I tried to find a distant cousin named Carla in photographs and again in Auntie Mack’s voice and again in Ma’s wrinkles while watching TV. The last time she was found was by the police on the train tracks. Her dress was thin as sunlight through leaves. Her nose was the same shade as the red wine slit down her middle. Makeup didn’t hide sixteen well on her. The apple of Carla’s cheeks and chin announced themselves even in death. She wore the same ponytail from grade school in the backseats of Buicks for her johns to play with.
Everyone loved the autumn in her hair. Her laughter was silk against men’s necks. They mistook the rhinestones on her thighs for stars guiding them through the night. They pretended the track marks on her arms were covered in the sequins she wanted from Magnolia Street. Carla’s parents didn’t see the beauty in her wounds, so she ran to the places that did, places that the pastor’s howl, bread and wine, dove voices of the church choir couldn’t reach. Did she dwell in the needle’s spine, the jazz’s tremble, her murderer’s arms for a few moments of life? “It was the only freedom she knew,” her mother said at the funeral.
There was no home for a teenage prostitute in the church or newspaper. Now, when she is forty years forgotten, I meet Carla’s story in the mouth of one woman we shared. I ask other relatives about Carla and discover that memories are like attics, box upon box, left until their meaning is lost. Even a ghost is remembered by a person or place, memory is the only way a ghost can haunt. My cousin wasn’t even remembered as a name, but only as a cautionary tale for women to keep their legs closed and off the streets for risk that we could be forgotten, too. I walked along the abandoned tracks looking for any part of her, down to the breeze. I felt the autumn in my hair and saw sunlight in the leaves that shimmered like sequins. She’d found me and I promised to never let her go.
Since Avery couldn’t find redemption in her daughter’s eyes, she found it at the liquor store. A drink dark enough to scream and burn, to keep her safe from the quiet. Eyes closed, doors unlocked, night was her only friend. In night, she couldn’t see the strangers entering her house to see what was in the fridge. But her daughter, Cerie, saw clear as day from her bed as a man walked by on his way to the bathroom. She was seen by everyone but her mother.
When the social workers arrived, venom ran from the house to Avery’s veins. They saw flies in the refrigerator, walked on a floor so coated in neglect, no one would look her in the eyes. The couch kept her balanced in the clouds of her last drink while she waited for them to finish questioning Cerie. Thankfully her two-year-old son was too young to remember, every mistake was baptized away by another day. Like prayer, the social workers left them in peace, noting this was just how Black families were. When her mind flowed clear like a river again, Avery’s rage washed over her sister, the culprit of the call, who hid behind no armor other than “You’re not fit to be a mother.”
The only anger louder than Avery’s was that of Cerie’s father, who crowned the girl with the sun and moon while stepping on his woman’s neck. He made Avery’s world as small as possible, shrinking her with insults and drink until she fit in his pocket and was afraid of everything, even when her family told her it was safe to come out. The bottom of the bottle was the only place to run, namely, from herself.
When she was ready to swap the devil for the witch, Avery ran behind the legs of a bigger bully to fend off the last one. Her son’s father, Virgil promised to be gentler. In the clouds, floating in the scream and the burn, even the most splintered of lies could be flower petals on the skin. But when Avery drifted back to the ground, she discovered that her purse had become a gaping mouth. She remained sober long enough to demand answers and get beaten unconscious. Upon waking, unsure of who she was, the only word she could cry was “Mama!”
Her family waded in the water with her for years, trying to lead her back to their god. Liver shrunken down to a cooked yam, Avery laughed at the thought that Jesus was the only man in her life who stayed. Years later, when Avery rocked her granddaughter to sleep, she wondered what parts of herself would be passed down. Giving the baby her finger to suck, she asked, “Can I be reborn through you?”
Dr. Weber treated Cassie’s cough, felt her glands, the velvet of her night skin, smelled blueberries on her collar. “Blueberries are good for the heart,” he said kneading the pulp of her shoulders. Cassie nodded and looked at her hands in her lap. She’d been told to never look white men in the eyes, especially when their voices went feather soft, that was when their touch held the most thorns.
Though there were trenches left from the war, too raw for soil to heal, freedmen littered Petersburg, Virginia, and found work as carpenters, bricklayers, sharecroppers. The Confederate flag stood high above City Hall watching with eagle eyes. Someone set fire to it twice, but somehow it always rose from its ashes determined to prove the South didn’t lose. You could smell the river from the train tracks, which Cassie crossed every day on her way to work at the general store. She had a taste for barley and moss, a taste that lingered on Buddy Noland’s skin, a ferryman with dimples deeper than ripples in water. There were other worlds in Buddy’s eyes, revolving around the small town she’d known all the twenty-two years of her life. Kissing him was her first step past city lines.
But Dr. Weber never left. By the side of the store, the back of her church, the train tracks toward home, past the blueberry bushes lining her mother’s house, he lingered like a warbler between the trees. Who could protect her from nature’s gaze? It was easier to believe her eyes were playing tricks. Then he touched her across the counter of the store, light reflecting off his wedding ring and glasses like teeth, and she knew the trick was real.
“You’ll have beautiful children. Make sure he provides for them,” her mother told her. “As for Buddy, you can do more with light than you can with dark.” So Cassie crossed back into the city lines, where she was told it was safe. Shame she’d have to keep her maiden name Carrington for who knew how much longer. Children were inevitable, her body hungered for them, but what would feed them when her body couldn’t and the doctor’s interest became a withered husk? She demanded a deed to a plot of land and a house, all in her name. Fingertips tickling the hem of her dress, the doctor agreed. For the first time she looked directly in his eyes—the thorns didn’t sting as much as she thought they would.
Eight children spread over twenty years between a man and a woman could be mistaken for love. Sometimes Cassie wanted it to be, but it was made clear that Dr. Weber’s real family, when he was done daydreaming, was on the other side of the railroad. Both families knew about each other, like ghosts that held fast to the doctor’s feet, but both wife and mistress found that if the ghosts had enough space and quiet to exist outside, the doctor could wipe them on the doormat before coming in the house. When the blueberry bushes were gone, so was the doctor, leaving children the color of cornsilk to remove the thorns from their mother’s heart.
With gray eyes, satin-straight hair, and trim jawlines, the Carrington children were white to those who didn’t know them. But Mrs. Weber, the doctor’s wife, refused to let them have any privilege that wasn’t rightfully theirs. Not on her side of town. The ghosts would remain ghosts to her family and niggers to any other white. The Carringtons wanted to meet their other siblings, let light into the hollow their father left. Both Cassie and Mrs. Weber laughed at this request, tears on the ends of their smiles. The eldest Carrington, Eliza, got as far as the Webers’ front door. Watching from his window as his half-sister was turned away, James waited for midnight to cross the train tracks toward the house he used to see his father walk to some nights after work. He followed his father for this moment, when secrets could become family, and found redemption as he shook Eliza’s hand.