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Johanna Beale Keller

A Child’s Christmas in Tarville
A Dramatic Monologue


Our town lived by the river where the pine logs drifted off
on low, slow barges that would disappear around the bend.
The river wound its way among the mossy cypress trees
and was our summer swimming hole. Also our fishing spot.
It passed the old plantation, veiled in vines and tumbled down,
where Toby said he saw a ghost one autumn afternoon.
The river rocked us in its arms when we had built a raft
and played Huck Finn and hid out in the shadow of Tall Bridge.
The muddy river’s water you could never see into—
It was like milk that had been stirred with honey caramel,
It hid the water moccasins, the crappies and the bass,
It hid the catfish in the silt, or anyone who dived.
The muddy water here was wide, could hide most anything,
Including that last Christmas when I was a girl of twelve.

You knew Christmas was coming when the local U.D.C.—
The ladies—hung their wreaths along the railing of Tall Bridge.
The wreaths were made of boxwood, mistletoe, and longleaf pine. 
The ribbons, bows as bright as blood, were saved from year to year.
As soon as they went up, we white kids ran onto the bridge
And pitched pecans right through the wreaths to fall into the river. 

But Christmas really started when they put into the square
The manger scene that showed the Christ, who was Emmanuel. 
‘Round yon virgin—that was Mary—she had yellow hair
And sky-blue robe and tender face. And Joseph had a beard!
Somebody brought a load of straw and scattered it around,
And tucked some in the manger too, where Baby Jesus lay.
One lonely lamb, one shepherd, ‘cause I guess the rest got lost.
My favorites were the camel and those kings that brought their gifts.
Somebody must have Elmer-ed them with glitter ‘cause they shone
When Reverend Butts flipped on the switch, as he did every night.
A special light inside the cradle made Our Savior glow.
If you stood on the chapel steps, and closed your eyes just so,
O Little Town of Bethlehem had up and taken flight
And landed on our green—which was a miracle! You’d bet
The Angel of the Lord had come, and glory shone around.
Truth is, there was no angel in Tarville’s manger scene,
There wasn’t glory neither—but I didn’t know that yet.

Next to the church and round the green was where, it had been said, 
The finest people lived. There stood the house where I was born,
(and Mamma too), white and columned, that she had to sell
Just after Daddy died—I don’t remember him at all.
Mamma said after Iwo Jima he was never right.
We lived on Daddy’s army pension (it was not enough)
Along with what my auntie sent and Coca-Cola stocks.
We lived beside the Esso station in a yellow house,
Conveniently around the block from Abel’s Five’n’Ten.
I went to see if Mr. Abel got new toys in
Almost every day, but of course I could not buy them.
My mama was too sick to tend to much of anything,
So Cora, who was raising me, was there to cook and clean.
She was the one who fixed me up when my knee got bust,
She taught me how to fry an egg and how to darn a sock.
Cora couldn’t read, but she made sure her kids knew how.

My mama was too sick to go to meetings with the ladies,
But she was U.D.C. and always wore her pin to church.
Each Thursday, ladies visited to tell her all the news,
Then she wore lace bedjackets, and Cora did her hair. 
With Mamma busy being sick, then I was left alone.
I didn’t fit with other girls, so that did suit me fine. 
And boys were mean. I liked to read and find my ways of fun. 
My best, best friend was Toby—he was Cora’s youngest son. 

Toby went to the other school, the one across the tracks,
The one where all the black kids went, where I had never been.
He and I were the only kids who read a lot of books,
So Toby said we need a club, and he made us a name: 
The Tarville Reading League. We swore it on A Christmas Carol.
Then Toby said we would read every book that Dickens wrote.
We made a clubhouse by the river using boards we found,
And we’d bring library books and read out loud to one another.
He made me swear I’d never tell, but I forgot one night.
It happened during supper, after Cora had gone home.
I said, “Mamma, you’ll never guess how many Dickens books
That Toby’s read. He is so smart. I can’t hardly keep up.”
“Who?” she said—and slapped me hard—the first time, and the last. 
She said, “You’re a young lady now, you cannot play with him.”
I realized I would disobey—I knew Toby all my life.

Maybe Mamma felt real bad for hitting me so hard,
The next day she got up from bed and took me to the store.
Old Mr. Abel was surprised to see me with my mamma.
He said, “I got a load of babies in, right over there.”
I was too old for baby dolls, and I had never liked them,
but soon as I had seen them, all those babies in their cages, 
something happened in me, and I wanted one so bad.
In one cage, there were pink babies, maybe like a hundred
piled up bald and naked. They were looking all directions
With their little eyes so wide. In the other cage nearby
There were a few brown babies who were lying on the floor.
My mamma said, “I’ll buy one and we’ll wrap it up for Christmas.”
I reached out for a brown baby, and Mamma pulled me back.
“What in heck you doing?” She was angry as a hornet.
“You want a pretty baby, I won’t buy an ugly one.”
I said, “Just look here, Mamma. Every baby is alike.”
“But these are prettier”—she put a pink one in my arms,
“You’ll have a white one, not a black one.” That was what she said.
I was not blind. I was not stupid. And my mother lied.
The babies, they were all alike. What’s more, they were nowheres  
black and white. They were pink and brown. Pink and brown. Pink and brown.
Of course, I knew what she was saying—but it made me stubborn.
There was a thing I knew about myself at the age of twelve,
I hated lies, and it seemed I had always been like that.
Maybe I was born that way or got it from my reading. 
I said alright and took it home, pretending to play with it.
And Mamma, who forgot it was supposed to be from Santa,
Asked me what her name was, and I said: “I don’t know yet.”
Which was a lie. I had a secret plan inside my mind.
It seemed like lies were piling up, like babies in a cage.

The next week I took Toby back behind the Five’n’Ten,
I gave him that pink baby and I asked him to go in.
He said to Mr. Abel, “My sister got the wrong one.” 
Mr. Abel said, “She surely did. Let’s switch it out.”
A minute later Toby came back holding by one foot
My baby boy, and he was brown—I’d have to keep him hid.
I swaddled him in blankets and I carried him around.
When grownups asked to see him, I’d say, “He is fast asleep,
And if I wake him up, he’ll fuss and fuss for hours and hours.”
The grownups laughed, and then they didn’t bother me no more.
I named him Baby T, but his secret name was Toby.
If Toby knew that, he would think I loved him. Which I did. 

Around this time I heard the grownups talking integration. 
I knew it meant that Toby and I could be in school together!
I never mentioned Toby’s name, I’d learned how to play dumb, 
That night I asked my mama what this integration was.
She said, “You should not worry. When my sister sends the money, 
You’ll go to private boarding school and, honey, you will like it.” 
It was a time of in-between, a time of anxious waiting— 
I knew I was too old to pitch pecans out on the bridge,
Too old for hopscotch, jumpin’ rope, or jacks at the bandstand.
I was too old for all the things I’d done so far in life,
And too young for the things ahead—and that made me feel scared. 
But in our clubhouse we would read, with Baby T asleep,
Then I was happy as I’ve ever been, before or since.
And all the kids in all the books, why they were just like us, 
As bad as things could ever get, the endings would be fine.

At last it came to Christmas Eve, when we would go to church
Mamma called, “Come Missy! Right now!” but I’d run out of time
To put my Baby T away, back in his hiding place.
I had to wrap him up real quick—he’d have to go with me.
The church was full and all bedecked with greens and ornaments,
This was the big night for the ladies of the U.D.C. 
They had spent busy weeks with all their clippers and their wires,
Tying pine with ribbons and some bells that looked like sugar.
And everybody said: “Why it looks prettier each year!”
After hymns and scripture stuff, then they would call us kids,
While grownups heard the sermon, we’d go down into Church Hall
For cookies and Kool-Aid. I don’t know why my feet did this,
But just in the foyer, instead of going down the stairs
I walked right out the door—and nobody seemed to notice.

It had got cold and stars were out. I couldn’t see them much
Because of all the lights that shone onto the manger scene.
I’d never seen it real up close, and so I crossed the street. 
I was surprised that with my every step, it seemed to shrink.
Why kneeling Mary barely came up to my bellybutton!
And Joseph and the King—who looked like Toby in a turban— 
Were just my size! They were made of cutout painted plywood!
Behind them they were propped up with old broomsticks and such like. 
All of them were flat, of course, except for little Jesus.
The idea hit me then—I should integrate the manger!
I had another shock when I pulled Baby Jesus out,
For he was nothing but a rosy head stuck on a stick.
I gently put Our Savior on the ground behind his mother,
Laid Baby T into the straw and pulled his blanket back.
He looked so happy not to have to be all covered up.
I knew that Jesus would not mind. And then I went inside.

The church was in a ruckus, with everybody shrieking.
The Reverend Butts took me aside and said, “It is your mama.”
He bundled me into his car and drove me to his house,
He wrapped me in a blanket, and he put me on his couch.
On Christmas morn my auntie came and told me Mamma died.
She said, “You cry all you want, but hold it in till later,
Because I’ve got so much to do right now with all this mess.”
She took me to the yellow house to pack up all my clothes,
And we drove up to Raleigh where I stayed in her big house.
She said I was too young to go to Mamma’s funeral,
And I, who learned to never mention Toby’s name, had asked
To say goodbye to Cora. And my auntie just said, “Why?”
And then I went to boarding school, where there were only girls, 
I don’t remember much because it felt so very strange.

The years went by, I married, divorced, and moved to Baltimore.
I took a course and found a job as a librarian. 
Day by day, my life went by as if I was just drifting
Down a winding river, whose name I had long forgotten.
Fifty years—hard to believe that all that time had passed,
The world had changed so much, but in me something was undone. 
The second time I voted for Obama, I thought of Toby.
Those who could ever disapprove had died so long before.
I would return to Tarville—I imagined how he’d be,
A lawyer or a doctor, with a wife and family.
I pictured how we’d reach across the years and talk old times,
We’d laugh about our reading club and my lost Baby T.
Maybe he’d have grandchildren and I’d hold them on my knee. 

High summer air in Tarville was hazy with the midges.
The town was dying, emptying out, ‘cause all the mills had shut.
The place our yellow house stood was a weedy vacant lot,
The Esso station was a porn shop with the windows blocked.
Old Mr. Abel’s Five’n’Ten was now a Dollar Tree, 
And on the green, the bandshell looked as if it might fall down.
Inside the church, the Reverend Butts was sitting at his desk
Even though he was retired, he still came every day. 
He looked as old as Methuselah, but his memory was sharp.
“That Christmas Eve your mother died, that was such a fright.
I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, as if he read aloud. 
He did not know of Cora, but of Toby he had news. 
“Oh, that boy was trouble, and I guess you did not hear
That when we took the manger down just after the new year, 
Someone had put a black doll right in the place of Christ!
The town was in an uproar. Just who was this perpetrator?”
—I tried to interrupt him, but he kept just going on—
“Then Mr. Abel said he knew exactly who had done it.
He recollected that boy Toby came into his store
To trade a white doll for a black one. Can you believe it? 
And everybody called out for that boy to be arrested!
But since no law was broken, there was nothing to be done.”
I looked up at the ceiling where the paint was peeling off.
I said, “I did it, Reverend. I put that baby in the manger.”
“Oh no,” he said. “Your imagination’s running off with you. 
Because the situation resolved itself a few days later.
That boy jumped off Tall Bridge and drowned himself right in the river,
He was weighted down by stones and his own guilty conscience.”
No matter how I argued with him, he refused to hear,
And finally said, “It’s late, I really must be getting on.”

I walked around the town, hardly knowing where I was.
I walked across the railroad tracks where I had never been,
Where Toby and his family had lived—the other side of Tarville.
An old black man was sitting on a bench and he said “Hey.” 
I asked if I might sit down there and talk with him a spell.
His name was Elijah Cutchins, but he said he went by Eli.
I didn’t remember him, but he said he remembered me—
A white girl with a baby doll, playing by the river.
It struck me like a pain how much had been invisible.
I told him all the story and he gave me his handkerchief.
He recalled how Cora moved away and then she died of grief. 
He shook his head and told me what the reverend didn’t say:
“The sheriff and his deputies went out there by the river,
And when they dredged up Toby’s body, found the strangest thing—
Just how he’d tied himself up, they could never figure out.”

He took me to the Praise House where we knelt and said a prayer.
There were chairs and hymnals and a rugged wooden cross,
And Toby’s name and dates had been painted on the wall
Beside so many others who had died or disappeared.
Fifty years. Four hundred years. How much more suffering?
And who would bring to justice the shadows from that night,
The men who weighed him down with stones, and other ones who knew?
“If there is memory, there is hope for justice,” Eli said.
“And everyone must say what they know, again and again,
For justice rests in action and in knowing what is true.”

I walked.  I stood and watched the red sun set atop Tall Bridge,
The river’s slow familiar bend, the past that disappears.
Unless I fight against the lies, unless I speak out loud,
Unless I tell the story of the murder of a child,
And raise my voice with others who have suffered and fight on,
Then I stand right beside those devil shadows on this bridge.
But always there’s the water that is swirling far below, 
It looks like honey caramel that has been stirred with milk,
The muddy river’s water you can never see into.



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