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At eight months, Lena’s belly was as big as four watermelons. Must be twins, all the women said. Miss Annabelle, the town midwife, was sure they’d be boys. Lena hoped for girls, with nary a trace of likeness to the seed that put them there. Their daddy’s name never crossed her lips, though the nightmare of their union was ever fresh in her mind. Papa asked her more than once, but she was sure that he already knew. He had a gift, Papa did, a way of studying on a thing and conjuring what it meant. But it wasn’t what Papa knew that made Lena’s palms sweat and her heart flutter. It’s what he might do to the man who forced himself into her life. There were legends about Papa, about the men who’d crossed him, and what he did to make them tremble when they heard his name.

There was a time when Lena feared that she was just like Papa, that someday, she might hurt somebody too. But her passion for healing was a saving grace. When she was six years old, Aunt Hettie started carrying her along when she tended the sick. Over the years, Lena learned how to set broken bones, sew up cuts and gashes, and mix salves to treat chicken pox, measles, and poison ivy. Her brother, Caleb, was the first baby she ever saw birthed. And the last. The pain of that night broke her heart all over again whenever the memories came back: hours of labor, blood everywhere, a naked bundle shoved quickly into her lap as Aunt Hettie fought to save her mother’s life. And lost. Lena wrapped her little brother in a blanket and pulled him close to her chest, forging a bond that would last forever. That’s when Lena decided that a healer ought to have more than roots and berries in her bag.

Lena opened the screen door and slipped out onto the front porch. The Carolina air was hot and muggy, like always in July. She sidled over to the rocking chair, backed up to it, and eased down slowly, putting both hands on the arms of the rocker to brace herself. Being off her swollen feet was heaven these days. She settled back and closed her eyes. The only sounds she heard were crickets chirping in the grasses and sparrows singing in the branches overhead. What with Aunt Hettie gone shopping, Papa taking a nap, and Caleb still at baseball practice, Lena was grateful for this moment of solitude. She folded her hands across her huge belly and sighed. At seventeen, she didn’t know how she’d take care of one baby, let alone two.

This time last year, she dreamed of moving to the city, getting a job at the Negro hospital, and going to school at night. In eighteen months, she’d be a nurse, taking care of soldiers come home from FDR’s war. She’d seen a couple of white boys around town who were missing a leg or an arm. It would be a while before colored boys had any wounds like that. They were drafted into the services already but weren’t allowed to go into combat. Lena opened her eyes, took in a deep breath, and held it for a moment.She thought of her brothers, Toby and Clarence—both in the Army—and Joe Willie, the oldest, in the Marine Corps. He was stationed at the colored marine base at Montford Point. They were all done with training and rarin’ to go overseas, but white men didn’t want colored men fighting along ’side of them. Her brothers were mad about this, but Lena was grateful that they were all still alive and whole, for now.

A rustling in the grass disturbed the calm. Lena looked up in time to see a hawk rise high into the sky carrying a snake in its mouth. She hated snakes but shuddered to think that even snakes had enemies more powerful than them. Right then, a light flashed in front of her. She took in a deep breath and sat upright in the rocker. Her heart beat faster, and a rush of heat washed over her. Papa knew. She was sure of it now. What would he do, and how would her life change because of it? All a sudden, Lena closed her eyes tight and bit down hard on her lower lip as pain shot through the right side of her belly. It lasted only a moment. When it was over, Lena settled back in the rocker. She’d had a strong kick from the twins and a vision at the same time. In a moment, she was able to relax. She smiled, wondering what her new babies would be like and regretting, just a little, that they wouldn’t be girls. Would they be tall, dark-skinned, and muscular like Papa and her older brothers? Or short and pecan tan like herself, their mother, and Caleb? But the real question, the only one that mattered was, would her sons be blessed (or cursed) with the gift that she and Papa had, the gift of seeing and knowing things in ways that could never be explained? Lena’s thoughts drifted back to the day when she discovered her own gift.


It was the summer of her twelfth year. Lena and her four brothers were left alone when Papa and Aunt Hettie went to town for groceries and supplies. Always bored and looking for adventure, the children decided to go swimming in the nearby creek. Papa had taught them all how to swim, so Lena and Joe Willie figured they could watch over three-year-old Caleb while the fourteen-year-old twins, Toby and Clarence, could take care of themselves. As the older boys ran past her and jumped into the water, Lena carried Caleb on her back, then slipped him into the pond. The boys kicked and screamed like wild animals while Lena sat on the bank daydreaming.

It happened so fast! One minute Caleb was laughing and splashing water in a circle between Joe Willie and the twins. Then Clarence was turning ’round and ’round and yelling, “Caleb! Caleb!” Lena sprang to her feet and ran to the edge of the bank. Joe Willie dove under the water, his feet sticking straight up in the air. Once, twice, three times he went down and came up for air. Lena held her breath and counted all the way to thirteen before she saw Caleb’s chubby little body raised up out of the water and passed hand-to-hand until he was lying on the bank beside her. Like a catfish hauled in for supper, he was wet and limp and still.

“He alright, Lena?” asked Toby, his eyes big and round and scared.

Truth be told, she didn’t know. In all of her years of helping Aunt Hettie, she had never seen anybody near drown.Lena’s heart pounded, and her hands trembled as she wiped Caleb’s face with the hem of her skirt, then rubbed his cheek until she felt its warmth.

“Yes, Toby. He’s alright,” Lena said, then closed her eyes and whispered the prayer Aunt Hettie taught her to say before ministering to the sick.

Joe Willie was on his knees beside her, a hand on each of her shoulders, shaking her. “What you doin’, Lena? You gonna save him or what?”

The terror in her brother’s eyes lit a fire in Lena and set her hands in motion. She turned Caleb on his side and opened his mouth. Water ran out. Now what? She leaned forward, placed her hand gently on Caleb’s small chest and felt…nothing! Lena sucked in a deep breath to swallow the scream that was rising in her throat. Her heart beat so loud she could feel it in her bones. The air seemed thick as fog. She couldn’t breathe. Rivers of sweat rolled down her back.


“That’s Mama’s voice!” Lena whispered, looking ’round and ’round.

The breath of life, child. Breathe it.

“What?” Lena hugged herself and shook her head in confusion. Was this a phrase from the Bible that she should have remembered? Was it from a sermon that her uncle had preached in church?

Joe Willie was frantic by now. He held her face in his hands, yelling, “Lena! Do something!”

“The breath of life,” she whispered, pushing his hands away from her. She leaned down, close to Caleb’s face, then opened his small mouth and gently blew into it, once, twice, three times.

“Lena! His chest moves every time you do that!” Clarence, yelled.

But when she raised her head to see for herself, there was nothing. Fear rushed through her for a moment, then fell away, replaced by the memory of Caleb nestled in her arms, taking his first breath.

“Do it again, Lena!” Toby yelled. “Do it again!”

Encouraged by the excitement in her brother’s eyes, Lena took in a deep breath, opened Caleb’s mouth, and breathed into it again. And again. And again. Her brothers held their own breaths as if to magnify Lena’s breath. Sure enough, Caleb’s little chest rose and fell, rose and fell. When she had counted ten breaths, Lena sat back on her heels and watched Caleb’s chest more closely.

“He’s breathing, Lena! He’s breathin’ by his own self,” Joe Willie yelled.

Lena smiled. She could see it now, the faint movement of Caleb’s chest, up and down, getting stronger with each breath. She leaned down and kissed Caleb’s forehead and raised him ’til he sat upright. And that’s when he coughed, spitting flecks of water and vomit right into her face. She didn’t even bother to wipe it away. They all laughed, their eyes beaming with relief.

“Thank the Lord,” said Joe Willie, echoing Lena’s thoughts.

When Caleb stopped coughing, he opened his mouth and let out a gawd-awful wail that meant trouble for them most times but was welcome to their ears this day. Without saying a word, Joe Willie scooped Caleb up in his arms and started walking home, his brothers trailing behind him. They left Lena sitting beside the creek, thinking on the “breath of life” that had saved Caleb and how Mama’s voice had whispered to her.

By the time she got home, Joe Willie and the other boys had changed into dry clothes and hid the wet ones under a barrel in the back yard. She did the same. Though you could never hide anything from Papa, they tried. Caleb was still crying, so Lena gave him a biscuit and some honey and water before rocking him to sleep on the front porch. Joe Willie stared at them for a moment, then motioned for Toby and Clarence to follow him back into the woods.

“Don’t you say nothin’ about this, Lena,” Joe Willie yelled over his shoulder.

Lena smiled to herself. Saying or not saying wouldn’t matter. Papa would know. He always did.

It was late afternoon when Papa and Aunt Hettie came back. As soon as his pickup truck rolled into the yard, Papa got out and looked around. “What happened to Caleb, and whose idea was it?”

Lena dropped her eyes, placed a finger to her lips, and kept on rocking the sleeping child.

“And where are your brothers? One of ’em’s got a story to tell,” said Papa. “Let me know when they’re all here.”

It was almost sundown when Lena’s brothers got back. Papa called them all to the front porch and made them sit on top of one another in the swing. Papa stood in front of them, saying nothing at first. The longer he stood there, the more Lena’s heart pounded. She could feel Joe Willie’s shirt getting wet against her arm and knew he was really scared. Papa stretched out the misery as he took his favorite pipe out of his pocket, knocked the old ashes out by tapping it against his palm, stuffed tobacco in the bowl, and held the pipe in his mouth. Then he pulled matches out of the pocket of his bib overalls, lit the pipe, and let the smoke rise into the air. When he was done, Papa raised his head and looked at them, not in a mean way, just a Papa way.

Wasn’t two minutes before Joe Willie started talking, blurting out everything, like he was telling a fairy tale or something. Papa’s eyes narrowed, and the wrinkles in his forehead got deeper when Joe Willie talked about little Caleb going under the water and not coming up. The wrinkles smoothed a bit when Joe Willie told how he raised Caleb out of the water and passed him along ’til he was lying next to Lena on dry land. Papa glanced at Lena sideways, nodded, and smiled when Joe Willie told how she breathed the breath of life into Caleb.

When the telling was done, all of the boys got a whippin’. Joe Willie got seven licks from Papa’s belt ’cause he was the oldest and Papa knew it was his idea to swim in the creek in the first place. Joe Willie also got a month of chores to remind him of how unhappy Papa was with what he did. Clarence and Toby got four licks each and had to help Joe Willie with his chores. Papa didn’t say anything to Lena right then. Later that night, when he was holding little Caleb in his lap and rocking him even though he was already asleep, Papa looked straight at Lena, smiled, and kissed the top of Caleb’s head.


Lena sat bolt upright in the rocking chair. A sharp pain in her belly brought tears to her eyes. She took in deep, slow breaths. In and out. In and out. “You babies trying to tell me somethin’?” she asked out loud, rubbing her belly. At that moment, Lena looked up and saw Papa walking toward the house. She braced her hands against the arms of the rocker and raised herself up. A tall, lanky, fair-skinned figure walked beside him. Her heart leaped. Sweat poured from her brow. She knew that silhouette, knew it well, though they had been intimate only once. Where had Papa found him? And how did he know he was the one? As the figure came closer, memories flooded in. A restless soul. Troubled eyes flecked with anger. Sudden bursts of violence and narrow escapes.

Lena straightened her back as the figure approached her. He held his head down at first, then raised his eyes to look into hers. They were the same light brown that Lena had stared into and loathed. To her surprise, they were now colored with shame. And fear. Lena gasped and covered her mouth with both hands. The face that belonged to the father of her twins had changed in another way. She narrowed her eyes and stared at Papa’s handiwork, eerie and hideous, just as she had feared. Etched on the side of the young man’s cheeks was…a snake? No, not a snake. Just a rattle and the fangs.

Sandra Headen is a social psychologist with experience in university teaching, public health research, and community interventions for healthy living. She is a North Carolina native and graduate of Bennett College who writes historical fiction for middle grade and young adult readers. So far, all of her stories have been set in eastern North Carolina. Her unpublished novel, Warrior on the Mound, was a winner of the On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She lives with her husband in Raleigh.

“Papa’s Gifts” is her first publication and is the first-ever winner of The Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize, which honors Harriet Jacobs and Thomas Jones, two pioneering African-American writers from North Carolina, and seeks to convey the rich and varied existence of Black North Carolinians. The contest, sponsored by the North Carolina Writers’ Network, is administered by the Creative Writing Program at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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