Muddy Mississippi, fiction by Katie Moore

My Mama always said if it hadn’t been for that first sight of the Mis­sis­sip­pi, twist­ing like a snake below the levy, she nev­er would have laid down in the back of Bil­ly Taylor’s pick­up. The way she told it, the riv­er did all the court­ing for that mean Tay­lor boy. 

Ma nev­er thought the spell the water cast over her was quite fair—setting her life on a path with as many twists and turns as any riv­er could ever have. Maybe she was mak­ing her excus­es when she told me her riv­er tales. Myself, I don’t think rivers are in the busi­ness of being fair. They just are what they are. 

Mama was a puz­zle. Some­times she screamed in a voice made harsh with years of cig­a­rette smoke, “God­damn! I wish I’d nev­er seen that riv­er, girl!” 

Oth­er times, most­ly when I was very small, she would pull me into her lap while she rocked by the kitchen win­dow in the evening and stroke my frizzy hair ‘til it behaved in her slen­der hands. She’d whis­per in my ear, “The Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er gave me my girl, the only crit­ter in the world worth lovin'.” 

Then she’d send me off to bed with a pat on the bot­tom and I’d fall asleep lis­ten­ing to the crack­le and squeak of her rock­er through the wall. She wore ruts in the floor board with that old rocker. 

Mama loved the riv­er so much she named me after it. Mis­sis­sip­pi Ann Tay­lor, born nine days into August, the same year the riv­er ate my Granny’s house. I was 23 inch­es long, which is mighty long for a baby, and nine pounds even, which seems mighty big too. I can’t imag­ine push­ing out nine pounds of baby between my legs. On the day Ma brought me into the world she told vis­i­tors, before she let any­one lay hands on my new­ness, that my name was Mississippi—not Mis­sy, Cici, Pipi, or any oth­er such non­sense. She warned every­one from the pas­tor to her sis­ters, “Bet­ter not let me catch you call­in’ my girl out of her name.” 

Peo­ple must have seen in her eyes the pun­ish­ment for break­ing this rule, because I don’t remem­ber it ever being test­ed before of after the sev­enth grade when J.P.Corbin made his mistake. 

Mama had braid­ed my hair real pret­ty for the first day back to school after a sum­mer of wild and nap­py curls like big yanks of yarn burst­ing from my head and swing­ing down my back. She spent two hours comb­ing and cut­ting all the knots free and braid­ed it tight in pig­tails just before I laid my head down for the ner­vous last-night-of-sum­mer sleep. I thought I might be a bit too big for braids, but I didn’t mind none. It was nice to have all that hair out of my way. I hard­ly dared to sleep for fear I’d toss an’ turn too much with the jit­ters and knock the braids loose. 

In the morn­ing I woke to sleek and tame braids like new rope. I toss’d ‘em back and forth over my shoul­ders and preened like a fussy hen in the bath­room mir­ror ‘til Pa called me a nin­ny and told me he’d take a scis­sors to ‘em if I didn’t quit. 

He couldn’t spoil my smile that morn­ing. I walked to school proud as a roost­er. My dress was as plain and care­worn as it was when school let out the last year, and my shoes were picked out of the church box, but my braids were shiny in the ear­ly sun and the breeze tick­led ‘round my ears. I felt just as pret­ty as a mag­a­zine girl. I was just sure folks would stop and stare over my fine hair when I walked up on the school, but nobody said noth­in’. They went about their busi­ness, and I went about mine. I wasn’t used to much atten­tion, but I sure did want some­one to notice me just once. 

No one did, for good or mean­ness, ‘til recess. Of all the peo­ple I liked and those I didn’t much care for, J.P. Corbin was the one to pay my braids some mind. He was the biggest, mean­est lit­tle snake in boy skin I had ever met, up to that point. He walked right up on me play­ing squares and wrapped his fin­gers around one of my braids. I remem­ber his hands looked like ris­ing bread dough, all dim­pled and pasty. He yanked so hard my head bent right down to the side and I screamed out a cat’s angry yowl. I swung my fists and tried to get my teeth in him, but he was quick for all his size. 

“Sis­sy braids! Sis­sy braids! Sis­sy Mis­sis­sip­pi,” he sang like a nurs­ery rhyme. Once he stopped his singing he took to call­ing me Sis­sy for good, even though every­one already knew better. 

All that day he called me Sis­sy when he had cause to speak to me, and whis­pered it even when he didn’t. And he laughed, did he ever laugh, like a snake would laugh, like a squir­rel scream­ing at you from the trees, like a mean dog bark­ing. I told him he’d bet­ter stop or my crazy Ma was gonna get him. 

He called me Sis­sy the next day, and the next. He got oth­er peo­ple call­ing me Sis­sy, singing it at me in the hallway. 

That was just the first time I learnt how way-down-deep bad boys are, all of ‘em. They's just a waste of time. I always thought so, but J.P. Corbin con­firmed it. I wasn’t nev­er picked on before, so I didn’t know quite what I should be think­ing. But I didn’t like it. My name was Mis­sis­sip­pi, it always had been. They only had to say it. I had to learn to spell it before every­one else, and write it. I had to be named after a riv­er, not them. I got mad­der and mad­der the more I thought on it. 

I final­ly screwed up the courage to tell Mama. 

Fire lit up her eyes and the heat must have burned her cheeks ‘cause I nev­er saw her that col­or before or since. I knew she wasn’t just a lit­tle mad because she didn’t even yell. She didn’t even talk. She just walked on out the door. 

When she stomped off in her house-dress I wished I’d nev­er told her. It was the one that used to be white with blue flow­ers but looked more like gray with dark­er gray flow­ers just then. She went the way to town, down the grav­el road. I just knew she was going to talk to Mr. Corbin. He would see her dress and her crazy eyes. Every­one already thought Mama was crazy, but I didn’t like her prov­ing it. I want­ed to sink right down into the moldy green cow pond down the road. 

She didn’t tell me what hap­pened, she didn’t even speak to me when she came in, red cheeked from the walk and look­ing tired. She just got sup­per ready and combed out my rat­ty hair after we ate. Didn’t braid it though, nev­er again. 

I didn’t have too many friends after that time, but peo­ple didn’t often call me any­thing but my name any­more either, when they spoke to me at all. J.P. nev­er even looked my way cross-eyed. Rumor was Ma’d threat­ened to set his Pa’s house on fire and curse his crop. I don’t think she would have done it, but like­ly she could have done it. I heard his Pa’d whupped him 'til he couldn’t set down prop­er and took away all his chore mon­ey for three months. I didn't feel bad for him. He knew bet­ter than to call me any­thing but Mississippi. 

We lived in that same town, Devlin, when I was born, and all through while I was grow­ing up. I still live in Devlin, sur­round­ed by peo­ple who know the sound of my laugh­ter in church on a Sun­day morn­ing. My Mama don’t live any­where no more though. She’s dead. An’ my Pa’s as good as dead if you ask me and mine. I pre­tend­ed not to see him, when he used to stand at the foot of the grav­el dri­ve and stare up at the house, vacant eyed like a slaugh­tered calf. He’s just one of my ghosts. 

I got lots of ghosts for a per­son my age. Some of ‘em passed down from Mama, an’ some I earned all on my own, like pen­nies for chores. Some even come from Pa, I’m sure. 

Devlin ain’t any­where near Mama’s riv­er, but she talked about it so vivid, I always thought I could see it in my head. I pic­tured it just like a film of the ocean I saw once in school, with waves rush­ing up on the shore. I went to see it after Mama died, instead of going to the ser­vice. It only seemed right to say good­bye to her there, where we first met, the night my Pa put me in her bel­ly. The town buzzed for weeks behind cupped hands when­ev­er I walked by. They said I always was an odd one, and tak­ing off for the riv­er when I should be at the funer­al was just anoth­er exam­ple of how I wasn’t quite right. I was Mama’s girl. It ran in the blood. 

The first sight of Mama’s mud­dy Mis­sis­sip­pi was a bit dis­ap­point­ing, to be truthful. 

When I was grow­ing up Pa always said all Mama’s talk about the riv­er was horse-shit, and that Beth Pid­den was hap­py to jump in his truck and dri­ve away, any­where he want­ed to take her. There wasn’t no oth­er way for her to see the world, ‘cept to go where some­one would take her. Mama was nev­er quite hap­py just being my Mama and Pa’s wife here in Devlin. She was the type shoul­da seen the world. 

If Pa’d been drink­ing, and she start­ed spin­ning riv­er tales, he'd laugh in her face and tell her she wasn't noth­in' but a dumb bitch. Some­times I laughed with him, ‘spe­cial­ly when she said she wished the riv­er hadn't brought her such a trou­ble in the body of a girl. She said that at least three times in a week when I got to be old enough for the boys to start look­ing twice after me on Sun­days. But I believed her riv­er sto­ries, even if I said I didn’t when I was feel­ing stub­born. I believed every­thing my Mama ever said. 

It was easy, trust­ing Mama’s riv­er tales, ‘spe­cial­ly when I’d see sto­ries in the town paper about the riv­er flood­ing and ruin­ing all man­ner of homes and fields. Like I said, the year I was born, the riv­er swal­lowed up my Granny’s house. Swal­lowed it up, with Granny sleep­ing sound in her bed. No one knows if she woke up, or tried to swim away or get out of the house. Pa said the house, white­washed and a bit drafty but not at all rick­ety, was there before the flood and after the flood it was gone. All the riv­er left was an old tree stump he used to chop logs on and a porch post still stick­ing up from the ground like a sawed off flag­pole. My Granny Tay­lor was nev­er seen again by any­one in Devlin, prob­a­bly not by any­one at all. 

Fore she died she came to see me in the hos­pi­tal where I was born, over in Hog­garth. I was her first girl gran’child and she thought girls was a bit smarter than boys, or so said my Pa any­way. I don’t remem­ber meet­ing her, but Pa wasn’t real fond of her, and I wasn’t real fond of Pa. So ‘course I thought she must have been the most won­der­ful per­son, next to Mama. 

Pa dis­liked her so much he didn’t even talk about her unless he was spe­cial-occa­sion-drunk. On those nights he was fond of curs­ing her name with every dirty word in the book, and some I’m sure he made up ‘cause I ain’t ever heard ‘em before or since. I nev­er could make sense from him when he was in his cups, so I quit lis­ten­ing to him and asked Mama instead. 

My Mama only ever met Pa’s Mama once, aside from the birth vis­it, on account of Pa’s extreme dis­like of her. But Mama thought she was a real good woman, espe­cial­ly ‘cause she was liv­ing right next to the riv­er where Mama wished she coul­da lived. Pa wouldn’t hear of that, he didn’t want to live any­where near his mem­o­ries, he said. 

I asked Mama why Pa hat­ed his own Ma so much. It seemed sil­ly back when I was eleven and it sure still seems sil­ly now. Mama said when Pa was about eight his Mama was car­ry­ing his lit­tle sis­ter, the youngest and the only girl out of eight boys. Granny couldn’t a’known she was hav­ing a girl, but she did. She knew it. And she was fair­ly crazy with excite­ment. Seems she sent Pa’s Dad­dy clear up to Hog­garth for some cal­i­co and lace. She had it in her head to make cal­i­co cur­tains and cal­i­co gowns and a cal­i­co hat with lace and a bow. She nev­er did get her cal­i­co. Pa’s Dad­dy went up on a Sat­ur­day and they didn’t hear the news 'til Tues­day. Ma told it that Pa’s Dad­dy bought that cal­i­co and lace and then went right into the Whis­per Dix­ie and got him­self spe­cial-occa­sion-drunk. I guess Pa comes by his mean mouth hon­est­ly ‘cause his Dad­dy start­ed shoot­ing it off with some of the Poighton broth­ers about half wit­ted Sal­ly Poighton who worked at the post office and slept with men for choco­lates and nick­els. That’s what he heard, and that’s what he said. I don’t right­ly know how true it was. 

True or not, those Poighton boys whupped him till he looked like a rot­ten plum, but even beat­en he wouldn’t keep his mouth shut. I guess he couldn’t leave well enough alone. I don’t know what he said, but some­one heard Felis Poighton tell him he’d get him. Felis was the old­est broth­er, and the dumb­est. He looked a bit like a cat­fish and smelled ‘bout as bad. I remem­ber him from church when I was real young. Pa’s Dad­dy didn’t ever come home. When Bix­by Jaytre heard about the fight and came check­ing up that Tues­day, Pa’s Mama knew the Poighton Boys had fin­ished him off. No one ever found a body, or any trace. 

Pa blamed his Mama, on account of the cal­i­co and lace. I don’t know if Granny blamed her­self, but she dressed my aunt Junie in the same old clothes she had dressed her boys in. 

Course Pa nev­er for­gave her. He’s the kind as holds on to the bad and nev­er notices the good. 

He left when I was 13, not long after J.P. Corbin's mis­take, but by then I was ‘bout done with him any­way. It near­ly killed Mama though. I don’t know why, but she loved him. Even after call­ing her stu­pid and a bitch and all man­ner of mean­ness for near­ly 14 years she still loved him. Even after spend­ing all his mon­ey at Trick’s and Ruth’s, shelling it out for shots of tequi­la and pints of beer or stuff­ing it in some girl’s under­pants, even after telling her once or twice a week that he paid the rent, she bet­ter put it out, and mak­ing her cry real qui­et, even after leav­ing her with no mon­ey and no job and damn near no food and me to take care of, even after all that she loved him. 

Loved him so much she stayed in bed near three weeks when he went. I had to do the clean­ing, and what lit­tle cook­ing was pos­si­ble. I had to take care of all the chick­ens and the pig. Think­ing on it now, I shoul­da caught one of them scrawny chick­ens. We coul­da had some real food to lift our spir­its. Shame I didn’t think of it then. 

Pa said he was leav­ing ‘cause Mama wasn’t ful­fill­ing her wife­ly duties. And Mama said Pa wasn’t ful­fill­ing his hus­band duties so why should she. And they car­ried on for a whole day, both of ‘em try­ing to win. And then Mama called him a worth­less good for noth­ing drunk. That might not have been so bad but she added, ‘…just like your dead, rottin’-in-the-ground father.’ 

You coul­da heard crick­ets chirp­ing clear over in Hog­garth. Pa just stared at her, his mouth all lazy and hang­ing open, his pale blue eyes open real wide. He just stared and stared for a good minute. ‘Don’t ever call my Dad­dy names, you fuck­ing bitch,’ he whis­pered real low, like wind. I saw his fists clench­ing up before Mama did. It sound­ed like a tree crack­ing down in a storm when he hit her. Her head snapped clear round and she fell on her hip. I think it was the first time. I know it was the last time, ‘cause he left right after and we didn’t see hide nor hair of him till ‘bout a year later. 

I didn’t say a word the whole time. I don’t think I blinked once, just watched it all in slow motion with my hands clenched so tight my fin­gers turned white as milk. I opened my mouth, all right, but no sound came out. 

He walked right out with just the clothes on his back and the wal­let in his pock­et. He didn’t take noth­in’. We thought he was com­ing back, for his things if not for us. But he didn’t, and Mama just lay in bed. She got skin­ny as a wild cat and looked a lit­tle wild in the eyes too. 

After three weeks she got out of bed and start­ed mak­ing sup­per, like noth­ing was diff’rent. She didn’t talk about Pa, not once, and we didn’t see him for a long time. It was bet­ter with­out him and his lying, drink­ing ways in my opin­ion. But I don’t think Mama agreed. I heard her cry­ing here and there, in the bath­room, out in the gar­den, in the kitchen chop­ping greens. It was as if her life just fol­lowed him on out the door. She got old just ‘bout overnight. Her eyes nev­er lost the wild. 

We didn’t know where he’d gone. But ‘bout a year after he left he was back again ask­ing Mama for mon­ey. His hair was mud col­ored instead of shiny blonde and it smelled fun­ny, like meat and bad milk and sick ani­mal, and some­thing minty, but not nice like mint grow­ing round the porch. I could see the bones in his face clear through his skin, his hands were that way too. He seemed ‘bout as alive as a skele­ton. ‘Course we didn’t have no mon­ey to spare, Mama had to take in sewing and mend­ing, and chil’ren to watch, and all man­ner of odd jobs just to keep the mort­gage paid and food, almost always, on the table. 

He went off again real qui­et when Mama told him she didn’t have none to spare. He didn’t yell or cuss or noth­ing, didn’t seem nor­mal to me. Just see­ing him made Mama sad all over again though, so I didn’t say noth­in’ to her bout how strange it was that he just went off with­out no fuss. ‘Course we found out why ‘bout two days lat­er when Mama was fix­in’ to pay the mort­gage. It was gone, every bit of the mon­ey. She still kep’ it in the blue and brown pear shaped cook­ie jar on the counter, just like when Pa was liv­ing with us. We couldn’t afford no cook­ies any­ways. I s’pose Pa still had his key, and we hadn’t even thought of chang­ing the locks. I knew it was Pa, for sure, he got in and took all our mon­ey with­out us even know­ing But Mama want­ed to believe it was some stranger, called the police and raised a fuss. She didn’t tell ‘em ‘bout Pa ask­ing for some mon­ey. They would have thought he took it too, but I don’t think Mama would have lis­tened to them either. 

We had to sell half the fur­ni­ture in the house and the trac­tor to make it back and pay the mort­gage 'fore the bank stepped in and put us out. I had to sleep on a pile of blan­kets after that, since my bed got sold to Fran Daws for her lit­tlest girl Bet­sy. Now I nev­er did like my Pa much, ‘spe­cial­ly since he up and left, but I start­ed hat­ing him for sure after that. It weren’t the last time he stole from us, nei­ther. The sec­ond time we had to get a char­i­ty loan from God’s Heart Bap­tist Church. We paid it back every month with bout half our food mon­ey. I was hun­gri­er and skin­nier than usu­al that year. 

The third and last time he did it, Mama fell over dead and didn’t have to wor­ry ‘bout the mort­gage no more. I was near to twen­ty sum­mers and madder’n a snake in a burlap sack. Mama hadn’t been feel­ing like her­self for awhile, but I nev­er thought she’d die. To be truth­ful, I thought she’d out­last Pa and me and the whole town. 

See, I didn’t have a mind to mar­ry, not ever, and Mama said if I couldn’t find me a man, I’d haf­ta get me a job. So I did. It was after my first day as a check­er at Bunts Gro­cery that I found her. I could see her arm lay­ing on the kitchen floor, her hand curled up like she was try­ing to hold on to life as it left her. I knew she was dead when I saw that arm but I walked in and stood on the brown paint­ed floor to look at the rest of her any­way. Her dress was blue and worn in the back, just get­ting thread­bare. It had float­ed up as she fell and lay twist­ed ‘round the tops of her legs, show­ing a tri­an­gle of dingy white under­pants and two skin­ny, veined legs. Her hair had nev­er gone grey, it was brown like mine but the sun was catch­ing it through the win­dow and it looked red like fire. I couldn’t help but think that Mama was dead but her hair sure looked alive. 

I don’t remem­ber see­ing the cook­ie jar smashed on the floor ‘till after she was tak­en away by Mrs. Utney and her two fat sons. I was all alone. I didn’t know what to say when I saw it, just stood dumb and star­ing. I knew Pa’d killed Mama. With all his thiev­ing and lying and leav­ing, he just wore her right down. There ain’t no words to tell about some­thing like that. I knew my Pa to be the worse thing liv­ing. That ain’t easy. And my Mama, only soul who ever cared a whit ‘bout me, was dead. That ain’t easy either. And I was all alone, and that was the hard­est part of all. 

I tried to tell the police, but they just thought I was, "havin’ an episode," a spell of crazi­ness brought on by Mama’s death. The whole town knew we was crazy, me and Mama. I nev­er did know why exact­ly, I just knew we was. I grew up know­ing it. They were real nice ‘bout it at the sta­tion, but they didn’t do nothing. 

The church helped out. They took up a col­lec­tion for the funer­al and one for the mort­gage, since I was bereaved and all. They sure can make you feel like giv­ing mon­ey at that church, talk you right out of every cent if they want to. I almost felt like I should give it all back to some­one who need­ed it more, but I fig­ured it’d be hard to find some­one needier’n me. 

The old ladies who smelled like pow­der and always sat up at the front brought over so much food I wouldn’t have need­ed to cook noth­in’ for weeks, if I’d been hun­gry. They helped me arrange the funer­al too. We had Mama cre­mat­ed, since that was all we could afford, but there was a nice lit­tle ser­vice at the church, I’m told. Like I said, I didn’t go. I took off, with what was left of Mama, for the river. 

I start­ed off walk­ing, but got a ride real quick from a man who’d been in town to vis­it his grand­girl, just born. He took me all the way to the water, since he lived close by. 

I’d thought it’d be like the water in a pic­ture of an island I saw on a post­card once, all sky blue and shin­ing in the sun. I thought from the way Mama talked it was like a lit­tle piece of heav­en set right down ‘tween Mis­souri and Illi­nois. I couldn’t help but think maybe the riv­er died when Mama died, ‘cause it sure didn’t look like the riv­er she talked 'bout in her stories. 

It was small­er than I thought and the banks were noth­in’ but scrub grass and rocks. Dirty too, the kind of thing city peo­ple would call trashy and turn up their noses at. Not just dirt col­ored, but dirty feel­ing, like the air ‘round it stuck to my skin and wouldn’t rub off. The water was brown and run­ning slow like a riv­er of rain with shiny oil rest­ing on top. Look’t like it was head­ed for some big storm drain. And the smell, shoooo! Smell’t like out­house, like wet dog and boilin’ pota­toes. Smell’t like old ladies and bugs. I didn’t like it one bit. 

Now I don’t know, maybe Mama talked ‘bout it so much she talked all the life right out of it. She had a habit of that. She could make you feel like the queen of the whole world when you was down or she could make a spring seem gray when it was green and pret­ty just a minute before. She didn’t have much but she had a way with words. Pa called it her dev­il tongue, said all women had an evil tongue in their dirty mouths. 

Or maybe she wasn’t quite right. Maybe she was just dumb like Pa said. And I mus­ta been dumb for believ­ing her. 

The mos­qui­toes were eat­ing me alive. I hadn’t thought about it before now, but the riv­er was per­fect for lit­tle pests and crit­ters. Some­body was dump­ing their garbage close to where I was stand­ing. It smelled like old food and dirty dia­pers. I remem­ber think­ing that it wasn’t nice, even to a riv­er this worn out. Cer­tain­ly didn’t help the place none. 

I went back home, quick as my feet would car­ry me. It took longer to get back since I walked most the way. I wasn’t lookin’ for­ward to goin’ back to Mama’s house, all alone. Maybe I walked a bit slow­er than I could’a. My feet was pow­er­ful sore by the time I got there, but I got there. 

It was cold, and dark, and sad with­out Mama, so all’s I did was sleep, half of a day, and all of a night, and half of the next day. And then I walked down to Bunts’ Gro­cery and told ‘em I was ready to work. They didn’t think it was right, so soon after Mama died. They didn’t say as much to me, but I caught ‘em whis­per­ing a time or two. I had my rea­sons though, same rea­sons I went to Mr. Bunts and asked him how I could sell Mama’s house, and would he help me find a place to stay on my own. 

The Bunts’ didn’t like it, me liv­ing by myself here in town. I guess if I lived way out at Mama’s, they could for­get I was real­ly there alone. They said it weren’t prop­er and even tried to mar­ry me off to one or t’other of their fat sons, Huck and Frank, Jr. No oth­er girl would have ‘em, but I guess they thought I just might. They sure were wrong. I wouldn’t mar­ry any old man, and I said as much. I don’t want noth­in’ from no man, ‘cause I don’t want to give noth­in’ back. Besides, Huck had fun­ny breath­ing, like gur­gling way down in his bel­ly every in breath, and wheez­ing every out. And Frank always seemed to have his fin­gers in every lit­tle wet place his body had. I couldn’t abide by either the breath­ing or the fingering. 
In the end they end­ed up agree­ing to help, see­ing as how I worked for ‘em so cheap and stayed late most days. 

I guess Pa got wind of it, ‘cause he start­ed stand­ing out­side the old house most nights, just look­ing up at it, like he was think­ing. I didn’t pay him no mind, he was as dead as Mama in my mind. Any­way he shoul­da been. One night he tried to talk to me as I was com­ing back from work late, walk­ing and bone tired and bad spir­it­ed to begin with. But I just walked on as he talked about us stick­ing togeth­er and me being all he had in the world. He took to yelling and grab­bing at my arm and act­ing des­per­ate, but I just kept walk­ing and I guess he didn’t feel he could get too close to the house now Mama wasn’t in it ‘cause he didn’t follow. 

I couldn’t wait for the house to sell, to be rid of ghosts, and mem­o­ries and Pa. Some­times I thought I saw Mama, in the kitchen cook­ing up sup­per or sit­ting in her rock­er on the front porch. It was a bit star­tling, think­ing Mama might not be in heav­en at all, but still here- a ghost. I didn’t think about it much if I could help it, just like I didn’t think about Pa. I fan­cied myself an orphan. 

What I did think about was work­ing, and once the house sold for next to noth­in’ to an old man and his three legged rat­ty dog, I thought about mov­ing. I didn’t much care where, so long as it was far as I could get from Mama’s house. Far as I could get turned out to be ‘bout half an hour walk­ing from the Gro­cery in a lit­tle old place up a whole bunch of stairs, right above the dry clean­ing shop. It was falling apart bad, steps loose and the roof leak­ing in the rain. Mighty drafty when it was cold out, and like to boil a per­son alive when it was hot. I didn’t have much fur­ni­ture, just a sec­ond hand mat­tress with the fad­ed flow­ered sheets that used to be Mama’s, a table and a chair, and a small chest for my clothes. I didn’t have much of noth­in’, to be truth­ful. I had to save pen­nies and live hun­gry some­times, just like always. 

But it was mine, and it was the first thing that ever was mine, just mine. That made it like liv­ing in a cas­tle in some sto­ry, made it just as homey as could be. I felt real fine, being all on my own in my own place, for awhile. 

I think Pa took to stand­ing out­side there too, but I can’t be sure it was him, or any­one real­ly. Some­times I thought I saw some­one, in the dark places out­side at night. Some­times I thought I heard some­thing, like a foot­step or a cough. I might have just dreamed it all up, but maybe some­one was there. I guess I’ll nev­er know for sure now. Who­ev­er it was coul­da just been there that one night, or he coul­da been watchin’. Don’t much mat­ter, what’s done is done. 

I was walk­ing home from work after stay­ing ‘til right near ‘lev­en. I’d been help­ing Huck with the inven­to­ry since he can’t read so good, or count so good, and I just lost all track of the day. I didn’t have much to go home to, to be truth­ful, so I guess it didn’t much mat­ter to me. 

Out­side it was black as the bot­tom of a still bar­rel and the wind was howl­ing and shush­ing. I remem­ber wish­ing I had more’n just a worn red cardi­gan to pull ‘round me while I was walk­ing, and cussing my thin soled shoes. They were black, which was all that mat­tered for work­ing at the Gro­cery and they were cheap which was all that mat­tered to me ‘til that night. I wished I’d gave up anoth­er few dol­lars for warmer toes, I sure did. I was mighty piti­ful. I’m sure I looked like an old lady, skin loose on the bones ‘cause there ain’t no meat b’tween, shiv­er­ing in prac­ti­cal shoes and a cardi­gan, my hair knot­ted tight behind my neck, my eyes slit­ted almost shut ‘gainst the bit­ing wind. 

Guess it makes sense I didn’t hear noth­ing, with all my think­ing and all the wind. I don’t much think it woul­da made a dif­fer­ence if I had heard. Noth­ing I could do once he grabbed onto my arm and twist­ed it up behind my back, 'til my fin­gers coul­da almost scratched at the bot­tom of my neck. And then he had the oth­er arm, mov­ing it unnat­ur­al, using it to push me this or that way ‘til I was ‘tween a red pick­up with heat still com­ing off the tires and a brick build­ing with bust­ed out win­dows, used to be a liquor store. The ground under my knees was cold and hard, the kind as should be cov­ered with snow. That night it was fair­ly pow­dered with someone’s bro­ken bot­tle, beer or pop, I don’t know which. The glass cut my knees and lat­er my back. 

I didn’t see him. He was behind me at first and then my dress and sweater were right up over my head. I nev­er got a look at even an inch of him. But boy did he smell. He smelled like Pa did, that time he came beg­ging, like meat and bad milk and sick ani­mal, and some­thing minty, but not nice like mint grow­ing round the porch. And he breathed like Huck, gur­gling way down in his bel­ly every in breath, and wheez­ing every out. He was laugh­ing as he kicked me down ‘til I was try­ing to crawl right into the earth. He laughed like J.P. Corbin, way back in grade school, like a snake would laugh, like a squir­rel scream­ing at you from the trees, like a mean dog bark­ing. He beat me down 'til I was loser’s low, but just like Pa’s Dad­dy, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. And when I felt some­thing pushin' up inside of me, and my eyes rolled back up in my head, and I went to some­thing like sleep, I remem­ber thinkin’ of Frank and his fingers. 

I don’t know when I woke up, and I didn’t know where I was. I was blue, from beat­ing and cold both. I didn’t know your insides could hurt. I sat up look­ing, and star­ing for a good long time 'fore I real­ized I was at the bot­tom of my own out­side stair­case. I didn’t remem­ber crawl­ing, or walk­ing. I don’t know how I got there, but I crawled up the steps and in the door all the same. 

I slept just inside the door­way for a day or two. I lost track of hours and days. Some­times one seemed like t’other. And when I woke up, I knew you was with me, that he put you in my bel­ly. And I knew you’d wan­na know some ‘bout me. I ain’t been well enough to do much talkin’ before now tho’, took a long time for my face to heal prop­er. At least, I think it was a long time. I ain’t been strong enough for going out doors either, but it feels good walk­ing now. I didn’t want no one stop­ping to pick us up. I want­ed to tell you why and besides, I know where we’re going better’n any­one. We’re almost there now, and I’m almost done speak­ing my piece. 

It ain’t ‘cause I don’t love you as you are, I do. It ain’t…

Well, it don’t mat­ter what it ain’t. What it is… 

See, I just can’t, I mean, I don’t know how to… 

I just don’t want you. It ain’t per­son­al. Yes, I can love you but not want you. I don’t know how. No, it don’t make sense. I don’t even know who your Pa is. This is bet­ter, I’m savin’ you a hard time. Being third in a line of cra­zies wouldn’t be no good for you. Mamas know best. You woul­da learnt that real quick with me, like I did with mine. They know best and you got­ta believe ever’thing they ever say, ‘cause they’re your Mama, and that’s the only rea­son that matters. 

At least I’m com­ing with you, my Mama left me all alone. She didn’t take me. 

Here we are. I can smell it. 

It don’t look like much of any­thin’ in the dark, just a trick­ling sound, like the whole world’s piss­ing and that’s what the river’s made of. I know it’s down there, oily and brown like water off a dog. 

I still ain't crazy 'bout this here riv­er, but one thing Mama was right about was the mud. I feel it ‘tween my toes all cold and almost soft. The Mud­dy Mis­sis­sip­pi. It’s cold­er than I thought and gen­tle just up to my ankles. Sharp things at the bot­tom cut­ting my feet. I didn’t want to bleed. At my knees I can feel it push­ing me with its hands, it has hundreds… 

You’ll feel it soon, too. You’ll feel it at my bel­ly. I won­der how long it'll take to sweep us off to oceans where no one knows our laugh in church… 

Remem­ber, don’t hold your breath or it won’t work. Swal­low as much as you can, baby.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Muddy Mississippi, fiction by Katie Moore

  1. Nicholas Watts says:

    This is a phe­nom­e­nal and haunt­ing story…very well script­ed with a col­lo­qui­al voice Alice Walk­er would be proud of. Well worth the read and reread!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.