“Temby quickly discovered that the night at the kitchen table, when he first learned of his postbox adoption, was the field where he could harvest all of his pain.” A short story where an abandoned child comes to know his roots, and the hardships that come with it…
by: Luke Beling
Temby had eyes for Jane’s silver ring the minute he saw it, the moment that Jane pulled him out of the Bennet post box with the family’s letters and utility bills.
“God has answered your prayers, Madam!” Jane rushed into the house and placed the screaming baby in Mary’s arms.
“My God! Where did you find him?”
“When I was collecting the post. He was in there with your letters.”
The baby was wrapped in parchment paper when found, with the name ‘Temby’ written across it, an old English name that means wood.
Mary stumbled into her bedroom, tears wetting Temby’s soft skin. “Fred, God has heard our prayers! He’s given us a baby boy!”
Mary’s high-pitched voice didn’t wake Fred. The big-bodied man lay bare-chested, sprawled across the king-sized bed with a stomach that looked to be floating. Mary slapped Fred’s red cheeks until he surfaced, then handed him a pair of butcher shears. “The father cuts the cord.”
Fred rubbed his eyes, then surveyed the child as if it were a small animal. “Is it black?”
Mary didn’t respond as she put the shears in Fred’s leathery hands, keeping Temby away from the stench of her husband’s boozy breath.
“Jane!” Fred yelled. “Get in here! At once!”
From then on, Jane wore Temby on her hip during every duty. Except while washing the dishes. Over the sink, she’d fill one basin with hot water and dirty plates, then the other with lukewarm water, a yellow rubber duck, and bubbles. She’d remove her silver ring, set it next to the faucet, watch baby Temby lose interest with splashing, then see him try to secure the glistening object with all his grit. No matter where Jane set her ring, Temby would find it.
Fred and Mary wore rings too, but Temby showed as much interest to those as to the birds in the feeder outside the kitchen window.
As Temby grew, the draw of Jane’s ring was slowly replaced by his fascination with the old songs she’d sing about her ancestors, taken from Africa on a ship, sent to work the sugar cane fields for the farmers of the southern states. And when she played the harmonica in her room at night, Temby would sneak out of the main house and stand with his ear pressed against her door. When Temby learned to talk, Jane began telling him stories about her youth. The tales of how as a young child she used to steal cotton from the fields and trade it for milk with farmers whose crops weren’t producing.
The first time Temby heard Jane’s tales, he looked at her, confused. “Ma says there’s no condition in this world to warrant stealing.”
Jane laughed. “Yes, it’s a privilege to have a life that doesn’t depend on theft. And parents who can provide for you. I am only proud of my resolve to survive. It has kept me alive.”
Jane never spoke anything else about her parents, and Temby didn’t ask.
But hearing her childhood stories piqued his curiosity about his own life.
One evening, after Jane had just served the Bennets a serving of steak and potatoes, Temby felt a nervous warmth in his chest. He watched Mary load her fork, and then he glanced at Fred, who’d found something of interest on the television, sipping on his third glass of whiskey.
“Ma, is Jane, my mommy?”
Mary spat out a chunk of meat, turning her eyes to Fred, who kept an unfazed expression on the TV.
“Why do you say that?”
Temby began sliding his fork on his plate like a race car, making an irritating screeching sound.
“It’s because she’s black like him.” Fred’s cold face matched the tone of his voice. He glanced at Temby, shouting, “Stop playing with your supper, boy!”
Mary stared at Fred with a worried expression, and then her eyes widened, and her face turned blank as if she was searching for an answer. The painful noise from Temby’s sliding fork continued.
“I told you to stop that, boy!” Fred’s voice boomed, then he slammed his glass onto the table, spilling his drink on his steak.
Temby looked up from his plate soft-eyed, with his hand wrapped tightly around his fork, prongs facing the ceiling.
“I’m your mother, Temby,” Mary plainly stated. A single tear streamed down Mary’s cheek.
Temby set his fork on his plate, then put his small hands in Mary’s palm. “But who is my real mother?”
“We found you in the postbox. Your real mother gave you away.”
“Fred!” Mary exclaimed.
Fred rose from his chair, then slid it back into the table, making a loud rumbling. “It’s the truth. He doesn’t need to be coddled! He needs to learn what his people do. Abandon their own, and take responsibility for nothing.”
The sound of heavy feet disappeared, then Temby looked up to Mary, who had both her hands around his. “Is it true, Ma?”
Mary’s face sunk into her chest. She removed one of her hands and kneaded her rosary beads in her fingertips. She sighed, then cleared her throat. “Yes, my son. But you are no less loved than if you were my own flesh and blood.”
The sun dipped below the horizon as frogs interrupted the silence with rhythmic croaking. Temby stayed gazing into his plate, finally looking up at Mary, who now had both hands on her rosary. “Thank you for giving me a home, Ma.”
Mary stood, tears swelling behind her eyes, then wrapped her arms around Temby’s back. “I’ll always be your mother.”
A s the years passed, Temby struggled to connect with his adopted parents. Fred never offered anything more than a command or a racial slur. “Pick up your towels! Clean your plate! Your skin might be black, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to behave like one of us!”
Temby stayed out of Fred’s way, kept his head down, and obeyed with clenched fists.
Mary sat with Temby every night before bed and asked him to share one good thing and one hard thing that happened during the day. Temby learned the answers that satisfied his mother’s desire for a relationship, but without having to bare his soul.
On school days, Temby would catch the bus home, then sprint from the bus stop knowing he’d have about two hours before his parents arrived home from work.
Jane would set out two chairs and various harmonicas on a small table. She’d put her hand on her chest and say, “The blues are the fingerprints of the heart, Temby. Feel the sorrow and pain, then let it out.” Then she’d remove her silver ring, a reminiscence of pain Tembly now knew, and stare at it while playing a melodic riff that climbed and dipped on the scale, raising Temby’s thin hair from his arms.
When Jane began singing, Temby liked to close his eyes and listen to her voice, imagining the soulful scenes painted by her low, humming songs of sorrow. When she’d finish a song, she would place the ring back on her finger, then push one of the harps across the table. “Now you try. Find the pain, then give it a voice.”
Temby quickly discovered that the night at the kitchen table, when he first learned of his postbox adoption, was the field where he could harvest all of his pain. And that he didn’t have to dig and cut very hard before he could press his lips against the small silver squares of the harp and begin releasing all the sorrow holding his insides.
One day, before picking up the harmonica, Temby paused, then spoke softly, looking gently at Jane’s ring. “If that’s where all your trouble comes from, why do you wear it?”
Jane held her silver band towards the sun, moving it in her thumb and index finger, examining its sheen. “I’ve wanted to tell you this story for a long time. Perhaps now you are old enough to hear it.”
Temby moved his chair closer to Jane, keeping his eyes on her ring.
“This ring belonged to my sister. She worked for a man similar in nature to your pa.”
Temby’s face creased. “What do you mean?”
Sighing, Jane placed the ring on her finger and continued looking at it. “You’ve seen how he looks at us, Temby. He thinks we’re different. That the color of our skin is one of God’s greatest mistakes.”
With gentle nodding, Temby stared into his brown feet.
“My sister’s boss beat her to death, Temby. He struck her skull with a nightstand she failed to clean correctly. I watched it happen, but nobody believed me.”
A crack in Jane’s voice made Temby raise his head to look at her. Slow tears ran down her cheeks, making soft lines down her dry-as-bone face.
“Why would you work for a man like that?”
Jane dragged her palms from the top of her eyes down her neck, delicate lines turning hard and defined on her face. “And go where? It isn’t easy for someone like me to find a livable wage in this country. But I have my resolve to survive. I keep my head down and do as I’m told. I’ve made it this long, haven’t I?”
A week later, while playing the blues, screeching tires on the driveway pulled Temby and Jane’s heads towards the front door, up from the table of harps.
“Oh no,” Jane whimpered. “I haven’t started on dinner yet.”
Temby ran to the front door and pushed his face against the window. He watched Fred stumble out of his car, a drunken mess. Fred slammed the car door, then lost his balance and fell into a rosebush, scraping his face on the thorns.
He screamed while Temby raced into the kitchen. “Hurry, put something on the stove. He’s coming, and he’s drunk!”
The pots were just boiling when Fred stormed into the kitchen. He slammed his palm onto the counter. Then again. Without saying a word, the thudding continued until Temby stepped in front of Jane and said, “Please, Pa. Supper is almost ready.”
“Almost?” Fred stepped to the side of Temby and cast his stern eyes on Jane, who was trying her best not to look at Fred as she continued stirring the water in the pot.
Temby stepped back, pressing his body into Jane, shielding her with his weak frame.
“Now!” Fred slammed his hand on the counter again, and his rage-filled eyes looked like two shining blades.
Temby could feel Jane’s body shaking. The quivering began in her hips, then Temby heard her light steps on the kitchen tile, and he watched the pot move on and off the red-lit plate.
“I’m not leaving her alone with you.”
Fred exploded with a loud cackle, and spit spewed from his rock-hard gums as he inched closer to the stove. Temby put his hand over his nose as the sour stench of alcohol and sweat ruined the air.
Reaching his hand over Temby, Fred set it on Jane’s shoulder. Then he moved closer so that his big belly pressed against Temby’s chest. It looked as though Fred was going to kiss Jane’s ear the way he pursed his lips and just held them there, waiting.
A whisper came from Fred’s mouth, loud enough that Temby could hear it. “Maybe we should tell him what happened to your sister?”
Temby’s stomach filled with panic. His hands shook, and his neck became tight as he stared into Fred’s torso, desperately trying to muffle the sound of heavy breathing.
Jane’s scared sobbing frightened Temby further until he felt heat in his hands. Then in one swift motion, Temby grabbed the pot of boiling water and flung it into Fred’s face, yelling, “Run, Jane! Run!”
Fred collapsed onto the kitchen floor, hands over his eyes, screaming, then shouting, “You’re dead! Both of you are dead!”
South African born, Luke Beling, left home at 19. In 2007, he graduated from Campbellsville University with a BA in English. He has had several short stories published in journals and magazines, including Quiet Shorts (2012), Eyelands Flash Fiction (2019), Academy of the Heart and Mind (2021), New Reader Magazine (2021), The Salt Weekly Magazine (2022), and Inspired Magazine (2022). Luke is the director of tennis for a private club on the Big Island of Hawaii and an indie-folk singer-songwriter.