** Originally published on RookieMag.com
There was banging at the door. It rattled the hinges and shook the frame. It scared the birds nestled in the oaks, and for one imperceptible moment it made the cicadas pause their screeching. The banging persisted for a while before rousing Mama Harris, but Jayda jolted up on the couch immediately. It had been two months since Jayda’s mother sent her to spend the summer with her great-grandmother and she still wasn’t accustomed to the sound of Mama Harris’ door rattling all hours of the night. Jayda heard the floorboards creak and saw the shadow of Mama Harris holding her lantern as she waded through the darkness. She could see the tall broad woman in her night gown and head rag. She looked tired, worn, like old age was a ten ton burden weighing on her shoulders. Her eyes were rheumy and sagged in the wrinkled pouches of her skin. But no matter how old or how tired, she always answered her door.
Mama Harris could see the silhouette of a woman from the sheer curtain over the door’s window. She knew it was a woman because they were the only ones to knock on her door. She pulled back the curtain, and held up her lantern. The woman’s head was shielded in a floral veil, but Mama Harris could see the left eye that was swollen shut and the reddening bruise across her cheek. Those scars were no stranger to her, neither was the face behind them. The sight of the woman made Mama Harris’ spine stiffen. She hadn’t seen her since she’d run off with the man Mama Harris warned would only bring her trouble. And while she had grieved heavily for the girl, she extracted some peace in her absence. With her gone Mama Harris could forget her previous sins and bring an end to her private penance. But now the woman was back banging at Mama Harris’ door. Surely this was God calling for her atonement, but God had come at an inopportune time. She resolved that if she couldn’t bargain for an extension she’d use everything in her natural power to snatch it.
“Boil some water and fill the basin,” Mama said over her shoulder to Jayda. The woman stared into the eyes of Mama and halted her banging.
“Mama,” the woman whispered in a choked voice.
Mama Harris opened the door and the woman stumbled in. The woman clung to Mama, wetting her nightgown with the blood that oozed from her wounds. She smelled ripe with a pungent tinge of moonshine. Mama Harris wrapped her arms with gentle firmness around the woman to steady them both.
“Shh…” Mama Harris said as she walked the woman over to the couch. Once she maneuvered her onto the cushions, she reached for the woman’s scarf. The woman flinched away.
“Ain’t no need to be afraid. You home now,” Mama Harris said.
She reached her hand out again and this time the woman let her slide the scarf from her hair which was matted to the left side of her head. Mama winced at the wounds. It was as if someone bruised her own flesh. She was staring into a mirror reflecting her internal turmoil. As she examined the scratches on the woman’s cheek, her busted bottom lip and swollen left eye, a hopelessness rose so deep from within she didn’t know if she could be of any use. She wanted to keep the woman, protect her from returning to the fists that sent her running to Mama’s door, but then she heard the rummaging of Jayda in the next room and remembered that life was comprised of choices and she and the woman had made theirs. Mama Harris could heal the woman, but she could not keep her.
“I couldn’t fight him, I couldn’t,” the woman shook her head, flinging the tears across her scratched cheeks.
Mama Harris wasn’t in the business of understanding what brought the women, she only specialized in healing what wounds they brought to her. So she listened as the woman slurred together a string of incoherent words perfumed in liquor. She’d be more coherent in the morning. Right now Mama Harris had to get her undressed.
“I need you to stand up, honey, and shrug out of your coat,” Mama Harris said, taking the woman’s hands and pulling her up.
The woman slowly took off her coat revealing a tight plum dress that stopped a few inches above the knees. Both spaghetti straps had been ripped and dangled below the woman’s shoulders. The neckline was a deep valley that parted through the woman’s generous cleavage. Spots of blood were splattered onto the fabric deepening the plum color to that of licorice. Mama Harris bent down to unstrap the only high heel the woman was wearing. Her other foot was bare and bleeding. The woman began to shiver and her whimpers grew into moans that rumbled deep like approaching thunder.
The moaning seeped through the thin walls and startled Jayda. She tried to ignore it, but the noise haunted her; left some part of her rattled and uncomfortable. It was the same sound that came from the lips of every woman she watched her great-grandmother mend: hoarse, broken, guttural. It was a language her thirteen-year-old tongue couldn’t translate, but her spirit understood. There was a rhythm to it, staccato notes strung together sporadically on a deep bass-line. The sensation was as jarring as it was electric. Jayda felt it prancing around the room, shaking the pictures on the wall and causing ripples in the water she’d just placed the peppermint leaves in. She maneuvered around its wild thrashing as she prepared her great-grandmother’s apothecary: A warm pot of water with two folded rags, an assembly of Mama Harris’s essential oils, a bowl of warm water with two rags inside, sterilized scissors and needles, and an old feed sack folded. Jayda hadn’t seen the woman and didn’t know what to prepare for. Mama Harris was no midwife but she delivered many babies. She was no minister but she delivered many souls. She was no physician but Jayda watched Mama Harris heal women better than any doctor could. It wasn’t just the black women who came to her; the white women sent for her as did the Indians. Skeptics called her a hoodoo woman, a witch, a root worker, a conjurer, but the women knew her as Mama Harris.
“It’s ready, Mama,” Jayda said, peaking her head into the living room. The woman on the couch was naked and hunched over her knees rocking back and forth.
“Ok, now help me move her. Sugar, you gone have to lift up now so we can move you.”
The woman slowly unfolded herself. Jayda held out her hand and the woman placed her trembling palm in her’s. Jayda could feel the roughness of her skin and the dampness of the blood.
“Place the arm over your shoulder, Jayda,” Mama Harris said as she took the woman’s other arm and draped it over her shoulder. Together they hoisted the woman up and lifted her into the bedroom where the basin sat. They eased her body into the water. Jayda watched as the dirt and blood lifted from the woman’s flesh and floated to the top of the water in a brown emulsion. The woman’s head swayed from side to side. Her eyes were half-closed slants spilling tears. Her mouth mumbled incomprehensibly and all the while Mama stroked her hand, humming a soothing tone.
Jayda went to grab the bowl of hot water with the wash rags inside. She set them at the feet of Mama Harris and dropped in two capfuls of juniper. She swished the rags around in the hot water and when Mama reached out her hand Jayda placed one rag in it while grabbing the second rag.
“This gone sting a bit, but it’s gone clean you up good,” Mama Harris said to the woman. Mama Harris put the rag to the woman’s wounds. She howled and gritted her teeth. Mama continued her humming as she touched the rag to the gashes on the woman’s face and arm.
“If I could make this any less painful, I would, sugar” Mama Harris said, dipping the bloodied rag into her bowl of water and ringing it out.
As Mama cleaned the woman’s face, Jayda reached into the water and fished out the woman’s feet and began to wash the soles. The feet were the only thing Jayda was allowed to wash. When she asked why, Mama Harris told her the feet were the most important part of a person. Then she told her about the woman in Luke 7:36 who used her hair to wash Jesus’ feet. Jayda didn’t see a connection between herself and that woman, but she wondered about that woman and what drove her to such humility. Who was Jayda humbling herself before? Surely not the women whose feet she washed. They were no saviors. They came in with their broken pieces and expected Mama Harris to put them back together. They’d either been beaten by a man or a baby that didn’t come full term or an illness or the world or their own destruction. Jayda hadn’t even wanted to touch them, afraid that their brokenness was contagious. Whenever she finished washing them she scrubbed her hands and arms so ferociously it left her skin raw. This woman appeared to be no different. She would accept the bath from Mama Harris, even sleep on the couch and eat most of their humble breakfast in the morning. Then she would be gone, returning to what brought her here in the first place. Jayda didn’t know much, but she knew patterns and she’d seen this woman here before. In a different shape, a different hue, but the same nonetheless. The bruises were familiar and so were the rough heels she scrubbed.
Jayda watched as her great-grandmother hummed over the woman who was now subdued. There was a sweetness to her voice that made Mama’s face seem not as heavy and her eyes not as sunken. The sweetness was like a light. It even made the face of the bruised up woman shine.
“Almost done,” Mama Harris said, “just need you to stand up.”
Jayda rung out her dirty rag and placed it in the bowl. She stood up and took the hands of the woman, pulling her to her feet. The water ran down the valleys of her body, leaving droplets clinging to her flesh. Mama Harris began to wash the woman’s back, breasts, thighs, and in between her legs. The woman shivered and tightened her grip on Jayda’s hand. Jayda looked up and could see the woman’s eyes on her. They were small and slanted with pupils so dark they looked black. She wanted to look away but she was rooted. The gash on the side of the woman’s face was sealing, her busted lip was crusting over, and her left eye was still swollen, but reduced in size. Jayda didn’t know if it were the bruises or the glint in the woman’s eye that held her. She didn’t know whether to be intrigued or frightened. Then the woman did something Jayda found peculiar, she smiled at her.
“Come on and step out the tub.”
The woman clutched Jayda’s hands as she lifted her feet out of the tub. Mama Harris wrapped the woman in the feed sack.
“Don’t worry bout your clothes, we’ll have them washed up for you. Jayda’s gone grab you something to wear and show you where you can sleep.”
Jayda could feel the woman’s eyes boring into her as she helped her into the living room. She stopped before the couch and handed the woman a night shirt. Jayda turned to walk away when the woman spoke.
“I’ve seen you before.”
Jayda turned to look at the woman.
“Yeah, I’ve seen you before.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“This town ain’t big enough to go around mistaking people.”
Jayda said nothing.
The woman moved closer to Jayda, thickening the air with peppermint and moonshine. It wafted around Jayda making her eyes tingle.
“Celestine,” the woman whispered. Her eyes went from glossy to sharp as if she’d located exactly what she was searching for.
“Celestine,” she said again, this time her mouth splitting open in a smile revealing two chipped front teeth and a bottom row missing a considerable amount of teeth.
Jayda blinked at the woman unsure of whether the woman was drunk or hallucinating.
“My baby,” the woman cried. The floor creaked as her bare feet moved forward, her arms outstretched and tears welling up in her eyes. Jayda swiftly backed away, her heart hammering in her chest.
“You don’t remember me? I am your mother, Celestine. You’re my baby. I held you in my arms before they took you away. Now you back,” the woman’s smile widened despite the obvious pain it caused. When Jayda attempted to move again, the woman seized her arm.
“I knew God would bring you back to me. I prayed and I prayed for you to come back.”
The sight of the woman made Jayda’s stomach curl. The blacks of the woman’s pupils began to roll like a violent tide. There was a flash in them like lightening. The current had drown whatever human was looking through them and Jayda swore she was staring at Satan.
“I am your mother,” the woman cried, “can’t you see me. Can’t you see yourself inside of me?” The woman shook Jayda while the waves in her eyes continued to tumble forward.
“They may have taken you, but you belong to me. You are a part of me,” the woman’s hand dropped Jayda’s arm and cupped her face, drawing her in closer until only a pungent breath stood in between them. Jayda blinked back the tears from the woman’s rank breath and eyes that were fully flushed with the violent waves. The water rushed out ferociously as the woman dug her nails into the sides of Jayda’s face. Jayda wanted to cry out, but something held her tongue. She struggled with the woman whose snarl ironed out into a smile as the water continued rushing from her eyes. Jayda clawed the woman’s fingers from her face and shoved her backwards. The woman fell back onto the couch. Her feed sack flew off exposing her naked body and heaving breasts. Her hair stuck up like spikes and her eyes were erratic.
The name leapt off her tongue and scratched the floorboards as it sprinted toward Jayda. Jayda turned and ran from the unfamiliar name galloping at her heels. She burst onto the back porch and slammed the door in its face. Outside, Mama Harris was on her knees scrubbing the woman’s clothes in the tin wash bin. Her indigo-stained fingers were pruned like withered grapes. They shot in and out of the water spilling suds onto the porch. Jayda watched Mama’s broad shoulders roll up and down with a tenacity that mirrored the racket of Jayda’s heart. Jayda wanted to grab Mama and run, but her thirteen-year-old limbs felt powerless, so she collapsed next to Mama in a fit of exhaustion. Mama peeked over her shoulder at the deflated girl.
“What’s the matter, chile?”
“That woman in there, she’s crazy.”
“Hush up, now, callin' people crazy. They ain’t no different from you and me.”
The name made Mama Harris slow her washing. She listened closely to be sure she hadn’t been mistaken.
“Celestine?” Mama Harris asked.
“Yes. She kept calling me Celestine, sayin that she was my mama til somebody stole me from her. Why does she think she’s my mama?”
Mama picked up her vigorous washing, hoping the sound of the water slapping the pail would drown out Jayda’s question. Tonight she was tired, more tired than she’d been in all her years. The weight of her tiredness pushed on her shoulders forcing her to hunch forward. It ricocheted off her joints and rendered her almost immobile. The only thing keeping her going was her washing. So she washed with a fervor and a desperation to beat back all of the sleeplessness and sweat and pain. The dress in her hand was wearing thin and she felt her palms going numb as they rubbed against the board. The woman had unraveled everything that Mama kept tightly wound when she stumbled through the door. Jayda didn’t know just how intricately she was tied to that thread and Mama Harris was not prepared to let her know about the time when she was Celestine and the woman on the couch was her mother.
That was a time before circumstances presented themselves like prison cells that would only lock the baby inside of a world where pain had dominion and pleasure was obsolete. A world that Mama Harris knew all too intimately. It suffocated dreams and stifled visions in fog of opaque clouds. When Mama Harris looked upon the baby that was Celestine, she couldn’t bare the soot of this life staining her, so in an effort to break the curse, Mama Harris took the reins of the girl’s destiny and did what she wished she could have done for her daughter and her daughter’s daughters: she sent her away somewhere she could see the sunshine and taste the sweetness. In the hands of a woman traveling north is where Mama Harris placed the girl who soon became Jayda, leaving Celestine to be the cross Mama Harris bore on her bent shoulders. She saw the girl every time she stitched up her mother’s scars, she thought of the night she slipped the little girl from in between that woman’s legs and gave her a few days to hold and feed the girl before sending her away. It broke Mama Harris’ heart each time the woman came back banging on Mama’s door for shelter and protection, but it was a price Mama willingly paid for the sake of someone else having a chance, even if that meant she’d burn in hell because of it. God had come fishing for atonement, but she decided there was nothing to atone for, so she let the truth swim in the saliva on her tongue before swallowing it.
Jayda watched the storms brewing in her great-grandmother’s cumulous eyes. It unnerved Jayda the way Mama’s lips mumbled silent words before snapping shut. Then there was the audible sound of something gulping down her throat.
“Celestine ain’t nobody,” Mama Harris said.
When they went back into the house, the woman's naked body was sprawled across the couch as she slept. Mama grabbed the afghan from the rocking chair and draped it over the woman's body.
"Gone get you some rest," Mama Harris said to Jayda.
Jayda took one last look at the woman before going into Mama Harris' room. Mama Harris stood above the woman. The swelling in her face had shrunken and scabs were forming on the scratches on her cheeks. She'd heal nicely. She always did. Mama Harris stared a while longer, trying to look past the scars and remember the young girl the woman used to be; fresh faced and wide-eyed. The ghost of that vision stepped out of Mama Harris' memory and stared at her. A sharp pain ran through Mama Harris' heart and she reached for the girl in hopes to save her from the reality waiting for her. But the young girl flinched away, her wide-eyes not as naive. They were two accusatory daggers shooting at Mama Harris. Perhaps Mama had added to the girl's pain, inflicted scars that penetrated deeper than the flesh. But Mama had loved the woman. She loved her with a fierceness that cut to her bone. It was the same love she had for the baby she took out of the woman's womb. They both were flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood. She had done wrong by one in order to save the other, in hopes that it would repair them all. Mama Harris took one last look at the woman, kissed her softly on her forehead, before going into her room.
Jayda was curled in a fetal position at the foot of the bed. Mama Harris listened to the sound of her soft snoring. Mama smoothed back Jayda's hair and slowly bent to her knees. She hadn't spoken to God since she buried Celestine, so the two words fumbled over one another in her mouth as she tried to figure out how to say them so that God would understand. With her hand still in Jayda's hair, Mama opened her mouth and let the words tumble out.
When Jayda woke the next morning she heard the sounds of Mama cooking. Memories of the other night floated over her in a haze and made her jump up. She went into the kitchen and saw Mama was alone. She looked over her shoulder and saw the neatly folded afghan draped over the couch. The woman was gone.