December 18, 1959
“Mama . . .” My daughter’s breath warms my ear, and her stubby fingers dig into the meat of my arm as she tries to nudge me awake. The sheets are tucked tight, my body safely sealed in, but I’m freezing. I crack my eyes open just enough to see the sun shining in through the window, a beacon of light encouraging me to start the day, to keep moving, to seize the moment.
Blah, blah, blah. Morning, I don’t care if you request my presence today or what your desires are. I am not your slave, and I don’t have to abide by your precious rules.
I glance over at my husband standing guard at the bedroom door—tall, lanky—arms laced against his chest, all business as usual. Daniel Mitchell is a master at barking out orders day in and day out; I bet his men rue working for him just like I do.
I pretend to fall back asleep. The scent of smoke curls around me like something is burning. But I know better. I smell tobacco because I haven’t emptied my husband’s ashtrays. The smell is so intense I can taste how good the smoke would be swirling around in my own mouth. Lord help me, what I wouldn’t do for a drag right about now, along with the company of an intriguing book and a cup of coffee loved on with a little cream and sugar. But alone of course, not with an audience. The girls at Mother’s, the man of the house at work.
“Mama . . . up.” Fern presses again.
Damn, she’s back. Her over-pronounced “p” puffs against my cheek.
I groan and bury my face in the pillow. The sound of the clock annoys me. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. My husband’s boots make dragging sounds across the floor. He is, conveniently as usual, leaving my girl to torment me.
My incessant list of to-dos for the day start to ramble through my head. Cook eggs, bacon, and grits for breakfast. Pick up the blocks strewn about in the living room. Polish the silverware. Swipe away the dust on the furniture. Plait the girls’ hair, dress them like little ladies, gussy my own self up with powder and lipstick, tease out my curls and set them with Aqua Net. Go to the market, pluck the blackberries peeping through the fence in the backyard. Throw some eggs, butter, and flour with them for tonight’s dessert—blackberry cobbler, one of Daniel’s favorites. Fingers crossed, he will love it. Perhaps even toss me a few extra dollars this week, kiss me in front of the girls, or spin those sweet babies over his head, beard their bellies, make them laugh.
I slide my elbows under my stiff body and try to prop up, but I only get a few inches off the bed before I collapse back into my pillow. Milk leaks out of my breast and through the cotton of my translucent summer gown.
My daughter points to my breast, then whimpers. “Mama . . . hungry.” This time she yanks at my arm as if she may throw a full-out temper tantrum if I don’t pay her some attention. Dear Lord. Tears begin to pool behind my closed eyes. I just want to rest; I feel like I’ve been hit over the head with a cast-iron skillet—the one that clumps up with grease every morning when I fry sausage. Sleep takes the pain away, and oh, how every part of my body hurts, aches for relief.
My eyelid twitches, the right one, just like it always does. Please Lord, make her go away. Make her leave me alone. This is still my life, dammit. They want to take it from me, but I’m still the one in charge here.
Leave me alone.
Alone, alone, alone.
I just want to be left alone.
“Go!” I finally manage to spout.
With the last ounce of strength I have, I lift my hand and point a trembling finger toward the door. “Your daddy can feed you—his hands aren’t broken! And anyway, you’re a big girl now, you don’t need your mama’s milk.”
After a few seconds, I hear her slide out of the room and creep back to wherever she came from. Maybe to wake her babies up and start her own fastidious morning routine. Changing Suzy’s diaper, the doll with the blonde hair who looks like she’s been electrocuted ever since the girls got hold of the scissors last week. Then there’s Molly, the runt I got on sale last year on Christmas Eve at Woolworths. She’s still drinking that itty-bitty bottle that never runs out of milk. How convenient.
My girls don’t know it now, but it’s hard to be a mama. Very, very hard. Sometimes I think I might shatter into a million pieces and no one would be able to put me back together—if anyone would even care enough to try.
Mother comes in just as soon as I’m starting to have some peace and quiet. “Kora, time to eat.” Her words take me back to when I was a child. She’d be an acre, perhaps two away, in the red clay field, her hands wrapped around a cotton boll. Her voice faint, distant, tired. Always so very, very tired. Like me.
My eyes are heavy, but I force them open anyway.
“Good girl,” she says with a pleasant smile and a coddling voice I’m not accustomed to. “There you go.” She lifts my head and slides a second pillow underneath me.
“I’ve got some chicken soup for you. Got these carrots fresh out of the garden and wrung that chicken’s neck yesterday at sun up.”
Scowling at her, I pat my curls; the matted clumps of oil don’t even feel like my hair anymore. The odor from my sticky underarms wafts into the air. I try to ignore the stench, ashamed Mother has to see me in this state.
My gown is starting to dry, and I rest my palm on my chest.
“Now, now. Don’t you worry about that baby. The Lord will see to it that your family is taken care of.” She grazes her fingertips over my forehead. “Come on now, eat for me.” She puts the spoon to my lips, and the warmth of the salty broth fills my mouth.
She continues on, silently feeding me, bite after bite until the whole bowl is gone.
“There now. That was good, wasn’t it?”
I want to nod yes, tell her thank you, but I can’t. Instead, I lie back down and turn to face the window. Her bedroom slippers pad across the floor toward the door. It sounds as though she is leaving, but then she stops and comes back.
“Kora, you’re the one who chose to marry him.” Pitying me, she brushes my bangs to the side. I glare at her, doing my best to make her feel guilty for being so blunt, but it doesn’t seem to work because she keeps blabbing. “Sometimes I think you would’ve been okay if it wasn’t for that polio. It gave you too much time to read and write, want more for yourself. But the Lord didn’t intend for a country girl like you to lead some glamorous life. You’ve got to learn to accept that and make do with what you got.”
A tear slides down my cheek, and I swipe it away.
“Just like I said when you tried to leave him a few years ago . . . you made your bed and now you gotta lay in it. Things don’t always go like we want ’em to. You gotta dig deep, Kora, find the strength to get yourself out of this. I didn’t raise no quitter.”
She walks over to the door, creaks it open. Her footsteps fade down the hall as panic sweeps through me. She’s right, I should’ve tried harder, been stronger. Should’ve been the wife Daniel Mitchell deserves. Should’ve been like that confident, red-bellied robin I see every night while I’m cooking dinner, flying into the bush to take care of her babies, fending off enemies that pose a danger. But instead I’m like her little fledgling that fell out of the nest the other day, matted feathers coated in dirt, beak opening and closing in desperation, squalling for love, food, acceptance.
I had no idea I was so close to the edge. No idea that home sweet home was only made of brittle branches and flimsy leaves. And certainly no idea I was so high off the ground when I fell.