Chapter One This is my home. This is where I was born. This is the bayou that runs in my dreams, this is the bayou bank that taught me to love water, where I spent endless summer hours alone or with my cousins. This is where I learned to swim, where mud first oozed up between my toes. This is where I saw embryos inside the abdomens of minnows. This is where I believed that if I was vain and looked too long into the water I would turn into a flower. This is where I learned the legend of the greedy dog. There was an old dog on a raft and he had a bone in his teeth and he looked down into the water and saw a dog carrying a bone and he dropped the one he was holding to snatch the other dog's bone away and so lost both bones, the real and the imaginary. That's a new bridge. The one that was here when I was small had a beautiful elaborate scaffolding on top. I thought I must be a princess, of royal blood, to have such a bridge with such a magnificent top. To have such land with so many bugs and a bayou with so many fish and mussels and gars and maybe even alligators. This is the porch that at one time ran all the way around the house. My grandfather built this house and my mother came here when she was four years old. My brother was born in that front bedroom. I was born forty miles away in a hospital and only came here three days later. The ghost of Eli Nailor walks these halls. He was a black boy who was adopted by my great-great-grandmother when he was orphaned as a child. The woman I am named for raised him. He was the cook in this house all the days of his life and had a cabin beside the kitchen and the gardens and the henhouse and the chickenyard. This was a good life. There were never slaves here. The black people came here after the Civil War; they were free people from Natchez. Black people and white people lived and worked here in harmony. My grandfather thought of himself as an Englishman. He was tall and proud and brave and civilized. Here is where my Aunt Roberta raised angora rabbits during the Second World War and there is the chickenhouse where I spied on the Broad Jump Pit when my brother and my cousins were training for the Olympics. This is the richest land in the world. The topsoil goes thirteen to eighteen feet in some places. You could grow anything here. We grew cotton. We grow soybeans also now. My godfather, Coon Wade, farms this land. He was my grandfather's friend. He serves that friendship still. This is my world, where I was formed, where I came from, who I am. This is where my sandpile was. I have spent a thousand hours alone beneath this tree making forts for the fairies to dance on in the moonlight. At night, after I was asleep, my mother would come out here and dance her fingers all over my sand forts so that in the morning I would see the prints and believe that fairies danced at night in the sand. This is where the barn used to be. There was a black stallion here that we called the Count of Monte Christo and mules so mean they could scare you out of riding them. This is Ditty's cabin. She was as straight and tall as a tree, half black and half white. She told the other black people what to do. She was the mother of Mark and Inez and Man. I would come here and ask permission to come in and she would grant it and I would step over the wooden doorframe to the dirt floor. I would sit on her bed, on her spotless quilts, and eat cornbread and gossip about everything that was going on. Then I would go to the store and play the slot machine and sell snuff and drink cold sweet drinks and eat pork and beans out of a can. Life is not supposed to be simple but it seemed simple to me. It was get up in the morning and be happy. It was go out in the yard and lie down on the ground and listen to China. This is the levee. This is what keeps the Mississippi River within its banks. My father helped build this levee. I was conceived in a levee camp in a huge green tent from the Memphis tent company. In those photographs my mother is always wearing jodhpurs. Before the white man came the Indians built mounds to get on when the water rose. Before even the Cherokees came the Mound Builders were here. This is the Indian mound with a house built on top where my grandparents spent the first year of their marriage. There are other mounds on Hopedale Plantation. My great-grandmother forbade us to dig in them as they were sacred burial places. It was the only thing I ever remember Babbie forbidding us to do. This was my great-great-grandmother's room. She lived until I was four in perfect health. When they used such things she would spend the late summer in this room sewing together the long white cotton bags the black people dragged behind them to pick the cotton. These are the catfish ponds that take the place of cattle. Flying over my home I am appalled at how much of the land has been turned into catfish ponds. Things change. The only constant is change. There is nothing to fear. The land is its own God. It will heal itself if it needs to. I could never live in a city. I need to smell the earth. I need to be here when it storms. At night when I was small great rainstorms would come swooping down across the Delta, tearing down the light poles and the telephone poles. My grandfather loved inventions. As soon as they invented the telephone he and his fellow planters met in Grace and arranged to have telephones. Then each of them cut down trees and strung wire and the wires met at the Grace post office and hooked up there to go to Rolling Fork and on to Greenville. This is Greenfields' cemetery. This is where my mother's people are buried. Stewart Floyd Alford and Nell Biggs Alford and Margaret Connell and Ellen Martin and so forth and so on. My cousins and my friends. I wish they had lived forever. This country was made by pioneers. They probably could not have imagined us, our numbers and our terrible problems, our crowded cities and wonderful medicines and bitter endless feuds. What will be happening fifty years from now that I cannot imagine? What will my great-great-grandchildren think of me when they walk in my house and read my books? When they try to piece together my life from my photographs and my legends. * * * The road to the store led past a line of pecan trees that looked down into the river. Swarms of gnats would come up out of nowhere and attack my face if I was stupid enough to walk there in the early morning or late afternoon. In the middle of the day the sun held them hostage on the bayou bank and I could walk along kicking the gravel with my sandals or stopping to pull up a dandelion or examine a rock or pause to feel my nickel in my pocket to make sure it was still there. Behind me Nailor and Baby Doll and Overflow and Henrietta were lined up on the porch stairs watching my progress. In front of me the people sitting on the benches outside the store were already thinking of things to say to me. "Good morning, little missy, how you do today?" "Look out, here she comes, the girl that sells the snuff. How much you going to charge today for all your bags and cans?" "How about giving a few cans away?" "Look out for that dog. He's the king of fleas." It was talk like music and it meant they liked me and thought that I was funny. I liked them too. I didn't have enough sense to know what it meant to be black. It never occurred to me that they might want to do a single thing they weren't already doing. "I'm not putting this nickel in that hell-damn old slot machine today," I'd say, and go straight inside and stick it in and pull the handle. Two oranges and a bar. Three nickels for one. I stuck them in as fast as I could pull the handle. Then turned to my cousin Cincinnatus to see what he had for me to do. "Lost your nickel already," he said, giggling from behind the cash register. "I won three the first time," I answered. Yang and yin. I already knew the outcome was not the whole story of anything. I knew the end contains the beginning. In the strange way that children know everything because they forget nothing, I knew that the loss of a nickel to the judgment of the slot machine was nothing really, was only a way to get the damn smelly thing out of my hand. What was a nickel in the scheme of things? Buffalo on one side, White House on the other, made your hand smell funny to hold it and if you swallowed it you were dead. My uncle Robert had a framed picture in his doctor's office of all the things children had swallowed that he had retrieved. An open safety pin was the only one that really caught my eye. So the nickel was gone as so many had gone before it and I was no less than I had been and still had the walk to the store, still had long cool baths in the tub that had been made especially for my grandfather, who was six feet four inches tall. A little girl could swim in that tub, could lie down and drown if no one was watching, but they were always watching, standing by with a hairbrush in their hands or sitting on a little stool and dripping water onto my back or begging me to let them wash my hair. Dried with a big soft towel and carried down the hall and dressed in one of the beautiful soft cotton dresses they were always making me. My great-great-grandmother had been a milliner in Philadelphia and the women in that house were great artists of fashion and style and beauty. The clothes I wore when I was a child have spoiled me for life. At great collections in Paris or New York I turn up my nose at messy hems or anything that isn't French seamed or smocked by hand. When people ask me why there were so few women artists in the past, I tell them it's because their definition of artist is too narrow. I have worn dresses that should have won a Nobel. "Let me see that dress," everyone at the store would say. "Look here, Iris, see this dress Miss Babbie made this child." And their fingers would explore the rickrack or three-inch hem or perfectly fitted sleeves or smocking. Those artists did not have to wait for some stranger in New York to overcome his or her fear and say, Oh, yes, this is a nice piece of work. The audience and critics were right there in the room waiting for the last whir of the sewing machine and the moment when the dress would come down from the sewing table and be held up for inspection. What a life, with the sun pouring down outside on the richest land in the world. THE RICHEST LAND IN THE WORLD and we were happy there. The black people and white people worked together and spoke their grievances and only sickness or death or rain in September could make us sad. The days were long in that land of happy days and part of me lives there still. A writer once said that a walk becomes a journey when there is a destination. I had a destination every afternoon when I was small. I would walk from the house to the store and if my nickel had to be sacrificed to my greed that was only one more gnat or interesting rock or possibly useful leaf. Excerpted from Falling Through Space by Ellen Gilchrist. Copyright © 2000 by Ellen Gilchrist. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.