Quell the voices
by Ann Hite
read by Jason Warden
When Bess Pritchard left her body, it was as if her heart tore open and she took the form of black oily smoke, hugging the ceiling. While she struggled with the reality of the situation, her spirit moved through the maze of outdated newspapers, broken down boxes, and empty two liter diet soda bottles—saved with the crazy notion she might win some contest—she took the form of a deep black crow; so black the wings appeared navy blue in the sunlight. A young woman witnessed the transformation as Bess spread her wings and flew to the top of a water oak, where she rested, unsettled in her thoughts. Her life broken into several pieces resembled a jigsaw puzzle with gaps. The missing parts ached in her bones and danced out of reach. The pretty young woman below shielded her eyes to the sun. How had this young woman, perfect hair, perfect clothes, come to the backward community of Black Mountain? How and why did she come to stand in Bess’ yard?
Bess watched as two men removed a flimsy half wall in the living room so her body could be wheeled out on the gurney. Both men, the size of football players, broad shoulders and big hands, hands the perfect size to crush the skull of a child, wore expressions of disgust.
Bess’ daughter was removed from her home four days after her second birthday; not that Bess celebrated. The little girl cried all the time, causing pressure to build in Bess’ mind. The money was gone, and she was alone, no husband. He never existed. Her daughter’s birthday came and went with only a ripple of feeling as Bess watched the sunset from her dingy room. Bess tried to recall the birth in detail, but it produced only a lonely blackness where memories should reside.
The little girl watched Bess from the back window of the car marked with the state seal, searching Bess’ face with liquid black eyes, no tears, only a look of expectation. They made their home in a single room above old Widow Dobson’s store. It was the widow who called children services when the child cried too much. Bess hit the girl, squeezed her little skull with her hand until she turned quiet and her eyes grew large and vacant. An ugly blue bruise appeared on each side of her small head. This incident coupled with leaving the girl alone while Bess earned some money brought the wrath of the state. The woman pushed papers into Bess’ face, forcing her way past, gathering her daughter in her arms, and leaving Bess to read her verdict.
As the car pulled away, Bess lost her reason for living, for trying to live, her one and only hope. What possessed her to place so much hope on a two-year-old’s shoulders? Bess was only a child herself. She wanted her own mama, but that was impossible; again her deeds kept her caged away from the ones she loved most. For a long time after, while she made attempts to find a way back to her daughter, Bess dreamed of the girl’s tiny face, she missed the warm heat of her body snuggled next to her in bed, but like many desires, the passion began to fade to numbness, her daughter’s face blurred in her mind, and she let go of reality by drinking to quell the voices. Days, weeks, and months blended into one moment. Bess found her perfect numbing agent. Scales formed over her eyes and needles left their mark on her arms and legs.
The two large men, sweat stains on freshly pressed shirts, squatted in unison to hoist Bess’ body into the back of the hearse.
“Look at the back tires on the wagon!” Red Connor, the larger of the two men, his red hair thinner than she remembered, but he still appeared youthful, grinned at his helper. His family owned the one and only funeral home on the mountain. Once Bess knew every inch of Red’s body, each mole and freckle. Not out of love, no, out of need, a need to feed a hunger for affection. Carlton always lacked when it came to touching, keeping his distance. Even at that moment the thought brought guilt flooding into her body. He had been so good to her. Hadn’t he?
But, the young woman drew Bess out of her thoughts. Those eyes reminded her of someone, but the memory only faded. Maybe it was Daddy or was it Mama?
Carlton Weehunt found Bess in a gutter in the worst part of Asheville. He wore the look of a backwards man, inside of his head most of the time. He was a type Bess recognized as predictable to the point of danger. His hands, long slender fingers, like a girl’s, drew her attention. His eyes were so brown they looked black. He wore a thick neat beard with hair that went a little wild. Something deep inside stirred, but grew still when she concentrated too hard on his stare.
“Girl, what you sitting in the filth for?” His voice soft, matter of fact, but an edge demanded an answer, a good one.
“I don’t give a damn. I’ve ridden this horse too long. It owns me, and now I want to die.”
He stood above her, looking as if an inner fight took place, a battle to leave Bess in her world. His pocketknife was produced. He ran his finger over the case and flipped out the blade, pointing at her. “It seems to me you got two choices.”
Bess’ heart hammered with the sweet familiarity of release.
“You can take this knife and slit your throat. It ain’t so bad to die that way. Or, you can get up and follow me home. No more drugs. We’ll go home to Black Mountain. Do you remember your home on Black Mountain? Your mama, Sally Pritchard, died two springs ago. I’ll help you get clean before I leave.”
The knife blade looked dirty, brown splotches here and there on the blade. Bess laughed in his face. She was a skeleton, decaying, crumbling, and this guy thought he could save her as if he were some kind of god, as if she could go home. “Go away. Leave me alone. God wouldn’t have me. Why would you? I can’t go home. That mountain won’t have me. I’m dirty.”
“Who brought God into this? It seems I’m your only option.” His eyes reflected anything but a holy presence. A familiar glint persuaded her to see things his way as if a similar scene in the past dictated this only response. Bess often wondered if she had remained in the filth and rode her addiction to the end, would the results have been better, a shorter life, less time to experience the pain and insanity?
The big-bellied man paced back and forth in front of Bess’ house. Why was the sheriff in her yard? “There ain’t much to say about Bess. Her daddy, Connor, was one of the best men this mountain ever knew. Funny how those kind of things work. Bess was on the mountain most of her life. She left for a short time. Lots of us do, but no one ever knew where she went. She just wandered home in a real bad way. Folks around here look after one another, and they did their duty towards Bess. All her family was dead or gone by that time. Whatever happened to her out there, she just wasn’t the same girl that left. You know what I mean? It’s like she left a piece of her mind somewhere.”
The young woman removed her jacket and glanced at Bess sitting in the tree. “Didn’t anyone around here attempt to get her some help? Aren’t you concerned how she died?”
“It looks like natural causes to me. You saw her size. I don’t mean to be rude, but what’s it to you, young lady?” The sheriff scribbled on his clipboard.
“Bess was my mother.”
What? What had she heard? Bess studied the woman’s face, the dark eyes seemed more brown, faded, not liquid at all. Could all the child’s features be transformed into the woman’s features?
The sheriff stopped writing and looked up. “That can’t be. Bess never married, never had a boyfriend. We would have known.”
Red Connor stepped up to the sheriff. “I’m ready to roll.” Bess didn’t much blame him for remaining silent.
The sheriff nodded. “I can’t believe this.”
The young woman, her daughter, laughed. “I don’t think I have to tell you that babies can be made without marriage.”
“Where were you born?”
“I was hoping Bess could tell me. After the state took me, Bess dropped off the face of the earth. It took a while for my adoption to go through without a birth certificate.”
“Bess stayed gone for close to five years. It nearly broke her mama’s heart to lose all her family. Sally was the salt of the earth, plenty of tragedy in her life. She loved her family better than most. Sally met Conner Pritchard in Asheville. That’s where she was from. Connor, like I said, was a good man. They loved each other to almost a fault. Then, he up and died and left Sally alone. Being alone is a hard thing with a child. She married again. Sally was left alone when Bess took out. Her second husband left her high and dry right before Bess. The poor woman died of cancer two years later. It’s the Pritchard curse. That’s what it is, tragic death and craziness.”
“What happened to my grandfather?”
“Connor died when Bess was nine. She watched a tractor flip over on him. The child never was the same. Can’t say I don’t understand. Losing a parent right in front of your eyes is hard. Then, like I said, her mama up and married again not long after.”
Guilty as Charged
The smell of bacon worked its way into the bedroom, causing Bess to gag. Carlton had brought her back to the mountain, to the farmhouse where she grew up. Everywhere she looked she saw her mother and father. Bess gagged again. She wanted the sweet numbness that the needle provided, but all the old farm held was memories that were mucky as a muddy river. Their power rode in her mind.
“How are you?” Carlton’s voice was soft.
“I feel dead.” Her voice creaked.
“Mrs. Morgan is cooking breakfast.”
“I hate food especially bacon. It has something to do with this house. I think mama made it for us every day.”
There was a long silence. “Best not to think of the past. Mrs. Morgan cares enough to make an effort. It’s time to eat.”
“Okay.” Bess had survived, but she had lost the sharp edge that drugs and hunger gave her, the sharpness of thought. What was surviving?
Mrs. Morgan wore an apron around her rather large stomach. “You’re up, good. Here’s some breakfast, dear.”
Bess pulled out a chair and smiled at Carlton as he walked through the kitchen and out the door.
“Carlton will be back later.”
Mrs. Morgan only rolled her eyes and shook her head like mama did when she was disgusted with a choice Bess made.
“Eat up. You won’t starve around here no matter what.”
“Where’s my mama?”
“She passed on, dear, right after you and that no good husband or hers left her. She was all alone. Poor little thing. You know she was always a beauty and smart as a whip. She loved your daddy better than life itself. I’ll never understand her other choice as long as I live.”
Bess accepted the guilt, a heavy cloak weighed on her shoulders.
“Tell me, young lady, what you know about Bess when she left here.” The sheriff rolled a toothpick around in his mouth.
“The state took me away from Bess for neglect and physical abuse. We were living in Asheville. She was seventeen and I was two.”
“She was young.” The sheriff took the toothpick from his mouth.
“Maybe she was a runaway.” The young woman needed to voice a reason.
“Some things are just best left alone.” The sheriff gave a half smile.
“Bess was my mother. I can’t leave that alone.”
The first two years Bess lived on the farm Carlton was there most of the time. He rarely left her alone. He watched as she made a garden and began to cook healthy meals. Each morning she lay in bed and listened to the birds. Her life wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t bad. Sometimes, she woke to Carlton sitting beside the bed, watching her as if he expected her to confess to something. When neighbors came to call, which they often did, she explained Carlton’s presence and this friendship, but most only shook their heads as if she had made the wrong decision allowing Carlton to be there. They never spoke to him.
One day Red Connor showed up with fresh corn from his daddy’s field. Bess told him how Carlton had turned her life around. He looked at her like she was crazy, pulled her to him, and whispered, “What you need is a good screwing. That’ll put him out of your mind. He ain’t never done nothing but cause trouble for you and your family.”
She didn’t put up a fight when Red led her down the hall to the bedroom. Nor did she make a sound when he undressed her. As he pumped her full of him, Carlton stood in the door, his face like a still lake at midnight, smooth like a plate of glass. When it was over, Bess cried. Without even meaning to, she had betrayed Carlton. She had lost all control and clung to Red. Red came every week.
Soon after, Bess cornered Carlton in the kitchen. “Will you marry me?”
The muscles in his face tensed. “Never. Some things are best left alone.”
“Is it because of Red?” Tears slid down her cheeks.
“Don’t cry. You don’t love me. You don’t know everything. Things will not change until you choose for them to change. Okay?”
The wind left her lungs and the numbness worked at her heart. “Yeah.”
“We’re good then?” Carlton walked away.
“Sure.” The numbness beat in her brain like a visitor knocking on a door.
To Know You
“I want to know how Bess died. I don’t believe she died from natural causes. What about the man that brought her home.” The young woman pulled a yellowing paper from her purse. Bess, sitting on her perch, stretched her wings and craned her neck; the paper was a letter she wrote years earlier.
The sheriff frowned. “How do you know about him?”
“Bess sent this letter to the state.” She pushed the letter at the sheriff. “It begs to know where I am. It tells of a man named Carlton Weehunt that brought her home and saved her life from an overdose. I’d like to talk to him. He might tell me something about my mother.”
Thou Shall Not Kill
It was cold and snowing the night Carlton left her forever. Had she known what would happen, she would have changed the scene. But, some things can’t be altered. Bess had turned into an old woman, shriveled from the inside out. Red had been with her earlier that afternoon; it was his habit to come on Tuesdays. His wife had a weekly sewing meeting. Carlton stood in the door and watched each time. Bess had grown accustom to his odd behavior, needed it, and enjoyed both men’s presence. Later that evening as the snow began to fall heavy, Bess made supper. She had long stopped cooking for Carlton, who never bothered to eat. It was assumed that he grabbed his food when he felt the need. Bess never noticed anything missing. Carlton never made a sound when he entered the room and this night his voice made her jump.
“You wrote a letter to the state?” His eyes showed a seriousness unlike any time before.
“Yes, I want my child.”
“Leave well enough alone.”
“I can’t. She is my child, a part of me. There is a hole in my heart.”
Bess thought maybe he had gone around the bend. “No. My child.”
He came so close to her face she should have felt his breath. “It’s time to remember.”
A hum as loud as a thousand bumblebees sounded in her head. “No.”
“Yes. Remember the night before you left here.”
Bess shook her head. “No. No.”
“It’s okay, Bess. You could handle only so much and then you struck out. It was all you knew to do.”
She drew back her hand. “No!”
“You put an end to all the evil in your life. You did what only a strong person could do.”
“Go! Leave now and don’t come back!”
“It happened right here in this kitchen.”
Bess placed her hands over her ears, but still she could hear him speaking in her mind.
“You wanted to protect the child inside of you.”
“Sally watched you kill. She never raised her hand to stop you. She helped you hide the deed and then told you to leave the farm forever.”
“GO AWAY!” She threw her plate of food at Carlton. He turned without a word and left the house. She never saw him again.
At first she was sure he would come back when he was finished being angry. She waited. But only Red came. Bess sent him away for good. She cooked for herself. Soon, she found a deep pleasure in food. Food took away the panic that threatened to eat her alive. Food took away the pain, the thoughts rolling around in her mind. She cooked and she ate. Her body became large, slow, and unhealthy.
Into The Sun
“I want to know where I can find this Carlton Weehunt.” The young woman patted a tissue on her forehead. Bess wanted to tell her Carlton was long gone, that even she, Bess, had forgotten him. This young woman amazed Bess and filled her heart with lightness. It was enough just to watch her speak.
The sheriff rolled the toothpick between his fingers. “No one knows what happened to Carlton. I can tell you he never brought Bess here.”
“How do you know? If I found him he could tell me about his years with my mother. He could tell me what kind of woman she was.” The young woman held out the letter. “He knows.”
The sheriff took the letter. “You see, young lady, there ain’t no way Carlton Weehunt rescued Bess or lived with her for that matter. The whole mountain would have known. That ain’t something she could hide. Plus, he disappeared around the same time as Bess. Remember I told you about him leaving. He was Bess’ stepfather.”
A rush of cold air covered Bess. She spread her wings and looked at the young woman, looked her in the eye, as she pushed off the branch. Her beautiful daughter, her heart, her hope, had grown into a woman, and Bess was afforded a chance to see her. The wingspread was huge for a crow, more like an eagle’s. Bess sailed through the sky, a shadow in the sun. An understanding wove into each twist and turn of her flight; answers flooded her heart. And, acceptance entwined within her soul like a thick golden braid. Sorrow fell away.
The young woman watched the bird until it flew straight into a bright light and vanished.
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