Chapter 1 - The Infection
The first one he saw was working its way across a flowering bud with a hungry naivety, caring not that giant eyes watched. Despite the ninety degree temperature the little crawlie sent a shiver up Linus’ spine. Seen alone it was not a fearsome thing, but it is never alone, and it is the multitudes that are fearsome. Linus had heard all the warnings, but had not heeded them. Cotton prices were up, so Linus had cast the die. Up to now the gamble appeared to be a good one. The cotton was budding nicely, but then he saw another one, and then still another.
Linus knew the stories, but he had never seen it happen. If the stories were true, and he had no reason to believe otherwise, he was in real trouble. Without this crop he was done. There was too much owed. Linus stated the dreaded words to himself, and to an uncaring field. He needed to hear them spoken for the affirmation. They rolled from his tongue like a curse, “Boll weevils.”
The walk home was long. The furrowed rows hindered his steps. The loosely plowed soil clung to his boots, making them heavy and awkward. Linus slapped at his neck for a mosquito and caught the brim of his hat, sending it fluttering down to join his boots in the loose soil. The boots and hat made the turned loam look refreshing, like a good place to lie, cool and soft. Were it not for Meg he might just lie down there in the dirt with them, defeated. But no, Meg removed quitting as an option.
Linus collected his hat. To bend was no longer an easy thing. He knocked the hat against his thigh to free it of dirt and stood for a moment, collecting himself as the sun tingled his bare scalp and wilted his shoulders like a late season tobacco leaf. He was not yet an old man, but his body had been used hard. Across the field he could see the house nestled amongst the pecan and walnut trees, shimmering in the humid, liquid air as a sunken coin flits in the water’s lap. Neither the house, nor the land belonged to Linus Frye. Linus owned nothing but the clothes he wore and a flat-bed farm truck. He was saving for a tractor, but it seemed he had always been saving for a tractor, with never near enough saved. Even the cotton itself was only his when, and if, he could repay the seed loan. The house and land were his as a tenant, but it was the best place he and Meg had found yet, with good soil, and plenty of acreage. To the west the fields were bound by the highway running north to Tunica, and on up to Memphis. Eastward were the high tension lines that ran power from Memphis down to Greenville. Everything in between the power lines and highway was budding cotton paid on account by Linus Frye, one quarter of the profits of which already belonged to Brunson Lauderback, he who owned the land.
Meg was also on loan to Linus. She was coming of age. It would not be long now. Her body was changing every day. So far she had shown no interest in boys, but it was only a matter of time. He knew it was the way of things, but Linus dreaded the day. Only God knew what Linus would do when Meg’s eyes opened to womanhood, because Linus himself had no idea how he would make it.
Somehow this crop must pay. It was that simple. If it didn’t pay, then he and Meg couldn’t stay, and where would they go next? Megan liked the school in Barksdale. She was there now, even though it was summer recess for most of the students. The school sent out a bus every morning just for her, some kind of special class they called a “magnet.” Linus knew naught of that. He himself had never been much for school. Linus found it hard to believe that all of those books she read would do Megan much good out here in the middle of nowhere, but it was not hard for him to believe that she was excelling in that school, as she spent every free moment studying the books they gave her. She was setting herself up for disappointment though. A Mississippi hick would stay just that, no matter how hard it studied.
Linus had to admit that Meg was a strange bird. She read her books with urgency, as though every page were being tallied against the day when she could read no more. She read everything she got her hands on, and most everything twice, or even three times. Linus never asked, but he supposed that the books came from her school. Some of them were beautiful, with golden lettering on their covers, or a crimson ribbon to mark one’s place. It seemed that none were too difficult for her to work through. Occasionally Linus would open one. The words were strange to him, so he lost interest, but he liked how the books felt in his hands, solid and heavy, and he liked to hold them to his nose so he could smell the leather covers, and the aged paper. When he did so he felt the tug. He knew what it was that drew Meg to their pages. He felt the lure of the words, and the wisdoms within. Sometimes, by the night-fire, an excited Meg would recite him a passage, something like, ”... goverments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any government becomes destructive of those ends... blah, blah, blah,” was what Linus heard. The spoken words made no more sense to him than did the written ones, but he listened politely all the same, and he longed to comprehend. Even if he couldn’t understand the meanings of the words, Linus at least thought Megan sounded right smart saying them.
* * *
Once again Meg was the last student off the bus. There were only two other riders most days, with her stop being the furthest out, and therefore the last. Megan took the big step to the ground and started toward the house. When the bus was out of sight she sat down beside the aggregate highway and pulled off her shoes, adding them to the top of her two-handed load. It was a short mile to the house. She made use of the worn path to the side of the road to spare her bare feet. Meg did not think of the house as “home,” as she and Poppa were movers, but it was a good house. She would like to stay. She walked with her head down, watching the red clay stain her feet. She would have to wash them now before going to bed, but it was worth it to get out of the tight shoes. Every day now Everson dropped her a bit further away from the house, she being his last stop, and he hearing the call of the juke joint over in Barksdale.
Megan Frye’s life had been spent in the southern heat. It was uncomfortable, but normal. Unconsciously, she breathed through her opened mouth, sucking as much oxygen from the expanded, thin air as was possible. Had there been a breeze, which there rarely was, then her threadbare dress might not have clung to her bare skin, but it did cling, because there was no breeze. There was no reason to hurry either, so she didn’t. Home would be just as hot and lonely as the side of the highway was, and all it had to offer was to cook, and to clean, until Poppa fell asleep on the porch with an ustoppered jug laid on the rough boards beside his rocker, his pipe still burning in his hand. She would knock out the dirty pipe, lead him to his dirty bedroom, lie him down still dressed in his dirty clothes atop his dirty mattress, and then hurry off to a world far away from the Mississippi dust, a world spun from the minds of Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, or Homer.
Meg was a plain girl, with plain features, except possibly her nose, which was long, and thin, giving her face a sharpness of appearance, but it was not an ugly face, just a plain one. She was thin, but well proportioned, strong even, due to the farm work. Her sandy hair was straight and long, sometimes parted in the middle, sometimes pulled into a bun. Sinewy arms and calves protruded from her shapeless beige dress, hinting that what the dress hid would have the same stray-cat leanness as what it did not. Meg did the farm work because she had to, not because she wanted to. With no changes to her life she would soon be wrinkled from the sun, and bent from the work, as the women she saw at the Co-op were. Her smile would fade, as Pop’s had. She would marry someone like Dickie Shaw, who would do about as well at life as Pop had, keeping them alive, but little else. Dickie would treat her slightly better than a farm animal. He would talk to her like she was one, in mono-syllable grunts, not caring much for her wants. She would accept the neglect, would encourage it even to avoid the blows, or worse... having him plant another seed inside her.
One day at school Dickie and Burns had lured her behind the shed with smiles, and nice words. Like any kid, Meg wanted to be liked. She wanted to fit in, and she certainly did not expect meanness at school, it being her safe place. Once out of sight behind the shed Dickie had pushed against her, putting his hand up her dress, trying to push his fingers inside her. She had fought, but he was stronger. She hadn’t cried out. She still wondered why she hadn’t cried out. Anyways, she stayed inside the school now, until it was time to get on the bus. She was leery now. She was even leery of Everson since that day, and was uncomfortable being the last one on the bus with him, but Everson seemed more interested in getting to Barksdale for a drink than he did in putting his hand up her dress.
Poppa was already on the porch when she got home, the jug in his lap, which was unusual this early in the afternoon.
He turned his face toward her, but did not look at her. “We got the weevils.”
The news did not surprise her, nor even disappoint her much. Bad things were their lot. It had appeared for a while that it might be different this time, but no, it would not be different. It would be exactly the same.
“We will go to the Co-op come morning.”
Chapter 2 - The Cowboy Poet
Megan was waiting in the truck with a thin volume of “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” opened on her lap. Linus was sipping coffee by the entry door amongst a small knot of booted, and cover-alled men when the pimply faced clerk turned the latch-key signaling the start to everyone’s day.
Meg wasn’t reading the Shakespeare, as reading it was no longer necessary. The book was opened to the same page for twenty minutes now, the same length of time she had spent waiting in the truck, and it was the same page the book had been flipped to for the hour she spent with it in bed the night before. Meg was stuck on a single line. She had read, and re-read that line until it no longer needed read, as it was now branded into her memory. Instead, she gazed over the tops of the seemingly endless miles of budded cotton across the highway seeing, not cotton, but an ethereal scene from a romance dead these past three-hundred years:
“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass comes.”
She imagined Shakespeare’s “Father Time” personified, his beard and robes flowing Moses-like, his sickle aimed at “Love’s” young and tender heart. But like Shakespeare, Megan knew that a love which survives short term can grow stronger, and like wine grow sweeter through the ages, so that Father Time was actually Love’s ally, and not his enemy. But mostly she pondered fifteen written words that transported the human emotions of love through the ages, spilling them over from Elizabethan England down to Meg’s Mississippi cotton fields.
Its first pass buzzed the Co-op from a dangerously low altitude, the sound of its powerful rotary engine reverberating through the steel cab of the truck, shaking Meg from her “nether-world” and dropping her into a state of confusion where she sat open-mouthed and wide-eyed, waiting for... what?
The Co-op spit its few customers out onto its front walk, where they searched the morning sky with arms raised to block out a brassy sun.
Poppa’s face popped into the truck’s window, “What was that?”
She was not sure, but “it” was coming back. Meg jumped from the truck, her hand held high like the others to shade her squinting eyes. She could hear it, but it was never in the spot where the sound placed it. It finally rose up from behind the Co-op building, buzzing its metal roof. Having little experience with aircraft of any sort, Meg’s initial impression was that the airplane was a large one, but it was not. And she thought it fast, but it was not that either, at least it was not fast as modern airplanes went. Meg circled her father, keeping him between herself and the plane, watching over his shoulder with a wonderous, child-like curiosity unbefitting a fifteen year old on the cusp of womanhood. The airplane banked sharply to port, feeling of the wind before making a graceful short-field landing onto the highway in front of the Co-op. It turned into the grass lot beside the paved parking area, the blast from its propeller laying the grass low, its white side up. The biplane’s engine roared, its propeller blurred with speed, as though it were anxious to climb back to its more natural and comfortable heights before it sputtered awkwardly, and died.
Meg had never seen a real pilot. What kind of man would launch himself into the heavens, she wondered? She awaited his emergence anxiously, her fists clenched at her sides. He would be tall, no doubt, and handsome. The biplane brought forth visions of The Great War, and the German ace Richtoffen, goggled and scarfed, or of Eddie Rickenbacker, the American auto-racer turned fighter ace.
Time crawled. The little group gathered itself together in the blue-gravel parking lot waiting for something, for anything, to happen. The plane’s engine creaked as it cooled. emitting the heated odors of petrol and castor oil into the air. The airplane sat curiously still now, its profile leaned forward in the expectation of speed, and flight. Meg decided that its canary yellow was the perfect color for an airplane, bright and lovely against the green grass, and golden like the sun against a blue sky.
Would he never emerge? Meg had a strong inclination to climb up on the wing, and to open the canopy herself. What if the pilot was hurt? What other reason would have him touching down on the highway in front of the Co-op on a Saturday morning?
But the canopy did lift, finally, to a collective gasp from the onlookers. There was no leather flying helmet, no white scarf, no goggles. It was neither a tall, blond German emerging from the cockpit, nor an American racer. What it was, was a black man! The black man climbed out onto the wing and smiled at the assemblage, his teeth white and straight against his coffee with cream skin. He wore jeans, and a leather flight jacket adorned with assorted pins, and badges. He was of average height, but was made taller by the heels on his western styled boots, and by the crown of his western styled hat. He crossed the parking lot as if he owned it, paying little attention after that initial smile to those who had gathered to gawk, to those still packed in their little knot as if for protection against this strange bird that had fallen from the sky to land amongst them.
The pilot passed immediately in front of Meg. The black people in Barksdale that she knew were mostly poor, which was something to be said coming from a tenant farmer’s daughter, but there was nothing poor about this one. He was nice looking, with coppery skin, and bright, interested eyes. The assemblage watched his every move as he crossed the parking lot and took the Co-op’s front porch steps. For his part, he took the staring in stride. He was used to being the center of attention, in fact he expected it, nurtured it even, as being the center of attention was all the advertising he needed. He stopped on the porch between the reel mowers and the pull-behind spreaders, where he turned to face the bug-eyed crowd. With practiced nonchalance he pulled a toothpick from his jacket pocket and placed it between his front teeth, rocking it up and down with a bulging jaw bone.
“Howdy folks!” His voice was loud and confidant. “Name’s Marcel Gilchrist. For ten dollars an acre I can top-coat fertilizer, or I can kill weevils.” His accent was Spanish, or maybe Caribbean? Not being familiar, no one was sure. But with his piece said, Marcel Gilchist tipped his cattle-hat to his audience and made his way into the Co-op, knowing from experience that the line would form in waiting. Regardless of his skin’s color, Marcel Gilchrist performed a needed service. He knew his audience well, and he worried not a bit about their prejudices. Given time and opportunity they would make their way to his airplane, and to his bill-fold.
When he walked away from the Co-op Marcel Gilchrist had contracted to spray four fields, the first to be started first thing come morning. He was on his way back to his “Ag-Cat,” passing beside an old farm truck when he heard the quiet, thin voice coming from within it, the voice forming words that Marcel was intimately familiar with. It was giving those words varying inflection, as though it were trying them on for size as it searched for the most beautiful, and correct meter:
“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass comes.”
Marcel smiled. How many times had he recited those very lines during the long, lonely flights over Belgium, and Germany? How many times had he comforted himself with the familiar lines of Tennyson, Kipling, or Shakespeare as his P-51 thundered him through bursting ack-ack while he sat tight-knuckled in the cockpit, grasping at anything solid, even if that “something solid” was as thin as some whispered words recalled from the works of the masters? He peeked inside the truck’s cab. She was young, little more than a child.
“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,” he quoted in return,
“But bears it out, even to the edge of doom.”
* * *
Her poppa put the truck’s title up for the Malathion that was their cotton’s only chance. Now they were truly “all in.” If the pilot failed they would even lose the truck. They would literally walk away from here with nothing. Ten fifty gallon barrels of the stuff were strapped the to truck’s bed in the front yard, waiting through the night for tomorrow, and for The Black Cowboy Poet, and for the airplane that would save them. That it would save them, that he would save them, Meg had no doubt, for he was her newest, and her only hero. He was “The Black Cowboy Poet on the Yellow Winged Charger.”
When he followed up her quoted line at the Co-op she had been too astonished to reply. Instead, she sat open-mouthed and wide-eyed, staring at him through the truck’s passenger side window. What do you to say to a black man quoting Shakespeare? She certainly did not know. She was not intimate with, nor even familiar with any black people, even though they were all around her, and surviving in the same manner as she and her father were. She was certain sure that she knew no black people, nor white ones either, who could have picked up that poem at just the right spot, nor recite it in such a beautiful, syrupy voice with its pleasant island accent. But then, it was a voice befitting her “Black Cowboy Poet.” How else could he speak and still be him?
He knew her poem! Meg wondered what else he knew. He must know everything! She wanted to speak with him, to ask him questions, the questions she had that even her teachers could not answer.
Tomorrow. She closed her eyes, inviting sleep. Tomorrow the hot Mississippi sun would rise like always. Tomorrow the mosquitos would swarm just the same. Tomorrow the airplane that was the perfect color yellow would drive away the boll weevils. Tomorrow Pop would have another chance at success, another chance at life, because tomorrow her Black Cowboy Poet would come.
Chapter 3 - The Planter’s Prose
It is a strange thing, how you can learn to love a flat-land field. Linus Frye was a man who had plowed many furrows, over many acres. The work was always hot, the soil always hard, the tractor always small, and never once had Linus bounded from his bed filled with excitement for the coming day’s work, but it was the labor that created the love.
A field can only become yours when you have cleared it, cultivated it, sown it, and harvested its fruit year after year, after year. Only then can you know its highs and lows, and appreciate its temperaments. Other farmer’s may cast a discerning eye upon it, as a painter will critique another’s art, but it cannot be his until he has dug in, weeded, and turned it with his own hands. Rarely can we appreciate another’s labors, believing that we ourselves could have done more, and better. We can only know our own trials, but when the sweat from your brow, the blood from your veins, and the lessons you have learned work together to enrich that soil, and to feed the buds so that they grow strong enough to outlast the grasses and weeds which compete for your crop’s water and nutrients, and then the tiny squares appear, and bloom, and change from white, to pink, and to red before finally falling away to make room for the boll, so that from a flat dirt field you have created something green, something beautiful, something lush and alive... oh, how we humans do love those seeds we have planted, and helped to grow.
But love, like the muscle of the heart, requires resistance to grow strong. So then come the trials, testing the love’s strength. So comes the blight, the swarm, the drought, the flood, the varmint and the agent, all with designs toward tearing the two apart, farmer and field. Each would spoil the reward, so that the farmer must sharpen his scythe, and raise his fork to protect what he has worked so hard to give life to, so that it, in turn, can give life to him.
* * *
It landed on the dirt access road, the distance making it appear tiny, and making its roar tinny. Linus turned over the International Harvester. The motor gave three... slow... mechanical... grunts while Meg clutched the denim knees of her cover-alls. There were so many mornings when the old truck let them down, but not today! Today “Old Betsy” coughed out her phlegm, and exploded into action. Linus’ shaking leg, still weak from last night’s corn whiskey, released the clutch too quickly, shooting the truck forward. The jerky start thumped Meg’s head hard against the rear window of the cab, but they were off to catch up to the airplane, and to see her Black Poet, so Megan quickly forgave. The truck bounced jauntily over the rutted road, plowing through the erosion as only a four wheel drive International Harvester can. Poppa gassed the big V-8, every bit as excited as she was to get to the access road-turned-runway. There is an urgency created when each passing moment brings you closer to losing everything to an invisible hoard of miniature invaders.
Marcel Gilchrist was already standing beside the Ag-Cat when they pulled up. Without waiting for the truck to come to a full stop, he hopped on the running board, and grabbed a-hold through Meg’s open window. “Drive on down, I’ll show you what to do!”
The access road ran the length of the field. Her father carried a red and white striped umbrella that was to work both as a chemical barrier for father, and as a spotting flag for the pilot. With every pass of the Ag-Cat, father’s job was to move fifteen to twenty feet down the road, but it wasn’t her father that Meg was watching.
He was as much a poet in the air as he was on the ground. Watching the biplane’s gyrations over the cotton field was akin to watching the mating dance of some great, pesticide mutated dragonfly. The airplane flew so low that its propeller clipped cotton bolls as he passed. It whooshed the line of trees on this side of the field, and then weaved under the highway’s high tension lines on the other, flashing yellow hornet wings in the sunlight before buzzing by Meg while humming its angry, radial song. Meg watched dream-like, her imagination chasing the plane through the cloud of misty vapor it spewed behind it.
Once, at the fair in Jackson, Megan had seen a black and white film with a woman walking an airplane’s wings. Wouldn’t that be grand? Hair wild in the wind and wash, balanced on top, watching the cotton slide beneath, like surfing the greenest and greatest of all waves before jerking upwards like puppet strings at the tree line. Meg imagined herself racing bent-kneed toward the power lines, unsure whether the pilot would dive beneath the lines, or jerk overtop, her arms streched wide for balance, her bare toes gripping the wing’s fabric, the wind battering her, the peaceful sky sailing above while the green and white cotton swirled threatfully below. As Meg watched the little plane powering across the field she tried to anticipate the moment when, if she were walking atop the wing, she would have to duck, dive, or be swept away by the wires!
While she watched, the airplane suddenly dove below. Meg caught herself ducking even though she was safely seated on the truck’s bed. Her heart was racing, her palms wet with tension. She laughed aloud, and “whooped” her joy to the hidden grackles that the whoop flushed rudely from out the cotton.
Chapter 4 - Immortal
The setting sun was baking the western sky when biplane and pilot set down on an access road grown dark now with shadows. The plane’s thumps and creaks could be heard even over its spastic engine. Despite the umbrella, her poppa was wet and smelly from the chemical wash, but he was smiling. Meg could not remember the last time she had seen him smile. It seemed misfit on his face, fake, like some happy, plastic mask held tight with an elastic string.
The airplane’s engine choked out in a great belch of smoke, oil and noise. Marcel Gilchrist dismounted his chariot to stand before them, his western hat comfortably aloft, silhouetted by the setting sun. He wore the same flight jacket, and the same scarred boots he had worn at the Co-op. Marcel walked on stiff legs to her father and extended his hand, just as any other man would. Surprisingly, her father accepted it. The two men stood together, smiling as men will smile when a hard day’s work is done, and done well. Meg wanted to do something, anything to make him notice her. Instead, she stood beside the truck, her legs pressed together in her dirty, denim cover-alls, her own scuffed boots pigeon-toed in the red dirt.
When the handshake ended Poppa climbed into the truck. The sickly-sweet poison was strong on his skin, and his clothing. The Black Cowboy Poet returned to his airplane. Was it over? Meg took her seat in the truck’s cab, desperation welling up inside her. “Poppa! is he leaving?”
“No. He’s coming to supper.”
“Supper? But all we have is the pot roast.”
“He said that would be fine.”
“But Poppa, it’s four days old.”
“He said that would be fine.”
Meg’s arms crossed over her stomach. She looked down into the truck’s rusted floorboard, staring at her worn, and mud-coated boots. Her whole life was worn, and mud-coated. Why would someone like her “Black Poet Cowboy” want to come to a worn, mud-coated supper? It was an impossible question to answer, but in her side-view mirror she watched as the yellow biplane crept along behind them, its tail waggling back and forth across the rutted dirt road looking for all the world like a puppy scrambling along behind them at its own scattered pace.
Poppa and her Black Cowboy Poet found their front porch rockers, and the cob-stoppered jug soon passed between them. War stories warmed to the liquor while Meg warmed the pot roast. She cared little for Garands, B-1′s, or 8.8 Flak, but she knew her opportunity would come if she could be patient.
Dinner was quick, as there was little left for three, but the jug continued its rounds throughout dinner, and followed the men back to the porch after. Meg cleaned up quickly, and followed them outside, wanting to be near him. Poppa slouched in his chair, slurring his words, but Marcel Gilchrist seemed unaffected by the alcohol. A familiar cloud passed over Poppa’s eyes. Suddenly Megan was left to entertain, a position she was unprepared for. Marcel’s eyes sought hers out from beneath the darkened shadows of his wide brimmed hat. The darkness and his island accent made him seem more mysterious than ever. “So, tell me then Little Sister. How is it to be all alone here in the high cotton? To be the largest of the weevils?”
Meg was at a loss. There were so many things she wanted to say, so many questions to ask, but fear crept in on spidery legs, weaving a gossamer web over her bashful lips. Poppa was asleep. She was alone with a strange man. What if he was like Dickie Shaw? What if he only wanted to push up close to her, and touch her? What if her Black Poet was no poet at all, but was instead the wolf in sheep’s clothing?
She searched his face. It glowed softly in the porchlight. She could see no sign of meanness. He sat very upright, his leather aviator jacket gleaming like satin in the dim light. His eyes were sober and bright, despite the alcohol. “What is it you are looking at, Girl?” His voice was so different than anyone else’s. It was melodic, and so smooth in the thick, humid air that she was not certain he had actually spoken, that she had not imagined it.
Not sure what to say, she chose honesty. “I don’t know any black people.”
“Is that it then? That I am different? And are you not also different, then?”
“Yes. I am different.”
“How so? You look enough like the others.”
There was a long hesitation as her courage gathered. “I know things that others don’t know. I hear words in the wind.”
“Ah! So it is with me, Child. It was the wind that called me to the sky.”
“Did you hear Shakespeare in the wind?”
“Yah... and Byron, and Tennyson. Their words spoke to me, and lifted me up above.”
Meg leaned forward. She had never spoken with anyone like this, about these things. “That is how I feel. Like I know something the others don’t know. A secret. When I watched you flying today I felt that way. Like I was riding on your wings, soaring above the others, soaring over those who don’t hear the words, or cannot understand them.”
Marcel held out his hand to her. It felt natural to take it. She was unafraid now, her hand in his, warm and relaxed. “Listen, Child. When the wind calls, when the voices speak, it is well to listen. What do the voices ask of you?”
“They ask only to be heard.”
“Yes.” Marcel nodded. “I often wonder when I recite an ancient passage, if in that brief moment when I speak the verse aloud, waking the words from their quiet slumber, if the one who wrote them might not, in a tiny whirlwind of being, gather his soul up to listen, to hear his words spoken once more, to know that his feelings were shared with another, and to know that because he had a pen he lives yet, and I wonder too if that soul might glory in that moment from heaven.”
Megan did not find the idea silly. She often had similar thoughts. She had wondered herself if saying the name of one long dead might not wake that person’s spirit, and let them be once more, if only for that moment. Can a soul’s earthly name penetrate the veil that seperates them from the living?
Meg had once read the story of an Algonquian God, Ga-oh, who had been forgotten in time when the last of his tribe died away. She wondered what happened to those long forgotten gods, gods with none left to worship them? Did the god die then? Do gods die? Or do they wait upon their mountain tops, lonely in their heaven?
Megan wondered if she spoke this forgotten god’s name in prayer, might he rise again? And if she convinced someone else to believe, if she convinced another to utter this forgotten god’s name, might that God’s power not grow stronger still? Was that all it took to resuscitate a dead god, a single prayer, a breath from the lips of a believer?
Meg had tried it. Late one night while Poppa slept, she sang a song to this forgotten Algonquian God, and she danced a dance to shake the ground. She felt the wind on her skin, and she sang “Ga-oh” into it, hoping the wind would carry her prayer up to the heavens, and would resurect this god “Ga-oh” once more, to be her God, and hers alone.
But that was silly kid’s stuff, was it not?
“Why do you fly so low that you damage the cotton? Is it to show off?” She asked Marcel.
“Nah, Girl. The propeller’s wash stirs up the leaves, allowing the chemical droplets to get underneath where the weevils hide.”
Chapter 5 - Questions to Sleep On
“Who is your favorite poet?”
“He writes of beauty, but in a style for men.”
“And your favorite writer?”
Marcel smiled. It would be a long nght at this rate. “Because of his understanding of the nature of life.”
“Where did you learn Shakespeare?” Meg’s bashfulness had vanished.
“You went to college?”
“Yes. Is that so surprising?”
“No. Where did you go?”
“The Tuskeegee Institute.”
“You learned to fly at Tuskeegee?”
“You are a Tuskeegee airman, then?”
“You are a hero!”
“I have known some.”
“I read about you, about ‘The Airmen.’”
“If only it were all true. We were men, very young men. You’re father was with ‘The Fighting First.’ What has he told you about the war?”
“He doesn’t talk about it.”
“Neither do I. Not with young ladies.”
“I apologize. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Yes, you did.”
Embarrassed, but shown her place, Meg helped her father to bed. She did not know how he was able to sleep amidst the repulsive fumes from the corn whiskey and the pesticides, but he did. She flipped the light switch and pulled the door-to, so the odors would not follow her out.
* * *
Back on the porch Marcel had also given way to sleep. He must have been very tired, and her questions had kept him awake. How rude she had been! She went to her own bed for a blanket and covered him with it. She sat in her Poppa’s rocker while she watched his peaceful sleep, and considered his life. Here was a black man who had attended a southern college. A foreigner who had flown fighter planes in the US Army Air Force. A “man’s man” who recited poetry. A black Jamaican flying airplanes in cowboy clothes. Marcel Gilchrist was a parade of contradictions. He was, “The Fearless Black Cowboy Poet on the Yellow-Winged Charger, Come to Save the Day!”
Meg smiled as his made-up title continued to grow in her mind. She picked up her Shakespeare beneath a wall lamp which produced barely enough light even for youthful eyes. She watched the moths flutter around its bulb, wondering that so many of them could even find such a weak light out here in the middle of the Delta nowhere. The moths bounced around the bulb, clicking against it, or thumping against the wood siding in an attempt to get inside, just as flies bounced on the window screen trying to get out. Mosquitos drifted across her pages like teensy jellyfish floating effortlessly on the humid air. She guessed that it was the reader they were interested in, and not the sonnets. Beneath the porch a cricket sang its washboard song, but the insects could not deter her, nor the heat, or humidity. They were small distractions in the grander scheme. She watched him sleep as a mother watches her babe, protectively, lovingly. Tomorrow he would go.
Chapter 6 - The Legacy
With day’s break our hero, “The Black Cowboy Poet on the Yellow-Winged Charger,” did what heroes do. He had flown in, rescued the defenseless victims, spent a moment basking in their gratitude, and now he was flying away in search of the newly distressed, but it was what was done by night that made all the difference. Marcel Gilchrist was the hero not for saving a cash crop, but for sowing the seeds of something much bigger. He had shown Megan that anything was possible, even for a plain dirt girl from the Mississippi Delta.
Megan and Linus walked to the end of their drive to watch the little yellow biplane off. It hummed mightily before jerking up from the access road and into the rising sun. Linus Frye looked at the field of cotton sparkling with morning dew and saw hope for tomorrow. Meg looked over the field, past the crop, beyond tomorrow, and she saw hope as well.
There would be no “Dickie Shaws” for her. She would be stronger than that. Her mother’s life would not be hers, a life without love or laughter, a life of desperation, a short life. Somehow, Meg would do more. She would go to college. Her teachers were trying to help her, and they would keep helping if she would listen, and work, but it was up to her to avoid the pitfalls, to not get trapped by the “Dickie Shaws,” and to not take foolish gambles that invited disaster, like boll weevils.
Poppa’s lack of education, and his stubborn pride had invited the ruin that would have come if not for The Black Cowboy Poet on the Yellow-Winged Charger!
The airplane out of sight, father and daughter turned back toward home. “Poppa, I’m going to go to college.”
Linus Frye had always known the day would come, that Megan would someday go, but he had always assumed it would be a man who would take her, and in a way it was. A man in an airplane. “I can’t help you, Meg. This crop should pay, but with what we owe, it won’t be enough.”
“I know, but my teachers have shown me a way, Poppa. I want to be like him. I want to swoop in when disaster strikes, like he does. I want to help people fight, and then disappear into the sunset... not like a hero, but like a friend. He told me that college can do that for me, that I can be anything I want to be.”
“And you believe him?”
“Yes Poppa. I do.”
“Then I will help you too, somehow.” Linus Frye did something then that he had never done before, he reached for Meg’s hand and held tightly to it while they walked. She noticed a tear on his cheek, but she said nothing about it.
They never heard it coming. Low and fast it flew, skimming ’or the cotton. Golden as the morning sun it roared overhead, sending Linus and Megan running along behind it, chasing, and whooping their delight. The Ag-Cat dipped its many wings left and right before bounding upward, buzzing over the house, brushing the pecan trees as it carried the Black Cowboy Poet from their lives forever, but for those seeds left planted behind.