Tuesday, June 13, 2006



“There’s many a star that shall jingle in the west,
There’s many a leaf below,
There’s a many a damn will light upon a man
For serving a poor girl so.”
"The False Young Man" sung by T. Jeff Stockton, Flag Pond, Tennessee, September 3, 1916

“Bethany, Melody, Samuel. Get cracking. It’s a long drive home.”
Mary called the trio to help gather up the remnants of the hot dog and iced tea sale.
The twenty or so dogs they’d sold tonight meant seven dollars and change to add to their account at the Mountain Cove Bank. Nickels and dimes added up.
Ingles in Tellico donated the hot dogs, buns, and fixings. Mountain Home Bible Baptist in Madisonville, the county seat, supplied the napkins, tea, and sugar. Elvira had loaned Mary her commercial cooker, so the dogs and buns were irresistible. Without such generous help, all their efforts wouldn’t break even, let alone make a profit.
Anyone who came to any of her VISTA activities was delivered right to their doorstep, no matter how late it might be, or how far up the torturous, twisting tracks a kid lived. Parents didn’t have any cause to complain. Some jokingly referred to her as Mary’s Mountain Taxi.
This winter past there had been several late nights driving back from the skating rink in Madisonville. Luckily, there was a movie theatre there, too, so she didn’t have to drive to Knoxville. But no matter where they went, picking up the kids from Spring Creek and taking them back home added a good hour one?way to any trip. Sometimes she put in a full eight?hour workday driving, not counting the activity she’d planned. Many nights her Ford was the only thing moving on the road besides possums and coons.
Mary made a quick mental tally: the Shelton Laurel Recreation Center had $87.56 in the bank. The sum represented a Herculean effort. A hundred bucks was their goal. A couple more softball games and they’d make it.
Then she’d get some scraps of bright material and sew curtains on Elvira’s old Singer. She’d buy a dozen or so handmade chairs, the sturdy kind crafted by folks in these mountains. Hopefully, there’d still be some seed money left for the kids to have a dance or two in the fall, and hold another fund-raiser. Oatmeal cookies and hot, spiced cider would be good sellers on crisp, fall nights.
Mary would be far away, in New York, scurrying to class down crowded, concrete sidewalks, hunched against the chilly wind blowing off the East River. She’d be memorizing carefully drawn illustrations of the human body with acetate overlays depicting the different systems: muscular, skeletal, nervous. Peering intently through microscopes, she would find what she was looking for.
Her student nurse’s cap had arrived in the mail not too long ago, and she’d twirled on the wooden floor of the country store, modeling it for Elvira while the Coke cooler droned.
“Oh, honey, you look right smart. I’m so proud of you.”
Elvira’s words echoed now in Mary’s ears. If she only knew what the wild girl didn’t want to remember ? the trouble the wild girl got into when memory failed her ? Elvira wouldn’t be so quick to praise her, nurse’s cap or not.
Everyone was in the car, ready for the ride home. Before she pulled out onto the dark highway, Mary glanced into the rearview mirror at the three teenagers in the backseat. Blonde and wiry, they looked like they belonged here in these hills.
Earlier that evening Melody had reacted to Mary’s announcement that she’d be leaving in August. “Shoot, Miz Mary, I’m gonna pine for you something awful. What’re us kids gonna do without you?”
Bethany had chimed in, “That’s right. You make us feel good, like kids can do important stuff, too.” Samuel added, “Who’s gonna do that when you’re gone?”
Mary didn’t know what to say, but managed a placating, “You’ll do just fine without me.”
They weren’t convinced; she hadn’t been so sure, either. She knew from bitter experience just how difficult it was to believe in yourself when you lived with constant criticism.
And worse.
The big slab of rock with graffiti all over it loomed in her headlights. Over the years just about every graduating senior at Mountain High had left a mark. The next dirt track was the turnoff to the cove where her passengers lived. In a few years they’d be scrawling their own statements on that rock. Or so Mary hoped; she knew the dismal statistics. Over half of the incoming freshmen never strode across the small, scarred, wooden stage in the high school auditorium for their high school diploma.
Samuel, Melody, and Bethany were bright, but being smart wasn’t enough.
Teachers, administrators, parents, preachers ? everybody and everything seemed to conspire against the young people in Monroe County. Local logic maintained there was always tobacco, logging, and poaching deer for the boys; marriage, quilting, and babies for the girls. Not necessarily in that order, either.
School had been a trial for most of the parents and their kids weren’t encouraged to finish. The adults figured they’d managed to make it without much book learning. If living off the land was good enough for them, it was good enough for their kids. It was that simple.
There was nothing she could do about the odds stacked against Melody, Bethany, and Samuel. Her VISTA work was a Band?aid on arterial bleeding. She sighed in frustration.
Out loud she offered what she could, “Before I forget to tell you, thanks. You all were a big help today. I can see those curtains now.”
Bethany giggled. “I had to slap Sam’s hand. He sure was hungry for one of them dogs.”
Melody’s high voice piped up. “I told him to no never mind, and watch his paws, thank ye. We ain’t gonna ‘et up our profits, son.”
Samuel’s grin grew even wider, and he ducked his head, embarrassed that the girls had told on him.
“Hang in there, Samuel. You, too, Melody, Beth. When we get our $100 dollars, we’ll have our own hot dog roast. Some’mores, too, and seconds for everyone. My treat. You’ve earned a play party.”
Anticipation flared like shooting stars in the three pairs of blue eyes. Stone soup was still popular fare in these mountains.
Fireflies flickered beneath the trees as she navigated the Ford down the narrow lanes that branched off the main dirt track, and dropped her passengers off, one by one.
“’Night, see you soon.”
“’Bye, Maa?ree,” each one called, their accents thick as smoke in their throats.
* * *
Alone, Mary breathed in the night, which was sweet like ripe fruit ready to be plucked.
Brian had agreed to meet her at the pullover on Folsom Gap. As she drove the dirt roads back to the twisting blacktop, a chorus of cicadas rang out from every grove she passed. The rhythmic droning of the insects matched the mood she was in.
Twenty minutes later the taillights of Brian’s car glowed red as he backed his car in beside hers. “Oh, good,” she whispered. She wanted him. Bad. She’d been afraid he wouldn’t show, and later stammer some lame excuse when she saw him around town.
She had on a loose, Indian print flowered skirt, and a blouse that tied in the front; her legs were bare. She wasn’t wearing underwear. Sex was easier dressed this way, she’d discovered, and wondered why no one realized that when they insisted on the purity of feminine skirts and dresses over the supposed provocation of masculine jeans. Maybe easier access was the reason the self?appointed morals police preferred women in dresses. Preachers were men, too. She shut off her thoughts and the car, got out, and walked over to Brian.
Leaning into the open passenger window, she smiled and said, “Hi.”
His face in shadow, he answered, “Hi. Come on, get in.”
Mary heard what she hoped was impatient ardor in his voice, but most likely he was worried someone would spot them. Vehicles were few and far in between at this time of night, but Brian didn’t like to add to the talk about them. Once, in fact, he’d complained that meeting on the sly cheapened his work here in the county.
Angered by the blatant double standard, she’d wanted to ask, “What about my work?” But, unwilling to risk losing him, she’d kept silent. She’d been too pushy with Jeff and he’d tired of her soon enough.
When she opened the door, Brian grabbed her waist and pulled her down, sliding over to make room for her. He thrust his tongue into her mouth when he kissed her. He didn’t waste time; she liked that about him. His hand moved up her leg toward the crotch of her panties. Her excitement mounted as he slipped his fingers inside her. She arched her back, matching the rhythm of his hand with her hips.
Brian sat up suddenly and pushed her head into his lap. She knew what he wanted without being told.
“That’s good. You like that won’t you?”
The wild girl thrilled at his rough tone, while Mary watched her lips move up and down. A cat lapping cream straight from the bottle, she wasn’t surprised when the bottle burst; she’d pushed it over the edge.
Like a cat, Mary contemplated the results, her blue gaze detached and clinical. She licked her lips and tasted salt.
Brian played with her hair, coiling a tendril of red curl around his finger. She liked being petted, and pushed her head into the palm of his hand just like Katz and Jammer did when she stroked them. She wanted to make a purring sound, but was afraid to try; he’d think she was being silly.
Resting her head on his chest, she listened to his heart racing. She’d done that. Made him speak an ancient language, the drumming deep inside the body. Blood spilled through the chambers of his heart, then emptied. Systole. Diastole. The many rooms of the heart where blood and love lived.
When he was quiet like this, playing with her hair, or kissing her eyes, she felt like a green plant, tropic, moving toward the light of his love and care.
“I brought some rope. I have a new idea. Wanna try it out?”
Hearing the suppressed excitement in his voice, she didn’t know what to say. The rhythm of his heart was erratic now, unpredictable. Dangerous.
Grabbing her by the hair, Brian brought her face up next to his. Her eyes brimmed with an old fear, but the man looking into them saw only desire.
“Yes,” she whispered.
Brian let her go and reached down beneath the car seat; he brought out the coil of rope. The cord trailing across her buttocks felt silky, not rough like she’d expected. Like a horse trying to shake off horseflies, her skin quivered, an involuntary, muscular response.
He pushed her face down on the seat and began to tie her hands behind her back, drawing the rope tight around her wrists. He was good with knots, knew all sorts for camping and sailing; he’d learned in Boy Scouts. She couldn’t move her arms and welcomed the burn of the rope as she struggled against it. Then he tied her ankles together.
Brian leaned back and stared at his handiwork. The body beneath him was still and white. He’d trapped the very moon, stopped it from rising above the rocky ridge. Aroused by the trembling flesh, he plunged his hand between her legs and roughly rubbed her clit. She writhed and twisted like a snake he’d run over once with his car. He couldn’t see her face. She could be anyone. The anonymity was more pleasurable than he’d anticipated. Ready again, he thrust into her from behind.
Her face jammed into the car seat, Mary had difficulty breathing; her wrists and ankles chafed at the rope. The wild girl was ablaze with excitement. She lived in a country called Contradiction. Pleasure. Pain. Go with the flow, Contrary Mary, she heard a voice say. Good advice. She followed it through Brian’s orgasm and her own.
He whispered, “Maybe, I won’t untie you. Just leave you here overnight, locked in your car. Or toss you out by the side of the road. I could, you know.”
She struggled to sit up, which was difficult to manage with her legs immobilized and her hands tied behind her back. She flopped like a fish on a hook. Her breasts were twin moons. Brian reached to pluck them out of the sky; she winced as he twisted and pinched her nipples.
She most certainly did. The wild girl was dancing on the border now, trying to find her way without a map.
“Brian Woods, untie me this very minute,” Mary scolded. “What if someone came along and found me like this? Wouldn’t that be a juicy scandal? VISTA would love it.” She’d chosen exactly the right words. Brian shook his head like someone waking from a spell. “Yeah, enough fun and games for tonight.” He loosened his expert knots. Silently, she righted her blouse and skirt, feeling his eyes follow her every move.
Finally, he asked, “Did you like that? The rope, I mean.”
Mary turned toward him, trying to see into his eyes; she couldn’t, but she remembered how his heart beat its rhythms in her ear.
The wild girl skirted the edge of a steep and unfamiliar country.
Like the precipitous drop along the higher reaches of the mountain road Brian had pointed out to her last winter. The trees and shrubs had been bare. At the bottom of the canyon, near the silver ribbon of river twining its way through the rock, was a crumpled heap of metal. The car was so far away it looked like one of her brothers’ toys. Mary imagined the squeal of tires as the vehicle skidded off the road, crashed through the trees, and plummeted, a stomach-churning, thousand-foot fall.
She recalled feeling a frisson, a tiny flick of terror.
“Yeah, I, I...did. I really did,” she stammered now, startled by her reply.
* * *
Watching Brian pull out onto the road, lights off, coasting in the direction of his cabin, Mary inhaled the sea-spray fuck odor clinging to her like perfume. Her body was still excited.
Just before they’d parted, she’d casually mentioned her threesome fantasy to Brian. He’d been interested, she could tell.
“I pick the guy, though, OK? It’ll be a surprise.”
Mary had agreed. The mystery added to the excitement. They would meet at his place for dinner Friday. He’d invite a small group of folks over, including Mr. X. They’d wait until everyone left and then do it to her all night long, just like the wild girl wanted.
Mary rubbed her wrists one at a time, letting the Ford find its own way, while she soothed the burn from the parachute cord. Her ankles would have to wait.
Brian said a factory had been making the stuff in Coker Creek. When it closed, lots of folks managed to get some. Strong and flexible, it was perfect for the many jobs on a farm needing rope.
How would the silky cord look on her imaginary quilt?
Stitched by unseen hands ? just like in a fairy tale ? the stuff made a perfect piping, nicely framing the reds and purples of her labia and the pink of her nipples. She’d ask Brian to cut some for her, a souvenir of their steamy, seamy sex.
During the long, cold winter in New York, she’d start on the quilt she could see in her head. When she was finished, she’d hang it proudly over her bed; a flag, a banner declaring that she was a sexual being. She would inhabit a new country, a place where she’d remember everything that had ever happened to her. She’d put each and every tear and drop of blood, every laugh of delight, and scream of pain and orgasm into that quilt.
What would her parents think? They were certain to arrive for a visit, especially now that Daddy was retired. The Morans enjoyed the New York Broadway scene, and bought tickets for at least one hit play each season. They usually made a long weekend out of their trip to the city. Her mother loved to hunt for bargains at the swanky stores on Fifth Avenue.
Mary could hear Belinda’s gasp when she saw her daughter’s needlework. Her cheeks flamed red. The flush of embarrassment spread down her throat, below the starched collar of her blouse. Mary was fiddling in the closet, pretending to look for something, but she kept an eye on her mother.
In the end, Belinda ignored the stories portrayed on the quilt, just as she ignored everything else about the real life of her daughter, preferring the make-believe scenarios in her head to the truth.
“What unusual work, Mary. Did you make it yourself?” her mother would ask.
Maybe Mary would tell her what her Daddy had done to her while Belinda looked the other way, just like she was looking then, anywhere, except at the quilt.
The road snaked through ridges hunched against the night sky. The moon was a pair of horns in the west. The bright eye of Venus gazed relentlessly in the final hours before dawn.
She rehearsed just how she would tell her mother.
“Daddy did it to me for years, you know, Mama, while you were out playing bridge. Ha, ha. I tried to get away from the house when I could. Took walks. Went to youth group. Sometimes I couldn’t escape. I lived there, you know. Your daughter; his, too. It was awful feeling trapped, but sometimes what he did to me made me feel good, like nothing I’d ever felt before. I was confused. My body wasn’t my own, but belonged to him. Bad things made me feel good. My father did bad things to me. I must be a very naughty girl for him to do these things. That’s what he said, too. I was only fourteen. There was no one to tell me what was right, what was wrong. I had to try and sort it out myself.
“I thought about confessing to Father Frank, but I was afraid of what he’d do, the names he’d call me. Maybe he’d refuse to give me absolution until I stopped, and how could I stop it. I’d be cast out of God’s church then. If I died ? and I wanted to believe me ? I would be buried without a Requiem Mass in unhallowed ground. I’d never get to heaven. Never, ever see the face of God. These things were important to me. Then. So I kept my mouth shut.
“Remember how quiet I got? You called me your A student. Your good girl.
“How come you never guessed what kind of man you’d married? Or did you know, and choose to ignore the truth of what went on in your very own house, afraid you’d lose him if you complained?”
Mary parked the car by the white house where the two cats waited, put her head down on the steering wheel, and sobbed. She’d never be able to say those words out loud to her mother.
How could she?
Over the rim of the dash the stars wheeled in the darkness. There was her hope, the North Star. She listened to the melody of Laurel Creek, and the sound soothed her. There was nothing she could do about any of it now, except remember. The past was over and done.
Water under the bridge, the Lieutenant Colonel liked to say.
Even if she did somehow manage to utter the terrible truth to her mother, he’d deny it all. The years of using his only daughter, a fiction of her imagination. Her accusation, a betrayal of the familial trust. He’d call her whore and worse.
She could hear him now.
Her father might even kill her in his rage; he was capable of murder. Everyone in the family was aware of the anger simmering in his blood like a malarial fever. No one ever spoke of it, preferring to tiptoe around him, praying he wouldn’t boil over, trying not to get scalded when, inevitably, he did.
The night her mother hadn’t cooked his T-bone just right - medium rare - Belinda had been distracted by a tussle Steven and John had gotten into. An argument over something that had happened at school. Some game they’d been playing. Who’d won. Who’d lost. Kid stuff.
Adolphus was in the den, sipping a martini, relaxing. A Navy lawyer, he worked in a constant pressure cooker. Everyone left him alone before supper; they knew better than to cause trouble.
Her mother turned away from the broiler for just a minute really, but that minute had done it.
Or overdone it. Mary laughed at her own pun, recalling that night. The sound that came out of her mouth was brief and bitter.
Her father sat down a few minutes later and cut into his steak; the muscle in his jaw started twitching. A telltale sign. Mary spotted it first. Steven and John stopped eating and stared.
Belinda was finishing up at the stove and had her back to them. She turned to take her seat at the table. The steak came flying through the air and hit her on the side of her head, leaving a streak of blood and grease across her cheek, and the sculpted curls of her sprayed hair. Belinda’s mouth fell open, but she didn’t make a sound.
In a cold, tight voice Adolphus said, “This isn’t fit to eat. Fix another.”
Without a word, her mother got up and went to the refrigerator. Luckily, there was another steak to cook. Medium rare, this time. The only way the Lieutenant Colonel liked it.
When Belinda placed the new steak on his plate, the four of them held their collective breath, waiting for his verdict. He didn’t say anything, but cut into the meat with a knife, stabbed a piece onto his fork, put it into his mouth, and chewed. The steak must have been broiled just right. The Lieutenant Colonel cleaned his plate, while his family watched his cheek, the bites of meat he swallowed, and listened to the clicking sound his teeth made as he bit down on the fork. No one else ate much that night.
There had been too many scenes like that. It wasn’t difficult for Mary to imagine her mother standing by, helpless as usual, while her husband struck their only daughter down.
The Catholics insisted there was very little difference between the sins of commission and those of omission. Take your pick, folks, Door Number One, or Door Number Two?
Mary watched Belinda hand her husband the knife he’d plunge into her daughter. Like Abraham gripping the blade pointed at poor Isaac’s heart. In the name of the Lord. Only Mary didn’t expect the Lord to stop her father’s hand. Or her mother’s, either.
Exhausted, Mary leaned back against the car seat. She was tied up even without ropes, that was certain.
Would she ever be free?
The sound of water making its own way over the rocky creek bed was the only reply.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Christina Pacosz

Some Places to Check Out

Another blog to check out is the one by poet and writer Laurel Johnson at http://laureljohnsonblogs.blogspot.com

Kritya is a fine on-line journal appearing in English and Hindi edited by Rati Saxena out of Kerala, India
at www.kritya.in

The HyperTexts is an equally fine on- line journal and edited by Mike Burch at http://www.thehypertexts.com

Some Winded Wild Beast, Black and Red 1985, photo Kathleen Reyes

Monday, June 05, 2006


An excerpt from one of the chapters of my unpublished novel, “Out of Dodge,” won an Achievement Award in Fiction from Now & Then, Summer, 1994. An earlier version of this manuscript was selected as a 1995 semi-finalist by the Heekin Group Foundation.

All footnoted material from: English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, Collected by Cecil J. Sharp, Edited by Maud Karpeles, Oxford University Press, 1932 and 1960.


Like a golden ring in a pig’s snout
is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.

Proverbs 11:22


“So fare you well, fathers, and fare you well, mothers,
Adieu to my sisters, likewise to my brothers;
I’m going far away my fortune to try...
So green grows the laurel and so does the rue.”[1]

A toddler sat digging into the gravel beneath the shade of a tall tree. The smooth, cool rock soothed the palms of her hands, which had been seared earlier by the hot grittiness of the beach. Birds screeched in the white glare beyond the green canopy of leaves.
Gulls most likely. Or pelicans, numerous along the Gulf Coast when she was small. Did pelicans make a sound? She couldn’t remember.
Gulls, then.
It was one of her earliest memories.
Mary’s thoughts skipped ahead like a pebble tossed out over the water. Out loud she sang, “He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” The rock careened through green water streaked with golden light, always just beyond her reach, a metaphor for her life.
Hard as a rock A rolling stone gathers no moss She had a look that could turn him to stone On the rocks Don’t rock the boat Rock around the clock Stone cold Kill two birds with one stone Stone soup
In the Appalachian folk tale she’d read a few nights ago, stone soup was what the mother fed her hungry children.
Mary recalled Belinda reading an Aesop’s fable to her. The black and white illustration in the book her mother held on her lap showed a fox standing on his hind legs, painstakingly filling a large pitcher with rocks. In the next drawing he was quenching his thirst with the water threatening to overflow the rim of the vessel.
“That’s surely a smart fox, isn’t he, honey?” Mary heard the rhetorical question of twenty years ago as if she still sat beside her mother who had just now asked it.
Tapping the brakes of her 1965 Ford, slowing for a hairpin turn on the narrow two‑lane that wound through Monroe County, Tennessee, one of the poorest places in the United States in a region abounding with poverty‑stricken communities, Mary noticed how the headlight beams illuminated bits of rock, which glittered, briefly, like diamonds or gold scattered across the blacktop. Sometimes boulders the size of small houses blocked the road. Especially in the winter when ice and snow pried chunks of mountain loose and gravity finished the job.
Watch Out For Falling Rock flashed like a neon sign in Mary’s mind.
There were no warning signs posted in these mountains. The people who called this place home regarded rock on the road, and the hazards of everyday life in general, with a Calvinistic fatalism. Folks here were hard and mean like the rocky ramparts ringing their tiny hamlets.
Families with scowling faces had washed up onto the shores of coves far from any ocean. Generation after generation struggled to work tumbledown, tired farms, planting corn, tobacco, sorghum. Come winter their cabins were dark and shadowed, the blue smoke of broken chimneys the only sign of life.
Listening to the crunch of rocky debris beneath the tires, Mary watched a calloused hand cast the crushed stone into a boiling pot. The odor of ancient earth filled an imaginary kitchen.
She’d read about women who craved and ate dirt. But what about a mother who fixed stone soup for her starving family? What forced her to that? How many pots of stone soup were simmering on cabin stoves tonight?
Mary sighed and wished she were stoned. A couple tokes on a joint would help her relax, but her stash was at the farmhouse; she never carried it on her. Too risky.
A liquid chortle from one of the myriad creeks that had been cutting through the rock for centuries came through her open window, and with it the odor of fern thriving like banished hope in the mossy clefts. Purple mountains’ majesty towered above her in the dark, aloof to the furtive work that went on behind closed doors, day or night. The toil on family farms that knew no season.
The daily fare of blows inflicted on the children flamed red at first, a thousand secret sunrises. With time, the bruised flesh turned black, blue, purple. The colors of the flag flying above this land of grievances.
Thoughts tumbling like stones in a torrent, Mary Moran smiled, despite the bleak vision she’d just conjured.
The kids who lived in the hard rock coves made it all worthwhile, including the clunker she was driving. The engine strained as the Ford climbed the winding road.
Found On Road Dead. An old, bad joke.
The government‑owned vehicle had close to 100,000 miles on it. That is if someone hadn’t rolled the odometer back, which was likely, knowing the government.
A Navy brat, nothing surprised her about the feds.
Her father had retired from the Navy blue and gold braid, and only wore his uniform to the parties her mother dragged him to down in Biloxi. “Not again, Belinda! I am sick to death of making small talk with that crowd. Can’t you beg off? Make some excuse. You’re good at that sort of thing.”
Her father’s words were strung together like those plastic beads so popular when she was a little girl. The beads made a loud sound when she’d pulled them apart, and she’d flinch each time she heard it.
The pop‑bead, snapping turtle, mean‑spirited voice of the Commander.
He had definite ideas about his hard‑earned retirement. Full dress uniform soirees weren’t a part of his game plan. Not anymore. He’d much rather play a set of cutthroat tennis, swim a few laps, and then leisurely sweat his troubles away in the steam room at the Officer’s Club. Fall and winter, he headed out to the swamps and bayous with his cronies for a weekend of deer, or duck hunting, and, always, Wild Turkey drinking.
“I spent my whole life indoors dressed in a uniform, arguing lost causes before fools. I have paid my dues.” Now that they were docked in Biloxi for good, his wife would just have to make the best of all the time on her hands. Mary tried to imagine bored Belinda twiddling her thumbs, but she couldn’t.
After years of circling the globe, her mother was making up for lost time, with or without her husband. She’d been appointed to the boards of several charities and civic groups from the Junior League to the Red Cross, take your pick.
Or pick your nose.
Mary giggled. Belinda certainly wouldn’t appreciate her adolescent humor, but the Monroe kids would bust a gut, as they would put it, over her play on words.
Had there ever been time to laugh at such innocent, silly stuff when she was growing up? Mary frowned in the dark, trying to remember.
In bilious Biloxi, maybe.
That’s what her cousins called the fishing town off the Gulf of Mexico where her parents made their obligatory yearly pilgrimages.
Those visits to the ancestral home from the far‑flung ports the Commander’s career had flung them all meant billeting, as her father put it, at Belinda’s mother’s house. Miss Eva’s spacious, two‑story southern rambler had been built to withstand floods and hurricanes. Her grandmother wouldn’t settle for anything less. Luckily Eva’s husband, Patrick, had made a small fortune in the mercantile business begun by his grandfather in the antebellum, glory years, and she didn’t have to.
“Belinda, don’t you think our Mary could use a little help in the comportment department?” Mary chuckled, recalling what had prompted her grandmother’s rhetorical question.
Out exploring the nearby tidal swamp, she’d fallen into one of the many creeks that braided the mudflats and was covered from head to toe in reeking goo. Lavinia, Miss Eva’s maid, caught her trying to sneak through the kitchen, and didn’t waste any time in bringing the breach of etiquette to Belinda’s attention. Her mother’s grip on Mary’s shoulder was vise‑like; her reprimand a stinging hiss.
“Young lady, you stay out of that damnable ditch, you hear. There’s no telling what unspeakable diseases are lurking in those awful cesspools.”
Miss Eva, as her grandmother insisted on being addressed, wrinkled her nose when Lavinia dragged Mary past the open door of the drawing room where she held court. “Child, a bath is most definitely in order. Lavinia, scrub that odiferous muck off the little heathen. We can’t have her smelling like a barnyard.”
The accented, elegant tones of Miss Eva’s Mississippi drawl followed her granddaughter up the stairs, into the bathroom. Then it was Lavinia’s turn.
“Gal, I ain’t touchin’ you, no matter what she say.” The maid’s lips were set in a grim line. “You ol’ ‘nuff to knows better. Make like a banana and peel them filthy closes off, while I get you water fix’t. Got me some Octagon soap. Use it, hear. Say goodbye to them duds you wearin’. They ain’t goin’ in my washing machine. I aims to burn ‘em.”
The water in the big claw‑foot tub scalded her. Lavinia watched in stony silence while Mary scrubbed herself raw with a stiff‑ bristled brush. That wasn’t the only time she’d landed in hot water in Biloxi, or elsewhere for that matter.
For as long as Mary could remember, Eva McInnes had been a thin, rich, old bitch, then she’d snapped suddenly and irrevocably like a pine in a storm off the Gulf. The funeral had been a little over a month ago. Dutifully, Mary went. Belinda would have been scandalized if she hadn’t.
Biloxi was a tropical jungle, steamy and lush. Home sweet home.
At the base elementary school in Manila, she’d embroidered that proverb on a sampler, inspired by her heroine, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Only Mary McInnes Moran’s hometown reeked with the odor of magnolia blossoms and rotting fish from the canneries, not the clean, cold air of Wilder’s beloved plains.
Manila had been fetid, too.
She’d spent her life traipsing the world with her mother, who followed her father. Belinda Moran was capable of packing at an hour’s notice, which had happened more than once in their life as a military family. When her father announced the latest move, his words were a string of beads snapping in Mary’s ears.
“It’s an important case, Belinda. There could be a promotion in it for me if I get a conviction, which I intend to. I need you at my side. You know that.”
Belinda would nod, then turn to the practicalities of what to pack for the plane, the basics required for the first few weeks after landfall. The movers would take care of the rest.
Her brothers, Steven and John, were younger, unable to help even if they’d wanted to. Closer in age, at least they had each other. Mary would be left to navigate inhospitable territory on her own.
That’s how it was. The Commander spoke. His Mrs. jumped. And their kids made do.
She’d learned not to make friends she’d only have to leave behind and focused on her schoolwork instead. Time passed more quickly that way. Wherever the Commander had shanghaied them, his only daughter was a straight A student.
The rock rising at the edge of blacktop loomed in her headlights. One slip and she’d crash into the stone wall. The impact would break her neck most likely.
Mary shook her head and sighed. She didn’t know where home was, but she was sure Biloxi wasn’t it. The white farmhouse by the singing creek where her cats, Katz and Jammer waited, was home. For now.
The cartoon strip had been her favorite as a kid. She’d named the two kittens she’d taken in at Christmas in honor of the characters. That first night away from their mother, the pair curled into the crook of her arm, purring contentedly.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
That’s what Melody had shouted at the other children when, teary eyed and red‑faced, she’d climbed in the front seat of the Ford earlier that day. She’d stubbornly refused to say what had upset her so.
Sticks and stones.
The Commander’s heart was a stone lost somewhere in the hardware on his chest.
Break my bones.
She was his only daughter and he’d broken her heart.
Hurt me.
The single syllable he’d flung at her was a bullet lodged in her heart, which was not a stone and never would be.
Whore, her father had whispered, so her mother wouldn’t hear.
A word like a knife.
She’d seen pictures in Catholic households of Jesus and his mother, Mary, her own saintly namesake, pointing to their exposed hearts pierced by many swords. Belinda used words like ‘tacky’ and ‘gaudy’ to dismiss those pictures, but Mary wasn’t so sure.
Faith, she was discovering, wasn’t a matter of taste.
The night breeze wafted into the car. Mary inhaled the spicy scent of summer and rounded another curve dynamited out of the rock. Hill perfume, Elvira called it.
Rocks and stones.
Mary wanted to feel safe again, like she had in that driveway of stones she’d raked her fists through so long ago, but all she had was a picture taken that day.
Whore, she heard him spit the word in her ear.
Her tears blurred the dark road. The odor of honeysuckle was sudden and rank.
Names can never.
Stop it! Stop feeling sorry for yourself. He doesn’t understand and never will. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, Daddy dear.
That’s what she should have said instead of bursting into tears that day at
the funeral.
When would she learn?
Brian would understand. Or Mary corrected herself he used to.
She was desperate to have him hold her and tell her everything would be all right. She’d hoped to see him tonight, but he’d begged off. VISTA stuff. Well, she was busy, too, but she could always squeeze him into her schedule.
Mary Moran and Brian Woods had been an item. There was talk, but she didn’t care.
From the first day of VISTA training last November, Mary felt Brian’s eyes on her, and she’d turned to him like a sunflower toward the sun. Something in her insisted on more light and space. It didn’t take long before she was opening rooms she’d sealed shut years before. Now he was ignoring her and she felt like a plant abandoned in a dark, cramped closet.
The car took the curves in the final home stretch. The inky thumbprints of the peaks were almost invisible in the deep dark.
Brian made her want to do things that a decent southern girl wouldn’t be caught dead thinking, let alone doing. But she wasn’t a decent southern girl, was she?
Her own Daddy had made certain of that.
Her other lovers had been stumblebums compared to Brian. Even Jeff hadn’t excited her so. He’d unceremoniously jilted her last spring, just before graduation from Riddle. On the rebound, Mary had applied when the VISTA recruiter came to campus. When the acceptance letter arrived in the mail, she’d been surprised and pleased.
VISTA would be the cure for her thwarted passion. Then she met Brian. He was a bonus she hadn’t expected to find in this hardscrabble place.
Mary blushed, remembering how she’d let him handcuff her to the stump in the woods.
The wild girl begged, “Fuck me. In the ass.”
“Your wish is my command,” her demon lover replied.
She couldn’t escape his hard thrusts and had no choice but to open to the pain, will it to change to pleasure. Like some warped miracle, it had worked.
Maybe her Daddy was right. Whore.
But wasn’t body knowledge more important than any other?
She desperately needed to know the answer to that question. That’s why she’d decided not to return to graduate school in social work at Riddle in the fall, but applied instead to a well-respected nursing program in New York City. The letter from Beth Israel had arrived a few days before Miss Eva’s funeral.
Like Harriet Tubman, her heroine, Mary was determined to follow the Drinking Gourd up north. Maybe she’d find emancipation, too.
Staring through a microscope she’d hone her attention and study what it was the body wanted her to know. Under the powerful lens of her scrutiny, the conjugation of paramecium, the ancient mystery of the asexual reproduction of amoebae, the very essence of cellular life, would be revealed.
Her own flesh, pale and compact, dotted with freckles, and the bodies of strangers, would, finally, be understood.
She would read the fragile bones of children, their skinned knees, bee stings, sudden high fevers, and croupy chests like tealeaves. Their parents, men and women with toothaches, athlete’s foot, pus‑filled boils, guilty souls ‑ everyone and everything would be fixed, repaired. Made new.
No settling for a Band‑aid, or iffy folk remedies. A student who’d cut her teeth on space and Sputnik, not elixirs of asafetida, or fetishes of garlic, Mary knew belief made almost anything seem possible. For a while. She put her faith in science, not potions and spells.
Desperate, impoverished mothers in these mountains bought bottles of Save the Baby for their children, but the cheap patent medicine didn’t save many. All the faith and hope in the world couldn’t keep the babies alive. The graveyards were full of them.
Back in November, Rick Brewer, the VISTA supervisor, took the group to one of the many small cemeteries tucked into the hills. Mary would never forget the rough‑cut concrete slab with the hand‑scratched inscription that read:
Pearl Dockery
Was Borned
October 12, 1934
November 13, 1934

None of the VISTAs, including Mary, knew what to make of the marker at their feet, but Rick spoke quietly about poverty and aching hands.
“She was so small, born at a bad time when light wanes in these hills, and winter comes on with fevers and chills.”
He gazed up at the mountains crowding the graveyard and continued.
“It was the Depression in the United States then, but in Appalachia there has always been a depression, then and now. The depression that never quit killed Pearl Dockery a month after she was born. Someone, her Daddy most likely, painstakingly cut this slab of cement. There wasn’t any money to buy his baby daughter a proper headstone, so he did the best he could with what he had.”
Rick cleared his throat. “Each of you has a long road of hard work ahead, like the hard rock circling us now. If you let it, it’ll do you in. When things get tough, remember Pearl Dockery, and how the flame in a candle sometimes refuses to light. Your job is to figure out another way to keep hope alive.”
Her memories were an avalanche, threatening to bury her. Time for some tunes. Mary leaned toward the dash and twisted the radio dial.
Usually the mountains blocked the signal, but sometimes she managed to pick up a station or two. This was her lucky night. The rock and roll station out of Knoxville was playing the latest hit by the Rolling Stones. She turned up the volume and sang along with Mick Jagger.
“You can’t always get what you want...”
She bet Mick knew some tricks even Brian hadn’t thought up. A picture of her straddling Brian as Jagger swaggered into the room flashed in her head; she was the lunchmeat to their bread. Double fucked. Mary shivered and rolled up the window. Mountain nights could turn quite chilly; she’d forgotten her cardigan.
The next time she was with Brian she’d hint about a threesome. Whisper her fantasy in his ear. That always turned him on. He just might say yes. Screwing her with another guy might get him interested in her again, like he was in the beginning when he couldn’t get enough.
Finding another guy would be easy as pie. Why, when she walked into Elvira’s store, the men seated around the stove dogged her every move. It wasn’t hard to imagine them open‑mouthed and drooling like the hounds they let run on the ridges.
Daniel, one of the locals, had come into the store yesterday, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist. He was covered with hair. Mary had crooned, “Hey,” her fingers combing through the luxuriant growth like an animal trying to burrow in his chest. “You’re a hairy beast, aren’t you?”
The boy not quite a man, blushed. Mary glanced at Elvira, who quickly smiled and said, “Ain’t it hot today? I am about to burn up.”
“A pack of Marlboros, please,” Daniel mumbled and left.
Mary was quite familiar with that shocked look on Elvira’s plain face. Mrs. Mayhew had a lot in common with Mrs. Moran, who also knew when to speak of the weather.
Daniel, she could tell, had liked what her fingers were doing. Very much, thank you.
Mary had learned her Mississippi belle moves all too well. Even in this backwater she practiced the skills her mother had cultivated. Fishing like this was to her liking. No messy, wriggling night crawlers to skewer on a hook. No blood worms to cut up. No sweet‑singing crickets to impale.
Sometimes she wanted to shout, “Mama, look! Would this one meet with your approval? Would that one be a keeper?”
She knew the answer. Had known what her mother wanted for her since she could talk. The adolescent hillbilly she’d just flirted outrageously with definitely wasn’t it.
The feminine art of flirting wasn’t about sex. The goal was marriage, middle class and respectable, like her mother’s and Elvira’s. That virginal walk down the church aisle was the only acceptable outcome, the ultimate reward of a carefully orchestrated coquetry. Mary was supposed to catch a husband, but the wild girl wanted a man, many men.
Not marriage to a military man, her mother would secretly shudder, but another lawyer was certainly welcome in the family. That much of the script was worth repeating. A lawyer’s wife lived comfortably. If her mother wanted anything for her daughter, and what mother didn’t, it was a comfortable life, married to an up‑and‑comer, dedicated to the public good, and headed for the state house, the governor’s mansion, even Washington, D.C.
Of course, Mary would be at his side, wearing beige silk and crisp linen, a subtly perfumed and meticulously coiffed asset. Belinda Katherine McInnes Moran would beam from the screen porch as she waved the pair on to their bright future with a white‑gloved hand. Mary took perverse delight in excelling here, where no one, not even Brian, would ever measure up to Belinda’s maternal checklist. Laughter erupted from her belly and her nostrils flared.
She imagined Belinda’s disapproving glare.
Her unseemly laugh, the lover who bent her over rotten stumps, the flirtations with men, their cheeks stuffed with snuff. The fantasies she could weave. Belinda would recoil from this daughter.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockleshells and pretty men all in a row.
That’s how the nursery rhyme went in Mary’s unexpurgated version, though she’d stitched a sampler with the traditional Mother Goose verse for one of Belinda’s birthdays. Her mother had it framed and hung over her antique writing desk, saying, “This is so precious, Mary. I want to look at it every day, my pretty maid.”
Well, she was done with simple samplers. She wanted to make a complex and erotic quilt. One that provided a different kind of warmth than the cotton quilts the women in these hills sewed.
She’d been in cabins when quilting frames took over the for‑company‑only cramped parlors and had witnessed the careful stitches blinding the women to the rest of their lives: Drafty, squalid hovels, outdoor privies, poor food.
Too many sweet babies in the graveyard.
No, there’d be no double wedding ring quilt folded in the Lane hope chest Belinda presented to Mary for her sixteenth birthday. The only redemption in that useless piece of furniture was the tantalizing aroma of cedar when the lid was opened.
Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Mary snorted like a horse choking on moldy hay.
Her mother’s voice, enthusiastic and breathy, like she was winded from running a race, came through the years:
“We’re going to fill this hope chest full of pretty things, Mary. Percale sheets and pillowcases, thick Turkish towels, lacy nightgowns, peignoir sets. Irish lace tablecloths and napkins. Outfit you and your future home in style. Won’t that be fun, shopping for it all?”
The hope chest was a coffin, but Mary couldn’t say that to her mother, who was probably counting dish cloths and fingering silky sheets this very minute, or scanning the Biloxi paper for a white sale, so she could fill in the gaps in her daughter’s collection.
The rhythm of Mary’s heart made her think of a horse jumping a paddock fence and galloping across an open meadow.
Where there’s life, there’s hope. That was one of Belinda’s favorite sayings.
Thanks, but no thanks. She’d sew her quilt out of scraps of another cloth: wicked red satin, hopelessly purple velour, lurid pink sateen smothered with sequins. She’d call her creation Double Fucked Cunt and hang it on the wall for the world to see, not hide it away among the safe, virginal fabric Belinda had in mind.
The quilt Mary planned to make would burn a hole right through that well‑stocked hope chest and pierce her mother’s heart.
Serve her right.


“He followed me up, he followed me down,
He followed me in my room.
I had no wings for to fly away,
No tongue to say him nay.” [2]

Here was her turnoff.
The Mayhew place was dark. Most nights Elvira and Cloice were in bed by ten. They believed in that early to bed, early to rise Ben Franklin stuff. Their store was open from 6 in the morning to 6 in the evening, 6 days a week. Sunday was the Lord’s Day, no ifs, ands, or buts.
It would shock them if they ever found out just what kind of girl she really was. Mary Moran, girl VISTA. A hot little number, that’s was her.
Daddy’s whore. Mama’s virginal belle.
A dirty angel, picking herself up out of the mud, adjusting her halo one more time to please Belinda, only to watch helplessly while the Commander knocked it off.
She was sick to death of the pedestal.
Mary parked the Ford in front of the old white farmhouse and as soon as she cut the V‑8 off, the metallic pings of the engine cooling down seemed to punctuate what Laurel Creek had to say as it flowed past her door. Daddy’s a dinosaur. His kind are on the way out. Her generation would see to that.
Extinction. Not of the planet, but of the destroyers. The A‑bomb makers. The warmongers spraying napalm on innocent Vietnamese peasants. The earth rapers. The killers who shot down peacefully protesting college students. The child molesters.
The Puritan fathers who started the whole mess, up there on the scaffold, cringing in shame, the scarlet A’s embroidered on their homespun shirts.
A for assholes.
Mary grinned and watched big‑bellied Hester Prynne lead a brigade of loose‑haired, loose‑limbed women back into the piney woods behind the Mayhew’s store for a Dionysian dance around the maypole. The wild girl wanted to join them.
Instead, she swung her legs, covered in cotton twill slacks, out of the Ford. Jeans were not acceptable attire in these mountains. The VISTAs had been warned last November at orientation. Skirts and dresses for the girls were recommended, or if absolutely necessary, no‑nonsense pants like these.
She craned her neck to scan the sky for the North Star. There it was. The Drinking Gourd. Bright and beckoning. A whip-poor-will sang out.
That sad sound always made her think of a lost child wearing frayed dungarees, hanging back from the campfire, afraid of strangers, but wanting someone to find him, see him there on the edge of light and shadow, and welcome him into their midst.
Mary hugged herself against the rocky chill breathing down from the heights. Time for bed. She walked over the chatty creek across the narrow bridge Cloice had built, up the porch steps, and pushed open the unlocked screen door.
The house had a closed‑in feeling tonight. There were many rooms she didn’t use. She couldn’t afford the oil it would have taken to keep the entire house open this past winter. It was summer now, but she kept the rooms shut out of habit. The kitchen, a single bedroom, the bathroom with the tub that reminded her of the one at Miss Eva’s was enough for her. She was rarely home anyway.
The monthly stipend from VISTA was poverty‑level wages, meant to provide the barest of essentials, and keep the volunteers down among the people they were trying to raise up.
How had Rick Brewer put it?
“We’re equalizing the playing field.”
But penny‑pinching wasn’t her style. Thank goodness her mother wrote regularly; her letters occasionally included a check, which Mary cashed with only a twinge of guilt. The money went for the extras she missed.
First, a vodka and tonic and a few tokes on her pipe, then she’d stretch out with Katz and Jammer purring on either side of her, a comfort in the empty bed. The vodka and dope would be on Belinda tonight. Her mother would shrivel up and die if she knew.
The cats rubbed a furry welcome against her legs; she bent down to scratch their ears.
“Hi, guys. Did you miss me? Hungry? Let’s see what’s in Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.”
She opened the glass door to one of the cabinets Cloice had crafted last fall, and took a can of cat food off the top shelf.
“How about Nine Lives? Morris likes it.”
The sound of the can opener set off a duet of plaintive meows. She doled out a generous helping of food into each dish and smiled when the cats bit at the spoon.
“Patience, my dears, is a virtue.” That was one of Belinda’s sayings. Her mother was gaseous with platitudes.
Mary leaned against the counter and watched the felines eat. Katz batted Jammer on the ear in that swift, sudden way cats have when they feel put upon. Jammer cringed, but kept on swallowing.
Animal appetites have a lot more in common with humans than most people care to realize.
Turning, she took out a glass tumbler from another cupboard for her drink, and carried it across the kitchen to the refrigerator. She was in luck, there was orange juice in the pitcher and ice cubes still in the freezer tray. Holding the metal tray upside down, she knocked it against the sink, retrieved the ice, and filled her glass. Bending over, she rummaged through the storage bin Cloice had constructed beneath the sink. Her hands pushed aside potatoes and onions until her fingers touched a familiar cool smoothness.
Elvira and Cloice were teetotalers. She’d assured them she was, too, when she moved in, but this root bin was where she hid her ‘moonshine.” The Mayhews would never stoop to snooping when she wasn’t home. Folks minded their own business in these hills and expected you to do likewise. She’d looked Cloice and Elvira right in the eye and said what they wanted to hear; they’d believed her.
“You’re as clever as a cat, aren’t you, Contrary Mary?”
Pouring vodka over the ice, she followed it with orange juice to the rim of the glass.
She eyed the contents of the fifth. About empty. Monroe County was dry and she didn’t like going without. She had to plan her forays to the liquor store carefully. Usually she bought booze once a month when she got groceries, then snuck the forbidden fruit into the house hidden in the Ingles’ bags beneath the lettuce and toilet paper.
The night before her solo trips into Madisonville, she’d stash the empties in the trunk, then dispose of the evidence in the first convenient dumpster. She needed to do that soon; the space under the sink was overflowing.
Walking into the bedroom, glass in-hand, she waved at her reflection in the postage stamp mirror above the pine dresser.
“Hey, girl, let’s get stoned.”
She went to the drawer where she kept her stash and took out the small soapstone pipe. She’d stocked up on weed when she was in Biloxi.
“Just a dab will do ya,” she sang, filling the bowl with a pinch of marijuana. Tearing off a match, she lit the pipe, put it to her lips, and inhaled deeply. The gray‑green stone began to warm in her grip like something alive. The aromatic smoke was like a key starting an engine. Mary raced down the track with memories that never seemed to cross the finish line.
Fuck Daddy. He’d ruined her for that white gown Mama still dreamed about. She pushed the plastic baggie down to the bottom of her neatly folded undies, sat on her bed, and fired up the pipe again.
Those awful times were embedded in her flesh; she couldn’t run away. Too ashamed to tell anyone what her father had done to her those last few years she’d finally escaped to Riddle. Not even Brian knew. You can’t cry over spilt milk. Another of Belinda’s sayings.
Mary knew better.
After gently tapping the ashes from the pipe into the ashtray she kept hidden beneath the bed, she stood up and slipped the carved soapstone between the box spring and the mattress. Unbuttoning her blouse, she stepped out of her slacks, then thrust her head though one of the men’s oversized t-shirts she preferred to a nightgown.
Bellies full, Katz and Jammer were already curled up on the pillows, purring loudly. “Move over, you two, make room for me,” she whispered, turning down the quilt and sliding between the sheets. She leaned over and switched off the small milk glass lamp beside the bed.
In the dark, high, she could let herself remember.
It had always happened on Belinda’s bridge night.
Mary would hear the outside door slam, the car engine start. Then her father, Commander Adolphus Moran, sir, would walk into her room without so much as a knock.
John and Steven were asleep down the hall. Not in kindergarten yet, they had an early bedtime. Getting the boys ready for bed on her mother’s weekly night out was Mary’s responsibility. She’d tuck them in, thinking, “No one can help me now.”
Her father would have been drinking since before dinner. Mary smelled the liquor on his breath the minute he barged into her room. Eyes glittering, he’d march up to her bed, and smile down at her with a strange grin. The pop‑pop sound of his voice was muted by the alcohol.
The first time, she’d refused.
He slapped her face, grabbed her out of her twin bed with the pink dust ruffle and the antique white finish, and threw her across his knees. He pulled down her baby doll pajama bottoms and his hand cracked across her bare bottom. She’d almost choked on snot and tears, but he kept at it until she thought she’d pass out. She wished she had.
He made her kneel in front of him. She was shocked by how long and thick his penis was; it reminded her of the snake in the Garden of Eden. She must be Eve, then, the source of every evil. He ordered her to suck him like a lollipop; she did. The taste gagged her. He pulled out and spurted white stuff all over the front of her nightie.
From then on he visited her once a week, unless her mother cancelled her night out, which wasn’t often.
Mary resorted to desperate strategies to get out of that house of horrors.
For a time she joined a Wednesday night teen group sponsored by the Catholic Church her family attended, but sometimes her ride’s car wouldn’t start, and then she’d be trapped. Of course, he refused to drive her, and her mother would say, “It’s out of my way, dear. You know I don’t like being late.”
Sometimes Mary managed to slip out of the house before her mother did. Belinda could get the boys ready for bed.
Traipsing the streets of whatever military base they were living on was only a temporary reprieve; she had to go home eventually. Being the daughter of a high‑ranking officer meant her choice of companions was limited. The few girls who might have welcomed her had an early bedtime; Belinda’s bridge night was always a school night. Mary had become a loner out of necessity. There were no friends she could run to.
On her walks, Mary watched the sun set scalding tomato red or sultry peach. The chaste crescent of the new moon reminded her of a Cheshire cat. Full, the moon floated like a silver ship, or shone golden, a ripe cantaloupe offered to the world on an ancient platter. Sudden showers drenched her. She tasted falling snow on her tongue and wiped summer’s sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. She was out in all kinds of weather, all climates, all seasons. For one reason and one reason only.
A solitary witness to the stuttering flight of bats, she jumped at the squawk of exotic parrots, startled deer at their browse. She kept one eye on the sights, the other on her wristwatch. The minute hand moved so swiftly.
Wasn’t she his sweet Mary?
That’s what he said when he put his penis in her. He wanted to be the first one. He was her father; it was his right. Her tears excited him even more. She was a robot and did what he wanted.
There was blood that first time. He made her lick it off with her tongue like a cat lapping milk while blood trickled down her thighs.
The inside of her mouth tasted like iron. She downed the last of her vodka and OJ “That’s enough of a trip down memory lane, don’t you agree, kiddos?” She stroked Katz, then Jammer, the sleek feel of fur against the palm of her hand a comfort.
Where had all that junk about cats and witches started?
Belinda believed cats could steal the breath of a sleeping person, especially a baby.
“I’m sorry, dear, but you simply cannot have a cat. They aren’t sanitary creatures. I’d be afraid for the boys. Cats have been known to crawl onto a baby’s face and smother it, you know. Besides, we move too often.” Belinda’s arguments were superstitions, really, though her mother would have vehemently denied it.
“Felines are untrustworthy animals. Wild still, really. Your father would never approve.”
Scenes from those last years at home played inside Mary’s head like a horror movie that wouldn’t quit. Remembering was painful, but forgetting was even worse. She got reckless and did stupid things she regretted later. Like driving too fast. Screwing without using her diaphragm. Or getting falling down, puking drunk. So out of it she couldn’t remember what she’d done the night before. Her friends would tell her, but only if she insisted. None of them wanted to remember that girl, either.
The wild girl was very inventive.
Mary yawned and snuggled down into the covers. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day. They were having another hot dog sale. She’d been trying to raise funds to outfit an abandoned building in Coker Creek she hoped to transform into a small recreation center.
A church in Knoxville had promised her a used pool table. All she had to do was drive sixty miles one-way to pick it up. Cloice had offered to let her borrow his truck for the trip. She’d scrounged a record player at a secondhand store in the city that day. The clerk had thrown in the used 45’s for free when she told him who would be playing the records.
“Like to see them mountain kids dancing to these tunes. That’d be a sight. Take ‘em iffen you want.”
She did.
When Mary and the kids she’d recruited were finished with the place, the local youth wouldn’t have to find a way down the mountain to Tellico Plains for something to do. Not that Tellico had much to offer. A stopover for the occasional hiker or fly fisherman passing through the Smokiest, the tiny hamlet nestled in the hills had a single grocery store and restaurant. There was a small park by the river with a rusted set of swings and a slide, but her kids were too old for playgrounds. The teens could walk or ride their bikes to the center for some innocent fun when all the fundraising was done. Even the hole‑in‑the‑wall center would be better than what they had now, which was nothing.
Nothing but hellfire church several times a week, months of backbreaking work in the tobacco fields, and parents who beat them at the least provocation. She’d witnessed the welts and bruises. Some of the kids trusted her that much now, and showed her the “spare the rod and spoil the child” stuff tattooed on their flesh.
Her Daddy had lived by that motto, too, but the ancient biblical adage hadn’t worked. Like these mountain kids she was spoiled, spoiled rotten, but in a very different sense than the proverb had intended. Each and every one of them were the walking, suppurating wounded because of what had been done to them by the very people who were supposed to protect them.
“Honor thy father and mother” was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. The priests and preachers repeated the fourth commandment like a stuck record, as if they were afraid the children would wise up and rise up if the adults stopped saying it over and over again.
There was a bad taste in Mary’s mouth and she wanted to spit.
Then, Katz and Jammed curled into her, purring steadily, she was finally able to close her eyes and sleep.
[1] “Green Grows the Laurel,” as sung by Mrs. Eliza Pace at Hyden, Leslie County, Kentucky, October. 9, 1917.
[2] “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight,” sung by Mrs. Moore, Rabun Gap, Georgia, May 1, 1910.