By: Rebecca D. Elswick
My name is Mariah. When I was six years old, my mother died in my arms. It happened on an October morning under a comfortable blue sky. I was supposed to be in Miss Lark’s first grade class, but a sore throat had kept me home. Instead of sitting with my classmates in the reading circle, I was sprawled on the floor of our trailer’s front porch, my mother’s head cradled against my chest, her blood pooling around us.
It began before dawn. The pain in my throat roused me from sleep and sent me to my mother’s bedroom. I remember standing in her doorway, one foot posed ballet style on top of the other, my icy cold toes digging into the top of my foot. Through a window, I watched the purpling sky fade away into morning. Ripples of pale light pushed the blackness to the edge of the sky.
I took one step toward the bed.
Mama’s eyes fluttered open. “Mariah?” She lifted her head off the pillow. “What’s wrong?”
“My throat hurts.”
“Come here baby.”
Mama sat up and held out her arms. She swept me under the covers and pressed her hand against my forehead. “I’m going to get the throat medicine. I’ll be right back.” In one swift movement, she got out of bed, pulled the blanket around me, and kissed the top of my head.
After I took the medicine, Mama slipped under the covers with me and pulled me so close we fit together like two puzzle pieces. I lay my head on her chest; the scent of Dove soap lingered on her skin. My breathing slowed to match the rhythm of her heartbeat. The last scintilla of night disappeared from the sky.
“Sleep now, baby. When you wake up, we’ll go see the doctor.”
I closed my eyes and slipped into a deep sleep.
While morning bleached the last traces of night from the sky, I slept for the last time in my mother’s arms. Those fleeting moments before Mama left me to my dreamless sleep would have to last me the rest of my life. For when I woke, I would step through a portal into another world where I never again felt safe, or loved.
Screams stabbed at my consciousness with the force of a jagged knife. I thought I was reliving the previous night when my parents had screamed at each other, their anger crashing around the room while I crouched beside the bathtub with my hands pressed over my ears. Mama had taught me to run and hide in the bathroom when she and my father fought because that was the only door in our trailer that locked. I knew to wait there until she came and scooped me into her arms and assured me everything was alright. But this fight was worse than all the others. It ended with my father screaming, “A divorce! I will kill you first! Do you hear me? I will shoot you dead!” Then he slammed out of the trailer, and I heard his truck roar to life and speed off.
The front door crashed into the side of the trailer, shaking the wall behind Mama’s bed. I opened one eye just enough to peek around the room. Sunlight crowded through the window, and it hurt to open my eyes. I struggled to throw off the haze of sickness. I swallowed, and my throat felt like it had a hundred little rocks in it. The taste of the sticky orange medicine was still on my tongue. I squeezed my eyelids together and wished for sleep to return.
Mama screamed. “No, Carson, please!”
I threw back the covers, ready to run for the bathroom when I heard a gunshot – then another – then another. My mother wailed a long, high-pitched, “Noooo.” Then the engine raced in my father’s truck and gravel peppered the side of the trailer as the truck sped down the driveway. The silence that followed sent me running into the living room where the front door stood open. I could see Mama crumpled on the porch floor.
I don’t remember screaming, but Mama turned her head toward the door where I stood stock-still. Her hand inched across the porch floor toward me like a whisper. I leapt through the doorway and kneeled next to her. Then, I saw the blood.
Mama’s left hand was pressed against her chest and blood oozed through her fingers, darkening the front of her blue robe. “Mama! What do I do? What do I do?”
“Just sit here with me, baby. It will be alright.”
I pulled Mama’s head into my lap. Her blood spread out in front of me, touching my toes. It was warm against my cold skin.
“Mama, let me go get help. You need help!”
But Mama knew there was no help. Our trailer was perched on a rocky shelf dug out of the mountain up in Buckeye Holler. Our nearest neighbors were at least a tenth of a mile away in either direction. It was 1970 and we didn’t have a telephone. Nobody in our holler did back then. Mama knew no help would come.
“Mariah,” Mama said, “I love you with all my heart. Don’t you ever, ever forget that.”
“I won’t, Mama.”
Silent tears splashed on the front of my thin nightgown, and I shivered in the cold morning mist. I looked down at my mother’s face and realized she had on make-up and her hair was styled, but it was her locket that told me she was dressing to take me to the doctor. Mama never wore her gold locket unless she was leaving the holler. It was the only piece of jewelry she owned, and she kept it in a blue velvet box.
Mama raised a bloody hand and grasped the locket. I could see the hole in her chest. A ring of red-black blood crusted around it. Her voice sounded like she’d been running. “Mariah, help me take it off. This is your locket now. As long as you have it, I will be with you.”
My fingers trembled, but I managed to open the clasp. Mama dropped her hand, and I pulled it free. A small gold oval with a single rose engraved on the front, two tiny pictures inside of her parents, the grandparents I had never met because they died in a car accident when Mama was twelve.
“Put it,” Mama paused and pressed her lips together. Her face sharpened with pain. “Around your neck.”
I slipped the locket over my head. My tears dropped onto Mama’s chest and mixed with her blood. “Mama,” I begged, “please don’t leave me! Please.” But the color was gone from her face. Her make-up looked like a mask that could be peeled away – her beautiful red lipstick transfigured her lips into clown lips. She opened her eyes and looked at me. Their blue had paled to gray. Blood seeped from Mama’s body, spreading a red velvet cape around her.
“Kiss me, Mariah.”
I kissed Mama’s lips. My knees rested in the pool of her blood.
Mama whispered, “Mariah, sing to me. Sing Whippoorwill.”
Mama’s favorite song was I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry. I had grown up calling the song Whippoorwill and Mama loved to sing it to me. When I got old enough to talk, she said I would ask for Whippoorwill, and soon, I was singing it with her.
I swallowed down the soreness in my throat and sang:
Hear the lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry.
I watched Mama’s face. Her breathing was ragged, and she struggled to keep her eyes open, but there was a faint smile on her lips. When I got to the last verse:
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry
Mama was gone.
I lay down next to her. Her blood cooled and grew sticky under me, and the warmth of her body, that had just an hour ago soothed me to sleep, disappeared with the mountain mist. I cried and sang Whippoorwill until all I could do was choke out whip-or-will over and over.
It was afternoon before I heard a truck coming up the road. I ran down the porch steps to the edge of our lot. Through the trees, I saw a pick-up truck I recognized. It belonged to the Wilsons, an elderly couple who lived about a half mile up the holler from us. I opened my mouth and tried to call out, but I had no voice. I didn’t have time to get to the bottom of our driveway before their truck passed, so I plunged over the hill and half crawled, half rolled into the road, landing about fifty yards in front of them.
How terrifying it must have been for the Wilsons when I appeared in the middle of the road, waving my blood stained hands; my hair wild, my face swollen from crying, and my thin nightgown covered in blood. The truck stopped, and they jumped out. Mrs. Wilson reached me first. She took off her sweater and wrapped it around me. Mr. Wilson said, “Child, what happened to you?”
I could feel Mrs. Wilson’s hands gently probing my body. “Mariah, you’re burning up with fever. Honey, what happened?”
All I could say was, “Mama.”
Mr. Wilson carried me to the truck and put me on the seat between them. He turned the truck around and drove back down the holler to the Evan’s store because they had a telephone. While he called the sheriff, I sat with Mrs. Wilson and watched the school bus, which I would never ride again, stop and let children off at the store.
By the time the sheriff arrived, a small group of people had gathered outside the store. I could see the sheriff and Mr. Wilson walking toward the truck. They stopped at the door and talked before the sheriff opened it and looked in at me.
I burrowed my head in Mrs. Wilson’s shoulder, after seeing the shock on the sheriff’s face. Mrs. Wilson kept her arm wrapped tightly around me. She stroked my hair. “Mariah needs a doctor.”
“Ambulance is on its way. Has she said anything?”
Mrs. Wilson said, “Mama.”
Two days later, a woman who called herself Great Aunt Ellen came to the Wilson’s house. She said that when people died you had to have a funeral, so you could tell the person good-bye. I told her I had already said good-bye to Mama, but she dressed me in a brown scratchy dress that was too big and a pair of black patent leather shoes that pinched my toes. When she slipped the dress over my head, she saw Mama’s locket. She took it in her hand and studied it before gently laying it against my skin. She made no mention of my mother’s dried blood.
Great Aunt Ellen took me to the funeral home, a scary old brick house with a wraparound porch. The floors creaked, and I felt fear prick at the skin on my back and work its way up my neck and into my scalp. She took me to a room full of people who looked at me out of the same blue eyes that my Mama had. Few of them spoke to me, too busy whispering to each other about my father killing my mother. That was the first time I heard the word, murder.
The funeral director appeared in the doorway. “Bonnie Miller is ready for the family to view.”
Everyone stood and filed out behind the man, but I stayed in my seat. I sat alone in the room that smelled like dying flowers and dust. The walls were paneled with dark wood, and heavy furniture crouched along the walls like hungry silent beasts. Sadness lurked in the room, and shadows sat in the corners like statues. I sat in the ugly room and thought about what these people, who claimed to be my family, had said about my mother and father.
Terrible things. Mean words. They said that after Mama’s parents died, she lived with her grandmother who “let her run wild.” Said this same grandmother “died from shame” when at sixteen, my mother got pregnant and married my father. Great Aunt Ellen told a man who smelled like sweat that my father was a “mean drunk and dope head” who couldn’t keep a job. I was a teenager before I learned that dope head didn’t mean he was dim-witted, but rather a drug addict.
A woman, who called herself Cousin Dora, talked a lot about God’s will. She had hundreds of lines on her face and knots all over her hands that twisted like tree branches. She was the first person who said the words asked, “Who is going to take Mariah?”
Great Aunt Ellen entered the room, took my hand, and said, “It’s time to say a proper good-bye to your mother.” She led me to a room that had bright lights and white pews with padded seats. In front of a stage set my mother’s casket flanked by flower arrangements in a myriad of colors, people parted for me like water flowing around a rock.
The casket was open. My head was barely even with its edge, so someone behind me picked me up and held me so I could see her. Words like “looks peaceful,” “so beautiful,” and “looks like her,” buzzed like stinging bees around me. I wanted to tell them that it didn’t look like my mother. She never wore pink lipstick, and her hair was combed wrong. I wanted to scream, “Mama hated that dress!” But I swallowed my words.
After what felt like an eternity, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson took me back to their house and put me to bed. I cried myself to sleep.
The next day, I had to put on the brown scratchy dress, and Great Aunt Ellen took me back to the funeral home, only this time there were so many people, they filled the pews, stood around the walls, and spilled out onto the porch. I heard the word “pitiful” whispered over and over as Great Aunt Ellen led me to the front pew where we sat in front of my mother’s now closed casket. A man stood on the stage and talked about heaven, and a group of people behind him sang sad songs about meeting again by-and-by. I wondered how long by-and-by would be.
I didn’t cry until I was put into a big black hearse with my mother’s casket. Once the tears started, I could not turn them off. Great Aunt Ellen handed me a handkerchief that had scratchy lace around the edges, but she did not put her arm around me, or hug me, or even speak comforting words. She merely sat and looked straight ahead.
At the cemetery, I stood in front of my mother’s casket. Voices crowded into my head – “such a shame she had to watch her mother die;” “poor little thing, her father’s going to prison;” and more than once I heard, “no one wants to take her.” Then they lowered my mother’s casket into the grave, and I was taken back to the Wilson’s house. That night when Mrs. Wilson put me to bed, I asked, “Am I going to live with you?”
She smoothed the hair off my brow. “Tomorrow, your Great Aunt Ellen is coming to get you and take you to her house in West Virginia.”
“Why am I going to live with her?”
“She was your great grandmother’s sister. She’ll take good care of you.”
I had never met my great grandmother or my grandmother. I knew my father’s mother, but after what happened, going to live with her, or any of his family, was out of the question. A tear trickled down Mrs. Wilson’s face. She brushed it away and kissed me on the forehead. Then, she turned off the light and left the room.
It was twenty-five years before I returned to Buckeye Holler. The road had been widened and paved, and houses and trailers with green lawns replaced the rocky hillside. The old Evan’s store still stood at the mouth of the holler, but the windows were boarded up and the building looked shrunken and forsaken. The place where our trailer had set had been recaptured by the mountain. Trees with great ribbons of kudzu dangling from their branches now crowded the lot. I parked my car at the bottom of the hill and walked up to the place where my life had changed forever under a cold October sky.
The trailer had been sold and moved away long ago, but I could see the edge of the porch poking out from under a tangle of weeds. I pulled away dead branches and vines until I uncovered the cement slab that had been our front porch. I climbed up on the concrete and studied it. A stain, barely visible, spread out like a map of the state of Virginia.
I sat in the spot where I had held my mother while she died. I closed my eyes, gave myself over to a reverie of what ifs, and then I pulled the envelope out of my pocket, ran my index finger over the return address – Carson Miller, Buckingham Correctional Center.
With shaking hands, I opened it and unfolded a sheet of notebook paper.
If you have opened this letter instead of throwing it away, then I thank you. I have written you many letters over the years, saying how sorry I am, but I never mailed them. I know I have no right to contact you, but there is one thing I want you to know. I did not know you were home that day. I don’t know if it would have stopped me, because I was mixing drugs and alcohol, but I like to think it would. I am not making excuses for what I did. I took your mother’s life and I wake up every morning and remember that.
My mother, your grandmother, says you are a veterinarian, and that you live just over the mountain from where you were born. She sent me the newspaper that had a story about your new animal clinic. In your picture, you look like your mother.
I want you to know that I will be released from prison on November 1. I will be coming to live with my mother. I know I have no right to ask, but I would like to see you. If you will agree to see me just once, I will never bother you again. I will meet you on your terms, anywhere, anytime. If you agree, you can call my mother at 555-6133. Or you can write to me at Box 382.
I read the letter again, looked down at the porch where my mother had died then out at the mountains adorned in autumn’s finery. My father would be released from prison in ten days.
When I got home, I wrote:
I will meet you at 10:00 on the morning of November 15. I will be at the place where our trailer used to be on Buckeye Holler.
Before I could change my mind, I put the note in an envelope, stamped it, and took it to the post office.
On the morning of November 15th, I park my car at the bottom of the hill and once again walk through the fallen leaves to the spot where our trailer had been. I sit down to wait on the edge of the concrete porch I uncovered on my last visit. I want to be there when my father walks up the hill so I can study him.
It’s a balmy day with blue skies and lazy clouds, but I shiver with a cold that lies deep inside my heart. I feel Mama’s locket against my chest, so I reach inside my sweater and pull it out to study Mama’s miniature picture. “He’s coming, Mama,” I whisper.
I snap the locket closed when I hear a truck. It slows and stops at the bottom of the hill. I wish he hadn’t come in a truck. It reminds me of him running away after he killed my mother.
The man walking up the hill is much smaller than I remember. His dark hair is streaked with gray, making him look much older than fifty-three. He’s dressed in jeans and a plaid flannel jacket. I stand with my feet slightly apart, my arms relaxed at my side.
He stops about four feet from me. “Mariah?”
I nod. His eyes leave my face and scan the area behind me. I wonder if he is seeing the trailer in his mind’s eye.
“Thank you for seeing me.”
I nod again.
His eyes trawl down my face and come to rest on the locket. My hand flies to cover it before I slip it back under my sweater.
“I see you have your mother’s locket. She loved it.” He breaks off and shoves his hands in his pockets.
I sit on the block of concrete that had been our porch, stretch my legs out in front of me, stare unashamedly. He drops his gaze and takes a step closer.
“Mariah, I’m sorry. I wish I could take it all back.”
I fire back, “Do you?”
“Of course, I do.”
“What exactly do you wish you could take back?”
He shifts his feet. I can tell he doesn’t know what to say, but I wait without breaking eye contact. Finally, he says, “Everything.”
I slap my knees with both hands and throw my arms up in the air. “Of course! Everything. You wish you could take back everything. Would everything be my mother’s murder or that you got sent to prison?”
He takes a step back. “I guess I should go. I didn’t mean to upset you. Thank you for seeing me.”
I spring from the porch. “Oh, no, you don’t get off that easy. This ‘everything’ you are sorry about isn’t just about my mother. It’s also about me.” I pound my chest with my fist. “The day you killed my mother, you took two lives, hers and mine.”
He stands up straight and examines me. I see the pain in his eyes, but it doesn’t stop me. “Nobody wanted me. Nobody. Do you know why I got a college scholarship? Because the Christian school where I was educated beat me when I made a mistake, real or imagined. They practiced ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ and so did my Great Aunt Ellen. I learned to be the perfect student, and the perfect servant, who took care of that old woman for twelve years. The only comfort I ever got was from books. Nobody ever hugged me, or kissed me, or gave a damn about me. You weren’t the only one who was sent to prison.”
I stop. My chest heaved, but I didn’t cry. Tears poured down his face and for a moment, I envied him.
“My only comfort in this life is my work. My animals have given me the love I was denied growing up.”
He wiped his face and looked at me, and then he dropped his eyes, turned, and walked away.
“You coward!” I spat the words out with all the bitterness and hatred I could muster. He froze, and I advanced on him saying, “I’m not finished with you.”
He hung his head and hunched his shoulders like he was trying to shrink into his jacket. I shot in front of him and shouted, “Look at it! Look at her!” I thrust the open locket in his face. He raised his head and looked first at me, and then down at the gold locket. I was so close to him I could see the flecks of gold in his brown eyes and smell the scent of newness coming from his clothes. I snapped the locket closed and said, “When my mother was dying, she said, ‘As long as you have this locket, I will be with you.’”
I paused and stepped back. With my hand, I pressed the locket against my chest. “You may have taken my mother away, but you couldn’t take away her love. It is here, and it always will be.”
I turned and walked away.
Rebecca D. Elswick’s award winning fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Her awards include winner of the Appalachian Author’s Guild, the Sherwood Anderson, and the Lonesome Pine Short Story Contests, and the Virginia Writers Club Golden Nib Contest for nonfiction. Elswick’s debut novel, Mama’s Shoes was published as the result of winning a contest in Writers Digest Magazine. Mama’s Shoes was awarded the Mark of Quality by Writers Digest, was one of 50 semi-finalists for the Amazon Break Through Novel Award, and a finalist for ForeWord’s Book of the Year. Elswick is a teacher consultant for the University of Virginia’s College at Wise Appalachian Writing Project. She is married to her high school sweetheart, the mother of three, and at last count, has five dogs. Contact her via her website http://www.rebeccaelswick.com