My Mama always said if it hadn’t been for that first sight of the Mississippi, twisting like a snake below the levy, she never would have laid down in the back of Billy Taylor’s pickup. The way she told it, the river did all the courting for that mean Taylor boy.
Ma never thought the spell the water cast over her was quite fair—setting her life on a path with as many twists and turns as any river could ever have. Maybe she was making her excuses when she told me her river tales. Myself, I don’t think rivers are in the business of being fair. They just are what they are.
Mama was a puzzle. Sometimes she screamed in a voice made harsh with years of cigarette smoke, “Goddamn! I wish I’d never seen that river, girl!”
Other times, mostly when I was very small, she would pull me into her lap while she rocked by the kitchen window in the evening and stroke my frizzy hair ‘til it behaved in her slender hands. She’d whisper in my ear, “The Mississippi River gave me my girl, the only critter in the world worth lovin'.”
Then she’d send me off to bed with a pat on the bottom and I’d fall asleep listening to the crackle and squeak of her rocker through the wall. She wore ruts in the floor board with that old rocker.
Mama loved the river so much she named me after it. Mississippi Ann Taylor, born nine days into August, the same year the river ate my Granny’s house. I was 23 inches long, which is mighty long for a baby, and nine pounds even, which seems mighty big too. I can’t imagine pushing out nine pounds of baby between my legs. On the day Ma brought me into the world she told visitors, before she let anyone lay hands on my newness, that my name was Mississippi—not Missy, Cici, Pipi, or any other such nonsense. She warned everyone from the pastor to her sisters, “Better not let me catch you callin’ my girl out of her name.”
People must have seen in her eyes the punishment for breaking this rule, because I don’t remember it ever being tested before of after the seventh grade when J.P.Corbin made his mistake.
Mama had braided my hair real pretty for the first day back to school after a summer of wild and nappy curls like big yanks of yarn bursting from my head and swinging down my back. She spent two hours combing and cutting all the knots free and braided it tight in pigtails just before I laid my head down for the nervous last-night-of-summer sleep. I thought I might be a bit too big for braids, but I didn’t mind none. It was nice to have all that hair out of my way. I hardly dared to sleep for fear I’d toss an’ turn too much with the jitters and knock the braids loose.
In the morning I woke to sleek and tame braids like new rope. I toss’d ‘em back and forth over my shoulders and preened like a fussy hen in the bathroom mirror ‘til Pa called me a ninny and told me he’d take a scissors to ‘em if I didn’t quit.
He couldn’t spoil my smile that morning. I walked to school proud as a rooster. My dress was as plain and careworn as it was when school let out the last year, and my shoes were picked out of the church box, but my braids were shiny in the early sun and the breeze tickled ‘round my ears. I felt just as pretty as a magazine girl. I was just sure folks would stop and stare over my fine hair when I walked up on the school, but nobody said nothin’. They went about their business, and I went about mine. I wasn’t used to much attention, but I sure did want someone to notice me just once.
No one did, for good or meanness, ‘til recess. Of all the people I liked and those I didn’t much care for, J.P. Corbin was the one to pay my braids some mind. He was the biggest, meanest little snake in boy skin I had ever met, up to that point. He walked right up on me playing squares and wrapped his fingers around one of my braids. I remember his hands looked like rising bread dough, all dimpled and pasty. He yanked so hard my head bent right down to the side and I screamed out a cat’s angry yowl. I swung my fists and tried to get my teeth in him, but he was quick for all his size.
“Sissy braids! Sissy braids! Sissy Mississippi,” he sang like a nursery rhyme. Once he stopped his singing he took to calling me Sissy for good, even though everyone already knew better.
All that day he called me Sissy when he had cause to speak to me, and whispered it even when he didn’t. And he laughed, did he ever laugh, like a snake would laugh, like a squirrel screaming at you from the trees, like a mean dog barking. I told him he’d better stop or my crazy Ma was gonna get him.
He called me Sissy the next day, and the next. He got other people calling me Sissy, singing it at me in the hallway.
That was just the first time I learnt how way-down-deep bad boys are, all of ‘em. They's just a waste of time. I always thought so, but J.P. Corbin confirmed it. I wasn’t never picked on before, so I didn’t know quite what I should be thinking. But I didn’t like it. My name was Mississippi, it always had been. They only had to say it. I had to learn to spell it before everyone else, and write it. I had to be named after a river, not them. I got madder and madder the more I thought on it.
I finally screwed up the courage to tell Mama.
Fire lit up her eyes and the heat must have burned her cheeks ‘cause I never saw her that color before or since. I knew she wasn’t just a little mad because she didn’t even yell. She didn’t even talk. She just walked on out the door.
When she stomped off in her house-dress I wished I’d never told her. It was the one that used to be white with blue flowers but looked more like gray with darker gray flowers just then. She went the way to town, down the gravel road. I just knew she was going to talk to Mr. Corbin. He would see her dress and her crazy eyes. Everyone already thought Mama was crazy, but I didn’t like her proving it. I wanted to sink right down into the moldy green cow pond down the road.
She didn’t tell me what happened, she didn’t even speak to me when she came in, red cheeked from the walk and looking tired. She just got supper ready and combed out my ratty hair after we ate. Didn’t braid it though, never again.
I didn’t have too many friends after that time, but people didn’t often call me anything but my name anymore either, when they spoke to me at all. J.P. never even looked my way cross-eyed. Rumor was Ma’d threatened to set his Pa’s house on fire and curse his crop. I don’t think she would have done it, but likely she could have done it. I heard his Pa’d whupped him 'til he couldn’t set down proper and took away all his chore money for three months. I didn't feel bad for him. He knew better than to call me anything but Mississippi.
We lived in that same town, Devlin, when I was born, and all through while I was growing up. I still live in Devlin, surrounded by people who know the sound of my laughter in church on a Sunday morning. My Mama don’t live anywhere no more though. She’s dead. An’ my Pa’s as good as dead if you ask me and mine. I pretended not to see him, when he used to stand at the foot of the gravel drive and stare up at the house, vacant eyed like a slaughtered calf. He’s just one of my ghosts.
I got lots of ghosts for a person my age. Some of ‘em passed down from Mama, an’ some I earned all on my own, like pennies for chores. Some even come from Pa, I’m sure.
Devlin ain’t anywhere near Mama’s river, but she talked about it so vivid, I always thought I could see it in my head. I pictured it just like a film of the ocean I saw once in school, with waves rushing up on the shore. I went to see it after Mama died, instead of going to the service. It only seemed right to say goodbye to her there, where we first met, the night my Pa put me in her belly. The town buzzed for weeks behind cupped hands whenever I walked by. They said I always was an odd one, and taking off for the river when I should be at the funeral was just another example of how I wasn’t quite right. I was Mama’s girl. It ran in the blood.
The first sight of Mama’s muddy Mississippi was a bit disappointing, to be truthful.
When I was growing up Pa always said all Mama’s talk about the river was horse-shit, and that Beth Pidden was happy to jump in his truck and drive away, anywhere he wanted to take her. There wasn’t no other way for her to see the world, ‘cept to go where someone would take her. Mama was never quite happy just being my Mama and Pa’s wife here in Devlin. She was the type shoulda seen the world.
If Pa’d been drinking, and she started spinning river tales, he'd laugh in her face and tell her she wasn't nothin' but a dumb bitch. Sometimes I laughed with him, ‘specially when she said she wished the river hadn't brought her such a trouble in the body of a girl. She said that at least three times in a week when I got to be old enough for the boys to start looking twice after me on Sundays. But I believed her river stories, even if I said I didn’t when I was feeling stubborn. I believed everything my Mama ever said.
It was easy, trusting Mama’s river tales, ‘specially when I’d see stories in the town paper about the river flooding and ruining all manner of homes and fields. Like I said, the year I was born, the river swallowed up my Granny’s house. Swallowed it up, with Granny sleeping sound in her bed. No one knows if she woke up, or tried to swim away or get out of the house. Pa said the house, whitewashed and a bit drafty but not at all rickety, was there before the flood and after the flood it was gone. All the river left was an old tree stump he used to chop logs on and a porch post still sticking up from the ground like a sawed off flagpole. My Granny Taylor was never seen again by anyone in Devlin, probably not by anyone at all.
‘Fore she died she came to see me in the hospital where I was born, over in Hoggarth. I was her first girl gran’child and she thought girls was a bit smarter than boys, or so said my Pa anyway. I don’t remember meeting her, but Pa wasn’t real fond of her, and I wasn’t real fond of Pa. So ‘course I thought she must have been the most wonderful person, next to Mama.
Pa disliked her so much he didn’t even talk about her unless he was special-occasion-drunk. On those nights he was fond of cursing her name with every dirty word in the book, and some I’m sure he made up ‘cause I ain’t ever heard ‘em before or since. I never could make sense from him when he was in his cups, so I quit listening to him and asked Mama instead.
My Mama only ever met Pa’s Mama once, aside from the birth visit, on account of Pa’s extreme dislike of her. But Mama thought she was a real good woman, especially ‘cause she was living right next to the river where Mama wished she coulda lived. Pa wouldn’t hear of that, he didn’t want to live anywhere near his memories, he said.
I asked Mama why Pa hated his own Ma so much. It seemed silly back when I was eleven and it sure still seems silly now. Mama said when Pa was about eight his Mama was carrying his little sister, the youngest and the only girl out of eight boys. Granny couldn’t a’known she was having a girl, but she did. She knew it. And she was fairly crazy with excitement. Seems she sent Pa’s Daddy clear up to Hoggarth for some calico and lace. She had it in her head to make calico curtains and calico gowns and a calico hat with lace and a bow. She never did get her calico. Pa’s Daddy went up on a Saturday and they didn’t hear the news 'til Tuesday. Ma told it that Pa’s Daddy bought that calico and lace and then went right into the Whisper Dixie and got himself special-occasion-drunk. I guess Pa comes by his mean mouth honestly ‘cause his Daddy started shooting it off with some of the Poighton brothers about half witted Sally Poighton who worked at the post office and slept with men for chocolates and nickels. That’s what he heard, and that’s what he said. I don’t rightly know how true it was.
True or not, those Poighton boys whupped him till he looked like a rotten plum, but even beaten he wouldn’t keep his mouth shut. I guess he couldn’t leave well enough alone. I don’t know what he said, but someone heard Felis Poighton tell him he’d get him. Felis was the oldest brother, and the dumbest. He looked a bit like a catfish and smelled ‘bout as bad. I remember him from church when I was real young. Pa’s Daddy didn’t ever come home. When Bixby Jaytre heard about the fight and came checking up that Tuesday, Pa’s Mama knew the Poighton Boys had finished him off. No one ever found a body, or any trace.
Pa blamed his Mama, on account of the calico and lace. I don’t know if Granny blamed herself, but she dressed my aunt Junie in the same old clothes she had dressed her boys in.
‘Course Pa never forgave her. He’s the kind as holds on to the bad and never notices the good.
He left when I was 13, not long after J.P. Corbin's mistake, but by then I was ‘bout done with him anyway. It nearly killed Mama though. I don’t know why, but she loved him. Even after calling her stupid and a bitch and all manner of meanness for nearly 14 years she still loved him. Even after spending all his money at Trick’s and Ruth’s, shelling it out for shots of tequila and pints of beer or stuffing it in some girl’s underpants, even after telling her once or twice a week that he paid the rent, she better put it out, and making her cry real quiet, even after leaving her with no money and no job and damn near no food and me to take care of, even after all that she loved him.
Loved him so much she stayed in bed near three weeks when he went. I had to do the cleaning, and what little cooking was possible. I had to take care of all the chickens and the pig. Thinking on it now, I shoulda caught one of them scrawny chickens. We coulda had some real food to lift our spirits. Shame I didn’t think of it then.
Pa said he was leaving ‘cause Mama wasn’t fulfilling her wifely duties. And Mama said Pa wasn’t fulfilling his husband duties so why should she. And they carried on for a whole day, both of ‘em trying to win. And then Mama called him a worthless good for nothing drunk. That might not have been so bad but she added, ‘…just like your dead, rottin’-in-the-ground father.’
You coulda heard crickets chirping clear over in Hoggarth. Pa just stared at her, his mouth all lazy and hanging open, his pale blue eyes open real wide. He just stared and stared for a good minute. ‘Don’t ever call my Daddy names, you fucking bitch,’ he whispered real low, like wind. I saw his fists clenching up before Mama did. It sounded like a tree cracking down in a storm when he hit her. Her head snapped clear round and she fell on her hip. I think it was the first time. I know it was the last time, ‘cause he left right after and we didn’t see hide nor hair of him till ‘bout a year later.
I didn’t say a word the whole time. I don’t think I blinked once, just watched it all in slow motion with my hands clenched so tight my fingers turned white as milk. I opened my mouth, all right, but no sound came out.
He walked right out with just the clothes on his back and the wallet in his pocket. He didn’t take nothin’. We thought he was coming back, for his things if not for us. But he didn’t, and Mama just lay in bed. She got skinny as a wild cat and looked a little wild in the eyes too.
After three weeks she got out of bed and started making supper, like nothing was diff’rent. She didn’t talk about Pa, not once, and we didn’t see him for a long time. It was better without him and his lying, drinking ways in my opinion. But I don’t think Mama agreed. I heard her crying here and there, in the bathroom, out in the garden, in the kitchen chopping greens. It was as if her life just followed him on out the door. She got old just ‘bout overnight. Her eyes never lost the wild.
We didn’t know where he’d gone. But ‘bout a year after he left he was back again asking Mama for money. His hair was mud colored instead of shiny blonde and it smelled funny, like meat and bad milk and sick animal, and something minty, but not nice like mint growing round the porch. I could see the bones in his face clear through his skin, his hands were that way too. He seemed ‘bout as alive as a skeleton. ‘Course we didn’t have no money to spare, Mama had to take in sewing and mending, and chil’ren to watch, and all manner of odd jobs just to keep the mortgage paid and food, almost always, on the table.
He went off again real quiet when Mama told him she didn’t have none to spare. He didn’t yell or cuss or nothing, didn’t seem normal to me. Just seeing him made Mama sad all over again though, so I didn’t say nothin’ to her bout how strange it was that he just went off without no fuss. ‘Course we found out why ‘bout two days later when Mama was fixin’ to pay the mortgage. It was gone, every bit of the money. She still kep’ it in the blue and brown pear shaped cookie jar on the counter, just like when Pa was living with us. We couldn’t afford no cookies anyways. I s’pose Pa still had his key, and we hadn’t even thought of changing the locks. I knew it was Pa, for sure, he got in and took all our money without us even knowing But Mama wanted to believe it was some stranger, called the police and raised a fuss. She didn’t tell ‘em ‘bout Pa asking for some money. They would have thought he took it too, but I don’t think Mama would have listened to them either.
We had to sell half the furniture in the house and the tractor to make it back and pay the mortgage 'fore the bank stepped in and put us out. I had to sleep on a pile of blankets after that, since my bed got sold to Fran Daws for her littlest girl Betsy. Now I never did like my Pa much, ‘specially since he up and left, but I started hating him for sure after that. It weren’t the last time he stole from us, neither. The second time we had to get a charity loan from God’s Heart Baptist Church. We paid it back every month with bout half our food money. I was hungrier and skinnier than usual that year.
The third and last time he did it, Mama fell over dead and didn’t have to worry ‘bout the mortgage no more. I was near to twenty summers and madder’n a snake in a burlap sack. Mama hadn’t been feeling like herself for awhile, but I never thought she’d die. To be truthful, I thought she’d outlast Pa and me and the whole town.
See, I didn’t have a mind to marry, not ever, and Mama said if I couldn’t find me a man, I’d hafta get me a job. So I did. It was after my first day as a checker at Bunts Grocery that I found her. I could see her arm laying on the kitchen floor, her hand curled up like she was trying to hold on to life as it left her. I knew she was dead when I saw that arm but I walked in and stood on the brown painted floor to look at the rest of her anyway. Her dress was blue and worn in the back, just getting threadbare. It had floated up as she fell and lay twisted ‘round the tops of her legs, showing a triangle of dingy white underpants and two skinny, veined legs. Her hair had never gone grey, it was brown like mine but the sun was catching it through the window and it looked red like fire. I couldn’t help but think that Mama was dead but her hair sure looked alive.
I don’t remember seeing the cookie jar smashed on the floor ‘till after she was taken away by Mrs. Utney and her two fat sons. I was all alone. I didn’t know what to say when I saw it, just stood dumb and staring. I knew Pa’d killed Mama. With all his thieving and lying and leaving, he just wore her right down. There ain’t no words to tell about something like that. I knew my Pa to be the worse thing living. That ain’t easy. And my Mama, only soul who ever cared a whit ‘bout me, was dead. That ain’t easy either. And I was all alone, and that was the hardest part of all.
I tried to tell the police, but they just thought I was, "havin’ an episode," a spell of craziness brought on by Mama’s death. The whole town knew we was crazy, me and Mama. I never did know why exactly, I just knew we was. I grew up knowing it. They were real nice ‘bout it at the station, but they didn’t do nothing.
The church helped out. They took up a collection for the funeral and one for the mortgage, since I was bereaved and all. They sure can make you feel like giving money at that church, talk you right out of every cent if they want to. I almost felt like I should give it all back to someone who needed it more, but I figured it’d be hard to find someone needier’n me.
The old ladies who smelled like powder and always sat up at the front brought over so much food I wouldn’t have needed to cook nothin’ for weeks, if I’d been hungry. They helped me arrange the funeral too. We had Mama cremated, since that was all we could afford, but there was a nice little service at the church, I’m told. Like I said, I didn’t go. I took off, with what was left of Mama, for the river.
I started off walking, but got a ride real quick from a man who’d been in town to visit his grandgirl, just born. He took me all the way to the water, since he lived close by.
I’d thought it’d be like the water in a picture of an island I saw on a postcard once, all sky blue and shining in the sun. I thought from the way Mama talked it was like a little piece of heaven set right down ‘tween Missouri and Illinois. I couldn’t help but think maybe the river died when Mama died, ‘cause it sure didn’t look like the river she talked 'bout in her stories.
It was smaller than I thought and the banks were nothin’ but scrub grass and rocks. Dirty too, the kind of thing city people would call trashy and turn up their noses at. Not just dirt colored, but dirty feeling, like the air ‘round it stuck to my skin and wouldn’t rub off. The water was brown and running slow like a river of rain with shiny oil resting on top. Look’t like it was headed for some big storm drain. And the smell, shoooo! Smell’t like outhouse, like wet dog and boilin’ potatoes. Smell’t like old ladies and bugs. I didn’t like it one bit.
Now I don’t know, maybe Mama talked ‘bout it so much she talked all the life right out of it. She had a habit of that. She could make you feel like the queen of the whole world when you was down or she could make a spring seem gray when it was green and pretty just a minute before. She didn’t have much but she had a way with words. Pa called it her devil tongue, said all women had an evil tongue in their dirty mouths.
Or maybe she wasn’t quite right. Maybe she was just dumb like Pa said. And I musta been dumb for believing her.
The mosquitoes were eating me alive. I hadn’t thought about it before now, but the river was perfect for little pests and critters. Somebody was dumping their garbage close to where I was standing. It smelled like old food and dirty diapers. I remember thinking that it wasn’t nice, even to a river this worn out. Certainly didn’t help the place none.
I went back home, quick as my feet would carry me. It took longer to get back since I walked most the way. I wasn’t lookin’ forward to goin’ back to Mama’s house, all alone. Maybe I walked a bit slower than I could’a. My feet was powerful sore by the time I got there, but I got there.
It was cold, and dark, and sad without Mama, so all’s I did was sleep, half of a day, and all of a night, and half of the next day. And then I walked down to Bunts’ Grocery and told ‘em I was ready to work. They didn’t think it was right, so soon after Mama died. They didn’t say as much to me, but I caught ‘em whispering a time or two. I had my reasons though, same reasons I went to Mr. Bunts and asked him how I could sell Mama’s house, and would he help me find a place to stay on my own.
The Bunts’ didn’t like it, me living by myself here in town. I guess if I lived way out at Mama’s, they could forget I was really there alone. They said it weren’t proper and even tried to marry me off to one or t’other of their fat sons, Huck and Frank, Jr. No other girl would have ‘em, but I guess they thought I just might. They sure were wrong. I wouldn’t marry any old man, and I said as much. I don’t want nothin’ from no man, ‘cause I don’t want to give nothin’ back. Besides, Huck had funny breathing, like gurgling way down in his belly every in breath, and wheezing every out. And Frank always seemed to have his fingers in every little wet place his body had. I couldn’t abide by either the breathing or the fingering.
In the end they ended up agreeing to help, seeing as how I worked for ‘em so cheap and stayed late most days.
I guess Pa got wind of it, ‘cause he started standing outside the old house most nights, just looking up at it, like he was thinking. I didn’t pay him no mind, he was as dead as Mama in my mind. Anyway he shoulda been. One night he tried to talk to me as I was coming back from work late, walking and bone tired and bad spirited to begin with. But I just walked on as he talked about us sticking together and me being all he had in the world. He took to yelling and grabbing at my arm and acting desperate, but I just kept walking and I guess he didn’t feel he could get too close to the house now Mama wasn’t in it ‘cause he didn’t follow.
I couldn’t wait for the house to sell, to be rid of ghosts, and memories and Pa. Sometimes I thought I saw Mama, in the kitchen cooking up supper or sitting in her rocker on the front porch. It was a bit startling, thinking Mama might not be in heaven at all, but still here- a ghost. I didn’t think about it much if I could help it, just like I didn’t think about Pa. I fancied myself an orphan.
What I did think about was working, and once the house sold for next to nothin’ to an old man and his three legged ratty dog, I thought about moving. I didn’t much care where, so long as it was far as I could get from Mama’s house. Far as I could get turned out to be ‘bout half an hour walking from the Grocery in a little old place up a whole bunch of stairs, right above the dry cleaning shop. It was falling apart bad, steps loose and the roof leaking in the rain. Mighty drafty when it was cold out, and like to boil a person alive when it was hot. I didn’t have much furniture, just a second hand mattress with the faded flowered sheets that used to be Mama’s, a table and a chair, and a small chest for my clothes. I didn’t have much of nothin’, to be truthful. I had to save pennies and live hungry sometimes, just like always.
But it was mine, and it was the first thing that ever was mine, just mine. That made it like living in a castle in some story, made it just as homey as could be. I felt real fine, being all on my own in my own place, for awhile.
I think Pa took to standing outside there too, but I can’t be sure it was him, or anyone really. Sometimes I thought I saw someone, in the dark places outside at night. Sometimes I thought I heard something, like a footstep or a cough. I might have just dreamed it all up, but maybe someone was there. I guess I’ll never know for sure now. Whoever it was coulda just been there that one night, or he coulda been watchin’. Don’t much matter, what’s done is done.
I was walking home from work after staying ‘til right near ‘leven. I’d been helping Huck with the inventory since he can’t read so good, or count so good, and I just lost all track of the day. I didn’t have much to go home to, to be truthful, so I guess it didn’t much matter to me.
Outside it was black as the bottom of a still barrel and the wind was howling and shushing. I remember wishing I had more’n just a worn red cardigan to pull ‘round me while I was walking, and cussing my thin soled shoes. They were black, which was all that mattered for working at the Grocery and they were cheap which was all that mattered to me ‘til that night. I wished I’d gave up another few dollars for warmer toes, I sure did. I was mighty pitiful. I’m sure I looked like an old lady, skin loose on the bones ‘cause there ain’t no meat b’tween, shivering in practical shoes and a cardigan, my hair knotted tight behind my neck, my eyes slitted almost shut ‘gainst the biting wind.
Guess it makes sense I didn’t hear nothing, with all my thinking and all the wind. I don’t much think it woulda made a difference if I had heard. Nothing I could do once he grabbed onto my arm and twisted it up behind my back, 'til my fingers coulda almost scratched at the bottom of my neck. And then he had the other arm, moving it unnatural, using it to push me this or that way ‘til I was ‘tween a red pickup with heat still coming off the tires and a brick building with busted out windows, used to be a liquor store. The ground under my knees was cold and hard, the kind as should be covered with snow. That night it was fairly powdered with someone’s broken bottle, beer or pop, I don’t know which. The glass cut my knees and later my back.
I didn’t see him. He was behind me at first and then my dress and sweater were right up over my head. I never got a look at even an inch of him. But boy did he smell. He smelled like Pa did, that time he came begging, like meat and bad milk and sick animal, and something minty, but not nice like mint growing round the porch. And he breathed like Huck, gurgling way down in his belly every in breath, and wheezing every out. He was laughing as he kicked me down ‘til I was trying to crawl right into the earth. He laughed like J.P. Corbin, way back in grade school, like a snake would laugh, like a squirrel screaming at you from the trees, like a mean dog barking. He beat me down 'til I was loser’s low, but just like Pa’s Daddy, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. And when I felt something pushin' up inside of me, and my eyes rolled back up in my head, and I went to something like sleep, I remember thinkin’ of Frank and his fingers.
I don’t know when I woke up, and I didn’t know where I was. I was blue, from beating and cold both. I didn’t know your insides could hurt. I sat up looking, and staring for a good long time 'fore I realized I was at the bottom of my own outside staircase. I didn’t remember crawling, or walking. I don’t know how I got there, but I crawled up the steps and in the door all the same.
I slept just inside the doorway for a day or two. I lost track of hours and days. Sometimes one seemed like t’other. And when I woke up, I knew you was with me, that he put you in my belly. And I knew you’d wanna know some ‘bout me. I ain’t been well enough to do much talkin’ before now tho’, took a long time for my face to heal proper. At least, I think it was a long time. I ain’t been strong enough for going out doors either, but it feels good walking now. I didn’t want no one stopping to pick us up. I wanted to tell you why and besides, I know where we’re going better’n anyone. We’re almost there now, and I’m almost done speaking my piece.
It ain’t ‘cause I don’t love you as you are, I do. It ain’t…
Well, it don’t matter what it ain’t. What it is…
See, I just can’t, I mean, I don’t know how to…
I just don’t want you. It ain’t personal. Yes, I can love you but not want you. I don’t know how. No, it don’t make sense. I don’t even know who your Pa is. This is better, I’m savin’ you a hard time. Being third in a line of crazies wouldn’t be no good for you. Mamas know best. You woulda learnt that real quick with me, like I did with mine. They know best and you gotta believe ever’thing they ever say, ‘cause they’re your Mama, and that’s the only reason that matters.
At least I’m coming with you, my Mama left me all alone. She didn’t take me.
Here we are. I can smell it.
It don’t look like much of anythin’ in the dark, just a trickling sound, like the whole world’s pissing and that’s what the river’s made of. I know it’s down there, oily and brown like water off a dog.
I still ain't crazy 'bout this here river, but one thing Mama was right about was the mud. I feel it ‘tween my toes all cold and almost soft. The Muddy Mississippi. It’s colder than I thought and gentle just up to my ankles. Sharp things at the bottom cutting my feet. I didn’t want to bleed. At my knees I can feel it pushing me with its hands, it has hundreds…
You’ll feel it soon, too. You’ll feel it at my belly. I wonder how long it'll take to sweep us off to oceans where no one knows our laugh in church…
Remember, don’t hold your breath or it won’t work. Swallow as much as you can, baby.
This is a phenomenal and haunting story…very well scripted with a colloquial voice Alice Walker would be proud of. Well worth the read and reread!