The Washing Hole
Precious Rose Caldwell moved along the foot-wide trail at the edge of the woods behind her house. Her mind saw the trail as it was in daylight. A large stump guided the path to the left; a half-hidden rock and a low branch forced a quick move to the right. During the day, sunlight glinting through the pine needles looked like the firefly ballet she and her sisters watched on summer evenings after supper. She concentrated on these images and told herself that it must be her imagination that created the faint scurryings among the pine needles. She expected to feel cowpie ooze between her bare toes because the trail was used by everyone's milk cow to get to and from the creek. A tiny sliver of moon caused the path to appear as a faintly glowing ribbon.
She couldn't use the tiny lantern she carried until she passed Miss Caryjane's house. The woman sat up all night sometimes, angrily singing mournful hymns. Precious put a hand in her apron pocket to make sure she hadn't forgotten the bribe for Jesse 1917 and Joey 1918, Miss Caryjane's dogs. The dogs were named after her sons, twins, who had died in The Great War—Jesse in 1917 and Joey in 1918. Neither had been in combat; they'd died from "sickness" while in boot camp. "Sickness" was the only explanation Miss Caryjane had gotten from the militarymen sitting at desks in the county clerk's office at the courthouse. There'd been no funerals, no bodies to bury. The army said they couldn’t afford to ship bodies all over the country. Some people said the boys had been lynched. It didn’t seem to matter to Miss Caryjane how they’d died. "Just wasted my boys. Wasted," she would mutter when her soul hurt too much for her mouth to be silent. With her husband already dead and she, in her forties, too old to contemplate having more children, Miss Caryjane had acquired identical, black dogs and given them the evocative names. She had loved her sons—inordinately, some judged. Her “Black Diamonds.” When people said they’d never seen black diamonds, she’d said, “You ain’t never seen no boys like mine, neither.” Some people said it was Miss Caryjane’s pride as much as anything else that’d killed the boys. God wanted you to put Him first, they said.
Fifteen years had passed since Joey's death and seventeen since Jesse's, and this was the second set of dogs. People had whispered cautions and admonitions when, after the second of the first set of dogs died, she had replaced the dogs and given them the same names as the original set. “Still mad about it,” they'd said. "She oughtta let them boys go. No good gon' come from that kind of grief."
One dog gave a soft yelp; the other whined as Precious approached. The dogs were accustomed to people walking the trail at night, but not this late—or early; it was nearly three in the morning. The dogs recognized her and wagged themselves toward her, their back legs bent, their haunches tensed close to the ground. She offered each of them a piece of cornbread.
"Go home, Jesse, Joey," she whispered. The dogs accepted the offering and went back to their wallows under the porch. There was no light in the house, no notes from an angry hymn slicing the dark.
Where the path began a slow twist down the hill toward the creek, Precious stopped and lit the lantern with one of two homemade, sulfur matches she carried. The copper and brass lantern was no more than eight inches high without the handle. A bullseye glass panel made of rose-colored glass concentrated the light in a beam. The other three sides were tin-punched with an intricate pattern of roses and vines and leaves. Her initials, PRC, intertwined repeatedly on the top. It had been made for her by Forrest Truiscott, Jr., the man she was slipping through the night to meet. She loved saying his name.
They had met when Precious had helped her uncle, Luther, manufacture wrought-iron stairwells and garden furniture for the mansion Truiscott, Sr. was building. Oil had been discovered on Truiscott's land, and the money didn't have time to get comfortable in Truiscott, Sr.'s bank account before it was sent on some errand of acquisition. Cars, furniture, more land, a new roof for the First Baptist Church. Just about every person in Cedar Creek County and the rest East Texas was trying to figure out how to get some of Truiscott’s new wealth.
Luther had not solicited work from Truiscott; he never asked anyone for anything. But he was the best ironsmith in the area, and Truiscott was determined to have the best. Truiscott had even made the unheard effort of coming to the Caldwell farm where Luther lived with his sister and her three girls. Whites usually summoned blacks to them by sending word by other blacks: "Mistah Smith done sent fuh yuh." But Luther was commanded into no one's presence, white or black, so Truiscott went to him, smiling warily and carrying a heavy wallet.
Like Miss Caryjane's boys, Luther had also been to the War, working as a cook. Precious Rose asked Luther what kinds of food he'd cooked, but he did not want to talk about that part of the war. He'd been captured, but escaped, and had spent the rest of the war with the French Resistance as a guerilla fighter. He'd made her look up the word after she'd asked him about swinging through trees with a gun in his hand. The rifle he’d used, which he had taken from the hands of a white, almost-dead American soldier, and a letter declaring him "a hero of the Republic of France" were the only things he'd kept from his war experience. The U.S. Army, citing diplomatic considerations, decided not to prosecute him for desertion, but they would not permit him to travel back to the states with his unit. Two years after the war was over, the French gave him enough money to return to the U.S., but Luther had used the money to remain in France and learn ironwork. Precious was fifteen when her father died and Luther returned to the family farm to take care of his sister and the girls. He'd bought a new Ford truck, notable because the only other blackperson in Cedar Creek County to own a motorized vehicle was the undertaker. Luther had returned from France with the gun, the letter, and a welding machine. He’d built a platform for the machine and a forge in the bed of the truck and worked as an ironsmith, a trade he'd learned from master craftsmen in France.
Luther was an anomaly in the tiny community of small houses connected by a rutted, sometimes muddy, sometimes rock-hard thread of road. The whites in Cedar Creek would never have admitted fear, but they were openly wary of Luther. He had killed whitemen, a lot of whitemen. It didn’t matter that the whitemen had been Germans. They imagined he'd watched his victims squirm and die and that he’d realized that whitepeople could be made to fear just as blackpeople had been. He had "tasted whiteblood," they said. What Luther had actually tasted in the woods around Ardennes was the freedom to be the man he was. He guarded the memory of that freedom by limiting his contact with whitepeople. As far as Luther was concerned, any kind of association with whites initiated a concatenation of events that led, inevitably, to a deadly situation.
Luther worked for Bud Truiscott for several months, designing and building various wrought iron pieces for the Truiscott mansion. He got Precious to help with the larger pieces. Truiscott, Jr., home from college for the summer, migrated to the building site and finally out to the live oak in the corner of what would eventually be the front lawn, where Luther had parked the truck. Forrest was fascinated by the white-hot twistings and turnings that produced lions, snakes, leaves and human profiles from pieces of rusting iron. Precious had taken him by surprise. He had been told, and he believed, that blackpeople were unattractive—ugly, as a matter of simple fact; and he had not and still did not find this to be untrue. But Precious. Her thick, black hair was tamed into corn rows that circled her head; her hands were usually lost in elbow-length metal and leather gloves, her feet in a pair of scuffed, too-large work boots. He was besotted by the curve of her jaw line; the tiny curls that cuddled in the moisture at the nape of her neck; the almost straight, defiant line of her eyebrows that made the questioning disposition of her glance, maddening. Forrest could not question the propriety of his obsession for her.
Precious had completed the eighth grade, as far as the community school went, but Luther provided her with books to read and taught her math. In the couple of years he'd been at the farm, Luther had bought the girls many books. What they needed to know of the world—the beauty of it—they could learn from the books, Luther decided.
So Precious had spent three days exploring Kipling, Hawthorne, Melville, and Longfellow looking for the word she could fasten to her fascination for Forrest. Kipling said it: exotic. Forrest was exotic. All whitepeople looked the same to Precious; she wondered that they didn't become confused among themselves. But Forrest was different, and she could feel from the beginning that he thought of her as different, too. They recognized their own uniqueness in each other's eyes. Like every romance before and every romance that would come after, theirs was a cliché romance: No two people before had ever felt this way about each other; no two people ever would again. No one understood how they loved. The rules didn't apply because their love was different. Who else, but they, could possibly understand what their love meant?
Luther recognized the situation with Forrest and Precious before either of them knew what was happening; he tried, in vain, to keep Forrest away from the truck. He'd finally had to settle for showing Forrest a few tricks of metalworking and setting him to work on a few easy projects. The simple tasks, at least, kept the boy from staring at Precious for hours on end. Luther was relieved when the job finally ended in late July; he couldn't know that it was already too late. Forrest and Precious had been meeting down at the washing hole two or three times a week for more than a month.
With the lantern lit, Precious's biggest worry was actually seeing the snakes she'd lit the lamp to keep from stepping on. Although Luther routinely caught snakes, held them by the tail and popped their heads off by snapping them like a whip, Precious couldn't get over her fear of them. Her fear was the reason Forrest had made the lantern. He'd made one similar, but less ornate, for himself.
Spring Branch Creek was fed by a spring a few miles upstream from the washing hole. Wide, white sandy banks came to the edge on both sides. Even during the most severe droughts, when other springs and wells went dry, Spring Branch remained clear and fresh-smelling. Few people had enough money to dig wells; they got their drinking water from springs and washed in the creek. On wash days, neighbors stood in knots of conversation, depending on the stage of the wash process, or the state of the relationship they shared. The Martins, the Howards, the Crays, and even the four, motherless Gipson boys—each a different kind of terror—washed here.
Precious didn't need to get her bearings when she reached the bank; she came to the hole at least once a week during the daytime with her mother and sisters to wash clothes. She knew that to her right was the large, black, iron pot used to heat water; beyond that, near the bend in the creek, were bushes where they hung the clothes to dry. A shallow pool beyond that was where the small children launched stick boats and manufactured mud pies by the dozen.
A sharp beam of light sliced across the water from her left. "You late, Girl." Precious didn't need a light to know that Forrest wore a soft smile.
"I dozed off," she said through her own smile. There was a soft rubbing sound from a limb in the large walnut tree that hung over the washing hole. "How long've you been here?"
"'Bout ten minutes," he said with a soft snort. "Thought the old man would never pass out so I could start the car." Forrest's mother knew he used her car for late-night rendezvous, but she didn’t know where he went.
Precious followed the beam to the base of a large willow tree. Forrest lay on a quilt between two exposed roots spaced just far enough apart for the two of them to fit between. She lay down next to him, and he immediately positioned himself on top of her. As they began to kiss, he searched for and found the hairpins that held her braids in place and began to remove them. She tried to protest, but he kissed her quiet. He wanted to feel the soft sponginess of her hair on his face; it was so much nicer than the severe straightness of whitegirls’ hair. Her hands moved strongly and with purpose along his back; she pulled his shirt up and spread her fingers as widely as she could against his skin. Sometimes she thought she could feel the whiteness. Her only regret was that, in the dark, she couldn’t see the green-blueness of his eyes. Sometimes she thought things must look very different when viewed through eyes that color. A breeze, cooled by the water, produced gooseflesh under her fingers. The tree limb moaned in response to the movement in the air.
“We can’t do nothing tonight, you know!” Precious whispered into Forrest’s hair. “Wrong time of the month.” Precious’s mother, knowing how quickly impulses can turn into irrevocable realities, had explained and demonstrated to Precious all the birth control methods she knew. Precious and Forrest used a combination of her ovulation cycles and prayer.
“I guess I better stop now, then,” he said as he removed his lips from that hollow between her collarbones. He repositioned both their bodies so that he reclined against the tree and she against his chest. He began destroying her braids, combing through her hair with his fingers. “What’ve you been doing today?”
“Nothing. Everything. I redesigned our house. I think we're going to need more rooms if you’re going to design buildings and I’m going to paint. I want a studio. I saw one in Harpers.”
Like all couples who knew their love would last forever. They went to work, saved money, lived on a budget, worried about the children. If asked what the people around them looked like, even what they, themselves, looked like, the descriptions would have included every aspect of appearance except color. They could not have used the words black or white. Those words had meanings that didn’t apply. In their world, people were neutral, not translucent, not black, not white—just as they did not see black or white when they saw each other—except that he would have said her smooth darkness was perfect, and she would have said she couldn’t imagine him other than the way he was.
Sometimes, though, they talked about their separate, real worlds, the worlds outside the reality they inhabited together. “You hear about what happened in town this morning?” Forrest didn’t wait for Precious to reply. “One of them Gipson boys got put in jail. Miz Traylor, works at the bank? You know she sits right there in the door, practically, writin’ something in a big ol’ book.”
“I ain’t never been in the bank.” Precious stated. Going into a bank was not something she ever expected to do. Folks she knew got what they needed at back doors.
“Well, she’s a ugly old biddy. Anyway, she sent for the sheriff. Said the Gipson boy sassed her when he came in. He said he was looking for a job, but she thought he might be trying to cause some kind of trouble.”
“Why was he there?”
“I don’t know. He know they ain’t gonna hire a coloredperson there. They don’t even want colored to deposit money in there.” Forrest nuzzled through the black cloud of Precious’ hair and stuck his tongue in her ear.
She screeched; the tree limb groaned in response. She turned sideways between his legs; they kissed. They kissed again—and again—and again. They didn’t stop this time.
A crow, looking for pre-season developments in the walnut tree, woke Forrest. The crow's squawk came to him on a beam of sunlight. Precious, her face buried against Forrest's neck, managed an irritated whine but refused to be awakened. Forrest's eyes opened and immediately located the source of the offending noise as well as the condemning light. A second image, though, choked an exclamatory "Damn!" from his throat. Arliss Gipson hung from a rope looped over a limb opposite and slightly below the crow's perch. His hands and feet were tied; his bloated, blood-blackened head almost unrecognizable as human. A morning breeze pushed the limbs of the tree, and the rubbing sound from the darkness before stopped the crow's irritating squawk. The sound of a bullet being chambered caused Forrest to shift his horrored stare from the slowly-swinging corpse to the bore of a Springfield 1908. The black hand that cradled the barrel and the black eyes behind the sights seemed relaxed, casual. They’d seen it coming. The inevitability of it was all too predictable. Then percussion, concussion, repercussion.
Gwendolyn Scott: "I am a published writer who has won the Texas Commission on the Arts Fellowship for Creative Non-Fiction twice and have published two essays. I also won the Hurston/Wright Award for Short Fiction. I have a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and four education certifications. I taught English at the college and high school level and edited Ph.D dissertations and technical papers for mechanical and petroleum engineers."