Mama says no matter how poor folks are, whether you’re a have, a have-not, or break your mama’s back on the cracks in between, the world gives away the best stuff on the cheap. Like, the way the white-hot mornin’ light dances in diamonds across the surface of our creek. Or the creek itself, babblin’ music all day long like Nessa when she was a baby. Happiness is free, Mama says, as sure as the blinkin’ stars, the withered arms the trees throw down for our fires, the waterproofin’ on our skin, and the tongues of wind curlin’ the walnut leaves before slidin’ down our ears.
It might just be the meth pipe talkin’. But I like how free sounds all poetic-like.
Beans ain’t free, but they’re on the cheap, and here in the Obed Wild and Scenic River National Park, dubbed “the Hundred Acre Wood,” I must know close to one hundred ways to fix beans. From the dried, soaked-in-water variety to beans in the can—baked beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans …
It don’t sound important. It’s just beans, after all, the cause of square farts, as my sister used to say with a giggle on the end. But when you’re livin’ in the woods like Jenessa and me, with no runnin’ water or electricity, with Mama gone to town for long stretches of time, leavin’ you in charge of feedin’ a younger sister—nine years younger—with a stomach rumblin’ like a California earthquake, inventin’ new and interestin’ ways to fix beans becomes very important indeed.
That’s what I’m thinkin’ as I fill the scratchy cookin’ pot full of water from the chipped porcelain jug and turn on the dancin’ blue flame of the Bunsen burner: how I can make the beans taste new tonight, along with wishin’ we had butter for the last of the bread, which we don’t, because butter don’t keep well without refrigeration.
Sometimes, after a stint away, Mama will appear out of nowhere, clutchin’ a greasy brown sack from the diner in town. Then, everythin’ we eat is buttered thick as flies on a deer carcass, because it would break mine and Jenessa’s hearts to waste those little squares of gold.
Mama says stealin’ butter is free, as long as you don’t get caught.
(She also says g’s are free, and I should remember to tack them onto the ends of my ing words, and stop using ain’t, and talk proper like a lady and all. Just because she forgets don’t mean I should. Just because she’s backwoods don’t mean me and Jenessa have to be.)
At least we have the bread. I’m glad Ness isn’t here to see me scrape the fuzzy green circles off the bottom. If you scrape it carefully, you can’t even taste the must, which, when I sniff it, smells like our forest floor after a wetter month.
I freeze, the rusty can opener one bite into the tin. Nessa? The crunch of leaves and twigs beneath careless feet and the unmistakable sound of branches singin’ off the shiny material of a winter coat is too much noise for Jenessa to make, with her cloth coat and footsteps quiet as an Injun’s. Mama? I scan the tree line for the lemon yellow zing of her spiffy store-bought ski jacket. But the only yellow in sight drips from the sun, fuzzyin’ up the spaces between hundreds of shimmerin’ leaves.
I reckon I know how a deer feels in crosshairs as my heart buh-bumps against my ribs and my eyes open at least as wide as the dinner plates stacked on the flat rock behind me. Movin’ just my eyes, I see the shotgun only a superloooong arm stretch away, and breathe a sigh of relief.
We’re not expectin’ anyone. I think of how I look: the threadbare clothin’ hangin’ loose as elephant wrinkles, my stringy hair limp as overcooked spaghetti soaked in corn oil overnight. In my defense, I’ve been stuck on the violin for days, workin’ out a piece I’ve yet to perfect; “suspended in the zone,” as Mama calls it, where I forget all about the outside parts. Although, here in the backwoods of Tennessee, it don’t matter much. We’ve had maybe one or two lost hikers stumble upon our camp in all the years since Mama stowed us away in this broken-down camper in the sticks.
I listen harder. Nothin’. Maybe it’s just tourists after all. I run my fingers through my hair, then rub the greasy feelin’ off on the legs of my jeans.
The few times I seen myself in the fancy store mirrors, I didn’t recognize myself. Who’s that scruffy, skinny girl with the grasshopper knees? The only mirror we own is a small shard of glass I found in the leaves. In it, I can see one Cyclops eye at a time, or half the button of my nose. The v sittin’ pretty in the middle of my top lip, or the peach fuzz on the tip of my earlobe.
“Seven years bad luck,” Mama said after she’d seen the shard. And I ain’t even the one who busted it. Luck ain’t free. Seven years might as well be ten or twenty or forever, with luck bein’ rare as butter, for Mama, my sister, and me.
Where’s Nessa? I sink into a squat, my eyes sweepin’ the ground for a broken branch to use as a club, just in case I can’t get to the shotgun in time. After last night’s storm, there are a few choice limbs to choose from. The crunchin’ starts again, and I track the sound in the direction of the camper, prayin’ Nessa don’t come back early from her fairy hunt. Better for strangers to move on without seein’ either one of us.
My breath breaks free in marshmeller puffs, and my heart beats heart-attack fast. It’s a man, obviously, one whose voice I don’t recognize, but how does he know our names? Is he a friend of Mama’s?
Joelle is Mama, only she’s not here to answer back. In fact, we haven’t seen her in over a month, maybe two at this point. It’s been a worry, the last few days. While we have enough beans to last a week or so, this is the first time Mama has been gone so long without word. Even Jenessa has started to worry, her face an open book, even if her mouth refuses to voice the words.
More than once, I’ve caught her lips countin’ canned goods and propane tanks, and she don’t need to say what she’s thinkin’, because I lug around the same worry: that we’ll run out of necessities before Mama comes back—if she comes back—which is a dark-enough thought to tumble me into my own pit of silence.
My sister don’t talk much. When she does, it’s only to me, in moth-winged whispers, and only when we’re alone. By the time Ness turned six, Mama had grown worried enough to disguise her youngest daughter as “Robin” for the day and whisk her off to the speech therapist in town, a smart-lookin’ woman who diagnosed Jenessa with a condition called “selective mutism.” Nothin’ Mama said, threatened, or did could break Ness’s resolve.
I clap my hands over my ears and use my thinkin’ to drown out the calls.
It’s strange, hearin’ a man’s voice, when it’s mostly been us females. I used to wish I had a father, like the girls in my books, but wishin’ don’t make things so. I don’t remember anythin’ about my own father, except for one thing, and Mama laughed when I brought it up. As embarrassed as I was, I guess it is funny, how my one memory of my father is underarms. She said the scent of pine and oak moss I remember came from a brand of deodorant called Brut. And then she’d gotten annoyed because I didn’t know what deodorant was, said I asked far too many questions, and her jug of moonshine was empty.
“It’s okay, girls! Come on out!”
Why won’t he just go away? What the heck is Mama thinkin’? I don’t care how much money he promised her—I’m not gonna do those things no more. And I’ll kill ’im, I swear, if he lays one finger on Jenessa.
All I have to do is stay hidin’, and wait for him to leave. That’s the plan, the only plan, until I catch a skip of pink dancin’ through the brown and greenery, and the butter yellow head of a little girl lost in a fairy world.
Look up! Hide!
But it’s too late—he sees her, too.
Nessa stumbles, her mouth open, and a gasp escapes. Her head whips left, then right. The man probably thinks she’s searchin’ for an escape route, but I know my little sister better than anyone, even God. Jenessa is tryin’ to find me.
Makin’ my own careless leaf sounds, I rise, my eyes on Nessa, who sees me immediately and flies across the forest into my arms. Our heads crank in the direction of new movement, this time in the form of a woman thin as chicken bones, her gait uneven as her heels sink into the soft forest floor.
Jenessa clings like a leech, her legs wrapped round my waist. The scent of her hair, sunbaked and sweaty, is so personal, it aches in my belly. Like a dog, I can smell her fear, or maybe it’s mine. I shake it off fast as my face smoothes into stone and I collect myself, because I’m in charge.
Neither the man nor the woman moves. Don’t they know it’s impolite to stare? Bein’ city folk and all? She looks over at him, her face unsure, and he nods at her before goin’ back to starin’ at us, his gaze unwaverin’.
“Carey and Jenessa, right?” she says.
I nod, then curse myself as my attempt at a “Yes, ma’am” comes out in a squeak. I stop, clear my throat, and try again.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m Carey, and this is my sister, Jenessa. If you’re lookin’ for Mama, she went into town for supplies. Can I help you with somethin’?”
Nessa squirms in my iron grip, and I command my arms to relax. At least I’m not shakin’, which would be a dead giveaway for Nessa, but truth be told, I’m shakin’ inside.
Maybe the church folk sent them. Maybe they met Mama in town, beggin’ money for her next fix. Maybe they talked some Jesus into her, and came out to drop off some food.
“Are you Jehovah’s Witnesses or somethin’?” I continue. “Because we’re not interested in savin’ by some guy in the sky.”
The man’s face breaks into a smile, which he covers with a cough. The woman frowns, swats at a mosquito. She looks mighty uncomfortable standin’ in our woods, glancin’ from me to Ness and then back again, shakin’ her head. I smooth down my hair, releasin’ my own musky scent of dust and sunbaked head. The woman’s nutmeg brown hair, unsprung from her bun, makes me think of Nessa’s after a hard play, with tendrils like garter snakes crawlin’ down her neck and stickin’ there. It’s pretty hot for fall.
Even from here, I can tell the woman washed her hair this mornin’. It probably smells like fancy flowers, unlike the heels of soap we use to wash ours.
“There’s a table over there, if you want to sit awhile,” I say uninvitin’ly, hopin’ she don’t. But she nods and I take the lead, cartin’ Nessa to the clearin’ by the camper, past the fire pit poppin’ and smokin’ as the kindlin’ catches on, past the canned goods locked in a rusty metal cabinet nailed to the trunk of a tree, and over to a battered metal foldin’ table surrounded by mismatched chairs: two metal, one wicker, and two large stumps with cushions that used to cling like puffy skin to our old rockin’ chair.
The man and woman sit, him in a metal chair, while she chooses the large stump with the cleanest cushion. I plunk Nessa in the wicker and keep the table between us and them. I stay standin’, with plenty of room for a fast getaway if need be. But they both seem normal enough, not like kidnappers or drug dealers or crazy church folk. She looks important, in her store-bought tan suit. This fact makes me nervous more than anythin’ else.
They watch quietly as I put my violin away in its case and then fill three tin cups with a stream of water from the jug. I want to tell them I boiled the water first, and that the creek is clean, but I don’t. Dolin’ out the cups, I cringe when I catch sight of my nails, ragged and uneven, a ribbon of dirt stretched beneath each.
Twice I step on Nessa’s foot, and tears spring to her eyes. I pat her head—it’ll have to do—then stand back, fold my arms, and wait.
“Wouldn’t you like to sit?” the woman asks, her voice soft.
I glance at Nessa, squirmin’ in her seat, shyly slurpin’ her water, and shake my head no. The woman smiles at me before fumblin’ through her briefcase. She slides out a manila folder thick with pages. The white label on the front, I can even read upside down. It says: “Blackburn, Carey and Jenessa.”
“My name is Mrs. Haskell,” she says.
She pauses, and I follow her gaze back to my sister, who pours a few drops of water into an old bottle cap. We all watch as Nessa leans down and sets it in front of a fat beetle laborin’ through the sea of wanwood leafmeal.
I nod, not knowin’ what to say. It’s hard to keep my eyes on her when the man keeps starin’ at me. I watch a tear slip down his clean-shaven cheek, surprised when he don’t wipe it away. Puzzle pieces click-clack into old places and my stomach twists at the picture they’re startin’ to make.
He hasn’t offered his name, and he isn’t familiar to me. But in that instant, hittin’ like a lightnin’ bolt, I know who he is.
“It’s called Brut. I can’t smell it anymore without gettin’ sick, thinkin’ what he did to us.”
The memory bridges ten years of space, and, just like that, I’m five again, and on the run, clutchin’ my dolly to my chest like a life preserver. Mama, crazy-eyed and talkin’ nonsense, backhandin’ the questions from my lips until the salty-metal taste of tears and blood make me forget the questions in the first place.
“Do you know why we’re here?”
Mrs. Haskell searches my face as my stomach contents begin their climb: beans, of course. Baked beans cold from the can, the sweet kind Nessa likes so much. I feel like a fortune-teller, knowin’ her words are about to change the earth below and the sky above and rearrange everythin’ we hold normal and dear.
I stare at her, expectin’ the inevitable.
“We’re here to take you home, Carey.”
I wait for the ground to right itself, and once it does, I fling myself into the bushes and let the beans fly. Afterward, the anger licks my innards like a wildfire. I turn around, hands on my hips, and stare this woman down. She cringes when I wipe my mouth on the sleeve of my T-shirt.
“That’s impossible, ma’am. We are home. We live here with our mama.”
“Where is your mom, honey?”
I glare at her; no way I’m fallin’ for the “honey” bit.
“Like I said, Mama went into town for supplies. We were runnin’—running—out of some stuff and—”
“How long has she been gone?”
I have to lie. Jenessa is almost hyperventilatin’, on the verge of one of her nervous fits. She skitters over and stands next to me, reachin’ for my hand and holdin’ it so tight, my pulse punches through my fingernails.
“Mama left this mornin’. We’re fixin’ on seein’ her before nightfall.”
I give Ness’s hand a hard squeeze.
“Your mother said she left over two months ago. We received her letter yesterday.”
The blood rushes from my head and my ears ring. I grasp onto a nearby branch for steadyin’. I must have heard her wrong. But she nods her head yes, her eyes full of sorrys I don’t want to hear.
Jenessa’s tears tickle my arm like chiggers, and I want to scratch, but I can’t let go of her hand. She sags against me, and again, I burn. Look what they’re doin’ to my sister. Mama was right: Outsiders can’t be trusted. All they do is ruin lives.
Mrs. Haskell smiles an apologetic smile, a practiced smile, like we’re not her first victims, nor her last. I wonder how many kids have stood before her like this, swayin’ in their newly tiltin’ worlds. Hundreds, I’d bet, goin’ by her eyes.
However, I see a sadness there, too; a softness for us, a familiar bent of the head that comes from the things we’re used to seein’, like the sun-dazzled canopies of the Hundred Acre Wood, or learnin’ to go without butter, or havin’ Mama disappear for weeks on end.
She waits until I’m steady again. I hold on to her eyes, like a rock in the roilin’ river.
“Your mother wrote us last month, Carey. She said she could no longer take care of you and your sister—”
“That’s a lie! She’d never leave us!”
“She asked us to intervene,” she continues, ignorin’ my outburst. “We would’ve been here sooner, but we couldn’t find you girls. She really had you hidden away pretty good.”
But it’s a strangled cry, a hollow cry, floatin’ away on the air like dandelion fluff and wishes that don’t come true. And then, as quick as the emotion escapes, it freezes over. I stand up straight. I am ice, slippery and cool, impenetrable and in control.
“You must have it wrong, ma’am. Mama wouldn’t leave us permanent-like. You must’ve misunderstood.”
The three of us jump back, but not fast enough. Nessa’s stomach contents spatter Mrs. Haskell’s fancy shoes. This, I can tell, is somethin’ she ain’t used to. Mrs. Haskell throws up her hands, and without thinkin’, I fling my arms in front of my face.
“Oh, God, honey, no—”
“Just leave us alone,” I snap. “I wish you’d never found us!”
Without a word, she knows another one of my secrets, and I hate her for it. I hate them both.
Her eyes burn into my back as I lead Jenessa over to a pail. I dip a clean rag into the water and dab at my sister’s mouth, her eyes glazed over and dartin’ from me to them like a cornered rabbit. The man walks away, his shoulders saggin’. He pulls a cigarette pack from his coat pocket, the cellophane crinklin’ like a butterscotch wrapper.
Get a hold of yourself this instant, Carey Violet Blackburn! Fix this!
“You’re scarin’ my little sister,” I say, my voice close to a hiss. “Look, Mama will be home tomorrow. Why don’t you come back and we can discuss it then?”
I sound just like an adult. Pretty convincin’, if you ask me.
“I’m sorry, Carey, but I can’t do that. Under the laws of the state of Tennessee, I can’t leave two minor children unattended in the woods.”
I soak another rag in the water and hand it to Mrs. Haskell, lowerin’ myself onto the rough bark of a downed tree. Then I pull Ness onto my lap, my arm around her waist, not even carin’ about the acrid smell that replaces the sweet, sunbaked one from just an hour ago. Her body is limp, like a rag doll in my arms. She’s already gone.
“Can I see the letter, ma’am?”
Mrs. Haskell picks her way over to the table, riffles through more papers, and returns with a sheet of my own notebook paper containin’ a handful of lines that, even from a distance, I recognize as Mama’s scratchy penmanship. I pluck the page from her fingers, turn from her, and begin readin’.
To Whom It May Concern,
I’m writing in regards to my daughters, Carey and Jenessa Blackburn …
It’s as far as I get before the waterfall blinds me. I wipe my face with the back of my hand, pretendin’ I don’t care that everyone sees.
“Can I keep it, ma’am?”
Without waitin’ for an answer, I fold the paper into smaller and smaller squares before shovin’ it into my jeans pocket.
Mrs. Haskell nods. “That’s just a copy. The original is in your official records. We need it for the hearing, when your case goes before the judge.”
I jut my chin at the man on the bench, who’s watchin’ us, squintin’ through a latticework of cigarette smoke, his form spotlighted by the wanin’ sunlight.
“I know who he is, and we’re not goin’ with him.”
“I have permission from Child Services to release you into his custody.”
“So we have no choice?”
Mrs. Haskell sits down next to me, lowerin’ her voice.
“You have a choice, Carey. If you refuse to go with him, we can place you in foster care. Two foster homes. Our families are pretty full right now, and we can’t find one that can take both of you at present. In light of your sister’s condition—”
“She’s not retarded or nothin’. She just don’t talk.”
“Even so, her, um, issue requires special placement. We found a home for Jenessa, but they’re just not equipped to take two children right now.”
Nessa’s thumb finds her mouth, and her hair, soaked with sweat, falls in a curtain across her eyes. She makes no move to smooth it away. She’s hidin’ in plain sight.
“I can’t leave my sister alone with strangers.”
“I don’t think it’s the best idea, either. We like to place children with relatives whenever possible. Taking into account Jenessa’s bond with you, I think it would be detrimental to her emotional well-being to separate the two of you. It’s already going to be a big adjustment as it is.”
I glare in the direction of the man on the bench, this man I don’t know and barely recognize. I think of runnin’ away, like maybe we should’ve done as soon as we saw them comin’. But we have no money, no place to go. There’s no car to pull the camper, since Mama drove off with it, and we can’t stay here. They know where we are now. They know everythin’.
I think of tellin’ her what Mama told me about him, because there’s no way she’d make us go with him, if she knew. But I look down at Ness, disappearin’ before our eyes.
I can’t leave my sister.
“How much time do we have?”
“Enough time to pack up your things. You’ll need to pack a bag for your sister also.”
She leaves us sittin’ there, with the late-afternoon sun dapplin’ the forest floor as if it’s any other day. I watch her reach into the bin by the foldin’ table, then walk back over. She hands me two of the shiny black garbage bags folded up like Mama’s letter. I slip out from under Jenessa, balance her on the tree, and proceed to shake each bag into its full size. We all stop and watch the birds scatter into jagged flight at the unnatural sound of plastic slappin’ the air.
“Just take the necessities. We’ll send someone back to pack up the rest.”
I nod, glad to turn my gaze toward the camper before my face melts again. How could Mama do this to us? How could she leave us to fend for ourselves—leave us at all—without explainin’ or sayin’ good-bye?
I hate her with the fury of gasoline set on fire. I burn for Jenessa, who deserves better than this, better than some screwed-up, drug-addicted mother, better than this chaos that always seems to find us, rubbin’ off on us like some horrible rash.
Ness is my shadow as the camper door creaks on its hinges, this old piece-of-crap ve-hic-le we’ve called home for almost as long as I can remember—definitely as long as Ness can remember.
I glance around, absorb the mess, the clothes strewn about, the plates dribblin’ crumbs or caked with dried bean glue, and begin to pack Ness’s bag first. She sits on the cot, unmovin’, not even jumpin’ when I grab the nearest book, one of her Winnie-the-Poohs, and slam it down on a cockroach scuttlin’ across the tiny stainless-steel sink; without runnin’ water, it was as useless as a dollhouse sink, until I’d turned it into a place to store plates and cups. Mama never hooked the camper up to water because water sources meant campgrounds, sites out in the open, and judgmental strangers with pryin’ eyes.
Almost everythin’ of Nessa’s is some shade of pink. I pack a pair of scuffed Mary Janes and her pale pink sneakers, her neon pink long-sleeve T-shirt, a dark pink-and-red-striped T-shirt, and another T-shirt with a peelin’-off Cinderella iron-on on the front. I pack her spare undershirt and underpants; “one on and one off,” as Mama says when we complain. Ness’s jeans look small and vulnerable stretched between my hands, and my heart wrenches.
When her bag is full, I use mine to gather up her rag doll, her one-armed teddy bear, and her stuffed dog. Her Pooh books. The brush and elastics. On top, I place my own pair of jeans (one on, one off), a newer T-shirt, two tank tops, my spare underpants, and the only shoes I own besides the ratty sneakers on my feet: a pair of cowboy boots from a garage sale in town, the toes stuffed with tissue paper to force a fit.
Not much fits me clotheswise, after a growth spurt last year. Now I’m glad, because it means more room for Jenessa’s stuff. I don’t need much room anyhow. I don’t have toys from childhood or any stuffed animals. I left my childhood behind when Mama dragged us off in the middle of the night. My belongin’s consist of a sketch pad I place on top of the pile, while I make a mental note not to forget my most prized possession: the violin that Mama taught me to play the year we moved to the Hundred Acre Wood.
Mama played in a symphony before she met my father. I grab the scrapbook crammed with clippin’s from her performances and place it on top of the sketch pad, then draw the yellow plastic strings tight. The bag looks close to burstin’ by the time I’m through. But it’s good, because I bet the bag holds more than any suitcase would, if we had one.
Before I can call for her, Mrs. Haskell appears, and I hand her down the bag, which she struggles beneath. The man gets up to help, lockin’ on my eyes while takin’ the bag from her and slingin’ it over his back. He does the same with the second bag.
“May I have one more bag, ma’am?”
Mrs. Haskell obliges. I fill it with our schoolbooks, with my Emily Dickinson, my Tagore, my Tennyson and Wordsworth, making the bag impossibly heavy. Lookin’ at the man, I’d have giggled in different circumstances. He looks like a reverse sort of Santa Claus. A Santa Claus of garbage.
No one speaks as he plunks the lightest bag down in front of Mrs. Haskell.
I go back inside and gather Ness from the bed. Reachin’ out, I pluck her thumb gently from her mouth. Her lips remain in an O shape, and the thumb pops right back in.
“You’re gonna make your teeth crooked, you know it.”
She stares right through me, droolin’ a little, and I give her a hug before helpin’ her stand up and walk to the door.
“How about a piggyback?”
I squat in front of her, and she slowly climbs on.
“Hold on tight, ’k?”
The sun is meltin’, poolin’ behind the trees, and still Mama don’t come. I scan the Hundred Acre Wood, somehow expectin’ her to show up with a greasy brown bag and save the day, but she don’t.
The man takes the lead, with Mrs. Haskell strugglin’ behind him, trippin’ over roots and sinkin’ into the mud, cursin’ under her breath as Ness and I follow. It’s a long ways to the road, and if we go the way they’re headin’, it’ll be twice as long.
“This way, ma’am,” I say, poppin’ Nessa farther up my back and takin’ the lead, refusin’ to meet the man’s eyes as he steps aside so we can pass.
I focus on the endless treetops scrapin’ the sunset into gooey colors, the birds trillin’ and fussin’ at our departure. I close my eyes for a second, breathin’ in deep to make serious memories, the kind that stick forever. I’d locked up the camper on my way out, but I don’t know who has a key, since Ness and I don’t, and we’d only ever locked up when we were inside.
Mama has a key, and the least she could’ve done, if she wasn’t comin’ back, would’ve been to leave it for us. And then I remember: the old hollow hickory, the one a few hundred feet past the clearin’. I’m eight years old, watchin’ Mama slide a sweaty white string off her neck with a brass key danglin’ from it, glintin’ in the sunlight.
“This is our spare, and if you ever need it, it’ll be right here in the tree. See?”
She places it into the hollow, where it disappears like a magic trick.
I feel safer, somehow, knowin’ the key is there.
If I ever need it, if Ness and I come back, it’ll be there waitin’ for us.
Copyright © 2013 by Emily Murdoch