Chapter 26

It was a somber walk to the gravel drive. Jennie and Clara were clouded in shock, wanting to run to Sarah but knowing that that there was nothing to run to. The house was still fervently ablaze; there was so little left of it already. The fire trucks would come soon, she guessed, called in by the volume of smoke even with the trailer so far out of the way.

Rounding the corner of the driveway, they saw.

Sarah.

Gerald was holding Sarah in his arms. The pair looked a mess: she was coughing, he was coughing, both of them were soot-blackened—but there Sarah was, alive. Gloriously alive.

“How did you? What did you?” Clara stammered to her husband.

“The guys at Bow-Bow’s told me where you’d gone,” Gerald pointed to a car idling in the drive, and her long trek through the woods flashed through Clara’s mind. “We drove,” Gerald said, and she could see Helen waiting on the driver’s side.

As the family sped away, Clara thought she had never expected to be so happy to see Helen behind the wheel again.

*

Jennie wouldn’t let go of The Doll of after the explosion. Not when she was questioned, not when she went to bed, not even when she went back to school. Even as her friends poked fun, Jennie held it, clung to it, babied it. Though she was still a child, the aftershocks of tragedy faded her mind into the instinctive comforts of mothering.

Secretly, Clara Mae thought it was creepy.

Life went on, funerals and the like, and back at the home Mama had a successful surgery—the tumor, indeed, benign. Once Mama had started eating again (first bites of hospital food, then pineapple upside-down cake Clara had made) she went back to talking and not remembering, and it was welcomed by all. Mama’s roommate, Gertrude, had gone back to her usual self as well, following Mama and never speaking except her Morse Code tongue-clicks.

The day that Jennie went to visit Mama was the same day that T was handed down his sentence for shooting Dan. Clara knew the girls needed to get out of Tippashaw since the reporters had gotten wind of it. It was quite a bit of scandal for the tiny town. It had turned out that Kathy had gotten pregnant by Deacon Willis, the prosecution pieced together, and Kathy’d had an abortion. Dan had found out about the abortion, they surmised, and Kathy knew it was only a matter of time before Dan left her. In the end, it came down to greed: Kathy had thought Dan was worth more to her dead than alive.

So she had hired T.

Clara used the girls as an excuse to get out of town, but she was just as eager to put the ugly behind her. Clara knew Mama would be happy to see the girls, but she wasn’t sure how Mama would react to Jennie having The Doll. Mama had not asked for it. She was now happily mothering a nice MADE IN CHINA plastic baby like the other residents. Clara tried to talk Jennie out of bringing The Doll, but Jennie was having none of it. They dressed it up instead, putting a frilly bonnet over its tiny wrinkly head and hoping that she didn’t notice.

But Mama did notice.

“Come show me your baby,” Mama reached out her arms.

Jennie slid closer slowly, defensive. To Clara’s relief Mama did not reach for The Doll, but put her arm around Jennie instead. It was a guiding, mentoring touch. “You need to feed your baby,” Mama said gently, and handed her a tiny plastic fake-milk filled bottle that appeared to empty when tilted.

Together, the two nurtured their loss of childhood.

Gertrude made some clicking sounds, and mimicked the rocking motions with her empty arms. “Miss Gertrude doesn’t have a baby!” Jennie exclaimed, though Gertrude did have a doll—it was just tossed thoughtlessly on top of a pile of dirty socks. Jennie brought The Doll to her, and to Clara Mae’s surprise, placed in into Gertrude’s awaiting hands. The moment she did, the change came over Gertrude one more time, and she began to speak.

“Raw Gums was a baby born of a baby,” Gertrude began, and the words came easily, and if she spoke them every day. She told Jennie the story: of the girl that seemed too young to be with child, of the tribe that was burdened by drought, of the baby that flourished, dewy and fattened while the rest withered. She told of the rumors that spread amongst the tribe that the baby was being given more than its share. She told of the deaths of the elders, mysterious and tragic. She told of the delirious suspicion that arose among them about the baby—had the drought not come when the baby had? She told of the rumors of evil, the rumors that the baby was from darkness, the rumors that the baby was hungry for spirit and flesh.

Miss Gertrude told Jennie of the child-mother that took her baby’s life in the late night of the forest, before taking her own.

When she told of the tribe’s only survivor, a strong little girl in a thick braid, Mama did not look up from her doll-rocking with any recognition. But all at once Jennie knew that this was her Great Grandmother’s tale.

Finally, Gertrude told of the neighboring tribe that had found the mother and baby’s bodies, told of how they prepared the baby’s head and fashioned it into a doll—a doll that mocked her lineage and their suffering. Gertrude told of how her Great Grandmother was taken in (her tribe forgotten), and how all the while The Doll never left her side.

“The rumors were wrong, you know,” Gertrude said. “Raw Gums was not the child of darkness. Raw Gums was the child of fire. When the summer sun descended, drying up the crops and the creek beds, so did the fire descend into the child too young to be a mother. Her belly grew up fast, hot and throbbing, and from the moment Raw Gums burst from it the toothless creature was all-consuming. The child-mother tried all she could to quench his belly-fire, but his needs were endless.

“WAHHHHHH. WAHHHHH,” Gertrude imitated the baby’s cries.

“The child-mother saw. She saw the thirst. She saw the hunger. She saw the air change and her arm hairs stand upright; she saw the vibrant, electric shiver of heat that flashed from his tiny pores to fell the flies with a quick, hot shock.

But the child-mother did not know that the fire of the young cannot be snuffed.”

When she finished, Gertrude held The Doll outstretched, presenting it to Jennie. “When a child needs to find their fire, Raw Gums awakens.”

They were the last real words anyone ever heard Gertrude say.

Jennie accepted The Doll from Gertrude, but this time with markedly less enthusiasm. She held it gingerly through a wincing smile, and when Gertrude went back to her usual hums and clicks, Jennie quietly released The Doll into Clara’s hands.

That’s gross, Jennie mouthed to Clara as the let go of the dead-baby doll, and Clara nodded. She took The Doll quickly, finally placing it on a high shelf in the closet—just as she’d remembered it from her childhood.

Jennie no longer needed help finding her fire.

When the girls leaned in to kiss Mama goodbye, they had to wave away a fly that gotten in and was circling their heads. While Clara usually would have looked for a magazine to roll into a makeshift fly swatter, this time she let the fly be—finding reassurance in the life she heard in its buzz.

When Clara and the girls got home, Gerald was sitting in front of the TV as usual, punctuating his favorite lines of Andy Griffith by lip syncing along with them. But this time he did not have a beer. He had insisted on not “making a fuss” of it, but he had not had one drink since he had come home.

The kitchen emanated a cacophony of lovely smells. Helen, though a lousy driver, turned out to be a fantastic cook. Clara was still not happy about the whole thing. But it was nice to have the help, and Helen—well, she wasn’t so bad, actually.

The girls raced each other to their rooms, and as Clara went into the kitchen to help Helen with setting the table, Gerald looked away from his show just long enough to swat Clara playfully on the behind and wink. “Love you,” he said, and she could tell he meant it.

*

This morning, Jennie’s Grandmom was teaching Sunday School. Clara’s church was new to Jennie, and she and her sister had been attending now that they were living with Clara again. The young class sat with hands in laps, legs crossed, listening attentively to this Sunday’s lesson. Jennie and Sarah were equally attentive. In Clara, Jennie was beginning to feel like she really had a mother.

“Have you been in the car for a long trip with your family?” Clara asked. The class was a sea of nods.

“Sometimes those trips can feel so long, everybody cooped up in a tight spot. Then can you imagine being on that trip for days instead of hours?” Clara asked, and everyone shook their heads no.

“Noah and his family stayed on the ark for over a year.

And not just with his family, no. A whole zoo of animals! It must have been very long and very rough on Noah and his family. After the rains had ended Noah sent out a dove. Does anyone know why he sent out a dove?” Clara asked.

“To look for land!” somebody said.

“That’s right,” Clara said. “Noah sent out the dove to look for land. Now why would he do that? Because God told him when the flood would begin, but not when it would end. So Noah and his family were on this boat with all of these animals for all of this time, and they did not know how long it would last.

“Sometimes it feels that way, right? Like we can endure anything as long as we know there is an end.

“But God doesn’t like to tell us the end,” Clara said.

“We send out that dove every day and hoping that one day it won’t come back, and we’ll know our troubles are over.

“After the flood dried up, Noah and his family were alone in this world—but they were alive. God put a rainbow in the sky as a covenant with man—a promise not to wipe out everything because of the sins of a few ever again.”

Jennie knew that God was fickle. He had made that promise, and He had broken it time and time again. But through the church window Jennie could see a rainbow break the clouds, and she held her sister’s hand and knew that this one was meant for them.

END

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