Excerpt from Blue, a collection of short stories by Wodke Hawkinson
This excerpt is from the title story, "Blue"
I was sent to that god-awful house when I was eight years old. Deep in the Appalachian backcountry, bordered on one side by a desolate field, guarded on two sides by thick stands of sinister-looking trees, and butted up against the tangled foothills of wild mountains; it was the residence of a reclusive inbred clan. The efforts of my mama to keep me away from those people were all in vain, because she died and then they had me.
The woman in charge of this filthy house was full of mean bones. Her real name was Zelda, but everyone called her Meme. An ugly name for an ugly woman. She got the name Meme because that was what she said from the time she could speak as a toddler. Me, me, me. She bragged about this as if it were a proud accomplishment. But, the truth is that she was a selfish child who grew to be a selfish domineering woman. She was my grandmother by blood, on my daddy’s side. Or so they all claimed. From the first fear-filled moment I stepped foot on the weathered gray boards of the front porch, I denied it. Out loud and to anyone who listened, until the notion was smacked down. Then, I just denied it silently but with vehemence in my soul. I can’t possibly be part of this family.
My mama loved all the colors in the world, and so she named me Blue. She named her still-born twins, her first babies, Violet and Lavender. And a little brother I barely remembered, who died when he was still an infant, had been called Baby Red.
Although she never liked to talk about it, I knew from overheard conversations that there had been another boy, born before me, whose death was shrouded in secrecy. His name was Grey, and I knew he had died when he was only four years old, a year before I came along. I was the only child left to this woman, and she fled to protect me. For several years, she stayed on the run and kept me safe. But, death interfered with her best intentions, and I was sent by Social Services to the Clapper family to be raised.
The first day in that house destroyed any hopes I had been clinging to that they would be nice people who would look after me because I was blood kin. I would have been better off thrown into a pack of wolves or sent to an orphanage. From the start, I knew there was danger. It lurked around every corner of that trashy old house, in the lanky frames of the men folk, and in the coarse hands of the women. It hung like a ghost in the cracked plaster walls that had seen too many unspeakable acts, behind the doors that hung crooked and scraped the uneven floors, and simmered in the small close-set eyes of the cousins, aunts and uncles.
“Well, here she is,” Meme crowed as she shoved me up the steps onto the front porch. It was crowded with lazing men and lolling women, guzzling Falstaff beer and drinking from Mason jars, smoking their hand-rolled cigarettes and spitting chew. They were a ragged bunch that radiated casual violence and dark, unrestrained proclivities.
A pack of undernourished grubby-looking children crawled like rats among the legs of the adults and played around the corners of the house. “This here is Blue, everyone.”
One of the men snorted and tossed the flat yellowed butt of a cigarette into the dirt yard. It was immediately snatched up and puffed on by one of the children. “I got me a huntin’ dog by that name,” he said. “You some kinda dog?”
All of them laughed as my cheeks burned red. I froze, clutching my rag doll.
“Say, Blue, did you know we’re foreigners here? That’s right. We all got Roman hands and Russian fingers,” another said with a wink. The group sniggered lethargically, as if it were an old family joke they’d heard many times. Meme snickered too, but her knobby hand propelled me forward the length of the porch, past all those similar sets of malformed eyes, toward the screen door. A dirty jean-clad leg lifted to block my progress.
“Let me have a look at ya,” said a rail-thin man with a shock of dark hair above a deeply tanned face. He took my chin in his hand and raised my head. Then, he stroked my cheek in a nasty lingering way that reminded me of the slime on the sides of the fish tank in my old apartment, before Mama and I’d had to run again. I stared into those odd hazel eyes and trembled. His voice was like gravel in a bucket, deep and jagged-sounding. “I’m yer Uncle Jez, brother to yer daddy. Well, well, Blue. Looks like you done lost both a yer front teeth. Ain’t you a right big girl? Did the tooth fairy leave you a quarter?” He tossed a significant look to the other men who each chuckled. “Uncle Jez’ll give you a quarter, later on. I got some magic tricks to show you, too.”
“Hehe!” a rat-faced man in overalls hooted. “Looks like Jez got himself a little crush on Blue.”
The others laughed and one of the kids sang, “Jez and Blue, sitting in a tree….”
Everyone but me thought it was pretty funny.
“Aw, she’s shy,” Jez said. “Look at that face, boys. Just like a little scared mouse.”
My so-called daddy sat there on the edge of the porch, sullen and half-drunk, staring at the hard packed dirt beneath his boots. He didn’t stick up for me. Neither did Meme, but she did put a stop to the teasing.
“That’s enough of that shit!” she bellowed. She kicked Jez’s leg out of the way and pushed me past him. “You shut your big mouth, Jez. Blue here has got real work to do. She ain’t gonna have time to be playing with you. Gal’s got a lot to learn, and she don’t ‘pear to be none too bright.”
I stumbled forward, through the screen door. Jez called to my back, “I’ll teach you some things, girly.” His low laugh made my insides hurt, and tears ran down my cheeks. I couldn’t have guessed then that Uncle Jez would turn out to be my favorite. But, given the alternatives, that wasn’t saying much; and just because he was my favorite doesn’t mean I liked him. It just meant I hated him the least.
“I don’t want to stay here. I want my mama!” I wailed.
“Now look what ya done!” Meme turned to stare at Uncle Jez through the rusty screen. “You made her cry, you ass. You think I wanta listen to a bunch of bawling?” She turned to me and squeezed my chin hard, forcing me to look up at her. “You stop that sniveling right now, you little baby. Jez was just joking with you. You’d better grow a thick skin if you want to be part of this here family.”
“I don’t want to be.” My voice shook, but I was naïve enough to think all I had to do was say it and I’d somehow be released.
“Want to be what?” Meme frowned at me, putting her face close to mine. I caught a whiff of alcohol and old tobacco on her breath.
“Part of this family. I’m not part of this family.” I hugged my doll closer and tried to pull my face from Meme’s grasp. Without warning, she let go of me with one hand and slapped me with the other. She didn’t hold back, and my head snapped to the side. The shock and pain of the blow set me to crying harder, deep wrenching sobs. She took my shoulders in a claw-like grip and began shaking me back and forth.
“Let’s get two things straight right now, you snotty little brat. You are a part of this family whether you like it or not. I don’t care what kind of hoity-toity bullshit yer mother filled yer head with. And second, I don’t tolerate crying. I like my peace and quiet, so you just shut yer ugly mouth or I’ll slap it right off yer stupid little head. You got that?”
I’m going to die, I thought. Just like my brothers and sisters did.