a short story from the collection:
the tales of socrates dancing
paul leighland maclaine
Everyone thought that Sweetchild O’Malley was the prettiest young woman that lived in these parts. Her face will forever shine bright in our memories, as it had every day for that final summer, walking down the main street to school; her hair, corn-red in colour, bouncing round her sweet face, one of her favoured floral dresses, whipping round her buttocks and legs in a game of catch-me-up with the morning breeze - her books strapped together using one of her father’s old, leather belts. She always managed a smile for anyone lucky enough to intersect her daily parade. She was special to us all, and everyone went out of their way to try and associate themselves with her. Local traders always slipped something extra into her purchases, additional ice cream in the malted shakes she loved, rides home when the Sheriff saw her on the road, and careful ushering to the best seats at the Picture Palace.
She was the town’s touchstone, wishing well, talisman, and I’m sure people would have said that they’d not change a thing about her, because if she had been one iota different...
I wish she’d been different, though.
If she hadn’t liked every single person equally, if she’d been like the rest of us, hateful and mistrusting...
she’d still be with us.
Sweetchild wasn’t her real name, but living so close to the invisible border that bisected our town, as she did, it couldn’t be helped that she won the heart of the Old Missus. It was she who baptised Sweetchild with her name, calling after her from the porch seat every afternoon when she was growing up, as the little girl walked back to their house.
‘Come here, girl...
come here, Sweetchild and tell me what you dun today. Sweet child, are you lissinen to me? Come here when I call you. I swear girl ya heads so full a thoughts those pretty ears of yours are blocked solid.’
I’m told the name might have been round a lot longer than even that. The Old Missus mid-wifed Sweetchild when her mother suddenly fell to labour. She’d heard the cries, and ran across to the white section to assist - her good linen flapping limply in one hand, and an old metal bucket, steam billowing from the top into the night air, in the other.
Twenty minutes later Missus smacked Sweetchild's backside to help her cry, but not a sound came. Missus turned her, believing she was dead-born, brushed her fingers over the baby’s lids, opening them, then she placed the child into her mother’s arms and fell back into a chair. The sweat was running the length of her wrinkled features like children riding a carnival bumpy slide on canvas mats.
‘Dear Lord, you’ve gone an given us a sweet child here...yes you have.’
Sweetchild’s mother turned her to look into the baby’s eyes. She wept.
‘She’s beautiful, don’t ya think so?’
Missus wiped her face with the huge kerchief she carried.
Her Grandmother had told her that the absence of a child crying at birth meant that the soul was a favourite of God and had past him while he slept, remaining silent on the birth day lest he woke to find it gone and snatched it back.
‘The Lord’s heart’ll break in lettin her go.’
That whole day, not a sound came from the lips of Sweetchild O’Malley.
Two hours later a mother from the other side of the line gave birth to a boy, calling him Henry Thompson. He was such a large baby his mother passed-out twice during birth. The mid-wife thought that both would die. Henry was six feet tall by the time he was thirteen and one half. The sight of him riding the farm horse over the hill to his home, head high, books strapped and thumping on his huge shoulder, caused his mother to think he looked like a knight from a picture book she’d owned as a child. He was forever Sir Henry in her thoughts, her black knight. Though she never said this to his face.
Gossip has it that Henry was fixing one of the Old Missus’ porch boards when he met Sweetchild. Another version is that she’d lost her seat at the Picture Palace, and ended up sitting in the coloured section next to Henry because he was the only thing she could see amongst the flickering shadows and lights.
Truth is that they had been friends for years, and it wasn’t until a young white boy called Ellis fell for her in a big way, the fact that she associated became widely known. I guess that people thought she was exclusive to their skin colour, jealous that her affections were universal. I can’t imagine what they expected? Perhaps that she’d marry one of the local boys, but thinking as I have done on this, who it would have been? Who could have kept up with her without feeling somehow the underling? It would have to be some special man...
and of course it was.
It was just that people didn’t like it.
I remember seeing her and Henry together, and alone, only once. The top of her head reached only up about the mid-point of his chest, his skin the complete opposite of hers. The fact that they were so opposing, was what made them seem so match-like. They sat under the only tree in Church’s Field, and I watched them turning pages in their books, him asking her questions and her trying to answer. Henry was one of the smartest kids I’d ever met...and one of the most generous with his gift.
Sweetchild on the other hand wasn’t as academically skilled, but it didn’t seem that she had to be. She had this amazing ability to be able to understand things without knowing how they worked.
I knew a carpenter, growing up in a town east of here that could make anything you wanted...all you had to do was give him a picture or draw a diagram - but ask him to explain how something fitted together, or how to make dove-joints and he would stare at you like you’d asked him to explain the internal combustion engine. I’ve since discovered that some people just know things from instinct.
I watched Henry tell her something then, patiently, and without condescension, wait for her to catch him - then she’d laugh. It was like watching something act, being added to, then react - two parts of a whole, and I remember thinking that this was one of the finest things I’ve ever seen, and that this moment was how I would recall them for the rest of my days.
The fight between Ellis Worthington and Henry was the worst example of what occurs between people. I can’t expect you to understand the machinations of a man who can despise another because of the colour of his skin, but perhaps you can try to understand the jealousy Ellis felt toward Henry. Bitter though these thought must be.
I walked by just after the first words had passed. The Old Missus was yelling at Henry, he others were yelling at Ellis to finish what he’d started. Henry was already on the ground, fear was his expression. He was a foot taller, and a good deal broader than Ellis was, but years of Ellis’ father beating upon him had taught the boy how to defend himself...
and how to exact the greatest pain upon another.
Ellis kicked out toward Henry’s head, the toe of his work-boot opening his cheek like over-ripe fruit. Henry’s face, being so dark, hid the damage, and it wasn’t until blood fell from his chin to the sand road that it became evident he was hurt badly. Kicks and punches ebbed and flowed down onto Henry’s face and shoulders. He was felled, crawling to his knees only to be lopped once more. Two others with Ellis, certain that any fight had left Henry, ran forward to have a go. I pushed my way to the front, threading my walking stick through bodies to create a path, unsure if I’d be any help at all.
Then the damnedest thing I have ever witnessed occurred.
Past me, and through the crowd, pushed Sweetchild. I can say for certain that never had I seen the expression on her face as I observed that day. She ran to Henry’s side just as Ellis let fly with his boot. It caught her in the ribs, flipping her over to her back, making me jump at the popping sound.
The entire scene froze...shocked through. A straw of wheat, dropped at that moment, would have exploded like a gunshot. Sweetchild got to her knees, and coughed a wad of blood onto the sand. She stood and turned to the Missus.
‘Toss me that.’
Missus shuffled, picked up the same metal bucket she’d used to haul water for Sweetchild's birth and threw it. It clanged at Sweetchild’s feet. She held her side, stooped, and picked it up by the handle.
‘Henry, can you hear me?’
Henry, his face glistening with wet blood, nodded.
She moved toward Ellis’ two friends.
‘Get to your feet, Henry. Get to your damn feet this instant,’ she yelled.
He pushed himself to standing.
‘Shut your face, Ellis.’
She spat a mouthful of blood into the bucket.
‘Jesus,’ she whispered.
And with that, she swung it.
It connected, with a hollow ring, with one of Ellis’ friends. His eyes rolled up inside his head, and his body dropped, cold, to the road.
I glanced round at the open-mouthed onlookers, all excepting the Missus. She had a grin on her face wider than her front porch. The other lad wasn’t about to stand and receive the same treatment...
but before he had taken two paces towards Sweetchild, before his clenched fists had risen much above his waist, she let fly with the bucket in an uppercut motion.
It slammed into the boy’s chin, lifting his feet from the road, and laid him out, stone cold as, onto his back.
The Missus let out a whoop and clapped her hands together.
‘Girl, you sure ring loud when you have to.’
Ellis backed away. He grabbed his friends by the necks of their shirts, dragging them behind him. Their boots drew four snaky lines in the sand as they were towed.
Sweetchild dropped the bucket, walked to Henry, tore a strip from the bottom of her dress and pressed it, wadded, to the place where his face was cut. She held his waist, and both headed down to road to the Doc’s. There was no doubt in the minds of the onlookers whom Sweetchild had chosen to be with.
Not two weeks would pass before all our lives were altered, and I would forever only think of them together under that tree in Church’s field. I can still see her face when I close my eyes and sink to that black section of thoughts where I store the images of my loved ones to open and caress when I am sad. I gently touch the structure of her face, and her eyes open wide and in love once again.
The strongest memory is weaker than the palest ink.
Her features were not those that would be bought, not those coveted by today’s fashion, but as I look there is beauty for me to cherish. I can see a different face in every angle and in every line. There must be a hundred and each hid a secret, and a hope. I preyed that first year would pass quickly, a sin really to wish for the passing of time, but race past I wished it would so I could forget her quickly...
but it didn’t.
I sit here and think that if there is a day that may go past me without a thought of her and Henry, it might be tomorrow...sadly, I am taken by the same belief on that day also. All I can do is remember.
Their lips would have met.
Softly at the beginning. The sensation new. A feather touch that holds all that is special and feared by two people only just this moment in love. A spark leaping from one aura to another...
That bond, with their arms entangled, drawing them closer...and closer.
Movement unrehearsed, yet strangely familiar. A soft touch of hair on a cheek. Her scent filling his nostrils, never again to be duplicated. Fear pushed out and away from them both and him thinking...
I cherish you.
Henry saw her sitting next to the tree in Church’s Field. The same tree where I had watched them happy and together. He’d been looking for her, as most of us were. He must have smiled when he saw her from afar, propped and lifelike. I bet he ran across that field calling her name...
then he would have seen that floral patterned dress bunched around her thighs, and he would have seen how crookedly her head sat with her chin on her chest.
And he would have started to run faster.
And his tears would have rolled down his face, stinging the stitches in his cheek. He’d have seen how her dress had been torn, how bruised her legs and broken her arm had become, and tripped, falling heavily to the ground, because now he’d be running wildly and without looking where his bare feet were landing - without looking at anything but her. Finally he’d have been close enough to see the blood on her fingertips, and how matted and black her hair had become, and he’d have screamed her name to the sky over and over.
Then he’d have whispered to her ear as he carried her in his arms back to his home, told her how much he loved her as he placed the match to kerosene, and held her tight to his chest as the flames licked and smacked, tasting them both.
No person that arrived to put out the fire could rightly say that they’d heard a single sound coming from the barn, bar the pockets of air in the wood popping and hissing, and the sound the buckets of water made as the Old Missus threw them.
For Henry and Sweetchild it was all much quieter than the gunshots’ echo heard coming from the Worthington place.
Copyright © 1995 Paul Leighland MacLaine