"You'll kill a plant if you touch it when you're bleeding," she told me. "Leaves will shrivel, fruit drop from the vine. Not just any blood. Mind me, I'm talking the monthlies."
Mama raised me up with superstition. In the way flowers strain to the sun, I grew in her direction of suspicion and doubt. Familiar shelter, all her spit-shine and country lore. As a girl who'd skipped her monthlies, too early for her own good at fifteen, I was dulled to shame by my error, so I caved to Mama's aggrieved face and capable arms.
"Learn from one who's been down that road," she said. Her pointer finger tapped her chest, hinting at a woman and a secret I'd not before considered. I glanced at the wedding band she wore.
She said, "We don't need people with their questions noseying in. Best to keep your condition under wraps."
Preston complained that Mama was holding me hostage, but don't you know her captivity appealed to me? Half the time I wanted Preston so bad my belly ached; the rest of the time I shuddered at what he and I'd set into motion. Such see-sawing made me sick. The doctor ordered bed rest my final months, he said Mama and I better enact a truce or there'd be hell, and extra hospital bills, to pay. The one time in her life she must have succumbed to outside demands. Our unsaid peace wobbled only when Preston rang from the National Guard and she disconnected his calls.
I reached out my arm and protested as she hung up the phone, "He just wants to offer whatever he can."
She arched her eyebrows. "I'd say he's labored over you enough."
Preston's ghost loomed in our doorway while what he'd given grew inside me, most tender of tender shoots. Along with my womb, he quickened my blood. We weren't marrying, but for me, there was no forgetting.
Mama wouldn't let us drive to the JP. She said, "You must be out of your mind, with that boy going over to the desert. You'd be wedding a corpse. Mark me."
Her prediction scalded me, and knowing how she banked on premonitions, I thought maybe this time she'd had some word from the other side, and so I told Preston, "Wait. Just let's wait."
Already on his way out of North Carolina, what could he do but lean into my plea and nod yes? He had a body language that superseded everything else the world threw at me.
"Cold hands warm heart," Mama said, chafing the bottoms of my swollen feet while I lay listless and lovelorn in bed, useful for nothing but the nursing to come. At my lowest, she sparkled her most cheerful.
She boiled the essence out of any root vegetable, turnips and rutabagas, in particular. Made the house stink for days, and only she ate it. God knows I had no appetite. What she didn't boil, she fried. Fried chicken, fried whitefish, fried oysters, fried pork chops with breading from crushed up saltines. In the refrigerator, a Crisco can held re-used grease she'd dip into.
I lay in bed, trapped by the fumes. Each day, some assaulting smell she brought to me on her skin: liniment, or Vick's Vapo-rub, Ivory soap, ammonia, scorched butter, moth balls. It took half the winter for our wool coats to shed the peppermint-dead odor from when she'd packed them away during summers. I worried my own child would suffer the shame of a smelly coat festering in his locker during winter school days. At dismissal, "What's that smell?" some kid would say, while he stood wriggling into stiff sleeves and mittens darned like socks. And, "Pee-you"—my baby taking it personal, the way I had.
When the time of my "confinement," as Mama termed it, reached its end, the hospital set me panicking for no other reason than antiseptic pinched my nose in the way moth balls did.
Nonsense, I know, but my mind linked moth balls with sterility. I waxed a little hysterical and they wouldn't give me anything for calming because of the baby.
After twenty-two hours labor, my hips were clearly not going to slide apart enough; they put me under, and cut. Mama acted like surgery canonized me. This was the one break in her lifelong relentlessness. To my maternity bed she brought daisies from the yard atop a wicker basket of belly bands to tie around my newborn's middle. "So his belly button doesn't pop out when he cries too much," Mama said. As if she expected me to let Luke lie there and wail, instead of grabbing him up to me every time he fussed and offering him my breast, which I alone could give.
Her eyes flickered while the baby latched on and my milk let down. "What?" I said. "It's what newborns cry for."
"That, or a changing," she said. She chipped at my motherly initiatives. We were back home, where she acted queen, and her words churned the bitterness in my abject heart.
When Luke, as toddler, suffered his grandma's scolding, she said, "A lie will black-spot your tongue. Boy, you remember I told you so." Half the time she wouldn't even use his name.
He gagged from hanging his mouth open too long, watching for his tongue to darken in my hand mirror off the dresser.
She gave me an eyebrow raised, implying, "See? He's got something to hide. Deceitful from the start."
She said, "You've got to be on watch with a child, or she'll pitch over to the devil's side with the first whiff of temptation."
"He," I said. "He."
I feared a little that Luke would grow up like me, lured by things requiring a lie: money left in plain sight, an open door, taste of fire. For me, the final blow had been the breadth of a man's shoulders, he and his warm proximity blotting out the sun. A sweet and final blow.
"Hell-bent," she said, "pure and simply."
Mama was the stake training my vine. I was tied to her, imprisoned or freed from my bed, ever directed by her strong will, twisted by choice not my own. I didn't have the gumption to get out from under her since my baby and I stayed with her while I worked at my GED. Once Preston returned from Iraq, I snuck out to him when I could with Luke, to let the daddy know his boy, to let me and him re-acquaint.
Doting on Preston and Luke, and faking out Mama when I had to, I didn't have it in me to seek employment, too. We survived on her social security and my aid for mothers with dependent children. I learned to complete all the government filings applicable. That alone took fortitude. Luke started stringing sentences around about the same time cancer robbed Mama of her voice box. "A babbling child can drive you crazy," I bet she'd say, if she could talk. And she'd declare me "slothful," watching me work a pencil on the forms across from her there at the kitchen table instead of accomplishing something more industrious with a cleaning implement or a yard tool in my hands.
When it got to the point she no longer walked, she rang a bell, the same bell she set beside me during my post natal recovery. I'd rung it into all manner of song and she'd still take her good natured time attending me. "Did I hear you calling?" she'd say, finally appearing, sweat on her brow and short of breath like she'd been running the laundry through a wringer when we both knew a perfectly good Whirlpool sat in the basement. Exasperated, I'd probably fallen into sleep by the time she showed up, maybe even wet myself. She'd cuss me up one side and down the other while she freshened my post-partum linens.
Now I changed the sheets. First her voice. Then her bladder and bowels. Working around a stubborn, unforgiving, voiceless woman—there's a difficulty. Faculties robbed from her one by one, you'd suppose she'd shrink with each loss, but she smacked me whenever I stood within reach. I ducked and dodged, finally got her bed proper.
I had help.
She couldn't talk but I heard her. What's he doing here, she wanted to know.
Luke's father, her most unwelcome guest, moved my mama's bones on the mattress. She was so weak she couldn't shrug him off as I knew she'd dearly love to. She saw Preston now anchored my vine, and her eyes blazed damnation.
"He keeps my knees from dragging the ground," I told her, still feeling like I had to make excuses but breezy in knowing she couldn't object.
The man beside me in this sick room stood stalwart to the very last. We held hands against the air, bad for breathing, pulsing erratic from Mama.
Knowing finally this was the time she couldn't fight and beat me, I said, "We have the Chapel of the Holy Spirit reserved second Saturday in April."
Maybe she thought I meant for last rites, but Preston and I were planning a wedding, with the sick room door clicked shut and her behind it, hanging on. Her eyes took the glazed and far-off look. I prayed aloud at her bedside to the angels she used to blaspheme. Her lips moved when mine did, the lines around her mouth engraved, her cheeks shiny over her bones. She was wearing her death mask and I wanted to let her know I would be all right.
I said, "Preston's here and he's staying."
She reared up like a cat in reverse, scariest thing I ever saw, her boney chest rising, her head deep in the pillow, neck nothing but tendons, her fingers gripping the sides of the fitted sheet. She could hiss, and she did.
"Yes, Preston," I said, stroking her down, hissing then myself. "Shhhhh."
She stayed rigid on the bed. Her drenched night shirt began stinking worse than usual. We didn't let Luke in until after the preacher and the doctor both pronounced it and the top sheet had been drawn. Then we sang hymns as families do.
After we married in the spring, Preston shouldered Mama's spade into the dirt where she rested, where I pledged to bury the seeds she saved. I shook them in their envelope, relishing them a little longer, with my boy, antsy as any toddler had a right to be, stomping my shoes.
"Quit your dancing," I said, holding Luke still by his slight shoulder.
Preston paused his work, cut the shovel's blade in the clay so the thing stood all on its own. He grasped the handle and stood tall—he might just have been stretching his low back, eyeing me with a need and judgment that shaved at the resistance she'd planted. We both knew Mama's every caution had become a flea trapped in my ear. He'd work no further, he said, until I released our boy.
Luke hop-scotched while I scattered seed by the handful. Preston enveloped him in a wrestler's hug, daddy and son shouting and cutting up in the over-watered graveyard grass, and I wanted to cross Mama to the both of them, but I froze, until Preston looked up from where he bent over Luke like a horse to his oats, and I swear, channeling a little of my mama's bite, said, "You got two strong legs. Now walk on over here."
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Donna feels very nearly southern, what with that Ohio River and Kentucky practically part of her back yard. On her mother’s side of the family every uncle and male cousin has been a truck driver. Before trucks they drove wagons, mostly ice deliveries to the bars in Over-the-Rhine, an inner city neighborhood in the heart of downtown Cincinnati.
Donna’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in dozens of print and online publications, including Natural Bridge, Hawaii Review, Meridian, Gargoyle, Broad River Review, Hurricane Review, Front Porch Journal, Beloit Fiction Journal, Storyglossia, Insolent Rudder, Turnrow, Night Train, Juked, Smokelong Quarterly, Another Chicago Magazine, and Ginosko.