Authors: Evelyn Coleman
Mystery of the Dark Tower
To the six siblings of my mother, Annie S. Coleman, who all died of tuberculosis in the days when it was considered a shameful disease
And to Bessie Carol Coble Scott, a high school classmate of mine, who despite an illness in our senior year still graduated with honors. Bessie, you were one of the bravest people I knew in high school!
Bessie Carol Coulter tossed and turned in the wrought iron bed she shared with her younger brother, Eddie. The smell of honeysuckle wafted in through the open window on a cool spring breeze. Bessie sat up and peered out the window. The full moon and stars lit up the night sky above the tobacco fields. She fell back on her pillow and pulled the patchwork quilt up over her head.
Then Bessie lowered the quilt slowly and peeped upward, toward the ceiling. She always did this before she fell asleep on the nights the full moon allowed her to see. And each time, even though she knew what was up there, she felt a giggle of surprise.
The ceiling was indigo blue with tiny gold stars all over it. Papa had painted it for her last birthday when she turned twelve. A horse with a long flowing mane galloped across the ceiling. A picket fence covered with wisteria, her favorite flower, bordered one edge. On one side Papa had painted a bright yellow half-moon.
When Papa showed it to Bessie and Eddie, he said he wanted his children to sleep under beauty every night. Papa was always saying things like that. And even though the room wasn't fancy and there wasn't anything but one rickety bed and an old dresser in it, the ceiling made Bessie's room the most beautiful room in the world.
Bessie concentrated on the ceiling and wished she couldn't hear the rumbling thunder coming from her parents' bedroom. Her grandma always used to say, “If they's be thunder, lightning done already come.” It was times like this when Bessie missed Grandma the most. Since Grandma's death last year, Bessie felt more and more stabs of loneliness in her heart, because there was no one to talk with anymore. Even though Bessie felt close to her mama and papa, Grandma was the only one who believed children should be seen
heard. Bessie hated being treated like a child who had no sense.
Bessie couldn't stand the angry sounds from the other room anymore. She squeezed her eyes shut and put her hands over her ears.
Maybe parents are the ones who shouldn't be heard
, Bessie thought. She tried to hear her grandma's voice talking softly to her and Eddie, instead of the stormy argument of her parents.
“Bessie Carol and Eddie,” Grandma would say, sitting on the edge of the bed while tucking the quilt up under their chins, “this here quilt is made from clothes your papa and his sisters wore when they was no bigger'n you two. As long as you with your family, everything is always gonna be all right.”
Bessie had always believed everything Grandma told her. But now she wasn't so sure. Bessie's parents had been arguing for weeks. Bessie knew her mama, Martha Coulter, was unhappy. And so was her papa, Edward Coulter Senior. What she didn't know was why.
This week had been the worst. Mama had been cooped up in her bedroom. Papa said Mama was sick with a terrible cold and needed her rest. Neither Bessie nor Eddie had been allowed to see her. They weren't even allowed to talk to her through the door. Papa was the only one who went in and out of the room. But Bessie never heard tell of nobody not being able to see their children just because of a cold. Something was wrong. Bessie could feel it. Bessie decided that tomorrow morning she would ask Mama what was the matter, even if she had to ask through the door.
Bessie was truly worried, especially since their neighbor Mrs. Cannon went away and left her husband and children two weeks ago. Everybody in church said that Mrs. Cannon wasn't coming back, but nobody said why. But Bessie wasn't dumb. She'd overheard the older people at church talking about families breaking up. “Separating,” they called it.
Bessie paid attention to what grown folks said. She heard them whispering more and more about the year 1928, like it was mean and nasty. They talked about how the times were bringing mighty changes to the South. They said the government was taking back the few rights the colored folks had, so folks were running from the South by the truckloads. Men and women were all going north to find work and make better lives for themselves.
Sometimes they'd take their families, but oftentimes the husband or the wife went alone. A few people had been gossiping, or “syndicating,” that Mr. and Mrs. Cannon had separated and that Mrs. Cannon went north, leaving Mr. Cannon to take care of the three younguns by himself.
The loud crash of the front door slamming startled Bessie out of her thinking. Eddie was only seven and such a sound sleeper, he didn't even stir. Had Papa left? Was he
mad with Mama? Bessie could hear Mama coughing in her room. She could hear Papa stomping onto the porch.
Then Bessie recognized another voice outside. It was Mr. Cannon.
She threw the covers back and got up on her knees so she could peer out the window. The thin feather-bed mattress didn't give much under her bony knees. Bessie couldn't see anything. She hoisted the window up higher and climbed out. She knew how to do it quietly. She'd done it many times before when she wanted to sneak out to the barn to sleep with her horse, Brownie. She had to be real quiet so as not to wake the chickens. Bessie knew that if she woke them, they'd make so much fuss that Papa would come around the house to see why they were squawking.
Bessie's bare feet stung as she hit the ground. She bent down low and crept quietly toward the front of the wood-framed house. The barn and chicken coop were only a few clotheslines away from the house. When Bessie neared the porch, she heard Mr. Cannon talking.
“I know you ain't wanting to do it. But I'm telling you, it's the best for your chillun, son. You don't want your chillun to be here.” Mr. Cannon stopped and spit a plug of tobacco onto the bare dirt yard before he spoke again.
“I knows how you feel. But it ain't nothing else to do. Your time's done run out. She ain't gonna be able to go off and leave you like my Sally done. You gonna have to leave her.”
“I can't do it,” Papa said. But it didn't sound like Papa. He was talking funny, like his voice was cracking open with each word. “Martha wants me to leave, too, but man, I can't. I tell you, I just can't.”
Bessie's hands flew up to her face to hold back the yelp that sprang from her mouth. She stood still, not breathing, as she heard Papa ask, “What was that?”
“Just a dog yelping,” Mr. Cannon replied.
“I reckon,” said Papa, looking toward the side of the house where Bessie crouched.
Bessie moved closer to the shadows of the house. The yard's dirt was packed hard and felt cool and slick under her feet from the early evening dew.
Mr. Cannon began speaking again. “Now you go on and tell Martha you leaving her, Big Ed,” he said, slapping Papa on the back with a thud of his heavy hand. “Everything will be all right. You'll see. Time's a-wasting.”
Why was he talking Papa into leaving their mama? Maybe it was because
, Bessie thought. But Bessie didn't want Papa to leave Mama. Bessie sure wasn't leaving Mama. She didn't care what anyone said, Bessie Carol Coulter would not go anywhere, not without her mama.
Bessie needed to do something. She picked up a rock. She wanted to hurl it at Mr. Cannon's fat head. He was a big man, almost as tall as Papa. A little rock wouldn't really do much damage to him, just make him shut up his old turkey mouth.
Bessie fingered the rock. She burned to let it fly. Bessie was known for throwing rocks dead on target. She turned around and threw the rock as hard as she could toward the apple tree. She wanted to knock the tree's bark off. But when she heard the
of the rock, it didn't make her feel better.
Bessie sat down on the dirt, wishing Grandma were still with them. Grandma wouldn't let Papa leave Mama.
Bessie's old hurt rose up like a water moccasin out of the fishing pond. She thought about the day of Grandma's funeral. Bessie could see her grandma's coffin sitting in the front room, draped with one of her favorite lace tablecloths, a bunch of white roses on top. That day Bessie's mama came out and sat with her under the big old willow.
“You mad?” she asked Bessie.
Bessie nodded her head yes.
“She wasn't my blood mama,” Bessie's mama said, “but since Memaw died she's been the only mama I knew. I think I'm mad, too. So what you want to do about it?”
Bessie shrugged her shoulders.
“Well, you know what your grandma would say. She'd say, âYou ain't really mad. You sad.' We both just sad.”
Bessie shrugged again. Then she looked directly into Mama's eyes and said, “
'm really mad.”
“Me too, then,” Mama said, standing up. She picked up a rock. Mama leaned back and threw the rock hard at the side of the barn.
, it thundered. “Your turn,” Mama said.
Bessie chose a rock off the ground, leaned back, and fired it.
. The barn door shuddered. The two of them threw rocks until they both were too tired to lift their arms. Then they slumped down beside the willow's trunk and cried while holding on to each other. That was the closest Bessie had ever felt to Mama.