I was born in 1904, so that when I was pregnant in 1943 I was near enough to be past the rightful age to bear children. This would be my sixth, and on that morning in February, the first morning I'd known I was with child, I'd simply turned to Leston in bed next to me, the room gray from a winter sky outside the one window, that sky not yet lit with the sun, and I'd said, "There'll be no more after this one."
He rolled onto his back, his eyes still shut, the little hair he still had wild and loose on his head. He put his hands behind his head, and gave a sort of smile, one I'd seen enough times before this. Five times before, to be exact.
He said, "Another one," and kept the smile. Then he said, "What makes you think so?"
I said, "Doesn't take divining, not after five," and I paused. I reached a hand up from beneath the quilts, felt the chill of the morning on my skin, that skin the same color gray as the small strip of sky I could see above the box pine and live oak outside the window. I touched Leston's cheek, did the best I could to smooth out his hair. He was still smiling.
I said, "I just know."
Then came the morning sounds, sounds of the everyday of our lives: first the slam shut of the front door as James, our oldest, started on his way to work at Crampton's Lumber; then the scrape of our other two boys, Burton and Wilman, from their room above us, the first sounds of tussling and fooling that started now and ended only after dark, the boys back in bed. Those two, I thought as I lay there, my hand back under the quilts to keep warm as long as I could, we'd had too close together, Burton seven, Wilman almost six. Billie Jean, my second child, would not be up for as long as I would let her sleep, around her on the bunched and rumpled blankets of her bed the movie magazines she lived for, fanned around her like leaves off a tree. And Anne, my baby, would be stirring soon, then following Burton and Wilman around like a lost dog, wanting only to be one of them, blessed by the rough and tumble of pinecone wars and whittling knives.
I heard Wilman say, "That's not yours," then Burton putting in, "But it was," and then the pop and crack of the heart pine floor above us as the two started in on each other.
"Boys," Leston called out, his voice as deep and solid as every morning.
The fighting stopped, the room upstairs as quiet now as when they were asleep.
"Sir?" they called out together.
Leston smiled, though on my boys' voices was the certain sound of fear. He said, "Chunk up the stove. The two of you."
"Yes sir," they gave back to him, and then their whispering started, and I knew whatever they were fighting over wouldn't be settled until sometime late in the day, if at all.
Leston sat up in bed, turned so that his back was to me, his feet on the floor. He looked to the window, then down to the floor. He brought a hand to his face, rubbed it, ran that hand back through his hair. Wisps of it still hung in the cold air, copper going gray, the line of his shoulders still the same hard and broad line I'd seen the first time I met him, the same shoulders I'd held while we'd conceived each of our children this far. But now, his head hung forward, his hands holding tight the edge of the mattress, I thought I could see for the first time the weight of age upon him, those shoulders with the burden of our years and our five children, one of them already set to working his way through the world, and me with a brand-new one now on the way.
Leston had left the quilts pulled back, my face and shoulders and arms out there to the cold. He lifted his face to the gray window again, gave out a heavy breath that shone in a small cloud before him, the room so cold. Leston said, "No more after this will set fine with me."
Then I shivered, felt it through my whole body, a shiver so deep whatever warmth I'd had beneath the quilts disappeared entirely, and I knew my sleep was over, that day and all the days left to me until this next child was born now begun. I let out a deep breath, too, saw the cloud it made in the room, and in that breath I saw what I'd known all along, known all the days until this one when I'd been thinking maybe, just maybe I was going to have another child: it was me, too, that age was weighing down on hard.
I sat up in bed, put my feet on the cold pine floor, my back to Leston. I stood, called out, "Boys," heard Wilman and Burton holler, "Yes ma'am!" The floor above us filled up with the scrabbling of two boys trying to get their clothes on, then the rattle of them both on the stairs.
I was on my way to the door and breakfast when Leston, behind me and still on the bed, said, "Jewel Hilburn, you take care."
I turned to him, my hand already on the doorknob. He'd gotten the smile back, his eyes the same deepwater green I'd known for what felt all my life.
I said, "You know I will," and held my eyes on him.
He said, "That I do," and nodded, and then I was out the door and on into the kitchen.
I'd taken care of myself most all my days, though things had eased up once I met Leston. Before that, though, before Leston and the stop and start of our having children and trying to feed our own selves, there was a world sometimes I would like to sooner forget than think about at all. But it's history that matters, what keeps you together in the tight ball of nerves and flesh you are and makes you you and not someone else.
I was an orphan at age eleven, my mother dead of a fever, my father not two months before she passed on having broke his neck on a log just under the water at the bend in the Black River, the bend nearest town where the post oak lay low to the water, and where, in spring, light through the leaves breaks across the river so that nothing can be seen beneath. He broke his neck right then, right there, with the quick and simple dare of diving into water, and when I was a little girl of eleven with both my mother and father gone, and me living suddenly with a grandmother I'd only met three times before, I used to imagine it wasn't a fever that killed my mother, but a broken heart at the death of her beloved.
But the truth was he'd moved into a logging shack a year before he'd broke his neck, and only showed up to our house at twilight on Saturday nights to have at my mother, then to attend church the next morning, his black hair slicked back and shiny with pomade. It was the thick and sweet smell of his hair that woke me up Sunday mornings, me staying up just as late as the two of them the night before, listening through the walls to the mystery they tended to each Saturday night, sounds I'd hear again only when Leston and I were together, so that on our wedding night twelve years later the low moan he made and the pitch and twirl of sounds I heard coming from me were like the ghosts of my long dead parents, sounds I knew but had forgotten in the cloud of years filled with taking care of me and me alone.
Sunday mornings we would go to church, where we'd sit in the pew, me between my momma and daddy, their only child. I'd had a brother, who only now comes to me as part shadow, pail light, a baby born when I was three and who died when I was four, and there are times before I go to bed when I will stop in at Burton and Wilman's room, sometimes even James', though he has fast become a man and lost the look of a child, and I will see in their faces the faintest trace of my brother, the thin baby line of an eyebrow I believe may have belonged to him, the open mouth and pale lips soft with air in and out which perhaps I am remembering, perhaps imagining. No real memories do I have of him, except for the idea somewhere of my daddy holding Joseph Jr. on one knee and playing buggety-buggety, and the picture in my head of a baby asleep. But that's all I remember of my brother, and even calling that a memory is giving the image in my head more credit than is due.
After church we would file out of the sanctuary into air even hotter than inside, live oaks thick with gray moss like clumps of a dead man's hair fairly lit up with the noise of cicadas, everyone everywhere fanning themselves with bamboo and paper fans printed with the words to "Amazing Grace" on one side, Psalm 23 on the other. Daddy would shake hands with Pastor, pass time with whoever might want to, all the time his one arm round my mother's shoulder, his hair still just as shiny, little runnels of sweat slipping down his sideburns. He acted the part of my daddy, would even on occasion hunch down and kiss me on the cheek, pat my hair, smile at me, though everyone in the entire congregation, and even those heathens not in attendance, knew we no longer lived together.
Once we were home, he would simply see us to the door, give me the pat on the head good-bye I hated even more than his showing up at sundown the night before, and kiss my momma full on the lips. Then he would turn, step down off the porch. Without so much as a backward glance or the smallest of waves, he would head off down our dirt road, back to the logging shack not two miles away.
Momma and I watched him go each time, watched until the road took him deep into pine and cypress, the green of wild grape vines everywhere that swallowed him up. I wished each Sunday afternoon that green would never let him go, wished he'd never make it back to whatever pleasures he found during the week, pleasures he wanted to pursue more than plant himself at home with us, his own. We watched him go, and only once we could see no more movement, no more slips of white shirt through the shield of green forest, did we go in. My momma always went in first, though it had been her he'd given his kiss to, her who'd given her whole self to him. She turned, her eyes down to the porch floor, and moved on inside. I was always the last one out on the porch, just watching that green, hoping he would not find his way out.
The day he broke his neck was a Tuesday. I was already home from school, out on the porch with my tablet and thick red pencil, doing my figuring for the next day. I knew even then I wanted to be a teacher, something in me with the need to lead and stand before people and explain in a plain and simple voice bits of the world they could not know were it not for me. I was only eleven, but knew already, too, that my wanting to teach had to do with my momma and how she acted once Daddy had gone, how our trips into Purvis had become ordeals for her, her standing at the dry goods store and touching a bolt of gingham, a tin of baking powder, looking at them as though they were troubling bits of her own history, things she knew she needed but hated all the same. I ended up taking her by the hand to Mr. Robineau at the register, where she'd give her feeble smile to him as I placed our items on the glass counter, him never meeting our eyes but smiling all the same.
So that on that Tuesday, when I saw four men through the green of the forest, I was the one to go into the house and take her hand and lead her up from her cane rocker, the one she spent most hours of the day in, and out onto the porch. The men had cleared the trees by then, and I could see them, hair wet, faces white, jaws set with the weight of whatever lay in the doubled-up gray wool blanket they toted, one man to a corner, the middle sagging, nearly touching ground with each step they took. They wore only undershirts and blue jeans, all of them barefooted, their feet red with the dust of the road they'd walked.
I wasn't afraid, not even when Momma, behind me, whispered, "Oh," then, louder, "Oh. Oh." I heard her take one step back, then another, but there she stopped. The men were off the road and onto our yard now, their eyes never yet looking up to us; men I couldn't place from anywhere. I looked behind me to Momma, saw her there with a hand to her face, covering her eyes, the other hand at her throat and holding on to the collar of her dress.
I turned to the sound of the men on the porch steps, felt myself backing up too. The four of them moved toward me, struggling with the burden they bore, the wool blanket seeming heavier than anything I'd seen before. Yet they were gentle with it, eased it up and onto the porch itself and inched toward us, finally letting it down onto the wood with a grace I would never see again.
They stood back from it, four men with hands on their hips, eyes on the heap before us. Then one of them, a man with hair as black as my daddy's, hair flat and wet with strands of it long down and into his eyes, squatted, his elbows on his knees, eyes still on the blanket. He put out a hand, held it a moment above the wool, then reached down, took hold of the blanket, and pulled it back to reveal to us my dead and naked father.
His head was bent back from us, so that what I saw first was his throat, already swelled and purple. His face was gone from me, twisted up and away, and for a moment I had no genuine idea in my head who this was, or why he had been brought here. The blanket had been pulled back far enough to bare his chest and arms and stomach and one leg, the edge of the blanket left just below his waist, so that next I saw the pencil-thin line of hair that started at his navel and traced its way beneath the gray wool, disappearing there. He had no hair anywhere else, his skin already turning the milkwhite of the dead, his arms and the one leg I could see bent at the joints, him all movement and peace.
"We was swimming," the man with the black hair said. He still held the edge of the blanket, and my eyes went to his fingers, watched as he slowly rubbed his index finger and thumb together. "We was swimming, and then he just didn't come up. He was jumping off -- "
"Benjamin," my momma let out, her word choked and hard in the air. "Stop."
The man, this Benjamin, looked up. His fingers stopped moving, his eyes on my momma.
I looked up to her. She still had a hand to her eyes, the other at her throat, and then I moved toward the blanket, toward the body I still didn't know was my daddy. I wanted to see the face, know who it was, and as I made my way toward where I would see him, two of the men who'd carried him here moved out of my way, their hands still on their hips.
I stood next to this Benjamin, and looked down at my daddy's face. His lips had gone blue, his eyelids gray, his hair matted and snarled.
Benjamin let go the blanket. I didn't move, not yet certain what any of this meant.
Then he put his hand to my back, held it just below my shoulder blades. The touch was near nothing, only contact.
He said, "Your daddy and me was brothers."
But the words didn't mean anything to me. I was thinking of Sunday mornings and the smell of pomade, and of me sitting between the two of them while Pastor gave up to God our congregation's prayers, and how my God had finally answered the prayer I'd been whispering to myself while Pastor pleaded for everyone else: I wanted him never to come back.
Here was my reward for righteous, heartfelt prayer, for asking in Jesus' name what I knew would make my momma and me better off in the long run, no matter what those sounds I heard from their room meant.
Which is why I reached down and picked up the edge of the blanket my uncle had let fall, and pulled it back over my daddy, covered him up. The four men were watching me now, waiting, I figured, for whatever might happen next.
I said, "Bring him on inside." I paused, then said, "Somebody go find Pastor, too."
It would be lifetimes later before I knew what'd really kept me out there on the porch Sunday afternoons long after my momma, kept my eyes on the green and searching for signs of his life. Only after the lifetime between my daddy's death and my momma dying, two months that couldn't be measured by any means of a calendar or the movement of the moon; then the lifetime spent on the little piece of childhood I had left, spent with Missy Cook, my grandma, in a house more dead than my parents would ever be. Then the lifetime of school I spent away in Picayune, lifetimes that ended, all of them, with my first night with Leston and hearing the ghosts of my momma and daddy there in the room with me. And since then have come countless nights spent with those ghost sounds surrounding us, the strength and power and quiet warmth of Leston's hardworked body the surest comfort I have ever known. My silent husband's language grew to be my own body and how he touched me, the miracle of a callused hand placed gently to my cheek, my neck, my breast word enough of the love he held for me.
But on that first night, our wedding night, those sounds of my momma and daddy rose up around us like the resurrected dead: I knew love then, the doom and joy of it, the pain of Leston inside me and the pleasure of knowing the promise of a future. I knew only then that I'd stayed out on the porch because I loved them both enough to wish my daddy dead, but loved them both enough to wish him back.
I have taken care of myself since the moment I pulled the blanket over him, a fact Leston already knew before he'd even let out his words to the cold morning of our room. I knew what loss was, knew what it was God could take away from you, His answers to prayer sometimes the greatest curse you could call down. But even so, I prayed right then and there, my husband sitting on the edge of our bed and growing old in what seemed only the few moments we'd been awake, myself going the same way, too, I knew, that the baby inside me would be born alive and breathing, with ten fingers and ten toes. That was all I sought, what I figured couldn't be too much to ask.
Copyright © 1991 by Bret Lott
In the backwoods of Mississippi, a land of honeysuckle and grapevine, Jewel and her husband, Leston, are truly blessed; they have five fine children. When Brenda Kay is born in 1943, Jewel gives thanks for a healthy baby, last-born and most welcome.
In this story of a woman's devotion to the child who is both her burden and God's singular way of smiling on her, Bret Lott has created a mother-daughter relationship of matchless intensity and beauty, and one of the finest, most indomitable heroines in contemporary American fiction.
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Reading Group Guide
SUGGESTED TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
- Jewel's mother referred to the stories of who Jewel was and where she came from as "stones in your pocket." What did she mean by this? What were Jewel's "stones" and how did they affect the course of her life?
- "I say unto you that the baby you be carrying be yo' hardship, be yo' test in this world. This by my prophesying unto you, Miss Jewel." These words of Cathedral not only carried great portent, but also haunted Jewel throughout her life. Discuss the various implications of Cathedral's prophecy.
- With this same statement, the author interjects a spiritual element to the story. Is it believable? Or does it seem to run counter to the tone of the rest of the book?
- When Jewel slaps Cathedral, it is a defining moment for them both. Besides expressing Jewel's blaming of Cathedral for Brenda Kay's accident, what else did this act signify? Was slapping Cathedral a slap at faith?
- Did Jewel's determination and action-oriented path to help Brenda Kay diminish her own religious faith?
- When Jewel returns to make amends with Cathedral, why does Cathedral reject her and offer no comfort? Why is Cathedral angry and unforgiving?
- Why did the author assign the names Jewel and Cathedral to these characters? Are we to find meaning in them? If so, what?
- Jewel's attitude toward blacks and her understanding of racial issues evolved