Comanche Warrior Princess
"That child is as natural as blue oatmeal."
- Aunt Bean's sister, Bernice
My father was a Turkey Maker. No one snapped into line faster than this little chicken. In my house, he wouldn't stand for a lie unless it was, "I'm sorry." His smile ate my reflection. I spent most of my time in trees. My Mama, Emmaline, bakes biscuits with strawberry jam smiles. I'm a practical child. I don't mark miracles by clouds rolling by.
My Mama is lying on her back on the lawn. She says,
"I see a silver monkey and a mermaid with the longest hair in the world."
"I'm Doreen, Mama."
I seek vision on my scabby kneecaps. A rabbit with one long ear. A chicken with a tongue like a lizard.
"Sissy's in heaven with grandma."
The day Sissy died, Daddy swore up and down that he had just left her in the tub long enough to smoke a cigarette.
"I didn't want any smoke getting near her little lungs, Emmaline. Mongoloid babies are especially susceptible."
After Sissy died, Mama's heart turned to powder and blew away. I caught what I could, but my fingers are little. At Sissy's wake, I hid under the buffet table rubbing her baby blankie on my arms and neck. Uncle Eddie had told me that if a sheep loses its baby, you can trick it into nursing an orphan lamb if you put the dead lamb's skin on it.
"They know their babies by smell, Doreen," he said.
I see Aunt Bean's black shoes with the open toe stop in front of the buffet table. She taps on her plate with a fork. Then these brown shoes come walking over and stand next to Aunt Bean.
"Marjorie," says Brown Shoes.
"Bernice,"`says Aunt Bean.
Bernice is Aunt Bean's sister. She's a mean old pigeon. Bernice had the Polio, so one of her legs is all short and shrively. She has to wear special shoes.
"I don't blame Emmaline for not having him arrested. It's probably a relief to her," Bernice says.
Aunt Bean's black shoes turn and point at her.
"Oh, now don't you go looking at me like that, Marjorie. You know perfectly well what I'm talking about. He drowned that baby like a kitten. Didn't want to be seen pushing that little Mongoloid around town."
I launch out from under the buffet table and latch onto her Polio leg. I close my eyes and bite like Hell. Pretend I'm gnawing my way through a wrinkled up asparagus. Aunt Bean and Uncle Eddie pry me off her using an ear of corn on the cob for leverage. I spit out shreds of stocking.
"She's vicious as a opossum! That's what she is. Child must be rabid!" Bernice screeches, shielding her leg with a serving platter.
I hiss at her like a rabid opossum.
* * * * *
One Sunday in May, Mama beats daddy to death with a rolling pin before church.
Aunt Bean says it's because she was riding the red pony. But I didn't hear Mama say nothin' about a horse. I knew there was going to be trouble that Sunday. All Mama's biscuits had Sissy's sweet, little Mongoloid face.
Daddy comes into the kitchen, wearing his shiny church shoes.
"Good Lord, Emmaline. What happened to your biscuits? They all look cross-eyed."
Mama stops washing dishes at the sink. I hear the faucet drip into the wash water. And the whole world starts to smell hot and dangerous.
"Well," Daddy laughs. "These here biscuits wouldn't win a talent competition."
He plunks down at the table, pulls off one of Sissy's crooked smiles and pops it into his mouth. He says,
"Good thing your smile could still win a beauty pageant, Darlin'."
I put down my cereal spoon real quiet like. Daddy's hair is slicked back for church, and I can count the comb tracks on the side of his head.
one little two little three little Indians...
Mama walks across the kitchen, picks up the rolling pin and starts wiping the flour off on her apron.
four little five little...
I slide off my chair. Daddy puts down his biscuit.
"Doreen, I did not excuse you yet."
six little seven little eight little...
Mama starts back across the kitchen with the rolling pin. And I just hit the linoleum running. The screen door bangs back open and shut behind me. I scoot up my tree and I stay there.
nine little Indians ten little Indian boys.
Former Miss Congeniality Beats Husband to Death
- Headline from The Sugartown Sun
Everyone thought I was a 'little bit off,' after The Incident at Sissy's Wake. But, sitting in my tree while Mama whacked Daddy's brains out, instead of getting help, re-classified me as 'a dark and sullen child, possibly dangerous.' It made me the wrong kind of famous, like Mama. But people don't know what they think they do.
The day Sissy drowned, Daddy was out of cigarettes.
* * * * *
The neighbors call the police and the lights on Sheriff Clyde's police car kaleidoscope across the shutters.
"There now, Emmaline," he says and loops his thumbs through his belt loops. "Emmaline, Honey...you need to come on along with me now."
Mama swoops back and forth along the porch. She walks one way and flips her hair. Glides the other and leans her shoulders back, one hand on her hip. Her smile is worth about a million dollars.
I know that walk. It's Mama's beauty queen walk. She was crowned Queen of Sugartown and Miss Congeniality her senior year of high school. She once spent a whole afternoon teaching it to me. My ankles bobbed like apples in her high heels, and I kept forgetting I had lipstick on. Wound up with it half up one side of my face. But I still felt pretty anyway. She said,
"Here comes Doreen down the runway looking stunning in her cotton candy pink formal."
I worked my shoulders up and down and threw my hips from one side to the other while walking.
"Smile, Doreen. Smile. If there's one thing being a woman has taught me, it's smile for the judges."
So I smiled like it was Christmas and flipped my hair while Mama clapped her hands off.
"And now, here comes Sissy looking cute as a bug's ear in yellow satin."
Sissy had on the biggest yellow bow in all of Sugartown on her head. She hiccuped in time with Mama's walk.
Sissy won the talent competition for her 'rhythmic hiccupping,' and Mama gave her a strawberry lolly for her prize. Sissy couldn't keep hold of the stick real well, 'cause her fingers didn't squeeze shut like other babies. So I said I'd hold it for her. I picked her up and put the lolly in her mouth. Her drool ran down the stick. Mama awarded me Miss Congeniality on account of my helping Sissy. And she gave me three squirts of her White Mink perfume for a prize.
"Come on now, Emmaline. Let's go for a ride."
Mama curtsies to the colored lights.
"Daryl, turn off those flashers."
Daryl, who is in love with my mother reaches through the driver's side window and shuts off the flashers. Mama stops her curtsies and Sheriff Clyde puts out his hand to her.
"Emmaline, you always were the prettiest girl at the ball."
"Oh, you do go on, Clyde," Mama says and takes his hand.
Sheriff Clyde loads her in the police car and she waves and waves to the neighbors. I stay up hiding up in my tree long after the car pulls away. I sit up there all alone and think about what happened after Sissy's wake.
I'm crunched up behind the couch brushing out my doll baby's hair and I hear Aunt Bean thanking God to Uncle Eddie that Mama hadn't heard what Bernice said. I may be just a squirt, but even I know that no one ever really knows what a Mama does or doesn't hear. I pop my head up over the back of the couch and using my best Mama voice, I say,
"Well, if there's one thing being a woman has taught me, it's smile for the judges."
Aunt Bean jumps like she's been goosed.
"Land sakes, Doreen! You could give a body a heart attack. You're like one of those bloodthirsty Comanche warriors. Sneaking up on people and popping out from behind things."
Now. I know that being a bloodthirsty Comanche warrior is supposed to be a bad thing, but the idea of being mistaken for one was the one bright spot in that day. And that day, well it leaked out over the next six months like Sissy's pink, baby drool seeped down my wrist.
Anyways, they don't find me until supper. I'm supposed to go live with Aunt Bean and Uncle Eddie now but I won't leave my tree. Uncle Eddie calls the Fire Department.
"If it works for kittens it'll work for little girls. I know what I'm doing, Marjorie."
The firemen are less sure. Me, I'm hanging upside down and I'm hissing at them like a opossum. One of the firemen climbs up on the ladder and makes a grab for my arm. I tell you, I almost bite his pinky off before he tips over the ladder and lands on his back.
"JEE-SUS KEY-RIST!" he shouts and rolls around on the lawn like I've killed him.
"Now, you just watch your language in front of that baby girl!" Aunt Bean says.
"Baby girl? Christ woman! She almost bit my finger clean off!"
"You just hush up, you big baby. You went climbing on up there like some big gorilla. Nearly scared her half to death."
I hiss at him earnestly from my tree.
"Like Hell," he mutters and stalks across the lawn, sucking on his pinky all the while.
"Hey! Now you just watch your mouth in front of the ladies," Uncle Eddie says, jabbing his finger into the air.
"I'm not a lady. I'm a opossum!" I declare, and swing back and forth by my legs like I'm fixing to pitch a fit.
The firemen retreat to their truck. Uncle Eddie goes over and talks them into letting him use the ladder. He rights it against the tree and climbs up it to my upside down eye level.
"I told you, I'm a opossum."
"OK, then. 'Possum, Sweetie...Aunt Bean has made barbecue. Now let's all get going home."
"I am home. Opossums live in trees."
"'Possum, we got trees at our place."
"This one is my tree." I go to hiss again but my breath hitches up and I nearly choke. I swing myself right side up and it feels like my stomach is taking a header. All the blood falls out of brain and I just keep leaning back and back 'cause I can't seem to help it. And then, I roll backwards off the branch and go hurtling down past Uncle Eddie onto the lawn. I land smack on my back, and all the wind shoots out of my body.
When I open my eyes, I see the mermaid with the longest hair in the world blowing by. I did that, I think. All that air whooshing out of me was probably enough to blow that mermaid clear to Kansas.
When I was two I choked on a penny and Mama thought I was dying 'cause my face went blue and I couldn't breathe. She said that she just kept whacking me on the back until that penny pinged out past my teeth and scooted across the coffee table. Then she blew her own breath into me until my color came up again.
There is no air in my body now. Maybe God gave it back to Mama to take with her to the Sanatorium. Well, that's OK, I guess. I'm a goner anyway. I'm sure the fall broke my heart. Maybe squashed my liver too. Uncle Eddie rubs my chest. The button knots pinch against my skin.
"oooow..." I wheeze.
"She's breathing, Marjorie! She's breathing."
"I think I broke my heart," I squeak. I don't tell them about my liver on account of there being enough bad news to go around already that day.
"I know, Sweetie. I know," Aunt Bean says from over Uncle Eddie's shoulder.
* * * * *
They load me in the car. I don't bother waving like Mama. I get to lie down in the backseat. Aunt Bean covers me with this old blanket that smells like dog breath. At home Sissy's blanket is still hidden under my bed where I could rub it on myself before Mama came in to wake me up in the morning. I rub the dog breath blanket on my hair until I smell like dog breath too. I cover my head with the scratchy plaid.
That night, after I'm in bed and feeling kind of floaty, Uncle Eddie goes back to the house and cuts down my tree. He stuffs it into the station wagon and drives all the way back home to their house with sap dripping into his hair.
I wake up when I hear Uncle Eddie swearing and yelping. I creep down the hall and slither towards the kitchen on little cat's feet. When I peek 'round the corner, Aunt Bean is just rubbing his head with a rag. The kitchen smells like green and gasoline.
"Jesus, Marjorie. You don't have to rub the hair clean off my head!"
She swats him on top of his head with the rag.
"Gasoline is the only thing that will get the sticky out. Now you just watch your mouth." She's using her scolding voice, but she's smiling all the while. Just rubbing the bejeezus out of his scalp.
Later on, Uncle Eddie swears that she's doubled the size of his bald spot.
We go for a ride the next day and all stick to the upholstery in the station wagon. Aunt Bean doesn't say a thing about it, just pets Uncle Eddie's neck while he's driving. That weekend she sews seat covers and Uncle Eddie nails my tree to a
rigged up two-by-four stump.
* * * * *
I refuse to go to Daddy's wake. I'm prepared to throw a right proper snit about having to go, but don't even get half started before Aunt Bean and Uncle Eddie give in.
"That's alright, Doreen."
"That's alright, 'Possum. You don't have to go if you don't want to."
I finger my opossum tail, suspiciously. It's three yards of pink ribbon, tied like a lasso around my waist. The end drags on the ground. Not too great for hanging upside-down from, but it looks real smart when I'm walking.
"We'll just tell people you're too upset to come."
I shoot up one eyebrow. Uncle Eddie coughs. He squats down in front of me in his good, brown suit.
"We'll bring you home a sandwich. Do opossums eat egg salad?"
"No, they eat deviled ham."
"OK then, Sweetie. We'll bring you home some. Be good while we're gone."
After they leave it occurs to me that maybe they were trying to avoid further expense by not bringing me along. After Sissy's wake, Bernice tried to make Mama pay for her Tetanus shot. Aunt Bean told her to hush up and leave Mama alone. Aunt Bean and Uncle Eddie paid the doctor bill.
When we were having barbecue the week after Sissy died, Uncle Eddie pulled me aside and gave me a little sip of his beer. He offered me a dollar to bite Bernice's other leg. I didn't tell him at the time, but Aunt Bean had already offered me five.
Daddy's wake is closed casket. After Aunt Bean and Uncle Eddie get back, I sit right-side-up in my tree and munch my deviled ham sandwich. It's too hard to swallow when you're upside-down. I do not know how opossums do it.
Aunt Bean and Uncle Eddie sit on the porch drinking beer and sharing cigarettes. I'm so quiet they forget I'm there. The sandwich has extra mayonnaise and a whole stack of sweet pickles. I swing my feet and stroke my tail.
"Well," Aunt Bean sighs. "Rolling pin wasn't the most original choice, but by God it got the job done, alright."
"Amen to that, Marjorie."
* * * * *
Uncle Eddie brings me home a carousel horse and sets it up on the porch. I think that they hoped that I'd spend less time in my tree if I had a fancy horse to sit on. He and I, we do Comanche warrior spy work together. I'm no longer a lone Indian. The horse and I, we make a tribe. He leans against the house and listens through the wall to the kitchen. He sniffs out my cousins' snitched cigarettes and the branching of our family tree.
"...and you know what Emmaline did when she was fifteen, no wonder Doreen is such a strange little bird. Last week, two opossums. You can't keep those things as pets. She'll wind up rabid. Mark my words. Sure as I'm your sister, Marjorie. And that mangy tail she's always dragging around. Try explaining that to any sane person..."
I feed my carousel horse every day. He is most fond of carrots, likes them even better than sugar cubes. I scratch the scabby white paint behind his ears, and assure him that he's beautiful. I sit up in my tree and shout down to him about all the things I can see from up there. Carousel horses don't get to see too much of the world, you know. Even if he was still on an actual carousel he'd just see the same little world going 'round and 'round in circles. Like when you spin around in one place until you fall over.
Uncle Eddie comes home after spending all day running errands with Bernice and pours himself a tumbler of whiskey. Aunt Bean tells him that drinking whiskey is just canceling out the nice Christian favor he just did for her sister. Uncle Eddie calls Bernice a word I'm not allowed to say. Aunt Bean's mouth flops open and then, she calls him a word I didn't even think she knew. He takes his tumbler and the whiskey bottle and locks himself in the car.
Aunt Bean starts making supper in the kitchen and it sounds like she bangs every pan she's got three times a piece. I climb down from my tree to talk to the Carousel horse about the situation but he's just as shocked as I am. He doesn't need me to explain those two words I'm not allowed to say. Carousel horses know more words than you'd think.
Uncle Eddie stays hiding in the car and misses dinner. Aunt Bean is real hot about it too, 'cause she's been making her state fair prize-winning beans since noon the day before. Around midnight, I hear Uncle Eddie make a sound that starts with a Yee-haw and ends with a gurgling howl. It turns out he rode my carousel horse right off the porch and poked his eye out on my cousin's tricycle handle bar. In all the confusion, it takes me until the next morning to realize that he broke the high-stepping leg off my horse.
Soon as he gets out of the hospital after poking his eye out, Uncle Eddie helps me splint the leg back on. It takes a long time because everything is about a half inch to the right of where he thinks it is. Plus, his patch keeps sliding. I ask him if it hurt much. He checks to make sure that Aunt Bean is out of earshot and says,
"Like hot, holy Hell, Doreen."
I start to correct him for not calling me 'Possom, but seeing as he just got his eye poked out, I let it slide. He taps on my horse's leg and adds,
"That's why I think your horse is so fortunate to be made mostly of plaster. This leg may look bad, but I'm sure he's in very little pain. Plaster is just not wired for hurt. It doesn't conduct."
This is a great relief to me.
Aunt Bean tells me that when he came home from the hospital, the first thing he saw was me sitting cross-legged next to my horse.
"Your eyes were all round, like you'd just watched your own house burn down," she says. "And your Uncle, he falls back against the side of the car like he's been hit and says that you were wearing a face like after a fire. 'Just like after a fire, Marjorie,' he said to me.
Aunt Bean says he feels worse about the horse than his own poked out eyeball.
"That may seem stupid to you and me," she says. "But it's just that brand of foolishness that makes him a good man."
* * * * *
Every second Thursday, Uncle Eddie drives us up to the sanatorium in the station wagon to see Mama. We all wear our nice clothes like we're going to church.
Mama wears white all the time and spongy bottom slippers. I hold her hand and we look out the window together. Everybody there calls her Belle. She's got three different doctors who tell her how she's feeling all the time. I ask her,
"Mama, how do these men know what you're thinking? Why do they get to boss your brain around? White coats don't make them special, Mama."
"All the King's horses and all the King's men, Doreen."
"Oh," I say, like I know what she's talking about. "Do you want anything before I go, Mama?
"Just slip me some gum, baby."
I hug her up real tight and stick my gum behind her ear. I tell Aunt Bean that Mama looks so skinny and Aunt Bean tells me that Mama won't eat nothing but one hard-boiled egg three times a day. I don't tell Aunt Bean about giving Mama the gum 'cause it's supposed to be a secret.
The day after our last visit, Mama orders an egg with a broken yolk for breakfast. That afternoon she takes her usual walk along the wall that seals the grounds with one of the orderlies.
"Hey, Belle. You don't mind if I sneak a cigarette, do you?"
"'Course not. You just go right on ahead."
So, the orderly, he turns his back to the wind to light his cigarette and when he turns back around, my Mama has scampered up the wall like a squirrel. She runs back and forth. Hops on one leg and then the other, yanking off her slippers. She waves them over her head like she's trying to signal a plane, or a low-flying angel.
The orderly's mouth sags open, the cigarette clinging to his lower lip like a man going over a cliff. A robin on the grass freezes mid-worm. And my Mama, she swan-dives head first onto the hospital lawn.
The orderly, he told my Uncle Eddie that when they came to take my Mama away he remembered her yelling something before she landed.
"I think," he said. "I think she was calling God an Indian Giver."
When Aunt Bean goes through Mama's things, she finds all the gum I'd given her. Mama had shaped it all into tiny pink people and hardened them up under her bed.
"Look here, 'Possum, Honey. There's your Mama, me, your Uncle Eddie, and this one must be you..."
I roll them across my palms and think about them living inside Mama's bedsprings. Having bubble gum parties, and keeping her company at night. She'd made all of us. There was little Sissy, no bigger than my pinky nail with wings like a bumble bee. She even made Daddy. I tuck them all into my pocket.
All the way home I pester Uncle Eddie to teach me how to play chess. Once we finally get there, he hauls out his board and I set up Mama's bubble gum people to use as some of the chess men. I make him stay up and play with me until I can lick him fair and square. I spend the rest of the month playing chess all day long. I can even play it swinging upside-down, calling out my moves.
When the Reverend comes to Aunt Bean and Uncle Eddie's to ' tend his flock,' I make him play chess with me before he's even allowed to say so much as, 'Jesus loves you.' I beat the pants off him too. And then I say,
"Best two out of three. If you win, I'll accept Christ into my heart. If you lose, I don't ever have to go back to Sunday School again."
For a Reverend, he's a very poor loser.
"Good Lord, 'Possum," Uncle Eddie says. "I think you've beaten just about everybody in town." He sounds real tickled about it. "Want to play a game, Sweetie? Let me win and I'll give you a sip of my beer."
"Half if I win. Two sips in advance."
"Good grief, child. You drive a hard bargain. Won't even cut your poor, old Uncle a break." He sounds even more tickled by that.
I don't tell him so, but if Mama was around to play, I'd let her win for free. I hang upside-down and hiss at the mailman when he comes. To him, my face looks like a splitting cherry tomato, but I am pretty on the inside. All Comanche warrior princesses are.
That next week, I turn eight.