My baby Florence hated thunderstorms. She would come running home to me and hide herself in my skirts, pulling the cloth over her face so she couldn't hear the thunderclaps or see the flashes of lightning.
We get a lot of thunderstorms here in Natchez, and she would know when they were coming, even before the sky got dark. Her poppa called her his little weathervane, and would go and get the chickens in as soon as he saw her run to me. Even the dog – who hated thunderstorms almost as much as she did – knew to hide when he saw her clinging to my apron. The cat – well, you know cats. It was almost as if the cat would shrug and say, 'it don't bother me'. But in the worst of the storms, Poppy the cat would curl up with Florence and they would comfort each other.
Florence is my youngest. All the others, well, they were nearly grown up when she was born. I thought that there would be no more babies. That my time for that was past. And then along came Florence. She was the prettiest baby – hair so blonde it was almost white, and big wide blue eyes like a china doll. And she was so good. Slept right through from the beginning. Never needed telling off – well, not very often. She wasn't an angel after all. Just a lovely little girl. She charmed her big brothers and sisters. Loved her books. And she hardly ever cried, except in a thunderstorm.
Florence said that storms felt like the sky was shouting at her and the wind was chasing her. And the lightning made her eyes hurt. She was so brave about everything else. It was just storms that scared her.
That last time she came running to me, I thought there must be a storm coming. But the sky was a clear bright blue and there wasn't a sign of a cloud. Then I felt the heat of her skin right through my skirts. I looked at her. Her face was flushed, and her eyes were glassy. She said that her head hurt, and everything ached. And that she felt sick. My mouth went dry. I'd heard about the boats bringing in the slaves to pick the cotton. The boats with the dreaded butter-coloured flag that showed they had yellow jack on board.
Dr Parsons came over, and said he thought she might have yellow fever, but he doubted it. And even if she did, that she'd would get better in a few days. She was young and strong. I sat with her day and night, bathing her head with a cold flannel, and on the fifth night her fever broke. She woke up and smiled at me. I gave her a drink, and she drifted back to sleep, her forehead cool and her breathing regular.
I slept for what seemed like the first time in days, curled up in a chair in her room, and my husband must've come in, because when I woke up, I had a blanket tucked over me.
I looked over at Florence, and I saw straight away that the fever was back. She woke and whispered that her belly ached, it ached so much. When she opened her eyes, the whites were just tinged with a little bit of yellow, and I knew. That was the longest week of my life. Dr Parsons came and went. My husband tried to get me to go to bed, to sleep, to eat. I couldn't leave Florence's side. I tried to keep her cool, to get her to take sips of broth. I prayed to God until my knees were sore, not to take away my ten-year-old baby. I pleaded with her to get well. But whatever I did, her skin turned bronze and her eyes became bright yellow. And she slipped a little further away from me each day.
I knew the end was near when the cat, who never came upstairs, curled up at her side. As she took her last breath, I heard the first rumble of thunder.
I wept all night. Wept for my baby. Held her against the storm, just in case wherever she was, she was still afraid. And then in the morning, I wept all the more that I wouldn't be able to comfort her when she was in the ground. My husband held me tight.
I've always loved drawing. And I started to draw. A tiny coffin with a window in the side so that I could see her face. A stairway down to the grave, to a wall with a window. A set of doors at the top of the steps that would shield me from the storm. A headstone that read ' As bright and affectionate a Daughter as ever God with His Image blest'. And so, her grave was built. And I go down the stairs and read and sing to my baby Florence during every storm, like I always have.
I've just seen the clouds coming in. There's a storm on the way. I must go to Florence.
Writing short fiction, monologues and plays