This story originally appeared in the collection Sisters of the Wild Sage: A Wierd Western Collection
New Mexico Territory
Francine “Frankie” Mules was born in a gospel tent. That April evening, the raging New Mexican wind ripped about the pinned back flaps, whipping them about the poles plunged deep into the dirt. The poles anchored the makeshift structure to the earth but allowed enough of the spirit to roar out in hot Biblical truths and tongues. Mother Nature’s raging melody of whap, whap, whap served as a base for the music spilling out of the tent.
In the tent’s rear, Frankie’s momma, Jet, squatted and then collapsed to her knees, sweating through the anointing oil and the deacon’s palm print on her forehead. She ignored the pangs of Eve’s curse, choosing instead to mutter prayers through cracked lips and cottonmouth. Once her water broke, a shot of pink, watery rivulets raced down her thighs and into the dry earth. Jet’s sister, Joan, buried her fingernails into the flesh of her arm and prayed for Jesus to take over.
Before anyone could fetch the doctor down in Wild Sage, Frankie slipped out, smacking the hardened desert floor with a thack. Joan scooped her up all slippery and pink, mouth balled up as if sucking on the already sour air of life. Joan took out her hunting knife with one hand, and severed Frankie’s attachment to Jet, figuratively and physically. Being part of some traveling revival, fetchin’ and singin’ for white folks wasn’t the life Lincoln wanted for freed slaves. It wouldn’t do for her niece neither. She clutched the baby tight with determination. Not this one. Not no more.
“Joanie, give ‘er here…” Jet reached out with shaking hands and pained eyes.
“We done talked about this.” Joan steeled her bleating heart. She’d never be able to understand how others found the iciness to break up families and snatch babes from mommas without emotion. It filled her with dread and unease. Her heart pounded and the roaring in her ears made her feel like she was drowning.
“She still mine…and his,” Jet whimpered, letting her arms drop.
“Yeah. Ain’t nuthin’ gonna change that, but she can’t go with ya’ and that revival. You know it. I know it,” Joan said, her tone softening. “Sorry.”
With that, Joan set off, away from the tent and the others gathered there to fetch water to clean up the baby girl and Jet. As she moved quickly through the brush, she hugged the little round baby close to her, smearing blood and bodily fluids all over her shirt. “You gonna wail like babies supposed to do?” she asked.
Frankie wrinkled her nose and opened her mouth, and let the world know she had come into it. Instead of crying and wailing, Frankie sang, pitch-perfect and like a grown woman who didn’t know the words to the song but sang with abandon anyway.
“My, my, my,” Joan said, with a small smile slicing through her sorrow.
“Ya ain’t shut that mouth ever since,” Aunt Joan cackled now from her spot on the porch, telling the tale once more to a now eighteen-year-old Frankie. “Your birth was as surprisin’ as finding an uncoiled snake in the washtub.”
She smoked her pipe as she rocked in the chair on the weathered and worn wooden porch. The sweet tobacco smoke wafted across to Frankie, seated on the lowest step, hunched against the New Mexican wind.
The cabin had been abandoned by some soldiers. Some folks said they had died in the war. Others said the Apache warriors had got the Anglos off the land. When Auntie Joan rolled into town with a baby and a shotgun, folks shunted her to this abandoned cabin. The town sheriff used to live here, but now he rented out to those seeking shelter. Some wanted her to work in the saloon or in Madam Clay’s house, but Joan wasn’t living to please no man.
“Windy like that night. That one when ya ‘ere born.” Aunt Joan puffed, eyes narrowed as she peered out across the land. On a clear night, she could see all the way to the trading post. After she said those words, she didn’t say more but had fallen into one of her long silences. Smoking. Watching. Listening.
The sunset’s blush stretched across the horizon. A few mesas broke the skyline, but Frankie could see far, much further than she had ever been. She spread her arms wide as if embracing all of the visually lush landscape of Dinétah in front of them, the Navajo homeland. Yuccas scented the dry air. She wanted the strong wind to sweep her up into its arms and swirl her around before setting her back down on the sparse earth. But she knew even that wouldn’t chase away the boredom.
Only singing did that. It fed her, nourishing Frankie better than food, filling the gaping holes that living left inside her. The Psalms revived her spirit, and then she was gone, like she disappeared into the notes, the spirit of the music. Inside her song, she was reunited with the family she’d never met, the ones lost to the sea, to the fields, and to the heels of hatred.
Only Auntie Joan remained. Her momma had died just after her birth in a neighboring tent. The prayers of Frankie’s daddy and others did not save her from bleeding to death. No. Those cries, pleas, and songs had hastened her momma’s crawl into the grave, for none went to fetch a doctor. Not for the colored woman.
Despite the President setting people free, some of ‘em were still in shackles—in the head, her auntie said.
Out in the high desert landscape, despite all appearances to the contrary, this desolate stretch was alive. Frankie could feel the energy creep all over her skin, raising the hairs along her arms and the back of her neck, scuttling across her belly, making her shudder. The wind ruffled the hem of her skirt, tugging on it as it slipped past. The rustle of tumbleweeds and the whimpering of foxes as they scampered across the expanse added to the desert serenade.
“Zara say the wind be wicked,” Frankie said, more to herself than her auntie. Zara was her only friend in town, a washerwoman. “Been stories of the wind picking up folks and taking them off to beyond the mesas. To talk to the spirits.”
“Uh-huh.” Auntie Joan puffed like an old steam engine locked at the tracks. Unable to push on forward. Unable to go on back. Suspended right there in the desert’s chilly dark. The rocking chair creaked on. Beside her booted feet a glass of whiskey. She didn’t talk about the time on the plantations or where she and Frankie’s momma had run from, fled with nothing but the clothes—and scars—on their backs and hope singing in their hearts.
Songs of freedom.
The West had freedom in big open spaces. Chances for everyone to live the life they chose, not one given by the white man. To Auntie Joan and her momma, it had been a revelation, a whole new world, but for Frankie, it was all she’d ever known. She’d been born here. Her first breath was of the New Mexican air scented with sun, Yucca, and chili peppers. Frankie hadn’t known that life before, that life chained to white man’s work and will, only this one, tethered to the desert and its magic.
She listened hard for the Diné or the Zuni scouts moving in quiet motion across the desert. They didn’t like folks moving into their territory, and as Auntie Joan’s cabin touched the outer edges of their lands, sometimes the night brought danger.
The nocturnal hush pushed against Frankie’s flesh. When this feeling poured down on her, the silence, the loneliness, she closed her eyes.
Quivering at the onset, her voice became stronger as the other voices joined in. The song sailed along with the harmonious others rustling about the evening, coyotes, owls, and churro sheep. All making their sounds, their joyful noise in offering to the night.
After a few minutes, Auntie Joan tapped her with her cane just as she was starting the opening bars of Amazing Grace. “Hush now, girl! Somebody comin’.”
Frankie tapered off to silence.
Sure enough, the dirt path that led through the brush and twisted trees was darkened by the long twilight-cast shadow of a person. Who would brave the on-coming dark to travel to their home? Wild Sage lay many wagon wheels from here.
It wasn’t safe.
“Francine, chile, you really got the voice of a gospel choir,” said Deacon Paul Whitley as he reached the bend in the path.
He grinned at her, as if he’d paid her a compliment. Perhaps he thought he had. Any time men said kind things to women, they expected some reward. A smile. A hug. A romp.
Pale with shoulder-length white hair, dressed in a black shirt and jeans, he walked with purpose, seemingly unfolding from the growing darkness. Once he reached the foot of the porch, he stopped short and leered. Sweat poured down his face, and he mopped it with a handkerchief. He wiped the sweat clinging to his salt and pepper beard. He wore a dusty cowboy hat and boots. The Bible rested in the crook of his arm. He also wore his usual smug expression. The preacher was a thorn in the flesh, but he’d never come so far as their home before.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spied Auntie Joan’s body shift. The elderly woman was readying to strike—or defend. Her thick lips, twisted and pursed, spoke to her displeasure.
“Good evening, sir.” Frankie shot up from the steps. She dusted her hands off on her skirt and retreated inside to let the adults do their talking. The screen door smacked as it closed. Frankie hovered just inside the doorway, barely shielded by the screen door.
He had no idea the accuracy of his claim, Frankie thought as she turned back to the door to listen.
“The pastor been askin’ us to come ‘round and invite yous to our revival. That niece of yours got a good voice on her. We could use it,” he said around the wad of chewin’ tobacco.
“We ain’t interested in what you sellin’.” Auntie Joan rested her pipe on her knee. She blew out a stream of white smoke from the corner of her mouth. The rocking chair creaked in protest as it came to a pause.
The deacon’s greasy smile faltered to a frown. In his smarmy voice, he said, “You misunderstand me, Joan. We ain’t sellin’ nuthin’. Just lookin’ to help those like yourself find God. We all God’s creatures. The revival is for all.”
Auntie Joan eased to a standing position. She casually tossed down the saddle blanket decorating her lap. Beneath it was where she kept her shotgun. With a sigh, she moved her pipe and wrapped her gnarled hands around the gun, just holding it like she must’ve done with Frankie when she was baby, cradling it.
Frankie’s eyes were all for the deacon at the foot of the porch. She swallowed hard.
“I know the way, deacon. We ain’t interested.” Aunt Joan’s voice sliced through the sharp howling wind.
“I see how you can feel that way, but Jet’s death ain’t the fault of the church. It was God’s will, Joan.”
A distinct rattling emitted from Auntie Joan. “And it’s this God ya want us to give up ourselves to? I ain’t gonna live beneath another white man’s rules. I gots no masta, no more.”
Frankie wasn’t fooled by Deacon Paul’s pious invitation. The expectation in his eyes when he first saw Frankie on the porch had conveyed something other than God’s will. It made Frankie’s skin crawl. She tried to control her labored breathing. How would Auntie Joan deal with the deacon’s trespass of evil? She couldn’t see her auntie’s face, but the deacon could.
Deacon Paul’s lips peeled back like a wild fox faced with a foe. “I see.”
“I hope ya do.” Auntie Joan stroked the gun in her lap. “We appreciate ya comin’ round to see about our souls. Now, best ya get goin’.”
Deacon Paul nodded, tucked his Bible under his arm, and turned to leave. He stopped and looked back. Perhaps he could see Frankie’s outline through the heavy screen door. He grinned, wide and without mirth.
“Good evening, Miss Frankie.” He tipped his cowboy hat in her direction.
“Ya best be on ya way, deacon.” The calmness Aunt Joan projected fractured in that moment. Her grip on the gun tightened.
“Ma’am.” He nodded once more and proceeded back the way he’d come. His boots crunched the dirt beneath his feet. A few moments later, Frankie heard the soft whinnying of his horse.
“Auntie, what killed my momma?” Frankie asked, her voice soft against the velvety night, small as it pushed through the tiny screen mesh.
“Pride. Pride kilt your momma.”
The rocking chair’s creaking started once more. Frankie melted back into the cabin. The night settled back into the sweet scent of tobacco and the soft humming just beneath the wind’s unsettled howling.
Joan’s teeth ached from gripping her pipe. She watched Deacon Paul slither round the bend. Pride. Jet wouldn’t hear of leaving that damn revival tent alone. All ’cause some good-looking man had a sultry and seducing voice. Joan rocked, the creaking piercing the blanket of evening chill. Her hands ached, and she rubbed them beneath the scratchy saddle blanket. Jet loved that man, Brother Michael. She’d followed him to the edge of the earth and down into its darkened pits to hear him sing. Joan closed her eyes and pictured her younger sister, sitting up front of the revival, hands stretched high as if catching the notes as they sailed overhead. Thighs quivering, eyes shut tight, and mouth singing with every word by heart.
Brother Michael Mules moved like a beast in heat, enthralling her beautiful younger sister and claiming her as his own. Luring her into the bushes and ravaging her with false promises and fake devotion. He took from her what men always thought women owed them. Joan blew out a single stream of smoke to chase away the cold anger the memory conjured.
Joan’s sister died the night Frankie was born. Bleeding to death on the dirt beneath a revival gospel tent, while the others prayed for her salvation. Brother Michael, he of the smooth voice and hopeful harmonies, was nowhere to be found in the tent.
Joan found him hours later in a room at Madam Yee’s, naked beneath a woman named Scarlett. After Joan shot a hole in the wall above his head, Brother Michael promised to leave town and never to come back again.
Only one person witnessed Joan’s wrath that night. Deacon Paul had been downstairs in the saloon, sucking down whiskies and frisking the women. He’d seen Joan come in with her gun, seen her mount the stairs, and heard the gun’s blast.
She’d promised him then that if he came ‘round her or Frankie, she’d pump him full of lead.
So much that even his white Jesus couldn’t save him.
For that, she’d gladly mount the gallows.
Inside the cabin, mutton stew simmered in the cauldron above the fire. Chunks of green chili peppers, roasting meat, and onions—yes, Auntie had managed to get onions!—floated in the brownish liquid. The aroma stirred Frankie’s hunger. Across the floor, a woven wool Diné rug broke up the wooden floor’s monotony. Full of color, it also softened the sound of Frankie’s footsteps as she set the table for dinner. In a few days, they’d have to go to the trading post to gather supplies, and thus pass the chapel, maybe even the revival.
Could it be the same one that had come to town eighteen years ago?
Auntie Joan stirred the stew with languid strokes. “You quiet. What’s the matter, girl?”
“Hungry,” Frankie answered, avoiding her auntie’s eyes. Somehow Auntie Joan could read her like an open book them white folks be having.
Auntie Joan’s shotgun was now laid on the wall by the fireplace—an iron sentry.
“Come on and get.” Her auntie gestured with a wooden bowl in her hand. She ladled stew into it and the steam curled into the air.
Frankie took the bowl, now filled with steaming deliciousness. In her other hand, she clutched a piece of thick, fresh bread. Auntie Joan had baked it earlier that morning. Once she sat down at the table, she sopped up the stew with the bread. Moments later, Auntie Joan sat in the chair across from her. The air hung heavy with the stew’s aroma.
With her stomach rumbling in anticipation, Frankie peered across the steam to her auntie.
“Tell me about Momma. Please.” Frankie avoided her auntie’s glare.
Auntie Joan stiffened. When Frankie looked across to her, she saw the sorrow in her eyes. “Again?”
“She was a damaged soul.”
“But God saved her.” Frankie held her breath, her piece of bread suspended above the stew. She’d pieced together a story about her momma, maybe more myth than truth, from the bits and pieces Auntie Joan had been willing to part with over the years.
“When He did, she turned on me.” Auntie Joan took a bite of the stew.
“Turned on you?” Frankie hadn’t heard this before, and something about her auntie’s silence following the declaration warned her not to push on. But with reckless abandon, she did anyway. She already knew how her momma and auntie had scraped and planned for a better life out West, and how what they found when they got here was flood and dirt.
“She was a southern slave who came to life in the New Mexican soil. I dunno if she wasn’t happy before we got here, but she wasn’t content. So, she did what all ‘dem others do. Sought out white Jesus. Buyin’ up what they sellin’. Paradise. But it was the music, not that deacon’s message, that ya momma loved. It’s how she ended up with ya daddy. He was a singer with that travelin’ preacher. Now eat.”
“Eat, Francine Michele Mules!”
Frankie lowered her head and did as she was told. Her auntie wouldn’t hesitate to use her hands to put her back in place if she pushed too hard, and when Auntie Joan was done, she was done. They ate the rest of their supper in silence. The seasoned stew and bread filled her belly. For now, that would have to be enough. She still felt empty despite being full of food.
Frankie took frequent sips from her canteen and tried to shove the thoughts of her momma out of her head. Her auntie didn’t like those unpleasant memories, but she didn’t seem to understand. That’s all Frankie had.
After they cleared the table and put away the dishware, Aunt Joan sighed from her position in front of the fire.
“Your momma liked the singin’ ya daddy did. It seemed to just spill into her, like water, fillin’ ‘er up. Instead of the Holy Spirit, Jet was brimming with song and music. When the both of them got together, Frankie, they sang so that the heavens really opened up and folks rejoiced. God’s spirit poured down on ‘dem folks. Speakin’ in tongues and shoutin’ in glory.”
Frankie smiled. “I like to sing too.”
Auntie Joan nodded. Sadness ringed her eyes with wetness. “You got that from your folks. It’s in ya blood.”
Frankie retreated to her corner of the cabin. Her blanket and sleeping pallet held her little treasures—the tambourine from her old schoolhouse teacher, the dress her auntie had made for her birthday last year, little this and that.
She took it out and rubbed her fingers over the glass. Faces filled the surface, blocking out every available space, crowding out Frankie’s reflection. The ancestors shone from her face, overlaying her own. They felt close. After all, they did reside inside her. At the same time, they also felt distant and foreign. In their dark empty eyes and vacant gaping mouths, she saw her pain reflected back to her. Despite this, the spirits brightened when she sang soft melodies or hushed harmonies. Overflowing with lyrical drumbeats and strong choruses, her ancestors rejoiced in her freedom. She could hear them, faint in her ears, in her heart. Her music gave them power, but it also gave the restless spirits, peace.
They’d been with her since she could remember. When other things died or left her, they remained. She released a slow breath and began to hum, soft against the fire’s crackle and Auntie Joan’s rocking. As she did so, the ancestors flickered out one by one.
Early on Sunday morning as Frankie waited for Auntie Joan to finish her shopping at the trading post where she went to trade for milk, meat, and flour, the town buzzed. A burnt odor hung in the air from a brush fire in the desert miles away. Smoke hung overhead, and even little pieces of ash decorated the ground like tar-colored raindrops. But the faithful paid the fire no mind. People streamed into town on horseback and booted feet to hear the word of God. The wide stretch of road leading through town to the church held horses, a few buggies, but mostly people walking, trying to avoid the little treasures the horses left. Rising up on either side of the street, the town’s interlocking buildings relied on each other for strength, just like the townfolks themselves, propping each other up against the harsh environment and wicked winds.
Frankie stood outside the wash house where the smells of peyote and tobacco and laundry soap and the sharp, acidic odor of booze rubbed out the scent of fire. The town reeked, not like her cabin.
Zara Gibson stood along with her, her chapped and calloused hands resting on her hips. A dingy scarf wrapped around her hair kept the dirt out, and her apron bore splashes of mud and oil. Across from the wash house and neighboring saloon, the chapel sat with its doors thrown wide, swelling with the influx of parishioners.
“Revival’s in town,” Frankie said.
Frankie nodded. “Everybody’s going into the church.”
“Uh-huh. The revival’s this evening. The tent’s bein’ put up now, but the deacon and his folks are makin’ nice with the locals by going to their place.”
Zara watched her watching the people go into the church and sucked her teeth. “Deacon Paul has a roving eye, girl.”
“How come you say that, Z?” Frankie looked over at her, her braids catching the sunlight. She leaned down on the wooden fencing that ran along the porch between the washing house and neighboring saloon.
“Man’s shameless. Look at ‘im.” Zara nodded in the direction of the church where Deacon Paul stood on the steps, welcoming the new flock, and her dark eyes narrowed in suspicion. “That man’s got a switch.” She tapped her temple. “Be careful round ‘im, Frankie. We don’t know what be in men’s heads, especially ‘dem kinda men.”
“Stop being mean.” Frankie stood. “They wanna save ya soul!”
Zara shrugged. “Mean keeps ya alive. Nice gets ya a nice bunch of flowers—on ya grave.”
“Cheery thought,” Frankie said.
Zara snorted as she disappeared into the hot and humid washroom. Frankie didn’t tell her she didn’t have to worry about anyone else trying to get into her head. There was already a lot of folks in there.
Inside her, the spirits shifted around even now. Restless. Stirred by the first chords on the saloon-styled piano pouring out of the chapel’s doors. Someone had rustled up the old instrument from a neighboring town. Deacon Paul did behave shamelessly, Frankie had to admit. She spied the good man paying particular attention to the young women clutching their Bibles over their bosoms. Many a round female posterior snared his gaze as it passed by him, his head turning as if it were tethered by an invisible chord.
Frankie crossed the street to the chapel. The spirits came out and growled around her as she drew closer, but she didn’t know if it was the heat or the music that disturbed them. Deacon Paul stood in an evil aura, a green creepy color that pulsated around him. The sour taste of warning seeped into her mouth, and Zara’s words echoed in her mind. She blinked, and the aura was gone. But everything felt jumbled up in Frankie’s head. The piano’s music had joined her ancestors’ chorus in her mind, filling her up.
She hastened her steps and joined others on the back pew. Deacon Paul followed her inside and clomped down the aisle to the front, the unmistakable sound of his heavy boots and spurs underscoring the hymn. He stood at the mouth of the pulpit, his hands clasped in front of him, legs spread apart, as people found their seats. With his mustache twitching, he joined in with the crowd’s singing chorus.
The piano’s notes crawled onto Frankie’s tongue, bitter and salty, like angry tears. They slid down her throat, coating her entire being once the deep throbbing bass of the drums set in—the ancestors’ drums, the drums inside her head, inside her soul. The drums the others couldn’t hear. A sharp pressure clamped down on her heart, and the familiar warmth flooded her system. Her body shook, and her legs trembled. Her skin prickled as if electricity sailed through the air. The hairs on her arms stood at the ready. The others shouted out as the Holy Ghost inspired them. Not Frankie. Through slits she peered out across the sea of shiny faces, glistening with sweat in the packed pews, dressed in their best chapel finery, rustling and clapping as they settled in for revival.
“Ah-mazing Grace, how sweet the sound…” Frankie inhaled air, and released it slow, marrying it to the notes, and the ancestors rushed in. Taking over her vocal cords, her ancestors’ spirits awakened inside her core. Her voice became their vehicle for escape, their route to freedom. The tendons of her neck bulged against her dark skin as those inside her pushed to meld with the music.
Freedom. Life. Freedom. Life. Music was life.
Their incessant bleating didn’t fit the song, and Frankie struggled to hold them back, to keep control of the music. Her eyes snapped open. The church sat mesmerized with glazed eyes and swaying bodies. Powerless spectators. Frozen in the spirit. They knew the words to Amazing Grace. They all joined in, even Deacon Paul, even the reluctant singers, sprung up from their seats, mouths singing as if possessed and on their own accord.
This song, of all others, ignited the ancestral spirits inside her into riotous rejoicing. For this one, written by the captain of a slave ship, wrought out of the anguish of her people, the loss, the savagery of their demise en route through the middle passage to the world. The sound of it ignited them, their fury, and their joy.
By the time she and the clueless worshippers reached the second verse, her ancestors were threatening to boil over. She closed her eyes again, allowing the power to seep over her, the music to infuse with her voice. Careening forward to the song’s end, Frankie let go of restraint and fell into the tight embrace of the voices within, giving herself over to them.
They rose, wrapping her in their love. The comforting sounds of melody lifted her higher. Lifting her like the wind, sweeping her to places unknown. The town was forgotten beneath the musical blending of her one voice into many.
The hymn came to a close, winding down lazily, lowering her until her toes brushed the ground. She opened her eyes and took in the curious glances of those around her.
“Please be seated.” Deacon Paul gestured with his hands, getting everyone to sit. He shot a toothy grin in her direction. “That was a passionate rendition that raised the roof.”
Frankie sat down and folded her hands in her lap. The pastor made his way to the front as Deacon Paul took his seat in the front pew. Frankie awaited the roll of brimstone and damnation from the pulpit. Southern folks had brought that version with them. She wished they’d left it back down south.
Her skin vibrated and glowed. Singing with the church lifted her spirits higher, to another place. Everything looked like it’d been scrubbed in the washboard. Clean. Bright. Beautiful. She didn’t need the Indians’ peyote or prayer to become enlightened.
Was this what her momma felt? It must be.
She’d have to go to the revival to see for herself.
They’d pitched the tent on a hilltop vista that overlooked the valley. Purple with sage, the valley below offered a strong scent up into the air, and Deacon Paul’s soft humming slithered through the tent’s opening. Frankie stood just outside the entranceway, her heart hammering in adrenaline-soaked fear—and excitement.
She released a sigh. If her Auntie Joan knew she’d gone to the revival instead of to help Miss Zara with the wash, she’d beat the black off her. Frankie balled her hands into determined fists. She couldn’t stand the stale and flavorless existence. Music bloomed beneath the piano’s melody and the hymn’s coaxing, even when played off-key.
I won’t be ‘fraid to live. An’ I need to know.
The humming stopped. Dead silence followed.
In moments, Deacon Paul appeared like an apparition at the entranceway. Dark eyes loomed from underneath the brim of his cowboy hat.
“Francine. Twice in one day, eh?” He flashed the toothy grin that made Frankie think of wolves.
Lanterns hung high on beams chased away shadows from his face. Deep wrinkles stretched across his forehead and along the delicate skin beneath his eyes—small beady eyes that made her skin crawl and her tummy tighten.
He removed his hat and strolled back into the tent. “Come on then. Ya early.”
Releasing a sigh of relief, Frankie came further inside the tent. The disquiet made her uneasy as she found a seat in the back. Unlike the church, only saddle blankets and woven rugs took up spaces on the reddish dirt ground. No piano or instruments, just little Bibles here and there. A few tambourines. A guitar.
Deacon Paul unrolled another saddle blanket and turned back to her. “Sparse, but the early pioneers were thrifty with supplies. Got to be out ‘ere.”
He hooked his thumbs in the loops of his jeans as he stalked over to her. With his eyes wide, he raised one hand and took a step toward her.
Frankie shrank back from his outstretched hand.
With a smooth fluid motion, he crouched down in front of her. In a soft reassuring voice, he said, “Whatcha movin’ back for? I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
Frankie didn’t have any idea about that, but instead of saying so, she pushed forward. “Did you know my dad?”
His beady dark eyes glared. “Yeah. I knew Brother Michael Mules. He was with us back in the early days. Boy, his Black ass could sing.”
Frankie stiffened. The ancestors inside her whirled in roused aggravation. She pushed herself back onto her heels, ready to leap to her feet when the time came.
“Those are filthy words for a deacon,” Frankie said.
“Oh no, little Frankie. Me and your dad. We as close as the fingers on ya hand.”
He sat down close to Frankie on the saddle blanket. She smelled the horse sweat and manure that clung to his clothes. Her lips moved on their own, and she began to hum.
“This little light of mine…” she sang.
“Ya still burnin’ a candle for ya old man and momma?” Now closer, he talked faster, more insistent that she hear his words over her soft singing.
“Afta ya momma died, ya father peaked. He started takin’ to drinkin’ himself blind. I guess he was lonely…weak…”
Frankie could imagine her daddy’s days consumed like smoke due to the tragedy of her momma’s death. Her song grew stronger overpowering her fear. She shot to her feet.
“I’m gonna let it shine!” She sang out, her body reverberating with emotion, her skin starting to glow, her body a candle whose wick had been lit.
Deacon Paul nodded, a frown creasing his forehead. “Come ‘ere. I gonna show you some shine. A man need a woman’s touch, ya know? It’s all in the Bible…”
Zara’s pervading omen came rushing back. The spirits sang out in rage. Frankie released an ear-splitting note when she got to the word shine, renting the night. She tried to stonewall his actions, but Deacon Paul was like a many-handed monster. “Come on. You coloreds like it. Always panting after us…” his voice was so low no one else could hear. His voice reeked of booze and chewing tobacco.
She lifted up into the air, her toes brushing the blanket. She glowed like a lantern as the ancestors’ song burst forth in full.
Deacon Paul shouted as he fell backward, his arm over his face, shielding his eyes from the burning lights’ strength.
“Aye, Frankie! Frankie!” called the familiar and welcomed voice of Auntie Joan who then appeared. She scanned the tent before locating Frankie. “Girl!”
Deacon Paul spun around and shot her a poisonous look. “Not a word.”
With a relieved breath, Frankie brought her song to an end and collapsed to the ground.
“Ya’ all right?” Auntie Joan asked, but kept her glare on the preacher.
“’Course she’s all right,” the deacon spat, his cheek twitching. He regained his posture and position.
Auntie Joan adjusted the gun belt around her waist, the shells tucked within and gleaming in the light. “I ain’t gonna tell you no more. Don’t come ‘round mine no more. Ya won’t be comin’ round anywhere again if ya do.”
Frankie’s heart pounded in her chest, and her stomach twisted in knots. “He, he…”
“Never mind ‘im,” Auntie Joan said. Her finger twitched on the trigger, and she pointed her weapon at the deacon.
“Now, Joan, you gonna not want to do that.” He held up his hands, palms out. Pale and sweating, he nodded. “I ain’t bothered her.”
“Ya did. The last time ya made my sister glow like that from your pawing hands, groping all over her and she thinkin’ it was love. I tole ya not to come messin’ with my kin.” Auntie Joan steadied her gun. She said to Frankie without turning to look at her, “Go on outta here. Wait for me.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Frankie heard the disappointment in her auntie’s voice.
Once she cleared the tent’s open flap, the boom of the shotgun tore through the quiet, making Frankie flinch. It was so loud, the shot would travel for miles. She spun around to the tent. Auntie Joan! Frozen in fear, she couldn’t run, and she couldn’t go back in.
Moments later, Auntie Joan joined her at the mesa’s edge. The shotgun smelled of gunpowder and fear.
“Let’s go! Come on now! Be quick.” Auntie Joan started for the path, her strides strong and her head held high, she seemed more alive—revived.
Jolted by her auntie’s harsh bark, Frankie hurried to catch up. “How did ya know where to find me?”
“The ancestors came a whisperin’ to me. Said ya gone to revival.”
Frankie noted the deep disappointment in her voice again. “I’m sorry, Auntie.”
Auntie Joan sighed. “No, I’m sorry. I should’ve let you come. Fear took a hold of me. I know you like the singin’.”
“I do. It makes me feel alive.” Frankie took her auntie’s free hand and held it.
“I saw you shinin’ and glowin’. Ya momma used to do that too.” Auntie Joan started walking again but didn’t let Frankie’s hand go.
“So, can I start going to church?’ Frankie held her breath, her voice sounded small against the enormous landscape.
“Yeah,” Auntie Joan said. “Go on an’ make a joyful noise.”