November 5, 2009

Queens of the Cattails - Chapter 2

Chapter 2

"Madge!" Mama stood on the back porch, wiping her hands and forearms on her apron. All I could see from the back fence was her flailing apron and the large 'O' of her mouth hollering at me.

"I'm comin', Mama!" I cried. I turned to run, but thorns from the blackberry bush I was picking from grabbed onto my shirt and wouldn't let me go. I tugged to free myself, but instead, I lost my balance and pushed over the bucket on the ground. It was more than half full when Mama called me, but half of that rolled out into the dirt.

The time I would've spent collecting the spilled berries got eaten up by me trying to pull free from the berry bush. In the end, I came away with a hole in my sleeve too big to hide and berry juice smooshed between my toes where I trampled them on my way back.

"What is it, Mama?" I hoisted the bucket onto the top stair and prayed she wouldn't peek at my shirt sleeve.

"That all you got, Madge? Whatcha been doin' down there all afternoon?" Mama frowned at the berries and wiped her forehead on her shoulder, but she didn't look at my sleeve.

I frowned at the berries, too, burying my chin in my chest. "I had more but…I…kicked 'em over."

Mama's shoulders slumped. "Well, I guess one cobbler 'll have to do. You're outta time, daughter. I need you to run some things over to Miss Lou for me."

"Yes, ma'am." She changed the subject faster than I thought she would. On the one hand, a great weight lifted off of me that Mama hadn't noticed the tear in my clothes. She had more than enough to do without having to stop her work for mending, especially when the fault lay with me and my clumsiness. I already felt bad enough she was alone with me and my two sisters and our little brother. No matter how hard I tried to make things easier for her, the frown never left her eyes, she never stopped sweating. She never rested, even in the evening when supper was over, the kitchen was clean, and all the lights in the house were out except for the lamp in the parlor.

If I could get by without Mama having to stitch my sleeve, that would be one less task for her, and one less lecture for me.

On the other hand, I loathed taking things to Miss Lou. Our neighbor lived a half a mile away down the dirt lane past our house, and I had to walk it two ways -- there and back -- hauling sacks of pecans or satsumas, or bags filled to the brim with clothes and shoes my sisters and I couldn't wear anymore.

I hated the walk, and I resented I had to be the one to carry away my favorite dresses Mama made me. It was painful enough having to hand them down, first to Faye, who nearly destroyed everything she wore because she played so hard, and then to Winnie, who had a nervous habit of pulling threads from the worn hems and sucking on the buttons. I was the only one who truly loved those dresses, and even though I couldn't squeeze my ten-year-old body into them anymore, I would've kept them safely put away always, simply because Mama made them, and I felt pretty in anything she gave me.

The injustice was almost unbearable, and once, I told Mama so. "Why can't I keep them?" I asked. "You made them for me!"

"I did not make them for you, Madge," Mama explained, calmly folding my very favorite pair of lace-trimmed bloomers with a large pink rose at the waist and putting them into the deep stomach of that awful burlap bag. "I made them for the family -- for you, then Faye, then Winnie. Never just for you, Madge. You know we have to be frugal in this family. We will share everything we have."

I was near tears by then. I squeezed my eyes shut so I wouldn't have to see Mama stuff into that bag the Easter dress she made when I was seven. That was the year I lost a tooth on Easter Eve, so I got fifty-cents from the tooth fairy, and another fifty-cents in a plastic egg at the church egg hunt the next day.

"But if you made all that for the family, why are we giving it all away to someone else?" Squeezing my eyes shut apparently would not keep me from crying.

Mama dropped her hands in her lap and sighed. She turned her head to me, but she seemed to be studying the floor as she spoke, as if what she were speaking to the wooden planks beneath my feet.

"Madge…," she began. "You know since we've been without your daddy, we just don't have much. I can't afford store-bought clothes for all of you, but thank God He saw fit that I learn early on how to sew. Just because we don't have much doesn't mean you and your brother and sisters have to look like it.

"Now Miss Lou…." Mama raised her head and looked me sternly in the eyes. "She has even less than we do, and she's got fewer mouths to feed. You think it's hard here without your daddy? Miss Lou's children don't have their daddy either, and they have much, much less than we do."

I understood what Mama was saying. Endless times she sent me over to fetch Miss Lou's eldest daughter, Rachelle, to come play in our garden and swing on the tire Daddy hung for me before he left. Rachelle didn't have a garden.

As a matter of fact, Rachelle didn't have much of anything. She, her mother, and her older sister lived in an old, faded house that looked more like a miniature barn than a house. The grass was overgrown and full of stickers and weeds. A rusty station wagon sat under a makeshift lean-to, and it reminded me of a dead horse. I didn't know why they kept it if it didn't run anymore.

All Rachelle had was a bed she shared with her older sister and a box of hand-me-down toys from our family. No pictures or paintings hanging on her wall, no lamp, no pretty blanket with her name spelled out in rick-rack. No daddy. And no tire swing.

I should've been happy to have a playmate other than my sisters and little brother, but the truth was, I hated playing with Rachelle. Her dark hair was never brushed, she always had sticky dirt on her upper-lip, and there was always black stuff caked under her fingernails. And of course, she was always wearing one of my dresses, now stained with mud and Kool-Aid and whatever else she got on it. Playing with her was a constant reminder of sanctity lost, precious things that were taken from me before I was ready to part with them.

On the porch with the tear in my sleeve, I wondered if Rachelle would ever wear the dress I had on that very moment. Though I hated the imperfection of the rip, I secretly rejoiced and hoped Mama would never, ever discover it. Then, maybe Rachelle would find the tear herself and refuse to wear it. Or maybe she wouldn't find it; her mama would, and then Rachelle would get the whipping of her life.

I knew it wasn't fair or right, but I was tired of Rachelle ending up with everything I loved, and she didn't do a thing to deserve it but be poorer than we were.


Mama dragged the burlap bag across the porch to me. "It's too heavy, today. You're gonna have to take the wheelbarrow."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Oh, one more thing." Mama ran back into the house and emerged with a pair of tan high heels she usually wore to town. "I don't know what size Miss Lou wears, but tell her if she can fit 'em, she can have 'em. They're good shoes, I only wear them to town. Tell her they aren't even scuffed." She placed the shoes on the stair by the blackberry bucket.

"But Mama," I said. "What're you gonna wear to town now?"

"Nevermind that," she said. "Get going so you can get back before dark. And take those blackberries to her, too."

I opened my mouth to protest, but the screen door slammed shut behind her before I could utter a word.

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