فصل 02

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CHAPTER 2

May Crandall

AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA, PRESENT DAY

On occasion, it is as if the latches in my mind have gone rusty and worn. The doors fall open and closed at will. A peek inside here. An empty space there. A dark place I’m afraid to peer into.

I never know what I will find.

There’s no predicting when a barrier will swing wide, or why.

Triggers. That’s what the psychologists call them on TV shows. Triggers…as if the strike ignites gunpowder and sends a projectile spinning down a rifle barrel. It’s an appropriate metaphor.

Her face triggers something.

A door opens far into the past. I stumble through it unwittingly at first, wondering what might be locked inside this room. As soon as I call her Fern, I know it’s not Fern I’m thinking of. I’ve gone even further back. It’s Queenie I see.

Queenie, our strong mama, who marked all of us with her lovely golden curls. All but poor Camellia.

My mind skitters featherlight across treetops and along valley floors. I travel all the way to a low-slung Mississippi riverbank to the last time I saw Queenie. The warm, soft air of that Memphis summer night swirls over me, but the night is an impostor.

It is not soft. It does not forgive.

From this night, there will be no returning.

Twelve years old, still thin and knobby as a front porch post, I dangle my legs under the rail of our shantyboat, watching for a gator’s eyes to catch the amber flicker of lantern light. Gators shouldn’t stray this far upwater on the Mississippi, but there’s been gossip about sightings around here lately. This makes looking for them a game of sorts. Shantyboat kids take their entertainment where they can find it.

Right now, we need a distraction worse than usual.

Beside me, Fern climbs the rail and searches the woods for fireflies. At nearly four years old, she’s learning to count them. She points a stubby finger and leans out, mindless of gators. “I seen one, Rill! I seen ’im!” she cries.

I grab her dress to pull her back. “You go fallin’ off, I ain’t jumping in after ya this time.”

Truth told, it probably wouldn’t hurt her if she tumped over. It’d teach her a lesson. The boat’s tied up in a nice little backwater across the river from Mud Island. The water is only hip deep on me off the Arcadia’s stern. Fern might could touch the bottom on her tiptoes, but all five of us swim like pollywogs anyhow, even little Gabion, who can’t talk a full sentence yet. When you’re born on the river, you take to it as natural as drawing breath. You know its sounds and its ways and its critters. For river rats like us, the water’s a homeplace. A safe place.

But something’s in the air just now…something that’s not right. A spat of gooseflesh runs up my arms and needles my cheeks. There’s always been a knowing in me. I’d never tell a living soul of it, but it’s there just the same. A chill settles through me in the airless summer night. Overhead, the sky is thick, and the clouds are ripe as melons fair to bursting. There’s a storm coming, but what I feel is something more than that.

Inside the shanty, Queenie’s soft groans come faster now, mindless of the midwife woman’s molasses-thick voice: “Now, Miz Foss, you gots to stop pushin’, and you gots to stop now. This ’ere child come out wrong sided, he ain’t gon’ be long fo’ this world, and you ain’t neither. That’s it now. You jus’ quieten down. Be easy.”

Queenie gives a low, wrenching sound that’s like a boot sucking out of thick bayou mud. She’s birthed the five of us with hardly more than a heavy breath, but it’s taking so much longer this time. I rub the sweaty chill off my arms and feel like something’s out there in the woods. Something evil. It looks our way. Why is it here? Did it come for Queenie?

I want to scamper down the gangplank and run along the shore and yell, “You git on now! You git away! You can’t have my mama!”

I’d do it. I’m not afraid there might be gators. But instead, I sit still as a killdeer bird on a nest. I listen to the midwife’s words. She’s loud enough, I might as well be in the shanty.

“Oh, lands! Oh, mercy. She got more’n one inside. She do!”

My daddy mutters something I can’t hear. His boot steps cross the floor, hesitate, cross again.

The midwife says, “Mista Foss, ain’t nothin’ I can do ’bout this. You don’t git this woman to a doctor quick, them babies ain’t gon’ set eyes on this world, and this be their mama’s dyin’ day too.”

Briny doesn’t answer right off. He pounds both fists hard against the wall so that Queenie’s picture frames rattle. Something slips loose, and there’s the clink of metal against wood, and I know what it is by where it falls and how it sounds. In my mind, I see the tin cross with the sad-looking man on top, and I want to run inside and grab it and kneel by the bed and whisper mysterious Polish words, the way Queenie does on stormy nights when Briny is away from the shantyboat, and the rainwater flows over the roof, and waves pound the hull.

But I don’t know the strange, sharp language Queenie learned from the family she left behind when she ran off to the river with Briny. The few Polish words I have would be a mouthful of nonsense if I strung them together. Even so, if I could grab Queenie’s cross in my hand just now, I’d say them to the tin man Queenie kisses when the storms come.

I’d try pretty near anything to help get the birthing over with and see Queenie smile again.

On the other side of the door, Briny’s boot scrapes the planks, and I hear the cross clatter over the floor. Briny looks out the cloudy window that came from the farmhouse he tore down to build the boat before I was ever born. With Briny’s mama on her deathbed and the crops droughted out for another year, the banker was gonna get the house anyway. Briny figured the river was the place to be. He was right too. Time the Depression hit, him and Queenie were living just fine on the water. Even the Depression can’t starve the river, he says every time he tells the story. The river’s got her own magic. She takes care of her people. Always will.

But tonight, that magic’s gone bad.

“Mista! You hear me talkin’ at you?” The midwife turns mean now. “I ain’t havin’ they blood on my hands. You git yo’ woman to the hospital. You do it now.”

Behind the glass, Briny’s face pulls tight. His eyes squeeze shut. He hammers a fist to his forehead, lets it fall against the wall. “The storm…”

“I don’ care if the devil hisself is dancin’ by, Mista Foss. Ain’t nothin’ I can do fo’ this gal. Nothin’. I ain’t gon’ have it on my hands, no, suh.”

“She’s never…had trouble…not with the others. She…”

Queenie screams high and loud, the sound whirling off into the night like a wildcat’s call.

“?’Less’n you fo’got to tell me somethin’, she ain’t never had two babies at once befo’ neither.”

I shift to my feet, and take Fern around, and put her on the shanty porch with Gabion, who’s two, and Lark, who’s six. Camellia looks my way from where she’s staring in the front window. Closing the gate across the gangplank, I trap them all on the porch and tell Camellia not to let the little kids climb over. Camellia answers with a frown. At ten years old, she’s got Briny’s muley streak along with his dark hair and eyes. She doesn’t like being told what to do. She’s stubborn as a cypress stump and twice as thick sometimes. If the little ones go to fussing, we’ll be in a bigger fix than we already are.

“It’s gonna be all right,” I promise, and pat their soft, golden heads like they’re puppies. “Queenie’s just havin’ a hard time is all. She don’t need nobody botherin’ her. Y’all stay put now. Old rougarou, he’s rootin’ round tonight, I heard him breathin’ minute ago. Ain’t safe to be out.” Now that I’m twelve, I don’t believe in the rougarou and the buggerman and Mad Captain Jack of the river pirates. Not much anyhow. I doubt if Camellia ever did swallow Briny’s wild tales.

She reaches for the door latch.

“Don’t,” I hiss. “I’ll go.”

We were told to keep out, which Briny never says unless he means it. But right now, Briny sounds like he’s got no idea what to do, and I’m worried about Queenie and my new baby brother or sister. We’ve been, all of us, waiting to see which one it’d be. It wasn’t supposed to come yet, though. This is early—even earlier than Gabion, who was such a little thing, he came sliding into the world before Briny could get the boat to shore and find a woman to help with the birthing.

This new baby don’t seem much inclined to make things so easy. Maybe it’ll look like Camellia when it comes out and be just as stubborn.

Babies, I remind myself. It sinks in that there’s more than one, like puppies, and this ain’t normal. Three lives lay half-hidden by the bed curtain Queenie sewed from pretty Golden Heart flour sacks. Three bodies try to pull themselves apart from each other, but they can’t.

I open the door, and the midwife is on top of me before I can decide whether to go in or not. Her hand locks onto my arm. It feels like her fingers go around twice. I look down and see the circle of dark skin against pale. She could snap me in two if she’d a mind to. Why can’t she save my baby brother or sister? Why can’t she pull it from my mama’s body and into this world?

Queenie’s hand grips the curtain, and she screams and tugs, arching up off the bed. A half-dozen wire hooks rip loose. I see my mama’s face, her long, corn-silk blond hair matted to her skin, her blue eyes, those beautiful, soft blue eyes that have marked all of us but Camellia, bugging out. The skin on her cheek stretches so tight, it’s crossed with lacy veins like a dragonfly’s wings.

“Daddy?” My whisper comes on the end of Queenie’s scream, but still it seems to upset the air in the room. I don’t ever call Briny Daddy or Queenie Mama unless something’s real wrong. They were so young when they had me, I don’t think they even thought to teach me the words Mama and Daddy. It’s always been like we were friends the same age. But every once in a while, I need them to be a daddy or a mama. The last time was weeks ago when we saw the man hung in the tree, dead, his body bloated up.

Will Queenie look like that if she dies? Will she go first and then the babies? Or will it be the other way around?

My stomach squeezes so tight I don’t even feel that big hand around my arm anymore. Maybe I’m even glad it’s there, holding me on my feet, keeping me anchored to the spot. I’m afraid to go any closer to Queenie.

“You tell him!” The midwife shakes me like a ragdoll, and it hurts. Her teeth glare white in the lantern light.

Thunder rumbles not far off, and a gust of wind hits the starboard wall, and the midwife stumbles forward, taking me with her. Queenie’s eyes meet mine. She looks at me the way a little child would, like she thinks I can help her and she’s begging me to do it.

I swallow hard and try to find my voice. “D-Daddy?” I stutter out again and he still stares straight ahead. He’s froze up like a rabbit when it senses danger nearby.

Through the window, I see Camellia with her face mashed to the glass. The little kids have climbed up on the bench to look in. Lark’s got big tears rolling down her fat cheeks. She hates to see any living creature hurting. She throws all the baitfish back in the river if she can get away with it. Whenever Briny shoots possums, or ducks, or squirrels, or deer, she carries on like her best pal’s been killed dead right there in front of her.

She’s looking at me to save Queenie. They all are.

There’s a spit of lightning someplace off in the distance. It pushes back the yellow coal-oil glow, then goes dark. I try to count the seconds before I hear the thunder, so I’ll know how far off the storm is, but I’m too rattled.

If Briny doesn’t get Queenie to the doctor soon, it’ll be too late. Like always, we’re camped on the wild shore. Memphis is all the way on the other side of the wide, dark Mississippi River.

I cough a lump out of my throat and stiffen up my neck so the lump won’t come back. “Briny, you gotta take her across-water.”

Slowly, he swivels my way. His face is still glassy, but he looks like he’s been waiting for this—for somebody besides the midwife to tell him what to do.

“Briny, you gotta carry her off in the skiff now, before that storm comes in.” It’d take too long to move the shantyboat, I know. Briny would realize that too if he could think straight.

“You tell him!” the midwife eggs me on. She starts toward Briny, shoving me ahead of her. “You don’ get that woman offa this boat, this child’s mama be dead befo’ mornin’.”

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