First published in Belle Reve Literary Journal
Nominated by Belle Reve for a Pushcart Prize
It sounded like a gang of hooligans had surrounded the house and was throwing pebbles on the roof in an increasing assault. But as Opal Pratt lay in bed, she knew the truth. It was late January in Warren County, Mississippi. It was sleet. The sound was too dainty to constitute hail, but the dit-dit-dit had grown heavier and it would likely graduate into a full-out ice storm. The electricity would go out when the coating of ice on electric lines thickened until they snapped. The telephone would go out, too. Her little bedroom space heater would be inoperable. Good thing she had ample wood for the living room fireplace. She should move some from the outside pile to the porch to protect the wood from the coming storm. Wet wood won’t burn, and it would be impossible to retrieve logs after the ice piled up. She needed to take care of the animals, too. She needed to get up.
Opal was not a woman to lie in bed in the middle of the day. If Momma were alive, she’d call Opal a lazy girl. But Momma had been gone for several years and the bed was the only place where Opal could ease the pain in her side. Or was it in her belly? Her chest? It seemed to move around. Maybe it was the entire middle of her ample body. This ache was more intense than it was yesterday, and that hurt more than the day before that. Opal also wasn’t one to run to a doctor for every little thing, but today it didn’t feel like a little thing. Her forehead sizzled with heat and her mouth felt sandy dry.
“I have to get up. Nobody’s going to do this for me,” Opal said out loud.
She threw back the coverlet and pushed up, sucking in a gasp of pain. Too late now to go into town in the sleet. She’d go to the doctor tomorrow for sure. Right now, there were things to do. Opal walked carefully into the living room that had already grown cold. She struggled into her quilted car coat, pulled a flannel headscarf from the pocket and tied it under her chin.
It didn’t take long to find her dog. He was sitting at the front door anxious to be admitted. Goldie didn’t wait for an invitation. He brushed by Opal nearly knocking her down and started shaking off the sleet clinging to his golden coat. Stepping onto the porch, Opal saw a snow-globe world. A light veneer of ice already skimmed the surface of everything in sight. It would be beautiful if it weren’t so dangerous. A car moved slowly out on the highway. Everyone else must have stayed home. Sleet continued falling and she knew conditions would worsen rapidly. The porch steps had a slippery sheen. So did the first few inches of the porch.
Cautiously, Opal made her way to the steps, gripped the upright post and fearfully stretched a foot toward the first of two porch steps. Her foot flew out from under her. Opal held so tightly to the post that her shoulder nearly wrenched out of socket as the rest of her body dropped hard off the side of the step. She yelled and leaned against the porch rail cradling her left arm and trying to catch her breath that came in short, cold gasps. The rough landing also created a painful eruption in her belly. She wanted to cry, but thought her tears would freeze like the sleet. Her nose ran and she wiped her face on her coat sleeve.
Holding the porch rail for support, Opal walked gingerly to the end of the porch, each step crunching through the ice. It reminded her of the sound of the cash register toting up her bill at the Piggly Wiggly. She saw the woodpile about fifteen feet ahead and maybe six feet out from the house. The pile leaned against two posts that Daddy had hammered into the ground many years ago. Ten or so feet beyond the woodpile was the little chicken coop and yard. One of her chickens obviously had enough sense to go into the coop. The other stood stupidly in the yard becoming a pint-size ice sculpture.
“Can’t do anything about you, chickie,” Opal told the bird. “Even if you go to the coop, you’ll probably freeze to death tonight. I’m sorry.”
But now there was wood to get into the house. Despite the cold, Opal’s head swam and burned. She tried to focus. There was a large piece of cardboard, perhaps four feet by three feet, leaning against the house. Where did that come from and how long had it been there? She couldn’t answer either question, but this might be her wood sled.
Moving again, Opal edged down the side of the house to the soon-to-be-sled. She grabbed a corner of the cardboard and laboriously walked the top edge away from the house so the icy side would end up on the ground. It would slide better that way. With nothing to hold onto, she stepped ever more carefully toward the woodpile.
She had to get this done and she couldn’t afford to fall out here and not be able to get up. She didn’t have regular visitors who would find her. Finally at the pile, Opal dropped the cardboard alongside the wood. She gratefully grabbed the closest post and went around to the far side of the stack. She took a breath and then pushed the top layer of wood with both hands. Firewood tumbled onto the cardboard. For the first time today, Opal smiled. Her plan worked. She pushed another layer of wood onto the makeshift sled and decided that was all she could pull. It hurt more than she ever expected to lean over and grab the edge of her sled again, but, if she didn’t get wood to the shelter of the porch, she’d be a big, fat ice cube by morning. Opal’s hands were red, stiff and painful from cold and their own coating of sleet. She’d been too woozy to remember gloves.
The load was unstable and some logs toppled off. The return trip to the porch was precarious. An increasing volume of sleet pelted Opal. Winded, hot and cold at the same time, sliding on the treacherous ground, she finally reached her destination. She gratefully dropped the cardboard next to the porch steps, grabbed the porch’s roof support post and lowered herself to sit on the top step. She told herself it was almost over and started throwing firewood onto the porch as close to the door as she could get it. With the post to steady her, Opal rose and cautiously climbed the steps. She no longer cared if something burst in her gut. She just wanted to be warm again. She opened the door and kicked several pieces of wood into the living room. Goldie was waiting.
“Not now, doggie boy. I can’t help you yet.”
Out of her scarf and coat and with two logs on the fire, Opal fell more than sat on the davenport. She covered up with the afghan and gave herself permission to cry. She was shivering with cold and she hurt all over. Goldie padded across the room to his mistress, but in the world of Opal’s fever, she saw two golden-coated dogs coming to her. She wasn’t puzzled for long. She slipped into a deep sleep.
The first thing Opal noticed when she woke was that it was dark. Dark outside the window, but also dark in the house. She was certain that lights had been on. In a moment of clarity, she understood that the power was out and the fire was dying down as well.
“No matter,” she thought. She was too hot anyway.
The second thing she noticed was the figure sitting in the stuffed chair in front of the picture window. Opal closed her eyes and opened them again. Her eyes burned and felt gritty, but the figure was still there.
“You gonna lie there all day and all night, too?”
Opal blinked repeatedly and strained to see the woman.
“Well, who in tarnation did you think would be sittin’ here? Ain’t you supposed to be smart, Miss High School Gra-du-ate?”
“Momma, you can’t be here. Don’t you know that?”
“It’s my dang house, ain’t it? Bought and paid for. I have as much right to be here as you do, daughter. Maybe more so.”
“But, Momma, you died,” Opal said groggily. “You had a stroke right out there on the porch, sitting in your old rocking chair.”
“I never did no such thing and never thought I’d hear such lyin’ words from my only child. You imagined that – or you wished it, and that’s worse.”
“I’m imagining this right here. I know I am.” Opal closed her eyes again and thought she could see their burning redness through the closed lids. “I’m sick, Momma.”
“Of course you are. You went out sleddin’ with the other children, didn’t you? I told you it was dangerous, that you’d break your fool neck or catch the pneumonia or the polio. But you were willful and sneaked over to crossroads hill with the Braden boys. Came home wet to the bone, your face all ruddy. That’s why you’re sick, girl. It’s from disobedience.”
Opal strained to sit and then stand. Tears flowed again, but they cooled her eyes. “I’m grown up, Momma. Nearly old. I haven’t been sledding and you’re not here anyway. I won’t listen, can’t listen when there’s no one there. Disappear, you old haint. I need water.”
Opal shuffled into the kitchen, turned on the faucet and drank from her cupped hands. Goldie joined her. There was blessedly only one of him this time. One dog and a ghostly mother were all she could handle right now. She located a bowl on the counter, filled it with water and half-dropped it to the floor so the dog could drink. She gulped more handfuls for herself and splashed some of the cool water on her face. Now, she had to lie down or fall down.
She turned for the living room, barely able to stand.
“Oh, God,” she whispered. With eyes adjusted to the dark, she saw the apparition sitting at the kitchen table. It wasn’t shaped right for Momma. Then she smelled the whiskey. Daddy was sitting at the table sipping his Jim Beam as he did most Friday nights of his life that Opal remembered. He looked at her and nodded his head to acknowledge her presence. As was his fashion, he didn’t speak.
Opal staggered toward the sofa, whimpering.
“You have to put logs on, girl. The fire’s going out,” Momma told her.
“I don’t need fire. I’m already burning alive.”
“That’s the fever. You can still freeze to death even if you have a fever. Mind your Momma, child. Stoke that fire. There’s a good girl.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Opal said with resignation.
Every step was tortured. When she opened the front door, frigid air rushed into the living room like an unwelcome guest. Opal managed to get more logs inside and onto the fire. She kicked extra logs next to the hearth and collapsed on the davenport again.
“Do you know that Daddy’s in the kitchen, Momma?”
“I always know where your Daddy is, and I can smell his Jim Bean from a mile away.”
“You don’t always know everything.”
“I knew everything about you, little girlie,” Momma snapped. “You pushed my rules wantin’ to do risky things. You wanted to go sleddin’ with those ragamuffins like you did today to get sick. Gettin’ sick was the easy part. You were likely to break your fool neck. Then you wanted to ride a bike. There ain’t nowhere to ride a bike except out on the highway where you’d get run down dead by a car or the Trailways bus. You wanted to go swimmin,’ too, at the creek over by Patsy’s. There’s snakes in there, and you didn’t even know how to swim no how. One way or t’other, you’d be dead by snake or drownin.’
“The Foster’s young’un — was her name Mae? Well, she drowned in that creek when I was a girl. I saw her body all swole up and floatin’ there. Her long hair spread out, lying on the water like a spider web. I saw where snappin’ turtles had fed on her legs and arms. It’s a sight that once seen, can’t be shed. Then I had you and I vowed that I weren’t gonna ever see your body swole up like that. I had to keep you from your risky ways.”
“Oh Momma, I never swelled up. Nobody else ever swelled up. That was in your time or your imagination or your excuse. But you still wouldn’t let me go, would you? It’s too late now, anyway. Leave me alone.”
“Well, it was a Lord-given blessing that you settled down listening to me and readin’ your Bible by high school. That kept nasty boys away from you. You never would’a guessed what those ruffians wanted or what they were up to with other girls. Boys just want one thing from girls they ain’t gonna marry. You just needed to stay home where you’d be safe under your Momma’s wing.”
“Oh yes, Momma. I stayed home. Stayed here all my life. Under your wing even after you were gone. Now I’ll die here.”
That shut up Momma at least for a bit. Tears slid down Opal’s face and evaporated from the heat of her skin. Her scalp prickled like sparks from the fireplace.
“You’re not gonna die here. Not for a long, long time.” Momma seemed to be quite sure of herself on that point.
Opal dropped like a cinder block into sleep. She awoke to the sound of Goldie whining. The dog sat protectively next to his mistress, but he was staring across the room at Daddy who now stood next to Momma’s chair. It was Daddy for sure, but he looked taller and wider. He loomed over the chair and his voice was so loud that she could almost see it.
“Leave the girl alone,” he said.
“Husband, you were a good, steady man, but now you should just go back to your Friday night bottle. You ain’t needed in this here conversation.”
“Old woman, don’t go tellin’ me when I’m needed or not. I’m the one who put a roof over your head and food on that table. In return, you squashed me into silence most of my life and you squashed Opal, too. She was just wantin’ to be a kid, to have some fun, but you held her too tight. You never let go, easy like, so she could grow up. If she’d been a bird, your grip would have killed more than just her spirit. Now leave her be.”
It was the longest speech Opal ever heard Daddy make, and it was the first time he’d ever stood up for her. And to think, he waited ‘til he was dead to do it.
Opal laughed crazily at the irony. Momma’s eyes appeared to glow red, but it was only the smoldering behind her own eyes.
“Don’t listen to him talkin’ so disrespectful to me, daughter.”
“Stop it, both of you. You’re not even here. I know you’re not. Leave me be.”
Another chill hit Opal, shaking her ‘til she thought she’d break. She pulled the afghan closer and looked toward the fireplace. Long fingers of yellow and red flames sneaked their way out of the fireplace and up the wall. Their journey left sparks in their wake and soon the west wall of the house was engulfed.
Opal watched it all and didn’t care. Her eyes closed. She couldn’t hear her parents any more.
She woke to the sound of pounding somewhere. Surely, the roof was about to cave in from ice or fire or both. Goldie barked at the door. Images swam into focus when she opened her eyes. It was daytime and the brightness forcing itself through the window made her cringe. It wasn’t the roof; it was the front door.
“Miss Pratt, Miss Pratt. It’s Deacon Broadworth here.”
The younger man accompanying the deacon walked down the porch toward the picture window.
“Dad, look here through the window. She’s on the sofa and looks mighty sick.”
“Miss Pratt, we’re coming in,” the elder Broadworth called out as he opened the door. “Oh no.”
One look told the deacon that she was very ill. One gentle touch to her face told him that she had a raging fever. She was covered with a heavy afghan, but the fireplace had gone cold.
“Miss Pratt, don’t be scared now. My son and I are takin’ you to the hospital. Brother Markov sent us to check on you, but we’d have come sooner if we’d known you were so sickly. You’ll be all right now.” To his son he said, “Richard, help me. No, first pull another blanket off her bed.”
Opal efforted to keep her eyes open and make sense of what she saw. She moaned as they stood her up. The Broadworth men wrapped the afghan, then the blanket around her like a papoose.
“We’re goin’ to the truck now, but we’ll go slow,” said the deacon. “Let us hold you up. You’re gonna be fine, just fine.”
“Ice,” mumbled Opal.
“Don’t you fret, missy. My truck can take me anywhere.”
The men nearly carried her out the door and carefully down the slippery steps. It took both of them to hold her.
“No, li’l lady. Your Momma ain’t here right now. Let’s gentle on to the truck.”
Opal twisted her head around toward the porch. “She’s right there in her rocker.”
Momma smiled and waved good-bye.