What she said I believed. My great-great-grandmother Ula could not walk from six to nine, the age I was when she told me why. Her face had a rutted linen-like skin. She had arthritic knees, atrophied legs like a doll’s. Her house—heirlooms and cats and photographs of ancestors, our ancestors, padlocked in a concrete tomb in the graveyard five miles away. The oldest family member alive, she said, is the one who lives with the dead.
We buried her in 1990 with a diamond royal flush in her hand. She played poker twice a week at the casino in Lafayette. She had friends and cancer and debt. I believe what remains of her must by now have shrunk to the size of a mummified child pharaoh awaiting another life.
Her legs. Ula said: in 1906, outside New Orleans, she was six and following her mother, Del, up a hill. For an hour, Del was ahead, her blonde-white hair in rough straight strands so dense that if Ula had drawn her hands through that hair, if she’d covered her face with it, she told me she’d never have found her way out.
You like it here, walking with me? said Del.
I think so, said Ula.
How long would you walk? How far those little legs go?
Far as I want.
They were walking through sparse woods on a hill behind a hospital, Our Lady of Lourdes. Del had a room in the ladies’ mental ward, fifth floor. Ula’s father had dropped Ula off for a full day visit, and Del had introduced her to all the nurses, some of the patients, and Ula had sat on the sun porch while it rained, sucking a garlic clove the hospital cook had given her. The rain had stopped. Then she and Del went to the hospital rose garden and chased a glossy black bee, and the nurse wasn’t looking, and Del picked Ula up under her arms and lifted her over the fence. Then Del herself climbed over, holding up her hair as she did.
We’re rabbits, you and me, Del said, taking Ula’s hand. Rabbits who only go uphill. And they don’t stop until a hundred trees later.
It was a game.
Is Clark at the top? said Ula. She called her father by his first name because Del said to.
I’m not scared of him, said Del, a mother sees her child when she wants.
You couldn’t argue against her. Beyond the hill was open land, pasture, an old roofless shed split by a tree, a bunched bank of cherrybark oaks, trunks corroded with beetle nests and heart rot. Moss unspooled from the branches. The two of them sat against the split shed’s wall, a once-dark wood bleached lavender-gray. They were hot. It was early June. Del put her hair atop her head and held it there, then let it down. Del was what Clark called “a hard woman,” a face like a carving, an eagle-beak nose, and she pulled her skirt so high about her waist the hem would not cover her calves. She smelled of ladies’ ward—warm milk, disinfectant.
With her own child a mother does what she wants, said Del. She stood and clicked her teeth. She squinted in the sun. I’ll show you something I found here once, she said, then you won’t tell at all.
Around the shed were the remains of a mostly picked turnip and cabbage garden. There were disheveled rows of weeds and stems. A tomcat lay near-dead in the jessamine, panting, mangy orange as an old carpet. Parrot-yellow bits of petals flecked its mouth.
Don’t you touch it, said Del. Damn cat. The animal had surprised her.
He ain’t dead, Mama, Ula said. She stepped away. She wore a little dress and a barrette in her hair she would later lose.
See there, on his fur those spots on him like flowers?
Del broke a nail-thin wand off a branch on the ground and made a show of poking the tom’s tail. She received what seemed a proportionally small reward—the tom blinked.
Strangest cat I never saw, she said. See that there? You touch him, those spots bloom like t’fire.
No ma’am, said Ula.
Combustion, you call it, said Del. She pointed to the pearling bulbs of fungus, like a rout of tiny snail shells, on the wand. And this, she said, you don’t touch that.
I wasn’t, Ula said.
You touch it—Del rapped the fungus with her hand three times—your hair starts going wild. So it’s alright for me, see, your mama can touch.
Del poked the tom again.
But there’s another kind of touching thing around here turns your eyes a color mine is like, she said. That’d be good for you, sure.
Del looked in the grass. Ula knelt amid azaleas and kinked a stem and chewed it. Her mother was large, entire, and only half-there, both in this world and out. It’s possible, Ula told me, to be motherless while your mother lives. . . . I was half-that only, in but out, she told me.
See in there? Del pointed to a snakehole. Birds go in there.
Oh yes they do. My eyes’ve seen so. They go in there and root. For twigs and seeds.
Del put her head at the level of the child’s.
You hungry? she said.
We going back? said Ula.
Up here a-ways there’s a place.
From the garden, they found a powder-dirt lane with dwarf magnolia and tiny songs from warblers in the branches. They came to a chipped building, a general store, dull white, the size of a caboose. Strands of Spanish moss hung from the chimney top, spiraling down the wide-hipped roof to the eaves. On the porch, a man smoked.
Got anything for me? he said. I ache in this heat.
Sorry, Pop, said Del.
Whose girl is that? he said. That’s a pretty dress.
My child. This is mine. Del tapped Ula’s head twice.
Is that right? He picked at his shoe. Not likely, he said, she prettier than you.
I’m hungry, Ula said. She’d chewed the stem and was spitting the bits into the dirt.
Your father’s coming here, said Del.
He’s meeting us this way. He said so.
In the store was a glass counter with jacks, dice, yo-yos, magazines, and cinnamon chewing gum arranged in neat piles with prices hand-printed on brown paper squares. There was a shelf of pots and pans on a wall, flour and sugar on a shelf next to that. Games and puzzles, hardware, cosmetics and used shoes. Del eyed a four-cent hair comb. Water-damage cracks the color of camellias in the walls. A man in a sweaty work shirt came out from the back. He had large thumbs he held in his pockets.
Dolores? he said. Your nurse ain’t come with you?
Meet my family, Quint, said Del.
Hospital know you’re here?
This is my daughter. Del tapped Ula’s head.
Look at her. She’s got my face. Look at those shoulders, coming from my own. Del took Ula up under the arms and stood her up on the glass counter. She’s my blood more than anyone.
Quint put his hand to his hip. I see.
Where’s Clark? said Ula.
They sat on hard wooden stools. Quint came out from the back with a long metal tray. Ula was given soda, ice cream, a cold spoon. She remembered being a serious child, and that she rarely received gifts, this ice cream and soda being perhaps her first experience of luxury. It was near dark, and Quint was lighting the outdoor lights.
Look at your little legs, said Del. Got any beaus?
No ma’am, said Ula.
Your face is a little fatter than mine. And meaner. But you still will have.
Clark says I’ll have long legs, Ula said, he told me that.
He’s right for once. Look at mine. Del lifted her skirt and held her leg far up straight so that the foot was higher than her face. I danced, she said. She strained to keep her leg up. She had a bony white ankle and mosquito bites on her calf. She eased her leg down and fixed her skirt. You want yours long? she said.
With her right hand, she seized Ula’s knees, one after the other, her fingers hooking into the sides of Ula’s kneecaps. Ula stared into the half-not-there that was there in Del’s pupils.
Now your legs will be, said Del, they’ll be long. I made it so.
How long? said Ula.
Longer than mine. Longer than anything at all.
Del had a dime. She bought a three-cent doll that Quint had to stand on his toes to bring down from a shelf. Painted like a harlequin, black triangles above the bald doll’s eyes, lashless, arms and legs made of fat peppermint stick wrapped in crepe painted with spots.
Her name’s Rusalka, said Del.
Ellen, Ula said.
But if it’s Rusalka already, how can it be Ellen?
It ain’t a girl, said Quint.
They came back out onto the dirt lane at dusk. They could see down to the side of the levee like a canted roof, down to the main road. When the river rose to two feet from the top, Del told Ula, men guarded at night with guns and lanterns to prevent someone from cutting the levee.
Any rabbits up there? Ula said.
We rabbits haven’t passed a hundred trees yet, said Del. Not fifty.
Who said that about at night? Clark said?
You listen here, said Del, stopping Ula, looking down at her. You won’t see him for a while. Not a long while. Now don’t you cry about it.
They walked until Ula’s legs would not. She’d fallen twice, and there were twigs sticking up from her shoes. She’d never walked so far before—miles—and she felt a deep pain in her ankles like something biting.
I can’t walk anymore, she said.
Don’t quit now.
The pain spread from ankles to calves and knees. She stopped, put her doll down, and sat in the lane to rub her legs.
You quit that, said Del. You pick Rusalka up and leave your legs alone.
Could be they do, but rabbits don’t quit walking. Rabbits never stop.
Something’s up inside them moving, Ula said.
Ula stood with her doll and felt the pain up to her thighs. Her mother’s eyes in the near dark: eyes of cold, of spite. Eyes like false green flames telling Ula to walk. Pain in her legs burned like cords that would rip. She was crying as they came to a house with a Southern flag, parlor chairs and sofas heaped on the porch. Graffiti was on the door. Empty milk bottles, wires and broken fencing in small piles in the yard, deep with weeds.
Inside was a grandfather clock and couches tented with sheets. There were rooms with more parlor furniture and mosquitoes and quilts. Del found an old rug and made Ula lie down, and covered them both with the rug.
I can sing to you, said Del. Did you know your mother could sing?
I’m hungry, said Ula.
Del took the doll from under Ula’s arm and tore the painted crepe paper off her legs. She broke each fat peppermint stick leg off, gave the right to Ula and sucked the left herself. It was soft from the heat. Ula asked if anyone was in the house.
They gone, said Del. They been gone.
She lay with her strange hair at length beside her and told Ula to put her head on it like on a pillow. Everything went very dark to the sound of Del sucking the peppermint stick steady as a clock. The orange tomcat who’d eaten jessamine was in Ula’s dream. It spat and cackled, a feral orange language even Ula didn’t know. It wanted something from her, also to tell her something it couldn’t—she hated it—she woke, there was her father and, behind him, the nurse from the ladies’ ward’s rose garden. Del had gone.
Sometimes you don’t come awake for a long time. The tom was like that.
She woke . . . but she was half-not-here.
Clark was here. He had Ula’s shoulders in his hands. Ula!
She was being shaken.