An excerpt from a novel
by Kathryn Diamond Camp
“That night, an old crone at the edge of a cave remarked to her sisters
that she had heard three cries that day; one, a youthful voice crying out in terror;
and another calling plaintively; and a third, that of a mother weeping.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés on Persephone
Women Who Run with the Wolves
Chapter One: Washington D.C.
Here it is.
I’m kneeling like a good Catholic on the cold gravel floor of my dimly lit basement crawl space in a scattering of crumpled newsprint and the relics of my marriage, dumped out in search of this, the last of the bulk pregnancy tests.
“Can you hear me?” I whisper.
The landline starts ringing, and it might be Edward, so I leave my boxes akimbo and run upstairs. As unexpected as this is, the pregnancy test’s question will be answered by the tenor of his voice, by the rise or fall of his first syllable.
I find the phone. It’s not Edward, and Mama can wait.
In bathroom, I sit down, toe the door wide, and lean over to hear Mama’s message.
“Damn it, Hayes, I raised you better,” Damn is Mama’s one quite frequent swear.
“Lawd only knows what goes on in that city, what keeps you too busy to call your Mama,” she’s still holding Washington D.C. in disdain for luring her daughter away from home. “I don’t care how late it is. Call me.”
I look for an expiration date, find none, rip the wrapper, and Mama gives her litany.
That she’s calling in such a moment is most likely intuition. I know Mama. She felt her grandchild’s heartbeat at around quarter ‘til eight, the minute I first imagined it. She’s like a good bird dog. Home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama – more than 800 miles away – she senses the quickening of my heart before the rush to fly.
One hundred-five nights ago, in a giddy moment when we were not yet breathing normally, “Don’t worry,” I told Edward. “I’m not exactly fertile Myrtle.”
My words snagged. I rolled over, away, to avoid the story, but he pulled himself up on an elbow, and he saw. He knew when not to ask.
I plug the drain, run bathwater. It’s only been three minutes since Mama’s last call.
I’m heading home in six days for Thanksgiving. She’s hell bent to micromanage my packing, plan a carb-free menu, and set me up on a date to the Auburn game. She doesn’t know about Edward. I’m not sure what to call Edward, or his business trip that turned into something better, and while he makes me laugh with one-line texts, and he’s brilliant in ways Mama will never understand, she’d die if she knew I met him online.
The truth is, Mama’s been crying out into the night ever since she realized my life wasn’t turning out exactly how she’d planned, and what she needs is another historical landmark to renovate, or better yet, a soul in need of saving – someone else’s daughter.
Now, as if psychically attuned, aware I’m thinking of her, aware I’m holding my cell, aware I’m looking at it, she sends a text: “Time for bed, sugar. Call me. It’s urgent.”
Hera – it’s a sly pleasure, calling Mama by her given name – Hera is always urgent.
It’s the landline again. I pick up the pregnancy test, looking at my watch. They make you wait ten minutes, and I will not find this out with Mama holding her breath on the other side of the line.
I know what she believes each time I don’t answer. I can’t take personal calls in the presence of my client, Senator Tupelo Clark, so Mama says I don’t give a damn about my Goddaughter Lexi, a freshman at the University of Alabama, one of twenty-one African American women who pledged traditionally white sororities this fall, or about Lexi’s mother Beulah who now cusses my name, or about Miss Evelyn, whose mind is slipping. Or about Daddy’s torn meniscus tendon, or the tea scale infestation on Mama’s camellias, or the football team. Or, for that matter, the daily running of the University, where Mama and Daddy have lived since before they met, where Daddy’s career took him from the football team to the sports publicity department to the highest administrative position, University president. Mama, his first lady, embodies a role she took up thirty years ago like a zealot to a cause, though she isn’t convinced yet she’s earned it.
This is their world. Home.
I left home, and Mama’s wrong. I care deeply, I do, but she’ll be right about it until she gets me back there for good.
Another voicemail. The number ticks up to seventeen since lunch.
Mama hangs up, and types, “Where are you?”
I undress and step into the bath. Too hot. I turn on the cold and sit on the edge of the claw foot tub, not an easy perch, to shave my legs while I wait for the test results. I think of the cautionary advice given when you’re pregnant – no hot tubs, no saunas, no Brie, no sushi. I’ve always followed these rules to the letter. I smooth shaving cream onto one leg and carefully pull away a line of stubble. The razor pauses above my ankle, a vulnerable stretch, easily nicked, a place of faint old scars. I slowly work around and over my kneecap. I take care of the small tuft of blond on the middle knuckle of my big toe. I splash hot water to rinse away scant remains of foam, and find a swath of stubble, an inch wide, running up the back of my calve muscle. I whisk it away with a dry razor and feel the bite of raw flesh meeting steel as I glance across the room at the pregnancy test. I dab water at the blood, meeting the sting in this moment of wishing for the impossible.
“Where are you?” Mama’s text alert chimes in again.
In ten minutes or less, you can find out if you’re going to be a mother. Think of it. For ten minutes or less, you get to live into all of life’s potential. You can believe – until you know. It’s got to be ten minutes by now.
I scoot off of the tub, wrap my robe, and drip to the sink. It’s been fifteen weeks since Edward flew over from England – I’ve counted. I’ve counted in my head. And I’ve counted while on the metro, with a highlighter pen drawn through the calendar grid ticking back through the Senator’s speaking engagements.
Even though not on the ballot this general election, Senator Tupelo Clark, and we, her speechwriters, with staff and senior advisors, sprinted to rallies for more than three months. So I blamed stress for speeding up menopause, fifteen weeks, not a spot, and no thought of pregnancy. Funny, Mama used to say to get myself busy, stop thinking about babies, let life happen, so life can happen. And I did this for years, or so I pretended, even while counting the days of my cycle. Here, I haven’t paused long enough to imagine.
A pale pink line floats up to the surface.
Once, when no one knew the loss like she did –
“Talk to your baby,” Miss Evelyn said, reaching across the wide red leather seat of my grandmother’s old Cadillac, wiping my face with her palm – with her smoke, bacon and stale Shalimar.
“Talk to your baby,” she told me time and again – I can count every time. “Talk to your baby, and keep it with you.”
“Can you hear me?” I ask for the third time tonight.
Decidedly not a double-blue negative result, pink becomes garnet, and I pick up the phone. Mama exhales her cigarette slowly before speaking. Smoking is something she quit in the 90s, and only allows herself, she claims, when she needs a forgivable sin.
“My Lawd, I was about to send out an APB. Where in H have you been?”
Over the years, my hope fell away. It did, as Mama promised, become less painful. Numb, really.
“Mama listen, I’m not packing for Thanksgiving until next Wednesday. Can’t you just start a list, and text it to me?”
“You need a plan. Have you dealt with your roots? Your ecofriendly home dye kit does not do it anymore, sugar. You’re in the regular-visit-to-the salon age bracket now.”
“How is Lexi?” I ask, reaching for a framed photo I keep on my dresser, dusting it with the sleeve of my robe. These days, most of Mama’s calls are about Lexi, the daughter of my childhood best friend Beulah Davis Price. She’s not Lexi anymore.
In the late nineties, three months old at Homecoming, Lexi wears my gift, a red smocked bubble. You see Denny Chimes behind us, and if you look closely, you see the fat creases of her baby ankles, because her white patent leather lace ups didn’t stay on. You see the tiny knot of her brown hand, clenching my hair. You don’t see the sounds she made, or the smell of her scalp, with her wispy curls against my neck, soft, and damp. Only I see my fake smile, still buried in a brief pregnancy, holding Beulah’s baby, giving a good performance – staging the buoyancy expected for such occasions.
“How’s Lexi?” I ask again.
It’s more than freshman blues. Since arriving on campus, our recent salutatorian Lexi, now Alexis, thank you, skips more classes than she attends. She broke up with her boyfriend, the first, a boy she talked up and down last Spring Break, our last hurrah at Mama’s family’s bay house. She dropped her friends from home, white and black. When her grandmother Yvonne and Great-Grandmother Miss Evelyn showed up at her dorm and dragged her to church, she went, but didn’t sing. Later, didn’t bother making small talk outside Weeping Mary Baptist. Hardly ate a bite at lunch, wouldn’t stay for the Sunday ritual, playing gin rummy for nickels around Miss Evelyn’s picnic table.
Mama speculates why – Lexi’s father’s jackass pressure, the boyfriend, Miss Evelyn’s decline, and the obvious. Mama and I opened a door when we staged our coup d’état of this white stronghold, Magnolia Drive at the University. We held the door open, hoping she’d walk through it – a black girl entering a white house on a red brick campus. Bricks tell their own story – red bricks made of red clay dug up by slaves, mixed with granite dust pounded smooth by slaves, churned and baked and hauled and stacked then mortared by slaves. When the campus burned to the ground in the war to free slaves, little remained except bricks – fire-hardened, buried in rubble, found, hauled, stacked and mortared back into place with nothing but pride. Lexi entered this place of bricks and old rules, now crumbling. She’s welcomed, reviled, celebrated, watched, feared, and who the hell are we, thinking we can make this one thing right?
She hasn’t climbed the House stairs to watch TV and drink beer with seniors—a privilege extended to one pledge at a time, now turned down too bluntly too many times. If she goes to socials, she leaves early. If she shows up at the House, she sits alone, elbows on the table, head propped on her hand, a book open, reading, not really reading. If she answers your questions about her classes, her dorm, her roommate, her dress for the fall formal – if she actually answers her phone – you hear it, a flat quality in her voice, approaching boredom with one word answers. You get the feeling she’s burdened talking about any of it. All this from Lexi, a chatterbox even when she turned fifteen. The rising and falling of her voice once carried you along, like birdsong. We call her Lexi Lightning Bug for buzzing with excitement, drawing us near, as if we’re chasing a trillion little sparks of light all around her, gone dim now.
“Why can’t you ever pick up the phone?” Mama asks.
“You’ve called with Lexi’s itinerary every day since she got to campus. Really Mama. She’ll find her way without you warding off Halifax each time she sneezes.”
I wave my hand through the bathwater. It’s now cool enough to reach for the drain. I pull the plug and let out some water, drenching the arm of my robe.
When Mama’s in high cotton, I turn to “the Ladies” because they sister me. We share our matriarch, my grandmother, forever a ghost in the room, whose caveat, you’ve got to know the rules to know how to break them, carried our four generations from the Great Depression to the New South. We’re black, white, young, old, older – sisters, yet thicker than blood, held together like cornbread batter by the stories we tell.
“Where have you been?” Mama asks again.
“Work. And cooking class.”
“And you didn’t have a single minute to call your Mama?”
“I barely left Capitol Hill in time to get to cooking school.”
“Tupelo’s full of herself.”
No one in DC calls the Senator by her name to her face. She prefers her title, Senator, but everyone in the South calls her Tupelo, which is not her birthplace, but her first name. She, honest to God, has a brother named Jackson, and a little sister named Natchez.
“Did your cheese turn out?”
“We started goat Brie tonight. It needs to age for six weeks.”
“Sugar, I don’t understand why you’re so excited about cheese,” Mama starts in again. “I can’t imagine spending my nights with my hands in latex gloves simmering milk, and besides, we’re talking whole milk. Whole milk, Hayes!”
I made the mistake of taking Mama to cheese class when she and Daddy came up for my birthday in July. Not only was she put off by the surgical gloves, she was adamant about what cheese does to your thighs. Until my divorce, neither of us relished one gram of fat in pleasure or freedom since I was fourteen years old. Mama’s biggest worry: fat little girls don’t make the right friends, fat girls don’t get the right boyfriends, fat young women don’t get married, and finally, before Mama guessed how right she was, fat wives get replaced by skinnier, younger versions of themselves.
Tonight, goat brie – my first class since aged cheddar – the sweet, chevre pungency got to me, and the rush to puke in a trashcan got me thinking about babies. I tried to dismiss the idea, but the possibility started growing while my rennet was setting, and by the time I transferred my curds into my brie mold, hope tiptoed in. What if?
I reach for the small, plastic piece of proof, less bright red, now more crimson, like blood. You can hear me, my baby. I know this. You know me already.
“And you’ll never find a man at cooking class,” Mama continues.
I fiddle with the faucet until the bathwater runs warm. I plug the drain again.
“Real men don’t care what wine to drink with goat cheese,” Mama concludes.
“I don’t want another man who’s out of his comfort zone if it isn’t bourbon or beer.”
There’s a long moment of my tinkering with the bathwater and Mama waiting for me to rethink my opinion. When I turn off the faucet, I hear the distinct sound of nail clippers in the background. “Even widows date after a year,” she finally says.
I let everybody pretend my divorce was amicable, imagining their talk of how graceful I’d been through it all – running into Bryce buying champagne with a college girl, and the rest we learned through the tan little blonde’s Facebook posts – until one afternoon last May. Bryce’s birth announcement – A boy! Exclamation point.
Fucking exclamation point.
Another Bryce. They call him Trey, for the third, as we once planned. Bryce Pelham Walker the Third – eight pounds, five ounces – briefly took the life out of me.
“I’m happy, Mama,” I tell her, holding my palm on the underside of my belly, looking in the full-length mirror for a slight roundness. “This isn’t what I thought my life would look like. But I’m happy. It’s been a long time since I’ve said this, and I don’t know if I was really happy back then anyway.”
Mama takes her time with her answer.
“They say you don’t need a man to be happy. And I guess it’s true, but if you don’t want to be lonely, they’re worth pickin up after. But I didn’t call to talk about boys.”
I put the test down, and reach for it again. I want to tell her. But Edward first.
“It’s,” Mama pauses, assures I’m listening. “Hayes, sugar, it’s Miss Evelyn.”
Miss Evelyn taught me to kick field goals after school, convinced I’d be the first female kicker in the SEC.
“Before you take one step, you gots to stop and see the ball goin where you want it,” she said, kneeling in the soggy dirt field behind sorority row, grass sticking in her panty hose, holding the ball, waiting.
“Damn mosquitos,” I said, swatting one.
“Shut yo mouth, chal.”
I licked the sweat from my lip and closed my eyes, trying to see the ball sailing between the goal posts. I opened my eyes.
“Go on, chal. You can do it,” she said.
One, two, three steps, and I threw my weight into the gritty leather, feeling the sand graze the toe of my tennis shoe. The ball went up, not far, and fell like a tumbling rock a few feet away.
“Now you listen to me good. They’ll tell ya to be a lady, to behave, ‘cause it’s what the world tells girls. And they’ll tell ya you cain’t go changin things. People who ain’t got no spirit, they try to break the spirit in others. But chal, if you believe in yo’self, you can do anythin. You hear?”
I never did get good at kicking, but I loved this time of day.
I place the pregnancy test on the windowsill. Can’t let go of it. Can’t leave it there, reach for it. I wait while Mama finds the words, inevitable and precise, words awaiting their moment since I moved away.
“It’s Miss Evelyn,” she repeats. “You’ve got to come home.”
About the Author:
The mountains lured this Southerner away from Alabama in the early nineties. She lives with her family in downtown Carbondale, Colorado where she keeps bees and works for The Sopris Sun newspaper.
This novel began as a story about unplanned pregnancy, abortion, and the complexity of a choice that is never easy. It is a choice made treacherous in the South, where issues of safety and accessibility effectively deny women across all backgrounds the right to determine their path toward motherhood. As the voices of the characters came to me, I accepted that this story, which was never intended to be about race, was also supposed to shine a light on the realities of change in today’s South. What emerged is a mother-daughter novel about how we can love and nurture one another through unspeakable pain, and how we find ourselves through the healing gift of stories.