DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE
by Jeannine A. Cook
She was used to the flinching. The fiddling. The mess. The begging. The crying. The blood. These women with their thick thighs and thin thighs and saggy thighs and shriveled thighs came here to spread them. She was as close to God as they could get.
They’d whisper down her hallway.
They knew to ring the bell, that only they knew existed. They’d come with their differences, but they couldn’t help being the same.
“I changed my mind.”
“They say I will die.”
“This baby is sick.”
“I don’t know the father.”
“I’ve started to show.”
“My father raped me.
“My friend he raped me.”
So she’d do it. Her clear eyes made her feel invisible to them and she couldn’t see them either. As a formality she’d run her fingers across their foreheads, over their eyebrows, down their noses, and their lips. The only thing she ever remembered were their voices. She could recall the slightest tremors from aisles away in the marketplace. There goes flat face or bumpy face or wrinkled face—-pretending not to know me.
Babies don’t come from nowhere. But she didn’t ask questions. If they wanted to share, she’d listen.
“He climbed me.”
“Again and again.”
“I’ve tried to get rid of it.”
“I punch my belly”
“I drunk cleaning spray.”
“I stuck a hanger up there.”
“My mom said come see you.”
“My neighbor said come see you.”
It didn’t take much to prepare. The recipe had been handed down to other people with clear eyes. “Nothing to see here,” her cousin would say to onlookers half joking and half serious when people would stare. She kept a mixture of mouse dung, honey, Egyptian salt, wild colocynth, and resin on her kitchen counter. She always started her ritual with the salt sprinkled about the floor and frankincense burning in the corner. She’d fan the women with palm leaves from head to toe. Singing over their bodies and helping the women to stay still. She’d pray for safe passage and kept a small vile of liquid that she called the truth in case things went bad. After a few minutes of humming and chanting and holding hands and crying, she’d insert the mesh bag of dung and salt and herbs between thick thighs and thin thighs and saggy thighs and shriveled thighs. She’d shove it up as far as she could and then tell the women to take a deep breath as she pushed with her longest finger up just a little bit further. She’d been told to scrape their inner walls with her thumb nails for good luck. And wait. She’d sing hymns as she did.
“I’m gonna lay down my burdens, down by the riverside. Down by the riverside. Down by the riverside. I’m gonna lay down my burdens. Down by the riverside. To study war no more.”
That’s where she’d take the bags of blood and bones afterwards–down by the riverside. Some women required something stronger and faster. She had to be done before dawn. Leaving at daybreak was unsafe. And she still needed to escort some of them home.
Old Face wasn’t any different. Her hair was course, her nose double wide. Her thighs firm but bowed. An older woman. Old Face had a scar that ran clear across her neck besides that she was easily forgotten until she spoke.
“I am here to… you know,” Old Face started in a piercing tone. Her voice out of breath and still full of knives.
“Yes I know,” the clear eyed women nodded cutting off Old Face while setting up the palm leaves and the towels.
“He has a wife.”
“This would ruin everything.”
“What would others think.”
“He is the mayor.”
“I waited as long as I could.”
“My mother says I am silly.”
Old Faces’ shrill voice punctured ears. And then the routine. Same as always. The prayer. The procedure. The procession. Old Face asked to hold a hand and no sooner she was done. The clear eyed women used her cane to walk Old Face to the main road even though it was raining. She returned to clean her instruments, put out the incense, burn the blankets and make her way to the riverside. She was wiping down the table when she heard a faint squill. She rattled her metal waste basket and stumped her right foot to scare away what she thought was a mouse. But it only squilled louder and with more force. She followed the sound to the corner near the bed. Leaned over towards her bag of bones and felt around on the floor. The squealing got louder and more erratic. And when she couldn’t make herself believe it was a mouse any longer, she reached into her bag of bones. Ran her finger across its forehead, down its nose, over its lips. She sat down on the ground with a thump. She looked up to the sky. Checked for ten fingers and ten toes. Held it to her chest. A girl. Trembling. Trembling Girl.
The clear eyed old women searched for a clean towel and blankets, wrapped The Trembling Girl tight and checked twice that she was breathing. It was late. The clear eyed woman could already hear birds singing to the morning.
Her next reaction was to suffocate it. Maybe it was best to just throw it outside with the trash. But it was a Trembling Girl not some bag of bones. The clear eyed woman stuck her knuckles into Trembling Girl’s mouth. That doesn’t last long. Thought for a minute about her own son–taken too soon. Remembered him at that age. How she’d handed him over to her mother soon after he was born and was raised with him as her brother. Guess he was her half brother.
Then she thought of her song…
“I am going to lay down my burdens. Down by the riverside. Down by the riverside.”
She grabbed the swaddled bundle of towels and decided to proceed to the river in the rain. She soaked a rag with her tears and water and honey. Stuck that into Trembling Girl’s mouth. Slipped on her coat and set off down the road with the bundle in one arm and her cane in the other. She tapped tapped on the road to keep from tripping.
When she could smell the river was close, she dropped her cane. Had to place the bundle of sheets on the concrete as she patted the ground looking for it. When she found finally found it, she pinched the Trembling Girl to see if she’d still cry. She did. So the clear eyed women turned around. Backed away from the river and tapped her way down a narrow street. She could hear the early sounds of birds and knew better than to be caught in daylight with a bloody bundle of towels. They’d have her head if they knew what she did. At the end of the narrow alley she made her way dripping wet to the door. Pulled the bell. Placed the Trembling Girl with her high pitched shrill on the porch and hid behind the bushes.
“Who is it?” the women in the mansion yelled with long southern drawl. Opened the door and screamed. “Well I do declare.”
“Honey it’s not what you think,” the mayor said walking up behind his wife who had picked up the clear eyed trembling baby. “It’s probably not even mine,” he said.
“Probably?” his wife questioned her face saying it all. She handed him his baby and locked the door.
About the Author:
For the last 10 years Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is also a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several national and international news outlets including the New York Times, CNN, Ebony, BET, Barcroft TV and Daily Mail. She is a proud educator and mother with 8 years of teaching creative writing in alternative schools. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. Jeannine has shared her “out of the box” approach to organizing through guerilla creative writing with over 1000 schools, neighborhoods, community groups, and organizations in Philadelphia. She considers herself a visual ethnographer because she often collaborates with hidden communities to recover a suppressed history. She writes about the complex intersections of single motherhood, activism, and community arts. Her pieces are featured in several publications including Mothering Magazine, Girl God, Good Mother Project, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. Jeannine is currently producing an art installation of her writings deconstructed into paper art sculptures, collages, and calligrams called Conversations With Harriett.