Dawn DeBraal lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband Red, two little rescue dogs, and a stray cat. Dawn has published over 400 stories in many online magazines and anthologies, including Palm-sized press, Spillwords, Mercurial Stories, Potato Soup Journal, Edify Fiction, Zimbell House Publishing, Black Hare Press, Clarendon House, Blood Song Books, Fantasia Divinity, Cafelit, Reanimated Writers, The World of Myth, Dastaan World, Vamp Cat, Runcible Spoon, Siren’s Call, Setu, Kandisha Press, Terror House Magazine, D & T Publishing, Sammie Sands, Iron Horse Publishing, Impspired Magazine, Black Ink Fiction and was the Falling Star Magazine’s 2019 Pushcart nominee.
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
When my best friend David Bowdry killed himself in a “conversion school,” I was set adrift. David’s father, the Reverend Bowdry lived next door to me and my family. He was the preacher at the Baptist Church we attended but also worked as a well driller, calling his well business “Showers of Blessings.”
The Reverend, devastated by the loss of his only child changed somehow for the better, I think. He was angry when he found out that David liked boys, more than girls, and couldn’t accept that about his son. He sent him away to be “fixed.” That’s what David told me before he committed suicide. I begged David to lie to them, so they’d let him come home, but he was too honest. After I lost David, I turned to my next best friend, Tansy.
Tansy Baker lived on the first road off Highway 19 out of town and onto a subdivision road that snaked into what the locals called, “Chigger Heaven.” It was called that because during most months where the grass was long, you got eaten alive by chiggers, experiencing powerful itching that drove a body crazy for days. It was the reason Tansy used to come to my house even though I had little sisters and a brother. We were crowded in our tiny two-bedroom house, but happy, and there were no chiggers.
On the first day of ninth grade, Tansy got on the bus sitting down with me. We sat in row sixteen, glad to be going back to school and excited that we were now almost high schoolers. At fourteen, we felt we were quite sophisticated. The bus was full of rambunctious noisy kids everyone catching up from being off all summer.
The bus came out of the subdivision heading further out into the countryside where the cotton fields were ripening, almost ready to be picked in the northern part of Florida. They would be harvesting through November. The cotton bolls would burst open in a couple of weeks. I always thought that if I lived in the Northern states, this explosion of what was cotton blooms would be what snow in the north looked like. It was magical. Someday, I hoped to see real snow.
The bus stopped at a cotton farm, where a dark-skinned girl with a milky eye and a dented forehead came onto the bus. Separate but equal schooling was the law of the land.
Maybelle Sutton skittered down the bus aisle as the bus took off. She stood next to Tansy in the aisle expecting Tansy to slide over and let her in, Tansy shook her head.
“Oh, for goodness sake Tansy, slide over.” Tansy again, shook her head. I stood up, told my friend to sit next to the window. and sat between Maybelle and Tansy.
“Good morning, I’m Emmaline Piehl. I said politely.
“Maybelle Sutton,” she said back, dipping her nose quickly into a book. Tansy didn’t say a word which shocked me because she is one of the nicest girls I know. My face burned with embarrassment for I was ashamed that day to be her friend.
Maybelle was a grade ahead of us last year but after she was attacked and hit in the head with a shovel, she lost sight in one eye and was held back a grade because she missed so much class time. When we got to school, she was made to sit in the back of the room. It seemed that Miss Delacroix didn’t care that Maybelle was blind in one eye. I wanted to mention that to her, but you would have to be blind not to see Maybelle’s milky eye. I suspected she was sent to the back because the color of her skin.
It was then it dawned on me how cruel people were to one another. First, David was ostracized because of who he wanted to be with, and now Maybelle Sutton because she had dark skin. I thought it was such a silly reason for someone to be treated differently. My brain burned with the knowledge that my best friend would act the way she did this morning toward someone who had done her no wrong and that Miss Delacroix would do the same. My heart went out to Maybelle Sutton.
The Bible says do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Today I felt like I was the only person who had read their Bible. Tansy and I had known each other since kindergarten, and Miss Delacroix had been one of my Sunday School teachers. I was seeing a side of them I didn’t like.
When I tried to talk to Tansy, she told me she didn’t want to speak about these things with me. She said we didn’t see everything the same, and that I should keep this part of me to myself. I could go around being friends with Maybelle Sutton, but not with her at the same time. I would have to choose between them.
I would have never thought that Tansy and I wouldn’t be best friends. We swore to be each other’s Maids of Honor when we got married. I was afraid to ask her if that was still our arrangement.
Tansy sat back further on the bus that night going home from school. I sat with Maybelle and asked her a few questions. Her daddy worked on the farm where she lived. He kept the machinery running and picked cotton. She did that on her weekends during the harvest when she wasn’t in school. I was more interested when I found out she was reading King Arthur. That was one of David’s favorite books that we acted out behind our house in the woods. Oh, how I missed David. Maybelle was just as smart as he. She was a book reader, something I never had the patience for, and I found myself loving the David in Maybelle.
“I can’t believe you talk to her.” Tansy said as she slid into the seat next to me; we would only be on the bus a few more minutes. Maybelle was sitting next to me. I cringed in embarrassment and struck out at my friend.
“I can’t believe you are so rude.” I said back to the person I thought I knew best in this world. She was suddenly different and that scared me.
“Well, aren’t you Miss Perfect,” Tansy said snidely. I felt as if she had slapped me in the face. This couldn’t be the same Tansy Baker that grew up with me. It was as if she was moving on, without me.
Tansy lived in a rundown house in Chigger Heaven, and I lived in the second worse house on the highway. Usually, poor folk like us stick together to defend ourselves from those who look down on us. I guess Tansy decided she wanted to be a down looker for a change of pace. I could never be like that, ever. The Bible says we are all equal in God’s eyes. This was going to be a trying time for Tansy and me, and I hoped I could get her to see that Maybelle was worthy of her friendship.
Reverend Bowdry asked me to sing in the church choir. I discovered then that I had a good voice, at least that is what folks told me. The white Baptist church was on one side of the highway, and the black Baptist church was on the other side. Their church was much smaller than ours, and not quite as fancy.
One time I asked the Reverend why we had two churches when God loved everyone the same? He told me that folks weren’t ready for change yet, but someday there would be change. It all had to be done at the right time, in God’s time.
I asked him why the color of someone’s skin would make a difference? The Reverend was thoughtful for a moment. Since his son’s death, he was a gentler man. I could see it in his eyes and in his manner. I wished David could have seen his father this way. There were still times I could see David in the Reverend, in the way he talked or in a simple hand gesture. David’s ghost walked over me. I missed my friend.
“Well child, only the good Lord knows the answer to that question, and it’s a good one.” I expected more from the Pastor and was disappointed. It seemed lately that a lot of things disappointed me the older I got. As a younger child I never worried about these things, or at least I never noticed them before. Now, it seemed I was watching injustice being played out all over the place, and it wasn’t fair. I was raised to be fair in all my dealings. I was learning there were exceptions to that rule at the expense of certain kinds of people.
It turned out Maybelle was a singer too. One day out in the schoolyard, she was singing the hymn, “Blessed be the Name.” I recognized the hymn from my church. Maybelle had a beautiful voice. It came through her soul even through her viscous eye and dented forehead, she became beautiful when she sang. It moved me so to see someone who had been so mistreated like Maybelle Sutton had been and still be so pure in her heart. The love of the Lord shined through her. When she got to the chorus of the hymn I jumped in and we harmonized, it sounded so pretty, that I wanted to cry when we got done. People looked at us like we were crazy, but I loved our lunchtime praise singing which we did every day.
“Maybelle, you have a beautiful voice.” I truly meant it. She smiled, and I knew then we were friends. Tansy would never understand why I chose Maybelle over her, but Maybelle needed me, and she was genuinely a nice person. Tansy was acting like a stuck up little, I can’t say the bad word; I just can’t.
Tansy and I were still friends because our long history could not be extinguished overnight, we still needed one another in a way.
One time I asked Maybelle what happened to her, she didn’t want to say at first, but then she told me how someone on the farm, the foreman she called mean Sam, caught her while she was working.
He’d been drinking, she tried to ignore him and told the man who owned the farm that his foreman, Sam Feldman was behaving inappropriately with a fourteen-year-old girl, saying improper things.
When the landowner approached Sam. He told him to stop bothering Maybelle or move on to another farm. Sam sought out Maybelle in retribution, attacking her. He caved her head in with that shovel leaving her for dead. Even though she was found a short time after the attack, she’d still lost her eye.
Sam went to court but only received a short amount of jail time. There was no justice for people of color, Maybelle told me. Even though she’d lost her eye, God saw to it that Maybelle lived to witness His glory.
I admired Maybelle for her courage and surviving what was the worst thing anyone could survive. I wished Sam Feldman got one hundred years for what he did to her. Maybelle was afraid of what would happen when he got out of jail, afraid of what he would do to her.
I told my ma about what happened to Maybelle, and she seemed more upset that I had heard such a story from someone who was only a year older than me. She pulled me in and hugged me.
“Emmaline, I only want the best for you. I am so sorry this happened to your friend. You must always be careful and aware of where you are.” I didn’t understand everything she meant at the time. but I did spend more time looking at things around me, factoring a layer of observation in that I had never done before.
As the school year went on, Tansy and I grew farther apart while Maybelle and I became closer. Maybelle got on the bus wild-eyed one day.
“They are letting him out this week,” she whispered.
“Sam Feldman. They are letting him out of jail.” Her hands shook, and tears filled her eyes. I felt so bad for Maybelle, I’d never seen her this upset before. While the man who attacked her was in jail, she was confident and safe. Now that he was getting out, she was scared. I offered to come over and stay with her on the day he got out of jail.
Pa didn’t like dropping me off at the cotton farm, even less that I was visiting the Suttons. He said I should be sticking with the people I had always talked to. I knew what he meant deep inside. Pa was raised differently than Mama. She was kinder and gentler. But Pa didn’t say anything after his speech on the way to Maybelle’s house.
“I’ll be back here at five, don’t be late.” I kissed his cheek. I was proud of Pa for being out of his comfort but still letting me spread my wings.
I was sort of shocked at Maybelle’s house. It wasn’t anything I’d want to live in. It made me admire her even more because of her joyous attitude. If nothing else, I felt more proud of her, for rising above what she had or didn’t have as the case was.
I had always been embarrassed by where I came from, but Maybelle had it worse, much worse. She lived in a place that was barely more than a shack, though it was clean and tidy. Maybelle slept on a cot in front of a kerosene heater. There was a bedroom and a main room with the kitchen and setting room which also served as Maybelle’s bedroom. There was a toilet outback, an outhouse, but there was no running water.
“Where do you bathe?” I asked Maybelle. She nodded over to a pond across the dirt road. “I swim there at night.” I couldn’t imagine going into a dark pond at night let alone with only one good eye. She seemed not to mind.
I met her mother, who was putting up some jam, and her father, who was cleaning his shotgun.
“Girls, I am going hunting, don’t go near the woods,” we told him we would stay out of his way.
Maybelle’s mom said she needed the table where we were sitting, to put the hot jars of jam on it to cool down, she told us to go outside and find somewhere else to talk.
We decided to head for the barn to sing hymns and harmonize. We hoped we could sing at each other’s church’s one day, we were dreamers. The barn was empty, and the acoustics were beautiful—just the right reverberation.
Maybelle and I sang hymn after hymn, stopping short when the barn door opened. We hid but it was too late. Sam Feldman came in. Maybelle froze like a stone statue. I couldn’t believe they hired the man back after what he’d done. He must have talked something fancy to get his old job back. Sam Feldman walked right up to us and snickered.
“Well, if it ain’t the Bobbsey Twins.” I felt a cold sweat wash over me.
“Mr. Feldman, we were just singing, we’ll leave now. Come on, Maybelle.” I said straight away, he wouldn’t dare attack a white girl, I foolishly thought. We tried to get around the man who stood in front of us.
“Looks like I caught me some chickens in the barn. A little bit of white meat and some dark meat.” Sam Feldman moved forward. Maybelle and I moved back.
Then Sam reached for me. I screamed and ran in one direction, while Maybelle ran in the other. He was chasing us when the shotgun blast rang out in the barn. Sam Feldman clutched his belly looking more stunned than anyone, sunk to the floor.
Mr. Sutton had come back from hunting. He had two dead rabbits tied to his belt around his waist, and a smoking gun, which he dropped on the floor.
“Oh, Lord.” He fell to his knees. Maybelle and I ran to her father. He hugged his daughter while I looked on. Every fiber in my being knew this wasn’t going to turn out good.
The Sheriff was there when Pa came to pick me up.
“Get in the car.” I could tell Pa was mad by the angle of his jaw.
“Pa, he was defending us,” I offered. By now, word was all over town about Sam Feldman being shot by the man whose daughter he hurt last year.
“Get in the car Emmaline, not another word.” Pa took off down the road. I looked through the rear window of the truck as they put Mr. Sutton into the back of the squad car. I couldn’t sleep that night thinking about Sam Feldman, how he was like a snake in the grass coiled up ready to strike. We happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You think his time in jail would have taught him something. It appeared to only make Mr. Feldman, meaner.
I testified for Mr. Sutton at the sham trial they gave him. A public defender was appointed because the Sutton’s couldn’t afford a real lawyer. It didn’t make any difference that Sam Feldman had hurt Mr. Sutton’s daughter a year ago and went after both of us in the barn. Even my testimony of Sam threatening to harm us. I saw a woman gasp when I said the comment about us being chickens and he was gonna get him some white and dark meat, didn’t sway the jury. All they saw was a black man who killed a white man.
I cried in Mama’s arms that night. Daddy said there was no going over to Maybelle’s anymore; it was too dangerous. It didn’t make a difference, her daddy was sent to jail for a long time, and she and her Mama were moving to live with her grandmother in Mississippi.
A week after her daddy was convicted of manslaughter, I stood at the bus station tearfully waving goodbye to Maybelle and her mother. I met her on a bus, and now I was waving goodbye to her on a bus.
We promised to write, but you know how that goes. A letter here and there and then nothing comes. Maybelle told me how sad her daddy was in jail. He was “poor in spirit,” she wrote. I am sure that he was, missing his wife and child, who had been forced to move out of state, to live with her grandmother, leaving Mr. Sutton behind.
Tansy and I started talking again. We were fifteen and going to high school. She acted like nothing happened after Maybelle moved away. She just picked up right where we left off. I wasn’t as gracious as Tansy. I would always hold a little piece of me back from her. I didn’t trust her like I did before the other Tansy came out.
I never heard from Maybelle again. Mr. Sutton got “shanked” in prison and didn’t make it. I heard the story from our neighbor talking about it to my Pa. I had to look up what shanked meant and I cried when I found out Maybelle had lost her daddy.
My Pa tried to distract Mr. Benning when he started talking about Maybelle’s daddy, he told me to go out and get his coat from the car, but I didn’t go right away, I stood outside the house and listened to them talk. By the time I brought daddy’s coat back they were onto other subjects.
I talked with Reverend Bowdry about how I felt. It wasn’t right that Mr. Sutton was killed, and he told me, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”
“Does that mean, Mr. Sutton is in heaven, even though he killed a man?” I asked Reverend Bowdry.
“I believe so Emmaline. God takes care of all his children.” That was comforting to me because I hated thinking that Mr. Sutton was standing outside the pearly gates looking in.
Maybelle’s daddy was our guardian angel that day, one sent to save Maybelle and me. Who knows what would have happened with Sam Feldman in that barn had God not sent Mr. Sutton to save us? I shudder when I think about that.
Maybelle knew what Sam was capable of. Surely God was smiling on her daddy now. I like to think that Mr. Sutton was basking in a golden light of Jesus’ love.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Maybelle’s daddy had truly earned his reward, I prayed that he received the keys to the kingdom.