She pulled her hair, pulled it pulled it pulled it pulled it pulled it pulled it. She could pull it out by the roots, and sometimes did, sometimes the hair came out with a plicking sound, and she’d stare at it, long pale strands with roots and tips. Her scalp would tingle and smart, and she didn’t care. Any pain was better than the inside her head pain.
Mae-lynn stopped pulling. Waited. There. It was okay. The haunting had stopped. She knew she was being punished. She knew the baby was still inside of her. It hadn’t all come out. It hadn’t all come out. It hadn’t all come out. It was still inside of her, pieces of it, an arm, a leg, a finger, some hair, a toe—pieces of baby lodged in her body. And when she slept, it crept up, sneaky sneaky, crept up to her brain and poked at the soft tissue there. Pushed until her brain throbbed. She’d wake up and she couldn’t stand it. The pain, yes, the pain she could take, mostly. But, the pieces of the child she could not. It was inside her and it was mad at what she’d done to it.
She stretched out her legs, pointed her toes and then raised her arms to the ceiling. Let her arms float there in freedom. Mae-lynn thought back to when she was a child, how her mother and father taught her how to read early, how they taught her manners, how they told her she was destined for good things and a good husband. They wanted her to marry a goodly man, and wanted her become a school teacher first, like her mother was until she married her father. Her father was a professor and taught history at a stately college. Her mother taught first grade, until she became a wife. Her mother smelled like gardenias and marmalade, and sweat. Her father came home with a satchel filled with work, secret work that he didn’t let Mae-lynn or her mother see. He would lock himself in his study and stay there for hours. Sometimes Mae-lynn pressed her face to the door and listened. She’d hear him mutter and sometimes even moan. The moaning made her head hurt.
Head hurt. Hurt head. Mae-lynn said the words ten times and then ten more. She pulled herself up to sitting. And when she did, she saw the Clemmie child staring at her.
“What do you want, child?” Mae-lynn stared at the girl. Sometimes she didn’t think this really could be her daughter. Where was the refinement? Where were the beautiful words spilling from her throat like a cool spring—that’s what her lover had said about Mae-lynn. That’s what the lover had said while he touched her all over, touched her and touched her until she felt as if she’d burst into flames. That’s what he had said before he left her. And she’d come up this mountain and she’d lied lied and lied. Sweet child that she was, she was not refined. She was not as Mae-lynn would have her. She was just like Mae-lynn’s husband. Just like her husband’s mother.
Mae-lynn wanted to answer her, she did. So, she opened her mouth and said, “The snows of Kilimanjaro are deep and secret and wild.”
“What you say, Momma?”
The child Clemmie was stepping to her. Mae-lynn waited. The child Clemmie stood at her bedside. Mae-lynn said, “Hemingway could not stand his life. He could not stand the way the sand never left his shoes. The way his hair pulled at his scalp. The way his beard scratched his chin while he slept. The way his words kept spilling onto a page that was unforgiving in its emptiness…how the page swallowed every word he wrote and demanded more more more and the people demanded of him more more more. He couldn’t stand how his favorite glass had a chip in it that cut his lip if he forgot it was there. He couldn’t stand his neighbor’s cat meowing at his door. He couldn’t stand the way the sun pierced his eyelids when he wanted darkness to last just a little longer and then he couldn’t stand when the darkness didn’t leave and the sun stayed away. He couldn’t stand—“
“—Momma!” The Clemmie child stared at her with her mouth opened. The Clemmie child was trying not to cry. Mae-lynn knew the girl didn’t like to cry. The Clemmie child said, “Momma, please stop.” The Clemmie child smoothed the bed sheets, smoothed Mae-lynn’s hair. “Momma, here’s your medicine. Grandma put extree cider in it for you.”
Mae-lynn thought, how twangy the child’s voice was! Was she the only one who could speak properly? Didn’t this child listen to Mae-lynn when she spoke so beautifully?
“I done all my chores, Momma. I could read to you.”
Mae-lynn reached out, took the medicine, drank it down. She looked at the child who was her daughter and was struck by pity. Pity for herself, pity for the girl. She lay back on her pillow and waited for the medicine to soften her brain. Waited. One. Two. Three. Four. Five…Twenty…Thirty. Maybe one day there’d be a medicine to burn away the rest of the child’s parts inside of her.
“That’s right. You rest up now, Momma. I done want to make you tired.” The Clemmie child stroked Mae-lynn’s head.
Mae-lynn felt as if her brain whirled round and round and then came to a stop. Forty, forty-one, forty-two…one-hundred two. She opened her eyes and there was Clemmie. Mae-lynn said, “It’s tired, sweet girl. Tired, not ‘tared.’ You must work on your diction, Clemmie.”
Mae-lynn touched her daughter. Smiled. She said, “Now read to me. You can pick the book.” She watched her daughter get up and leave the room. She’d be back with a book, and Mae-lynn would listen to her twang twang. Her daughter. Yes. That was who the Clemmie child was. She knew that. Why did the dead child insist on its jealousy? Why did the dead child make her forget what was her’s?