“How Emma Jean Crossed the River” – Fiction by Shawn Frazier

Go Down Death - Aaron Douglas, 1927
Go Down Death – Aaron Douglas, 1927

A woman on the run from the Klan ends up on an otherworldly journey in “How Emma Jean Crossed the River,” Shawn Frazier‘s powerfully gothic short story from our Winter 2016 issue.

{ X }

“I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, that the living spring from the dead, and that the souls of the dead are in existence.” —Socrates

FLASHLIGHTS SPREAD OVER THE WATER LIKE BRIGHT EYES. I ducked. Branches scratched at my legs and arms. The white devils still chased after my Jacob. I tumbled over fallen logs and fell down into the river. The current dragged me under. Quick. I saw so many poor souls stuck between rocks. If black folks knew what was buried in Darlington’s River, they stop holdin baptisms.

We was on our way home once we heard the hounds. We’s stompin through the wood, back from warnin folks that the Klan was comin.

“Emma Jean, go hide by the oak tree where we first kissed. I promise to be there.” Jacob told me. The fool—he called them Klan boys crackers. But I was proud—it was the first time I seen him hold his head up to white men. It was always Yes sir, no sir, and thank you sir before. Where would you like me to nail this sign? NO COLOREDS WANTED, sir.

Under the water. I seen one skeleton dressed in a suit and a woman in a nightgown holding a baby. A man in overalls had some flesh still on his face. He turned his head at me, seemed he grabbed the hem of my skirt. I pulled and pulled, for I don’t know. Til finally my skirt tore and I floated away and up to the surface where orange and brown leaves floated. I reached land and crawled to a patch’a oak tree. My face and my hair and clothes was wet and filthy with mud.

In the sky, the moon looked like a silver coin. And there was stars. I rested on land and stared at the twinklin. I smelt gardenias. Like a good bottle of perfume I once broke whilst cleanin a house. I wanted to be rid of that odor, but it grabbed a hold of me. A rattlesnake slithered in the gardenias and dashed off through the grass when it seen me.

I put my hand around a flower stem, but the petals fell. Each time I touch one, it died. The white petals crinkled and the perfume smell disappeared. I placed my hand on an oak tree, the leaves fell. Leaves turned yellow, brown and orange. The branches of the oak become toothpicks, stripped of their leaves.

An as I sat there, soakin wet, the moonlight shone out on a ship floating toward where I rested. Big black letters was scrawled on the ship’s surface: R.I. and a third word was all but washed away. There was a loud noise from the boat and the white sheets billowed out from the masts like clothes drying in the sun. A faceless boat covered by fog. Someone held a lantern. That ship dropped its anchor and the water splashed. And they pushed a bit of wood out onto the shore. A young colored boy came down the plank.  He read my name off a clipboard.

“Emma Jean, I apologize for coming so late. A storm came.” He made marks on his clipboard with a feather pen.

Bats hung beneath the ship’s railing. I stepped out from behind the oak.

“I am the ship’s captain, Henry.” Henry smiled—his teeth was cracked and yellow. He said, “Don’t be scared, Emma Jean.”

He wore a cotton blue navy uniform and had medals on his great coat. I never seen nobody, especially no colored, dressed so well unless it was for a funeral or he was headed to trial or it was a Sunday. A red carnation hung out his penny-shaped pocket. His swoll belly stuck out, strainin his coat buttons.

I whispered because I thought the Klan was still in the woods. “Did you see a man? He got on a pair of overalls. This tall,” I held up my hand, “and wears a hat. His name is Jacob.”

“Emma Jean, we are ready to go.”

“How you know who I am? What do you want? I am a married woman and my husband is out here with a rifle.” I lie about being married. I stepped away not sure what he wanted. A wind shook the leaves what was left on the oak.

And Henry said, “Poor thing, you look tired. Come with me. I will take you to where he went.”

I thought that why did Jacob leave me? He went where it was safe. Sure he would. If he was someplace safe, I would be there too with him.

{ X }

First, I tried to make the best of what I got. I couldn’t. A rotten smell filled the deck. There was a stack of wooden planks. And I had no mattress, blanket, or pillow. I went to the main deck and spoke to the lantern man who was standing there.

“When was the last time somebody cleaned this ship?”

He stared ahead like a statue. Another ship passed us.

“Where is that ship headin?” I said.

Henry steered the ship and waved his free hand at the passengers on aboard.

“Where is that ship goin?” I asked again.

The lantern man and Henry pretended I didn’t exist. I gripped the ship’s rail as it moved through rocky water. I didn’t want to be thrown overboard. But, I wouldn’t go back down and sit in that filth. Bats rested beneath the inside railing and didn’t seem disturbed by the bumps in the water. A thick film of fog floated to the water’s surface. It was like the cream I poured over coffee. The ship was flooded by it. I thought I heard mournful cries come from the river, sayin, “Forgive me. Please.” I hoped it was the cracker Klan that chased after me and Jacob.

{ X }

“Here we are.” Henry steered the ship to shore.

It was dark out and the tip of mountains stuck out the clouds near the shore. Henry escorted me down a plank.

“Well, you enjoy. My job is done. Just start walking, down there.” He pointed to a gray manor house that seemed to be floating on a cloud. I rubbed my eyes tryin to see if what I saw was real. A fiery, orange-colored bird with large wings flapped loud at the shore and took off into the sky. The tail left smoky rings in the fog.

A sign pointin to a passage, but the words was strange and I didn’t understand them. I never had no good schoolin. In fact, it was only because I read an old family Bible is how I learned to read. That bible, at the edges, the pages had fingerprints from my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. When I first opened it, letters sparkled. Words lit up. Sentences hung in my memory. My eyes was filled with a light for days after I closed that book.

“Hey, Emma Jean.”

I seen a man wearin a navy blue suit like you see on Sundays. He come walking toward me. His hair was slick back and wavy like coloreds living in the city. I peered into the man’s face. And I knew him—Johnny Wonder. He disappeared years ago from Darlington. He come, hootin and hollerin at our church pulpit bout why we needed to make whites take down those signs, NO COLOREDS WANTED. Then he disappeared that Monday morning.

“What happened to you, Emma Jean?” Johnny said. I hugged him.

“Did you see Jacob come through here?” I asked. I was happy to see a familiar face. I felt my loneliness and fear leave me. Even if I was in a strange place.

“Yeah. He went down there looking for you.”

Jacob did come.

“What’re you doing here, Johnny? We all thought you was dead.”

Johnny trembled—his smile turned into a sad grin. His head went down.

“Go on, Emma Jean.”  His voice was low.

“Why you ain’t coming?”

“I’d rather stay here.” Johnny lumbered away. He was a big man. His voice faded as he walked toward a copse of trees. And it seemed to me in that moment that this man who once spread wonder to so many people didn’t have none for hisself.

“What do you mean?” I called after. But he left.

A foghorn blared from where that manor house seemed to float high on top of the mountain. I turned and walked towards it.

{ X }

A long staircase went up into the fog. I climbed the mountain to go to where the house was. And I was still filthy and hoped they let me enter. Johnny—the damn fool! Why he left when he was raisin er’one’s hope?

White gardenias sprouted around the edges of the steps. I didn’t touch none, but walked on up the staircase until I reached the front door. I wandered around back and tried the rear entrance, like I was supposed to, but all I felt was a hard surface, so I returned to the front, hoping that I would not be screamed at.

I knocked on the big wooden doors.

A sign was posted next to the entrance: “Death and Life are in the Power of the Tongue. And Those who Love it Will Eat its Fruit.”

I stepped away and gave the sign a good, long look. The Reverend in our church said something like that at my son’s funeral. At that time I wasn’t sure what it meant. Even though I understood all the words. Just had a hard time figurin out what it meant. Even after readin it a few times, it still didn’t make no sense.  Maybe I walked to the wrong place.

I knew I be in trouble for knockin on a stranger’s door, so I turned and started to walk quickly down the staircase when the wooden doors creaked open. A whitish light come from inside the house. I covered my eyes with my hands. For a moment it was as if the sun come out.

“We have been waiting for you, Emma Jean.” I was shocked the porter knew my name.

He stepped out from behind the light. He dressed real fancy and had a clipboard in his hand like old Henry down at the boat. His hair was neatly combed and he wore Sunday shoes. I wished I had a hot bath before I came.

“May I?” He inspected me.

“Is Jacob here?” I asked.

The porter looked over me like a doctor examining a patient and wrote notes on a paper.

“Excuse me, sir. I am a married woman. Whatever you thinkin, you can just forget it. I am here to see my husband, Jacob.” I gave him such a look, so he knew I meant business.

“We will be closing our doors soon,” the porter said.

A man come runnin up the staircase.

“Glad to finally make it,” he said and give a toothless smile and entered the house. When he walked past the porter and me, he smelt like the boat I sailed on. I remembered the smell because of my dead son. A week after they found his body, they wheeled him on a cart to our house. I pulled the blanket off him even though folks tried to stop me from looking. I said let me go. And no, I want to see him. Flies stuck on him. He had a twisted smile and his eyes bulged out like a fish.

That’s when I thought something that scared me—was I dead? The gardenias, the oak tree leaves, and Johnny Wonder.

And I started to cry.

“No one named Jacob is here, Emma Jean.  But you are more than welcomed to come in. Don’t you want to begin a new life?”

I sobbed and sat down on the steps.

A fog horn blew off and people rushed past me to the door. Running, I suppose, to take a chance on life as somebody else.

“We will be here when you are ready to join a new body, Emma Jean.”

People went up inside the porter’s door without utterin so much as a word to me. A horn blew again and more people ran. They’s floodin the steps. And I thought I gone to heaven. Where the great doors that led me to heaven? I deserved a heaven for all the things I been through. This was a mistake comin here. I went to ask the porter some more questions, but the door was shut.

So I pulled on the door knob, but it didn’t budge. Just then, I asked myself, how was this a place to rest in peace in? What if I was born into a woman again? I would be told to marry, to settle down, and have more children. After they took my boy, I never wanted another child. I feared they be lynched just because they was colored. Maybe I could be born into a rich woman. How nice it would be to lie in a bed and wait to be served egg, grits, bacon, hominy, and coffee, with toast that was buttered and jellied. But, I never seen black folks live life that way.

If I stayed out here, I wouldn’t have to spend hours on how I looked before leaving the house. I wouldn’t have to stand over a hot stove and cook. I wouldn’t have to come home and do what I did working. I wouldn’t have to take care of nobody’s needs but my own.

Freedom.

So I walked on down that long staircase. And smiled.

I went to the river and found a boat by the shore. Jacob. He promised to wait and never once broke his word before. If he is alive…He be at our tree and might be in danger, too. Besides, there was nothin’ the Klan could do to me now. But they could still find him.

I am comin, Jacob.

{ X }

photo2SHAWN FRAZIER completed his MFA in fiction and has also honed his craft at the Taos Writer’s Tool Box with Nancy Kress and Walter Jon Williams; the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop at Brown University; and the University of Kansas with Kij Johnson. His story “The Hoodoo Nigger” was published by Quail Bell; “Jacob and The Owl” won the Mary Shelley Contest and was published inRosebud Magazine, issue #57; “Nne: Mother”appeared in SQ Magazine; “What is going on with Claire?” will be published in Hidden in Plain Sight, edited by Mimi Williams.

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