23.

I sat down on the porch steps, dazed. I felt as if burning in the dark, and wondered for a moment if I wasn’t glowing, if Artie could see me as he pulled away, a small lit candle flickering in my chest.

The last time Arthur kissed me was the afternoon before I’d left for Marietta. My grandmother had gone out on errands for our trip, so Arthur had climbed the redbud beside my window, laying close beside me in my twin bed. Daring even, he only dared once, to kiss my belly, to place his hands curiously and feel the stretch and pull of the baby, almost fully grown.

“I love you, Caroline,” he’d said, brushing his lips on mine before kissing me hard. Then from below we heard my grandmother fiddling with the locks on the front door. Arthur had scrambled up, only half dressed as he began climbing down the tree. “I want you to write me everyday,” was the last thing he’d said, and I’d nodded, trying to seem reassuring. But I didn’t. I didn’t write him even once. There was too much to say. Too much I’d already left unsaid. And when I’d come home at last there existed such a distance between us. He’d reached for my hand under the table at the first church supper I attended and I’d pulled it away, barely spoken to him. I barely spoke to anyone. In fact, for some years I was like a dying star, turning in on itself.

Turn the page.

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22.

It was after dinner, and David was asleep on the sofa. Mrs. Thomas, the Deputy, Arthur, and I sat together at the table, drinking coffee and talking in low voices.

“Unless anyone has a different idea, I say we have three options,” the Deputy said, looking us each in the eye in turn. “We have three options, and I think only one of them will work. The first option is that we relay this to the sheriff. We tell him, look, the boy’s right here. David’s right here. And we have three other witnesses to his testimony. The Andersons shook Blue Coat’s hand as he drove off with these James Anderson and Hale Thomas. Arrest them. Inquire. Find Blue Coat, find James and Hale. That seems simple to me. Now, that’s what I’d ask the sheriff to do, if we go with the first option. I think this could be simple, maybe, if the sheriff wanted to be helpful. But I don’t think the Sheriff is going to be helpful. That’s based on my last one year as an employee of the Washington County police force. Sheriff is likely not going to be helpful, and I’m afraid in the process things might get muddled. David might start forgetting Blue Coat, same as those other boys did after, I’m guessing, the Andersons hushed them up. Or David might disappear.” I shuddered. “Or the Andersons might disappear. I don’t like option number one.”

“Second option is we go to the SBI,” the Deputy said. Arthur and I looked at each other, unsure.

“That’s the State Bureau of Investigation,” Mrs. Thomas said smoothly.

“But here’s the thing. I’ve been trying for weeks now to figure out a way to sit in on one of those meetings I was telling you about. I haven’t been able to come up with a way to do that without being too conspicuous. What I have figured out is that just about every white male in Chatom, apart from me and about a handful, attend these meetings, including members of our county and state government. This makes me a little uneasy,” Deputy Harris said. “Like, depending on who I talk to, I’m afraid this is going to fall on deaf ears. Which would take us back to David forgetting or disappearing, etcetera.” The deputy shifted in his seat, took a sip of his coffee.

“Which is why I think I’m for option three. We tell everyone.” He paused for effect.  “We write a letter to two dozen papers, maybe more, some in Alabama, some elsewhere, explaining everything we know. How the sheriff closed the case prematurely, suspiciously. How it seems like too many people know this goes on but don’t say anything. How two boys were snatched three months ago and officially there’s been little more than a shrug.” He was silent.

“Then what next?” I asked.

“Then we’ll wait. We’ll wait for the SBI to swoop in, or if they don’t, the Feds. We wait for others to chime in. We see what other people know. This can’t just be going on in Chatom. You heard David. Boy’s been all over the South east.

Outside the crickets were coming to a crescendo. The boy stirred on the sofa.

“So that’s what we’ll do then,” Arthur said.

“Agreed,” I seconded. “Who’s going to write the letter?”

“I will,” Mrs. Thomas said, raising a finger. “I’m a writer, or I was, before starting my family.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “I’m sure you’ll do the task justice.”

“Just be sure to leave it synonymous. Leave it as synonymous as you can,” the Deputy said.

“Anonymous, Deputy,” she corrected. “And I’ll be discreet. But what do we do about David in the meantime?” We all looked at the boy. On the sofa, David’s face was pressed against the pillow, his blonde hair tousled. I wanted to give him every good thing in the world.

“He’ll stay with us, right, Caro?” Arthur said without hesitation. “He’s not going back to that woman.” The deputy arched an eyebrow, looked at me quizzically. I was surprised by the resolve in Artie’s voice, the way he sat up a little straighter as he spoke the words. I felt proud to know him.

“He’ll stay with us,” I said, softly. I breathed deep. I thought of James. None of this was easy.

“Alright then,” the Deputy said. “But I don’t think you can stay in Chatom, not with the boy. Come to that, I really think it’d be better if we all left.”

This had not occurred to me, but Mrs. Thomas did not look surprised. “I’ve been speaking to my husband about it. He’s got family up in Cincinnati. Better there for black people anyway.”

“How soon can you leave?” the Deputy asked her.

“We’d hoped to let the children finish out the semester.”

The deputy shook his head. “If you’re serious about keeping this boy-” he looked hard at us both. We didn’t waiver. “That means we’ve gotta get a move on. You’ve gotta leave or people will see you with him. You leave and the boy goes missing at the same time, I’m afraid the Sheriff’ll catch on.”

“We can leave tomorrow, if we have to,” Mrs. Thomas said.

The Deputy nodded, gravely. “You’ll finish the letter tonight then.”

“Alright,” Mrs. Thomas said. “Let me call my husband.”

The Deputy gestured to the phone. Then he turned to us. “How soon can you leave?”

“There’s nothing keeping us here,” Arthur said. “Not really. We can leave tonight. But how will we keep in touch?”

“I suppose we could exchange addresses. But really, tonight might be the last time we speak for a while.” Arthur and I both looked nervously at one another. “What we’re doing here, you see, what we’re doing is we’re shaking this up. We’re taking Chatom in our hands and giving it a good throttle, and we’re going to hide and watch what comes falling out. Keep our eyes open. Keep our ears open. And watch what falls out.”

Mrs. Thomas returned to the table. The Deputy went to his bedroom, returned with a mint green typewriter, which he set in front of her. “Best get going,” he said.

“I will,” she said. She placed her fingers comfortably on the keys.

Arthur rose. “I’m going to head back to the hotel, gather our things, come back for you and David.”

I stood. “I can come with you,” I said.

He shook his head. “I’ll be right back. Walk me out though, would you?”

“I need some air, anyway.”

The night was damp and cool, with a slight breeze rustling the trees. We stood at the foot of the porch steps. “I shouldn’t have sprung taking the boy on you like that,” Arthur said. “I’m sorry. I just feel…” he breathed deep and looked at the sky, hesitating. “I feel helpless, Caro. And anything, anything I can do to make anyone’s load a bit lighter, you know? Seems that’s all we really ought to do in life is to make each other’s way easier, when we can. And still I shouldn’t have sprung it on you.”

“Arthur, I’m with you. I agree completely. I hardly want that boy out of my sight, after all he’s been through.” I sighed, closed my eyes. “Still,” I could barely speak the words, “if I’m being honest, I can’t help but wish it were our boy we were taking with us now. I want to know he’s safe, wherever he is.” I wiped a tear from my cheek. “But it’ll be alright. It’ll be alright. We’ll take David, and we’ll wait.”

Arthur had already opened his car door when he turned as if he’d forgotten something. He walked up to me, put his arm around my waist as he’d done a hundred times before, and kissed me quickly on the mouth, and then again once more as quickly on my forehead. Then he turned and got into his car without saying another word, and pulled out of the driveway, the soft white lights of the car illuminating the trees as he drove away.

Turn the page.

21.

The boy told us many things.

He told us that he had no memories of his mother, not really, she having died when he was only three years old. Sometimes, though, he could call to mind the faintest smell of apples and vanilla and in his mind this was linked to a very soft hand cupping his cheek, and perhaps that was his mother. He knew somehow that his father had died in the war, and that his father had never met him. When the boy was five years old he and his sister were given to a farming family three hours from where he was born in exchange for money that his great aunt and uncle used to keep their own farm from foreclosure. The boy wasn’t supposed to know about the money, he said.

The first farm had been his favorite, perhaps because he was so young. His work was light. He was allowed a nap in the afternoons, and he would take it under an elm tree in the back pasture. It was near a small pond and he would watch crickets skid across the brown glass of the water. He was there two years. His sister who was some years older wasn’t there half as long. A woman who smelled of cigarettes and sour laundry came their first winter and took her to Atlanta. This had come upon them suddenly. They’d been given no more than a minute for their goodbye, and he’d watched as she was driven away, bewildered. He’d only cried about it a week later, when he realized she was gone for good.

Then he was traded around a lot. This was common, he told us, but he didn’t understand why. He’d gone first to Alpharetta, then Acworth, then Prattville, Cullman, Phenix City. They were all about the same. If he worked hard, he was fed, housed. Once when he was eight or so and working in Prattville he and some other boys had snuck off one afternoon, had gone into town and pretended to be bag boys at the grocery in exchange for pennies which they used to buy ice cream. When they were discovered they were brought home. The farmer told them to go cut a switch from the willow tree, each their own, and they were beaten until large welts formed on their backs.

He told us the Andersons were no different. They told the boys straight off what was expected of them: work, obey, don’t speak of the working and the obeying. James had been there longer than the others when David arrived, longest besides anyone other than the Andersons’ daughters, who were theirs by birth and who couldn’t work out in the field anyway. James was wilder than most, bolder, and had it in his head he was above working every day. He took to hiding odd places, in the loft of the barn, in the old smoke house, in the back garden shed. He’d steal a book from one of the girls and sit there reading while he was supposed to be working.

The first time Mr. Anderson found him he’d been kind about it, reminded him that James owed the Andersons for taking him in to begin with. Next time he wasn’t so kind, nor the next time. Then once Mrs. Anderson found him hiding in the cellar. She yelled at him but he just yelled right back at her. Then she smacked him in the face, so he kicked her in the shin, hard enough to bruise. David said that was the night he first heard the Andersons sermonizing. The Lord was coming, they said, to teach James a lesson. He would go far away to a land where the sun alway shone hot and there wasn’t any shade and James would learn what it meant to do a day’s work. James said there wasn’t any such thing as the Lord, and the Andersons replied that he was real and that he was coming for James in January.

And he’d come. The Lord. He wore a blue coat. David had been walking out to work on the Anderson farm, which he still did every Wednesday afternoon. He’d heard James screaming and yelling, so he’d hidden behind a cedar tree, and watched the man in the blue coat drag him by his shirt collar into the back seat of the car. There was another boy in the back seat, a black boy that David had seen sometimes in town, and the Andersons were smiling and shaking the Lord’s hand, were nodding their heads and laughing. Then the Lord drove away with the boys still in the backseat, James yelling as loud as he could. David resolved then and there if he got the chance he’d help James any way he could.

David told us that the lady in town who had taken him in was kinder than the Andersons, kinder than any of the farm families before, but still wouldn’t it be nice to go to school? Wouldn’t it be fine to take off a Sunday, now and again? The boy told us he slept in what ought to have been the kitchen pantry, and he didn’t mind it much. It was nice to have a place of his own for a change, he told us, only sometimes there were mice, and sometimes there were spiders he was sure were brown recluses, and sometimes, but only when it was quite warm outside, it would be so hot and close in the pantry he would feel faint before he fell asleep.

David told us he asked the woman once if he could write to his sister, but the woman said he had no sister she was aware of. David replied that he did have a sister, that she was four years older than him and freckled and kind. That her name was Clara and he hadn’t even said a proper goodbye and when she’d packed her things for Atlanta she’d left behind a little heart pendant necklace, which he assumed had been their mother’s. David said he’d worn it all this time doubled round his wrist, and that he was sure his sister would like it back someday. The lady had boxed him in the ear, and reminded him that the clothes needed to be hung on the line as quick as possible to prevent their wrinkling.   

Turn the page.

20.

A week went by. Arthur and I went for drives through the countryside to all the nearby towns, placing missing notices for the boy in pharmacies and libraries beside advertisements for used bedroom suits or free kittens. When we passed farmers out in their fields we’d pull the car far over onto the shoulder and make our way through the wet land, my heels catching in sod, Artie’s trousers stained with mud, to hold out the small photo like a prayer in our palms. “Have you seen this boy?” we’d ask, not daring to call him ours. And then the now predictable shake of the head, the frown, the way the farmers’ wives would look at me sorrowful, their children safe and fed and dry on either side of them in the doorway. It felt like sending out ships in bottles. It felt the way a balloon must feel when it is loosed from a child’s grasp, listing its way up to nowhere.

In the evenings we’d lay on our bellies on the floor like children, making more flyers: Have you seen me? neatly printed at the top of each in thick black ink, copies of his photograph pasted underneath, and James, James, James, written over and over, so that at night as I tried to sleep the afterimage of the name flashed inside my closed eyes.

And then after a week had gone by we finally got a call from Deputy Harris. Someone was speaking to him about the boy. Someone who had known James well. Meet him at his place as soon as we could.

Artie’s car wound through thick forests of pine and oak, a fine mist hanging over the land, flecked here and there with the bold bright bodies of myrtle trees, the coral petals blowing across the pavement in a ripple as we drove. Artie cleared his throat and spoke as if he couldn’t wait to be done talking. “Annabelle broke it off with me last night, just thought you should know.”

I tried not to look too pleased or surprised. “How’d that happen?”

“She called while you were in the shower. I sent her a letter couple days ago explaining all about James and you. She wasn’t too happy, especially when I told her I’m going to stick it out here a while longer… Long as it takes.”

“I’m sorry, Artie,” I said. We turned down a long gravel driveway. The car knocked back and forth in the divets of the lane. When we came to the small house at the end of the road a hound bayed a welcome. Artie parked behind Deputy Harris’s police car.

“It’s alright,” he said. He stared ahead. “You know her favorite holiday’s the fourth of July because fireworks are fun, and that’s a direct quote. So, you know…” he was quiet a moment.

“All the same,” I said.

“Thanks, Caro.” He got out of the car, wrapping his knuckles on the roof while I got out. Deputy Harris came out onto the front porch, giving a hesitant wave. Through the window I could see inside to where a blonde boy of no more than ten sat uneasy in a low rocker, every now and again kicking his feet to set the chair in motion.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Denton, ma’am,” the Deputy said. “So we’ve got here a little boy named David, used to work out on the Anderson farm until- this I find a little interesting, I guess- he was taken in – now those are the boy’s words – I have no understanding of this yet in any legal sense – which is to say, I am not sure who his guardian would be legally at this point – by an older woman in town who needed help around the house.”

“That common practice round here?” Arthur said, crossing his arms. “Passing along adoptees?”

“No, sir,” Deputy answered. “Or it shouldn’t be, and that’s a fact.”

“Go on, Deputy Harris,” I said softly.

“He says he was with James the day he disappeared. James was talking about running away. He says James wasn’t too happy at the Andersons, used to talk a lot about heading back to the orphanage, there was a worker there he liked a great deal, etcetera.”

“Oh, I see.” My heart fell a bit deeper in my chest.

“He also said boys are changing there all the time. Almost every six months there’s a big turn. Half the boys gone, and new ones coming in. He was there a year, seen the turn once, seen it once more again since living in town.”

“What?” Arthur asked. “They’re moving kids around like cattle and it’s only now-”

“I know. I haven’t quite figured it out yet,” Deputy Harris said. “Seems to me they should have got caught a lot sooner. I already checked some county records. The Anderson kids are all down as getting their schooling at home. The principal at the elementary sent in one request of a truancy investigation but the sheriff handled it.” Deputy Harris demonstratively wiped his hands together, “So naturally that was the last of that.”

“Can I talk to him?” I said.

“Hm?” Deputy Harris said. “Oh sure,” he said, “I figured you’d want to. That’s why I had y’all out here.”

We all went inside a well lit room that contained both a kitchen, sitting, and eating area. “Y’all make yourselves at home,” the Deputy said, and we sat across from the boy on a sofa.

“Hello David,” I said, “I’m James’s birth mother.”

The boy raised his eyebrows, considered me a moment as he rocked back and forth. “Afternoon,” he said at last. His voice was sweet and young.

“I’d like to hear anything about James,” I said. “Anything at all.”

“We shared a bunk until I left, but even after that I’d come round to play with him now and again,” the boy said. “He was always talking about going to back to Georgia, to the home he’s born at. Miss. Cally was real sweet, would touch his hair while he fell asleep, that sort of thing.”

“Did he get along with the Andersons?” I asked.

The boy’s eyes grew wide. “No ma’am,” he gave a little laugh. “Most of us boys didn’t mind the work, not so much, but James didn’t want any of it. He wanted to read, draw, you know, or go to school. He was yelling at them almost every day. Mr. Anderson had to use the belt a time or two. Put him in a closet once for the night.”

Deputy Harris was looking at Artie and me with concern. “What else can you tell us about the Andersons, David?” he said at last. “You liked living with them?”

“I can’t say, exactly.” The boy fidgeted with the hem of his shorts.

“Like you don’t know or you won’t say?” I could tell Deputy Harris wasn’t used to talking with children. Neither was I, but I wished he would ease up a little.

“Not supposed to talk about it,” the boy said, quiet. “I liked them fine.”

“What do you know about James’s disappearance?” the Deputy continued.

Outside a wind picked up, shook some chimes on the porch. The boy watched through the window. He was silent.

“David,” I said at last. “You’re safe with us here. We want to know what happened about James, but we also want to make sure you’re taken care of too. You just speak the truth and everything will work out fine, we promise you that.”

The Deputy nodded, and continued in a softer tone. “You said James had been talking about running away. Do you think that’s what happened?”

“No,” the boy said, “I know that’s not what happened.”

“How do you know, David?”

“Because…” the boy faltered, uneasy. He stopped rocking. He looked off a moment, remembering. When he turned his eyes back to us they were almost vacant, and his voice was calm and steady. “When you misbehave the Lord smites you down,” he said, “when you don’t obey those that’s over you the Lord comes like the arm of justice and takes the wicked.”

I gave a small choking breath. Arthur squeezed my knee. “It’s going to be alright, Caroline,” he whispered.

“The Andersons teach you that?” Deputy Harris went on.

“Yes, sir,” David said, quietly. “They said it to us every night before prayers. James said he didn’t believe in the Lord, but I guess he does now he’s with him.”

“You mean he’s with the Lord?” the deputy said, only a slight waiver in his voice.

“Yes sir, Lord took him away for being disobedient. I seen it happen.”

The world melted away for a moment. Arthur and Deputy Harris continued to ask the boy questions, but all I could think of was the last time I’d held my baby. How he smelled of the earth and windowpanes and something sweeter like honeysuckle and his dark eyes shone at me almost unblinking with such a peace about him and I had never believed it was the last time I would hold him. I could never bring myself to believe it. Until now.

“Hold on, Caroline,” Artie said, giving my knee another squeeze.

“Say that again boy,” Deputy Harris was pointing at the child, wild eyed, and the boy stuttered as he spoke.

“The Lord was wearing a blue coat.”

“And when you say you saw them together?”

“I seen them drive off from the Anderson place in the Lord’s car.” Deputy Harris, Artie and I gave a collective inhale, as if breathing for the first time. “James and the other boy. A colored boy,” David said.

“So he isn’t dead?” I whispered to Artie. Artie shook his head and smiled a tired smile. I understood it to mean, “As best we know now, he might still be alive.” I felt again that helpless sensation of having everything to give, of having all the love and strength and will to fight, and such a little idea of where to turn myself. Still, here was another clue.

Deputy Harris was on the telephone, telling Mrs. Thomas there was a new lead, a witness, he’d seen Hale and James together. The deputy returned to the sofa with a pen and some paper. “Alright, David. I want you to start at the beginning. Start wherever you feel it’s the beginning. I want you to tell it to me slow and tell it true. If you remember someone blinking and it seemed odd or noteworthy, I want you to tell me about that someone blinking and how it seemed odd or noteworthy. You understand?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy said, starting his chair to rocking once more. “I understand.”

Turn the page.

19.

In a dream, someone knocked softly on the door. Outside, the sky was pitch. It sounded as if the rain had stopped though. I rose from the bed. Another knock sounded from the door. “Arthur, wake up,” I whispered, nudging his feet. He stirred in his sleep. Out the window I could see two people at our door: a smallish man dressed in a suit, his hat pulled low over his eyes, and a woman on the other side of him. All I could see were her heels and the hem of her skirt. “Arthur!” I whispered more loudly. He sat up quickly. I opened the door.

“May we come in, ma’am? We understand you visited the sheriff today, about the Anderson boy.” The man looked nervous. He kept shifting his eyes, as if afraid he was being followed. The woman was calm. She was a black woman and looked about my age.

“I’d just like to speak with you,” she said. “My boy is missing too.”

“Of course, come in,” I said.

They entered hurriedly and the man shut the door behind them. Then he went to the window and closed the curtains. He was young, maybe younger than Artie and me, and he had blond hair and bright green eyes and a dusting of freckles on his cheeks. “My name is Deputy Harris. This is-”

“My name is Mrs. Clementine Augusta Thomas.” She might have been my age, but she dressed older, more refined. Her skin was dark brown and her black hair was worn in an elegant bun at the nape of her neck. She wore no makeup but still reminded me of models in beauty magazines.

“Won’t you sit down?” Arthur said, gesturing to the bed.

“Thank you, I’ll stand,” Clementine Augusta Thomas said. Deputy Harris plopped down, sitting cross legged on the coverlet.

“Can I get you anything?” I looked around the room. “Water? Or…ice?”

“No, thank you,” Mrs. Thomas said.

“Or we have sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly,” Artie offered, awkwardly.

“No.”

“I’m afraid we should be rather quick, actually,” Deputy Harris said. “No one should know we’re here, and certainly not that we’re together here,” he gestured to Mrs. Thomas, “or that we’re all together here.” He looked around at us nodding his head as if he’d spoken great wisdom.   I shot a confused look to Arthur, who shrugged.

“What the deputy means is,” said Mrs. Thomas, “it would be bad if anyone knew we were all together. They’ve been suspicious a while that the deputy might be working with me. It would make it that much worse if they knew we’d spoken to you as well.”

“Who’s they?” Arthur asked, quietly.

“Best we can figure it,” the deputy said, “They is the Sheriff, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, and a man we’re calling Blue Coat, for now, and probably a dozen other people in Chatom, maybe more. They’re they.”

Mrs. Thomas spoke calmly. “We’re coming to you because based off what Deputy Harris overhead today at the Sheriff’s office, you’re interested in what happened to the Anderson boy.”

“I saw you take both photos off the bulletin board,” Harris said, looking at me with a grin.

“Oh, I-”

“We’re the boy’s birth parents,” Arthur explained.

“It’s alright, we don’t mind,” the deputy continued. “Those pictures weren’t doing a bit of good on that board anyhow. We just need to know that you’ll be discreet about what we’re about to say to you.” We both swore our secrecy, eagerly.

Mrs. Thomas leaned against the desk. “The week my son went missing, the same week the Anderson boy goes missing, a man wearing a bright blue coat shows up in town. Now the coat is significant for two reasons: first this coat was ridiculous. It was too much for Alabama. It looked like what an arctic explorer would wear. It was a cold winter but it wasn’t that cold. I saw him wearing it Sunday as we were leaving church, going into the drugstore. Hale, Hale is my boy, went to go get an ice cream from the soda counter- now he did this every Sunday- but this Sunday when he came out he looked shaken up, a little worried. And I tried to get him to talk to me about it but you know how boys can be sometimes, he wouldn’t tell me what had happened. But just before we headed home I saw Blue Coat leaving the drug store, staring at our car as we drove off. And I just got this feeling, call it mother’s intuition, that somehow that’s who had upset my boy. Then a few days passed and I forgot all about it. Hale seemed fine. He didn’t seem worried or anything. Then that Thursday he didn’t come home from school.”

She seemed past being emotional about this. She spoke with slow, deliberate words: her boy hadn’t come home to her. And first it was a few hours of worry. And then days, weeks. And now months. She had it worse than I did. She had seen him every day, given him baths when he was a baby, helped him to dress when he was too young, reaching his young hands through his pajama sleeves. And then just as he was getting old enough that so many things were no longer a concern: no need to worry about cutting up his food, or him getting lost on his way home, or him falling out of his bunk bed, he doesn’t return from school. He is gone.

“And then the Andersons say their boys is gone too. Same time frame. Similar stories. We’re supposed to believe they disappeared.” She took a deep breath.

“I can tell the next part, Mrs. Thomas,” the Deputy said, looking at her with concern.

“Alright,” she said.

“The second thing you have to understand about Blue Coat is Blue Coat doesn’t exist. Mrs. Thomas saw Blue Coat at the drugstore. Elijah Woodson, who works Sundays at the drugstore soda counter, he didn’t see Blue Coat at the drugstore. All of the kids at the negro school saw Blue Coat. They said, in fact, that they saw him offer Hale Thomas a ride and that Hale Thomas said no and that Blue Coat cussed him soundly and drove off. A negro man working the pump at Earl’s gas station helped Blue Coat fill up on his way into town. Earl swears it didn’t happen. Most importantly,” the deputy lowered his voice, “I tell the sheriff, ‘Seems like this fellow Blue Coat might have gone off with these two boys,’ Sheriff says, ‘Blue Coat doesn’t exist. That’s what it says in my file. Blue Coat doesn’t exist.’”

“He talks strangely and I know it sounds like it doesn’t make sense but what he’s saying is more or less true,” Mrs. Thomas said. “If you speak to certain black citizens of Chatom, a strange man came to town the last week of January, first week of February. He spoke to my boy on at least one occasion. Then both boys went missing. If you ask the white people of Chatom, the ones who should have seen him, who would normally notice if a strange man came into town, this never happened.”

“So what do you make of that?” the deputy asked.

Arthur and I looked at eachother. He was the first to speak. “Caroline and I are under the impression that the Andersons adopt boys often. That the boys work in their fields in exchange for room and food.”

“The sheriff pretty much allowed that was true,” I said.

“What we don’t know is if, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like what you’re saying is the sheriff is complicit in the boys’ disappearance,” Artie added.

“The Andersons are too,” the deputy said.

“We’ve got more questions than answers ourselves, of course,” Mrs. Thomas said. “But the Andersons didn’t report he was missing until two weeks had gone by. And they tried to act like it was only then he’d run away, until Deputy Harris starts asking some of their other boys-”

They remembered Blue Coat, until they didn’t,” Deputy Harris interjected.

“Based off those interviews, the Anderson boy went missing January 31st. And then the Sheriff took the case over.”

We were all silent a moment, thinking it over.

“Well what do we do now?” I asked them.

“For starters, Deputy Harris has reached out to a few neighboring precincts, quietly,  you understand,” Mrs. Thomas arched her eyebrows.

“I’ve called a few friends I went through training with in Montgomery.”

“So far, no leads,” Mrs. Thomas continued. “Our only other link is the Andersons, the Sheriff, the folks being the most conspicuously dishonest.”

“And then there’s the boys at the Anderson farm, the folks being the most honestly conspicuous. I keep wondering in what ways they’re like James Anderson and in what ways they’re unlike James Anderson and if somewhere in that is a clue,” Harris said.

“We know all the local farm boys like to cut out Sunday afternoon and swim at the pond on the Jones farm. Deputy Harris is going to see if any of them work on the Anderson farm, or if they know anything about James, if they ever hear the Andersons talk about what happened.”

“Additionally, there’s a certain meeting that I know the sheriff, the Andersons, Earl, and half the other white men in town attend, if you understand what sort of meeting I mean,” the deputy looked from one of us to the other, “and seeing as how so far this seems to be at least in part a racial thing, maybe-”

“Maybe,” Mrs. Thomas seconded.

“I’m going to see if I can work it to where I listen in on their next meeting. And see if that proves elucimating.”

“He means elucidating,” Mrs. Thomas offered.

“I meant illuminating.”

“What we’re saying is don’t lose hope yet. I haven’t,” Clementine Augusta Thomas said. “It may sound foolish,” she added. “But it feels like if Hale was gone,” only now did her voice waiver for the first time, “I mean really gone, I would know. A mother would know.” I reached out and touched her hand, giving it the quickest squeeze.

“Y’all sit tight. Stay with us in Chatom a while longer. We’ll see what we can do,” Deputy Harris said.

“Well now we’ve stayed longer than we should’ve,” Mrs. Thomas said.

“One of  us’ll be in touch soon,” the deputy said.

Arthur opened the door for them and they went out hurriedly, the black air thick and damp, the night humming with the sound of cicadas.

Turn the page.

17.

The countryside all around the Anderson place was flat and planted in tobacco and cotton, the fields stretching out on either side along the dirt road as far as the horizon. Now and again, we could see some person, far off in the distance, a dark speck of a body bent over the rows at work, labouring even in the rain. The farmhouse itself was nothing special, an old Sears and Roebuck order I’d seen twins of back in Sparta, though it wasn’t well cared for: the columns and trim were all in need of paint and the screen door was left ajar and hung crooked on its hinges. A few of the shingles of the gable had fallen leaving gaps in the siding, and the roof had been patched a place or two with plywood. Behind the farm were a few outbuildings, a large monitor barn for drying tobacco, a smaller dairy. A few cows stood in the doorway, watching the rain. One bellowed, announcing our arrival as we pulled in front of the house.

Mrs. Anderson, looking almost as neat as in the photograph, came out onto the front porch. A girl, maybe two years old or so, followed along behind her, grasping the hems of her skirt.

“Can I help you?” she asked. The little girl was tugging at her skirt, looking to be held. Mrs. Anderson picked her up.

“Yes, ma’am,” Arthur said. “We’re here to talk to you about James.”

“James?” she said, looking momentarily puzzled. She put the girl down, who began to cry again at once. “Sarah!” she called inside. An older girl, nine or ten years old, came out onto the front porch, picked up her sister, and carried her back inside. Mrs. Anderson  motioned for us to come inside. “Of course. Y’all come in. We don’t get many visitors out this way. Please excuse our mess.” It was dark in the house, and humid from the rain. Buckets and sauce pans had been placed here and there throughout the house, and the rain dropped loudly from the roof. She showed us into the kitchen off the main hall, and gestured for us to sit at the kitchen table. In the hallway, I could see the older girl watching Arthur and I through a crack in one of the bedroom doors. She closed the door when she realized I was looking back at her. Mrs. Anderson sat across from us. “James, you said?”

“Yes,” Arthur replied. “We’re his biological parents, you see.” She straightened and looked markedly agitated.

“We understand he’s gone missing, and we want to help, in any way we can,” I added as quick as I could. Mrs. Anderson stood and went to the window, ringing a large bell that rest on the sill.  It gave a loud clang.

“My husband will want to meet you is all,” she said. Her expression had gone blank. “James was such a queer little boy.”

“Was he now?” Arthur responded, amicably.

“Did you know he hit me?” she said, slowly. “More than once. I ain’t never had that happen before, with any of our boys. It’s been so much quieter round the place since he left.”

Arthur looked at me, uneasy. “How long has he been missing, Mrs. Anderson?”

“Let’s see…he’s been gone since January,” she seemed unsure. “January, I believe.”

“Of course we miss him, very much,” a deep voice said behind us. Mr. Anderson stood in the doorway, well over six feet tall. “Mitchell Anderson,” he said, reaching out a hand in greeting.

“These are James’s biological parents, Mitch,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Wanting to help us to find him.”

“Well how thoughtful!” he said. He smiled warmly. “We’ve looked everywhere for the boy, got the police notified in all the surrounding counties, we’ve asked all our other boys, all the other children. Sheriff even had dogs out in the woods, tried to track him. It’s like he just vanished into air, it’s that strange.”

“Is there any way we can be of service?” Arthur asked.

“Well, I’ll tell you prayer wouldn’t hurt, no sir,” Mr. Anderson said. He placed his broad hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “We got ‘em praying all over the county too, but more prayer never did hurt a body.”

“Anything else?” Arthur said.

“I don’t think there’s anything else to be done,” Mr. Anderson said. “Prayer.” He gestured to a cross above the doorway. It hung at an angle, revealing an unpainted outline on the wall behind it from when it had been straight.

“He looked like you two, you know,” Mrs. Anderson said. She stared at us both earnestly. “I can see now how his little face was the two of yours combined. He was a beautiful little boy, wasn’t he Mitch?”

“He was indeed, Laura,” Mr. Anderson said. Then there was silence, punctuated only with the rain dropping in the buckets.

“Well, I thank you very much for your time,” Arthur said, standing. It felt like the end of our journey. I couldn’t think of anything else to ask them, or to offer. We were almost out the door when Arthur turned. “All this your land, Mr. Anderson?”

“It is indeed. Been in my family since before the war.”

“Lotta land, isn’t it? Hard to manage all this land?”

“We do alright,” Mr. Anderson said. He stood tall. “Go big or get out, that’s what the Farm Bureau says, and I guess I have.” He winked. “It’s the biggest family farm in the county.”

“It’s impressive, no question,” Arthur said. “Just how big is your family?”

“We’ve got five beautiful daughters,” Mrs. Anderson said, “And goodness our boys…”

“She’s just about lost count!” Mr. Anderson said, good naturedly.

“Well, I thank you for your time. And if you think of anything we can do for you, we’re staying at The Grosse Inn.”

“I’ll tell you, best thing for you and your wife,” Mr. Anderson said, “is if you head on back to your home. There’s nothing for you in Chatom. We’re doing what’s best for our boy, I can promise you that.”

“Arthur this is horrible,” I said as we walked back to the car. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson watched us from the doorway. “I feel like-” I could barely speak the words. “I feel like he’s gone forever.”

Arthur sat at the wheel and slammed the car door shut. I was surprised to see he looked more determined than ever. “I feel like there is something suspicious as hell going on here.” He quickly turned around, backing the car up into the yard, then began driving out at a fast speed. “They seem broke as shit, bragging about their biggest farm in the county. There’s no way unless they’re so deep in debt-” Arthur had a wild look in his eye. Up ahead, a boy of around 16 was working near the dirt road. “Roll down your window, Caroline.” Arthur pulled up, calling to the boy, “Helloa! You there!”

The boy dropped his hoe, walked over to the fence along the road. “You work for the Andersons?” The boy nodded. “What do they pay?”

“They don’t pay anything,” the boy said. “Except room and board.”

“How many workers they have?”

“Thirteen, including me.”

“They hire you from town?”

“No sir, I lived at a home in Piedmont before this.”

“They treat you well?” Arthur asked.

“They treat me fine,” the boy said. He wiped his face on his sleeve.

“Did you know a boy named James?”

“James?” the boy considered a moment. “No, sir, can’t say I did. I heard them talk about him some, but he had already left before I arrived.”

“I see. I’ll let you get back to it, young man,” Arthur said. The boy waved and I rolled my window back up. “What do you make of it, Caroline?”

I sighed and shook my head. “I don’t know what to think. You’re thinking what, that they adopt boys-”

“Yes.”

“And make them work in the fields?”

“Yes.”

“That isn’t a crime, Artie. That’s just a family farm. That’s half the town of Sparta. That’s every other boy we knew growing up.”

“True enough,” Arthur said, “But still I say there’s something not right about adopting kids solely for that purpose.”

“You think that’s what they do?” I asked, uneasy. Artie nodded. “What does that mean about James?”

“I’m not sure.”

“I think we should go to the police,” I said. “We can just feel them out, offer aid.”

“Alright.”

Something was gnawing at me. “The way that woman spoke about him…” Arthur nodded. “It worries me, Arthur.”

“It worries me too, Caroline. But there’s no place to go now but onward, whatever we find.”

We were back at the main road. Arthur turned right, heading back into Chatom.

Turn the page.

16.

The next morning when I woke Arthur was still asleep on the floor beside me, and the clock beside the bed read 7:30. In my bag I found my nicest dress, folded neatly at the bottom: it was a light teal color with a floral print in deep rose that I had made myself, with some help from my grandmother. I combed my hair carefully and then wound it in a high, neat bun. I even decided, last minute, to wear the gloves I’d packed just in case. What do you wear to meet the parents of your child?

“We’re going to a farm, Caroline,” Arthur said, giving a yawn as he stretched.

“I want them to think well of me, that’s all.”

Arthur gave a shrug. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Who loses a seven year old?” I ignored him. “I’ll wear a tie,” he said, getting up.

“I’ll be outside. Hurry up.”

“It’s just now eight,” he complained.

I went to the front office, where now a middle-aged woman stood behind the front counter. “Hello ma’am, I was wondering if you could help me get to Caruther’s Road. It’s not on my map.”

She looked at me suspiciously. “Y’all from around here?”

“No,” I said, “We’re visiting family.”

“What family?”

“The Andersons, on Caruther’s Road.”

She gave a little laugh. “You’re kin to the Andersons?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

She looked me up and down, still more suspiciously. “You don’t look like kin.”

“It’s distant,” I said.

She pulled out a smaller map of the county, circling a small intersection a ways out of town, back down the main road. “You get to this corner you’ll turn left. I’ve never been out all the way to their land but I’ve heard it’s about a half mile down this lane, unpaved.” She arched her eyebrows, leading me to believe this was not the normal way of things.

“I don’t mean to- to pry, but as I said they’re distant family. Are they alright?”

“They’re fine, I guess,” the woman said. She started rearranging maps and pamphlets on the counter. “They got about a dozen kids, though, or more. Can’t hardly keep track of them, myself,” she said the next part slow, “seems like they’re always changing.”

“Really?”

“Sure. I see ‘em around time from time to time. Mrs. Anderson doesn’t know how to dress a child, not proper. Even heading to school they’re covered in dirt.”

“I see. Well thank you,” I said.

“Y’all staying another night?” she asked as I was leaving.

“Hm? Oh yes, I think we will be, at least one more night.”

“Alright,” she said, making a note in her ledger.

When I got back out to the car the rain had started up again, and Artie was waiting with the engine on. “I got directions,” I said, getting in. “It’s a ways out of town, turns out.” Arthur looked at the map. “Lady said it was about a half mile down a dirt road.”

“Huh,” Arthur said. He was looking in the rear mirror, backing up.

“She also said they had about a dozen kids, that she couldn’t keep track of them all, that it always felt like they were changing.” He was silent, his eyes still on the road. “Said they were always coming to town covered in dirt. That Mrs. Anderson didn’t know how to dress them properly.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, still distractedly. Then he looked at me just before pulling out onto the main road. “What are we getting into, Caro?”

I was trying to stay calm. I was studying the rain, starting its gentle rhythm on the windowpane, tallying the days since there’d last been sun.

Turn the page.

15.

The man took off his cap and scratched his head. “Chatom, you said?” Arthur was drenched. The rain poured from the downspouts, pooling around our shoes. It shuttled over the the awning of the station and slapped loudly on the tin of the roof.

Arthur spoke louder over the din. “Chatom. Yes. Route 43, I think.”

“Hell, you passed 43.” Arthur held out the soggy atlas, and the man used his middle finger to trace his way along 84. “You’re in Mississippi.”

“Shit,” Arthus swore. I took a deep breath.

The man chuckled. “Fine afternoon you chose for a drive.” Thunder clapped close, demonstratively. “Aw, you’re okay. You’re just where you need to be. Listen, you’re gonna keep straight another two miles, you’ll come to a big intersection with a little Baptist church on one corner and a convenience store and that’ll be 45. You’re gonna go left, south- you understand? – and pass Winchester, pass Buckatunna,” he slid his finger along the highway, “and when you get to the state line round Eret you’ll see signs for 56. You’re gonna take that east, left again – you followin’ me? – and then you’re practically there, Chatom.”

Arthur nodded. I stood close, studying the map with him. “Why the hell you going to Chatom anyway?”  The man narrowed his eyes a little. “Where’d you say you’re from?”

“Sparta, Tennessee.”

“You got family in Chatom?”

“No, just some business,” Arthur replied, quickly. “I’m an optometrist. I thought I might see about setting up a satellite office there.” The man seemed satisfied with the explanation. As usual, I felt a slight squeamishness about how deft a liar Arthur could be.

“Thank you so much, for your help,” I said softly, getting back in the car. I was tired. I was more than tired.

“Well, what do you think, Miss Montaine?” Arthur said, getting in. “Man said there’s a hotel about two miles back in Waynesboro. Otherwise we’re about an hour and a half from Chatom.”

We had been driving in a downpour since seven that morning. I closed my eyes and said, “I just want to get there.”

“Me too, Caro.” We were quiet a moment. A gust of wind came along, rocking the car slightly. “Here we go then,” he said. He headed in the direction of Chatom. “Keep your eyes peeled. I don’t want any more detours if we can help it.”

The clouds hung low and heavy over the road, and though it was only a little past five and April, the landscape had the look of nighttime. Pine plantations oppressive on either side of the highway grew thick and tall in spare rows with no flowers or underbrush beneath them, only a thick mat of needles, burnt orange. “I don’t like these woods,” I said. “They look man made.”

“Well, they are, of course.”

“I know.” I watched for deer, a wildflower, a weed, any other thing that might signal somewhere some uncultivated life. Then of a sudden the trees gave way to stumps, chopped off at two feet tall, and with no hills all around us was the brown, muddy graveyard of the stumped pines, and the greyblack clouds stretching as far as the horizon over their brown stumpy bodies. And then at last there was a sign for Chatom.

“What a cheery locale,” Arthur said.  

“It’ll look better in the day.”

“Or it might look worse.”

We stopped at the first motel we passed, The Grosse Inn, ignoring the name and the faded lettering of the welcome sign and the way the front door slammed shut behind us, we were that tired.

“You married?” the owner asked, examining our naked ring fingers as Arthur took out his billfold and I reached for the room key. “There’s no fornicating allowed in The Grosse Inn.”

“Sir, of course we’re married,” Arthur said, “Only I’m saving up for a ring as pretty as she deserves.” He nudged me playfully and I gave a feeble smile. Here again, my stomach turned over in disgust.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said once the door careened shut behind us. The rain was still pouring all around the covered walkway that led to our room.

“Do what?” he asked. He unlocked our door. One bed. “I’ll sleep on the floor,” he said hurriedly.

“I wish you wouldn’t lie. You didn’t have to say we were married.”

“You’d prefer we sleep in the car?”

“Maybe,” I said, and then, “No. But you lie all the time. I don’t think you even notice anymore. Where does your fiance think you are right now?”

“That’s unfair.”

“Is it? You should call your parents and update them on your camping trip. They’ll want to know how many fish you caught today!” I headed back out to the car for my bag in the rain, slamming the door shut behind me.

And of course, it wasn’t about the room, and it wasn’t about the man at the gas station, or the fiance, or the camping trip that wasn’t. It was that once I stood in front of my grandmother all alone, and I told the truth because, among other reasons, the truth was growing plain as day on my small frame. I was alone and sixteen and shaking from fear of what she would say to me and so sick for the thing we’d done I could barely speak and still I told the truth. And once I’d told that truth any other truth felt easy.

All my grandmother kept asking for was the name of the father. That was what stuck in her mind, that I wouldn’t say his name, and I had answered, “There’s no use us both having to pay for what we’ve done,” and that felt true to me then.

When I got back in the room, Arthur was brushing his teeth.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” I said. “It’s been a long day.”

“I’m sorry too,” he said. He spit out his toothpaste. “I don’t know what to do about all this. I’m trying to figure it to where no one gets hurt.”

“Ah,” I said, and I closed myself in the bathroom and tears came to my eyes because best I could understand all he meant was, ‘No one gets hurt except you. You and the child.’

Turn the page.

Free e-book of Part 1!

If reading a novel in short chunks released bi-weekly(ish) isn’t your thing, you can now read all of Part 1 as an ebook! I’m working on a pitch, but you might like this novel if you like: flowers, motherhood, magical realism, a bit of mystery, a bit of romance (maybe?), and reading things that are free.

Here’s the opening line:

When he was four a vining rose began its ascent to my window, the deep pink and red of his joy opening petal after petal. A peace settled deep within me_ somewhere, my boy was laughing.

Part 1 PDF

 

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Part 1

 

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The Child in the Garden: Part One

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?

                  Wendell Berry

                  “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

 

1.

Once there was a boy for whom flowers grew whenever he laughed.

They were daffodils, mostly, paper white, though there were irises and snapdragons and pansies too. In his youngest years they sprung from the earth in great joyful triplets. They filled the front yard of my grandmother’s house, spilled out into the sidewalk through cracks in the concrete, and began taking over the neighbor’s yard as well, growing through the spaces between the planks on the front porch. I watched them from my room in the gable, the blooms popping open like kettle corn. When he was four a vining rose began its ascent to my window, the deep pink and red of his joy opening petal after petal. A peace settled deep within me: somewhere, my boy was laughing.

My grandmother pretended not to notice. She plucked the roses from floorboards with indifference and clipped the paperwhites from the front walk without comment. When the flowers had covered every inch of the yard she adopted the gate of an elephant and trampled her way to the car. She contacted every florist in the county and offered the flowers up for a cent a piece, bouquets for quarters. They began coming on weekday mornings, shearing the flowers into large white buckets and dropping nickels into a pickle jar she left on the stone wall by the road. I saw the flowers on display in the shop windows around town, gathered neatly, and bound in twine or burlap.  

And once a week, I heard my grandmother late at night, sliding the coins across the dining room table and packing her profit loosely into sleeves for the bank. Those days, I lay in the dark thinking of him. I imagined his voice, his smile. I fell asleep dreaming of his hands. They would still be scarce bigger than the size of my palms.

2.

I met my father only once, on a grey day in early autumn. I was walking the main road home from school when a cold rain began pouring, and suddenly he appeared, running beside me with a purple polka dotted umbrella. We stopped under the awning of Clark’s Grocery and sat together on a bench. The water shuttled down the gutters.

“Are you Caroline?” he asked after we’d both caught our breath.

“Yes, sir,” I said. I frowned slightly, trying to remember if I’d met him before. I’d lived in Sparta only a few months. It was a small town, and my grandmother had lived there forever, so everyone knew who I was while they, on the other hand, remained strangers to me.

He smiled broadly and scooted closer to me on the bench. “I met you once or twice, when you were small. I was a friend of your mother.” I eyed him cautiously. “You don’t believe me,” he said with a laugh.  He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. It was dark brown but starting to grey.

“My mother didn’t have too many friends. Not that I remember anyway.”

“Ah, I am sorry to hear that.” He considered the rain a while. Then he turned to me. “What about you, Caroline? Have you made friends at school?”

“Yes, sir. Enough.”

“And your Grandmother treats you well? You like her?”

“Of course I do.”

“And are you happy living here? It seems a lovely little town.” I nodded.

The rain was easing up. The man stood and shook out his umbrella. “I travel often – almost always, actually. But this would be a lovely place to stay, if I could.”

I rose, and he patted me on the head, letting his hand rest. He stared at me intently. “You look like your mother, you know.”

“That’s what Grandmother says.”  

“You don’t agree?” I shrugged. In truth, my mother seemed too wholly perfect to me in my memory. She had blue-green eyes and honey colored skin and a perfect kiss of freckles on her cheeks. I was darker, with brown eyes and pale skin. “Well, you look like your father, too,” he said. He smiled, and I felt I’d been told a joke without understanding the punchline. “Caroline, if you ever need anything, I want you to write me here,” he said. He handed me a business card with his name and address. “Will you do that?” I nodded. “That’s a good girl. Now head along home. I’m sure your Grandmother will wonder where you’ve been.”

Then he started towards town, whistling and swinging his umbrella beside him.

I went the rest of the way to Grandmother’s alone. I hopped from puddle to puddle, singing to myself and practicing hop scotch on the sidewalk cracks.  By the time I arrived home my socks and mary janes were wet and brown with mud and my father’s card lost somewhere. My grandmother sent me to the bath straight away with a fair bit of scolding, and chastised still more when she saw I’d stained my gingham skirt with dirt, and as I went to bed last night I thought not of my father, but of how my mother never would have punished me for puddle jumping.

It was years before I understood who he was. I tried to remember his face sometimes when I looked at my own, and rehearsed our meeting in my mind, trying to guess at his feelings for me. I wondered why he hadn’t written my grandmother instead, or why he never came again. Sometimes I felt anger for him rise within me, but then I would forgive him. Then sadness would come, and then again, I forgave.

 

3.

My mother died when I was six years old. She died of the flu, and it happened very suddenly. One day we were out in the garden, and she was showing me the blades of the iris bulbs, just beginning to press their way through the soil. The next day she was sick in bed and the doctor was called and I was sent to a neighbor’s. My last memory of her is from a distance: she is coughing in bed. There is a soft lamp beside her on the bed, so she glows yellow. She smiles at me, and blows me a kiss. The next day she was gone.

In my first memory of her it is the blue of early morning and she is asleep on the twin bed in our living room. It is winter, and my feet are cold and bare on the wood floor. When I place my hand on her cheek, she opens her arms to me and I tuck under the quilt with her. Her hair is soft and tickles my neck, and her breath is warm on my forehead. I have held onto this memory as tightly as I can. I have tried to remember the way her voice sounded when she said my name, but this has faded.

In between these are the collected things I know of her: she loved pears and radishes and tomatoes. She smelled of flowers because she kept a little pillow of lilac in her clothes drawer. She hummed along with the radio because she never remembered the words. She told me fairy tales before bed and her favorite was Snow White and Rose Red, and for my fifth birthday she gave me a set of dolls in their likeness. My mother’s hair was curly and she had dimples when she smiled. She was unexceptional in every way except that she was my mother and she loved me and even though she died just as I was coming into the part of life that is remembered I still wore for years and years her love around me like a coat of sunlight.

I met my grandmother for the first time at her funeral. I was struck by how familiar she looked, much like my mother, but how strange it was that she existed at all. I think before I’d believed that my mother had always existed – that she somehow sprang from the ground fully formed.

From my grandmother, I learned that my mother had skipped two grades in school. That she had played the flute but not well. When she was eleven years old and my grandfather was still alive, my mother had gone with him on an overnight fishing trip deep into the valley. She caught a large bass but wouldn’t let my grandfather keep it, throwing it back into the deep pool of the river. And then she had moved away during the war to be a nurse at the veteran hospital.

And then I had been born. My grandmother never spoke of this, and as a child I imagined that I had no father. My mother had been my world, and then my grandmother, and it was easy for me to imagine my lineage without men, as if they weren’t necessary in our family. Still, I never learned how my mother told her parents of my conception. Sometimes I wondered if my grandmother even knew my name before I came to live with her.

The night of my mother’s funeral after all the mourners left the house, my grandmother sat on the loveseat by the fire and pulled a box of yarn onto her lap. “Now Caroline, my love,” she said, “I am going to make you the prettiest sweater in White County. What’s your favorite color?”

“Blue, ma’am.”

“Alright, then.” She rummaged around and found a pale blue skein. “Will you sit with me while I knit?” She gestured to the cushion next to her.  “Do you like fairy tales?” I nodded. “Well,” she began, “Once upon a time there were two sisters, and one was as fair as snow…”

As I sat beside her, I let my head fall upon her shoulder. I closed my eyes and pretended she was my mother. I believe she pretended I was my mother too.  

 

4.

Now this is how you grow a garden, Caroline.”

Grandmother wore her pink linen dress and her thick white canvas apron. She had left off her usual stockings and pearls. She put her hands on her hips. “Just leave it there Mr. Hawkins!” she yelled, pointing to the corner of the garden. We watched as the neighbor backed his truck into the yard, the mulch piled as high as a mountain. After parking he climbed up into the bed and began shoveling it off. My grandmother hoisted me up into the truck bed and then stepped up herself. I used the little shovel she’d bought me the week prior at the general store. “I’ve never been afraid of hard work!” she said. She wiped some sweat from her forehead and smiled.

It took us a week to mulch the beds, my grandmother pulling weeds as we went. She used an old kitchen knife, donning gardening gloves covered in a purple iris print. She stabbed the blade into the earth and twisted it round hard. Kneeling next to her I could hear the snap of roots before she tore the dandelions and henbit and crabgrass from the soil. Then she would use her cupped palms to pat the mulch around sprigs of onion or the beginnings of the lettuce and spinach and chard just beginning to sprout from the earth.

“It just gets easier every year, Caroline, love. Thirty years we’ve grown this garden. Your mother used to do this work, just like you.” I followed her around the yard and worked alongside her as she harvested tomatoes or examined the peaches and plums in the orchard. She was always chatting away, teaching me things — where to look for caterpillars or how to keep beetles off leaves. It was hard work, half of which she hired out to neighborhood boys in subsequent years. Looking back, though, I think this was Grandmother’s way of keeping me close that first summer, of knitting me to her when my grief was still so new.

In the afternoons we were too tired for much. We would bring a blanket out under the maple tree in the side yard, and read our books and drink lemonade, and in the evenings Grandmother would let me stay out late enough to catch fireflies in jars. She made me dozens of new dresses for school, and knew ten ways at least to braid my hair, which she took great care to do every morning.

For all this, of course, I missed my mother.  I dreamed of her often, and in these dreams she was usually sitting on my bed, just as she did when she was alive, reading a book or mending clothes. Seeing her there, I would give a little sob and crawl into her lap, and tell her, “Oh, Mama, I thought you were dead,” and she would stroke my hair and say with half a smile, “My poor little Caroline, right here I am!” And when I woke up I would already be crying, and my grandmother would lay down with me until I fell back asleep.

One morning after just such a dream, Grandmother showed me a little patch of land in the corner of the front yard I’d never taken much notice of before. It was bordered in small rocks but the grass grew up among them and the only thing of note was a little trellis bench in the corner that had once been painted white but that was now faded back to wood. “This was your mother’s garden when she was a girl,” she said. “I’ve neglected it ever since she’s been gone, but if you’d like to take it over, I’ve a little rose bush for you to tend.” We planted it, kneeling together on the ground to tuck the mulch in around it. Then Grandmother said, as she stood, “You know, it seems to me there’s still something of your Mama’s spirit here, Caroline love. Like I can almost feel her. Can you feel her?”

I closed my eyes. I tried to picture her standing in the garden, smiling at me. She would have freckles on her cheeks, it being summer. Her hair would be curly in the humidity and heat. “I can feel her,” I whispered, and Grandmother squeezed my shoulder, gentle-like.

From then on whenever I was sad, I went to my mother’s garden and sat on the bench and imagined I was talking to her. Eventually, this became something of a prayer, and I would go to the rose bush to cry and speak any little sorrow I had. As the years passed, the rose bush grew and grew, and Grandmother paid a neighbor boy to build an arbor for it to trail up, and I would sit there underneath the shade of the roses.

When I was seventeen and it was one year since my son’s birth, I sat in my mother’s garden and cried harder than I had ever done before. I prayed to melt into the earth and dissolve I felt so sad. It was just turning from autumn to winter, and the rose bush was bare, but in an instant, as sweet as a kiss a little rose bud grew and unfurled where one of my tears had fallen, and then another sprang, and another, and soon the little garden was covered in blossoms and I knew deeper than any other knowing that the blooms were a sign sent for me.

Since then, the flowers had come steady each spring, growing more and more plentifully, and I understood them as proof of his joy. The blooms lasted later than all the other spring flowers, holding out even until the last whispers of summer faded into autumn. I would watch them and be peaceful, certain that he was alive and well, certain as they faded each winter that they would return.

But on a crisp, cool morning in the spring of my 23rd year, the boy’s flowers began to wilt.

 

5.

Somewhere, my boy was seven years old.  

Mr. Timmons, the owner of the florist shop on the square, came by at dawn with his sheers at the ready. I heard him slam the door of his grey Studebaker and watched as he considered the yard. Milkwhite daffodils bobbed their heads as he walked through the garden. He knelt down, cupped a blossom in his hand, and released it after a pause. Standing, he looked about him. Then he left, without clipping one.

I slipped down the stairs, my bare feet silent on the cold floor. Grandmother was already in the kitchen, brewing water for coffee. “Caroline?” She called softly. “Is that you?”

I was silent on the landing. After a moment I heard her rustle her way to the back room where she did the washing.

I unlatched the four locks, saving for last the deadbolt, slipping the key out from a string I hid around my neck, tucked in my nightgown. When I reached the porch, I closed the door behind me without a sound.

The flowers had begun to droop. They were yellowing some too, and the petals, when held between my fingertips, showed the start of wrinkles. The vines that wrapped around the house were browning, and as I watched, the petal of a pearly rose loosed itself from its bud and fell in sweet pendulum swings to the ground. I knelt and brushed a faded iris against my cheek.  

The flowers were dying, even while spring was in full blossom all around them.

“Caroline!” Grandmother called from the front door. “What are you doing outside in your nightgown? Get inside, girl.”

I collected myself with a few deep breaths. “Of course, Grandmother.”  

She put her arm around my waist as we walked back inside. “Why on Earth are you out here in your nightgown? We’ll be late for church if you don’t dress quickly. ”

Up in my room, my hands shook as I buttoned my dress and fastened my belt. There had been winters when he was younger, when I had worried about what I would do if the flowers never bloomed again. Those were dark Februaries and Marches, and each morning I would hurry to the window to see if any green pushed up in the yard. How faithfully the flowers had come till now! They had never drooped or wilted before. Not even in times of draught. I fumbled with the clasp on my shoe and willed myself not to cry.

“Caroline?” my grandmother called from the foot of the stairs.

“I’m coming!” I called back. I met my grandmother at the front door. She was wearing a dark blue dress with a faint green paisley print on the skirt. Her thinning hair, which was speckled grey and white, was smoothed into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She wore thick tan stockings and flat black kedettes. Her glasses hung around her bosom from a gold chain, and her pocketbook bulged with her Bible.

“Your hair is a mess, Caroline.”

I looked quickly at the mirror in the hall tree, trying to smooth some of the fallen strands. She smiled softly, took my head between her hands and carefully unpinned my braids, holding the bobby pins between her teeth as she gently rebraided my hair. Her fingers worked quickly.

“There now,” she said as she released me. She looked at our joint reflections in the glass. “Pretty as a picture.”

Out in the yard, the flowers still drooped. Grandmother did not notice. “Let’s hurry or we’ll be late, Caroline.”  She reached out her hand to me, then linked her arm with mine. I must have seemed upset, for my grandmother said quickly, “I love you, my girl,” as we walked along.

“I love you, too, Grandmother.”

When we arrived at the baptist church, most of the congregants were still milling about on the sidewalk. Grandmother nodded as she swept past the usher, taking a program with enthusiasm. As ever, we sat in one of the front pews where almost the entirety of our view would be the preacher and the pulpit. My grandmother took out her Bible from her pocket book, found the opening passage, and marked her place with the ribbon. Then she folded her hands neatly in her lap. The organist began, “A Closer Walk With Thee,” the choir singing from behind us on the balcony. The rest of the congregation filtered in, and Pastor Denton entered from a door off of the stage. He wore purple robes with sleeves so long and full his hands looked diminutive peeking out from the cuffs.

“Good morning, brothers and sisters!” He motioned for us to take our seats. “How wonderful to see your shining faces this fine May Day. This afternoon  of course is our Spring Picnic; please join us in the side yard for games and entertainment and fellowship. One of my favorite days of the year. Today is a special day for Laura and me as well, as our youngest son Arthur has just returned from Nashville.” My stomach lurched. He was sitting in the front row with his mother. “As most of you know, he’s been there the last five years, getting his optometrist license and doing his practicum. We are so proud of him and excited as we can be to have him here with us before he moves to Knoxville this fall. I know you’ll help us in welcoming him home.”

Arthur gave a reluctant wave to the congregation behind him. He had not changed in the years away. He was leaner, perhaps, but he still looked more boy than man. Our eyes met for a moment. He smiled broadly at me. I looked away. The choir began a new hymn.

I thought of the boy. I closed my eyes and tried to resurrect the feel of him. As a baby, he smelled to me of earth and cedar trees and the way a window pane smells in a summer storm. I imagined the flowers. I pictured them more numerous than ever, spilling out into the road, bursting through the shingles of my gable. It was almost a prayer.

My grandmother nudged me hard. “Open your eyes, Caroline!”

Out on the lawn after the service the Pastor, his wife, and Arthur stood in a receiving line by the food table. Grandmother marched along. I ducked away, but I could hear the loud timbre of my grandmother’s voice and could see her and the preacher’s family through the leaves of the azalea bushes.  

“Can this truly be young Artie?” She placed one of her bony hands on his shoulder. “You’re looking awfully grown up, my boy.”

“Isn’t he? We hadn’t seen him since Christmas last. I almost didn’t recognize him!” his mother said.

Grandmother laughed good naturedly. “I know it’s a joy to you to have him home. I don’t know what I’d do if Caroline ever left for so long, though you must be so proud.”

“Where is Caroline?” Arthur asked.

Grandmother looked around, confused. “Why, she was just beside me a moment ago!”

“I’ll have to catch up with her later,” Arthur said.

I joined Grandmother at a table under the shade of a tall oak tree, along with the members of her Sunday school class. They had all been friends now for fifty years. I had grown up around them, and as much as I enjoyed many of their stories from when they were younger, I hated when their conversation inevitably turned to who had died, or what prognosis they’d received most recently. When my grandmother started up her story of her back going out three weeks prior, I excused myself.

In the field, a group of children had gathered around a pole to play a may game. The girls were weaving in and out of stationary boys, striping the pole yellow and green. When they’d wound all the way down, they began to dance the other direction. They were laughing.

“I remember when that was us,” Arthur said behind me.

I managed a smile. “It doesn’t feel that long ago.”

“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” he said, softly. I presented my cheek to him, which he kissed softly. “How are you, Cari?” He was taller. “Mother says you’re still living with your grandmother.”

“Well, yes, I-”

“Not working?”

“Grandmother needs me too much. Or so she says.”

“Ah.” He was unconvinced.

“But it seems you’re doing very well. Arrived from Nashville and off to Knoxville. Home must seem very small to you.”

“It’s easier if I stay away.”

“I do envy you that.”

Grandmother was calling. She’d already gathered her things and stood waiting for me on the sidewalk. “I’m tired, Caroline!” she yelled.

“Meet me, would you?” he said. He took my hand. “At the old place. The old time.”

“If I can,” I replied. I pressed his hand and left, ducking beneath the branches of a cherry tree. It was pale pink. There were bees on every limb, making their way from blossom to blossom.

When we reached my grandmother’s house, the flowers looked as though blown about by a great wind. The daffodils were face down in the dirt, and the vining roses on the house had collapsed, a great brown stalk dangling limply from the porch awning.

“Well, my goodness,” my grandmother said. We stopped on the front walk together, our mouths agape. “What mischief is this!” She began her march indoors. “I just know it’s those Jensen boys. I saw them over here yesterday with the devil in their eyes, scheming away. Sure as day they’ve come along and killed our flowers.” The door slammed behind her. I walked to my mother’s garden and sat on the bench, sure for the moment that the boy had died.

But then as I cried, a small sliver of a green blossom pressed its way through the earth before my feet. I knelt, and a single tear fell on it. The petals unfurled, pale white and as thin as tissue paper. And so I knew my boy lived, somewhere, he was still alive.

 

6.

When I was sixteen, the way to visit the preacher’s son was this: I would wait until my grandmother fell asleep, listening in bed for the house to quiet down. Then I would climb barefoot down the redbud beside my window. I would unlatch the gate, my feet wet with dew as I slipped my way through the fence post in the back garden. I passed houses, shut tight and locked, and in my youth I pitied all those trapped inside, ignorant of the fresh blue air of the night. I stomped my way triumphant through the old school yard. I couldn’t get to him fast enough.

He was always waiting at the edge of the forest. He would take my hand and lead me through the dark bodies of the wood, to the stone outline of the house that had burned down long before. We laid on the earth, the needles of Virginia Pine pressing their fine lines in criss cross shapes across my shoulders. In those days, I thought only of him and the way his hands felt on my skin, the glow of his shoulders in the moonlight while the stars winked down at us from beyond the shadows of the trees.

At twenty-three, once the house was still I walked down the stairs, moving slowly. I yawned my way through the front gate. Out in the town the hush of the night made me shiver. Older, I looked on the quiet houses with longing. I pictured the peaceful families, the children snug in their rooms and the fathers and mothers sleeping close together. Each porch light, each shut door was a reminder: “You may not have this.” I hugged my sweater tighter around me.

The woods were darker than I remembered them, still I met them like an old friend. A meadowlark at the forest’s edge called a welcome. A fox scurried across my path. The wind clicked the branches together and rustled the budding leaves. The woods are not quiet. They are singing always.

He was there, leaning against the snaggled trunk of a fallen maple.

“You came,” he said with a smile.

“I came.”  I sighed deeply. The crickets hummed around us.

“I just wanted to talk to you. We haven’t spoken in ages, it seems like.”

“It has been a while. Christmas before last? Or longer, even?” I pretended I couldn’t remember. It had been three years since we’d last spoken, and I’d thought of him more often than I’d wanted during that time. Tears came to my eyes. I was glad it was too dark for him to tell. “I’m sorry for that, really.”

“It’s alright,” I said, “We’ve both been busy.” This was a lie. I was embarrassed at how little I’d let my life become.

“I know. And I haven’t been here much, but I’ll be home all summer, and I was hoping it could be like old times.” He laughed a little. “Well not like old times, exactly. Only we could be friendly-like. I’m planning on meeting Scotty over at the dam tomorrow for fishing, if you want to come.”

“I can’t.”

“Well, maybe Tuesday, then. I might head up to the falls.”

“No, Arthur. Because actually, I’m glad I can tell you now.  I’ve decided to go to him. The boy.”

He was silent a moment. The wind blew harder, the branches bowing around us. His face looked hard and stern in the dark.

“Why?”

“I don’t expect you to understand. I have to.”

“What will you do when you see him?”

“I’m not sure. Bring him back with me if I can. Make sure he’s alright, taken care of.”

“When will you go?”

“I plan on leaving tomorrow.”

“Where is he? Marietta?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll start there.”

He turned his back to me and kicked at a tree stump. “Damn… This could turn into quite the scandal.”

“I don’t expect anything from you. Nothing. I never did.”

“I know.”

“I always figured there was no point in us both suffering. That hasn’t changed.”

“Ah, yes, but I’ve changed.” Far off, lightning flashed without sound. “I’m coming with you.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Let’s just be discreet about it, okay?” I nodded. “We can take my car,” he offered.

“Fine. Meet me at the bus depot. Around noon, let’s say?”

“Alright…” He sighed deeply. “I’m not going to tell my parents. I’ll tell them I’m going camping with friends from school.”

“Of course.”

“Cari…” He dropped his head, as if he spoke the words to his shoes. “Does he look like me?”

“I-I really couldn’t say, not now. He didn’t so much when he was a baby. He was darker. More like me.”

He took a deep breath. He seemed relieved. “Until tomorrow, then.”

“Until tomorrow.”

 

7.

The storm that had threatened all night broke the next morning. I laid in bed, listening to the sound of the rain on the window, the thunder shaking the pains of glass. I heard the kettle whistle in the kitchen. I headed down for breakfast.

“Coffee, Carolove?” my grandmother asked when I entered the kitchen.

“Yes, thank you.”

She still wore her robe and slippers. “I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking bout those flowers,” she said as she poured.

“Oh?”

“Mrs. Jesnsen swore her boys were visiting their grandparents in Altamont this weekend. I’ve never seen a whole yard of flowers wilt thata way.”

She had fixed biscuits with strawberry jam. We sat at the table where she read the paper in the mornings, reading aloud any parts she thought would interest me.

“Oh, Caroline!” she exclaimed. “Look here! They’re doing Midsummer at the playhouse this weekend. Won’t that be fine?”

I took a deep breath. “I’m sure it will be, but I won’t be able to go.” She eyed me curiously over the top of her paper. I spoke slowly. “You see, I’m leaving today on a trip for a while. I’m not sure exactly how long it will take.” She was stunned silent. “I’m sorry to give you such little warning. I only decided yesterday I would go.”

“Well where are you going?”

“I’m going to find him.”

“Who?”

“Him.”

She shook out the paper and folded it with a coolness I’d seen her adopt before, though not often, always in moments of conflict. She rose slowly and walked to the window.

“May I remind you of our agreement, Caroline?” she asked, her back to me.

“I remember it.”

“I said that you could live on with me, that I’d continue to support you, to raise you, so long as you swore that, under no circumstances, would you see that child again. You swore.”

“I’m not a girl anymore, Grandmother. I don’t need you to support me or raise me.” I stood. “I’m grown. I have to do what I think right. I have to live by my own ideals.”

“Hmph,” she sneered. “Ideals, indeed. You and your mother didn’t have half an ideal between the two of you, obviously.” Her tone grew biting. “May I remind you how you begged? How you cried? You sat right there in that chair and sobbed. I could have thrown you out. Many would have done. But I let your dresses out for you so your classmates wouldn’t know, so the whole town wouldn’t know. I-I lied for you!” Her voice faltered as she said this. “I lied, against my own scruples. I paid for your stay at that-that facility” she could barely say the word, “in Marietta. And all for this?” She slammed her hand down hard on the table. “I won’t allow it, Caroline. I will not let you leave me!” She collapsed in her chair, sobbing.

It was as pathetic a tantrum as I’d ever seen a grown person perform and I did not take it lightly. It almost worked its purpose. I knelt beside her chair and put my head in her lap, as if I was a dog. She stroked my hair lovingly, smoothing it neatly. “Haven’t I loved you as if you were my own child?”

“I love you, too, Grandmother,” I said softly, “With all my heart.” I rose and kissed her on the cheek.

“I’ll die if you go,” she said when I reached the door. I had heard such threats from her before. She had said this when I’d proposed taking the GED and starting school at the Ladies’ College in Murfreesboro, when I’d tried to take a position as a secretary in Nashville, and when I’d suggested that I could board with a former schoolmate in Chattanooga and work as a waitress. In years’ past, it had been enough to stop me.  

This time, I managed a smile. “You had better not,” I said. I grabbed my bag from where I’d left it by the door and pulled an umbrella from the hall tree. I shut the door behind me.

I walked to the depot in the rain, my shoes and stockings soaked by the time I arrived.

Arthur was waiting outside the depot in his grey Ford. He didn’t get out of the car. I knocked on the passenger window and he popped the trunk. I threw my bag in and slid onto the front seat, shaking the umbrella out and running a hand over my damp hair. “What’d you tell your grandmother?” he asked.

“The truth.”

“How’d that go for you?”

“About as you’d imagine. She says this’ll kill her.”

“It won’t.” Arthur turned his blinker on, made the three lefts around the town square, and we headed out of town.

 

8.

Once, when I was quite small, my mother took me on a walk in a valley.

I remember walking beside her in a broad, shallow stream, the hems of her dress floating on top of water as smooth and shimmering as ice, schools of minnows parting around us as we went. The rocks of the creek bed were smooth and flat, covered in algae and water snails. My mother held my hand to keep me from slipping, and as we walked she told me the story of a doe who was separated from her fawn, who wandered deep and far into the world to find her. The doe crossed streams and mountains and meadows calling her daughter’s name but still she couldn’t find her. At last she came to a land of snow, as vast and endless as the sky. The doe called for her child one last time and the fawn appeared, as pale and brilliant as a star, with a fur coat of white and eyes that shone like silver. And then the doe was happy at last, and the two lived together in the cold place.

“It means, where you go I go,” she said. She squeezed my hand.

My mother left the stream when we reached a small island. It was covered in knee high grass, yellow-green and almost translucent in the sun. In my memory, it was as if with every step of her bare foot on the earth a blue bell sprang from the ground in full bloom. Then she unpacked a small picnic lunch of ham sandwiches and pickles and we shared it together on paper plates.

That is the truth of flowers : even some jaunty dandelion growing in a ditch is a miracle. It is the stuff of magic, a sweet growing thing made from light and dirt and seed. Inside each green body lives an unspoken law, as old as time: reach deep into the earth, send your roots into the rich darkness of the soil, and then, when you are ready, oh glory, break up into the air and see the sky.  

 

9.

The road south east from Sparta cuts through flat, open farmland. The clouds hung low and heavy over the fields, where small tobacco and corn plants were beginning to grow, timidly. The hills behind were covered in white puffs of flowering pear and wild dogwoods. Arthur was humming to himself, and drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.

I closed my eyes, remembering the drive as it had been in the autumn of my sixteenth year. That day, the sky was a bright, clear blue, and the hills were gold and orange and red. Grandmother lectured as she drove. “I might have known,” she said, “I might have know, you being your mother’s daughter. I should have barred the windows. I shouldn’t have let you out of the house. Just school and church and home. Oh but Jesus, didn’t I try to do right by you?”

I was quiet. I was seven months along, and in my belly I could feel the stretch and swift kicks of our baby. I knew he was a boy. I could feel it deep inside me, and  in a dream, saw him born and wild and cartwheeling around the yard. We stopped for gas in Chattanooga, and as the clerk pumped gas, Grandmother turned to me and laid a hand on my knee.

“Caroline. If you’d only tell me who the father is, we could make this right. We could do this differently. I’d sew you a wedding dress, my girl.”

How close I came in that moment, and how often I’d relived what might have been! I had loved Arthur deeply, maybe even wanted to marry him, but I was so young that it felt as if whole worlds would have shattered. Tears filled my grandmother’s eyes, but I was silent. “Alright, then.” She said, thin lipped.

When we arrived at the home in Marietta, she wouldn’t even walk me inside. She pulled up to the edge of the gate, helped unload my suitcases, and drove away. She never even turned off her car.

 

10.

Arthur had only driven a few miles when the rain came down so hard we could barely see out the front window. Arthur adjusted the air, trying to keep the window from fogging up. We were nearing Chattanooga when Arthur pulled over at a small picnic shelter on the side of the road. We ran to get under the awning. I pulled out some sack lunches we’d bought at a gas station in Monteagle. We sat across from each other.

“Caroline,” he said after a while. “You never told me about him, not really.”

“I wasn’t sure you wanted to know,” I responded. He stared at me intently. “He was so pretty, Arthur, like a little doll, and he was already seeming so smart, so aware! They let him sleep in the room with me — he cried in the nursery, you see. But next to me he slept so sound. I stayed as long as they let me. Then, Grandmother came one morning and we left him there. I handed him off to a nurse-”

What else could I say? The baby was just beginning to smile. In the morning he would look up at me from his crib by my bed. He would raise his arms ever so slightly, so I was sure he was reaching for me. He was the prettiest baby I’d ever seen, and I could feel my heart breaking every time I looked at him. In the dark of the night when I nursed him I would think of my own mother. She must have held me just as gently. She would have listened to the same sweet sucking sounds as she stroked the soft fuzz of my head.

When I held him for the last time, I prayed he would never remember me. How that broke my heart! But still I prayed that he would never know that the one who had grown him and nursed him and should have loved him best gave him away. My grandmother chatted the whole way home about how some doctor or lawyer or some well-to-do and his wife would come soon to adopt him, he was such a pretty thing, and that I needn’t worry, I’d done the right thing, and I was back just in time to take my exams and next year I would graduate and wouldn’t I look pretty in a cap and gown.

“You regret it,” Arthur said in my silence.

“I regret it,” I said softly. “And lately I’ve been feeling he’s not well. It’s motherly intuition I suppose. I need to know he’s okay.”

“That’s only half a plan, Caroline.” He was quiet. “What will you do if he’s there today?”

“I want him. I want him more than anything. I’ve never stopped wanting him.”

He nodded and stared at me hard. “Jesus, my parents will be upset.” He looked away. “But that’s alright. I understand.” We got back in the car.

 

11.

The road was unpaved, and in the rain great gullies had formed. The car bumped along. The branches of wild pear trees hanging low hit the window. We came to a clearing. The house was as I remembered: on the broad front porch a half a dozen children were playing at hopscotch and marbles and dolls. The older ones straightened when they saw us and smiled agreeably. The younger ones were less reserved, and as we parked they pointed and waived.

I looked for him. I was always looking for him. He would be four feet tall or so, he would not be blond, he would not be too thin.  Arthur held my hand as we walked up the stairs. We rang the doorbell and a woman I didn’t recognize greeted us.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Hm?” I could scarcely think. A few more children had appeared since we’d arrived. Too old, I reasoned.  “No, we don’t.”

“Are you hoping to adopt? Or-”

“I would love to speak to Ms. Glenn,” I said softly.

“Alright, she’s just taking her lunch in her office, ma’am.”

We walked down a long hall. It was lined in photographs of smiling couples holding little babies and toddlers in their arms, or on occasion standing with small children beside them. I looked for him. We reached the office and the nurse knocked at the door.

“Come in,” Ms. Glenn answered from inside.

“Please sit down,” she said to us as we entered, gesturing to two chairs across the desk from her. “Anne Glenn,” she said, extending a hand to us.

“Arthur Denton,” he said, shaking her hand.

“Caroline,” I said.

“How can I help you, Mr. and Mrs. Denton?”

“You don’t remember me,” I said, softly.

Ms. Glenn straightened in her chair. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t.”

I took a deep breath. “I was here seven and a half years ago. I had a boy. I left him when he was three months old.”

Her smile had faded. She clasped her hands and placed them on her desk. “How can I help you?”

“I wanted to know about him.”

“We take care of all of our wards, I assure you.”

“Of course, but-.”

“What was your last name?”

“Montaine.”

“Miss Wilson!” she called loudly. The woman reappeared at the door. “I need to see a file. Caroline Montaine.” Miss Wilson nodded nervously and left. “You understand that I can’t give you any information if he is no longer with us.”

“Of course.”

The woman came back in with the file, and Ms. Glenn opened it discreetly behind her desk. She looked only a moment before she took out a small photograph and slid it across the desk to us. “There you see,” she smiled, “Safe and sound with a lovely family. I can’t give you their names, of course, but… there you are.”

My hands shook as I took the photograph. Arthur leaned over close to look alongside me. There he was. Five years old or so and as beautiful as the sun. He had straight brown hair that was parted neatly to the side. He was wearing suspenders and a gingham shirt. He had my mouth and Arthur’s bright eyes. He was smiling, and held the hand of a plain-looking woman who looked well along in years. She wore a neat little dress and looked kind enough. Her husband was tall and large. He wore pinstripe overalls.

“Feel better?” Arthur asked.

“How carefully do you assess your families?” I asked.

“We are very thorough, I assure you. In fact,” she smiled, opened the file again, “We make calls annually for updates, just to do our due diligence, you understand. Let’s see…” For a moment, I thought she was going to read something to us, some report, or some quick update. Instead, her eyebrows wrinkled, only slightly, and she hurriedly shut the file and stood. She began walking us to the door. “We look at bank statements, we ask about home accommodations, their reasons for adopting. I don’t recall your son particularly, and legally, there’s not much more I can tell you. You gave up any claim to information.” She pulled out a piece of paper with the terms I’d agreed to. My young signature was uneven and faint.

“We understand, of course,” Arthur said.

“If there’s anything else you can tell me…” I said. Ms. Glenn shrugged and shook her head. “And you won’t give me their address? I would only write to the parents, just to inquire…”

“Absolutely not.”

“We understand,” Arthur said again. He put his hand on my waist, and started guiding me to the door.

 

12.

At a diner on the main square in Marietta, a waitress brought two coffees.

“That was rough,” I said.

“Not really,” said Arthur. “That’s how I thought it would go.”

“You seem relieved.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Do you blame me? I’d say this is good news, all things considered. They looked like a nice family.”

“You didn’t find anything odd? She started talking about annual check-ins and then slammed his file shut.”

Arthur rubbed his forehead and frowned. “I’m sure he’s fine.” He was adding sugar to his coffee, tapping the last granules out into the cup.

“But you noticed.”

“I thought she was going to be more… revelatory, sure. But I’m not surprised that she couldn’t tell us more. Waived rights, etc.”  

“I was sixteen. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“Caroline-”

“You didn’t waive your right, did you?” He straightened. He looked upset.  “We’ll go back. We’ll contest everything. We’ll say I was under emotional duress. I mean, I was! Grandmother was threatening to kick me out! I’m not saying I’ll adopt him. I just want to meet him. I just want to-”

“It’s been over two years since he was adopted. I don’t think there’s any reason to open this up any further.”

I stood. “Arthur. You’re a coward.” I gathered my purse and started out of the door.

“Wait, Caroline,” he said. He followed me outside. It was dusk and a slight drizzle still lingered over the town. “We can go back. We can go tomorrow.”

“I just want to meet him.”

“I understand. We’ll get the address.”

We drove a little ways outside of town to a motel we’d passed coming in. The neon light above flickered “vacancy” in bright orange neon. Arthur ran into the lobby, coming back hurriedly. “I booked us a double, I hope that’s alright.”

“I thought you would get two rooms. I should have said.”

“Do you mind much? I can go back and change it.”

“It’s alright,” I said. He pulled around to the back. Our room smelled of stale tobacco and bleach. I put my bag down on the bed nearest the bathroom.  

“I’m exhausted,” I said, sitting on the edge of the bed and beginning to unclasp my shoes.

“Me too,” he said. “Listen, Caroline, I feel there’s something I should have told you right away. I meant to in the woods.” He was rummaging through his bag, avoiding eye contact, I thought. “I’m engaged. Or, that is, I soon will be.”

“Oh?” I said. I tried to keep my voice unaffected, but inwardly my heart beat faster in my chest. I often imagined him married to someone else, and I had realized long ago that there existed too much sadness and disappointment between us. Still, he was the only one I had ever loved.

“Her name’s Annabell. She was the receptionist where I worked in Nashville. She’s agreed to help me open my new practice in Knoxville. It’s all but finalized. It’s been implied, I mean.”

“Congratulations, Artie,” I said, and tried to mean it.

“You’re not angry, then?” he said. He was staring at me earnestly now.

“Of course not. Don’t be silly.” I sounded nonchalant.

I excused myself to the restroom and changed into my nightgown. I unloosed my hair from its high bun. It had grown so long it reached my waist. He was sitting up in his bed watching television when I came out. I slipped quickly into my bed and turned off the lamp.  “Goodnight, Artie,” I said, softly. He got up and turned the television off, and then turned off his light.

In the dark, I remembered our first kiss. We were only fourteen years old. We were walking home from church and we’d been caught up in a spring rain. He’d pulled me under the branches of a peach tree. He kissed me as the petals fell with the rain. A petal landed on my nose. I lay in the dark, thinking of him, and our son, and the life that might have been.

“Are you asleep, Caroline?” he asked after a while. “Caroline?” I didn’t answer him, and after a while I could hear his deep breathing in his sleep.

 

 

13.

The next morning the rain fell on our windshield as we made our way back to the home, the droplets slowly joining and streaking down the glass in small rivulets. Arthur was quiet, his eyes puffy with sleep in the early morning. He yawned. At the home the children were just making their way onto the porch. Ms. Glenn must have seen us arrive, for she came outside hurriedly and met us at the foot of the stairs.

“I’m afraid you will have to leave at once or I will phone the authorities,” she greeted us. “There is no reason whatever for your presence here today.”

Arthur spoke calmly. “Ms. Glenn, as the boy’s father I would like a full copy of his file. I never waived any parental right, you understand. I don’t think it unreasonable-”

She moved still closer to us and spoke in a whisper that was so full of intent it managed to feel like a shout. “It is of utmost importance that the children not hear me, sir-” They had all crowded around the porch and were watching with wide eyes. “But what proof do you have that you are the father, after all? In cases such as these there is often little surety-”

I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. “Ms. Glen, I-”

“I have no doubts whatsoever, and neither would you if you knew the situation at all,” Arthur said. He was pointing at Ms. Glen and had straightened so he towered over her. “You should be ashamed of yourself, ma’am.”

“Be that as it may, you can by no means show up seven years into a child’s life and expect any claim on him at all. I’ll be calling the police now, if you’ll excuse me,” and she marched her way back into the house, shooing the children out of her way as she did so.

“Come along, Caroline,” Arthur said. He was flustered and seemed angry, and I was proud of him for the first time in ages.  “What a horrible woman.”

“We’ll have to get a lawyer,” I said as we got back in the car.

“Christ,” Artie replied, but he didn’t argue it.

We were almost back to the paved street when we saw the nurse from the day before waiting under an umbrella beside the road. As we neared she waved. Arthur stopped the car, and we got out, standing close beside her. “I hope I’m not being too bold.” She looked worried. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said, as she handed us the boy’s file.

A page labeled “Follow-Ups” was on top of the file. It had three different dates written on the left margin, along with the notes of the phone call. On the last date, which was from three months previous, MISSING was written in all caps.

“This just happens sometimes. More often than you’d think,” the nurse said. “They all start off so eager to be adopted, but it doesn’t always live up to their expectations. So they run away. They’re often found,” she said, more reassuringly. “We’ve had them show up here, a time or two.”

“What’s being done?” I asked. “Are they searching for him?”

She flipped the page over. On it was the name of the police officer in charge of the investigation, the last sighting, and what he was wearing. “This is all the information we have, I’m afraid. It’s really up to the parents to look for him at this point, not us.”

“Thank you, very much, for helping us,” Artie said, shaking her hand.

“I really shouldn’t have. I’ll lose my job, I expect, but he was a favorite of mine, you see. He was so smart, wild too, full of mischief. He was beautiful, really.”

I was torn between pride and dread. “I wish you’d stop speaking in the past tense.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. It’s only that I haven’t seen him in three years, you understand.”

“We understand,” Arthur said.

“I have to be getting back,” the nurse said. “If you can, try not to let on how you got the file.”

“We’ll never tell. Thanks again,” he said. She left us, making her way down the road bed, avoiding puddles.

We got back into the car. My hands shook as I began going through the contents of the folder. Arthur scooted to the middle seat and leaned close over my shoulder to read along. There were his health records: he’d gotten chicken pox when he was three. I imagined him, freckled and covered in calamine. On little slips of paper someone had added notes about his behavior: “James got out of bed 4 times last night, claimed he was worried I was scared of the dark.” Another said he’d been bothering the other children, “insistent that he must be called Knight James and demanding Luke be his horse and Peter his squire.” Then there was information about his adoption: Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, of Chatom, Alabama.

There was only one other photo of him. He was three years old or so, sitting in a little patch of flowers. “He looks so serious,” Arthur said. He did. His small brow was furrowed into a frown, and he was gazing past the camera. He held a small clover blossom in his hands.

“He looks wonderful,” I said, and Arthur agreed, nodding sadly.

We drove back to our hotel. Arthur got his road atlas from the glove compartment. We laid it on the hotel bed, running our fingers along the highways that would take us further south.

“It’s a long way to go,” Arthur said.

“We have to,” I said. “We have to now.”

“I know,” he said. He placed his hand on my shoulder.

Out in the parking lot, just beyond Arthur’s car, I watched as a small star of jerusalem broke through the gravel of the driveway, its small head bobbing in the rain.

 

14.

When the time comes, if the time comes-

When the time comes, will I be able to run to him? Throw my arms around him? Will he know me at once? Will he look at me and see some semblance of a dream, some fragment of a memory, held close in his chest all these years? Will he remember once I held him as near as my own heart, nursed him as part of my own body, grew him in my belly, round and white as a moon?

Or maybe he will kick my shins, ask what took me so long. Rightly so, my son, my child.

I tried once before. I bought a bus ticket to Marietta. I packed my bags and made my way all alone on a summer morning so hot and humid to walk felt like swimming. And do you know tornadoes came? Whole tornadoes came between my boy and me. All the buses were canceled, and the sirens went off in the town and  I lost my nerve and spent the afternoon huddled in my grandmother’s basement, feeling that much more like a child.

If I could see him only once more and if he might, not right away, but one day, forgive me, let it be because I was still so much a child. And his father too, not grown enough to be able to say to his parents: we are in love. We did this because we are in love. This child was made from love, every bit of it holy. It might have been a small simple thing. My grandmother would have sewn me a wedding dress. She would have loved to knit him baby clothes, small sweaters, booties the size of thumbs. We could have lived with her, or the little apartment above the bakery on the square.

It doesn’t matter anymore. When the time comes, if the time comes–

When the time comes, it would be no small thing to me to be able to even once place my hand upon his head, or even, if it were possible, to kiss him just once on his cheek. I might never see him again after that but still I might bless him in that way. Tell him: you were always wanted, always loved. You were born of love. To me, you are love incarnate.

 

END OF PART 1

© 2018 Rebecca Rose Moody