Eva's hands shook as she opened the small wooden box. What would Mama Kate think if she knew how often she peeked in here these days? That she had already given her up for dead? But Eva couldn't help herself. Carefully she unfolded the worn, yellowing envelope and read the return address--again. Sadie Lewis, 518 Holladay Street, Denver, Colorado. And the letter--read it for the hundredth time. December 1865. This is for the child. Plez do not rite back. The letter was now thirteen years old, sent that first Christmas. Each year since then the envelopes had come, and the money, but no more letters.
If it were not for that devilish mare of Mr. Harper's, Eva wouldn't even be in this predicament. If a horse could be hung for murder, she would have strung up that mare. It happened just a year ago. Eva was on her way from the house to the barn with slop for the hog when she heard the mare's shrill whinny, then Daddy Walter's curses, and knew the mare had hurt him. She dropped the slop bucket and went running.
Daddy Walter held a rag to his bleeding hand.
"Daddy!" she cried, and tried to see how bad it was.
"It's nothing, sweetheart," Daddy Walter said. "She didn't like me driving nails into her hooves, so she decided to drive a nail back into my hand, make me see how it feels."
But the blood soaking into that white rag made Eva's stomach queasy. "We should get you bandaged proper," she said.
"Mr. Harper needs his mare back by this afternoon. I'll finish up here, then I'll come to the house and you and Mama Kate can fix me up with all the salves and tinctures you can find." He grinned through the pain.
Six days later he took to his bed with a fever and headache and his jaw so stiff he could barely speak. The doctor said it was tetanus and there was nothing to be done. Eva and Mama Kate cared for him. They spooned thin soup through his clenched jaws and tried to hold him down when he thrashed and choked and cursed as if the devil himself had entered his bones. The day he finally lay still, it was a relief. Even white folks they hardly knew came to his funeral and said nice things about him, as if having a black man in town had been an honor. After that, the house was much too quiet, much too empty. Eva kept thinking she heard Daddy Walter's voice or footsteps or laugh. Then she would remember.
If it wasn't for that mare, Mama Kate would be leaving her with Daddy Walter. Instead she was leaving her to a woman who couldn't even stomach a thank-you letter from the child she gave away.
Eva carefully folded the old letter, put it back in its envelope, and closed the box. Then she went into the yard, where Mama Kate was hanging the clothes they'd just washed--not their own clothes, but their neighbors', washed and ironed to bring in cash.
"Mama Kate, let me finish up here," Eva said, taking a pair of heavy men's dungarees from her. "Please go sit in the shade and rest."
"I can't rest all day," Mama Kate objected.
But Eva took her hand, led her over to the three-legged wash stool, and sat her down. "Just talk to me while I hang these. I'll be done in no time."
At least while school was out for the summer, Eva wanted to do as much of the work on the homestead as she could. The more Mama Kate rested, Eva reasoned, the better her health would be. Later Eva would take their horse and buckboard and ride the two miles into town to deliver the clean clothes. Then she would stop at Mr. Harper's store, not to buy anything, but to pay down their debt from last winter. She would ride back home as the late sun turned the prairie grasses to gold. She'd give the cow her evening milking, shut the chickens up for the night, and help Mama Kate make supper.
They heard a woman's cheery voice call from the front gate. "Buon giorno! Good morning!"
Eva squinted into the bright sunshine and smiled as their neighbor, Mrs. Santini, came into the yard. Mrs. Santini didn't keep a polite distance the way the other white folks in town did. She always kissed them hello and good-bye--on both cheeks. And Eva liked the way she always had dirt under her fingernails from working in her garden and smelled of the sweet basil she grew in a flowerpot on her windowsill.
"I say to myself, who knows? Maybe they starving in there," said Mrs. Santini. Her arms were filled with packages. "I bring you piece chicken--my husband say is too much for him--and onions and tomatoes from my garden. Come, Eva, I teach you to make a nice cacciatore."
Eva knew Mrs. Santini was joking about them starving, but the truth was, she and Mama Kate hadn't had meat in a long time. Eva had gone to bed hungry more than once this week, though things weren't nearly as bad as last winter.
The three of them went into the kitchen, and Eva took her place beside Mrs. Santini at the table. Together they chopped the vegetables and hacked up the raw chicken with a cleaver. Mama Kate put on the kettle for tea.
"The secret is, you cook slow," said Mrs. Santini, leaning toward Eva conspiratorially. "The tomatoes and onions, they make a sauce, and everybody think you a big chef from Italy."
"Between what you've taught her and what I've taught her, this girl is a fine cook," Mama Kate said proudly.
Eva gathered up what they'd chopped, put it all in a pot, then ladled water over it from the water crock.
"Put some salt, Eva--not too much," Mrs. Santini said. "Ah!" Her face lit up. She pulled a handful of deep green leaves out of her apron pocket. "Basilico. You add later." She gave the basil leaves to Eva, and their rich aroma filled the air.
Eva opened the stove and used the bellows to bring the fire up just a little. Then she put a lid on the pot and left the chicken to stew.
Mrs. Santini took Eva's face in her hands, beaming at her. "e tanta in gamba, questa bellissima ragazza!" she exclaimed.
"What did I do this time?" Eva asked. She was always suspicious when Mrs. Santini had outbursts in Italian.
"I say what a capable girl you are, and so beautiful, too!" she said.
"She is, isn't she?" Mama Kate said, her eyes soft with love.
Please don't say it, Mama Kate, Eva begged silently. Don't say you wish you could be here to watch me grow up. I don't want to cry in front of Mrs. Santini.
But Mama Kate just smiled, and Eva poured the tea. The two women settled into conversation about their gardens, the drought, the high price of flour, and Eva sat to sip tea and listen. She noticed that Mrs. Santini had the sleeves of her dress pushed up to her elbows, and so she quietly devised a way to answer a question she'd had for some time. She pushed up the sleeve of her own dress, then stealthily, so as not to attract attention, slid her arm over next to Mrs. Santini's. There it was, just as she had suspected. Mrs. Santini's arm was actually darker than her own. Daddy Walter had been dark as molasses and Mama Kate was brown-skinned. If Eva hadn't been told from early on that she was adopted, she certainly would have wondered where she got her coloring from--long wavy hair and all.
Who was this light-skinned "blood" mother, Sadie Lewis? And what did Eva's older sister look like--the sister who, for some unexplained reason, this mother had been able to keep? Mama Kate said all she knew of the sister was that her name was Pearl and she was still in diapers when Eva was born. Eva also sometimes wondered about the father no one ever made mention of. But trying to think of anyone else as "Daddy" or "Mama" only sent knives into Eva's heart. She scooted over next to Mama Kate and laid her head on her shoulder. Mama Kate stroked her hair gently.
She's here now, Eva thought. I won't move from this spot and she'll always be with me.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Last Dance on Holladay Street by Elisa Carbone. Copyright © 2005 by Elisa Carbone. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.