Ivy swaddled the sapling oak in the tattered remains of a patchwork quilt that got washed one too many times. The stuffing seeped out and clung to the young branches in worn white puffs, like tired clouds. She was careful not to tuck it in too tight around the roots. Dank dirt clods and frayed, stray threads littered the kitchen table. She rubbed her grubby hands over the faded fabric and let her calluses catch and snag tight, resilient stitches finally worked loose. Her thoughts grazed across the needlework, too tiny and delicate for a scrap quilt. And then they wandered back to the patient woman who must’ve made those stitches. Ivy had given fifty cents for the thing at a yard sale, talked ‘em right down from three bucks. Somebody’s sweet little Mamaw had been so careful, made such nimble moves with arthritic fingers. That woman had to have been the kind of Mamaw who made drop doughnuts while you slept in late and filled the kitchen with the smells of sugar and lard and coffee brewing. The kind of Mamaw with a puff of white hair pulled back in a bun, a woman who preferred to be called Nana. Nana, who gave hugs freely and touched and loved on her grand-babies who grew up to be inappreciative assholes who sold her quilt at a goddamned yard sale.
Ivy’s Mamaw had raised her and she preferred to be called Earlene. By all. There were no concessions for the grand-babies, no cute nicknames or handmade quilts. No getting spoilt. They were expected to pull their weight and help make the ends meet and to pay extra for the mistakes of their father. The biggest one of all being running away and leaving Earlene and her tattered twenty acres behind him. Daddy disappeared from the homestead and slunk off into some big city and six months later they sent his body back to the holler, cold as a wedge and stiff as a board and riddled with needle marks and bruises. Mommy killed herself six months on after that. Sloppy, with a shotgun in the cellar of Earlene’s house. In the cellar right below Ivy’s feet. Ivy didn’t remember the double dose of death that had been her birth right, but people talked.
Earlene made damned good deer jerky. That was as close as she got to baking treats. If you won her approval, you were rewarded with a wayward tousling of the hair and a mumble. Something akin to “You done good, kid". Earlene had a coarse, gray head of hair, stained with nicotine and nappy, slapped back in a permanent pony tail. She was tall and broad, even in her old age when her spine humped up and she slumped over ever so slightly. The boys, Ivy’s little brothers, they didn’t stick around to watch Earlene get old and die. They broke loose as soon as they were old enough and she never heard from either of them again. Ivy missed them. The way they had laughed often and easy and kept things around the house all riled up. Earlene blamed Ivy’s Papaw. Said he had bad blood, the kind that wandered. Said he passed it down. Papaw went to work in Detroit when Earlene was a young woman and never sent for her and never come back. Never sent her a nickel towards raising her son, neither. That’s what Earlene said. In this house, by herself, Ivy could almost hear that familiar gravel voice, gritty in her ear.
Ivy watched her grandmother age, the two of them alone in the middle of all those acres. They planted a garden by the stars and the almanac and ate what they grew and barely used the electric. Towards the end, Earlene took to the outhouse. Walking through the cold night air to squat over a plywood hole instead of using her own, warm, toilet down the hall. Together, they were clinging to the past, holding on so hard they might rip a hole in the right now. So tight they might tear through the fabric of time with their dirty fingernails and bring back the dead. Earlene got superstitious. She sprinkled salt water around her bed and tacked up horse shoes above all the doors. She refused to clip her toenails on Sunday and slept with a pocket Bible in her pillow case, even though Ivy never remembered her setting foot in a church.
Earlene was still stout and sturdy and she tromped around in boots that her granddaughter could still hear, haunting a huffy path over loose floorboards at night. One time, the only time Ivy ever saw Earlene scared, a bird got into the house. She cried. Ivy’s Mamaw, the woman who would kill a copperhead with one swift strike of her hoe and then hang it on the fence for all the other snakes to see, hunkered down on a stool in the corner of the kitchen and stared at the little wren and wept and trembled. A bird in the house is bad luck of the worst kind. A bird in the house brings death. Earlene said she learned to look for omens.
Ivy went to the grocery store and bought packs of pork chops and bacon and packs of ground hamburger meat, but Earlene still went hunting. Said she preferred the taste of something wild. Ivy stood at the kitchen window one foggy October morning and waited up into the bright afternoon and then until the dusky evening mist rose up again. Earlene never came back. Ivy expected to discover that well water and outdoor toilets and Virginia Slims were the secret to eternal life. She never expected her Mamaw to die at all. Ivy had expected to make squirrel dumplings or maybe rabbit stew for supper. She never expected to discover her Mamaw having a heart attack under an oak tree, clutching her chest with one hand and her shotgun with the other. Earlene had a horrified look on her face and her tough voice cracked into whispers and she blamed the witch for the way her hard heart burst. Said she saw her, standing there at the edge of the clearing. A pale woman, fuzzy around the edges, calling to her from somewhere else, somewhere far away. Earlene’s last breath was a curse against a curse. A damnation of some female power only she had witnessed, the vision of a beautiful beast who took away her boys, her men. Earlene’s last breath was a whirlwind — a hex and a damnation and an extrication of a promise from the only person who stuck around to hear it.
Ever since that bird got in the house, Earlene wanted to trek out to the cemetery after every thunderstorm, any time she thought she saw a stab of lightning cut through the air and land on the ridge. She was scared of the omens. Ivy followed her through the wet woods to the most haunted place. On many a morning when the raindrops were still caught in the trees, Ivy watched her tired Mamaw lean against the trunk of a tree, reassured to find it still standing. Ivy shook her head and shook off a shiver and took up her bundle. Determined to find the old graveyard on the furthest corner of the property, she headed out into the sunrise light of day. She remembered the way.
Today, there was no mist seeping down off the foothills, just pink and orange light chasing the night away. No, Ivy thought, Earlene wasn’t the kind of woman who made quilts. She was the kind of woman who knew when to slaughter a hog, according to how the planets aligned. The kind of woman who didn’t want to be called Mamaw, the kind of woman who’s final wishes involved planting a brand new tree on an old witch’s grave.
Misty Skaggs, full time writer and part time hermit, was born and raised in the backwoods of eastern Kentucky where she still lives. Her poetry and prose are rooted firmly in Appalachia and have been published in literary journals such as New Madrid, Inscape, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Kudzu and The Pikeville Review. Her interests include junk shopping, porch swinging, and cats. You can find more of her writing and photography at her blog — http://lipstickhick.tumblr.com