch and the mornin' bench because we ain't walking fast enough for her.

"Twin Luke, Twin Leon, put them fishing rods down and come in this house after you wash your hands. We need to talk about next Sunday morning."

Talk about next Sunday morning for what? Like she said, it ain't nothing to talk about, since she done made up her mind already that we're going to the mornin' bench.

I have two problems with Ma. First, she keep on calling Twin Luke my little brother because he popped out of the oven two minutes after I did; but he ain't my little brother.

The second problem I have with Ma is she's always letting us do something fine, like fishing on Sundays, and then she start yelling for us to come in the house.

Well, maybe I got three problems with Ma. Ma let Joe Nasty do just as he pleases when he pleases. All of us have to stay home from school during cotton season in early fall to help do the picking. But Joe Nasty don't go to school when it ain't cropping season. He just stopped coming and Ma ain't said a word. Ma didn't make Joe Nasty get baptized until he was good and ready. He did not get good and ready until he was sixteen. He is seventeen now, so he only been saved for one year. And he still just as mean as a rattlesnake.

If anybody in this family needed to get baptized at twelve, it was Joe Nasty. I don't know why Ma didn't force him into the water a long time ago like she doing us. I think it had something to do with our daddy Joe Curry dying.

Us twins was little when Daddy died, but I remember him. Joe Nasty looks so much like Daddy that Ma could hardly look at him when he first died. He is tall with red hair and yellow skin like Daddy had. Now Joe Nasty ain't as strong as Daddy, and he was not old enough to be the man of the house when he died. From what I remember, things kind of fell apart around here after Daddy met his maker. And Ma couldn't make Joe Nasty do nothing. He is mean. God forbid, if anything ever happens to Joe Nasty and he dies the sinner that I know he really is, he would go straight to hell. He almost went last year. I thought for sure my big brother was on his way to an early grave. What happened is funny, now that I think about it.

Joe Nasty is always playing tricks on Twin Luke and me, and the last one of his not-so-funny tricks almost got him killed. He was still playing cowboys and Indians as late as last summer, when he almost killed himself. One day when Twin Luke and me were playing, Joe Nasty just came out to the barn and said he was a better cowboy than us. Mr. Know-It-All said he could tie a rope better than Twin Luke and me.

We didn't care then about his rope and we don't care now, but he wouldn't listen when we told him to go away and leave us alone. Before we could tell him for the third time that we didn't care, he had tied a rope way up in the barn loft.

"I bet you won't stick your head in it," I yelled from down below. Joe Nasty ain't scared of nothing, so he put his head in that rope and pulled it tight. He was laughing and laughing, until he lost his balance and slipped from the floor of the barn loft. There he was, hanging from the barn like a real dead cowboy. Twin Luke and me thought that was pretty funny until we saw his eyes roll back in his head.

"Oh, Lord, I think he done hung himself," Twin Luke cried out.

It was no time for crying, as I climbed the old broken ladder to the top of the barn. Joe Nasty had been some kind of mean to us, but I didn't want him to die. And I sho' didn't want to listen to Ma hollering and crying like she had done at our daddy's funeral. So I cut that rope with my pocketknife that Ma don't know I have. The one I got out of the pocket of Daddy's overalls that Ma left hanging on the hook in the pantry for a year after Daddy died. Down Joe Nasty fell from the barn loft. Headfirst!

"Is he dead?" Twin Luke asked in between his baby tears, as I ran down to check on our brother.

"He ain't dead, because I can see his heart beating through his shirt. But I best get Ma."

I touched his heart, and surely enough he was still alive. But he had a big knot on his head.

"Twin Luke, you stay here while I get Ma and Mr. Frank."

Mr. Frank is Ma's husband. We call him "Filthy Frank" behind his back, because he don't take as many baths as Joe Nasty do. Ma is a clean woman, but she married him anyway. She probably didn't know he don't take many baths. She said she loved our daddy, but she got married again two years after he died so that we would all have a new daddy. I was fine with having a dead daddy, thank you very much.

When I reached the house, Ma and Filthy Frank were sitting on the front porch. Sitting there like newlyweds. He was holding Ma's hand like they just got married yesterday. Filthy Frank use to make me sick when he first married Ma. He still do.

"Ma, y'all better come to the barn quick. Joe Nasty is 'bout dead."

"'Bout dead!" Ma yelled as she ran off the porch. Filthy Frank followed Ma with his old self. He is too old for my ma. And he doesn't smell good. He just short and fat. Daddy was tall and lean. I still think about how good Daddy and Ma looked together. Ma is tall and beautiful. She can make any man look good, except Filthy Frank.

When we all got back to the barn, Joe Nasty was still knocked out cold, but not dead. His head looked bigger than it was when I left, and his light skin was getting darker.

"Get the car, Frank!" Ma yelled.

It would be three days before Joe Nasty came home from the hospital over in Rocky Mount. Ma said it would take her three years to pay his hospital bill. He know Ma don't have no "get well" insurance, so he should stop doing stupid stuff. Stupid stuff that cost Ma money. Ma says the relief worker ain't going to pay for him being a fool. They pay for stuff like colds and stomach pains. Ma says they going to cut her relief off soon anyway, because she have a husband. They keep saying it going to end, but it don't. I guess they let her keep getting relief insurance because white folks like Ma and they know Filthy Frank ain't no good. But it ain't going to last forever.

When Joe Nasty came home from the hospital, he said he saw God when he fell from that barn loft. Grandma Curry said, "He lying. He ain't seen God, he saw death."

Revival was a week away when he came home from the hospital, so Joe Nasty said he was going to the mornin' bench, and he wanted to get baptized. Sure enough, that Monday night when Reverend Webb opened the doors of the church for anyone who wanted to be saved, Joe Nasty went down front while Miss Kisseye was hymning, "Have you been baptized?"

Reverend Webb was finishing up his sermon when he saw my sinning brother coming down front, and he said, "The doors of this church are now open. If there is anyone who is not saved, let them come and come now. Give your life to God."

Joe Nasty could have waited until the end of that week, but he didn't want to. He didn't wait because the almost-hanging scared the soup out of him. Grandma Curry was right. He ain't seen God, he saw death.

Being saved did not last with Joe Nasty but one week. He was throwing rocks at Twin Luke and me by Friday and cussing like a sailor by Saturday. By Monday he was chasing girls up and down the tobacco fields. When he caught them, he tried to kiss them on the mouth. Knowing all of that, why should I get baptized? Twin Luke and me ain't ready to stop throwing rocks, and we still cuss when ain't no grown folks around. Well, ain't no need to lie on Twin Luke; I do the cussing.

And what about kissing the girls when we get older? We can't give that up. We just starting to know what to do when we catch them in the tobacco fields. You kiss them and run. Why would Ma want to take all that good sinning away from us?

The least Ma can do is let us make up our own mind. The least she can do is tell us face-to-face why she got to do everything that folks in the Neck do. Why she got to yell at us like she doing right now.

"Did y'all hear me tell you to come in this house?"

Twin Luke starts running up to the house from the riverbank, because he ain't nothing but a mama's boy. I hope Ma don't die before he do, because I would not be a twin anymore. Twin Luke would die the same day if we lost Ma. I really do not think he would live a minute on this earth without her.

I ain't running nowhere. If I have to get saved, I am going to do wrong as long asI can. Luke is already home and done washed his hands. I did not even start to walk fast until I started smelling Ma's blackberry dumplings. Can't nobody from the Neck to New York make dumplings like my ma can. She can cook the best everything, but dumplings is what she cooks better than anything else. It's her best dish because before Filthy Frank came here, we ate dumplings almost every day. Not because we liked it, but because it was the cheapest meal Ma could make. Joe Nasty picked the blackberries, and flour is cheap. Ma saved the blueberries for her customers, because they harder to find than the blackberries.

The other thing Ma's blackberry dumplings did for us was it kept our bellies full through the night. After Ma married Filthy Frank, he claimed we did not have to eat dumplings anymore. But now we have dumplings for lunch and dinner.

Filthy Frank brought groceries home from Mr. White's store on Fridays for a while. That was fine at first, but I got tired of Filthy Frank quickly and I started to miss our daily dumplings. It did not help much when Mr. White saw Ma at the fabric store when he was buying fabric for his wife, and he told Ma that Filthy Frank owed him sixty whole dollars for groceries Mr. White let him have on credit. I was with Ma and I remember the look of shame on her face. Poor Ma had to help Filthy Frank pay Mr. White that money back.

Mr. White didn't know him that well because he was from Rich Square, not Jackson, where the Neck is.

He didn't know that he couldn't trust Filthy Frank.

The only reason Mr. White let Filthy Frank have food on credit in the first place was because Daddy used to do the fitting around the store. And Ma been baking for Mr. and Miss White at Christmas for years. Filthy Frank got a car, so why didn't he just ride back over to Rich Square to Mr. Wilson's store where people know him? Heck, I know why. He probably owed him, too. Ma is so smart about everything but Filthy Frank.

"Ma, lunch is good," I say, trying not to look at Filthy Frank, who wants us to call him Daddy.

I ain't calling him Daddy nowhere, no time, nohow. My daddy is dead and that's the only man that will ever hear the word "daddy" from my lips. My daddy wouldn't go around running up credit to sixty dollars. What made it so bad was Filthy Frank was getting the groceries on payday like he was paying for it with his weekly paycheck. Ma should have asked him what he was doing with his money if he was not buying food. My daddy would have never lied to Ma.

Daddy was a good man with bad luck. Luck so bad that he died at forty years old. Well, he didn't die. He was murdered. Ma said it was an accident, because that is what helps her to sleep at night. But colored folks around the Neck say a white man named Mr. Bennie Pollard, who lived across the Roanoke River from us, murdered Daddy in cold blood. And they say that the sheriff should have arrested Mr. Pollard if he thought he killed my daddy. But he did not. So the sheriff just as guilty of killing my daddy as Bennie Pollard. All I know is that it was snowing one evening when Daddy drove his old pickup truck into Jackson to get some food before it got too bad outside. He wrapped up real good and kissed all of us good-bye. That was the last time we saw Daddy alive. The snow fell and fell and we waited and waited. We waited for our daddy to come home to us. We waited all night.

The next morning they found Daddy's truck three miles down the riverbank with Daddy frozen inside. Poor Daddy still had his cigarette in his mouth. We never heard his truck come down the path that leads to the river, so that told everybody with good sense that he did not try to come home on this side of the riverbank. Mr. White at the grocery store said that Daddy had never showed up there for no groceries. He had known Daddy all his life and he would have remembered if he came in the store. I believe Mr. White, because Ma said that Daddy only had ten dollars in his pocket when he left home and he still had ten dollars when they thawed out his wallet. Colored folks said they believe Daddy was killed by Mr. Pollard because he owed Daddy fifteen dollars for three weeks of ditch digging.

So I believe Daddy needed his money and he went to Mr. Pollard and told him so. Mr. Pollard ain't nothing but poor white trash that's always trying to get coloreds to work for him like the rich white folks do. I believe he didn't have the money and Daddy made him mad when he went there asking for the fifteen dollars. Mr. Pollard's wife left him for a man over in Murfreesboro a while back, so no one was home to see him kill my daddy. They said Daddy had a big hole in the back of his head from the crash. But I think Mr. Pollard hit him in the back of the head as soon as he turned his back.

They said Daddy's cigarette was tight in his mouth, like he had lockjaw. I think Mr. Pollard hit my poor daddy so hard that he bite down on that cigarette in pain. Poor Daddy! God knows that Daddy stopped at that man's house on the way to the store. That was why Daddy's truck was on the other side of the river and not near us. If so much snow wasn't coming down when he left home, they could have proven that from looking at the tire tracks.

It was almost Christmas and Ma always liked a nice new piece of fabric for Christmas. Daddy would have asked for his money a thousand times to get that fabric to make Ma happy.

This is what I know for sure: When I am older, saved or not, I am going to catch Mr. Pollard out at the fishing pond and find out the truth about what happened to my daddy. Joe Nasty caught him out at the pond one day last spring and pulled a cotton bag over his head and whipped him real good. Mr. Pollard ran into town and told the white sheriff that he knew it was Joe Nasty who beat him up. Mr. Pollard keep forgetting that he ain't nothing but poor white trash and them white town people don't care if Joe Nasty beat him, but he can't kill him. He keeps forgetting that he ain't got no money. But the sheriff pretended that he cared and picked Joe Nasty up for questioning, and then he let him go. If Mr. Pollard was one of them fine white folks like the Barnes, Ransoms, or Wells families that own half of the Neck, Joe Nasty would be as dead as our daddy.

You can't mess with these fine white folks and get away with it. Last year Daddy's cousin and Pattie Mae's uncle, Buddy Bush, almost got himself killed over a white woman who said he tried to rape her. He lived in Rich Square on Rehobeth Road with the people who raised him before all that mess happen to him. They're nice people, Mr. Braxton, who died last fall, and Miss Babe Jones.

They arrested Cousin Buddy and put him in jail long enough for the Klan to break him out to hang him. Cousin Buddy got away from them and made it North with some help from the school principal, Mr. Creecy, and my daddy's blood kinfolks that live over in Rich Square. They are black Masons. But Cousin Buddy had to leave Northampton County to stay alive. So I know good and well they would have done something to Joe Nasty if Mr. Pollard was a white man with money. Maybe they wouldn't have killed him, but they would have made Joe Nasty wish he was dead.

Ma could not take losing Joe Nasty, too.

Ma went to Daddy's funeral and cried so bad that Reverend Webb never got to preach his sermon. He just told the choir to sing and he let Ma cry until she could not cry anymore. When the choir started singing "Precious Lord," Ma got worse with her hollering. That was Daddy's favorite song.

Finally Reverend Webb just told them to stop and he turned the service over to the black undertaker, Joe Gordon. He tried to keep Daddy's casket open so that the folks from up North could see his body because they had gotten to town so late. We had been looking at him all week while he lay dead in our living room. Ma would not let Mr. Gordon take the casket to the funeral home, like colored folks had started to do. Mr. Gordon usually kept the body in the funeral parlor until the night before the funeral. Then he would bring the dead folks back to where they use to live for one night.

But not Daddy. Ma wanted him with her as long as she could. Even after Daddy's dead body was in the living room a whole week, Ma still did not want to bury him. Not even after the funeral. Poor Mr. Gordon finally closed the casket after Ma almost pulled Daddy out.

After that they had to drag Ma out of the church to the grave site. She went kicking and screaming until she finally fainted. That was a good thing, because she would have never let them put Daddy in the cold ground if she was conscious. Grandma Curry carried on bad too, but not like Ma. That's the only time in our lives that Ma didn't put us first. Grief had Ma that day, and I don't think she even remembered that she had children. Grandma Curry cared for us until Ma could not cry anymore. It took her about two months to stop all the crying. Then one morning she woke up and said, "Children, Daddy ain't coming home. We got to find a way to make out without him. I am going back to washing for the white folks, and you all got to work for Arthur Wells Jr. when it is time to pick the 'bacco and the cotton. Sometimes you might have to miss school." I knew Ma was in bad spirits when she started talking about us staying out of school. She always sent us to W. S. Creecy School in Rich Square on the bus that came by for the colored children.

I hope Ma's heart ain't never broke like that again.

Ma was so sad that she got baptized again. She said she needed to renew her religion so that she wouldn't believe that Mr. Pollard killed Daddy. Grandma Curry didn't get baptized; she got her a Smith & Wesson. A gun that she said belongs to her and Mr. Pollard if she ever found out he really killed her only child. Joe Nasty remembers some stuff from that sad time that we twins don't remember. He said that one day Grandma Curry caught Mr. Pollard walking down at the riverbank and she walked up to him.

"Bennie Pollard, I am Joe Curry Sr. mama. I try to be a good Christian woman, but if I ever find out you killed my boy, you can't hide under your mammy's coattail from me." Joe Nasty said our grandma turned and walked away from Mr. Pollard like she didn't care if he shot her first. She had said what she had to say.

Ma ain't that kind of woman. She ain't said a word to Mr. Pollard from that day to this one. Ma needed religion. That was the third time that she got baptized. First she got baptized when her ma, Grandma Ella, who is dead now, told her to at twelve. Then she got baptized after she and Daddy was sinning in the barn and she got full of baby with Joe Nasty. The folks said she was a sinner and needed her soul cleaned as soon as the baby was born. Daddy said that was fine and good for them, but Ma needed his love and not some more water on her face. So Daddy married Ma and loved her until the day he died.

One time in the water is enough for Twin Luke and me. I am going to get baptized Sunday and that will be the end of that.

Maybe after I get baptized I will like Filthy Frank the way Twin Luke does. But I ain't never calling him Daddy, and I better never catch Twin Luke, who is on his third bowl of blackberry dumplings, calling him Daddy either.

I close my ears while Twin Luke is talking nice to Filthy Frank.

"Mr. Frank, are you coming to watch us go down in the water come Sunday?"

"Sure, son, I will be there." Then Filthy Frank looks at me. I look down into my bowl. Ma's dumplings sho' is good.Copyright © 2007 by Shelia P. Moses



Growing up in the Neck means one of two things. Your grandparents owned slaves or your grandparents were slaves. One or the other.

For us it meant both.

Ma and all her children are half-white, and our grandma on Ma's side was Sir Arthur Wells Sr. slave woman. The land in the Neck that Matt Ransom and the Barnes family did not own, Arthur Wells did. And he owned the slaves that Matt Ransom and the Barneses did not own. My grandma Ella Wells was his slave, and he had five children with her during and after slavery. Ma was born long after slavery was over. She was the last born, and she had a twin name Lucille, who died at birth.

Ma might as well been dead too, as far as her white daddy was concerned. Ole Man Wells, who died many years ago, ain't never owned up that he was my ma's daddy. He ain't never owned up that he had five children with my grandma and that he had other children all over the Neck. Children who somehow saved enough money to move out of the Neck and away from the Wells family, so they would not have to live in shame. Ma is the only one of his colored children that still lives back here. Three of them, Uncle Fish, Uncle Malachai, and Aunt Bee, live over in Woodland. The oldest child, Uncle Henry, saved enough money and moved to Harlem, New York. Harlem where Cousin Buddy is. And he changed his last name to Bush, because he said he wasn't no Wells. He said he ain't no Bush, but he ain't a Wells, either. Uncle Henry say that Cousin Buddy made him proud to be a colored man because he was smart enough to get away from the white folks who tried to kill him, so Bush was a better name for him.

Grandma Ella hated it when they talked about Ole Man Wells. She died when she was real old and rarely put his name in her mouth, according to Ma. When she did, she called him "that man." Ma said she remember how he would come to the house and have his way with Grandma Ella until her boys got big and she think Ole Man Wells thought they would come in there and kill him. Now, she didn't tell me this. Ma told Miss Babe Jones, and Pattie Mae, who ain't nothing but an easedropper, overheard them and she told me. She said that she heard Ma telling Miss Babe that all Ole Man Wells did was keep Grandma from ever marrying anyone and kept her full of his babies. He even made her use his last name all of her life. He made all the Neck people that lived on his land use his name, even when slavery was over. Folks say if he found out you were using another last name he would make you move off his land. He did not care if you could pick a bale of cotton every day, he would kick you out for not following his rules. He wanted you to do as he told you. Some of the men would change their name just so he would make them move. But the women, like Grandma Ella, had no place to go.

According to Pattie Mae, all of Ole Man Wells's other children by different women moved away from Northampton County. I don't know if that is so, because the Neck is filled with half-white Negroes and they all look like the white folks that live back here. They don't know who is whose daddy.

I need to get baptized, because just thinking about Ole Man Wells makes me want to go out to his grave under the old oak tree and dig him up and tell him a piece of my mind.

It is bad enough that we live in this house, but he is buried here. His son Arthur Jr. owns the land and the houses now.

We rent the house for fifteen dollars a month. Joe Nasty says he only charge Ma fifteen dollars because he know in his heart that Ma is his sister. He looks just like Ma, except he has no hair on his head. I don't know for the life of me how he can know Ma is his sister and still treat her like he do. But the truth be told, he treat her better than he do anybody else back here.

Filthy Frank claims he is going to move us out of this Neck next year because he is tired of Ma's half brother Arthur Jr. We will see about that. Filthy Frank always talking big about what he going to do. I think he is going to do what he been doing since he married Ma: nothing!

A year from now Ma will still be washing white folks' clothes to help make ends meet, and Filthy Frank will still be working wherever he can find work. Right now that would be the chicken house. A year from now we will still be going to school off and on because we have to work for Mr. Arthur. Every Monday for the last month we start our week just like we are doing today, priming this tobacco. This is what we will do until twelve noon on Saturday.

I want to go back to school every day, not just when we ain't working. I can't do that until the chopping is done in the Neck. Then we can go to school with the other children, until cotton picking time.

Pattie Mae says she gets to go to school every day. Her and her ma, Mer Sheals, live in the white folks' house, but Miss Babe got her own land and if Miss Mer get too tired of the white folks, she can always go up to Jones Property and live with Miss Babe. It's nice to have what Ma calls options. We ain't got no options like Pattie Mae. Maybe one day I'll go to Shaw University over in Raleigh like the people who started Creecy School did. Mr. W. S. Creecy Sr., who is dead now, started what used to be Creecy Institute long before I was born. It used to be called The Schoolhouse at Willow Church, then it was called Rich Square School, until they changed it to W. S. Creecy long before W. S. Creecy Sr. died in 1940. Now his son, W. S. Creecy Jr., is the principal. Older people call him Spence, but we better not ever let Ma hear us call him that. Ma told me and Twin Luke that anyone that is old enough to be our daddy or mama, we better call Mr. and Miss.

I sure do like that Mr. Creecy. He and all his sisters and brothers went to college and now they are schoolteachers. Me and Twin Luke want to be teachers too. Ma has promised us that this is the last year we are staying out of school to work in the fields, even if she has to work night and day. She said she hate that she let Joe Nasty ever stop going to school. Ma said that one day we will be teachers too. Just like the Creecys.

I believe Ma, because she ain't never lied to us. Lie like Filthy Frank does. I would love to wake up next August on a Monday morning and not have to go to the 'bacco field like we in right now.

I hate these fields. One of the main reasons I hate 'bacco is because of who just walked up. It's Mr. Arthur's boy, Arthur III. He ain't priming no 'bacco, he just come out here to look at us colored folks work.

"Be nice," Twin Luke says, before I can say a word to my first cousin. The white cousin.

"'Be nice'? What do you mean be nice? I ain't thinking about White Cousin."

Twin Luke looking all crazy. "You need to be nice because we getting baptized on Sunday and that means no sinning this week. Picking on our white cousin is a sin, Twin Leon, it's just a sin."

White Cousin don't even speak. He just turns his head the other way and chews on his tobacco like he always does. He ain't old enough to be chewing on no tobacco, but he does whatever he wants whenever he wants to. He can act any way he want to, because as much as I hate it, he got our blood running in his veins. He thinks he is so special, but I know that he know that lily-white rich granddaddy was my granddaddy too. Not that I wanted him to be my granddaddy.

So he don't have to speak, but his granddaddy made this mess, not me, not Twin Luke, and not Joe Nasty.

Joe Nasty ain't going to let him get away with not speaking.

"Cat got your tongue, White Cousin?" He says it just like that! Joe Nasty the only one of us that got the nerve to call White Cousin "White Cousin" to his face.

White Cousin don't even look at my big brother.

"You hear me talking to you, White Cousin?"

White Cousin mad now.

"I ain't your cousin, colored boy."

"'Colored boy'! Is that what you just called me?"

"That's right. You colored and you a boy. Now, what you going to do about it?"

Joe Nasty looked at me like I just picked this fight.

"Now, Leon, which one of you twins going to beat White Cousin for me? I am too old and I might hurt him. So one of you got to do the job. One of you got to beat White Cousin and teach him a lesson."

Twin Luke never stopped pulling the 'bacco leaves off the vine. He ain't trying to fight nobody for nothing. He ain't like Joe Nasty and me, so I know I am the one who gots to get White Cousin. I decide not to beat him. Instead I take a vine of poison ivy and run him down. When I catch him, I have a time rubbing him down with the poison ivy.

"Stop, colored twin!" White Cousin shouts as I rub him from head to toe. I ain't trying to hurt him too bad. Just want to make him feel that poison ivy for a few minutes.

When White Cousin starts to turn red, I let him go and get back to work. He runs like a rabbit. I know he going to tell his daddy, my white uncle.

Look at Twin Luke. He mad at me for messing with White Cousin. "You know, Leon, we ain't going to be able to go sit on the mornin' bench tonight. As sure as you are standing here, White Cousin going to tell on us."

Twin Luke look so sad while he talking to me. He really is a good twin when he ain't hanging around me. Maybe I should leave him be and let him be the good person he trying to be. If White Cousin gets us in trouble, so be it. If he comes back out here I will give him some more.

I know he going to tell his rich daddy and his rich daddy is going to tell Ma. But I can live with that. White Cousin got poison ivy, and that's worth never going to the mornin' bench.

It's twelve o'clock. Lunchtime. I don't want to go to the house, but I am so hungry. I know we in big trouble, Joe Nasty and me. I might as well get this over with.

Ma is waiting for me when I open the back door.

"Don't you two sit at this table," Ma says when I walk into the kitchen. "Sit on the porch by yourselves. Arthur Jr. been up here and he said you been messing with his boy again and that boy got hives all over his body. Why do you keep messing with that boy?"

"You mean White Cousin?"

"Shut up! Leon, that boy is not your cousin. He don't own you, so why you own him? Let that boy be. Let the past be."

I don't say another word because Ma is ready to get a knife and cut three branches from the old oak tree.

I hate that tree. It is the key to all my whippings. It is also the final resting place for Ma's daddy, Arthur Wells Sr. I wish they would move his body from under the tree and bury him at their fine white house at the end of the road. His wife, Miss Rose, who must be one hundred years old now, probably don't want him buried there, neither. Pattie Mae told me that Miss Wells know all about her husband having a bunch of half-white children all over the county. She probably glad that she don't have to look at his grave every time she look out of her window. It's a shame that we have to look at it every day. Poor Grandma Ella and Daddy were taken over to the colored folks' cemetery when they met their maker. Ma should think about how she goes to that tree to get branches to beat her children. That man under that tree is the reason we in the mess we in to start with.

You know, I bet he laughing in his grave at all this mess he done caused. God-fearing colored folks sitting around waiting to get their justice from the Almighty after they get to Heaven, but Ma is beating me because I want to get a little justice right now.

Right now Ma is two seconds from cutting the switches and braid them real tight like she braids our cousin Gayle's hair. She don't care about the history of that tree. When she done with braiding the switches, she will start punishing me and Joe Nasty.

"Lord, maybe I shouldn't have beat White Cousin after all." Ma is tired of our mess. Now Ma looking at me; then she looks at Joe Nasty.

"Joe, go around back and cut me three long switches and braid them for me. I am tired of Twin Leon's mess."

Three? What is she talking about? She needs six so that she can beat him, too. He the one who told me to get White Cousin; now he ain't even going to save me from Ma? I can't believe that White Cousin didn't tell his Pa 'bout Joe Nasty starting this whole mess.

Filthy Frank is looking at me like he all crazy and mad at me. But he better not put his hands on me. He shouldn't be here, anyway. If he got so much money, then why he come home every day for lunch? He should buy his lunch like other men or take a bag of food with him. I don't like him and he knows it. He ain't really done nothing to me. I just can't stand the thought of him sleeping in Daddy's bed. He probably kisses my ma late at night while we sleeping. Kiss on, Filthy Frank, but you best not hit me, I think as I bend over for Ma to do what Filthy Frank probably would give a million dollars to do.

"How many times are you going to hit me, Ma?"

"How many times did you rub poison ivy on Arthur Jr.'s boy?"

"I don't know, Ma, maybe once or twice." That lie made it worse.

Lord, Twin Luke crying louder than I am.

Joe Nasty probably in the back room, laughing. I just know he is. That's all right, because he got the devil in him and I know he will get another whipping sooner or later.

After Ma is done whipping me, she make me sit on the porch with no lunch, while everyone else eats leftovers from last night. Then she send us back to the 'bacco field.

Ma don't even mention us sinners going to the mornin' bench tonight.Copyright © 2007 by Shelia P. Moses

Excerpted from The Baptism by Shelia P. Moses
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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