Jane B. Moore
Louise Hudson walked away from the picnic, even though she knew she might be ruining her chances. She crossed the road where the creek came out through the culvert and stopped to take off her shoes. In the creek, she moved slowly, looking down through the clear, warm water for rocks or branches that might hurt her city feet.
Magnolia and other trees grew close together on the creek banks. Honeysuckle and other vines that Lou couldn’t identify covered the ground and worked their way up the trees. Bushes, weeds and grasses filled every empty space. It looked like a jungle. Why, she wondered. Magnolia trees and honeysuckle vines grew in Pittsburgh but they never made her think of the tropics. It was the 90 degree weather and being in the south that made it all look raw and untamed.
The water deepened as she kept on. Now it was up to her calves, and after a few more steps, it covered her knees. A car door slammed. She looked around but the greenery was so thick she couldn’t see through it. Five or ten minutes later, she was never sure which, when the water was mid-thigh, she heard the smack of a body hitting the water, hard. Must be a kid in that swimming hole up ahead, Lou thought. Taking a belly flop instead of a dive. Poor kid, his stomach must sting.
Should she have stayed at the faculty picnic? Everyone else there was having fun. They played bid whist and bridge, or threw horseshoes. And danced or listened to the North African campaign reports from the radio and phonograph someone jerry-rigged to the colored Boy Scout Camp’s electrical system.
She kept on, plunging into shade from big trees. The creek widened out into what had to be the swimming hole and a car engine revved up, hard. She couldn’t see it and wasn’t sure where it came from.
The swimming hole water was dark and still. The branches of the trees around it fell down over the bank and into the water. Was the kid who jumped in hiding behind those branches? She stared but nothing moved.
Lou looked, and then sighed, realizing how tight her body was. A log bumped up against the opposite bank. Lou looked again. It was a person, a woman she could see now, not a log. The woman’s body must have made that noise, the one she thought was a kid taking a belly flop.
Lou could not speak or move. Her heart pounded. She couldn’t breathe. She had to get away. She turned. Then turned back. She should look at the body. She had taken a Red Cross course at the Pittsburgh Phyllis Wheatley YWCA. But looking meant she would have to get close to the body; she would have to touch it. A real body, not the dummy they’d used in class.
Lou stood still. Headlines flashed before her eyes. “College Professor With a Red Cross Certificate Leaves Severely Injured Woman To Die Because She Didn’t Want To Touch Her”
Maybe the woman was sick. Maybe she’d fallen in because she fainted. Not likely, some other part of Lou said, you had better leave before whoever got her gets you. Maybe the woman was attacked or beaten. This was Peach County, Georgia and who knows what white people would do.
She took a deep breath. A chill ran through her body. Goose bumps rose on her arms. She felt faint. She forced herself towards the body.
She stepped and there was no sand or rocks under her feet. She had to dog paddle. The part of Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand” she had torn out of the book and stuffed behind her elastic waistband was soaked now. Where could she get another? There were no bookstores at all down here. Even if there were, they wouldn’t sell books by a colored author.
The closer she got to the opposite bank, the more she saw of the woman’s body. How did she ever mistake it for a log? A brown skinned colored woman. She lay next to the bank, among horsetails and other weeds. She was young, no older than twenty-five. Lou’s age. Her face was in the water, and the back of her head was covered with blood.
Lou felt faint. She knew no one with a wound like that could be alive. But she needed to make sure. She had to grab and hold the woman’s wrist to detect a pulse. Lou had never touched a dead body, not even at funerals with an open casket. Other people reached in, patted the dead person’s face, and touched their hands. Not Lou. She closed her eyes as she walked past.
The woman must be dead. That blood on her head. Her stillness. If she were alive, Lou would see bubbles coming up. If she were alive, she’d have to move her head and breathe. She had to find out if there was a pulse.
She leaned over the woman, took a breath, reached her hand out and grabbed the woman’s wrist.
The skin was cool but not cold. Lou kept her hand on the wrist and pressed, making herself focus. She wanted to feel a beat or thrum, no matter how faint. Nothing.
She pulled the hand towards her. The palm was soft, no calluses. Scratches covered the backs of the woman’s hands. How did they get there?
Finally, Lou took her fingers away. There was no pulse. The woman was dead.