As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
This First Proof contains an excerpt from the novel My Drowning.
We moved from the Low Grounds to a house near Moss Pond. The house was small, four rooms, with a wood heater, a woods stove, and a hand pump for water in the backyard. An empty chicken house leaned precariously under a sycamore. The outhouse stood there too, in thick shade, with its narrow door hanging from the hinges and its plank seat with two holes cut in the surface for doing your business. We resorted to a slop pot only in the coldest part of winter. Otherwise everyone took the long trek down the path, except for Joe Robbie, who was allowed a pan and a jar.
Sitting suspended over the cavern of shit and piss, in summer with the buzzing of green flies, in the winter with cold fingers creeping from the wood along my nervous bottom, I felt a pure and memorable terror. I was small enough to drop straight down the hole, and I clung to the edges with my hands in fear of snakes and other creatures that lived in the woods thereabouts; I pictured them crawling along the planks toward my bare behind. The echoing of the hollow place beneath me sent a shiver of fear through me and I finished my business as fast as I could. I cleaned myself with soft leaves in summer and newspaper or comic books in winter, learning to rub the newsprint together until it softened and to grip the seat with one hand while cleaning with the other. I was fanatical in cleaning myself, frightened as I was of sitting there; Nora made fun of me for my fastidiousness.
If you walked far enough through the woods that surrounded the house, you came to Moss Pond, where the woods were full of bobcats, snakes, and even bears. Nora and I made the trip together. I savored the black surface of the pond, the reflection of pine and sky. Nora in general disliked my company but preferred it to that of our brothers. Carl Jr. and Otis never invited us when they went fishing, but whatever they caught, we cleaned. I learned first to scrape the scales from the sides of the fish and later to cut the fins neatly at the base. Spines in the fins were sharp as needles at the ends and drew blood from careless fingertips. I worked as hard as I could but nothing I did ever pleased Nora, who herself moved with neatness and efficiency that I admired. Nora sawed off the fishheads and gutted the silvered bodies, scooping out mysterious soft masses that clung to her fingers. Cats yowled and marked the door, trying to climb inside, whenever we cleaned fish.
Mama’s belly had swollen with a peculiar roundness, hard and smooth like a ripe squash. Nobody told me why. Because it was summer, we worked on Albert Taylor’s farm in his cotton field, or weeding in Ruby Jarman’s garden, or topping and suckering tobacco for Mr. James Allison, whom everybody respected because he was rich. I worked along with the rest, weeding and plucking on my hands and knees. Because I was so small, I could not hold a hoe to chop the cotton, but I pulled up handfuls of weeds that the hoe couldn’t reach. At night we were all exhausted, but especially Mama, and Nora boiled hot water for her to soak her feet. Nora made supper, dry beans most of the time, maybe with fried fish, and we ate near dark or after dark, in the first cool of the day.
Mama began to talk about a new little baby in the house. She no longer dreamed about the dead baby boy, as if he had stayed behind at the Low Grounds. Nobody gave me the connection between the blossoming of Mama’s belly and the coming of a new baby; I was left to wonder.
Daddy had quit being a farmer. People were after him for money, something about the farm, so when people came looking for him, Mama would say he wasn’t home even when he was. Daddy became a logger like Carl Jr. and worked when he felt like it. Other times he sat in the house. Here he had no fields to wander in, only the white-dirt yard in which no grass grew. He wandered among the trees there, or walked to the pond.
Daddy and Carl Jr. listened to the war on the radio, between spells of country music. The war was a great thing, like a cloud. I was not sure which country was our country, but there was a lot of talk about what our army ought to do. My daddy and Carl Jr. pursued this discussion amicably and laconically, in their own manner.
“I think we ought to go over there and whip their asses.”
“You’re right about that.” Daddy nodded his head as if he had thought about this a lot.
“Was you in World War One, Daddy?” Otis asked.
“No. I ain’t that old.”
The radio played as long as the batteries lasted. We listened to the Carter family, Grandpa Jones and his wife, Little Jimmy Dickens. Nora sang along with the music while she boiled water to wash the dishes.
Because I was older now, I had more chores. I hauled wood a piece at a time to stack beside the stove and fireplace. I climbed on an old chair to pump water, as much as I could carry in a bucket. I dried dishes and stacked them to put away.
On wash day I gathered clothes. Mama and Nora built a fire under the washpot and we filled the tubs with water while Otis chopped wood. Mama moved awkwardly, now and then placing a hand at her lower back. She and Nora sorted the sheets, underwear, workshirts, skirts, socks, all that we gathered from the bedrooms. Mama added the clothes as the water heated, tamping the cloth into the pot with a tobacco stick. The boiling took a long time, and Mama tended the fire with my help, directing me to shove logs here and there; meanwhile Nora continued to pump water for washing and rinsing, and scrubbed the clothes on the washboard once they had boiled, churning them in the soapy water. Mama rarely helped with the scrubbing, and I was too small to be much use with the larger items, like Daddy’s heavy overalls or the cotton bedsheets. I carried the clothes to the rinse water and dropped them in. I liked the scattering of soap bubbles in the water.
We had neighbors here, though none lived close to us, except a few houses down the dirt road on which we lived. We lived on the west shore of the pond, through a strip of woods near the paved road from Luma to Kingston. Near the turnoff for the dirt road that passed our house, a bridge carried traffic across a narrow neck of the pond, and on our side of the bridge the Jarman family ran the Little Store. The Jarmans had built and run the old mill when you could still grind corn up there, and Chalmis Jarman acted as the agent to form logging crews. The Jarmans owned a house back of the store, under a huge old weeping willow and behind high azaleas. I liked to walk to the Little Store with Nora. I liked the candy jars stocked with candy and the smell of salt meat hanging in the back. We bought beans out of a barrel or fatback sliced from the slab and wrapped in wax paper. When we had money, Miss Ruby never said anything, but when we had none we had to ask if we could charge. Sometimes yes, we could, and sometimes no, we couldn’t.
I was young, but soon enough I could distinguish between the two states. I could feel the slight discomfort of asking for credit, even for the smallest sack of potatoes; I could feel the difference when Miss Ruby narrowed her eyes, set her mouth in a line and shook her head. “Send your mama down here,” she said.
Nora, red from the neck up, nodded meekly, and we snuck out the door.
Mama never went to the Little Store herself except at times when we had money and she could pay down on the bill.
Across the road from the store stood a white wooden sanctuary belonging to the Church of God Congregation in Holiness. Sometimes, when we passed, I heard singing from inside.
My memories of those days are clearer, and hang together better than my memories of the house in Low Grounds. At times, as the memories pass through me, waves of water, I am astonished at how much I have kept.
The day my brother Madson was born, we children were sent to the neighbor’s house. Nora and I waked out of a sound sleep, dressed ourselves, and I walked along the dirt road to sit in the neighbor’s kitchen. Otis and Carl Jr. came with us.
I remember the morning vividly. The neighbors, the McCarter family, included a sour, roundfaced daughter named Anna who glared at us across the kitchen table, shaking the bows in her braids. When Otis asked for water she showed him the dipper. The pump sat inside the kitchen, a fact I found close to miraculous; and with a sink and a drain right there, too. The pump was new and hardly needed priming. Anna watched Otis drink from the smooth tin dipper. I was gazing at the jars of canned vegetables that lined the shelves: butterbeans, tomato, and cucumber pickle. I had never seen so much food in one place. “Your mama is having a baby,” Anna said to all of us.
“Hush,” Nora commanded, pointing at me.
“But she is.”
“We know that,” Otis said, red rising from his collar.
“I mean she’s having it right now. My mama went down there to help.”
“You better hush your mouth, girl.” Mr. McCarter’s deep, booming voice entered from the other room and froze her. She shrank against the wall. She hardly said a word after her daddy spoke.
We sat in the kitchen for a long time. Then we asked if we could go outside, and Daddy McCarter, in his booming voice, answered that we needed to stay in the backyard.
Anna showed us the hog pen and the chicken house, riches I could scarcely fathom. In the vegetable garden hardly anything was still growing, but the rows lay neatly arranged and the bean poles still stood, with dry vine clinging to the poles. In the hog pen the mud had dried at the edges but the sow inside had found a wet patch in the shade for resting. As she slept, the fine edges of her snout trembled. I stared at her through the gap between the lower planks of the fence. I liked the texture of her skin and the droop of her ears. But people said a sow would eat a little girl like me, so I kept some room between me and the fence.
Carl Jr. had brought his cigarette papers and tin of tobacco and rolled a cigarette. Otis begged one for himself, and they smoked side by side, sitting behind the barn. By then it was late morning and we had hardly eaten anything. I could feel the familiar hollow place in my middle. I had learned that hunger followed its own curve, the pangs rising to a peak, then dulling for a while. I asked for a dipper of water, and Nora took me to the outside well.
We drank a lot of water. We each knew what we were doing, and why. The hunger dulled a little and my stomach stopped making noise.
When we went back, Anna had taken a place close to Carl Jr. They were watching each other with teasing expressions.
Crisp winds crossed the yard. Leaves were falling, faded green and yellow, from some of the trees. We stayed in the yard all day, till, late in the day, Mrs. McCarter returned and told us it was time for us to go back home. “You got you a new baby brother. Your mama is doing just fine.” She spread her arms and planted her hands on her hips. Her ruddy face quivered with animation, a smile showing dark teeth. “Ain’t that nice?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Nora said, and took my hand, and hollered for Carl Jr. and Otis to come on. Otis ran from the barn. Carl Jr. followed more slowly, and Anna sauntered behind him.
Maybe I am adding to the real memory by looking backward at it from such a distance, but I have the picture of the neighbor woman glaring at Carl Jr., as if she knew he had been flirting with her daughter. I have the picture of Carl Jr. drifting past her, chewing a blade of dry grass. I cannot possibly remember so much. But my skepticism does not dim the picture.
At home, lying in bed, Mama cradled the new baby near her breast. Daddy had gone to the back porch with his mason jar of clear whiskey, and with a washed-out look of surprise on his face. The new baby could hardly be seen, its dark moist hair lying flat on its wrinkled head. No one was allowed to hold the baby except Mama, because Mama believed it would mistake anyone who held it, that first day, for its real mama. Likewise, the bedroom door must be kept closed to prevent the cats from getting close. Cats were well known to drink a baby’s breath and kill it.
She named the baby Madson Polk Tote.
Mama lay white as the sheets on which she rested, with hardly enough strength to cradle the baby in her arms. Yet they were joined as if one body; it was a sight I will never forget. His mouth cupped her nipple, and the tip had grown long at the touch of his lips. The sight shocked me and filled me with small revulsion. I hated Madson from that moment, for lying with her like that, for putting his mouth on her nipple like that. Now he was the baby, and worst of all, a boy. He was already thriving.
Days passed. Mama’s eyes grew sunken and dark as the baby hung at her tit. Because the baby came in autumn, she had the luxury of staying in bed while Nora and I ran the house. Madson lay with her, drank from her, and she held him with astonishing devotion. I had become invisible, except as a pair of hands to bring her diapers or something to eat.
But even more difficult to accept than his theft of Mama was his theft of Nora, who became caretaker for Madson as soon as Mama was strong enough to get out of bed. The baby slept in a low cradle, always near us wherever we were, and when Mama was not tending the thing, Nora was. Worse, Nora persisted in asking me whether I loved my little brother and then nodding her head as if answering for me, while giving me a vapid smile.
I hated him. I stared down into his cradle at his wrinkled face and sweaty hair. I filled with pure malice, with no thought but that I loathed him with all the force I could muster. I doubt I understood clearly what I was feeling, but the rage echoes down through all these years and I feel it now. I stood over his bubble of a chin and his pinched ears. I despised the blood clot in his belly button and the putrid smell of his diapers. Most of all I detested the sight of him nestled against Mama’s breast, mouth working on her nipple. I became enraged, and the rage silenced me; I can hardly breathe, even now when I am only remembering. Maybe it was because his belly was full, and mine hardly ever was.
When Nora changed his thick cloth diaper, I watched. She lifted the heavy, damp cloth and folded the brown baby shit inside. She handed the diaper to me to take the stinking mess outside, and I carried it gingerly, as distant from my nose as my arms could reach.
But while Madson lay on the tabletop, legs kicking weakly, I saw the flap of meat between his legs. I stared at it, fascinated. The tiny thing jiggled and rolled as he kicked his legs. Nora washed his wrinkled bottom and spread powder there.
As I carried the diaper to the door, the impression of the place between his legs stayed with me. Nora had already told me what it was, his precious little wee wee, and because he had a wee wee, he was a boy. The boyness covered him like a special radiance that all could see; boys were shining things. Girls were dull, and they, like me, had only the flat slit between their legs that neither jiggled nor moved at all. When I asked Nora what to call what I had, she said it was my pussy, and Daddy, who was also in the kitchen, laughed. Outside, in the quiet, I dropped the baby turd from the edge of the porch into the white dirt. It plopped softly and flattened. I dumped the wet diaper in the bucket with another. I touched myself carefully between my own legs, the flatness and absence. I was a girl. No one looked at me as if there were any light covering me.
It was a thought that persisted. I was a girl, there was a difference. I had never thought much about this in conjunction with my older brothers, but now the baby made the distinction plain, and I saw it every day. Mama’s love poured down on Madson like a waterfall, clear and sparkling. Daddy, too, displayed his pride in his new son, carrying him in the crook of a flannel-sleeved arm while he sipped his whiskey or puffed his cigarette. Daddy had never touched me that I could recall, to hold me, only to hurt me. For Mama, I had become a creature made to fetch and carry, not even particularly useful since I could not, as Nora could, take the baby from her and tend to its needs in her place. I sat quiet and hungry in corners, my thin dress tucked between my knees. The pale mass of Madson in his blanket accused me in some way I failed to understand.
Joe Robbie felt the difference too. When we were alone, during the day when the others were working or in school, I became his company and his help. I fed him biscuit when his arms were too weak to carry the food to his mouth. I fetched water, I sugared his coffee, I wiped the drool from the corner of his mouth. I propped the little doll where he could see it. He had forgotten the toy ever belonged to me, he kept it with him day and night. Whatever he saw when he studied the plastic body and glass eyes, I failed to understand.
“I don’t want any more brothers and sisters,” he said one day, when he had crept onto the porch and we sat with our legs dangling over the edge.
I agreed that babies were too much trouble. Inside, Madson wailed for food again, crying for Mama with his senseless voice that made no words.
“I hate how that baby hangs on her titty all day.”
“You’re supposed to love him,” I said.
“Me neither.” He sighed and leaned against me. He was softer than the pillow on my bed. The unaccustomed tenderness carved the moment into my memory.
“Me, too.” I touched my belly, which would soon be rumbling.
“But I can’t eat out of no titty like he can. I wished I was a baby.”
Soon, though, Mama’s belly grew again, and we learned that we would have another baby, another brother or sister, in the house.
Jim Grimsley is a novelist and playwright whose first novel, Winter Birds, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His plays are regularly produced nationwide and at Atlanta’s 7 Stages Theatre, where he is the writer-in-residence. My Drowning will be published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in January, 1997.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.