Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Strange Plots 18


August, 1934. Aaron Moore stared at the tiny brown-eyed bundle shoved into his arms, and to his horror he found that he wanted it to live.

There was no reason why it should live, or that he should want it to live. Life had never dealt him a fair hand from the day he was born, starting with the color of his skin. Everything he possessed, everything he called his own, had been clawed from someone else. That was how you made your way in this world. If someone else had it, you didn’t. If you had it, someone was waiting to take it from you. Possession was nine-tenths of the law, but you had a lot more scope for possession if you stayed outside the law.

Along the way he’d found that he had a talent for hatred. If a saint was someone who was holy, he was the anti-saint. He craved the sufferings of others to make him feel alive. Let fools talk about love, about family, and sacrifice and the common good. Fools were weak. The strong didn’t need those crutches. The strong took what they needed, and when they had what they needed, they took what they wanted, and when they had what they wanted, they took for the sheer joy of depriving other people of their strength. Brook no rivals. Leave no disrespect unavenged. If you hit back late, hit back hard.

And so everything about his situation in Titusville had been sweet as honey to him, a game where he could pick off the pieces at his leisure. Tamar was his ideal woman, the anti-angel to his anti-saint, a woman whose lust for revenge ran as deep as his own. He enjoyed her comforts of her home and the heat of her body. He relished her hatred of the Titus family, a rivalry that meant nothing to him but gave him free play for any horror he could set in motion. With her help, he’d molded her clod of a boy into something almost useful, a pawn whose red hair and pale skin gave him entry to situations that Aaron was barred from by the accident of his birth.

And Demetrius had been oh so useful. Aaron savored the memory of Tamar’s revenge, even though he’d only played a background role. Even now in his sleep he heard the sweet sound of the screams from the Titus house. Demetrius had lost his head with his first taste of cruelty. Aaron had been impressed by the boy’s thoroughness, but it did make the cover up more complicated. In the end they’d had to wrap the limp, moaning body in a sheet and haul it up to the top of the hayloft, carefully passing it from step to step up the boards nailed up for a ladder. Then they toppled it over the edge of the rail..

“Maybe that will account for her face,” said Aaron, contemplating the sprawled legs and head all askew. “If you gonna throw up, boy, do it outside in the stream so it will wash away.”

They’d driven away without being seen, without leaving behind Tamar’s pie, without leaving a trace to indicate that anything McGrath had ever set foot on Titus property.

“Buck up, boy,” Aaron had said to the shaking Demetrius. “Even if he realizes she didn’t just fall from the loft, he’ll think a tramp did it.”

Tamar and Aaron had savored their pie that night, and then he had savored her with a hunger aroused by the day’s hard villainy. Tamar was all the more luscious for being another man’s wife. Tamar shared something with him that she’d never give to Sanders, even if he was capable of understanding it. Their minds locked together as infernally as their bodies did in the close confines of his garage room. He wanted to consume her, her every evil impulse and smooth lie and the slender creeping tentacles of her plots of revenge. There was in her no imperfection, no passing softness to mar the glorious intensity of her rage. Aaron could have loved her, could he have loved anyone.

And they had gotten away with it. Andrew Titus had been seen driving hell for leather for the city that night, although he’d only just returned from there. Eventually he had come back, haunted and hollow, but Lavinia was gone. The talk was that she’d fallen from the hayloft, that she was paralyzed, that she was dead, that she had brain fever, that she did not know who she was. Aaron listened attentively to the talk, as he stood at a respectful distance in the butcher shop or the general store, but no speculation went any deeper than wondering if she’d ever walk again.

This tickled at the back of his mind, that even the gutter nature of town gossip had not picked up on the idea that Lavinia might have been ravaged. It struck him that there was an intelligence at work behind the chatter, someone directing public opinion and shaping it from a safe distance. At least, that’s how he would have worked him himself. But there was no one in town but Tamar to equal him for plotting. They were safe, and it was time to lay their plans for the next stage of their overarching scheme: escape from Titusville, with name, reputation, riches, and revenge intact.

Every option was more intriguing than the last. Should they murder the mayor and have Tamar move away as a grieving widow? Was there a way to get out of town fast enough to leave pursuit and justice behind? Should they take Demetrius, or leave him to fend for himself? The boy had his uses as an errand runner and a front, and Tamar had an attachment to him, but he’d gone weak in the head since his assault on Lavinia. He knew better than to tell anyone what he had done — Aaron had made sure to describe to him in full and gory detail all the pretty operations a mob could perform on a rapist — but right now he was idle and gloomy and no help. He could be dealt with later, whether he would be salvaged or tossed aside.
The plan was falling into place slowly enough. Tamar was buying time for herself by playing sick. This groundwork for this piece of the plot had been laid the very day of the Titus revenge, when Aaron had picked up Demetrius early from school on the pretense that his mother was ill and needed him at home. This was a precious little lie that had pulled all sorts of duty — it had built alibis for both Tamar and Demetrius, and had gotten Demetrius into fatal contact with Lavinia, and set an impression that Tamar was fragile.

There was nothing more useful than sickness as a cover for evil plans. Tamar had seen to it that she was well-liked in town, and she had local sympathy on her side when she pulled back from making pies and performing the social duties of the mayor’s wife. It had gotten her out of other wifely duties too, very convenient for the appetites of the conspirators.

But there came a time when playacting went too far. Tamar began to live in the role, a temptation Aaron had seen fell even seasoned professionals of crime. She was a little too languid, a little too choosy, a little too moody. Someone was going to catch on if she didn’t pull back her performance.

He spoke to her one morning in the kitchen, after Sanders had left for city hall and the hired girl was busy upstairs. Tamar sat in the front room, wrapped in kimono and slippers, every now and then opening her eyes to watch the snow drift down outside the window.

“The chores are done, ma’am. Is there anything else you need?”

“No, that will do.”

“Are you sure, ma’am?” Aaron checked to make sure his boots were clean and stepped into the room on the carpet. “It seems to me that there ought to be some task around the house I could do.”

“I can’t think of any. Go away,” she said, not turning her face from the window. But Aaron knelt down by the end table and began inspecting a loose table leg.

“You sure are beat, ma’am,” he in a low easy tone. “Perhaps you should consider going out of town for a while. I hear that Florida is nice this time of year, but a clever person can find lots to do in Chicago. Perhaps I could help you make some arrangements, but of course there’s lots of doors open to you that aren’t open to me.”

“I can’t go anywhere right now,” she said.

“Can’t, or don’t want to, ma’am?” he persisted. “It’s not always healthy to stay in one place for too long. It wouldn’t be too hard for a woman of your position to get away. If you set your mind to it.”

“A woman in my position is not allowed to travel,” she said, looking full into his eyes. “A woman in my position is well-advised to lay very low.”

“Laid indeed, ma’am,” said Aaron slowly, taking in her pallor, her peaky face, her tired hands. “The best laid plans… And the father, will he be surprised?”

“I don’t know,” said Tamar. “I don’t know if he will be surprised or not.”

Aaron slid a hand into her kimono and placed it on her stomach, considering. For a moment neither of them moved. Then Tamar shuddered and heaved, and Aaron stood up.

“There’s no rush, ma’am,” he said conversationally. “You seem to have a number of months before you have to make a decision.”

Those months, however, did not seem to give either Tamar or Aaron any clarity. In hurried whispers in stolen moments, they weighed their options. It was too risky to go to the local doctor to take care of the problem, and any home remedies had dangerous side effects. Then Tamar’s condition became obvious, and her opportunities of traveling alone to Roanoke were over, had she even been able to. Mrs. Sanders was no young farm wife, able to work right up until the moment she dropped her bairn. She was ill, confined, weary. Her recipe box sat neglected in the kitchen. Mayor Sanders was ebullient, slapping backs and speculating on what great gridiron feats his son would accomplish. Demetrius lurked at his mother’s side, leaving Aaron no excuse to be near her. The boy was definitely a liability, and Aaron reworked his careful plans to leave him out.

But there came a day toward the end where the house was quiet and Aaron was able to make it upstairs without any bar. He sat on Tamar’s bed. Her hair, drained of fire, fell lankly on her shoulders. All the color in her face had faded to a watery wanness.

“You’re here at last,” she said.

He picked up her swollen hand from the coverlet and began to knead it softly.

“You’re not an easy person to get to these days,” he said.

She laughed, a cracked ugly sound, and shifted her bulk to face him fully. “I never go anywhere anymore.”

“The day will come.”

“Or perhaps I’ll never go anywhere again. Perhaps I’ll die here, in this room.” A heavy tear slid down her cheek onto the damp pillow.

“Hey now,” Aaron said, wiping it away. “You never died before.”

“Those times were different,” she said. “There wasn’t as much danger.”

“Danger for you, or danger for the child?”

“No danger at all if the baby has blue eyes.”

Aaron studied their paired hands. “If the child can’t pass for Sanders’s brat, you and I are finished. You will have nothing. And me… I’ll be lucky if I survive the night in the county jail. Or not so lucky, depending on the night.”

“Sanders wants me to go to the maternity hospital in Roanoke. But there’s too much risk there.”

“It might be safer for you,” said Aaron.

“But not for you,” said Tamar. “There are too many people who will have hands on the child right away.” She sighed and closed her eyes. “I need a private nurse here, from the city.”

Aaron stood up. “You’ll have one.”

Sanders, who knew nothing about birthing babies, was prevailed upon to send a letter to a nursing agency in Roanoke. Aaron carried the letter to the post office himself. In a week, Nurse Cornelia arrived and took up her duties at home. She was a martinet of the old school. Sanders found himself relegated to an hour’s visit each evening, and Demetrius was allowed to kiss his mother before school and after dinner. Aaron was pressed into service to run errands, to carry specialized exercise equipment up to Tamar’s room, to do any heavy work Cornelia might require.

The afternoon that Tamar paced, groaning, from doorway to doorway, turning, sitting, rising, Nurse Cornelia sent Mayor Sanders to his office.

“Father only gets underfoot,” she scolded. “You’ll get regular updates, but I expect you to stay away until you’re summoned. Mother must have no agitation.”

Cornelia and Aaron sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee despite the heat of the afternoon, when Tamar staggered in and tried to sit. “Oh, no,” she gasped, getting right back up again.

“Not much longer now, I think,” said Cornelia briskly, rubbing her back with a firm hand. “You’re doing fine, dear. Keep walking.”

“Don’t,” said Tamar through clenched teeth, pulling away and leaning on a chair.

Aaron watched her sway and gasp with sickly fascination. “Can’t you do something for her?” he demanded of the nurse.

“She’s doing it all herself,” said nurse, with the easy calm of one not in pain. “Anything I give her will slow down the process, and I have Sanders nicely out of the house now.”

“Do not put me to sleep,” demanded Tamar, seizing the nurse’s arm with intensity, if not strength. “You must not put me down. I have to be conscious when the baby is born.”

Afternoon shaded into evening. Tamar had retreated upstairs with Nurse Cornelia. The doctor was in the house now, so Aaron was forced back below stairs, pacing the kitchen with Demetrius. After a time Nurse and Doctor came back down in clinical discussion. 

“In two hours, then, Nurse,” he said at the door. “Send word if anything changes.”

“Of course,” she said, shutting the door. Aaron rushed out of the back hall.

“What’s happening, Nurse?” he pleaded.

“I’m going to break her water,” said Nurse, all business as she marched up the stairs. “We’ll have a baby in half an hour. Be ready.”

“For what?”

“For whatever you need to do,” said Nurse, turning into Tamar’s room and closing the door.

Nothing in Aaron’s career had prepared him for this night of waiting. He had spent a lifetime inflicting pain on men and women, had spent time waiting for others to inflict pain on him. He had waited with patient endurance for schemes to bear their bad fruit, taking the setbacks with the same spirit as triumphs. But this was different, this night of labor. Sounds drifted from the top of the stairs, drawn-out, muffled, agonized. Should he be up there with Tamar? He could do none of her work and take none of her pain, and even if he could, would it be worth it for another man’s child? Sanders could claim the baby even if it were not his, as long as it was even passably white. Light skin would ease this child’s path in life, give it passage to worlds that Aaron could only see from the outside. To sit where you pleased, eat where you pleased. To enter by the front door.

“Please,” Aaron prayed, for the first time in his life. “God. Let the child be white.”

A fresh voice wailed thinly from the room upstairs. Not long after, the door opened and nurse called down. “It’s a boy. Come look.”

Tamar lay exhausted and murmuring on the bed. Bloody linen lay piled on a sheet on the floor. Nurse finished wrapping baby in a blanket and handed him to Aaron.

“Who is he?” Tamar could not open her eyes, but she lifted a hand to Aaron. “Who is he?”

Aaron carried the child to the lamp and inspected him. The baby was a healthy red, its nose no broader than any other baby’s. His hair, as Aaron slid the blanket off his head, was fine and dark. Aaron turned over a tiny hand to check the color of the palm, but at his touch the little fingers closed on his. The cheeks, the lips — nothing marked this child as different. He could live. Whether his son or Sanders, he would live.

“He’s white,” Aaron said.

Tamar shuddered with great sobs. “Give me my baby.”

Aaron handed her the mewling infant. He nestled in her arm and bumped his small chin at the nipple Tamar brushed against his lips. With a hum of content, the baby closed his mouth on his mother’s breast. His small face unscrunched, and he finally opened his eyes to take in the world.

His father’s eyes.

Tamar wailed in bed as Nurse Cornelia reached for the baby. “It’s better not to bond,” she said. “I can give it a shot. It will all be over in a moment."

“No!” Tamar roared. She pushed the child at Aaron. “Take him! Don’t let her hurt him!”

“It’s easier this way,” Nurse soothed. “The Mayor will only ever see him wrapped up with his eyes closed. No one will ever know.”

“Don’t white babies ever have brown eyes?” Aaron asked, buying time to think.

“They can,” said nurse. “But not Mayor Sanders’s baby. He’s not that stupid."

“Aaron, please,” sobbed the mother. “Please.”

The child looked at his father with cloudy brown eyes. The father looked at his child with clear brown eyes, and saw that he must live. Everything was wrong. The plan was shot to hell, and there was no way it could end well now. But it must not end this way, with his son condemned to death for the crime of being like his father.

“You’ll have to kill me first,” he said to the nurse.

Nurse Cornelia hesitated, looking from the dangerous father to the devastated mother. “Well,” she said, “That would be difficult for me to explain.” She pondered. “You’ll have to dig a grave in the back yard. I’ll tell Sanders the child was born dead and deformed, and that the mother couldn’t bear for anyone to look at it.”

“Will he believe that?” Aaron asked.

“Long enough for me to leave,” said Nurse. “I’ll be long gone by the time Sanders suspects that you killed or stole the child.”

“Father Walsh,” begged Tamar, clutching at Aaron's arm. “Bring him to Father Walsh. Father will take care of him.” She fought her way past nurse out of bed, and promptly fainted.

“The sooner you get out, the better,” said the nurse, wrestling the bleeding body back in bed. “I can explain a missing child, but not a missing child and a dead mother.”

Aaron wrapped another blanket around the baby. “Make Demetrius dig a grave and fill it in,” he said to nurse. He knelt by Tamar’s side, and kissed her clammy forehead.

“I will come back for you,” he said.

Father Walsh was just turning to lock the mission church after his vespers when a hulking figure clutching a parcel appeared and pressed him against the door.

“Don’t make a sound,” growled Aaron Moore, forcing him back inside.

“Well, now, it’s good to see you too,” said Father in his placid brogue. “Needing some help, are we?”

Aaron hauled the little priest down the aisle and pushed him into a chair in the office.

“Is it stolen property perhaps?” Father asked as Aaron pulled the curtains. “Don’t worry, I can help you return it.”

Aaron leaned over the priest in the locked room. “Oh, you’ll help me, all right, or God help you.”

“He always does,” said Father. He lifted the fussing bundle from Aaron and unwrapped it. The baby blinked dark eyes at him and closed them again. “So it’s the child, is it? And how is mother keeping?”

Aaron knelt by the chair, drained of bravado. “Tamar told me to bring him to you. She could die.”

Father Walsh rocked and clucked over the newborn.“There, there,” he cooed. “There, there. You’ll be fine, wee one. St. Patrick will watch you, and St. Brigid too.”

“So you’ll keep him?” Aaron demanded.

“Think about it, my wee babby,” Father said to the baby, jostling him gently. “What will people say when Father Walsh turns up with a child on the same day that Mrs. Sanders’s wee boy dies? This is not the big city to lose a child in. The good people of Titusville know what dad looks like. How safe are you here, babby? How safe is dad?”

Aaron rubbed at his bloodshot eyes. “What do I do now?”

Father still sang to the boy. “Babby must take a little trip, yes he must. The sisters at the orphanage in Roanoke won’t turn away my boy. There’s work and safety for dad in Roanoke.”

“How do I get to Roanoke with a newborn?” Aaron jumped up and prowled the little room. “They gonna be out there searching the roads for me tonight. Baby gonna cry.”

“Father will take a little trip down to Roanoke tonight, yes he will. Won’t it be funny if babby and dad stow away?”

The tension slowly drained out of Aaron’s shoulders as he leaned against the door. “All right, Father. Let’s get going then.”

“Not in such a rush,” said Father, unlocking the sacristy door and carrying baby into the church. “There’s only one gift I can give this poor child, and given his unorthodox little life so far, I don’t like to put off until the good sisters get a hold of him.” He held the infant over a holy water font. “What name shall I give him, then?”

“Aaron,” said his father, crumpling his hat in his hand. “Give him my name.”

“Aaron Moore,” Father intoned, dipping his hand into the basin. “Ego te baptizo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”

At midnight, an dirty automobile sputtered to a smoking halt in an alley down the street from the Holy Cross Convent and Orphanage. Two figures stirred and stretched in the dark car. The third slept.

“The sisters don’t separate the black babies from the white,” a gentle Irish voice remarked. "They’re all brought up together. Your son will be safe with them.”

“And what afterwards?” rasped the other. “What kind of life is it for a black orphan?”

“It’s better than no life at all.”

The baby snuffled in the silence. His father held him closer.

“I can do all the talking, if you like,” Father offered.

“I’ll take him myself,” Aaron muttered, still unmoving. “I just… I just gotta say goodbye to him first.”

He bent his face over the baby. “You looking up at me, huh, boy? You know your daddy?” His voice cracked and failed as he stroked the whimpering child. “Don’t you cry, now, baby boy, ‘cause you look like daddy. You shoulda taken after your mama. You could have been anything you wanted, if you was just a white boy. You could have been President one day.”

Shuddering sobs wracked him as he rocked his son. “I ain’t never done anything good in my life, baby boy. I have lied and I have hated and I have killed, and my old man was no better. But Daddy gon’ come back for you one day. He gon’ take you away to a little cabin, and teach you to fish and to fight. You’ll be a man, my man, my little man.”

Father and son cried together. The priest waited patiently, lips moving, beads passing through his fingers. Presently Aaron scrubbed at his eyes and began to swaddle the baby more securely.

“Don’t tell him goodbye,” said Father mildly, picking up the conversation as if there had been no interruption. “Tell him you’ll be near him, working hard to bring him home with you.”

Aaron got out of the car, but leaned in before he shut the door.

“You go home,” he said gruffly. “They gon’ need you in Titusville real soon.”

He slipped away and blended into the shadows across the street from the convent, watching until the auto turned around and drove back toward the massive shadow of the mountain.



ladywisdom said...

This is a fascinating story, I hope it will continue? I really love how the parent/child relationships in your stories are so complicated and genuine, not polished and either perfect or completely bad.

MrsDarwin said...

Thanks! Yes indeed, there are three installments left. I'm just trying to find the time to write now that Thanksgiving break is over.

mandamum said...

My favorite time of the year... Darwin NaNoWriMo :) :) Not so good for my productivity, but there are plenty of worse ways to "waste" time!

Christine said...

As promised, here’s Dear Aaron [], from Titusville: An American Musical

Dear Aaron, what to say to you?
You have my eyes. You also have my name

When you came into the world, you gazed and it grew my heart

I’m sacrificing my life for you
Loving others was never quite my style
When you smile, you knock selfishness out, plans fall apart
And I’d thought I lacked a heart

Oh Aaron, when you smile plans come undone
My son
Look at my son. Love is the word I’m looking for
There is so much more inside me now

My father wasn’t a good person
And I’m not a good person
But I swear that
I’ll come back for you

I’ll do whatever it takes
I’ve made a million mistakes
I’ll make sure things are safe and sound for you

That you will come of age is my consolation
I’m willing to fight for you, though nothing’s right for you
We’ve laid a pretty weak foundation
And we’ve passed it on to you, but I’ll give the world to you
And you’ll blow this feud away…
Someday, someday

mrsdarwin said...

Christine, you have just blown us all away. I'm speechless -- my first fan fic! Thanks so much!