excerpted from Grace, a novel in process
appeared in Room Magazine
My Mother was born Ophelia Roberta Burke, the seventh child and the seventh girl of many. I was born seventy-five years ago when my mother was barely sixteen and just two thumbnails over five feet high. She named me Angela after her favorite sister. By then my father was unpredictably present. Mother was so lonely for someone to talk to she comforted herself by gabbing into my ear even though I was just a child and as glassy-eyed as a doll. In truth, I think she wished I was her youngest sister instead of her daughter.
In an even dozen there was only one boy, little Hal, my Mother called him. This arrangement was all consternation to Grandfather Burke. To his dirt grave, the old man bemoaned the damnable truth that eleven out of twelve of his young were girls. He found even less joy in the fact of his only son. It was as if Hal had never lived at all. To Jake Burke, little Hal was an irony of nature, a pitiful mistake. He said, “The boy’s good for whining, instead of working.”
You see, Hal was the youngest, and it seems like the runt of a large litter, he was disadvantaged physically. While the Burke young inherited their father’s moody eyes, they inherited Grandmother Burke’s trivial bones. An added insult was the fact that Hal was the baby boy with eleven older sisters, all too eager to coddle. This made poor little Hal sniveling and dependent, even for the tiniest things. Mother said he didn’t utter a word before the age of five.
When he finally did speak a complete thought, he looked into his father’s smoky eyes and asked, “Pa, when will I be getting my doll?” With eleven older sisters, little Hal thought getting your own doll was a natural right, bestowed on everyone eventually.
Grandmother Burke pleaded the boys’ case. She said, “Little Hal is only confused. What boy wouldn’t be with so many sisters dressing him up like a little toy in floppy ribbons and lacey anklets? Be patient with the boy. Let him grow up.”
But Jake Burke was not a patient man. His consternation gave way to fierce contempt. Every twinge, angst, or rage with the world was made real each time Jake Burke cast eyes on his last born. He punished Hal for the very act of taking a breath and dealt his temper with a heavy hand or a leather shave strap. He said, “My aim is to toughen the pink petal hide of the clumsy little sissy.”
My mother and her sisters tried their best to shelter the boy, scouting unlikely hiding places. Jake Burke would find him hidden in the grain box or behind a split in the wall of the barn. Hal would go as limp as a dead kitten as Jake Burke dragged him away, dangling his son by the arm. My mother recalls wailing and screaming as her father let his rage on the boy, but the only sound out of little Hal was the clap of his skin each time it met the strap.
Though their father had little use for any of his daughters, something stopped him short from raising hand or belt to the tender skin of any one of them. Little Hal suffered Jake Burke’s wrath for them all.
It was a bitter mercy that one hard January, a gray flu swept down with the wind and carried little Hal away. Some say you have to earn your right to die in this world. After Grandfather Burke covered the last mound of dirt over his son’s wooden box, he staked the spade in the ground and Hal’s name never crossed Jake Burke’s lips again.
Mother Ophelia said as the seventh girl she was all but invisible, just one in a crowd of many. She only managed to distinguish herself by a stubborn streak that was as pointed as her tongue. Her father said that was a secret best kept. He said, “Pity the poor man to marry a bullhead that spits in his eye.”
I suppose under normal conditions Mother’s fragile features and colorful eyes would have been enough to set her apart, but among her sister’s her beauty was only average. To Jake Burke, she was just another open, squawking mouth. But to the rough, young men in the mining and logging camps that crowd of blue-eyed creatures was a mysterious lot, as sprite and enchanting as an assortment of winged fairies. It was said that Jake Burke’s pixie batch of girls, were as good as a legend that spread like trumpeter vine from the Idaho panhandle clear to Missoula.
Of course, this made Grandfather Burke’s farm a choice stop for eager young suitors. And Jake Burke didn’t waste any time putting them all to good use chopping wood, digging fence holes, or stripping hide from a steer for butchering.
He’d tell them, “Let’s see if you’re as potent as the lust in your britches.”
In this land of calloused hands and blisters, the measure of a soul’s worth, man or woman has always been in how much you do. There was fierce competition to win the good graces of Grandfather Burke and it led to some testy clashes of fists.
By the time my Mother was fourteen, her five eldest sisters had been carried away to distant places like little birds. Places that mother could only imagine by the sounds of their names like Alaska and Utah. Mother said the sounds reminded her of the word aloha, which she heard was a way people welcomed you to paradise.
She imagined her sisters in exotic surroundings traveling on trains in ornate dining cars with maroon velvet walls. They’d be sipping Chinese tea out of shell thin china with their pinky fingers in the air. In her mind’s eye, she could see her sisters dressed in glossy clothes and wearing hats with grand pea bird feathers that tickled people’s noses when they turned their heads from side to side.
It was the October following Mother’s fifteenth birthday that Hanley James called on the Jake Burke farm. He arrived with a somber face, dressed in a black coat and white shirt like he was headed for a funeral parlor. Mother said, what a mysterious, man-sized figure was he. He stepped off the edge of his buggy and brought his long leg to the ground in one sure stride.
He knocked on the door and when Grandmother Burke answered the soaring man removed his hat to reveal a rugged face with its share of lines. The mystifying visitor asked to speak to Jake Burke and the two men walked tall and deliberate down to the barn. After an afternoon of bragging and corn still, the arrangement was sealed and it was announced that my mother would marry my father.
Jake Burke glared at Mother and whispered a stern warning. “You’ll watch that straight blade you call a tongue if you know what’s good for you. I won’t see you back on my porch.” When my mother told me her recollections of the event I could almost see her miniature bones quake beneath her skin.
Father was thirty-five and worked then as a foreman for the silver mine by way of Hangman’s Creek. He’d been working since he was old enough to pick an ax so he had something modest to show for himself. He could prove his worth in more ways than simple sweat. The two men settled their business behind the closed door of the barn like they were trading on a young ewe or a veal calf. My mother had no say at all in the matter. Before that time she’d only seen my father in passing on trips to town with her sisters and mother. Of course, her head was filled with notions of paradise and fancy rail cars so she was galloping to go with such a big mysterious looking man.
He’d arranged with the preacher in advance to say his blessings before he took my mother back to his homestead that night. For the brief ceremonial words, Grandmother Burke tended Mother’s hair in pretty curls high on top of her head, showing off the nape of her dainty neck. She powdered Mother over in corn starch and laced her up tight in a canvas corset. When the last lace was yanked and tied mother’s waist was no more than fifteen inches round.
Grandmother Burke sent my mother away with the same advice she gave each of the Burke girls before their blood was to be broken. She said, “Little Ophelia, I want you to stay brave and it will be over quick enough. You’re obligated only so long as the honey moon. When the honey moon is over you can say no whenever the opinion strikes you. Then you can say what for all you want.”
Of course, this was coming from a woman with 12 children. Grandmother Burke covered her daughter in a lacey bodice sewn from an old table cloth. Mother looked as pretty and delicate as one of those china dolls, too breakable to be unpackaged.
She was startled to the bone by the fiery stare that Hanley James laid on her when he spied her slight frame all laced and starched.
Grandmother Burke gave Mother one last hug. “The honeymoon will be over before you know it.”
“Poor old fool,” Jake Burke said.
Now, mind you, this mysterious man who gripped Mother by the arm and hurried her toward the buggy was closer to her father in age. After the preacher read the marriage psalm, the preacher’s wife snapped my mother’s portrait for four bits. Father settled the debt without saying a word. Mother said if she looked faint in her wedding picture it was due in no small part to her corset ties. “My lungs were as good as wadded with cotton,” she said. “I could breathe out but not in.” When the blue light of the camera bulb flashed in her eyes it made a hollow whoop like the sound of a hawk descending on a young rabbit.
They rode the trail back to Father’s place with no words exchanged between them. Night dew clung in a powdery crust to the tips of the grass. A solemn quiet settled over the night like a suspended breath girded against the coming winter. Mother said, “I couldn’t bring myself to meet his blazing eyes, but I could feel his stare piercing clear through to my insides. I couldn’t tell if my shivers were from the chill October night or the thought of what come.”
You see, she had a full mind of what lay before her from conjecturing with her sisters. They had all watched plenty in wide-eyed astonishment as the rams took after the ewes with a vengeance. When they pulled to a stop in front of father’s place, there was a damp wind stirring outside of the gray slat structure. They entered the front room of what Mother referred to as little better than a hut.
“It was a dreary miserable place full of dust and rancid smells,” Mother said. “The kitchen and the living room were all the same space, and the bedroom was in the back of the house like a black cave.” There was a single window to the outside in a habitat cold and austere with only a dim light cast from the ocher glow of the moon.
Father set Mother’s trunk in the middle of the floor. “You get yourself settled how you like,” he said and left outside to stable the horse.
Mother stood breathless, frozen in place waiting for him to leap in a swift grip as soon as he reentered. But after an afternoon of corn still, father stripped down to his johns and collapsed on the bed. Mother said, “Within two winks he was snoring and letting out his wind.”
Well, of course, Mother promptly twisted her arms to her back and untied her corset. After gulping some air she sighed in stone relief. It was a far cry from paradise but she’d managed to skirt any hammering of the flesh.
She said, “I had myself a good look around, poking in spaces as I pleased. I opened a drawer and there was an old mouse nest made of paper shredded up just as neat as Christmas tinsel.” Besides a good cleaning, she’d see to it that some changes were made in short order. She had a mind to introduce Hanley James to the hammer and the nail just as soon as the honey moon was over.
After her curiosity was satisfied she rinsed her face and changed into her bedgown. Careful not to wake the windy giant, she slipped onto the far edge of the bed beneath the quilt. She folded her arms neat as an invitation over her chest and after a whirly day closed her eyes to a hard sleep.
Long past midnight, she felt a hot poke pushing and grinding back her insides. Her innards caved and snapped like a dried up wishbone. Just as she was about to cry out into the chill air all was still and swollen.
After the consummation of her thin flesh, she didn’t lift her eyes to meet her husband’s lusty stare. A fortnight passed of amber moons hidden behind black clouds.
Mother only nodded when he told her he liked his meat cooked so blood juice ran in the middle. She prepared the fare in the makeshift kitchen and the two sat across the meal table without a word between them. The only sound was the fork scraping against the big man's plate and the tine of metal against his big teeth. When he did speak it was to grunt or bark an order in a way more animal than man.
Mother held her tongue swallowing hard with her eyes fixed on the window. She was waiting. Her time waxed near.
That night, before she slipped into her bedgown...before she stiffened and entered the open mouth of that dark bedroom she ran to the window ledge to check the moon. In that cloudless instant, she pushed open the window and filled her lungs with the glittering night.
“Praise the hour,” she called out marveling at the clear force of her own voice. The change had come. The color of honey had finally dripped from the moon and it had gone small and light, set against the fire of a trillion stars.