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“Christiane” (2003), by Albert Chong. Courtesy of the artist and Arnika Dawkins Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia

Sky. Blood. Bone. Breath.

Thunder rattles the windows, and Lucy wakes from a restless sleep, thinking of her husband. Five days ago she gave birth in the squash patch, but for now she ignores everything else, preferring the satisfaction of old memories knocking against one another. Let the baby wait. Everyone on the other side of that bedroom door can just wait.

Joe Brown had come to Opulence looking for work when he was twenty-one years old. He went with a few girls before settling on her. She and Joe, they’d had their first date, if you could call it that, at a church social. They held their chicken dinners awkwardly on paper plates and sat side by side in wooden fold-up chairs. They tried to talk, but neither of them was very good at it. She was surprised that he wanted to meet up with her again.

“Listen, maybe we can eat, talk some more or something,” he stuttered out. “I sure want the chance . . .”

“Yes,” she said, quicker than she’d meant to.

Yes. It came out like a scream. And she knew the moment he smiled at her, even before he opened the door and invited her into his pickup truck, that there would be no turning back. She wore the same pink dress she’d had on that day in the churchyard. They went into town for ice cream at the drugstore, and then rode in his pickup to the countryside to watch the moon and stars and to talk.

“Pleasant night,” she said, looking up at the sky out the truck window. Trying too hard. Wondering how a city woman might say it.

A silver cross hung from his rearview mirror. The entire truck smelled of grease and sweat. Bird shit and mud sullied the windows. Back then, most everything he owned was in that truck. He took on odd jobs, but it was clear even then that Joe knew his way around an engine best.

“You smell nice,” he said. He looked her in the eye, then looked away and cleared his throat.

Lucy laughed. “You tongue-tied as I am.”

“I suppose so.” He blushed.

They stepped from the truck into the chilly night. The air was electrified with night sounds—birds, frogs, crickets. Lucy winced and grabbed at her elbows. He put his arms around her, and they stood out in the cool air quietly, without struggling to speak.

“Maybe we’re thinking too hard,” Lucy said.

“Might be.”

Joe’s headlights beamed out into the woods. Rain began to beat at their scalps and shoulders. He pulled her in close to him.

He leaned in to kiss her, but she said, “Hoot owls out there. You hear them?”

He nodded. “You don’t hear nothing like this where I’m from.”

They stood quiet and hugged up in the sheeting rain until Joe said, “Let me get you home.”

Wet and in love in one instant, married the next.

Sometimes now, after more than twenty years married, Joe Brown sulls up like a bullfrog for a few days and doesn’t say much. Homesick again, Lucy figures. He’s trying to rearrange in his own mind just where home is.

Home where you born and raised?

Home where your mama’s at?

Home where your wife is. Simple as eyes in your head. You ain’t belonged to that city for a long time, Joe. You belong to me.

When she thinks of that rainy day now, Lucy remembers her cheek on his shoulder and the way something deep down inside her cracked open and was set free.

Now, rain beats against the windowpane of her bedroom. Suddenly Lucy smells squash. The blossoms, the yellow bodies curved, long-necked and graceful, their fullness heavy on the vines by her head as she pushed her baby girl out.

She reaches down beneath the covers and is somewhat surprised that her belly, the formerly taut mountain that had cradled her child, is wobbly and loose and back to being hers alone. Aware of her hip bones now, the tightness of her engorged breasts, she scoots to Joe’s side of the bed. As she rolls away from his cold spot, she misses that extra weight in front that has kept her oddly off-balance for all these months. Now she feels hollow, a drained riverbed. She liked being pregnant. When her son, Kevin (Kee Kee), was born, she settled into this loss for weeks, refusing to come out of her bedroom, not eating. But eventually that dreariness slipped away.

She stands, only half-steadily. Her body is stiff, a little weak. She smells her own blood, hears her family moving about the house, the rain’s tap-tapping. The window is already cracked a few inches. Lucy opens it fully and leans into the sill. Outside, a muddy pool of water forms at the end of the walkway like a tiny lake. Lucy Goode Brown, who will soon consider herself too busy for daydreaming, is taken by the birds calling to one another in the distance. The clamor of their house grows as faint as secrets while she lets her mind ride the evening.

Neighbors are out on their porches, fanning themselves with newspapers and cardboard scraps. Gnats and mosquitoes have come along with the rain; the sound of skin being slapped echoes from house to house. This rain will bolster their gardens, and they will all celebrate the fat tomatoes and the second round of kale greens now holding water in curly leaves. Pink zinnias and red begonias will perk up bright. On up the road, across Mission Bridge, old farmers in the farther reaches of the country are nodding with the quiet pleasure a good rain brings. They have crossed their arms, chests swollen with pride, their snowy heads held up high beneath the shelter of barns and porches. Some will stand fully in the rain and let it take them, as she and Joe had done when they were courting. Crops will green up again. The family homeplace is glistening wet, the remaining squash in the garden turning graceful yellow necks toward the downpour.

A girl and a boy chase each other around in circles up and down the road. The trees are full of rain; when the girl reaches for a branch they both get wet. The girl’s hair has gone home already in the dampness, bushing out around her plaits. Can’t quite make out whose child she is, one of the Jenkins girls maybe. Lucy thinks, only briefly, of her newborn girl in the arms of Tookie, Lucy’s mother, on the other side of that door. This baby is the last one.

A woman with a coat over her head trudges downhill. Lucy can’t see her face. Could be me. She imagines herself with her mother’s raincoat over her head, unnoticed, walking uphill in the downpour, across Mission Bridge, away from here. An invisible Goode woman, imagine that. Her eyes tear up, spill out their own warm water from thimble-sized oceans.

She registers the ruckus of evening again—the end of supper, voices, chairs being scooted out. Behind that door are clothes to wash, a white sudsy sink of dishes, children to feed, a husband to love, a mother to please, a grandmother to praise . . .

Raindrops on her skin? Sweat? Nice and quiet and cool. She sees herself splashing around like a muddy child—free, free. Then she returns to her bed.

Joe’s dresser drawer is cockeyed, a few of his socks bunch up at the edge of the wood and hang over. Work clothes clutter the floor. His pajamas are thrown over the back of a chair in the corner. Lucy breathes in the moist air that settles around her, looks around at the mess, shakes her head.

She will scold him later, when he is beside her in bed. “Joe Brown,” she’ll say. “Daddy,” she’ll say, then stop and smile. “Baby,” she’ll begin again, “with our boy and this new one and Mama and Mama Minnie getting up in age . . . and, Daddy . . . Sugar, could you just do a little bit for yourself?” She’ll place her fingers together like she’s asking for something small, just a pinch of something. She’ll cut her eyes just right. “Joe . . . Will you? . . . I’ll do the rest . . . Ain’t I always done the rest?” She won’t know what to say really, exactly how to say it. Then Joe will get that sad look on his face like he’s preparing for a quarrel, and she’ll smooth it all out with a light kiss on his collarbone. That place right there, like a little hill and valley where she likes to rest her lips. Her lips won’t be dry then. They’ll be the tiniest bit wet. And then he’ll know what she means. They can’t make love yet but that one kiss right there will tide him over, smooth everything out like an iron to a sheet. From behind her she’ll scoop his rough hands around her jiggle of a waist and he’ll press his heart to her back. That’s how they’ll sleep.

Remember when we got married? Came up to this room and didn’t come out for a week. Had your big old eyes right here for me to look into. That scar running clean through your eyebrow like my very own beacon. We were four legs, four arms, one silly heart. That’s what we were.

She laughs. Oh, how that sounds.

Now you scattered out all over, your head turned in every direction. Fixing something for that one, mowing for this one, working on somebody’s car. Your heart? Don’t know where your heart is. Suppose it’s still mine, but seems like you belong to all of creation. And don’t get me wrong, I would wash your dirty drawers till kingdom come if you could save me from this . . . drowning. Feel like I’m in Mission Creek. Just about gone. Circle me back to that old feeling again, Baby. Just once, Daddy. And don’t think I wouldn’t do anything in the world for my babies, because I would. Mama and Mama Minnie too and . . .

Lucy considers climbing back out of bed to tidy the room, but she curls on her side and falls asleep.

Mama Minnie comes in at intervals and changes the padding between her legs, tests her forehead for fever. Bone tired, Lucy sleeps herself toward healing.

“’Bout time to feed this baby,” Mama Minnie says and shakes Lucy’s arm a little to rouse her. But Lucy sleeps on, her closed eyes darting back and forth. Mama Minnie wipes drool from Lucy’s mouth and calls Tookie to change the pillowcases, which are sour with sweat.

The women work simultaneously. Mama Minnie wipes a streak of blood from Lucy’s thigh. Tookie replaces the top sheet and quickly spreads a clean one back across Lucy. She smoothes the fresh pillow and places it under her daughter’s head. Would crawl right into Lucy’s sickbed and hold her across her heart if she could.

“Reckon Joe can stay here with her?” Tookie pats the pillow where her son-in-law will sleep.

“Long as he ain’t got no man notions.”

Tookie says nothing. Thinks, Clean daughter, fresh room.

Lucy stirs but doesn’t dare open her eyes.

First time Tookie met Joe Brown, she thought something was funny about him, with that scar above his eye—and the timbre of his voice told her he wasn’t from around here. Scar always looked like it was from a brawl of some kind, clean and straight as a razor. She didn’t want that kind of man for her daughter. Don’t no woman need a fighting man: once he’s done whipping up on somebody else, he’ll turn on his woman. But she didn’t see that kind of meanness in Joe’s spirit now. He turned out to be a true, good thing. It was clear he was a tender man when he bathed Kee Kee or took Lucy’s hand and kissed it in the palm. All a woman needs in this world is a tender man.

“In my time, a man was out of a woman’s bed least six weeks,” Mama Minnie says.

Tookie hums yes. Thinks, Husband belongs in bed with his wife, even in times like this. “You think she looks alright?” She squeezes both of Lucy’s feet. She touches her daughter every chance she gets. A body needs touch, she thinks. Woman needs love hands on her. “She’s alright, ain’t she?” she asks again.

Mama Minnie doesn’t answer; she’s already said her piece.


Minutes later, in a dream, Lucy climbs a ridge on the path to a pond. Her plaits are freed out around her head like rat snakes set loose. Her arms are splayed open, held skyward as if in prayer. A gust of wind ripples across the water, and the mysteries nature holds are more important than any single thing Lucy can think of. She quells the urge to jump in, to try to swim to the other side just to see if she can. She stays by the pond until dusk, then through nightfall. She sits on the water’s edge as it churns and rises, threatening flood. Ants crawl up her calves, and there is a snail on her knee, a frog nestled in the crook of her arm. She tries to shoo them off, but more come. It is after she grows resistant to the pinching bite of the mosquitoes, after it no longer seems unusual to have the frog there, after she becomes accustomed to the slimy trail the snail leaves as it climbs her thigh, and after the dance of lightning bugs begins in her hair that stillness settles in her. The water continues to chop, but in the darkness her own churning stops and her attention folds inside out. The night is so black she can’t see, and though she can feel every living thing on her body, she is really somewhere else, somewhere close to the moon. She has almost lost herself. A barred owl hoots. Above her, an endless heaven of stars, a world larger and more glorious than herself. Above her, the very sky shifts from blue black to deep purple, changing with the night.

Lucy wakes from her dream, not knowing how long she has slept this time. Sheets are stale again. She doesn’t remember her dream exactly, but her heart races. She shifts her weight to the side. The day is nearly gone, a fleshy orange out the window, even though it’s still raining. Lucy hears the baby crying, the squall in her ear a sweet ache. Her breasts throb, then tingle, and she can already feel milk straining through her crusted nipples. She frees herself from her bra and milk comes first in slow drops, then faster, running down the rise of her belly and pouring into the crevice of her navel. She tries to stop it by bunching up the top sheet against her chest, but her breasts shift just a little and high streams of milk squirt into the air. Later, when she thinks of herself like this, Lucy’s skin will goose up at the miracle of motherhood.

Her mother raps at the door and then pushes it open with her elbow. “Somebody’s hungry,” Tookie says, and leans in to place the baby in Lucy’s arms, but Lucy rolls over on her side.

“Come on now,” Tookie says. “Every living thing got to eat.” She bounces the baby against her own chest. The baby girl’s sweet cheek nestled against her collarbone makes her dizzy with love.

Lucy rolls over and Tookie holds the baby out toward her, tries to place her in Lucy’s arms again. Lucy pushes Tookie’s hands away until the baby is back against her grandmother’s chest.

“Come on, girl.”

“She’ll learn early then, won’t she?” Lucy says.

“Learn what, Lucy? You ain’t making sense.” Tookie brings the baby closer. Everything living does have to eat, so the baby begins to kick, and the soft, almost pretty wail lofts up and out against the walls.

“Crazy,” Tookie says to the baby. “Good thing we got bottles boiled and ready, ’cause your mama’s crazy.”


And there it is again: 1943 knock, knock, knocking on Tookie’s head. The day Lucy was born. That beating she got. Who else would a child turn to but her mama? Who else but a mama would understand her child’s hunger? Tookie rubs at her temples trying to get the headache to stop, trying to keep 1943 from knocking too hard. There are things to do. Her grandbaby needs her and so does her Lucy.

One tiny foot slips from the blanket and Tookie holds it in her hand for a few seconds, rubbing her thumb across each sweet toe. She opens the door to Lucy’s bedroom and slips back into the hum of common sense in the rest of the house.

Alone now, Lucy places her left hand on her breasts. Streams of pale blue milk drip down her side and over her right hand, which is below, between her legs.

When Mama Minnie steps back into the room to see the sight of Lucy herself, it’s clear to her that Lucy has taken a sick spell of some sort, be it of mind or body. She wants to give it over to fever, but the baby still needs to be fed. She calls Tookie back into the room.

“Hold her feet,” she says to Tookie and pushes her full weight atop Lucy, holding her hands down, even with Lucy kicking and screaming.

“We got bottles,” Tookie says, but she takes her place at the bottom of the bed.

“Cow’s milk for cows,” says Mama Minnie.

Wrestling with her granddaughter makes Mama Minnie think of all the men she’s fought in her life. Brought on fighting Macon Jones one year during hog-killing time when she was twelve, wrestling him for her own honeypot. She’d won, though—still a virgin when she married. Brought on knocking out that boy, Possum Briggs, that time when he’d called her out of her name and slapped her when they were swimming in the creek, and how scared her mama was that she’d hang for giving that white boy a black eye. Brought on plenty.

During a moment of calm, Mama Minnie puts a cold rag to Lucy’s forehead, then once more presses down on her arms, hard enough to leave a bruise. Lucy thrashes, cries out “No!” again and again, tries to cover her head with the sheet. Tookie holds her feet, her own stomach in knots, a sick feeling coming quickly, no matter how hard she tries to calm her nerves. Mama Minnie calls for Joe to come situate the baby so his child can eat.

Joe Brown holds the baby awkward as any man would, though he is a bit more sure with this one, his second. His hands look more natural holding a wrench or pliers, and lately even an ax or a saw, or holding the reins of a mule behind a plow or a disc. Sometimes he is surprised by the contrast of his tough, dry skin against Lucy’s back when he massages her shoulders, and now, cupping his soft baby girl against her mother’s breast, he feels as though he needs to ask permission.

When the baby latches to her mother, her face goes peaceful and satisfied. Lucy struggles, breathing heavy like she’s in a fight, like she’s running from a long ways off, but once the baby has nursed, she quiets down and goes back to sleep.

Later in the night, when Joe crawls into the cold space beside her, he notices right away where Lucy’s hands are, and says, “Baby, you okay? Need anything?”

“Need a lot.”

“You want some ice water? There’s tea . . .”



“Not for what you talking about.”

Joe Brown clears his throat; even in the dark he can see Lucy’s hand moving around. Smell of woman’s blood is filling up the room. He lies in the dark, listening to her quick breathing beside him.

At her funeral years later, when they have closed the coffin and are carrying Lucy out of Mission Creek Baptist Church, when the glint of copper on the coffin catches sunlight, Joe even in his grief will suddenly remember this night and how Lucy’s smell took up the entire room. And he will remember rain ping-pinging on the window, how much he loved her and how he could never have left her side, no matter how crazy she was—least folks thought she was crazy; he won’t be sure even then . . . could have been some kind of sign from God for all he knows—and he will remember this night and how they were quiet like that for a long time, how even with the clouds he could see the outline of trees through the window. He will remember this time and how her hands remained on herself in those places, her fingers caked with blood and milk.


When company arrives a few days later, Mama Minnie, in her church pearls and a touch of wine-red lipstick, posts herself in a wingback chair beside the front door. She kisses some of the women on the cheek, grasps the hands of others. She eyeballs some, but greets them politely and directs each woman toward Lucy, who is sitting almost motionless in a rocking chair across the room.

“Get yourself some lemonade and go on out back,” she says to the children.

“In the kitchen,” she says to the men, and nods her head that direction.

Outside, this night hangs like a wet tea towel. The rain has stopped for now, and the heat causes steam to rise from the ground like smoke. A sliver of moon glows through the clouds.
Lucy is at the far end of the living room, almost sullen in the rocking chair, holding the baby in a receiving blanket. Tookie stands behind Lucy with her arms keeping the chair from rocking, keeping Lucy and the new baby safe and immobile. She says nothing but nods once or twice as the women come one by one.

“Pretty little thing.”

“Law me, look at that.”

“What a bolt from the blue,” they say.

“What’d you name her?”

Tookie holds the back of the chair, more peaceful behind her shield. If she looks them in the eye for too long, 1943 comes humming back. She’s a long-necked girl again with her belly six-months swollen. Cast out of the church choir, told she can’t talk to her friends. Shame washes over her still. 

Back over Tookie’s left shoulder, through the haze of insects drawn to the porch light, Kee Kee is playing in the yard. He has been joined by one of the Jenkins boys, and they are running around the poles of the clothesline.

German chocolate cake, lemon meringue pie, pimento cheese sandwiches, sugar cookies, mints, and peanuts. Joe has moved the furniture back to make way for the crowd. Children turn noisy at the sight of dessert and are quickly shooed out into the backyard by their mothers. Girls go open-mouthed at the baby. Boys sneak extra cookies or a paper cup of lemonade and clack the back screen door behind them.

Lucy rocks the baby, answers the same question a blue million times, hears men’s voices ebb and flow in the kitchen. The house is alive with sound. She grins when she hears Joe’s words rise and fall in the talking: Go fishing before long. No, not all night. I know you right. Man, I’m telling you. Kak’s Chevrolet.

“Girl, how’d you do it? How you survive that field?” women her age ask. Some of them she hasn’t seen since high school.

“Woman always does what she has to.” Lucy finds a chortle somewhere inside her to make light, but even while she’s throwing her head back, it sounds to her like some other woman’s laugh rising up out of her chest. She places a hand on her throat just to be sure.

“Where’s that man of yours done run off to?” one of them finally asks.

“He ain’t run no further than the kitchen,” Lucy says, and cocks her head to listen to the men. Ah, there it is. Joe’s voice soothing her, even far off like that, rising up and going down low out there in the kitchen. Lucy thinks of Joe’s deep laugh, his tender whisper in her ear, the deep growl of his snoring.

Her hand a little shaky, Tookie steps forward and takes the baby clothes, bottles, and pink-wrapped gifts from visitors and places them on the coffee table. She refills the lemonade and piles more sugar cookies on a serving platter before she returns to safety behind the rocking chair. Some of the women stare: Lucy in the rocker, holding that baby and looking off at nothing in particular, and Tookie, with her hands gripped tightly to the back of the chair and her head dropping every time anybody tries to catch her glance. It’s an odd sight.

Both doors have been opened enough times that the flies are starting to settle in the house. Two of them are taking turns landing on the baby’s cheeks and eyes. Others are swarming around the pie. A yellow jacket buzzes through the living room, and gnats dart around the lemonade. One hums in Lucy’s ear. She turns her head but doesn’t even swat at it. A fly lands on the baby again, feasting on the corner of her eye. The baby blinks. Lucy just watches the fly rubbing its front legs together, a tiny hungry tongue. Tookie reaches in and shoos it from the baby’s head.

The fan in the corner of the living room blows hot air around. A few more men have joined the others huddled in the sweaty kitchen, where they find Joe Brown on the floor under the table, repairing a wobbly leg.

“Congratulations, put her there,” one man says, pulling Joe to his feet and shaking his hand.

“She done dragged me over here. You know how the women are,” another says. “How you doing, Joe? Man, you getting any sleep?”

Joe Brown shakes his head, swipes his brow and his neck. You know how the women are. The men are still talking and laughing, but Joe isn’t listening fully. He wants to answer back, “No! I sure as hell don’t know how the women are!” But he knows the man wasn’t expecting a real answer. Men pat him on his sticky back. His silver-tongued beginnings are almost forgotten; they nod at each other with this thought in their minds. It’s only when he talks fast or calls up some citified story that they remember where he’s from.

After everyone has lined up to eat and gathered around the table, Mama Minnie taps her cane against the floor three times. The room quiets and she walks into the center like a preacher woman and says, “God sure does make a way, don’t He?”

Sister Betty shouts, “Amen!” and everyone claps.

“We sure do feel blessed to have her,” Mama Minnie points to the baby, “and blessed to have so many of the Lord’s servants with us here today.” She bows and then says, “Thank you, Jesus,” and looks up at the crowd.

One of the younger women whispers to the others and they cover their mouths. People applaud again and a few boys who have come back for more food whistle through their fingers. One of the men pulls his tall, lanky boy into the kitchen by the arm and threatens to whip him in front of everybody. A few of the women look to see if Lucy will address the group, but when she lowers her head toward the baby, the room turns noisy again.

People continue milling around the house, talking among themselves, drinking every last drop of lemonade, eating every cookie, every last peanut. When the baby begins to cry, her tiny mouth bowing out into a perfect thimble, a few women turn and smile, tilt their heads to the side. One of them says with delight, “Ain’t that the cutest thing you ever did see?” But when the baby reaches a full, soft cry, Lucy begins a howl.

Tookie rubs her shoulders, but she is inconsolable.

Joe comes from the kitchen, kneels down beside the chair.

“Baby, you alright?”

Lucy’s lips are quivering, her chest heaving. She lets out a moan, cries harder, and gasps for breath. She does not stop.

The crowd is now quiet again. Some of the women admire Joe’s hand on Lucy’s leg and feel the imaginary weight of a man’s hand on their own knees. Others are whispering among themselves.

“Crazy heifer!”

“Well, if that don’t beat all.” 

Lucy rocks back and forth in the chair, Tookie reaches in to take the baby, Joe strokes Lucy’s knee like a man who doesn’t know what else to do, but before he can intervene, before Tookie can pull the baby safely into her own arms, before Mama Minnie can cross the room, the baby rolls from Lucy’s lap, rolls like a can of lard, like a bolt of fabric or a cumbersome quilt, like a rolling pin or a small sack of new potatoes, and makes a light thud on the plank floor like something being cast away.

There is one wide-eyed look on every face in the room. A great communal hush rises up, and for a few seconds no one says a word. Then all attention turns to Tookie, who falls to her knees, scoops the baby into her arms, and then almost topples headfirst when she tries to get back to her feet. A few women grab the hands of their children, lower their heads, and leave quietly.

When the front door flies open and people start to step off the porch, Mama Minnie sees a large woman from church, Francine Clark, standing at the edge of the yard holding a Pyrex dish. Francine steals a nervous glance toward Mama Minnie, then nods to her and turns back toward the road without coming in, without leaving what she brought. Mama Minnie, who still has one ear on the commotion but her eye on Francine Clark, follows her wide hips down the worn path in the grass, and even in the midst of the chaos says aloud to herself, “Something always been funny ’bout that Clark woman.”

Afraid the baby might be hurt, Tookie pulls back the blanket and runs her fingers across her head in search of lumps, looks for bruises. The baby stops crying. Kee Kee watches his mother and watches the remaining neighbors watching his mother. “Mama!” he hollers out, but Lucy acts as if she doesn’t hear him. She ignores her firstborn. She buries her eyes in her hands and bites her lip, but tears are streaming down her face and dripping off her chin. Joe rubs her arm.

“Let me get you back to bed,” he says. And the women are hushed again by the love in his voice. Lucy raises her head, and for a moment her face is so twisted and puffy that Joe barely recognizes her. She stands, wilts, leans into Joe, and he leads her through the maze of onlookers to their bedroom, where he places her in the bed and pulls a sheet up over her.

Nobody speaks a word until Mama Minnie says, “Here, y’all get some of this caramel cake before you leave.” And Tookie, with the baby still pressed against her, rushes over to help wrap pieces of cake in tinfoil with her free hand.

As everyone leaves, a clap of thunder sounds in the distance and they scatter toward their homes. Rain pours out in buckets, then slows. Elders return to their front porches, children search for june bugs. Whip-poor-wills serenade a young couple who dares to make love up against the roughness of a toolshed, way out in the dark. Somewhere a dog barks for a child to come back out to play. But the baby, this Yolanda—born out in the field in the old way—and her mother, Lucy Goode Brown—a plumb crazy woman—are never far from every lip. And poor Joe Brown. She’s lucky as sin to have him. Wonder if he don’t pack up and leave. On this night, and for a long time to come, every tongue stirs.

Inside the house, Mama Minnie opens up her Bible, thinking of a few soothing words to say. Then, just as quick, she decides to keep them to herself until morning.

She reads Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
She prays before settling into bed. Girl just needs her time. Her mind drifts back to that Clark woman out in the yard, big old body balanced on them little feet, holding her dish and not saying a word. Like she didn’t have a lick of sense.

Tookie stares at the ceiling in her own bedroom, presses the nubby surface of her bedspread, then smoothes it out with her fingers. She repeats this until she has pressed some of the worry out of her head, a tiny moment of respite before worry comes back. Something bad has done come over her child.

Kee Kee gets into his red pajamas by himself. He kisses his mother, his father, and his brand-new sister before going to his room, wishing he could sleep with them.

“Sleep tight, little man,” his father says. “Good night, Kevin.”

His mother says nothing.


Lucy and Joe spoon against one another, the baby curled against her mother’s breast.

By the time the house rests, Mama Minnie has already left her burden of the day and tied up her hair, and is under her sheet snoring.

Everyone is asleep when Lucy cries again. Her tears come as easy as breath. She touches the child’s face as she nurses, and then pinches the baby’s nostrils together. She does this as she feels Joe nestled against her back.

How simple life is. Silly how it works, really.

She could starve the child of air and even Joe, who is snoring gently in her ear, would never know. She watches her daughter struggle for breath, watches her bright eyes widen until the legs kick and she lets go of the nipple. Lucy does it again until she can feel the baby trying to fling her head free, then she releases and listens to her child settle into being able to breathe again. A hurried in and out. In. Out. She listens for a long time, only the teeniest bit of panic rising in her until the baby’s breath is in rhythm with her own again.

In truth, Lucy can hear the breathing of the entire house. The out. The in. Out. In. They are loud: one big choir singing out survival in the night. Her eyes race around the room. She can smell the wildness of her own milk. 

Excerpted from The Birds of Opulence, by Crystal Wilkinson, published by the University Press of Kentucky in March 2016.

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Crystal Wilkinson

Crystal Wilkinson, a recent fellowship recipient of the Academy of American Poets, is the award-winning author of Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts, a culinary memoir, Perfect Black, a collection of poems, and three works of fiction—The Birds of Opulence, Water Street, and Blackberries, Blackberries. She is the recipient of an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Poetry, an O. Henry Prize, a USA Artists Fellowship, and an Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence.