Thunder rattled the window- panes two stories high and lightning split the sky; it was as if the whole world was in turmoil that night. My nerves were keyed up as tight as piano strings, and in a sudden moment of stillness and silence it felt as though my heartbeat was amplified ten times over. He was over a hundred pounds greater than I, nearly a foot taller, and I knew he could move his muscled body into unbelievable sprints. Rain started falling in torrents, while the storm raged outside. I was not afraid of the storms of nature; it was the storm inside this night that I knew I might not survive.
Anticipation was so great that I wanted to scream at him to get it over with, and true to my expectation he lunged for me, and my body did not disappoint me, I flew down the stairs two at a time in my bare-feet. He stalled for mere seconds to enjoy his pronouncement of a death sentence upon me:
“I AM GOING TO KILL YOU—YOU GOOD FOR NOTHING BITCH—STONE DEAD!”He screamed like a crazed animal.
The date was February 13, of the year 1987, the night that I disappeared into a February rainstorm with five children and no place to go. I was twenty-nine years old.
Many people asked of me since that day, many ‘whys’ and I gave many answers. It takes a lot of ‘why’s’ to make a life, mine being no exception. Maya Angelou said ‘you can’t know who I am until you know where I have been’; until you know the circumstances and people who contributed to the making of me, you cannot know me. We all are complicated mixes of many other people and life events. We are all of everything that has ever happened to us. If we suddenly got amnesia, we would cease to exist as who we were, except in the memory of others. My pain is me, and thus my life that once was, is what made me now.
I am the hungry little girl who sat in the sand over forty years ago waiting to be rescued by an ancient old man, I am Sara Niles and this is my story.
The Deep South, 1957
I was born in the bowels of the South where willow trees hang low over ponds and creeks surrounded by the lush growth of woody fern. My beginnings were in a place where knotted old oaks twisted their knurled boughs upwards, their majestic leafage allowing slithers of light to penetrate the shadowy forest floors to lend peeks upon the backs of huge Diamondback rattlesnakes; their gargantuan size owing to seldom meeting the sight of the eyes of man, if ever at all. I was born where the bottomland hoarded teems of wild boars known to rip hunting dogs open from end to end, and where the narrow little graveled roads twisted and wound their way past humble mail boxes, usually the only evidence of the habitations miles into the forest. These humble country homes were usually only accessible by traveling down dirt, tire-rutted roads with strips of ragged grass running down the middle, like frazzled, green ribbon. This was oil country, so oil wells were scattered every few miles, their slow prehistoric movements signaling that the owners were receiving money. Neighbors lived far apart on beautiful little farms or in ragged shacks, with a Cadillac and a television, or neither plumbing nor electric power lines. Depending upon which neighbor you were, you had plenty or nothing at all.
My mother had nothing at all, except seven hungry mouths to feed. She was by everyone’s opinion an exceptionally beautiful woman. Her mother before her was a French white woman from New York, and her father was a black and Indian man; born, bred and still living in the same area. I never met my maternal grandmother, I strongly suspected that she mated with my grandfather on a purely business level. A business that is considered to be one the oldest vices, the one I have to thank for my very existence. My mother was a prostitute. I was an accident she had with a client, a rich white oilman who found her little shack a convenient stop on his trips from town, and she found in him food for her children. Things may have been different for my mother, if a white man, living in a racist time, had not shot her first husband in the back for the unforgivable crime of stealing gas- gas that he swore to pay for that evening when he left the billet woods. It was a time when racism ruled, a ‘cold war’ between blacks and whites established the climate, and therefore no trial ever took place.
It was the year 1957, a date that became a famous marker in the racial history of conflict between Blacks and Whites; when The Little Rock Nine were escorted to school by Federal troops under the order of President Eisenhower to counteract the attempt of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to prevent it. Southern racial tensions produced a supreme irony: Federal troops against the National Guard. This visible strife between state and nation was one of the evidences of the racial turmoil of the times. The line of demarcation between Blacks and Whites was decided by color, and I was born on the centerline. My bright light skin marked me as a product of the enemy, the White man in the black community. Black women drawled sweetly to my mother that my long wavy brown hair was so pretty in tones meant to be a reproof to her. I was unacceptable, too White to be Black… too Black to be White.
We lived in what our relatives fondly called ‘the old homestead’. It was the home built by my great- grandparents, a newly freed slave by the name of Henry Howell and his wife, a full-blooded Crow Indian bearing the European name Charlotte. Henry and Charlotte had twelve children, each born in the front room of this now dilapidated old house. Great old cottonwoods rattled their leaves noisily in the wind in front of the house and massive oaks guarded the back, dwarfing the little outhouse with its pitiful ‘croker-sack’ door, made of rough burlap. The exterior of the house bore the aged gray look of hardwood that had never been painted in its century of withstanding the pelting rains and the great extremes of heat and cold. It was a tough, neglected old house, abandoned to my mother to house us in rent-free. She could ill afford to care for the ancient structure that needed attention so badly, or us. The job of watching and caring for us fell to my oldest sister, Francine. She was thirteen years old at my earliest remembrance of her, my brother was twelve, and the rest of our ages ran closely behind. I was four years old.
The house had three entrances. The front and back doors we children were allowed to use freely, but the side door facing the setting sun was off limits to us. It was the ‘business’ door, the door that the strange men used; some used it so often they even knew our names. On a rare occasion when my mother was absent, I was molested by one of these men while the noon-ish sun shone through the window. I knew nothing of what he was doing, he sounded friendly. Something was wrong, I felt some odd shame and my heart pounded with relief when my tigress of a sister burst through the door demanding that the ‘no good son of a dog’ take his filthy hands off me in a voice strong with authority and rage that was strange to hear in the voice of a child. He unhanded me without a word and fled as all my siblings ran up to flank her in the ranks. I remembered that incident, though I never once mentioned it again until three decades passed. I merely held my head self-consciously tilted to one side when I walked.
Nothing stood out in my early childhood worth remembering until the fateful day when the world kindly changed for me. My great uncle and aunt lived on a farm a mile’s walk through a wooded trail. Robert Howell was born in eighteen eighty-three to Henry and Charlotte Howell in the very same curtain-less room that my siblings and I slept in, on the pallets and old mattresses. Although my mother was treated as an outcast in the family - never visited and quietly talked about by the conventional ones who may have feared their heavenly reservations may have been cancelled if they dared come near her- my uncle Robert visited us daily. He cared little for convention and hated hypocrisy; he would not permit either to stifle his compassion for us. We looked for uncle’s visits just as faithfully as we expected the sun to rise, and just as faithfully, he always came. I never remember his coming unheralded by our squeals of delight because we knew he had candy or fruit, if not both. Our yard’s stingy spattering of trampled grass wore a distinct trail that led to the east corner where a roof covered water well crested the top of a steep red clay hill. Uncle Robert’s head would always appear first, and on hot days his hat-less bald head would bloom at the top of that hill prettier to us than any flower, because he not only brought us gifts, he luxuriated us in his time by talking with each one of us. We loved Uncle Robert dearly, and any one of us would have been glad to have been taken home by him. I was selected.
The monotony of our lives made the mentioning of the names of days unnecessary, so I don’t know what day it was when my uncle took me home, just that it was sunny and warm. I was sitting in front of the east steps in a pile of cream-colored sand pouring it’s warmness across my legs when Uncle Robert came.
“I’m coming to take you home with me little Sara. Just let me talk with your mama for a minute. You’re going to be me and Mollie’s little girl” my uncle soothingly promised.
I felt something that must have been excitement, although I had heard him say he would take me home before, somehow I knew this time was different. My brother and sisters gathered around the front door trying to overhear the conversation from within. We could hear the muffled conversation getting louder as my mother and uncle walked down the hall to the front porch.
“I’ll find her birth certificate later Uncle Robert. You just take her on home now”, and as an afterthought she added “Tell Aunt Mollie hello for me”.
And just like that, as easily as one changes shoes, I was given away unceremoniously without tears or protest from my mother. She never hugged me good-bye, nor did she come outside to watch me leave. My brother and sisters gathered around me looking sad, their bubbly excitement dying, as they followed us down the steep hill, all the way to the ravine. They yelled ‘good –byes’ until we were out of sight. My uncle let me climb upon a stump so I could ride astride his neck, since I had no shoes. Uncle Robert talked excitedly, gesturing with his hat in his free hand while holding one of my ankles with the other. I was holding his baldhead with both my thin, dirty arms. I don’t remember much of what he said, only something about how happy my aunt Mollie would be, and all of the things they would buy me. These golden promises meant nothing to me yet, since I had no prior means of comparison and I was too distracted by apprehension mixed with unformed expectations.
I knew we had almost arrived when we reached the water spring at the bottom of the hill. The spring bubbled up fresh water continually, with the overflow creating a running stream of branch water that was covered over by a long plank bridge. Two thick, smoky black water moccasins raised their ugly heads up from the water and opened their cottony mouths in silent threat. I tightened my grip on Uncle Robert’s head. The roof of the house appeared first as we ascended the long incline. A large grayish brown farmhouse, surrounded by bright flowers, arose into view. My senses became acute, recording every minor detail, while the smells of flowers and fruit trees enchanted me, as my uncle stooped to unlatch a peg lock on the back gate. My heart was beating faster and faster, and my blood raced through my veins with such force that I became dizzy, my hearing muted and time slowed.
Fear ran through me as two large silky black Labradors ran toward us barking hysterically, the barking giving way to tail wagging and happy howls of joy at seeing my uncle. I could see an immense expanse of ordered property. There were pastures and barns, cows and a big-eared mule, chickens scattering across a fenced yard and New Guinea fowl shrieking in tropical song. There were huge yellow and gray-striped Tabby tomcats sitting calmly upon fence posts. I was bedazzled. While my head whirled in excitement, I was gently stood upon the grounds on legs almost too weak to hold me. It was incomprehensible to my dazed senses that all of the commotion was over me.
My uncle yelled to my aunt to hurry out and see what he had, and in an instant my aunt ran across the back yard with a spatula in one hand wearing a white apron across the front of the prettiest flowered dress I had ever seen. I was being smothered in hugs while my uncle and aunt both talked at once. The animals sensed the excitement and were howling in unison. I tried to see everything at once, such as the number three bathtubs hanging outside against the back porch wall, animals, a smokehouse and old farm buildings. I thought I had entered a new world when I smelled the most wonderful aroma of foods floating upon the breeze; my senses were overwhelmed, as the hunger awakened in me, compelled me to cry. I was fed while still caked with grime and dirt.
“Robert, I’m afraid she’ll get sick. Don’t you think we should stop her from eating now?” Aunt Mollie asked uncertainly.
“Nah. This child probably has never eaten her fill. Let her eat till she bursts.” He answered glad heartedly before they both melted into joyous laughter. For the first time in my life, I was home.
I was scrubbed in sudsy lather and wrapped in a towel. My only dress was so dirty that it was discarded. I stood behind my aunt holding the back of her chair while she sewed dresses and matching bloomers out of floral, cotton flour sacks. She sang and talked as she wheedled her Singer treadle sewing machine. I said nothing. I was happier than I had ever been. On Saturday, I remember because every day I was told to just wait until ‘Saturday’ and we will go to town. On Saturday, we went to town. My aunt bought shoes, dresses, ‘britches’, baubles, and toys, and everything that a little girl who had nothing, would need. I remember the things I did not need, the candies and soda pops of all varieties and colors. All of downtown was comprised of one street covering a couple of blocks, so in a town of that size everyone knew Aunt Mollie. My aunt told every listening ear, both White and Black, that she and Uncle Robert were like Sarah and Abraham, blessed with a child in their old age.
Relatives were notified, and they came by the carloads to see me, and brought and sent gifts. My Aunt Fannie from California sent two huge packages of clothing and toys from J.C. Penny, a habit she continued for the duration of my early years. Physically, I went from nothing to everything in one week. From no attention to being squabbled over; my emotions knew no precedent, therefore I was overwhelmed in joy. I began to talk incessantly, ‘like a jaybird’ as Uncle Robert said. There was so much to see and do, to taste and touch. I was experiencing the tastes of new foods almost daily. I became a whirlwind as I tried to enjoy everything at once in a frenzy of ecstasy.
My uncle took me with him to visit my brother and sisters each day, they were always so happy to see us, only now I knew that they did not have the good things I did. I used to ask Uncle Robert and Aunt Mollie to bring them home to live with us; I was too young to know what their sad faces revealed. It was impossible; they could only save one, the child most likely to suffer harm. My mother moved away when I was five years old without a word. We went for our daily visit and the house was vacant. A feeling of loss pervaded my happiness as we stood staring in disbelief. Years would pass between brief glimpses of any of them.
Nothing good was withheld from me, even moral guidance was provided as my uncle read to me nightly out of a King James red-letter edition Bible. “Them’s the Good Lord’s words in red,” he would say reverently. These lessons installed in me a sense of moral propriety and spiritual obligation that I would later misconstrue to my own detriment. The strength of character I gleamed from them would enable me to survive myself and all lesser foes.
For the next half decade, I lived on the ‘flower bed of Eden’ as Cousin Andrew called it. The days were never long enough; perhaps that is why I hated to sleep. Seasons came and went in a panorama of delight. The record ice storm of the early sixties was a great memory to me as I watched through steam fogged windows, warm and snug, as the loud popping of snapping pine trees screamed with the howling winds. Nothing caused me to fear those years, I felt perfectly safe as I expected I always would.
Those days will be forever frozen in my mind. I can still see my uncle and aunt standing among the prized garden vegetables, amid four-foot tall collard greens reaching my aunts shoulders. I can see the tanned sinewy frame of my uncle stretching his short frame proudly towards the sky as he brags on the size of his watermelons. I can hear their laughter coming from lungs almost a century old, and I can see the twinkle in Uncle Robert’s one good eye. I could never imagine him killing the man who gouged out his eye with a pool stick so many years before, though the relatives said that he did. I only knew that the blue glass-eye looked odd with his one brown one, set against his tawny gold skin, his head crowned with a semi-circle of silky white hair with a matching heavy white mustache. I can see the bright flash of his red plaid shirt through the school bus window years later as he walks hurriedly to the highway to escort me home, on the cold November day the house burned to the ground. Dirt and smut on his sad face. I can still see them. I will always be able to see them in the vivid imagery of my mind.
I used to wish with a fervor that I could have held on to the past and preserved all that was good about it, that I could have prevented my aunt the years of suffering as she lay dying, bedridden with cancer. I used to wish that all the good years would have never ended; time cured the wishing as I realized that the fairy tale had to end. It was gone; I would never get it back. The sun would still rise, the seasons would still come, life would continue. I was thankful to have been a part of it; I would take the memories and savor them for the life ahead. I had been given the components that would comprise the fate of my destiny; they had aged into my soul, so that part of the past would always remain with me. They would be there for me to draw strength from, on days in my future when death would seem a triumph and life too hard to live any more.
It is strange how intricately life hangs in the scales, and how unrelated events and single decisions alter the outcomes. Some remote land ten thousand miles from me, some land unfamiliar to me, held the key to my future. A foreign land of war, a land besieged by helicopters, machine gunfire, and mortars, held a young man prisoner to its boundaries. A man I would never have met if my uncle had not become sick.
My uncle became acutely ill when I was fifteen years old and he asked a young family that he was fond of, to adopt me. Life had changed course for me again, and the changes were becoming less kind as time wore on. I was about to be thrust into a situation where my lack of experience would affect my judgment and cause a permanent change in the person I would become. My future would become as uncertain and unstable as a howling wind in a wasteland.
My memories, both the common and the spectacular, punctuated the stream of time during the brief blur of my formative years. Somehow, the colors, smells and sounds of childhood are like no other in life and can never be duplicated. I have seen orchards in bloom against sunsets so glorious as to move one from the realm of sensate appeal into the realm of enchantment, but I saw them only as a child. The intoxicating smell of gold and silver crayons, the trophies of the Crayola box, had the power to lure me into fanciful trances as I used the colored wax wands to weave magic upon mere paper. The comforting sounds of adult conversation, as I eavesdropped cocooned away behind cushions long after my bedtime, and the rise and fall of soft laughter on summer nights, mingled with the rhythm of the lonely cry of the Whip ‘O Will made my bedtime lullaby. These things were the milk and honey of my early history.
However good a life can be, there is never total absence of the dark side of the human experience. I remember the feeling of a ‘falling’ sensation in the pit of my mind when I heard of the ax murder of my dear cousin Willie, who lived within walking distance of our farm; poor, simple, Cousin Willie, who had raised children and grandchildren. Cousin Willie who had just barely survived a house fire, and who wore the burns that came at the cost of her survival: Willie, who bothered no one except to bring cheer by her presence. Her six-foot image graced the top of our hill at least monthly, but I knew I would see her no more. She had recently married a man new to the area, some said
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