Near the Center of the Earth
Mother spooned the poisoned corn and beans into her mouth, ravenously, eyes closed, hands shaking. We, her seven children, sat around the table watching her for signs of death, our eyes leaving her only long enough to glance at the clock to see how far the hands had moved. Would she turn blue, like my oldest sister, Alice, said? Alice sat hunched next to me in the same white kitchen chair, our identical homemade cotton dresses blending into one. She shoved my shoulder with hers as if I were disturbing her concentration and stared unblinking at Mother. Each time Mother hesitated, spoon in mid-air, Alice's face clouded and she pushed against my shoulder.
"She's dying," Alice whispered, covering her mouth so Mother could not hear her. "I told you she was gonna die."
I ignored her and watched Mother. I wanted to feel the kernels of sweet yellow corn slide against my teeth. I didn't care if they were poisoned. I was so hungry my head throbbed. The clock ticked as loudly as the clattering train that passed beside our house every day, each tick echoing against the wall and bouncing into my head, making my heart beat in my temples and my eyes want to close. I forced my eyes to stay open, to watch my mother as she ate. I stared at her; the light freckles on her face smeared into a large round blur, then snapped back into focus. No one spoke or moved. My oldest brother, Stewart, sat next to me, hands in his lap clenched into tight white balls; David, his chair pushed as close to Stewart's as possible, leaned forward with his arms spread across the table, ready to catch Mother if she fell. Willie and Doris Ann also sat together, their small legs sticking straight out, dirty bare feet dangling over the edge of the chair seat, Doris Ann's arms wrapped around the feather pillow from her bed. Mother held John cuddled in her lap, leaning over his head to spoon the beans into her mouth. He fussed and reached for the spoon, hungry and angry because she kept pushing his hand away.
Mother had waited all morning for a letter from Dad, a letter with money for food. When, once again, no letter or money arrived, she went out to the toolshed and brought in the corn and bean seeds for next year's garden. The seeds had been coated with pesticides to keep bugs from eating them during the winter. Poison. I watched Mother split the dusty sealed brown bags with a kitchen knife and empty the contents into bowls, the seeds making sweet music as they tapped the glass: "ting, ting, ting." She ran her hands through the dry seeds, lifting them to her nose. Did they smell like poison? She rubbed a fat white bean between her fingers and touched her fingers to her tongue, then spit into the sink, rinsed her mouth with cold water and spit into the sink again. She stood staring out the window above the sink, her hands limp in the bowl of seeds. She stood this way for ten minutes or more, staring out the window.
Then, as if released from a spell, she opened the cabinet and got out two colanders. She poured the dry seeds into them: corn in one, beans in the other, and ran water over and over them. She rubbed each tiny seed with her fingers and wiped the cool water on her forehead and the back of her neck. Her dress was already damp under the sleeves from the afternoon heat.
"Those seeds are poison, you know. Poison. If we eat them, we'll die," Alice whispered. She was eleven and knew these things. I tapped my bare feet against the kitchen chair and thought about this, deciding I would eat them anyway. I was so hungry and certain that no poison could kill me. I could just tell myself not to die and I wouldn't. I was that strong.
John slid from his chair and pulled at Mother's dress, kicking and fussing, wanting to be held, wanting to be fed.
"Alice, why don't you take the kids outside for a little while," Mother said as she churned the seeds through the water. She turned and caught Alice's disappointed face. "Just for a little while," she said.
We stumbled reluctantly out the back door. Alice peeled John from Mother's legs and carried him out; he liked to be outdoors and stopped fussing. We moved into the yard, each claiming our territory. Stewart and David ran into the garden and picked cornstalks, to joust like the knights in our storybooks. Alice took John for a walk in the shade of the oak trees, to push the leaves around and look for buckeyes. She began reciting from her favorite book -- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland -- the part where the Mad Hatter sings Alice an example of what he sang for the Queen of Hearts: "'Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you're at! Up above the world you fly, Like a tea-tray in the sky.'" I sat on the steps with Willie and Doris Ann and listened. When she couldn't remember any more, she jumped to her favorite parts of "The Walrus and the Carpenter."
"The Walrus and the Carpenter were walking close at hand. They wept like anything to see such quantities of sand. 'If this were only cleared away,' they said, 'it would be grand! If seven maids with seven mops swept it for half a year. Do you suppose,' the Walrus said, 'that they could get it clear?'"
Pale mountains jutted in the far distance. I could see the gas station at the bottom of the hill and farther on, barely visible, our closest neighbor's house. Directly in front of me was the garden, or what was supposed to be a garden. The fierce sun had baked it brown before any vegetables had appeared, the temperature climbing to over a hundred degrees every day. Twelve rows of shriveled corn, dwarfed and fruitless. So many tomato plants, twenty or more, the little yellow flowers dried and stiff, not bothering to form into green balls. The tomato vines weaved in with the cucumber vines like the hot-pan holders we made on our loom. Grasshoppers, thriving in the heat, had stripped the cucumber plants. Vines, like curved barbwire, ran through the dusty red clay, in and out of the tomato vines and in and out of the bean rows.
Nothing to put up and stack on the pantry shelves for winter, no steam from boiling kettles fogging the kitchen windows, the aroma seeping into every corner of the house: tomato sauce, soup stocks, creamed corn, sweet bread-and-butter pickles, succotash, green beans, white navy beans, speckled pinto beans. Not one jar to open when the coldest days arrived, when it hurt to breathe the air. There had been no summer tomato sandwiches smeared thick with mayonnaise on white bread baked in the oven, no corn on the cob dripping with butter, no crispy cucumbers to eat, straight from the garden, still warm from the sun.
That summer, in Eastaboga, Alabama, what had flourished were the daylilies: thousands of them, in the yard hovering close to the house, around the trees, alongside the road and in the ditches. Dad called them ditch lilies. "Ditch lilies! Living in the ditches, like beggars. Returning every year -- more and more of 'em. We can't grow goddamned tomato but we can grow thousands of these. We couldn't weed enough to make 'em disappear, even if we wanted to. 'But Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.'"
Dad had pulled a handful of lilies up by the roots and tossed them into the sun to dry like bones, knowing Mother loved the bright red and orange lilies, knowing she did not want them to disappear.
The daylilies had not disappeared but, somehow, my father had. Alice said she had gotten out of bed one morning and he was gone and did not show up again.
"That's disappearing," she said matter-of-factly, hands on her hips. It was, after all, more mysterious to have a father who had disappeared than one who had just gone somewhere. And this time, we were sure, he had not just been put in jail for the weekend. The black-and-white sheriff's car had not driven into the yard. The sheriff had not, this time, stepped out of the car, tipped his hat to our mother and apologized for disturbing her, telling her he would bring our father back home in a day or two. No, this time our father had been gone for weeks. We wanted to ask Mother where he was but had learned not to ask questions, or speak of it except among ourselves.
Actually, Dad had not disappeared but had gone to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he was born and his brothers still lived, to find work. He left no money. He took the car. Said he'd write and send money soon. Mother couldn't drive anyway, so the car wasn't a great loss. The one time he had tried to teach her to drive, she had driven into a ditch. He never let her try again, claiming women weren't made to drive, they were made to take care of the home. And that's just what she did: wash clothes, iron clothes, wash dishes and cook meals for her husband and seven children.
Seven children: girl, boy, boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, like descending stairs: eleven, nine, eight, seven, six, four and two years old, some without a full year in between; four with their father's hazel eyes and dark hair and three with their mother's blue eyes, but blondes rather than redheads.
I had just turned seven years old and didn't think Dad's disappearance was such a bad thing; no more dishes shattering into the wall, no more whiskey breath and smell of urine, no more fear of being discovered, of having to peek into a room before entering to see if he was slumped in a chair waiting for you to walk within his reach.
"Now I've got ya," he would shout, like he had just caught a raccoon raiding the corn patch, pulling his leather belt from the loops as the unwary one struggled to get free. You didn't have to do anything -- anything at all -- to get pinched, poked, shoved or hit, just be where he could reach you when he was drunk. "You belong to me and I'll do with you what I want."
Unless, which often happened, he decided you didn't belong to him at all.
"Where did these towheads come from?" he'd chide, ruffling Doris Ann's blond hair, pulling just hard enough to make her wince. "I got dark hair, your mama's got red hair; maybe they got you mixed up at the hospital and you don't really live here."
"I live here and I got blond hair," David said defiantly.
"Maybe you don't really live here either. Maybe I'm feeding kids that don't really even live here," Dad said and thumped David on the head. "Hell, Mamie's kids look more like me than you do!"
Mamie, our closest neighbor, lived about a quarter of a mile farther down Mudd Street. We played tag and leapfrog with her children. How could be believe Mamie's kids looked more like him than some of us? Mamie and her husband, Buck, and her kids -- they're Negroes -- how could he think they look more like him than us? We ran as fast as we could to the kitchen to ask Mother.
"Did they mix up the babies at the hospital?" Alice asked, breathless and close to tears.
"Of course not," Mother frowned. She pulled plates from the cupboard and put them on the table.
"Then how come I got blond hair?!" David demanded, holding up a lock of straight blond hair.
"And me!" Doris Ann said. She held her hair out from both sides like a long-eared puppy.
"Because God gave you -- "
"But how do you know they weren't really mixed up at the hospital?" Stewart interrupted, holding his hands out and hunching his shoulders.
"Am I eating food that's not mine?" David asked. He sucked in a sharp breath and held back tears.
"What?!" Mother asked.
"Am I eating food that's not mine? Do Mamie's kids look more like Dad than I do?" he choked, pressing his palms over his eyes.
"That's ridiculous." Mother exhaled heavily. She put her hands on her hips and glanced in the direction of Dad's crackling laughter. We turned toward the laughter but inched closer to Mother, surrounding her.
I pulled on the skirt of her dress. "Are you sure I live here?" I asked. "Are you sure I live here?"
"And me?" Doris Ann added.
"Yes, I'm positive," she said irritably. She patted my hand so I would let go of her dress. "Nobody was mixed up at the hospital. You all belong right here!"
I would not have questioned my parentage, for I had dark hair and hazel eyes like my father except: How did I get to be left-handed if neither my mother nor my father were left-handed? Maybe I'd been swapped for another baby girl with dark hair and hazel eyes. Maybe I was the one eating food that wasn't mine; maybe I was the one that didn't really live here.
It annoyed my father that I was left-handed. He called me "Southpaw," "Sinister" and sometimes "Middle-of-the-Road" because I was the middle child: three older, three younger. Just before I started to school he decided to remedy my left-handedness.
Dad came in the door with a six-pack of beer and a brown bag.
"Southpaw," he shouted. "Southpaw, come here! I got something for you." He dropped the bag on the couch. "Bring me a church key for my beer, there, Stu," he said, pulling a beer from the carton and sending the rest with Stewart to the refrigerator.
When I crept into the room, he was sitting on the couch drinking -- small, refined, pleasurable sips, pleasure that he seemed to get from nothing else. He put the beer on the coffee table and pulled the contents from the bag: a small blackboard, a box of chalk and a length of cord. He propped the blackboard against the large family Bible on the coffee table.
"Well, get over here," he barked. "I can't reach you from there."
I walked slowly toward my father, my heart beating faster with each step. I didn't understand the meaning of the chalkboard or the rope. The fear crept higher in my chest and I could hardly breathe. I wanted to run out the door but I knew he would catch me and more than likely hit me. I looked around for Mother, but she was not there. I could hear Alice and Stewart in the next room talking. "Dad brought home a rope for Barbara." I bit my tongue and tasted salty blood in my mouth. What had I done?
"Now, Miss Sinister, we're gonna rid you of your problem," Dad said, pulling me toward him and shaking me gently by the shoulders. He let go of me, took another sip of his beer and opened the box of white chalk. He took out one piece and placed it firmly in my right hand. Then he picked up the length of cord and shook it out, holding on to one end.r
"What are you gonna do?" I asked, my voice barely audible. "Are you gonna tie me up?"
Dad didn't answer. He took my left hand and wrapped the cord around and around my wrist.
"Where's Mom?" I asked, beginning to shake. I must have done something terrible...
He pulled my left hand behind my back, twirled me around to wrap the cord around my waist, and wrapped it, once again, around my wrist. I dropped the chalk from my right hand as I was whirled around. It hit the hardwood floor and broke into pieces.
"It's time for you to learn the correct way to write," Dad said as he tied the cord snugly, tugging at it to check for security, as if I were a prisoner who might try to escape. "It's time for you to change hands. You'll be off to school this fall. We can't have you still writing with your left. You want to be like everybody else, don't you?" He picked up a piece of the broken chalk from the floor and put it back in my right hand.
I nodded but didn't really see why it mattered if I wrote with my left instead of my right, as long as I could read it. Besides, I knew I wasn't like everybody else. Not like the other girls, anyway. I was smaller. And when I looked in the mirror, the face that looked back at me didn't have nice cheeks and a round chin. It was thin and long and squirrelly. If Dad could change that, I'd willingly let him tie me up.
"I'm gonna write your name for you," Dad said, picking up another piece of the broken chalk, "and you copy it, using your right hand. By the time school starts you'll know how to spell your name and you'll be using the correct hand to write with."
He wrote my name on the chalkboard, using all capital letters. Mother and Alice had already taught me how to write my name with big and little letters, how to count to ten and the colors of the rainbow.
I tried to copy what my father had written, pushing up on the chalk rather than pulling down, sometimes making the letters backward. He erased the entire word and made me start over. My head buzzed. I thought I'd never be able to think straight again. By the time we finished the first lesson, white specks floated in my eyes, swimming around inside my eyes like tadpoles in the creek.
"We'll do this every evening until you've got it," Dad said, erasing the letters I had worked so hard on with one quick brush of his palm.
One evening, just days before school started, I worked on the chalkboard for an hour, with Dad giving instructions. I was still making letters backward, sometimes the whole word backward. Every time I started to write with my right hand, it felt like my brain would pop -- like opening a Mason jar -- everything I knew spilling out into the air, never to be seen again. After Dad untied the cord holding my left hand behind my back, I went outside and sat on the steps. I wanted to cry but knew better than to cry around him. He'd say, "If you're gonna cry, let me give you something to cry about." Even Mother disliked for us to cry; crying was permitted for real injuries only: a cut foot or falling down on skinned knees. There was something about tears that made them both uneasy, almost fearful, so I held my tears, but they were thick and teeming in my chest. I propped my arms on my knees, sank my face into my hands and thought about the only time I had seen Mother cry.
It was before I started to school. Mother was having another baby. I had been waiting for this new baby, not particularly anxiously but with curiosity. John was not a baby at all, not to me, anyway; he could walk and talk a little, too. And Willie and Doris Ann were certainly not babies, even though Mamie called them that when she talked to my mother. A baby smelled pretty and let you hold it in your arms like a doll; it didn't cry or tear at your hair.
Mamie came over while Mother had gone to the clinic and dressed me in my only good clothes. All of us were dressed in our good clothes and placed on the couch in the living room, in order of birth, like a row of ornaments: Alice, Stewart, David, me, Willie, Doris Ann and John. We sat for what felt like a long time waiting for Mother to arrive with the new baby. Mamie went home. Finally a car drove into the yard. We all ran to the door. Mother got out of a taxi, alone. She had a small suitcase but no baby.
"Where's the baby?" Alice and Stewart asked simultaneously, pushing open the screen door.
"The baby died," Mother answered, moving through the sea of children, gently pushing us aside with the suitcase and creeping toward her bedroom.
"Where's Dad?" Alice asked, turning from the screen door, directing the question to Mother's back. Mother didn't answer. The screen door slammed shut.
Later that evening, after Dad had come home and gone back to the bar, I heard squeaks, like a caught mouse, coming from my parents' bedroom. I sneaked to the door and peered into the darkness, expecting to see the cat with a mouthful of fur. Instead, I saw my mother sitting on the edge of the bed rocking back and forth, crying bitterly, a pillow held tightly over her face to muffle the sobs.
Alice told me later, under the quilts in the dark, her warm breath in my ear, what she had overheard Mother telling Mamie: that Dad had buried the new baby girl while Mother was still in the hospital; he was drunk and could not remember where he had buried her. She heard that this baby was a blue baby. A sky-blue baby to hold, to play with, to show off to Mamie. We would surely have had the only sky-blue baby had she lived. Alice also heard that Dad had been watching when this baby died, that this baby had hair the same color as mine, that her name was Mary Louise.
I watched an army of ants march across the step below me, lifted my feet and scooted up a step so they wouldn't be blocked. Mother came out and sat down beside me. She smoothed her skirt and ran her fingers through her hair.
"The writing lesson over?" she asked. I nodded. She watched the ants march across the steps. She picked up a leaf and placed it in the path of the ants. They marched across it without pausing.
"It's foolishness, you know, you writing with your right hand when God gave only you in this family the ability to write with your left."
I nodded my head, unable to speak. Mother did not look at me; she watched the ants and dropped another leaf in their path. This time they moved around the leaf rather than over it.
"Why don't we make this writing with the right hand a game," she said, almost whispering. "When you're around your father, you write with your right hand. When he's not home and when you're at school, you write with your left hand. It'll be our secret, okay?"
I nodded again and put my face down on my knees, a flood of relief in my chest, barely able to hold back the tears. Mother patted my back and stood up. She looked about the yard as if searching for something, ran her hands into the side pockets of her dress and began to whistle a tune. She walked slowly back inside the house, her soft serenade lingering in my ears.ar
After that day, the right-handed writing no longer made me seasick. It was a game and I was good at games. I got better and better at it, no longer making letters backward. Dad would smile at me, so pleased with his teaching. I was so delighted to be smiled upon by him that I worked even harder, perfecting each letter, each number. With each writing lesson, I hoped for my father to smile at me, to shake me gently as he untied the cord on my left hand as if he were tickling me, to swat at my bottom just as I moved out of his reach.
After six months Dad threw the cord away. My first-grade year was half over. As far as he knew, I was like everyone else. We continued practicing on the chalkboard once a week, moving from block letters to cursive. I began to notice that my right-handed writing was completely different from my left-handed writing, angular and sharp rather than curved and flowing, perfect lettering but not having the grace and rhythm that the left-handed writing possessed. It was as if someone else had written it.
My father's disappearance made my mother very unhappy. She didn't sing the way she usually did, her sweet soprano filling the house as she washed the dishes. She didn't want to read to us from our favorite book or play hide-and-seek, indoors, just before bedtime. She filled her days, silently, with housekeeping: stacks of dishes, mounds of clothes sorted into jeans, colors, whites and diapers, washed with a scrub board in the double kitchen sinks, hard Lava soap rubbed across the cloth leaving marks like a plowed field. When she wasn't working, she sat on the porch waiting for the mailman or stared out the window as if expecting Dad to drive up with boxes of groceries.
Within days of Dad's departure, there was nothing left to eat. Nothing. Mother harvested edible wild greens from the ditches using a stick to whack the brush and frighten away the snakes before walking into the tall weeds.
Stewart suggested we catch the snakes and sell them to the snake handlers at the Holy Roller church down Mudd Street. We hadn't actually been to this church but we had heard from the kids at school about the snake handlers, wrapping rattlesnakes around their arms and necks to pray. If the snake bites you and you die, then your belief in God isn't strong enough to keep you alive. But Mother said they liked to find their own snakes.
"Besides," she said, "I think there's something wrong with those people, using snakes to worship God. I've read enough of the Bible to know it doesn't say anything about torturing a poor snake or yourself to get to heaven. If that's what it takes to get to heaven, I'll just stay right here."
We tried to help Mother find the greens by walking along the edge of the ditch, picking what we thought she was picking.
"No, not this, you can't eat this," she said, taking the weeds from our hands. "Dandelion greens look like this, the curly ones, close to the ground with the yellow flowers."
* * *
Our neighbor, Mamie, brought Mother catfish on a line of rope. We had known Mamie since we moved there. Dad had often gone fishing with her husband, Buck.
Mamie and Buck had more children than my mother, ranging from almost grown to babies. The older ones helped care for the younger ones so Mamie could work and fish. In the afternoons, Mamie ironed clothes for white people for five cents apiece. In the mornings, she fished. She claimed she had to, "to feed all them young 'ens," but she really just liked to sit on the red clay bank with a can of worms and not hear a single child's voice. She fished in the pond that stood between our house and hers. Nobody knew who owned the land the pond was on. It had gone unnoticed for years, fished only by those few who had stumbled upon it. It was swarming with the biggest catfish you ever saw. They churned the water when I threw in cracker crumbs.
I loved to go fishing at the pond with Mamie and this she allowed as long as I did not speak, not one word. She tapped lightly on the back door just as the sun lit the sky. If I was ready to go, fine, if not, she went on without me. She would ask me how I was doing in school or something like that, but I knew that once we broke into the path toward the pond, I had best not speak, or even sneeze. Mamie could get on to you something fierce.
Mamie would sit right down with her big rump on the hard ground, her cotton print dress spread across her knees making a valley in her lap for extra bobbers, a foil package of chewing tobacco and a fan with an advertisement from the local funeral parlor. She wore a hat with two dozen handmade fishing lures knit into the tight straw, fished with a long cane pole and a round red-and-white bobber, sometimes red worms. She could catch more fish than anyone I knew, even Dad or Buck. Anyone. "Don't let your shadow get in the water," she'd say. "Fish ain't stupid, you know."
Mother didn't tell Mamie that Dad was gone, that we had nothing to eat, no money to buy anything. Mamie brought catfish because she liked Mother and knew she appreciated the fish. She showed Mother how to skin a catfish with a razor blade, how to keep from being horned when cleaning them.
"A catfish has a needle-sharp spine on its back. If he sticks you with it, the wound almost always gets infected," Mamie said to Mother as she held a squirming catfish with a pair of pliers. "Then you'll have to burn the infection out by packing gunpowder into the wound and striking a match to it." Mamie showed us the black round flat scars on her hands from being horned by catfish.
Mamie had no way of knowing that the few flopping catfish, lips strung through a rope, were all we had to eat some days. Three or four catfish, fried in a cast-iron skillet and divided between eight people, was not enough food for an entire day. If Mamie didn't stop by, there was nothing to eat at all.
As if a school bell had rung, we filed back into the kitchen and claimed the same places we had occupied before, Alice pushing for more than her half of our shared kitchen chair. Mother had begun cooking the corn and beans. The aroma made me dizzy, and even though my stomach was empty, I thought I would vomit. I put my face against the kitchen table and watched Mother's back, the curve of her thin shoulders, the red curls of wet hair licking the back of her neck. I wanted my hair to be curly and red like hers instead of dark and wavy like my father's. I wanted to be able to stand at the stove and wave my wooden spoon and make hot delicious food from hard little seeds. I fell asleep.
I awoke to the sound of rustling paper. Mother was tearing a piece of paper from a brown grocery bag. Stewart came back into the kitchen with one of his short yellow school pencils and gave it to Mother. She wrote on the brown paper: letters and numbers. First-grade letters and numbers that even I could read.
"This is your Aunt Janet's address and phone number in Birmingham," she said to Alice, placing the paper in her held-out hand. "I'm going to eat the corn and beans now. If I get sick, you call your Aunt Janet from the gas station and tell her to come and get you. Throw the rest of the corn and beans into the outhouse before you leave, so none of the kids eat any of them. The directions for calling collect are written right here." She pointed to the bottom of the brown paper. "Can you do this?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," Alice answered, wadding the paper into her fist.
"If I'm not sick in two hours, we'll all eat the corn and beans. Okay?" She looked at the seven faces around the table. We nodded.
"Tomorrow, I'm sure we'll receive some money in the mail from your father," she said as she picked up John, who was wet and fussing, and left the room. We stared at each other. Stewart shrugged his shoulders. Alice grimaced. Mother returned with the baby in a dry diaper and the wind-up clock from her bedroom. She stood John in a kitchen chair and wound the clock, placing it in the middle of the table, the bright yellow face turned so everyone could see it.
"When this hand reaches the three, if I'm not sick, you can eat." She walked to the stove and scooped corn from one pan, beans from the other. She put the plate on the table and sat John in her lap. She ate. Slowly. Taste and wait. Taste and wait. One bean at a time, one kernel of corn at a time, her hands shaking. Finally she spooned the corn into her mouth and chewed, cheeks puffed and eyes closed. Just watching her made my mouth fill with saliva, my lips kiss together.
We watched Mother for what felt like an eternity. No one spoke. I could hear David breathing, in and out, in and out, as if he were keeping time by breaths, his arms spread across the table like the hands of the clock. Mother played with John's toes and seemed to have forgotten we were there. Her blue eyes were unfocused and weary and she seemed to be drifting farther and farther away. Are her lips turning purple? Is she still breathing? No one moved from their chairs; the tick of the clock enclosed the room. Maybe we should touch her. Still, no one moved. I could hear Alice's stomach rumbling loudly and I knew she could hear mine, fierce hunger in our bones. Without taking her eyes off Mother, she gently walked her fingers over my leg and put her hand on top of mine.
Suddenly Stewart slapped the table with his palms, knocking over the yellow-faced alarm clock, and shouted, "Ten more minutes!" Mother jumped in her chair, ransomed back to the present by the noise, finally focusing her eyes on what was truly visible.
John fell asleep before the ten minutes were up. Mother carried him to the living room, laid him on the couch and covered him with an afghan from the rocking chair. We never took our eyes from her; we were wide awake now, voraciously hungry and smiling.
In the time it took Mother to put John down, Stewart had passed out spoons. Alice had a stack of chipped, mismatched saucers in her arms. Willie, Doris Ann and I were squirming a dance in our chairs, spoons in hand, while David pretended to conduct our dance like a choir director. There was a sense of excitement, of celebration, in the air.
Mother scooped equal portions of corn and beans onto each saucer. Falling into the spell of David's choir-directing, she hummed a song we had learned in church. She made a saucer for John, covered it with another saucer turned upside down and put it at the back of the stove. She put our saucers on the table, asking us not to begin eating until everyone was served and the food blessed. She put down the last saucer and sat between Willie and Doris Ann. After the blessing, she opened a book and began reading aloud.
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," she read, "for Alice, because she has been so brave. Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister..."
We ate. We laughed. We kicked one another under the table, told on each other, lined the bright yellow kernels of corn in rows, spelled our names with them. We counted the corn kernels as we put them on our tongues and, because we liked corn better, we devoured them all before starting on the beans. Then we ate the sweet white navy beans, spearing a bean onto each tine of the fork like little shoes, licking the bean juice from our saucers, chins dripping.
"Down, down, down," Mother read. "Would the fall never come to an end? 'I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' Alice in Wonderland said aloud. 'I must be getting somewhere near the center of the earth.'"
After dinner we went outside to watch the stars peep out of the deep Alabama sky, one at a time like tiny sparks from the fire. Alice and I twirled around, making the stars spin until they had tails, imagining that we had fallen to the center of the earth like the Alice in the story. We picked up imaginary bottles and drank from them. We threw our hands over our heads and grew tall like a telescope, then squatted on the ground, growing small again. We splashed around as if swimming in tears and then fell to the ground and waited for the stars to stop spinning. I caught one, a red twinkling dot, and made a wish. I wished for a sailboat. We had been given coloring pages in first grade and I had kept the one of the sailboat. I colored the boat blue with a yellow sail; and, as part of the secret I shared with my mother, I traced my left hand in red onto the sail -- holding the crayon in my right hand. I smiled when I gave her the drawing. She taped it on the refrigerator door for Dad to see; it flapped like a kite every time the door was opened and closed.
The next morning we got out of bed, pulled on our clothes and went to sit with Mother on the front porch to wait for the mailman. We played a game called "I spy," where someone picks something that the others can see, tells what color it is, then everyone has to guess what the person picked. "I spy something red."
"That stop sign?"
"Is it Toot-toot's shirt?"
"Stewart's shirt is yellow, Doris Ann. It has to be red."
"A red bird."
"What red bird? You have to be able to see it."
"There was a red bird by the tree."
"The red sign on the gas station?"
The sun drifted from our faces to our knees. The baby whined and we were tired of the game. Stewart asked Mother to read to us but she shook her head.
"Not right now, a little later," Mother said, tapping the toes of her shoes on the step. She brushed two ants from John's leg and picked him up. The toe-tapping becoming a bounce, a pony ride. We went back to our game.
Mother spotted the mailman before any of us and stood up, handing the baby to Alice. She watched him, a hand over her eyes, walk slowly up the hill, sorting his letters. She smiled when he handed her the letter from Dad. Waiting for the mailman to walk back down the hill, she looked carefully at the letter in her hand, at the return address, at the postage, the handwriting.
She opened the letter, not tearing the flap, and slid the letter from the envelope. Folded neatly in a sheet of white paper were two one-dollar bills. Mother dropped her hands to her sides, sucking in a quick sharp breath, the two dollars in one hand, the envelope in the other; the white paper fluttered down like a badly folded paper airplane, coming to rest on the bottom step.
Mother stood in silence a moment, then abruptly walked down the steps. We followed. Alice gave John to me and ran after Mother; Stewart and David followed her. I was pulling John by the arm, trying to keep up. Willie and Doris Ann fell behind and Doris Ann began to whimper. Mother stopped in front of a thick bed of daylilies on the north side of the house, fire-red, tall and straight, in full bloom. She stood for a long time, not moving. We all stood perfectly still, not attempting to move any closer to her. She stared at the lilies.
"They're so beautiful," she said, touching a frilly petal with the corner of the envelope. "I just wish we could eat them." She burst into tears, crushing the envelope and the two one-dollar bills to her face.
An hour later Mother took the crumpled brown paper with Aunt Janet's phone number on it and the two one-dollar bills to the gas station at the bottom of the hill and called her sister in Birmingham to come and get her starving children.
Copyright © 1999, 2000 by Barbara Robinette Moss