Sample text for When I crossed No-Bob / by Margaret McMullan.
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Some folks say if you marry wearing a brown
dress, you'll live in the country, so I guess this
new bride I see in front of us will live in town even
though we don't have a town anymore.
She's wearing a white dress Momma says is
made of cashmere with a hoop skirt made out of
grapevines and her name is Irene. The one-room
schoolhouse folks also use for church is open,
and Momma and I can see this Irene walking up
the middle of the room with a big man.
Momma and I are the only O'Donnells around and
she bends to whisper in my ear. "Addy O'Donnell,
you mind me and stay close."
This Irene, she looks to be the kind of lady who
grew up in one of those big two-story houses, with
columns, and a separate kitchen and dining room
built of logs set apart from the main house. While
cooks kept busy all day cooking, this Irene, she
probably had a slave fanning her to sleep. Before
the war, that is. Back when they had slaves.
This big man is walking Irene to her beau, who is
a tall man with sandy hair, and he looks happy-
scared, his eyes crinkly from smiling. I know him
to be the schoolteacher. His name is Mr. Frank
Russell and both he and Miss Irene are lucky
because they're getting married and they have all
In the front-row pews I can see Mr. Frank's pa
with one arm and Mr. Frank's ma who has both
her arms--one of them around her little boy and
the other around the flower girl who I know is
called Little Bit.
"By golly, I wish that Irene'd marry me," says Mr.
McCollum, standing outside near us, wearing his
fancy pants that hang from his bony body.
Miss Irene's uncle gives her away because her pa
died in the war. Her uncle must weigh as much as
a good cow and I wonder how Mr. Frank, who
looks to weigh not much over 120, summoned the
courage to ask that big man for his only niece's
hand in marriage. What gave him that kind of
We all watch Miss Irene and Mr. Frank smiling
with their teeth, their foreheads touching while
Brother Davenport says words. They say their
vows and when they kiss, I don't look away. I
wonder if their love is fierce like Momma says her
love for Pappy is. I wonder if Mr. Frank will ever go
away to Texas like my pappy did.
When Pappy left, the misery attacked Momma
and she turned into a different person. I know
what to do when Momma has a cold or the
stomach cramps. I fix her up with a nice cup of
life-everlasting tea the way she taught me. And if
the chills or fevers come, I dig up some horsemint
to add to the tea. But I can't heal this hurt she's
had since Pappy left us, and she hasn't even
asked me to try. I wish for once she would just
Somebody somewhere inside is playing a sweet
song on the harmonica.
Their neighbors come out happy and spread out
the cloths to make for a fine feast. These ladies
must have been making pound cakes for more
than a week. Even though we were not invited and
most likely should not be here, Momma and I
pretend to be happy too, though it is not hard with
all this food and happiness before us. Momma
teaches me to do like her. We straighten our thin
brown calico dresses and smile, both of us hoping
for chicken and cake.
She bends down, spits on a rag, and rubs hard on
the scar that runs down the side of my nose. Dirt
always goes there first.
If you look closely, you can see that Momma was
pretty once. Now, her face is sunken in and lined
up with worry, sorrow, anger, and hunger. When
Pappy left, her hair went from blond to brown to
white all in one year, and her eyes are always
puffy from crying.
I recognize most everybody from church. We
O'Donnells all attend Sunday services. Around
here, if you don't go to church, you're not a
person at all, but an animal. Around here, if you
don't go to church, the elders come and get you
and make you go to church, and if you still don't
go, you are shunned, which is worse than being
an animal. The O'Donnells pride ourselves on
going to church. The O'Donnell men stand their
guns in the corner of the church during preaching.
People have gotten used to us all coming in
There is a pit dug out in the ground with Mr. Pig in
there front and center, spinning and roasting, and
chicken pies like I've never seen. Everywhere I
look, I see flowers and children playing at
marbles, hopscotch, run-and-catch, climbing
trees, gathering nuts. Ard Reacy is playing
"Turkey in the Straw" on his fiddle, and after his
dog, Old Shep, looks up from his sleep, he starts
in on "Molly Put the Kettle On."
So many of the men have stumps for arms or
cane legs made from timber. They sit on benches
from the schoolhouse, split logs with pegs for
legs, pegs just like the ones they wear. After the
war was over, they all came crawling back to
Smith County half-dead or half-alive.
When Pappy was here, he told me stories about
the war and the world too.
After the war, after the gunfire and the cannons
and the fires, O'Donnells and Smith County folks
both, soldiers and deserters, straggled back all
ragtag after fighting at Second Manassas,
Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville,
Gettysburg, and others. They all came back with
the guns they kept even though they were
supposed to give them up and promise never ever
to take up arms against the government of the
United States again. After the war almost every
family was armed.
After the North burned our country and moved on,
the Yankees put the state under martial law and
had an army of colored soldiers stationed in
Jackson. Their watchword was "White man,
bottom rail's on top now."
So here we are, ten years later in this time called
peace, when folks still sometimes walk around
like they are sleeping, half clothed, half fed, one
ear or both still ringing from the four years of war
Pappy said after the war, the light was different.
Most all of the trees were gone from fire or used
for lumber and there was hardly any shade to be
had. It turned hotter in the summer, colder in the
winter. After the war, Pappy said we were all
Ard Reacy fiddles out "Dixie" and someone yells
for him to quit, then someone else says no, go
on. The wedding party falls silent and we all listen
to Ard while we think on what all we've lost.
Every morning we still wake up and see nothing
but ruins--ruined towns, ruined railroads, ruined
trees, ruined houses. Where there was once a
house, maybe there's a chimney or some steps
leading to nowhere. You get to feeling ruined
yourself. Hollow. With nobody coming to help.
Nobody from the North. You look up at the sky
and wonder if someone or something is going to
just plop down and give a hand. Some cornmeal
would be a mighty sight. And you know by the
time anybody or anything comes, you'll be too
angry to say thank you. This hollow feeling is
worse than mad. It's a no-feeling that doesn't feel
After the war, after the Yankees came and left,
Pappy said they took all our horses and mules
and killed all our cows and chickens and pigs.
They didn't leave us nothing to eat and we're
likely to starve to death. Everybody in these parts
was mad and hungry and armed. Momma and
me, we still use parched potato peels to make
coffee, and every day I dig up the dirt in the
smokehouse, drip that through the hopper, then
boil it to get the salt. We're lucky, though. Least
we're not eating dirt and green corn like I seen
O'Donnell's children do.
Ard Reacy finishes playing "Dixie" and a few
Some of the people look our way and I steady
myself for the mumbling. Some folks even back
away. I know what they see: These here are
beggars and they are white! Some might not even
see our skin on account of some of the dirt I
missed. Are they backing away because they are
afraid of me, a twelve-year-old half their size? We
know what they say about us. They say the
O'Donnells is no better than termites. We only do
harm and you can't get rid of us.
It's true what they say about the O'Donnells
harnessing people instead of mules in No-Bob.
Pappy and Anse plowed their own brother Garner
and at noon put him in a mule stall and fed him
hay and corn. Of course, he didn't eat, but I
guess if they'd have told him to, he would have
That's just the O'Donnell way.
Nona Dewitt prances my way and says, "Why
don't you find your brother or your pa and marry
him. That's what all you people do."
"I don't got no brother and my pappy's gone."
"Hush," Momma says. Nona Dewitt and her
followers laugh because I don't get whatever joke
Nona has just told.
"Stand up proud," Momma says. "You're an
These people here at the wedding never walk the
plank that crosses the stream into No-Bob
because they figure like Bob, they won't come
Momma told me the story about how No-Bob got
its name. One day, after the war, a freed black
man named Bob, looking for some land to stake a
claim, took a wrong turn and wandered into
O'Donnell territory. The O'Donnells banded
together. To take the colored situation in hand,
they said. Bob never left. To set an example for
Yankee justice, the sheriff in Smith County sent
out a search party. People were everywhere
looking, but they couldn't find Bob. They were so
tired and distraught when they came out of the
hollow, they just said, "No Bob," and that's what
the people of Smith County have called the place
ever since. No-Bob.
Pappy liked that people were fearful of him and all
the other O'Donnells. "We have a history," he used
to say. I puff out my chest and try on some of
that O'Donnell scare. I try it on to make myself
feel better around the likes of Nona Dewitt.
I can see that Momma is listening to the talk
about the newlyweds. They got some land and a
dwelling house. She tells me to pay attention and
listen for silver in people's purses and pockets
and point those people out to her.
Momma is talking to a man with a mule and a
wagon. I hear her, but I'm not listening. I'm still
looking at all the food, wondering, When do we
eat? I pull on Momma's dress.
"Leave us alone now," the man says to me.
"You heard him," Momma says. "Now go on."
Momma is telling the man with the mule her
burdens and sorrows I've heard her tell people
before. She says the word "Texas," and when the
man starts to nod, I have to turn away.
After Pappy got into a brawl with Garner
O'Donnell, the brother he plowed, Garner shot
Pappy in the arm. Pappy stood awhile, bleeding in
front of Garner, saying how dare he shoot him
with little itty-bitty buckshot. It was an insult.
Momma sewed Pappy up and declared him
That's when Pappy left us for Texas. He said he
would send for us when he could, but that was so
many years ago, I can hardly remember his face.
Some folks say after being in the war for so long,
Pappy got to missing the war and all the roaming
around and all the bloody battles.
Momma looks away from the man with the mule
toward me. She looks at me differently, like I'm a
sack of bricks she's tired of hauling.
I sneak food and eat under a clump of trees.
People notice and pretend not to see or not to
The girl they call Little Bit is not so little. She's
tall and blond like her mother and I catch her
peachy smell as she passes. I tell her hey. She
asks me my name and I tell her.
"Addy O'Donnell," I say. "I'm twelve."
She tells me she's thirteen.
"I know a trick," she says, and she makes the
exact same sound as a crow.
"How you do that?"
"My big brother Frank taught me. He can teach
anything. You want a cake?" She gives me one.
We go and eat cakes standing down near the
creek people say runs into the Tallahala. It's the
same creek that divides No-Bob and the rest of
Smith County. Across the creek, we see two
Choctaw women cutting cane to use to make their
baskets. They are quiet and even though me and
Little Bit watch, they don't look over at us.
They are what they were before the war, ever
since they gave up their land at the Treaty of
Dancing Rabbit Creek, when Mississippians took
away their homes. They're not slaves, not
landowners, not white, not black. They're
One of the Choctaw women looks up at me, and
for a minute, it feels like we recognize each other.
Little Bit's talking about all the land her pa and her
brother have just bought, most of it Indian land,
and she's all smug in her pink and white dress
and ribbons. She talks more than plenty. In the
water, our faces are side by side, same size but
nothing alike. She's light-skinned and light-haired;
I'm ruddy-skinned with dull hair and dark eyes
that people say make me look devilish. I am dirty,
it's true, and Little Bit has shoes and I do not.
"My ma was baptized in the Tangipahoa River in
Magnolia," she says. "I was baptized here. Where
were you baptized?"
I don't say nothing.
"What happened to your nose?" Little Bit asks
me. "How did you get that scar?"
I don't want to tell this pretty little girl that I
haven't been baptized yet and that my pappy
swiped me with a poplar stick because I was up
to no good, not after she told me what her big
brother can teach her.
"I'm from a family," I say right proud. "About the
meanest family there ever was."
I don't know what gets into me. Momma always
says it's the devilment I get from Pappy, but I
take to splashing Little Bit a little bit, and then a
lot. She tells me to quit it and I don't. And all of a
sudden, she's mad and I'm mad, and we're on the
banks and we're down in it, fighting, and I'm
painting that clean little pink face with mud and
this Little Bit? She's no little chip. She's
scratching and punching and we go at it, and all
the while I'm thinking, This here wedding is big
fun--just like an O'Donnell wedding.
But then they come screaming. They all do. The
whole wedding party comes running down to the
creek, screaming all at once. They don't mumble
but say outright that I'm bad bad bad. Evil.
Painting a white girl black like that, and then
trying to drown her. Little Bit cries to hear them
and her mother holds her tight.
In all the fuss, I can't find Momma.
Only the menfolk hold me by the arms. No one
else will touch me. They don't want to get
themselves dirty. I lean this way and that, trying
to find the man with the mule. Maybe he knows
where Momma is.
"Someone get this girl's momma," Mr. Frank
Everyone nods, mumbling yes, that's what should
be done. A few women take their sons and
daughters aside, like they don't want their children
to see the likes of me. They head out to help pack
away the food and fold the linens.
Nobody seems to know where my momma is.
I am the last one at the wedding picnic and
nobody knows what to do with me. I'm old enough
to set out on my own, so that is just what I do. I
start out alone on the road. People loading up
their wagons, looking at me passing, shake their
heads. Brother Davenport is talking with Mr. Frank
when Miss Irene, the newlywed bride, stops me
and takes my hand. She tells her new husband
they'll take me home. She says she knows
where I live.
I can see that it angers and pleases Mr. Frank at
once. He looks at me and frowns, and then looks
at his new wife, who is smiling a soft, lippy smile
that makes me ashamed of myself and the way I
look. He hitches up his wagon to his mule and we
three climb in, ready to go to No-Bob.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Farm life -- Mississippi -- Fiction.
Abandoned children -- Fiction.
Race relations -- Fiction.
Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877) -- Fiction.
Ku Klux Klan (19th cent.) -- Fiction.
Mississippi -- History -- 19th century -- Fiction.