Fly, Bird, Fly
by Mar Na Carter
It was a beautiful Saturday morning in September 2014. The sky was a vibrant blue, and the sun was shining over me and beyond the Pocono Mountains. Our community was located in Pennsylvania but not too far from the city of Brotherly Love. Nature was singing, the birds were calling, and the bugs were humming. The seeds of dandelions floated in the warm air. For a long time, my family had searched for this type of quiet.
One particular blackbird stayed on the fence post. At times, the bird would canvass our land of milk and honey. Sometimes, I wished I could fly just like this bird. But Momma would tell me there was another purpose for me: to fly was not one of them, even though Aunt Marie would whisper, “You can do what you want.”
This morning, Aunt Marie was sitting at the kitchen table and sipping her morning coffee.
“You ready for your baptism, Auntie?” I asked.
“Been ready, baby,” she answered. Her forehead folded dark creases over her dark eyebrows, and she slouched over the red and white kitchen tablecloth.
“What’s wrong?” I asked and rubbed her full, brown face.
“Nothing for little ones like you to worry about.” She stared into my eyes and smiled.
“Faith, get the white towels,” Momma yelled from the living room.
“Yes, ma’am.” I kissed my Aunt on the cheek and rushed past my mom and darted out of the door.
I trucked through the pointed grass, and the weeds smacked against my legs. I went straight to the shed in the back of the house.
Father told Aunt Marie that baptisms were an outward appearance of a religious commitment to God. The pastor, Father Lovely, would read the bible and ask questions about your belief and God. Once you confirmed your beliefs, the Pastor would have to lay you in the water and lift you up. Once it was done, everyone would sing and celebrate that you took a further step into your religious path. I hadn’t done it yet but I was looking forward to it.
Aunt Marie was the opposite. She rejected the idea but gave in after some strong convincing from Father Lovely. It was a serious thing to do, but a huge celebration in our community. My favorite part of the evening was the good-smelling soul food: fried chicken, the sweet, syrupy candied yams, and the make-you-wanna-dance macaroni and cheese.
When I went inside the shed, I saw my cousin, James, searching inside the plastic bins. He grabbed another plastic bin and, with a loud grunt, slammed it to the ground. Sweat was dripping from his face to his bare chest and his cut-up jeans. His frowning face let me know that he was tired of searching for the baptismal items.
“I need a white towel,” I said.
Without a glance towards me, he said, “Chicken Legs, take this towel inside.”
“This isn’t the right towel, and stop calling me that!”
James moved some of the clothes inside a green bin and, with a boyish grin, said, “Can’t find it.”
He shoved a black towel into my face. “Take it. It’s a towel.” I snatched it from his hand.
“You’re upset?” he said. “You have little sticks for legs. God gave them to you.” James went back to his duties. I swear, when he’d gained some muscles, he thought he’d become a man. To me, he was still a teenager with a bird chest.
“Take it to your mom before she has a fit.”
“You can say that again.”
Everything had to be white: the towels, the robes and the clothes. I guess it just represents purity.
“Is Auntie okay?”
“Guess so,” he said and shrugged his shoulders.
“She seems a bit quiet today.” I held the black towel in my arms like a fluffy stuffed animal.
“That means she’s just thinking about something.”
“Maybe it’s just me?” I pondered.
Momma had interrupted my conversation with Aunt Marie this morning. I was used to it. Maybe, Momma was jealous of me and Auntie’s closeness. It was as if she didn’t want us around each other.
“What you standing there for? Go,” James said, and he shook his head. “Always daydreaming.”
I ran back as fast as I could. Chicken legs, chicken legs, played over and over in my head. I don’t care if they are skinny, they move me just fine.
I thought Momma was in the living room, but I heard her voice in the kitchen. I gingerly walked into the living room and slid into the corner near the kitchen door. I heard the sizzles and smelled the fresh cooked-bacon all through the living room.
“Stop talking that stuff, Marie.”
“We honestly could leave,” Aunt Marie’s voice shook. “Maybe in the wee hours of the morning.” The wooden chair creaked when she got up, and she swept her slippers across the kitchen floor.
“How?” Mom answered. “We’re being watched.”
“But the kids...” she pleaded. But she continued to flip the bacon in the frying pan. Even in her conversations, Aunt Marie could multi-task.
I continued to watch and listen to every private word that fell from their lips.
“They don’t deserve to live like this.”
“Where can we go? We can’t mention it to anybody, because they will tell.” Mom paced the kitchen floor. “You saw what happened to Brother Thomas. He was beaten half to death when he tried to escape.”
Brother Thomas was a loud-mouth man who disrespected Father all the time. Everyone was tired of his threatening him and trying to feel up the women and little girls.
I wasn’t sure what the problem was, but I thought we were happy here. There were some incidents of people being distrustful in our community, and Father had to handle the situation. But to leave seemed to be extreme.
I jumped out of my flesh. “Yes, Momma.”
“Come here this instant.”
I inched into the kitchen with the towel in my hand.
“What did I tell you about being nosy?” she said and looked down at my hands.
“Leave the poor girl alone,” Aunt Marie interjected.
“Stop defending her.” Momma pointed at Aunt Marie. She turned to look back at me. “Do not, I say, do not repeat what you heard. Do I make myself clear?”
“Give me this.” She snatched the black towel from me. “I said a white towel.” Her eyes grew wide with anger.
“But James told me to give it to you.”
“If James said to jump off a bridge, would you do it?”
“No, ma’am,” I said, unamused.
“Fix your tone and get the towel.”
Again, I went out to the shed, but this time a little slower. I was truly convinced that I daydreamed too much.
“James, we need the towel.”
James shot a glance at me and then rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “All right.”
He lifted a blue plastic bin from the top and looked in it. Nothing but clothes. He removed the second plastic bin, scanned the inside, but there were only toys. He moved the last plastic bin and, with a loud sigh, lifted the lid.
“Of course, the last one, at the bottom,” he said “Here, Faith. I can’t wait for his baptism to be over.” He threw the white towel at me.
I took the fluffy white towel and walked out of the shed. I heard a crack. Just a slight crackle on my left. There was a figure hiding next to a tree. The man seemed to be holding something long and black in both hands, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I don’t think he saw me, but my instincts told me to move along quickly.
I moved faster and headed into the cabin. “Momma, here is the towel.”
She took it and placed it on the green chair in the living room.
“Momma, I thought I saw a man in the woods.”
“Yeah, you might see anything in the woods. Stop being nosy and get ready for the baptism.”
Once everything was settled and everyone was dressed, all of us headed to the lake. It was on a woodland path secluded from our cabins. The woods gave me peace. The rocky path led us to the lake. The rest of the congregants were standing like flowers along the banks of the lake. Father and his deacons stood statuesque in front of the congregation.
“Shoot.” Aunt Marie looked down her dress. “I got a spot on it.”
She reached for the brown spot on the bosom of her white-starched dress.
“It’s okay, Auntie. You are still pure as snow.” I smiled at her and took her hand as we headed down the rocky path.
“We are marching to Zion, that beautiful, beautiful Zion!” the crowd sang as we got closer to the lake. Once we reached the people, the deacons nodded, and we stood separate from the rest. Aunt Marie was at the final point to share with us her commitment to her spiritual journey.
Father Lovely’s body reminded me of a willow tree. I swore he could reach a bird. His voice could calm troubles, and his movements were swift. He nodded to the deacons. On cue, the deacons in their church suits escorted Aunt Marie to the lake.
“We are gathered here today to support and celebrate Marie Duncan’s commitment. To show a representation of a changed life.”
People shouted and clapped. I smiled and looked at my Aunt with pride. But she had a deadness in her eyes I had never seen before. A blank stare and an awkward stance.
“They say you have to really mean it,” James whispered. “If not, you go down like a dry devil and rise up like a wet devil.”
“Auntie means it.”
James whispered again into my ear, “Look at her, it’s forced.”
I looked at her again. Aunt Marie had a blank stare. “So, why is she doing it?” Aunt Marie didn’t do things by force; she was a free spirit.
“Obedience is better than sacrifice,” he said, put his hand over his eyes to block the sun and look at his mother.
“All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father.” Then he paused. “Come to the lake, Sister Marie.”
The water splashed with every deliberate movement she made in moving towards Father Lovely. Her white clothes were like a train following behind her.
“Marie Duncan, do you honor God?” he said in a low tone.
“Yes,” she said with her head held high.
“Do you believe in God?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Do you believe I am God?”
Silence fell and all eyes darted on her. Aunt Marie looked to the trees, she looked at the crowd, and then, she smiled at me.
“Marie, say yes,” Mom whispered.
Aunt Marie’s eyes lifted to the sky with her shoulders pushed back. She said, “No.”
People gasped and hissed at her. We have been in this community for a year and have met new friends, which we called family. But at that moment, I understood why Aunt Marie wanted to leave.
Father peered down at her and said, “That is your choice.” He nodded to the Deacon Thomas. Thomas was a quiet, stocky man. Whatever Father Lovely requested, Deacon Thomas would do. He walked into the water with the white towel. “Now, we will begin the baptism.”
My heart galloped like a race horse. I didn’t know what the outcome would be, but I knew it was okay because my Aunt smiled at me. Aunt Marie crossed her arms over her chest. Father smiled and gently eased her into the water.
“For the Father,” he said and pushed his hands down in the water. Aunt Marie flipped around like a bird. Deacon Thomas helped Father hold her down in the water.
Her arms continued to flap in the lake for take-off in flight. But she didn’t fly, she didn’t swim and she didn’t escape.
“Momma!” James yelled.
Armed men came out from the jungle. They surrounded us and held their guns pointed at the people. The congregants had open holes for faces. It seemed that everyone was as shocked as we were.
“Mom, that’s the guy I saw earlier.”
“Why do we have armed men here?” Momma asked one of the female congregants. The woman looked around and seemed to be as clueless as we were.
I moved an inch, but my mother’s nails dug into my shoulders. I looked at her face.
“Close your eyes, Faith,” she commanded.
I closed them. James’s wails echoed from a distance. People hissed and chanted, “Traitor, traitor.”
“James, no!” Momma said.
I opened my eyes. James was at the lake. But one of the armed men held a gun and aimed right at his head. James came to a complete stop and stood at the edge of the lake.
“Don’t make me do it,” the gunman said.
It was too late to leave the community. We were sworn in without a contract, without a notice and without a way of escape.
Aunt Marie floated like a white cloud in the sky.
“Does anyone have anything to say?” Father Lovely’s voice was intense, and his veins were pulsing in his neck. He had transformed from a loving man into a monster.
James’s continued cries stabbed my soul. He punched the air when one of the deacons carried him away.
“For the cause!” Father Lovely yelled.
The crowd mumbled amongst themselves. I stared at their faces. Only a few people kept silent, but the idiots that believed in this foolery chanted, “For the cause, for the cause!”
“Can we leave? I am scared,” I said. I wanted to go. Even fly away, if I could.
“We can’t right now.”
Some people ran but were stopped by gunshots. I heard a pop. A scream. Another pop, and another crescendo of screams.
“Close your eyes, Faith.”
I couldn’t stop watching the chaos and the troubling scene. My eyes turned back to my aunt’s body. All I could do was watch her body float.
“For the cause!” Father repeated.
“For the cause,” Momma chanted with a tear running down her face. “For the cause.” Her nails brushed my scalp. I could taste my salty tears.
The black bird that stood on the fence post had flown away.
“I wish I could fly away with you,” I whispered. I tilted my head and stared at my mother.
“Why would God be a part of this?”
Mom whispered, “God is not a part of this.” With tears in her eyes, she said, “He never was and never will be.”
She held me close and we crouched down to the ground as one of the armed men approached us. I closed my eyes saying a prayer, hoping that Momma and I could fly away in that instant.
Copyright © 2017 by Mar Na Carter