Authors: Bev Marshall
A Novel by Bev Marshall
ebook ISBN: 978-1-59692-857-2
M P Publishing Limited
12 Strathallan Crescent
Isle of Man
Telephone: +44 (0)1624 618672
155 Sansome Street, Suite 620
San Francisco, CA 94104
Copyright © 2002 by Bev Marshall
All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Marshall, Bev, 1945–
through shadows / by Bev Marshall.
1. Murder victims—Fiction. 2. Trials (Murder)—Fiction.
3. Mississippi—Fiction. 4. Farm life—Fiction. 5. Girls—Fiction I. Title.
PS3613.A77 W35 2002
Book design by Dorothy Carico Smith.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For Butch, Angela, Chess, and Dad
Your love carries me through the shadows
N MEMORY OF MY MOTHER
OUIDA GRACE WHITTINGTON FORREST
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
— T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men” 1925
My name is Leland Graves, and I’m a reporter here, in Jackson, Mississippi, for The Clarion-Ledger. I work on the crime desk now, but I wasn’t always a hard-news reporter. In fact, I always fancied myself a novelist, and I would never have predicted that a murder that took place nearly five years ago, on August 31, 1941, would change my career — and my life forever.
Back then, I was working for The Lexie Journal in Zebulon, a small town about fifty miles south of here. I covered the society page, writing about local weddings and parties, and if Guy Peters had not quit the paper, I wouldn’t even have been there on that day. But I was there, to capture and report the events of a story that would introduce me to a cast of characters I would never have known otherwise. They were, for the most part, good-hearted and simple people and no one, least of all me, suspected that on that hot, humid day, our innocence would be taken from us.
I remember, as though it were yesterday, them bringing the corpse up the small rise. As I stood watching them come, my anxiety grew until I felt light-headed. I had never seen a dead person except in a casket, rouged and neatly stitched. And though my recollection of the events of that day is muted by intense emotion, I will never forget the scene at Cottons’ Dairy, where the first murder in Lexie County in nearly a decade occurred. Clyde Vairo, the sheriff, had everyone who had come out to join the search for the girl corralled like a herd of sheep. He vowed no one was going to leave until he had questioned them all.
These are the bare facts, written in my reporter’s notebook, which I still keep here in my desk: “Sheila Carruth Barnes, found dead at 4:13 p.m., body found in Lloyd Cotton’s cornfield. Nine-foot cornstalks. Muddy ground.”
I recall asking one of the stretcher-bearers to cover her for decency and respect, but my notes do not reflect the true horror I believe we who saw the tiny body rolling to and fro on the canvas felt. My notes continued: “Green nightdress. Yellow trim. Purple bruises around the neck, several contusions, lacerations. A violent death. Victim may be 15 or 16 years old.” Beneath these lines I wrote, “Bio: employed at Cottons’ Dairy, married to Stoney Barnes. Address — Route 2, Zebulon, tenant house Carterdale Road.”
I couldn’t interview Mr. Lloyd Cotton, the owner of the dairy, that day, as he was given permission to go home to his wife. But I would get to know him as well as his wife, Rowena Cotton, their young daughter, Annette, and many others whose lives were affected by this tragedy when the awful truth of it all unraveled around us.
I tried to talk to the victim’s husband, Stoney Barnes, on that gray day, too. But he was walking in a daze, his handsome face and six-three frame crumpled with grief. He was a boy really, no more than a teenager himself. He had asked me, “Who would want to kill her?” and had stared at my notebook as though I were going to write the name of her murderer upon it.
I wish it had been that simple. But we were all, then, living out a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare’s attention, and I can only imagine the impact it had on those who knew and loved Sheila Barnes.
I never told Mama, but I saw the body. She had warned me to stay out of the way of the people swarming our land like fire ants escaping a poked mound. There were nearly one hundred pairs of feet stomping across our pasture, tromping down our tomato vines and butter bean bushes, kicking our milking buckets and stools across the slick cement floor of the dairy barn. But, despite the drama and confusion, I recall a sense of stillness that subdued the search. It seemed the mockingbirds sat like statues on the sticky resinous branches of the pine trees, and the bees, mosquitoes, yellow jackets, and dragonflies all seemed to slow the beat of their cellophane wings as they flew among the body seekers. From our raised back porch I could see fifty or more heads stretching out like sunflowers bobbing in the wind, swaying silently, seeming at times to float above the early morning mist that clung to the ground. The search had begun around six a.m. when Stoney had knocked on our back door to tell us that Sheila Barnes, his seventeen-year-old wife, was missing.
Her body looked older than seventeen. When the sheriff and three other men brought her out of the cornfield and laid her on the ground, she looked old and broken and defeated. Too short to see over the men’s shoulders, I squatted down behind Mr. Wells to view the corpse between his bowed legs. Stretched out on the ground she looked like a pretend person, a puppet with legs and arms at odd angles to her short torso. She was tiny, not much larger than a blue tick hound, and her blonde shoulder length hair, turned reddish brown with dried blood and mud, was matted to her head in uneven clumps. Her eyes were open, staring up into the men’s faces as if she had an urgent message for them; her mouth was an uneven oval, the bottom lip misshapen and swollen. Later I heard Bob Treacher retching in the weeds behind me. My stomach too rose up to meet my throat, but I kept the bile down even when I saw the beetle. It was stuck in her right nostril. Later when the facts were known, recorded in The Lexie Journal, I knew that, when her head was stomped into the ground between the nine-foot stalks of beautiful green and golden corn, the beetle must have tried to save himself by scurrying into her nose only to be squashed into death and entombed in her battered head.
Sheila was wearing a green nightgown that my mother had given her, with yellow piping around the armholes and neck. I remembered somehow knowing that she wanted to hug Mama when she held the gown against her flat chest, but I saw that she held herself back from that show of affection. When I read the words “love-starved” in a magazine left in Eatha’s Beauty Shop, I thought of Sheila’s yearning faraway look when she would watch Daddy crush my face in a hug against the bib of his overalls. Other words drifted in and out of my mind as I, with a giant-sized case of nerves, slipped in and out of the house the day she was found dead. I had heard neighbors and family members use the words “pathetic” and “feeble-minded” and “star-crossed” to describe her. But what I heard most was Sheila’s own voice that sounded like tiny wren’s wings flapping against window panes. One day beneath the fig tree she said, “Once I walked all the way to Brookhaven. Just took off and walked.” Brookhaven was over twenty miles away. Why, why did you go? I wanted to know. She had giggled, covered her mouth with her hands. “Just felt the road pulling me pulling pulling.” Had she been pulled to our cornfield? Or had she wandered there in a walking dream? Sheila believed all of her dreams held important messages that she didn’t understand. “I dreamed of a snake, a giant garter snake with the head of a lion. It wanted to warn me of something, but I’ve thought and thought and can’t tell what.” Only two nights before this morning when her entire family of fourteen fearful souls had stumbled out of the yellow school bus that brought them to our place, she had told me she dreamed about a secret no one knew. “No one,” she said. “And I ain’t telling it neither. Not yet.” We were sitting on the mossy ground beneath the water oak in her front yard, and she leaned into my body and bumped me with her elbow. “When I tell, you’re going to be one of the first ones I tell.” Then she grinned, a wide happy jack-o-lantern grin that scared me because it appeared unnatural on her thin, pinched face. I would never know the secret now, I thought. But I was wrong. By the time the trial began the whole state of Mississippi was privy to Sheila’s secret.
It was afternoon milking time, before the searchers shouldered their rifles, shotguns, pistols, axes, shovels, and scythes to return to their homes. The cows had come up and stood patiently in the field beside the lot, lowing softly, swatting flies with their tails as if nothing had changed. The sheriff would have questioned them if only they could talk. Clyde Vairo hadn’t expected to conduct a murder investigation during his term of office, and he went about this first one with a zeal that rivaled a puppy’s frantic rooting for its mama’s teat. After the body was loaded into the funeral home ambulance, the sheriff had looked around at the crowd of people standing in Sheila’s and Stoney’s yard. He held up his hands and yelled, “Nobody leave. This here is a crime scene now. It’s murder.” Somebody, Nellis Freeman I think, said in a high-pitched twitter, “Aw, sheriff, it was suicide. She beat herself to death,” but no one laughed.
The sheriff finally left when the moon appeared and cast its light into my bedroom where Mama held me limp and crying against her soft stomach. My friend was dead. The battered puppet wasn’t made of wood, but flesh and bone that I had touched and smelled and had once quickly and shyly kissed. I would miss our daily conversations, her hesitant walk, even the small hump that rose like a papoose from the center of her back. I would miss most of all having someone who would listen to me as if my words were important and not just sounds in the air to be brushed away like the gnats or mosquitoes that drove us all wild. I was not as a rule a crier, having learned by this my eleventh year that tears were generally wasted on my family who believed in “bucking up” when tragedy or disappointment visited, but that day I couldn’t seem to stop the rivers of tears that parted across my cheekbones and filled the hollows of my ears and overflowed into my straight brown hair that Sheila had promised me would curl when I got my period. I got it that night an hour after supper and, holding my pink-stained panties, staring in the bathroom mirror at my lank, still-straight hair, I began to realize that she might have been wrong about many things.
Two years before, when she was fifteen, Sheila trekked barefoot up our graveled driveway looking for work and a new home. I remember the date, July 24th, 1939, because it was Mama’s birthday, and Daddy had gone into town to pick up her surprise present, a new Singer treadle sewing machine. The storm that blew during the night, while I was dreaming of pulling taffy I could almost taste, had left puddles in the metal lawn chairs and I was mopping the seats with an old towel when I looked up and saw Sheila coming down Carterdale Road.
The first thing I noticed about her was the hump. Even though she hadn’t reached our drive, I could see the small mound, the size and shape of a canteen, rising from the middle of her back like a camel’s hump not yet fully grown. Her long blonde hair hung around the sides of her face obscuring all but her pointed nose which led her toward our house. She carried a cloth satchel like the one Grandma used for her yarn, and I guessed that it held only a few belongings as it swung so freely as she walked. Her feet were bare, muddy and wide. They looked much too big for her small frame and I remember thinking of butter paddles as they slapped along the road. She was wearing a yellow-on-white polka dot housedress that looked too elegant for bare feet, and I stopped my wiping and stood staring as she turned up our drive.
When she spotted me, she jerked her cloth bag to her chest and stood still as the lamppost sentinel beside our gate. Although she was standing near the sign that said “Cottons’ Dairy” in large loopy black letters, she lifted her hand to her eyes to shade them and called across the lawn to me. “Is this here the Cotton Place?”
I dropped my towel and walked toward her. “Yeah. I’m Annette Cotton. Can I help you?” I asked in my most polite voice, the one I used for customers, teachers, and anyone related to us on Mama’s side of the family.
She shifted her bag to her left hand, stuck out her right one. “Howdo. I am Sheila Carruth, first born of Thad and Effie Carruth out by the community of Mars Hill?”
I shook her hand heartily. Mainly because no one ever offered me a handshake before. Mars Hill was at least fifteen miles from our house and I wondered if she had walked all the way. Although there were no mountains around southwestern Mississippi, I pictured Heidi with her cloth-wrapped lunch gamboling over mountain paths to find our welcoming hut. I was a sucker for any tinge of foreignness, having lived with the dullest crowd of individuals I believed to have ever assembled in one spot. “You want to buy some milk or cheese? Orange drink?” My father had just begun bottling orange drink and it was fast becoming a best-seller and was the reason for my mother’s extravagant birthday present.
She laughed. Her laugh was unlike any I had ever heard, a child’s giggle reaching a shriek, but in a deeper adult tone. I hadn’t thought my offer was particularly funny, but she continued laughing until she wiped tears from her eyes. “No, no,” she said finally. “I’m not no customer. I’m here to work.”
I lifted my eyebrows. No women had ever worked in the dairy. It was a man’s place, a place of hidden whiskey bottles, drawings of half-naked women on tobacco-stained paper, and curse words, aimed at stubborn cows, that tickled my tongue when I repeated them to the chinaberry trees. “My daddy know about you?” I knew I sounded like a snotty kid and I immediately tried to take back my words by saying, “I mean he isn’t here right now.”
Sheila set her bag on the ground, brushed back her hair with the palms of her hands. “Oh, I ain’t needing to see him right now. I reckon I can wait. Long as need be.”
Her sleeveless dress exposed her freckled arms and I saw a purple bruise on the left one. The light brown freckles extended down her arms to her hands which, unlike her feet, were small and delicate-looking. A mismatch I thought to myself, like the one gray cat in the litter of black and whites, the battered straw hat my mother wore with her starched apron. I loved the unrightness of her, and I already knew somehow that she would become my Best Friend.
I invited her to wait in the house, but she pointed to her dirty feet and said she would just sit on the porch rocker. I brought lemonade and Mama out to her, thinking she looked in need of freshening and an adult who would most likely tell her my daddy didn’t hire women. But Mama walked over to the rocker and said, “You must be Sheila. I’m Rowena Cotton.”
Sheila jumped out of the rocker like there was a prickly bush under her butt. “I didn’t know when to come. Daddy he just said to go, so I come down and now…” Her words had started out rapid fire and died off to nothing like a racing engine suddenly running out of gas.
Mama was smiling. “It’s fine. Lloyd — Mr. Cotton — has gone into town, but he’ll be back soon to show you around the dairy. It’s my birthday, and he thinks I don’t know what he’s bringing home.”
“You know?” I asked. I couldn’t believe she had ferreted out our secret. I had congratulated myself for not giving a single hint and felt betrayed by her supernatural power to read my mind.
Mama patted the top of my head, taking the glass from me and holding it out toward Sheila. “It wasn’t you. Your daddy slipped up this time. Told me not to sew up the rip in his armhole yet. Two and two. It was easy to guess.”
“But what is it?” Sheila blurted out.
Mama and I laughed and said in unison, “A sewing machine.”
Later I learned that Sheila didn’t get presents on her birthday. “Birthdays ain’t nothing to celebrate at our house,” she told me. “Ten kids and no money. Just the little ones sometimes gets a candy or box of Cracker Jacks. I’m the oldest, so I stopped being young a long time ago.” She told me this after I had taken a huge piece of birthday cake down to the little dark room that was the smoke house behind the dairy where she would live for over four months. I couldn’t believe that anyone in their right mind would want to live in the place where Daddy used to hang hog carcasses, but Sheila acted like she had moved into the Taj Mahal. Mama told her she had some linoleum left over from the kitchen renovation that a hired hand would put down for her, and she gave her our old blue ruffled curtains for the one window, but looking around the cement walls, I doubted they would help much.
“When you been sleeping four to a bed, this seems like a triple-wide heavenly resting place,” Sheila said, patting the thin single mattress Daddy had dragged out of our attic.
“You don’t have anywhere to put your clothes and things,” I said looking around the empty space. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been told about something so important as a new person living in our backyard, but Mama said Sheila hadn’t been expected for another week, and I suspected the handprint bruises on her arm were the reason she came when she did.
Sheila smiled. “I ain’t got much, and I reckon I can keep them right here in this bag.” She lifted the satchel onto the bed and opened it. She pulled out a wooden-handled hairbrush, a pair of panties with tired elastic, a toothbrush, a pair of badly worn and scuffed brown shoes, a beige man’s work shirt, a calico skirt, and a small tin of saltine crackers. “In case I got hungry ’fore getting here,” she said extending them in my direction. I shook my head, and remembering the cake, I pushed it toward her.
She fell on it. I stood beside the bed watching as she shoved large clumps into her mouth like a starving mongrel. I had brought a fork balanced on the blue-flowered saucer, but she ignored it, using her fingers to break off chunks of chocolate icing which rimmed her small mouth when she finally licked the last crumbs right off the plate.
“Delicious,” she finally said. “I heared your mama was a good cook. A good woman too.”
I nodded. Being Rowena Cotton’s daughter had been a trial from my first step. People seemed to think I’d just naturally have all of her good traits, and no bad ones of my own. Suddenly, I felt envious of Sheila coming from a family that I had never heard of. The Cottons and the Bancrofts, who were my mother’s people, were well-known in the Lexie County community, and I was constantly being reminded that “other” people did this or that, but “we” knew better. My mother expected more of herself, and unfortunately, of me.
Mama’s goodness had reached its zenith when Lil’ Bit had come to live with us. For nine years I had been an only child, pampered, petted, treasured because, by all accounts, Mama was barren after laboring for two days to shove my reluctant self out into Grandma’s bedroom where Daddy had paced for all forty-eight hours of Mama’s Terrible Ordeal. I still felt some guilt about my part in this horror story, which Mama still whispered to her friends at Baptist Circle Meeting. Mama said that, as soon as Grandma wiped me off and handed me to her, the late afternoon sun dipped in the sky to shine through the screen window so that my head was bathed in golden spots that looked like a connect-the-dots halo. I suspected much later that this story was embellished to curtail any devilish behavior unbecoming an angel.
Looking over at Sheila repacking her bag, humming a church hymn, I tried to imagine being one of ten children. As an only child, I had been reduced to begging cousins to come over for spend-the-nights, creating a cat and dog vocabulary, and summoning Janice, my pretend girlfriend who was so boring and predictable I had finally killed her off when I was six. But being a single child had advantages, too. I was assured of getting the pulley bone when Mama fried chicken, and I always got more toys for Christmas and birthdays than my cousins who had to share Santa’s bounty. But I was lonely most of the time, especially during the long summer vacations, and so when Lil’ Bit came, I was his most ardent fan.
As if reading my mind (Was she going to turn out to be supernatural like my mother?), Sheila said, “Your little brother sure is sweet. How old is he?”
“Nearly six months, but…” I was going to explain that Lil’ Bit wasn’t actually my brother by blood, but decided that would turn into a long story and I had lots of questions jumbled around in my head. “So what’s gonna be your job at the dairy?” I pictured her in boots, shoveling oats into troughs.
“Cleaning mostly. Washing milk bottles, the floor, whatever needs a good scrub. Your daddy says the men ain’t good at woman’s work, and you got to be careful with the milk ’cause of bacteria. I think that’s like a disease you can get.”
“You’re the first woman Daddy’s ever hired,” I said, hoping she realized the significance of this fact and would work hard to please him so I could keep my new Best Friend.
She stopped, belongings in mid-air. “That so? I didn’t think about being the first one. Mrs. Bell, she’s the lady at church who told your mama’s friend about me, all’s she said was she was maybe gonna find something for me to help out.” Leaning over, she pushed her bag against the foot of the bed, then straightened the sheet and white chenille spread Mama had given her. She took a step back, an admiring smile on her face. “Oh, this is just wonderful. Don’t it look nice?”
I disagreed, but I smiled back and shook my head yes. I was burning to know more about that family of hers but I knew it was impolite to ask personal questions of someone you’d only known a few hours. But it was nearly eight o’clock and the sun had turned the light in the room to cotton candy pink, and I decided at that moment that it was best to begin our friendship without rules. “Is the bruise on your arm why you came?” I was nearly whispering, frightened she would be mad at my audacity, which Mama said was unbecoming in a lady.
Sheila looked surprised, not by the question, but by the bruise itself as she raised her forearm and looked at the dark blue finger marks. “Oh that! Oh, no, that’s just where my papa grabbed me. I broke the slop jar.” She wrinkled her nose. “Whew, it were one big mess. I was taking it out and banged it on the wall and it spilled all out. Papa come in the room just then and law law you should of heared the hollering. He slapped me good too.” A frightened, tight look came over her face as her jaws locked for a moment and her eyes opened wider. “I ain’t too clumsy though. I ain’t gonna break no milk bottles. I’m gonna be extra extra careful.”
“Daddy wouldn’t hit you for breaking something,” I said, wondering if this were true. “Least he hasn’t ever hit me, unless you count a regular whipping for big punishments. Even then, he doesn’t hit you hard.”
Sheila shook her head. “My papa says ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ least once a day, and me being the leastest smart of his young’ns, I reckon there wasn’t never a chance I’d be spoilt.”
I ducked my head, supposing she was thinking I was one of those rotten kids who always gets their way. “Well, guess I’d better go.” I didn’t move, hoping for something from her although I had no idea what.
“Yeah, I better get to bed. Mr. Cotton said milking starts at two o’clock in the morning, and I’m supposed to be there at four o’clock sharp. Oh!” She reached beneath the pillow and brought out the wind-up alarm clock Mama had loaned her. “Better set this for quarter to.”
Still I waited for more as I watched her struggle with the brass key. I breathed in the scent of the sooty walls, the residue of the bodies that had hung from the large rusting hooks above our heads. “Well…” I sighed. And then seeing that she had no idea of how to set the alarm, I took it from her and showed her how to work it. “Well…” I began again, taking up the empty saucer and unused fork. “Guess I’ll say good night.”
Sheila was already wiggling out of her dress, her back turned to me. “Night,” she called. “See you tomorrow.”
I grinned. “Tomorrow,” I said, knowing now this was the word I was longing for. Her dress slid to the floor, and just before I turned to grab the door handle, I saw the horrible red welts that looked like hash marks across her hump, rising like a huge fiery boil between her shoulder blades. I bolted out the door into the fading light, panting and frightened, and somehow exhilarated by it all.
Mother’s birthday sewing machine was already whirring when I awoke the day after Sheila came. Daddy and his brother Howard had carried it into Mama’s bedroom and set it in front of the west window where Mama had been up half the night, feet pumping, palms on the wheel, her head cocked to guide the fabric beneath the steel needle. By the time I came into her room, she had already sewn up every torn piece of cloth in the house and was stitching around a bib for Lil’ Bit, who was sitting on the floor playing with blue cloth scraps. I picked him up, kissed his fat little cheeks, and jostled him on my hip. He smiled showing his pink gums with two white bumps that we expected to erupt into teeth any day. Leaning over he chomped down on my hand and gnawed my index finger.
“This machine is a marvel,” Mama said turning around on her stool. “It’s even got attachments for buttonholes and fancy stitching. I’ll make you some school dresses this year that will be the envy of all the girls.”
I knew Mama was just saying that because she was always worrying about me feeling left out or jealous of all the attention she gave Lil’ Bit. But I would have sewn things for Lil’ Bit first, too. He was such fun to dress and so cute in the diaper shirts Mama had appliquéd with ducks and cows. “Great,” I said, putting the baby back in the middle of his scraps. “Maybe I could help you cut out some overalls for Lil’ Bit too. Corduroy ones for winter.”
Mama turned back to her machine. “Yes, I’ll teach you to use the machine. We’ll have lots of fun together.”
“I’m going to get dressed and go see how Sheila is making out.”
“Eat something first.” Mama ducked her head and pressed her foot back on the treadle.
I settled for a biscuit drowned in maple syrup and a glass of chocolate milk and headed for the barn where Sheila was just finishing up her first morning’s work. When I opened the barn door, the scent of disinfectant overrode the usual smell of grains and cow shit. The concrete floor was wet, and I stepped over the puddles that had formed in the uneven surfaces. The big double barn doors were open, and the sunlight twinkled in multi-colors on the water all around me. Now that the cows had been let out to pasture, the barn was quiet except for the swishing of Sheila’s broom. She was busily pushing the water toward the open door and hadn’t heard me come in, and I stood for a moment watching her body sway with her strokes. She was wearing the light blue work shirt, the calico skirt, and the scuffed shoes I’d seen her pull out of her bag the night before. Her hair was knotted on her head, but escaped blonde strands fell all about her head, moving in rhythm with her long-handled broom. “Hi,” I said.
She wheeled around, startled out of some reverie. She grinned, pushed her hair away from her face. “Morning. I’m just about done till they come back with the bottles to wash.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Smells like a hospital instead of a dairy.”
She nodded. “Yeah, your daddy said, since I come, he’s gonna have the cleanest dairy in the state. There must’ve been eighty cows pissing and pooping in here this morning.”
I laughed. “Daddy’s got over a hundred head, and three, Wallie, Quinn, and Sal, are about due to drop calves.”
Sheila leaned against her broom. “Why they named men’s names if they’re cows?”
“Oh, we name them after who we bought them from. Wallie Pearson, old man Ted Quinn, and Sal Delilo were the owners before us. Wallie is Shorty’s favorite and Digger likes Quinn best. My favorite is little June; Daddy let me name her ’cause she’s mine. Lil’ Bit’s calf is named after him. Of course, he doesn’t know he owns him yet.”
Sheila hung the wet broom on the nail beside the door, and we walked out into the lot. I climbed on the wooden gate and sat straddled on the top rail. Sheila hesitated a minute and then wrapping her skirt around her thin legs, she pulled herself up beside me. “How come your brother is named Lil’ Bit? He ain’t none too little.”
I had thought everyone in Lexie County knew all about Aunt Doris’s cancer and Lil’ Bit’s birth, but Sheila, living out at Mars Hill, didn’t know our story. “Well,” I said, “When Lil’ Bit was born, he wasn’t anything like he is now. He weighed only three pounds and no one at the hospital thought he would survive. Mama’s sister, my Aunt Doris, is his real mother, but she’s dying of bone cancer, and so she gave him to us.”
I explained to her that Uncle Walter, Lil’ Bit’s daddy, worked for the Illinois Central and couldn’t take care of him and that Aunt Doris had come to our house one day and asked Mama if we would raise him as our own. Since Mama had wanted another baby, but hadn’t been blessed with one, she was glad to get him.
When Lil’ Bit was born Aunt Doris weighed seventy-four pounds, and no one thought either of them would survive. Mama went to the hospital every day, and after each visit, she would come home crying, doubtful that our baby would live. Weeks passed and finally Mama brought Lil’ Bit home to us, but it was hard to believe he would survive. He was so frail, no bigger than a squirrel, and his cries were so weak we couldn’t hear him unless we were sitting near his bassinet. Aunt Doris had named him Lloyd Jefferson Vitter after his real daddy and my daddy, but the nurses all called him Lil’ Bit, and even though rolls of baby fat now encircled his arms and legs, that name had stuck. “Aunt Doris is a little better now. She comes nearly every week to visit him.”
I didn’t tell Sheila how much I hated those visits. Hated them for several reasons, some of them proving that the halo I had worn on my delivery day had tarnished to a deep black. I was scared Aunt Doris would change her mind and one day stride into Lil’ Bit’s room and take him away from us. On the nights after each one of her visits, I would kneel at the side of my bed and pray for her to die before she changed her mind. “Dear Jesus, she’s sick and in pain. Don’t you think it would be best for her to come live with you in heaven where all sickness ends?” I knew He wasn’t fooled by my words, but I kept on. “You see all suffering. She probably wants to die, to live with You on streets of gold.” Then my eyes filling with tears of shame, I said, “Take her. Take her.” I did tell Sheila that, after each of Aunt Doris’s visits, Mama would go into her room with the door shut for a while, and when she would come out, she was quiet for the rest of the day.
When I looked into Sheila’s face, I saw that her eyes had filled with tears. “Your poor Mama.” She shook her head. “I wish there was something I could do for her.”
“There isn’t anything to be done,” I said. “Grandma says we just have to carry the burdens the Lord gives us.”
Just as I was searching my mind for a happier subject, Sheila jumped down from the fence. She had read my mind again. “Hey, what’s the name of the dark-haired boy that milks for your daddy?”
“Dark-haired boy? Oh, Stoney?”
A smile like I hadn’t seen before on a girl except on the screen at the picture show spread across her face. “Stoney.” She said the name with reverence.
I grinned. I had a crush on him too. “He’s good-looking, isn’t he?”
She was blushing, knowing that this time I had read her mind. She nodded. “I reckon he’s about the best-looking boy I’ve ever seed in my whole life.”
Stoney Barnes had come to work for my father only two months before. The Barnes lived three miles from us in a raised white house with green awnings. There were four sons, three living in the house and one married. Stoney was the youngest, but at sixteen, he was already a full-grown man. The first time I saw him he was leaning against the barn door, smoking a cigarette. I watched his lips as they drew on the white paper and then rounded and puffed out the gray smoke in perfect circles. Stoney was nearly a head taller than Daddy, and a lot more muscular. The sleeves of his work shirt were rolled to his elbow exposing the blue corded veins of his arms. His hair wasn’t just dark; it was blue-black and shiny, cresting over his brow like a rooster’s comb. But it was his eyes that made me fall desperately in love with him. They were the same blue as the purple-tinged irises that grew beside the barn.
I slid down to stand beside her. “Did you talk to him?”
Sheila shook her head so violently I knew she must have been as tongue-tied as I was in his presence. “All’s I said was ‘Howdo’ when your daddy introduced me to everybody all at once.” She pulled a piece of her hair into her mouth and sucked on it. “He done left, didn’t go with them on the milk run.”
“No, he doesn’t know the route. Daddy and Robert make all the deliveries.” I tried a taste of my own hair and spit it out. “He’ll be back this evening though.” I may have been mistaken, but I remember thinking Sheila’s eyes got brighter at that information, and her little breasts rose up against her shirt. And I think I already knew with a black jealousy filling my gut that Stoney was going to fall in love with plain Sheila, hump and all.
I don’t know exactly when Stoney fell in love with Sheila, but he did. I never doubted his feelings for her although many people did. It was hard to understand how he could love a skinny girl with a hump on her back, breasts no bigger than green plums, and a seeming slowness in her head.
I had never thought of the dairy barn as being a romantic spot, but apparently it was. Maybe it was the feel of the cow teats, the warm frothing milk, the scent of the grains, the holy early morning darkness that held both fading stars and rising pink light.
Each morning, seven days a week, the cows ambled into the flood-lit lot outside the barn where the black and white Holsteins and tan Jerseys huddled together with their heads crowded over each other’s flanks. The Holsteins were better milk producers than the Jerseys, but Jersey milk had a higher percentage of butterfat, so Daddy had bred both about equally. All of them waited patiently, swatting flies, lowing softly until their name was called. Digger, Stoney, Johnny, and Shorty were the milkers. One of them would lean out the door and yell, “Steve” or “Teddy” or “Bell,” and like patients in a doctor’s waiting room, when they heard their names, their heads would jerk up, and they would thread their way to the milking parlor. When a cow entered the barn, she would walk straight to the feed trough where the layers of grain were mixed with shovels, and when she stretched her thin neck toward her meal, the wooden latch on the trough would be lowered and locked into place. As the cow ate, she would relax like most of us do, and then her milk would come down, swelling her pink udder to sometimes an amazing size. After washing the bag with soapy water, strong rhythmic hands reached out to the teats to spray white gold into the bucket. Then after about ten minutes, when the cow was dry, she would be freed and ushered out of the barn.
The smaller buckets of milk were then poured into the big silver cans and taken into the next room where the liquid would be poured through cheesecloth into the cooler. Daddy or Robert would then take up the cooler and drain the milk into a can with a spout so that it could easily be funneled into clear glass bottles. The cardboard caps that said “Cottons’ Dairy” were pressed on, the bottles loaded into crates and placed in ice in the truck. Finally, the cows, unaware of the business they’d created, were let out to graze in the pasture until evening when the entire process would be repeated. No one worried about pasteurization back then; people felt safe enough to drink milk right out of a teat, which I saw Digger do one afternoon.
Sheila’s job began after the last cow left the barn. She would begin in the feed room, washing the floor with the hose, sweeping shit and pee and spilled grain out into the lot. But after a while, she came earlier to watch the Jerseys and Holsteins amble into and out of the barn. A lot of the Jerseys had nasty temperaments and they would kick at the milkers, scornful of the slaps and blows and curses that rained on them. One day soon after Sheila came to us, we saw Stoney get slapped back with a strong flick of Sid’s tail.
When Stoney heard our laughter, a frown appeared on his face, but then he looked straight at Sheila and smiled. Mama called me inside just then to watch Lil’ Bit while she went down to Grandma’s for a visit, so I wasn’t present when Stoney asked Sheila out the first time. They went for a ride in his battered Ford truck, which blew a tire on Enterprise Road. He didn’t have a spare, so they walked nearly three miles back home on the dark gravel roads.
“On the walk home, I stumbled on some loose rocks, and Stoney caught my arm and nearly lifted me right off the ground,” Sheila told me the next afternoon. “He is strong like a bull, but not bad-tempered like Franklin.” Franklin was our 1,500-pound registered bull whom we fed with a pitchfork, his horn and nose roped in a half-hitch. Everyone was scared of him, even Daddy, who called his fear “respect.”
We were sitting on the metal rockers in the front yard beneath the water oak. Lil’ Bit sat on a pallet at our feet, laughing at the leaves that drifted down on the breeze. It would rain soon, and we were enjoying the unusual coolness of an August day. Sheila picked up a leaf and twirled it in her hand. “It were my first date, and I kissed him, let him rub up against my chest. Do you think that’s wrong?”
I pretended to ponder her words, but I was actually thinking this was the first time anyone had asked me about right and wrong. Usually I was the one being told, not the one being asked. “I think it’s romantic,” I said. “I would’ve let him kiss me.”
Sheila got up and flung herself down on the grass, and staring up at the aluminum sky, she whispered, “I love him. I do.”
“Is he going to ask you for another date?” I asked, rising to pull the crab-crawling Lil’ Bit back onto the pallet.
She grinned. “Already has. Tonight.” Her brow wrinkled and her eyes bore into me. “Do you think it’s possible he might fall in love with me?” She shook her head fast. “No, not with this.” She shrugged her hump.
I didn’t know what to say. Here I was being consulted on problematic issues that were beyond my scope. I cuddled Lil’ Bit, kissed his cheek. “Well…” I stalled. “Anything is possible, Grandma says,” I told her.
Even Mama got caught up in the romance between Sheila and Stoney. After I told her they were “stepping out,” she said, “but she doesn’t have any clothes.” And before an hour had passed, I was standing at the smoke house door with an armful of Mama’s old dresses. They were all too big, hems hung unevenly over her hump to her ankles, shoulder seams to the center of her upper arms, but Sheila didn’t care one bit. She twirled around the dark room in Mama’s old green house dress like she was wearing an elegant evening gown. “How do I look?” she asked. “I wish I had a mirror.”
“You can use the one over my dresser. Come on,” I said, pulling her arm toward the door.
When Mama saw how pitiful she looked, she insisted on making emergency alterations, and she quickly stitched up the hem to accommodate the hump. We bunched in the waist with a belt, but we couldn’t, on such short notice, do much about the drooping cloth that hung over her shoulders. When Sheila looked in the mirror, she slowly lifted her hands to her face; like a blind person her fingers traced her cheekbones and jaw line as though she were trying to discover her own identity. She did look different. I had never noticed the little green flecks in her blue eyes, but the watermelon green of her dress brought them out. The only words I remember her saying as she turned to Mama, who was standing behind her smiling at her reflection in my wavy mirror, were “God bless you.”
God kept on showering blessings on Sheila, but He must have used them all up on her because before the month was out, Aunt Doris died. Sheila baby-sat for Lil’ Bit when we went to the funeral. Daddy was a pallbearer, and he looked more unnatural than the corpse in his tightly buttoned white shirt, his red face protruding over his Adam’s apple. Miraculously, Aunt Doris looked beautiful with her red hair curled softly around her face, her pale pink nails resting on a white lawn gown trimmed in blue ribbon. At the feast afterward, I sat with my head down and refused the fancy food the ladies from our church kept offering me. I had prayed for this; it was my fault Aunt Doris was dead. Ask and it shall be given. The Lord had given me just what I asked for. I hated myself. Was Aunt Doris looking down on me from heaven shaking her red curls at my blackest of hearts? Did she know I had been the cause of her being taken away from poor Uncle Walter who couldn’t stop sobbing into his initialed handkerchief? I couldn’t live with the guilt. I would go home and stab myself with the butcher knife Mama used for cutting up chicken parts. I would thrust the knife straight into my heart and blood would spurt out of my chest like it did from the hogs’ necks when the blade sliced their throats on hog-killing day. I would drop the knife, sink to the floor, whisper, “I’m sorry,” and then die.
When we finally got home that night after Mama had hugged Uncle Walter for the last time and invited him to come see Lil’ Bit any day, I was too tired to kill myself. I had fallen asleep lying on the backseat of the Dodge on the way home, and I was barely conscious as Mama helped me undress and get into my nightgown. I remember Sheila saying Lil’ Bit was “good as gold” and that he went to sleep with a smile on his face. He didn’t know his true mother had been buried that day and that he would never see her face, hear her voice, or remember the kisses and hugs she had given him. But Mama said we would tell him about his true mama, and he would know her as part of himself. He would see her red hair when he looked in the mirror.
I kept worrying about needing to kill myself and face judgment. Mama asked me did I need a dose of castor oil, was I feeling poorly, did I want to talk about anything. No, no, and no I said. The last person on the face of the earth I would tell that I was a murderer would be my mama. I couldn’t bear to see the look on her face if she knew me for the monster I was. Two days after the funeral I forced myself to open the kitchen drawer that held the knife, and I stared a long time at the wide silver blade that winked up at me, hissing “Pick me up. Do it. Do it.” And when I slammed the drawer shut, I could hear a faint word rising out of the wood. “Coward.”
The day when Uncle Walter came for his first visit with Lil’ Bit was the day I knew for certain that Sheila was my true Best Friend. He knocked on the front door, causing a stir in our house because only the preacher and strangers ever lifted the big brass knocker, which sounded like a bass drum. As was our habit, Mama and I ran to my bedroom first to peer out the window before deciding to answer the knock. When Mama saw that it was Uncle Walter, she put her hand to her mouth. “My Lord!” she said. “It’s Walter acting like company.”
He looked like company too, dressed in navy slacks pressed with a crease, and a beige shirt that was scorched on the right sleeve. When Mama opened the door, he stepped back like he had changed his mind about coming to see us. “Walter, what a wonderful surprise,” Mama said.
“I should’ve called, I reckon,” he said inching toward us. “I just got up this morning and said today is the day I got to go see my son.” He scratched his head like he was puzzling about something. “Got to go out on a run to Chicago tomorrow. I’ll be gone quite a spell, so I thought, I’d…today… would be…”
Mama walked out onto the porch, and holding the door open, she pulled him inside. “Lil’ Bit is in the kitchen. Come see.”
I followed them into the room where Lil’ Bit sat in his playpen chewing on a squeaky rubber toy. Every time he heard the funny screeching sounds the toy dog made, he chuckled, shaking his entire body with delight. Uncle Walter stopped dead still in the doorway. Finally, he spoke. “My God! He’s got her hair. Just like her.” And then he choked up and his shoulders caved in to his chest as he tried to walk toward his son.
I couldn’t take it. I had had enough. It wasn’t right for a murderer to be standing in the room watching the devastating results of her crime. Later it came to me that there would be a lot less crime if the people who committed them had to see the family grieve right in front of them. I doubted that there were many people mean enough in the world to stand it. I rushed out the backdoor and climbed the fig tree fighting the branches back like they were strong arms trying to stop me. I went as high as I could and lay out on a branch, rubbing my cheek into the bark. I wanted to wear away every bit of my skin, but I felt no pain.
“Annette.” I looked down on Sheila’s face tilted up toward me. “I seen you running out here. What’s wrong?”
I sat up, shook my head. I couldn’t tell her. She would hate me.
“I’m coming up,” Sheila said. And I watched her as she climbed awkwardly, bracing her feet on forked limbs, testing a branch for strength, and then pulling herself up until she reached the stout limb across from me. She looked down. “Whoa, this is great. I feel like a bird. I feel like I could just fly off here and not touch the ground.”
I smiled in spite of the boulder-sized rock lying on my chest. She settled her humped back against the trunk and straddled the branch. She looked like an elf with her pixie bangs falling over her eyes. She was quiet for a minute, and then she reached across and tapped my arm. “You gonna tell me or not?”
“Not,” I said. “Can’t. It’s too terrible.”
“Ain’t nothing as terrible when told as when kept locked up.”
“You believe that?” I asked.
She nodded. “Shoot, I know it.”
I looked into her blue eyes and saw the pond, the sky, blue jay feathers, sapphires, and Lil’ Bit’s blue diaper shirt. I saw the blue of unconditional love, true blue. She wouldn’t judge me. “Oh Sheila, I prayed for her to die.” Released from the bondage of silence, my words ran out and looped around the fig leaves, spun down the tree trunk, and cut through the heavy air toward my Best Friend. When I had called myself every name I could think, including coward for my inability to commit suicide, I ended up crying with great gulping heaves that felt like I had used the stabbing knife on myself after all.
Sheila waited until my wails dwindled to sobs. Then she touched my arm and pinched it hard. I was surprised I could still feel anything, but I winced in pain. “That’s real,” she said. “All this other is just shadow. You can walk through shadows if you watch the sun and do it just right.”
I shook my head. I didn’t understand.
Sheila licked her finger and wiped the spot on my arm with her spit. “Shadows is just imaginings. I thought on this one time after Papa beat me for eating the last piece of cornbread he were saving for hisself. I runned out in the yard and seen my shadow jumping up ahead of me. And I says to myself that ain’t me; that’s just dark lines shaped like me. But I knowed that I had to get rid of that black girl who was full up with fearing and worrying and sadness.” She looked up and I followed her eyes through the green canopy of the leaves to the puzzle pieces of sky. “Now most folks think we can’t get away from our shadows. You move, it moves, you stand still, it does too. But I learned how to walk right through my shadow.” She smiled at me. “You wanna know how to do it?”