Read Four and Twenty Blackbirds Online
Authors: Cherie Priest
Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Contemporary, #Dark Fantasy, #Fiction
Dave was as good as his word. We went to the library and he left me to roam while he crossed the street and soaked himself with coffee at a hole-in-the-wall establishment. He promised me an hour at least before he came after me, and I set my watch to make sure he didn't cheat.
I went to the third floor of the ugly concrete building and chatted up the reference librarians, who pointed me towards a jungle of gray filing cabinets. Fine white spiderweb dust lifted into the air when I opened the proper drawer and shuffled for the correct file. Maybe one day they'd get around to putting all this on microfilm, or microfiche, or whatever medium a twenty-first-century library is expected to use. But sometimes I think it's true what they say about this part of the countryâ€”you may as well set your clocks back twenty years.
And there it was: "Pine Breeze."
The file was thicker than I'd expected, and the old sticker label was peeling its slow way free of the folder. I pulled the whole thing out with both hands and closed the cabinet with a shove of my hip.
The first page was a mounted newspaper clipping dated March of 1930. "Tuberculosis Hospital to Close, Reopen," the headline read. I scanned it hastily, picking out the phrases that looked important and ignoring everything else. Established 1913. Staffed by Red Cross, Salvation Army nurses. Bought by private investorsâ€”a local family. To be converted to a health spa. Interesting, but well before the time period relevant to me. I lifted the sheet out and prepared to put it aside, but not before a passage had time to leap off the pageâ€”"where some two thousand people perished during the TB epidemic . . ."
Two thousand people? That sounded like an awful lot.
I reached for the next item in the folder.
1946. A neat diagram of the campus compound, laid out on yellowing paper. I counted nine buildings, including a nurse's station set away from the main grouping. I concentrated hard, trying to decipher the tiny writing on the key at the right of the page.
Building 1: Administration headquarters. Former infirmary.
Building 2: Auditorium / gymnasium.
Building 3: Furnace house (for disposal of contaminated corpses).
Contaminated corpses? Then they burned the bodies of the tuberculosis victims, and they needed an entire building to do so. Maybe that two thousand estimate wasn't so high after all.
Building 4: Doctors' offices.
Building 5: Outpatient services.
Building 6: Cafeteria / food service facilities.
Building 7: Inpatient therapy.
Building 8: Rehabilitation dormitories.
Building 9: Nurse's station.
This was helpful. I made a mental note to hit the copy machine before leaving.
Next was a series of yellowed articles bearing headlines like, "Health Facility Seeks Federal Aid," and "Pine Breeze Sanatorium Investigated for Racial Inequality." The rest of the loose papers seemed to be articles about money problems, so I flipped past them in search of something more recent.
1968: Ah. There it was. "Federal Grant to Fund Hospital for Adolescents in North Chattanooga." Operated by Marion Finley. Would serve up to eighty patients, primarily substance-addicted and behaviorally problematic teenagers. Hmm. If Dave was right and the school was only serving fifteen or twenty kids back when it closed, then it really
fallen shy of projections.
Next page: A poor-quality black-and-white photocopy of another clipping. The words were hard to make out, but the photograph had transferred well enough. Eight girls, perhaps my own age, were sitting around a long table with sewing cards strung with yarn. All their round, pale faces were turned towards the camera, cards poised over the table. Each girl wore the same stoned, automaton stare, as if she knew her picture was being taken but wasn't sure what it should mean to her. "New drugs to modify behavior . . . activities provided . . . once-troubled girls into ladylike young women . . . Finley claims high success rate, but says more funding still badly needed."
I put the picture away and began to flip down through another series of headlines, these too suggesting ongoing money problems. I idly wondered if the place had ever been solvent at all.
One wealthy family had withdrawn its support, though its members had previously contributed enough to have the dormitories named after them. Despite Ms. Finley's constant begging, the government couldn't be bothered to lend a hand. Enrollment was down. Pine Breeze was operating at cost.
1978: My mother.
I stopped. A giant picture of my mother stared out at me from the manila folder, buttressed by the caption: "Pine Breeze Patient Dead." I knew it was her, even though I only had the one old picture to guess byâ€”and even before I caught her name beneath the photo. That spooky family likeness stared me in the face, and it chilled me a tiny bit.
I picked up the article. It crackled between my fingers as I read.
"Leslie Eve Moore, sixteen-year-old patient at the Pine Breeze adolescent facility, died sometime yesterday morning, apparently as a result of a difficult childbirth. Officials at Pine Breeze are withholding comment at this time except to say that the girl received the best medical care they could offer, and that they are deeply sorrowful. A spokesperson for the girl's family insists that they were unaware she was pregnant when she was committed to the institution. A lawyer from the NAACP has demanded an investigation, claiming that the family was never told of the pregnancy and that Leslie was not given proper medical attention, possibly because she was of mixed race. No details are available regarding the infant at this time."
And me, now the same age as she'd been then. The picture was an old studio portrait in 1970s sepia tone, one she hadn't been happy to have taken. She wasn't frowning, but her smile was forced, and her hands were clenched in her lap, smashed hard across her thighs rather than folded there. The yellow dress she wore had a butterfly collar that made her neck seem too long and thin. She looked awfully fragile for a juvenile delinquent, but there was a certain stubbornness around the set of her eyes and the full line of her mouth. I'd have been lying if I said I didn't recognize it.
I looked quickly over each of my shoulders and, seeing no one, I folded the paper with my mother's face and stuck it in my pocket. Perhaps I should have made a photocopy, but I wasn't thinking. I'd only ever seen that one other picture of her, the one of the three sisters taken before their mother had sent my mother away. Lulu kept that picture to herself, stuck in the top corner of her dresser mirror.
Now I had one of my own.
I skimmed the rest of the folder's brittle fillings but I didn't expect to find anything more enlightening than what I'd already gotten. I was unsurprised by what it contained. Yet more accusatory headlines screamed out, complaining about the government funding going away and the place closing down over my scandal. I was strangely proud. It was all about
. There wasn't much extra information on my mother to be found, but at least I could say I knew a little bit more about her case. I'd never quite felt up to speed; ever since Malachi's trial in the courtroom and my own tribulations in elementary school I'd assumed the rest of the world knew something I didn't.
After I replaced the file, I ran down the stairs and out across the street to find my uncle. He was sitting at a small square table at the end of a narrow corridor where I knew he'd be waiting. He lifted his head when I entered, disturbing the bell at the top of the coffeehouse door.
"Did you find what you wanted?"
I nodded and grabbed a rickety, skinny-legged seat across from him. "You've got to take me there."
His chin swung back and forth. "The goddess will not permit it."
"Then you only meant to tease me."
"No. I only disagreed with Lulu that you were old enough. Now you know. Now you've seen. The rest is up to you. I'll be in enough trouble when she finds out I told you this much. I'll be lucky to get laid for the rest of my life."
He was settled on the matter. It wouldn't do me any good to push. I'd have to find another way. I'd have to ask another question.
"Dave, do you know who my father was?"
"Uh-uh. Lulu thinks he was a white guy, his name might have been Allen, or Andrew, or something like that. I don't think anybody really knows. I'm sorry, baby. I've given you all I know."
With that, my uncle, Promethean traitor, finished his coffee and closed his book.
In a week or two, Lulu returned to her old self and life resumed in its rut of normalcy. I don't know if Dave ever told Lulu what he'd told me or how he helped, but we never spoke of it again, except for the odd occasion when I'd ask him to show me, and he'd shoot me down.
I finished high school; I spent a couple of years at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga pursuing some of nothing and some of everything. I spent long enough in college that I had no excuse to leave without a degree, but that's what happened. After a while, I just got tired of going.
For the most part, the university gave me an excuse to fall in with a snobby crowd of disaffected poets who thought I was a psychic diva because of the poetry I wroteâ€”mostly about the three sisters and about my cousin Malachi, who rotted away in a state institution as far as I knew and cared. Oh yes, people still knew of the case. People still talked about me at least as much as they discussed the widow of the man who killed Medgar Evers. She lives near here on one of the mountains and everyone knows it. South of the Ohio River there is no such thing as old news or ancient history. Drive around downtown and look for pickup trucks with rebel flag stickers, if you don't believe me.
Eventually I quit taking even the loosely enforced poetry workshops and sank further still down the academic totem pole by joining a small clique of slam poets. They worked out of a scuzzy bar on the south side of town, assembling their vicious rounds of bad tournament poetry to amuse or bore the meager audiences. Occasionally a local band would play before the spoken word performers took the stage, and then there would be more of a crowd for the poets to scream at.
Once upon a time, I lived for those nights when the joint would be packed and the beers would flow freely. I never did drink beer, not even the good stuff, but I could be conned into a glass or two of wine if the mood was right. It loosened me up for the show; it made me more gloriously slick and tragic.
Don't you know it, everyone loves a lost little girl in a black corset top and leather pants. Everyone wants to save her or fuck her, not understanding that neither is necessary. But so long as she is at least a small measure beautiful, and so long as she is young, they will come to hear her. So long as she can sell the illusion that she is innocence and pain in search of defilement and rescue, she'll have them at her feetâ€”their eyes and teeth parted in mock blessing, their idle lust a lascivious parody of worship.
Never mind her poetry. It doesn't have to be good.
poetry was good, or at least it was predictably shocking, peppered with obscenities and sexual slang. Oh, all right. It might not have been that good, really, but it served my purposes. I got free booze all night anywhere I chose; and by the time I was old enough to use my real driver's license instead of the phony one, I was plenty beautiful. I had grown into a mini-Lulu, smaller and thinner, with breasts not quite so ponderous but full enough anyway, and the same long-lashed eyes and fat lips on a fair face. In a bigger city I might not have been so special, but the valley is a small pond and the fish are easily impressed.
I was especially interesting to the valley boys because of my peculiar heritage.
Ordinarily I checked "Other" on any form requesting racial information, for what was I to say? I was probably more white than black, but given the roulette wheel of genetics there wasn't any good way to guess. If I straightened my hair I could possibly pass for Caucasian, but most folks recognized on sight that I wasn't of any Nordic strain. In fact, much to my irritation, men had a tendency to think of my appearance as a conversation starter, or more often than not, as a precursor to a lame pickup line.
Almost any given night I could expect to climb off the stage and have some good ol' boy waiting for me, offering me a beverage I wouldn't accept, because even simple politeness is more encouragement than they need.
"That was real good," the evening's Romeo always began. "So what
Ah, Dixie. Where even if they don't care anymore, they can't help but notice.
I might choose to play stupid and toy with him, to force him to ask the question the way he meant it. "I'm a student." "I'm a poet." 'I'm a girl." And I'd bat my eyelashes slowly and stupidly.
"No, I mean, like, what
What was the point? Once on a day trip to Knoxville I bought a baby-doll T-shirt that said, "Not black, not white, HUMAN." I wore it mostly on days that I didn't feel like answering questions.
Another mixed-race girl worked the circuit with us, and she got the same crap as often as I did. Terry was some unlikely combination of disparate backgroundsâ€”German and Indian, or African and Eskimo, or Mexican and Arabian, something along those lines. Something that left her not a shade darker than me but a touch more exotic.
As far as I was concerned, she was still a teary-eyed poser. Although I couldn't stand her, Lu says I shouldn't be so hard on her, and she's probably right. In a roundabout way, it
my fault that she died.
It happened the night of my last slam. Terry took the stage and held it hostage with her typical set of four-minute diatribes on (1) the fascist Republican regime, (2) her confusing cultural heritage, and (3) her whiny, ongoing battle with an eating disorder that wasn't working for her half so well as a balanced diet might have.
Despite Lulu's warning that it's cruel to speak ill of the dead, I wasn't a fan of Terry's work or her personalityâ€”and on that final night Terry was at her worst. She tromped up to the stage in a leather outfit that would have looked great on someone else, but was a most unflattering contraption on her bulky shape. When she turned around and faced the audience I could see she was sporting glitter eye shadow again, so the spotlights flashed and sparkled on her shiny form as she clutched the microphone and raised her eyes to the ceiling.
"Sex is like . . . a triple-layered . . . frosted cake . . . of danger."
She punctuated it with the heavy-handed pauses of Captain Kirk, but without the smiling self-deprecation that keeps William Shatner from being truly awful. To give credit where credit is due, she
have a good voice. She spoke mellow and low, and if she hadn't been trying so hard her poetry might have achieved some kind of comic sensuality.
"I want you . . . as badly as a diabetic child . . . at a birthday party . . . with no clowns."
A friend of mine grabbed my elbow and squeezed it in affected agony. "This is just
Surreal. It was his word of the week. "This must be one of the circles of hell Dante accidentally left off the list." He gestured at the bar with one languid white hand that poked out of a ruffled shirt straight off Robert Smith's back. "Want another drink? I'll buy, since you were darling enough to come and join us.
us, even, from this steaming puddle of cat piss."
was last week's word.
"Jamie, you're a master of understatement. Of course I'll get up there and make you look good. It
your show tonight, isn't it? You're the one who put it together this time?"
"Uh-huh," he mumbled, scrutinizing a leggy brunette new to the group. He caught me catching him, and he returned his eyes to the stage, pretending his attention had never left it.
He must be a Pisces.
Terry hadn't even finished her first piece. "I think . . . I might have to take a bite out of you . . . before your attraction to me . . . grows stale."
Pause. A couple of people clapped tentatively. She cut them off.
"Love is . . . a stale piece of leftover party cake . . . at the bottom of a black garbage bag on the floor . . . of the kitchen. . . . My father will take you to the curb . . . in the morning."
She bowed and nearly toppled forward, but recovered before we had time to laugh. "Thank you. My next piece is dedicated to my lover, Trent, to whom I have given my entire body and soul. Ahem . . ."
Jamie dragged a hand down my shoulder and wrapped an arm around my waist, pulling me closer so we could speak without being overheard. "Poor Trent," he purred. I'd had three glasses of wine, one over my usual limit, and I didn't care enough to push him away even though I should have. He wasn't repulsive, he was merely delusional, which could be forgiven. "We should get out of here after your set," he went on. "Let's go get something to eat, or something else to drink. What do you say?"
"Why do we let her get up there and do that week after week?" My voice was loud enough to shove him back a few inches. "Why don't we just tell her she can only do four minutes and then she has to sit down and let someone else have a turn? Dammit," I swore, knocking Jamie all the way outside my personal space, "I've got half a mind to shoot her off the stage myself, before she does any more harm."
The gunshot that followed surprised no one more than me.
A beer bottle, a pitcher, and a window shattered, all in one neat line.
Terry flopped backwards, still clinging to the microphone stand. The cords and plugs ripped loose from their mounts in the floor and splayed about. Everyone dove for cover, screaming and hiding under tables, behind chairs. Behind the bar and down the hall. Out the back, for those who could make it.
I was too tipsy to wrap my head around what was going on; or maybe I was drunkenly solipsistic enough to think I'd caused it. "Aw hell, I was only joking!" I shouted above the screams. "I was only joking!" But people were shrieking and Terry was shuddering, one black shoe jerking about at the edge of the stage.
Another shot reverberated but this one hit the roof above me, sending plaster raining down on my head. I wrestled with a sneeze and half dropped, half fell to the floor, officially losing my cool. I wondered where Jamie had scuttled off to, and I took brief, apathetic note of how swiftly he'd abandoned me at the first sign of trouble. I rolled over to an overturned table and scooted behind it, smacking headfirst into another bystander who had also sought shelter there. He lifted his face to mine and I saw shock and fear there that matched my own.
"Hey, Eden, are you okay?" he asked, lightly freckled upper lip trembling.
"I never get any complaints." Ha-ha. I'm not any funnier under pressure than I am onstage, really. But
had to keep a level head and something about the chunks of vomit on his shirt told me it wasn't going to be this guy.
I didn't know him, but there were more than a few people who knew me without my knowing them. I didn't recall seeing him at a slam before and I didn't think I knew him from school. I started to ask who he was, but then I heard the scuffle created by two large men in the process of tackling the gunman to the ground.
"Now the wrath of God has been satisfied!" the shooter was shouting, even as strong hands forced him into submission. "Vengeance is mineâ€”vengeance is God's!"
No. Oh, no
. No, it couldn't be.
"I'll kill him as many times as I have to!"
Seeing that the danger had passed, Jamie had crawled out from under his rock of choice and up to Terry; he pressed his ear to her ample chest. "Terry?" he called, manipulating her head with his hand. "Terry?"
I climbed to my feet and walked in a furious, fearless daze towards the writhing mass of limbs that made up the three menâ€”two holding fast and one resisting. It could not be. Surely someone would have told me if he'd been released. Surely.
No. There he was, fighting feebly against the brawny arms that pinned him. His hair was much the same, no longer, no cleaner, no drier than the last time I'd seen him, and he hadn't gained a pound. Blond stubble burst from erratic patches on his chin and cheeks, and his eyes had new, blue circles drooping below the bloodshot globes. He looked old and tired and weak, except for the total madness he exuded with such rapacious enthusiasm.
"Bars cannot stop the wrath of God. God finds a way. They tried to stop this, the agents of Satan, but that old devil cannot prevail. He cannot prevail against the Lord my God, and now His purpose is served. I don't care if they put me away again. I've done my work; I've done the Lord's work. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Blessed be . . . His name."
His conviction was horrifying.
I approached him with fascination diluted by the dawning astonishment that he thought he'd killed
Drunk or not, I managed to be insulted, though that was possibly unfair. He hadn't seen me in fifteen years, and Terry and I . . . well, to the passive, uninformed observer she and I had more in common than I liked to think. We were about the same age, and could have reasonably been of the same ethnic extraction. She was not ugly, and she carried herself with the same lazy air of a fat, spoiled Persian cat. As a card-carrying Leo, I like to consider myself feline in grace and appearance and, to tell the truth, if I were seven or eight sizes larger she and I could have passed for sisters.
I can understand why Malachi mistook her for me after all the time that had passed since I'd last seen him. And
is as kind to the dead as I'm prepared to be.
Malachi watched me walk towards him, his babbling face revealing nothing beyond his blubbering triumph. I should have stayed back. I should have let him live with the illusion of his victory, but in all likelihood he would have learned of his error anyway. I don't believe it would have made any difference, and now that he was safely restrained, I was angry.