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If there’s help for the little guy—for my Harry, who won’t talk—it’ll be north on a green elbow of the slow-moving Pearl River. But that’s the one place in the world I cannot go. It would mean the chicken circus, the boy who lived in the tree. The burning bed. Hell’s Farm and the curse of Millicent Poole.
Wherever we go, Thomas Ryder will come after us—won’t he? I hope he’s frantic and sorry, and that he never finds us. But I’m waffling in my thinking. In this tiny motel room with the worn-thin rug and the rusty washbasin, it’s been a long night. The storm has played out. I leave one candle burning.
But oh, God, Harry’s neediness points me upriver. It steers me home.
The candle sputters out. In the stifling dark of after-storm, I kiss my children’s damp foreheads, and I pray for three things:
Jerusha will remember me.
She’ll do for my Harry.
And she’ll care for them both while I’m locked away.
Upriver” is Potato Shed Road—dusty shotgun houses and run-down duplexes, folks backed up to False River and poor as Job’s aunt. Miss Jerusha Lovemore’s place was a good ways along, a clapboard house with two floors, a small attic, and a crooked turret.
It was widely known that Jerusha once worked for a chicken circus up in Haynesville. What exactly she did there seems a subject best left for adult conversation. In the end, though, she took up a riding crop and thwacked the ringmaster, in the name of the Lord.
Then she bought an old car and putted down through the long green state of Mississippi, heading for the town of False River, where her sister lived. She used a chunk of her circus-earned money to buy the big house, and she settled in. Rapidly, she grew to know her neighbors. Her years under the big top had done her no harm because she beat her rugs regular and went to church on Sunday. She put up bread-and-butter pickles and was a right hand at turning out sweet-potato pie and jalapeño corn bread.
Past Auntie’s place was a narrow field of weedy grass, and then the bony old house that belonged to my mama.
I, Clea Shine, was born in Mama’s kitchen—on the table, so as not to ruin the sheets upstairs—and I lived there for one hour and ten minutes. It took Mama that long to get down off the table, clean herself up, and step into her high heels. Then she carried me, in a wicker laundry basket, over to Jerusha’s.
I picture Mama wobbling off through the brown grass, wrapped in a sweater, for it was coming on winter.
Poor Auntie, as I came quickly to call Jerusha. I was chicken-legged skinny and already howling for my dinner. She couldn’t have known beans about foundlings and such. And I was a handful.
But her sister, the broad-in-the-beam Miss Shookie Lovemore, was herself raising up a fat daughter called Bitsy, and Miss Shookie knew all there was to know about everything.
For a long time, in those days, I had not a tooth in my mouth nor a hair on my head and according to Miss Shookie, I cried all the time. I must have given Aunt Jerusha one everlasting headache. Still, she held fast to my hard little body, and rocked me long, and hummed slow, quiet streams of things like We. Shall. Not. Be. Moved.
At nine months I came near strangling with the whooping cough, and while I crouped and hawked up phlegm and sucked air, Auntie dangled me by the heels over the kitchen sink. For three weeks, she fed me with an eyedropper, slapped mustard plasters on my chest, and whomped my back with the pink palm of her hand. At least once each night, she pinched my nose and blew in my mouth just to keep my lungs going.
And all that time, Mama was across the field. Auntie couldn’t help but hear the piano music pouring from there, and I wonder if that noisome key-plunking helped or hindered her in laying this white child down to sleep. It was my lullaby, but maybe Auntie cursed the racket and hated my mama and all the men who came there—prison guards, mostly, but others too, looking for a fine time. Mama obliged them. She was a tireless thing and could drink and dance and laugh all night. For a few dollars, she laid the men down.
My earliest memory could be nothing but a trick that my brain played on itself. I seem to recall Auntie’s front window being propped up in the hope of a breeze. Inside, I rested my chin on the sill—and thrust out my tongue to receive a drop of whiskey, amber in the moonlight and tasting like butterscotch. It could not have happened, of course, because Auntie kept screens on her windows. Still . . .
Sometimes she and I sat on the upstairs gallery, cracking beans into plastic bowls, snap snap. From there, we could see Mama drifting out into the yard, lithe as a willow and throwing slops, her yellow hair backed by the sun glinting off the wires of the Mississippi state penitentiary, another quarter-mile on, at the end of the road.
In the heat of the day, Auntie draped a sheet over our upstairs gallery rail, and there we sat, her in her slip and me in my undies, overseeing the dirt road and the prisoners working the far fields in their orange suits, while even the dust shimmered in the heat. Toward the end of the day, we watched guards in gray uniforms park in Mama’s yard. Sometimes she’d greet them at the door—the river wind lifting her pink feather boa. Her silver-heeled slippers winked like glass in the twilight.
The weeds grew tall around Mama’s place, and the upstairs windows cracked and fell out. I suppose the place looked spookier than all get-out, because teenagers drove by and threw rotten fruit. They chanted things I could not understand, and spray-painted words on the peeling clapboard.
I determined I would learn to read those things. They might tell me something about my mother. Maybe in my heart I already knew what those words said, because, while I grew lankier and clumsier with my long legs and feet, the worst of me was a wide, smart mouth. It spewed chatter and backtalk. Lying was neither harder nor easier than telling the truth. In fact, all my growing-up years, I maintained an unholy attitude for which Auntie whipped my calves with a green willow switch, and I deserved every whack.
Still, I wasn’t a complete loss. I taught myself to read early on and was a smart hand at filling a basket with blueberries.
By the time I was four, my hair had grown dark, unlike Mama’s, and thick as a broom. When Auntie tried to drag a comb through it, I screamed and stomped so that she braided it and wound thick pigtails, like rope, around my head. It was sometimes two weeks before she took down the plaits, saddled up with a comb, and rode into that rat’s nest. The rest of the time, my loose, fuzzy hair stuck out in all directions.
Later, my friend Finn told me that when the sun shone just right, I looked to be wearing a golden halo. But it was like Finn to say that. He was kinder than me, and he never killed anybody.