Chesya Burke is winning lots of buzz for her poetic short stories, which deal with race and weirdness in the heart of small town America. And now we've got an exclusive excerpt from her new story collection, Let's Play White.
This excerpt comes from the novella, "The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason," via her publisher, Apex Books.
The Lord wasn't as generous to the Negro folk as he was to the white man. And many years after Fannie Lou Mason saved the people in that small town somewhere in Virginia, the same could still be said. Most didn't feel God was biased; if you asked white folk, they would simply say that they were the better race and so God had blessed them; if you asked Negro folk, they would say that because they were last on earth they would surely be first in heaven and were therefore the chosen people.
But where most agreed were the twin baby girls born to Walter Kelly and his uppity wife. Indeed, the Negro children - one was bright as day and the other dark as night - were both quite beautiful. Even a blind white man, it was said, could see that. There was just something about them that one couldn't put into words, and most didn't try. They were different and it scared people. Fannie Lou Mason understood very well the attraction of the sisters. She had kept an eye on the girls for a long time, and now she watched from the back pew, unnoticed.
Somewhere along the way, Leona and Iona had grown up to become lovely young girls - among whispers of good or bad things; Fannie Lou wasn't sure. But at the age of nine, they had grown to be intelligent, powerful young ladies. She could feel it even through the rhythmic pounding of the church choir. The woman, who had just arrived the previous evening, watched the girls, trying desperately to be inconspicuous.
The children's lives, as with so many children, in so many places, in so many times, were lived in a rushed bubble of field work, trips to the fishing pond for swimming and hidden places and secret joys. They lived with their mother and father and three older brothers.
Church was one of the places that most attended out of a sense of misguided loyalty - the girls seemed to feel the same way. Fannie Lou closed her eyes, slowed her breath, trying to connect with the girls, see their thoughts, their inner feelings. The twins, not surprisingly, were also connected, each feeling the emotions of the other.
Fannie Lou breathed slowly and looked to all of the world as if she had simply fallen asleep there on the pew. However, she was completely engulfed in the emotions of the girls. It was so refreshing to feel something other than the usual wearisome-ness associated with adult life. No, instead, these girls had freedom that the woman envied. She sank deeper into them, their youthful thoughts.
Then a succession of images flooded her head:
Iona, the youngest of the girls, stared at Mrs. Davis as she shouted an "Amen," and Leona giggled, knowing that before long the woman would be wiggling in her seat and would fall to the floor, shouting crazed hallelujahs to the Lord. Their momma always said the woman's antics were all for show and that the spirit didn't come that much to one woman, especially a woman like that. Fannie Lou would probably agree with her. Beside Mrs. Davis, a man waved a brightly colored fan with a picture of a pretty white angel on the back, over her. Mrs. Davis' daughter, who was expecting something the girls could never quite figure out, simply stared forward, ignoring her mother.
The twins' oldest brother, Jacob, covered Leona's mouth with his hand to keep her from making too much noise. Mr. Jefferies bit off a great big hunk of his tobacco, chewed on it a bit, and got up and spit in the tub in the back of the church. He winked at the girls on his way back to his seat. Above their heads, something buzzed, but none of them seemed to pay any attention anymore. Bees had gotten into the rafters a while back, and some of the menfolk had flushed them out. Now, everyone just pretended that they didn't hear them up there.
Finally, when the preacher was finished, everyone got up and shook hands "in fellowship." The girls seemed to shake everyone's hand in that room at least five times. Fannie Lou opened her eyes, rose to her feet, and followed the crowd outside into the bright daylight. Several people watched her, pointing, but she paid no attention. By the time she had made her way outside, Iona and Leona were already there, whispering with each other.
Mrs. Davis' daughter wobbled out, taking each of the stairs one at a time. Her feet were as big as sausages, and her belly was bigger than her head. She strolled by Fannie Lou, right past the girls, smiling at each of them, and walked off into the trees and disappeared. Iona looked at Leona and then back at her parents, and before her sister could stop her, she dashed off into the woods after the girl. Leona followed, her bright skin flushing red in the heat. Fannie Lou was right behind.
It was so much darker inside the tree line than it had been outside. The sun hardly peeked through the bushy treetops at all, and if she hadn't known better, the woman might have thought that it was actually nighttime. Just as Fannie Lou walked into the tree line, she heard a girl crying in the distance. Her cries echoed off the trees, and it sounded distressed. Somehow, everything seemed to distort in those woods - everything was so foreign. Fannie Lou walked just close enough to hear, but she knew the others had no idea she was there. She preferred it that way for now. She simply watched.
Iona turned to her sister, Leona, and Fannie Lou got the overwhelming sense that something was wrong. The oldest twin seemed not to like that feeling - it probably hurt her. Made her feel as if there was something that she should be doing but couldn't. Fannie Lou understood this feeling. Leona tried to stop her twin from going, but the younger girl pulled away from her and walked up to the pregnant woman.
The young lady sat on a fallen tree trunk, her hands perched on top of her massive stomach. Tears stained her face, falling to her humble dress in fat drops, staining that too. She tried to smile when she saw them, but it was strained. Leona seemed to be struggling to remember her name, but Iona looked at her sister, and as if reading her mind, nodded and said, "Janice." They did that sometimes - knew each other's thoughts, Fannie Lou knew.
Iona made her way to the girl, "Are you all right?"
"Yeah." Iona touched her. Janice jumped as if shocked and looked into the older girl's eyes.
"How old are you two now? Nine?"
"I thought so. I remember when you was born. They say you two was special, ya know." She paused for a long time. So long Fannie almost thought she'd fallen asleep with her eyes open. "It hurts… real bad." Janice touched her stomach and moved her hand between her legs. "It ain't time, though. I got me two months to go. It's somethin' else. I can feel it."
"I know," Iona said. When she looked at the girl, Fannie saw something in the Iona's eyes flare up like a light. It was calming and warm, as if it were a fire burning to temper Janice's soul. Leona stood back for a while, as it seemed to scare her. Janice stared at Iona, and after a while, closed her eyes.
Iona spoke: "Suffering never last as long as it feels sometimes. And heaven come after, Momma said. So it's worth it, I guess." Fannie Lou smiled. The girl was quite powerful, indeed.
Janice smiled, nodded. She sat there for a moment longer, then stood up and wiped her dress clean. When she walked away, she was just a little lighter on her feet, her back just a bit straighter. Fannie knew her pain wasn't gone; instead, she was sure that Iona had made the young woman just strong enough to bear it. Iona had touched her soul, she knew. Their gifts were so strong. Perhaps, Fannie knew, too strong; they were not contained. She had to save these girls, or the town from the girls. She hadn't decided which.
"It's dyin'," Leona said to her sister, completely unaware of Fannie Lou's presence.
"You sure?" her sister asked her.
Leona was sure - Fannie Lou had seen it too. The two had seen something Iona hadn't. Something that no matter how long Leona lived she would never forget. There had been something in that girl's belly, crawling, wiggling around, alive, smothering the life from the baby.
She'd seen worms.