Issue 3:2 | Fiction | Crystal Wilkinson
Excerpt from Opulence (a novel)
Note: Set in the fictional Kentucky town of Opulence, this novel, Wilkinson’s third book, traces the lives of two best friends and their ancestry and their connection to and disconnection from the rural town they grow up in. Opulence is a homage to friendship, land and heritage. In this chapter, the protagonist of the novel is born.
The Beginning and Before the Beginning.
Minnie Mae noticed the baby riding low in the crest of Lucy’s belly. She imagined Yolanda there slumbering, a kitten curled like a question mark, curly-headed and waiting.
“Not long before this girl makes her way to this side of the world,” she said pushing on the mound of her granddaughter’s stomach, then plucking it like a watermelon.
“Girl?” Lucy questioned dancing out of her grandmother’s way to prevent her from plucking longer.
“Girl,” Minnie Mae answered, final and sure.
“Oh Mama, you don’t know for sure,” Tookie said looking up from the floor she was sweeping. She hoped her daughter would have another boy. Everything be easy and sweet with a boy.
“Sure as my name is Minnie Mae Goode, that’s a girl in there.”
“Long as she or he’s got eyes, ten toes and ten fingers.” Lucy said. “And good sense,” she adds and makes everyone laugh. It is the kind of laughing you can only do with kin, laughter full of yellow sunlight. Kiki played with a truck in the middle of the kitchen floor. He didn’t laugh but smiled a wide ten-year-old grin.
As long as it’s healthy, the women agree, but Tookie can’t stop herself from hoping that her new grandchild is a boy. She knows what her own woman’s life has been and wouldn’t wish too much of that on the head of nobody.
Minnie Mae remained adamant that the child was on her way, sure of the mounting signs when she saw a rare bird on the ledge after breakfast. A brown bird with a breast of red, speckled with yellow dots. Not a robin. Not a Kentucky bird that she could identify, a rare bird eying her through the window while she washed the breakfast plates. The bird perched there and held her stare until she spoke what she knew. “Yes bird, that baby’s on her way. We both know the plain truth.”
Babies. Minnie Mae knew plenty about them. She had watched the women down home approach her mama’s kitchen door looking to know why their babies were late, what sign of the moon to cut the baby’s hair, when to wean it from its mother’s milk, or whether the ball of woman’s belly contained girl or boy. She had inherited all this and more from her mother. She could also spot a pregnant woman before anyone even knew she was pregnant, sometimes even before the mama knew herself. She’d caught many a girl with a full belly. Had nothing to do with the belly, had to do with that motherly look a girl gets around the eyes when she’s baby-full.
And of course she was familiar with the weight of a youngun on a woman’s hip. She’d done it three times herself. First Butter, then June, then Tookie. But it was what happened to them when they got big enough to bear their own weight that one had to look out for.
After Sunday school, Lucy and Tookie insisted that they skip morning service and head to the family garden in Diamond. It was the eighth day of July, a good day for harvesting new potatoes and squash for the big church dinner that was a week away.
Joe Brown, Yolanda’s father, was off somewhere working, even on a Sunday.
Lucy rubbed her belly near the navel right where the baby strained her womb.
Kiki ran circles roaring like an airplane anxious for the open country, a quilt draped over his shoulders , flapping in the wind like a flying thing.
Tookie, Yolanda’s grandmother, grinned at the child’s playfulness and then lost her smile just as fast once the Plymouth was in motion and there was nothing to do but drive and think.
Yolanda rarely moved, only occasionally stretching herself out along her mother’s ribs, readying herself to enter the world.
From Opulence, if you could bore a hole into the base of the knob you would land in Diamond, a straight shot, but because the only road that led to Diamond wound you clean around the knob, what would take an invisible soul just a few minutes, took the flesh and blood Goodes thirty minutes by car.
Tookie pulled the rusty Plymouth off the gravel road and down the grass-worn path to the home place. No running water, no paved roads. The Plymouth was the only car in sight, accept for the green pickup they had passed a few miles back.
Kiki had perked up when the truck passed and watched the cloud of dust it formed swirl up around the car like a giant blanket of fog then settle back down again. He pulled two pieces of candy from a small brown paper sack and jingled five pennies in his pocket. When the car reached its destination the family exited. Kiki rolled from the backseat followed by a round, staggering Lucy. He ran his finger through the brown dust that coated the car and popped his finger into his mouth before his mother could catch him.
“Kiki! Boy, please now.”
Minnie Mae rose up from the front passenger’s seat unfolding herself slowly, becoming an upright praying mantis, sniffing the clean air of her birthplace, closing her eyes a few minutes to thank Jesus.
Tookie slid from the driver’s side and had already opened the trunk and removed the galvanized buckets before Minnie Mae opened her eyes again.“Let’s get a move on, make this quick,” she said her voice charged with concern, her eyes centered on Lucy’s protruding navel like a bullseye.
The mid-afternoon sun was angling itself higher into the sky shedding white light on the world. The trees formed a green curtain around the hollow. All around them was a distant past. An old smokehouse sat next to the garden, a rusting tub and an assortment of wire and dry-rotted saw grass string hung on the outside of the gray building. In the center of the yard the upright rectangle of a well support leaned, the water dipper, secured by a nail and an old chain, still gleamed silver on one side and rust on the other. Minnie Mae sometimes drew water from that well when they came to Diamond to tend the garden.
A pair of crows cawed from the apple tree at the edge of the yard and Kiki caught glimpse of a red-tailed ground squirrel scampering through clover-filled underbrush. The old house loomed in the distance its gray shingle siding glistening in the sun. Just an old run down house but Minnie Mae’s memories dwelled there, her whole life and lifetimes before that. When she walked across this land she saw the faces of her kin. When chill bumps rose on her wrinkled forearms she rubbed the skin to warm the blood. The blood coursing through her veins rich with survival, all her bloods, the Indian, the Irish, the African all intersecting here underneath her skin, here on this piece of earth. When she was here, the worn photos she cherished sprung to life. She could see her mother feeding the chickens out back, her father pulling water from the well. Every yesterday she remembered converged in this spot.
Only thing a black man could call his own back then. A piece of land. Fair and square. Passed down since slave times.
When she was here, her heart grew ripe as a peach.
Tookie had memories of this place too: Granny’s black walnut pie and apple dumplings, playing tag with her cousins around the holly bush, her grandfather whittling her a play pretty from a piece of firewood, the grand whisper of daffodils in spring.. When she looked around she could see herself running with braids splayed out around her shoulders, over the hill, behind the smokehouse, playing here all around this place before all her innocence slipped away.
While the eldest of the Goode women stood in awe, taking the place in like it was their first time seeing it; Lucy grabbed one of the buckets and began the task of reaching low to the ground to snap the squash from the vines. When the two of them weren’t looking, Lucy shook her head behind their backs. They did this every time they came to Diamond, standing around telling old stories and acting like this was the first time they had ever seen the home place.
The stretch in her back felt good as she bent over to pick the squash but it was, as it had been for some time, hard to work around her belly. Blood rushed to her cheeks and a tendril of hair coiled up like a grapevine fell into her face. A little grunt released from her lips each time she bent. “Uh.”
When his mother bent to fetch another squash, Kiki bent toward the ground too. “Uh, uh, uh” a working song to occupy him for a while. He moved all over the backyard and to the side field, bending to pull milk thistle, Queen Anne’s lace, and polkweed from the ground.
“Uh, uh, uh.”
Lucy had a hard time getting comfortable. She stretched up one way then down the other, trying to get her organs balanced properly in her body. She was hot and the baby was pressing so hard that standing upright made her feel as if everything in her body would fall right out if she moved too much. She tugged at the front of her dress and raised her arms high into the air trying to move her baby to a more comfortable spot. Perhaps if she went up to the outhouse she would find some relief there. At least she could set in the shade for awhile. She looked around, her mind set on the spot underneath the apple tree at the edge of the yard. The outhouse seemed too far away, like miles, she thought as her legs grew wobbly. The raw smell of the fresh picked vegetables made her head swim.
“Boy, get over there and help your mama,” Minnie Mae yelled out as she and Tookie moved over the potato vines, turning each of the leaves to make sure the bugs weren’t eating them up. Children these days, lazy as cows.
“Do nicely with a pot of green beans,” Tookie said holding up a few of the new potatoes and shaking the dirt clods free.
“Yep, we got a nice crop this time.”
When Kiki moved closer to help his mother, taking careful steps not to land his foot on a cushaw, streams of water ran down Lucy’s legs and into the soft dirt.
“Mama’s peeing on herself.”
“Merciful savior,” Minnie Mae said.
There hadn’t been any pain at first just the breaking of the water but it came on quickly. Lucy stood in the squash patch, her back humped over, and watched a dark, wet spot grow wider in the dirt. “Get…me…to the hospital,” she whispered through clenched teeth.
Minnie Mae sent the boy for the quilt from the car.
Tookie looked off toward the hills, watching a buzzard soaring low, remembering Lucy’s birth. Kiki ran toward them with the quilt, shaking out candy wrappers and pennies.
Minnie Mae spread the quilt on the ground and helped Lucy on the quilt.
“Tookie, get down here and help. I tried to tell y’all.”
“What should I do now Mama Minnie?”
“I tried to tell y’all. Didn’t nobody want to listen to me. Too old I reckon.”
“Y’all need to get me to a hospital.”
“Is Mama gonna die?”
“Hush boy,” Tookie said and patted Kiki on the head before she squatted in the dirt beside her daughter. “Go on now, back to picking your weeds.” She cooed toward the boy who had his fingers wrapped around her heart, “Go on now,” her voice sugary and warm as bread.
But Kiki watched even when he didn’t want to. He saw the three women who were the largest part of his small world on the ground. He watched Mama Minnie and Grandma Tookie bare his mother’s private place, and saw his new baby sister being pushed out. He looked on and was both disgusted and curious about the squalling thing caught slippery and wiggling in Grandma Tookie’s hands like a large mouthed bass.
“And here we are in a hellsome mess.” Minnie Mae tore her apron, placed one part between Lucy’s legs, and used the largest piece of the gingham cloth to wrap around the baby, then placed it in Lucy’s arms. “Guess I’m an old fool. Don’t nobody listen to an old fool. What did I tell y’all? Girl, just like I said.”
Lucy’s eyes were wild with fear, not so much from having a baby, she had done that before, but she had never expected to give birth between the squash rows. The pain was bearable but she was so sure, suddenly, of death, perhaps her own, perhaps the baby’s. People died from things like this. And even though she guessed death a strange thing to think about when she had just brought forth life, she couldn’t stop the thoughts from clotting in her brain.
“Mama, Mama Minnie, y’all take good care of Kiki.”
Minnie Mae cut the cord with her pocketknife. Lucy began to cry.
“Y’all tell Joe that…”
“Hush up child, my mama had me while she was hoeing corn. Women in old times dropped babies in the fields all the time. It’s natural as the sun coming up. Hush up and rest.”
Tookie smiled at her daughter and rubbed her head, freeing loose strands of hair from her eyes.
“She’s pretty, honey.” This child had chipped a tiny hole in the boy-spell that Kiki had cast when he was born but that didn’t suppress the twinge of fear in her heart for this baby. Girl, girl, girl, she thought to herself and looked toward Patsy Riffe Ridge for help. Help from somebody the wind, the sky, the Lord.
They packed Lucy into the backseat of the Plymouth, baby and all, leaving behind the afterbirth in the dirt. Minnie Mae struggled back out of the car, grabbed a grubbing hoe, and covered the birthing spot fully with a few turns of the blade.
“Leave the afterbirth out in the open and the baby’s liable to be lame brained. Enough craziness in this family already.”
Kiki grew as calm as a breeze. Tookie took her mother’s word when she talked the old folk’s talk. Lucy rested her head on the seat, trying to keep her new baby warm.
A light summer wind picked up, whipped through the hickory at the end of the lane. The wrens in the beech cocked their heads to listen for rain. The sky grew dark as if a storm was churning up but then the skies blued up quickly and they drove back to Opulence in sunshine.
On the drive home, Kiki was quiet. He couldn’t bear to look at his mother and sister for too long. His mother looked pasty and worn out, like one of the old white women in town and not his mother at all. She nodded in and out of sleep, grinning at him through chapped lips, feeble as he had ever seen her before. He wanted her to play jacks with him or read him a book but he couldn’t ask.
The baby, his sister he supposed, looked like he could twang her with his thumb and his forefinger and she would collapse to dust, a tiny little thing, pink as a flower, delicate as glass. So he looked out the back window, taking notice of the home place shrinking from big, to postcard perfect, to a tiny speck. He tried to count the trees but there were too many to count. He watched the dust roll out behind them and the road go from gravel to pavement and the landscape go from country to town as they went. He wanted to say, “Hey, Mama, look at that,” every time his grandmother drove the Plymouth passed something of interest to him but he knew he couldn’t.
Sister. He had to ready his mouth for that word. He’d never had one before, a sister, so he watched out the window and placed his tongue against his teeth, whispering a hissing ‘ssss’ before he said it out loud to himself. “S-s-sister.”
On Tuesday when Lucy and Yolanda were released from the hospital, Joe Brown, not usually a soft man, held his baby in his arms and kissed Lucy on the forehead for the better part of the evening, not stopping to worry about the fallen gutter or the grass that needed mowing. Kiki watched from whatever corner he could squeeze into, thinking puppies or groundhogs being born was more interesting, still practicing his ‘ssss’ against his teeth.
“She’s the cutest baby,” Joe Brown said gently touching the rosebud pucker of Yolanda’s lips with his.
“In the world!” Lucy said.
Nuh uh, Kiki was thinking to himself. Don’t y’all remember when Buttons had that litter of kittens? The one with the yellow spots?
By Saturday, Yolanda’s birth had been announced on the front page of the weekly newspaper and had certainly made its way through the ears and mouths of every woman in Opulence. A great, long receiving line formed through the yard and down the sidewalk of women coming to pass on good wishes and bear witness to the child born in the old way out in the field. They stepped up one by one. Some bringing diaper pins and talc powder, others just bringing their words.
“She’s a pretty little thing,” “Law me, look at that,” “What a bolt from the blue,” they said.
When they left, they thanked Minnie Mae for the iced tea and the gingerbread, then nodded to her slowly, acknowledging her ability to know things that other women didn’t.