March 25, 2022
Banished Daughters of Eve - Second Place Winner of the 2021 First Chapter Contest
By Mary Dean Cason
In 1962, the marble halls of The Vatican smelled of panic as old men in red cassocks wrung their hands over their grave error as though God himself snarled from above. They’d chosen a predictably pious Pope, yet before the white smoke cleared, the twenty-third John to sit on Peter’s throne threw the windows open to the word. While the Second Vatican Council would, as John hoped, let the fresh air in, the cardinals clutched at their crucifixes for the new air was thick with the contagion of birth control. By the grace of God, the new pope died. Quickly and quietly the cardinals went about shuttering the place, tucking modernity deep into their pockets. But try as they might, they were unable to stifle the women—in the pews and from the grave—whose cries began to shatter the windows, stained, in part, with their own blood.
Bea and I had been told Mama was pregnant again. Dad, who’d learned it just a day ago, was afraid we’d overhear the detectives or one day see the death certificate. But the twins did not know, nor did the hundred or so people who drove from the church to the cemetery. They knew only what the papers said, that she’d been found dead at the Bellemeade Hotel, way over in Greensboro. Why she was there at all, not a soul seemed to know.
It was the tail end of summer when the Carolina Piedmont held tight to air so hot and thick a sheen of sweat clung to everything, windshields, upper lips. Scents were in peak performance, fallen gardenias spilled their headiest stuff onto grass that wouldn’t lose its dew ‘til noon, fish that didn’t dive deep enough bobbed belly up, and although tobacco was stemmed and crushed every day in Winston-Salem, on a hot humid day, the raisin sweet smell was likely to roll as many stomachs as cigarettes.
We sat on folding chairs waving church fans, more like giant holy cards on sticks—Our Lady of Sorrows on one side, my mother's dates of birth, and death on the other.
Laura Bergman Locke
May 5, 1927—September 18, 1968.
This was the BVG's doing. The Blessed Virgin Grandmother was our Chicago grandmother, our mother's mother, always eager to trump a Southern tradition with a Catholic one. She sat two down, a damp handkerchief traveled from eyes to nose and back again.
Here’s what my mother would notice if she could sweep an eye over the scene: how the light making its way through the water oaks renders the grass mottled blues and greens—very Renoir, huh, Nellie? She’d see the white roses climbing from one headstone to the next as pretty ghosts looking for lost husbands, but in the end, she’d fasten her gaze to the bead of sweat hanging unperceived from my father’s chin until it becomes a stain on his tie, widening in the blue silk to the size of a dime. At this, she would squeeze tight her eyes, disappear through the treetops and become a cloud.
Oh, God, Mama, what have you done?
I chewed on a cuticle as Monsignor Quinn, hands folded over his purple stole, shook his head at the coffin. "We not only bury this mother," he amped up his County Cork. "But also, her unborn child who’s been denied the light of God’s loving face."
Bea’s nails in my forearm barely registered, I noticed only the air-sucking gasp from my father’s throat followed by a groaning expulsion so painfilled I flinched. The past four days had stolen pounds he didn't have to spare leaving him a black suit of bones. Another arrow and he might slip through a seam in the coffin and follow my mother to wherever it was she went. Quinn, oblivious of dropped jaws and murmurs, let alone Dad’s gaunt and steely stare, went about sprinkling holy water on the coffin as if he was about to iron a shirt.
My mother was a portrait painter. She remarked more than once that Quinn, the size and shape of a fire hydrant, all ginger-haired and red nosed, was a study in the warm tones. Now, framed by a freshly dug mound of earth, so hard and red you could press pennies from it, the man looked to be on fire. The same clay would be shoveled upon my mother, sod over, and given a good soaking before the day would end. Quinn would ever cool to blue.
Unpracticed in the art of high heels, the ground buckled as I wobbled toward the grave. The clod of dirt in my hand was mud when I let it fall on the coffin. And then we were all falling, the very earth unable to hold my mother’s children in any sort of order. During those first days, we operated under the assumption that six-month-old Maddy was at the best age to lose a mother. We didn’t compare our suffering along a spectrum of vulnerability, the one whose memory bank was the deepest, we were certain, suffered the greatest loss. That logic put seventeen-year-old Bea at the worst possible age. I was sure fifteen was equally as life-altering. No doubt the twins, Bobby and Mikey, felt ten years of knowing her registered a competitive loss. But this was the daybreak of mourning. We knew only that the sun was an afront, clouds were preferred, rain, a balm.
My mother had been found in room 441, along with an empty bottle of sleeping pills and a half-full bottle of vodka, by a hotel maid. What I knew of the Bellemeade was high tea on Christmas Eve when I was six in the O. Henry Room. There were chandeliers and velvet chairs and being told the room was named for the author and Greensboro's favorite son. There is a photo taken on the grand staircase, now in a silver frame on my mother’s nightstand. Bea and I, in matching coats with velvet collars, sit wedged between Mama and the BVG. Mama holds a slender volume of The Gift of the Magi she'd bought at a shop in the lobby. Last night, I took the picture and the book and slipped them under my pillow oddly comforted by the sharp edges and the smell of pages.
After the last handful of dirt fell onto the coffin, my father hurried us to the limo. Another arrow might fly at any moment, if not from Quinn then from someone else.
Georgia, our housekeeper, with sleeping Maddy on her shoulder, got upfront with the driver. Since Saturday, they’d moved about the house as a single form, the baby attached to her hip as she answered the door or poured somebody a glass of tea. Just yesterday, I found them in the sunroom, Maddy sleeping in Georgia’s arms. I offered to take her up to her crib, but Georgia said, “Naw, baby, she best right here, doing the both of us a world of good.” I stayed for a moment taken by how the light caught a line of moisture where Maddy’s cheek met Georgia’s dark neck. How to paint such a filament, frail as hair? I stopped myself before turning to the studio to ask. Now in the limo, sweat and drool once again sealed Maddy’s cheek to Georgia’s neck, the near-invisible glint shifted shape with each breath and flutter. It’s otherworldly I came to see, a sliver of halo my mother has stolen from some saint—fragile but fierce enough to bind Maddy to Georgia forever. So went the first of a million little lies I would tell myself. Each one, a prayer. I pulled my eyes away as the car filled and we settled quiet as nuns on long-facing seats, toes touching. In less than an hour, there would be swarms of people at the house. Enough food had already arrived to feed an army. For now, there was refuge in silence behind tinted glass and air conditioning on high.
Somewhere along the twisting lanes where the tombs of textile and tobacco barons looked on, the twins began to squirm. They are not identical, but alike. Bobby Mike, they are called, like a single, southern boy. Bobby Mike, dinner! It was Mikey’s little chest that began to heave, some unseen motor tripped, setting his chin to quiver. He pulled on my father’s sleeve and finally erupted. “Mama was going to ha . . . ha . . . have another baby?” But Dad’s gaze was fixed out the window, chaos, neatly folded and tucked into a pocket. “Daddy?” Mikey begged. I was tempted to answer but stopped short when, in a jerk, Dad looked between Bea and me out the back window, then finally to Mike.
“Yes, Mike. She was.”
Through hiccups and sobs, and eyes that could have slid down his sweet face, my little brother connected the obvious. “And . . . and, the baby died too?”
We have a distinguishing feature that says we are of the same tribe—what Bea calls having two bottom lips is a dominant feature passed on by the Bergman side, the philtral ridge softens at the upper lip line diminishing the Cupid’s bow. When Maddy was born the little divot was barely visible.
“Not bad for a swan song,” Mama said cradling her newborn. "Might be the best one yet."
Dad, whose own upper lip rose and fell in two proper peaks, swooped the new girl into his arms. “You’d think one out of five would get my mouth.” He sat on the edge of the bed and stroked the baby’s velvet cheek. “Well, maybe the next one.”
“No next one!” Mama punched him not so lightly on the arm. “I’m done, bud.”
"Daddy?" Mikey asked again.
And again, my father didn't answer. Instead, he turned and tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Can you stop the car? Please." Like a Giacometti-come-to-life, the black suit of bones unfolded from the limo, slammed the door, and head forward, lunged toward the car behind us. Bea and I twisted to the rear window as the twins slid between us and turtled their heads from the first coats and ties they'd worn since First Communion.
The long line of cars emptied and looked on as my father poked over and over at Quinn’s lacy cassock forcing the priest to all but recline onto the hood of his car. Velvet seats and leather door panels, air on high, all intended to soothe, became a vault. We saw rather than heard our father’s words, usually thoughtful and measured, fly from his lips along with bits of spit. In our worst scolding, none of us had ever seen him in such a rage; neck veins popped purple, his finger, had it possessed a sharper point, would have drawn blood. Bobby’s gaze was fixed out the oval window. “Dad can take him. Quinn’s stocky, but Dad’s wiry.”
Bea, facing forward again, yanked bobby pins from her chapel veil “I hope he beats the fucking shit out of him.”
"Beatrice! You watch your mouth!" Georgia, who'd barely uttered a word since we’d left the house, turned and pointed a long, dark finger at my sister. "We just buried your mama and you be cussing like a street tramp? That's not how you was raised!"
“Well, I don't really feel much like a lady right now. I feel like it should have been Quinn who ate a bottle of Seconal.” My mother didn't do self-portraits. If she had they'd require labels to distinguish them from the paintings of Bea. No, I'm her daughter, Bea is used to saying when somebody squeals Laura! I haven't seen you in ages! They are a certain kind of beautiful, my mother and sister, not a freckle to be seen, hair the color and sheen of pearls. My Breck girls, the BVG is fond of saying.
Georgia turned back to the stirring baby, shush, li'l Maddy pie, then the tune every Locke child had fallen asleep to hummed behind her lips.
I continued to chew on my thumb not sure why I wanted to do my own poking. My finger jabbing over and over at the middle of Bea's dress would offer a certain measure of comfort. I’d pulled the black sheath from Mama’s closet, but by the time I was out of the shower, Bea, the dress and her Haight-Ashbury boots sailed past me down the stairs. Who wears knee-high moccasins to a funeral, Grace Slick? For years to come, my sister will enter a room and tie a knot in my middle. She will make peace with the word suicide, rolling her eyes at me, the one who refuses to believe our mother could ever in a million years do such a thing.
I tasted blood and sucked at the skin around my thumbnail as my eyes bounced along with my father’s finger until it was finished putting Quinn in his place. Are you watching this, Mama? Dad’s yelling at a priest! Then, he was back in his seat, blotting his face with the forearm of his suit jacket. “Thank you,” he said to the driver. “We can go now.”
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