Wild Blackberry

All I know for sure is this blackberry I hold. It grew wild in my yard, ripened near to busting, smells like summer and looks like blood. It stains my fingers and tastes like June. Maybe in January when I’m desperate for warmth I’ll come back to this day and remember the sunny juices. The blackberry is deceptive; it gushes sweet at first then turns tart like a pang, and it’s messy and the seeds get lodged in my teeth. I spread the berry juice along my ankle and recall a time when these legs were young and brown, they never ached and never failed me. They carried me all across the land and I’m glad of it because now I’m an old hermit woman, doing what I like, listening to the birds trill, “Where are we going? Where are we going?” and knowing I don’t have to go.

That mountain over there is way older than me and it stays put, too, no need to go rambling. That’s for the children and the birds, Where are we going, they say, and the wind sighs and the earth pulses, oh these youngsters. The blackberry juice has dried on my fingers now and all of a sudden I smell autumn way early, have I dreamed it? I am terrified of the cold. Maybe I’ve slept through summer and the birds have gone. See, there’s blood on my hands and it’s not going away, not ever: the red-purple juice stains like the bruises he gave me for the last time, after our girl-baby was born dead and the blood ran down my legs, but I had just enough strength to grab the knife.

My oldest daughter cleaned up and said Mama it’s dark moon so we have all night to bury him.

Persephone

Last Friday I was driving home from a springtime ritual near Athens – a sunny celebration of Persephone involving a spiral walk and various priestesses leading the group in joyful song – when I saw the Bojangles’ sign: “ORDER YOUR BISCUITS NOW FOR EASTER SUNRISE SERVICE.” Then damned if the McDonald’s next door didn’t try to one-up Bojangles’ by declaring, on their sign, that the Easter Bunny himself would be in attendance the next day, maybe to eat a Big Mac and sign autographs. Well, I don’t guess he’d sign autographs. He’d hold some kids on his lap and make happy hoppy gestures without saying two words about like he does every year in Winterton, Georgia.

Suddenly, even though I was just a few minutes from my little house off Main Street, I got a bad craving for either a biscuit or a Cadbury crème egg. Not the fancy kind with caramel or fudge, but the original egg with the white and yellow sugary substance inside; it was hard to find it with all the other new-and-improved versions out, though. I decided I’d have better luck with an egg and cheese biscuit from McDonald’s so I turned around and headed for the drive-thru.

The parking lot where I sat eating my biscuit overlooked the Methodist church. Children were playing outside on a grassy field between church and cemetery, the cool wind wild and troublesome. The weatherman was calling for frost over the weekend and I worried about my daffodils, white and yellow like the crème eggs, fighting their way up through the depths of winter like Persephone risen from the underworld to the earth, finally, finally, her mama Demeter says, finally.

A lone woman supervising the church kids stood beside a cross with a black cloth draped carefully over its wooden arms. She was there but not really there, which put me in mind of a story my own mother told me some time back. As I crinkled up the biscuit wrapper and tossed it in the paper bag, I pictured the scene in my mind: in 1952 Mama was a little over ten years old, playing outside on Good Friday with the Methodist youth group. (Mama’s family was Baptist but the Baptists went to the Methodist kids’ programs, and the Methodists went to the Baptists’ programs, and on it went so that all Winterton children were thoroughly infused with the horrors of the crucifixion by at least age 12.)

Mama said that while she played with a jump rope her eye was drawn to one of the houses nearby. On the back porch steps sat a high school girl who had done a shameful thing – gotten pregnant without a husband – and there she was in deep sorrow, sitting stooped on her mama’s steps watching the kids play, knowing that in a few days she’d be sent off out west somewhere, or so the talk went, to spare her family any, well, public embarrassment.

“What happened to her, Mama, after she left Georgia?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but after that Easter I never saw her again. To this day I can’t forget that poor girl just sitting there, by herself, watching us kids. I wanted to go over and see if she’d jump rope with me but Miss Hanson said, when I walked toward the house, ‘Come on back, now, Pansy.’” Mama looked thoughtful. “She was one of the Collinses but I can’t recall her first name. Her mama was Inez. I used to hear your Gran whisper with Aunt Lil about how Inez and them was so tore up they didn’t know what to do.”

“So they just sent her off?”

Mama nodded. “It was different in those times. Gran said the girl wound up dying fairly young of cancer, maybe in her fifties. They printed the obituary in the Winterton paper but wasn’t a thing mentioned about where she’d lived or what she’d done in the meantime. It was like nothing had ever happened, which maybe was true for all anybody around here knows.”

The sound of the train whistle brought me back to the McDonald’s parking lot. I cradled my belly, feeling the life inside. My first child, a daughter named May, was due in a month. I had no husband to speak of, didn’t want one, and even though Daddy grumbled some about me breaking off with Donnie and spending time with pagans, of all things, Mama never said a word. Maybe it was because she felt haunted over the years by the Collins girl who disappeared like Persephone to an underworld of small-town Georgia’s own choosing, somewhere as far away as Hades and maybe twice as lonely as those back porch steps.

I called Mama when I got home.

“I won’t ask you how that service or whatever was because it upsets your daddy too much,” Mama said. “Lord have mercy. What in the world? I wish you’d read the book of John – the Gospel John, not the ‘I John’ in Revelation that you got all fussy about that time. At least come to Easter Sunday sunrise service with us. Preacher Ed’s going to talk on resurrection and eternal life.”

“I don’t care to hear Preacher Ed but I’ll take y’all to lunch after.” I looked out my kitchen window, watching the wind jostle the new buds. “You know, Donnie wanted to cut down my Bradford pear tree,” I told her, probably for the tenth time. “Just said he didn’t like it. And there it is blooming so pretty.”

“I know, and he was funny about those daffodils you planted too.”

“You reckon they’ll make it through the frost?” I asked.

“Yeah, your daddy says they will,” Mama said. “They’re tough little things.”

“Ok. Oh, don’t forget to order your Easter biscuits from Bojangles.”

Mama laughed. “Has Hector got that sign up again?”

We both giggled and I felt my girl move. She wasn’t due until Beltane but kicked like she wanted to bust on out into the world with us right then.

“Hold on, now,” I said to May after hanging up with Mama. “I’ve got to have a little more time to work on your room, all this yellow and green and white.” I reached for a paintbrush in the hall closet and tied my hair back. “Soon enough you’ll be Queen of the May, little springtime miss, soon enough. It’s all in the timing.”

Late into the night I finished painting my daughter’s room with the Collins girl – nameless, faceless, dejected – in my mind. Had her “illegitimate” child been born? Was the Collins girl a good mother, if so? Did Inez ever write her daughter a letter, and did they ever make peace? Had she longed for home? The saddest truth, I realized, was that had the Collins family lived now, in the 21st century, not too many folks except maybe Preacher Ed would bat an eye about the pregnancy. “Everything happens for a reason,” Mama says but I don’t know. It’s mostly just luck and chance, seems to me. All in the timing.

May kicked again. Or was it her elbow? Either way, I felt a sharp jab and I winced to think about all the mothers and daughters down through time, starting with Demeter and Persephone and ending up with Mama and me, and now me and May, and millions of others in between, and it was all I could do to take a breath. I felt terrified and hopeful at the same time. Is it time?

Finally, finally, May . . . you will be among women free to dance around the Maypole like goddesses.  

 

 

Medusa

“Perseus told of his long journeys, of dangers that were not imaginary ones, what seas and lands he had seen below from his high flight, and what stars he had brushed against with beating wings. He still finished speaking before they wished. Next one of the many princes asked why Medusa, alone among her sisters, had snakes twining in her hair. The guest replied, ‘Since what you ask is worth the telling, hear the answer to your question. She was once most beautiful, and the jealous aspiration of many suitors. Of all her beauties none was more admired than her hair: I came across a man who recalled having seen her. They say that Neptune, lord of the seas, violated her in the temple of Minerva. Jupiter’s daughter turned away, and hid her chaste eyes behind her aegis. So that it might not go unpunished, she changed the Gorgon’s hair to foul snakes. And now, to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear, the goddess wears the snakes, that she created, as a breastplate.’”

                      from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 8th century (trans. A.S. Kline, 2000)

My name is Medusa, guardian and protector.  I was once most beautiful.  Now I am a fearsome, dead thing, snaky and wild, for all of eternity.  As punishment for being raped in her sacred temple, the goddess Minerva turned my golden locks to serpents.  I lived like this, tortured and hideous, until a man asked for my head; Perseus began his quest, found me asleep, and murdered me.  It was as simple as that.  I gazed out lifeless at any number of enemies, turning them to stone on command.  Finally, in order to protect herself, Minerva placed my head on her shield, the first but not the last woman to betray me.

Women betray me still when they turn from my face, the face of endless trauma and violence.  The ugliness hurts their pretty eyes.  Modesty prevents them from looking at me without wincing, or fainting, or screaming.  These women are too delicate and pure of heart to face the brutality of a predator-god who stalked me when I was a girl, innocently worshiping a goddess in her temple.  I became a monster not after Minerva cursed me with serpents but during Neptune’s attack.  I became monstrous because I was mortal, after all.  Had I been divine, I could have become Pegasus myself rather than birthing him from my bleeding neck.  But it’s always the men who fly off with ease and who tell the tale later around a blazing fire; they tell my story for me, and the women turn away.

Look at me: my name is Medusa.  I was once most beautiful.  And now I am the Gorgon who turns your heart to stone.


Danse Macabre

Danse Macabre by Author Ellen J. Perry

“I looked around good. Hit struck me how lonesome the cabin was, set back in the cedar trees thataway, despite her children a-playing all around the steps. Hit was kindly dark back in there, and the cold wind come a-blowing through them cedar trees with a sighing sound, a crying sound, real mournful-like.”  

           Lee Smith, The Devil’s Dream (1992)

 

Giselle

The biggest mistake I ever made was moving to the mountains. Mother warned me and I didn’t listen. “I love Arthur,” I proclaimed one night at my parents’ elegant dinner table, home for a short break from college, and she said, “‘Love,’ my white ass,” and stormed off. This sort of crude language was unusual for Mother who, born poor and married rich, rarely returned to her roots. In fact, she went from Penny Gap, Virginia – “where,” she’d mock, “didn’t nobody have a penny” – to Richmond with her high school senior class to see the ballet Giselle, deciding then and there that she’d never be a weak-hearted peasant girl done in by her betters. Instead, she felt tremendous determination to become one of the elite; she would do whatever it took to join forces with wealth and, with either God’s help or the Devil’s, she pulled it off.

Mother moved to Norfolk at eighteen and met John Harrington at an officers’ ball when she was twenty. They married within six months, and she followed him and the Navy all over the world until my brother Dalton’s impending arrival was announced. At that point Mother said it was time to settle down in Chesapeake even though Daddy kept working and traveling. Three years later I was born; Mother named me Giselle so as to commemorate both her moment of awakening in Richmond and her ultimate victory in escaping generational poverty. Throughout my childhood she held court in a gated community called Cedar Grove Estates, a name she hated because it reminded her of the red cedars from home. All letters sent to Chesapeake from Penny Gap were returned unopened, but not before one day I finally thought to write down my grandmother Hattie’s address; I kept this secret treasure hidden away for years in my beloved jewelry box, the one Mother had given me for my fifth birthday. The box sheltered a tiny ballerina, a silent, patient girl hunched inside waiting to be released to twirl madly in her petal-pink tulle skirt.

I didn’t dare write to Hattie for fear of Mother’s temper but grew up longing to know about this side of my family. Daddy told a few stories about crazy aunts and witchy cousins (but only when Mother was off with her women’s club friends), and Dalton remembers meeting our grandparents once in Abingdon when I was a toddler, but I didn’t know them at all. As a result, I romanticized mountain life; envisioning rugged terrain and intense passions, I read Wuthering Heights at fifteen and yearned for connection with my wild heritage. Hattie could be like Cathy, for all I knew, roaming the hills and loving some brilliant, moody Heathcliff. I identified not with Daddy’s people who were originally from Maryland but with Mother’s, kinfolk spread out over a few coves and hollers within our same state but a million miles from the Tidewater.

Dalton believes I fell for Arthur Dennis because of this tendency to idealize mountain culture, and I’m sure he’s right. Arthur and I met at Radford University where, much to Mother’s disappointment, I refused to join a sorority and instead declared a History major with a minor in Appalachian Studies. Hailing from Grundy, Virginia, Arthur was a quiet, serious geology student whose parents had saved just enough money for him to attend the first two years of college; after that he was on his own, so he worked various part-time jobs and managed to stay afloat. We met at a mountaintop removal event during our junior year and talked about the importance of making a contribution in the world. Later, Mother said over the phone that our romance was “just a phase” but I envisioned the two of us living deep in the mountains, my teaching Social Studies and Arthur teaching Earth Sciences, both of us crackling with energy and youth and the fire of purpose. We would inspire rural kids with our knowledge and light a path for them to see their way beyond limitations and into wider realms of opportunity.


Arthur

Giselle thought she had it all figured out even before we graduated from Radford, way before we knew anything much about each other or the mundane crap of adult life or what in hell we’d do to manage classrooms full of rebellious teenagers who didn’t give two damns about Native American artifacts or the Emancipation Proclamation. But what I loved about Giselle in those early days was her hope. She wanted us to join forces and build a life that mattered. I was hopeful, too, but more practical because I knew the mountains in a way she never could. The land itself was rich but fickle, physically wounded by human greed and prone to vengeance.

A bad feeling kept hanging around me like a ghost during our last semester, a dread I couldn’t get rid of even after Giselle – always the one who took charge and blazed trails – heard about a remote West Virginia high school that was hiring new teachers, then found the “perfect” little cabin without a neighbor in sight and “lots of potential.” I knew in my gut that this girl who grew up with the finest of everything wouldn’t be prepared for what surely awaited us in an old, isolated, fixer-upper cabin in Monroe County, but she was excited and her laugh so sweet that I couldn’t help but follow and hope maybe it’d work out. Hell, I’d been wrong before.

Giselle’s family met mine for the first time at our graduation day luncheon. That’s what Mrs. Harrington called it, “luncheon.” My parents didn’t know what to order off the menu so I pointed out some appetizers that might be good. Dad took one sip of his gazpacho and whispered to Mom, “Is this soup supposed to be cold?”

Well, the highlight of the event was Giselle’s grandmother Miss Hattie’s big entrance. She’d come over from Penny Gap and shocked everybody to death. Giselle had written to her, not expecting to hear a word back, but all of a sudden here she was rolling into the country club on her walker. “God almighty, it’s Hattie Buchanan,” Captain Harrington exclaimed. “Another round of bloody marys, please, Chip.”

Giselle’s brother Dalton jumped up to help Miss Hattie to a chair. Giselle was so happy she started crying.

“Good Lord, Mama, did you drive here?” Mrs. Harrington asked, white-faced. Miss Hattie acted like it was nothing, like she’d been joining the Harringtons for luncheon every Saturday of her life. “Aw, hell no, I haven’t drove in years. My cousin Inez got her boy Malachi to carry me,” Miss Hattie said. “He’s out in the car now. I figure I’ll bring him some ham sandwiches to eat while we all go to these young people’s to-do.” Miss Hattie put on her glasses to look at the menu but kept on talking. “Malachi don’t want to see nobody nor get out of the car. Old Plymouth he bought off of Onie’s people. You remember Onie and them, don’t you, Peg?”

I’d only known Mrs. Harrington to be called Margaret, so hearing “Peg” was a surprise. Sensing the tension, Mom made her usual changing-the-subject statement: “Well, the weatherman surely has been good to us, hasn’t he?”

Dalton smiled, relieved. “Yes indeed. Perfect day to celebrate Giselle and Arthur.”

Miss Hattie took off her glasses, her sunken gray eyes staring right at Giselle. “I hear tell you’re coming over toward our way for work, child.”

“Yes,” Giselle said brightly. “Arthur and I can’t wait to get settled. We’re going to be renovating this cabin – ”

“You’uns getting married?”

I cleared my throat while Mrs. Harrington took a pretty big sip of her second bloody mary. “We’re thinking about something small next summer,” I stammered, “after we get the first school year behind us.”

“Well, this is another surprise,” Mrs. Harrington’s voice was unusually high-pitched. “I don’t see a ring, do you, John?”

“Mother,” Giselle warned.

“Ain’t no reason for that wedding foolishness, is what I was about to say,” Miss Hattie barked. “One day I’ll tell you stories about your granddaddy, Giselle, stories that’ll curl your hair. Horace was bad to drink and stubborn as a goat, mean too, and ran with any woman in the gap that paid him the least bit of attention. I ain’t shed no tear about losing him to the pneumonia must of been five year ago now.” She leaned in and pointed a gnarled yellow finger first at Giselle and then me. “It’s a whole hell of a lot harder to get out of something than it is to get in it. You mark your old granny’s words, you hear?”

We sat in silence for some time. Giselle nibbled on a crab cake. Finally Dad said, “There don’t seem to be any regular-sized sandwiches on the menu, Miss Hattie, but this cold soup isn’t too bad if you think Malachi might want some.”

Hattie nodded. “I’m obliged to you for that.”

Thinking back on that day, I wonder what might have happened had Giselle written to Hattie sooner. Would she have told her granddaughter some truth about mountain life, like she did about marriage? Could she have said or done anything that would get Giselle to think differently about our move?


Giselle

One of the first keepsakes I put out on our dresser in the cabin was my pink ballerina jewelry box. Somehow having it in sight made me feel like there was order amid the chaos of moving boxes, a reminder of better times despite the mess I’d made in convincing Arthur that Monroe County could be our home. A life lesson that even college didn’t succeed in teaching me: nothing is ever as good as we imagine. I dreamed up “rustic” and “charming” when really our cabin felt like it was falling down around us, dusty and dark, an angry outsider rejected by civilization. We were outsiders, too. Well, mostly I was the misfit; Arthur adapted to the Crabtree community’s ways pretty well, and his dad and some friends from Grundy fixed the worst of the cabin’s structural problems.

Still, no matter how many people came to see us that first summer, either to work on the house or to visit, nobody stayed long. Once darkness started to fall, our guests would get itchy to leave, almost like a spell was cast or as if they were put in a trance and told to go. Harlan Vance, the closest neighbor we had who lived about five miles down the road, would stand up at the appointed time and say, “Well, we better get on back.” He and his wife Erma would shuffle out to their Buick and leave Arthur and me alone to watch the fireflies dance in our front yard. Used to warm sea breezes, I never got accustomed to the chilly evening winds that whipped around us in those mountains, even in July, reminding me that I was not merely out of my element but isolated, forsaken, abandoned by the hopes that had bolstered me through long nights of studying and dreaming and making plans.

Gearing up for work in the fall was even worse. That August I stood in front of a classroom and struggled to find my footing, worried that my student-teaching experience in a more urban high school near Radford hadn’t prepared me for the different challenges that rural education systems faced. In fact, I couldn’t figure out the system at all; maybe there wasn’t one, or maybe I was never to be let in on its inner workings. I’m still haunted by the memory of one student in particular, a laid-off coal miner’s son, who blurted out right in the middle of my lesson on the Battle of Blair Mountain, “You foreigners don’t know nothing about it.” My first impulse was to tell him I most certainly did know about it, that I wrote my senior paper about Appalachia’s socio-political response to the mine wars, but then I realized: the student was right. I knew nothing about it.

Arthur’s team leader Mr. McKinney told us, when we went to him for advice, “We’re not social workers or addiction counselors or therapists, which is what most of these kids need. Just do the best you can and leave the rest to fate or God or whatever it is you choose to believe in.” Arthur was resilient, able by December to figure out some strategies that worked with even the most unruly of his teenagers, but I had lost my belief in much of anything. I fell into a really dark place after school let out for winter break. Icy winds wouldn’t stop blowing through the cedars; no matter how many times I put plastic over the crack in the kitchen window, the curtain kept blowing in. The cabin floors creaked at my every step. Terrifying nightmares about being chased into a corner with no way out made me afraid to sleep, so on top of it all I was constantly exhausted and irritable. Erma Vance came over fairly often with holiday recipes and small talk but the last thing I wanted to do was cook, much less chat politely about the goings-on at Crabtree First Missionary Baptist Church.

I wanted to close my pink jewelry box over my head, lie down with the silent ballerina, and disappear from life.


Hattie

Arthur wrote me a letter and I knowed I had to go. It was Christmas Eve when me, Malachi, and Inez pulled up to that cabin in Malachi’s old truck, snow piled up deep against the walls, not but one light flickering in there. I hollered from the porch and Arthur let us in, us three and the cold blasting through that heavy door all at once, and I seen Giselle wrapped up in a quilt by the fire but she didn’t even hardly blink, just stared at the flames, and I knowed she was hurting bad.

Inez did too. Her and a lot of the women in our family (not me) got that magic something to where they feel things. She told Malachi to set down in the rocking chair by Giselle while she walked all around that cabin, feeling things, and I went straight to the kitchen with Arthur and started fixing up some beef soup. “Inez can see the haints and talk to the spirits all she wants,” I told Arthur, “but my grand-girl needs some meat on her bones.” He helped me cut up some vegetables and I could tell he was worried to death. I liked him a sight bettern I did old John Harrington that stole my Peg away. Well she was already gone by the time she met John so I don’t know.

Just when I got the soup ready to set out for everybody, here come Inez out of the main bedroom and into the kitchen, eyes blazing.

“Hattie, Hattie,” she said, grabbing at my arm. “They’s a woman in that bedroom wants to talk to you.”

“God’s blood, Inez, you know I can’t hear nothing like that. Get her to tell you and you tell me.”

Every time, Christ help us, every time, me and Inez have to do it this way. She can’t never remember I don’t have the gift or doesn’t want to, one. I went to the main room, put the soup on a tray in front of Giselle, and we were all quiet for a while.

Inez finally mumbled, “She wants to talk to Hattie.”

“Mama, Hattie can’t hear her,” Malachi hollered, rocking slowly, knowing Inez hears haint voices bettern human ones. “You got to tell it.”

I was setting beside Giselle who’d pepped up a little with some soup in her when I noticed Arthur was getting testy, wondering who in the world Inez thought was back in their bedroom. He’d done been back there twice and not seed nary a thing.

“Shh!” Inez shushed us, peering into the bedroom from the door frame. “Hush now, hush. She’s back in that corner, hiding. But I can see you, lady, come on out. Ain’t nobody gon hurt you here, come on, honey.”

I heard no sound but the fire crackling.

“She won’t come out from that corner by the bed,” Inez said. “But I can hear her whisper, can’t you, Hattie? She says, ohh, like a moan, o, it’s a sigh, but there’s more to tell than that, she wants to tell it but ain’t nobody ever listened, and she’s sad, gon fill up Giselle with hurt till she hears it too. O, it’s like a sad sigh, poor lost girl.”

Of a sudden Giselle cocked her head and said to me, “I hear her crying, Granny, can’t you?”


Erma Vance

Those young teachers in the cabin moved out right quick-like in the new year, and I’m glad of it. That place ain’t no good for nobody. Lyin son of a gun real estate foreigner from Beckley told them that the owners had foreclosed and they’d get a good deal, cabin just needed some fixin up, a little tender lovin care. He’ll get his for telling that story. Then again maybe me and Harlan are part to blame too. We never could bring ourselves to tell them about what all happened.

I recollect the winter forty-odd year ago when Harlan went over to the cabin to check on Ivy Wallin, all alone after her husband disappeared with some hot-to-trot thing he’d brought home from Vietnam, after the war over there. Ivy was hanging by the neck in the corner of her bedroom, Harlan never did tell me no details. He called the sheriff and they cut her down, bless that poor woman, didn’t have no family here and the closest kin anybody knew about was in Florida, so Preacher Davies and some deacons buried Ivy out back beneath the cedars, and things ain’t been the same in Crabtree since. Some say Ivy hung herself, some say her no-good husband come back and made her do it, forced her to make it look like she done it to herself. Preacher Davies said at the little graveside service, Oh, I pray her soul will rest, and that she repented and was saved by the sacrifice of our Lord in heaven, but Ivy hadn’t never been much of a church-going woman, so most everybody doubted it.

She may not of been saved but Ivy sure did love to dance, I remember that. They was these dance socials over at the square and she was the best and prettiest one there. The socials went on for a few months until the church elders said dancing was of the devil, which I didn’t believe. You wouldn’t believe it, either, if you’d of seen Ivy move so sweet in that pink shirtwaist dress, laughing and swaying with the husband she thought loved her more than life. And maybe he did cause he left that other woman and come back to the cabin a year later and shot hisself in the head with a rifle on Christmas Eve, didn’t nobody find him till after the thaw and he wasn’t but a twisted-up skeleton laying on the bedroom floor. Them rats and such got him, I reckon, course he was a rat too, they’d gnawed away at him till they wasn’t hardly nothing left. Harlan told anybody who asked, Yessir, wasn’t nothing left of that rat Mr. Wallin but his cold white bones.


Arthur

How me and Giselle survived that winter eight years ago, I don’t know. Now that we’re living in Chesapeake near her folks it all seems like a bad dream. It happened, though, and Hattie still writes to us every month with updates about her garden and her cousins. She and Mrs. Harrington started to make up some when our little girl Ivy was born. She’s four years old now and loves to laugh. That laugh brings us all together, I guess, helps us stumble out of the old ways into a new generation.

Most days I’m happy enough here on the coast. Most days I hope for a typical Tidewater childhood for Ivy. Every now and then, though, I see something in our daughter’s face that makes me think of Inez, and Hattie, and all my relatives in Grundy, and the wild mountain blood that runs through Ivy’s little veins despite our constant drop-offs and pick-ups to swimming lessons and spring-flings and recitals. Frenzied activity fools us into believing that we can stave off the uncivilized and deadly forces that Giselle wanted to leave behind in the mountains. We left it all back there for good, she says, and that’s that. But outside on summer evenings just before dark when Ivy cocks her head and says to me, “Daddy, I see a pretty lady dancing,” and I see nothing at all, I wonder.

 

Shit Just Got Real: A 21st-Century Fairy Tale

Shit Just Got Real by Author Ellen J. Perry

“I did not feel half bad walking the red-dog road down the mountain that next morning, in fact I felt like running and whooping it up, yelling and swinging on grapevines like we used to do up on Pilgrim Knob. Because it is a fact that if you are ruint, like I am, it frees you up somehow.”  

Lee Smith, Fair and Tender Ladies (1988)

Once upon a time in downtown Asheville, North Carolina – this past Friday at 4:30pm, to be exact – two professional women were leaving work in business-casual dress, trying to decide whether or not to check out the Magic Mike Male Revue show later that night. Well, Eliana was trying to decide; Ivy had already made up her mind that she was definitely going and bringing three friends along for the wild ride.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Ivy said. “Girls’ night out. How long has it been since we’ve done that?”

“I don’t know. I’m tired,” Eliana said with a sigh, rubbing her temples. “This week has just about done me in. Plus I worry about what if we see people from our office, or my church singles group I quit going to a while back. They’ll think I’m ruined for sure.”

“Ruined!” Ivy laughed, grabbing her friend playfully by the arm. “What is this, the 1800s? Anyway, you’ll get your second wind once you see those guys. I bet there’ll be some in military and fireman outfits. Maybe a stripper-policeman will put us under arrest! Throw on that dress you used to wear to your dance class and meet us at the door.” Right in the middle of Pack Square, Ivy bumped her hips a bit then moved into a full-blown shimmy. A man’s voice shouted out from a passing car, “Hey, African Queen!” The friends giggled and kept on walking.

“Have the VIP tickets sold out?” Eliana asked. “I don’t want to rub elbows down there by the stage with the bouncers and, well, the drunken riff-raff.”

“Yeah, the private booths are long gone, so we’ll have to get our tickets at the door. But the riff-raff is the best part.” Ivy leaned in, “No telling what could happen when you’ve got tipsy women stumbling around in stilettos or cowboy boots, slinging their purses and hooting at half-naked men. It’ll be an adventure.”

“I’ll think about it,” Eliana said, ignoring Ivy’s eye roll. “Hey, remember when I was in that book club at work? We read a novel by Lee Smith called Fair and Tender Ladies. There’s this one part where the main character says being ruined is liberating. What do you think of that?”

Ivy laughed. “I think we’re just going to be doing what men have done for years. They aren’t too worried about ruination or damnation or whatever. See you tonight!”

“I’ll think about it,” Eliana said again.

Eliana drove home, fed her cat, watered the plants, put on her pajamas, and nestled into her plush ivory couch. She thought about it. Option 1: eat popcorn for dinner and watch a scary movie on TV since it was getting close to Halloween; that would leave plenty of time for her to finalize some reports for work and then go to bed. Option 2: peel herself off the couch, get dressed (again), go by the ATM, walk some distance in uncomfortable shoes to a loud nightclub, and throw away her hard-earned money one dollar bill at a time.

The choice was easy.

Eliana picked up her phone to text Ivy that she was going to skip out on Option 2 when something stopped her. What’s happening to me? I’m only 35 years old and acting like an old lady. She looked down at her cat Muffin who was playing with a tattered piece of string on the floor and enjoying herself immensely. Even my cat has more fun on a Friday night than I do.

Muffin’s pitying blink finally made Eliana trudge upstairs to her bedroom, fish out that short black dancing dress in the corner of her closet, dust off her glittery heels, fluff up her hair a little bit, and head out. Cars were backed up on the interstate from every direction. Were all the women of Asheville out chasing these “male entertainers” tonight? Maybe it’s something else they’re chasing, Eliana thought as she sat in traffic clutching the steering wheel: escape from the drudgery of their real lives, relief from the weight of responsibility they carried every day, the gift of laughter and friendship, and maybe most of all the experience of being treated like valuable human beings and not machines.

Eliana had told Ivy more times than she could count that women functioned as the backbone of society – bottom line, they made life work. She could hear Ivy asking in her sassy way, “Yeah, so what’s your point?” Now, Eliana thought, it’s our turn to cash in on some of the fun we’ve earned while keeping everything and everyone else afloat. “That’s my point,” she said out loud as if her friend were there, and laughed with abandon, surprising herself by feeling a hint of excitement about the night ahead.

“Just got parked,” Eliana texted Ivy as she followed the crowds of women trundling toward the club on a pilgrimage. Good thing they knew where the venue was; she wouldn’t have to bother with her GPS. As soon as she reached the door and peered in, though, she panicked.

“Hey, E!” Ivy called out, lovely in her light green jacket and black leggings. Her flawless brown skin was smooth like caramel. “Are you ok? You look a little freaked out.”

“You didn’t tell me this was the First Date Place!”

“What?”

“This club is what used to be that arcade where Wilson and I had our first date.”

Ivy looked at the building as ladies swarmed by them to get their hands stamped. “Oh no… it is! I’m so sorry, I didn’t think.”

“It was almost two years ago. To the day.”

“Well, I always thought it was weird that he invited you to an arcade for your first date,” Ivy put her arms around Eliana’s small, slumping shoulders. “But this is perfect. You can get rid of that memory now. Come on, let’s go in.”

Eliana took a deep breath and greeted Ivy’s friends, happy that she wasn’t alone. Plus she knew that a Bahama Mama or two wouldn’t hurt in terms of nerve-calming, so she elbowed up to the bar and put her order in. The music was already so loud that she had to shout to be heard.

Waiting for her drink, she glanced around. The place was completely different than it had been when she’d first met Wilson there. Bright colors and cozy booths replaced drab tables and creaky barstools. Eliana herself was also different after nearly two years of trying to make things work with Wilson. She knew better now who she was, what she wanted, the quirks she could tolerate and the red flags she wouldn’t wave away.

Ivy’s friends claimed a table in the back just when the lights in the club went down and a loud, deep voice boomed out from the speakers:

“Ladies of Asheville, get ready…. we’ve brought some of the Southeast’s finest entertainers here just for your pleasure….”

The light show nearly blinded Eliana but the drum-beat wildness of the room’s energy was contagious.

“Put your hands up….”

Ivy and Eliana jostled toward the stage with the others as if drawn by a powerful magnet.

“…for some MAGIC TONIIIIIGHT!”

Ivy’s jaw dropped as the first dancers came out. At nearly six feet tall, she had easy access to the stage and got her camera phone ready.

Eliana yelled, “I can’t see a damn thing! What’s happening?”

“Oh my God, E! He just set that girl from the bachelorette party down on a chair and then picked her up, chair and all! Can you see her feet? She’s upside down!”

Eliana was only about 5’3 in her highest heels and felt like Zacchaeus from the New Testament. She chuckled to herself, recalling the image from her Vacation Bible School book: Zacchaeus was too short to see Jesus passing through one day, so he got the big idea that he’d climb a sycamore tree to get the best view. Eliana conjured an image of old Miss Florence, her VBS teacher, who would be in dire need of smelling salts if she could see Eliana on this night. Then again, maybe it would have done Miss Florence some good to get turned upside down in a chair by a hot fireman on occasion. Eliana grinned, left Ivy watching the act, and set off to make a story of her own. Hell, if a diminutive outcast tax collector could do it back in Bible times… Eliana thought, taking off her heels to climb up the makeshift sycamore tree, damned if in the day of women’s emancipation I won’t hop up on this table alongside this wall and see precisely what I can see.

What she saw amazed her. There were women of all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes diving into life, filling up the room with their energy, experiencing all the senses at full tilt. They laughed, hooted, cheered, celebrated. They celebrated impending marriages, finalized divorces, big birthdays; they celebrated life itself, and they did it together with the men playing right along. Eliana hadn’t felt so free and uninhibited since she’d gotten involved with Wilson two years before. She set her shoes down beside her and danced on that table without a trace of self-consciousness, danced like a gentle wave, regretted her thoughtless comment earlier about “riff-raff,” and let go of the fear of being seen and judged herself.

Mesmerized by the third performance and moving with its rhythms, Eliana was oblivious to the small commotion going on behind her at the front door. Nor did she see Ivy making her way through the crowd to check on her friend, so when she felt a hand gently touch her leg, she jumped; Ivy, fresh drink in hand, smiled up at her. “Now you’re in the spirit, girl,” Ivy said. “But you’re having way too much fun without me. Get down from there and let’s see if we can sneak into one of those VIP booths.”

Eliana took Ivy’s hand and jumped off the table, slipped back into her heels, and together she and Ivy turned around to take in a scene neither would have ever imagined.

An old woman, probably in her mid-80s, was pushing herself forward into the club on a walker – one of those contraptions with wheels on the front two feet and bright yellow tennis balls on the back. Here she came, pink tracksuit and all, helped along by her “younger” friends, whippersnappers probably in their early 70s. A 20-something bride-to-be spotted the senior group and placed her rhinestone tiara on the lady’s white curls. Both women, maiden and grande dame, were beaming.

Ivy summed it up: “Shit just got real, E.”

Eliana laughed, knowing what Ivy meant. This camaraderie among generations of women – those maybe on their first real adventure and at least a few known at some point in their lives as “fallen” or “ruined” or “slut-shamed” because of their unflinching expressions of self and sexuality – allowed for real freedom and progress in little corners of the world.

Everyone watched as one of the male entertainers gyrated and swayed his way back to the tiara-crowned woman and escorted her to the best seat in the house. There, at the premiere booth, sat the club’s VIP – the belle of the ball – the oldest woman in the room who knew better than anyone else what it means to embrace freedom, to show up for life.

That night Eliana and all of the belles, regardless of their mundane or even tragic circumstances beyond the walls of that pulsing club, believed they’d live happily ever after.

 

Milk, Bread, Soft Drinks

Milk, Bread, Soft Drinks by Author Ellen J. Perry

“I do not have any home. So why should I be homesick?”     

         Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

 

Watching my clothes dry at a 24-hour laundromat in New York City, I eased myself into a corner seat near the window and took one sip of “Co-Cola,” as my family back in south Georgia called it, and all of a sudden I was ten years old again, sitting on that wobbly bench outside Kincaid’s Store, waiting for Mama to get off work at River Girls and take me to the fireworks. The regression was so real that in my mind I could hear Mama describing what we’d see when the rockets shot up over the river, and only when a car backfired outside the laundromat, startling me back to the tumbling clothes, did I realize with surprise that I was 33 years old and hadn’t had a Coke in years. After the sudden noise I settled back down and let the cola bubbles tickle my nose. The sound of the clothes nearly lulled me to sleep. The icy, syrupy Coke tasted sweet, too sweet, and soon it brought back everything about who I was and where I’d come from, and especially about that 4th of July that I thought I’d left behind when I moved up north and away from Georgia for good.

My mother, Ada Lee, gave birth to me when she was 17. My father was 18. They had grown up together in a little town near the Altamaha River and for some mysterious reason decided, at a high school football game one Friday night, to bring a new life into their shabby little world of pine trees and sand. My parents said their vows at the Baptist church, and I arrived six months later, right on time. Dewey, my father, called me “Junebug” because I was born in June, and the nickname stuck. “Junebug wasn’t a accident,” I overheard Ada Lee telling one of her girlfriends when I was in the second grade. She tossed her frosted curls and puffed on Virginia Slims. “Me and Dewey wanted a baby real bad. We just didn’t know it would happen so fast!” The women laughed and smoked in the dry, scrubby yard, sharing some kind of secret grown-up knowledge that was beyond me. I remember feeling frustrated that I had been left out of the conversation but was still somehow at the center of it.

Though I felt only vague fear and gnawing anxiety then, looking back I understand that the realities of marriage and childcare didn’t match Dewey and Ada Lee’s youthful hopes and expectations. Disillusionment settled in and edged my father out of the trailer when I was about five years old. He came to visit on my birthday, some years, but mostly I just saw him from a distance around town. He worked odd jobs along the river and spent a lot of his time fishing. “Your daddy used to could thow a baseball like they was no tomorrow,” old Mr. Kincaid told me at his store when I asked about Dewey. “He don’t hardly do nothin’ now,” one of the other men muttered when I wandered back toward the cooler and was, they thought, out of earshot. The men chuckled, shook their heads. “Eh, Lord, he ain’t been much count, sure enough.”

I’d pay for my Coke and sit out front under the red and white “Milk, Bread, Soft Drinks” sign, watching the people and the cars go by. Kincaid’s was the most integrated part of town. Black folks and white folks met there, played cards, told tall tales. Women shopped with their lists and scurried on home; men hung around for a while. All were friendly and kind to each other in a place that was short on genuine kindness. Kincaid’s was an oasis for many outsiders and misfits, myself included.

Around the time of my parents’ wedding, Dewey’s sister helped Ada Lee get a job at the phone company. She liked the job well enough but it didn’t pay much; especially after my father left, we found ourselves just scraping by. Ada Lee didn’t want to ask her parents for help – they lived up in Athens, anyway – and enrolled me in the school lunch program. I wore hand-me-down clothes from my cousins. The worst part of our poverty, though, was being forbidden to walk down the road to Mr. Kincaid’s store. I missed seeing him, missed hearing the stories the patrons told. My favorite story was one about how a hoop snake could roll up on itself and chase people. “Yeah, Junebug, that thing’ll put its tail in its mouth and just roll, real fast,” Mr. Kincaid said. This image both terrified and fascinated me, and I never forgot it.

“You stay out of Kincaid’s, you hear?” Ada Lee finally said, frowning at me over our tiny kitchen table. “We can’t afford Co-Colas and such right now.”

Though there was very little talk about it in “mixed company,” everyone in town knew about River Girls, the bar and strip club down by the railroad tracks where the black families lived. At various times the church ladies (armed in Hamrick’s pantsuits and tight, short perms) marched door-to-door to get signatures, trying to close down the “devil’s juke joint.” But River Girls stayed busy all the time and brought in so much money that nobody could stop it. Ada Lee started working there on weekends, but all I knew or cared about was that for the first time I had nice new shoes and dresses for school and a pretty silver bracelet with a single charm on it, a “J” for Junebug.

That “J” worked like a charm in one way when Ada Lee hired a scrawny bleached-blonde teenage babysitter named Tiffani who let me stay up late and watch TV on Fridays and Saturdays, even programs like The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas. We would eat hot dogs or cheese pizza for supper and then nibble on buttery popcorn during our shows. Sometimes Tiffani’s boyfriend would come over and we’d share the big bowl of salty goodness with him; once or twice he took us out for ice cream. On Sunday mornings, yawning and wearing faded pajamas, Ada Lee would drop me off at church in her old Buick, slink off, and pick me up after she’d taken her nap back home.

I loved Sunday school, children’s church, and especially Vacation Bible School. We made all kinds of crafts and listened to stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Samson. These stories from the Bible were almost as good as Mr. Kincaid’s, and I was enthralled. One summer a group of athletes came down on a mission trip. Ada Lee picked me up after the day camp and asked what we had done. I thought for a minute and responded, “We played basketball and talked about Jesus.” She laughed then asked, “Well, what do you think about Jesus?” I shrugged and said, “He’s ok.” Ada Lee laughed again. It was never Christ’s bloody ordeal endured for the sake of mankind but the Bible stories themselves that hooked me; I wanted to stroll in the Garden of Eden, step into the Red Sea as it parted, walk with the animals two-by-two.

I was in heaven with all the store-bought clothes, TV shows, Bible stories, Cokes, and freedom until one day I noticed that Ada Lee had stopped laughing. She smoked more, drank more; she went every now and then to visit a new boyfriend in Savannah; she whispered something to her girlfriends about morning sickness and a baby. When I asked her about this later, Ada Lee said without looking at me, “I’m not sick no more, got it took care of.” I didn’t know what that meant but I longed for a sister or brother, someone to talk to about it all, someone to ask, “What’s wrong with Mama?” Maybe together we could fix it, fix her, help her laugh again. Dewey had several more children by this time but they were scattered around, and I only saw them in the Piggly Wiggly, their wide eyes green like Dewey’s and mine, walking with their mothers who either glared at Ada Lee or turned their carts in the other direction when they saw us. “Damn River Girl,” one lady hissed over by the cantaloupes. “You ought to be ashamed of what you do out there.” I felt alone in the world, isolated, confused. Even my “J” bracelet was starting to tarnish.

On the morning of July the 4th a month after my tenth birthday, I sat on Ada Lee’s ruffled bed and begged her pretty-please to take me to the fireworks that night. It was a Friday. “Tiffani’ll take you,” she said, putting on make-up in front of her heart-shaped mirror. “This is a big weekend, I’m liable to have to work pretty late.” But Tiffani called later and said she couldn’t watch me, said she had family from Florida coming in for a cookout and had to be there with them. Later I found out that Tiffani had eloped to Gatlinburg that weekend, and I never saw her again.

“Mama, I want to see the fireworks!” I whined. Ada Lee sighed then called everyone, even Dewey who made a habit of never answering his phone, until finally she reached Mr. Kincaid’s store. “Are y’all still open?” she asked. “My babysitter canceled. Can Junebug come up there for a little bit? I’m going to see if I can leave work early and get her before the fireworks.” Mr. Kincaid said, “Send that little bug on up here.”

I skipped to the store and claimed my regular spot on the rusted bench out front. Mr. Kincaid finished up with a customer and came out to sit with me; it was the first time he had ever done this, and I felt special. He brought with him two Cokes that were fizzing, icy from the cooler. I fumbled for the dollar bills Ada Lee had given me but he held up his hand and said, “Your Co-Cola money’s no good here, pardner,” and I giggled.

“We’ll see you, Horace,” called a black man, Fred Mooney, as he walked out the front door. Mr. Kincaid said, “Ok, buddy, have a good one.” Mr. Kincaid turned to me, leaned in and whispered, “You know, Mr. Mooney done seen a hoop snake the other day.” I said, “He did not!” I never knew how many of Mr. Kincaid’s stories were true. “Did, so,” Mr. Kincaid said, sipping his Coke and stretching. “That thing rolled hisself up and went after Mr. Mooney. He like to never got away, but he did just in time. Did you see that bruise on his arm? That’s where the snake bumped into him, near-bout got him! Good thing Fred said the magic words and ran the snake off.”

I spent the next hour trying to guess the magic words. Abracadabra? Alakazam? Open sesame? Mr. Kincaid just pulled at his suspenders and shook his head. “Nope,” he said. “The magic words are secret. They come to you just when you need ‘em. But I sure hope you don’t never meet that hoop snake. Ooo-wee!”

He went in the store when customers came then ambled back out to sit with me. When I got hungry he brought peanuts. When I felt restless he let me play some checkers. Finally it got dark; he locked up the store, and I wondered where Ada Lee was. “Reckon we could call Mama?” I asked in a small voice. “Oh, she’ll be on directly,” Mr. Kincaid said, looking off toward the river. But I could tell by his expression that he wasn’t sure about that. Maybe he already had a bad feeling.

I didn’t think much of the faint sirens because the loud banging of the fireworks overpowered them. Mr. Kincaid and I craned our necks to see the explosions, red and blue and silver. We could make out some of the higher blasts just above the tall, skinny longleaf pine trees. After the show was over, my face burning, I wiped away tears, trying to hide my disappointment and shame. Ada Lee had abandoned me.

Back at Mr. Kincaid’s house I was eating ice cream in the living room when the sheriff pulled into the gravel driveway. Mrs. Kincaid went to the door, and she shouted for her husband who had gone downstairs to putter in his workroom. “Is Junebug here?” Sheriff Jones asked. “Fred Mooney said he saw her over at the store with Horace.” Mr. Kincaid came up and they all talked out on the porch, closing the front door behind them. My hands were shaking so badly that I put my ice cream bowl down on the coffee table, staring at Mrs. Kincaid’s doilies, praying for the magic words to come, willing them to form in my mind and on my tongue.

Ada Lee was killed in a car accident that night. I overheard the whispery gossip at Kincaid’s and Piggly Wiggly. I like to think that my mother had argued with her boss at River Girls, stormed out of there and drove like crazy to get to me before the fireworks started, but I won’t ever know. Some said later it was a drunk driver who ran into her; others said it was her “dope-fiend” black boyfriend from Savannah who was driving the Buick; some said she was drunk herself. In any case, the magic words never came. My mother was 27 years old.

I stayed for a while with the Kincaids and then with Dewey, but his girlfriend told him it wasn’t working out so I moved to Athens to live with my grandparents. I never felt at home there or anywhere, but it was in Athens that I discovered Carson McCullers as a high school Honors student. Ada Lee would have been proud, I think, that the school accepted me into the Honors program. She’d always told me I was a smart cookie. Anyway, I read everything McCullers wrote and decided that my only hope was to go to college and escape to a place where no one knew me, where I could start over again. I could write a new life story, one where River Girls never existed, where Ada Lee neither lived nor died, where I could shed my accent and hide in the urban wilderness.

I wouldn’t have been holding that bright red and silver Coke can at all except that it was the only thing left in the decrepit vending machine, and I was too tired after a long day of work to walk down the street for coffee. Like McCullers I’d come to New York and tried my best to forget Georgia. In that laundromat, where I was ten again for the length of time it takes a firecracker to climb the sky and explode, I realized that like McCullers, I never could forget the place I came from, the stories I loved. I earned a Master’s degree in Library Science and aspired to create an exhibit of McCullers’s work as part of my job at the New York Public Library in Manhattan. The only time I’d returned to Georgia was to attend Mr. Kincaid’s funeral just before I finished school. I cried for days and swore I’d never go south again.

Then that laundromat Co-Cola sneaked up on me and tasted like home. It took me right back to the banks of the Altamaha where I first heard stories running smooth like the river and, on Independence Day, where I learned to make them up.