by Victoria Nations
“Mama, I dug behind the coop today, but I didn’t find anything.”
Mama sat stiff, her hands gripped on the chair arms. Her gnarled fingers were gray where they curled around the ends. She glared at the shovel, at my hands, to make sure they were dirty enough.
“I went at least four feet down. Any deeper and it would’ve been like digging a grave, Mama. I wouldn’t have been able to climb out.”
Mama sat in stony silence, mean as a snake and better at staring me down. Her face didn’t even change expression.
She couldn’t see the hole I’d dug. She wouldn’t see it; she never left her back porch chair anymore. But her stare bored through me, through the coop and to the back of the yard, as if she could see it, and appraise my work. It would fall short.
One of these days, I swore I’d stab the shovel into the ground right in front of her, and I’d walk off without being dismissed. I’d poke the snake and make her strike.
One of these days, the surveyors would get closer to the house and find out Mama was still here, coiled up and waiting. That Hell was likely coming, faster than the one where I managed the gumption to walk away from her before she was done with me.
Mama’s voice grated through my head, quashing any hint of defiance, and I couldn’t look at her anymore. I stared at the shovel instead. I’d left clods stuck to the blade just so she’d hush about it, but the dirt was never enough. Mama had me turn out my pockets and clean up the porch before I could go.
“I’ll clean up the shovel, too,” I said, careful to keep dirt from dropping as I carried it down the steps. Mama’s warning was sharp.
“No, Mama. I’m not sassing you.”
“Mama, that man talked to me again about the house today, when I was up at the store. I didn’t answer him, just like you said. I practically ran away.”
I balanced the grocery bags in my arms. Mama’s face was inscrutable. The shovel was propped on her chair, waiting for me.
“He followed me for a few steps, but he didn’t come after me. Just shouted.” Still no reaction, damn her. I shifted the bags to the other hip. “I was scared, Mama. He started talking about the house, and he knew about the silver. He said it’s all made up. He said…”
Her gravel voice stopped me. Mama gave no truck to nonsense, and everything I said was nonsense to her.
“No, I didn’t linger around listening to him.” The old woman had me cowed again. I could barely look at her when she was like this, could barely speak. Mama stared as I dropped the groceries inside the kitchen and came back out. It was obvious she expected me to get back to work.
“Mr. Johnson found me outside the store and brought me the bags I’d dropped.” I said, careful to keep my voice light. “He’s really nice, Mama. He asked after you. He said you were the prettiest thing. Said he hoped you’d come see him at the store.”
Her growl was almost too low to hear. Poor Mr. Johnson was never going to get anything from Mama.
“Yes, Mama. He was fresh.” I took the shovel from her. “I didn’t talk back to him, promise.”
“Mama, I don’t think your hair is going to hold the curlers anymore.”
Tufts of hair lay in my hand, and I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I couldn’t drop them onto the porch floor or Mama would have a conniption. Her neck was rigid in front of me, but she’d spin around and catch me, sure as sunrise. I tried sliding the comb through her hair again, slower this time. Mama didn’t flinch. That woman wouldn’t show the least sign of weakness, even if she was being snatched baldheaded.
Which she was. Strands snarled in the comb teeth and pulled free of her scalp.
“It’s going to come out in clumps if you keep curling it in your condition,” I scolded. I patted the loose hair down, willing it to reattach. If Mama believed in hairspray, I could just mold it into a mass and stick in place. But she still wore her curls loose. The town ladies used to use that word to describe her, too.
“I’m trying not to pull so hard.” I grabbed a curler and wrapped a few intact hairs around it, pushing the handful of others into my overalls pocket. I propped the curler up with three pins, careful not to scrape against her skin. Mama gave no sign if she noticed. She’d gone silent again.
“I’ll get as many in as I can.”
Mama thought she could sweet talk those men away from taking the house, and maybe she was right. Even in curlers, she was still beautiful. Curls down, she’d be as pretty as the pear trees that used to bloom in the yard. It’ll stop them in their tracks for a minute, enough time to figure out what to do next, I guess.
Mama won’t run. Her days of running are over. She’ll want me to stand with her.
I don’t know what she’ll have me do with the shovel then.
“Mama, remember when the okra came in that year?”
I sat on the porch step, snapping beans at Mama’s feet. I’d washed my hands in the hose water before grabbing the bowl from the kitchen, but I’d need to scrub at the sink to get the dirt from around my nails.
Mama stared into the distance. There wasn’t anything to see out there, just overgrown field and the empty coop. You couldn’t even see the fence from the porch, which was a good thing.
Chattering seemed the best strategy to keep her from asking about the beans. If she did, I’d have to tell her Mr. Johnson brought them to the fence, saying he had too much in his own garden. He was checking on us, I knew. The town knew we were supposed to be gone. They knew why we were still here, too.
I’d stowed the shovel against a tree before talking to Mr. Johnson, but he’d spotted it anyway. Mr. Johnson didn’t say anything, though, except to ask after Mama.
Every time we talked, he asked. He’d be friendly, talking about the weather and such. He’d ask how I was doing, even on the days I was too shy to answer back. Then he’d come over weird and ask if Mama might come to town sometime. His eyes would change when he asked, become stricken and red like he was on some drug.
Today when he asked after her, he pretended not to stare at the shovel and said looking for lost things was a good way to lose yourself. Then he walked away, leaving me the whole bag of beans. The town knew, and I guess I knew, too, why Mr. Johnson never got married. There was something buried in him.
“You put okra in everything that year, Mama. You even sliced up the big pods and fried them with sage, and you told us they were sausage. Remember that? You made me tell Sissy they were sausage.”
No response from Mama behind me, but that was no surprise. She never wanted to talk about Sissy. Talk about lost things.
“I never liked lying for you, Mama,” I continued, snapping beans like I didn’t mind her reaction. “It made my heart hurt. I don’t like lying for you now.”
I chanced looking around, and Mama sat stoic. Her mouth was set in a grimace. The shovel lay across her lap, the message clear. I’d taken a file to the blade, and bright metal ran along both sides.
I kept snapping the beans, my heart feeling dead, deader than Sissy.
I hated her sometimes. I hated the things Mama made me do.
“Mama, there’s surveyors out back. I crouched down behind the coop like you told me. One’s pacing the back property, the other’s at the north corner post.”
I’d started talking before I got to the top of the porch steps, and I stood right in front of Mama so she’d have to look at me. I wiped my hands off on my pant legs while catching my breath, but they were just as dirty. I’d stopped filling the holes weeks ago, but I hadn’t thought about them being useful until today.
“I don’t think they saw the hole out by the back corner.” I swiped a hand across my cheek, and it came away muddy from sweat. Mama’s question was clear in her eyes.
“There’s nothing in the holes. I would’ve told you if I’d found anything.”
Her eyes narrowed with accusation, and I gave up.
“They said they’re coming to the house tomorrow, Mama.”
“Mama won’t answer you, Officer.”
One officer stood in front of Mama, hand on his hip, close to his gun, but not touching it. The one behind him would’ve been blocking the porch steps, if he was standing up straight. Instead, he was bent, hands on his knees, staring into Mama’s face.
I’d seen her stand up to worse. They stared at her, and she just looked past them, out into the yard where the surveyors tromped around. They stood up their tripods and held up instruments, but they were watching the porch more than taking measurements.
“She doesn’t like the government much,” I offered up. The bent over officer glanced over at where I stood in the kitchen doorway, then stood up and rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. He didn’t look insulted by what I said. He probably ran into a lot of stubborn old ladies across the county. He probably had to run a few off their land each year. None of them were as fixed to her land as Mama, though. They’d have to carry her off.
“Ma’am,” the first officer asked, “has your Mama been like this long?”
“Obstinate, you mean?” I smiled down at Mama’s tight face. Her lips had pulled back so it looked like she baring her teeth. The look suited her. “Yes sir, my whole life.”
The office nodded, and the one behind him kept rubbing his neck. They weren’t the first men to be flummoxed by Mama. Already they were exchanging looks, and their shoulders were beginning to hunch, like they always did right before giving up. The first officer took the lead.
“Ma’am, we’re going to confer on this. You stay here with your Mama, OK?”
They turned their backs, and Mama handed me the shovel like usual. Sharpened up, it shined just like Mama’s silver.
Victoria’s stories have appeared online in the annual Author and Artist Spooky Showcase, hosted by JoleneHaley.com, and she is a co-author of the novel, “The Dark and Stormy Night.” She is also a contributor to the horror writer website, MidnightSocietyTales.com.
Victoria lives in Florida with her wife and son, who indulge her love of monsters.
Victoria can be found here: