I’m the daughter who was born first, talked first and left first before the poverty that stuck to the rest of them could seep into my skin, below my fingernails and trap me permanently in that circle of snuff dipping, onion peeling, bible reading, egg collecting, tobacco tying, crab picking, whiskey drinking, hard fighting, varicose veined women that were my aunts and cousins and grandmamas back to the time when the first Foreman woman squeezed out the first squalling baby girl onto the muddy banks of Pungo Creek and the first Foreman husband said “Okay, woman, now that’s done, get up and fix my dinner and while you are at it check on that stove” and she got up an put her squalling baby in the bottom drawer of the dresser she had lined with quilting pieces and flour sacks and let her howl while she put the fat back in the cast iron spider and put it on the stove that was going just fine and put her hands on her hips that were holding up the stained blue checked apron and wondered to herself how in the hell she had ended up a wife and mother at 15 years old and how in the hell she was going to stand living with that man until death released her and they put her in the dirt behind Sidney Cross Roads Free Will Baptist Church.
Chapter One -Letting Go
Clara pulled in the oars, scrambled up to the front of the boat and threw the anchor over the side. It made a loud splash and probably scared away all the fish within a half acre. But they’d left their fishing poles behind so it didn’t matter.
“She’d be sorry if I was dead. If I was drowned she’d be sorry she hit me all the time.”
“If you were dead it wouldn’t matter because you wouldn’t be around to watch her be sorry.”
“It would if I was a ghost. I would come back and haunt her to the end of her days. I’d tap-tap-tap on her window at night and push the back porch swing….” Clara frowned and wiped her eyes.
“Come on, Clara. Do you really think there’s any such thing as a ghost? I mean, what if there isn't and you go and drown yourself and that’s it? You’re just drowned.”
“The way I’m feeling right now, Ivy, I’d be willing to take a chance. I don’t see how being dead can be any worse than…” She stopped.
“Worse than what?”
Instead of answering Clara stood up and brought her hands up in front of her like she was praying. “Remember when I got baptized and Reverend Linton said I died and was born again – that I came back to life? He dipped me down in this very creek.” She closed her eyes and just stood there in the front of the skiff.
Ivy studied her sister... She thought Clara looked a little like the angels in her Bible stories. Her curly blond hair framed her face. She was even dressed like an angel. Like always, Clara was wearing one of her good dresses instead of the worn out shorts that Ivy always wore.
“Clara, I don’t know why you insist on wearing your good clothes to go fishing in. You’re just going to mess that dress up and Mama is going to fuss about having to wash and iron it.” Ivy squirmed in her seat. This had gone on long enough. She eyed the bag that held their lunch. “Quit kidding around, Clara. Sit down before you fall overboard I’m hungry. Let’s eat.”
“I’m not kidding around. I’m praying. Be quiet.”
Ivy watched as sister raised her arms up to the sky and began to speak in a passable impersonation of Reverend Linton. “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”
“Amen. Brother Ben. Shot at a rooster and killed a hen.” Ivy countered. “You’re nutty, Clara. I am going to eat my sandwich.”
Ivy opened the brown paper bag that held their lunch - two banana sandwiches on Sunbeam bread. She wiped her hands on her shorts, unwrapped her sandwich and placed it on the waxed paper that she had spread carefully on her lap. She was just about to bite into it when she heard the splash.
Clara let go of the side of the skiff and allowed herself to sink into the brackish water of Pungo Creek. Her hair floated around her head catching the light that still streamed through the Carolina pines. Her eyes were open. Little bubbles escaped from her nose and gurgled to the surface.
Clara caught hold of the anchor rope and pulled herself to the bottom. Then she set the anchor on her stomach so she wouldn’t float to the surface and she waited. When she couldn’t hold her breath any longer she breathed in the creek water. For a second she almost gave in and pushed off the anchor, but she just kept remembering Reverend Linton dipping her in the water. It was just like being baptized. She felt Pungo Creek just flowing into her body and then all the fear left her.
Chapter Two - Pungo Creek - 1957
It had been Clara’s idea to take the skiff out.
“I’ll make us some banana sandwiches and you dig up some worms.”
“Okay but we better clean up this mess first or Mama will have a conniption.”
Together they had dismantled their playhouse, careful to put everything back where it belonged. Rose watched them silently from the porch swing. Her eyes followed them but she didn’t say a word until Clara came out with the banana sandwiches and a jar of lemonade.
Ivy was crouching near the creek, digging worms in the soft earth. The worms wriggled in her small, chubby hands as she deposited them in an old Luzianne Coffee can. She heard shouting from the back porch and she saw her sister stop dead in her tracks.
“So you think you're so smart? You're not! I’m your Mama, damn it. You're only a nine-year-old snot nose who doesn't know anything but how to be a tramp. You’re just like your aunt. Wagging your little ass, acting all surprised when some boy jumps on it. You don’t fool me for a minute you little whore”
It looked like Clara was about to say something when Rose hauled off and just slapped her across the face. “You ain’t getting nothing you didn’t ask for.”
The bag holding the sandwiches fell from her hand but Clara held onto the lemonade. Then Rose hit her again knocking the jar to the ground. Clara picked up the bag of sandwiches and ran toward the skiff. “Hurry up, Ivy, or I’m going without you.”
Ivy grabbed her can of worms and scurried to the boat.
Rose shouted after them “I am going to murder you both. I swear and be dammed you little brats are going to regret the day you were born.”
Ivy scrambled into the skiff just as Clara was propelling the little boat away from the shore. She could still see Rose on the porch shaking her fist in the air but her words were lost.
“What set her off?” Ivy asked when they had put some distance between themselves and their Mama.
“It’s got nothing to do with you. It’s me she’s mad at. It’s always me she’s mad at.” Clara rowed hard. She stared at a point just over Ivy’s left shoulder. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Her breath came in gulps and she just kept rowing. There was an angry splotch on her cheek. It matched the fading marks on her arms and legs.
After a long time she finally she stopped rowing. The skiff moved forward on its own momentum for a few moments and then everything was still and quiet. Ivy looked around. They were all the way down to Voliva’s Neck. She recognized the old Stokesberry House. She’d only seen it once from the dirt road the day that she and Clara borrowed Uncle Benjamin’s old burro Lucinda and taken her for a ride without asking permission. Mama had spanked them both hard with the Davy Crockett paddle. The old house looked even spookier from the water. It was supposed to be haunted.
“Want to go check it out?” Ivy said pointing to the ramshackle old house. She didn’t really want to. She was just uncomfortable and wanted to distract her big sister from whatever had happened back at the house.
Clara acted like she didn’t hear her. She just stood at the front of the skiff with her hands folded in front of her like she was praying. Then she was gone.
Ivy watched until she lost sight of her older sister’s hair and there were no more bubbles. She sat there for a long time just staring at the water. It was getting dark.
The sun sank lower and lower and finally disappeared. At last she moved. Slowly, as if in a trance, she made her way to the front of the skiff and pulled up the anchor that had been resting on Clara’s stomach. She set the oars in the oarlocks and headed for home. She waited until the sun disappeared behind the pines and only when darkness descended did she pick up the oars and row – back down the creek – past Toppins Point, past the stakes where granddaddy tied up his crab pots. When she passed the old graveyard she lifted the oars from the water. She almost turned around. She almost went back to look for her sister, but it was too late for that and maybe her sister was better off anyway. She kept rowing.
It wasn’t easy. She was only six. Her arms were short and her feet barely reached the bottom of the boat. She struggled to make the little boat move along the creek. When she got back to the house, Ivy pulled the skiff onto the bank and wrapped the anchor rope around the base of the mimosa tree. She remembered that just that morning she and her sister had been playing house under that tree. They had spread old rugs on the ground and hauled chairs out from the kitchen and pretended that the boughs were their ceilings. They had served each other tea from imaginary cups. Their Mama had watched them from the back porch swing, tolerating, for once, their pointless make believe and letting them be children for a few short hours.
Ivy ran into the house where she found Rose half drunk but not too drunk to rouse herself when Ivy came running in crying about how her sister had jumped into the creek and drowned herself.
“If this is one of your pranks I am going to beat the two of you within an inch of your life.”
“It isn’t a prank, Mama, honest. She was praying and the next thing I knew she was under the water and she didn’t come back up.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not lying, Mama. I think maybe she’s drowned. I waited there a long time and …..” Ivy began to sob.
She grabbed Ivy’s shoulders and shook her making her cry harder.
“Mama, we have to go get her,” she gasped between sobs. “Maybe she was just hiding in the weeds.”
“Why the hell did you leave her?”
“I waited and waited, Mama. I got scared. It was dark and we were way down by the ghost house.”
“Run over to Benjamin’s and tell him to bring his boat around. Tell him to hurry.”
When Ivy hesitated she hurried her along with a swat across her bottom.
Rose went to the front bedroom where her aunt lay sleeping on top of the chenille bedspread. Her Bible was open beside her as usual. “Sarah! Sarah! Wake up. I’m going to have to go out for a while and I need you to get up and look after the baby.”
By the time she had put on her shoes and jacket she heard her brother Benjamin’s boat out front.
“What’s wrong, Rose?” Sarah came out of the bedroom smoothing her apron and touching her grey hair that was held tight by her hairnet. “What’s Benjamin doing here?”
“Ivy and Clara took the skiff out and Ivy came back alone. Benjamin and I are going to find her.” Rose tried to keep her voice even so she wouldn’t frighten the old woman. She needn’t have bothered. At the moment, Ivy came bursting in, still crying. “Mama, Uncle Benjamin’s here. You’re going to find her, aren’t you, Mama.”
“Come here, child.” Sarah bent over and put her arms around the terrified child.
Rose left them there and ran down the steps to the dock where Benjamin was waiting with a puzzled look on his face. “Ivy said she saw Clara drown down in front of the old Stokesberry place. That girl can swim like a fish, Rose. What happened?”
“You know as much as I know, Benjamin,” she said, lighting a Chesterfield. “All I know is Ivy came in bawling about her drowning herself.” Rose was close to tears herself. She remembered the harsh words just before Clara had run down to the skiff – away from her. She just got so mad sometime. God knows she had thought more than once about killing herself. She wouldn’t drown herself though. She would blow her head off like Marilyn Satterwhite had.
Rose folded her arms and stared straight ahead as Benjamin pointed his runabout up the creek toward the spot where she already knew her daughter had died. She was beyond hope and beyond tears. She just sat there numbly waiting for the inevitable. The moon cast a wide beam of light across Pungo Creek. Benjamin’s boat moved across the water quickly. In just ten minutes they arrived at the spot it had taken Clara more than an hour to reach that afternoon. When the got to the place Ivy had described, Benjamin cut the engine back to idle and reached for his flashlight.
“Benjamin – there…Oh my God. Oh no.”
Benjamin cast his light over the shoreline where Rose had pointed and there, washed up in the reeds and cattails his light came to rest on Clara’s lifeless body.
Before he could stop her, Rose jumped into the creek and swam toward her daughter. She pulled her Clara’s lifeless body from the reed, held her daughter in her arms and wailed.
The sound reminded Benjamin of an afternoon thirty years before - the day that Rose and Pearl were born. That was the first time Rose’s cries had echoed across Pungo Creek. He sat silently watching his sister clutch her dead daughter to her breast. What had his family done to deserve so much heartache?
Chapter Three - Pungo Creek - 1927
Benjamin waited with his stepfather on the front porch. From inside the house came his mother' cries as she struggled with what his Aunt Sarah had warned them would be a difficult childbirth.
“It’s twins,” she had said. “Your Mama had a hard time pushing you out and she wasn’t a young woman then. She’s forty-four now and she ain’t strong. Wouldn’t hurt if you two did a little praying.”
There was no talking on the porch that day. Not to God. Not to each other. Benjamin sat in the porch swing. Grover sat on the steps, his eyes fixed on the creek. Each time his wife cried out he flinched and cursed under his breath.
Irene had been in labor since before dawn. It was past four now. The sun was sinking below the pine trees on the other side of the creek. “That woman can’t take much more of this and neither can I.” He got up from the steps and went into the house. The screen door slammed behind him.
“Stay out of here, Grover. I’m tending to your wife the best I can.”
“I’m just getting a drink, Sarah. Can’t a man get a drink in his own house?”
Grover opened the cabinet under the kitchen sink. Benjamin didn’t have to look to know that his stepfather had taken out his bottle of Jim Beam and was standing in front of the sink; his head dropped back, the whiskey pouring straight from the bottle down his throat. He had watched him do it many times. His Adam’s apple would bob up and down as he swallowed. Then he would lower the bottle, wipe his mouth on the back of his hand, let out a satisfied little sound from his throat, check the bottle and put it back under the sink.
“Shit” said Benjamin under his breath. “It ain’t his house. Can’t the bastard even stay sober today of all days when my mother is in there probably dying, giving life to his brats?”
Sarah came out to the porch wiping her hands on one of his mother’s dishtowels. The towel was bloody. So was Sarah’s apron. “Where’s your father, Benjamin?”
“He ain’t my father” Benjamin growled. “How's my mama? Is it over?”
“The poor thing passed out from the pain. It’s a blessing. I’ll get the babies cleaned up and you can come in and see your sisters.”
“I don’t want to see them. I hate them. I hate that bastard for what he did to my Mama.”
“Now, Benjamin. You need to calm down and get a hold of yourself. Your Mama needs you, son. She is not a strong woman and that man she married is just about worthless. But she's your Mama and those little babies in there are your flesh and blood.”
Sarah returned to her sister’s bedside. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing shallowly. Sarah talked softly to Irene as she picked up one of the babies and sponged her carefully with warm water. “Irene, this one looks just like you did when you were born. She already has a full head of hair. Bless her heart. And she sure has the Foreman chin. Goodness gracious.” She wrapped the infant in a clean white cloth and placed her in the basket next to Irene’s bed.
Irene opened her eyes. “Let me see my babies, Sister.”
Sarah put the second baby next to her twin and brought the basket closer so Irene could see. “You’re right, Sarah. Maybe I should name her Titania.”
“Hold on honey. Let’s not get carried away. Remember how you wanted to name Benjamin “Orlando” because you were reading “As You Like It” when you were carrying him?” Sarah put the basket down and wiped her sister’s face. “Honey, there’s time enough to worry about names when you get your strength back. You just rest now and let me get you cleaned up so your boy can come in. He’s hardly moved from that porch since dawn. He’s worried sick about you.”
* * *
The twins were asleep in a basket beside the bed. They were no bigger than kittens, red and wrinkled. One of the babies had a full head of dark hair. The other one had some light colored fuzz on her head. “Where’s Grover? Isn’t he here?”
“He had something to tend to. He’ll be back directly. Now just you rest.”
Benjamin was still sitting on the porch an hour later when Sarah came to the door. Reluctantly, he followed her inside and back to the bedroom where his mother lay sleeping, her face grey as though all the life had been bled out of her, but she seemed to be resting peacefully
Sarah put her hand on Benjamin’s shoulder. “Meet your new baby sisters, Benjamin. What do you think?”
He didn’t say what he was thinking. He didn’t say he wanted nothing more than to take a pillow and smother the life out of them. Instead he shook his head, “They sure are scrawny.”
Grover stayed away all night. He came back around noon the next day. Benjamin met him at the back door. The two of them stood, glaring at each other. Neither of them said a word.
The standoff between the thirty-six-year old man and his twelve-year-old stepson continued until Sarah stepped between them. “Where in creation have you been, Grover? You should be ashamed of yourself running away and leaving my sister like that. She nearly died.” Sarah had not slept for two days. She had delivered two babies and watched her beloved sister nearly die. Any civility she possessed vanished when she smelled the whiskey and cheap perfume that emanated from her brother-in-law. “My sister and her children deserve better than the likes of you, but since it was me that pushed her to marry you I'll keep my peace.”
“That’s the first intelligent thing you said today, Sarah. You do that. You hold your tongue. I’m going to see my wife.”
“Not like that you’re not. You clean yourself up before you go in there.”
Grover pushed Sarah roughly out of the way and walked unsteadily to the bedroom where Irene lay with a baby in each arm. She smiled weakly for a moment, but when her husband failed to return her smile, it faded. The man that glared down at her and her babies was nothing like her first husband.
Irene’s mind reached back to the day Caleb had died. It was March 8, 1924 - Benjamin’s ninth birthday. Caleb had been in the kitchen making coffee when Benjamin came in. “Good morning, son. It’s early for a boy to be up on a Saturday – especially on his birthday. I was planning to take care of your chores this morning.”
“I don’t mind. Really.” Benjamin grabbed a biscuit and hurried out.
Caleb took a sip of his coffee. “Our son’s is a natural with those animals. You know he was telling me last night he wanted to be an animal doctor when he grows up. Don’t that beat all, Irene? He could do it too. That boy is smart as they come. He don’t get it from me. That’s for sure.”
Irene tied on her apron, poured herself a cup of coffee and joined her husband at the table. “He takes after you, Caleb. He’s kind and gentle and hardworking. The boy doesn’t even rest on his birthday.” She reached out and touched his cheek. He still had the boyish face she had fallen in love with in thirty years before.
“Nine years old today. Looks like it’s going to be a pretty day. I think maybe Benjamin and I will take a ride into Belhaven. Let the boy have a little fun. I’ve got a few things to attend to and then we’ll be on our way.”
When Benjamin came back inside Irene was busy mixing up the batter for his birthday cake. He walked over and ran his finger along the edge of the bowl.
“Get your dirty hands out of my bowl.” She laughed and pretended to swat her son with her spoon.
Benjamin grinned, licking his finger.
“Your father said something about taking you into town for your birthday, Benjamin. Good thing, too. It’ll keep y’all out of my hair while I get your birthday supper ready. You go get yourself cleaned up now. I don’t want you riding into town looking like a field hand.”
Benjamin gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and ran off to get ready. She marveled that at nine he was nearly as tall as she was. He really did take after his father in every way. “I’m a lucky woman,” she said to herself. Her husband coaxed their livelihood out of the earth that surrounded their small clapboard house on Pungo Creek. Her son was good with the animals and never complained about getting up early to tend to them before heading off to school. He was a good student – never gave them a minute of trouble. Irene worried sometimes that he might be lonely – that he should have a brother or sister to keep him company – but he seemed satisfied being an only child.
She watched from her kitchen window as Caleb led the horses down from the barn. One of the horses was Salvo. She didn’t trust that horse. He didn’t like to be ridden. She walked out to meet Caleb at the back steps.
Caleb cut her off before she could speak her disapproval. “Don’t worry so much, Irene. I can handle this horse. We can’t just keep him corralled up eating our oats. Salvo has to work for his keep - like the rest of us.” He laughed. Irene didn’t.
Irene was still frowning when she stood on the back porch watching Caleb and Benjamin ride away a few minutes later. “You be careful, Caleb.” She called after him. Her husband turned around, grinned, waved good-bye. That was the last time Irene saw him alive.
It had been a freak accident. He and his father had been riding back from town when Benjamin challenged his father to a race. “I’ll wager you that I can beat you to the crossroads. If I win, you have to do my chores for a week.”
Benjamin didn’t wait for his father’s response. He dug his heels into his horse’s sides and took off.
“Hold on, Benjamin,” his father called after him. “Your Mama will have my hide if you get hurt.”
Salvo pawed the ground impatiently. She was agitated, straining against her bit. When Caleb loosened the reins she raced uncontrollably after the other horse. Benjamin turned around in time to see his father's horse rear back on his hind legs. Caleb had a startled look on his face as he fell backward. Benjamin had raced back to his father but it was too late. His neck was broken.
That night Benjamin took down his father’s rifle, walked into the barn and shot Salvo. He blamed the horse for his father’s death, but he blamed himself more. He never told his mother that he had challenged his father to a race. He bore his guilt silently. Irene’s grief had been so enormous, she was only dimly aware of her son.
Benjamin continued getting up at dawn and taking care of the animals before school but he couldn’t tend to the crops. Neighbors helped the best they could, but they had their own fields to plant. When a drifter had shown up and offered to take care of the farm in exchange for room and board, Irene had reluctantly allowed him into their home.
Irene had loved only one man in her life. She and Caleb had been devoted to each other since they were children. It had been a foregone conclusion that they would marry, but Caleb insisted on waiting until was able to care for Irene properly. It was Sarah that finally convinced him not to wait any longer.
“Sarah, I love your sister but I won’t live with her under her father’s roof. I will ask her to marry me when I can afford to build her a house of her own."
“You are more of a fool than I thought you were, Caleb. Irene wants a baby. How long are you going to make her wait?”
The next Sunday after preaching Caleb had swallowed his pride, collected all his courage and asked Andrew Foreman for the hand of his daughter. “I love your daughter. It dishonors me that I cannot give Irene a home of her own, but I don’t want to live without her any longer.”
Irene and Caleb had been happy together. When she buried him she swore she would never love another man. But who could blame Irene for allowing herself to become infatuated with Grover? She was a lonely, middle-aged woman left with a young boy and a farm to tend to. Grover was handsome - movie star handsome. He had dark curly hair and blue eyes. But it wasn’t just his looks that captured her. It was his self-assurance and his brashness. Within a year he was sharing her bed.
When Irene’s belly started to swell, her sister persuaded her to marry Grover for the sake of the baby. “It don’t matter whether you love him or not” she said when Irene said she had no feelings for him. “Your children need a father.”
Irene and Grover were married quietly in a somber service at Sidney Church. There was no celebration. Irene soon discovered that her handsome husband had a dark side. While no one would ever accuse Grover of being lazy, when he got home from the fields at night he expected his wife to cater to his every need. He had his own ideas about how things should be done and constantly found fault with Benjamin. But it was his drinking that disturbed Irene most. When he drank Grover’s was unpredictable. A violent rage would erupt at the least provocation or he might become amorous and force himself on Irene, ignoring both her delicate condition and the presence of her young son.
* * *
The babies wriggled in her arms bringing her back to the present. She looked down at the dark-haired one. “I would like to name this one Rose, and this one Pearl” she said dipping her chin to the smaller twin.”
“Don’t matter to me. They’re yours to do with as you please. But that boy out there is another matter. He’s going to learn to show me some respect, starting right now. You've coddled him long enough, Irene.”
“Grover, don’t you touch my son. He's a good boy. You leave him alone.”
Grover smiled for the first time since entering the room. “There ain’t a hell of a lot you can do to stop me now, is there?”
Labels: Pungo Creek