The Dust Cloud
The practice [of eating clay] gained credence ... as the slaves believed that eating dirt and clay would allow them to return to their homeland as spirits.
— From Peter W. Abrahams and Julia A. Parsons, “A History of Geophagy in the Tropical Latitudes” (1996)
“I’m here to inform you that Cora M________ is dead.” The man said it without any emotion, his face wrinkled like a half-tanned rabbit skin. His breath was bad, real bad, as if he hadn’t said the words, but they’d run away from his scorching breath. His teeth were red and his gums were shriveled, as if they’d baked in sun for too long. In his nostrils were black and grey tufts of thick hair as if rats fed from his nose.
Standing in the doorway, Georgia clasped her grandmother’s hand tightly when she heard her mother’s name. She stared at the casket in the back of the man’s truck. That’s where her mother was? In there? That pine box? Behind the man the ground and sky were one. It had been so hot and dry all summer that dirt fell like rain from clouds — or it would’ve had there been any clouds. Georgia wondered where did heaven go when there weren’t any.
She couldn’t believe this weather-beaten man had been speeding down the dirt road to tell her this. She’d been so excited when she first saw the dust cloud rising up as the man sped towards the farm, bouncing up and down in his little brown pick-up truck. A dust cloud had always meant someone was rushing to see them. The milkman. A neighbor with hot food. The old medicine woman bringing liniment for grandpa. Folks bringing sustenance. This time, the dust cloud seemed so lit in its plumping and contracting that Georgia prayed it would be her mother, rushing to see her, kicking up the entire earth to get to Georgia, hugging her to her and bringing her home.
“Mama!” Georgia sobbed and collapsed onto her grandmother.
“Come on, Georgia. Stay with me.” The old woman struggled to hold Georgia up as she shot an angry glare at the gravedigger. “What you coming around here so early for, scaring people in their nightgowns?” Her grandmother cocooned Georgia in her housedress. “We don’t know it’s her, baby.” She held Georgia against her soft frame. “Could be anyone in that casket.” Georgia rocked and groaned in her grandmother’s arms as she shushed her, and didn’t stop, solving and mending nothing. She glared at the man. “You ain’t open the casket, gravedigger. So it may not be her, right?”
He wouldn’t be directed. The man smiled indistinctly as if he’d seen so much death it hardly mattered to him. Though it probably wasn’t a grin. He just wrinkled his face to keep the dust from flying into his eyes. “Well, it’s best y’all take the mortician’s word for it. He ain’t send me out here for nothing.” He rubbed his face with an oily cloth. “Given what happened to the missus, ain’t no use looking in there no way.”
For so long, Georgia’d been staring out that living room window, watching for her mother, watching for a dust cloud to herald her arrival.
Her mother had been loads of fun. Sent Georgia tickets to the fair. Shipped her newly knitted sweaters every second Sunday. And one day a month, she never knew when, Georgia would wake up to find a present from her mother under her pillow. They were the best of friends. Exchanged letters. Told each other secrets. All they had to do was meet. Once. Her mother had left Georgia on her paternal grandmother’s doorstep fifteen years ago and never came back. Georgia couldn’t have identified her mother if she’d passed the woman on the street.
Georgia’s grandmother held the child closer to her as if to envelop her ears. “How’d she die?”
The man tut-tutted and shook his head. “No good discussing that in present company.”
Georgia felt her world become weightless. Why’d her mother abandon her? What’d Georgia do wrong? To make her mama go away and stay that way? Why didn’t her mother want her? What was so much better out there in the world that her mother left her for it? Another lighter, smarter little girl? One who ... went to a good school? Georgia tried to be as good as she could. It was hard. Having to be good to convince her mother to come back. Having to be good whenever white people came around, too, so they wouldn’t hurt her, or kill her. If only she’d been able to talk to her before her mother left, she would’ve pleaded with her. Don’t worry. Take me with you. I won’t get in the way much. I’ll be quiet. Please. You don’t need to leave me here. And now, instead of her mother coming to get her, her mother was dead. Like that. This was what the dust cloud signaled.
“We gonna take her over to Potter’s.”
“Where?!” Georgia stiffened in her grandmother’s grasp. Potter’s? That old, abandoned cemetery? Georgia remembered that place. It was out near Gravenhurst Road. Nobody knew much about the people buried there. Hainted place. The dead so lost there they didn’t know where to find their own graves. A chain-link fence slicing through the cemetery, splitting it into two sections. On one side beautiful, grassy hills with well-tended plots and respectable, imposing headstones. On the other, hundreds of abandoned, overgrown graves, many unmarked, many inaccessible in the thick green overgrowth. Debris allowed to wander all over the place. Like it was a trash dump. How would she ever find her mama in that place, in that thickness, under that dirt? Every time she’d go to visit she'd have to search through that dirt, those dead people, to find her.
“It’s the only place that makes sense. Just wondering if ... if y’all want to have a headstone put on it or something ...” The man looked down sheepishly, scraping the ground with his cracked leather shoe.
Georgia glared at the engraving tools pulling his belt down his skinny frame. All of his clothing looked wrong. Pants too large for his hips. Shoes too big for his feet. Probably scavenged his clothing from trash. He wasn’t burying her mama out of the kindness of his heart. He was there to make some money.
“How much it gonna be?” her grandmother said. “Seem like it’d be better to have her people bury her ...”
“Been searching for ‘em. From town to town. Don’t know who her people are, where she came from. This my last stop.” He stared at Georgia. “She ain’t got no other people. Y’all got the same sunken eyes. Y’all the closest thing to family we can find.”
“But we ain’t got the money ...” her grandmother snapped.
Georgia pushed away from her grandmother. “Amma! We have to do it!”
Her grandmother rubbed the handprint forming on her arm with disbelief. “What’s got into you, girl?! You abandoning your senses? We ain’t got the money. Can’t go into debt for it. Got to save what we have.” She lowered her voice and nodded towards her bedroom. “Have you forgotten your grandpa? You know he’s sick. Man so gaunt now, his elevens popping out from his neck.”
Georgia glanced teary-eyed at the bedroom. Her grandpa lay in there, unable to move anything, except for his mouth, which gnashed an unseeable mass the octogenarian neither swallowed nor took out. Georgia thought it was chewing tobacco. “Ain’t that,” he’d told her. “Ain’t cough syrup. Or cod liver oil. It’s the matter of life.” Georgia smiled uneasily at him. Turpentine and molasses — probably the same medicine as usual. She forgave him for talking nonsense. But every gnash of his teeth made her world bounce topsy-turvy. Watching him deteriorate like this? His eyes clouding over? Wouldn’t be long before he passed.
Surely they could bury her mother reverently, too. But of course, they couldn’t. Grandmother Amma disliked her mother. Called her a loosaman — whatever that meant. Whispered that word to her grandpa at night when they thought Georgia lay in bed sleeping. You know what they say about her? You’d think our son would’ve had better sense. Why he chose a woman like that, I have no idea. Who knows what she did to that child after she born her. Did she nurse and feed her, change and clean her? What’d she do to Georgia that first year? Why'd that child look the way she did when dropped on our doorstep?
Pain grabbed Georgia, low down, wrung her insides, doubling her over as if to squeeze her free of potential nutrition. She scampered to the far wall. What was her grandmother talking about on the other side? Why was Amma lying like that? Georgia didn’t know why she’d squabbled with her grandmother from then on, cutting her eyes and mumbling under her breath whenever her grandmother spoke to her.
But her feelings grew worse when her grandfather got sick, forcing Amma to take a domestic job in town. Amma brought home broke-down toys her employer gave her and gave them to Georgia. Raggedy Anns missing limbs. View Masters missing views. Magic 8 Balls missing magic. Candy Land missing sweets. And hula-hoops missing plastic. Amma tried to fix them as best as she could — sewing paper arms onto Raggedy Ann — but Georgia resented having to act grateful for playing with somebody else’s trash. Why’d her grandmother have to go off and clean up after somebody else’s child? Why’d that little white girl get everything she needed — her mother fawning all over her, even giving her what she didn’t need, like Georgia’s Amma, especially when Georgia needed her more because she didn’t have a mother. Why’d that white girl get two mothers?
And now, outside her door was her mother. After sixteen years Georgia had finally found her. Too late. All she had now was the knowledge of where her mother’s body was. She couldn’t let her be buried in Potter’s. No way was she abandoning her mama to that place where white folks would disrespect her into heaven. Separating her mother’s body from theirs, as if her mother was tainted. Skin color mattered that much, even when disintegrating? The thought of them white folks resting peacefully in that cemetery while so many mangled bodies lay right there beside them with burns on their skin, rope marks on their necks, buckshot peppering their torsos ... She kept seeing dirt hitting her mother’s coffin, burying her under the earth for an eternity, under all that pain, burying her face, burying who she was. So much of what she needed was about to be lost.
“I’ll pay for it!” Georgia blurted.
“With what, girl?”
“I got some money saved up.”
“Nickels and quarters? That’s not enough.”
The man turned and walked away, his shoulders bent as though he carried a heavy burden, dejected.
“I want to see her face. Don’t go! I won’t be able to find her!”
The man got in the truck, primed the pedal and started the engine. “I’ll do what I can to mark it for y’all,” he yelled from the car window. The car spasmed, belched shimmery air and took off.
Georgia bolted down the stairs after it. “Don’t take my mama from me!”
Her grandmother stumbled after her. “Georgia, where you going, girl?!”
The truck sped off down the dirt road, kicking up an extravagant amount of dust. Georgia, her pigtails flopping, ran after it, fast as she could over dirt under her bare feet. “Mama!” she yelled after the truck. “Mama, come back!” But the truck seemed to pick up speed. So did Georgia, huffing as she ran, leaping over ditches, her white nightgown seeming to give the child wings. “Mama, can’t you hear me? Don’t go!” Would the man never stop the car? My, it went fast for a rickety, old truck. The dust frothed around her, its muscles a coiling, live thing. Suddenly, she rose aloft, suspended in mid-air, her little brown body floating in space, as if in a snow globe, except the snow was dust and there was no land beneath her. Around her spun a wind of dust, rags, papers, leaves and clothing that disintegrated into smaller and smaller bits. It swung her around, to and fro, by some trash, some feathers, a chicken, a cow, then suddenly her grandmother’s house.
“Georgia, get inside!”
“Amma?!” Georgia flapped her hem and winged her way over to the house. She entered through the open door and landed on the floor on all fours. “Amma?!” No one there. Who had called her then? The house rose through confused air. Upwards the cloud billowed. She crawled to a closed window and peered out with wind-stung eyes. A ring of towering dust surrounded the house, which floated in the cylindrical eye of a vast rotating dust devil. The shape of the dirt-wall curved outwards from the house, some fifty to one hundred feet. The wind inside the eye was relatively light, only occasionally whooshing past the closed windows. The funnel extended above and below the house for several miles. The sky above the eye was blue and clear, but down below where the dust devil narrowed into funnel, was a big, black hole. The dust storm orbited the house, charting its own weather. The eye of the cloud was calm, so much so that the house wasn’t more disheveled than if it sat on the ground. She was safe. But out at the dirt-wall was violence. It was as if the cloud was haunted and ghosts were throwing objects around a room. Uprooted trees, trucks, headstones — all spun by fast in the cross-drafts. Whatever the storm was, wherever it was heading, the dirt devil had made Georgia its center.
Where was her mother in all this, she wondered. Couldn’t her mother see her up here? Up here stuck? See that she’d come all this way? All close to the sun so she could be seen better? Didn’t her mother know what this meant? Didn’t her mother realize, that maybe, just maybe she needed her help to get down from here?
Suddenly a truck zipped by the window, fast. Then it did it again and again. The threat of it stilled her. Was it circling the house? Wasn’t that the man who had taken her mother away? He stopped outside of the window and jumped out of the truck. Georgia crouched tight into a corner and covered her face with her trembling hands.
Open the door flew with a bam. “Would you look at this house?” He rubbed his hands together, the last three digits on his right hand ending in long, sharp yellow fingernails. “Couch. Table. Easy chair. Today’s my lucky day!” With the tip of a long fingernail he poked each item, as if verifying that they were real. And then, with a smile on his face, as if she was an object, he pricked Georgia’s shoulder.
“Ow!” Georgia rubbed the bullseye reddening her arm.
“What? You? Again? What you doing here?! How’d you get up here?” He looked at her as if he was peering into his own grave. “Oh Lord.” Something lit up in his eyes and went out again. “Did she follow me?” The man backed away to the opposite corner. He yelled into the air, “I didn’t do it! Didn’t do it!” He looked nervously at the ceiling, the furniture and the cabinets, as if he expected them to harm him. “Ain’t my fault! Please tell me she dead. Please tell me I ran her over or something.” He shrank down into a little ball and covered his head with his arms.
She felt the same fear that she’d felt on entering the cloud. What was this place? What was about to happen? Outside, the dust spun by, obscuring the sun and the horizon.
“Mister?” He jumped. “Please tell me where we are?”
The man’s eyes danced and rolled in his head. “Ain’t tellin’ you nothin’ — going where you weren’t supposed to go.” He put his hands back over his head quickly and started rocking to and fro.
“But I didn’t know I was doing it.”
He laughed, snorted and spat — all three — as if angry at her bewilderment. “Didn’t know? How can’t you know you following someone? Of course you knew. You trespassing. You’ve no right barging in on other people’s property!”
“I didn’t realize I was following you and you’d get in trouble for it. And I didn’t know a dust cloud could be owned.”
“That’s a lie. You trying to move in here. That’s why you brought this house with you!”
“I didn’t. It …” she looked around, “it came on its own.”
The man glared at her with disgust. “That ain’t true. You trying to make your home here.”
“Honest,” she pleaded. “I don’t even know where here is. Mister, can you please tell me where I am?”
“And now you want me to help you,” he said under his breath. “Breathers are so shifty. Always asking for help. But have any of them helped me?” He skittered over to a door and peered into a room. “No!” He slammed the door shut, satisfied the room was empty. Then he went to another room and did it again and again. “There.” He patted the walls down as if they wouldn’t stay in place. Then he backed into the center of the room, far away from all objects, holding his arms out steady. He held his breath. Gradually, he relaxed his guard as if something about the house had ceased to threaten him. “It ain’t gonna fly apart?” He shot a glance at her. “And this ... this is your place?” He held his breath, but differently this time, then a sudden glint appeared in his eye. “Sorry for greeting you like that,” he said in a different tone, rubbing his hands together. “You don’t know where you are? You’re in the dead man’s tornado. The town of Whereabout. Although, don’t call it a town. Or a city. Or a state. Those names ain’t safe. Names would make Whereabout too easy to find. And nobody wants that. Too many folks hunting us already ...” He went up to a window and looked out. “But they ain’t never found Whereabout. They think it’s the dustbin of history. They dismiss it as the opposite of Noah’s story, the opposite of forty days and nights of rain. But that’s where they wrong.” He turned towards her. “This is where the world begins, not where it ends. My name’s Roscoe. I’m the Ferryman of Whereabout.”
“A ferryman?” Her ears still felt blocked and she wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly.
“I bring souls of the dead into the cloud.”
Georgia’s bones retreated so far into her her joints all cracked simultaneously. “I don’t see any dead in the cloud!”
“Oh, they here. Just camouflaging themselves with dirt. Like camouflaged soldiers hiding in a forest during a war.”
“What war? Why?”
“Come on. You know.” He circled around her. “If you live in a country, people know where to find you. They can steal you from it and make you work. They’ll do the same if you live in a grave. Countries are overrated. And graves are for slaves. We won’t be betrayed by them again. This place is much better. No one comes to a dust cloud. Seems temporary. They discount it because of the air. But the air is the grace of this place. It keeps the dirt from packing in. It keeps the cloud from turning into a grave. Sure the dead can’t walk right here and they can’t always find each other. But they won’t rest in a place that can be mapped or has a name.”
“But ain’t the d-d-dead supposed to go to heaven?”
“Heaven?! Hell no! Ain’t nobody wanna go there. White folks know where heaven is. If they find us there, they’ll turn it into a plantation. Naw, this place much better.”
“If we aren’t in heaven, are we in the other place?”
“Naw, we ain’t there either. But you ... you not supposed to be in neither. Tell me. How’d you get up here?”
“Well, you were driving my mama down the dirt road, and I wanted to go with her so I ran behind the car. Real fast. The cloud blinded me. But I didn’t care. I was going with her no matter what. And then, I found myself up here.”
The man scratched the dandruff on his head with a long fingernail. “You ran up the dirt road like it was a ramp to the sky? Right behind me? Who told you to do that?”
Georgia gulped. “No one did.” She wished she hadn’t said the truth.
“Then how’d you know how to do it?”
“I didn’t know how to do it ... I just did.”
He eyed her as if he didn’t believe her. “Few know how to do that. It ain’t right — the living coming in here anytime they want to. But stranger peculiarities have happened in Whereabout.” He licked the underside of the fingernail that had pricked her and smacked his lips, as he tasted her blood. “And you definitely strange. Never seen a house come up here with somebody before. When the dead arrive, they bring what’s inside, what’s too hard to get out, what even the winds can’t remove. But a house came with you. Like it’s ... embedded in you. That’s lucky. It’s comfy in here. You can sit back and relax. Seem like you got everything you could need. So why’d you follow me? What you rummaging in the ghost wind for?”
“My mama. You took her from me. Where is she?”
“Can’t say. I drop folks off. Don’t watch where they go after that. I just go back and forth. I don’t stay here long ... if I can help it. Just deliver the package, leave, and get another one.”
“So you can go back and forth? Then you know the way out! Find my mama and take us both back with you!”
“Naw, can’t do that. Once you’re in, you’re in. Can’t ferry folks back out. Messes the order. That’d cost me my job. Ain’t gonna risk that for nothing. Work’s too hard to come by as it is.”
Georgia wanted to shake him. “Order?! It’s nothing but disorder!”
“But I didn’t cause it. That’s the difference. If I cause a mess, then I’ll lose my job.”
She ran out of patience. “But you deserve to lose your job! You lost my mother in here!”
The man recoiled. “That woman lost herself.”
“You owe it to me to find her!”
“I owe you squat. For someone who didn’t pay nothing after I found her the first time, you sure expecting a lot. Why am I gonna look for her now? I brought her to you and fulfilled my obligation. Can’t help it if she loses herself again. She a grown woman. Can do what she want. I ain’t your mother’s keeper.” He stormed towards the door as if to go.
“Please don’t,” she said softly. I can’t ... can’t find her on my own.”
He whipped around. “Don’t cry. The dust don’t like water. Why can’t you find your mother?”
“Because ... because ...” Her heart lay panting on the pillow of her lungs. “Because she left me with my grandparents when I was a year old and she never came back and we had no pictures of her in the house.”
“Oh,” he said brightly. Then, “Oh.” His wiry body relaxed. “You mean you haven’t even seen her face?”
Georgia shook her head. She sensed the ragged edges of her memory where it tore, broke off into nothing. She peered at the ferryman, and felt she saw him for the first time. Drained face, wrinkles as deep as fault lines, exhaustion folding the flesh of his cheeks. He appeared endlessly ill. “You’ve seen her ...”
“Yeah, but not in ... the best shape. She’ll be hard to find in dead man’s wind. Ain’t easy to find a person one don’t know, in this weather. And when you do find folks, hard to know what state they’ll be in.” Roscoe sighed, exasperated. He bit his fingernails and swallowed the crud that’d been beneath them. “What you trading?” He smacked his lips.
How could she have forgotten? This man was hungry. “What do you want?”
“Your house. And your word that you won’t come back here and that you won’t tell nobody you came here and that you won’t show nobody how to get here neither.”
“But I can’t give up the house. Where will I stay?”
“You ain’t supposed to stay. You’re supposed to leave and leave the house here. With me. It ain’t safe for you to stay. This place is for the dead. And you ain’t dead; you lost. Someone’s gonna come looking for you. Somebody cares that you ran away. And when that person follows you, your trail will lead him here. Like it did when you ran after your mama. So no, you gotta go. And when you go you’ll have to find your own way. No following. No sneaking behind me. No breadcrumbs creating a trail. No secretly tracking my way. No coming and going as you please. So what do you say? Do we have a deal?” He spat into his palm and stretched his arthritic hand towards her. The fingers struggled to stay straight.
Georgia stared at the skin, bones and phlegm reaching for her. Make a deal with dead things? Objects? In order to find her mother, to get out of here? And there arose, without words, the indifferent certainty that through dead things would she find her way out. And she no longer felt afraid. For hadn’t she already chosen, deep down, in a place she could not reach, the dark art of working her way through dead things? No matter what? She looked him dead in the eye, spat into her right hand, and linked hers with his. He returned her gaze with a mild twist of his mouth, part smile, part grimace.
“Now, this can’t take long,” he said. “I don’t have much time. Ferrying’s a twenty-four-hour job. No time for breaks, chitchat. And it’ll look suspicious if I’m gone too long — to the watchers. I’ll make time for three tries, tops.”
“That’s all? This house costs more than that!”
“Take it or leave it. Three tries and then after that out you go, whether you’ve found the mother you’re looking for or not.”
Georgia jumped. “Out?” she cried. “But how? Where?”
“Down there.” The man's long finger pointed dangerous and crooked like lightning out the window to a dark hole at the bottom of the funnel. “That there’s Here Lies. The only known exit out of here. Nasty place. None come back from it, alive.”
Georgia imagined herself falling down through the cloud and landing in the hole, the cloud collapsing onto her in a suffocating dust.
He squared his shoulders while she glared at him angrily. “Now what bits and bobs you got? What you conjurin’ with?”
“Yeah, what part of yourself you want to conjure your mother from?”
“Part ... of myself ...?”
He sighed. “Ignorant. You really don’t know nothing, do you? What you want to learn how to conjure with? If you want the sorces to teach you conjurin’ you gotta give the conjurer something to work with. Now not every conjurer can work with anything. The sorces that comes to help you are the ones who know how to conjure with what you give.”
“So I’m gonna learn how to conjure ... from the spirits? Conjure ... my mother?”
“Yeah, but so’s you don’t kill yourself you gotta understand exactly how it’s done. Now, I don’t know too much about this place. Don’t know why it won’t settle, why it won’t find a place to land, what it’s waiting for. And I damn sure don’t know what would tame it. That goes beyond my knowledge. But I do know a couple of rules about conjurin’. First, you gotta be real careful. The dust devil’s calm ... but only in the center. Gotta be like that so it don’t rip itself apart, with all of that thrashing at the wall. Don’t know why it’s so violent there. Maybe we ain’t got enough places to put our ruins down, not enough room for separate places, where we can split this from that, separate good things from the bad, decide where this goes, that goes. They end up condensed. So you don’t want to disturb it much. Don’t want to cause it to crash down. You gotta keep it calm, especially while you in it. That means whatever you conjurin’ with it’s gotta be small so you don’t disturb the calm. Second, you don’t want the dirt settling on you. You don’t want it settling on the place where you’re gone. A dust cloud means hope. It means the dirt ain’t fixed on you, yet. The wind's the only element keeping this cloud from becoming a grave. So to keep the dirt flyin’ — don’t give it anything that’s too heavy. And third, when you workin’, you crossing life and death ... mixing and matching ... twixting. The problem for you? You halfway gone to the world. No one below can even see you. That means the Whereabout’s willing to accept you. But you don’t want it to be too willing. You don’t want it to be willing to accept you all the way. So be mindful of what you choose. If you gonna give the dead a part of you and take something from the dead, don’t give too much of yourself. Give only a taste so the dead don’t develop an appetite for the whole you.”
“That’s up to you. I throw in shoes and get a hat back. I throw in a belt and get shoelaces. I ain’t never really figured out why I throw in one thing and get another. So I can’t vouch for the method, in its entirety. But ... at least something comes. And it’s always something I need. So you should do it like I do it. Only thing is ... your bits and bops ... the stuff you conjurin’ with ... well, they can’t be clothing. I give clothing for clothing. But you ... you tryin’ to conjure someone who’s part of you. That means you gotta conjure with a part of yourself. So what’s it gonna be?” He opened his palm and extended the underside of three long yellow talons towards her. “Place three parts of yourself that you conjurin’ with onto my scales.”
In those claws? Georgia hesitated. What would draw her mother out of this resting place? What would enchant her or convince her or guilt her into coming back out? Would anything convince her mother to come to life for her the way that she’d come to life for her mother? What forces intelligence and sensitivity to come from that which is dead? How could she make it spring back to life? If only she could convince her mother to come to life not because of something sky-made, like a miracle or electricity, but because of Georgia, because her mother loved Georgia. The man had told her to give him something small. But he needn’t have warned her. She wanted to give him as little of herself as possible. What would meet both aims? Her eyes flicked back and forth as she read her own thoughts, until ... until ... she had it. She smiled triumphantly inside.
Into the first talon she blew a whisper, mother ... mother ... mother, as if she was calling out for her. In the second she shed a single tear that fell from her eyelashes into the nail. And in the third she dropped a bead of blood from her shoulder, still sore from where he’d pierced her. In the open coffins of his three fingernails, the whisper steamed, the tear pooled and the drop of blood dried to red dust.
“Good.” He moved his hand up and down as if it was a scale-weighing buoyancy. “These are just light enough. Red blood. Wet tears. Breath. They will be like medicine to the dead, like an enchanting perfume. Irresistible.” He grinned.
Georgia plumpened at the idea of being enchanting. “What are you going to do with what I’ve given you?”
“Call the sorces!” He laughed, ran out the door, jumped in the truck and primed the gas pedal. He started the engine and the truck lurched forward with a backfire into the stratosphere. Out of the open window he stuck his hand, waving it back and forth, causing the contents of the scales to drift aromatically through the cloud. The minute particles arranged themselves — there was conscious movement among them she could see — into loops, arcs, and tendrils as he sped from the house down a mad road whose pattern she could neither decipher nor see. And when the truck reached the dirt wall, it went faster, plunged right in, punctured the membrane and disappeared.
Georgia trembled, for she was there, alone, with no protection, inside a house scented with ambrosia for the dead, a house that seemed of smoke and steam, so flimsy she could slip right through it. So when a brown tendril snaked out of the cloud, swung its head in search of scent, then found it, and with precision slithered towards her, she ran quickly to the kitchen, climbed on the counter, folded in a cabinet, closed its door to hide in coffin-black darkness.
“Who called us?” Three women entered the house. Or rather it seemed they’d once been three women for there were three heads speaking, but there was only one body. Their torsos encircled each other tightly at the waist, like the knot of a tourniquet. One head wore wheel spokes as ear plates in her ears. One wore bracelets of exhaust pipes on her wrists. And the last wore a steering wheel around her neck, the pendant of an oversized necklace. They smacked, gnashing some unseeable thing in their mouths, muttering to themselves as they moved. “Where’s that Breather?” They scrambled like a six-legged spider around the living room, on the walls, and the ceiling, using adhesive feet. Dead center on the ceiling they stopped, dropped, and righted themselves mid-air by turning the knot in their body like it was a knob. They stood six arms akimbo.
“User of baby’s breath to call the dead.”
“So boldly were we called and now we’re feared.”
“Stop hiding in your early coffin. Reveal yourself.”
Georgia heard the hex through the wooden door of the cupboard, the sound strange and muddled. Against her sense, she cracked the door open and a shaft of light fell on her face. The woman hopped all over, from the living room to the bedrooms to the bathroom like a jumping spider seeking out prey. Then she stopped. And turned. Georgia eased the door closed. The woman’s six eyes must have seen her. She was hopping her way.
Out of the cupboard Georgia bolted when twelve hands and feet undid the hinges and the door fell off. The woman caught her prey, dropped to the floor and eyed Georgia with a hexagonal gaze.
“It’s still bad down there, isn’t it?”
“So bad the living running away to graveyards?”
“Running so fast they don’t have time to die before getting to heaven?”
“Whispering mother, mother, mother ... with their baby’s breath.”
“The living running for safety to the realm of the dead?”
The women sat Georgia down on the countertop, disgusted. “That’s why you’ve come, is it not?”
Georgia couldn’t speak. Up close, the women weren’t wearing those wheels and spokes. Those objects were ... embedded in their flesh ... like they’d been pressed there by forceful impact. Was that why these women were wrapped around each other? Perhaps they’d died together in some horrible car accident? Georgia’s mouth gaped opened with fear ...
The woman released an impatient breath. “Explain!”
“I-I-I was calling for my mother,” Georgia blurted, unwillingly. Her voice felt deep and rough in her throat. Where had it come from? It was as if she wasn’t saying the words, but that the air that carried them was being pulled out of her throat.
“And what else?”
“I’m looking for someone very specific. Her name is Cora M______.” Roughness. Georgia covered her mouth. She spoke with no will of her own.
Like a spring had been sprung, Georgia felt her innards relax. She rubbed her tummy. It felt tired and sore. What magic had these women worked on her? Whoever they were, they had considerable power.
“That’s what you were doing? Drawing us to the center of the Whereabout?”
“Making the wind blow how you wanted it to with your baby’s breath?”
“I know what you are now.”
“You’re one of them abandoned children. So many of y’all come up here. Lost.”
“Like gutter trash, lifted up by the wind.”
“Nothing holding on. Ain’t got enough love weighing you down.”
Georgia gasped, then stopped. She bent over and clutched her stomach. She wasn’t sure if she was hurt more by what the sorceress had said or by the rippling wave of pain that the gasp had caused her innards.
The woman reached out to her. “We’re sorry. Sorry. We forget. Our ability to feel ain’t what it used to be, when we were living. Didn’t mean to work your roots hard. Gotta be gentle with ‘em until the spell wears off. Didn’t mean to speak sharp against you. Only the situation. Makes us sick. Abandoned flying about willy-nilly. And nothing’s more irritating than baby’s breath. Fresh baby’s breath’s rare in these parts. May be drawn to it, but not like we like it. Manipulative little substance. Leading you where you don't wanna go. Weakness. Means our powers ain’t strong like they need to be. Figured you weren’t a child, but some witch messing with our olfactories. Can’t blame us. One needs to be discriminating in here. So forgive our irritation, and the lack of an introduction.” She extended her hands. “The name’s Mother Tongue.”
Georgia smiled weakly. “My name’s Georgia. Nice to meet you.” She tried bowing a little, but the bend of it hurt her.
“Don’t ignore pain. It’s there for a reason. No need to be polite if it hurts you.”
“No need for preliminaries anyway among the dead.”
“So why have you called? What you want with old MT?”
Georgia gulped. Here was a real conjurer wanting to help her. Her mouth trembled between tears and a smile. How easily the women finished each other’s sentences, Georgia thought, as if their tongues tied together at the root, one strong muscle keeping them together. They spoke one after the other, in succession, as if they were taking turns with their voice. That was how they’d found a peaceful way to share it.
“My mother ... she’s gone missing in here ... and I was wondering if you could ... can you teach me how to ... conjure her up?” She heard it in her voice. How pitiful her request sounded. Having to ask some ... three-headed creature for something like this, ask some stranger to make her mother be close to her.
“Why? Why should we teach you?”
Georgia felt herself crumbling under the strong gaze of the women. But she was up here in a damn cloud flying over the ground. Why should anyone, dead or alive, stop her now? “So I will always know how, so I can make sure mother never leaves me. That’s why I want to learn. It’s better if I do it. If you do it, then I’ll always have to rely on you. I want to rely on myself.”
MT watched her thoughtfully. “It’s not impossible —”
So she could do it?
“— But it’s not good either. You wanting to use baby’s breath for this?”
“So you want me to teach you how to work the air ...”
“We can do that, but what you’ll learn from it can’t be said.”
“Are you sure this is what you wanna do?”
Georgia wasn’t sure of anything, not at all. It was just ... she felt she had to do it. Had to try. “Of course.”
“You didn’t look me in the eye when you said that.”
Georgia looked down.
“Baby’s breath is unpredictable. Just like a baby, can’t control itself.”
“Mournful little wail. It wants what it wants, right now. No amount of reasoning will tame it.”
“You sure you wanna conjure with it?”
“But it’s my own.” Georgia tried a little laughter. “Surely, I can control my own.”
MT went to a distant place in her mind and then returned. “Mebbe. That’s a question for you, I think. But we don’t wanna be blamed if something goes wrong with it.”
“Wrong? What could happen?”
“It’s just that ... it come from that place where you’re milkless. Teaching you to work it is easy, but whether it’s right for you, that we can’t teach.”
“But how can’t it be right? You said so yourself — I’m an abandoned. It’s wrong. Nothing about that is right. How do I not deserve someone who loves me endlessly?”
“‘Course you do. All do. But ... that’s not what we talking about.”
“You can’t trust that hollow blue worm from where the baby's breath comes.”
“Hungry, ravenous thing. All it wants is to be filled. It’s all blind, hollow need —”
“— Let it be blind, then. It doesn’t need to see.”
“Eh? Let it be blind?”
“It only needs to call. Will you not help me?”
The women clutched their stomach. “See? Feel like we under its spell ourself. Ah, we don’t like baby’s breath. Smelling of sweet milk and early burp. Pulls emotions in ways we don’t like. Down at the root. We ought not do it. But you're an innocent and your need is great. And you’ve come all of this way. You want relief of these things and we ...” The women rubbed their stomach. “It will end your pains at least. You’ll have that. That we’re sure of. What else you’ll have, we don’t know. But maybe that won’t matter. That’s what’s best about being here ...”
“Then bless me with it, too!”
The woman arched six eyebrows. “But it don’t come ... easy though. It will cause —” here the women shot stern glances at her “— cause you to run out of baby’s breath. Once you use it, for this, there’s ... no ... getting it back. It is not a resource that is never exhausted, never emptied, never spent.”
“If that’s the sacrifice I’m to make ... then ... so be it.”
“Come what may?”
“Come what may.”
“Well, if you’ve convinced yourself to stare death down, then it’s not up to MT to stop you, is it?” Abruptly, she strode to the living room. “Now you say she’s newly arrived, is that right?”
“Was there a funeral?”
“How’d y’all send her off?” She threw open the front door.
“We didn’t. She just got taken to Potter’s.”
“Tut. That ain’t no way to go. Ain’t no way to celebrate freedom from that hell down below.”
Georgia nodded vigorously in agreement.
The women positioned themselves in the open doorway. “She may not have been sent off right, but we’ll welcome her home right.” The sorceress spoke more, but Georgia couldn’t hear the words. Then the women pushed their hands into the air as if conducting an orchestra. Gusts of horn, clarinet, and saxophone suddenly curled through the air in a down and dirty dirge. The women drew in breath, so much it seemed impossible for them to contain it. Then, as they stood facing the dust devil, they ululated, spreading out their hands. It was as if they carried their song outward into vortices only they could see. The cloud started to oscillate as if her inhales and exhales were tugging and pushing it into shape. They’ve taken control of the air. Whether through praise, cajoling, or hypnosis, Georgia had no idea. But the violence in the dust devil seemed to calm. The swirling objects in the maelstrom suddenly vanished. And shapes emerged within in, moving and contracting, as if the dust was resolving itself in the pattern that she’d told it. The women glared at a spot with a hot, fixed look. Georgia knew. MT was summoning the dead.
Wavy clouds of dust slithered from the dirt wall, drifted clear as smoke. Suddenly there emerged a long procession of figures, moving to the beat of a band. They were stepping and strutting, gliding and sliding, shimmying and sashaying, buck-jumping here and cake-walking over there, shing-a-linging and snake hipping, their clothing so bright they nearly blinded Georgia’s eyes. Women in silk dresses, crushed velvet, leopard coats. Men in suits and ties dyed in hot colors, the knots braided, looped and tucked in unusual shapes — diagonal bands crisscrossed atop another. In their hands they twirled parasols, swirled sticks and tip-tapped flinty snare drums. They were moaning and wailing, and laughing and singing, rattling tambourines.
Straight towards the house they marched, stepping in time to the beat, a clamorous procession of thousands. But just as they reached the porch and it seemed they’d head straight through, the line split in two. It snaked around both sides of the house, rejoined on the other side and headed towards the opposite dirt wall. At the split, they greeted MT with an improvised dance move, which MT acknowledged and approved.
Georgia eyed them as they passed. They wore no crushed velvet, but dust dyed corn and begonia. They paraded not with parasols, but with colored trash bag umbrellas. Their tambourine discs weren’t built of metal, but of bone. The spots on their leopard coats weren’t spots, but bullet holes.
A dapper man, who’d been twirling and stepping with his cane, put the end of it to his neck and shoved it through. He pulled the cane with herky-jerky movements as if scratching a spot in his throat. Then he coughed, snatched the arrow out and inspected the tip, as if he was searching for mites. Georgia realized. That was no cane, but the weapon used in the crime of killing him.
All of them, all of them, she feared, were playing with what they could find, after shopping among the ruins, selecting some scraps, recycling what’d hurt them to fashion a life.
Another man’s tie was an elaborate noose. For his dance move, he swung the noose around his neck like a hula-hoop.
Georgia clutched her throat. She coughed and choked, struggled to breathe. Didn’t they know? Hadn’t they realized? This was how they’d died. That noose was no toy. Those bones weren’t any bones. Those bullet holes weren’t to be worn.
They’d made being tossed about look fun, donning dust practical, a dust cloud habitable, catastrophe completely acceptable. Even nooses around their necks were inconsequential. They seemed like aerialists mid-flight who might transform certain death into safety. But probably not. How could she possibly know?
Then Georgia saw it. Her mother’s pine box. Pallbearers at the back of the line were carrying it.
Georgia’s heart, lungs, and diaphragm were punching her chest. She was hyperventilating. She turned desperately to MT.
“Now!” the women said, directly into her mind. “You’ve got the right vibration. You must find it, all the babies’ breath — there in the cloud. Don’t breathe outwards. Not this time. Draw it in from the cloud. Draw her to you. Inhale!”
Georgia sucked her heart, lungs, and diaphragm backwards as she inhaled, past the point of a gasp, inwardly, inwardly in, until a whistling then a croak emanated from her throat. And still she sucked in, drawing all air in the cloud towards her, her eyes widening, her nostrils flaring, her throat and lungs swelling past a point of ripeness, until they threatened to crack and burst, and still she sucked in, forcing her ribcage to expand, the ribcage an opening gate, the spine its rusty hinge, and leaves and trash and scraps flew towards her from the dirt wall. And they pelted her, ping, ping. And still she sucked in, causing pieces of the house to tear off and fly towards her, and the hats and the parasols of the dead to fly loose, and the coffin to tilt upright and its door to lift. Still Georgia breathed in. And on the edge of needing to breathe out and not doing it, on the edge of suffocating and not ending it, on the border of life and death, Georgia suddenly realized she was choosing death, for perhaps the inhabitant of that box would come slamming into Georgia the more and more that Georgia breathed in? Perhaps the bones would impale her, become embedded in her, just like those wheels and spokes in MT? And wouldn’t this be the opposite of birth — her mother now inside of her? And maybe the sorceress was hinting at this when she’d said Georgia’s mother would become a part of her, that her mother from then on would never leave her, that Georgia would become like all of the dead in the cloud? Dead. Georgia would be dead. A dead figure wearing whatever object had killed her. Because that’s how death worked here. No one had ever bathed their bodies. No one loved them enough to remove from them what had killed them after they’d died. The dead remained marked.
Georgia exhaled air and tears and snot and all the objects she’d sucked in, sending all of the dead, and MT, and the casket, back into the dirt wall. And the dust devil sucked them up, into its violence. And Georgia collapsed, heaving on the floor, put her hand over her heart and deflated herself slowly by pressing in.
When she awoke, she had not realized she’d fallen asleep. Though the need for it made sense to her. She knew neither how much time had passed nor if it was even the same day. She crawled over to the open door, with care and cringing. The heavens were still the same — the dirt wall was still there, the house had not landed, the dust still spun her in the air. Her mother was nowhere. Disappointed, she leaned heavily against a wall.
Was Roscoe right? Had they refused to settle in graves so they wouldn’t be found? Or were they so homeless they had no place to lay their graves down? And what of their ... garb? Didn’t those things hurt? Maybe. Maybe that’s why they were doing what they were doing. Making it so it didn’t hurt. Or maybe it was like turning the worst part of a pig, its intestines, into an edible delicacy, like chitterlings. Chitlin’ ingenuity. Georgia smiled weakly. She had to hand it to them — they sure were resourceful. Or maybe heaven, in wanting to make their existence peaceful, had taken away their memory of the most painful thing for them to remember. Should she begrudge them that? Maybe some things were best forgotten. But their acceptance of what had killed them, their forgetting of what had killed them —she didn't want to become one of them.
And then there was MT. From dust, the women had whipped up a symphony. How’d that lady do that? Whip up wholeness out of absence? Conjure it up out of nothing? Get the dust to move, move, in just the right way, with people laughing and singing, and closeness and feeling? Couldn’t the world deliver Georgia this?
And what about her mother? With all of that music and singing, moaning and wailing, surely that’d been enough to wake the dead. Didn’t she realize the longer it took for her to come, the longer her daughter was stuck up here? Unless ... maybe ... maybe her mother didn’t want Georgia to find her. Maybe her spirit was in that casket, digging in its claws, refusing to lift out. Saying, ha-ha, I never wanted children, you mewling, wretched imp. And was glad when Georgia choked and coughed. Or maybe her mother’s body didn't work the way it used to, one sense over here, another over there, discombobulated. Or maybe it was the fault of the baby’s breath. Maybe Georgia didn’t wield it well enough.
Swirling around the house, the dust devil scratched the sky. Oh, why wouldn’t it abandon her? Why’d her mother leave, but this cloud wouldn’t, no matter how much she wished it would? Would she never find what she needed in heaven? How could she come down now? What would she say? That heaven wouldn’t even afford her a glimpse of her mother in this place? What would it say to others, to the whites below, that heaven had ignored her claim?
She shook with embarrassment. She wanted to cry, but couldn’t. Her eyelids were dry sandpaper. Water. When’d she last have something to drink? Outside the dust devil circled the house, searching for its chance to slip in.
She limped to the kitchen sink and turned the knob. The faucet groaned with constipation. Ten. Twenty. Thirty seconds. Finally a blue drop hesitated from the spout. She latched onto it with a primitive rooting reflex, and her body caved inward like a suck pump. Something salty and rubbery attached to her bottom lip. She jerked her head away, stretching the rubbery thing. A long, blue hose slipped out of the spout. It wriggled and wouldn’t come off her lip. She scrambled back, like a crab on all fours, pulling out the human end of the hose — an inverted blue and green girl whose face slithered across the floor atop an Afro of sucking tentacles.
“Why are you drinking my water?!” the octo-girl asked through hard lips, no, a black beak. She retracted her eighth arm, and its sucker decamped from Georgia’s lip with a loud pop.
Georgia rubbed the kiss on her mouth. “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to.” The girl’s breath smelled hypnotic, like salt, seaweed, and wind. Georgia felt like sand at the ocean shore. The girl seemed to be about her age. “I didn’t realize it was yours. You were in my faucet over there at the sink.”
“Of course,” the girl said, preening her tentacles like hair. “It’s the only place that makes sense ... in here.” Water seeped out from her skin and pooled on the wood floor. Have you heard them talk about water here? It isn’t safe. Not for me. They’d get rid of me if they knew I hid here. I figured no one would notice water dripping from a faucet. Thought I’d stay in it forever. But I didn’t realize ... you were ... alive. I didn’t think anyone here would ever be thirsty.” The girl looked down, ashamed.
Georgia suddenly realized the girl had wished Georgia dead. “I didn’t mean to reveal your hiding place,” she said. “And I’m sorry for stealing your water.”
The girl smiled at her, relieved. “Don’t worry about the water. I have enough to clean out the whole place.”
“Yeah,” the girl said. “That’s why you called, isn’t it?”
“Kind of,” Georgia confided. “Though I’m sure the people here wouldn’t want it ...”
“Ah, yeah. Them ...”“But I’m so tired of this dirt ... aren’t you?”
The octo-girl shook her feet as if they were her head. “I’ll never be tired of the dirt.”
“Why not?!” Georgia asked. “Sunlight coming through this cloud ends up dirty. Aren’t you sick of it? Octopuses like water!”
The girl hardened her gelatinous body and stuck her feet straight in the air. “I’m not an octopus. I’m a tree.”
“I’ve never seen a tree move the way you do.” She circled the girl.
The girl turned around, mischievously. “Trees who are versed in octopi move.” The girl stretched her tentacles out and held them in place like roots. The girl’s skin mimicked the color and texture of bark.
“It’s fantastic!” Georgia said. “So believable. I’d give anything to be an octopus, I mean, a tree like you.”
The girl’s smile drooped and her roots softened. “No, you wouldn’t. No one should lose what I have to become what I am ... all of this earth spinning around your head ... to me ... it’s heaven.” The girl smiled shyly. “I’d give anything if I could resemble you.”
Georgia’s eyes filled.
“I heard your tale from inside the pipe.”
Something radiant and effervescent passed between them.
“The girl’s eyes lowered. “I have to tell you ... I’m surprised you ... you’re trying to ... you’ve called salt water. I wouldn’t have chosen it myself. It isn’t a trustworthy substance. If you want, you should maybe change your mind.”
“What’s untrustworthy about a tear?”
“Gather tons of tears together and,” the girl held her breath, “the situation’s quite different.”
“But how? I don’t understand.”
“That’s what I’m saying. You shouldn’t wield a substance that you don’t understand. One must be careful if one’s going to conjure with it. It’s possessed by some ... thing. Something foreign. I’ve never fully determined ...”
Georgia lay belly down on the floor so they could see eye to eye.
The girl met her gaze. “I’ve been too afraid to tell anybody here ...”
“I want to know all about you.”
“Really?” the girl said. Then her skin darkened. “But what I have to say ... you won’t tell anyone, will you?”
Georgia crossed her heart.
“Okay, I’ll tell you what happened to me with it, and then you’ll know the water, then you’ll be able to decide if it’s trustworthy.”
Georgia smiled. “Thank you for trusting me, octo ... a tree ... Audrey.” A glint appeared in Georgia’s eye when she said the last word, and the girl smiled at her new name. They peeked at each other through downcast eyelashes. Then they hunkered down as Audrey arched her bark-colored tentacles over them as if the tentacles were wet branches in a mysterious, swampy forest. Georgia felt chilled. She wound her nightgown around her legs and listened to Audrey’s dark tale.
“Long ago,” Audrey whispered as she made rain fall around them, “I lived in a place where dirt laid down on the ground, and dirt stayed where you put it, and there were trees and grasses growing from the ground, and the goats and cows grazed upon it and knew what to do with it. And there were people there I knew and loved very much and were recognizable because they placed their heads to the sky, not down to the ground like I do now. But one night, as I slept, a tangle of snakes attacked me and bound me up so tightly I could barely see from in between their coils. Misery overcame me, and from inside this rope cocoon I heard the snakes talking. They bound me and many of my people up. Suddenly, the cocoon moved along the ground, taking me with it. I couldn’t tell if I was being dragged or if the rope slithered. I moved this way for what seemed a long time, over many parts of the ground that were lying down. I surmised I was being taken far from my home. Just when I thought I would have to shed and eat my own skin, so hungry had I been, the snakes unraveled from around me. And there standing before me were dozens of ghosts ablaze in the hot sun. They streamed in and out of a rotten tree tipped over on its side, a boat, that’s what I learned later. The boat floated on the widest water I’d ever seen. I’d never seen water so drunk. It fell all over itself. Sloshing back and forth. Frothing at the mouth. Then it spit at me, its droplets itching my skin as if they were bugs. Suddenly, the ghosts forced me onto the boat and it took me out to sea. And finally I understood why the water was drunk. Being out there without any dirt made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t stand or walk straight. The water in my mouth bubbled. Then a ghost slid his head up inside of me and pushed me out of my body, and I tumbled off the boat into the water.
“I didn’t understand why the ghosts took me all that way to throw me in the sea. But down, down I fell, past luminescent jellyfish, razor sharp mountains, and black smokers lit neon with algae, until I reached a large patch of aquamarine sand. Strands of my hair slipped into it and so did my fingers. And they stayed there. Unmoving. Glued to that spot. I was petrified into this position. Couldn’t move from it. No matter how much water there was it couldn’t soften me. The salt served as a preservative. And I wasn’t alone. Thousands more were there. Stuck in the sand like me. A petrified forest of people rooted in the sand as they had landed on it — shoulder first, face first, hair first. All colorful shades of blue — indigo, navy, sapphire, cerulean, grey, turquoise, midnight blue, and periwinkle. The brine had dyed them blue all through. The weight kept us in place. It was as if one had to lift the entire ocean to blink an eyelash.
“Over eons, one adapts, picks up the ways of one’s environment, learns how to navigate through it to plot an escape. So, I studied the fluid movements of the octopi. I, their willing student, and they, my unsuspecting teachers. I grew my hair long and twisted it into eight arms. I twirled whirlpools in the water to style my curls into suckers. And my skin, already having learned to change color, changed again so I could camouflage myself, not into my surroundings, the way octopi do, but to camouflage myself as an octopus. Then I used my arms to crawl along the ocean floor, to slither away from that graveyard. I had had my fill of water and spit it out the way octopi do. That spitting propelled me across the ocean floor.
“But where to? I didn’t know where I was or how to get to where I’d come from. I didn’t want my family to see me in my octopus condition. I had to get out of the water, had to be free of it — the one libation I wanted. But where would water not go? Where could I live undisturbed? I tasted the ground with my tentacles. Rocks, grit, and sand in my suckers. Where would the ground help me be free? I crawled through the sea, then into a river, then into a swamp near a graveyard. That is where the taste led me. But I wondered, why did it take me here? No freedom existed in this place. Dirt had affixed on the death of these people. It wouldn’t move off them. It held them in place, underground. But I stayed, watching out of the muck. Eventually, I spied an old lady rubbing her soles on the ground as if to scrub it shiny clean. I crept closer. She generated an awful lot of dust. Then a giant dust cloud suddenly grew around her. When I blinked she disappeared into it. Now was my chance. I didn’t know where she’d disappeared to, but I would find out. I grabbed hold of that cloud with my tentacles, wrestled it with all of my might, until it relented and enveloped me.
“I’ve been hiding out here ever since. It is the only place for a mess like me, a tangle of ghost, octopus, sea and tree. But I call myself a tree. I’m committed to soil and never shall return to water.”
Georgia sat contemplating for a while. It was like Audrey was a mixed-up Mother Earth or something. She enveloped the ends of Audrey’s branches in her palm and brought them down to rest in her lap. “If I could give you the place I came from I would so your roots could grow strong.”
“And I would accept. With my water, I would smooth down the dirt of the earth so it wouldn’t haunt you and you could put your house down.”
“And I would thank you.” Georgia bowed.
Audrey’s rain rinsed dirt from Georgia’s hair, and Georgia rinsed Audrey’s water with earth.
“Could you clean the dirt out of the cloud with your water, Audrey?”
Audrey lowered her branches. “I don’t think you want that. The sea is sneaky. It knows how to weasel inside of you. If the sea rushed in here you wouldn’t be able to trust it. It would let everything loose on you — tires, poles, ships, cars, trucks, boats and houses. It can drive them out of crevices where they’re hiding. It can even lift itself off land and reveal everything underneath it. But even with all that, it can’t push your mama towards you, make her get close to you. Can’t loosen her hold on what she covets in the world. I don’t know where she ran off to, but I do know the sea, and the sea ... it hasn’t found her. The sea can’t find a mother’s love.”
“I see why you don’t trust it. And guess I shouldn’t ... but sometimes it feels like I can’t trust earth either. We ain’t getting the right mix of elements, the right proportions. Too much water, too much dirt. The elements affect us too much.”
“If it’s not any good for you maybe you shouldn’t go back down then. Why should you? Your mother’s up here. You have a nice place to stay. You’ve got friends ...” Audrey smiled. “And you’re not afraid of ghosts ...”
Maybe she was right. Georgia was more scared of what was happening down on earth than the dead.
“Besides, why you wanna conjure your mother up anyway? Just so you can bring her back down with you? So she can be with you and be miserable? Maybe she don’t want to go back. Maybe that’s why she’s not coming ...”
Georgia looked away. She’d never thought of it that way.
“We can make a home right up here. Can’t we? You and me? Why not? We tell the house what to do. We make home. Home don’t make us. Come on!” Audrey grabbed Georgia’s hand. They twirled about, drawing the four corners of earth on the walls. To create morning, Georgia lifted a yellow bedspread in front of a window to simulate sunlight. Throughout the day, the blanket traveled from window to window, east to west, as Audrey flicked sweat onto their skin. They fanned themselves. On non-sunny days, they made thunderstorms, with Georgia stomping the floor rhythmically, and Audrey lifting her arms to the ceiling to make it rain. And after they made the weather, they cooked fake food for themselves in the stone cold stove. And it was pleasant, day in and day out. At night they sat by the stove to warm themselves. And Georgia chewed on her grandfather’s pipe as she swayed in his easy chair. And sitting beside her, rocking to and fro on the other side of the stove, watching her, was her mother.
She wore a purple and blue floral housedress. Her jet black hair swooped up into a high beehive with an occasional curl cascading down her shoulder. She sat modestly with her atrophied legs side by side, and her lips pursed in the tight-puckered kiss of a black beak. She looked so much like Georgia, but older, with moles and a jawline that couldn’t be placed. Georgia’s mother reached for Georgia’s hand across the expanse ... and Georgia grasped it. Warmth passed between their fingers, and Georgia let her hand rest in her mother’s palm. Her mother’s pulse beat the tip of her finger. She stroked the hollow of her mother’s palm. My, my, she did look a lot like Georgia, didn’t she? Georgia stole a longing glance at her. Same sunken eyes. Broad forehead. All Georgia, except for the crow’s feet and the moles dotting her cheeks. Georgia’s heart tightened. Would moles grow on Georgia’s cheeks, too, when she grew older? She traced the lifelines on her mother’s palm. “Do you think I’ll get moles like you when I grow up, mama?”
Why had she added that word at the end?
“Maybe,” her mother said, smiling at her. “But don’t you worry about that just yet. You’ve a long way to go before you get old like me. Although I do suspect you’ll probably get them. My grandmother had them. Little raised brown ones, and not just on her cheeks, either. Forehead. Neck. Come to think of it, I think her father had them, too. I remember seeing a torn, beat up picture of him when I was small. Handsome man. But speckled. Broad forehead. Strong jawline. Sunken eyes. Never did know what he mourned. But his eyes were just like yours. What are you mourning, child? Nothing now, I hope. This here to me is heaven. Sure it’s not perfect. But have you ever thought heaven’s made of scraps? How couldn’t it be? It’s incomplete. It has to be since it doesn’t remember anything — the bad that’s happened to you, your age, the fact you have to live on the ground. Heaven’s forgetful. So it can’t be perfect. Me? I’m not mourning anything. Everything seems right, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been so happy.”
“Me neither,” Georgia said, tearfully. The scene shimmered in and out of existence in time to the wavering of Georgia’s heart. This was her mother, her true mother, her flesh and blood mother.
“Now come on over here and help me make dinner.” Together they shaped a meal from touch, that could only be discerned by the bends of their hands as they swept through the cupboards, collected the powder there, amassed crumbs from the fridge, then cracked imperceptible eggs, poured clear flour and kneaded bread from dough that wasn’t there. Suddenly, food appeared on the counter — pies as thick as cakes, apples as big as pumpkins and fried chickens as fat as ostriches. Georgia smiled up at her mother, whose skin was moist, too moist. Made to appear as if it perspired in southern heat. Audrey.
Georgia saw herself, saw both of them, from a long way off, as if through a looking glass.
What kind of madness had she developed, she thought, alarmed, that she’d accepted an octopus in the sky as her mother? That she’d accepted invisibility for nutrition? That she was willing to be adopted by the dead because she’d been abandoned? Who was that person who’d accepted all of that? Who didn’t care who was her real mother? As long as that individual looked slightly like her mother? Who’d been willing to deceive herself? What a fool! Her need had been so great that she’d done this? Run herself into dust, into a cloud above a grave so that she could be loved? She terrified herself much more than the ghosts did.
Audrey smiled kindly at her, unaware.
There was real warmth behind that smile, wasn’t it? She sensed there was. What if ... this was her real mother? Coming through as best as she could? Maybe her mother had been conjured up. Who was she to say for sure that she hadn’t? Maybe this wasn’t an octopus’ camouflage, but her mother’s way of getting through to her, of possession, of possessing whatever was around Georgia to communicate with her. Through whatever tissue or sinew. Could she really risk throwing this away? What if she’d really come back from the dead to be with her? This. This out of all had to be saved. To give her up now … it’d be wrong to stop everything right in the middle of her mother trying to connect with her, wouldn’t it? On earth her mother was gone, but this was ... her new mother ... one ... that she loved. She ... she ... loved her. Of course she did. She could already sense the wrenching of her stomach at the thought of her mother vanishing now. How could she live with that? That feeling wasn’t there for no reason. Something large and important had brought them both together, through the most impossible of circumstances. It preserved and created a place for them to be. It had preserved their ability to come together, despite the decay, despite the trash, despite the fact that one of them was dead even. What could possibly do this? Was she so sure that this ... why not say it ... miracle was the product of her deranged, grief-stricken mind? Georgia took her mother’s hand in both of hers. “Come,” she nodded her head. “Let’s sit down and eat.” She would stay, up here, in the cloud, with her mother, and whatever else.
Her mother perspired and perspired more and more each day, and Georgia cried because of the marine life that came with it, the tuna, the algae, the kelp. Soon the house filled up with salty water. Up to their knees, their waists, their shoulders. And still they played house, swimming while they ate, swimming while they slept. Until only a thin sliver of airspace separated the water from the ceiling. Georgia, who still needed to breathe, lay on her back, gulping the air. She looked at her mother treading beside her. “It’ll be okay,” she said, her trembling lips blue from the cold, her mouth barely above water. She let out a scared little laugh.
“You’re going to drown!” the woman yelled. “I ... won’t let you die because of me!” The woman dove underwater and swam towards the floor with long, powerful kicks. She pulled up a heavy nail out of the floor with superhuman strength, and tossed the nail above her head. The water swiveled and drained out of the hole left behind in the floor. Down the water went with a rushing sound, taking the tables, the chairs and the woman down with it.
“Don’t leave me!” Georgia darted down towards the hole as if to follow behind. But the water rushed out, quick, and then it was gone. She landed on the dry floor where she struck her head and blacked out.
When she came to, an old lifeless body on the floor lay beside her, right where the hole had been. A dark, lumpy body — a misshapen mass creased with a sharp object under a housedress. The body lay over the hole as if to stop Georgia from fleeing down the drain. The body’s position on the floor ... decomposition ... it was clear danger lay in it. Georgia backed away from it to the wall. The jagged object moved, under the dress, obliquely, on its own. It moved into the stomach area. Then it went down and turned. Georgia thought she heard the thing bolt and lock.
The eyes of the corpse sprung open. The left eye was all black, the pupil dilated open to monstrous proportions, while the right was all white, the pupil contracted down to nothing. She couldn’t have risen if she’d wanted to, as if the object under her dress affixed the old woman to the wood.
The dead woman aired out her lungs and sagged into the floor, seeming most comfortable when deflated. Georgia got the impression that the object under her dress was the nail that’d been pulled out of the floor. “What?” the woman croaked. “My body frighten you? It’s hard lookin’ on the dead, ain’t it? Sorry I ain’t gussied up for you. To make it easier.” The dead woman laughed quiet and low. In her mouth she chewed something unseeable, gnashed it into oblivion with ceaseless gums.
Terror struck Georgia. Her hips felt transfixed. She feared she’d never get up from the floor.
“Ain’t conjurin’ nothing,” grumbled the dead woman, as if reading Georgia’s thoughts. “If that’s what you wantin’. Can’t believe you’re still here. Thought you woulda left by now. Didn’t think you’d make it through the first two — not many abandoned do. Thought you’d run back out the way you ran in. That ain’t the case now, is it? You hanging on. Why you up here still?”
“I’m looking for —”
“— Yes. Yes. Your mother.” The dead woman scratched the lump under her housedress. “But you found her. You know where she at, what state she in.”
“But that may not have been ... the real her ...”
“The real her?!” the woman scoffed. “You wantin’ real? You had that. I think you understand where the real one at.” The woman removed her empty hand from inside of her housedress. There was dried blood on the fingertips. “Yep, you know where she at. And you far from her as you can be. Now why that? Why you runnin’ from the real one?”
The woman’s fixed gaze made Georgia squirm. Had she been doing what the woman said? She’d thought she’d been running to her mother, but now ... was she to understand that ... maybe she'd been running from her mother ... away from the real one? Was the woman’s reproach accurate? Had she been at fault? She’d been so terrified when she’d run up into the cloud that she would have one less thing to help her get through the world. She couldn’t stand the thought that another essential element was being stripped from her. She wanted a mother — one who was alive, one who loved her, one who hadn’t abandoned her. But — Georgia’s heart ran fast with fear — that’s not who her real mother was! Not anymore. Maybe never. Was this what the dead woman spoke of? She hadn’t realized that by running away from her mother’s death that she was running to some other mother, some other mother that she’d wanted more. That this meant she’d wanted somebody else to be her mother. That all this time she hadn’t been calling her real mother, but some other one. Georgia felt a pang of guilt. Would the dead woman have been so certain of which way to run, under the circumstances? Did the dead woman understand what Georgia had been through?
“This place ain’t for you,” the dead woman said. “And yet you hold onto it.” Georgia wished the woman wasn’t seeing her, wasn’t accosting her. “You realize, I think, you can’t live up here with the mother you want, you only can be with her if you dead. So why you stay?” The sharpness was replaced with real concern. “Because you wanna die?”
“No ... I don’t know ...”
“Is death the price you willing to pay to be with her?”
Georgia gulped. “Yes.” She hoped she sounded brave.
Georgia thought to herself. “Because I ...” her voice trailed off. She felt hot with shame. All along she’d been choosing death, hadn’t she? But how could she not? The pain of living on earth — the degradation, the destruction of it, the lack of money, the lack of food, because of her skin color — it cut through her. She didn’t want to live, with all of that. Didn’t want to accept that kind of life. Who could bear suffering so? “There are things down below that I don’t want to ... face alone. No one has been able to help me do that and I ... I was hoping ... my mother would’ve been able to. She was my last hope.” Georgia turned away, not wanting the woman to see the hot tears rolling down her face.
“Now that I understand, abandoned,” the dead woman said, her voice surprisingly warm. “How one find the strength to carry on, through all that? I understand that very much. I suffered the same when I was alive. And survived it.” Georgia turned to the old woman. “For a time. But I was the opposite of you. It happened to me because ... because our children won’t come to us no more.”
Georgia couldn’t believe ... the dead woman ... had experienced this. Her tone of voice, the soft understanding in it, sank into Georgia’s sore heart.
“When I was alive, we was hunted. Children. Old Folk. Pregnant women. Didn’t matter. We was all put to work against our will, beat, mutilated, with whatever ’em folks found. Work and work and work. Won’t long before they took my mama away, and I was left alone. They always trust me, though. Don’t know why, after what they done. One day they say they tired and troubled by not more women having healthy children and they say they want my help. They started me midwifin’ when I was nine. I cry every time I do it. I’m helping children get mothers, and I ain’t got no mother and these children just going to lose theirs. One morning, big girl come to me, say she about to burst. I set her down, prepare everything like I was taught. But the baby don’t come. She push and push, but nothing come out. I think I’m doing wrong. They catch me. They whup me. ‘Cuse me of harming the baby. But after five days, nothing change. They can’t feel nothing inside. Her cervix close. Her milk run out. Her stomach eventually flatten. She won’t the only one. Girl after girl like that. Then we know what’s happening. Our children won’t come out us no more. They dying inside us before we could bear ’em. Maybe from grief. We lost our children before they could be born.
“We was terrible scared. All us women wonder why this happen. Why our children abandoning us? They done heard our troubles from the other side? Were they wondering why to come? Wondering why they should eat more grief? We knew what was wrong. They didn’t want to follow our breadcrumbs out of heaven. So we congregate at our meeting ground. We ask ourselves: how we show ’em the way back to us?
“Now us women was used to making milk for ’em. But milk won’t enough. Won’t enough to give ’em milk, give ’em food, give ’em how we looked or how we spoke. We hafta make it possible for ’em to be here. But what we have available to us? We was poor. We had nothing.
“All of a sudden the answer come to us. We need to make a place for ’em to be. A safe place. Not far off. But here. Now. A place made of the best we could give ’em. A place inside us. That way they carry that place inside ’em always.
“Now all children born with dust on ’em. Vernix, that’s what the nurse say. Say it protect their skin when they born. We needed protection for our skin. How this dust protect us better? That’s what we wanna know? What herbs we need to add to it?
“That’s when we set to work. Inside. We hafta use our insides because couldn’t use our hands. Wouldn’t have been safe. Our hands — they was controlled by the masters. We hafta work in secret, where nobody could see. So we talk to our insides. We say we know you making new organs, milk, children, but you can’t make just milk. That ain’t enough. You hafta make something better. Used our stomachs, lungs, intestines just like a nation sack.
“What we sprinkle in there? A little marshmallow, a little slippery elm. But mostly clay. Red clay. When we ate it, we’d talk to it. Mold it. Tell it what we needed it to do. And it would listen. It couldn’t hear nothing else from inside our mouths. We told it not to just to give us minerals, but to give us its other properties. Then we baked it with the kiln of our hearts.
“When we ate clay, our children ate clay. It spread over ’em. Made their hearts, their eyes, their skin and their insides. Entered their blood, coated their veins, wrapped around their bodies, protected ’em from acting against their will. It was a country we blanketed ’em in. It didn’t spread over space; it spread over their bodies.
“Soon we realized — the most incredible worlds were being made inside us. Every once in a while, their magic would come out. When we hiccupped or laughed, a strange bird would emerge that we’d never seen. We could taste the food in these worlds, smell the plants growing there, feel the animals tickling us with their feet. We each had our own private country inside us that only our children walked on. At night there we’d go when we fell asleep.
“No matter how much our children was attacked afterwards, the earth kept ’em in place. Kept ’em from going up to heaven too early or getting in the grave dirt too soon. That’s how we held onto each other. That’s how we held onto ourselves.
“When our children was born, when we pulled ’em out, we pulled out parts of this country with ’em. It crumbled from the stress of childbirth. I throwed this dust to the wind. Didn’t know that the vernix would protect us into death. That it’d provide us a place to be. That dust cloud outside? Dear child. That’s the vernix from millions of us.”
Georgia was a human throat choked with grief, honor, love, and fight. She gazed out the window at the dust swirling by. It was as if when the pregnant women ate clay it became possessed, became part mother to the children born protected by it, and now the dust from the clay kept protecting them, performing the actions of those ghost mothers — lifting children out of danger, rocking them back and forth, protecting them from the elements, whisking them away from the dangers of hell. Even the hell of her mother leaving her, and whoever else had left, too, absences she mourned and didn’t know she mourned.
“Do you think,” Georgia managed to say, trying to regain her breath, “my mother ate clay when she was pregnant with me?”
The woman turned the object in her belly slowly, thoughtfully. “Mebbe. Either her or somebody in your line. But I’m guessing that’s why you here. The practice of eating clay may’ve died, but the effect still lives.”
Inside her, Georgia thought, and in me, too. Only traces of it may have remained. It was incomplete, not enough to make a world, but the vernix she’d been born in protected her still. In cloudless air it had risen to establish a weather system. In a generous sky it had reproduced heaven. The grace of that eased into her chips and cracks, until Georgia felt whole. She thought about the indignities down on earth. No longer must she face them alone.
“Mum, you’ve been so gracious with your time, it is the season for me to stop disturbing you.”
“Hogwash. Rather have you botherin’ me, than you remainin’ an abandoned.”
“No, I’m not an abandoned anymore. I’m a conjurer.” She smiled proudly.
“Then show me. Conjure up your own country, a safe place to land. But careful now. Don’t throw the dirt in the air, thinking you can pretend with it. If you want the cloud to let you down, it’s gotta take you where it needs to. Hafta accept the way things are if you wanna come down. But then you can work it. So what you gonna do? On what country will you allow the cloud to land?”
Georgia looked around the house, searching the air, earth, wood and metal she would conjure with next. What configuration of them would release her from the cloud? “Mum, I’m sorry to pry, but what is that?” She pointed to the sharp object under the old woman's housedress.
“When he found out I ate clay, master called me dirty, rail spiked me to the floor.”
Georgia bowed her head. She’d helped free Georgia of her pain. The least Georgia could do was the same.
Gently, she eased the nail out of the woman’s stomach, and delivered it from under the housedress. And then all was absent as Georgia slipped into the newly opened passage.
Down she fell out of the house, straight through the eye of the dust cloud, plunging through her own weightlessness, the Whereabout spinning around her, tightly, as if it was a funnel, the movements of its walls complex and mysterious with concentric rotations, visible segmentations, necklaces of red, black and grey, flowing in and out of one another, ceaselessly, shaping and re-shaping the wall contours with bumps and protuberances, as if there were bodies just underneath the surface of the dust, unfinished, grotesque bodies, swaying and undulating, pulsing with the movement of dust, in a continual state of metamorphosis such that the bodies were never the same, all of them padded with an irresolute softness and ultimate untouchability for touching them would immediately cause them to disintegrate, and indeed they broke apart, coming together in such strange configurations that Georgia was unsure whether she was seeing them die or watching them being reborn there with that hurricane inside of them, as she fell through the howling of the funnel, until the howling nearly drowned itself out from being so loud, until the funnel began to narrow and wheeze, until the soaring walls of dust once so tall gradually softened and drooped, and dirt relaxed from the air and fell into a mound that was cold and unmarked, and it took Georgia a moment upon landing to realize that she’d been delivered to the grave of her mother.
There it lay, under her body, as she perched above it on all fours. Here lies Cora M____. The name scrawled in pencil on a dirty cardboard box sitting at the head of the grave. A grief as early as dew fell from her irises.
Georgia’s world blurred. Her teeth chattered. Her body trembled. A chill rippled through her. Her joints ground painfully against one another, turning her bones to quicksand. She struggled to hold herself up. Any moment now she would crumble apart, adding to her mother’s grave a thin layer of dirt.
Her tongue braced against the roof of her mouth, and there she tasted clay, something solid, not broken, or discarded, or absent, or ruined. Something about herself. A part of herself that wouldn’t break. Something ephemeral, no more solid than taste, but there it was. Suddenly, she stopped shaking. Her teeth stopped chattering. Her mind stopped trembling. She steadied herself on all fours then stood up, tall, her hair wild, the tattered pieces of her white gown floating like petals. She wouldn’t die because her mother died. She wouldn’t become dirt because her mother lay under it.
Proudly, she stepped off the mound.
For a while she stared at the grave she left behind. Then she heard footsteps rustling dead leaves behind her. Something came towards her. Something heavy. She turned around. She broke into a thankful smile. Sure, the woman was bent and grayer, but she knew grandmother Amma.
“Georgia? That you?” her grandmother asked, a bewildered look on her face. She stumbled forward in her pink housedress and matching slippers. Georgia nodded. Her grandmother collapsed her arms around her.
“I thought I’d never ... looked everywhere ... couldn’t...” The two women clutched each other, weeping.
“I can’t believe it’s you. Let me look at you.” Georgia stepped backwards, a little. Her grandmother squinted. “Where you been girl? What happened to you? You still ... wearing the same nightgown?”
Georgia hesitated. How could she tell her grandmother where she’d been?
Her grandmother thumbed the threads of Georgia’s nightgown. “I can’t believe it. You dressed in the same thing you wore the day you ran away nine years ago ...”
Georgia gasped. She’d lost that many years from her life? She’d really been up there, hadn't she, in the dead man's tornado? “Amma, I ... I didn’t run away ...”
“Course you did. Don’t you remember?” Her grandmother picked crumpled leaves from Georgia’s hair. “I ran behind you, telling you to come back inside, but you disappeared. We didn’t know where you’d run off to. Couldn’t take losing my son then losing you. Thought I was gonna die. Had the hounds searching for you. Figured somebody took you. Or you drowned in the swamp. I looked there every day. Couldn’t find no trace. And couldn’t stop blaming myself. Thought I’d see you. Call out your name. Run up behind you. It wasn’t you. Thought I’d never see you again. I can’t believe it. What you doing here in the cemetery? Where you been all this time? You look like ... like you been ... wallowing ...” Her grandmother stared at her wide-eyed. “Tell me, child. Why’d you leave us?”
“I ... I didn’t mean to ... I was trying to find mama. Didn’t want her to be lonely. Figured she’d left those candies under my pillow so she’d miss me, at least.”
Her grandmother grew quiet. “Georgia,” she said with a sigh, “I made those sweaters for you. I signed her name on the cards. I slipped them chocolates under your pillow. I didn’t know what to do. She left you with us and never came back.” She pointed to her chest. “I wanted to leave the door open so she could return. I didn’t want to believe she wasn't coming back for you. I didn’t know her that well. Thaddeus didn’t introduce me to her before he died. Didn’t think a woman could abandon her child like that, like the child was trash. I needed something to carry you through until ... she came back. That’s how it was at first. But then ... she didn’t come the first year, didn’t come the second. I didn’t know what to do then. How could I tell you the truth? How could I tell you she wasn’t coming for you? You sat at the window every day waiting for her to come get you. I hated her for that. She left us there to clean up her mess. And I had to keep doing it. She abandoned all of us. Your grandfather and I needed her to come back. What were we going to do with you otherwise? He and I were getting old ...”
What little Georgia knew of her mother wasn’t real? She searched the sky for the residents of Whereabout. What one must forget in heaven to be peaceful ...
“Please. Georgia. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lie to you. We kept telling ourselves we had to stop, but what we were doing made you happy. Playing mama’s coming home, we figured, wasn’t too different from playing dress up.”
Georgia stared out at the rows of tombstones sitting there silent. The dust cloud was creation and destruction she’d have to make amends with, run into again and again.
She turned to her grandmother and smiled. “It’s okay, Amma, it’s okay.”
Her grandmother sighed as if guilt freed itself from her shoulders. “Guess I can rest now,” she exhaled. The wind rustled Georgia’s hair.
“Amma, are you a ghost?”
Her grandmother wrung her hands. “I am now. Does that frighten you?”
Georgia smiled. “No ma’am. Ghosts don’t scare me no more.”
Her grandmother eyed Georgia. “What about you? Are you a ghost?”
Georgia grew thoughtful. “Not anymore.” Her eyes scanned the graveyard. “Funny, isn’t it, the two of us crossing paths here with no sign of mama’s spirit?”
Her grandmother followed her gaze. “Let her have her privacy, Georgia, even if in her grave your mother’s run off. Besides,” she said, haughtily, “it’s high time you ask about those who did take care of you — your grandfather and me to start. Or are you only interested in love you have to run after?”
Georgia bowed her head. Wherever her mother had been running to, Georgia hoped she’d reached it and found peace. “You’re right, Amma. I’m sorry. I’ll come visit your grave in a minute.”
Her grandmother walked away. “It’s over here. With a tombstone and everything.”
Georgia watched her grandmother disappear into the forest. Then she turned back to the mound. It may have looked like a tame thing, but she knew it wasn’t. She understood she would have to negotiate with the grave from now on. Dirt would be company. It would be a companion. But it wouldn’t be her. She had found a way to live with it, not die from it. It stayed outside, and she stayed inside — the way it should be. Earth would no longer be some cloudy place made of dirt kicked up by someone’s feet, by how quickly that someone lifted their foot, by particles forced to motion by somebody fleeing from her.
She put one foot on the earth and slid her sole on it, and some of the dirt swirled around her and some pelted her face, but more than a little bit of it supported her as she walked away.about the author