I made it to week 7 of my 52 stories in 52 weeks challenge!
Alright, 7 isn’t such a high number but every week I don’t quit is one more notch on the writer consistency belt I’m trying to earn, and one more week I didn’t throw my pen down and declare myself a failure.
In the past seven weeks I’ve completed more first drafts than I ever have before. They’re not all good, but they’re all stories that I pushed from my brain onto the computer and paper and the back of my four year old’s drawing of a badger (don’t tell him please.) They’re stories that wait for my return and another edit (or 20).
This week’s struggle (because lets be honest, there’s always at least one glaring struggle) was concern that all my stories sound the same. I was about halfway through this week’s tale of Diana and her older sister when the bitch that battles my muse (I call her Gretchen) sat beside me and said, “You know what? That sounds like everything you’ve ever written.”
I shook my head and told her that she was wrong and she smiled and said, “Okkkkkkkk” in the same annoying way my brother used to when I had a crush on a boy in school and denied it.
I sat and stared at the words and said “oh shit” out loud and spent an hour telling myself not to push the story off a cliff and watch it die the slow death of highlight and delete. It was a painful conversation but by the time my muse got back from her break and I yelled “It DOES sound like everything I’ve ever written!”
She looked at me and said, “So what?” Then she pushed Gretchen off the cliff and I ate a candy bar.
Realizing that it was ok for my stories to sound similar was as easy as a schizophrenic conversation with myself.
I finished the story and repeated the mantras my muse forced upon me as I wrote:
“The story doesn’t have to be perfect.”
“The story will not be perfect.”
“I will not be perfect.” (Whatever muse, you clearly haven’t tasted my chocolate sheet cake.)
With an almost idiotic snail’s pace I accepted that while it’s great to be on week 7 there are still a lot of weeks to go and many more stories. I now know that I have a tendency toward the same place and similar characters in my mind but I also know that the words of Maya Angelou are true, ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’
Doing the best I can is exactly what this challenge is about. I am working to craft the words and ideas I already posses into stories that need to be told. As I read more throughout the weeks and write more, I’m learning. As I learn I new words and new ideas I hope to begin to grasp what it means to be a writer and a collector of tales. As the weeks go on, I hope to do better.
Thanks all for coming along this journey with me!
Here is week 7’s story:
Her skin glowed, stagnant and shining. Beads of moisture covered her face and ran at odd intervals down her neck and chest. She heaved on the bed and made a noise like a barn cat in heat. Her eyes opened then squeezed shut. She threw her head back and called my name.
The old woman by her side made a clicking sound with her tongue then began humming a song I didn’t know while she worked between my sister’s legs.
Diana cried out again for me and the old woman turned and said “water” then dismissed me with her hand and looked at my sister again. Patting her leg she mumbled low that it wouldn’t be long.
I walked through the dark shack and felt around the kitchen for a cup. Outside Connor barked. I could hear him pull on his chain, trying to break free from the tree and get inside the house to Diana. Anxious for a breath of air I opened the door and told him to be quiet. Trees cast shadows from the light of the moon and I jumped several times, unused to the dark of the country the way I’d once been. Connor barked, then whined and rolled around in the dirt until I kneeled beside him and told him it would be alright.
The only source of light inside the shack flicked against the dark in a room now filled with my sister’s cries. She’d been like this since the previous night and I’d covered my ears and asked God for a quick relief to her pain and a birth that produced a healthy baby and a healthy mother.
A day later, I clung to Connor, ruining my only good dress in red dirt and I didn’t ask God anything. I didn’t cover my ears. I didn’t wish for a healthy baby.
“I hope she’ll be alright” I said to the dog.
His breath was heavy and low and joined blowing leaves and my sister’s screams in a chorus of nighttime noise. An owl called out from his perch in a pine tree. A gunshot rang from some distant hill. Diana’s screams filled the void in the night where prayers belonged.
“She’s got t’ be.”
Connor licked my face and whined and Diana’s sobs softened so that I could hear the old lady’s song.
She needed me but I couldn’t move. Lulled by the far away humming and a solid bed of bark against my back I fell asleep and woke hours later to daylight and Connor’s head in my lap.
I couldn’t remember a morning when I’d woken feeling so refreshed and before my eyes could focus I was convinced I was at home and that the last 24 hours had been a horrible dream. Connor whined and I remembered his head in my lap.
I didn’t have a dog at home.
I heard footsteps and turned toward the shack in time to see the old lady crossing the yard of dirt with a bundle in her arms. I stood and apologized to Connor for knocking him away so fast.
“Is she alright?” I asked to the wrinkled face with no expression. The bundle in her arms didn’t move.
“No” she said and my heart fell to my feet.
She handed the baby to me and I saw a face so pale and ugly I would have laughed if I could have done anything.
“You gotta name her.” Wrinkled hands touched my bare arm then asked if I had a husband to help with the burying.
Though covered in blood she was so unruffled by the loss that I felt calm for the few breaths of a moment it took to answer her.
“Yes,” I said, “but he won’t help.”
We buried my sister behind the house in a grave that was shallow because the old woman had no more strength left and I couldn’t make myself believe I was burying my best friend and my little sister.
“That baby ain’t got a name.”
I said nothing but watched the old woman shake her head and leave without saying anything more. It took her ten minutes to walk the short distance from where my sister was buried to the woods behind the house. I hadn’t noticed the small path beaten down in a thin strip disappearing into the dense forest of trees and brush. When she stepped onto it seemed to appear from nowhere. I turned with the baby toward my car and when I looked back she was gone, up into the hills from where she came.
I remembered Connor as I opened the car door and left it ajar with the baby squalling on the front seat while went to I untie him from the tree. I took the rope from his collar and he stayed sitting on his haunches. I wished I could take him home but Joe would be mad enough about the baby. If I took Connor he’d shoot him.
“Goodbye.” I scratched the soft patch of hair in between his ears.
He didn’t move until I pulled the car back from the place it was parked. It moved with ease and Connor looked to the empty house and stood a moment, listening. The last glimpse I had of Diana’s beloved pet was from the rearview mirror as the car turned around the bend, he lay with his head on the top step of the porch, his eyes closed, his body still.
The baby didn’t cry on the long drive home until the sun was high and bright in the sky. She must have known that I could do nothing for her empty belly and I held the steering wheel as though the answer to all the problems I faced was in my grip. Sugar-water and a rag was all that I had at home if Joe hadn’t found the secret stash I was keeping to make Diana a cake for her birthday.
When I’d traded mother’s pearl earrings for a small bag of sugar and flour I hadn’t thought that Diana would never see the age of 22. I’d have to trade them for milk now if I could find it or beg one of the nursing mothers in the shanty town near the house.
I turned the key and felt the car come to a still in the dirt driveway. I hadn’t looked at the gas gauge out of fear on the ride home and now that I did, I saw it was less than empty and I spoke to god in thanks, then wondered at my own words.
Joe was raging when I walked through the door and I knew without looking that all the food I’d left was gone. The baby began to wiggle in the crook of my arm as Joe slammed his fist into walls and demanded to know where I’d been. He’d found no work while I was gone. He was hungry. He said I looked like I’d eaten and he wanted me to give him something. I stood in the open doorway with the baby clinging to my empty breasts and I laughed at him for a few terrible moments, not once connecting the look on his face to the pain I would soon feel.
He grabbed my arm, already yellowed and purpled from his past bursts of emotion and shook until he saw the bundle I held and jumped back like it was a gun pointed at his heart.
“Take that damn baby back wherever you got.”
He turned away from me and picked up a jug, putting it to his lips he pulled hard and swallowed while I told him what happened. He looked at me after and I wondered where the kind man I’d married had gone. On our wedding day I had seen the life we would live as I walked toward him down the aisle and I was so happy. The overwhelming joy I saw with such clarity then seemed liked a dream now.
“Another whore dead.” He said stumbling over his feet as he walked across the room and sat in my father’s chair. “Good riddance.”
He danced with Diana on our wedding day and I remembered her laughing at something he said while the music lent it’s almost unearthly beauty to the hot summer evening. That life was over now and the evidence of its ending was the blood from my sister’s body soaking into the red Georgia clay. It was the gravestones of my parents, and my husband driven half mad by a life worse than death. It was in the starvation and deprivation and in the belief that everything that came before the moment I lived now was a beautiful lie.
The baby cried.
While he flipped through the first few pages of one of his old novels, his mood evaporated, and without looking up from his book he told me to put the baby into the river behind our house. “It’ll be better.” He didn’t say it with malice, and I knew he was right.
“You k’en do it, or I will.”
I could hear the river rushing through the open windows and wondered what Joe would say if I asked him to bash my brains out on the slick rocks after I got rid of the baby.
“We a’int got nothing for it.”
I looked at him scratch his nose then sniff and wondered if he meant the words as an apology. If I wanted, I could have taken them that way.
For minutes we stood in silence as he pretended to read. The baby started to cry and soon was shaking in her fury. Joe didn’t move, he waited then turned his head slightly in my direction and without looking at me rolled his eyes and sighed. A few more seconds went by and he picked up an empty bottle and threw it at me, telling me without words to go.
I didn’t think about the baby or my sister as I walked toward the river, only how hungry I was and how much I wanted to sleep. I knew the water would be cool and that slipping my dress over my head and immersing myself in its folds would be almost as satisfying as roasted chicken followed by a long nap, but when I got to the soft bank I didn’t take my shoes off or let my hair down. I held tight to the baby that thrashed now as she screamed and I looked into Diana’s infant face. I wondered what name she would have given the baby then remembered that she always called her dolls Sarah.
“Alright Sarah” I said to the tear streaked face, “lets go find you some milk.” I didn’t look back at my house when I crossed the river, moving carefully over wet stones and took the wide path that led to the train tracks and the small makeshift village of drifters. I didn’t wonder at my life as I walked or quicken my pace when I heard the back door slam and Joe yell my name. I held tight to Sarah and I walked away.