The Journey of Ruthie Belle (Excerpt)
Tulla Springs, Mississippi, 1914
I was naked, peerin’ at the reflection through the bedroom mirror. With eyes nearly swollen shut, and fresh cuts around my mouth and cheeks, I saw bruises coverin’ my body—on my arms, trailin’ down my legs, a huge bite mark on my breast—I was beaten badly.
Behind my reflection was a man pullin’ up his trousers with black suspenders danglin’ at his knees. His shirt was half-buttoned, but still wore his muddy boots.
“Put your clothes on, you disgust me!”
With ev’ry move he made, I wanted to jump from my achin’ body.
“Ruthie Raye!” he barked. “You hear me? Put your damn clothes on and fetch me my suppa!”
My feet wanted to move, but they felt like they were stuck. I was scared to walk to the closet. The dress I wore that mornin’ was on the floor in a shredded pile, and my long, dark, hair neatly combed in a bun became ruffled from him draggin’ me to our bedroom. I peered at him through the mirror, hopin’ his next swig of whiskey would make him too drunk to hurt me again.
An hour ago, my husband, Arthur Belle, came home from workin’ as a sharecropper for Mayor Smith, and stomped inside our small shack like a bully. I was on the scrub board doin’ the laundry. He tracked his muddy footprints from the front door to the kitchen table, giving me one of those short evil stares before reachin’ into the cupboard for the jar we used for savin’ our pennies. I knew money was tight, and he’d been stressin’ where the next meal would come from. Mayor Smith kept payin’ him short of our fair share of the crops. We’d been makin’ it all right, but God been blessin’ us with enough food and clothes on our backs. Like any good momma and daddy, we wanted to give the best for our chil’ren.
While I kept tendin’ to the laundry, I could feel his eyes lookin’ my way. It seemed like his stare brought a swift blast of cold air from nowhere. I know that sound strange, and maybe it could’ve been my imagination, but each time he would cut his whitish-gray eyes, I swore it got colder by a few degrees. Though, I didn’t dare tell him that—I just couldn’t.
Then again, on his eyes, he’d never told me as long as I’d known him about growin’ up as a Colored with strange colored eyes. Sometimes when we’d go into town, I noticed the stares from White and Colored folks. It started with whispers, and later the whisperin’ turned into the stares. They, for sure, would really stare if they knew how his eyes changed colors from plain gray to sparklin’ gray, and sometimes to an icy blue. And, at one time, his eyes were pure and as white as snow. Honest.
Funny, when I first met him I thought his eyes were angel-like. One day, when I worked as a maid for Mayor Smith and his wife, the Mayor told me to fetch the stable boy a glass of ice-cold lemonade. I was thirteen, but knew what I saw standin’ underneath the Mississippi sun was a sight for sore eyes. Arthur had skin like mahogany wood and curly dark hair.
“Care for ice cold lemonade?” I shyly asked him.
“Don’t mind if I do, Ma’am.” He smiled, as he took the glass.
As he gulped his drink, the midday light shimmered against his shirtless, sweaty chest. I’d been a good Christian all my life, and I knew what I was feelin’ wasn’t lust. It was just somethin’ ‘bout him that made my heart smile. Call me crazy, but when I first laid eyes on him, I knew he was gon’ be my husband. I wasn’t sure if he took a likin’ to me until a few months later.
The nineteen-year-old Arthur asked me to meet him by the creek next to the stables ‘cause he had somethin’ to tell me. Actually, he rather showed me than told me. That night I got my first kiss. From then on, we courted and we later got married.
Things were beautiful in the beginnin’ until one night he came home drunk with tears. I remembered askin’ him, “What’s the matter?” and then, in the blink of an eye, he slapped me for no good reason. “What did I do?” I asked him. The more I asked, the more he slapped me.
Later durin’ our marriage, the slaps turned into punches, and the punches into forced sex. A person would think gettin’ beat all the time was somethin’ I shoulda gotten used to, but I didn’t. But, thank Jesus, Arthur never laid his hand on our girls— Gladys, Florence, and Mattie Jean. I felt a sense of relief when the girls got home from school ‘cause he’d never beat me in their presence. It was always at night, behind our closed bedroom door, or while they weren’t home.
With him whoopin’ on me so much, I had no one to turn to. My momma and daddy were dead. Daddy died from Tuba-culosis when I was six and Momma died from pneumonia the day after my eleventh birthday. Mayor and Mrs. Smith let me take Momma’s place as their maid for two years before I married off. At times, I wished the Mayor hadn’t asked me to take that lemonade to Arthur. My life would’ve been simpler, and especially the whoopins.
“Have you started suppa?” He was still starin’ at the jar.
“No, suh, let me finish this last bit of laundry and I’ll get to it.”
“What you mean you didn’t start suppa?” His voice was loud like thunder.
“Arthur, I’ve been cleanin’ all mornin’ and I had a lot of laundry to do. I’m servin’ soup for suppa. It don’t take no time to cook it.”
Then I guess I got him mad.
His eyes clicked into a horrific rage and he lunged toward me. While I held the wet linen, he raised his hand up to the afta’noon light and slapped me out the chair. Warm blood oozed from my nose, and I crawled like a helpless dog to escape from his tempa.
“Woman, I said get my food!” he angrily snapped.
“Okay, okay, please don’t!”
“Don’t what, you stupid bitch? You don’t do shit ‘round here. It’s either suppa ain’t done in time or the house ain’t clean enough…You suppose to do what I say!”
I kept scootin’ on the rough, hardwood floor, still sore from his slap. He inched closer as he rambled on about what I was not doin’ in the house. With three daughters, a house to tend to, and bein’ a dressmaker for the high-society white women in town, I worked just as hard as he did. But, in eyes his, he didn’t think so. He called me lazy, even when doin’ our husband and wife things. Arthur said I was the worst he’d ever had. I’m bad ‘cause he forced himself on me anytime he wanted to. He got me hatin’ sex. Even the word makes me cringe.
Trapped between the corner and him, the wall became my opened door to Hell. And there was no getting’ away from smellin’ his whiskey breath. The scent was strong enough to burn my nostrils and water my eyes. I curled into a ball to shield from his first blow and his scent.
“Please, Arthur, I promise to get suppa faster!”
He chuckled like an evil man, ignorin’ my plea. My words never meant nothin’ to him. Then I felt his strong hand grabbin’ a clump of my hair. He dragged me past the dusty fireplace, and to the bedroom. His muscular frame roughly tossed my petite body on the bed. The slaps weren’t nothin’ new. He was only warmin’ up.
I was on my back, as he sprawled on top of me, starin’ at me; his eyes full of hatred. Arthur carefully examined me from head to toe. Caressin’ my tear-soaked face, and then runnin’ his hand down my chest, he clenched my dress in his fist and ripped it open. My titties met the coolness of the drafty room, and my nipples stood rigid, fearin’ his next move. I could feel his manhood rise through what was left of my high-neckline dress. Then Arthur clenched his fist and punched into my warm flesh. With each stingin’ blow, I wished those blows would just kill me.
“I’m sorry,” I wept. “Please don’t hurt me no more. I tried to do better.”
He said nothing, but reached in his trouser pocket and pulled out a bottle of whiskey to take a quick swig. Lookin’ down at me with his devilish grin, he leaned closer to see my tears blended with my beaten face.
In one swift motion, my hands became his bondage on the bed, as he roughly kissed me. He moved his lips down to my breast, suckin’ hard, as if he was tryin’ to regain the milk. With my flesh against my homemade quilt, he did his dirty thing.
“Why do you like me hurtin’ you?” he whispered, as he kept kissin’ me, his breath drenched with whiskey. “You know I hate hurtin’ you.”
I couldn’t reply to his false regrets. He always pretended to feel bad when he’d beaten and violated me. Sometimes I sensed he wanted to cry. If he felt bad, then why did his love had to hurt?
Lettin’ him do his business, I just lay like a corpse in a casket. Abruptly, he flipped me over like a ragdoll. It was the first time he’d done this and I didn’t know what to expect. I was shiverin’ with panic when he ripped off the rest of my dress and undergarments. I was stark naked, with my titties pressin’ against the quilt. His manhood went into an unnatural hole that wasn’t fit for a person to take.
I screamed loud enough for God to hear me.
“You act like a stupid bitch, you gonna get treated like one!” He was pantin’ like an old raggedy dog.
While he moved in and out of my behind, I became numb. In front of me, I stared at the wall and then gazed at my Bible on the nightstand. When is God goin’ to take me away? Death has to be better than this. Anythin’, mighty Lord, has to be!
That happened an hour ago, when Arthur came home angry, takin’ out his aggression on me. I should be used to it after twelve years of marriage, but each day don’t get any easier. It gets worse.
“By the time I come back from the barn, you have my suppa on the table,” he angrily reminded me, slammin’ the front door.
I stood in front of that mirror, sobbin’ and starin’ at my beaten reflection. Then I placed my hands on top of my stomach. I don’t know why I would do that each time he left after beatin’ me. Maybe I hoped his violation would create another baby. Bein’ with child was the only time I had peace. He would say horrible things to me—like his favorite: stupid bitch—or complain how I’m a lousy wife, or remind me that after I give birth he’ll teach me some respect. Nonetheless, ev’rytime I got pregnant was more than a gift from God. I lived nine months free without bein’ punched or kicked.
Yet, Arthur still violated me. I would be tendin’ to a chore while the babies were nappin’, and he’d force me to do wifely relations. One time, I lied, tellin’ him I was with child. In the back of my mind, I knew I was gon’ get it. I wanted to do anythin’ to make him stop, even lie. Still, it didn’t matter. Arthur violated me durin’ my cycle. Once he found out I lied, he beat me so bad I thought for sure he killed me. That same day, while lyin’ on the kitchen floor beaten and bruised, I thought I saw a glowin’ woman standin’ above me. Maybe she’s my guardian angel to take me away from this bondage, I thought. The woman didn’t say anythin’; she only shook her head with a smile. I quickly realized later that it was the effect of Arthur’s blows. I had to been seein’ things ‘cause if she was my angel, she would’ve taken me away from that Hell.
From an opened window in the bedroom, I heard my girls approachin’ up the grass. I hurried to compose myself by findin’ somethin’ quick to wear. “There!” I said, fumblin’ through my closet. It was an old dress I made a couple of years of ago that was supposed to be for the Mayor’s wife, but she didn’t take a likin’ to it so it became mine.
“Momma, we’s home,” announced my middle child, Florence. Her ten-year-old voice echoed down the hallway from the front door to the bedroom.
I scampered to put on the sky blue dress with a high neckline, as well as prayin’ that my girls wouldn’t walk in to see my hair a mess and the cuts along my face. I wasn’t sure if they knew the truth of what went on when they weren’t around, well except my oldest girl, Gladys. She discovered the truth a year ago when he forced me outside in the darkness of the night. He’d finished his business on me, and thought it would be fun to drag my naked behind to the barn. Luckily, I made a quick move by duckin’ and runnin’ before he could land a right hook. My legs ran as fast as they could back to the house. But before I made it to the door, I saw my twelve-year-old daughter, Gladys, peekin’ through her bedroom window. The look of disgust covered her caramel-face; her mouth opened wide in shock, her breath foggin’ the window. My cold, naked behind stopped to let her know her momma was okay. By then, I nearly forgot who was chasin’ me; all I cared about was lettin’ my baby girl know I was all right. All of that changed when I heard his hard footsteps through the fall leaves. I think he’d seen Gladys lookin’ through the window ‘cause he didn’t take a swing at me. Instead, he pretended he was a lovin’ husband and waved at our daughter. “Your momma is fine. She just got delirious and ran out here,” he shouted. By the look on Gladys’s face, I could tell she didn’t believe him, and knew that ev’rythin’ she thought of her daddy had changed.
I came out of the bedroom, as if nothin’ had happened an hour ago. Wasn’t sure if they’re daddy was drinkin’ in the barn or went back to sharecroppin’. Either way, I was glad he wasn’t around. Actin’ like ev’rythin’ was all right at that point was gettin’ pretty old. Sooner or later, I suspected Florence and Mattie Jean would see through the lies, too.
I treaded fast in the small kitchen to start suppa while my girls sat by the fireplace to get their studyin’.
“It ain’t gonna take no time to get this soup ready, girls, okay?”
My girls replied, “Yes’sum,” in unity, while I filled the big, black kettle pot with water, onions, carrots, celery, salt and peppa and leftover chicken meat. I know I’m a good cook ‘cause I used to see my momma cook ev’rythin’. My daddy loved her cookin’, too. The folks at church loved her cookin’. So ev’rythin’ I saw my momma do in the kitchen, I do the same exact thing! Arthur had to been lyin’ when he said he hated my cookin’. If he hated it, why he ate seconds and sometimes thirds?
In the meantime, while I sprinkled a little cayenne peppa in the suppa, Gladys quietly approached me with her usual look of concern.
“Momma, he did it again, didn’t he?”
I didn’t say a word. My swollen, bluish-black eye was enough for her to know that her daddy’s been here. I looked out the corner of my eye and saw her examinin’ my fresh bruises and the cuts I’d tended to with some black salve. Her average height leaned in closer, without touchin’ the wood burner stove, to see if he caused any more damage.
My child’s curiosity made my heart pound with nervousness. She already knew too much, so I quickly blurted, “Child, you need to go back and do your studyin’. Suppa will be on in a few minutes.”
“But, Momma, why do you let him do this?”
“Child, you hear me? Get back to your studyin’!”
“Yes’sum.” She sighed in frustration.
I hated to yell at my girls, and I didn’t whoop ‘em either. There was already enough whoopin goin’ on in our house. I’d rather take the brunt of it from Arthur, instead of my girls. It wasn’t that I was scared Arthur would someday beat on ‘em, or worse, doing things a father shouldn’t do with his girls. He loved those girls. He used to tell me he would give his life for his daughters. And for some reason, I believed him.
Still sore and achy, I asked the girls to help me set the table. The soup still needed more seasonin’, salt, peppa, and cayenne peppa wasn’t doin’ it. I looked in the cupboard for some other spices. To my surprise, I found somethin’ else, a brown box with red letters that read: RAT POISON. I became fixated with those huge letters starin’ back at me. This shoulda been thrown out weeks ago, I thought. The only reason why it was there was ‘cause of a pesky rat runnin’ on the floor in the shack. That poison was potent. It killed that nasty critter within’ a day. So I wondered why a dangerous box of poison was still sittin’ in the cupboard. Arthur should’ve thrown it out a while ago.
Smellin’ like old whiskey and stale barn animals, he hobbled inside, staggerin’. “Suppa ready yet?” he grumbled.
I didn’t say a word to him. I pretended he wasn’t there. Usually, if I didn’t answer him that would’ve given him a good reason to knock me out. But thank God, our girls were sittin’ at the table for their suppa. He wouldn’t dare strike me in front of ‘em.
By then, our girls had their chicken soup in front ‘em, patiently waitin’ for me to join ‘em.
“Damnit, woman, ain’t my soup ready yet?”
“Yes, suh. It’s on its way!”
As I poured his soup in the bowl, the cupboard door was still open with the box of rat poison glarin’ at me. My mind told me to season his soup with the white powdery stuff that kills four-legged, furry creatures, but my heart wasn’t sure otherwise. I wanted twelve years of Hell to end. I was tired of him punchin’ on me and violatin’ me like a dog. I knew eventually God would forgive me, ‘cause He don’t like his chil’ren gettin’ mistreated. But, what if it doesn’t kill him? What if he found out I poured rat poison in his soup? For sure, I was as good as dead. So, what will it be, death for him or death for me?