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I will tell you how it happened.
It broke.

I didn't have much of value, but I was rich. My mother was a slave, and I was born one too—but she stayed, and I went north after the war. I did all right for myself. I worked hard, but I got paid and I paid my own way from it. My name was Laura Brown, and I was nobody's slave.

When I got up north, first of all I started work in a factory where we plucked poultry—but it was dark there and so close, and it always smelled like the shit of dead chickens, and the fuzz from the feathers made my nose itch all day. It made my eyes water, even on days when the wind blowed through the open windows and the stink wasn't so bad.

Before long, I left the factory and went to work in a kitchen.

I washed dishes, spent every day up to my elbows in greasy water with cheap soap bubbles. The restaurant was big and it served a lot of folks every day. I stayed twelve hours if they wanted. My home wasn't worth running home to.

I shared a place high in the city with eight other girls and the brother of one of them.

All of us working together made enough to eat and sleep there, but not by much. But none of us were house niggers, and none of us were field niggers. We earned our own and we paid our way, though living was crowded and dark.

We were sick all the time, one or another of us. One would catch a bug, and the rest of us would pass it around—so it was easier to stay in the kitchen, in the dish room with the pots and pans. It was easier to be clean there, in the middle of the kitchen. It was easier to breathe.

But I missed the sun.

I missed being able to breathe and not smell piss and tomatoes, wine and onions and meat that's thinking about going bad. I didn't like the cold, either. I could always handle it hot. Hot meant nothing to me. I was a girl in Missis-sippi, down by the ocean near where the loud water birds scream and steal your food if you don't hang onto it.

That's part of why they liked me in the kitchen. The hot water and the hot stoves were easy work for me, and I could work them all day.

But come winter, every year I thought I'd die rather than stay another season. I'd watch the snow pile high up out the window, and the first time I saw it, it was all I could do not to start crying. I near lost my religion every time the wind blew up and the ice made the street stones hard to cross. I saved my work money when I could, and I bought heavier skirts, heavier coats. But it was never enough. There weren't boots thick enough to save my feet when the snow went melting through. There weren't wool socks made heavy enough to keep my toes from turning colors and losing feeling.

And Lord, I was far from home.

I thought, like the rest of us did, that the farther north I'd go, the easier it would be. The less trouble I'd have. The more money I'd make. Nobody told me about the cold, though. Nobody told me about how everything I owned would stink of coal and wood smoke, and how our lungs would turn themselves black. They didn't tell us how just breathing would make us wish we couldn't.

I asked around. I thought since it'd been a few years since the war and we were freed all over—I thought maybe it'd be okay to come home.

I heard it wasn't. I heard times was tough there for everybody, even the white people too. But that didn't mean much. I saw poor white people in the north cities too; I saw signs that broke them down by what country they came from, and offered them less money for doing the same jobs. I thought it was crazy, how white people thought there was some difference between them, and not just between us and them.

The older I got, the less sense they made to me.

But back down in Dixie I heard tale of sharecropping and bad laws. Nobody getting no work, and nobody having enough to eat. And down there now, where everyone was poor just about, it was like in the cities—and all the folks got to fight amongst themselves for what's there.

I heard it was worse than before, some ways.

But then I'd sit in our little room, huddled up around the stove with the rest of the girls, and I'd wish I could feel my feet again, and I'd hate it how I could see my breath every morning when I woke up, and I thought maybe it couldn't be worse than this.

Maybe I could go back down and get some learning. Maybe I'd like to teach a school, and teach little ones to read.

I knew my letters and numbers a little, but not good enough that it helped me. I wanted to learn them better. And then, if I knew them better, I could share it with the rest of them. I figured there were lots of folks who wanted to read. I thought there must be schools coming up fast.

But that wasn't what I heard.

I got an idea, though—one that made me want to find a teacher who'd show me the letters good enough to write them, and I'd write a book. Not a story book, and not a book for learning by, but a book for cooking with.

A woman told me there were opportunities for women who could cook. She said that without any slaves, the white women had to go into their own kitchens, and they didn't know what to do. They needed someone to tell them.

So I thought, I could tell them.

I could write a book and I could fill it up with my mama's recipes. I could put in the pies and the breakfast hash, and the right way to make grits without turning them soggy. I could tell them how to make chicken fry up nice and crunchy, but wet and dripping good in the middle. And maybe, if my grandmother was still alive down there, maybe she could tell me some of the ways they made food back in Africa, too. She didn't come from there, but her daddy did, and she used to say she knew. So I could ask her.

But I'd need to know my letters better, first.

And I got wind of a possibility. I heard maybe that if you could work a kitchen good, there were boats you could ride. You could work for the people on the boats, the ones that carried things along the rivers. People rode them like floating hotels.

Someone had to do the cooking for the workers. Someone had to run the kitchens.

It took me a year to work my way down to it. It took one more winter up in the city, and I swear, I thought I'd die.

I was aiming for the Mississippi River. I wanted to work one of the big riverboats that went back and forth, from the top of the country to the bottom. I thought that'd be grand, and I could work my way home while making some money.

It didn't work out the way I expected. I got my start farther east, on the Ohio River instead, and that was all right too, I thought. I'd get some experience on the smaller boats. It took me another year, but I found my way down to the Tennessee.

I found my way to the Mary Byrd.

I did the dishes there, and did some of the cooking too—though I had some help for that, a fat, quiet man with all the shine and color of boot polish. He never talked to me except to give me something to do, and I was all right with that. When first I saw him, I figured he was the kind of man who'll give a woman trouble if he thinks he can get away with it.

I been wrong before, though. He never gave me trouble.

He was a good cook, too; he made food like the kind my grandmother did. We always had potatoes, because they store pretty good, and he loaded them up with butter and sour cream if he had time to get them when we stopped. Over the stove he kept a cardboard box of salt and beat-up tin of pepper. Just these two things and the butter, and he could make a feast for a king. I swear, that man made cornbread fit to feed Jesus.

He deserved better than that boat, but I guess he had his reasons.

We all had our reasons.

* * *

The first signs of trouble came after supper, the first night we were on the river after Lenoir City. We'd picked up an extra passenger or two there, and some cargo that nobody asked about. I'd been doing this long enough then that I didn't ask. You just don't.

It looked heavy. The roustabouts who brought it onboard staggered underneath it. The hold was already pretty full, so they had to cram it on in.

Some of the hold was taken up with that woman's baggage, and I don't know what a woman like that would travel with. She was a nun, I think—the fat gambler, Mr. Cooper, he called her 'sister' every time he saw her. He said it like he thought it was a joke—like he knew something about her that made it funny.

I saw some nuns up in the city. They worked in a big walled-in building where people left orphans. I'd hear the kids playing on the other side of the wall, and I'd hear the teachers inside. I guess the nuns taught letters and numbers too, not just how to kneel right and say prayers. I'd sit on the other side of the wall and eat my lunch when I had some. I'd listen while they went over the letters. I wished I could see them, though. It would've helped. As it was, I didn't learn much.

Anyway, I knew a nun when I saw one, but something was off about her. She wore the little head covering like they do, and black dresses that were simple. But there was smartness to her and a fastness to the way she moved. She asked a lot of questions.

She asked them with a smile, and with a tilted down head that told you she was all kindness and don't you just know, she was only asking because she wondered—and it wouldn't hurt you at all to talk to her.

But she asked a lot of questions.

She made some of us uncomfortable, but whether that was because she was a Catholic, or a foreign lady, or just because she was an educated lady on a boat full of men who were themselves only half-schooled. . .I don't know. There were a hundred and one reasons for them to push her to the outside.

It turned out she was looking for something. And she was very, very close.

I think if there was a God, really a God like my grandmother said—and like the little red-haired nun believed—then he would have let her find it sooner. If she'd gotten her answers before that last night on the

Mary Byrd, then we might have found our separate ways home, or to whatever destinations we had in mind. We wouldn't have wound up where we did, lying down dead in burned-up clothes at the bottom of a river. The river washed us all clean. It washed us down to nothing but bones, and all our bones were the same.

Or that's just what I think. I been wrong, though.

* * *

As I told you, the trouble began after supper, as it's likely to do. Not all the strangers wanted to eat together, but there are always a few who like it—who enjoy the traveling, and like talking to all the strange new people you find on a boat, or on a road. These people find each other.

So over supper that night there was a handful of folks. The gambler was there, teasing the nun in a friendly way, and she didn't act like she minded it. There were three others, too—including the captain. We were anchored on account of the weather. It was pouring down outside and the water kept sloshing up over the decks.

Mary was riding low in the water, anyhow—because of what she was moving other than people. There was a lot of rocking, and since we were sitting low, the captain didn't want to rush it. I didn't want to argue with him, but I didn't like him being downstairs with no one at the boat's wheel, either.

That might have been silly, though. I didn't know enough about the way boats worked to know if it was bad of him to join us. I guess he could've had someone else up there helping him; I knew we had a roof pilot too, but I hadn't seen him around.

Could be the captain was just hungry.

Well, we fed him. He'd have had more room to eat if he hadn't drank so much. It made me nervous to watch him. This was the man who drove us down the river. Maybe he should've had a better idea when to quit pouring himself more, at least while other folks were watching.

I heard him talking to the other passengers, and they didn't mind him so they let him talk. His voice sounded like childhood to me. It was low and sleepy more often than not, and even when he drank wine he smelled like a cold southern drink served on a porch.

I had a feeling about him, like he'd been in the war, and it hadn't gone so good for him. But he was a man from south of the Ohio, so no, I guess it wouldn't have. I wondered how bad it'd been for him, but it wasn't my place to ask, so I didn't. He wore that old defeat all over him. He wore it like it was an important thing, or something valuable that he wouldn't let out of his sight. But it wasn't. And we all knew it.

"This is my boat," he told them around the table. "I've found a buyer, though. When we get to Chattanooga we'll stay a few days—and I'll hand off the boat, and I'll take my money. That'll be it for me, then. No more of this river business."

"Has it treated you so poorly?" The nun asked. Her accent was as heavy as his, but it came from somewhere father away. "You seem like a comfortable man. You've earned a life from the river, haven't you?"

"I have. I've earned a second life, Sister." They all called her Sister, except for once in a while, one of them would call her Sister Eileen.

Mr. Cooper pulled his pretty watch out of his pocket and checked the time. Supper was over and it might have been getting late, but that's not what he was thinking. He was wondering if it was late enough to bug someone into playing cards with him. But he was willing to wait until the nun left. I guess he thought it was being respectful.

The captain was too drunk to be any good for poker, but one of the other two men might have been dumb enough to take Mr. Cooper on. One by one they retired, though. And then the captain did too. He said he was going back to the wheel, like he was going to start moving again, but we knew he wasn't.

The rain was coming down hard, still. And he had too much wine in him to steer us anyplace at all.

The rain came slapping against the windows, where we had windows, and it came splashing down onto the deck and into the rooms where we didn't. Thunderstorms are easy enough to wait through, though. And it was warm. At least getting wet didn't mean freezing yourself to death, or losing toes. So I didn't mind the rain. I'd missed it, and I was happy to see it again.

"Can I clear these plates out for you?" I asked them, wishing they'd finish up. Mr. Cooper and the nun, as they were the only two left, they told me that was fine and they were mostly finished. But they stayed out there talking in a friendly way, and I thought it was funny that the two of them would be friends.

Doesn't the Lord frown on cards and dice alike?

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