where we dwell
Carla Du Pree
an excerpt from the novel Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
Sixteen-year-old M’dear planted the basket filled with wet laundry on the ground and lifted Papa Shatt’s worn overalls from it. She shook them out twice before clamping them with a clothes pin on the strung clothes line. This can’t be my life, she said to no one. Each time she pulled a piece of clothing to hang it, a lump of misery formed in her throat until she tasted the bile rising like a tide of ill will thrust upon her.
“You got something to say?” Her mother stepped down from the porch and met her between two lines of clothing. “You acting as if you smell shit. After you hang them clothes, you may as well head on down to Miss Lindy’s to help with her laundry.”
“Mama, please. I can’t. I’m not trying to wash people’s dirty undergarments, scrub their shirts with smelly pits nor clean their filthy houses. What kind of life is that?” She flung a dress back in the basket.
“Then what you plan to do? What you good at, girl? Get a big ole job up North doing the same thing? How? What you equipped for to make you some money so you can live decently outside this house? And what’s wrong with doing laundry if it’s an honest way to make a living?”
Her mother placed her hands on slight hips and eyed M’dear with an incredulous look.
“I don’t know, but it’s got to be better than this. I can help at the grocers, and learn how to use the cash register from Ms. Coley. I’m good with figures. I can work alongside Mr. Haywood in his shop, anything but this.”
“That boy Wash done put some crazy thoughts in your head. You ain’t thinking straight.”
“That’s it, Mama. I am. I can’t see myself ending up like Ollie with a kid and no lowdown husband to help her, or pining for something that ain’t never going to happen like Eula and BeBe. What’s wrong with wanting more?”
“Child, because it ain’t that easy. What is it you don’t see? Your father and I have carried you all of your life, making sure you have food and a safe place to be. You see how hard we work.”
“What does that have to do with me? What I want has nothing to do with what you or Papa Shatt have or haven’t given me.
“Mama, haven’t you ever just wanted more? — More than cooking for other people, cleaning out slop pots and washing dirt floors? More than this?” M’dear gestured, looking around, her palms turned upward.
“You mean this? What I’ve made of a life for all you kids so you don’t have a worry? You dismissing it with a bundle of dreams? You can’t see past your face what life’s gonna look like. What’s wrong with making a life with Wash right here in Lowden County, along with the rest of us? You looking for all the wrong things when what you need’s right here where you started.”
M’dear turned her back, and mouthed “No. It’s. Not.”
“Don’t you get it, Mama?,” she turned back and moved close, inches from her Mama’s breath. “I want out. Out of Lowden County. I don’t want to be —,” she hesitated.
“Poor?” her mother finished her sentence, the word stricken on her face. “You don’t want to be poor.” She paused for a moment, glaring. “Well, who does?”
“Mama, no disrespect,” M’dear said, shaking her head. “My life’s not here. I don’t see it. It’d be like digging my own grave and every dream I’ve ever had, strangled at the root.”
“Hmph,” her mother said, throwing her head back. “You kids will be the death of me yet. Go’n get your work done. We’ll tend to this later. You tell your Pa you want to leave, and trust, he’ll have something to say. If I were you, I’d keep this conversation to myself. The only thing you need to worry over is when I plan to speak with him about this mess.”
M’dear bit down on her lip. Trust, she would keep it to herself. She’d be all kinds of foolish to let anyone know how deep her need to leave arrested any thought of staying. Every moment spent with her folks and her sisters tugged at her heart knowing she so badly wanted to go she could taste the thread of it. Leaving Lowden County to raise kids and make her home in a different place, meant leaving them. The thought of saying good-bye without them knowing, drew a wall around her heart, and held its own despair.
Her mother stormed up the steps, the screen door snapped closed behind her, then returned momentarily to yell, “Miss Lindy’s expecting you.”
“Why? So she can pay me a nickel?” M’dear yelled back then scooped the remaining pair of pants out of the basket, and flung them across the line.
“You best butter the bread you got, not the one you think you need,” her Mama said. The screen door slammed like a screech piercing the air.
Moments later her mother returned to find M’dear sitting on the steps, long in thought, the basket empty along with any will to get up and tend to her chores.
She sat beside her in silence, their knees and shoulders touching. “I know what longing for something looks like,” Mama said softly.
“I see it in the way you stare beyond the pasture. In the way you walk out of here everyday, and I’m left to wonder if you’ll come back. You’re like Big Mama, always had a thirst to leave this place. Once Papa Stead built her that house on the west bank, her lust to leave drained right on outta her. She now speaks with muted joy. She planted it straight in that dirt, kneading and tending to her garden that just about feeds families up and down the way. I reckon that’s why she’s in her cups at dusk, and how she’ll die.
“Not one step closer to leaving this place, at least not upright and breathing.” Mama sighed.
“A little hooch goes a long way,” M’dear said, and the tension between them broke with gentle laughter.
“Some of us accept our fate. Others search until they find it somewhere out there,” Mama said, pointing out to nowhere in particular. “But girl, for us, it’s no kind of easy. Here is what you know. Out there is the unknown and in some parts, the unknowable. Out of all of yous, I knew you’d be the restless one, like this place ain’t big enough to keep you. We’ll figure something out. You hear?” she said, patting M’dear’s knee.
M’dear looked at her Mama’s lined, worn, and wrinkled hands, and saw her full heart in those hands that loved her and looked after her day after solid day. Whose fingers cooked up a storm of a meal of beef stew and corn fritters, tea cakes, and cracklin’ bread, especially on Sunday afternoons. Those same hands kneaded away all worries from each of her daughters, whom she sat between her achy knees, plaiting, and—when they were old enough—pressing five heads of hair every other Saturday morning, preparing them for church. Hands that saw years of rough strife, who smoothed every bruise there was to be had but could in no way heal the drive to leave the nestled-in-the-bone of M’dear’s want.
M’dear placed her own hand above her mother’s and patted it. “Yes, we will, Mama. I will. Now let me head on down to this wench before you have to yank my tail off a her, cuz we know she’ll be no kinds of happy with me showing up a quarter past the time she’s expecting me.”
“Tell her I kept you a while longer hanging laundry.”
“Imma tell her I didn’t want to wash her funky clothes,” M’dear said, then laughed, getting up to head out.
Her mother reached for her hand.
The soft pillow of skin met hers and sent a wave of delight through M’dear. Her mama’s touch was everything. The moment she felt it, tears sprung to her eyes. She turned away quickly, knowing burrowed in the depths of her heart, she was going to miss her mama.
Carla Du Pree is the recipient of fellowships and awards from Hedgebrook, Baldwin for the Arts, Rhode Island Writers Colony for Writers of Color, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a Rubys Artist Grant, and a Maryland Independent Artist Award for her fiction. Excerpts from her work-in-progress, Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, have been published in The Pierian Literary Journal, Callaloo, and Potomac Review. She is the executive director of CityLit Project, an award-winning literary nonprofit in Baltimore, Maryland.