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Ole Mammy's Torment By Annie F. Johnston Characters: 14380

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Uncle Billy rested his axe on the log he was chopping, and turned his grizzly old head to one side, listening intently. A confusion of sounds came from the little cabin across the road. It was a dilapidated negro cabin, with its roof awry and the weather-boarding off in great patches; still, it was a place of interest to Uncle Billy. His sister lived there with three orphan grandchildren.

Leaning heavily on his axe-handle, he thrust out his under lip, and rolled his eyes in the direction of the uproar. A broad grin spread over his wrinkled black face as he heard the rapid spank of a shingle, the scolding tones of an angry voice, and a prolonged howl.

"John Jay an' he gran'mammy 'peah to be havin' a right sma't difference of opinion togethah this mawnin'," he chuckled.

John Jay

He shaded his eyes with his stiff, crooked fingers for a better view. A pair of nimble black legs skipped back and forth across the open doorway, in a vain attempt to dodge the descending shingle, while a clatter of falling tinware followed old Mammy's portly figure, as she made awkward but surprising turns in her wrathful circuit of the crowded room.

"Ow! I'll be good! I'll be good! Oh, Mammy, don't! You'se a-killin' me!" came in a high shriek.

Then there was a sudden dash for the cabin door, and an eight-year-old colored boy scurried down the path like a little wild rabbit, as fast as his bare feet could carry him. The noise ended as suddenly as it had begun; so suddenly, indeed, that the silence seemed intense, although the air was full of all the low twitterings and soft spring sounds that come with the early days of April.

Uncle Billy stood chuckling over the boy's escape. The situation had been made clear to him by the angry exclamations he had just overheard. John Jay, left in charge of the weekly washing, flapping on the line, had been unfaithful to his trust. A neighbor's goat had taken advantage of his absence to chew up a pillowcase and two aprons.

Really, the child was not so much to blame. It was the fault of the fish-pond, sparkling below the hill. But old Mammy couldn't understand that. She had never been a boy, with the water tempting her to come and angle for its shining minnows; with the budding willows beckoning her, and the warm winds luring her on. But Uncle Billy understood, and felt with a sympathetic tingle in every rheumatic old joint, that it was a temptation beyond the strength of any boy living to resist.

His chuckling suddenly stopped as the old woman appeared in the doorway. He fell to chopping again with such vigor that the chips flew wildly in all directions. He knew from the way that her broad feet slapped along the beaten path that she was still angry, and he thought it safest to take no notice of her, beyond a cheery "Good mawnin', sis' Sheba."

"Huh! Not much good about it that I can see!" was her gloomy reply. Lowering the basket she carried from her head to a fence-post, she began the story of her grievances. It was an old story to Uncle Billy, somewhat on the order of "The house that Jack built;" for, after telling John Jay's latest pranks, she always repeated the long line of misdeeds of which he had been guilty since the first day he had found a home under her sagging rooftree.

Usually she found a sympathetic listener in Uncle Billy, but this morning the only comfort he offered was an old plantation proverb, spoken with brotherly frankness.

"Well, sis' Sheba, I 'low it'll be good for you in the long run. 'Troubles is seasonin'. 'Simmons ain't good twel dey er fros'bit,' you know."

He stole a sidelong glance at her from under his bushy eyebrows, to see the effect of his remark. She tossed her head defiantly. "I 'low if the choice was left to the 'simmon or you eithah, brer Billy, you'd both take the greenness an' the puckah befo' the fros'bite every time." Then a tone of complaint trembled in her voice.

"I might a needed chastenin' in my youth, I don't 'spute that; but why should I now, a trim'lin' on the aidge of the tomb, almos', have to put up with that limb of a John Jay? If my poah Ellen knew what a tawment her boy is to her ole mammy, I know she couldn't rest easy in her grave."

"John Jay, he don't mean to be bad," remarked Uncle Billy soothingly. "It's jus' 'cause he's so young an' onthinkin'. An' aftah all, it ain't what he does. It's mo' like what the white folks say in they church up on the hill. 'I have lef' undone the things what I ought to 'uv done.'"

Doubled up out of sight, behind the bushes that lined the roadside ditch, John Jay held his breath and listened. When the ringing strokes of the axe began again, he ventured to poke out his woolly head until the whites of his eyes were visible. Sheba was trudging down the road with her basket on her head, to the place where she always washed on Tuesdays, she was far enough on her way now to make it safe for him to come out of hiding.

The tears had dried on the boy's long curling lashes, but his bare legs still smarted from the blows of the shingle, as he climbed slowly out of the bushes and started back to the cabin.

"Hey, Bud! Come on, Ivy!" he called cheerfully. Nobody answered. It was a part of the programme, whenever John Jay was punished, for the little brother and sister to run and hide under the back-door step. There they cowered, with covered heads, until the danger was over. Old Sheba had never frowned on the four-year-old Bud, or baby Ivy, but they scuttled out of sight like frightened mice at the first signal of her gathering wrath.

Ivy lay still with her thumb in her mouth, but Bud began solemnly crawling out from between the steps. Everything that Bud did seemed solemn. Even his smiles were slow-spreading and dignified. Some people called him Judge; but John Jay, wise in the negro lore of their neighborhood Uncle Remus, called him "Brer Tarrypin" for good reasons of his own.

"Wot we all gwine do now?" drawled Bud, with a turtle-like stretch of his little round head as he peered through the steps.

'Wot we all gwine do now?'

John Jay scanned the horizon on all sides, and thoughtfully rubbed his ear. His quick eyes saw unlimited possibilities for enjoyment, where older sight would have found but a dreary outlook; but older sight is always on a strain for the birds in the bush. It is never satisfied with the one in the hand. Older sight would have seen only a poor shanty set in a patch of weeds and briers, and a narrow path straggling down to the dust of the public road. But the outlook was satisfactory to John Jay. So was it to the neighbor's goat, standing motionless in the warm sunshine, with its eyes cast in the direction of a newly-made garden. So was it to the brood of little yellow goslings, waddling after their mother. They were out of their shells, and the world was wide.

Added to this same feeling of general contentment with his lot, John Jay had the peace that came from the certainty that, no matter what he might do, punishment could not possibly overtake him before nightfall. His grandmother was always late coming home on Tuesday.

"Wot we all gwine do now?" repeated Bud.

John Jay caught at

the low branch of the apple-tree to which the clothes-line was tied, and drew himself slowly up. He did not reply until he had turned himself over the limb several times, and hung head downward by the knees.

"Go snake huntin', I reckon."

"But Mammy said not to take Ivy in the briah-patch again," said Bud solemnly.

"That's so," exclaimed John Jay, "an' shingle say so too," he added, with a grin, for his legs still smarted. Loosening the grip of his knees on the apple-bough, he turned a summersault backward and landed on his feet as lightly as a cat.

"Ivy'll go to sleep aftah dinnah," suggested Bud. "She always do." It seemed a long time to wait until then, but with the remembrance of his last punishment still warm in mind and body, John Jay knew better than to take his little sister to the forbidden briar-patch.

"Well, we can dig a lot of fishin' worms," he decided, "an' put 'em in those tomato cans undah the ash-hoppah. Then we'll make us a mud oven an' roast us some duck aigs. Nobody but me knows where the nest is."

Bud's eyes shone. The prospect was an inviting one.

Most of the morning passed quickly, but the last half-hour was spent in impatiently waiting for their dinner. They knew it was spread out under a newspaper on the rickety old table, but they had strict orders not to touch it until Aunt Susan sounded her signal for Uncle Billy. So they sat watching the house across the road.

"Now it's time!" cried Bud excitedly. "I see Aunt Susan goin' around the end of the house with her spoon."

An old cross-cut saw hung by one handle from a peg in the stick chimney. As she beat upon it now with a long, rusty iron spoon, the din that filled the surrounding air was worse than any made by the noisiest gong ever beaten before a railroad restaurant. Uncle Billy, hoeing in a distant field, gave an answering whoop, and waved his old hat.

The children raced into the house and tore the newspaper from the table. Under it were three cold boiled potatoes, a dish of salt, a cup of molasses, and a big pone of corn-bread. As head of the family, John Jay divided everything but the salt exactly into thirds, and wasted no time in ceremonies before beginning. As soon as the last crumb was finished he spread an old quilt in front of the fireplace, where the embers, though covered deep in ashes, still kept the hearth warm.

No coaxing was needed to induce Ivy to lie down. Even if she had not been tired and sleepy she would have obeyed. John Jay's word was law in his grandmother's absence. Then he sat down on the doorstep and waited for her to go to sleep.

"If she wakes up and gets out on the road while we're gone, won't I catch it, though!" he exclaimed to Bud in an undertone.

"Shet the doah," suggested Bud.

"No, she'd sut'n'ly get into some devilmint if she was shet in by herself," he answered.

"How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds makes ill deeds done!" John Jay's roving eyes fell on a broken teacup on the window-sill, that Mammy kept as a catch-all for stray buttons and bits of twine. He remembered having seen some rusty tacks among the odds and ends. A loose brickbat stuck up suggestively from the sunken hearth. The idea had not much sooner popped into his head than the deed was done. Bending over breathlessly to make sure that the unsuspecting Ivy was asleep, he nailed her little pink dress to the floor with a row of rusty tacks. Then cautiously replacing the bit of broken brick, he made for the door, upsetting Bud in his hasty leave-taking.

Over in the briar-patch, out of sight of the house, two happy little darkeys played all the afternoon. They beat the ground with the stout clubs they carried. They pried up logs in search of snakes. They whooped, they sang, they whistled. They rolled over and over each other, giggling as they wrestled, in the sheer delight of being alive on such a day. When they finally killed a harmless little chicken-snake, no prince of the royal blood, hunting tigers in Indian jungles, could have been prouder of his striped trophies than they were of theirs.

Meanwhile Ivy slept peacefully on, one little hand sticking to her plump, molasses-smeared cheek, the other holding fast to her headless doll. Beside her on the floor lay a tattered picture-book, a big bottle half full of red shelled corn, and John Jay's most precious treasure, a toy watch that could be endlessly wound up. He had heaped them all beside her, hoping they would keep her occupied until his return, in case she should waken earlier than usual.

The sun was well on its way to bed when the little hunters shouldered their clubs, with a snake dangling from each one, and started for the cabin.

"My! I didn't know it was so late!" exclaimed John Jay ruefully, as they met a long procession of home-going cows. "Ain't it funny how soon sundown gets heah when yo' havin' a good time, and how long it is a-comin' when yo' isn't!"

A dusky little figure rose up out of the weeds ahead of them. "Land sakes! Ivy Hickman!" exclaimed John Jay, dropping his snake in surprise. "How did you get heah?"

Ivy stuck her thumb in her mouth without answering. He took her by the shoulder, about to shake a reply from her, when Bud exclaimed, in a frightened voice, "Law, I see Mammy comin'. Look! There she is now, in front of Uncle Billy's house!"

Throwing away his club, and catching Ivy up in his short arms, John Jay staggered up the path leading to the back of the house as fast as such a heavy load would allow, leaving Brer Tarrypin far in the rear. Just as he sank down at the back door, all out of breath, old Sheba reached the front one.

"John Jay," she called, "what you doing', chile?"

"Heah I is, Mammy," he answered. "I'se jus' takin' keer o' the chillun!"

"That's right, honey, I've got somethin' mighty good in my basket fo' we all's suppah. Hurry up now, an' tote in some kin'lin' wood."

Never had John Jay sprung to obey as he did then. He shivered when he thought of his narrow escape. His arms were piled so full of wood that he could scarcely see over them, when he entered the poorly lighted little cabin. He stumbled over the bottle of corn and the picture-book. Maybe he would not have kicked them aside so gaily had he known that his precious watch was lying in the cow-path on the side of the hill where Ivy had dropped it.

Mammy was bending over, examining something at her feet. Five ragged strips of pink calico lay along the floor, each held fast at one end by a rusty tack driven into the puncheons. Ivy had grown tired of her bondage, and had tugged and twisted until she got away. The faithful tacks had held fast, but the pink calico, grown thin with long wear and many washings, tore in ragged strips. Mammy glanced from the floor to Ivy's tattered dress, and read the whole story.

Outside, across the road, Uncle Billy leaned over his front gate in the deepening twilight, and peacefully puffed at his corn-cob pipe. As the smoke curled up he bent his head to listen, as he had done in the early morning. The day was ending as it had begun, with the whack of old Mammy's shingle, and the noise of John Jay's loud weeping.

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