Friday, January 18, 2013

500 Days - The Coach

In today's entry from 500 Days, Amy and her mother are returning to Pit hole.  They are on a mission to find and save other girls who have also been kidnapped into sexual slavery.  But, on the coach ride up the hill to Pit hole, luck isn't on their side ... I just changed this section drastically.  I hope it works!

Amy: The Fire that Burns Continuous

The coach back up the hill to Pithole fills me with dread.  All day yesterday my mother and I walked around the city of Franklin, trying to find a law enforcer or even a newspaper who would take our story seriously.  None of them would take it on.  They all had an excuse.  They said Pithole wasn’t officially a town and therefore, couldn’t be governed by any of the laws we assumed were present in any city.  Or they’d say that whoring is legal here (and in most other states).  Or they’d even argue that kidnapping is difficult to prove.  When I tell them that we have an eye witness, they say, yes, Steadman is a witness but he ain’t seen you there but that one time.  There is no way to prove you been there the whole time and that you ain’t got there on your free will.   The newspapers said they’d think about it, but suggested instead we go see a man named Crocus in Pithole itself.  They said he’s the reporter at large in this region.  So, here we are, climbing the dusty hill again to Pithole.  Late this morning my Pa got on a train insisting that he was fine and he would not even think of taking my mother away from me. 

“You two ladies are on a mission.”  He says with a glint in his eye.  Then, he turned and sat in a window so we could see him wave through the glass.  I could see the pain he’s trying to hide wash across his face as the train pulls away.  At least he is safe.  I think. 

We are rising up the dusty hill, probably only ten miles from the depot, when a pair of horses gallop up next to the stage.  The horses skin is raw and singed and hairless, but saddled with heavy riders nonetheless.  I can hear their snorts loud through the wooden wall of the coach.  When I heard the hooves approaching fast I knew something was wrong.  Dust rose and covered the coach in a choking cloud.  Then the gunshots rang through the air.  We flinched.  A woman screamed. A flock of birds scattered.  I could hear their wings flapping frantically to escape.   When I looked around all I could see were faces filled with fear.  My Mother paled.  All I remember is how I could not feel anything.  Not fear, not anger, just a dark nothingness and an eerie clarity.  Then, his dirty face appeared in the coach.

“This here is a robbery!”  The man says real loud.   “Get out! Real slow,” the man said, “or everyone dies.”

The men don’t take long. They shove their way into the coach and push a burlap sack in our faces.  “We ain’t leaving until this is full!”  I see people hesitate and something in me erupts. 

I grit my teeth and steady myself.  We don’t have much to give but when the man sticks his face in the coach I can smell his greed seeping in.  I know we gotta find something to give him or what we’ll give him is our lives.

“Do as he says!”  I say louder than I knew I could.

The other people in the coach look at me like I’ve gone mad, but begin to take off the little jewelry they have.  I see a few things drop into the bag.  I take the cross from around my neck.  I kiss my mother’s hand and then take off her wedding ring and place it in the bag.  The man just looks at me with a crooked grin on his face. 

I glare back at him and sit back.  Thinking, they got what they want, now we are safe.  The blow takes me unexpected.  When I hit the floor, my face is hot and I can taste the iron of blood.  I hear him hit a couple other passengers.  I hear their sharp cries.  Then I hear a swift kick and see my mother wince.  Another kick, my mother winces again.  I place my body over my mother’s as the men just snicker and jump down from the coach with the burlap sack full of our belongings.

Then, there is a strange silence.  After the robbery, we expected the men to leave.  We expected them to take their loot and ride off.  But as we anticipate the sound of hooves and the cloud of dust rising around us, there is nothing.  The men stayed.  We could hear them whispering to one another.  Another shot in the air makes us all jump.  Then, his dirty face peaks in again. 

“While don’t you ladies and gentleman climb on out and join us?”  He smelled like whiskey and tobacco and sweat and dirt.  After we comply, the robbers prod us with their guns until we are huddled in a circle and they are surrounding us.

 “Now, listen here!  We gonna take ourselves a little walk,” says the tall one who shot his gun in the air.

The passengers around me erupted in sobs.  All except one, a tall, thin man who had kept himself under control through the whole ordeal.  I looped my arm through my mothers and tried to comfort her.  She was very shaken up and I could tell her lip and eye hurt from where the robber had kicked her, but she forced a smile back at me. 

“Alright passengers,” the tall man said, “it’s time to start walking.” 

We obediently fell in behind the tall man.  The fat one took the rear with his hands fingering his pistols at his belt.  The tall man marched us through the low bushes down toward the creek.  Each step brought new cries from the other passengers.  I think most thought we were walking to our death.  That the robbers were taking us somewhere so they could shoot us all and not leave a big mess for anyone coming up the road to Pithole.  But, I still felt nothing. I had no idea why fear hadn’t seized me, but it hadn’t.  I kept my arm laced in my mothers and walked on keeping my eye on the tall man and the passenger who was keeping it under control.  We walked at least half an hour before the man stopped next to what looked like a large crack in the earth.

“This here,” he said, “is the very hole this godforsaken town was named after.  The first people who saw it thought it was a gateway to hell itself. Guess you all gonna find out if it is, ain’t you?” He laughed as he pushed the first passenger down into the crevice that belched steam and the smell of rotten eggs.  A blood curdling scream rose from the earth.  The crack was at least seven feet wide.  It looked like someone had ripped two giant stones apart.  Steam rose from the darkness of its opening.  The fat robber started pushing the rest of us from behind.  One by one each passenger fell into the darkness.  With one swift kick the fat robber loosened my grip on my mother and pushed her into the hole.  I screamed and dove in after her.  I landed in a dark wet place filled with sobbing screaming faces.  It was dark except for a small strip of light that shone above us.  When I looked up to the light I could see we were perhaps 15 feet below the earth and peering down at us from the crack of light were the two robbers.  They looked small and harmless from this distance.  As if to counter this thought, the tall one shot his gun off in the dark.  The large crack echoed through the hollow cavern. 

“Ain’t none of you better have any ideas about leaving before we ready for you to leave, ya hear? My partner and I gonna wait here for a while and then we gonna leave.  You try and crawl out before dawn tomorrow we shoot you.  Understand?”

We all nod uselessly in the dark.  I’m frantically searching the darkness for my mother and calling her name.

“Ma,”  I say, “Where are you Ma?”  Then her voice rises out of the dark.  “Here Amy, I’m here!” and my I find her and hold her tighter than I’ve held her in my life.

Monday, January 14, 2013

500 Days - The Letter

I had to take a few days off of editing because I am getting ready to start teaching at a new University (part-time).  It's always exciting to begin the semester, but it is also a lot of work! 

This segment of 500 Days returns to "The Letter"; the story of Amy, her imprisionment and the miraculous letter she wrote to her mother.  In this section, French Kate reflects on the impossibility of Amy's escape. Hope you enjoy it!

French Kate Fixes the Door

The wind that whips through the busted door started to get on my nerves.  How dare that girl.  How dare that damn preacher and those damn fools he brought with him disrupt my business.  It’s taken two boys two hours to fix our door.  We’d had it shipped in all the way from Pittsburgh. What a waste.  To have a door like that kicked in.  Ruined by a ruined girl.  She’ll be good for nothing now anyways.  Once you whore you never come back.  At least not the same.  I know that bitch Widow Ricketts whored back  in Franklin.  I know she hasn’t forgotten what she left.  Now, she acts all high and mighty because she ain’t whoring no more, but I know what she’s not saying.  It don’t leave you.  She ain’t never gonna look at a man in the same way. 

At least with the door fixed there is less wind coming in.  Ben has been out at Salons all night and all day.  He’s probably on a bender and won’t come back ‘til he’s crying and begging for my forgiveness.  What a waste.  I’ll act mad though, if only for the power it’ll hold over him. 

Losing three girls has been hard on business. Good thing Ben put those ads in a few weeks ago.  We should be getting in new recruits from a few more states.  They won’t take long to break.  This last girl was a fluke.  A tough one.  The other ones we’ll break down faster. 

Funny thing is I have no idea how the girl got her momma to come and get her.  Don’t know how she got word to her.  We sealed off the attic so there isn’t any way to get out.  But, once he gets back I’ll have Ben check it again.  We don’t want this kind of mistake happening again.  It’s bad for business.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

500 Days - Editing Manuscripts

All day I've been in the blur of editing manuscripts.  It's a good blur, but one that makes the practicalities of life difficult to keep in the mind. But, I didn't forget to write my passage for today about 500 Days.  In today's passage, Widow Ricketts reveals her past and we begin to understand why she relates to the horrible ordeals Diana and Jane went through as prostitutes. Hope you enjoy!

Emmy Learns How to Survive

The memories come back to me like light as breaks through trees.  How did I learn to survive?  There was the grey river.  There was the light that would break at dawn.  But, always there was the sadness lapping at the shore.  It was so tough to live near that river after he was gone.  The wind carried messages on it.  Secret messages spelt in exhaled breaths that loosened the leaves in trees.  I don’t know how I learned to survive those days. 
My sister wrote letters.  They poured into my house. In them, she described the rocky coast.  The cliffs she'd walk, the smell of the sea.  I'd try and dream of this other place.  I'd tried to imagine a place along that rocky coast where I could smell the sea, where I could see all the way to a flat horizon.  A line that clearly divides yesterday from today.  But, whenever I'd try to board a train to leave I couldn’t do it.  I remained tethered to my sadness in this place.  Money became sparse.  I had no trade. So, I started to look around, to see what I could do.  I knew the sea would keep drifting farther and farther away.  No money for train fare.  No way to leave the memories of my husband.  So I lived in that limbo for years looking for work.  The first job I took was by chance.  We lived near the docks since my husband was a boatman.  So, I lived by the salons that line the river banks.  These are the type of salons sailors frequent.  The kind where whiskey bottles are set next to the fogged glasses that look as though they haven't seen a good washing for years.  One day I walked in and every head turned in my direction.  It wasn’t the type of place a lady just walked into.  You could see the river flowing fast and grey through the windows.  I walked right up to the bar, my face hot and sat on a stool.  When the bartender walked over, his eyes scanning me up and down, I said, trying to keep my voice steady, “I'm looking for work.” 
“What kind of work you think you gonna find here?”  He asked. 
“I don't know.  I just live across the street.  I'd be happy to clean the place if you need it.”
“We already got a girl for that,” he said curtly. 
“Well, maybe I could serve customers?”
“No need for that.” He said.  “I got that covered.” 
“Well, what is it you need?  I need work.  Tell me what I can do?” 
He just laughed and said.  “Well, you'd make a terrible whore but that's what we need.”
 I just looked back at him hard.  Normally, I would have been so disgusted I would have stood up slapped him across the face and walk out .  But, it had been a few days since I'd been able to afford a good meal.  Any work would at least buy me food.  But, I had only been with one man in my life and now he was gone.  I looked at him hard and said.  “I'm not sure.” 
“Take it or leave it.”  He said.  “We need a whore, last girl left for some Oil boom town just yesterday and the barges just rolled in from Pittsburgh.  We got six or seven men who are drunk and ready to fuck something.  I'd rather keep them drinking in my bar.  You take them back to your house and fuck them, then bring them back, then I keep the business in my bar.  You get it?  So, you want the job or not?”
And that’s how it happened.  Lightning fast.  In that moment I learned how to survive.  I learned to seal off my mind and heart like some ancient tomb.  I said yes.  I took one man after another into my bed.  The same bed I shared with my husband just a year before.  I took each man in and then took him back to the bar.  I drank whiskey and beer.  I ate a fine dinner for the first time in days.  It was three in the morning before I left the bar.  When I closed the door of my apartment behind me I slid down it's cool wooden frame to the floor before I broke into racking sobs.  Until what I'd done washed over me.  Until I ran to boil water to fill a tub to scrub their filth off of me.  Until I sank into a pile on the floor.  Until my heart and mind poured back into my body and I was drowning.
I only whored for a few weeks.  It paid the bills, but I knew it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t stomach it. It would have broken me, fast.  After a few weeks, I passed by a house that had a sign in the window that said – Wash your Clothes Here!  When I walked in, an old woman greeted me.  She was bent almost in two, her hands arthritic and clawed (likely from all of the time they’d soaked in the tubs). 
“What you want?”  She’d growled. 
“I was wondering if you could tell me about your business.”  I said.  “My name is Rickets.  Emeline Rickets.  I lost my husband just a year ago and I’m looking for a way to make ends meet.  I’ve been having to do things I can’t live with just to eat, so I’m coming to you to see if you might need someone to help you.  To see if you might need an apprentice of some sort?”
 She looked at me, then let out a laugh.  “Why the hell would anyone in their right mind want to become a washerwoman?”  I took her laugh as a good sign, so I smiled back. 
“So, what do you think?” I asked cheerfully. 
“Come by tomorrow, five o’clock.  I could use a break from all this terrible work.  You come ready to work, I show you what I know.  Deal?”
“ Deal!  I said.  And from that day on (until just a little over a week ago) I washed whatever clothes I could take in. 
So here we are now in our new day.  In our new life.  Three women who walked a tough path.  How do I survive now?  It’s so different from before.  Now, I am no longer just surviving.  Now, I have my wagon in a rut I believe in.  I don’t mind following.
I don’t know how long I was standing in the sun, day dreaming about my dark, dark days.  But when the man came running up, I was started. 
“There’s been another robbery!” He said.  “They took down another stage.”
“Is anyone hurt this time?”  I ask? 
“Yes, but no one’s dead.”  He said, matter-of-fact (because in the past few weeks two people have died in similar robberies). 
“Thanks for letting me know.” I say and he trots further down the street.
“Girls,” I holler into the house where the girls are taking a break.  “Another stage got taken down.”  They cluck from inside.  Just two days ago they’d lost a friend.  Another whore from Chase house that Diana knew real well.  “You want to go check it out?” I ask.  “I’ll stay and keep the operation going if you’d like.” 
“Yeah Emmy.  Jane and I will go down to the depot to see if anyone we know was hurt.  While we are out you need anything from the store?”
 “No, I say.  You girls get along. I’ll be fine here on my own for an hour or two.”  In a few moments they’ve grabbed their shawls and headed out the door to  the street.  I can see their small frames getting father and farther away as I stand on the porch listening to the heartbeat of oil rushing slowly from the earth.  Lord, I hope no one those girls care about was hurt.  I whisper under my breath.  I hope we can get out of this town without forgetting how to survive.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

500 Days - Flashback

Over vacation, I had the opportunity to talk about the holes in my story: the places I need to fill in in order for the story to make sense.  One of those holes is in the first section of the book when Amy is first held captive by French Kate and Big Ben.  She writes a letter on a scrap piece of paper she finds in the attic, then   she sticks the letter through the slats of the building where she is help captive.  In the story as I had previously written it, Amy's mom gets the letter in the mail which means someone must have picked up the letter and posted it.  But, I never say who did and talk about what happened when he/she found the letter.  Today's entry is about that moment in the story.  Crocus (he's another character based on a historical figure) finds Amy letter. Hope you enjoy!

Crocus: The Letter
In this here town there’s never any point to looking down when you walk.  There’s just too much and filth to see.  I’ve been here going on two years now and I’m still not used to it: the mix of mud and oil that seeps through the wooden slats when you walk, that seeps into everything.  But, even though it’s dirty and rough, I love it here.  I love the rawness of it. 
I grew up just a few miles away in Franklin.  Franklin ain’t a bad place.  It’s a solid town.  I wrote for the paper there before I came here.  It was a good job.  But there wasn’t much to write about.  An occasional shooting, or drowning in the river, but most seasons there was a drought for was a drought.  The town sat on the edge of the river like a good citizen and continued to document it’s good marks.  That’s until I heard about Pithole.  How it just sprang up out of the field after Frazier and Faulkner wandered up started bobcatting and then pulled a well that produced over 250 gallons in the first week.  When I heard word of that, I was on the first coach up.  Ain’t nothing but stories gonna come out of a place like that!
But yesterday, after I left Wiggin’s restaurant, I was looking down.  I can’t remember why.  I must have been day dreaming about a story I aim to write, and that’s when I saw it.  A white, folded letter come floating down like a god-damned butterfly.  I reached my arm out and caught it, all the time thinking, what in all hell is this this?  Some fool tossing their garbage from the rooftops now?  There was something about the paper though that made me want to grab it.  I can’t tell you what it was.  But the part of me that is always hungry for a story pushed itself to the front of my skull, the way it does when I’m on to a good lead.  So, I grabbed it, stuffed it into my pocket and kept walking.
When I got to my place, I opened the door, and sat down before I pulled it out and realized it was an oddly fashioned letter.  Looked like someone used an old bank registry to write it on.  Why would anyone toss a letter into the street?  That’s when I read it. 
The sense of it slapped me in the face.  A young girl tricked and then forced into whoring?  I grabbed my coat, and headed out the door, walked straight to the post office, and put those words in the mail.  Then, I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to figure what the hell is going on is this town.  By evening, I had a few leads.  People were talking about French Kate and how she and Ben were hard up for girls.  Could they really have gone that far?
When I lay down on my bed my body was tense with curiosity.  Where was this girl exactly?  And how could I help her?  Then sleep came washing slow and dark.  I dream of the yawning hole this town is named after: dark opening in the earth, the smell of sulfur, the blur of heat and smoke.  When I awoke I was still restless, but I knew exactly what I needed to do.

Monday, January 07, 2013

500 Days and Proofing my Forthcoming Book!

Yesterday, as I eased back into the swing of post-vacation life, I got an email from my wonderful editor at Trio House Press that contained proofs of my forthcoming book, Gold Passage.  WOW!  What a cool moment to see it finally in book form (albeit in PDFs).  It is still hard to believe that my full length book is coming out!  You can pre-order at the Trio House Press website.  The book will be released at AWP in Boston.  More details about AWP coming soon.

Today, I am back writing in my office: a little studio up away from our house on the hillside.  Vacation was wonderful, but it is so good to be back at my writing desk. The next section of 500 Days is Jane's back story - what her life was like just after she discovered her mother's body, and how and why she ended up working as a prostitute in Pithole.  Hope you enjoy!

Jane Remembers What the Weight of Snow Feels Like

I can remember when the only thing I had left to lose was my breath.  The life I had left in me.  I remember burrowing myself in the snow outside the cabin after finding my mother, after I saw the blood blossoming from her body on the wooden floor of the cabin.  After I saw her, after I bent double and retched, I ran out into the meadow.  Then, the world moved in stopped motion -- picture by picture.  First, my mother's limp body spilling blood, then the snow glistening in the grey afternoon light, then the spindles of trees spinning around me, seemingly holding up the sky.  I remember pulling the snow around me, tucking myself into the cold of it.  Wanting the cold weight to hold me down.  Then, I remember the darkness, the weight, the way my breath grew stale and the sounds that grew out of me like an animal.  Then, the darkness.  The nothingness.  I remember coming to in a panic, I remember my body shaking uncontrollably.  My arms inadvertently digging and digging myself out.  Then, I remember the dull stars staring at me.  The clear night covering everything like a shroud.  I walked and walked to the next house.  I don't know what carried me, what drove me.  But, somehow my steps continued.  There was a candle lit at the cabin next to the Mill.  When I knocked, a young man answered.  He was disheveled as if I'd just woke him up, but he took one look at me and grabbed my arm.  I know I looked like death.  I looked as hollow as I felt.  I had no words in my heart, in my throat, but I somehow I manage to say, "My mother is dead" before everything left me and I fell to the floor.

When I came to I was bundled in a wool blanket on a pallet by the hearth.  Behind me I heard a swarm of whispers.  Someone was shaking snow off their boots.  I remember thinking, they've seen her.  They know.  I remember thinking there was nothing left.  Just then the young man walked over to me.  "Hi" he said, "You're back!"  I recognize him now that he is close and I am back in my senses.  He's the boy who brings us wood sometimes.  He's the hand at the Mill.  Not part of the family who owns it, he only works there.  We've spoken a few times, mainly about the weather, or the snares I've set all over the woods.  Whenever we've spoken he's seemed genuinely interested in what I have to say. Today though, the world has become another place.  My mother was my only kin that I know of.  Without her to take care of, I don't know what to do with myself.  I feel like a stream that has just been undammed.  I'm rushing out of my banks into an un-carved path.

"Can I get you something warm to drink."  He asks.

"Yes."  I nod, still shivering.  Not sure what my body is made of.  I feel delicate as a bird, as if my bones are hollow and light but at my center I am grounded by a deep stone weight.  This must be what sorrow feels like, I think.  And immediately I know that the only way I'll ever rid myself of this weight is to go far, far away.  Every time I close my eyes and see the blood blossoming out from my mother’s head like a crown.  I replay my last words to her.  I try to look closer at the last moments I saw her face to remember what I saw.  What could I have noticed that would have changed her fate?  It's no use though.  The memories play back in a haze.  One fuzzy picture blurs into the next.  The boy is back at my side with a steaming cup. He places the cup in my hands and squats next to me and for a moment I feel something like safety, or warmth.  Before it passes, before the stone rolls back into my throat, before the men, the blast of cold air from the outside air, swarms around me and covers me in a hollow sadness.

"Are you Jane?" the man asks roughly.  When I look up, I can't make out his face, I only see his large looming frame blotting out the doorway’s light.

"Yes" I say quietly, my voice still shaking from the cold.  "I'm Jane."

"We need to have a talk."  He says and with those words my life is changed forever. 

“We found your Ma.  I’m real sorry for your loss.  But, that cabin you been living in ain’t yours.  You been squatting on our property.”  He says and a stern look washes over his face.

It takes a moment for his words to sink in.  For a few seconds I am able to walk on top of their sense the way I could walk lightly on the crust of snow without sinking when I hunted in winter. 

“What I’m trying to say is, you can’t stay here.  It’s against the law.”

The words hit me like a slap.   My mother, not dead a day, and already I’m homeless.  What kind of man is this?  I think.  I look around me at the room I’m in, tears wetting my cheeks.  It’s a warm room.  There are wooden chairs, a table, there is evidence of someone having been here, of someone meaning to stay here.  At the hearth, the young boy looks at me and I can see how sorry he is in his eyes.

“I understand.”  I say and get to my feet.  “I won’t trouble you no more.”

“No ma’am you don’t have to leave right now.  Why don’t you stay for supper.  I just wanted you to know your situation.”

“I don’t want your food.”  I scowl, striding to the door.  “I don’t want nothing from you.” I say as I walk out the door.

Today, as I sit at the hearth with Diana and Emmy I remember that day.  It washes over me like the cool air that stained me as I walked out that door.   When I walked back to the cabin, I found they’d cleaned up my Momma’s body.  Well, at least they done that.  I think.  I sit with her cold, blue body and rock and rock until I realize how cold I’ve begun.  Just then, I hear a snap of branches and look up.  At the hearth is the boy, building a fire.  He says simply, “I don’t mean to disturb you, but I thought you might be cold.”  I look at him with whatever thanks I can muster.  I know he doesn’t expect words.  He just turns and finishes making the fire then strides out.  After he’s left I see the small bundle he’s left at the door. 

As the room warms, I let sense wash over me.  I make a list of what I must do in my mind.  I must bury my mother.  I must gather our things.  I must find a place to go.   I set my mother’s empty body gently down, rise, and walk to the hearth.  It takes a while before I can feel my hands again.  Once I do, I walk to the door and open the pack.  Inside is fresh loaf of bread, some dried meat and a jug of something to drink.  It isn’t much, but the gift of it, the risk I know he took to bring it to me, fills me with more warmth than the hearth.

It takes me a long time to walk into town to find the undertaker.  He looks me up in down when I walk in the door.  But I just look hard back at him.  I need a coffin.  I say.  “And a place to keep my Momma until the ground thaws.”

He just guffaws.  “You got any money?”

 I say, “I got some.” 

“Okay.”  He says, “how much?”

 I lay out the few dollars I’ve found in the cabin and flatten them on the counter.  He snickers.  “Girl, that ain’t enough to bury a small child.”

I say. “ I’m good for it.  I’m going to work.”

“Huh, he grunts.  “What you gonna do?”

“ I don’t know.”  I answer honestly.  “Whatever it takes.” 

“In that case, he says.  I got an idea for you.  He says looking me up in down.  There’s jobs up in that new town Pithole.  You head up there and you gonna find work.  I’ll keep your mother and bury her when the ground thaws, but it’s going to cost you.”

“Yes, sir.”  I say.  I leave, and return to the cabin.  It doesn’t take long to pack it all up.  We didn’t have much.  When I walk out, I know it is for good and I try to remember the place.  I try to remember it without the blood blooming from my mother, without the cold that has seeped into me and seems never to leave even when I stand next to a blazing hearth. 

In just a day I’ll be a prostitute in Pithole.  I’ll be beaten and raped.  I’ll be forced to sleep with man after man until I can’t remember who I am.  But, each week I’ll receive my pay and I’ll send it to the undertaker and I know my mother will be properly buried.  Just a few weeks ago, he finally wrote saying the debt had been paid and my mother had been buried.  I felt so relieved, but at the same time empty, knowing I’d never see her again.  Knowing, it would likely be a long time before I’d even get to pay my respects at her grave.

But today, all that has changed.  Today, I feel warmth again sitting around the hearth.  Thanks to Diana, thanks to Emmy, I am beginning to remember who I was, I am beginning to remember who I am, and who I could possibly be someday, again.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

500 Days - The Girls Who Would Be Girls

Today, Diana reveals her plans for the future: what her life will look like once she gets out of Pithole.  Hope you enjoy!

Diana: What is Building Around Us is Like a Fortress of Fire

It’s hard to explain what’s been growing around us but it feels much like the fire I walked out of just over a week ago.  Strange to think where I was then and compare it to where I am now.  There ain’t no woods here – only sunlight streaming in the dusty windows.  I love the way the light illuminates the windows imperfections: the tiny bubbles that freckle the glass.  It reminds me of Jane, Emmy and I, at our imperfections at our dark, rough pasts, and how now we can see through each other into the present. 

When I look at Emmy I see only a heart.  I see a kindness I have no words to describe.  When I see Jane I see someone as lost as myself.  I see a tired girl who was about to walk off the face of the earth into the dark or into the fire.  Both of us were there, and then both of us suddenly were saved.  It’s a miracle really. 

So, each night while Emmy sits back and nurses her aches and pains (she’s got arthritis real bad), Jane and I celebrate.  We sit around the hearth and sing whatever songs we cans still remember.  It’s amazing what joy can help you remember.  We all sip herbal teas Emmy has brewed up (she knows so much about the plants that are in the woods around town).  And sometimes we read from the book aloud.  It’s funny how I stumbled onto the book.  It’s the one I read the first night I was here.  It’s the book that brought me back from the darkness.  Turns out, I’m not the only one the book is special to.  Emmy says it’s the book that brought her and her husband Mr. Ricketts, or Henry as she calls him, together so many years ago. 

The book is really only a bunch of stories woven together, the way my momma might have made a quilt from all our old clothes, or the clothes and rags of our ancestors.  It’s a bunch of stories sewn together in a new way.  Jane and I like the stories about the girls who transform the most.  We love the story of Daphne, a girl who escapes the hunters who are chasing her by turning into a Laurel tree.  Or, our favorite is the one where the girls escape by turning into birds.  It’s an awful tale.  A girl is locked up and raped, but she weaves her story into a tapestry that somehow escapes and is given to her sister in the capital.  Her sister is so enraged she rescues her sister but not without terrible things happening first.  I like how the story isn’t just a happy solution.  I wouldn’t have believed it if it was.  I believe them girls had to travel a hard path before they were turned into birds.  I know what that path is like, I know how deep its rut is and how hard it is to fly out of it.  But, me and Jane and Emmy, we flyin’ now. 

Today, we already processed eight barrels and it is only 10:00 am.  Them boys are real shy now that they proposed and we declined.  Why on earth would I want to marry a boy from Pithole?  I think, laughing to myself.  Me and Jane, we gonna start a new life.  We gonna get as far away from this present as we can.  I know she ain’t got no one else, that’s why I’m gonna ask her to come back to North Carolina with me. Maybe, if I had Jane to talk to about my secrets I could handle going back. I could look my brother in the eye and we could get hired on at the family restaurant.  I’m sure Jane could learn how to serve customers.  Or, she could work back in the kitchen.  I could show her how to make biscuits nice and light.  I smile over at her as I think about the restaurant and our new life, but she just looks back at me square.  She has so little joy that when it shines (especially at night) it seems to take up the whole room.  Maybe it’s time I tell her my plan?  What if she don’t say yes?  I’m scared I can’t go back without her.  I put the thought out of my mind and get back to work.  We got a lot to do before lunch.  And lord knows we get enough interruptions when we working from all the damn suitors coming around.  Man, if I had a dollar for every dumb fool who asked me to marry me since we struck this here oil I wouldn’t even need the cut Emmy has promised me.  I’d be rich from all these false promises.  Imagine that two whores and a widow are the hottest tickets in town.  Makes me laugh every time I think about it!

Saturday, January 05, 2013

500 Days - The Girls Who Would Be Birds

Here is today's installment of 500 Days. Hope you enjoy!
Widow Ricketts Wakes Thinking “What Am I Forgetting?”

            I wake up with that indistinguishable feeling that I have forgotten something.  My first thought (because of so many years of training) is that I have somehow forgotten the wash - I've left it out on the line overnight where it has worn itself free in the wind of night or, I've left a whole load soaking for too many days. But, as soon as I sit up I brush off those worries. I am no longer a washerwoman.  I am an oil baroness.  Ha!  Seems funny even to think it.  We are eight days into our production and already we have too much oil to process.  Jane and Diana were hard at work all afternoon.  You should have seen them, their hair tied up in rags, their skirts tied up to each side to allow themselves the liberty of movement as they wove back and forth from the well to the barrels.  Eight barrels we pulled yesterday and today they will be taken down to Titusville and sold.  In a little over a week I've earned more money than I've earned in my entire life. 

You could see how the lure of this instant wealth is enough to make those boys go insane.  How after a few days of the money pouring in, they suddenly acquire a taste for lobster even though we are about a 1000 miles from the sea and they were starving just like the rest of them just a few days before.  How quickly we forget our past, and those who are living it, when we get plumped up with cash, when we step away from it.  I'm proud to say not me.  I remember what it was like to sell my body and there isn't enough oil in this world to let me ever forget it.  That's why when I found the oil my first thought wasn't of myself if was of Diana.  I knew she was still save-able.  I knew she hadn't yet forgotten her worth.  That she was still alive.  I knew if I could only get her out she could start a new life.  When Diana found Jane down by the creek, with her tiny bird-like frame and her two eyes blackened by a John, what else could I do but take her in, too.  You should see those girls now that they got their freedom back.  It's like the life's been sung back into them.  Every night we sit around the fire and the girls tell stories, or sing.  Last night I even saw Diana giggle.  It was the most wonderful thing in the world to see her eyes light up like that with hope and joy.  I won't forget.  But I hope for their own sakes, they forget the days they've lived up to now. They are both so young. I can see in Jane's eyes the tough path she has walked to get to this place.  But the way the girl's arms are always stitched together I know Diana will take care of her even when they are far gone from here.

As I pull on my clothes and walk out the back door to inspect the well, my mind fills with a song, about morning breaking and though I'm not a church going person my heart fills.  All around the well grow tiny pansies their yellow faces upturned and peering thoughtfully toward the sun.  It's a beautiful sight.  A golden ring around the stone well.  For a second it makes the impossibility of this situation: the dumb luck that has struck us happy, believable.  No, inevitable.

I know the oil will stop.  I know that after it stops we will all separate and move on.  But, I will never forget the metamorphosis that is going on around me.  I will never forget how these girls have changed me.  Have brought me back to life. 

Then, from behind me I hear, "Emmy, you up already?" 

"Yup"  I answer. 

“Well, what are you waiting for?  Let's sit down and have some coffee so that we can plan the rest of our day.  We got oil to sell girl and lots of it!  Jane already got a pot on while you out there looking at them flowers."

I just smile, shake my head, and step back inside to the warmth of the house, to the two girls who are sitting at my table and smiling back at me.

Friday, January 04, 2013

500 Days - Jane's Secret

Today, you will learn the back story for Diana's friend Jane - the girl she found down at Pit Hole Creek the day Widow Rickett's well filled up with oil.  Hope you enjoy!

Jane’s Secret

I know Lady Luck must have gone and struck a deal with me.  Maybe it was the soul of that sweet baby I didn’t get to keep that ran right up to heaven and started demanding luck for his lost Momma, because no sooner than I let him go, then luck start pouring over my head.  And to think only a day before the world had been so different.  I ain’t far from my home.  My momma and I used to live over in Grove City.  If I were to take the stage back home it would only take me a day or two to reach her.  But, even though she is close, each day that has passed, has made her memory wash farther and farther away.  She wouldn’t even recognize me if I walked in the door of our little cabin on Wolf Creek and I showed myself to her.  I’ve only been gone less than a year, but so much inside me has changed I barely recognize me. 

When we lived on the creek, we lived to survive.  We had been there three years when I left.  Three dark winters where we burned more and more wood that I dragged from the swamps and dried.   Three winters where the cold seeped through the cracks of our cabin into our bones.  Then, three springs where the skunk grass erupted from the creeks’ banks screaming in green, waxy leaves.  It was just the two of us.  We trapped game.  We gathered wood.  In the summers I’d collect wild strawberries and roots that we’d dry for the winter seasons.  Like I said, we survived.  Then, one winter, Mama started talking to herself.  At first, I think nothing of it.  I think, she tired.  She need her rest. Or, I think she talking to the ghosts she’s left behind.  There’s her babies she lost, her own mama, and pa, and then there is him.  The man she never even got to marry.  My Pa.  He been like a wil-o-wisp in her life so long, I’m used to his memory rising up from the swamp.  But that winter he haunts her.  She begin to see him walking in the cabin.  She have whole conversations with him then she get mad when I tell her to stop talking to the air, when I tell her that there ain’t nobody there.

“You just jealous.”  She say.  “Cuz he visiting me and not you.”  Then, she’d get real mad, rocking back and forth in her wooden rocker. 

One day, I went out into the swamp.  It was deep winter so there ain’t much to find, but our stores are getting low so I set up some snares near the water.  When I go out to check them I tell her I’ll be right back and I ask her if she could please keep the fire going.  She say, yes of course she will.  Then, I walk out the door, down the snowy bank and down to the snares.  I couldn’t have been gone more than half an hour before I heard the gunshot.  It rang through the whole valley. It frightened a whole flock of birds into the air.  It echoed in my mind.  I dropped the handful of rabbits I’d snared and ran as fast as I could to the house. 

But, by the time I got there I was too late.  She was on the floor, smiling.  Her head half gone.  Her body swimming in pool of blood that bloomed and bloomed around her.  There was so much blood.  I felt as if my whole body had turned to ice in that moment.  I don’t know how long I stood there, the blood blossoming around her, the cold air pouring into the room before I understood what had happened, before I feel to my knees into that pool of my Momma’s blood and wept and wept.

After she died.  I couldn’t stay.  I couldn’t listen to the creek whispering to me about what I could of done to save her.  And then, there was the complications about where we lived, about finding money enough to bury her.  So, one day, after I packed up our things, I walked to town and found a sheet of paper stuck to the side of the salon. 

Looking for work?  It read.  We need strong young girls to work in the hotel trade.  If interested send word to Ben, Pithole PA.  Work begins right away.

Well, I couldn’t even wait to reply.  I sold off what little we had and the few rabbits I’d managed to snare and I bought a ticket on the first wagon going east.  I found myself in Franklin by nightfall.  The next day, I took a stage up the hill to Pithole and knocked on the door of the Dew Drop Inn. 

That’s the day I lost my freedom.  Or, that’s the day I lost the freedom of my body.  My minds been trapped in that cabin with mama ever since that day the gun shot echoed through the valley.

But now, I’m hoping luck will ease me out of that steel trap.  Perhaps, somewhere in that wooden place joy still exists?  I’ve got to believe it does.  Diana’s been such a dear friend.  She’s the first person I’ve trusted in a long time.  She hides it, but I can see she’s been to some dark places too.  We understand each other.