Gramma stuttersteps with the walker down the hallway. She stops just past the door to a room I’ve never been in. Her fingers shake as she takes the weight of her body away from the support of the walker and onto her legs. She fingers the doorknob.
Bowing her head, she twists the nob. She pushes the door open. “Hit the switch there on the side of the wall.”
I reach in and flip the switch.
The walls are covered in paintings. Jesus on the cross. Jesus with his brow covered in blood. Jesus with a scar twisted into his ribs.
Portraits of my grandfather also line the walls. There is one of him in an army uniform. A triangular hat on his head. His lips grim and pursed. Another shows him at an age I recognize. He sits on a couch, leaning forward on his knees, with a willow switch in one hand and a bible in the other.
A line of switches lean against one wall. Mostly willow branches, their debarked limbs stained brownish-red. A few hard-wood sticks, one as thick as my wrist. Some as long as two feet, some taller than me.
The carpet was once white, but has brown stains in small pools and long, wide arches.
“Get in,” Gramma says. “Kneel down in the center.”
The two windows are covered in thick blankets. No light could shine in here on even the brightest day.
We start with the Lord’s Prayer. I kneel, fold my hands, bow my head.
“Our father, who art in heaven,” Gramma says.
“Our father, who art in heaven,” I say. “Hallowed be thy name.”
“Close your eyes harder, Michelle. Pray.” Gramma stands with her cane behind me. She can’t kneel, so she says I have to kneel for both of us. Pray hard enough for ten people. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
I repeat. I don’t repeat hard enough. A stick slaps against my shoulders. The sting is distant, happening to me but not me. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” I say.
“On Earth as it is in Heaven.”
“On Earth-” Thwack. The wooden switch hits that other body, this time just below its bra strap.
I push my hands together, tighten my grip on each finger. “On Earth as it is in Heaven.”
Gramma moves behind me. I know she’s selecting another stick. Two quick hits across my back. These ones cut in, and it is my body that feels it. Hot slices that make me flinch.
“Pray! This is for your mother.” Gramma swings again.
Another cut across somebody else’s back. I am the words. “On Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.”
The words flow out of my mouth. My body that isn’t quite my body is hit again and again, but I don’t back up and resay the prayer. I keep going until I say, “Amen.”
“Your mother is a whore and a slut,” Gramma says. “Be ye a followers of God, as dear children and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.” Grandma swings the stick.
I push my face down into the carpet. The carpet is stiff against my forehead. “An offering and a sacrifice to God.”
Gramma says, “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints. Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient. But rather giving of thanks. For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
She changes the weapon in her hand and whips with each new verse. Four verses in that chapter. She says, “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers,” and stresses the next one, “the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
The sting of the stick hits. “Your mother is a whore and a whore burns in the fires of hell forever. Pray for her, Michelle. Pray so that your mother can change and be forgiven.”
I pray. “Please God,” I think, “Save my mother. Help Momma not be like she is. Please God, don’t let my Momma die.”
“Pray harder.” Gramma whips. She quotes, “God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.”
“Please God.” The whisper escapes my lips. I can see myself kneeling on the floor. I can see Gramma behind me, one hand holding the Bible on her lap while the other is raised with the stick. I can see the white shirt I wear has stripes of red across the back. “Please God, help my Momma. Please, please, please.”
Gramma flicks through the Bible, going to verses that have been marked by white slips of paper. Each prayer, she announces the Book, the chapter, and the verse. “Jude one-seven. Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”
I repeat the words as she brings the stick down across my back, across my feet, across my neck. I speak while thinking, “Please God, don’t let my Momma be a whore. Don’t let my Momma burn.”
Deuteronomy twenty-three seventeen. First Timothy one ten. Genesis eighteen twenty. Ezekiel sixteen forty-nine.
Verse after verse, hit after hit, I see us. I kneel, I fall, I get back up and pray harder. Until I don’t see us anymore, and all I know is that God hasn’t answered yet and there is only blackness.
“Mish, your grandmother might be sick.” Grace’s voice breaks through as I crack open my eyes. Darkness is replaced by yellow slivers of blinding light. Grace says, “I can’t get her to get up. And I’m good at getting people up. She just won’t budge. And there you are, still sleeping, too. Did you guys have a long night?”
I push out my hands and the sleeping bag pushes against my back. I arch my back away from the sudden lancing pain opening across my shoulders. I don’t remember leaving the room. I don’t remember getting to bed.
“Come on, sleepy head. Wake up. I’ll make French toast and we can go pick flowers by the creek. It’ll be good for you to move.”
I raise an arm out of the sleeping bag. A wave of pain crashes down on my head. My ears ring and my stomach goes numb. I try to talk, but only whisper. “Can’t move.”
Graces footsteps are in the kitchen, light clicks of her boots on the linoleum. A pan on the stove, the click of the oven being turned on. “The secret to great French toast is a touch of honey and a bit of vanilla. Some people don’t use that, but I think it makes the whole thing so much better. Are you going to watch? Let’s see, eggs, milk, cinnamon, sugar, vanilla and honey. Old bread is best, because it soaks up the mix better, I think. Especially thick bread.”
Her voice is a song, each lilt of her tone, every breath a chorus, her feet keep time as she walks around the kitchen. I know she’s dancing to some sound only she can hear, swaying her hips and rocking her shoulders.
I can’t move out of my sleeping bag or I’ll die. My skin sticks to the cotton lining of the bag, the bottoms of my feet ache and sting alternatively. I’m naked. The pain, if it is pain anymore, is washing me clear. I keep my head under the covers. The light hurts too.
Grace cracks eggs, and they sound like shotgun blasts. She puts the wet bread in the hot pan, and the sizzle sounds like a TV turn full blast to static. My stomach lurches again, my throat burns, and there is wetness between my legs. I don’t have a tampon in.
I reach down to my vagina, but pain stops me as the scabs across my back split open. In my head, I can see the yellow puss of sin seeping out of each slice, soaking me, encasing me in amber.
Sweat and puss, wrapping around me like spider silk as it drains. A cut on my ribs opens up when I inhale, fresh burning that releases a single, yellow tear that slides down the curve beneath one breast and solidifies beneath the other. Another drip follows it, spreading out around it. Hard, but brittle, like wax, they follow the curves of my body. My back already covered, my breathing light beneath the case. I am wrapped in a crusting scab.
“Mish?” The voice is close. Sweet. Momma?
Did I fall asleep?
“Mish?” Grace. She unzips the sleeping bag. Cinammon and eggs and sweet bread hits me in the back of the throat. It smells like Heaven should smell. My eyes twitch as I try to open them to the bright light. Grace’s black hair hangs like a wall connecting her face to mine. She hovers just over me, unzipping the bag further. Her hands are cool and soft, but the pain of her taking me by the shoulder and rolling me over on my side is enough to cause tears to spring from my eyes. I don’t cry, though. Just tears.
“Oh, Mish.” Soft voiced, a simple lullaby as I fall asleep again. My vision dimming as I look at her knees in front of me. She has a scar across one knee, it turns whiter than white as she kneels. She sounds like she’s praying. “What has she done to you?”
My jaw goes limp, and I want to tell her that we prayed. But all I say as I fade back into the warmth of darkness is, “My mom is a whore.”
In the night, I wake up to see slits of green eyes in the window. They glare through the darkness. Fingernails scratch against the window. Grace’s head tilts back, her teeth shining yellow in the moonlight. She screeches, howls, and chants. Words that have never existed except in animal tongue.
Sweat pours down my face as I huddle into my blankets. The window rattles, lifts up. A hand, deathly pale, slides in. I close my eyes. I curl up into myself and feel a thousand cuts spread open. Dizziness sweeps my mind away.
I smell honey. A hand is rubbing across my back, but it doesn’t hurt like it did before. I lay on my stomach, my body open to the air. There is warmth in the air, but each touch brings a light shiver that races up my spine, hits the base of my head, and tingles behind my ears and into my eyes. Someone is singing something so soft that I can’t make out the words.
The phone rings. I pick up my head and feel the stab of a thousand ice shards sticking into my skin. I squeeze my eyes shut. When I open them, it’s night. There is a light blanket around me, but I am soaking it in sweat. My hair is wet with sweat and the beads drip down into my eyes. The sting of salt stirs tears, and I begin to weep as softly as I can. I’m scared to move.
Momma stands outside the bar, drunk. She wears the fishnet stockings, the leather skirt, and the red, low-cut shirt that she used to wear when there were sores between her toes. Her nose is raw and running, her hair is stringy and unwashed. She waits with her legs spread, a cigarette between her lips, for a man with a hawk-nose. He’s been rowdy and she’d rather wait outside for him to get thrown out. A black car, something old and metal-bodied, pulls up next to her. The windows are blacked out. Her reflection disappears as the passenger’s side window rolls down.
“Need a ride?” a voice asks.
“I’ve got one,” she says.
“You do now. Get in.”
And Momma takes a long puff off her cigarette, flicks it away, and gets in the car. The window slides up, this time showing the reflection of the lights of the bar and of the bar-door opening, and a hawk-nosed man being pushed out into the light.
The car pulls away.
“Poor, Marie,” Grace says as she rubs my back. “It’s just a shame that she’s so sick. Won’t hardly eat. I’m afraid I’m going to have to call the hospital if she doesn’t start eating soon. She only wants her gin.”
Grace’s fingers stick to my skin, but they don’t tug at the cuts.
I push my back into her hands, raise my butt a little when she her hands stray that low. That’s where it hurts the most. “Tampon,” I say.
“It’s okay. You’re okay, sweet girl. Little Mish. It’s okay.” She rubs down my butt and into the back of my thighs. There are no cuts there, so she doesn’t linger, but goes directly down to the soles of my feet. Each touch still feels like a needle poke.
Another phone call, Grace’s voice. A straw is put into my mouth and I sip cool water. I swallow and swallow until I feel like my stomach might burst.
This time, a horse is leading me across a white field, maybe snowy or maybe just white grass, toward a small pool of water. My fingers are stuck in the horse’s mane. The horse is brown and white, like a cow. In that dream way, I know that the horse is a spotted Appaloosa, that her name is Nimi, and that the water she leads me to will help me pray harder than anyone has ever prayed.
“Michelle, baby. Are you okay? You feeling better?” Momma’s voice. This time there’s no doubt.
“I’m okay, Momma,” I say. My voice sounds strange in my ears. I feel so tired still, but I want to see my Momma. “I prayed for you, Momma.”
“I know you did, baby.” Momma is sitting on her haunches next to Grace. She has a hand on my head, brushing hair behind my ear. “Oh God, Grace. I didn’t think she’d do this. My poor little Michelle.”
“There’s never telling what people will do,” Grace says. Her voice isn’t soft and sweet like Momma’s. Grace sounds like the Grace who pulled my arm.
“She used to do,” Momma falters. “She used to have me pray, but it was nothing like this. Dad, he… But nothing. Nothing even close to this.”
Grace has her hair pulled back into a bun. My mother’s blonde hair falls in stringy and unwashed around her face. Momma’s eyes and nose are both red.
“Gramma said you were–”
“Shush,” Grace says. “You stay still, Mish. Your fever broke and you’re healing, but don’t stress yourself about things Marie said.”
“What did you put on her . . ?”
“Her back? It’s mostly just honey.” Grace stands up. The knees of her pants are brown with dirt.
“Mostly?” Momma leans closer to my face. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” Tears fall from her eyes and splash onto my cheeks. “I didn’t know she could ever do this.”
“I love you, Momma,”I say.
“I love you, too, baby.”