In a Tennessean valley, there is a church with a steeple that reaches
for Jesus. Behind the church, the dead dream beneath limestone. And at
the open mouth of the graveyard, there is a secret. See that patch of
dandelion. See how it kneels by the gate. If you are lucky, come here on
a late spring night when the moon is swollen. Come only if a
thunderstorm boils green on the horizon. Come only on a gut full of
vinegar and grits. Squat to the seeding flowers. Do not pluck. Eye the
shortest of the bunch, and you will know the tuft is not of white seeds,
but tight coiled curls. The seed head is the old, brown face of a woman.
And in the face of the sprouted matriarch, there are rules. Do not tell
her that she looks walnut-wrinkled. Do not ask about the weather or the
meaning of life. Do not probe into the dreams you had the night before.
She will not be interested. Do not ask her why your pound cake comes out
too dry or why your heart feels syrupy when you think of the one name,
always the same name. Listen. She will tell you of the Red Summer, how
the gunfire on cobblestone rained hail heavy. How the black bodies
shimmied with bullets. How, as they died, their thoughts wandered to the
ingredients of buttercream or how windchimes sound like funerals. Nod in
polite interest. She will lament, and the wind will be hot. Let her
finish. She will ask you to return, to water her roots with bone broth
or sugared tea. Agree. If you lie, your heart will stop before the rain
reaches the nape of your neck. If you return, you will find love before
the sun goes down.
As you exit, you will hear a choir sing in the belly of the church. Do
not seek the voices. It will be late, the creeping thunder will join
their hymn, but the breathing congregation will be sleeping in cabins,
in doublewides, in shacks, dreaming of light and rolling Sunday clouds.
New Year’s Bash
[11:00 p.m.] In the burning house, Johnny Cash’s ghost sounds like
church. He and others croon: Daddy sang bass, Mama sang tenor. The
parents drink moonshine with soggy peach chunks, watch the edges of the
walls char midnight black. Goodwill china scrapes. The children eat
smoke. Singin’ seems to help a troubled soul. The mason jars in the
pantry swell in the heat and bleed jam, honey. The mother sees the
sticky mess on the floor, hopping and dancing to avoid scorched toes,
and knows this means no balm for cooked skin. It never snows in
[11:45 p.m.] The patriarch twists the muscle of the clock forward
because he cannot celebrate properly with dusk in his lungs. A knock on
the door. Another family, huddled on the porch, eager to abandon the
blizzard. The Christmas lights that still choke the railing pulse, turn
the newcomers’ flesh to red, to green, to frost. The children watch as
the strangers enter, wonder if they notice the flames licking their
hair. They lean back and forth and back in the rocking chair.
[11:59 p.m.] Cigarettes and a skillet seasoned thick with saved lard.
A new year, a new life, baptismal to be sure!
Mortician and The Child
She has painted the nicotine-jaundiced nails of trailer park whores,
pasted concealer over the purple, pocked arms of filthy pill heads,
contoured swollen faces of those fat messes whose veins are clogged
with gravy. The selfish many. The gluttonous masses. Aunt Lynch cloaks
sin in its Sunday best every shift, knows how it manifests in the body,
and this is why her nephew’s behavior frightens her. After church, when
hunger possesses, she explains the sermon to Johnny over collard greens
and thin cube steak: The Good Lord’ll protect you from all, as he sees
fit. Johnny blows bubbles in his sweet tea, puffs the straw out of his
mouth, Not Blackholes, they’d gobble you right up. Silence thick as
prayer, and he adds: Greens taste like horse shit.
In her dreams, he is Satan.
She hides a Bible behind the microwave, under couch cushions, in the
pantry. In the hall, she hangs the massive portrait of Jesus kneeling in
the Garden of Gethsemane where foliage chokes the earth. Beneath, she
mounts two taper candles, red as scarlet beebalm. She does not know if
Johnny will notice. She only hopes Johnny’s wicked temperament will be
hushed while she displays His Glory in the cramped apartment.
He is insatiable when alone. Buttered cornbread, ham hock, banana
pudding. When Aunt Lynch comes home, he wants to fast until ribs poke
through his flesh. Her stench is a bouquet of lilies and sick. Lilies
and magnolias and sick. When she’s around, he feels like copperheads
writhe deep in his belly. She looks at him, too, like she knows he is
disgusted. Sometimes he can force food down, or he will sneak in her
purse and munch on peppermint puffs and butterscotch. He wishes most
that she carried chocolate or pralines or taffy. He likes the way it
feels to coat his cuspids with sweet.
And then she hangs Jesus.
But below that, two candles, holy-blood red. One time, he ate a crayon,
and it was salty, and he felt that he had a secret, and his guts were
hot with the possibility of getting caught. When Aunt Lynch slips into
the heaven you can wake up from, he sneaks from his room. Two clocks are
in this quiet place, and the tickticktick reminds him that hell is real.
He wrestles a skinny candle from the holder, lets the smooth sit on his
fingertips. He brings it to his nose, inhales. It does not smell like
cinnamon or apples, only muted dust and paraffin. He squats below the
Garden, considers blessing his food but decides against it. He chomps,
chews, swallows—back of his throat slick with red wax.
Monica Brashears is an MFA student at Syracuse University. She writes about the black Appalachian experience, good food, ghosts. She has an upcoming publication with New Millennium Writings. Some of Monica’s favorite things are as follows: fresh popcorn, full moons, and vanilla perfume.