November 9, 2009

Queens of the Cattails - Chapter 9

Chapter 9

A week later, Rachelle stood next to the refridgerator in the kitchen, twisting the hem of her dress with two hands. It was her dress she wore this time, and not one Mama made. In the center of the washed-out orange bodice was a ridiculous picture of Big Bird in a pair of swimming trunks, playing on the beach. It was the ugliest dress I'd ever seen, but I was happy as a clam to see it on her.

"Your mama said you might be feelin' better today and maybe you'll wanna play," she said.

"I'm eatin' lunch right now," I said, poking at the top slice of bread on my ham sandwich.

"I can wait for you. I don't mind."

Twenty or thirty mean things I could've said to her just then crossed my mind and would've sent her out of my life forever, and that's just where I wanted her to be. Somehow, though, I couldn't bring myself to say one of them. A part of me felt at ease having Rachelle there, standing in our clean kitchen on our shining floor she was marking up with her dusty footprints.

"We could play on your tire swing," she offered. "I could push you the whole time. We wouldn't have to take turns."

Such an offer would've been readily received at any other time. Who could ask for more. But right then, the swing held no appeal to me whatsoever. What did appeal to me was another afternoon in bed, laying there with my eyes closed in a soft half-sleep, maybe listening to my sisters play with their Barbies or Mama bumping dishes against the walls of the sink.

Laying down was just about all I had the energy to do. I didn't even have it in me to persist against Rachelle.

"We could sit on the porch swing for a while," I said, resting my head on the back of the chair.

Rachelle brightened immediately. "Okay. But aren't you gonna eat your lunch first?"

"Not hungry," I said and pushed my plate away.

Outside, an afternoon breeze swept across the porch and circled through Mama's gardens, shaking the feathery heads of pampas grass and rustling among the families of ferns and azaleas. The smoky clouds overhead skirted the treetops and pushed the zesty fragrance of coming rain through the air.

Rachelle gently nudged her toes on the wood floor, rocking the porch swing back and forth beneath us. I let my legs dangle off the seat, slowing our momentum.

We sat that way for a long time, swinging and listening to the mockingbirds chatter in the bends of the rafters. It was the first time I'd been outside since the last trip to Miss Lou's, and our tiny plot of land just off the highway seemed like a place I'd never been before. I decided I'd be perfectly content to stay here for the rest of my life and never step foot off the porch again.

"I wish I lived here," Rachelle said.

I knew that, but I asked why anyway.

"It's just so pleasant. Your mama's pleasant, your sisters and your baby brother…your house and your room, and your garden. I know you must miss your daddy. I miss my daddy all the time. But you seem happy anyways."

The corner of my mouth tightened. "You hadn't seen my sisters slap at each other. Or my Mama yell, you hadn't heard that."

"Your mama doesn't yell," she sneered, as if I'd just told her I had a magic carpet that would take us all the way to China.

"She doesn't yell at _you_," I said.

Rachelle shook her head, unconvinced. Her messy braids whipped around her shoulders.

I realized it was the first time Rachelle ever disagreed with me, but I wasn't surprised. I wasn't all that mad about it either. As a matter of fact, sitting with Rachelle on the porch and not doing or talking about much of anything was not a bother at all. It was actually even more restful than sleep.

The screen door on the side of the house banged shut, and Mama came around with a handful of envelopes. "Goin' to the mailbox, girls. I'll be right back."

When Mama was halfway down the drive and out of earshot, I asked Rachelle, "Who was that man at your house last week?"

"That was Ron," she shrugged. "Somebody Mama knows from Shreveport."

"Is he her boyfriend?"

Rachelle brought her thumb to her mouth and bit at the side of her fingernail. "I guess. I don't know." She kicked her feet out from under the swing, and the whole structure jarred. "I guess I wouldn't mind if he was her boyfriend. He's sure a lot nicer than the last one."

"The last one?"

She spit, and a sliver of her thumbnail launched out of her mouth and into her lap. She hopped out of the swing and bounded down the stairs.

"I'll be back in a minute, Madge," she called as she took off toward the mailbox. "I'm goin' with your mama."

Queens of the Cattails - Chapter 8

Chapter 8

Long after everyone else had fallen asleep, I lay awake in bed with the covers tucked under my sides and pulled up over my chin. Faye and Winnie slept together on the trundle, backs to me and curled together like spoons.

Ripples of moonlight waved on the ceiling, reflecting off the surface of the bucket water right outside our window. I concentrated on the rhythm of the movements and tried to find order in the patterns.

I pretended I were a mermaid, deep underwater, and the lights were rays from a summer sun, guiding me up from the dark, cavernous depths. If I swam long enough and hard enough, I'd finally reach the surface and catch my first breath of fresh, sea-misted air.

A new kind of pain ate away at my insides. I'd never hurt down there so badly. Not even when Curtis Gilbreth kicked me square in the crotch with the sharp toe of his cowboy boot because I whipped him at keepsies and took his steelie shooter. When that happened, Mama said I needed stitches but I cried so hard she couldn't get me out of the house and into the car to go see Dr. Shaw.

This was worse. There was so much blood. So much I thought I might not wake up if I went to sleep. The only pair of panties that fit me right were now soaked and stained with blood and pee and stuffed up into a tear in the bottom of the boxspring, like Rachelle's butterfly.

I couldn't seem to get dry, either. I came home sweating and nauseated.

"What on God's green earth took you so long?" Mama fixed a hard, heavy eye on me.

I drifted through the door, dragging my feet across the rug. "I needa lay down," I said.

The pinch between her eyes relaxed a little; she bent over me and touched my forehead. "What's wrong, Madge, are you feelin' all right? You look flushed…you don't have a fever, though. Where are you hurtin'?"

I shook my head. "I'm not hurtin', I'm just tired, and I feel sick to my stomach."

"Well let's get you in the bathtub."

I lingered in the hall outside the bathroom while Mama drew my bath water. She paused and stared at me, probably trying to decide whether or not she should call Dr. Shaw.

"You gonna get undressed and get in?" she asked.

"Mm-hmm," I said. I tried to sound convincing. "I have to go Number Two first." She seemed satisfied.

It took me an eternity to peel off my clothes, like trying to pull off a BandAid from a bad, scabby scrape. Every muscle in my body ached, my bones wanted to fold the way they were when I was born.

It took even longer to get up the courage to sit down in the bath water, and when I finally did, it hurt as bad as I thought it would. Once I was in, though, I wanted to stay in, and I would have if Mama hadn't come to get me after everyone else was done with supper.

There in bed, the damp sheets clung to me under my quilt. Every now and then, when a sharp pain stabbed through me like a skewer through a shrimp, my spine went straight as a rod. The sheets shifted, and an fresh edge of wet cloth stuck to my skin.

I grit my teeth to keep from crying out. So far, I'd done well to keep my distance from the rest of the family, but if Mama worried too much and took me to Dr. Shaw after all…. I couldn't think about that.

So I watched the water on the ceiling and tried to find where I was at the beginning of the day. Then I'd sew together two edges of time where a stained piece of its fabric had been torn away.

November 7, 2009

Queens of the Cattails - Chapter 7

Chapter 7

The cat swatted her paw at me through the space at the bottom of the door. I pressed my cheek into the floor to see as much as I could of what was on the other side, which wasn't much. The light from downstairs was weak and diffused against the far wall like a last breath.

My head still throbbed. I wiggled my fingertips along my scalp feeling for blood; I found a big goose egg the size of my fist. I didn't remember how it got there.


I scrambled away from the door back into the dark.

Uncle Buck's steps fell hard and slow up the stairs. The cat whined as a shadow divided the bar of light under the door.

I clamped my teeth together and waited.

"Margie," he said. "You ready to come out now?"

"Yes," I tried to say, but my voice got stuck and only air came out.

"We got an understanding?" he said.

I thought of Faye and Winnie. I thought of little Raymond and how scared he'd be if he were the one in the attic instead of me.

I thought of Goldie Beaumont and what awful things she might say to me now, what terrible things she might say to everyone else.

I thought of Mama and what she'd do if she lost her job at the alteration shop, and what it would be like if she sent me for a switch but didn't love me.

And I thought of Daddy. If he ever found out about me and Uncle Buck, he'd be glad he left. There'd be no more cards on my birthday or phone calls on Christmas. He'd never again tell me he missed me or that I was the apple of his eye. He'd finally be able to give all of his love to his new family, and he'd never look back.

"I'm ready," I said. This time, my voice was clear as a bell.

The lock unlatched, and the door creaked open. Uncle Buck's silhouette hung in the door frame. He stood aside and opened his arm toward the stairs.

I swayed to my feet. The blood rushed to my brain, and my legs almost crumpled beneath me. As I shuffled toward the light, warm fluid leaked down my legs. Every step sent pain raking through me from the inside out.

At the threshhold, Uncle Buck stopped me, poking a finger at my chest. "We understand one another?" he asked.

I nodded.

"Tell me, Margie."

I swallowed back a gag and cleared my throat. "Con-fi…con-fi…"

"Confi-denchee-ality," Uncle Buck said. "You keep your word, and I'll keep mine."

I nodded again.

Uncle Buck grinned and stuck out his hand. I flinched.

"We gotta shake on it, friend. Then it's official."

I put my fingertips against his, and he closed his hand around them. The same long, narrow hand that kept me from tumbling over on the lane had a lot more strength in it than anyone could ever imagine.

Queens of the Cattails - Chapter 6

Chapter 6

As soon as I came around the bend and the road home stretched out straight and reassuring, the angry cry I'd been holding burst out of me. I ran a few paces, but the pain shooting through my jarred bladder put an end to that. I wasn't going to make it home.

Sobbing and nowhere near a toilet, I made a desperate dash for the trees at the back of Granddaddy's fields. I could already feel hot trickles of urine, and I fought mightily against the stream.

Crying like a baby, I thought. Peein' my pants like a baby.

I squatted in the first protected cluster of foliage I found and let the bitter tears and the urine flow as they willed. It was superficial relief to an ache that had been filling me since before I could remember.

I pressed my face into my knees and wrapped my arms around my head, ignoring the mosquitoes that buzzed in my ears and lit on my exposed skin. My bladder emptied, but a fresh dread settled into my bowels when I acknowledged the trouble I'd probably meet when Mama saw me shuffle inside in such a mess.

No use puttin' it off, I thought. I smeared my nose on the back of my hand and stood, pulling my drawers up from around my ankles.

A twig snapped behind me. I wheeled around to see Uncle Buck leaning against a young pear tree, arms crossed over his chest and hands tucked into his stained armpits. "Tinkle got the best o' ya?" he said, smiling.

I froze; the rancid taste of shame, shock, and something else swirled on the back of my tongue.

Before I could reply, Uncle Buck had me at the wrist, dragging me along the way Rachelle had less than an hour ago.

"How 'bout you come with me for a bit, Margie?"

I stopped and tugged against him, but he tightened his grip.

"I can't, Uncle Buck," I said. "Mama told me to be home before dark. I gotta go." He marched on as if I hadn't said anything.

"You know, me an' your daddy was good friends before he took off. Real good friends." Uncle Buck easily trampled weeds and ankle-high saplings under his shoes.

I kept getting caught in thick cords of St. Augustine grass, and I could feel stickers collecting on the soles of my feet. That high-pitched tone returned to my ears, but there would be no clearing my throat this time to keep the word away.

Queens of the Cattails - Chapter 5

Chapter 5

A question in the form of a knot tightened up right under my heart. I couldn't get away from Rachelle fast enough, and I couldn't begin to understand my dislike for her. Had she been a snotty, selfish brat -- like that pageant princess Goldie Beaumont, whose family owned the alteration shop where Mama worked -- there would be no question at all. I disliked Goldie with just about all the self-righteous indignation I possessed, and rightly so, because Goldie was a stuck-up, two-faced liar who said things about my Mama and Daddy that just were not true.

But Rachelle never said one ugly word about Mama or Daddy or me. On the contrary, she talked as if she wished she were their daughter instead of Miss Lou's. I should've been flattered to be thought of so highly by someone, but instead, Rachelle's admiration just made me ill.

I pouted, taking long strides away from Miss Lou's and watching the powdery dust kick up around my stomping feet. When I watched the ground, the pebbles and ruts slid by, making it seem like I was moving much faster than I actually was. The walk back home from Miss Lou's always seemed to take much longer.

I hopped over a bare corn cob and stepped around a rusty Tab soda can. I curled my toes back to kick a paper bag out of the way when I noticed a person crouching right in front of me. If I hadn't thrown my momentum aside and tripped on my own feet, I would've run right into him.

"Careful there!" A long, narrow hand grabbed onto my arm and pulled me upright, ripping a bigger hole in my torn shirt sleeve.

I yanked away, wide-eyed and gasping.

Uncle Buck stood and squinted at me through his long, black, greasy bangs. An amused grin pulled his lips back on one side of his mouth revealing two gaps on top and one on bottom between cakey yellow teeth that didn't quite meet. I smelled beer on him from four feet away. "You all right?" he said.

I nodded and rubbed my hands down my sides as if I'd really fallen and were wiping dirt off of my palms. I jerked my head toward Aunt Nell's hoping she was still at her gate, and back toward Rachelle's hoping she'd stayed at the roadside to watch me turn the curb, but neither was there.

"Marjoram Eppinette…well aren't you a sight for sore eyes." His sore eyes didn't blink or flutter a bit as he spoke to me. He raised his arm straight out toward me, pointing all five of his fingers toward my stomach. "Last time I saw you, you was this tall. How old 're you now, Margie?"

"Nobody calls me Margie," I said.

Uncle Buck snorted. "Oh, that's right. Madge, id-nit?"

"Mm-hmm. And I'm ten."

"Yes, you're ten," he said, as if I were the one asking my age, and he were the one answering. "And I'm ten-plus-ten-plus-ten. You know how much that is?"

I did know, but suddenly, I had to pee really bad. I didn't want to tell him that, and I didn't want to run off and be rude. Mama tolerated my attitude most of the time around the house, but she never, ever tolerated me being rude to anyone, particularly adults. I crossed one foot over the other and tried not to be obvious.

Uncle Buck blinked and lowered his gaze from my face to my collar. He lingered there until I began to wonder if maybe a spider were crawling on my neck, or if my buttons weren't buttoned right. I brought my fingers up and tugged the fabric together, just in case.

"So how's your ma?" he asked. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets so his shoulders scrunched up and his elbows locked.

I noticed his blue jeans were way too big for him, and the frayed, mud-coated hems folded over his shoes. His yellow-used-to-be-white t-shirt was too small, and the front of it pulled up just over the snap of his pants so the skin of his belly showed. Under his armpits were large, half-moon-shaped stains made darker by the sweat there now.

"She's fine," I said, twisting my fingers together behind my back. I really had to go. "I really gotta go."

Uncle Buck showed the gaps in his mouth again. He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. "I gotta toilet in the house if you needa go that bad."

I shook my head. "No, thanks. Mama wants me home before dark or--"

"--Or she'll send you out back to get a switch and whoop that little tail o' yers?" At that, Uncle Buck threw his head back, and a loud, scratchy laugh shook him all over. He wagged his head back and forth and stomped the ground.

If I didn't hate Uncle Buck before, I hated him now. "No! I wasn't gonna say that! I--"

"I know, I know," he said, lowering his voice but still chuckling. "Your mama wouldn't harm a hair on your head, would she."

I glared at Uncle Buck. I imagined poking my finger in his eye. The truth was, Mama would take a switch to me, and she had before, but I knew she loved me, and I didn't like it at all that Uncle Buck made it sound like she didn't. "No, she wouldn't," I said.

Uncle Buck's grin widened until I thought his face might split. "But your daddy would, wouldn't he."

Now it was my turn to blink. I blinked and blinked, willing the tears to stay in my eyes where they belonged, and willing the sting in my bladder to go away long enough for me to get home.

"I gotta go!" I yelled, and I turned and ran, leaving Uncle Buck shaking and laughing in the middle of the lane.

November 6, 2009

Queens of the Cattails - Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Miss Lou glanced at me when Rachelle and I stepped through the front door into the kitchen, but she didn't speak to me. Her thin red hair hung in her face, and I didn't think she brushed it anymore than she brushed her daughters' hair.

Rachelle's mama wasn't very pretty, even though she was much younger than my mama. The lady was too skinny, and she stood with her shoulders hunched over and her back humped like an old lady, as if her chest hurt.

Next to me, Rachelle stood with the burlap bag in her arms. She was strong for a girl the same age as me, or she was just over-excited to have another load of dresses to share with her sister.

"Look, Mama! Madge brought me some more clothes!" she said, dropping the bag on the dirty linoleum with a loud thud. "And some blackberries, and some shoes for you, too!" She shoved the tan heels against her mother's stomach.

Embarrassed, I said what Mama told me to say. "Mama says you can have 'em if they fit ya."

Miss Lou dropped the shoes onto the floor one at a time, turning the left one from its side with her dirty toes. She waivered on one foot as she brought the other off the floor.

"Come 'ere, Rachelle," she mumbled. Her voice was low and husky, like a man's. Or like somebody who either smoked too much, yelled too much, or both.

She grabbed onto Rachelle's shoulder for balance and slipped her feet into Mama's town shoes. They fit perfectly.

Rachelle sucked in an awe-filled breath. "Those are so pretty on you, Mama," she said. "Keep 'em on."

The shoes weren't pretty on Miss Lou. They were pretty on my Mama, and they should've been on my Mama's feet.

Miss Lou yanked the shoes off and shoved them back at Rachelle. "Go put 'em under my bed," she said. She didn't even say thank you, but I'd tell Mama she did.

Rachelle grabbed me by the arm and dragged me toward the back of the house. I did not want to go there with her, but staying alone in the room with Miss Lou would've been worse, so I let Rachelle pull me in one hand and the burlap bag in the other. I didn't offer to help.

Through the fading light in Miss Lou's room, I traced the sleeping form of a man on the bed. I had no idea who it could be. I never saw anyone around Rachelle's house, much less a man. But Rachelle seemed to know who he was. She tiptoed into the room, slipped the tan heels under the bed, and tiptoed out, shutting the door behind her.

"I got something to show you," she whispered, padding off toward the room she shared with her sister.

"Where is Beverly?" I asked, realizing I hadn't seen her yet. Rachelle shrugged her shoulders.

In the bedroom, I stood in the middle of the floor with my arms wrapped around me, careful not to touch anything.

"You can sit down," Rachelle said as she layed on the floor and scooted on her back beneath the bed. As she fumbled with something in the boxspring, I glimpsed under her dress the pair of bloomers with the rose at the waist. I winced.

Rachelle crawled out from under the bed with a large book in her hands. "I have something for you."

I sniffed. "I don't read much."

"No," she said. She opened the pages and pulled out a folded piece of wax paper. "Here. The edges of the paper are stuck together, so you gotta be careful opening it."

I gently peeled the corners apart, and there, pressed between the folded sheet was a large monarch butterfly, perfectly intact. The black on the wings was as soft and fine as velvet, and the colorful markings were so bright, they looked handpainted.

Despite myself, I was delighted. I couldn't have found a more perfect butterfly, and I wondered how Rachelle could've caught it and pressed it with such expertise, not one part of the creature was bent or broken.

"Where did you find it? Did you catch it yourself? Did you kill it?"

"Oh, no," Rachelle said. "I tried to save it. I found it on the car outside and I was watching it and waiting for it to fly away, but it never did. And when I finally went to touch it, it didn't move. I think it died like that."

I peered at Rachelle out of the corner of my eye, unconvinced.

"It's true," she said. "And I wanted to save for you, but I didn't want to stick a needle through it like they do in school, so I put it inside a book instead. Do you like it?"

I did like it. And I didn't like how much I liked it. So I lied.

"I don't like dead bugs," I said.

I expected for Rachelle to pout or cry, or snatch the butterfly away and keep it for herself. But she laughed. "It's not a bug, Madge. It's a monarch. Take it home and put it in one of your books. You'll get used to it."

Rachelle walked with me back to the lane, pushing the wheelbarrow and chattering about the blackberries and how she wished her mother would bake some time. The sun was already setting, but I still had time to make it home before it was too dark to see.

"Maybe we can play tomorrow?" she asked.

"I'm gonna be busy tomorrow," I said, which was the God-honest truth, but it felt just like a lie.

Queens of the Cattails - Chapter 3 (continued)

Chapter 3 (continued)

As I rounded the bend, the late sun fell away behind the treetops, and I pushed the bulky wheelbarrow into shadow. It was a difference of two steps between daylight and evening, between a deep, energetic appreciation for the lit hours of movement and doing things, and the dusky drowsiness of endings, when it was time to finish up chores, eat our last meal, wash away the day's dirt, give in to sleep I didn't want to take. The thought of evening coming on took the edge off my anger and replaced it with a sad dread, but I forgot about my feelings altogether when Aunt Nell called to me from behind her front gate.

"Headed to see Rachelle?" she asked. She steadied her frail, listing bones with a garden-gloved hand on the gate post. A gentle smile stretched the silky wrinkles all across her face, like a breeze breathing through a spiderweb.

Aunt Nell was old enough to be my daddy's mother, even though she was his sister. She had my Daddy's eyes -- blue glass beads, clear and unchipped -- except hers were shaded under the wide, dropping brim of her garden hat.

The wheelbarrow creaked to a halt in front of Aunt Nell's gate. I scratched a fresh fireant bite on my heel and waved at the mosquitoes circling my head. "Yes, ma'am, Mama's sending over more of my dresses and some blackberries I picked today." I was sure to emphasize they were my dresses.

Aunt Nell peered over the gate. "Got quite a bit today, huh, Madge?"

For the second time that day, I frowned
into the blackberry bucket. "Not much, really. Maybe enough for a cobbler."

"I think Rachelle will be happy just eatin' 'em straight outta the bucket, don't you think?" she smiled. "And I'm sure she'll want to share with you."

I squirmed. I knew what Aunt Nell was doing, but I didn't feel any better about it. I twisted my hands on the wheelbarrow handles and leaned back toward the road.

"You better get along then," she said. "It'll be dark before long, and you shouldn't be walkin' on this lane so late, especially with those Miller boys runnin' the roads."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Tell your mama I said hello; we'll see y'all on Sunday."

"I will," I promised, lurching forward again.

Aunt Nell's mailbox stood directly across the lane from her brother-in-law's. The house and the property were both wasting and unkempt. Half the roof had fallen in shortly after a fire two Christmases ago, but the man still lived in the "good" half, from what I understood.

I didn't see "Uncle Buck" often, if I ever saw him to begin with. The only reason I knew there was an Uncle Buck at all is because Aunt Nell mentioned him around holidays. It was the only time she saw him either. He wasn't a "people person," she said.

And he wasn't really my uncle either, nor related to me in any way other than by being Aunt Nell's dead husband's brother. For politeness's sake, however, I was told to call him "uncle" to make him feel more connected to the family, since we were the only family he had.

Uncle Buck might've been more of a mystery to me if I'd been intrigued by his absence from everyday life, but to my ten-year-old perception, his absence was just the way things were, like Mama's tan shoes for town, or the fact me and Rachelle didn't have our daddies anymore. I wondered about a lot of things, like why persimmons tasted best when they were about to rot, and why I could never blow all the seeds off a dandelion with one breath. But I never wondered about Uncle Buck. His ugly house sat opposite Aunt Nell's mailbox; that was enough for me.

Suddenly, a large, black rat darted out of a ditch bordering Uncle Buck's yard, startling me so I almost tipped the wheelbarrow again. Right behind the rat, a small, slim calico kitten chased through the dust, ears peeled back.

Both creatures ran in esses, crazed and vicious. I hopped back and forth from one foot to the other, hoping neither animal would try to crawl up my leg or attack me in the confusion.

In the middle of the lane, the rat could find no place to hide. Each time he took off in a new direction, there was the kitten blocking the escape.

Just when I thought the calico might snap up the rat in its jaws, the rodent made a sharp retreat toward Aunt Nell's side of the road. Both animals disappeared in the hedges, branches thick and shuddering behind them.

Uncle Buck's house must have been infested with rats. I wondered if they might multiply and take over someday, maybe eat up Uncle Buck in his sleep, and we'd never know what happened to him.

I shivered, but not because of an image of rats chewing on Uncle Buck. As I came to the end of his yard, I thought I heard someone spit at the edge of his overgrown property.

Maybe it was the cat hissing, or maybe a bough broke from one of the pine trees overhead. Maybe something shifted in my wheelbarrow without my seeing it. Maybe it wasn't a person.

But I did hear something, and now my thoughts went to how small I felt. I didn't feel like the eldest girl in my family. I didn't feel like a young lady. I felt like a little kid alone and away from home with no sweater and no shoes on my feet. The wheelbarrow was heavier than it had ever been before, and I wished Daddy was here to help me push it.

The side of my neck facing Uncle Buck's house stung and itched the way my armpits sometimes did when I had to read something in front of the class. I was afraid to swallow or look around, afraid to do anything that might bring the word "scared" to my mind, because once I thought the word, I'd become the word, and there was no stuffing it back down after that.

I wasn't afraid of the dark, but sometimes, on some nights when I had to go to the toilet while everyone else was asleep, I stepped more lightly than usual, tried harder to be silent, avoided looking into the shadows and corners and mirrors, lest I disrupt that precariously balanced something in the air that was holding terror at bay.

Back in bed, I realized there was nothing at all to be afraid of, but the high-pitched tone in my ears, the throbbing blood in my head, the pounding in my ribcage outlasted my analysis, and I dug myself deep, deep under the blankets, safe from that word until I thought I might suffocate.

The itch moved from my neck to a sharp point between my shoulderblades. The temptation to turn toward the ditch just to see -- to know without a doubt if I did indeed have something to fear -- was almost too strong. To break the spell, I cleared my throat and made myself cough, for the reassurance of noise, company, even if it was only me with me.

"Hey, Madge!"

I heard Rachelle's voice before I saw her, hands waving high above her head as she came running down the lane toward me in the faded navy-blue sailor dress Mama made me the year Daddy left.

November 5, 2009

Queens of the Cattails - Chapter 3

Chapter 3

The lane to Miss Lou's stretched out long and straight alongside my granddaddy's cotton field. Just past the barbedwire fence marking the end of our land, the road curved to the left behind a hip of trees.

I squinted at the curve in the lane. This first two-thirds of the way were an eternity of dust and gravel potholes. The trees far ahead seemed to slip farther away the closer I thought I was, but it was just the weight of the sack in the wheelbarrow that made my steps slower and slower.

The lane wasn't unpleasant. I liked seeing the other side of the fence, behind the blackberry bushes. It never snowed in Louisiana, but if it ever would, I thought I knew exactly what the fields would look like. When Granddaddy's cotton was grown and ready to pick, the full tufts blanketed the ground in a soft, clean sheet of white that reminded me of Heaven. I imagined rolling through the rows would be like rolling through clouds. I knew better, though. Far fewer things were more painful than blackberry thorns, but cotton burrs were one of them.

Now, Granddaddy's fields were not much to look at. Since Daddy left, Mama didn't bother with the cotton anymore. She couldn't do it herself, even with my help, and she didn't want to hire anyone on to take care of it.

On Sundays after church, sometimes visitors came by the house for chicken and pies, but mostly to ask Mama if she'd lease the land to them. I thought it was a good idea. I didn't know what "lease" meant, but the men promised to take care of the cotton "as well as your husband ever did," and I thought that sounded good.

But Mama didn't think it sounded good. I could tell by the wrinkle at the corner of her smile, she was angry, but I suspected the visitors had no clue. "No, thank you," she'd say. "We'll manage as we manage."

Finally, I reached the curve in the lane. I had trouble keeping the wheelbarrow steady and almost lost my load on a brand new rut one of the Miller boys probably dug out in their new hot rod. My arms felt like noodles, and I wasn't sure I'd make it all the way to Miss Lou's porch. I still had a third of the way to go past my Aunt Nell's trailer, her brother-in-law's creepy old, half-burned house, and the field where the Miller's kept their horses. Just beyond was Rachelle's sad little shack.

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.

Queens of the Cattails - Chapter 1

NaNoWriMo Novel 2009
Queens of the Cattails

Chapter 1

When I woke, I thought a monster had swallowed me, and I was trapped in his throat. It was so dark and hot and black. And the smell that filled my lungs was hot and sickening, the way meat sometimes smelled when Granddaddy boiled it in a big iron pot in Mama's kitchen.

Terror was a tiny spark in my gut. The back of my head hurt so bad, I really didn't care much where I was. I wanted Mama to put a chunk of ice in a rag and hold me in her lap while she nursed the pain away.

My mouth opened to call her, but the fear flashed inside, and I remembered I wasn't in a monster's throat. The monster was gone, somewhere else in the house. He'd put me in an attic and locked the door behind him.

In the dark, I patted my hand on the floor around me, reaching out for something, though I didn't know what. The palm of my hand caught on the head of a nail sticking up out of the wood. Dust curled into balls under my fingertips. Little living things scurried around me, and I knotted my hand into a fist, afraid whatever they were might take the skin off my bones if they managed to get their teeth into me.

I shifted my weight just a bit, and my left foot brushed something soft. It was a rotting blanket.

Just then, a cat meowed from behind the door. His small, pitiful wail barely masked the sound of a man's singing. The song was a hymn I knew well, one Mama sang in the church choir at least once a month. But the man's voice was flat, the notes sour like the stink of the attic. Suddenly, I remembered where the spark came from and why I was scared.