Sometimes a family grows from the most unlikely of friends.
A lonely little girl living with a strict stepfather and mother. A woman just released from prison, seeking a job and a new purpose for her life. An aging matriarch with a sense of humor and a compassionate heart. Sit a spell by the gentle river of their merged lives.
By the acclaimed author of Sophie and the Rising Sun (available in unabridged audiobook narrated by the late Rue McClanahan) and other Southern novels. Augusta Trobaugh has been nominated for Georgia Author of the Year, among many other honors.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.47(d)|
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I remember exactly how long and dark the nights were for me when I was in prison, and I also remember how I used to try to lie real still and keep my eyes closed, so that sooner or lateró usually lateróI would be able to fall into a bit of sleep.
But there was one particular night when sleep didnít come. My parole hearing was only a few weeks away, and it was all I could think about. Lately, Iíd become even more aware of the night sounds and the night silences, and I wondered what it would be like to sleep once again in a regular bed in a regular house and not hear keys jingling or the sad yelping of someone having a nightmare a few cells away. Not hear one woman call another womanís name in the dark.
I knew all the phantom sounds, as wellóthe ones that werenít real. Like hearing my cell door opening and some silent voice telling me that I could go. Be free. I knew for sure that was just a being-in-prison dream. And when I heard my sweet mamaís voice, I knew it was just another homesick-dream.
But when I heard a manís voice that long, dark nightóand it so close that he had to be right there in the cell with meóI couldnít figure out what kind of a dream that could be! And why on earth would I dream something like that at all? I certainly wasnít interested in any man, not after what Iíd gone through with Earlie. And while I was trying to think what kind of a dream sound it was, I heard it again.
Who on earth could that be? I was thinking. And just then, I heard Lizzie, in the cell next to mine, snorting as sheturned over in her sleep.
ìPansy? Pansy Jordan?î
ìWho is it?î I whispered. ìWhutchu want? Whutchu doing in here? And howíd you get in here at all?î
ìPansy? Who you talking to?î Lizzieís sleepy, scratchy voice. But I didnít answer her. All I could think about was that if there really was a man in my cell, I might not get paroled, because nobody would believe that I didnít invite him in! Didnít break all the rules just to have him there. But how could any man get into my cell anyway? Even if I wanted him there, which I certainly did not!
ìWhutchu want? Who are you?î I whispered again, this time with what I hoped sounded like a growl in my voice.
ìThis is Jesus speaking to you.î
Why, I was never so surprised in all my life! That voice was deep and sweet, and the breath that came drifting across my cell had a fragrance to it, like the perfume of blooming tea-olive and something elseóorange blossoms, maybe. And honeysuckle, the way its aroma is sizzled out on a hot summer noontime. All so sweet a perfume that I thought I might just faint from the beauty of breathing it!
ìPansy? Who you talking to?î Lizzie called.
ìNobody. Shut up, Lizzie!î And I listened again for the voice. Listened so hard that my ears seemed to grow, reach out for the sound.
ìPansy, this is Jesus.î
ìGo on with you!î I whispered. ìYou think Iím some fool whoíd believe that?î I waited, with my heart hammering in my ears, and when I couldnít stand it any longer, I sat up and craned my neck to look all around the dark cell. A soft, wavering glow appeared in the far corner. A corner where no light should be. And while I watched, a hand appeared in the glow. A soft, bloodless hand with a nail hole in the very center of the palm.
Maybe it was just a dream. Or maybe it really was Jesus.
And then, all at once, I got things figured out. I laughedóa short, nervous laugh. ìOh! Itís probably Lizzie youíre looking for,î I said simply. ìSheís right next door. Youíve just come visiting the wrong cell.î Because everyone knew about Lizzie and her ìpersonal Savior.î So what would be so strange about Him coming to see her, in person? Lizzie talked to Jesus all the time, and she even said that sometimes, He talked right back to her. Maybe He was just visiting with her. Sure would take more than prison walls and iron bars to keep Him out, anyway.
ìLizzie?î I called. ìI think thereís somebody here looking for you.î
ìWhat?î Lizzie asked. But before I could say anything else, the voice came again.
ìLizzie is my child, but tonight, itís you Iím talking to, Pansy,î and once again, the fragrance of the breath drifted sweetly across my cell.
ìMe?î I asked.
ìYou,î He said. ìGet yourself washed clean in the River Jordan, Pansy, and come to Me.î With those words, the glow and the voice and the fragrance and the image of the hand all disappeared. But for the briefest possible moment, I could see another something or someone in the last glimmer of the light. It was a big woman. Black woman. Smiling at me. Showing a gold tooth right in the middle of the smile. An angel? Yes, of course!
Lizzie called to me again. ìWho was looking for me? What on earth are you talking about?î
ìNothing, Lizzie. And nobody. Just me having the strangest dream I ever had,î I answered, rubbing my eyes and wondering what I had eaten that could make a dream like that! And what was all that about getting myself washed clean in the River Jordan? Iíd certainly heard of such a river, because my mama dragged me to church every single Sunday when I was little. But where was it, I wondered. Then I remembered that I didnít need to wonder. After all, it was probably only a dream. Even the big, black woman angel was nothing more than a dream.
I sort of fell back on my cot with a huff that sent all of the air out of my lungs. Whoever heard of such a thing! Me a woman in prison for killing a man, and somebody like me dreams about getting a visit from Jesus Christ Himself? And one of His angels? ìíNight, Pansy,î Lizzie said. ìTry not to dream no more, you hear? We got a long day tomorrow.î
ìYes,î I answered. But I stayed awake for the rest of that long, dark night, wondering what such a dream could possibly mean.
At breakfast the next morning, Lizzie clumped her metal tray down beside mine.
ìNow tell me about that dream you was having last night,î Lizzie said, putting a spoonful of sugar into her coffee.
ìGuess I forgot,î I said. ìGuess I forgot what all it was about.î I didnít look into Lizzieís eyes, but just kept on drawing my spoon through the congealed grits on my plate. Lizzie stopped stirring her coffee and gave me a piercing glance.
ìYou didnít forget,î she pronounced.
I was silent.
ìWhy donít you want to tell me?î Lizzie pressed. And I felt the ire rising up inside of me, so I decided to tell the truth. ìíCause I know if I tell you, youíll go off on one of your tirades about Jesus being your personal savior and about trying to get me saved, and I just donít want to hear that.î
ìYou dreamed about Jesus?î Lizzieís interest visibly heightened.
ìOh, Lord!î I muttered, because I knew that even though Iíd tried hard not to get Lizzie started, Iíd already done it. Already walked across a barnyard inside of myself and gone right along and stepped in something!
ìYou dreamed about Jesus?î Lizzie repeated.
ìYes!î I slapped my palm on the table and attracted the glances of several other women sitting near us. I looked around at the guard, who was studying me from across the room with a placid expression on her face.
ìS-h-h-h!î Lizzie warned, and then she asked the very same question yet again. ìYou dreamed about Jesus?î
ìI did that,î I whispered. ìAnd one of His angels too.î
ìTell me about it,î Lizzie urged, and I figured Iíd already gone and said too much anyway, so I might as well walk right into Lizzieís Holy Ghost lair with my head held high!
ìI dreamed Jesus came to my cell in the night. I figured it was you He was looking for, and He called you His Child, but He said he was talking to me. Just think of that! Him wanting this old prisoner woman! Well, thatís a dream, sure enough! And right after He left, I saw an angel.î
ìIím a prisoner woman too,î Lizzie reminded me. ìAnd I know for sure that He loves me. And maybe Heís going to send an angel to help you.î
Here we go! I was thinking. Might as well lay it all out on the table, else Iíll never have me any peace: ìHe said for me to get myself washed clean in the River Jordan and go to Him, but I sure donít know what that means.î
Lizzie remained quiet, obviously thinking hard.
ìWell, whatever He said for you to do, you just go ahead and do it. Thatís all. You just do it and donít ask any questions,î she advised.
ìWhere is the River Jordan anyway?î I asked.
ìBlamed if I know. But what you gotta do right now is invite Jesus into your heart.î
ìWhat?î I sputtered, but at the same time, I wasnít really surprised at all. It was only what Lizzie did all the time, going around and telling everybody to do that very same thing. Lizzie got some black eyes and missing teeth from some of the prisoners, but she just kept on doing it anyway. So I tried to speak real softly to Lizzie, whispering, ìLizzie, He already came into my cell, I think. Or else I just dreamed it. So why do I have to ask Him to come into my heart?î
Lizzie hesitated, and then she said, ìYou just do, thatís all. Just do it!î
Something in Lizzieís pleading eyes put a pain in my stomach.
And I was thinking, why not just do it? Make her happy and keep me from having her pester me to death! But then another thought crowded into my mind: maybe it would help me get paroled! Maybe if I told the parole board that I had asked Jesus to come into my heart, they would think more kindly of me. But I better not say nothing about that angel. Why, if I told them I saw an angel who was a big black woman, theyíd think Iíd lost my mind.
So I closed my eyes and whispered, ìCome into my heart, Lord Jesus. And if You are sending an angel to help me, I sure do appreciate that.î When I opened my eyes, I saw Lizzieís face glowing like a flame. Across the room, the guard blew a whistle, and Lizzie and I and all the other women began getting up from the tables and taking our trays to the big, stainless steel table where the kitchen prisoners would scrape the plates clean and get them ready for washing.
Lizzie said, ìJust you be sure and remember that dream. You are blessed to have such a dream, and to have Jesus living in your heart! But I do so wonder where the River Jordan is, myself!î
ìCould be just about anywhere I guess. But I know one thing for sure.î
ìWhatís that?î Lizzie was hanging on to my every word, just as if I had suddenly become someone famous to her.
ìI know it ainít here in this prison!î I said.
ìMaybe not,î Lizzie agreed. ìBut that big laundry is here, and itís just waiting for us.î
ìYes, Lord!î I said.
ONLY A FEW DAYS after Pansyís nocturnal visit by the Lord Jesus, PeonyóPansyís baby sisterówas doing what she had been doing six days a week for many yearsóworking in the kitchen of the big white house on Lakeview Drive and taking care of the white family she worked for: Mr. Franklin, president of the only bank in town, and now Miss Alice, Mr. Franklinís new wife and Jordan, his new stepdaughter.
Peony was a large woman who wore a starched, white uniform that contrasted starkly with her black velvet skin, and she was slicing fresh tomatoes onto a platter. But her nose was running and her eyes were filled with tears, as if she were slicing pungent onions instead of mild tomatoes. On several occasions, she stopped, pulled a towel rag from the waist of her dress, and wiped her eyes.
Peony had sent Jordan to feed the fish in the pool out in front of the house, because she knew that Jordan would be sure to notice and ask about her tears.
Nothing gets past that one! Peony thought. That strange, quiet little girl with the darting eyes that see everything, maybe even what folks are thinking! Something always going on behind those eyes!
Likewise, Peony knew that neither Miss Alice nor Mr. Franklin would notice at allóbecause to them both, Peony was an invisible presence in the houseóa nonperson who did the cooking and the serving and the cleaning up, but who was not supposed to cause any unfortunate ripples in the mirror-calm surface of the family home. So Peony went back to slicing the tomatoes and wiping her eyes, and all because of what she had in her apron pocketóa letter from her big sister, Pansy. From her sister in prison.
And Peony had been right about Jordan, because Jordan already knew that something was wrongóin that uncanny way some children have of knowing things like that. She thought that maybe it was because of Peony sending her to feed the fish in the pool. But maybe it was moreóa thing she hadnít quite figured out yet, so that she simply felt a vague uneasiness that deepened the shadows near the front porch and put something lonely in the perfume of the fresh-turned earth in the kitchen garden out back.
Late springóand the azalea bushes in the yard were showing slits of too-bright crimson and purple and fuchsia through the first cracks in the swollen green casings. Her mama said that the flowers were going to be absolutely beautiful, but Jordan knew better. Because to her, the dwarf azaleas were always far more beautiful than the big ones, and they were already in full bloom. Tiny, softest-pink flowers on little bushes planted all around the fish pool below the driveway. The flowers reflecting themselves in the dark, still water, and mirror clouds moving across a blue sky behind them, and deeper down, the fish sparkling their gold and red and pearl sequin-scales against the old black leaves at the very bottom of the pool.
Because the flowers were one thing and the satin surface of the water another thing and the clouds looking like they were below the surface, not on it, and finally, at the bottom, all the soggy brown ones that used to be red and yellow and orange. The ones Miss Amylee liked so much last fall.
Thatís what Jordan was thinking about that spring morning when once again, she knew that something was getting ready to happen. But there was nothing to do but wait for it to come out of the dark corners of the garden at twilight, ready to burst out like crimson and purple and fuchsia too-big flowers. Wait for the images of her father and taste the bittersweet memories of sitting in his lap, opening her mouth like a baby bird as he fed her choice bits of tender chicken from his own plate. Breathe the aroma memory of him, the sunshine smell of the warm earth he worked every day and the fresh wind and the warm perfume of his flesh.
It all seemed so long ago and far away, living with her mother and her father on the small farm set out from town, enjoying a free childhood that she hadnít even known how to appreciate, until it was gone. Until her father sickened and finally died, and her mother wringing her hands and crying. But her crying stopped the day she went to the bank, to settle up any debts and to change the existing accounts into her own name. For at the bank, the young and pretty widow was waited upon by none other than the president of the bank himselfóMr. Franklin. Alice stopped crying and started smiling more, and after only a few months, she agreed to marry him. So she traded the front porch of the old farmhouse for the wide, polished veranda of Mr. Franklinís house in town, towing a silent Jordan behind her like a forgotten appendage. And as far as Jordan was concerned, only two good things had come from her motherís marriage to Mr. Franklin: Miss AmyleeóMr. Franklinís elderly motheróand Peony.
Outside of the reverie, the reflection of Peonyís wide, black face appeared on the surface of the pool, her gold hoop earrings undulating like little halos in the ripples left by one of the fish.
ìMiss Alice says for you to come on back inside now and have your lunch,î Peony said. The voice came from above the reflection of her face in the water, and that fact alone added something else to the layers of things Jordan was thinking about. And Peonyís black, white-stockinged legs like gauze-wrapped trees growing out of the dark rock wall on the far side of the pool, and the clean, white shoes that were there too, but that she couldnít see because of the low wall.
ìYouíre not having a spell, are you?î Peony asked, putting her big fists on her hips in such a way that meant Jordan had better not be having one, and so Jordan said no, which wasnít exactly true. Because her thinking hard about things like she was doing was what they all called having a spell, and so, of course, thatís exactly what was happening. But if she said yes, Peony would tell her mama, and Alice would get Peony to give her a big dose of castor oil. Because everybody knew that having spells happens to children whenever they arenít regular.
ìWell, come on in and have some lunch then,î Peony demanded, as if it were something Jordan had to do, just to prove she wasnít having a spell after all. But Jordan noticed how Peony had said ìlunchî instead of dinner, which was the usual way to talk about the big meal in the middle of the day, so Jordan knew right away that her stepfather wasnít going to be home. And thatís why she would have something light and cold and called lunch.
She stood up and came around the pool, looking to see if Peony was wearing her white shoes and wondering if the shoes were really there when she couldnít see them. But of course, she didnít say anything about that, because she didnít want a dose of castor oil. And she didnít say anything about thinking so hard about her own father. So she followed Peony silently up the driveway, listening to the silk-swishing sound of Peonyís starched dress against her girdle. She had seen that formidable girdle one time, because on a very hot day last summer, Peony said, ìíScuse me, honey, but I gotta loosen up my laces.î So Peony closed the kitchen door and flipped up her snowy-white, starched dress and the not-so-white nylon slip to reveal the girdle, a huge swath of heavy, pink canvas and elastic, with bone-stiff staves and laces like the ones in shoes, except far bigger and stronger. She loosened the laces and took a deep, satisfied breath.
ìWhooee! Thatís better!î
There was something about that pink girdle and the swollen green pods of the azaleas, but Jordan wasnít sure of what it was, and she knew not to try to talk about things like that anyway, so she followed Peonyís broad bottom in the white dress and lower down, the white shoes, clean and well-polished, with her feet pushing over the outside edges and the black, white-stockinged ankles swelling over the edges of the shoes like biscuit dough.
In the kitchen, Jordan sat down at the table and Peony put a tomato sandwich in front of her. And a folded, snowy-white linen napkin and a glass of milk.
ìWhen youíre done, your mama says for you to wash your face and put on a Sunday dress,î Peony said.
ìWhy?î Jordan asked, feeling her scalp prickle. Somethingís wrong, and I donít know what it is.
ìWhy, Peony? And are you done with your crying?î she asked.
ìDonít know why,î Peony said. ìShe didnít say why. Just said I was to tell you. And yes, Iím done with my crying for now.î
As always, Jordan was careful to pronounce her name as pay- oh-nay. Thatís the way she wanted it said, because when Peony was little, all the other children called her pee-on-me, and that had hurt her feelings something awful.
ìLord have mercy!î she said one time. ìWhat on earth was my sweet mama thinking about to name all us girls after flowers like she did? It isnít so bad for my sistersóPrimrose and Petunia and poor old Pansy. Not one of those is too bad, Iíd say. But Peony? Why, I wouldnít wish that name on a dog!î That was right about the same time when Jordan had noticed that Peonyís last name was the very same as Jordanís own first name.
ìHow come weíve got the same name?î Jordan had asked.
ìYou know. Your last name and my first name.î
ìHow come, you reckon?î
ìWell.î Peony pursed her lips. ìI íspect thatís because somewhere way back yonder, somebody in your mamaís family owned somebody in my family.î
ìOwned?î Jordan was perplexed.
ìBack in slave times.î
ìYour mama said that Jordan was her maiden name, and so thatís what she gave you, when you came along.î
ìDunno. Just a tradition or something.î
Jordan thought for a long moment and then said, ìI like itó having the same name as you.î
Peony laughed. ìWell then, I guess I like it too.î
In the here and now, Peony asked, ìYou listening to me?î
ìIím listening,î Jordan said. And suddenly she knew exactly why she had to wash her face and put on a Sunday dress. Mama was going over to White Columns to see about Miss Amyleeóher stepfatherís mamaóand she was having Jordan go along with her because she said that having company always made her feel better, even though all Jordan did was sit in the waiting room. It was against the rules for children to go into the part of the home where Miss Amylee lived. And Jordan didnít want to go in there anyway. Not even to see Miss Amylee. Not after what Jordanís mama and stepfather had done to Miss Amylee.
That afternoon Jordan sat once again in the antiseptic-smelling waiting room of White Columns, a linoleum-floored room where two old ladies sat in wheelchairs, watching soap operas on television. One of them was asleep, leaning over the arm of the chair, and with her chin all wet. The other old lady was eating dry Froot Loops, one at a time, out of a plastic bowl.
ìYou sit right here and watch TV, sugar,î Mama had said. ìAnd be sweet.î
With that, her mama followed a lady in a navy-blue dress through the door marked Private, and after it closed behind them, a thin thread of cooler air wafted into the hot waiting room, because the private room was air-conditioned. Jordan sat on a chair that had a plastic cushion and already, she felt sweat gathering around her bare legs under the short dress.
The Froot Loop lady started talking to the television set, but Jordan couldnít tell what she was saying. Besides, the lady wasnít talking to Jordan, and it wasnít polite to stare at anyone. So Jordan looked away.
ìDonít you believe a word he says!î the old lady yelled suddenly at the television set. On the screen, a beautiful young woman was hugging a handsome man to her and saying, ìOh, of course, I believe you, darling!î
Jordan watched the old ladyís hand going from the bowl to her mouth, bowl to mouth, one Froot Loop at a time. A pink one, then a yellow, then a green. And the whole time, there was a green one stuck to the side of her little finger and she didnít know it.
ìDonít believe him!î she yelled again, so loud that the other old lady snorted in her sleep and straightened up a little in her chair. Then the one whoíd been yelling at the television looked right at Jordan.
ìShe believes him!î she yelped.
ìShe does?î Jordan asked back, because she donít know what else to say. And Mama had said for her to be sweet, which meant to be polite in every way, so she couldnít let the old lady say something to her and not say something back.
ìSheís a fool!î the old lady hissed, but she looked back at the television, so Jordan didnít have to think of anything else to say. She sat there wondering if Miss Amyleeís hair had gotten all dry and yellow gray and her skin was parchment and with big, blue veins showing through it, like this ladyís.
Because she hadnít seen Miss Amylee in three long months, not since the day her mama and stepdaddy got Miss Amylee all dressed up in her Sunday clothes and walked her out to the car between them, to take her to White Columns.
ìWe going to see Uncle Ned?î Miss Amylee had asked them.
ìNo, Mama,î Franklin answered. ìYou know good and well Uncle Nedís been gone for years and years.î
ìPassed away, Mama,î Franklin said through clenched teeth.
ìWhy, Iím sure sorry to hear that,î Miss Amylee said. ìWhen did it happen? Why didnít somebody tell me?î
Franklin looked at Alice.
Jordan had watched them moving toward the car, her stepfather on one side, her mama on the other, and Miss Amylee ambling along between them and with her pocketbook hanging open.
Peony was standing on the porch that day, and Jordan was sitting on the steps.
ìPore old thing,î Peony said real low as they watched them go across the yard.
ìWhy?î Jordan asked.
ìíCause sheís all confused.î
ìWhereís she going?î
ìOver to White Columns. Old folksí home,î she added.
ìWhy?î Jordan asked again.
ìíCause she needs more taking care of than we can do for her.î
ìBut we took good care of her,î Jordan argued, thinking of how she used to take Miss Amylee down to the fish pool and show her the red and golden fish shining like Christmas lights in the dark water. She liked that ever so much. It was the one and only time Jordan ever saw Miss Amylee smile. Because Miss Amylee was the saddest person on the face of the whole earth. Jordan was sure of it.
The stories Miss Amylee told her were full of beasts and monsters and the taste of blood. Stories that replayed themselves later, in Jordanís dreams, leaving her wide awake and shivering and with the stench of wet animal hair in the dark room in the dark night. Wonderful, terrible stories Jordan would be able to hear no more.
ìWe did the best we could,î Peony said. ìBut it wasnít enough.î So Jordan and Peony had watched silently while Alice and Franklin got Miss Amylee into the car, and when it rolled down the driveway and turned into the tree-lined street,
ìThatís right. íCause she was always looking for something. Always wanting something but not even knowing what it is.î
ìOh.î So maybe thatís why she was always so sad, wanting something and maybe not even knowing what it was. Wanting it bad enough to go searching in darkness.
Peony moved toward the door. Then she turned and added, ìYour mama and Mr. Franklin had to do something, before she wandered away and hurt herself . . . or got lost.î
The door to the private office opened again and Alice and the lady came out and so did another thread of cool air into the hot room.
ìWell, I just donít know what on earth weíre going to do,î Alice was saying to the lady. ìDo you know if Aunt Rose is still taking care of old Miss Mary?î
ìSeems to me she is,î the lady said. Then she hesitated. ìBut come to think of it, I heard somebody saying the other day that Aunt Rose said she was going to retire and stay home to take care of Crazy . . . of . . . Honey-Boy. But it sure wouldnít hurt for you to call her and see.î
ìWell, I just donít know what on earth weíre going to do,î Alice repeated, drawing on her white cotton gloves. ìIíll call her soon as I get home.î
Jordan was watching and listening and then suddenly, the image of the fish pool in the yard flashed before her eyesósuperimposed itself right over her mama so that the pool was right there, this very minute, and she could see it as clear as day, even though she wasnít there. The same way she could see Peonyís white shoes, even when she couldnít see them. And the pink girdle under the starched, white dress. Before she could stop herself, she became a bird with bright, black eyes, perching for a moment on the hot-sun windowsill on the other side of the screen and then suddenly spreading her wings and flying upward, climbing the summer air until she was high above the towering pines on the too-green lawn of the White Columns and then tilting her wing feathers just the least little bit and soaring away high over the countryside around their little town, flying through the sweet aroma of biscuits coming from somebodyís oven and over the green mounds of the small country club on the edge of town. On a hill in the town, her stepfatherís house and the fish pool and then the down-tilting of the effortless flight until she glided in among the pines and lit on her little bird-feet on the cool, dark rocks of the fish pool and dipped her beak into the dark water.
ìSugar? Sugar?î Mama was shaking her shoulder, and Jordan looking up into her worried blue eyes.
ìIs she all right?î asked the lady in the cool-private, navy blue dress. She was holding her hands palms-together under her chin, as if she were praying.
ìSheís okay now,î Alice said, sighing. ìShe just needs a little dose of castor oil.î