“Pass me da black pepa, Stella,” Taletha said, the cigarette she held between her full lips bobbing up and down with each word. Her eyes remained focused on the ingredients simmering in the metal pot on the stove, one hand holding the wooden spoon she stirred with and the other reaching for the peppershaker that little Stella offered.
“Thenks,” Taletha said to her eleven-year old daughter, who stood at the counter watching her mother prepare the savory smelling soup for the family dinner. Taletha took a drag on the cigarette and blew out a cloud of smoke from the corner of her lips.
“Um, that smells gud, Mudda,” Stella said, the aroma suddenly competing with cigarette smoke. She went up on her tiptoes to inhale the mouth watering vapors that the soup emitted into the tiny kitchen space in the small wood frame home.
“Gud enough to eat, eh?” Taletha smirked, her eyebrow quirking up, as she continued to stir the aromatic brew.
“Yah, we gone eat it, right?”
“Dis soup is not for yuh, Stella. Yuh had better not touch it.”
“Why not, Mudda? Why can’t mi have some’a dat soup?”
“Cause I made it for yuh Pa, yuh understand?”
“Aw, Mudda, but it smells so gud. Can’t I just taste it?”
“No, yuh cannot. Yuh know why?”
Stella looked into the big black eyes that were now locked on her. She just shook her head back and forth.
Her mother bent down so that she and Stella were eye level. “If yuh taste this soup, or touch yuh lips to this spoon, yuh gone surely die,” she told Stella, whose eyes grew in size. “Do yuh understand me now?”
Stella nodded. “Then yuh better spread the word and pass it on. Tell yuh brudas and sista that they are to stay away from this pot. It’s especially for Pa.”
Taletha lowered the heat on the pot and covered the top. Stella watched her place the spoon on the stove and wipe her hands on her flowered apron. “Go on now, Stella, do like I say.”
Stella hurried from the kitchen without looking back.
The family ate in silence as the children watched their father stuff his face with soup and chicken. Their meal was the same, though cooked in another pot, and missing the one key ingredient that made Pa’s soup so special.
Stella sat near Pa, who sat at the head of the table, as usual, and her mother sat to his right. She kept looking at her Pa and then back at her mother, wondering about what she’d said earlier. Although young, she suspected what may be about to happen. When her pa coughed, little Stella jumped. He was always talking with food in his mouth, and the food sometimes got caught in his windpipe, making him choke. Right now, she didn’t know what he was talking about, but he was very animated about whatever it was.
Taletha caught Stella’s eye, and held it, warning her oldest child to eat her food. “How was school, pickney? kids?” Pa asked, taking a swig of the ice-cold beer his hand never left.
“Michael Henry told me that his mother is gone have another baby,” Tarone, Stella’s oldest brother said happily, followed by a large bite of the chicken in front of him. The juice ran down his chin and he wiped it with the back of his hand, chomping away on it.
“Is that what you go to school for, boy? To learn to gossip like a woman? I don’t wanna hear about the Henry family,” Pa said and his eye moved just for a second to Stella. “Tell me how you are smarter. How are you smarter now than you were when you left for that school this mawnin’?” Pa stared at his son, whose gaze had shifted to Stella. She hadn’t known her biological father and his wife were having another child. No one had told her. Her face fell as she left her spoon in the bowl of half eaten soup.
Tarone was a gossiper. He was always talking someone else’s business. She bet he couldn’t wait to get home and tell that piece of news. It always made for an uncomfortable moment when things like that were brought up. Lloyd Henry, her biological father, was a sore spot with Pa, a reminder of what her ma had done. He lived down the road with his wife and other children, four of them and soon to be five.
More times than not, when Pa was away at work, Lloyd Henry was at her house. Stella wasn’t sure if he worked, but she didn’t think he did. He was too laid back, too happy to have a full time job.
“Well, mi learned about mi double digits, but that thing ain’t gonna be important for me,” Tarone said.
“And just why is dat?” Taletha asked, looking up from her meal.
“Because mi gonna be a fisherman like Uncle Benjamin. He don’t need no money.”
“He got plenty money, don’t let him fool you, Tarone,” Taletha said, and went back to her soup.
“Whenever mi ask him for money, he say fishermen don’t need none,” Tarone said.
His mother shrugged her shoulders and laughed heartily. Pa joined in the laughter, until Taletha looked over, her laughter subsiding and watched Pa as he cleared his throat loudly.
“Something wrong, honey?” she asked sweetly.
“No, my throat’s a little scratchy. My ears too. I must be coming down with someting,” Pa said.
She had been dreaming of Ziggy Marley when she heard the scream. A high-pitched, shrill, whistle of a scream that woke the entire household, and made Stella sit up in bed. Placing a hand on her sister’s knee, she looked over at the bed her brothers shared. They both had their eyes open, their white orbs searching the room for the source of the ghoulish sound.
“That was Mudda,” Stella’s youngest brother, Chad said, hanging on to the covers that were pulled up to his neck.
“What’s wrong with her?” Tarone asked, his eyes wide, as another shriek assaulted their eardrums.
“I don’t know,” Stella said as she got out of bed shakily. Placing her hand on the doorknob, she inhaled before she turned the knob. The boys jumped out of bed and followed her out of the room. They crept upon their parents’ bedroom and heard their mother sobbing.
“Wah gwan? What’s going on?” their sister Snoo-Snoo, wanted to know. She dragged her feet over to them, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Stella put her index finger to her mouth and shushed her. They all looked into the open door to find Pa’s slim body lying on the carpeted floor in a pool of his own vomit. His red eyes were wide open and staring blankly, and Stella and her siblings dared not approach. When their mother realized they were there, she ran to them and fell to her knees. Hugging her children tightly, she told them what Stella already knew. “Your Pa’s dead.”
After the tragic events of the previous night, the children had stayed in from school. People had been filing in and out all day long, offering condolences, bringing food and drink and sharing in the grief of the family over the untimely death of Pa.
Stella had been afraid to talk to her mother about what happened. After all, she had helped her put the ingredients into the soup that had ultimately killed him. Was she going to kill her, too? What if she planned to kill all four of them, her sister and brothers, too? What could she do? How could she stop her? Maybe they’d have to run away, but where would they go? All she knew was that she was scared and for the first time ever, she wasn’t sure she could run to her mother to talk about it.
Just then, her Uncle Benjamin slid onto the old yellow couch next to her, placing a comforting arm around her small shoulders. “Mi luv yuh, I love you,” he said with a kiss to her forehead. Her uncle Benjamin was her mother’s older brother, and a stand up kind of guy. He took real good care of the entire family and she knew she could trust him, but still…
“Wah gwan wit yuh? What’s going on with you?” he asked, looking into her eyes and easily assessing her preoccupied mind—a mind full of questions that may never have answers.
“Uncle Benjamin, can me and Snoo-Snoo and Tarone and Chad come and live wit you and Aunt Claire and Noah and Zoya? Please can we?” She finally asked this, wringing her hands and holding her breath in until she got it all out.
“What about yuh Mudda?” he asked, confused.
“Not Mudda, just us. Can we?”
“Yuh mad at yuh mudda?” he asked and pulled her closer.
She clapped the toes of her white patent leather shoes together. Over and over. “No, not mad… Mudda wanna kill us,” she blurted out, the tears instantly flowing down her pretty little brown face.
“What yuh talking about pickney, child?”
“Please don’t let Mudda kill us,” she whispered, the panic very noticeable.
“Gyal, girl. Yuh mudda luv yuh. She no wanna kill yuh. She rather kill herself than touch a hair on yuh head,” he told her.
“Pa…” she couldn’t finish. She looked at the blue dress she was wearing.
Her Uncle Benjamin seemed to know where she was going with this. “No more talk about this ting, Stella. No do.”
Stella nodded. “Don’t tell Mudda, Uncle,” she begged.
“No worries,” he assured her.
Taletha had been watching Stella’s every move, knowing that she had to be mindful to how much she may decide to say. Speculation wouldn’t be good when she was showing that she was the distraught, tearful widow. When Stella’s father, Lloyd Henry arrived, everyone watched the interactions between the two because everyone knew that they’d been lovers for the better part of twelve years. He went over and greeted Taletha with a hug that lingered for too long.
“Stella! Come to Fada!” Lloyd Henry said loudly. Stella had reluctantly gone to him. He never seemed like a father to her so she had a hard time whenever he said that. And he seemed to prefer having Pa raise her after her mother had married him right before Stella’s first birthday. At the time, Taletha had been pregnant with Tarone, Lloyd Henry being unavailable for marriage due to being a married man. But none of that had stopped the affair, much to the chagrin of both their spouses.
“How are you, Stella?” he asked in a jovial tone, no hint that he cared about the grief that the child was feeling.
Stella shrugged and asked, “Is yuh wife having another baby?”
“Why…yes, Stella. How did yuh know dat?” he asked with an embarrassed grin.
“Tarone told me,” she said, with no evident smile on her face.
“Tarone told yuh?” he paused a few seconds then his face alighted with understanding. “I see. Tarone. Just a hop, skip and a tattle from Michael. Michael talks too much,” he said.
“Yah, Pa always says Tarone does too,” she stated.
“Well,” he chuckled, “that’s probably why they’re bredren, such good friends.”
At that, Stella smiled. “Maybe,” she shrugged again.
“Really, wah gwan, gyal?”
Stella looked into her biological father’s hazel eyes and her own eyes filled with tears for the man who raised her. No words came.
“There, there, now, don’t yuh cry, honey, he wasn’t yuh real fada. Mi right here, healthy as a mule,” he said, patting her shoulder. “You and me, we gonna get to know each other a whole lot better now. How does that sound?”
“It sounds gud,” she said wiping her runny nose with the back of her hand.
“Aw now, first lesson from your fada: always wipe yuh snot with something besides your hand.” He smiled and handed her a handkerchief he’d pulled from his back pocket.
She looked at it before wiping her nose. “It’s clean,” he said. She wiped her nose and he smiled at her. Taletha walked over with a broom and handed it to Stella.
Stella eyed her mother warily. “Here, Stella. Go sweep out yuh Pa’s spirit. Open the door and don’t stop til it’s gone.”
Tentatively, she asked her mother, “How will I know?”
Her mother nodded at her. “You’ll know.”
Stella walked to the door with the broom, and just as she had begun to do as her mother bade her do, she spied her stepmother, Gladys, marching up the dirt road, two of her children hanging onto her apron, and another on her hip. The only one missing was Michael. Gladys was a big woman, with black, spongy hair and shiny ebony skin. On her cheekbone she had a large mole that looked malignant. Her legs were much smaller than one would expect of a woman so large, too. They reminded Stella of broomsticks, all straight and shapeless.
Little Stella’s eyes were immediately drawn to Gladys’ belly, but it was hard to tell if she was pregnant due to her large size. The way that Gladys jiggled and shook when she walked was interesting, but when she marched, everything bounced violently. If there was a baby in there, Stella thought it was probably going to be brain damaged from knocking its head against her belly.
Distracted by her stepmother’s approach, Stella stopped sweeping and looked down, noticing something in Gladys’ free hand. Then she raised her chin to Stella, while tapping her side with the thing she was holding. “Stella, go tell Lloyd Henry to come out.” Her voice was firm, but not unkind.
Stella was about to tell her stepmother that she wasn’t sure if she’d swept her pa’s spirit out, and needed to make sure it was gone before she did anything else.
But before she could say anything to the big woman, her mother appeared in the doorway.
“What chu doin’ here, Gladys Rice?” her mother asked, her usual cigarette hanging from her lips.
“The name is still Gladys Henry and mi not here to fight with yuh, witch woman! Just send out mi husband and we’ll be on our way.”
Taletha crossed over the threshold and stood on her porch. “Yuh ain’t got no business coming to mi property for any reason, I don’t care who you think is inside. You and yuh brood best be on yuh way, and quick!” A billow of smoke escaped her full lips, and Stella watched it dance through the air.
“Mi husband coming too,” Gladys said. Then she looked toward the house and yelled, “Lloyd Henry! Lloyd Henry! Yuh hear me callin’ yuh? Yuh get yuh black ass out here now!”
“Yuh got a lot of nerve coming here like this,” Taletha said as she took a long drag on her cigarette and blew out the smoke. Her voice was cold and casual; she would have the upper hand in this situation. Yet, underneath that calmness was a definite threat.
Stella looked back and forth to the two women and shifted her feet uncomfortably, wishing she could run away.
“Problems wid you ain’t what I want, but mi need mi husband at home.”
Stella was gently pushed aside as her father came out the door and went down the steps.
“Why yuh here, Gladys? Take these pickney home and stop acting a fool out here,” he told her.
“I ain’t started to act a fool, yet, and yuh need to come home,” she said, producing the riding crop she held at her side. She swung it and hit Lloyd Henry. His arm went out to block the first blow, but the strikes kept coming as Gladys struck him over and over. He began to run from her, clearing a path away from her and her whip. Stella could hear the woman yelling at her father as her younger half siblings held on to their mother’s cotton apron for dear life.
Stella and Taletha stared after them, neither of them saying a word. Taletha took one last puff of her cigarette, then snuffed it out beneath her shoe. She smiled at Stella, shook her head at the foolishness moving down the road, and went back inside.
Unable to take her eyes off them, Stella watched the scene carry on until it was out of sight. Then she continued sweeping her Pa’s spirit from the house. When suddenly a big gust of wind grabbed her dust and rode it away, she took that as the sign that her stepfather was finished with the business of this world and was ready to leave. She watched the dust fly away with a heavy heart and blew a kiss in the wind.