The last evening I saw Granny Annie she was rocking in wicker, the whole porch creaking with the weight of her grief. All the neighbors and relatives had eaten and gossiped and gone, leaving their plates and tumblers and stains all over the house, their condolences trailing behind them like coon tails on aerials, and the flower wreaths were wilting on the grave.
“I can’t believe my William is gone.” She was rocking and weeping in cadence, swallowing the dregs from her Sun Drop and fiddling with the snuff tin in her lap. I could see by her eyes reflecting the yellow bug light that she was mustering up a song.
I’d been living there all summer, doing for them as she sat by Pappy Will’s bed, stroking his hand, soothing his brow. I would water the Big Boys, milk the lame cow Ho Boss and collect in the eggs. I would slop the half dozen hogs. She would hum and whisper and get herself ready for the end. We had a pact: I would chore, she would not sing.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t. Lord, but her voice was a wonder, a gift, an affliction. As Pappy Will grew sicker, she slowly lost the reins that used to keep the beauty one step ahead of the possible peril. When she tremoloed or colored a note, the wall paint glowed, the water pipes shuddered and Butch the redbone howled. If she reversed a chord or slung the key to a flat, spiders called back their webs and flour rose from the cracks in the kitchen’s pecanwood planks. I could hear the wires in the upright Baldwin tighten like a hundred crossbows.
I had been just a chap in the Young Apostle pew down at Gospel Wind Chapel when she last sang in public. It was April of forty-seven, her soprano rising above the choir’s cage of harmony like a bird of prey. The air filled with the smell of burnt matches, and the infants bawled. Everybody said the hair on their necks hackled up, and the pages of Brother Webbern’s Bible fluttered back and forth like a whirlwind had taken them. The hymn books got too hot to hold, while the Baptist banner split its silk. Then the doors swung open and a mighty gust shook through. Even after she stopped and the choir opened their eyes again, it took a couple of minutes for the laws of nature to collect themselves. Right then everybody said, “That’s it, enough is enough.”
I would scatter cluck corn and toss hay, feed Butch and the tiger cat. I would hull the peas and grease the tractor axles. She would tend his miseries; she would not sing.
That last night, though, after the strain of holding her tongue at the funeral, I could see she was wavering, and I did understand. Just fourteen, I already knew the way a wrecked heart can torture its host human.
We had tried to avoid breaking down by keeping our summer habits. Every evening after Pappy Will’s sleep dope Granny Annie and I would sit sentry on the porch and drink our sodas. I was Dr. Pepper; she was Sun Drop. Dishes done, his last suffering words of the evening faded into the bedclothes and curtains, the vaporizer misting Vick’s into the room, we’d go out and strive to behave like the hale and unstricken. I’d read about Lee’s Lieutenants or Tom Swift. She’d crochet or flip through Uncle Sugg’s Upper Room. Not being Methodist, she wouldn’t read but scattered paragraphs, shaking her head. And she’d dip snuff.
That was the great mystery to me: how her voice could be so rich and unsettlingly holy when she measured out the rusty-looking stuff on her birch spoon and stowed it behind her lip. She could drink that urine-colored Sun Drop while she did it. She could even talk pretty clear, and she could sing, though she promised not to.
Sometimes we’d have the radio in the front parlor turned up to listen to “Gospel Jamboree” over the nighthawks and crickets. Some rant-revivalist would be citing scripture or saying, “Repent tonight or pay the fiery price,” and they’d pause for her commercial as fireflies Morse-flashed around the abelia. Some twangy studio singers would croon, “If your snuff’s too strong it’s wrong, get Tube Rose, mild Tube Rose. You’ll feel much better all day long with Tube Rose, mild Tube Rose.” She’d smile and say, “That’s a fact” and bend over to spit a stream of ambeer into the cess of her can. I had to look away.
It was always a Planter’s peanut can, and I had come to hate them. Mr. Goober on the blue tin was always dancing a jolly little jig with his cane outstretched and monocle shining. He wore spats and a top hat like the owner of MacDonough’s Funeral Home down on Hulett Street, and his pitty skin was almost the same nutmeggy yellow as the snuff powder, not to mention the color of the World War Battle Atlas that Pappy Will kept on the wall of his office where he went to smoke and clean his nickel-plated pistol. I knew his old uniform growing dirt-dauber apartments in the closet kept that color, but the buttons were the gold of Camel tobacco flakes on his lip. It was all the color of cancer to me, and Mr. Goober came jigging across my dreams more nights than one, his grin like a snake’s. I would not eat a peanut for love nor money.
Cotton across the road was glowing in the moonlight like furrows of snow. I could hear a mosquito zipping and unzipping the air around me, all hypnotic-like, in spite of there being no rainpools they could hatch in. I sipped my cold drink and hoped the whip-poor-wills out in the privet would not commence, for it was the one temptation I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist in her grief-shock. When I thought I heard the first one, I blew a round alto note across the bottle mouth to hide it, but her rocker creaking ceased, and I could hear her listening.
Then another whip-poor-will, the three most mournful notes in the world, the shiver in that last syllable the edge of all the mortal sorrow we’re born to. The birds pulled the dark around them and sought solace from memories too dark to have names.
“He is out there singing to me. William is. He’s lonely and cold. I can’t deny him.”
I could feel the chill running down my spine while she was still inhaling, getting her lungs full of woe and country air.
“Silver pins and golden needles cannot mend this heart of mine.” I couldn’t stop her.
Over and over she breathed out the same sentence, sometimes giving it a chant solemnness, other times dirging it or switching to a glee-club sparkiness. I was touched by it, the many tones of her spellbound stillness, nothing moving in the world but her vocal cords and bellows, but I was also scared, then terror-shaken. The mosquito at my ear dropped dead on the puncheon. The yard willow began to sway like warning of a mighty storm. Soon the rim of the sky began to glow yellow like there was a distant battle, and the corn, well, its tassels all sizzled and gave off smoke. I could hear muscadines popping in the arbor, as the weathercock spun and the rusty old screen four feet from my face commenced to glow violet and tremble. The peanut can on the hassock tumped over, spilled its Styx River onto the floor, then rolled toward the trapdoor to the root cellar, and her voice had grown into a ripping howl.
I didn’t want to touch her or get closer, but I knew I had to. “Granny,” I shouted into her ear, “Granny, you’ve got to quit it before we’re killed.”
When she turned her eyes at me, they were burning like she’d seen something out there beyond the beyonds. They were red as Hell’s handles, and nearly about popping free of the sockets. Next thing she did was whistle the three tones of the lonesome bird—”whip-poor-will”—and they were so right, so eerie and animal and invading that we both froze. I wanted to reach out to her, to soothe or shake her, to remind her of the peril she might deliver us to, but then she stood up from the rocker and pointed both her hands at me like a craving angel. As she struggled to step closer, she shuddered and stumbled and went down like a sack of hammers. The porch shook, and the pillars groaned like the Last Days were upon us.
Five minutes later I had her covered up with a blanket, her head on the chair cushion, and I was scrambling under the settle bed for my straw hat and duffel. I was heading out. I wanted to see morning from another county, and my daddy could come back from his war and the icy Inchon if he wanted her looked after any further. It didn’t matter a hare’s whisker to me if the road was dark and the color of snuff under my fierce feet. I was leaving the land of miracles behind and hoping for rain before the peach trees withered and even the distant cities I had only vaguely heard of were chastised and smitten with flame.