Daughters of Shade
by Tommy Mouton
We Chickville boys had not known that being brought up on ancestral land came with it certain responsibilities. Though we tended weekly to our respective home’s yardwork and other chores, we had not yet known how those deceased ancestors of ours were to be looked after. Prior to this day, I had only vaguely remembered hearing of our ancestral cemetery. On our fishing expeditions with Father Reverend, down South Perkins Ferry Road, where we first learned to fish with those cane poles and those red and white bobbers, where we sought the Calcasieu’s perch and bluegill, it had always been mentioned that one of the road’s driveways, devoid of a roadside mailbox, led to our ancestors’ plots. So, this day, Brother and I, with our cousins, as this our rite, dressed in long pants and long sleeves, were piled into vans and trucks, loaded down with lawn equipment, and carried over to South Perkins, to what we called—‘The Graveyard’—formally known by the parish as West Fork Cemetery.
Before we began the day’s upkeep, we boys, hand-in-hand, with the men and few women, prayed, like we weekly did, standing before our Sunday altar. After the prayer and an impromptu hymn, we took our attention to the swamp, to the many cypress and their Spanish moss, to their pointy knees, protruding from the shallow waters like blunt daggers. We talked of alligators, moccasins, and nutria—sought semblances of those Lake Charles cemeteries, visible from city streets, with their mausoleums and ornate statues. The only statues there were the massive trees—swamp chestnut oak, longleaf pine, and bald cypress.
To begin the day’s cleanup, we were handed, like peasants who had volunteered themselves to fight some battle—rakes and shovels, hoes and pitchforks, and provided our day’s detail. Tools in hand, empowered in that moment, we young boys, though play-thirsty and play-hungry, quickly got to work—raking and bagging large oak leaves, serrated like the knives in our mothers’ kitchens and, when lucky, being pulled behind some man’s brand-new self-propelled push mower—though wary of the biting fire ants set aloft like grenades’ shrapnel each time the mower’s blade met the ants’ massive mounds. And when we could no longer contain our day’s excitement, with our long tools, we dueled, at the swamp’s edge and made believe that Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer, believed by southern Natives to be immortal, was stuffed, after being consumed by fever, into a hollowed-out tree trunk and buried in the Mississippi River—and found himself downstream in the palmetto-plentiful swamps adjacent to our ancestors as some useless gatekeeper.
After our dueling, with the pitchfork-toting boy named winner, we went, swatting and pantomiming wildly at thirsty mosquitoes, from marked tomb to marked tomb pronouncing our ancestors’ names. Like archeologists and anthropologists, we diligently attempted to read each headstone’s inscriptions. And for those headstones too dirt-stained, too moss-covered, we, though ill-equipped, having no finds brushes and antistatic tweezers, rubbed with our fingers until we could make out the words. Proudly, with our minds and mouths overrun with wonderment, we pronounced—Hawkins, Bryant, and Simon.
In our scurrying about, like on some schoolyard, atop and over tombs, like rabid steeplechasers, we had been yelled at multiple times—“Don’t step on that grave—Respect the dead—This ain’t a playground—”
So, wide-legged, on tip-toes, like stepping from river stone to river stone in some shallow stream, we searched the headstones for more names, for more meaning. And when our mouths became bored by names, our interest shifted to the headstones’ dates, for which we made a sort of game of who could find the oldest tomb.
“1894!” some boy shouted.
We stopped in our tracks—rushed over to the tomb.
“What else it says,” some tall boy asked, his rake’s wooden handle beneath his arm like that of a crutch.
“I can’t read it.”
“Because it’s backwards.”
“Matthew Morrow,” the tall boy said, leaning in, an engorged mosquito siphoning madly at his left temple.
In that moment, with our eyes affixed on the weathered headstone—this headstone’s inscriptions that had been, though with inverted letters and numbers, chiseled away by some Michelangelo man, we had been unaware that Mr. Matthew “Chick” Morrow, for most all of us, had been our great, great grandfather.
“But look,” a boy alerted us to an adjacent headstone, seemingly cut from the same stone slab—hammered and chiseled away at by that same Michelangelo man—
“Druseler Morrow,” I said.
“March 27, 1904 to April 5, 1904.”
“Not even two-weeks old—”
The tall boy wanted to say more, as did all of us, but he did not, we did not. And to break the momentary spell of grief that had seemingly fallen over us, the tall boy flung a powerful open-hand against the side of his face. He wiped the dead insect against his shirt’s sleeve. Left the bloodied effigy there. And it was then that I attempted to tell of the future—of what I would witness years later, on a spring day, in my late teenage years, beneath the cemetery’s oft-impermeable canopy, where I watched Father Reverend, drunk with memory, stumble about, his eyes focused groundward, as if he had lost his pockets’ keys or coins. He was searching, he told me, for a stillborn child his wife had birthed and buried in his absence, while he was away in Kansas, waiting to be called up to that Survival War—
We again sought our day’s detail. I had, though, become consumed by the cemetery’s history. I had longed to know of the lives those men, women, and children led. What of slavery did they know? Had they ever truly been free? Had they been killed in battles? Had Druseler suffered? Had de Soto really been there? What about those assumed paupers’ graves whose headstones were mere cinderblocks or those with no headstone at all?
For as I sought to continue my share of cleanup, I, on a whim, found myself standing before two tombs and their headstones, nearest the cemetery’s entrance. My heart seemed to leap from my chest and settle at the soles of my feet. I read the headstones’ inscriptions: (Junius Drake-Nov. 8, 1898-Feb. 22, 1973-Beloved Husband & Father); (Nellie Drake-Born Morrow-May 21, 1905-July 27, 1975-Beloved Wife & Mother). Unable to move, I was again arrested by memory—by the presence of our weathered white craftsman, and I could see the nightly shadows of that man’s bearded face and that woman’s scarfed head cast brilliantly against the dining room’s brown paneling. I remembered our removing the chifforobe and the refrigerator’s top-placed contents, ill-folded clothing and ill-stacked kitchenware, as we searched for the shadows’ culprits. I could hear the nightly creaks, the presumed footsteps across the living room’s linoleum; I remembered vividly my mother’s assurances that they were watching over us, Junius and Nellie, our maternal great-grandparents, whom we had long believed, ever since we moved into their home, were doing more tormenting than watching—
As I turned to leave the tombs, a portion of fear-weight left my young shoulders, having been afforded the necessary evidence that Junius and Nellie, indeed, rested at West Fork and not in or beneath our home. With renewed purpose, I made my way over to the throng of coverall-clad men and women. In their encircling a particular tomb, they seemed to be talking very seriously about something, pulling their hats from their heads—just as they had when they, earlier, prayed and sang.
“White folks,” the tall boy whispered, and we watched the men’s faces become distorted with anger. We watched how the men and the women, as this their day’s final detail, picked up and held the vandalized tomb portions and, like some sort of grave builders, attempted to put the tomb back together. And as the men and the women went to one of the final tombs, their work having now turned into a sort of search and recovery, attempting to give back names and a portion of peace, I followed them to the cemetery’s southeast corner. And just as the older black people peered, I, too, peered into the tomb’s gaping hole, pounded away by some white man’s sledgehammer. I studied the woman’s long black hair, attached to the whitest skull—I studied the decaying leaves atop her now invisible torso and wondered whether her dust had yet returned to the earth—I watched a man and a woman, as though gut-punched, as though bludgeoned by that same sledgehammer, doubled-over with grief and pounded at the earth, with fists clenching once perfectly cut dianthus and coreopsis—I swallowed back the ‘why’ that was forming in my mouth—I listened to and pondered the men’s words—“Catch hell in death, too. Niggers don’t never get no rest—"
Tommy Mouton is a former John Steinbeck Fellow (2013-2014). He received his MFA from San José State University. His work appears in Reed and
Callaloo. Having spent the previous four years teaching in SJSU's Department of English and Comparative Literature, he currently teaches creative writing and composition at Huston-Tillotson University. At work on a memoir and a novel, Tommy, a native of Moss Bluff, Louisiana, currently lives in Austin, Texas.