excerpt from Sons of God
The baby was a white fist of flesh. Mama had placed the photograph of the ultrasound atop her dresser in a sterling silver frame. That night, when the pain bent her over in the kitchen, I imagined that same white fist punching her insides black-and-blue. When Daddy called from the hospital to tell us she'd lost the baby, Silas said I shouldn't worry. He said the baby didn't feel any pain, that at nine weeks it wasn't anything but a ball of meat squirming in Mama's stomach. He said it hadn't even sprouted arms or legs yet, that it still had a fish brain and gills growing in its neck. That night, I dreamed of Mama's flesh creaking as the doctor unstitched the trapdoor in her stomach. Her insides looked like crushed red velvet. The baby's skin was blue as a robin's egg. I imagined the stitches in her stomach. Tiny black mouths puckering between the folds of her belly. I remember wondering where the baby's cries had gone. If they had stayed inside Mama's body after the doctors stitched the trapdoor shut.
Nearly six months later, I was sitting in front of Sacred Elementary studying for my Science test, thinking about the baby again, my fingers tracing the pink gills of a fish in my Biology textbook. As I stared at the fish in my textbook, I heard the crackle of gravel and what sounded like the faint moan of a car horn. I looked over my shoulder and saw a rusted blue truck with a dented fender idling in the parking lot behind me. It was Silas.
Two years ago, Daddy had helped Silas buy an old rusted pickup truck from Snitch's Scrap Yard. He'd spent the whole summer souping it up. It had knobby tires and silver spoked rims. A tanned brunette in a yellow bikini was airbrushed on the driver's side door. She was riding a surfboard, her body bent beneath a curling white wave.
As I walked up to the truck, Silas revved the engine. The inside of the truck smelled like pot. A voice was crackling on the radio. I climbed into the passenger's side, and Silas spun the tires. When he did this, a cloud of brown dust swallowed the truck.
I buckled my seatbelt and told him I was going to Ferma's. He was fixing his hair in the mirror. He had slick black hair that looked like it had been painted onto his skull. His arms were caramel colored and muscular. Two brown eyes swam around in his head.
"Why didn't Daddy pick me up," I asked Silas.
"He's down at the poolhall." Silas took a drag and blew the smoke out his nose. "Man stays down there much longer, they gonna start charging him rent."
"Can you give me a ride to Meridian's tomorrow?"
"No can do." He took two quick drags and flicked the Picayunne into the wind. "Gotta go to New Orleans and meet with my parole officer."
Silas had been arrested three times. Once for stealing a tractor from a warehouse in Point a la Hache. Another time for snatching car stereos from the parking lot of the Gun Show in New Orleans. This time, he'd got caught selling a quarter bag of weed to a boy over on Mercy Street. Mama agreed to bail him out, but only if he promised to join the church and get saved. Mama said Silas' soul was blacker than mud, that only the preacher's water could raise up his dead soul. Me and Mama went down to the church that Sunday to watch Brother Icks dunk Silas in the baptismal pool. When I asked Silas what it was like, he said it felt more like being drowned than being saved. Mama was convinced that the water had cleansed his soul, though, because two days after he was saved, Silas went down to the tattoo parlor and had a line from Leviticus tattooed on his bicep. Wherever he went, he kept a pair of brass knuckles in his back pocket. He called it The Fist of God. On Saturday nights, he and his friends rode up and down Liberty Road in their rusted pickups looking for boys to save. Other nights, they hung out in an old abandoned bank down on Goverment Street.
"So, when you gonna take me and Meridian down to the old bank with you?" I asked. I knew Silas had the hots for Meridian.
"For Christ's sake, Hailey. You're too young to go down there. You're not even in high school yet."
"Meridian wants to go too," I told him, smirking. "You know, she thinks you're cute."
Silas grinned as he turned into Ferma's driveway. "I'll think about it." He was fixing his hair in the rearview mirror again, his eyebrows crawling like caterpillars.
Silas put the truck in neutral, and I climbed out. As he pulled off, I noticed Ferma rocking in the swing on the porch.
Ferma was an old black woman with mossy gray hair. She had a gold tooth with a star etched into it. Glaucoma had swallowed her right eye in a filmy white shroud. Diabetes had eaten up the veins in her feet.
Since before I was born, Ferma had lived next to us on Cathedral Street in a pink shotgun house. Mama and her had been friends for years. Most days, after school, I went to Ferma's to help her pick figs, pin clothes to the line, wash dishes. Whatever she needed really. Everyday, before I left, she gave me a five dollar bill that smelled like perfume.
"Where's that brother of yours off to?" Ferma asked, her voice the crackle of dead leaves.
"Think he's going back to work. Then down to Liberty Road for the races."
"Has the devil burrowed into that boy's skull?" Ferma wheezed, a glass of iced tea sweating at her feet. "He's gonna end up like that boy with the paper bag face."
Ferma had worked for a woman whose son's truck had fishtailed through a rice field while racing down on Liberty Road. She said the rusted gas tank on the truck had burst into flames and the boy had been swallowed in an orange ring of fire. After the accident, she visited the boy in the hospital. She said the boy's face looked like a brown paper bag with two holes ripped out for eyes.
"Where's your momma? Over at the house?"
"Dunno. Think she's cooking dinner." Mama wasn't cooking dinner. She hadn't cooked dinner since the miscarriage. Or been out of the house for that matter. Daddy said she was dead to the world.
"What about your Daddy?"
"He's down at the poolhall."
"He come home last night?"
"I don't think so." I motioned to Ferma for a drag of her Picayunne.
She paused for a moment. "What you want a cigarette for? So you can get hooked like me?" Ferma grinned, exposing the cracked dentures wiggling between her brown gums. "Besides, you too young to start killing yourself."
I motioned to her again and she handed the cigarette to me. "All right. Just one quick one though. And make it fast. Your momma and daddy gonna skin me alive they see me sneaking you drags."
I put the cigarette between my lips, and I sucked the smoke deep into my lungs as Ferma stared across the muddy pasture, the scatter of blackbirds reflected in her dead eye. Her eyes were focused on a row of oak trees that lined the weedy edge of the pasture. Mama told me Ferma's husband had committed suicide before I was born. She said when Ferma got home from church one morning, she had found him hanging from an oak tree in that pasture.
"Bird been by the house again?" Ferma asked me.
"Yep." I handed the cigarette back to her. "He came by on Thursday."
"Old rotten-toothed slug." Ferma scratched an itch deep in the clump of her mossy gray hair, then took a drag from her Picayunne. "He still on your Daddy to sell the house?" She flicked her ashes into a folded paper napkin in her lap and took another drag.
"Yep." The tip of the cigarette glowed bright orange.
Ferma rubbed her blood-shot eyes. "Well, don't go worrying yourself over it. Your Daddy's got too many memories tied up in that land to go selling it to the first rotten-toothed slug throws a dollar at his feet." She took another drag from her Picayunne. It crackled. She snuffed the cigarette against the splintered board of the porch, then I helped her out of the rocking chair, and we went inside.
For the rest of the afternoon, I helped Ferma stuff artichokes and peel shrimp for stew. I left around seven o'clock. Before I left, she gave me a five dollar bill. The word FIVE had been colored red with a ball point pen. Lincoln's eyes had been cut out.
She told me I better get home and help Mama with dinner, so I kissed her on the cheek and told her I'd see her tomorrow.
* * *
When I got home, the yard was littered with Daddy's clothes. Jeans and workshirts. Shoes like empty mouths. A pair of his leather gloves was dangling from the branches of the crepe myrtle. They were brand new, still stitched at the wrists. They looked like two black hands dangling in some sort of upside-down prayer.
After I went inside, I grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator. I could hear Mama calling to me from her room.
"Hailey? Sweetie? That you? Would you get me a asprin for my head?"
On my way to Mama's room, I grabbed the aspirin bottle from the bathroom cabinet. Her room was dark. She was buried to her neck in a white afghan, her face glowing in the blue light of the television.
As I walked into the room, I noticed the framed ultrasound picture of the dead baby on Mama's dresser. There was another ultrasound picture of the dead baby on Mama's nightstand. The only other pictures on the wall were of Jesus. One of him hanging on the cross, staring down with those terrible blue eyes, a golden halo atop his head. Another of him holding up his left hand, a bright red heart glowing in his chest. There were no photographs of me. No pictures of me holding an ice cream cone with chocolate ice cream dripping down my arm. Not one of me in my purple dress, the red ribbon Grandma gave me fluttering in my hair. Only Jesus and the dead baby. It was as if you had to be dead to get noticed.
As I walked over to Mama's bed, I opened the aspirin bottle and pulled the cotton ball out. Mama opened her mouth and closed her eyes. I placed the aspirin on her tongue. It reminded me of the priest at communion.
* * *
That night, the moon looked like Ferma's cataract. Stars clung to the branches of trees. Around two a.m., I woke to the sound of Daddy's pickup growling in the driveway. I could hear his keys jingling in his pocket as he walked along the oyster-shell driveway, the splintered floorboards creaking beneath him as he walked down the hallway. As I fell asleep, I listened to the rain-filled gutter outside my window, the slow drip of water like a wristwatch ticking in my ear.
* * *
Chris Tusa holds an M.F.A. from the University of Florida. He is the author of Haunted Bones and Inventing an End. His work has appeared in Texas Review, Prairie Schooner, South Dakota Review, The Southeast Review, Passages North, Spoon River, and others. Aside from teaching in the English Department at LSU, he also acts as Online Editor for Louisiana Literature and Managing Editor for Poetry Southeast. His first novel, Sons of God, is currently under consideration.