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The fire stole everyone’s attention. The newspapers, the gossips, the farmers from miles away. What they overlooked, what they never got close enough to see, was that the real story was in the smoke. How it hovered low, too heavy to soar. Filled with too many dead things to ever rise.
Weeks earlier I hid a bag of supplies under the tobacco leaves. A little food and water. The money I stole from Daddy’s glove compartment. A sweatshirt for warmth. Then I sat and whispered a drunk woman’s story to the fields. I called her Momma. But if the night was cold enough, and sleep far away, then the drunk woman’s name might be my own. You can call me Angel.
The story was long, but only a few words really mattered. Words like five thousand dollars. Carolina. And rich Holy Roller. I stamped them in black-and-white letters behind the lids of my eyes. Like a map to someplace I was going. Like a key to who I really was.
With my getaway bag packed, I held a match in my trembling hand. I struck it, and watched it glow against the Tennessee sky. But then I thought of you, and my lips pressed together to blow out that fire. I’d forgotten something. Memories.
I went inside the trailer and tucked a couple in each pocket. Not the best ones, like good report cards or the birthday candle Mrs. Swarm gave me in a cupcake. I left those to burn. What I tucked in my pockets were the answers to what had become of me. To what I had seen and felt. I kept those things because I believed. Because I hoped one day you would ask.
I returned to the matches, read the words across the front of the pack: Keep out of reach of children. It had been seven years since the school safety lecture where the dream of fire first came to me. Local firemen got their kicks from showing little kids spectacular pictures of barn fires and forest fires. But the ones that I returned to, snuck back to an empty classroom during recess to see, were the trailer fires. Nothing was left but black ash on the ground. Only a label at the bottom of the page—Single Wide Trailer, electrical fire—left any clue. When the firemen showed those pictures, they swore that nothing burns as completely or quickly as an old rusted-out trailer. With the electrical wiring sandwiched in between wood that’s not really wood at all, just some sort of stiff paper that’s cheaper to make than it is to cut a real tree. And the heat. Pouring down from a steamy Tennessee sun. The rusted metal sucks it in, the cheap walls trap it, and it’s ready to burn up quicker than a matchbox.
“In five minutes,” the fireman said, “it’s all gone. Every picture. Every memory. That’s why we’re here today. To talk about a safety plan.” Their point was about naming meeting places, how to open windows and feel for hot doorknobs. But I sifted through that and started dreaming smoky dreams. Ones where everything disappeared in five hot minutes.
I waited long years to light that match. My own safety plan forming slowly, until it moved and kicked inside me with its own life. And when the moment finally came, I moved my hand smoothly across the front of the pack. Felt the scratch of friction inside my fist. Heard the quick hiss of new fire. And I smiled. Burning down Black Snake trailer was easy. The hard thing was walking away, when what I wanted most was to watch it die.
But I couldn’t stay and risk being caught. So I hid in the bacca and thought of you. Whispered old familiar questions. Where are you? So much time has passed. And where have you been?
Long after the sun had set, I saw smoke still hovering. Unwanted memories burning up the night as I sat whispering with my heart on fire, shivering beneath the Tennessee moon.
Things go missing in Carolina. That’s what Hannah would remember most about her time there. It started easy, even sweetly, with small things like words. The wasteful parts, whole syllables, disappeared around her. Charleston became Chah’stun. Hurricane became her’cun. Yankee was Yank, only spoken with a snort. Hard g’s were an insult. Good manners required a softer tongue.
Comfort went missing next. Hannah’s first hour in Carolina left her sweating in a way no powder-soft deodorant could help. Poor Yank, dressed in stinging polyester. That night, after swatting away palm-size mosquitoes, she walked to the water and stuck her face close enough to feel its mist. Sucked in her breath like a newborn ready to yell out a first cry.
Her family arrived with one suitcase each. Father’s was everything expected. Clothes, maps, sketches of bridges, and Bibles. Mother’s was nearly the same. But underneath her clothes and soaps and Bibles was a small wedding picture. The one where her husband reached under her veil and pulled her out for the kiss.
Hannah had been given the smallest suitcase and told to keep it light. But clothes weren’t a challenge. Gray and khaki ankle-length skirts, gray sweaters, long-sleeved blouses, and a few pairs of pleated kool-lots—shorts that were so loose they looked like skirts and fell the required eight inches below her knees. She dug through her nightstand drawer, searching for anything else she might need. There were pictures of her and her friends at Bible camp. Flowers dried and pressed into an album page. A folded-up two-inch triangle torn from a magazine page she found loose in a shopping cart. It hid the checklist: Top Ten Ways to Know a Guy Likes You.
Hannah’s mother scanned the contents of her suitcase, pulled out a white shirt and replaced it with a yellow one. Then she handed Hannah a trash bag and told her to clear the junk and organize her mess of books. Dozens of them were piled in sloppy stacks around her room.
Those stacks began the day of her sixteenth birthday party. “No more banned books. You’re old enough and smart enough, so if it’s literature you can read it,” Father announced. Hannah shook her head at him, embarrassed by the shock of her friends.
“Like Psalms,” Father whispered. “People quote happy ones, yet so many speak of suffering.” He handed her a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. “Like this,” he said.
That winter Hannah hid inside the Mission Room and made up for sixteen years of various versions of Pilgrim’s Progress. She loved that room. Maps lined the walls with little red flags pinned to all the exotic places her parents had served. Shelves were filled with souvenirs—baskets woven by natives, broken pottery, and a hand-painted porcelain doll.
Babies were the last souvenirs her parents had collected. They spent their youth serving the miserable and poor of the world. But at the age of forty-four they turned up pregnant in the middle of rural Philippines and realized they were more than missionaries. They were a mother and father. And the first thing on their minds was the safety of their own. They left. For the security of a hospital and a doctor. For the steady paycheck and good life Father’s PhD in structural engineering could offer. For a little surprise they wrapped in pink blankets and named Hannah Joy.
All the energy they had poured into missions they now focused on building Hannah a spotless world. They lived in a neighborhood that sparkled with money. And drove forty-five minutes into the countryside to the church where Hannah’s mother was raised.
They called it Tabernacle. The building’s great marble columns and stone archways set it apart from modern, redbrick churches. And the women took it one step further. Their devotion to God and holiness was proven by floor-length skirts, high-collared polyester blouses, and uncut hair.
When Hannah was three, her parents pondered their age. “I’ll be sixty-two when she marries,” Mother said dryly. And they began to notice how different Hannah was from other little girls in their neighborhood. They watched her struggle to ride her tricycle in gray baggy kool-lots, while other baby girls splashed naked in tiny plastic pools set in their front yards. It didn’t hurt them when Hannah couldn’t ride the pony at a neighborhood party because her ankle-length skirt kept getting in the way. But it made them see her need.
“I won’t conceive again,” Mother said. “I’m forty-seven.” So Hannah’s father took one last flight to the Philippines and came home with Bethlehem Rose, a two-and-a-half-year-old orphan they called Bethie. Now two little girls struggled to ride a tricycle instead of just one.
With only six months between their birthdays, the girls were nearly twins. One pale with white blond hair, the other golden with black hair. Her parents were relieved that Hannah didn’t have to start kindergarten alone. Bethie was there beside her. Both of them in plain grays and pastels, their hair in long braids down their backs.
It was at school that the real difference began to show. Letters spoke to Hannah before any of her peers, and she was reading two-syllable words by the end of the first month. She was marked very early by her teachers as excellent. And the other students would sometimes call her Nerd before they would think to call her Holy Roller.
Not so for Bethie. If the teacher bothered to call on her, it was only to be disappointed. Words never came easy for Bethie. Her parents paid for speech therapy, and when there was no improvement they were told it was a maturity thing. Bethie simply needed to outgrow her stuttering. Mother tried bribing her for smooth words, but by the time Bethie was eight she had switched to punishment instead. When vinegar on a stuttering tongue didn’t work, Mother decided not to notice it anymore.
But there was always punishment waiting for Bethie at school. She rode the bus to a long gray building with different teachers and shuffled classes every hour. She wore a white men’s-style shirt and a dark gray floor-length skirt every day. Her hair was smoothed back as tight as it could be, her face without a smile. And when people spoke to her, even if it was a curious stranger asking Gosh, are you hot? Bethie shook her head coolly, her eyes narrowing in anger.
Hannah tried more. She wore yellow because she knew it complemented her hair. And kool-lots, because even though they were baggy like some joke of a skirt, they at least showed her feet. Hannah’s hair was braided loosely, so strands of gold could work themselves free and glow around her face, like an accidental halo.
But both of the girls were teased viciously. Their classmates called them Polyester Pollys. And they never drank Kool-Aid with their lunch. If they did, without fail someone would yell, “Watch out! The Jim Jones girls have gotten to the Kool-Aid again!” When they jogged the slow mile at PE, where everyone else wore the snazzy gym uniforms of shorts and tanks, someone always snickered about them doing the Holy Roller shuffle. And it was true. Nobody can run far in a floor-length skirt. Sometimes Hannah wondered if that was the point.
When Father announced he’d won the lucrative bid to strengthen the bridge that spanned the Cooper River, and that they’d spend the summer in South Carolina, it was the holy Yes both girls had been waiting for. It was an escape for Bethie. From all the kids that knew she couldn’t speak smoothly. And from the teachers who wouldn’t look at her, hadn’t looked at her since first grade, when they “socially passed” her to please her parents and let her stay with her sister.
For Hannah, it meant adventure, like in the books she loved. It meant, simply, the gates were opening.
They left behind a house filled with so many rooms they could spend the day without ever bumping into one another. And traded it for a shack on the marshes of James Island. A two-bedroom, one-bath, company-owned box that Father insisted on. He’d turned down the offer of a renovated historic condo within walking distance to the Battery and Rainbow Row. He wanted the mosquitoes. The mud crabs and the culture. He wanted to feel like a real southerner, even if he couldn’t sound like one.
Each of them smiled as they unpacked. Hannah and Bethie smiled over the joy of escape. Mother and Father over the excitement of their daughters. Over the pleasure of an extended vacation in a southern beach town. Over the promise of their old life, waiting for them back home.
One morning their first week there, Father rolled a used bike out to the girls, as they sat by the marsh. “You could explore a bit, if you want. The tourist traffic hits the other beaches. And the shoulders are wide, so you could stay on those.”
Hannah squealed with joy and ran to the bike. Father noticed Bethie standing behind her. “Both of you girls.”
Bethie smiled, but she never sat on that bike. Even if she wanted to, it was always gone before dawn. Hannah spent her mornings on the beach. It was two and a half miles from the shack, and if she set her mind to it she could be there in under twenty minutes. She rarely did, though, preferring instead to take her time and learn the details of her summer home.
Like the pile of oyster shells at the end of a gravel drive that served as the only sign for a motel, a long brick rectangle hidden in the woods that served fresh-catch steam buckets on picnic tables in the front yard. Or the miles of marsh, with its smell that turned her stomach at first, until the days passed and she forgot to notice it. And the palm trees that lined Folly Road, like something from a paradise postcard.
She set her alarm clock based on the tides. And if she reminded herself before she went to sleep, she could usually wake up just before it rang. She’d turn off the clock and dress quietly in the dark. Bethie would lay perfectly still, her pillow touching Hannah’s.
Only when the water pulled back from the shore could she find curling starfish, sea urchins, and perfect-circle sand dollars. She’d pick them up carefully and sometimes take them home to Bethie. “Look,” she’d say, as she showed her sister. “Treasure’s in the low points.”
She had packed only two pairs of kool-lots, but that was what she preferred to pedal in so that her feet were free to move. She still wore the polyester blouses, buttoned at her wrists and collar. Hannah had been taught not to care about “pretty.” Modesty was the coveted prize. Sometimes the competition could even get catty. Young girls at church would go through fads of wearing head coverings, even though the rules didn’t require them for unmarried women. But pretty took on a new meaning in that beach town. Golden skin was the standard. When Hannah passed nearly naked people on the streets, her forehead beaded with sweat on a ninety-five-degree day, she knew her polyester confused them.
Sometimes after sunrise, Hannah would relax in the sand and wait for the others. The old lady that walked her little black dog. The man who liked to jog and treated the rock piles, the ruins of old fishing piers, like enormous hurdles. They knew her, too, as part of their usual scene, and always gave a curious but friendly nod. Their arrival meant the day had begun and the world was awake. Hannah would hop on her bike and pedal furiously, letting the wind shake the sand from her. Then she’d ride down to the fruit market, a collection of little tents where fresh produce was sold. She’d pick up whatever Mother had requested, usually peaches or sweet corn. Sometimes a bag of boiled peanuts for her breakfast.
James Island taught her how to eat. Showed her what fruit tastes like when it’s still warm from a ripening sun. How fish is meant to be eaten, no more than a few hours from the ocean. Handing somebody a ripe Carolina peach was the same as giving them your best smile. Passing a bowl of shrimp and grits was as clear as any Love you could get. Food was a language there.
Excerpted from The Memory Thief by Keener, Rachel Copyright © 2010 by Keener, Rachel. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 12, 2010
Posted April 5, 2010
This story is a beautiful, painful tale of misguided love, strength, dependence, and courage. It is as much a cautionary tale as it is a weaving of the past and present on lives. Through Hannah, Angel, and even Mrs. Reynolds' stories, the reader is simultaneously warned against secret-keeping and lies, and encouraged to keep fighting, to keep hoping. Without hope, without the will to fight, if we subscribe to the lies we are told and allow the infection to spread and fester, our souls will hide away in self-protection. But, with love, with the truth in the open, the infection heals and the soul can emerge, fragile but ready to soar again. This story, told from several viewpoints, allows the reader to connect dots throughout the story. Many times, the reasons behind events, feelings, actions and reactions of the characters throughout this book are explained or alluded to simply by switching viewpoints to another character. From the beginning, it is apparent that, although Hannah and Angel have led extremely different lives, with totally different upbringings and families, they have something important in common: neither is allowed to become who she is really meant to become. Both are placed into an ill-fitting mold of someone else's design, and beaten, literally or figuratively, into submission into these molds. Before long, each is convinced that The Mold is The Truth. The discomfort she feels as a result of her subconscious knowledge that something in her life is not as it should be, is pushed to the back of her mind. It resurfaces, as these things always do, with destructive consequences. Hannah is the linchpin to the story - her journey is the framework; the beginning and end for each character hangs on Hannah's story like vines on lattice. The reader is introduced to a shy, sheltered girl who is teased for being different. Immediately, we identify with her, and feel the fire of righteous indignation as we follow her through decades of a ruined life. We exult in her discovery of a talent, and pray that it will be her saving grace. We cautiously hope that finding true love will be the key to unlocking the cage that holds her true self captive, and as the truth of Hannah's journey comes to light, we sit on the edge of our chairs, waiting for Hannah to see the light herself. For me, Hannah feefeels like a contemporary; she might be a friend or an acquaintance. I can see myself identifying with her on some level. Angel is the catalyst of the story. She is the spark that sets change into motion, and when her path finally crosses Hannah's, the effect is explosive. Throughout Angel's tale, we pity the girl's upbringing, cringe at her family's obvious neglect, and worry for her mental and physical safety and well-being. We want to simultaneously shake her, and take her under our wing. We want to smack her parents and call the authorities, and we hope that someone in Angel's life will realize that all is not well at home. When her path takes an unexpected turn, we begin to see how things might work out for Angel, if she would only get out of her own way. In the end, Angel brings out the mother in me - I want to protect her, heal her, show her the way to a better life. Keener has created a beautiful tapestry of lives in this story. Her use of language and accents, her descriptions of people and locations, bring the story to life and add richness to the characters. This book is a great book club book, or vacation read. Be ready with the tissuesWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 10, 2010
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Posted April 15, 2011
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