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The colored fellow came early in the morning, poling a pirogue through mist so heavy on the river you could not see a stone's throw out. Jean Tibbits watched him from his chair on the wharf, noting the unruly brim of his black felt fedora, his white shirt buttoned to the top, and his black wool suit, shiny from wear. As the newcomer came closer, Tibbits realized his trousers were rolled up over his calves, something you did not often see on a man wearing a suit. At his neck a pair of brown leather shoes dangled from tied-together laces. The laces were white and did not match the shoes. The colored fellow stood at the back of the flat-bottomed boat, guiding it alongside the wharf in silence except for the musical ripple of the river against the hull and the soft bump when the lichen-streaked boat kissed a piling.
Jean Tibbits spoke to him without raising his voice or rising from his chair. "Hey, mon. What you do there?"
"Sir." The Negro touched the floppy brim of his hat. "I come looking for work."
"Well, you got to tie up somewheres else," said Tibbits. "This here de commercial dock." As owner of the ramshackle fleet of rusting trawlers tied to pilings up and down the wharf, and as Pilotville's official harbor master, Jean Tibbits was entitled to provide direction in such matters.
"Yes sir." The colored fellow pushed off, gently slipping his pole into the water to guide the pirogue away upon the current. Tibbits heard him humming something softly. Although he was soon almost out of sight in the mist, the sound of his humming carried across the water, as low sounds often do. The tune was foreign yet familiar, maybe something Tibbits had heard a long time back, an old melody from far away somewhere. It had an eerie, disturbing effect upon him, reinforced by the fact that the river mist now completely obscured the pirogue at the colored fellow's feet, making it look like his dark and crooked form was out there walking on the water.
"Hey!" shouted Tibbits. "You can pull up yonder, you."
The colored man called softly, "Thank you, sir," and pushed toward the muddy bar Tibbits had indicated near the wharf.
"What kinda work you lookin' to do?" hollered Tibbits across the little cove.
"Whatever needs doing." The pirogue nosed up to the bar.
"Try de infirmary. They always lookin' for a hand, they is."
"Yes sir. Thank you kindly." He was out of the boat now and tying it to a nearby mangrove branch. "Will my pirogue be all right here?"
"It a nickel a week."
"I don't have a nickel."
"What you got?"
Still barefoot, the stranger stepped gingerly through the mud. "I could get you some persimmons."
"Not unless you got 'em in your pocket. Ain't no persimmons 'round here, no."
"Believe I could find you some."
"Not 'round here."
"Hold on, sir," said the colored fellow. Walking directly toward the dense cluster of mangroves a little farther down along the riverbank, he turned sideways and slipped into the thicket out of sight. Tibbits shook his head and tilted his chair back against the roughhewn siding of his office shack. Everyone knew there were no persimmons near town. They had been picked clean long ago.
A moment later the colored fellow reappeared, hat in his hands. As he approached along the riverbank, Tibbits noticed his slight limp for the first time. Next to Tibbits's chair stood an upended oil drum. The colored fellow came up the wharf and turned his hat upside down above the drum, and ripe yellow fruit rained upon the metal, beating out a hollow sound.
"How many days will those buy me?" he asked.
Staring at the fruit, Tibbits said, "Ain't no persimmons 'round here."
"Is that enough to leave my pirogue for a week or so?"
Jean Tibbits tried to look the colored fellow in the eye, but the stranger kept his gaze down, as Negroes generally did until they got to know him better. "You jus' found them over in de bushes?"
"I be dogged." Tibbits selected a piece of fruit and examined it closely. "I love persimmons."
Staring hard now at the stranger's dark face, still trying to get him to look up, Tibbits asked, "I know you?"
But life in Louisiana had taught the colored fellow well. Examining his own bare feet, the stranger merely shook his head and mumbled, "No sir."
Tibbits felt a fleeting twinge of disappointment as he bit down. Juice trickled through the gray stubble on his chin, ignored. "Don't worry 'bout dat boat," he mumbled around the persimmon in his mouth. "It be just fine yonder."
At that, the strange Negro finally looked up, and Jean Tibbits found himself staring man to man into a remarkable pair of sky-blue eyes.
* * *
The stranger followed the wharf inland and soon found that the wooden walkway did not end at the shore but continued into the swamp. Cypress, mangrove, and tupelo trees loitered in the inky black water on either side, crowding the edges of the boards. The spindly structure beneath his feet shivered with each step, its pilings sending tiny ripples out across the water. Thus warned of his approach, bullfrogs sprang into the mire below from floating tree trunks or low-slung palmetto fronds. A hundred paces later the boardwalk angled to the right, offering a glimpse of Pilotville beyond the swaying Spanish moss. Passing into the tiny village, he observed small wooden houses standing in a clearing, and beyond the clearing, back by the river, the corrugated iron roof of the Acme Shrimp and Oyster packing plant above the cypress tops. He saw no roads or sidewalks, just more raised wooden walkways fanning out between the buildings. He came to a small store. High on the front wall were the words Delacroix's Dry Goods in peeling black paint with a thin red stripe beneath. Three white men in stained overalls and filthy felt hats lounged before the building, speaking French. One of them passed a slender piece of sharpened wood rapidly back and forth through a fishnet, tying a rip. The Cajuns paused in their conversation to squint at him. Eyes down, the stranger nodded and smiled and was mildly surprised when they offered friendly greetings.
He began to hum again as he walked, passing more small structures of rough-cut planking, aged and green with mildew and slowly decomposing below rusting metal roofs. All of these shanties—mostly dwelling places—teetered precariously on stilts, six to eight feet above the swamp. A few leaned at crazy angles, empty interiors too lopsided for living, slender pole foundations pressed down unevenly into the mud below. One old shanty had foundered all the way over on its side and lay half sunken beside the boardwalk, with black swamp water lapping at the window openings.
Moving on, he approached a small church. Unlike most of the other buildings, it was neatly whitewashed. Glossy black trim traced the outlines of the doors and windows. The same black paint announced the name of the church from a rectangular board affixed to the siding: pilotville community church. Pausing to peer into the open front doors, he saw a woman sweeping the floor. The tiny sanctuary accommodated maybe twenty folding wooden chairs on each side of a central aisle. A single stained-glass window high on the far wall glowed red and yellow, a rare bit of store-bought finery for such a primitive place. The colored glass allowed very little light to pass into the building. The woman stopped sweeping to look up at him. He saw her pale blond hair tied up in a rag, but could not make out her features in the darkness of the interior. "Can I help you?" she asked. Quickly lowering his eyes, he touched the brim of his black fedora and said, "No thank you, ma'am." He moved on, striding away from the white woman purposely, as if he knew where he was going. The limp barely slowed him down. He breathed the scent of grilled fish on the river breeze. A solitary dog barked away off somewhere. He glanced back.
The woman had come to the door of the church to stare at him. Indeed, the entire village seemed to pause and watch his progress. A small group of children formed in his wake, hanging back and whispering to each other with giggles and quickly covered mouths. Some were browned by the sun, others by nature. None wore shoes, and only the older girls wore shirts, but all wore thin veneers of mud smeared in one place or another. Still humming the ancient tune, he reached into his pocket and removed a long string of black licorice. The children's eyes went wide. He tore a small piece and popped it in his mouth. Then, favoring his hip, he bent and placed the rest on the walkway. Chewing slowly now in time to his own humming, he set out once more. Behind him, the children pounced upon the licorice.
Turning a corner, the stranger came upon a second church, about the same size as the first. It too bore a proud new coat of whitewash. In fact, the two buildings appeared almost identical. But this one had a chain and padlock on the front doors, and neatly painted letters on a wooden plaque that read african assembly of god. Standing on his toes, he peeked through an open window along the side. There was no glass. He could not make out any details of the dark interior. He backed away, still humming the same tune, and looked up at the roof, then down at the pilings. Nodding his head, he said, "Yes sir," under his breath. He walked on.
At the inland edge of the village, where the air hung heavy with pollen and mosquitoes beyond the reach of cooling river breezes, he found the Pilotville Negro Infirmary. It was almost as big as the Acme packing plant, yet of all the buildings he had encountered thus far, only this one did not benefit from the flood protection afforded by a foundation of tall piers. It stood on a small rise a few inches above the swamp's usual water level, unconnected to the network of boardwalks and accessible only by a narrow path of broken oyster shells. It alone was made of bricks, a strange choice of materials for its isolated location, which surely must have cost a great deal. He paused at the top of the narrow steps descending from the boardwalk. Gazing at the rambling three-story structure, he slapped at a mosquito on the back of his neck. "Mercy me," he said, noticing a brown high-water stain encircling the building several feet above the earth. The stain went right across the bottom half of the closed front doors. He saw no sign of occupation except for a pair of tapioca-colored curtains hanging limply in an open window. Insect screens and flat iron bars guarded the outside of the window.
Sitting at the top of the steps, he did his best to wipe the dried mud from his feet. He rolled his trouser cuffs all the way down to his ankles and slapped at the fabric in a vain attempt to smooth the wrinkles. He removed the brown leather shoes from around his neck and untied the knotted white laces. Pulling the shoes on over his bare feet, he looked up at the infirmary again.
"Lord," he said. "Have mercy."
Excerpted from RIVER RISING © Copyright 2017 by Athol Dickson. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.
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