The day my momma killed my daddy was a hot day in April. Naw, the rains had stopped by then, so it was May. I was about seven or eight. When the fighting started, I’d been in the kitchen cooking cornbread to go with the beans that momma made for dinner.
The secret to momma’s cornbread was that she didn’t just add a little bit of sugar to sweeten it, she added a bit of molasses too. I never really liked the taste of the stuff before that day. Every time momma used it in anything daddy always compared it to my skin.
“Dark and sweet,” he’d say. Said sweet like it was something dirty. Like something stuck in his mouth and rotting out his teeth.
I used to try to stay out of the sun. Thought maybe if my skin wasn’t so dark he wouldn’t like it so much. It ain’t help none.
Sometimes I wished that he would just treat me like he treated momma. Only touch when he had a fist balled and raised. She ain’t have it no better but it felt like she did back then. He said she was hard-headed and so only hard hits could keep her in line. I only got the sweet touches. “Sweet touches for my sweet thing.” The kind of touches that made you feel like when you ate ice-cream out in the sun and waited too long to finish it so it melted syrupy and icky on your fingers until they stuck together and made you feel dirty. The kinda sweet that made you just wanna be clean.
By the time I had the cornbread batter in the cast iron skillet daddy had walked past the kitchen to head out to the porch and momma had come out of her bedroom carrying a pearl-handled gun. She was wearing a sundress with flowers. Was blue or green maybe. Momma always wore pretty things. I helped her pick them out sometimes. She thought he’d be nicer to her if she was prettier. I thought it’d make daddy look at her instead of me. It ain’t help none.
I put the cornbread in the oven and came out of the kitchen and into the hallway. I asked momma if she wanted me to cook some meat to go with the beans. “Naw,” she said shaking her head madly, but her voice was calm. Her split lip was still cracked and bleeding from when daddy had got at her that morning. “Only two of us gonna eat tonight.”
I nodded. I’d seen daddy’s death coming before he did. Not because I told our secret. The one that daddy said he’d kill momma for if I didn’t keep. That came out by accident. Momma and I were hanging the laundry out to dry and she saw the mark on my neck. A love bite, daddy called it. I had on my wide-brim summer hat to keep the sun off my skin.
“You bringin’ boys round here now lil’ gal?”
I blinked not knowing what she meant. I knew but I didn’t know. When things happen to you like they did to me, you got a way of knowing things that you ain’t supposed to and not knowing nothing at all, all at once.
“What boys, momma?” I’d asked, “Ain’t no one here for miles.”
“Then what one doing leaving marks on yo’ neck?”
She looked at me with a cool expression but I could see the storm brewing underneath. Her eyes were like that. She could look blank on the outside but her eyes always held something dangerous within. I felt like I had to tell her or I was gonna be on the receiving end of it. “Wasn’t no boy. It was daddy.”
The look in momma’s eyes started to bleed into the expression on her face and she looked at me with something like understanding and something else like fury. “He gonna die. I’m gonna kill ‘im dead. Cemetery dead.”
She started ripping all his clothes off the line and throwing them to the ground. She stomped on them so hard and so long the grass started to give way to dirt beneath her feet. I feared what daddy would do to her when he found out about the clothes. I feared what he’d do to me when he found out about the secret being out. I told momma not to do nothing crazy. Just told her we should leave. The both of us. “We can run somewhere he can’t follow. Find somewhere where he can’t touch us. Leave him here to rot and me and you can be free.” He hurt us both in different ways. So we should leave was all I said. It ain’t help none.
Even before that day, I knew daddy was gone die because I dreamt it. I knew lots of things from dreams. Especially then. I do now too but the dead talk to me more than they send me dreams nowadays. Especially daddy.
I ain’t hate him none. He think I did but I ain’t. He just ain’t a good man. Not in life or in death neither. Ain’t do no bit of good to no one in all his days. Only fitting his days shoulda ended the way they did. I ain’t want it that way though. Not now or then.
Still I listened to momma when she told me to take the money out of daddy’s wallet. He was sleep at the time. He always fell asleep after. Like he was tired. He couldn’t have been as tired as I was. No on one was tired as I was back then. If daddy wasn’t keeping me up then the dreams of the dead did. I ain’t sleep good until after he was gone. Even with the dead talking. Even with him haunting me.
I helped her cover up her black eye with makeup so she would look presentable when we went to get the gun. My uncle knew a man that lived down a ways that sold them for cheap out the back of his truck. I didn’t understand why momma wanted to make herself presentable for the likes of a man who wasn’t but momma only said, “Lots you don’t understand,” when I mentioned it.
We used the same makeup we’d bought at the drug store to make her look good for daddy when we thought making her look good could save us both. The powder was a shade too dark. Made her look more like me. Pink rouge for her cheeks. Her eyes were glassy from crying but her lips only trembled a little as I put on the lipstick. Dark red. The color of blood when it dries and scabs over. “You look beautiful, momma.”
“You the only one that thank so.”
By the time we went to meet the man, momma’s tears had dried up. The man was large and had a scar over one eye and overalls hanging open on one side. Momma smiled at the man as he opened the truck bed in that innocent way that one only knows how to smile if you’re used to keeping things secret or keeping your mouth shut so folks don’t get cross.
“What’s a pretty little thang like you need with a gun?” He wasn’t looking at momma, he was looking at me. He bent down to my level, showed off his missing teeth when he smiled. He talked in a small voice folks use with children, digging out a hard sugar candy from one of his overall pockets to offer me.
Momma stepped in front of me all protective like and narrowed her eyes. “We got some foxes can’t seem to stay out of our henhouse. I’m a good shot though. I’ll fix ’em good.” The man glared at her, but stopped looking at me after that.
“That man didn’t mean no harm.” I said on the way home.
“Man’s a man. They all mean harm.” Momma said, patting her purse where the gun was.
“You gone find you a new man when daddy gone?”
Momma shrugged. “Maybe so.”
I huffed. “Man’s a man, right? You gonna get a new one what’s the point of killin’ ’em then?”
We saved up all the food cans from the preserved fruits and vegetables so she could use them as target practice each day after I helped her cook. I tried to talk her out of it the whole while. “We can still leave, momma. Sell that gun and we can get us a train ticket.” But I was a child. It ain’t help none.
When momma went out to the porch that day I didn’t follow. “Stay here. You don’t need to see this.” Momma said daddy was outside in his rocker on the porch when it happened. Staring at the land my granddaddy gave my momma. Sipping lemonade. “Like a man feelin’ alright about himself and his life,” Momma described him. I imagined he did ’til I heard him scream. It was a long shrill sound. Never heard him sound so weak in all my days. I heard the sound of the glass of lemonade hit the porch and shatter. He yelled profanities that leaked in through the open window. I heard him call momma a crazy woman. He begged for his life too. Last words he said was for me. “You gonna take me away from my baby. From my sweet thing. Come on darlin’. She need her daddy don’t she.” It ain’t help none.
The pop, pop, pop, of the gun soon followed. I was in my room when the gun went off. Naw I was in the kitchen. Waiting for the bread to rise up.
By the time it did momma was digging a hole out in the field. I took the cornbread out of the oven and let it cool. I got some baking soda from the cabinet to clean the blood off the porch. There was a trail of it from where momma dragged daddy’s body out into the field. It had dried up by then. The sun made it the color of momma’s lipstick.
I scrubbed until my hands were raw and red. Scrubbed until the sun started to set in the sky. I scrubbed until I heard a lost sort whistling sound in the air. At first I thought it was the wind in the trees but then I realized it was daddy’s favorite song. Sweet Georgia Brown.
A shadow cast over me. I looked up to see him standing on the porch. He was tall ghostlike figure. Not solid the way he once seemed, just someone fading like the light to the dark in the sky. He smiled his gap-tooth smile at me. “No tears for your daddy?”
I shook my head. “Cried ’em all when you was still living.”
He reached out to touch me. When the dead touch you people say there’s a chill, but in truth, you don’t feel nothing at all. Finally, he couldn’t touch me. He tried his damnest. It ain’t help none. I ignored him and kept scrubbing until the wind took him away. I knew he’d be back though. The dead don’t know how to leave the living alone.
Don’t remember how long it took to clean. The wood was still tinted red but it didn’t look like what it had been. All that trouble and all that was left of daddy in the house was that old rocker, worn clothes in the closet and a stain on the porch we never could quite get out.
I went back into the kitchen and cut me a slice of cornbread. I walked back out onto the porch and sat in my daddy’s rocker. I listened to the clink of the shovel digging his grave. I bit into the cornbread. Tasted molasses. That day I stopped minding the taste.
Jasmine Griffin is an avid reader and aspiring author. She is currently working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Wilkes University. At present, she’s also writing her first novel, Blackbird at a Crossroads, which incorporates African mythology, African American folktales and Southern Crossroads lore. She enjoys reading paranormal, fantasy, historical and speculative fiction. Her favorite authors are Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin. A Cincinnati native, she resides in Amelia, Ohio, with her feline familiars Honey and Oliver.