On the long walk to school, a pocketful of coins isn’t the only thing a brother and sister will have to fight for.
“Le’ me carry ‘um.”
“Nuh uh,” she said.
She felt the cold metal against her skin, tucked into a makeshift pocket of her dress. Seventy-five cents. All quarters.
“You never let me do nothin’,” he protested. His awkward steps, a little jog-and-walk, jog-and-walk, slapped behind her.
“No way,” she said, “you’ll lose ‘um. Beside, Mama said.”
They walked along the muddy track, their shoes caked brown with cold November mud. He paused to kick at a rabbit hole until she turned on him. “Aww,” he moaned, head hanging. For a moment they continued as the path wound through a bog like the bony spine of some hidden leviathan. As they crept out of it she heard him behind her, whispering just loud enough for her to hear him.
“Why can’t I carry th’ money?” he said, his voice mocking. “Because she’s so rich on h’self. She and Momma. I ain’t never get to carry no money nowhere.”
She spun on him. “Fine!” she said.
With a glance around them, she plumbed the pocket and produced three shiny coins. He watched them, mesmerized. “Now you put them in your pocket, y’hear?” She pressed them into the flesh of his open hand. “In your pocket, that’s where they stay.”
“Y’know what happens if y’lose ‘um, right?”
“We can’t have books,” he said from memory.
“And we need books to stay in school.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
“Go on, then.”
He stuffed the coins into his pocket, leaving his hand to run fingers over the smooth currency.
“Come on. School’s startin’ soon.”
They trudged through the gray morning that hung cold and still. The boy lagged behind and she turned to find him peering into his pocket.
“Hey!” she shouted. He jogged up to her, eyes apologetic. Once they renewed the pace, he fell behind again. She heard the sound of clinking coins.
“A’right, give ‘em back!” she scolded. He was about twenty feet behind her, the quarters shimmering in his hands. And she saw, behind him, five boys walking towards them. She recognized them and scrambled back to her brother, grabbing his shoulders and pulling him close to whisper.
“Put ‘m away!”
The newcomers formed a small arc to enclose them, the tallest and thickest boy in the middle. On his head was a frayed ball cap. He looked down at them with gray eyes, hunting hidden behind the blinds of swollen lids.
“You’s late fo’ schoo’,” he grunted.
She brought her brother to his feet. The money jingled in his hand which he shoved noisily into his pocket. “We was practicing our readin’,” she said. “But we on our way now.”
The arc closed into a pincer. She could feel the warmth of their lurking flesh. The leader looked at her brother. “Whatchu got, boy?”
He opened his mouth but said nothing, his shoulders seizing under her fingers. She squeezed him and said, “We ain’t got nuthin’. ‘Suppose you all have a fine day, now?”
The leader stepped forward, inches away from their faces. His breath was foul. “Gimme that munny,” he said.
She stared back into the giant’s face. “It ain’t yurs,” she said. “It’s book money – for the teacher.”
“Th’ teacha’?” he said. Then he laughed, and his four minions laughed too, their voices bounding off the hardened earth. “Well, I knows the teacha’ jus’ fine. She won’t care none.”
“It ain’t right,” she said.
He leaned in close, his eyes pale and wet in the dim morning light. “I said, Gimme it.” He licked his lips. “Dis yo’ last chance.”
She held the little boy close, pressing him into her belly. Don’ lose that money, Momma had said. Don’ you let that boy touch it, neither.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I can’t. Now leave us be.”
He watched her, his expression cold and blank. They both waited. Nothing moved but the mist of human breath.
Then they sprung.
“Git!” she screamed.
But there was no time. The nearest boy latched onto her dress and yanked. Her skin burnt as she smacked the frozen ground. He kicked and her arms flew to guard her face. Explosions of pain burst along her back, her legs, her skull. “Run, run!” she screamed. A stomp landed on her hands, mashing her fingers into her eye sockets and nose. She tasted blood.
She could hear her brother wailing and pleading with the attackers. The sound of blows punctuated his howls. Somewhere in the sickening chaos, the seventy-five cents jangled. But his cries didn’t stop. She peeked through her fingers. They were stripping him.
The stinging chill of air hit her naked toes – her own shoes had been ripped away. Still the boy beat her. Stealing a peek again, she saw him rearing up for another stomp. When it came, she reached out, clawed at the ankle, and twisted. The attacker fell with a yelp.
In an instant she was up and swinging at the four vultures hovering over her brother. She connected with a cheek. An ear. She swung at another head and caught the side of his nose, just below his ball cap. She wound up for another, but a meaty hand found her face and shoved, sending her to the ground.
For a moment the ground thundered with their footsteps while their shrill laughter hung in the punishing cold, broken only by the distant jingling of the coins. Then it was quiet again.
She crawled over to him. He lay in nothing more than his britches. His nose spouted bubbly blood that ran over lips and cheeks as he lay on the ground, his breath coming in foggy gasps. Tears streaked his face and his lips moved weakly.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
She reached under her dress, up into the lining, and found a piece of fabric her mother would hopefully not notice was missing, and ripped it out. As tenderly as she could, she dabbed at his nose and cheeks, mopping up the scarlet liquid. It came away in streaks, too plentiful for the small piece of cloth she had torn. “Nothin’ to be sorry for,” she said.
“I lost it,” he moaned. “I lost it.”
She ripped off another cloth and went about cleaning him further. His body shook, naked in the cold. “Here,” she said, bringing his arm up to hold the cloth against his nose. He cried out held it still, stifling the blood. “Stand up, boy,” she said. He shook his head. “Stand up!” she said again.
He didn’t move.
“I ain’t standin’ ‘til they bring back my clothes!”
She looked back, the way they’d come through the bog and the hills from their house. Then she looked forward, toward the school, nearly half a mile or so away. Without that money there’d be no books, she thought. Without books, there’d be no more school.
He sat cross-legged in the muddy track of the road, weeping softly. The blood ran around the wadding, down his arm. His stark form shivered.
“I can’t git your clothes back,” she said. He sniffed in protest. “They’re gone. Y’hear? Just like the seventy-five cents is gone. Now stand up before y’freeze to death.”
Their eyes met. His were huge and wet, but the sockets around them were hardened like fists. “I’ll find ‘em,” he growled. “I’ll find ‘em.”
He stood with folded arms and came close to her so she could hold him. Then, turning back towards the meandering pass through the swamp, she pushed him on towards home, away from school.
They returned after a painful journey on frigid feet and wounded spirits. Spying them from afar, their mother stood on the porch and watched their ashamed heads bow before her.
“Where he clothes at?” she said, her voice coarse.
The girl gazed up at Momma. “Gone, ma’am.”
“Y’all’s shoes, too?”
“How ‘bout the money?”
Momma repeated, “Where’s that money, girl?”
“I lost it, ma’am,” she said.
“I ain’t got no more,” Momma said. “Now come in before y’all catch death already.”
She gave her brother a push and he scampered up the steps into the house with a fresh whack on the behind from Momma.
The girl didn’t follow. Her feet seemed frozen, her body a stalagmite. She saw her mother’s stare, a haunted, vicious gaze, boring into her. Then she looked back to the road and beyond, in her imagination, to the three jingling coins.
“Y’comin’ in or not, girl?” Momma squawked.
Her feet came unstuck. They took small, hesitant steps. They carried her past her mother, onto the porch, and into the house.
They were perfectly numb.
Image: Julian Colton, Public Domain
“Coins” © David H. Safford, 2015