Allow me to start from the moment I, Ester, arrived – a slippery jumble of flesh and soft cries – so to explain why I packed up and moved to the other side of the country, choosing to abandon Mother and the unborn child.
Before my birth, when her contractions grew strong, Mother headed to Father’s burial place on the outskirts of town, telling not a soul where she was headed but carrying fresh bread and a sharp knife wrapped in cotton rags. This I know because it is recorded in the spirals, the color of deer hides, college-ruled.
As I aged, I found myself more and more at odds with these hand-written records and what I took for so long to be truth. A better daughter would find a way to trust Mother’s words and intentions, yet a better daughter I was not. My disbelief came upon me so fast I wasn’t sure it was real. I was reminded of the way a snake might sneak across our trail when out riding, slither so quickly past under cover of rotting leaves that the mare’s startled reaction came a quarter mile later, when the blur she’d barely missed with her front hooves registered in the recesses of her brain. The fact was that I had turned wary of the path Mother’d chosen for me. By sixteen, I began questioning her tight control of my comings and goings, to wonder at her reclusiveness, her strange beliefs, and the tight confines she kept me in. I was growing up, and my coming of age was like a train rushing toward me which I couldn’t stop.
Let Father be the first to see his daughter, Ester. Ester, Father. Father, Ester. A “how do” all around before Mother wrapped me in the clean rag she’d pulled aside for me and carried me home. This is the story of my birth. It is the story I grew up with, which I retold it to countless people who took it as I did for truth, or at least put on a good show in front of me. The problem is children are true believers, and if I’d been born at Micheaux Women’s Hospital and come out fully attired, I’d put the fact in my pocket and run with it. The train rushed toward me, shattering the graveside birth, destroying the story of my existence, and turning my world into a muddle of scattered cardboard jigsaw pieces.
I did not inherit Mother’s auburn hair, but Father’s, which mother claims to have been dirt brown. Mother and I hardly resemble each other, except to be both tall of stature, with the square jaws and prominent brows of many who live in this area. Our shoulders are wide, not sloping like those of so many women, and there is enough meat upon us to be considered farm-worthy. We have the strength and agility to catch a flustered chicken and wring its neck without getting clawed, to chop firewood and do a man’s work in whatever weather happens along.
Mother wasn’t born deaf. She lost her hearing when an ear infection went untended. Her parents waited weeks to fetch the doctor, who arrived at the house, his black bag brimming with penicillin, but his words faltering during the ear canal inspection. Only a few months later, Mother lost her ability to speak too.
During all our time together, Mother and I lived outside town in the valley, where we could spy the church’s steeple from the second floor, just above the stand of hickories bordering our field. Our neighbor’s sheep lay to the east and north while our own field and chicken coops lay southward. The neighboring farmer tended a handful of black sheep, and a great mess of creamy ones, while the dog that helped tend them, he was a shaggy mix of both colors. If the wind was right, you could smell that dog a mile before you could see his shaggy, patched face, a smell I grew to love as it brought with it licks and rubs and tail waggings like you wouldn’t believe, even when my pockets were empty.
Our house had two stories and a good five rooms, not including the root cellar. We had a small barn, besides, where we stabled our mare and parked the wagon. We were not well-off enough to own a car, but well enough to get by.
On Saturday mornings, I wore a starched dress and my good hat to town. Riding in, I passed the sprawling graveyard cordoned off by its iron fence. As I neared, the full leaves of the trees pulled away, and the church’s white cross appeared on the horizon. I sold eggs at the market and bought weekly provisions with the little money they fetched. I was not allowed to go to town for pleasure like the other girls. Nor was I permitted to attend movies in the theater I passed on my way to the bakery, where Paul had me in charge of baguettes and croquinolles and sometimes had me prepare the milk breads before I ran to school.
But I am pulling ahead of myself. Other things happened before I began at the bakery. One was that, after the death of their two sons in the war, our neighbors moved, taking their sheep and their friendly, malodorous dog with them. This happened late in the summer of my sixteenth year. Soon after, Monsieur Small settled into the vacant house. I am speaking of the nearest house that was not so large as our own. This new neighbor was injured from the First War which occurred I suppose at good decade past, when I was but young. The war had been far away and I knew little about it. Small was middle-aged, a few years younger than Mother, and having befriended us, he dined with us often, bringing hoppin john or molasses candy which he made his own self. He had been as family to us since he arrived, and Mother spent great time wondering about his intentions. I thought at first she was keen on him and so she was, but that’s not the whole story.
Small was an expert signer because his own mother had been deaf as a stone. My friend Marie-Rose said things like this weren’t coincidence but God’s indelible hand. This new neighbor was the only human being within two dozen country miles able to speak to Mother. At dinner, we signed even when Mother left the table. She was so busy talking, she rarely ate, and her food gelled on her plate, the gravy transformed into a viscous speckled glob edged in pig fat. I had to get up again and again to stoke the firestove and percolate coffee. On the evenings Small visited, I brushed Mother’s hair and braided it myself before he was due to arrive. I rubbed in sesame oil and dabbed her neck with vanilla extract I’d brought home from work. There was no fixing my own hair as Mother preferred I keep it short and unadorned, cut straight at the bottom edge of my ear, so that my whole head resembled a burnt acorn and envy burned through me at the site of ribbons in my classmates’ long hair.
During that last year at home with Mother, I enjoyed getting up early to bake. At first I complained of a belly ache and begged to be let be. I couldn’t fathom why Mother couldn’t have taken the job herself – all it took was a pair of strong hands and the ability to follow simple instructions, something I had the nerve to mention one night at dinner. I endured several hard lashes before letting loose a scream, and Small, upon hearing me across our connecting yard, ran over to investigate, grabbing hold of the leather whip and flinging it to the plank floor. Mother neither cooked me anything nor allowed me in the kitchen for three days. She locked the cellar and kept the key on a string around her thick neck. The fourth day with nothing to eat, I left early for work, a half dozen hard boiled eggs stuffed one after the other into my mouth and a wide slice of bread gripped tightly in my fist as I ran. The train was coming. I felt its rush of wind in my face, the passengers whispering for me to grow my hair long, to sneak out and attend Friday night dances or go to the movies with Marie-Rose. The train rushed toward me and I could do nothing to stop it.
Paul confided there was something wrong with Mother, besides her deafness, though he didn’t specify further. He was the first one to tell me to my face it was highly unlikely anyone in that graveyard had any relation to me at all. You’re a smart girl, Ester. Gisa tried to shush him but he wouldn’t have it. You’re old enough to know your own history. It doesn’t make you any less. But to many people, it does, and I told him so. What exactly is my history? I demanded. He merely shrugged.
Paul’s wife, Gisa, helped at the bakery, mostly by ordering Paul around. I wear the pants, he always told me, and I laughed when I heard him say it, so he said it over again every morning to please me. Remember Ester, when you get married, it’s the man that wears the pants.
Gisa said with a voice like mine I should sing in the choir with Marie-Rose. Mother always shrugged and rolled her eyes when anyone brought up something God-related, but I was of a different mind about Him. Marie-Rose had told me the good He brought, including our neighbor Small. Yet Mother more than once threatened me when I set about hitching the mare up to the wagon on a Sunday morning.
It was clear that Small had intentions toward Mother. I knew plain well she snuck into his bed during the day when I was at school. Late that autumn, Small told me in confidence that she was expecting and confided also his great affection for Mother. He said she slept with him only on the promise that he would settle down with me at the end of the day, and he’d taken it for a joke, something to liven up their relations, but she had persisted in her demand, and he stood, flat-footed and dumbstruck, in a fluster of worry. And what, pray tell, was I to do about it? I spit on the ground before him lifting my strong arms to the sky before I stormed off.
Around this same time, in the late autumn of my sixteenth year, I became all suddenly acquainted with Henry. Marie-Rose and I’d been walking home from school when we came upon him. He had hurt himself, I figured in the war, since there was a war, not the first war I spoke about earlier, but a second one. He’d fought, been injured, and now limped listlessly along on crutches, his shoulders hunched against the cold. The conductor had thought him too ill to travel further and sent him off the train with a slip of paper with the address of the veteran’s hospital, which the wind had lifted from his curled fist. When we came upon the soldier, he was limping slowly in the wrong direction, his ruddy face bruised and swollen, with no one about to ask about where he should be setting his feet. The street, you understand, was quiet that time of day. There had been not a car to flag in the while we stood with him, so I fled to hitch up the mare while Marie-Rose took keep of the soldier.
We were making good progress toward the hospital when we past home and Mother ran out of Small’s house, still buttoning her blouse, her shawl half off her shoulder. She bid me stop, and I did. She took Henry to rest in my room, slipping off his shirt and pants, wrapping him in my blanket, and sending me to heat water. By evening, we could not get him out of bed. He smiled at me but it was hard to tell if he could even see, his one eye swollen and the other sort of slanted about from a deep cut in his brow. Very sweetly, Henry asked if he couldn’t touch my face. Mother read his lips and her temper flared. I left without a word, went to the kitchen to bake croquinolles and fry sausage for dinner.
That night I slept on the kitchen floor until I heard Mother’s soft, rhythmic snore. I returned to the bed with the injured soldier. Our first snow had fallen earlier that week, and the cold had lingered. A thin layer of ice ferns spread upon the lower half of the paned windows. My breath hung in loose white clouds before me, the fire stove no match for the drafty farmhouse. Henry woke when I entered the bed and threw a bare arm around me. He smiled and said my name. Ester. I kissed him upon the mouth, tenderly, so as not to hurt him, and he moaned and I moaned back, and when he shushed me I reminded him there was no one to hear us except the chickens out back so he screamed my name as loud as anyone had ever done and I almost burst my side for laughing.
Henry stayed with us a fortnight, growing strong enough to come to the table for dinner. Small and I both had the same idea about this man, whom I’d so quickly fallen in love with. He was smart and kind and a ticket out of the mess I was in if I could get him to take me back with him to the other side of the country. Mother grew disagreeable during this time, because we all spoke without signing and talked over each other and she couldn’t read all the lips at once. Besides, she was with child, tired and annoyed to begin with, so many evenings she just got up in a tizzy and left the table.
Though she had to have been at least two months pregnant, Mother hadn’t spoken to me of the child, and I wondered what she planned on doing with it. One night, at the table with Henry and Small, as I left to stoke the fire stove, it occurred to me she planned to put the young one in my own care. She expected Small and I to register to marry around the time the infant was due, soon after I graduated, and for now, we were playing along like we would. I think at first Small had thought he could still entice Mother to marry him instead, but their relations had soured on his end, and he was only protecting me now. I explained to him that there would be threats she planned on seeing through to drown the child or smother it if I did not agree to take it for my own, and he saw that this indeed could be true. And the jigsaw pieces of my past scattered even farther apart and the train rushed toward me and I could do nothing to stop it. I could do nothing.
After seeing the way he smiled at me, Mother would have sent Henry off to the war hospital after that first evening, but Small gave me a gold locket to appease her, and I kept my distance from the soldier when she was around. I heard from Marie at school that the veteran’s hospital was crowded and full of disease, though it wasn’t long before a high fever caught hold of Henry and there was no other option but to send him to the long, low building on the edge of town. I took him in the wagon, where he lay prostrate, wrapped in my blanket, his breathing shallow and his face burning. The old mare trotted quickly, shaking her head in annoyance, her gait stiff and gimpy, her ears back as far as they could go without being disconnected entirely from her head. The few sheep we passed huddled with their back ends against the gale. The wind stung my face and my eyes teared so that I gave up trying to see and closed them altogether. I trusted the mare to keep on path, wondering if she, too, might be blinded by the weather and was relying on me to navigate as she lurched unevenly forward.
As we pulled up to the hospital, Henry asked me to promise to return with him on the train to the other side of the country. I felt for the first time in my life disrobed of all fear, and worried only for the fate of my crotchety girl, whom Mother would leave locked in her stall if I left, ignoring her soft whinnies, until they lessened and ceased.
Throughout autumn, the weather remained unseasonably frigid. Trees shed their leaves early and fierce winds broke limbs and uprooted dozens of trees so that many roads were for a long while impassable. Snow fell often and hard. Small visited more and more, speaking only with his hands, every now and then reassuring Mother of our agreement with her plan by pecking me on the cheek or bending his head into mine as he watched me perform equations at the kitchen table. Both Small and Marie-Rose found time to visit Henry, report to me his progress, and slip me notes which I kept hidden in my desk at school. Henry’s health improved. Small reviewed the train schedules and purchased a suitcase for me which he snuck in his cellar, while Mother, like usual, kept watch of my comings and goings. Only once was I able to sneak away to visit the veteran’s hospital, leaving school on the pretense of running an errand for the headmaster. I scrambled through the snowy fields toward Henry only to find visiting hours cancelled due to influenza. At home, I pretended to have forgotten the solider entirely. I brushed Mother’s hair at night without the usual sense of resentment, knowing my situation would soon improve. There was a train coming down the tracks and I was to hop on it.
Two weeks after Henry went into the hospital, I turned seventeen. I had a small party after school at the bakery with Small, Paul, Marie-Rose and Gisa, which Mother reluctantly allowed. How I had wished Henry could have been there! How I missed the roughness of his beard and the green flecks in his somber eyes, the way he opened his mouth upon my sex before he took me, the way he scrawled my name with his fingers upon my chest, Ester, Ester, Ester.
The day after my birthday, in homeroom, Marie-Rose leapt upon me, and while in her arms, told me of my betrothed’s death, which she’d discovered in the morning’s paper. She held my hand under our shared desk much of the day, but still could not stop crying, as if her own heart had been broken and not mine. I lent her my handkerchief and wiped my own nose upon the inside of my sleeve, while I stared at the blackboard, unable to hear anything coming out of Miss Faget’s mouth.
At home, I tended the chickens and stretched out all the chores I could think to do until it was too dark to see even a wall in front of me, until my hands were raw from scrubbing and hammering and splitting wood. I ignored Mother when she came outdoors. Once I entered the house, she set about heating water. I soaked my hands, avoiding her eyes. It was so quiet I could hear Henry’s watch count the time. He’d fastened it directly on my wrist when I dropped him off at the hospital. Surprisingly, Mother had let me keep it. It was in lieu of an engagement ring, which he had planned to purchase for me the minute we set foot off the train at the other end of the country. It’d never had a watch before, and it was hard to get used to the constant ticking, and only looking down at your own arm to discover the exact to-the-minute time.
The evening of the day I learned of Henry’s death I wound the timepiece before going to bed the same as always, tucking my watch-laden wrist underneath my pillow where the ticking boomed in my ear. I didn’t know what would happen to me now. I turned my head to smell the pillowcase. I hadn’t washed it since Henry lay upon it, but his scent was gone.
I slept fitfully, wondering what was to become of me. There was a train was rushing toward me and I felt as if I had two choices. I could run in front of it or hop on, but I couldn’t stay here in this farmhouse with my pregnant mother, watching her belly grow and fate close in upon me. I took the rosary beads Marie-Rose lent me and looped them around my fingers until they were so tangled I had to cut the string. I didn’t know the rosary or I would have said it. It seemed like the right thing to do. I wished we had had a phone so I could speak with Marie-Rose, but there weren’t phone lines that far from town. So instead, I stood in the front hall, staring out into the darkness and working to remember Henry asleep in my bed, his face bruised and cut but peaceful as a little boy’s. I felt my own tired face, crumpled with worry, my eyes like eggs cracked open, and I curled myself into a ball on the parlor sofa and fell asleep just as the head rooster began scratching in the yard, raising his voice sunward.
That last year at school the teacher had convinced me to apply to a college for women. She said I was bright enough I could become a teacher myself or even a professor or mathematician. She said the college was far off on the other side of the country. You’ll live in a heated building with other girls where you mustn’t worry about cooking or washing up, she explained, where on the weekends, men in suits to take you to dinner at restaurants with tablecloths and white candles. She explained that the girl’s dormitory was of brick and stone and well-heated, and that a house mother prepared the food each evening, a warm meal with meat, vegetables, bread, dessert, and even a little wine. Most amazing to me was that water would run hot from the tap and that there were libraries taller than the church’s spire filled with books. She told me a scholarship might well come through, as few girls from this far away apply, and she was right as rain about that.
When it was time to leave, she took the mare, knowing the horse sound and well-trained, though often ill tempered and a bit sassy. Small hitched up his own wagon and sent me off on the pretense of going to town to shop for things we needed for the wedding. There, in the station, he squeezed my hand hard and tears ran down both of our faces.
My name is Ester and I was born in a graveyard in front of the grave of a pauper unable to afford a carved headstone. My name is Ester and maybe I was born in a hospital. Maybe I was stolen from gypsies living on the town’s outskirts, or tossed on the side of the road by the woman who bore me because she was not able to care for me. Perhaps Mother stole me under a gibbous moon, using only a rope ladder to reach my open window and lead me away. As much as I once loved and believed in the woman who raised me and set about making up my past in a series of spiral notebooks, college ruled, I would never put anything past her.
After I left for college, I sent Mother a letter by post, providing my address and basic information. I wrote not a word of apology at leaving her alone, her child due any moment. It has been a year now and I have not heard back. I wonder if I will ever see her again. Perhaps she is relieved I have taken flight and is happy for me in her own way. Whatever happened to the baby I can’t allow myself to wonder. Even Small has not written, and I figure that he, too, has gotten up and gone.
Time alters all things, something I am reminded of when I realize how long it has been since I have used my hands to speak, or when the train blows noisily just north of campus and gets me to remembering that first step I took onto the platform into this new life, or when I close my eyes and am awakened by the loud tick of Henry’s timepiece, proof of my short love affair, proof that I, Ester, eighteen years of age, am alive. I am here, breathing and bursting into a new existence. And that is all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Shannon Sweetnam is a Chicago-based fiction writer whose stories have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, Crab Orchard Review, Dominion Review, and Georgetown Review. More stories are forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine and NANO Fiction. She is winner of the 2010 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize and two Illinois Arts Council grants.