It was Labor Day, eight years to the day I’d run away from home heartbroken and barren. Like any other holiday, I took a drive on the Natchez Trace Parkway to check in on the Confederates’ graves, but I do believe that’s when it all began to turn. The morning’s rain steamed off the road, unspooling in patches and wisps, and my Mustang glided through. Waves of lush green hills sloped up from each shoulder and in a crisp blue sky white clouds burst like cattails gone to seed. Being there filled the emptiness that stole in when my school bus was parked and gated, no children to shepherd back and forth from Tellman Elementary.
Memories of Daddy and Eli kept me company. Daddy repaired power lines for Dixie Electric and spent every holiday on call, so the Trace was the last place he’d be today.
I’d seen maybe four cars since Hurricane Creek, ninety minutes back. Hamstrung by low speed limits and slow curves, the Natchez Trace never could compete with the interstates. World’s gotten too fast for the Trace, Cora, Daddy used to say. It’s a 400-mile history lesson now.
I’d grown up exploring the Trace with him, couple times a month, more during hunting season. That ride, all unbridled country and proud history, beat hell out of a playground, and I’d allow it’s the Mississippi that the good Lord intended. And days like today, no traffic, suited me just fine. I never cared much for anyone beside kids and kin.
Much as I missed Daddy, I lacked the courage, I suppose, to see him, but I most certainly did not miss that town. Folks there’ve long said I had a mean streak. Been called a monster, a threat. But not standing to be crossed does not make me a terror. The eager smile on every face that climbs the steps of my school bus attests to that.
The windows were down and as I dug in my purse for a cigarette, wind twined my auburn hair round the halo headrest. I pushed the lighter on the console and checked the progress of my shiner in the rearview. There I caught a glimpse of Eli’s baby seat, sun-bleached to colors I couldn’t name.
The lighter popped but I let it be and caressed my belly, my navel, remembering the flutters. Little wings of an unexpected dream. Flutters that stopped that first day of week nineteen, the twenty-first of April eight years back. A worn yellow index card taped to my dash rattled in the cross breeze; left of center were Eli’s faded footprints, hardly bigger than my fingerprints. Daddy had stamped them there with beet juice he’d brought up from the kitchen that cool early morning after I’d birthed Eli, a perfect tiny man, warm but still. We huddled there on the soiled carpet, Eli curled in my hand and damp on my lips and me pressed against Daddy’s chest. His heartbeat tapped on my cheek, his hand caressed my hair. This is an impossible time to ask you for strength, he said, but we need to get you to a doctor, Cora Mae.
I pressed the lighter again and laid a finger on the card to hush it. Scrawled around Eli’s prints was my daily meditation, from Proverbs: ‘What shall I say to you, my son, child of my womb and answer to my prayers?’ I thought a moment, then glanced back at his empty seat. “Not a day goes by I wonder what I should’ve done different. I’d give my life one limb at a time for a single afternoon with you.”
The day was hot but not humid, so I pulled off at Witch Dance, grabbed my metal tumbler—a gift from the parents on my route—and found myself a circle of dead grass to bask in. Legend tells that the grass withered under the feet of the witches who once danced here. The soil was damp under my weight, and I felt the mystery of that hallowed ground thrum slowly through me. Sipping sweet tea there in the sunshine, I could hear Daddy, all those years ago: If playing witch gives you strength and grit, then angel, you’re already spinning magic.
And so too it was Daddy often took to blaming himself for the bane I’d become, as a good father might. But it wasn’t his fault—he wasn’t like me, not in the least. When I miscarried Eli my junior year, cradled him in my hands in solemn disbelief; when the D&C doctor who had mangled me told me seven weeks later, cold-faced, that I could never make another; when my bloodless months grew to years; when the specialist in Birmingham told me my Asherman’s was intractable; when the state informed me by certified mail that I wasn’t fit to be a foster parent; I wept so durably a thirst took hold of me that I could not quench. And so I thought hard about what the world had said about my lot in life—my inability to create. And I undertook to correct that.
Bright laughter sounded from a picnic area across the way. A few older women were setting places at weathered tables and a strapping man in an LSU cap struggled to light a grill. They were the only family I’d seen all day. In the clearing a skulk of kids raced around playing tag. A pig-tailed girl, maybe seven, got knocked into a cooler and ice cubes and Coke cans skimmed across the grass. A redheaded boy came up lame after getting tagged; bruised ego, likely. I enjoyed watching them, and I imagined how Eli might have fit in. Would he follow or break trail, and would Daddy have smiled either way? I believed so. Their playful squeals warmed me. I flexed against my ankle holster and relished the thought of spiriting away the redheaded one. There was no solace in that, inflicting my pain on other mothers, but such fantasies propped me up summers and holidays. For sure my days were easier when I was driving a school bus; for an hour twice a day those kids were all mine.
I watched the mothers too—laughing, chasing—each of them so dedicated yet carefree. When I was fifteen I slapped a state trooper and later that day my youth service counselor grabbed my arm so tight I had to listen. I needed to be like other girls, he’d said, even if I had to fake it. Ever since, I’ve observed other women and how they behave in the world. For these, motherhood looked natural, intended. I wanted that so badly it burned, but watching cooled me.
After a while I remembered the graves, so I got back into my car and drove north, Rhiannon in the speakers reminding me that Dreams unwind / Love is hard to find. My fingers tapped the rhythm on the steering wheel. A few miles on, I drove through a pleasant whiff of skunk and then silenced the music and slowed to forty to take it all in, remembering that Daddy used to say my darker side was best kept hidden. He implored me to defy your malicious whims, be the girl who raised up little Molly by showing her how to stand up for herself. Find pleasure in others, find it in simple things. Long, thoughtful drives on the Trace were my chance to try to do just that. I took a long drag from my Marlboro Light and smiled. I’d been like other girls for nearly six months now.
Anything’s possible with you, Cora, why not six years, I imagined Daddy saying to that, and I lost my smile.
The sign for the graves of the unknown Confederate soldiers came into view, and without fail I pictured Eli being put to rest at Eaglevale beside Mama, where a jury of her peers had sent her. Daddy had carved April 21 1998 on Eli’s handmade box, and I reflected at the time—and ever since—that what had happened, the source of the darkness I can’t see through, barely covered my hands, and yet what could’ve been might have filled my heart.
I pulled in to tend to the soldiers’ graves, and mine was the only car in the lot. From there it’s a short dirt path to the wooded area that shades the tireless picket of thirteen headstones. No names, no dates, no record. Made you wonder, standing there, who it is that’s down there and how they went. Or if their mothers ever got word. I pulled weeds and righted some small flags, placed coins on a few markers. At the last plot I took to a knee and dragged my thumb across the word “Unknown” carved there into the cool, green-stained limestone. I felt it like my own sadness. A catbird mewed overhead, and closing my eyes I pushed my fingers through the grass and into the dirt. Squeezed a ball of it in my hand. Put it in my front pocket. Then I went back to my car and kept on north.
Not five minutes later a burnt-orange naked Jeep swooped in behind me and filled my rearview. Three boys, college age. They pressed me and rode my ass through a few curves, jockeying back and forth and side to side trying to pass. The driver leaned on the horn, and the headlights flashed in my mirrors. I checked my speed. Fifty-two, just over the limit. I swallowed and clenched the steering wheel but I would not be menaced, and I tapped my brake lights to that effect. They tried their chances on the shoulder but thought better of it when they clipped a milepost marker. On a straight piece they shot across the double lines and roared past, cursing and hollering. The boy riding shotgun leaned out toward me and grabbed at his crotch. They settled in front of me and slowed to forty. In the next curve the driver slammed the brakes and skidded, and I hit mine so hard I swerved and jolted to a stop and my face bounced off the steering wheel.
For a moment nothing moved but the blood in my throat. Burnt rubber stank in the air. I tongued the jagged gash along my lower lip, wide as a bottle top.
The boy in the back stared at me over his shoulder, wide eyed, and cringed as he brought his hand to his neck and made a gentle wave. They honked again and tore off.
I put my head in my hands and let off the brake. The headrest tugged my snarled hair. The Mustang drifted forward as warmth flowed down my chin and dripped red into my lap. My tumbler rolled to a stop against my foot. ‘For Cora, with Gratitude.’ I tried, tried so hard to take deep breaths, but I reared back and screamed, a mist of blood like pollen in the air. That smoldering heat went rabid in my chest again. I thought of Billy Cudd, Eli’s father, and how Daddy kenneled me in our old springhouse after I’d tried to torch that cretin.
The front tire slipped off the shoulder, and I looked up and steered back to the road. Tunnel vision set in. There was only that distant Jeep and the winding yellow lines connecting us. As I pressed the gas, other times Daddy locked me away flooded my mind—for taking a buck out of season, for punishing the crossing guard, for shoving grabby Cooper down the steeple stairs at First Baptist.
All that was before I was old enough to get free. I’m grown now.
I stubbed my cigarette on my thigh and jerked my hair free of the headrest. A cloud shadow blotted the road, and I caught myself heavy on the pedal and closing in on the Jeep. A speed limit sign whipped past. I took a deep breath and eased off to get space from the boys. I’d see them again—sure as the rust in my mouth.
Daddy’s voice coursed through me: You should be ashamed. Lord knows I am. I’ve cursed His name for wiring you for malice instead of creation. It always took something out of me when he harped on my wiring, like I was born broken. Week of my thirteenth birthday, he’d taken me to see a plain-clothes doctor up in Tupelo to flush out the reasons for my darker side, seek help. But my sole recollection was the drive back, Daddy complaining that we could’ve gotten recycled horseshit for free a lot closer to home. That was one of the only times I saw him cry, white-knuckling the steering wheel as a single tear vanished into his red moustache. You could tell he had a lot of hope riding on that visit. I never gave much credence to hope, seeing as how often it turned on him.
A handsome park ranger driving south waved out his window and I swallowed blood and shot him a tight-lipped smile. As I watched his pickup shrink in my side mirror I imagined what life would be like with a federal ranger. A respected husband. A safe home. Embracing a strong lover touched by the wild and washed in fields and woods and sunbaked sweat. For a while I forgot about Billy and that Jeep. And I tried to keep like that, tried to enjoy the Trace and stay out of the darkness.
For a stretch past the Pharr Burial Mounds green pelts of kudzu cloaked every tree and each loomed like a gloved finger writhing from underground. I lit another cigarette and spied a manged fox hobbling across a field up ahead, rat tail flicking above hindquarters of raw skin. As I passed it jerked around and gnawed on its back leg. It’s hard not to let something like that bother you. Coming through a sharp curve I veered from a turkey vulture plucking at something on the center yellow line. She skittered off, but when I checked my mirror she’d gone right back to it. Occurred to me a buzzard needs a short memory.
Just this side of the Alabama line I spotted the boys’ Jeep alone in the Cave Spring parking loop, and my face twitched and clenched like I’d walked through a spider web. That old heat ran in me again, filled me with certainty. The Mustang kicked up dust as I parked downwind on the shoulder past the entrance.
I reached under my pant leg and unsnapped the thumb break on my Colt and stretched to the glove box for my Browning, slid it under my waistband. I got out and checked around, then stared in at Eli’s seat. “Time and again, I do so wish you’d have taken me with you.” The Mustang ticked as it cooled, and hands on the warm roof, I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sky. “They told me God had taken you because He needed another angel in heaven. I wonder what He’d make of these ones here. Devils is what He left me with.” I glanced back in the window. “Look away, now.”
I turned and stalked across the meadow toward them, using the trees on the far side to block my approach. The sun cut my eyes but I didn’t blink. To my right a blue jay screeched and I crouched, got small. It flew past and landed high in a hickory near the boys and kept sounding off, but they didn’t heed the alarm—they were pounding beers and whipping the empty bottles into the cave below.
The hickory shielded me, so I ran to it and put my back to the bark. Their voices rang clear from the other side. I slumped and slid till I was sitting against the base and stayed awhile, listening, to make sure. Three was risky. I’d never dated more than two at once, and these so young and strong. But there was good fortune in it too. It was as close to providence as I thought I’d ever get.
I heard Daddy clear as a horn. What you’re doing ain’t hunting. It’s an abomination. He’d said that about the buck. He’d have stronger language now.
“I never could get you to understand,” I whispered as I unholstered my Colt. “Because I didn’t get it myself. I get it now. Someday I’d like for you to see.”
One of the boys declared they should “go back and find that Mustang Sally and show her a good time, one at a time.” My pulse quivered along my throat. More vile things followed—arguments about who’d be first, louder ones about who’d be third.
“You boys…” I spat into my palms and smeared the bloody saliva down my forehead and cheeks. Then I seized a pistol in each hand, stood, and crept till I could smell beer and body spray. Ten feet away I stamped my boot on a stick. They spun around and stared back and forth at the barrels and my blood-stained face. The driver lost hold of his beer and the bottle thumped in the grass.
“Kneel,” I said. “Now.” And that was all it took. They weren’t so rude face-to-face. And not at all brave down there on their knees.
“Ma’am, we didn’t mean nothing by it,” the driver said. He kept on about how sorry they were, and the blond from the front seat agreed and apologized again and again, as if back-pocket words could sew my lip.
I stepped up and pressed the muzzle against the blond boy’s lips. He leaned away but I shook my head. “Open.” I forced the barrel into his mouth. “Here’s something,” I said, words and air slurring and whistling through the flap in my mouth. “You either let humiliation in to fester, or you wrench it home, in spades, so it builds you.” The driver nodded, but not like he meant it.
The blond boy’s teeth chattered on the barrel, and the sound was so peculiar it would stick in my mind. But then he slowly raised his hands—courage lit his eyes—his nostrils flared.
“No, Jack!” yelled one of the others, so I squeezed on him, and then splayed the other two before they could react. The blond fell last—his head wobbled a moment, jack-in-a-box, before the rest of him got notice. I dated them all September 4, 2006.
I squatted and watched the driver’s lips blanch till the ringing in my ears tapered off and the flow began. It’s numbing, that feeling of the life in them streaming through me. They filled me like a deep breath, but I was nauseous too, like those early mornings with Eli. Persist, I told myself, and then set to work gathering spent shells. Try as I might, I fell twice and sprained my wrist dragging them down to the cave. The tall one, heavy as a buck, surprised me—so clammy on such a hot day. After my second fall, I weighed the expedience of field dressing them, there on the ground, but couldn’t bring myself to do it—what you do to those you harm, you do to yourself; so I almost never did more harm than was needed. Didn’t trust I had enough time besides.
Down in the cave I washed my face with cold spring water from the shallow stream, splashes echoing off the low ceiling. Then I clambered out and jogged to my Mustang and drove into the parking loop and parked beside the Jeep. My shadow fell long on the pavement. I squinted at the sun. Maybe two hours of daylight left. I flicked open the Mustang’s fuel door and moved a half-full gas can from my trunk to the Jeep.
The stick shift nettled my swollen wrist, but I drove the Jeep about a mile, into Alabama, and parked beside a blistered old Skylark in a near-empty church lot. Then I hoofed it back to my Mustang, lugging my gas can so I’d have an excuse for abandoning my car. Never did need it; weren’t any park rangers sniffing around.
The faint smell of gas as I walked toward the setting sun brought me back to that day in Small Engine Repair when Billy Cudd called my womb Death Valley, five months after I’d lost Eli. The other boys howled at that, even the ones who knew he was the father. I sprayed Billy with two-cycle fuel, then aimed to set a flare on him, but Mr. J tackled me and pinned my neck with a tire iron till the law came. Billy’s dad arrived at the sheriff’s first and started in, swearing I was going to hell even if he had to drag me there himself. Of course he shut up and left out the garage after he turned around and saw Daddy filling the doorway. On the drive home from the sheriff’s Daddy didn’t say a word. He locked me in the stone springhouse, and from outside the crooked oak door, he finally laid into me: When you were four you wanted to be a doctor. At six it was an astronaut to move Pluto closer to the sun so it could be warmer. You broke my grip—you might’ve been eight—when you ran to pull Connor away from those fighting mutts. And not six months ago, week of Easter you bought that car seat for Eli and the glow on your face and the smile in your heart could be seen clear to the Gulf. We need to find that girl again, Cora Mae, ‘cause I love you with all my heart, but I will not abide whatever ripe hell this is. Imagine how Billy’s mama feels right now, and would’ve felt if… Do that—imagine. Find a path back to who I know you can be. Before you end up like your mother. I can’t lose you both. He left me there two nights. And for two nights I seethed, pacing, shouting, “Imagine how Ifeel!” Early morning of the third day, I got free—fingers raw, shoulders bruised—and spied Daddy through the kitchen window. He sat at the table under dim light, his two hands wrapped around his coffee thermos, his eyes in another county. His old revolver rested on the table beside him. I ran away that very moment, and that was the last I ever saw of Daddy. When I’m down his way I see his bucket truck sometimes, at Barrelhouse or Kroger, and each time I own I never did know his intention for that revolver. Me or him.
It’s been near four months now, though it feels longer. According to the obituaries, they held a single memorial service for all three boys last month. They laid them to rest in different cemeteries, though, and I’m visiting with them today—the first reunion of many, I expect. A damp chill snakes into my bones and drizzle bends the wildflowers in my hand. Staring at the driver’s grave, I realize each boy has the same mourning angel on his headstone. The sort of touch I’d have chosen. The engravings are off a few days and it stings a little, my dates being wrong, but I feel full, complete. Newspaper said they kept well down there in the cool air, which made them tough to date. Park Service figures the Choctaw once used those caves for food storage. I enjoyed learning that. Every deer season, we put our old springhouse to that same use.
Rain gets inside my collar and mud oozes into my old Mary Janes. I swirl coffee in my mouth because my lipstick’s gone rancid. Being here makes the good and bad of what I’ve done seep in. Means tonight the dream will probably wake me again. A molting pileated woodpecker mimicking the sound of that boy’s teeth, peck-peck-pecking on my Browning till his beak splinters.
But I had to come. We’re kin now. Their birth mamas set that first date on their gravestones, sure. But I cast the second, right there beneath the angel. We’re forever bound, carved in granite. These and all the other devils I’ve dated.
I glance back at my Mustang and can’t see it well, but I can picture, can feel, the empty back seat. Yesterday I took and put Eli’s car seat in the belly trunk of my school bus. Peggy, our depot dispatcher, is pregnant with her first. She’s unhinged and firefly slow, but she’ll want to keep him safe and that seat was the best that money could buy.
“What shall I say to you, my son,” I begin. The rain stops and I turn and look at the angel. “I never felt I belonged so much as I did when I was carrying you.” I lay my hands against the soft curve of my belly. “Someday we’ll meet proper. You needn’t be proud. Just smile when you see me.”
Peggy heard that Daddy had a fall, working trouble high up a pole somewhere. He’s been a week at Gilmore Memorial, asking around for me, drunk on drugs, worried about me getting into trouble. Look who’s talking, he’s the one who fell. She also heard he concussed Billy Cudd’s father with a cant hook a few years back. I hardly believed it when she told me.
Deep down I feel hollow. A thought pries in. That morning I ran away, I wonder, maybe Daddy’s revolver was in case Billy’s father came looking for me, as he swore he would. I never considered that. I shut my eyes and there’s Daddy and I sense what he’d say today. Imagine how their mothers feel. You think because they’re grown it stings any less? Imagine. I turn away from the grave before I open my eyes.
To the south, a streak of sunlight punctures the gray sky. Forty-odd miles in that direction lies June 22nd, 2004, a man who no longer lays hands on his boy at the bus stop. My toes are numb and I’m spent, but that fragile bully deserves a visit as much as any of these boys.
I glance back at the angel. The emptiness creeps along, a twinge from my womb riding tendrils into my chest and down my legs.
This isn’t working anymore. It never feels good for long enough. I miss Eli. Daddy. What could’ve been. Not these monsters.
I squat and pitch the wildflowers against the headstone and I linger, caressing the damp grass. Smelling the sweet air. My fingers sink into the soil, and I feel it wedge under my nails as I close a fist. I pull a cold, wet clump of earth free and slip it into my coat pocket and mix it with the dirt from the other two.
I stand. That pileated woodpecker is Daddy, I get that, God bless him. But it’s times like this I wonder: what if Daddy could see all I’ve done, would he say he was wrong—understand that I can create? A family of my own, the only way I could.
Maybe it’s time I go to him and try to make him see. Might be for the best that he’s laid up.
Joe Cary originally from the Rochester area and presently lives with his wife and daughter in West Chester, PA. His work has appeared in One Story, Monkeybicycle, X-R-A-Y Literary, and elsewhere, and it received a Special Mention in the 2020 Pushcart Prize anthology.