Read an excerpt
May 5, 1958
“We’re almost there,” Claremont announced, glancing at me from the rearview mirror, his dark eyes shining like polished onyx.
I nodded. “All roads do lead home, don’t they?”
“That’s what they sure say, ma’am.”
As we bumped along the unpaved, tree-lined street, I gazed out the side window. The afternoon breeze had kicked up, disturbing tendrils of Spanish moss that had long ago made their home in the overhanging limbs of the ancient oaks. Slowly, they swayed back and forth, back and forth, like dancing specters haunting me, before my attention shifted to the house I hadn’t seen in twenty-two years.
Honestly, the place hadn’t changed much, except instead of being shabby, it had degraded. From what I saw, I supposed one could call it a hair’s breadth from collapsing in on itself.
When the car rolled to a stop in front of the house, which hadn’t seen a lick of paint since before I could remember, I took it all in, noticing the weeds were so lazy they didn’t even concern themselves with spreading. Instead, they stayed in the same half-wilted, haphazard clumps where they’d always been. Only the mildew climbing up the right side of the dwelling seemed to have any gumption.
Shaking my head, I peeked at the buckling barn, no longer capable of holding its shape, and for an instant, I wondered when it had given up the good fight.
Did I care?
The ugly truth of the matter was quite simply no. Long ago, I’d attempted to bury this place, and all that came with it in the darkest corners of my mind. But from time to time, those evil little creatures called memories tried to claw their way out of the shadows, making me push them back where they belonged. I never purposely allowed them to return, nor did I ever believe I’d be back to this spot where I both began and came to an end.
I took a deep, measured breath, staring at the house I’d been born in during the middle of the night as our small parish outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, experienced one of the worst storms on record. Mama said it rained so much the banks of the Mississippi overflowed, so it was by the grace of God the midwife made it before the flooding ensued.
While the wind stirred outside, threatening to take the tin roof of our house, Mama told me, she suffered inside those quaking walls in hard labor. Unable to do anything else, she prayed the house would keep. Hours later, the wind finally settled, but nothing worked to hold back the rain—not even prayers.
On the second night of the deluge, my mama said, two things happened. Her youngest son, Danny Joe, who was a toddler, was struck ill with the fever, making the midwife split her time between my mama’s needs and tending to him. Then at 12:48 a.m. came the misfortune of my arrival. For most people, bringing a new life into the world would be a time of great celebration. But giving birth to a girl was not a joyful occasion in my home.
Not at all.
My condition was fragile because I had come more than a month early, right after Mama’s fall. She never said, but I suspected her injuries and premature labor were the result of Daddy’s fists.
Absently rubbing the scar under my chin, I recalled my mama telling me she didn’t name me that night, believing I wouldn’t live to see the dawn. She said Fawna-Leigh, the midwife, cleaned me up, wrapped me in an old tea towel, and placed me in a knitting basket beside the wood-burning stove.
According to Mama, the storm raged until morning, but I never made one sound.
Not a cry. Not a peep.
When the sun started to shine, Mama asked Fawna-Leigh to help her get up so she could make Daddy Bruce and her boys something warm for breakfast. Daddy and James Henry, my oldest brother, would be finding their way home from town since the storm cleared, and she was hoping Danny Joe would be strong enough to eat. Of course, Fawna-Leigh did what Mama requested and helped her out of bed, although she had lost a lot of blood and was weak and wobbly. Even so, my mama endured, because that’s what a woman did.
“Are you all right?”
Claremont’s gravelly voice startled me, causing me to blink up at him. “Hmm?”
I’m unsure at what point my nervousness kicked in, realizing not only had he opened the car door for me, but I’d also been fiddling with one of my earrings.
“I asked if you were all right,” he said.
“Oh, um, yes.” I curled my fingers around the palm of his outstretched hand. “Just memories distracting me, I guess.”
“It would seem those pesky things are akin to death and taxes.”
“All the things we can’t stop?” I scooted out of the car, then running a palm over the bell of my hip, I smoothed the wrinkles in my skirt.
“Mm-hm,” he hummed.
Straightening my spine, I steeled myself for the reentrance into the past. “I hope this won’t take me too long, Claremont.”
He shrugged. “Take your time. I’ll be here if you need me.”
I took one step forward, two steps, then three.
If hopelessness and depression had a scent, those were the recognizable smells permeating the air as I walked over decrepit earth toward the small front porch with a drooping roof and rotting wood. Part of me wanted to turn around and leave. Wipe this visit from my mind. Completely forget. It would have been the easier thing to do. But instead, I placed my foot on the damaged planks—the creaks and moans beginning their noisy complaints.
Thankfully, I was able to make it through the broken front door without those objections giving way to any disaster.
Once inside the tiny kitchen with the chipped green table, scratched blue chairs, and peeling floral wallpaper, I realized not a single item in there lived in harmony with the others. But if I were honest, I’d have to say dissonance was the recurring theme of the place.
As I strode past the filth and overflowing trash can, the recollections crashed around me—wave after wave. It was on the way into this space that Mama and Fawna-Leigh stopped to peek into the basket Fawna had placed me in as a newborn, sure they’d be burying another one of my mama’s babies. But I was sucking my thumb, staring up at them with eyes the color of bluebells.
Mama told me, that’s when she cried.
See, she hadn’t shed a single tear during the harsh pain of giving birth or out of fear of the horrible storm taking the house and her with it, but she sobbed when she saw me. To her, it would have been better for all of us if I’d passed on in the night, carried off on the wings of angels, never to suffer the evils of this world.
Taking a breath of musty air, I stepped into the living room; the yellowing plastered walls spotted where pictures once hung, then paused. The ratty brown sofa tucked under the window—the glass nothing more than a web of fractures over cracks—had dirty pieces of stuffing sprouting from one of its arms.
Unbidden, my gaze slid to the closed door leading to my old bedroom as the rapid beat of my heart pummeled my ribs, and a shudder of revulsion rolled along my spine.
Sometimes I believed my mama might have been right.
“God, help me.” I swiped away the salty moisture flowing down my face.
When a sense of peace descended, I squared my shoulders, giving Him the thanks, my foot kicking empty liquor bottles aside. They warb-warb-warbled across the uneven wood floor as I entered what barely passed as a bedroom, the stench of sickness so overpowering you could taste it.
Choking from the pungent odor, I covered my nose and mouth with my hand, glancing past the puddle of vomit swarming with flies.
There, where the disheveled figure lay passed out on the bed, I’d heard the story of my stormy arrival when I was fourteen. Right there, I’d perched on the side of the under-stuffed mattress, clasping my mama’s pale, frail fingers, listening to her cough every other breath.
“You’ll need to be strong now, Mississippi,” came her last labored words.
She passed on from consumption at half-past three on a sunny Sunday afternoon, leaving me behind.