Faith Hope & Fiction

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Uriel’s Mask

Laura K. Roe

An Excerpt from her novel

Prologue September 9, 1896

Asheville, North Carolina

            A young woman leaned against the rough bark of her favorite oak tree. She moved her spine until it felt a soft place to settle. The right side of her neck and arm throbbed. It was her own fault. She insisted on washing Miss Margaret’s clothes by the riverbank, like her momma used to. But the weight of the laundry was too much for the rectangular woven basket she carried down the middle of her back, strapped across her right shoulder to stay in place. The basket of wet clothes sat on the ground by her side. She was tired. Too tired to hang clothes on the branch that stretched out low over the riverbank, like an arm from God pointing His finger at the sinful thoughts eating at her heart. 

            Eze rubbed her shoulder, breathed deeply, and closed her eyes. The sun shone through the branches above. The warm light swayed from her left temple, to the right side of her mouth and down to her shoulder, before making its journey back. It moved with the branches above that were swaying with the wind. The air was pregnant with rain. She had felt it in her knees that morning. But it wouldn’t come till later. 

            Eze was thinking about what her momma used to say about air before rain: “It’s God’s way of telling you to get a move on.” 

            She’d been dead three years now. Eze felt closer to her momma here, where they used to wash clothes together. Plus, it was quiet by the river. She needed a break from her three kids, her husband, and Miss Margaret—who refused to act her age and carried on worse than her own two-year-old. Chill bumps formed on Eze’s arms. The air cooled. Someone was watching. She kept her eyes closed and told herself it was probably that Parker child making his way down to the park. But the feeling got stronger, like someone standing behind her. 

            She leaned forward, away from the tree, and reached behind. Nothing was there but that old tree. She settled back and closed her eyes again. A tapping on her shoulder pulled her awake. She squinted into the afternoon light, half expecting to find Miss Margaret’s oldest daughter. No one was there. Chill bumps formed again on Eze’s arms, and she remembered something her momma had told her once: “Child, if you sit here long enough, you’ll see ’em. But not with your eyes. You’ll see ’em here,” and she had pointed to Eze’s heart. 

            So, Eze closed her eyes and placed her hands on her chest. Then she felt her. Eze knew not to open her eyes, not to break its spell. Besides, no bad magic could happen by the river. It was as close to hallowed ground as any church; this spot where, together, her momma and others had washed their masters’ clothes and linens. 

            She realized she had felt this spirit before, but had ignored her, or had gotten up and left. Eze told herself to stay still, to relax. A gust of sadness, longing, and shame washed over Eze then. An image emerged behind her eyelids, too. A face formed to go with those feelings. The woman was about her age, handsome big cheekbones, wide African mouth. Eze thought to herself, “I see you. You ain’t bad.” 

            Eze silently asked God if she was meant to see this. Although He didn’t answer, she felt at peace. Eze breathed in deeply, willing herself to allow this soul a visit. She listened to her story, by watching a stream of images behind her eyelids. There were babies. White babies. Colored babies. A nanny rocking babies, feeding babies, washing babies, playing with babies, burying babies. And there were men. White men. Colored men. Angry men. But mostly, as Eze watched this life unfold, she felt a sorrow like nothing she’d ever experienced before. 

            She felt broken, empty, beyond lonely—tied to hopelessness like an anchor keeping her below the surface, forever in the dark. It sunk into Eze’s skin that day, that very first time she took on the pain from another. She realized then, what she’d probably suspected: sadness, loneliness, shame, anger—they don’t die with a person. They sink into the soil. They fertilize the land, the trees, with a richness, and a timeless need that aches for those who are tender. For those who are willing to be a witness. Eze decided that afternoon, after the spirt departed, that she would be willing. 

            After hanging the washing up to dry, Eze picked up a stick and outlined the woman’s face, as best she could, into the riverbank mud. Then she scouted for berries, twigs, pebbles, sheets of bark, little things. She wasn’t sure why, at first, but was inspired.

            That night, after her babies and husband were asleep, she began putting something together on her kitchen floor. The next night, she whittled away at the branch with a paring knife. She worked on it for weeks, using dried berries to make black streaks, adding pebbles for eyes until she decided to carve leaf-like shapes into the wood. The mouth was large and wide. She played with it for a few more weeks until it was just right. She had crafted a perfect likeness in the form of a mask. Her first mask was an offering—a way of telling a soul who had been treated like she was nothing, that she’d been seen, she’d been felt, she mattered. Doing so was good. It gave her a secret purpose. Because no matter how many white people tried to make her feel bad, and stupid, and dirty—God told her she was His. 

            Eze wasn’t planning on making any more masks after that first one. But the spirits kept coming. And He kept calling her to make more. That kind of calling can’t be ignored. In the end, Eze decided that a good life, can’t be planned. It is felt—just like truth. And it demands to be followed. 

Fine Art Photography by Fabrice Poussin

August 27, 1959

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

            Experts say the odds of a person being struck by lightning are one in three thousand. However, a certain type of lightning strikes many at least once in a lifetime, more if they’re lucky. 

            It was 11:15 a.m. Melody Rigby was standing in line outside the registration building, wiping sweat from her now curling hair. She wasn’t used to the North Carolina heat and humidity.

            As she watched a stranger, she was simultaneously shocked and excited by how her body responded. Her heart drummed in her ears, like a persistent train, chugging closer. The electric pull was intense. She yearned to know this man. She wanted to smell him. 

            Her hands were sweating. Melody needed to take off her gloves—an idiotic university dress code for girls. Her legs itched from the sweat dripping through her scratchy knee socks that were now sliding down her skinny calves. She felt like an idiot. Half-moon stains emerged underneath the armpits of her pink, long-sleeved, silk blouse. Her throat was dry. 

            Across the quad, under a weeping willow tree, sat the most sexy, brooding man Melody had ever seen. Well, he was hardly a man, but he had the effect of a worldly man. The silly freshman boys in line with her hardly compared. This man must have witnessed atrocities. He was a man with emotional scars. She could tell. Clearly, he was light years beyond this college environment she now found herself in. He wasn’t a part of this school—this self-conscious, hormone-fueled, party setting. He oozed with an aloof, coolness that drew Melody to him. Melody stared at his lips as he sucked on the end of a cigarette. She wanted to be that cigarette. 

            Thad Knoten, unaware of the effect he was having on the straight-A, valedictorian, eighteen-year-old freshman from Bountiful, Utah, blew out a puff of smoke, then stubbed his cigarette butt into the grass. He wore dark jeans, with cuffs rolled up. His white T-shirt showed off his tan and slightly muscular arms. Melody thought she saw the hint of a tattoo peeking out from underneath his left sleeve. Thad pushed his sunglasses up and into his thick sandy hair and squinted in her direction. Melody visibly flinched. He picked up a guitar and began strumming something that sounded a little rough. Melody tried to make out the tune, but she was surrounded by giggling girls and gossiping boys whose noise drowned out the music.

            The girl behind Melody gave her a little nudge forward. “Hello! Time to move into the building.” 

            The busty redhead behind her smiled when she followed Melody’s line of sight. “Thad? He’s a pretty boy, for sure. But, BAD news—so my sister says.”

            Melody turned toward the person behind her and blushed as she began walking into the registration hall. After initial introductions, Melody learned that Ginny’s older sister, a rising senior like Thad, had been to fraternity functions where Thad’s band was playing. As they settled inside the building and were ushered into another line, Melody began to ask more questions about this young man’s life. 

            Ginny, a plump, short girl, with long curly red hair, seemed to love being the informer. Yes, Thad was older. Yes, he was a bit aloof. He had been in the Marines before coming to college. He was incredibly smart and pre-med but had been in trouble a few times: once for sneaking onto the woman’s campus, and once for playing his music too loudly after curfew and serving beer to minors. He was forgiven, however, each time. His grades were impeccable. Teachers liked him. Thad paid for his college through a military scholarship and his own work playing gigs with his band at local bars and at fraternity functions. His band, The Frets, played mostly country music, like Hank Williams, or blues. Melody listened to show tunes, Big Band, or classical. She didn’t know who Hank Williams was. No, Thad wasn’t “seeing” anyone. At least, not on campus. Ginny’s older sister had seen him around town with women much older than he was, too. No one respectable should be seen with him.

            Melody looked down at her perfectly ironed, pleated skirt hiding her painfully thin thighs. Her socks barely stayed up on her skinny legs with her big feet looking awkward in preppy, black leather loafers. She was overwhelmed by insecurity. She touched the bow holding back her unruly strawberry blond hair. A few older girls, wearing tight black skirts and sandals, breezed past. Their long, straight hair fell loosely down their backs. No gloves. Tanned legs. They giggled as they walked by. Melody noticed a few boys looking their way and watching them walk. 

            There’s no way a guy like Thad Knoten will ever want someone like me. 

            An hour later, upon leaving registration with her new pal, Melody felt a twisting in her gut. The spot under the weeping willow tree was empty. She looked up and down the sidewalks, hoping to find him. She began to panic.

            “You okay?” Ginny was looking back at Melody who had stopped walking, hands hanging limply by her side as if she were lost. She wasn’t lost. She was deeply disappointed and didn’t understand why. Did she think once Ginny had introduced her to Thad that he’d whisk her away? What a stupid girl she was. Did she think that just because she had felt something electric for the first time, that it meant he was “the one”? It was ridiculous, this panic and disappointment flooding through Melody’s veins as if she had just missed the last train home.

            “Oh, I’m fine. Sorry. Just light-headed. Probably need to eat something.” 

            As they walked to a cafe, and she ignored Ginny’s unceasing chatter, Melody wondered what was at the root of her irrational feelings. She had been jealous of girlfriends back home. If she was being honest with herself, Melody longed to have a kiss that would make her tremble and lose control, too. Thad had done that without a touch—without even knowing her. Didn’t that mean something? 

            In the end, she decided, good girls secretly wanted to feel the earth shake at the hands of a rough boy. Perhaps she was lucky not to have her wish fulfilled. 

Laura K. Roe (https://laurakroe.com/) is an author, editor, and yoga teacher (read her blog at (www.navigatingvita.com). Her novel, Uriel’s Mask, is based on a true story about the daughter of a freed slave who made masks in honor of spirits who visited her by a river where slaves had gone to wash their clothes. Many years later, the masks were shown at The Whitney Museum and then sold at auction. Laura read about this story while a reporter in North Carolina and carried it with her for years. In her novel, she marries this story with another narrative that spans three generations of Southerners, delving into codependency, addiction, race issues, gender issues, and how music and art help us rise above.

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