"Go. Take the car, Grace Jean! Take yourself back to that place! You deserve all the crazies there."
The place was Calico Valley, Georgia. Mama drove us the whole way from Richmond, Virginia without a license. That was one of her oddities, being so terrified of tests. This was the summer of 1967 and while the country sent boys to Vietnam, marched in the streets, and women burned their bras, I, Annie Todd, turned thirteen and traveled back roads to meet a grandmother I'd never set eyes on in my whole life. We drove for hundreds of miles to get to a town that didn't even show up on my map. I sat there in the passenger seat thinking on how Daddy was coming to get me. I didn't dare tell Mama. She was too fragile.
Shiloh May met us on her fancy front porch with her arms folded across her chest. Her face was lined like an old map that had been used for a lot of traveling. She was as happy to see us as we were to see her.
"Watch yourself. She didn't get those permanent frown lines from smiling, Annie Todd." Mama had a way of using both my first and last name like I was some student in school.
There were no hugs or niceties. We followed her into the high ceiling front room without one word like some kind of unwanted guests. She eyed my bare legs and the length of my shorts.
I made myself busy by taking in the whole room. Every inch of the table tops—and there were plenty of them—were covered by glass doodads of one kind or another. The windows were covered with lace, the soft kind. In front of one window stood a tall wooden stand that held the largest book I had ever seen. It was a rare Bible from hundreds of years before. I knew this because Shiloh May stood in front of it and told me I was never to touch the pages with my grubby fingers. I caught sight of what looked to be an angel on one of the pages. I was never much good at resisting that which was forbidden.
"This room holds all that is precious to me." Shiloh May's voice was almost song like with her conviction. "You remember that from this day forward, never, ever enter this room unless you have been so directed." She spoke so proper.
Mama didn't have a great fondness for her new situation because her face took on her plain empty look; the look that set Daddy off. With her thoughts erased from her face like that, she looked the spitting image of Shiloh May, without all the wrinkles of course. Neither of them would have appreciated my observation one bit. I was too busy thinking of a way to get a good look at that book.
Shiloh May cleared her voice. She wore a dress the shade of violets and a silver brooch shaped like a dragonfly on her collar. The pin had tiny green stones to mark the eyes. I started to tell Shiloh May that I knew baby dragonflies were called nymphs and lived two years on the bottom of a pond before they transformed and flew into the air. I wondered if she knew how their wings sparkled and that they could fly as fast as thirty miles an hour, that they could even fly backwards, and at that moment I wanted nothing more than to be a dragonfly and get on out of there.
She wore a string of pearls around her neck the color of cream. Shiloh May saw me staring at her pearls and touched them with her perfect fingers. They were fingers of a musician just like my music teacher at school, my old school. I really doubted Shiloh May ever did anything as beautiful as playing a musical instrument.
"If you had listened to me about Robert to begin with, Grace Jean, we wouldn't be dealing with this now." Shiloh May's straight narrow nose made her look like royalty, and she was pointing it right at Mama.
Mama bristled up like she might set into one of her fits. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for what Pearl did. She wouldn't leave me alone, not to mention Robert." Who was Pearl?
"You leave Pearl out of this. She is the victim."
"Oh yes, Mother, of course we'll leave poor Pearl out of this, even though I'm your daughter."
Shiloh May took a deep breath and touched her pearls again as if they gave her some kind of power over the situation. "Robert is nothing but a two-timing man, and we both know it."
Now I wasn't stupid. I knew Daddy wasn't much of a husband. Shoot, I'd known that from the time I was six and he took me along to meet his girlfriend. She turned out to be quite elegant in a bleach blonde sort of way, like Marilyn Monroe. Mama's hair was a natural orange. I got that color from her. And Lord knows how much money I could make if I got a nickel for every freckle on me. That came from her too.
"Please remember Annie is in the room" Mama's voice held that familiar edge, the one that suggested the subject should be dropped.
"Really, Grace Jean, do you think she doesn't know this about him?" Shiloh May eyed me with an all-knowing stare that measured a part of me she couldn't possibly have known. "And Pearl is working for me now. You'll be polite if you can't be kind."
"And sleep with a knife under my pillow," Mama snapped.
"I mean it, Grace Jean." Shiloh May's voice came up an octave.
"What I want to know is how Pearl came out smelling like a rose, and me, the one who got hurt from all this mess, is seen as the bully? That's what I want to know, Mother."
"My house is not very big. So, we'll just make due." Shiloh May didn't take her eyes off of Mama.
Now, granted I had never been in a two story house, but it seemed big to me. I took this as just another way of telling us we weren't wanted.
"This room is off limits. Do you understand?" Shiloh May turned to me as if she could read my true character.
"Yes." I mumbled.
"Is that how a young lady speaks to her elder?" She tapped the toe of her black shoe on the wooden floor. "You must show me you are worthy of trust and not turn out like your father."
"Mother! I insist you don't speak that way to Annie." A storm gathered around Mother, and I was afraid that we might see what Mama was made of.
Shiloh May gathered all the tension in the room and formed a smile out of it. "Grace Jean, you have no right to insist in my house." She looked me over. "Now, we will all dress our best and go to church every Sunday. This means your mother too, and no doubt she will try to give me trouble, but you won't will you?" Shiloh May cut a look at Mama. "We have a family dinner every Sunday afternoon. All the family comes. Family is important to me. I don't want our dirty laundry aired."
"Oh good Lord! I'm living with the devil himself" Mama stomped off, leaving me alone.
"Do I make myself clear, Annie Todd?" My full name in her mouth seemed like a curse word, but Shiloh May would never curse.
I nodded. All I had to do was bide my time. Daddy would surely come soon.
It took me days before I finally saw Pearl. She was like some ghost sliding in and out of the rooms. We had breakfast, lunch, and dinner cooked by her without one glimpse. Sometimes I'd walk into a room and smell her scent, a touch of lemon mixed with bread dough.
"She's hiding from us. You stay away from her," Mama warned.
The sheriff showed up on that very day with some papers for Mama, who smiled at him so sweet before she tried to lunge at his throat. It took both me and Shiloh May to pull her off. Mama tore those pages into a million pieces and threw them in the air. "There you go! Tell him!"
Shiloh May's cheeks turned red. "Grace Jean, do you believe this will change anything? I think this is the first decent thing he's done."
Mama looked at Shiloh May like she might run through her, but instead, she stomped upstairs and slammed the door to her room. She stayed there for three days. Finally on the fourth day, she opened the door, came down the stairs in her best dress, and took off in Daddy's car. I was sure that would be the last I'd see her. But she came strutting in later that afternoon, carrying a sack and a gallon of paint. She took herself right upstairs without a word.
After about an hour, Shiloh May came in from working in her flower garden. "What's that god-awful smell?" She made a b-line upstairs. "Shoot!"
Now I didn't know my grandmother very well, but I knew that this was the closest she would ever come to cussing, so I came in from the front porch, where I had been reading. Pearl peeked out of the front room and then ducked back in. What I saw looked more like an under fed girl, not some crazy woman. I ran up to Mama's room and found her hard at work on the wall near her bed. I didn't even know green could be that bright. It almost glowed. Mama looked over her shoulder and smiled bigger than I'd ever seen her smile.
"Bahama Lime." She held her paint-soaked roller toward the wall.
I had to think for a minute before I understood.
Shiloh May just stood there with her mouth sewn up like she'd been sucking on lemons.
On Mama's dresser were the papers that the sheriff had brought. Each page had been taped together like a jigsaw puzzle and pressed out. Mama kept right on smiling.
On Sunday after church, the whole family came to Shiloh May's for dinner just like she promised. Half of those people smelled like something stored in the attic. The other half were my cousins. I guess I could have made it fun, but I had something more on my mind. I slid into the front room to see that Bible that was the size of the ham I saw on the kitchen table that morning. The shades in front room were pulled against the August sun beating on the west side of the house. Spooky shadows loomed in every corner. The only thing that kept me from hightailing it out of there was the voice of Diana Ross floating through the open windows from the back porch where the cousins listened to a portable record player. Mama was hiding out with a cold washrag on her head until Shiloh May found her. They were barely speaking since the paint episode.
The Bible was opened to a painting of an angel that held a large sword over his head. The blade was pointing at a nice looking man on the ground. The caption read: Archangel Michael casts Lucifer from Heaven. Lucifer was another name for the devil. He sure didn't look like the devil, no horns or anything, not even an evil look. Mama said that preachers invented the devil to keep their congregations in control. But looking at that man, I couldn't help but think Mama got it all wrong. Lucifer was a good looking man, one that folks wanted to talk with and believe. And wouldn't that be the trick? The evil. Folks might not even know he was the devil like poor old Eve.
The door to the front room squeaked and I stepped into the shadows. In slid Pearl. I held my breath. What was so special about her? She scooted right over to the Bible without seeing me. She bowed her head. I knew from hearing Shiloh May talk to Mama that Pearl had it in her head she wanted to be a nun. I guess that's what made everyone think she was crazy. The family was torn up about it. The whole valley was, according to Shiloh May. They were proud of their Methodists, foot-washing Baptists, and even the Presbyterians, but not one practicing Catholic lived anywhere around.
Pearl pulled a beaded necklace out from inside her white blouse that was stained with sweat and looked like it had seen better days. She rubbed the cross at the end of the necklace and then moved her fingers across each bead, whispering something that sounded like a magical spell.
All the dust in that room picked that moment to bother me. I sneezed. Pearl just looked up at me with those deep gray eyes.
"What you doing in here, girl?" She hissed.
"What are you doing in here, yourself?" I turned the tables right back at her.
"If Shiloh May catches us, we're both dead ducks in the water." Something told me Pearl did pretty much what she wanted when she wanted. So, I just stared her down.
"What're you doing in here, spying?" She glared back at me.
"None of your stupid beeswax." I stuck my tongue out at her.
She pointed a thumb over her shoulder at the door. "You come in the kitchen with me. They'll want something to eat soon." Pearl walked out the door. I had no choice but to follow her. Something pulled me. It sure wasn't her clothes or hair. I had to know more about this woman who wanted to be a nun.
"Why do you hide, Pearl? And why don't you sit down with us and eat?" I blurted this out as I followed her into the kitchen.
She stopped. I thought for a second she might knock me silly, but instead, she let out this crazy laugh. "That'll be the day, Annie Todd. I thought you knew that airing dirty laundry isn't Shiloh May's style, not even and especially if the mess belongs to her."
"She lets you cook here."
Pearl's eyes had turned a lighter shade of gray, cool as a big stone in the middle of a creek. "That's the puzzle ain't it?" She spun around and went for the big butcher knife.
I took two steps back and sucked in my breath. "Why you talking to me?"
"Well, it's not like I had a choice." She looked at me and then sliced into that big ham. "And you got a side to you. I seen it clear as day."
"What kind of side?"
She laughed. "You didn't get all riled up about that green paint your mama put on the walls. Shiloh May had two fits. Her perfect house was ruined and all the valley knew it. See, your mama told Bob Carlton at the hardware store about those divorce papers. It was him that helped her pick out the paint."
"How did you know I liked the green paint? You stayed hid downstairs."
She pointed the butcher knife at me. "I got eyes everywhere."
"Believe this, Annie Todd, I know your heart. Me and you ain't too different. We see things for what they are, no sugarcoating." She turned her back on me.
I left that room as fast as I could.
Later that week, Shiloh May sent me on my way to buy some eggs from the store in town. "Don't dally."
"You going to give me a ride?"
Shiloh May took a deep breath. "Walk." The one word came out in a normal voice, but I knew I'd pushed my luck. On the way out of the yard, I walked past Shiloh May's flower garden. I thought of sneaking back out that night and snapping the blooms off the flowers.
I had at least a thousand miles to walk. As I got closer to town, houses dotted the empty fields. In every direction, I could see mountains. The sun beat on the back of my neck and even the mosquitoes weren't zapping me. The heat rippled on the blacktop like ocean waves. The soles of my feet were warm even through my Keds. In Richmond me and Daddy used to drive to the beach. He always struck up a conversation with some woman, leaving me on my own. From the time I was five I wondered if the ocean had an end. I searched the horizon, but it went on and on forever.
A red truck came barreling over the hill. Pearl stared at me from behind the wheel. She stopped right beside me.
"Get in." She was wearing the same blouse and a dull colorless skirt.
"Why didn't you go to the store to get the eggs?" I got into the truck.
"Because Shiloh May wanted you to go, and she always gets what she wants; besides she would die if I showed my face in town." She slapped her knee like that was the funniest joke she knew. "This here is my truck. I bought it after I got out of the state hospital."
The state hospital? "Where did you get that kind of money?"
The two words sat in the thick air between us.
Pearl backed the truck up and turned it around in the road.
"The store is that way."
"Well, I know that dummy. We don't need eggs in that house. Shiloh May wanted you gone when your mama came back. She's right upset that Grace Jean went to get her license. Lord, that woman don't cotton to change, Annie Todd. You remind her of all she couldn't stop." Pearl looked over at me and I got a cold chill up back. "Have you ever gone on a field trip at school?"
I made one word come out of my mouth. "Yeah."
"That's what we're doing, Annie Todd. What's the worst that can happen? Shiloh May fires me?" She laughed her crazy laugh.
I grabbed the door handle, thinking I could dive out of the truck.
"What's the worst that would scare you, Annie Todd?"
I was thinking maybe that very moment was the worst.
"Let's go!" Pearl screamed out the window and squealed the back tires. Her beaded necklace hung on the outside of her blouse.
She drove Highway 140 until all I could see was a barn here and there. There was something good about the wind hitting me in the face and the silence between us. I almost forgot Pearl was crazy. She slammed on the brakes and took a right on two wheels. My heart beat so loud I figured she could hear the sound.
"This here goes to the quarry."
In front of me was a gravel road that ended in front of a bunch of woods.
She stopped the truck. "All we got now is a pig trail." She jumped out.
I was one stupid girl if I got out and went with her.
Pearl reached in the bed of the truck and took out two ragged towels. "Ah come on, Annie Todd. Don't tell me you're chicken." She opened my door. "We'll take the safe way down."
If I ran, I wouldn't make if far, so like some fool I followed.
Just a little walking brought us to the edge of a rock canyon. At the bottom was a green lake. The trail snaked around the rock wall down into the basin. Pearl led. The whole time I thought on a dream I kept having last week about dragonflies darting back and forth across murky water. I fell into the water and couldn't get back to the surface. I had turned into a nymph and was stuck on the bottom. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't get out. It was some kind of telling dream. I just wasn't sure what it meant.
Pearl walked in front of me, her skirt flapping in the breeze. Her hair was peppered with gray. A couple of times I almost told her it would be pretty if she washed it, but I figured she didn't want to hear that from me.
"Me and your mama used to come here when we were girls. Shiloh May just hated it. She said we would both die; sometimes I think it would have been better if we did right then while things where still good. Shiloh May had brought me to live with her. I was sixteen and completely alone when my granny died. My daddy left when I was a little thing." The words bounced off the walls and made them sound louder.
"Your mama was the prettiest girl in Calico Valley. That's why mostly all the other girls hated her. She knew she was pretty. Grace Jean never cared one ounce about what others thought until she met Robert."
A mocking bird landed in a maple tree and began to sing.
"I was the second prettiest, but I wasn't like Grace Jean. She was a Daniel and being a Daniel in the Valley is important if you haven't figured that out yet. Anyway, I couldn't see my beauty. No one ever taught me to be gentle like they did Grace Jean. I was older than your mama by almost two years."
Somehow I could see Pearl as pretty. "Mama's let herself go."
Pearl stopped. Her gray eyes almost sparkled. "That's what marrying the wrong man gets you. She wasn't as smart as me. Do you want to know why they put me in the state hospital?"
Another cold shiver went over the top of my head. She could have pushed me off the edge and that would have been the end.
She sighed and stared at the hazy tan sky. "Lordy, Annie Todd, I kept a dead body in my barn for three months." She walked off, leaving me to stare at her straight back.
"I thought it was because you wanted to be a nun and join the Catholic Church."
"That put a stick up everyone's ass for sure. The dead body wasn't even that big of a deal. No, if the state police had left me alone, I'd have gotten away. But they found my husband in the barn, dead and started wondering what kind of woman would just leave him there. You know?" Her breaths came fast. All of nature had gone quiet. "They thought he died from his asthma. He had the worst case ever. But see, he found out about me and Robert."
We stood at the edge of the water.
"You don't mean my daddy?" I tried to see her face, but she was looking away from me.
"He wasn't no angel, Annie Todd. You're smart enough to know that about him."
My stomach turned sick.
"There was no one slicker than Robert Todd. He knew all the ways around everything he wanted. While your mama wore his diamond ring, he was messing around with me, family. Before I knew it I fell for him. I'd been married to my high school sweetheart, Taylor Cobb, for over a year. Me and Robert were together every day for three weeks. I promised to leave Taylor, and he promised to get that diamond back. Then he just up and left with your mama during the night. Gone. Just like Romeo and Juliet without the dying part." Pearl pulled her blouse over her head. Her breasts didn't look saggy like Mama's. "There's nothing like a swim to help you get over your heartaches." She pushed her skirt to the ground and kicked off her slippers. She was naked. "I loved him more than life itself, Annie Todd." Pearl dove into the water and for the longest time she didn't come up. Part of me wished she wouldn't. Then, I could just walk away and forget the whole day.
When Pearl came out of the water, she was way across the lake. "Come on. Don't you want to swim?"
I saw my daddy, much younger, swimming naked with Pearl. It was a vision. I saw him plain as day in the water, pulling her to him. Maybe it was his genes in me that caused the second sight.
"Nuns don't skinny dip." I pulled off my red blouse and blue shorts. I dove into the water wearing my bra and panties. The cold rushed over me as I pushed down, down, down, searching. I opened my eyes to the greenish swirls. Light played on the surface. Something told me there was no bottom to be found, no ending. What would happen if I pushed further? If I stayed under? That would show him once and for all. If he found out I drowned with the very person he called crazy, who he drove crazy, he would have to live the rest of his life with the truth. My body moved upward slowly, floating, saving itself. I pushed into the sunlight and steamy air.
"I told you this was good." Pearl was perched on a large rock, not even caring that I'd been under water so long. "I never blamed your mama, Annie Todd. Don't worry. She's the one who hated me when she found out. I don't much blame her. She thought I took Robert and Shiloh May. I didn't do neither. Those two have always done exactly what they wanted."
I moved through the water toward her. She reached down and helped me up. "Sit here in the sun. Don't it feel good? We got to go back soon before Shiloh May sends out the National Guard."
"What happened?" I didn't have to say anymore.
Pearl closed her eyes to the sky and sat there for a minute. "I killed Taylor, you know. He had never been mad at me before. He lost his temper and beat me. When I didn't die, I knew I'd make him pay. I wasn't thinking straight. It was like my whole life was summed up in that one beating. That night I took me a nail and shoved it in his ear. He just stopped breathing."
I thought my chest would cave in. "Who told on you?"
"Shiloh May." The name sat there. "She was right mad that I was in love with Robert, and she was even madder at Grace Jean for running off. She was striking out at her own story."
"What story?" My heart beat in my ears.
Pearl kept her eyes closed. "Shiloh May's my mama, Annie Todd. Your mama don't even know that. I think if she did things might fall in place for her, but Shiloh May won't hear of it. You know being human ain't her style. Anyway, I was her love child and don't go asking with who cause I won't ever tell that. It's the only thing that would make me lose my job." She peeked over at me and winked. "I don't know what she called herself doing when she told Taylor. After I killed him, I pulled the body out to the barn and left him there like you would some old dog you hated." She got quiet and shut her eyes again. "They thought I went crazy when I found him dead. They thought he died out there pitching hay." She opened her eyes and looked at me. "Shiloh May figured it out. She never said a word, but it wasn't long after that she quit treating me like some heavy obligation. Of course I waited on Robert. I waited that whole three months sure he'd show up. When I finally got to the state hospital, the doctors taught me one thing and they didn't even know it. They taught me it was Robert that should have ended up in the barn. I was real sorry for taking my heart out on Taylor, but it was too late by then.
"You know I was so sure Robert would come back for me. Even in the hospital, I'd imagine how he would show up out of the blue and prove me wrong, prove he was worth living. Finally one day I gave up. It was like turning off a faucet left running. I didn't feel much of nothing anymore. The only thing I longed for was Grace Jean. I prayed that God would put it in her heart to kill Robert. I prayed all the time. Of course your mama's made of better stuff." She stood up and looked at me. "Grace Jean told me the other day that she was going to make something out of her life. Imagine, like we can decide those kinds of things. She said that Robert wasn't worth her time or mine either. He never came back then and Annie Todd, he ain't coming back now. You understand why I'm telling you this?"
In those words was a family history, a woven story. In her eyes I saw my reflection. "Yes."
Pearl dove into the water. I watched her surface and glide across the lake, a beautiful sea creature. Her hair had come lose and flowed behind her.
I took in the sky above me. I listened to the birds. In the air was the heat of summer. In my heart was the tail of a crazy woman, my aunt.
I dove into the water, cutting across the surface, the skin of this world, the artifact of Pearl's life my new weight, my iron will.
Ann Hite lives and writes in Smyrna, GA. Her novel, Ghost On Black Mountain, will be available from an imprint of Simon & Schuster in 2011.
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