October 24, 1935
Dear God, please protect me from all bad things, whether they be real, unreal, reptile, human. Please protect me, God, Annith Fowlkes pleaded as she carefully treaded down the wooded dirt path leading from Independence Heights, a small black community in East Texas. It was barely dawn, and she was on her way to work for the Shaws, a family that lived in the white community of Sunset Heights.
Mrs. Shaw was originally from St. Louis and had only been in Texas for seven years. She had no friends and few acquaintances. None of the servants—except for Lillian, the cook—stayed on long enough at the Shaw household to become close to Mrs. Shaw, though she was nicer and more fair than most employers in Sunset Heights. Annith, who was 16, had been working for the family for nearly a year. She was the second youngest of six daughters, and all of her older sisters began working as maids and nannies at 13 or 14 years old. Her oldest two sisters, Margarite and Alice, were able to attend college, became teachers, and moved to Oregon. Annith was saving up money so that she could eventually join them.
Annith’s primary job at the Shaw home was to care for the children, but in the mornings, she also helped Lillian prepare breakfast. After a typical day’s work, Annith headed back to Independence Heights at four o’clock. She dreaded the days when she had to stay until supper because walking that path between Independence Heights and Sunset Heights in the dark was very frightening. Lillian lived in Houston, so her nightly trips weren’t as long nor were they as wooded.
One of the fears that haunted Annith on her early morning journeys were the stories that she’d been told about girls being attacked by men who hid in the brush.
With the sun rising over the trees, Annith’s fears eased a bit, but she continued to pray as she walked. In addition to possible human predators, she had to watch carefully for predators of the reptilian variety. She scanned the ground in order to avoid startling any copperheads that populated the area. She rarely looked up unless she heard a noise. Please God . . . she continued, protect me from all bad things . . .
A rustling came from the shrubbery just ahead, and Annith leapt into the foliage, with no regard for what she might land on—human or animal. She secured herself behind an oak tree and waited for the villain to appear. Finally, a rooster stepped out of the brush. She could make out the shimmery green and rust colors of his feathers. She watched him walk away, his head lurching forward with each step of his cocky strut.
Annith, brushing herself off, stepped back onto the path and continued toward Sunset Heights. Though she was relieved that the “predator” was only a rooster, her fear of the unknown did not subside until she reached Sunset Heights and saw familiar faces of other brown-skinned women and girls making their way to the homes of their employers.
When she reached the Shaw home this particular morning, Annith was alarmed by what she saw parked out front—a funeral coach. Despite its ominous meaning, Annith was awed by the ornate details on the vehicle. Aside from small windows, the sides of the behemoth were swathed in black-lacquered wood panels, carved into the shape of cascading drapery. Little vases holding fresh white lilies flanked each door. Even the white-wall tires were bigger than any tires Annith had ever seen. Each side of the vehicle’s hood had a small white flag with a red cross in the center. Annith had seen these flags on the old horse-drawn carriage hearse used by Pruitt Funeral home in Independence Heights; she knew they meant ambulance services. She gasped at the revelation. One of the Shaws was hurt.
“You got some place to be, gal?” An officer called to her.
“I—I work here, sir.” She replied, then rushed up the gravel driveway and around to the servants’ entrance at the back of the house.
Annith was afraid but curious about what she was going to find inside the house. Her first concern was for the Shaw children: Samuel, 6, Michael, 4, David, 3, and Marie, 19 months. She had grown so close to them that she didn’t know how she would handle it if something bad had happened to one of those babies. Annith pretended to be calm when she realized that Lillian was casually making a fresh pot of coffee and kneading dough for biscuits.
Normally, Lillian started barking orders as soon as Annith walked through the door, but she was quiet on this particular morning.
“What happened, Lil?” Annith inquired in a whisper while retrieving then tying her apron on over her uniform and shoulder sack, which she normally stored on the floor of the pantry.
“Mista Shaw fell an’ struck his head.” Lillian said in a matter of fact manner. Mr. Shaw never evoked much sympathy from Annith, either, but she was shocked enough to feel confused and worried.
“He dead. Fry up some bacon.”
Annith nodded and reached up for the small cast iron skillet, but it was gone.
“Where the skillet at, Lilly?”
“Up on the—Uhm, well, it was up dere. Jus’ get de heavier one under de zank.”
Just as Annith reached under the sink to get the large cast iron skillet, Mrs. James, a neighbor—and busybody—burst into the kitchen. As the door swung open, Annith could hear Marie wailing. Before the door stopped swinging, Annith got a glimpse of the undertaker gesturing solemnly to Mrs. Shaw, who was holding Marie.
“One ‘a you gals run up and get the baby’s sugar tit.” Mrs. James requested, then added. “And grab Mrs. Shaw’s nerve pills from her bedside table.”
“Yes, ‘um.” Annith replied, nodding.
Annith followed Mrs. James through the swinging door and paused to hear what was being said in the parlor. When she realized that a police officer was watching her and was about to call attention to her, she scurried away and up the stairs.
An eerier-than-usual chill went through her as she neared Mr. and Mrs. Shaw’s bedroom. The door was slightly ajar, and she saw a large mound covered by a white sheet, which she knew instantly was Mr. Shaw’s dead body. Normally, she hated that room and refused to ever go in there when Mr. Shaw was home. She swore she’d never let him catch her off guard again. But this instance, she concluded, was different — the man was dead.
Annith pushed the door open and peeked inside. She recoiled when she thought she saw the body flinch, but repeating to herself that the man was dead helped her cross the threshold. Mrs. Shaw’s night stand was against the wall, so Annith had to walk around the body and bed to retrieve the medicine. She summoned all her courage, sucked in her breath and scurried across the room, grabbed the small amber-colored vial, then rushed back to the doorway.
“God bless his soul.” She mumbled but wasn’t sure she meant it. She knew she wasn’t supposed to think ill of the dead, but alive Mr. Shaw only proved to be trouble.
One afternoon, while Mrs. Shaw was in town, Annith had been left in charge of Marie and putting away the clean clothes and linens that Lillian had picked up from the laundress that morning. After she put Marie down for a nap, Annith went about sorting and putting the clothes and linens in the armoires in the various bedrooms. As she was passing the full-length mirror in Mr. and Mrs. Shaw’s bedroom, she caught a glimpse of herself and stopped to re-pin loose strands of her hair. When she looked up, she was shocked to see Mr. Shaw standing behind her.
“Didn’t mean to frighten you.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I was just—”
“I saw you. You’re right to look. You’re a very beautiful girl.” He said in his thick Alabama accent, moving closer to Annith. She hugged the linens to her chest. He ran the tips of his fingers over her cheek. Annith shivered. “I’ve always thought you were beautiful. That’s why I insisted Mrs. Shaw hire you on. Lord knows it ain’t for your domestic skills.”
“I—I should get back to work.”
He pried the linens from her arms and tossed them on the bed. “You can tend to this later. I got something else for you right now.”
Annith, who had been backing away, found herself trapped in the corner. Mr. Shaw loomed over her.
“Show me all that beauty you’re hiding.” He yanked the strap of her shift down. Mr. Shaw pulled her body against his barrel chest, and Annith cried out. She squirmed in an effort to free herself but knew better than to strike him, which was her first instinct. Mr. Shaw pushed down on her shoulders, but it was like her legs were made of stone and would not bend. The more he tried to move her, the more labored his breathing became. Just as Annith’s legs were weakening, salvation arrived.
Lillian called to Annith from the doorway. Her orders were monotone and succinct, “Come on, girl. I need ya in tha’ kitchen.”
Mr. Shaw, sweating and panting, released her. Annith ran past Lillian, who, with her hands on her narrow hips, never broke her gaze from Mr. Shaw. Annith remembered hearing Lillian’s casual footsteps descending the creaky stairs behind her. Through tears, Annith watched Lillian shuffle across the kitchen floor and return to chopping carrots.
“Come on, girl.” She barked. “Them potatoes ain’t gon’ peel they-selfs.”
Annith shook her head, bringing herself back to the present. She took one last glance at the dead heap that was Mr. Shaw. She remembered that she had to get Marie’s sugar tit. She sprinted from the Shaws’s bedroom and down the hall to the nursery. Annith didn’t see the sugar tit immediately, so she threw the blankets back until she found it.
She grabbed it, but the rag caught in a hole in the quilt and fell out of Annith’s grip. It tumbled to the floor and under the bed, just out of sight. Annith reached down, but couldn’t find it, so she got on her knees and peered under the bed.
In the shadows, she could make out a hump that she’d never seen before. Annith stretched her arm out to touch it and determined it was one of the cast iron skillets from the kitchen. As she pulled it toward her, she thought the skillet seemed stickier than the usual coat of caked-on lard. Annith lifted the heavy skillet, studying the red gunk on the bottom, near the handle. There were a few strands of dark brown hair stuck to it.
Annith touched her fingers to the mass, and when she realized it was dried blood, she nearly threw the pan across the room, but Mrs. James’ presence startled her. She shoved the skillet into an unlikely place—the sack she had forgotten to take off and place in the pantry before putting on her apron.
“Did you find the sugar tit, gal? What’re you snooping fo’ anyhow? You people’re always tryin’ ta’ find somethin’ to steal. Come on, gal. Come on.”
Annith wiped remnants of blood on her dark brown dress, scooped up the sugar tit and followed Mrs. James back downstairs.
Mrs. James took the still-wailing Marie away from her mother, who sat motionless. Everyone — the sheriff, the undertaker, and two women that Annith had never seen before — moved around the room, talking to one another, but Mrs. Shaw remained as still as her dead husband.
Clearly feeling like the heroine, Mrs. James stuck the sugar tit into the child’s mouth and vigorously bounced Marie up and down in her arms.
When the baby still would not stop crying, Mrs. Shaw looked over her shoulder and her eyes fell on Annith. Mrs. Shaw’s right eye was swollen and black. Her throat was streaked with red welts. Mr. Shaw had increasingly been leaving his wife in that condition.
Annith held her hands out toward Marie and the baby pushed away from Mrs. James and fell into Annith’s embrace. At the same time, Marie let go of the sugar tit and it landed inside Annith’s bag. Annith started to retrieve it but remembered the skillet.
Before turning to leave, Annith glanced at Mrs. Shaw, who was still staring at her. She tapped her bag and nodded at the widow. A note of confirmation passed between them, unbeknownst to the busybodies that swarmed the parlor. Color started returning to Mrs. Shaw’s face, and her body seemed to release the tension that had culminated in the untimely death of Mr. Shaw that morning.
“Come on, baby girl.” Annith said to Marie, whose wails had quieted to whimpers.
Ignoring Lillian’s orders to help serve breakfast, Annith walked Marie through the kitchen and out to the back porch, figuring the fresh air would be good for the baby’s disposition.
Rocking and shushing Marie, Annith whispered, “You ain’t got to fret no more. Ever’thang gonna be fine now. We been blessed this mornin.’ We been real blessed.”