“Charles, get down from there!”
One day led into another and somehow they all looked the same. This one wasn’t any different, beginning with dirty diapers, noses running green, and the nagging, noisome quarrels nobody won. RaeMae faced endless rounds of cooking, infinite baskets of laundry, and never-completed cleaning sprees. And kids . . .
“Charles! Do you hear me?”
A grinning three-year-old danced on the kitchen counter. Below him utensils and food wrap spilled like guts from a trio of open drawers he used as steps. RaeMae scooped him to one hip, balanced the drooling baby already on the other, a wooden spoon clenched in her teeth. She squeezed them, set both on their feet, and stabbed the spoon at a family-sized pan of grits steaming on the stove.
A pouty preteen bounced barefoot into the kitchen. “Mom, I can’t find my black jeans, they aren’t in the laundry basket like you said. . .”
“Jenee, can’t you look . . . ”
Another voice wailed from the top of the stairs. “Jesse snatched my math paper, MAMA, make her stop!”
RaeMae yelled toward the stairway. “Jesse, Janelle, y’all know better!” She started another sentence, drowned out by a big, wet sneeze exploding from baby Chooey. A glob of colorful mucus jiggled and drooped from his button nose into the drawer he rummaged in. RaeMae snapped a paper towel from a roll near the sink, her back to the stove and cruising Charles, already adjusting the burner controls with a small, skilled hand.
“Girl, them jeans are in the very bottom of the basket. Have some sense to look.”
Jenee scowled, tossed her nose up and flounced out of the kitchen.
“Honey!” Boyd’s strong voice issued from the back porch.
Her husband’s deep tropical voice usually reminded her of bright flowers and exotic beaches, but now it pushed against her eardrums, filling her ears with too much sound. RaeMae thought to ignore him, but his urgent tone held her attention. “You smell something burning?”
She groaned inwardly and turned back to the stove. A haze of burning bacon fat rose over the skillet like a nuclear cloud. Her arms moved in automatic grace, one turning burners off, and the other firmly pulling her screeching toddler back by the scruff of his neck.
“Welcome to my world,” she muttered.
The morning roared to a crescendo and then fell nearly silent as the naptime reprieve arrived. RaeMae hadn’t prayed for solutions so much as for the tolerance and endurance she seemed in short supply of. A fugitive from life, she felt tired past the bone, weeping at the thought of ever leaving the house. To participate in the PTA, the hospital auxiliary, or the historical society’s docent program would be heaven on earth. A very good time, she often joked, might be found by sitting alone in a dark hole for 12 hours.
RaeMae put the little ones down for a nap, barely noticing the tune she hummed under her breath. She hustled downstairs, eager for a solitary moment. Knee-deep in a mountain of stale laundry, she sprayed stains and sorted colors in fast-forward motion until interrupted by the phone’s insistent ring.
If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. RaeMae sighed and dropped the shirt she examined, ready to yank the phone out by its roots. Friends and relatives called in droves lately, offering a hand or their form of moral support. Probably another “how you be, I got an idea” calls. It was getting on her last nerve. She snatched up the receiver, willing herself to not destroy it.
“Price’s.” RaeMae forced her voice upward in a light tone, then rolled her eyes upward at the sound of her best friend’s voice. “A job?” She whined. “Jamilla, that’s out of the question. How in Sam Hill I gonna get eight kids goin’ in the right direction and myself out the house, too. . . you crazy, girlfriend? Thanks for the i-dea, but no way that’s gonna fly. . . I been thinkin’ about taking a course over at the college, though. What? Yeah, I been takin’ those vitamins. . . Oh sure, Boyd wants me happy, he’s his old sweet self, probably wouldn’t holler none if I popped two or three more babies. . . What do you mean how is the . . . ” RaeMae snapped, peevish at the mention of a condition she refused to address. She began humming under her breath to distract herself from her sudden anger.
“Speaking of babies,” RaeMae huffed, “excuse me. Lord have mercy. . . Charles, what you got there in your hand? I’ll be. . . Baby, hand that to Mama . . . thank you . . . child, go back up to your room, go on now.”
RaeMae sighed and put Charles’ treasure into her dress pocket as the three-year-old charged up the stairs. She continued humming in her head.
“Sorry, Charles just climbed up the TV stand wit’ Boyd’s straightedge razor. Thank God the blade was folded up. Thought he be nappin’. Jamil, I am so tired. I been wearin’ a child strung around my waist for too damn many years. I keep reachin’ into myself and pullin’ out and there ain’t much left . . . ”
RaeMae’s voice trailed into a groan. “Oh, hell, I promised to make a cake for that bake sale tomorrow. Why’d I do that? Better get going. Yeah, I’ll take care. Give them twins a big hug for me now, honey. Bye, Jamilla.”
RaeMae stared through the front window, pretending to lay the phone receiver in its cradle like a reverent temple priestess with an offering, wanting to yank it from the wall again. She muttered to herself, her song still throbbing underneath her thoughts. “Shoo. A job. I ain’t been out of the house for almost twenty years. Forty years old and don’t know what to do wit’ myself.”
RaeMae tried relaxing into her baking, usually her favorite chore. Maybe she’d make biscuits for supper while she fixed the cake.
The screen door slammed and Boyd strode up behind her. “Damn, Baby, you ’bout jumped three feet off the floor!”
RaeMae pulled away his large teak-colored hands that covered her eyes like giant split-leaf philodendron leaves. He smelled of saltwater, fish, and the patchouli oil their dreadlock son rubbed into his hair. She’d loved Boyd nearly all her life, but felt frustrated by what he never seemed to see. Emotional things she’d tried explaining, like her growing desperation.
“I got to finish this laundry and start a cake for that school sale tomorrow. What you want for dinner?” She didn’t disguise her exasperation, moving away with a hard sigh, her heart collapsed in a heap.
“Mmm, I got some grouper out in the pickup. . . . Hey, how ’bout havin’ us a little cocktail before everyone come home?”
Boyd was a lover, used to having his way with her. She knew in his mind they were as snug as jigsaw puzzle pieces.
“Not until you shower.” Her face hinted maybe not then.
Boyd’s smile remained, but his brow furrowed, eyes quizzing hers.
“Go on,” she snapped. “What you starin’ at?”
“Baby, I just. . .”
“Why don’t you take some of you kids somewhere. . . just get outta here!” RaeMae trembled, surprised by the edge in her own voice.
Boyd backed away, dropping his lunchbox with a blunt bang to the worn linoleum, then lunged forward to catch RaeMae as her forehead met the floor like a Muslim in prayer. A duo of nappers began wailing a chorus upstairs, harmonizing with RaeMae’s groans and Boyd’s bass clucking.
Nurses and aides bustled past the blue curtain hanging between the gurney and an emergency room corridor. RaeMae perched on a stiff white sheet and rocked herself subtly from side to side, still humming under her breath. A young man in surgical scrubs, a stethoscope draped from his neck, stepped forward and squeezed RaeMae’s shoulder. A smile of easy sincerity creased his coffee and cream face. He offered a hand to Boyd.
“Mrs. Price, there’s nothing wrong with you that some rest and good food won’t take care of. You gonna be fine.”
“And why I pass out like that? It weren’t normal for me — my stomach upset, don’t stop, somethin’s wrong.” RaeMae stiffened, and Boyd searched Dr. Hall’s face.
The doctor pulled a tearsheet from his clipboard. His smile widened.
“We’re keeping you here tonight, just to make sure. I suggest you make an appointment with your own doctor for a pregnancy test.”
RaeMae wailed. “Pregnancy test, what kinda talk is that! Oh, no, no way!” She dropped her head and hummed to herself.
Boyd picked up her hand but the words he tried to summon got caught in his throat. He tried a little love smile, mentioned they’d used two forms of birth control. “Maybe it’s just a little flu . . .”
Rae Mae swung a knockout punch in his direction, pulling the IV needle from her arm. She sent the stand crashing past her husband and over a stool into a supply cabinet, and jumped off the gurney with a war-whoop, bare-assed, fists flailing. The young doctor blushed, stammered and high-stepped it backward out of the curtained cubicle.
“Baby. . . Baby. . .” Boyd pushed RaeMae by the forehead and held her at the length of one of his long arms. “We can get through this, I know we can. We be strong enough to just move on through it.”
Boyd swung the old green pick-up into the driveway. RaeMae watched the family trickle out the front door and bunch up on the front porch in a stairstep row, her eight with Boyd’s mother and a handful of cousins mixed in. They’d painted Welcome Home on an old sheet and tacked it up over the door, tied helium balloons in bright bouquets on the peeling porch railing.
RaeMae barely edged out the truck door and off the running board when arms encircled her. She’d only been gone for a night, but even the eldest, Michael, had a shy hug and kiss for her.
“Mom, Jess and I have a picture for you.” Her littlest girl, Lucinda, tugged at RaeMae’s skirt, offering a baby-tooth smile.
A bigger girl quipped, “Mom, it’s good you came home, Mama Price made us drink asafetida last night, uh-huh, and . . .”
“Just be still, chirren, let your mama set herself down. Boyd Jr., run get a lemonade!” Mama Price shooed the little ones off the porch steps.
RaeMae settled into the porch swing out of many years’ habit. Most every day she soothed a child there, rocked a restless one at naptime or bedtime, soothed kids with skinned knees or bad colds, or ones that needed to feel like the center of the universe.
Tears filled RaeMae’s eyes. The song stuck in her head the last few days lingered there and she voiced it softly in the back of her throat. She picked up baby Chooey, who did his year-old toddle at her knees, and held him close. He smelled of milk and sweet baby curls. “I missed you, too. Missed y’all so much . . .”
RaeMae caught her breath and tried to hold back the tidal wave of tears threatening to drown her. Something broke loose down in her gut, her womb, and came up hard and fast. Every feeling she’d ever owned pressed up, busting to the surface. She became a balloon filled to the breaking point. One more breath and there was no stopping the pretty orb from exploding in a broken pop. She gulped again, swallowed the sound of her little song.
Mama Price and Boyd took control, directing the older kids to gather up bags and baskets from the kitchen, and guiding the smaller ones into the pick-up cab. RaeMae listened to the chatter about baseball and swings and roast chicken weave in and out of her song.
“You go relax, child, take a bubble bath, have some fun,” Mama Price assured her. “We takin’ these babies off your hands for a day, least until we be driven crazy!” She dropped down beside RaeMae and drew her to her ample bosom. Boyd leaned across the railing from the sidewalk and held RaeMae’s knee.
“Honey, don’t do nothin’ — we got everything in hand. Me and Moms’ll keep the kids busy in the park ’til sundown. You just do whatever your heart be burnin’ to do.”
RaeMae touched his hand and smiled through tears. As he turned toward their children, her fingers found the straightedge razor still in the folds of her dress pocket. Her thumb and forefinger caressed the cool mother of pearl like a worry stone. She began to hum louder, the comforting sound filling her chest with warmth. As she watched the pickup pull down the oak-lined lane, Spanish moss blew little ghost shadows on everything. Finally, the truck and her family became a blur, except for the sunflower on the faded blue of her oldest daughter’s denim hat.
Water spilled in a slow stream from the faucet of the clawfoot tub, spiraling into frothy little eddies. RaeMae poured a capful of golden gel under the stream, and the froth burst into a sudden mound of bubbles. “Like life,” she said to herself. “Then down the drain it goes.”
She shifted her attention to the antique mirror standing in a corner and inhaled deeply, bracing herself against her own image. Marred by blisters and small cracks, the oval glass shone at its center like a window of mercury. She drew closer and gazed into her face, more at peace than she imagined. But her deep-set eyes had sunk farther into her head. She ran her hands down the front of her dress, over still prominent breasts, down her slightly flabby belly until they pressed her thighs, then let them drop limply to her sides.
Her nostrils expanded with a sharp exhalation. She fished the razor from her pocket again, held the mother of pearl to her cheek. Her legs needed shaving. It might be interesting to see if she could use the old straightedge. When newly married, she and Boyd bathed together after making love. She’d watched him, fascinated, as he delicately scraped away the black stubble on his cheeks and chin until his skin was as smooth as hers.
RaeMae unbuttoned her loose cotton dress and let it fall to the floor. As she stretched and slid out of her underwear, she hummed her song louder, the introductory bars of an old spiritual. It was her grandpa’s favorite, one he sang frequently and with abandon. She hummed it again, just the introduction, squatting now in the water. And again. And again, until the tune became an incomprehensible seesaw of two notes. High low, high low. The sun shone directly through the gauzy curtains, filling the room with afternoon glow, and the tub with liquid light.
As the light increased, so did the water. High low, she hummed, high low, she rocked. Water, light, and frothy bubbles spilled over the curved edge of the tub. The humming never faltered, beating on in a comforting cadence. Water, light, and frothy bubbles seeped across the floor, stopped for a few moments by the throw rug. High low, high low. Water, light, and frothy bubbles trickled under the door, into the crevices of the hardwood floor. High low, high low, high low. The trickle became a pool, then a lake whose boundaries soon widened. High low.
RaeMae saw herself at the river, young girl full of fire and hope. She ran along the bank, great green-brown sleepy water, wide and slow. Sunlight broke in little crystal ripples. She loved them, those little water sundogs. Giggling her little girl giggle, she skipped and twirled her approval, not noticing the ‘gator submerged near a snag, passing it in her innocence. High low, high low.
The shining blade moved almost of its own volition across her thigh. Water, light and frothy bubbles fanned out to the edges of the top step of the stairwell, dripping until momentum gathered it into a trickle, then a flow to the next step. Another deft move intersected the first cut, a new red line drawn from knee to hip, oozing cross of living sacrifice. Her life fanned out into the bath, a bright butterfly. Water, light, and red bubbles lay on the straightedge razor in the shining soap dish. High low, high low, hmm-mmm.
Little girl in a baggy white gown, full immersion baptism in the cool brown lagoon. Sunday morning sky sweet now, not yet sweaty, sun looking down. Swing low, sweet chariot. . . In the name of the Father, be purged of all sin . . . Gentle brown hands all around, white teeth edged in easy smiles. . . Blessed are they, be purged, be purged. . . Water, light and frothy bubbles tumbled, glowed, carrying her away to a quiet purging place, wet and salty with its secrets. Swing low. . . “Until all sweetness is purged from life,” she thought she heard the pastor say, his black-gowned form sweeping her back up from the river, blocking the sun from her face. Until all sweetness is purged . . .
It felt like hours later when she came to and pulled herself from the tepid water. She stumbled from the tub, rummaged through bathroom cabinets, spilling their contents to the floor. Finally she found gauze, iodine, scissors, and tape, covered her cuts gingerly, and eased herself to the four-poster bed. Her marriage bed, passed from daughter to daughter, the place her babies were conceived and born and nourished.
I might take strength here, she thought. Or fade away. . .
RaeMae leaned over from the bed, dreamily brushing aside the drapes with the back of her hand. Her song was gone, her brain tired of the repetition. She followed the sun sinking below big oaks like a golden coin splashing into a pink sea. A faint breeze rose from the Gulf, bringing some oxygen into the room.
The fresh air and the wound’s itchiness brought her back. RaeMae’s anger and helplessness stared at her from the crosses of gauze and tape. She wondered for a moment how many stitches were under the bandages and remembered there were none. She pretended a heavenly host in baggy pastel uniforms and stethoscopes around their necks asked her if she remembered what happened.
Asking herself if she remembered carving the long, narrow crosses on each thigh with Boyd’s straightedge razor was like a chicken asking itself why it crossed the road. Especially after it darted in front of an 18-wheeler.
The cuts burned like holy hell. “Damn,” RaeMae said, studying her thighs. It wasn’t like she didn’t remember what happened. She’d watched herself from a trance, acting out, caught in a passive resignation carrying her across a river of time. Until now. Now she vowed she’d call the clinic tomorrow, see what needed changing. Talk to a counselor. Register for the journaling class at the community college. Maybe even join that women’s therapy group over at the church.
“Find out why I cut myself,” RaeMae whispered. “I cut myself,” she repeated, louder, her voice large in the unusual silence. “I guess I do need some of them happy pills.”
The pickup crunched into the gravel driveway, and RaeMae listened with heart wide open to her family’s harmonies and disharmonies cascading from the vehicle, the happy footfalls on the porch. Boyd’s laughter touched her through the open window, signaling a return to dailiness. Normality made her break down. She cried the second time that day, a deluge of tears.
The first of her womb’s fruit burst up the stairway and through the bedroom door — Michael, the usually defiant teenager. “Lord have mercy, Mama, what is that mess on the stairs? Are you okay? ” He pulled at one of his dreadlocks and shifted from leg to leg, considering whether to back away or come closer.
RaeMae turned into jelly, bubbling through saltwater and mucus, a birth reversed, dissolving into the realization of who she was to her family. Another life would join their circle. Another precious child. She could let that be. Would have to let that be.
Her husband scooped her into his arms and her family gathered around the bed. “You love me,” she sobbed. “You all love me.”