Her name was Delilah Ward and she moved to Port Harrison, Mississippi with her mother in the sultry summer of 1965. I was eight years old, intrigued at the prospect of growing up and determined to be the best baseball player in class.
I first saw her on a Tuesday morning as I was walking to school, my skin already itching with sweat under the oppressive heat. She was standing at the gate of a little brown house, several blocks from the new subdivision my family had recently moved to. Here the houses were small and rundown, and the drought was even more noticeable because unlike our subdivision, no one came and watered the grass so there simply was none. She was looking out at the street with wide eyes as her mother plaited her hair. She was very pretty, with fine cheekbones and big doe eyes. Her skin was darker than mine, and I wondered why she looked so sad.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Henry Prince, what’s your name?”
Her eyes flitted to mine momentarily, but she did not answer. Her mother smiled at me strangely and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. I carried on my way.
When I came out to the play area at lunch there she was, sitting by herself and kicking her skinny legs gently beneath her. I walked over, tossing the baseball I always carried with me from hand to hand. “Do you go to school here now? I asked her. “I haven’t seen you before.”
She looked at me doubtfully.
“What are you doing by yourself?” I pressed. “Do you want to play catch?”
Still she did not reply, only stared at me in a curious and almost bewildered manner.
“How old are you?” I questioned. “I’m eight and a quarter.”
“My name’s Delilah,” she replied finally, smiling at me hesitantly. “I’m seven. And a half.”
“You just moved to Harrison, didn’t you?”
She nodded. “Mama said things are meant to be different now.”
I frowned, and was about to ask what she meant by ‘things’, when I heard my friend Mark Thompson calling my name.
“We’re having a game,” he yelled, jerking his head towards our makeshift diamond.
I raised a hand and turned back to Delilah. “You want to play?”
She shook her head hastily.
“Alright.” I shrugged. “Bye.” I jogged over to Mark, who was dividing the boys into teams.
“What were you doing talking to that freak?” He asked distractedly.
I just laughed.
“There’s a new girl at school, mother. Her name’s Delilah. She’s pretty.”
“That’s nice, dear. Is she in your class?”
“No; I saw her at break. She lives three blocks down, in a little brown cottage.”
“Oh, how lovely. Eat your potatoes.”
“I think you’d like her mother, mother. She can do nice plaits, like you.”
“Is that so?” Mother smiled at me and nodded at the mound of mashed potato on my plate.
I frowned, prodding the pile of food absently with my fork. “Mark called her a freak today. I think he was joking.”
Mother’s head lurched up suddenly, and she looked at my father. “Henry,” she said, her voice strange, “you’re not to talk to her. Understood?”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Listen to your mother, Henry.” Father cut in, putting aside the newspaper.
Scowling, I finished my dinner in silence. I did not eat all the potatoes.
I walked Delilah to school the next day, curious to discover what was wrong with her. I found nothing, but that lunch break Mark did not ask me to play baseball.
The following morning, Delilah exited her gateway with clenched fists, smiling somewhat nervously.
“What is it?” I asked. “Do you have a test today?”
She shook her head and unfurled one of her hands, revealing a neatly woven bracelet of blue cotton thread. “I made it.”
A tentative nod.
“Gee, thanks Delilah! Put it on, will you?” I beamed. As we strolled down the footpath I caught her hand. “You’re my friend, okay?”
She nodded again, a brilliant smile splitting her face like two halves of an orange; bright and fresh and beautiful.
As we entered the school gates, two of my classmates ran past, knocking Delilah’s books from her hands and tripping me over. “Freak!” They yelled over their shoulders, and I got to my feet, puzzled. When I looked at Delilah, I thought I saw a gleam in her eyes.
Two days later, Mark called me over to his group. He looked at me strangely. “What’s the matter with you, Henry?”
“Me?” I asked, confused. “Nothing, I’m fine!”
“Where’d you get that?” He pointed at my bracelet, and when I shrugged, he laughed. “Henry.” An arm looped itself around my shoulder. “You’ve got to stop sitting with that girl.”
He sneered unpleasantly. “I know you’re only eight, but can’t you see?” His mouth tightened. “She’s a nigger. Filth. A nigger. Not for you, not for me, not for any of us. You see?”
I looked over at Delilah, sitting by herself with her arms wrapped around her bony knees, and then I looked around the yard and noticed for the first time that her skin wasn’t just darker than mine…it was darker than everyone’s. I turned to Mark. “But-”
“No.” He shook his head. “You stop now. Alright?” His grip tightened on my shoulders to the point of pain, and I winced. “Let’s play some ball.”
I allowed him to lead me over to the baseball diamond, glancing once more at Delilah as I walked away.
The drought carried on, seemingly synonymous to the confused heat I felt within me. Everywhere the ground cracked, the grass shrivelled and died.
I did not walk with Delilah anymore, and at school Mark watched me in a way that made me scared. She sat alone each day, her head resting on pulled up knees. I looked at the blue thread of the bracelet on my wrist. “You’re my friend, okay?”
And then one day she wasn’t there anymore, and as I was walking back from school I saw the blackened remains of the Ward house, an ugly skeleton with thick smoke rising into the sky. I ran home and asked mother what had happened, and she said that the Ward’s had moved back to where they came from.
As I walked past the house the next day, I stopped outside the gate and thought of Delilah Ward with her wide brown eyes, watching the road as her mother plaited her hair. Something began to hurt inside me, and I wheeled around, rushing back home and into my room. I pulled my old worn baseball mit out from under my bed and yanked the neatly threaded bracelet off my wrist. Stuffing it inside the mit, I shoved it back, to the farthest corner beneath my bed. Then I stood and walked back to school.
I never looked at that bracelet again.
Written for a creative writing paper at The University of Auckland, 2013