Authors: Karen White
The Color of Light
Learning to Breathe
Pieces of the Heart
The Memory of Water
The Lost Hours
On Folly Beach
The Beach Trees
After the Rain
The Time Between
The Tradd Street Series
The House on Tradd Street
The Girl on Legare Street
The Strangers on Montagu Street
Return to Tradd
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White, Karen (Karen S.)
A long time gone/Karen White.
1. Family secretsâFiction. 2. CaregiversâFiction. 3. Delta (Miss.: Region)âFiction. 4. Suspense fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To my aunts Mary Louise, Janie, Gloria, and Charlene, my mother, Catherine Anne, and my grandmother Grace for showing me the unique and timeless beauty of the Mississippi
Thank you to my parents, who forced me to endure the long summer car drives south to Mississippi to visit my mother's hometown in the Mississippi Delta. I grew to love that small Southern town, which became the inspiration for this book.
Thanks also to Jane Evans, Indianola city clerk, who pointed me in the right direction for further research, and a very huge thanks to Heather Burton, Sunflower County coroner, who was so generous with her time and answered every nitpicky question I had with much patience. Any errors I might have made in the translation are completely
Vivien Walker Moise
was born in the same bed that my mama was born in, and her mama before her, and even further back than anybody alive could still remember. It was as if the black wood of the bedposts were meant to root us Walker women to this place of flat fields and fertile soil carved from the great Mississippi. But like the levees built to control the mighty river, it never held us for long.
We were born screaming into this world, the beginning of a lifelong quest to find what would quiet us. Our legacy was our ability to coax living things from fallow ground, along with a desperate need to see what lay beyond the delta. A need to quell a hurt whose source was as unexplainable as its force.
Whatever it was that drove us away was never stronger than the pull of what brought us back. Maybe it was the feel of the dark Mississippi mud or the memory of the old house and the black bed into which we'd been born, but no matter how far we ran, we always came back.
I returned in the spring nearly nine years to the day after I'd left. I'd driven straight through from Los Angeles, twenty-seven hours of asphalt and fast food, my memories like a string guiding me home. The last leg from Little Rock to Indian Mound was punctuated by bright flashes of lightning and constant tornado watches on the radio. I kept my foot pressed to the accelerator as strong winds buffeted my car. It didn't occur to me to stop. I had a trunk's worth of hurts piled in the car with me that only my grandmother Bootsie could make go away. She would forgive those long years of silence because she understood doggedness. I'd inherited it from her side of the family, after all.
It was nearly dawn when the storm passed and I crossed the river into Mississippi and headed east on Highway 82 and into the heart of the delta. The hills and bluffs to the west disappeared as if a giant boot had flattened all the land between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, creating a landscape as rich and fertile as it was difficult to contain and control. This place of my ancestors was known to make or break a man, and I figured by now the scorecard was about even.
I've been a long time gone.
Billboards and highway lights fell away, leaving behind empty fields and ramshackle structures swallowed by kudzu, turning them into hulking ghosts haunting the roadside. Sinewy cypress swamps randomly appeared as if to remind us of our tenuous hold on the land. The predawn flatscape flashed by me in shades of gray, as if the years had absorbed all the color, so that even my memories were seen only in black and white.
A therapist had once told me that my hindsight color blindness was due to an unhappy childhood. I tried to tell him that I had never considered my motherless childhood to be
It was more of an accumulation of years filled with absence, that perhaps black and white were simply the colors of grief.
The rising sun had painted the sky pink by the time I passed the sign for Indian Mound, the first seeds of panic making my heart beat faster. I glanced over at my purse, where I kept my pills, wondering whether I could swallow them dry again as I'd been doing for most of the trip. My throat felt sore, and my hands shook.
I'm almost home
. I turned my gaze toward the dim light outside that seemed to swallow my car as I passed through it, and pressed my foot harder on the accelerator.
I slowed down, trying to avoid the increasing amount of debris tossed
across the road, the tree limbs, leaves, and roof shingles that seemed to have been scattered by the hand of a careless child. I caught up to an old, faded red pickup truck as it slowed down at the bright flashing red and blue lights of a police car stopped in front of fallen electrical lines. A large, brindled dog, his lineage as indecipherable as the vintage of the pickup truck in which he sat, stared at me with a lost expression. A police officer guided our way around the danger zone, his other hand reminding us to slow down. As soon as he had disappeared from my rearview mirror, I sped up, passing the truck and maneuvering past a mailbox that stood upright in the middle of the highway as if it were meant to be there.
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and I thought of the pills again, and how easily they could take away the pit of worry that had begun to gnaw at me. I went faster, clipping a tree limb with my left front tire and hearing a crack and a thump of the split wood hitting metal. I kept going, realizing that I was prepared to drive on the rim of a flat tire if I had to.
I've been a long time gone.
I turned off the highway onto a dirt road studded with puddles and rocks. The road bisected a large cotton field, the furrows drowning in standing water. I remembered this road and had turned by instinct. It probably had a name, one we'd never used when giving directions to the odd visitor. We usually instructed visitors to turn right about one and a half miles past the old general store, which leaned to the left and still had a Royal Crown Cola sign plastered over the doorway even though it had been abandoned long before I was born.
The store was gone now, but I still knew where to turn in the same way my hair still knew where to part no matter how hard I tried to tell it different. But the road was the same, still narrow, with the tall white oaksâtaller now, I supposedâcreating a green archway above. Tommy and I used to race barefoot down this road, watching our feet churn up dust like conjured spirits.
My back tires spun out, bringing me back to the present and slipping my car off the side of the road. Panicking, I gunned the engine, succeeding only in digging the wheels further in muck. Although I knew it was useless, I gunned the engine two more times. I stared through the windshield down the tree-shaded road. It had taken me nine years to come back. I figured stretching it out for a few more minutes wouldn't matter.
I began to walk, my leather flats sticking to the Mississippi mud as if reluctant to let me go again. A murder of crows sprang up out of the trees, cawing loudly and making my heart hammer as I tried counting them, recalling the nursery rhyme Mathilda had sung to me as a child.
One for sorrow,
two for mirth,
three for a wedding,
four for a birth,
five for silver,
six for gold,
seven for a secret never to be told,
eight for heaven,
nine for hell,
And ten for the devil's own self.
I clenched my teeth, wishing I'd taken another pill. I glanced over my shoulder at the car, realizing too late that I'd left my purse. I'd almost decided to go back when a flurry of wings made me look up. Seven black crows, their inky black wings seeming wet in the light of the sun, swirled and dipped over me, cawing and cackling, then took off again across the field.
My throat stung as I walked faster, feeling light-headed as I tried to recall the last time I'd eaten. And then the trees by the side of the road fell away and I stopped in a large clearing with a wide, paved drive edged with centuries-old oak trees. The old yellow house of indeterminate architecture with columns and porches and an improbable turret and at least three different roof styles stood before me in all of its confused splendor. It was an anomaly among all the Greek Revival homes of the region, as peculiar and original as the women who'd lived there for two centuries. My heart slowed as if Bootsie were already with me, letting my head rest on her shoulder. I had come home.
Despite the storm, the house appeared almost untouched except for the litter of pink azalea petals that had been stripped from their stems and scattered around the drive and yard like fuchsia doubloons from a Mardi Gras float.
Grass blades stuck their tips out of standing water in the yard as if
struggling for breath, the water reflecting the sky and odd yellow house. Its windows stared down on me with reproach, as if wondering at the audacity of the return of another Walker woman, my hubris in believing it wanted me back. But I'd lived my first eighteen years inside its walls and had run through the fields of cotton that surrounded it. This house was the only spot of color in my monochromatic memories.
I listened for the songbirds, as much a part of my memory as the landscape. Except for the crows, the only sound cutting the silence was that of dripping water as it fell to the ground from the eaves and chipped paint of the old house, and from the arthritic fingers of the oak trees. I slowly walked up the wooden steps to the wide porch, pausing to take off my mud-caked shoes and leave them by the side of the door, just as I had done as a child. I placed my hand on the large brass knob of the front door before deciding to knock instead.
I knocked twice, waiting for the tread of my grandmother Bootsie's footsteps, or the glide of my mother's bare feet. Or even the heavier tread of my older brother, Tommy. But all I heard was the sound of the water leaking from the house.
I hesitated for a moment, then reached for the knob. It didn't turn. In all of my years growing up, the front door had never been locked. I couldn't help but wonder if they'd known I was coming after all. I stood for a moment with my hands on my hips until I remembered it was a stance my mother had frequently used, and dropped them again. The air was heavy with the scent of rain and the boxwoods that had begun to creep over the porch railings unchecked.
I slid my shoes back on and crossed the drive to walk around the side toward the old carriage house that had been converted into a garage sometime in the twenties. I recognized Bootsie's 1977 white Cadillac convertible and my heart lurched with relief. A white pickup truck with an enormous toolbox in the bed that I assumed was Tommy's sat behind it, and next to it was a dark sedan that looked suspiciously like an unmarked police car. I didn't take the time to think about why it was there. I walked quickly now, no longer caring about avoiding puddles, needing to be embraced by my grandmother until I no longer craved my pills to soothe away the hurting.
I moved to the backyard, looking toward the rear of our property, toward the forest full of sweet gums and pines, the solid land giving
way to the swamp and giant bald cypress trees that Tommy had once told me were over a thousand years old. A lone cypress tree had managed to take root on higher ground halfway between the house and the swamp, standing by itself among the sparse grass and haphazard pine trees whose scraggly branches always made them look bewildered next to the corded majesty of the giant cypress. I'd called it “my tree” as a child, and I longed to sit in the comforting shade of its branches again.
But the landscape had been altered. Limbs and leaves mixed blindly with papers and other indistinguishable man-made debris. A porch swing that I remembered had once hung on the front porch sat right side up, its chains missing, in the middle of the yard. Close by, almost as if they'd been set there on purpose, were the two metal chairs that had always graced my grandmother's vegetable garden. They had once been a neon lime color, but sun and time had faded them into a disappointed green. With the swing, they formed a cohesive seating group, almost as if the wind had decided in the middle of its destruction to take a break.
I paused, feeling my equilibrium shift as if I'd just stepped off a moving sidewalk. I took in the three figures standing in the near distance, and then waited for my gaze to register what they were standing next to, blinking twice until I understood. My tree, the stalwart reminder of the best parts of my childhood, had toppled over, clipping the edge of the old cotton shed. The roots were singed black, with chunks of bark encircling the area. I imagined I could smell the burnt ions in the air from the lightning strike, still feel the atmosphere pulsating with the power of it.
“Bootsie?” I called out, my walk becoming a run. Three heads turned in my direction just as another cluster of crows flew out from the dead tree, their shiny black bodies seeming to mock me.
I stopped in front of the small group, my breath coming in gasps, as we regarded one another, all of us looking as if we'd just seen a ghost. Nobody said anything as my gaze moved from one person to another, registering my brother's face, and then another man, and then my mother. Whereas Tommy wore jeans and an untucked shirt, like he'd just been roused from bed by the sound of a lightning strike, my mother wore a silk brocade cocktail dress taken directly from the Kennedy White House, complete with rhinestone earrings and matching bracelet
and ring. I recalled seeing a photograph of her mother, Bootsie, wearing the same ensemble.
My mother turned to me with mild surprise. “Vivien, I know I've told you before that you should never leave the house without lipstick.”
I stared at her for a long moment, wondering if there was more to this altered landscape than just a fallen tree.
My brother hesitated for a moment, then took a step forward to embrace me. He was ten years older than me, and almost a decade had passed since I'd last seen him, but now, at nearly thirty-seven, he still looked like the gangly and awkward boy I'd grown up with. Tommy's shirt was soft and worn under my fingers, and I clutched at the familiarity of it. “It's been a while.” He didn't smile.
My lips trembled as I tried to smirk at his vast understatement, as if we both believed his words could erase nearly nine years of silence. “Hello, Tommy.” I forced a deep breath into my lungs. “Where's Bootsie?”
His eyes softened, and I knew then that I'd lost more than just time in the last nine years. “You've been gone awhile.” His gaze drifted to our mother in her cocktail dress and high heels and something icy cold gripped the area around my heart.
Before I could say anything, the other man stepped forward. Tripp Montgomery was as tall and slender as I remembered him, short brown hair and hazel eyes that always seemed to see more of the world than the rest of us. He wore khaki pants and a long-sleeved shirt and a tie, which only added to my confusion. I looked at him, wondering why he was there and hoping that somebody would tell me this was all a dream and that I'd soon awaken in my bed in the old house with Bootsie kissing my forehead.