The Poisonous Truth

 

         “So Miss Emily is still with us,” observed the charge nurse making her rounds after the shift change at Snow Hill Manor.

         “So is the sister,” replied the aide, following her into the large corner room.

         “The governor’s wife is here?”

         “In and out. Mostly out. Keeps wanting to know if Miss Emily’s said anything.”

         “About what?”

         “Who knows?”

         The nurse rested her fingers on the smooth cheek of the woman in the bed. “We really shouldn’t be talking in front of her. Hearing is the last thing to go.”

**

         Oh, I hear you, Emily Boyd thought. And I have plenty to say. Trouble is, as Shaw said, the truth is the one thing nobody will believe. But Eileen knows. She’s still afraid, and I hope she goes to her grave scared to death.

**

         Mississippi was a powder keg that summer of 1964. All it needed for everything to explode was for someone to strike the match. President Johnson had just signed the Civil Rights Act, and though it had been two years since James Meredith had successfully integrated Ole Miss, Safford College was having none of it.

 

         “They have their own institutions,” the Reverend Freeman Boyd said, though not from his pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church. Emily suspected that he saved his finest rhetoric for the dinner table.

         Her mother, Carol, agreed with him. Emily thought of her mother’s birthplace, the old Gilbert Plantation on the outskirts of town, a crumbling reminder of the past to which the Reverend Boyd alluded.

         Emily loved the old place and often rode her bicycle out there to try and imagine it in its original glory. She loved Safford College, too, where she’d just finished her freshman year as an English literature major. As for the rest of Snow Hill, she wasn’t sure. Sometimes she thought time had passed the town by.

         That August morning when she came to breakfast, she found her older sister Eileen already at the table. Her husband, state Senator Mark Newman, had dropped her off the night before on his way to Jackson. Before he left, the talk turned to civil rights.

         “No one wants this, especially the Negroes. It’s those damned liberal Yankees from up north pushing all this. Our Negroes aren’t wanting what they don’t need.”

         “Like the right to vote and a good education?” Emily asked.           

         Mark glared at her. “You’re too young to understand all this, Emily.”

          But Emily did understand. She’d grown up with segregation and accepted all of it: the separate water fountains, the “whites only” signs in restaurant windows and on the door of the waiting room at bus station. Lately, though, she wasn’t so sure about being better just because her skin was lighter.

         “Slept off your sassy mouth?” Eileen baited Emily as she walked into the dining room the next morning.

         Emily shrugged and continued into the kitchen where Lydia was frying ham. Among her first and fondest memories was lying in Lydia’s soft, dark arms, the woman’s rich, deep voice wrapping her in words and melodies she came to love. Certainly her mother, involved as she was with church meetings and her clubs, never had time to sit and rock and sing to her.

         “I’m not hungry,” she told the woman. “I’ll be home for lunch.”

         She retrieved her bicycle from the garage under the apartment were Lydia lived. Stopping at Piggly Wiggly, she bought a quart of milk and two fresh doughnuts before pedaling on.

         As the plantation house loomed, she saw the young man standing on the broken steps, hands on his hips. “Who are you?” she called from the safety of the road. “What are you doing here?”

         He turned slowly. His coffee-colored skin glistened with perspiration. “Who are you?”

         “I asked first.” She pedaled closer. “I’m Emily Boyd. My mother’s people owned this place.”

         He grinned. “I’m Terrence Gilbert. Your mother’s people owned mine.”

         Later, she was never able to explain how it was she felt at one with him from that moment. They sat in the half-rotted swing at the back, where massive oak trees almost blocked the morning sun, while he told her how he’d just graduated from Tuskegee College in Alabama with a degree in English and that he planned to teach in a black school in his hometown near Birmingham. But first he wanted to fulfill the promise he’d made to himself see the place where his great-grandparents had lived as slaves.

         On the way home, she couldn’t stop thinking about how much they had in common, how much she liked his smooth, deep voice, and how his dark, finely-chiseled face appealed to her more than any she’d ever seen.

**

         It wasn’t accidental that they ran into each other at the old plantation every morning that week. Hidden from the world behind the house, they talked for hours. He seemed to know what she was thinking before she spoke. He sensed her feelings, too, in a way that no one ever had.

         “I’m not getting involved in the movement,” he said. “I don’t want to end up swinging from some tree. I can help our cause by teaching. Education is the key.”

         On the last morning before he had to go home, she was fit to be tied when her mother told her that she was expected to help serve lunch at the church for the ladies’ missionary committee. She thought of Terrence waiting for her under the oak trees and wanted to weep.

         When she finally freed herself at mid-afternoon, she headed for the plantation. He stepped from the shadow of the porch. She couldn’t believe he’d waited. She couldn’t believe what happened after that, but she knew she wanted it as much as he did.

         At dinner, she kept her eyes down, afraid that her family would read the secret in them. She barely heard her father say, “They needn’t think they’re going to do it tomorrow. There’s no way we’re registering Negroes at Safford. I don’t care what other colleges are doing.” He turned to her. “Don’t you have to register tomorrow, Emily?”

         “Yes, sir.”

         “Well, I’ll take you myself. If there’s going to be trouble, I don’t want you in the middle of it.”

         “Yes, sir.”

**

         She never understood how Terrence, with his avowed opposition to protests and marches, ended up in the middle of the crowd that milled restlessly in front of Old Main. She caught his eye as her father hurried her through the knots of people carrying signs and chanting, “We can’t wait! Tomorrow’s too late!” But then he looked away from her and started to back out of the group.

**

         Later, the four police officers would say that they’d been warned against drawing their guns and that none of them had. But someone had a gun, and someone fired it into the crowd.

         The evening edition of the Snow Hill Times reported the story under the headline, PROTESTER DEAD IN CONFRONTATION AT SAFFORD. No one understood why she didn’t come to dinner, but no one cared either. They had other things to gloat about. One more crisis averted. Safford College was safe.

**

         By December she had to tell her mother, but she wouldn’t have told her about Terrence if Eileen hadn’t baited her again. “Well, at least white babies can be gotten rid of easily enough.”

         Emily would never forget the look of horror on Eileen’s face when she blurted the truth.

**

         Everyone in the church professed to pray for Emily’s recovery from the severe strep infection that left her with rheumatic fever and kept her confined to her room for the remainder of the school year and through the summer. In early spring, the doctor, who had brought her into the world and could be trusted in these circumstances, came to the house to deliver her child.

         Only Lydia stayed with her through the long hours of agony. “A girl,” Lydia whispered as she sponged her when it was over.

         “I want to see her.”

         Lydia turned her face away. “Honey, she died.”

         Though she begged for answers---Why did my baby die? Where is she buried?---there were none forthcoming.

**

          In the fall, Emily returned to Safford. After graduation, she earned a master’s and finally a doctorate in English literature at Vanderbilt and returned to Safford College to teach. Five years later, she became head of the English Department.

         She’d never expected to see Terrence Gilbert’s face again. So when she looked up from her desk and saw it in the front row of the seminar on Kipling that she was chairing, she had to turn away for a moment until she could get control of her emotions.

         The young woman answered roll to “Sarah Ann Samson”. After class, Emily approached her. “I knew some Samsons here in Snow Hill years ago,” she said without expression.

         A chill emanated from Sarah Ann’s eyes. “My father has worked for Senator Newman for as long as I can remember. He’s the senator’s boy.”

         The racial slur that seemed to have faded from common usage over the years made Emily suck in her breath. “I see.” She wanted to touch the girl, take her in her arms, tell her that her real father wouldn’t be angry and bitter, that he would be proud of her furthering her education.

         She said nothing, just smiled and moved away. That night she wrote to Eileen for the first time since they’d settled the last of their parents’ estate by turning over the old Gilbert Plantation to the State Historical Commission.

         “I met an interesting student today,” she wrote. “Her name is Sarah Ann Samson.” Had they really thought she wouldn’t find out that her daughter grew up so close that Emily might have passed her on the street a hundred times? That she hadn’t recognized her before now was nothing short of a miracle. She picked up her pen. “Out damned spot! Out, I say. That’s from Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth in case you’ve forgotten.”

         The next morning, Emily had her first heart attack. Half a dozen more in the next four years landed her, bedridden, in Snow Hill Manor, for the rest of her shortened life.

**

         Emily opened her eyes and looked at the aide who came to bathe her. “Half the truth is often a great lie,” she rasped. “Benjamin Franklin.”

         The aide looked blank. Emily closed her eyes again.

         “She was awake this morning when I went in to tend her,” the aide told Eileen Newman. “But she’s gone again.”

         “What did she say?”

         The girl shrugged. “Something about Benjamin Franklin and truth and lies.”

         The medication nurse who came in just after lunch smiled when Emily opened her eyes.

         “Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody. Mark Twain.”

         “Is that so?” The nurse asked.

         “That’s so,” said Emily before she went back to sleep.

         The nurse repeated Emily’s words to Eileen when she came in the afternoon. “What do you suppose she meant by that?”

         Eileen frowned. “I wouldn’t know.”

**

         When the night charge nurse realized that Emily was going, she telephoned the Snow Hill Inn for Eileen, who came on the run and stood beside her sister’s bed, waiting for the end. Once she thought it was over, but Emily took a long breath and opened her eyes. Seeing her sister, she almost smiled.

         “All repressed truths become poisonous. Friedrich Nietzsche.” She closed her lips, then her eyes, and exhaled one last time.

**

         Eileen Boyd Newman left word at the desk that her sister had made arrangements to be cremated. “There’ll be some sort of memorial service later. I have to get back to Jackson.”

         It was too bad, what happened, Eileen thought as she unlocked her car and slid behind the wheel. But the girl had been stupid. No consideration for her parents’ standing in the town or thought for Mark’s budding career.

         Eileen’s sadness lasted until she reached the outskirts of Snow Hill. Then she focused on the fact that Governor Mark Newman was being spoken of as the next President of the United States. He’d back-pedaled his racial rhetoric and remained untouched by scandal. Their future was assured.