by VANESSA K. ECCLES
For the first time since I was three. Her dark hair was matted, and her eyes were hazy and glazed. I tried to scream for her.
“Mama!” But no one heard.
I saw Grandpa standing nearby through iron clad gates. He was speaking to her. Then I saw her about to respond, but she didn’t. I looked back at him. He was still talking. That’s when it happened. They let her fall. I watched her legs dangle feet from the ground. Tears swelled in my eyes, and it was over again.
I ran my hand across my wet pillow when I woke up.
“Grandpa, what happened to Mama?” I asked over breakfast that morning.
“You don’t need to know about that. You’re too young,” was all he’d ever say.
I didn’t think seven was too young. Grandma always told me I was a big girl and could do big girl chores.
“Grandma, what happened to my daddy?” I asked later that day, believing that she wouldn’t think I was too young to know.
“Go on and play with Betty Jo down the way.” She shooed me.
I immediately forgot asking her anything. My excitement to get to leave the house during the middle of the day – chore time – overcame my curiosity. I ran down to the creek and followed it along until I saw the smoke billowing from the rock chimney of Betty Jo’s. As I approached the house, I saw her younger siblings playing in the dirt and the others scattered amongst the trees playing Indians.
“Where’s Betty Jo?” I asked Andrew, the oldest.
“She don’t want to see you no more,” he said coldly.
“Because your parents went to hell, and you’re most likely a bastard.” He stepped closer to me as an effort of intimidation.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
He laughed and so did the others. I stood there humiliated and thought that I’d cry. Then they began chanting:
Once upon a time in 1832,
little Lisa’s Mama paid her due.
Blood for blood and money too.
Why she killed him, no one knew.
They roared with laughter. I had no idea what they were talking about. Just then, Betty Jo ran outside through the cabin door.
“Y’all stop that!” she yelled. But they didn’t listen. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I began to run back home.
I couldn’t help but play those words over and over again in my mind. They were branded into my memory before I had even left Betty Jo’s house. The afternoon mountain fog was starting to settle down into the trees, so I stuck closely to the creek in an effort not to get lost.
Suddenly, I could see her again. She was holding something and was standing only feet away from me.
I watched her place a sack into a tree stump. I could hear her sobbing. Her dress was covered in blood. I shrieked in horror, but she didn’t flinch.
“What are you doing, Mama?” I cried.
She was gone again. I sorrowfully took the Conner kids’ chant and the vision of my blood-stained mother home with me. I couldn’t turn off my tears.
“What the dickens is wrong with you, child?” Grandma asked and wiped my face with her apron.
I couldn’t tell her. It was too terrible, and I didn’t think I could get the words out. She sat me in front of the fireplace, went to the gritter, and cut me a slice of whole cake.
“Eat up, girl,” she said. Grandma only gave me food before dinner on special occasions. She must have felt sorry for me. I hurriedly ate the bread and sat silently at the table sniffling. Grandma went about her routine and began fixing dinner. She went from the table to the gritter, stirring the venison and veggies. I watched the fire flicker around the iron pot.
The room darkened. I thought a storm was brewing, so I looked around to the window and saw that it was dark all the sudden. I looked back at the fire, and Mama was standing where Grandma was moments ago.
She was sniffling too. Her swollen face was pinked by the fire’s warmth.
“Do it!” he yelled. I turned to see who it was that yelled at her. It was Grandpa sitting on the floor with blood all over him. He handed her a sack. “Do it, Sammy. You have to. He went out hunting and just never came back, ya hear?” Grandpa told her as he gently grabbed her arms.
Mama threw the sack into the flames, and we both watched them devour it. Grandpa then handed her another one. Mama’s tears had stopped. She stood emotionless, but I was scared. The sack bled through the bottom. I shrieked. For a second, but only a second, Mama glanced at me.
“Don’t Mama!” I cried.
She tossed the sack in with the other one, we watched until almost nothing remained.
“Now take this out into the wild. Put it somewhere good, somewhere an animal is likely to find it,” Grandpa said, handing her another one.
Mama just stood there, frozen.
“Wake up!” Grandpa yelled and slapped her across the face. Tears steadily flowed down her pink cheeks, but she still wouldn’t move.
“If you don’t take care of this, I will kill you and your little bastard,” he hissed.
“She’s not a bastard. She was his,” she said pointing to the sack. “I may be a lot of things but a whore ain’t one of them!” she yelled.
She took the bag, walked out, and slammed the door. I sobbed. I was scared that she left me. This was not my Grandpa. This was an imposter.
“Ma, get in here and clean this mess up!” he yelled. Grandma heard him from outside and came in carrying a bucket of water. She then got a rag and calmly scrubbed the floor boards.
I watched as my Grandpa rinsed the blood off his arms and face. He then cleaned the ax and propped it up against wall. He took a seat, stretched out his legs, and waited. I watched the steady motion of Grandma’s hands working the stain off the floor until Mama returned.
She looked mad. Her brows were furrowed, and her lips were pressed tight. But she didn’t do anything. She just took a seat across the table from me. I watched and tried to catch her eyes, but she never looked at me.
“Get up, Ma. It’s time for us to go. Remember what I told you, girl,” Grandpa said taking Mama’s chin in his hand. She snatched it away and turned away from him.
“Don’t forget to bring me the deed when all this is said and done. We are going to sell this trash and start over out West. It’ll be good for all of us. You just keep that in mind.” His voice softened, but Mama’s look didn’t.
The fire cracked. I turned to look at it and saw Grandma with the poker. She shifted the burning wood. I gasped.
“What’s the matter?” she asked curiously.
“Nothing,” I whispered.
“I think it’s time for more wood. Go get me some,” she said.
I walked outside. Late afternoon had settled in. I couldn’t help but look for Grandpa, but I didn’t see him. He was probably hunting. I grabbed some wood and loaded it inside.
“Is my daddy dead?” I asked Grandma while stuffing wood in the fire.
“What’s gotten into you today? If you don’t stop asking questions like that, I’m going to tell your Grandpa. He will wear your hide for talking like that,” she snapped. I nodded. I knew she was right. Grandpa didn’t whoop me often, but when he did, it was never worth whatever mischief I had been doing.
I helped her keep the pot stirred, and then swept the floors. I looked desperately for the mark on the floor where all the blood had been, but I didn’t see anything. Grandma always had told me that I had an overacting ‘magination. I guess she was right.
Grandpa came in at dark, just like he had a thousand times before. We sat at the table, and Grandma served us the vitals. We ate in silence, like we always did. Grandpa liked a quiet house.
“Lisa has been asking curious questions all afternoon about her Mama and Daddy. I’ve had about enough,” Grandma snitched. I looked at her angrily. But surprisingly, Grandpa didn’t say anything. He just kept right on eating.
After we all were finished, Grandma took the dishes to the bucket and began to wash them. I walked passed Grandpa, who was sitting in his chair. He snatched my arm and began hitting me.
“What did I tell you about asking them kind of questions, girl? Didn’t I tell you that you were too young? Huh?” Each blow made me cry out in pain. “Look at me,” he said after four or five blows. I looked at him in the eyes.
“I don’t like to hit you. Don’t make me like this. Don’t mention your Mama or Daddy again, ya’ hear?” he said sternly. I nodded. “Go on to bed.”
I hurried up the ladder and into the loft. I buried my face deep into my pillow and continued to cry until I couldn’t anymore. I listened to Grandpa rock and Grandma clean until I finally fell asleep.
I heard something down there. I scooted up to the edge of the floor and looked down. She was rocking in the same chair that Grandpa was last I saw him. She was holding a little girl. Grandma was standing over the fire baking something.
“She’s been a good baby, ain’t she?” Grandma said.
“She has been,” Mama answered without looking up. Her eyes were focused on the child.
Grandpa and another man walked into the house. They placed some squirrel and rabbit on the table.
“I ain’t selling my land. That’s all there is to it,” the man said as he took off his hat. It was my daddy. Even after all this time, I recognized him. His wide jaw and slender figure. He was a bean-pole just like me.
“We could make more money out West, and we’ll get a fresh start. It’ll do both of you good. Maybe it’ll get you away from that crowd you been hanging around,” Grandpa said.
“It won’t do no good, Daddy. He’ll just find more drinking fiends out West to spend all our money with,” Mama said as she placed the child into bed.
“Don’t talk about me like that, woman,” Daddy snarled and took a swig from his canteen.
Grandpa snatched the canteen and took a whiff. “What is wrong with you, boy? You’re nothing but a good-for-nothing!” Grandpa yelled.
“Get the hell out of my house!” Daddy snapped.
“Don’t you talk to them like that. They’re my family!” Mama screamed.
Grandma and Grandpa headed towards the door. While Mama and Daddy fussed, Grandpa grabbed the ax that was propped against the wall and headed towards Daddy like a locomotive.
I woke up sweating with tears streaming down my face. The house was silent. I crept down the ladder. The moon’s light crept in through the windows and settled on a single object. I took it. I opened their door and looked at them warm and snuggled next to one another in their bed.
Two swings was all it took.
Daddy told me to “Die with it in me.” The secret. The truth. But it didn’t die with me, and it won’t die with her. The truth never dies.
Loosely inspired by the Frankie Silver story and legend originating in North Carolina in 1833.
Vanessa K. Eccles is the founder and executive editor of Belle Reve Literary Journal. She has an English degree from Troy University, and her work has been published by Deep South Magazine, Suite T (a blog by Southern Writer’s Magazine), Wisdom Crieth Without, and The Story Shack. She is the author of Psalms of Me and is currently working on a YA novel.
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