• “Endangered Species: Case 47401”

    An O. Henry Prize-Winning Story by Crystal Wilkinson

    All Black women got this thrumming thing inside us but don’t nobody notice. Which is understandable if you know the history of the world, but that thrum just sits in our bellies and then one day it comes on so strong that we can’t stop it even if we want to. And that’s when your Statue of Liberty might get climbed. Your abusive husband might get shot. That’s when she might quit that stupid-ass job with the manager who says she can’t wear dreadlocks. That’s when she be in the corner curled up crying her eyes out over somebody black she don’t even know that got killed somewhere, again, because that somebody feels like a sister, an auntie, or a cousin. You might see her on the front lines of a protest when she ain’t never done no shit like that before—loud and regal and effective. And then when you see her out there yelling and screaming until her voice is hoarse, looking like a god-damn goddess, that’s when you’ll pay attention but you won’t even know why. But what you don’t realize is that this thrum been with us always. These are the thoughts that came over me while I was cooking breakfast that morning in my new kitchen, which I’m sure wasn’t the first time a black woman had discovered the deep insides of herself but it was the first time for me.

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    Big V was moving up in the world, but it had never been my plan to live that far away from my people. Before his promotion, we’d been perfectly settled into this second marriage thang as though there had never been a first marriage for either of us. But since we’d packed up and moved, and Big V was acting a fool, something had climbed into my stomach and was just there, humming.

    Big V was his own version of his best self that morning, sprawled out across the new couch, reading the newspaper with one of his work boots planted in the cushion and the other one on the floor. I wanted to say “Vincent Pickens! Get your feet off the goddamn couch!” but I could feel something deep under my skin around my belly shaking, jittering, so I was trying to pay more attention to me, to that feeling, instead of him. Two months in that new house and there was my man with his uniform pressed, his name freshly embossed in blue letters on his white shirt pocket, his face cleanly shaven and his fade shaped up by his own hands, his mouth just a-going, his boots all up on the furniture, all arrogant.

    If you didn’t look closely you couldn’t even see the tiny letters underneath his name that said supervisor in rolling cursive, but you could feel supervisor every time he moved. He even smelled like supervisor with all that cologne on. I sliced potatoes into the skillet for hash, studied my hands, which had started shaking. I wanted to talk to my mama more than I wanted anything else at that moment, but I kept on cooking. Out the window was six stray cats preening and stretching in the backyard. A gray one was perched on the patio chair, fat and round, looking proud of itself. The cats came to the backyard nearly every day to make themselves known. They’d been there since we moved in. Big V didn’t pay them no attention, but I did.

    “Crazy,” Big V said that morning, “these motherfuckers.” He was puffing up into somebody’s politician right in front of me. You would have thought he was running for president, not leading a production team at the factory. Talking shit, talking about “These are the end of times as we know it. I can tell you that. These motherfuckers are crazy. This man at work, Nathaniel, remember me telling you about Nathaniel?” He peered up from the Herald and looked at me sideways like he was waiting for me to answer. “Ba’y!?” he said. I wiped my hands down the front of my T-shirt, stirred the potatoes in with the steak, and diced onions into it. He went on, and I responded with the occasional Hmmp! and I know that’s right, baby, but what I was really listening to was the pulse in my own neck thumping.

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    I looked out the window again and the cats were gone.

    By the time Baby Girl moped down the stairs, I had burned the biscuits. Same biscuit recipe I been using all these years, but it was the new stove, I guess. Baby Girl threw her backpack into a chair and flopped down at the kitchen table.

    “When we moving back home?” she said, and rolled her beautiful eyes at Big V, who had stopped his proselytizing just long enough to flip on the TV. Big V wasn’t her real daddy, but he’d been in her life for the four years we’d been married. They got along but were more like tolerating church members than real family. Or at least that’s how it was then.

    He looked at her. I threw the biscuits in the trash can. I thought about the long line of women I come from. We some big old country women—big boned, skinny-legged fine cooks. I pictured my grandmother at her kitchen window in the hills, looking up toward the knobs, the smell of bread baking wafting through the house and all of us waiting to eat. My heart clicked and ticked in my chest, and it seemed like the thrumming thing was just winding and winding like a goldfish in a bowl.

    Little V began to cry from his room upstairs, and I dropped the skillet of hash on the floor, shattering the corner of the new tile, which had been white and gleaming like something off of TV just a minute before.

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    “Damn,” Big V said, and looked at me all silly, but he didn’t say nothing else. We ate cold cereal for breakfast, which I regret now, and I also regret that me and him didn’t even kiss goodbye.

    Later that morning, Little V played on the carpet in the living room while I slung cardboard boxes into a corner of the garage and scattered my prized possessions around me in a circle on the kitchen floor. A picture of Mama Sarah and a stack of yellowed recipe cards that belonged to my mama, a box of unopened white linen that somebody bought us as a wedding present, and a whole lot of stuff that had come to mean something to me. I was just standing there looking at all my heirlooms when I saw through the living room window a white woman traipsing up our sidewalk, looking like an after-school special with that blond hair curled around her chin. Green sweater with bright red apples and yellow and green 1, 2, 3s, plaid culottes, and white stockings. The doorbell rang just as I was wondering if she had the right address.

    “Are you the lady of the house?” the woman said.

    “I am,” I said, and held the storm door open just a little.

    “Can we count on you?” the white woman said, and shoved a clipboard through the crack in the door. A man across the street was sweeping his sidewalk. A woman was ushering a girl into a waiting car. An old woman was sitting on a porch in a rocking chair holding a dog. They were all watching. They were all white people. I held the box of linen across my chest like it was a shield.

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    The white woman looked past me, to the other unopened boxes scattered across the floor. She rubbed her nose, cleared her throat, and asked if she should come back when things were in order. I didn’t say nothing but the thrum was shifting, moving around my belly button in a circle now like a Ferris wheel.

    “We’ve got to have some way to control them,” she said, and got to clicking that ink pen against her clipboard. “The petition would . . .” I placed my fist on one hip, which should have been some kind of warning to her because that’s how I meant it. Little V was crawling across the carpet, and I could hear him getting closer and closer to where I was standing. “My word!” the woman squealed when she saw him, like she’d seen one of the kittens from out back. She was still stretching her neck to see inside our house. I could see my new neighbors stopping whatever they were doing midsentence, midcut, midwalk to stare. I took the petition, thanked the woman and shut my door.

    “Ain’t that some shit?” I said to Little V. I handed him a teething cracker and rubbed my palm across his head and both cheeks. My sweet, sweet boy. I placed the box of linens on the couch and read the paper the woman gave me. “What kind of people write a petition to kill cats?” I said this out loud, but I thought I’d just said it to myself. “Motherfuckin cats!” I said ’cause I just couldn’t believe it. Little V stopped his playing and looked up at me just like he knew what I was talking about. “People crazier than hell, Little V,” I said.

    I took some aspirin.

    Out the back window, I watched the stray cats come back out of the woods and stretch themselves in the sun. Little V stayed content as long as I was in sight. He was playing with a toy car, slobbering.

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    If them cats had been house cats they would have been something else. Magnificent. The black one lounging on the arm of a couch, a man rubbing on its head, or a girl cradling the yellow one like a doll while she watched some cartoons. But they were feral, at least that’s what that white woman had called them, but I didn’t see too much wild about them. I’d petted one of them when I threw scraps out there. I kept watching, and a few younger ones followed the big ones out, and the kittens began to stretch and yawn.

    Beyond the yard was a grove of trees. I was surprised that the trees looked like they had always been there naturally and not like trees planted just to make a subdivision look comfortable. Even from the window, I could spot oaks and sycamores. During the day when it was just me and Little V, that was my favorite thing to do. I loved looking at the trees.

    Little V lifted his head. Somewhere a line from Billie Holiday twisted its way through my head. Like the rest of us, my history with trees is complicated, but I’m a black woman who loves me some trees. You not gonna take everything from me and I will tell anybody that. You ain’t taking my love for trees away too. Fuck that.

    The sky was brilliant, that’s my mama’s favorite word. I could see the woods straight ahead. To the right and the left, a long row of big white houses which looked just like the one I was standing in disturbed the land. I was sure that where our house stood a farmer tended a field once, or maybe it was part of untended land left wild, at least it seemed that way to me. And even more years back a row of brothers and sisters working a row of corn or tobacco or a young Wyandotte woman picking berries. Now I know some people don’t think like this, but this is the forreal kind of stuff I think about. No matter how you think most black women are. I’m trying to tell you about me.

    After that, I went out into the garage for more boxes and a quick smoke. That’s when I saw a mouse. A different kind of woman would have screamed bloody murder, but I didn’t. Its tail was long, curled upward like a thin ribbon. Maybe that’s how they grow up here? I was just looking at it when I saw a sparkle in the tiny eye of my first friend from the Midwest. “What’s up?” I said. “Howdy do, buddy!” I knew if I could have gotten close, I could have crushed him with one stomp from my shoe. I’d seen Daddy kill copperheads like that on the farm, back home. The amazing power of one focused black man. Whomp! Then suddenly with the heel of a work boot, the crooked world was safe again. But that mouse, just like them cats, just like me, wasn’t bothering nobody, so I left him alone.

    I called mama and she said, “Yes, I sure do remember. Uh-huh, he sure did,” when I asked her if she remembered Daddy stomping them copperheads like that.

    We both held the phone and just listened to each other’s breaths. “You like it any better?” Mama asked me.

    “I don’t know. Don’t see many black people up here,” I said.

    “Indiana,” she sighed, then harrumphed. “They killed us all out in that part of the country.”

    “Aww, Mama,” I said. “This the twenty-first century.”

    I thought about the history of the South and I thought about the North too and the things I saw on the news every day and all them black women with a thrumming in their bellies. I wanted to explain to her how maybe they were making a difference. But black people were still dying every day so I couldn’t be sure so I didn’t say nothing about it. Me and Mama don’t talk about stuff like that. But I knew at that moment that the answer sat right in my own gut. I wondered if Mama could hear that epiphany or whatever it was through the phone, or if she ever listened to her own insides, but I didn’t come out and ask her. I wanted to tell her about the white woman and the mouse and the cats and even about Big V acting siddity, but I didn’t.

    “I know what I know,” Mama said.

    I noticed a spider crawling across the ceiling that I’d have to get to later, but maybe he needed to be free, too. He was minding his own damn business. Ain’t that what we all want? Just to mind our own damn business?

    Then Mama said, “So, really, baby, how’s everything? Really.”

    What I said was “Fine.” But I really wanted to start crying, and that was before anything much had even happened.

    “How’s my grandbabies?” she said.


    “That man of yours?”


    Mama laughed so hard she got choked. “Awesome?” she said. “You know his ass ain’t awesome.”

    “We all good, Mama,” I said. And I wasn’t lying. I ain’t no Miss Cleo. How was I supposed to know about what was to come? Can you read minds? Do you know the future?

    After we got off the phone, I held the phone up to my ear a while longer listening to it buzz across two hundred miles, missing my mama like crazy.

    It wasn’t but a few seconds later that the doorbell rang again.

    Here come this white woman with her cat-killing petition at my door a second time. Sometimes I just sit back and try to imagine a whole room of white people sitting around in a meeting talking about killing cats. Is that what y’all doing when so many black people are on cooling boards all over this country? The door was cracked a little, and I heard her open it up all the way.

    “Lady of the house?” she yelled, and I came around the corner holding Little V just in time to see her foot about to cross my damn threshold. Did you hear me say MY? What the hell, right? As I rounded the wall from the kitchen, I felt dizzy. I felt a catch run through my stomach that just about doubled me over. I swear before God, I’d liken it to labor pains.

    “How you just come up in somebody’s house, lady?” I said, and my voice was slow and low because I knew this wasn’t going to turn out right. I knew it from that moment right there.

    I could feel my face flushing, my ears burning like they were on fire. I juggled Little V on my hip but he was steady trying to get down and play.

    “We need fifty more signatures,” she said as she stepped backward onto my porch.

    “I don’t have time for this dumb shit,” I said. “I done told you once.” And as I was trying to close my door, she stuck her foot right in my front door. Yes. Can you believe it?

    “Have you had time to consider our materials?” she said all silly.

    I said to her, “Now, I ain’t going to tell you not one more damn time.” Little V shifted back in my arms away from her. I tried to scoot her foot out with my own foot, but that crazy-ass woman had her heel wedged in good. “How long have you lived here?” she said, and had the nerve to raise her pen up above her clipboard like this, like she was about to write down whatever I said.

    “What?” That’s what I said. “What?!” Just like that.

    Little V was crying because he wanted me to put him down. But I felt like I needed to keep him in my arms through all this. Instinct. Mother’s intuition, I guess.

    “Do you have a copy of a mortgage or lease that I could see?” the woman said.

    I opened the door wider to make sure I heard her right. I leaned my face toward hers, and I’m not lying when I tell you that I wanted the tip of my nose to touch the tip of hers to make sure I heard her right. “What did you say?” I said. “Do I have what?”

    She repeated herself, then got a little scared look on her face before she stepped back and removed her foot.

    I slammed the door closed but before I could lock it the woman grabbed the doorknob and turned it.

    With Little V in my arms I was losing this game of tug-of-war, and by now my head felt like there were marbles rolling around in my skull. That was the worst headache I’ve ever had in my life. And let me be clear my thrumming was there constantly. I knew how it was going to end up then, and there was nothing I could have done to stop it. She yanked the door open wider and stepped one foot back in. Then come this wooshing feeling just beneath my heart. Woosh, woosh.

    Now I’m telling you, it was never my intention to lay hands on that funny-looking white woman, but when she wouldn’t remove her foot from my door, I pushed her out as hard as I could. Yes, I did that. I sure did. I pushed her out of my door. She tumbled to the sidewalk. Her pen went one way and her clipboard went another. Her culottes were bunched up around her thighs. All the stuff in her purse flew across the grass and her stocking was torn and it did look like her knee was bleeding, but she wasn’t dead. And you and I know she ain’t dead now. I ain’t killed nobody. Right? You’ve sat down and talked to her, right? She’s still living.

    Some of the neighbors had stopped in their yards, at their mailboxes, in their driveways to watch. I could see a tall white woman wearing a sun hat and glasses peering at me from across the street. She shook her head and adjusted her water hose before going back to watering her flower bed. The mailman started up our sidewalk and then kept on going to the next house when he saw us out there. I threw up my hand at him, and he didn’t speak. I closed my door and locked it. Ain’t that what people do all over the world? Close their doors, lock it, and think they’re safe?

    From the couch I peeped through the blinds, and a few neighbors came to her aid and helped gather her things. She banged on the door again and yelled, “We’ll see about this!” And then suddenly it was quiet again.

    Then later in the afternoon, I was back in the kitchen. Little V was playing with a toy that my mama bought him that bounced back upright every time he would knock it down. The boxes were piled around him, pictures turned on their backs where I wanted them to be hung along the wall. All these pictures with my people’s faces on them. Generations and generations of my family. You got a lot of family like that?

    Little V was cute all right, most babies are, but when I heard him cooing and blowing bubbles, I could almost feel my heart rising out of my chest that day. He played peek-a-boo with me while I worked in the kitchen, his curly head bobbing back and forth from view. He had gotten to that age where he didn’t want me to pick him up as much. I was his mother. Knew he needed me but I wanted something from him too. Comfort? Assurance? I wanted him to live is what I wanted. Thinking about it all made my heart heavy and made me think of the old house, Mission Creek, where I’d played in as a child, clusters of hardworking black people around me like blackberries on a vine, laughing and fussing and loving, all those kind neighbors on Logan Street and those who had passed away too.

    I stopped unpacking again and went to the window. I shared the sun coming through the window with them cats, with the mouse in the garage, with the memories of those who had been there before. Given a choice, I would have stayed at that window watching them cats all day and not ever emptied one more box. The stillness, the light streaming through the window slowed the thrum down to something that felt like comfort or pride. I’m not sure how to describe it really. It wasn’t safety. I can’t say that I felt safe, but I felt like we’d be OK.

    It was a long climb up the hill behind Mama and Daddy’s house when I was a girl, but I made it at least once a day—bending back tree saplings as I went. Nothing in the world at all wrong with being by yourself. At the top of that hill, I swelled up with happiness. From there I could see Mama’s garden, Daddy’s fields of corn, our house. I stood with my walking stick hoisted above me like an explorer of the new world, but that’s what children do. I thought my children would have that same kind of life, but that’s not gonna happen.

    Those woods have been bulldozed down to make way for a strip mall. The old farmhouse is gone. No corn. No garden. My mother moved a little closer to town and settled into a smaller house when my father died, but she still raises tomatoes on her patio in a pot. “Lord!” I said to myself, and thought I could hear a rumbling in my back somewhere, but I wasn’t quite sure. I stood there shaking the memories out of my head, Little V still crawling around on the carpet by himself. I took some more aspirin for the headache.

    A little while after that is when the police showed up. I swung Little V up on my hip and answered the door.

    “Ma’am, we’ve had a report of a situation here,” the first officer said, and was standing at my front door with his hand on his gun. Can you imagine somebody at your front door with a gun when you ain’t been in no situation with no police your whole damn life?

    “A situation?” I said. Little V kicked his legs, but I was holding on to him tight.

    “May I ask what you are doing here in this house, ma’am?” the other officer said. “We’ve gotten a call.”

    “What?” My mouth was trying to find words.

    “What are your intentions?”

    “Intentions?” I said, and looked at him like I’m looking at you right now. I mean, I know you think I’m dumb but I’ve got three years of college. Sure, I know what intentions are. I just thought it was me who should have been asking about intentions and not them.

    When I hesitated the older one said, “We are going to need you to step out here to the sidewalk.”

    “Why else would I be here? I don’t understand. Of course I live here,” is what I kept trying to tell them.

    “Well some of the folks around, the neighbors here, said that they don’t think you live here. Do you have any proof? And they saw you assault a woman here not too long ago. We are looking for the victim.”

    “The victim?!”

    There were still no words. Hell, I ain’t got no words now to explain this thing. “I live here,” I said again.

    “Can you step out of the house, please?”

    When I opened the door to try and step outside, I thought I saw a mouse hesitate before it skittered under the couch. It was my peripheral vision so maybe I imagined it, but I would swear to you that I saw that same mouse that was in the garage earlier. He appeared out of nowhere like an omen. All that fancy house and mice running around. If there had been room for laughter, I sure would have laughed, but I stayed quiet. I bounced Little V on my hip and moved him to the other side and my brain was fogged up from all of this, but mostly it was my legs that wouldn’t act right or move fast enough.

    “Now!” the officer said.

    “My baby . . . I need shoes,” I said, and then I just stepped out in my bare feet.

    “Was there a woman here?” one of them asked. “A white woman?”

    “Yes,” I said. “Blond. Talking about killing cats.”

    The older officer wrote something down in a little notebook. The younger one said, “Can you tell us what happened?”

    I started at the beginning, but by then my thrum was threatening to leave my body. I tried to think about all them cats dancing among the sycamores in the sun because what was really on my mind was that thing in my gut growing and pulsing. I talked about history, my ancestors, and my mama. I told them about my wedding, about the births of my children. I told them about that boy in the park who had been shot because he was holding a toy gun up in Cleveland. I told them about that famous singer who had raped all them young black girls and nobody had done nothing in Chicago. I told them about the woman who had died in the jail in Texas. “You know good and well that woman didn’t kill herself,” I said. I said, “What about all them black mothers?” I told them about the three-year-old Minnesota girl who watched her mother’s boyfriend get shot to death by police. “This is why black people don’t trust white people or the police,” I said. When I got to the part of about the humming thing that lived inside the wombs of black women, the officers looked at each other. One looked surprised. The other one had a smirk on his face like that white boy from Covington had when he was talking to that Native American elder. “Covington, Kentucky,” I said. I talked about Covington. I talked about Kentucky. I’m from Kentucky, too. Did you know that? I talked and talked, but when I stopped to catch my breath the older officer said, “Ma’am, we’re going to have to ask you to put the baby down.” He talked to me like I was a dog and not a woman.

    “Hand him here,” the other one said, “I’ll take him.”

    I know you think I’m crazy but I’m not. I didn’t say nothing else but I wasn’t about to put Little V down. I’d hold him till his daddy and his sister came home if I had to. I’d hold him until the next time I saw my mama. I’d hold him until black people stopped dying in the streets. And that’s when I heard the thrum louder than I’d ever heard it before. I could feel it spreading out from my womb through my entire body, and then it left my body and floated like a summer storm above our heads, above the neighborhood, above the entire country. And one cop had his hand on his gun and the other one kept saying, “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to put that boy down right now.”

    But I didn’t. I wasn’t going to ever let go of my baby. Not until all my people were free.


    “Endangered Species: Case 47401” copyright © 2019 by Crystal Wilkinson

    From THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF 2021: The O. Henry Prize Winners, edited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, series edited by Jenny Minton Quigley, to be published by Anchor Books on September 14, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Vintage Anchor Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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