A Space for Women of the World
Lately, Azee had started to forget things, little things that didn’t matter much, but she
knew something wasn’t right in that. At seventy-eight years old, she was a tall, big boned
woman with thick gray hair she kept pinned back in a tight bun. Her skin color and the angle of her jawline showed off her Cherokee bloodline, and the Irish was evident in her blue-green eyes. Still strong as she was when she was twenty years younger, she could outwork most men she knew, though if her husband Burton was still alive, she knew he could’ve worked her in the ground and then some. Still, something of her mind was fading, and this scared Azee for she knew there was not a thing she could do about it.
She stood in the middle of her living room staring at Charity Lynn. The girl couldn’t
have been more than nineteen years old. Tall and skinny, she had long brown hair that hung loose down her back, reaching her waistline. Azee’s grandson, Dwight had signed up for the Navy about the time he married Charity, and he sent her out to stay with Azee and her sister Edith while he was on a six month tour at sea.
“So you’re Dwight’s woman, huh.” Azee’s voice was laced with a hard edge like a smoker’s even though she never took a puff in her life.
Mousy, Azee thought.
“Thank you for the place to stay for awhile. I would’ve gone back home, but my family
ain’t really the kind you want to go back home to, if you know what I mean.”
“Don’t know why you all insisted on marrying when you knew he was going to be away
like this. Now you-uns expect me to help you out of a bed of your own making.”
“It’s only for a little while. And I’m right proud of him for what he’s doing.” Charity spoke back with the same authority in her voice as Azee, but the young woman coated it with a smile which Azee took as her saying she was the better person.
Edith came in from the kitchen with the smell of fried chicken on her, dressed Sunday best despite the flour spots on her apron. She had the mind that a house guest was a grand occasion, deserving of a big meal and fine clothes. ‘Well now, Charity, it’s good to finally meet you…”
Listening to her sister make Charity kin-welcome, Azee kept her eyes on Charity’s small round belly.
“I hope you and my grandson were married before you got pregnant with that child you’re carrying.” Ignoring Edith’s shaming eye, Azee looked dead on at Charity.
Red-faced, Charity put her head down, patted her belly before leveling her gaze with Azee’s. “I ain’t no whore, Ma’am, and I’d thank you not to talk to me like one.”
Daylight was falling through the window and open front door making Charity look as if she stood in some soft-glow spotlight. Specks of dust floated all around her and settled back on the wood planked floors.
Seeing that Charity had no more to say, Azee grunted. “You mine’s-well come on in here and get settled then.” She headed down the hallway while Charity followed behind, suitcase in hand.
“This room here is where you’ll stay,” Azee said as she waved Charity into the last room on the left in the little shot-gun house she’d lived in since she married Burton.
Charity spotted Azee’s vegetable garden out back through the window above the bed. “Reckon you could let me work that garden with you? I’d love to get my hands in the dirt.”
“I tend to my own garden, Charity Lynn, thank you. If you want to help out around here, then Edith can use you, I guess.”
Without another word, Azee headed out the back door and down toward the chicken coop.
She had walked this same path for so many years that the grass was worn away, and dust kicked at the hem of her blue and green house dress. Mid-day sun had warmed up the earth so there was a scent of new flowers that hung in the air. All around her she could hear the song birds and sometimes a crow cawing from some far off tree.
She had raised Dwight and three of his brothers as her own, even though they were her
grandsons. Dwight was the youngest and always had her heart. He had always looked out for her, but that was his own doing. Azee never asked. He took her for groceries, helped her snake logs down the mountain for the shed she’d built some time ago. He would even stand in the kitchen all hours with her on days she canned fruit and stewed tomatoes to put up for winter. So when he signed his Navy papers, it nearly broke Azee’s heart, even though she never said as much to him.
Change unsettled Azee now more than ever, and she wanted the stability of Dwight’s help. There were things she knew would soon slip away from her that she would never get back.
It was a strange thing being able to tell that about her self. Every night when she laid down, she would get up the next morning feeling like she didn’t pick her whole self up off the mattress. She could tell that she was shifting inside herself, moving to some place where only she would be able to live. Lately, she’d even begun to ache for Burton’s quiet presence, and his French harp music that his dog would dance to in circles. Sometimes when she was going about her day, she near forgot he was dead, and expected him to come lumbering up the hill in that funny way of his, a pocket full of trinkets and a mouth full of stories from where he’d hopped a train and been gone months at a time. Wandering was in his blood, Azee had known that when she married him and never minded his absence until now that she felt like she needed him.
Reaching the coop, she stooped down and got hold of a fat bird. The hen squawked like it knew it was about to meet its end as soon as Azee grabbed its talons. Feathers flew all around her head, landing on the corner of her lip, the top of her gray bun. She dangled the chicken upside down while it flapped at the air awkwardly. “Hush up now,” she said, and toted the bird away from the others. In one quick motion, she flipped the chicken up, grabbed its head, then swung it around and around by the neck. The feathered bundle gave one last squawk and a feeble flap of wings before it dangled lifeless from Azee’s hand.
For a long time she stood there staring at the dead bird, not knowing why this one stood out to her so. She had killed thousands of chickens in her lifetime, had helped slaughter her share of pigs and cows, even went on a squirrel or quail hunt now and again. Though she only took an animal’s life for food purposes, she never was a soft heart about it. That was nature: kill and eat. But now her heart felt almost sad for the bird. Holding it by the talons again, she brought her arm out until the bird was eye level. The broke neck swung back and forth, the beak open in a silent squawk.
She toted the bird to the kitchen, dunked it in boiling water, and had it de-feathered and dressed before she looked in the oven and remembered that Edith had already fried a chicken for supper and was keeping it warm until time to eat. She felt foolish for such a thing, and even sadder for the bird. Glad that Charity or Edith neither one were close around, she wrapped the raw chicken in aluminum foil, and stuck it in the freezer.
Spring turned into a blazing southern summer, and Azee loved the season despite the heat. Bent down on hands and knees in the dirt of her vegetable garden, she worked at the beet roots, checking the green tops for signs of bugs. She had planted root vegetables for too many years to count, and her garden ran in neat horizontal lines up the side of the slope. Her mother had taught her how to plant. She never let a year go by that she didn’t tend to her garden like it was her child.
Azee always plowed early, and would turn the dirt every few days until time to put her seeds in the ground, so she had plowed the dirt months ago right after Charity moved in. She never could keep her hands out of the earth for long. And she’d feared that if she didn’t keep going out there, she would’ve forgotten to put any seeds in, and realized her mistake when it was too late, when it was time to see life coming out of the dirt. Out of all things in the world, a slip up like that would’ve been the thing to kill her soul. Her garden seemed to be the only place where she could keep her thoughts in order anymore, remember from one day to the next what she had and had not done, whether she needed to water more, till another row, pull some roots before they got too big.
The air was heavy with heat and moisture that settled in her lungs like a wet rag. With no clouds in the sky, the sun beat down on her neck and arms like it was trying to burn through her skin. She plucked off cucumber and squash, wiped sweat from her forehead, and squinted her eyes against the bright light.
She ran her fingers through the dirt around her beets, opening up the ground so the water would go down quicker, deeper. The smell of fresh turned earth was, to Azee, the best thing about gardening, for it meant life was somewhere underneath it.
She heard Charity before she saw her.
“Lordy, this heat might eat up your garden just yet. You been watering every day?” Charity moved down the row toward Azee, every step pulling her knees high while she kept her eyes on the ground, careful not to crush any plants.
“I know how to tend to my own garden, Charity Lynn. Been doing this longer than you been breathing.”
“Just trying to make conversation, is all,” Charity said.
“You think I can’t remember to water my own plants?”
“I said I was just making conversation.”
Azee shoved her trowel in the dirt. “I ain’t of a mind for conversation. Got work to do.”
Charity stooped down in the dirt, her pregnant belly big and round. In no time, she would be birthing that child, and what would they would all do then? Nothing would be the same in the house.
Charity said, “I miss Dwight something awful sometimes. I wish they’d consider he’s got a family before sending him out like that.” She was stroking the leaves of the beet roots while she talked. There was a touch of lonesome in her voice, one that sounded familiar to Azee. She’d heard that sound in her own voice whenever Burton was gone for weeks at a time, felt that same pinch in her heart when Dwight said he was going into the service.
For a minute, Azee thought she might reach out and pat the girl’s hand, tell her it would all be alright. But instead she hoisted herself up out of the dirt, and said, “Well, you mine’s-well get used to it because this is what you both signed up for.” Stepping through the garden she went to the house, leaving Charity squatted amongst the dirt and plants.
Edith was sitting at the kitchen table when Azee walked in the house. Out of the two sisters, Edith was the smaller one. Her height came up to just above Azee’s shoulder, and since she had gotten older she’d developed a curve in her spine that made her look even smaller. Her bones were skinny, and she looked like she might break if squeezed too tight. But her face was plump and soft, and had a glow to it. Most people made the mistake of thinking Edith’s short stature meant she was weak and sickly. That could not have been less true. She was one firecracker of a woman. Even with all her compassion and care-giving, she could put a boot-legger to flight quick as he said hello and pray fire
down from heaven whenever she felt there was a need for it.
The mail was spread out in front of her, and Azee noticed an envelope with Dwight’s hand writing on it.
“Where’s Charity?” Edith asked.
“I left her out in the garden.”
“Did you let her tell you what she come out to say to you?”
Pulling the chrome-framed chair back from the table, she sat down across from Edith, and sipped on her stale coffee left over from that morning. “She didn’t seem to have anything important to say.”
“Oh, A. Do you have to be so thick-skinned? She came to tell you about Dwight’s letter.
They’re shipping him out for another six month tour three days after they dock.” There was no time for him to come home, and he wouldn’t be there when the baby came.
The dull fearful ache she had been feeling cut through to her heart, and she put her hand up to her chest as if she could ward off the pain.
“Lord have mercy, Azee, you look like somebody’s been killed.” Edith put down her own mail and reached over to take Azee’s hand.
“Maybe he ain’t been killed, but I feel like he mine’s-well a been.” She felt all the blood
draining out of her face, down into her feet until they felt lead-heavy.
For a minute, Edith was quiet, the only sound in the kitchen being the oven popping from its own heat where she was baking a cinnamon cake.
Then, as if realizing that she had to be the voice of wisdom, Edith straightened herself up in her chair, said, “Well, we just got to make the best of it, then. We got to help Charity more than ever, and be strong for that baby. Besides, six months will come and go in two seasons. We’ll all be so busy we won’t know it’s been so long once it’s over.”
The kitchen felt cold to Azee despite the heat coming in through the screen door. The sweet smell of Edith’s cake made her stomach turn. She could handle six months, and figured her memory wouldn’t fade as fast as that. But a whole year. What if she didn’t know Dwight anymore when he got back? She’d be there to see his baby come into the world, but might forget whose it was by the time he came home.
The room seemed to shift about her, and all at once she wished Burton would come on back home. Once he did, she would tell him he didn’t need to go off on any more trips. She worried now that she might have forgotten how long he had been gone, and that he was supposed to get on a train to take him back to a hollow called Whiteside, out in Marion County, Tennessee, a place where you could climb to the top of the mountain and see the Tennessee river run by, or watch from your window to see a train running through headed toward Jasper. Right now she couldn’t even remember where Burton said he was going when he left last, or if he even told her he was leaving. She only recalled that one day he was here, and the next day he was gone.
Her hands were shaking when she shoved herself up from the table. “I’m going out awhile,” she said.
The creek was low. She crossed on large rocks that dotted the bed. The tracks lay just on the other side, and she figured a train was bound through any time. It was always cargo trains, the linked boxcars slowed to a crawl weaving through the mountains. The soft grassy spot was where Burton usually hopped off whatever car he had found open earlier. He’d always be packing a loaf of bread from some general store he’d been to. If she remembered right, he’d been gone awhile, longer probably than he ever had, and she expected him to be back anytime now.
Everyday a train was due to come, she decided she would wait for it in this spot, hoping she would see him sliding off the big ledge, letting his knees fold when he hit so that he would drop and roll away from the moving train. Used to she just waited him out while going about her everyday. But this time she wanted to watch his funny walk, hoped to recognize his face behind the beard he would have grown, see his eyes full of the wide yonder he’d roamed.
The ground was warm, and Azee laid back on it, shutting her eyes to the bright sun. She could hear the train a long way in the distance, the chug of the engine as it echoed off the faces of the hills and mountains surrounding her. The creek behind her sounded like a real soft rain, and it made her wish the sky would open up now, send a downpour on her strong enough to soak through her skin and into her dry and brittle bones, seep into the shriveled up piece of her heart where all her memories lived, and cause her to never forget them.
She wore Burton’s brown canvas overalls, something she only wore once in a while when she worked hard outside all day. Back when they first got married and were building their new home, she’d hitched up a pair, pulled the bib high, and tucked her dress down into the seat of them. Burton had laughed out loud at her, and she slapped at his arm and said it was better that she put on a pair of man’s pants before shinning her cotton underwear to the world. They felt comforting to her now, as if she could stuff all of her life into these overalls, button them up close to her chest, keep all the little things from seeping out into this puddle of forgetfulness.
All the scents of the earth rose up around Azee. Wild flowers heavy with summer heat, dirt and red clay, somebody’s sweet corn crop that stood heavy with ripeness, and the wild onions with their sharp scent that even she couldn’t make come out of her own garden. She breathed in as deep as she could, and imagined herself sinking down into the earth.
When she heard the train crawl by in front of her, Azee sat up and kept her eyes close on each cargo door to see where one might be open. Orange, green, red, and gray boxcars shuffled past her. Most doors were sealed tight, and when she did catch three or four open, they held no movement or form of Burton. The train clacked and rattled, sparks flew from the track. Boxcars rocked back and forth, all sealed tight or empty. It was only after the last car was out of view that Azee looked way out across the tracks at the graveyard in the distance and remembered Burton was some two years dead. She heard the metallic squeal as the train shifted around the curve of the tracks out of sight. In the
silence that followed Azee felt a tight fist grip her heart. She wasn’t sure if it was new grief for her dead husband, or fear for what she would not remember tomorrow.
She lay down in her bed feeling bone weary. When she’d come in from the creek, she’d said little to Charity or Edith. When Edith asked her if she was feeling alright, Azee nodded her head, scraped her plate out in the sink, and spent the rest of the evening outside, picking at odd jobs around the yard.
Edith came out to her only once to ask her what was wrong. When Azee told her nothing, Edith stood there for a minute, silent. “I know you’ve been forgetting things, A. I see it in you, and I want you to know I notice it. I won’t say no more about it till you bring it up yourself, but I notice it, and I’ll not leave you alone in it.”
There was a stillness in the air that only a hot summer day can bring. The kind of heavy heat that leaves a body begging for a breeze to come and dry the sweat on their forehead and the skin of their bare arms so they can feel a cool relief from the heat.
Azee turned back to the bush she was trimming while Edith walked back to the house.
Now, lying in the dark bedroom, she felt a little like a child again, longing for Edith to come crawl in beside her, put her arms around her and tell her that everything would be okay.
The house was quiet. Azee heard the soft praying voice of her sister down the hallway.
Usually, she would turn over in the night, not pay much mind to Edith’s prayers. But tonight she lay awake, staring into the darkness, listening to Edith’s mournful voice. She wanted to grab hold of those strange sounding words, make them her own and hold them up to God like a prayer of remembrance. Write them down, she wanted to say to say. Write them down so you can read them back to me.
Charity went into labor almost two months exactly after Dwight’s news had come. While Edith went to the hospital with Charity, Azee stayed home to ready the house.
She wondered what it would be like to have a baby in the house again. It’d been so long since she’d held a child in her arms. She could remember holding Dwight’s daddy, Darrold, when he was barely bigger than her hand, cradling his head in her spread out fingers and wondering what in the world she was doing with a baby. She was young herself then, only sixteen, Burton twenty-three. Her mama had stood over her, looking down at her and Darrold and predicted that he would be a wanderer like his daddy. Azee knew her mama would be right about that, even though she’d hoped otherwise. Once Darrold moved off he barely set toe across the Tennessee state line any more.
Azee had little to keep her busy in the way of gardening since cooler weather was setting in. She still went out there sometimes to walk around in it, to keep it familiar to her, and to keep her mind running in those same neat rows that she planted back in the spring.
So she was thankful to be doing something with her day, something with a routine to it so she could mark off each accomplishment on a piece of paper she took to carrying around in her pocket to keep from repeating chores.
Azee washed all the blankets in the house, and hung them out on the line. She moved about the house in the same hard-edged way in which she worked in the yard. Unlike her sister, she clomped down the hallway, slammed the doors, dropped the laundry basket on the floor with a thud. There was determination in everything she did, like she could scare the fire away that kept licking at the corners of her mind, threatening to burn out her core.
She began to imagine that she was getting ready for her own baby, and remembered with stark clarity the day each of her five children was born. Back then women had their babies at home, so she birthed them all right back in her own bedroom. They’d all been good kids. Darrold was just so much like Burton, and Dwight had turned out like both of them. Three generations of men with restless feet.
When everything was done Azee sat down in Burton’s old leather chair in the living room. She pulled out her note paper, and ran down the list to make sure everything was checked off, and that nothing had been checked off twice. Before she went to bed she wrote a long letter to herself, detailing who was living in her house, Burton’s death, Dwight’s dates of when he was supposed to come home, and that her granddaughter-in-law was bringing home a baby.
When Edith and Charity walked in the next day, Edith was carrying the child. Charity looked tuckered out, but with that glow that only a new mother can wear. Putting the baby down in the crook of Azee’s arm, Edith said, “This here’s Josiah Sanders. Six pounds, four ounces, eighteen inches long.”
“He’s a little feller, but I expect he’ll grow to be big like his daddy,” Charity said as she eased herself onto the couch across from Azee.
With his eyes closed and still swollen, pink head wrapped up in that striped toboggan the hospital nursery put on him, Josiah looked like all the other babies in the world. But there was a curl to his lip that told Azee he was a Sanders. All her boys, and Dwight, too, had that same shape to their upper lip, a curl of it like they was getting ready to say something worth hearing.
“Well, what do you think of your great-grandson, Azee?” It was the first time Charity had
called her by her first name since she moved in.
Azee touched the baby’s balled up fist. “I reckon he’ll make a right handsome little thing yet.”
She settled back in her chair, and tucked Josiah close to her. “They’s coffee on the stove if you-uns want any, and a pot of beans for supper.”
At that, Edith got up from the couch where she had sat down by Charity. “A pot of beans is no way to welcome a child into the world. I’ll make something special, and Charity you need to go on to bed. We’ll call you when the baby’s hungry.”
While Edith rattled about in the kitchen and Charity off in her bedroom, Azee sat with Josiah. With him in her arms she felt a solid peace to her mind that made her more sure of her surroundings than she had felt in months. It was as if this little baby held the power to make her remember this day and all other days past and future with the same clarity a child would remember a first day of school.
She leaned back into the peace of the moment, the surety of a new life and all that stretched out in front of it. But no matter how long she sat in the strength of that child, she knew in her soul something was about to turn over in her mind to make her forget all the now moments that would keep happening, that she’d lose the knowledge of who even lived in her house. It settled into the marrow of her bones. She would have to depend on somebody to care for her, feed her, and make sure she got a bath every day.
Adjusting her grip on the baby so that she held him high up on her bosom, she stood and walked into the kitchen where Edith was rolling out dough for yeast rolls.
The kitchen smelled like baking hens, boiled sweet potatoes, and fresh brewed tea. The plastic tea pitcher was already full of ice where Edith would dump in the hot tea and mix in some sugar. Even as kids Azee had always talked best to Edith in the kitchen, when Edith’s hands were busy cooking or cleaning or pouring out cereal.
“Edith.” Azee paused while her sister stamped out round disks of dough. “Edith, I don’t
remember things so good anymore.”
The dough-round Edith held in her hand hung limp over her fingertips while she stopped her work to look Azee in the eye. Then, she folded it over once to make a half-moon shape, said, “I know it Azee. I’ve known it awhile.”
“It’s different now. I don’t know from one day to the next if I’m even going to remember your name.”
She watched her words take hold on Edith’s face. Her eyes watered, betraying a sudden sorrow that Azee hadn’t seen since Edith’s husband died. She heard Edith catch in her breath, soft and sharp. Her eyebrows knitted together in question as if she were trying to see into Azee, to see her young again, sure and confident. Then the muscles in her jaw line relaxed and into her eyes came the kind of wisdom even Edith hadn’t gained until this moment.
When Josiah whimpered, Azee shifted him to her other arm and patted his backside. “I keep thinking Burton’s coming home instead of Dwight. Keep figuring this baby’s my own.”
“What do you want me to do, A?”
“I want you to make sure I don’t hurt Charity over thinking this young-uns mine, and I want you to help me remember he’s my great-grandson when I forget. Help me remember who Dwight is when he comes home. On the days you can’t convince me of any of these things, then take me to my garden and let me be awhile.”
“Alright, A. Alright.”
That was all either sister said about it. They went about supper, Edith cooking the biggest meal she ever made next to Thanksgiving. Over the few days following, they settled into a routine of washing and changing Josiah, helping Charity get him to latch on to her breast, as he wasn’t one of them baby’s to take to it easy.
The little shotgun house felt full again. It struck Azee funny how a thing not even ten pounds heavy could make everybody go into such a fuss. Some days she would forget herself, and look over at Charity while she was feeding Josiah and think maybe she had finally grown to love the girl. Mostly, though, she wished Dwight would be home soon. Sure as she was getting used to his baby, she knew she would not know Dwight when he came through the front door.
Azee laid down that night with the kind of fog hanging over her mind only pure exhaustion can bring. The day had been like all the others, feeding, changing, raking up the leaves that had fallen in great waves from all the trees scattered about the mountain. Her muscles ached, and there was a strange feeling in her eyes, like maybe they were looking into some kind of dream. She fell asleep fast and hard, and when she woke up, she thought it was morning until she saw it was still dark, the moon hanging high in the sky.
She heard what sounded like a baby crying, but couldn’t figure out why it was coming from down the hallway instead of right in her room where Darrold should have been sleeping in his crib. When she felt the other side of the bed and realized Burton was gone, she figured he must have took the baby out in the kitchen to rock him, something he only did on rare occasion.
Pulling the belt on her housecoat tight, she opened her bedroom door and stepped into the hallway. From where she stood, she could see the front room lit by the full moon coming in the window. The figure of a young woman moved across the floor, and she was bouncing Darrold up and down, singing in a soft whisper.
“Burton?” Azee said his name out in the darkness, down the empty hallway, wondering why he didn’t answer back. She said it louder.
“It’s just me, Azee,” the woman said.
Edith came out of her room, and Azee couldn’t remember having asked her sister to come spend the night.
“What is it, A?”
“Who’s that woman with Darrold?”
For a long time Edith stood there while Azee watched a strange look come over her sister’s face.
“Remember, A? That’s Charity, and your great-grandson.”
Azee only looked at Edith, her mind running in all directions.
She went into her bedroom, and gathered up all the pieces of paper she had been writing on. She knew there was a letter to herself was somewhere among the lists that didn’t make any sense to her. When Edith came in to ask her what she was looking for, Azee could not remember.
“I don’t know, Edith. I knew just a minute ago, but it’s left me.” Azee sat down heavy on her bed. Everything felt out of place.
“It’s happening, ain’t it Edith?”
Edith sat down on the bed and took Azee’s hand. “Why don’t you come on in the living room and see if you can help get Josiah to sleep?”
When she took Josiah in her arms, she looked at his mother and tried to remember her name. She was a pretty young woman, though her eyes were weary with exhaustion.
While Edith and the girl settled onto the couch with cups of coffee, Azee shifted Josiah up close to her chest, and tucked a blanket tight around him. She walked him down the hallway and out the back door.
The air was cool enough that Azee could see puffs of her breath in the moonlight, and she could feel the damp earth seep through her thin house shoes. Josiah whimpered, and she bounced him up and down, careful to keep his little face covered with the blanket.
As she stepped into the soil of her garden, she could still make out the straight lines from where her vegetables had grown in the summer. If anyone was looking out their window that night, they would’ve seen her long grey hair falling wild down her back, her pink housecoat looking white in the light of the moon. She pulled Josiah close to her neck and breathed in his baby scent. She decided that as soon as he got big enough, she would teach him how to plant, though she figured he would much rather hop a train and see the world.
* * *
LaEsha Sanders holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. The majority of stories she writes are set in the Appalachian hills of Tennessee where her father was born and raised. She grew up hearing tales from the region, and was captured by the dialect and heritage of the people of the hills. LaEsha believes in the power of story told with truth and empathy, and in giving voice to the voiceless.