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Her dead mother was alive.
Yet, days after learning the unthinkable, Parris McKay was still unable to reconcile the truth with the lie she'd been nursed and nurtured on for three decades. The enormity of it echoed throughout the cool stillness of the one-room church.
Her emotions shifted between disbelief and anger, anguish and shock, to despair and back again. So she'd come here to the one place where she'd always found answers, balance and a quieting of her spirit.
But even here, the solace she sought was unattainable, a vapor that could be seen but not touched. The letter she held between her slender fingers was yellowed with age and had been freed with the others from their hiding place behind her Nana's stove, its wizened face crisscrossed by the fine lines of an unfamiliar hand, cracked under the onslaught of air and light.
Parris held the letter like one unfamiliar with a newborncautious, fearful, yet in awe of its mysteries. There were answers here, etched between the lines that she struggled to see. She knew it, could feel it. She knew if she just looked hard enough she would know why.
The words, though not addressed to her, connected her to the woman she'd only imagined. The woman that was buried on European shores after giving birth to heror so she'd been told. Told so many times that she believed it, became part of the lie. She believed her Nana when she sat her down on her knee, looked her deep in the eyes and said, "Your mama loved you so much, gal, wanted you to have a little piece of somethin' so bad that she begged those fancy doctors to save her baby no matter what. Yessir, that's what she done for ya, 'cause she loved ya. Even fo' you got here."
Imagine being loved like that, so hard and so strong even before you took your first breath. The thought of it filled all the empty spaces that the void of not having her mother left in her life.
And that's the lie she told her friends when they asked where her mother was and why she lived with her grandmother. She told her truth. The only one she knew. Now what she knew was no more. The ache of it settled in her bones, squeezed her heart and stripped her throat raw.
What was she to do?
She bowed her head as the long shadow of the cross fell across her lap, deepened as the sun shifted and prepared to settle down for the night. She'd lost track of how long she'd sat on the worn wooden pew, its hardness softened and curved by hips and thighs that heaved, sighed and caressed it throughout the years.
Her green eyes, butterfly quick, flitted from one space to the next as a montage of images gathered around her. How many times had she walked the aisle as a child, a teen, a woman? How many sermons had she heard, christenings and marriages had she attended? How many songs had she sung in the choir? How many times had she looked out on the congregation to see her Nana Cora and Grandpa David watching her with pride? So many.
But how could any of thisall the things that she knewbe concrete when she was no more than an illusion? And if she was no longer real then nothing in her life could be, either. With familiarity now a stranger, she had no choice but to create a new reality. And if not here, then where?
She'd come back, back to her home of Rudell, Mississippi, to be witness to her grandmother Cora's transition. The woman who raised her, loved her, taught her right from wrong, gave her the gift of music. .lied to her. Lied. The word burned in her throat, stirring and simmering into something bigger than herself, erupting into an emotion that was so unfamiliarrage. Parris raged at Cora, raged at her for keeping the secret and nearly taking it with her to her grave.
Cora confessed on her waning breath that Emma, her mother, was alive, was living in Europe, that she'd turned her infant daughter over to Cora only days after her birth and never returned. The only connection Cora had with her daughter through the years was the intermittent letters that filled the tin box behind the stove.
Cora turned the letters over to Parris in the final hours before her passing. They revealed so much and nothing at all. Handwriting style, frequency, location, inquiries about the child she'd abandoned. Yet none of the letters collected for almost thirty years explained why.
Why was Parris unworthy of her mother's love? Why did Emma give her away and never come back? Why was Parris told that her mother was dead? And why did the woman whom she'd idolized all her life keep the answers and take them with her?
Parris jerked around, startled by the noise behind her. Her gaze settledalong with her heartbeatwhen she saw her grandfather crossing the threshold. She brushed the tears from her eyes only for them to be followed by more.
David swept his hat from his head and walked reverently down the aisle. She made room for him next to her.
"Been wondering where you been for so long," he said in that cottony comfort voice that had cocooned her to sleep on many an occasion.
Parris sighed and rested her head on his shoulder of welcome. Her granddad had been the only doctor in Rudell for decades. It wasn't until about five years ago that another doctor set out her shingle. But it had taken many a dinner conversation, trips to the Left Hand River and loud debates in front of the general store for the townspeople of Rudell to come to terms with a new doctorespecially a woman. Things may have changed in the rest of the world but Rudell, Mississippi, was no different than it had been in the early 1900s, when her great grandfather Joshua Harvey was the preacher at this very church.
"Nana wanted me to go find my mother."
She could feel David's head bob up and down. "And what do you plan to do?"
"It's what I've been sitting here thinking about." She angled her head to take in his strong profile. "I don't want to leave you, Granddad. What are you going to do out here
He lifted his square chin just a notch. Not enough for someone who didn't know him to even notice. But Parris knew her grandfather. That tiny tic meant he'd made up his mind and no amount of persuasion was going to change it.
"I'll be just fine. This is my home. I stay here
and I can stay close to Cora." His full lips pinched. "That young man of yours is up at the house, packin' looks like."
The dry muscles of her throat that were struggling for moisture tightened even more.
"Can't sit here crying forever. Not what Cora would have wanted. She'd want you to get on with your life."
"What life!" Her voice splintered the quiet of the church, cracking under the pressure of a question she couldn't answer. She turned swollen, tear-filled eyes on him.
"The life you had, the life you gonna make. You have everything you need. It's up to you to decide what you gon' do with it." He paused a beat. "I been listenin' to you since you been back, humming a little, singing a bit. God and your grandma gave you a giftthe voice of an angel. Now you kin head on back to New York. Ain't nobody gonna fault you none. But when you stand up and sing in front of folks, those notes won't ring true. Every one of them is gonna have an empty hole in it." He rubbed his jaw with a large, dark hand that had the power to heal. "Or you can go find your mama. Hear her tell you what you need to hear. When you do that the hole in those notes and that space in your heart will be filled."
He kissed the top of her head. "Up to you. Whatever you decide you best hurry 'fore that boy leaves without a goodbye." He pushed up from his seat, wincing a little from the nag in his right hip. He made a mental note to ask Cora to rub some liniment on it. He squeezed his hat. The tiniest groan of pain pushed up from his gut, sputtered across his lips. He remembered. His Cora was gone. He blinked away the burn in his eyes with each step he took toward the door. Nearly half a century of loving one woman. He had no idea how he was going to make it. No idea at all.
Parris heard the church door squeak shut. Her slender body shuddered as a wave of sorrow rolled through her. Granddad was right. She couldn't sit there forever. She needed to talk with Nick. Figure something outabout everything, including them.
She gathered the lightweight baby blue shawl that she'd brought along with her, gently folded the letter and put it in her shirt pocket. She took one last look around and walked out.
The sun was easing down behind the hilltops, playing hide-and-seek between the branches and leaves of the towering coves of trees that led to the Left Hand River and separated them from the white part of town. The air was filled with the fresh scents of rich earth, ripe grass, farm animals and simplicity.
That's what she drew into her lungssimplicity. The slow, easy pace of country living. She'd been home for just about a month and she had yet to see one person hurrying anywhere. There wasn't an abundance of cars. The town was so small, folks walked mostly everywhere. And if they did have a ways to go they hitched a ride.
Gentrification hadn't touched Rudell. Somehow the townspeople were able to maintain their way of life without the onslaught of yuppies, buppies, condos, superstores and coffee giants squeezing the spirit out of them.
She walked up the path that led to her grandparents' home, a neat two-story structure, one of only a half dozen like it in town. Today was the first day that the front door wasn't swinging open and closed from the trainload of grievers that had click-clacked through the house for three days. She'd swear that all five hundred residents of Rudell must have come to pay their respects to her grandmother, and they dropped off a bounty of food, including whole fried chickens, seasoned collards, peas and rice, mac and cheese, fruit salads and peanuts. Granddad would have enough food for the next two months. And from the gleam in some of the widows' eyes and the extra smiles on their red lips, he'd have company, too.
A light went on in the window of the second floor, catching her eye. She watched the silhouette of her grandfather as he slowly sat down on the side of the bed and buried his head in his hands.
Parris shut her eyes for a moment and sent up a silent prayer to ease his heart. When she opened the front door, Nick was at the kitchen table. His suitcase, like a faithful pup, sat at his feet. A medley of mouthwatering aromas harmonized in a "come sit down" tune and her stomach called back in response.
"Hi." The faint greeting hung in the food-scented air.
"Thought I was going to miss you." He pushed back from the table, the old wooden legs of the chair tap-dancing across the highs and lows of the aging linoleum.
"I couldn't let you leave without saying goodbye." His jaw tightened as he nodded. "What time is your bus?"
"Six. David.your grandfather said he would drive me to the station."
Uncertainty made them sudden strangers. Instead of reaching for each other they sought the support of chair backs and table edges.
Parris squeezed and twisted the shawl between her fingers. "I can take you."
"Are you sure?"
"I want to."
Nick pushed his hands deep into his pockets to keep from reaching for her, to appear as casual and unaffected as she. He shrugged his left shoulder. "Cool. Ready when you are."
She tried to meet his eyes but the questions that hung there turned her away. "I'll let Granddad know." She hurried toward the stairs and went up.
The door at the end of the hall was closed, but couldn't contain the light withina sliver snuck out from the bottom and bathed the floor with a path of illumination that beckoned her. She knocked lightly on the door, listened to the rustle of movement and the creek of the four-poster bed.
A half smile greeted her. "Was just resting a bit before I took your young man to the bus depot."
"That's what I came to tell you. I'm going to take him."
The smile came full. He dug in his pocket and took out the car keys. "Drive slow." He handed her the keys.
Parris grinned. "Is there any other way to drive in Rudell?" She leaned up and kissed his gray-stubbled cheek. "See you soon."
"I'll leave a plate out for you."
"Thanks," she said over her shoulder. When she returned to the kitchen, Nick had already taken his bag and was sitting on the steps outside. She pressed her fingertips to her stomach to settle the butterflies that had broken loose. "Ready?"
He angled his head toward her then stood, the long lean lines of his body unfolding like the break of dawnit was pure majesty.
"Sure." He trotted down the four steps ahead of her and strolled toward the old Ford parked at the end of the path.
As Parris descended the stairs she couldn't believe that she was actually letting him go back to New York without her. Initially, before the full ramifications of her discovery hit her, she'd told Nick that she wanted him to meet her mother. The raw excitement of finding out that her mother was indeed alive overshadowed the questions that began as a light summer shower before intensifying to an unstoppable hurricane, ruining everything in its path. She was battered by the unrelenting winds and rains of confusion, weakened and shocked by the power of deceit, leaving her with only remnants of what she'd been able to salvage. She wasn't the woman he'd met so many months ago when she shyly approached him for a singing gig at his nightclub. She wasn't the woman who captured an audience and held them in her palm like the last strains of a Billie Holiday ballad. She wasn't the woman who walked out on her boss/lover, lost her job and her apartment.
She was someone else now and until she discovered who that someone was, she couldn't be part of anyone's life.
Parris followed Nick to the car. She opened his door first and his hand brushed her wrist. The jolt rocked them both. She stepped back, hurried around to the other side and slid behind the wheel. Nick tossed his bag into the backseat and got in next to her. This was the closest they'd been in days. She could feel the heat rise off his skin and settle around her. If she listened really close she could hear the steady rhythm of his heart. The air in her lungs balled up in her throat. She rolled down the window so that she could breathe and in the blink of an eye, tension crawled into the backseat and hunkered down for the ride, keeping them company.
Forcing herself to concentrate, Parris put the car in gear and slowly headed off toward the end of town and the bus stop. En route down the main road, they passed the hopscotch of houses, built more for comfort and protection from the elements than design. Some were squat like overripe squashes, others were long and lean like the fields of cornstalks. And some
well, they were just there. She waved at the familiar faces of porch sitters who'd come out to catch a bit of the cool evening air.
"I can only imagine how hard things have been for you," Nick said, breaking the wall of silence.
Parris sucked in a breath.