Last night. It was a dream intermingled with memories. It went something like this.
It was the summer of my 9th year. School had ended only a week before. I had come to Savannah with my grandmother, to spend several weeks with her, and my great grandmother. Just yesterday we had traveled from Savannah down to St Simons Island, to the house that belonged to my great grandfather. In the years that had followed his death, my great grandmother had felt the need to return to the island several times a year, just to maintain the home. I thought maybe she really wanted to re-live memories, and perhaps feel my great grandfather’s spirit there.
This particular evening, I had wandered out of the house, in search of my magical friends. I left Frederica Road, and wandered down the sandy road, toward the marsh, and where the coloreds lived. The evening was hot and steamy, the kind of evening where the air you breathe feels warm and wet. Summer evenings on St Simons Island were like a sauna. Within minutes a person would be wet, with clothing sticking to her as though the very air around her melded with the ocean. I kicked at the sand along the road, occasionally kicking up a piece of an old oyster shell. I thought it was wonderful how different it was from the paths and roads I was accustomed to at home, red clay with hard rocks and pebbles. On St Simons, the earth was soft, and sandy, and hid secrets, such as oyster and small pieces of nautilus and scallop shells. As I drew closer, I could smell the marsh long before I saw it. It was a smell like salt and earth, pungent yet sweet.
As I approached the small shack, just off the sandy road, another smell danced on the breeze. It was the smell of smoke and the earthy briny smell of oysters over a wood fire. I heard the low soft voices of the men as they sang, deep, slow, haunting songs. I couldn’t understand the words. The Gullah refrains were like another language to me. But I knew they were songs about suffering and hope, and Jesus. I hung back a few seconds, gathering the courage to approach them. They had not yet seen me. The men seemed intent on the open fire and lost in the soulfulness of their songs. Slowly I approached them, feeling my shyness welling up inside me, fearful of my intrusion into their strange world. I tried to avoid them, as I slowly made my way toward the front porch of the shabby cottage.
“Girl, come over heah.” I held my breath as I approached the tall dark man who was waving me over to him. “Come heah!”
“Um, are Frances and Boo Cat here?”
“Ain’ t you Miz Adora’s baby?”
“Uh-huh. I’m here with my granny and great granny. I came to see if Boo Cat and Frances can play.”
“Yo Grandmama know you down heah?”
“No. I was just gonna see if Boo Cat and Frances could come up to my house.” My grandmothers would have a fit if they knew I had gone down to the colored’s house. I knew better than to ask for permission. My plan had been to sneak off down to Boo Cat and Frances’ house and see if they could come up to my house and play. As though my grandmothers would think they had come to see me.
“I know yo grandmamma ain’t llowin’ you to be down heah. You head on back home now fo you get us all in trouble. I tell Boo Cat and Frances that you’s is heah fo a few days. You’uns can play tomorrah.”
About that time I heard the screen door slam and I jumped as it startled me in my already nervous condition. Down the steps and across the yard ran my magical friend. He was dirty, barefoot, clothed only in ragged shorts cut from some old dungarees. His face was lit up with a smile so white against his dark skin, and as wide as the Frederica River. He ran up to me and just stopped. Shyness suddenly overwhelmed us both and he hung back shuffling his feet in the sandy earth. It was summer again, and I had come back to the island, to his world.