Skip to main content

At Aunt Charlotte’s


ISSUE:  Summer 1987

When the phone rings at four-thirty in the morning, Riley thinks someone has died. Her heart keeps hammering even when she hears her brother’s voice and knows why he is calling.

“You and Joseph have a nephew!” More than exhausted, Nat sounds drunk. But Riley knows he only sounds that way, “Nothing’s missing! Nothing’s wrong!” he laughs as if he can’t believe it.

Even so early in the morning—or is it because of the hour?—his incredulous joy is catching. She quizzes him on the baby’s weight, length, hair color—even on details of Janet’s labor and delivery. “Nat, wait!” She stops him right as he’s hanging up. “You didn’t tell me his name.”

“A boy?” murmurs Joseph as Riley sinks beneath the sheet.

“His name is Philip.”

“Damn.” Joseph sighs and rolls towards her, gripping her shoulder.

She prepared herself for the birth. But never once did it occur to her that Nat would choose the name she chose four years ago for her own son, the son that hasn’t come. Her grandfather’s name. The grandfather who had adored her. (“Philip,” she whispered night after night, as if hoping her child might somehow hear and find his way to her.)

Isn’t it enough that Nat lives in Granddaddy’s house, farms his land?

At once she feels ashamed. This isn’t just any Philip. He’s the perfectly-formed son of her not-so-fortunate brother—as much a miracle to Nat as any child would be to her.

Riley lies still only until she hears Joseph’s breathing go deep and regular. Then she gets up and makes coffee. Outside the picture window of their twelfth-floor condominium, a child might have finger-painted the dawn—a muddy work, all yellow and orange smeared together. Pulling out her briefcase, Riley tries to concentrate on the cases coming up today. No use. She keeps thinking of Nat’s call. There was a sound to his voice, a release in it, she hadn’t heard since they were children together, each other’s only playmate, out in the country.

For 15 years they’ve lived apart. Leaving home as soon as she could, Riley attended college up north, toured Europe, then began her career in a city 500 miles from home. Before taking over the farm (much to their grateful father’s relief) and marrying his speech therapist, Nat went no further than the local agricultural school.

Riley’s infertility has swallowed up the last four of her nine years of marriage. Looking back, she sees her life separated into innumerable months, each holding at its core a little death. Swimming aimlessly about these dark nuclei are blood tests and biopsies, x-rays and exploratory operations, her and Joseph’s growing dependence on cable TV’s Playboy Channel to get in the mood when they have “to do it.” She contemplates the deep, crazy longing—always there, it frightens her.

At the medical university’s clinic, in a waiting room full of pregnant women and girls (for she and her expensive specialists must share their floor with the fertile masses), then finally flat on her back beneath the fluorescent lights of an examining room—that’s where she is once, sometimes twice, a month. Only yesterday, in fact, the older nurse who still wears her crisply starched high-peaked white cap was “fixing” Riley. Dress balled up under her waist, legs bent and far apart, crotch exposed to anyone who cared to look . . . . Riley concluded long ago that the draped sheet is there solely to deprive her of the view. The nurse, thumbing through a stack of tattered magazines, blithely selected for Riley—to while away the time before the doctor entered—a recent. issue of Working Mother. Blood rushed to her head.

The moment the woman left, Riley started laughing. How rich! As if it weren’t enough to be bombarded in an infertility clinic with brochures on breast feeding and birth control. . . . But soon she found herself staring at the pockmarked ceiling, counting the holes inside one square, and trying to make her head as empty as the nurse’s. Did she really choose to come here, to be violated over and over again?

Watching the clouds burn away, Riley relaxes enough to begin to feel glad for her brother’s happiness. It’s due him. She wonders for the first time, which surprises her, if Nat ever resented her. Did he ever hate her for her perfect face? Did he ever ask, “Why me? Why not Riley?” She should be grateful, she tells herself, that unlike a cleft palate, infertility is invisible.

When Joseph drives the two of them to work this morning, shimmering heat bounces back and forth between the rush hour traffic and the pavement. A suspension of microscopic debris appears to thicken the air. It looks unbreathable.

“Let’s keep driving.” Riley is more than half-serious. “Let’s go to the country, put all the windows down, and drive fast.” The clean rolling Virginia hills to the west, the pastures decorated with black-and-white cows or sleek brown horses, the huge old mansions barely visible behind thick boxwoods tall as trees, the white fences winding off into the distance— after weeks in the city Riley would soak up these sights, gulp clear air, and feel cured.

The countryside here isn’t anything like that at home, where Nat farms. The flat South Carolina low country with its tumbledown shacks, dusty fields, and gawky pines lacks by a long shot the classic beauty of these hills. But it does have character. And it does belong to her—or used to.

“I think I might fly down home next weekend,” she announces.

“Why?”

“Why do you think? I want to see him—Philip.”

“Nat was pressuring you, wasn’t he? Even last night.”

Riley tries to keep herself from bristling. “I want to go. He is after all the first everything—our first nephew, my parents’ first grandchild. . . .”

Joseph shakes his head. “Well, I can’t get away, and it would be too hard on you alone right now. Maybe you do want to see Philip. In a way. But mainly you think your family expects you to come. And as usual you feel guilty.”

Riley makes a show of frowning. The air conditioner, going full blast, blows Joseph’s dark wavy hair. With his jaw, squared and firmly set, he might look threatening if it weren’t for his eyes—large brown child’s eyes fringed with lashes she’d trade her little toe for. When he turns them towards her, her throat closes and she has to look away.

“Please, Joseph,” she whispers, staring hard at the beltway. “Why can’t we just keep driving?”

II

Three months later, in October, Riley flies home alone. Despite what Joseph thinks, obligation has nothing to do with it. Before take-off at Dulles she reaches into her billfold for one of the many photographs of Philip Nat has sent. He really does resemble her baby pictures. His thick black hair sticks out straight in all directions, as did hers. And what about those dimples! He does look like her, or as she used to look. Nat didn’t keep repeating it just to make her feel guilty (as Joseph has suggested) for postponing her trip home.

When the plane barrels down the runway, Riley’s stomach turns over. In only a few hours someone will be putting Philip into her arms. What if she bursts into tears? Everyone will wish she hadn’t come. If she can’t share in her family’s happiness, or at least fake it, she’ll have to admit what she’s come to fear—that she no longer belongs.

She tries to concentrate on good things—her career, her ballet class, her and Joseph’s brand new condominium. But her nausea persists even after the plane has leveled off. For a fraction of a second she lets herself think she might be pregnant. She kills the notion before it takes root. She’s been “late” before—too many times.

Her father, all talk and teasing, meets her at the airport. She relaxes. Becoming a grandfather doesn’t seem to have changed him. He’s still the sporty businessman who, for his fathers sake, tolerated farming but who, thanks to Nat, can now devote himself to his loves—investments and real estate development.

She’s barely inside the front door when her mother embraces her. It always shocks her, how fragile and small her mother has become, when not so long ago she seemed tall and strong.

Nat hugs her next, poking at her ribs and telling her how skinny she is. “Where’s Janet?” she asks. “And Philip?”

“Janet’s giving him his dinner. They’ll be wrapping it up soon.”

Before she can take this in—the actuality of nursing a baby—her mother sweeps her off to the kitchen filled with the garlicky, tomatoey smells of Shrimp Creole, her favorite. Her father opens a bottle of the burgundy he knows she likes. From the refrigerator her mother lifts with care a pie topped with inches of whipped cream. Riley smiles. Chocolate Angel Pie. What she used to ask for instead of birthday cake.

Her attention abruptly shifting to something over Riley’s shoulder, her mother breaks into a wide grin. “There he is!” she says in a loud shrill voice Riley has never heard before. “There’s Grammy’s little angel.”

Riley turns, her heart sinking just as it did earlier that afternoon when the force of take-off muscled her into her seat. Janet, shadows of fatigue beneath her eyes, cradles a squinting, angry-looking baby. “He’s sleepy,” she apologizes. “But I know he wants to meet Aunt Riley.”

Exactly as if she knows what she’s doing, Riley carries him into the living room. When she stands him up on her lap, he stares big-eyed at her, as if hypnotized. He doesn’t look like her at all. His dimples are Nat’s, not hers. He has Janet’s nose and mouth. Even the unruly black hair is calming down and turning lighter. She doesn’t care, she lies. She doesn’t. He isn’t hers, except second-hand. She stares back into his unblinking metallic-blue eyes. They have no layers. Riley sticks out her tongue at Nat, who is taking one Polaroid after another.

She bounces Philip and fits his tiny fingers around her thumb until he wrinkles his whole face and lets out a wail. In a flash Janet is out from the kitchen. (“Does she think I don’t know what to do?” Riley doesn’t, but that’s beside the point.)

“He’s just sleepy.” Janet tosses him expertly in her arms. “Aren’t you sleepy?” He quietens immediately and seems to try to focus on his mother’s face. He knows where he belongs.

Riley’s family has known of her problem for two years now. Their way of dealing with it at the moment is to avoid—as much as possible with a new baby the center of attention— any talk of pregnancy and even parenthood. Therefore, throughout dinner and in fact throughout the entire visit, her family is so careful, so solicitous, so desperate to make her feel comfortable, that Riley finds herself working hard to put them at their ease. She plays with Philip, chats with Janet while she nurses, and takes dozens of photographs. She needs to prove that she is strong and well-adjusted, that she is one of them. They mustn’t know that each morning now, holding the thermometer in her mouth, she prays for one more day of grace. For when her temperature drops (as it always does) she must face yet again her failure to conceive. She wonders how well, without Joseph, she can hide her grieving from her family.

The day after her arrival Riley wakes at dawn and goes outdoors. The sky is clear and pale blue. At the gentlest wind brown leaves come showering down from the pecan trees. The strong rising smell of dead foliage under heavy dew mixes with the faint drifting smell of woodsmoke and takes her back to autumns of her childhood—those cool Saturday mornings spent riding with Granddaddy over the farm, those bright, hot afternoons spent hiking through pine woods with him and Nat. How she’s longed to be here, at home, where nothing changes! She can hardly believe she lives in the nation’s capital, that she has a husband there.

Nat bounces up the drive in his red, mud-spattered jeep and shouts for her to hop in. He’s fixing to go across the swamp to check on his soybeans.

The bumpy, dusty, breezy ride reminds Riley at once of riding with Nat in their grandfather’s old Ford sedan. Before they went anywhere they’d have to roll down all the windows. Then the three of them piled into the front. She took the middle, in order to help steer. She can see him clearly, her grandfather, his wide-brimmed hat pushed far back on his bald head, a cigar clenched between his teeth, ashes flying. She feels his hands, broad and calloused and brown as the kitchen table, guiding her own hand upon the steering wheel.

Descending into Catfish Swamp, Riley gazes at the calm black water, the cypress stumps, the tangled greenness beyond. They came here to fish, the three of them, in Granddaddy’s johnboat in the middle of summer. Over a solid coating of waxy, stinking mosquito repellent, they wore long sleeves, long pants, hats, and—in her and Nat’s case (their mother wouldn’t be argued out of it)—clumsy orange life jackets. Still, Nat was as liable as not to get stung, and by something worse than any mosquito. It seemed no matter where they went—woods, fields, or swamps—a yellow jacket or a wasp would hunt out her fair-skinned little brother. She and her grandfather could practically step on a bee and not get stung. At times frustrated by having to rush him, screaming, home—at times Granddaddy seemed almost to blame Nat.

Her brother took fishing seriously. He wormed his own hook. Bending his head towards the quicksilver water, he would narrow his eyes in concentration. His lips moved as if he were calling to the catfish and bream in their own silent language.

She repeatedly tangled her lines in the low branches over the coves. Her grandfather, in his baggy, water-splotched khakis, would struggle to keep his balance while fumbling with the mess of twigs and line and Spanish Moss. His sweat having washed off the repellent, he hung onto a branch with one hand and slapped at his neck with the other. But never did he lose patience—never did he even fuss—not with her.

Riley cared nothing about fishing. But she adored paddling soundlessly around the bends of the swamp, past rangy cypresses and fallen logs where turtles sunned themselves then dove off, one after the other, as the boat neared. “Coming to get you!” She’d squeeze Nat’s arm, out of meanness reminding him of the time the baby snapping turtle had caught his toe.

Once when no fish were nibbling, not even in the best coves, Granddaddy took her and Nat deeper and deeper into the swamp. Twisting right, then left, the channel narrowed, widened, then again narrowed. Every sound—from their bursts of laughter to the paddle’s delicate rippling—echoed and swelled until it seemed to fill whatever crevices remained in the close weave of the swamp. He had something to show them, Granddaddy said—of course he knew where he was going. But Riley made believe they were being sucked into a magic jungle from which there was no way out. While Nat kept shifting about as if he couldn’t get comfortable, she sat very still, covered with goose bumps. Then suddenly from the banks jutted several half-sunken docks, blackish with rot. This was where the farmers had loaded up their cotton, Granddaddy explained, back before the railroad. He pointed to the dense woods. “See that cut through there? That’s a wagon road. See?”

Although she saw nothing that came close to resembling a break in the trees, Riley nodded. She felt they had glided into history, a history all their own. For surely no one else came here now!

A similar sense of awe struck her sometimes when she hiked across the pasture behind her yard, past the packhouse, through other woods, then out onto the sandy field littered with broken Indian pottery—when at last she climbed up into the dilapidated shack there, which had belonged to Aunt Charlotte, who’d been born a slave.

When Riley and Nat at last leave the jeep and walk toward his rows of soybeans, she asks him if Aunt Charlotte’s house still stands. He looks puzzled for a moment. “You know, I’d forgotten about that place? The old field was poor land to start with. Cotton stripped it down to nothing.”

Nat scrutinizes a leaf here, shakes a bushy plant there, shields his eyes and makes sweeping gestures. Riley praises, overpraises, the beauty of the crop. “We might even be able to service one or two debts,” Nat winks, “if prices hold.”

Riley shakes her head. Why is he putting himself through this? All she can figure is that working their grandfather’s land means more to him than making a comfortable living. But why should it when neither Granddaddy nor his land ever gave Nat any encouragement?

She—not her brother—should have stayed. Nothing bad ever happened to her here. She, if anyone, should be working this farm. She was the older, the healthier one, the “hard rock,” as Granddaddy called her. But she was a girl. Other things were expected of her. Her parents gave her dolls. Nat got the Tonka Toys, the farm sets. It was her grandfather, a Perry Mason fan, who by sheer persistence managed to interest her in becoming a “lady lawyer.” As for farming—she never for a minute seriously considered doing it. She feels certain her brother never seriously considered doing anything else.

On their way back, Nat decides to show Riley the pasture behind their parents’ house. Having recently widened it, he hopes soon to rent it out as grazing land. Riley can almost believe they are trespassing on someone else’s property. She knew Nat sold his cows; she knew he was going to sell off some timber. But she had no idea he would level a half-acre of trees on either side.

“Impressive,” she nods. What else can she say? . . .

“I’m bailing out!” Riley announces. “Think I’ll do some exploring.” She actually manages a smile as she waves him away.

She immediately feels disoriented. Even the smell is different. The resinous odor of raw-cut pine has replaced the comforting mixture of hay and manure. Fighting anger she knows is unreasonable, she heads towards the familiar far wall of the pasture, the one which Nat hasn’t bulldozed—yet. And to think that just this morning she was romanticizing the farm as a place where “nothing changes!”

“Here,” she says to herself, upon reaching the woods. It was somewhere right around here that she used to go in to reach the Indian field and Aunt Charlotte’s house.

She, herself, never knew Aunt Charlotte. Riley formed her picture of the woman from the sometimes conflicting stories of her father and grandfather. She simply chose from both men’s recollections the details that most pleased and intrigued her. At odd times even now she finds herself picturing Aunt Charlotte’s vast apron pockets filled with candies and cookies for any child who happened along. (Like Riley, she had no children of her own.) The path signs would be unrecognizable now. She would surely lose her way.

Turning back towards her parents’ yard, Riley tries to envision the pasture as it was when she was a child and occasional shade trees made cool gathering places for the brown, white-faced cows. How she and Nat would bounce in the cab of Granddaddy’s pickup to feed the cows at dawn! It must have rained for days before the morning the three of them got stuck. When their grandfather—after he’d gunned the motor and spun out grassy mud for ten minutes or so— when at last he cut the engine and announced that they were bogged down sure enough, Nat’s lower lip started quivering. Then he cried as though Granddaddy had told him he’d never see home again. “Mama’s boy,” their grandfather grumbled. Then, as if to make up for the remark, he carried Nat home on his shoulders.

How has Nat managed to forgive him? Riley wonders. He farms Granddaddy’s land, lives in his old frame house, renovating it little by little. He’s forgiven the man almost to the point of becoming him. . . . Or could it be that her brother never saw anything to forgive?

Nat is grown now, a man with a family. He’s a deacon in the church, a member of the Rotary Club. But Riley remembers well how it was in grammar school, when other children made fun of his scarred lip. Overhearing them on the bus or in the lunchroom, Riley knew she ought to defend her brother. But all she did was start sweating and swear to herself never to forgive those children. Her own face reddening along with Nat’s, she was ashamed of feeling glad, despite her genuine anguish, that it wasn’t herself they were taunting.

Early on Nat learned to size things up, hadn’t he? The farm might have its snapping turtles, bees, and boggy pastures, but it wasn’t an enemy. And neither was Granddaddy. It wasn’t because of Nat’s physical defect that he was stuck playing second fiddle. It was simply because their grandfather worshipped her.

Her brother is lucky, Riley realizes, to have learned early not to expect an easy life. He’s known for years what she’s only now beginning to see: that what matters most is acceptance and a sense of belonging. The farm has given him these things, and he’s smart enough not to take them for granted.

If Nat ever thinks about it (which Riley doubts), he doesn’t see history as she does—inviolate, as if it were an artifact. He couldn’t afford to. Not so long as using the past, reshaping it, digging a place for himself and his family within it—not so long as farming is his livelihood. . . .

When Riley wakes up the next morning, her temperature is still high. She stares at the thermometer as if she’s having visions. She considers phoning Joseph but doesn’t for fear it will jinx them. The rain that day tortures her. Haunted by the image of Aunt Charlotte’s house, she can’t sit still. Someday Nat may decide to work that field, and the thought of his tearing down what remains of the shack and being utterly unconscious of doing anything extraordinary—the thought makes her shudder.

At Riley’s insistence, Janet and Philip spend this and the following rainy afternoon with her in her parents’ russetcarpeted den. While her mother crochets a turquoise afghan for Philip, her father stokes a huge, blazing, unnecessary fire. When the baby naps, the four grown-ups play cards. The scene is picturebook. There’s even a sentimental watercolor of an old tobacco barn, complete with wagons and mules, hanging over the sofa. It hits her gradually but, in the end, hard that her parents have turned into grandparents. Even her father, who hasn’t yet told one off-color joke at the dinner table. Already, she can tell that they’re going to be every bit as foolishly indulgent of Philip as her grandfather was of her.

Riley’s curiosity about Aunt Charlotte’s house hardens into a determination to see it again for herself. Finally on her last day before she must return to Joseph, her law practice, her real life, the rain moves on. Dark clouds clot the dawn but quickly burn off, leaving everything looking scrubbed clean and fresh-painted.

The smells of the pasture rise pungent and invigorating as good black coffee. Fertile. As her feet sink into the soaked ground, Riley remembers digging for worms out here before the fishing expeditions. Pinkish and tangled like intestines, they lie well beneath her steps—she hopes.

When she reaches the edge of the woods, her resolve falters. Left undisturbed for so long, the underbrush has worked its changes as surely as Nat has worked his. She can neither see nor recall where the path begins. After several false starts she plunges in, spotting by chance the pine whose trunk is twisted and curved like a question mark. From here she must rely on instinct. In order to find her way back she memorizes (as her grandfather taught her to do) the pattern of moss on a trunk, the large limb felled and bleached by lightning, the cascading vine of melon-colored, trumpet-shaped blossoms. She feels she’s going in the right direction. But she doesn’t know it until she finds herself at the edge of the flat, irregularly-shaped field of white sand.

The shack remains, and beside it the stand of bamboo, which she knows from experience houses millions of ticks. Nothing else breaks the monotony of the desert-like field. Only a mild wind whistles overhead, rustling the bamboo.

Aunt Charlotte was an old woman by the time Riley’s father came along. It was Riley’s great-grandfather who, after Freedom, had given the woman for her lifetime the shack and surrounding land. She’d made by hand every stick of the furniture which, following her death, cousins and nieces and nephews no one had ever seen or heard of came and carted off to Washington or Miami. When Riley’s father was ten and cancer forced his mother to her bed, Aunt Charlotte was at their house from dawn until dark, cooking and cleaning, coaxing the dying woman into tasting an amber “healing broth,” wiping her forehead. Then, when Riley’s father and grandfather were left alone, Aunt Charlotte insisted on keeping house for them until she, herself, grew too feeble. She never married. She wore always an ankle-length black dress over which she tied her white apron whose pockets bulged with treats for other people’s children. However near to or far from fact, this was the Aunt Charlotte Riley fashioned in her mind years ago, the one which remains.

Testing each step before committing her weight to it, Riley edges across the gritty, rickety porch. Inside, nothing has changed—not that much could have changed. Scab-like shreds of brownish paper still cling to the walls. In the fireplace lie a dust-caked bottle and two flattened cans. There’s nothing else to notice. There never was. If glass ever filled the windows, it shattered long before Riley’s time. She can smell and feel the familiar emptiness.

As a child she made up her mind to scrub the walls and hang curtains. Like Aunt Charlotte, she could build herself a chair and a table. She might even sneak the folded cot out of her parents’ storage room. All she needed were some books and saltines, and she could live here forever. Yet she never so much as swept the floor.

Riley looks out over the glaring field that seems, as it always seemed, to be waiting for something. She wonders if amid her childish daydreams she pictured her own future children—perhaps her dolls come to life—laughing and tumbling together in the pottery-rich sand. She touches her abdomen. Despite the risks, despite her awareness that she’s setting herself up for heartbreak, she begins to hope. For she knows that her whispered child of long nights, the daughter or son whose name was never Philip, her child at last has come.

III

Riley’s memory of Aunt Charlotte’s house sustains her when she returns to the city and Joseph refuses to believe that she is pregnant. “It’s too early yet,” he warns, squaring his jaw. “Don’t get your hopes up.”

As the days pass, their attitudes do more than reverse. While Joseph begins to grow optimistic, Riley—wildly hopeful one second—succumbs to despair the next. She “feels” pregnant, then she doesn’t. The sharp pain stabbing off and on at her pelvis could mean a cyst, an ectopic pregnancy. She can’t eat; she can’t sleep. But for the first time in years she can bear to look at pregnant women. She can even smile at infants in strollers on the streets. But she can’t bring herself to go to the clinic for a blood test.

Then everything changes. Friday evening she and Joseph are in the middle of dinner when Riley bursts into tears. She laughs, as she cries, at the ridiculous scene she’s making. “It’s tension,” she apologizes. “Just tension.” The pain in her pelvis has worsened; it pierces unremittingly. Foolishly, foolishly, she has not told her doctor about it.

“Hormones,” Joseph says with authority, certain she is pregnant.

Later, when standing under a hot shower before bed, Riley knows suddenly and absolutely she is not. The throbbing vanishes; that much is merciful. Then just as suddenly but without mercy, the fullness in her lower body, the tenderness of her breasts—all of it drains away. The spray turns scalding, but she forgets to turn on the cold. She stands without moving until finally the water cools on its own. Stepping out into the steam-filled room, she calls to Joseph.

“It’s over.” Water streams down her heat-splotched body. “Whatever it was . . .is over.”

When she starts shivering, Joseph dries her and wraps her in a towel. He holds her tightly. He doesn’t ask her to explain. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m so sorry.”

Before daylight a different pain, broader yet just as excruciating, clamps her lower abdomen. Unable to stay in bed without moaning and waking Joseph, she moves to the living room where she curls up on the sofa, a warm cloth folded over her stomach. Come morning Joseph touches her shoulder. Is she all right? The cramping has lessened slightly, but the flow of blood filled with blackish clots makes her feel nauseated and faint.

Riley doesn’t mean to see the thing, but once she does she must treat it with respect. Wiping it off, she lays it gently upon her folded washcloth. She memorizes every detail of the thin whitish tissue shot through with tiny red lines— much like the white of a blood-shot eye. She studies the part which is a miniature brick-red sphere. She carries it to Joseph. “This might be . . .” she begins.

He calmly takes the thing, whatever it is or might have been, back into the bathroom.

For weeks Riley doesn’t cry. She comes to see herself as a ruined shell—not like Aunt Charlotte’s house, filled with spirits and history—but a shell holding a vacuum, dark and cold. Joseph cannot help her.

When Riley is not working (which she has no heart for but mechanically continues), she either sleeps or moves from room to room like an animal unreconciled to its cage. “Where is my baby?” she asks the etchings in the den, the acrylics in the breakfast room. “Where did I lose it?” she asks the wall of books in their study. “Aunt Charlotte’s house?” Perhaps her children can survive only there—on that bleached field, that place of unrealized dreams. The fairyland of her past. Perhaps she is herself nothing more than an enchanted child still fishing with her grandfather in the dark arms of the swamp—a child simply having a nightmare of being grown, and lost.

Babies fill her nights: a son she and Joseph pay for but can’t find, a daughter her mother crochets for them. Then finally Joseph returns home from the hospital, where he’s given birth to a son.

In the dream Riley feels no particular hurry to see the baby. But when she does get around to going, she can’t find the maternity ward. Having searched every floor, she finally stumbles, out of breath and beginning to panic, into an enormous arena. Rows of seats filled with adults overlook a bright, sand-colored stage, where babies sit quietly in tiny chairs. Joseph appears. He leads her down many steps towards one of the infants. He lifts the child and places it in her arms. Abnormally small, it has no arms or legs. She goes to a toilet filled with excrement and drops it in. At once horrified, she pulls out their son from the black stagnant water of what has become the swamp.

Waking up in the dark, Riley at last can cry. Rocking herself until Joseph wakes to rock her in his arms, she longs to be little again, to be held in her mother’s lap, to feel the once again strong arms tighten around her, to hear the soft, sure voice tell her, until she finally believes it, that everything will be all right.

“Nat was the mama’s boy,” she chokes, almost laughing. “I wanted to leave. I never wanted to stay!”

The next morning, exhausted and late for work, Riley hurries through a bone-chilling mist towards the rear entrance of her office. Stepping accidentally onto the one meager patch of pebbles and clay that somehow wasn’t paved over, she stops short. Here—rising from this sad excuse for earth is the smell of the fields of her home, right as fall is turning into winter and rain hangs in the air but rarely falls. She sees in her mind the brownish stalks and stubble that Nat, come spring, will plow under to make room for new life.

Philip will bury them, she realizes, thinking of Nat and Janet. Philip is their future, they are his past—and that’s where they will survive. As for herself and Joseph—why, they have no future except their own, and they belong to no one else’s past. It seems to Riley that within the circle of themselves, she and Joseph know only an eternal present, a time outside of time. There Aunt Charlotte’s house will always stand, and there that barren Negro woman and all those souls who are the wind that fills the house—there they will always be. With no one to bury herself and Joseph—with no chance of entering the cycle of human seasons—what choice do they have, Riley asks herself, but to endure with those other unburied ones, those obstinate spirits of the field?

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading