Read The healing Online

Authors: Jonathan Odell

The healing

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ALSO BYJONATHAN ODELL

The View from Delphi

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Odell

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada, Toronto.

www.nanatalese.com

DOUBLEDAYis a registered trademark of Random House, Inc.Nan A. Talese and the colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Jacket illustration by Leigh Wells

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATAOdell, Jonathan, 1951–The healing : a novel / Jonathan Odell. —1st ed.p. cm.1. Healing—Fiction. 2. Catatonia—Fiction. 3. Loss (Psychology)—Fiction. 4. Mississippi—Fiction. I. Title.PS3615.D454H43 2011813′6—dc222011005998

eISBN: 978-0-385-53468-0

v3.1

To Jim

We promised to make up as we go. It’s been a great trip.

Contents

Cover

Other Books by This Author

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11Chapter 12Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15Chapter 16Chapter 17Chapter 18Chapter 19Chapter 20Chapter 21Chapter 22Chapter 23Chapter 24Chapter 25Chapter 26Chapter 27Chapter 28Chapter 29Chapter 30Chapter 31Chapter 32Chapter 33Chapter 34Chapter 35Chapter 36Chapter 37Chapter 38Chapter 39Chapter 40Chapter 41Chapter 42Chapter 43Chapter 44Chapter 45Chapter 46Chapter 47Chapter 48Chapter 49Chapter 50Chapter 51Chapter 52Chapter 53Epilogue

Acknowledgments

A Note to the Reader

A Note About the Author

“The world is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it.”

—HERMANN HESSE,Siddhartha

CHAPTER1

1933

The winter dampness crept through the kitchen door, chilling Gran Gran through her worn, flour-sack shift. The little girl standing in the doorway had not moved since she first appeared, her gaze fixed on the cot across the room where her mother lay.

The room, the kitchen of an old plantation, was immense, and the fire from a claw-footed stove in a far corner cast flickering shadows against walls stained and slick with a century’s worth of wood smoke and bacon grease. Dividing the room was a roughly hewn pine table longer than a ship’s gangplank, big enough to seat a dozen people and heaped with baskets and gourds, clay pots, syrup buckets. One wall was taken up by a massive fireplace, boarded over.

Through the open door the old woman heard the Buick spin its tires furiously in the mud, finally gain traction, and power off in the direction from which it had come, Memphis the man had said, his load lighter now by one dead woman and her child.

“Good news never comes in bad weather,” she had predicted when the white man had driven up less than half an hour ago in his fancy car. She had been right about that.

Again Gran Gran noticed the dark stains on the girl’s baby-blue dress. Violet, they said her name was, just before they had abandoned the girl to her care. With nothing but the clothes on the child’s back.She couldn’t be more than seven. Her skin the same honey-brown as her mother’s. The same color-shifting eyes.

The old woman released a heavy breath. “You don’t need to be seeing this.” She walked over to a shelf to retrieve a ragged patchwork quilt.

“Nobody got no respect for the healing no more,” she tried explaining as she covered the body. “Can’t take things into your own hands. You got to pay respect.”

Violet showed no sign of hearing Gran Gran’s complaint, but the old woman continued regardless. “Why?” she demanded angrily. “Why did she do that? I explained it to her careful. Teaspoon in the morning. For nine days. It ain’t my fault. And only early on. Never this late. Never after the quickening. I told her that, too. I told her it would kill her and the child both. They had no right to bring her to me like this.”

The old woman shook her head sadly at Violet. “It ain’t my fault, little girl. She went against the healing!”

The girl was motionless, except for the almost imperceptible ticking of her head from side to side, as if marking time to some faint melody. The old woman carefully reached behind Violet to shut the door against the cold. “Might as well get yourself over by the fire.”

Gran Gran reached down for the girl, but Violet jerked her hand away and swung it protectively behind her back.

“Suit yourself.” She gripped the girl firmly by the shoulders and steered her to the stove. Violet didn’t resist, but all the time she kept her eyes on the covered body, her head ticking ever so slightly to the secret rhythm.

The old woman bent down to study the girl’s face in the light of the cookstove, venturing a look into her eyes. They seemed to peer right through her. The girl’s pupils were tiny pinpricks.

“You ain’t heard a word I said, have you?” Gran Gran let out a tired breath. “You ain’t having none of it. I can tell that much.” She touched the child gently on the cheek with the back of her weathered hand. “A shadow been put across your face. You walking with the spirits now.”

Violet’s shivering grew more violent. The old woman led the girl to the pantry, many years ago a bedroom for the plantation cook. Itcontained another cot and shelves which were lined with bottles and jars and sacks tied off at the neck. All were marked with what appeared to be a child’s attempt at lettering. After carefully removing the girl’s stained dress and then covering her with quilts, Gran Gran selected a paper sack and went back into the kitchen. She returned shortly with a chipped cup held closely between her palms.

Steadying the murky contents, she sat down on the edge of the bed beside the girl. Violet did not move, but the old woman could see that her eyes were open, staring through the dark. She lifted the back of the girl’s head and put the china cup to her mouth, and slowly, sip by sip, Violet emptied it.

While the girl lay silent, her eyes now closed, Gran Gran studied her, looking for some sign that would tell her what to do.

She carefully placed the heel of her palm against the girl’s forehead, and closed her own eyes tightly, trying to enter the child’s dreams.

“I can’t see nothing,” she said finally. “A darkness been put between me and you.”

Then the old woman shook her head, and sighed. “Who I trying to fool? I can’t see nothing no more. God’s put a darkness between me and His whole damned world.”

She should have known better. The woman had come to Gran Gran months ago for a remedy. She said her name was Lucy. That’s all. No family name. She wanted Gran Gran to unfix an early pregnancy. She had told Gran Gran that if she didn’t help her, the white man she worked for would get his butcher to do it. She never mentioned she already had one child.

White men, Gran Gran thought, forever trying to be master over a black woman’s body. Always been that way. And according to Lucy, still was.

Why had she waited so long? Had she planned on keeping it, then changed her mind, deciding to drink the whole bottle and kill herself along with her unborn child?

They used to say Gran Gran had the sight. No more. There was nothing but darkness.

The old woman returned to her bed in the kitchen, not bothering to undress or even to pull up a cover. She only slept for a few moments when she was startled awake by a wordless murmuring. She lay there, eyes open, exhausted, trying to decipher the hushed whispers, the shadowed faces. But there was nothing that remained of her dream but the shapeless foreboding.

When she was a young girl, she believed that the Old Ones would forever show her the way. She herself had heard their words, as distinct and reassuring as church bells.

Nor was she the only one who heard. In those earlier times, voices seemed to travel on a river of breath and memory through the lives of all the people, looking out for their children, stirring eddies and currents to catch their eye, faithfully giving up signs to help them along the way. All a person had to do was stop and listen to those who came before.

But it was not that way anymore.

The voices came only at night now, when she was asleep in her bed, but she could not make out the words, just their anger. Each night their cries grew more piercing, the current colder, freezing the breath in her lungs and forcing her to awaken gasping for air.

Sometimes she believed the current carried death. Or perhaps her sins, dislodged from the past, circling and reaching for her with icy fingers.

Whatever it was, it had exhausted her. She hoped it would finally arrive and do with her what it would.

• • •

Not yet dawn, the sound of muffled voices woke Violet. At first she believed she was still in the car. “Reach back here and touch your momma’s hand,” her mother’s friend said. It was raining. The only sound, other than her mother’s soft moans, were the wipers, beating back the rain. “Violet,” the woman said, “pet your momma’s hand. She needs you to. She loves you so.” Then silence again. Except for the beat of the wipers. Loud, steady, incessant.

After a moment, Violet knew that she was not in the car but in a strange bed. She strained to peer into the kitchen. Across the cavernous room another door stood open, faintly lit. There were shadows moving about, and she made a motion to rise but was not able to fend off the drugged sleep. Later, even the tap-tap-tapping of the hammer and the loud scuffle of men’s boots didn’t serve to keep her awake long. The tea had been strong and was doing its work.

It was only much later, when she heard her mother calling out to her, that she wrestled herself from beneath the covers.

Violet struggled into her dress. When she entered the kitchen, lit now by a weak light, she saw that her mother was no longer on the cot. The front door was ajar, and through the crack she heard her mother’s voice again, sounding farther away. With her legs woozy beneath her, Violet trudged toward the dim light that bled through the doorway.

From the porch she saw small clusters of people gathered in the road across the field. She tried to find her mother’s face among them. Then she saw what the others watched. Up the track, veiled by the morning mist, a pair of mules strained to draw a wagon through the mud. Two identical black-clad figures sat upon the buckboard, one snapping the reins and the other straight-backed, facing ahead. In the bed of the buckboard was something the size of a large trunk, draped by the same quilt she’d seen the night before. Violet, even in her fogginess, understood. Her mother was leaving without her.

She meant to scream out, but the only sound she made was a thick, strangled cry not audible to the people standing in the road, yet almost as one, they turned to see the girl in a bloodstained dress. They watched as her legs collapsed beneath her and she fell into the arms of the old woman.

• • •

Gran Gran struggled mightily to get Violet back to the cot, gripping her tightly under her arms, dragging her through the kitchen and into the pantry where she finally hoisted the limp body onto the striped tick. After she buried the girl once more in quilts, she went back tothe open door. People were returning to their homes now, still casting glances in the direction of the house.

“Go ahead and get an eyeful,” she scolded in a tired voice. “No telling what you can make out of it by supper if you get right to it.”

She shut the door on them and returned to the pantry, finding the girl sleeping, her breathing labored. The woman slumped into her rocker by the side of the bed.

The girl didn’t belong here. Gran Gran was too old to be taking in swap-dog kin. Anyway, an orphan appearing out of nowhere would stir up trouble she was too worn out to handle. She was done with fighting trouble.

And what if she died?

A colored prostitute was bad enough. It was only luck that the Choctaw twins who kept Gran Gran stocked with provisions had seen her lantern hanging out on the porch. They came as soon as they saw her signal for trouble, in time to get the dead woman up to the burying ground with no questions asked.

But if a child were to die in Gran Gran’s hands? That would surely get these self-respecting colored folks up in arms. They’d put her under the jail for sure.

The old woman’s hands trembled with fatigue.

With strained eyes she watched the girl for signs, hoping she would give up anything that would tell her what to do, to unfix this mess she didn’t ask for, until weariness finally overwhelmed her. She dropped her chin to her chest and fell into a dark, dreamless sleep, the only kind she had known for years.

• • •

Midmorning found the girl tossing restless in the bed, her loud muttering waking the old woman with a start. She tried to decipher the sounds.

“Listen to this now,” she said to nobody. “Can’t make heads or tails out of what she saying.”

Gran Gran fogged her glasses with her breath and then wipedthem on her apron. Leaning over the girl, she carefully considered Violet’s changing expressions, the muscles in her face, how they tensed, grimaced, relaxed, and then contorted again. How the head shook off each expression.

“How am I going to fix her,” the old woman asked aloud, “when I don’t even know what her misery is?”

She pulled back from Violet and drew in a deep breath. Then the old woman closed her eyes, trying to summon the thing that ailed the girl. But the shadows would not yield their names. She lingered within the girl’s darkness, seeing no face nor hearing any voice.

“I can’t see, little girl,” she said at last. “Used to could. I could look into a person’s eyes and divine their spirit. Now when I look into somebody’s eyes, it’s just the ancient dead looking back at me.” She shook her head grimly. “And they ain’t speaking.”

The girl called out in her delirium, her panicked voice now loud enough to carry through the windows.

Gran Gran had to get the girl quiet.

A mixture of sweet-gum bark fortified with a strong dose of whiskey eventually settled her down, but even after Violet had calmed, Gran Gran became aware of a peculiar thing, the movement of the girl’s head. It was only a slight rhythmic gesture, a steady pulse. But upon noticing it, she remembered that it was that same repetitive motion the girl brought with her.

Gran Gran began to keep exact time with the patting of her foot, trying to enter the rhythm. Was it the throb of a heartbeat she was sounding out? Was she measuring in-breaths and out-breaths? When Gran Gran tried to decipher the sign, she could not get past the darkness that clung to the girl like a shroud.

The old woman rose up straining from her chair. She drew back the tattered red-checked curtain to let what little light the watery sky would allow into the room. The sun had been stingy with its rays all day, the gray expanse broken only by the white furls of smoke from cookstoves down in the quarter.

For a long while she gazed out upon the only stretch of earth shehad known her entire life. This was all that was left of her childhood days, the great house in ruin, the foundation being eaten away by the creek, and across the field, the double row of slave cabins, fixed up now by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of house slaves, the ones who had stayed on after Freedom. They acted as white as the God they worshipped. That’s what they were, all right. They were all soul sick.

A weak shaft of sunlight broke through the heavy, blanketed sky and dimly lit the room. Gran Gran turned from the window. A ray illuminated Violet’s face.

“And what you going to think when you remember tonight?” she asked the sleeping girl. “Turn on me like the rest of them done, I reckon.”

She leaned over and placed her mouth near the child’s ear. “I want you to know, girl, I listened to your momma’s cries. She was hurting real bad inside. I listened to the deepest parts of her. I believed I understood. I surely did. But I swear to you, I didn’t know what she’d end up doing.”

The sleeping girl was unmoved by Gran Gran’s defense.

“Sometimes, when you look at a person, all you see is the tangle and you miss the weave.”

Gran Gran breathed a heavy sigh and then straightened back up. “Never you mind,” she said. “No matter what I tell you, I figure it’ll be a long time before you ever see nothing but the tangle in all this mess.”

Gran Gran took a rag from the pan of water and wrung it out, to cool Violet’s forehead. She knew that a person needed to make sense out of calamity, no matter how old they were. If not, the soul, frustrated at abiding within a vessel of shattered mirrors, takes flight.

“I hope what happened to my mistress ain’t happening to you, girl. Her body healed, but her spirit roamed homeless through the world. Creation is filled with soul-sick folks, colored and white, never knowing where they belong. They tangle everybody else up in their grief.”

The old woman began to suspect that this was the battle the girlwas fighting. If that were so, she was beyond the reach of any medicine Gran Gran knew of. She had spent her life tending to the flesh and to the bone, leaving the rest to the preachers and superstition.

“But that’s what it is all right,” the woman muttered. “She’s knitting and a’patching. Patching and a’knitting. This girl is piecing together a tale. Trying to put some sense behind what all she seen.” Gran Gran laid her hand on the girl’s face. “And God only knows what tale she’s going to tell on me.”

Violet’s skin burned to the touch. She stammered more syllables, fervent but jumbled, and then shook off the old woman’s hand with a fierce toss of her head.

Gran Gran smiled grimly. “But that’s all right, little girl. I lost my momma, too. Don’t remember it to this day. And all they gave me was bits and pieces, here and there. But I done the best I could. Sometimes it takes a whole lifetime to get the story right. I’m still working on it.” She laughed. “Some memories don’t come store-bought and readymade.”

Gran Gran stood and walked over to the window. “They told me I wasn’t born in this house. I was born over there across the yard in Shinetown. Course it wasn’t called that then. Back then it was called the slave quarters.” Her sigh was heavy, as if weighted by a century of memory. “That’s what they told me anyway. When you quilting up a life, you sometimes got to start with any piece you can get your hands on.”

As she spoke, the sleeping girl calmed a bit, as if the words themselves were smoothing out the rough weather inside.

Gran Gran walked over to her. “That what you telling me, Violet? You need to be talked to for a while? Now, if that’s the case, I can sure do that. I can always give you a heavy dose of words.”

The old woman sat back in her chair and laced her fingers in her lap. “What was I saying?”

After a moment she remembered.

“They tell me my momma’s name was Ella,” she began.

CHAPTER2

1847

Ella was awake when she heard the first timid knock at the cabin door. Her husband, who lay beside her on the corn-shuck mattress, snored undisturbed. She kept still as well, not wanting to wake the newborn that slept in the crook of her arm. The baby had cried most of the night and had only just settled into a fitful sleep. Ella couldn’t blame the girl for being miserable. The room was intolerably hot.

Like everybody else in the quarter, Ella believed the cholera was carried by foul nocturnal vapors arising from the surrounding swamp, so she and Thomas kept their shutters and doors closed tight against the night air, doing their best to protect their daughter from the killing disease that had already taken so many.

The rapping on the door became more insistent. Ella pushed against Thomas with her foot. On the second shove he awoke with a snort.

“Thomas! See to the door,” she whispered, “and mind Yewande.”

Wearing only a pair of cotton trousers, Thomas eased himself from the bed and crossed the room. He lifted the bar and pulled open the door, but his broad, muscled back blocked the visitors’ faces. From the flickering glare cast around her husband, Ella could tell one of the callers held a lantern.

“Thomas,” came the familiar voice, “get Ella up.”

Ella started at the words. It was Sylvie, the master’s cook. The woman lived all the way up at the mansion and would have no good reason to be out this time of night unless it was something bad.

“Now?” Thomas whispered. “She’s sleeping.”

“She needs to carry her baby up to the master’s house,” Sylvie said. “Ella got to make haste on it. Mistress Amanda is waiting on her.”

“What she wanting with my woman and child in the dead of night?” Ella heard the alarm rising in her husband’s voice.

“Thomas, you know it ain’t neither night nor day for Mistress Amanda. She ain’t slept a wink since the funeral. And she’s grieving particular bad tonight. Her medicine don’t calm her down no more. She ain’t in no mood to be trifled with.”

“Old Silas,” Thomas pled to another unseen caller, “you tell the mistress that Ella will come by tomorrow, early in the morning.” Then he dropped his voice to a hush. “You know the mistress ain’t right in her head.”

Old Silas had more pull than anybody with the master, but from the lack of response, Ella imagined Silas’s gray head, weathered skin stretched tight over his skull, shaking solemnly.

Thomas let go a deep breath and then turned back to his wife. Behind him, Ella could hear the talk as it continued between the couple outside.

“You know good and well she didn’t say to fetch Ella,” Old Silas whispered harshly to his wife. “Just the baby, she said. What’s in your head?”

“Shush!” Aunt Sylvie fussed. “You didn’t see what I seen. I know what I’m doing.”

Ella met them at the door holding the swaddled infant. Not yet fourteen, Ella wore a ripped cotton shift cut low for nursing, and even in the heat of the cabin, she trembled. The yellow light lit the faces of the cook and her husband.

“What she want with Yewande?” Ella whimpered. “What she going to do to my baby?”

“Ella, she ain’t going to hurt your baby,” Sylvie assured. “Mistress wouldn’t do that for the world.”

“But why—”

Old Silas reached out and laid a gentle hand on Ella’s shoulder. “I expect she wants to name your girl, is all.” His voice was firm but comforting. He spoke more like the master than any slave. “That right, Sylvie?”

“Of course!” Sylvie said, as if hearing the explanation for the first time. “I expect that’s all it is. Mistress Amanda wants to name your girl.”

“But Master Ben names the children,” Ella argued.

“You heard what the master said,” Sylvie fussed. “Things got to change. We all got to mind her wishes until she comes through this thing. No use fighting it.”

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