When I hear the truck’s wheels spin on the gravel, I jump for the screen door and press my face against it. I am hoping Dad has come for me himself, but Mark is the one climbing out of the driver’s seat. Mama hugs me too tight, too close: her sweater leaves red marks on my cheek and her breath braids tobacco smoke into my hair.
“Come back soon, Aitch, girl. Come back and visit me, hear?”
“You sure you want to go?” Her hand presses the bones of my back. I nod into her body.
“I can’t let go of you,” she says. The doorbell rings.
“You got to, Mama,” I say, wiggling. “The truck’s here. Okay? Please?”
As the pickup rattles me away down the driveway, I check in the rearview mirror: she’s standing there bawling, not even trying to hide it, wiping her nose on her dirty sleeve. I turn back around fast.
“Dad!” I say when the Big House door swings open.
My lion-colored Dad looks down at me.
“I’m gonna be your daughter now,” I say.
He keeps on staring for just a couple seconds more, his mouth tight in his beard and his eyes clear, watery blue. I get afraid he’s smelling Mama’s cigarette on me. But then his face wrinkles up in a smile.
“Welcome,” he says. “Welcome home.”
Here is who lives in our part of the Big House: Dad’s new wife Grace, Grace’s kids Mercy, Thankfulness, Simple and Light-of-God; also Dad, and me. My name used to be Aitch, which was short for Hannah, but now it’s Delivered.
Here is who lives in the rest of the Big House: Joseph and his wife Esther and their kid Thomas; Mark and his wife Lucia and their kids Leah and Anne; Christian and his wife Beth; two women named Mary; an old granny named Orpah; a man named Sober.
Here is what I do when I get up in the morning: I stand up on the bed and bounce quietly and secretly, one or two times.
Back home I used to bounce on my bed whenever I got up. Mama yelled the time the headboard cracked, but mostly she didn’t care so long as I didn’t do it too hard.
But I don’t want Dad to catch me bouncing.
At seven o’clock, everybody has to go to breakfast. We eat oatmeal at a long wooden table; there are bowls of raisins if we want them, but no sugar or honey. I asked how come at my first breakfast, and Dad said “We try not to eat a lot of sugar here.”
He is a deep-voiced, gentle talker. You hear in his voice how strong he is; you hear that if he wanted to, he could kill you; but you hear that gentleness, too; you hear that he isn’t going to hurt you after all. And then you love him forever.
After breakfast I go back up to my white room to make the bed. This morning as I pass the Bible on the nightstand, I think of how my mama used to close her eyes, open her own Bible, jab her finger down onto the page and then read what it said out loud. She’d do this even though she didn’t generally believe in God: when I asked her why, she laughed and said she didn’t know.
I shut my eyes and stab my finger down, but it don’t hit nothing interesting—just a lot of begats. First I think maybe it means I’m supposed to stay here and get married to Thomas, who is the only boy in the Big House that’s not kind of my brother, and that we’re supposed to have kids and start making another Chosen People. Then I remember Dad told me the Bible says not to tell fortunes or try to see the future. Only God’s allowed to know things. I get embarrassed—clap the book down on the table and pull the bed-covers up quick and tight.
From the window, I look out over the field at the men. They are all wearing brown pants, white shirts and suspenders. Today they’re walking to the end of the field, which stretches all the way to the edge of where I can see: all the way to where the sun sets. They are going there to cut down a rotted-out oak. They cradle axes and ropes in their arms. Dad figures God doesn’t like machines. He figures they’re loud and ugly and they don’t make you work hard enough.
Whatever is growing in the field, maybe corn, is up to the men’s hips and is the bright green of grass after rain, so all you can see is their little white shirts bobbing up and down as they walk. They look like doves bobbing on a lawn.
But when the men are working and you get up close, you can see how they can’t help the very dark dirt getting all over their white: it clings to their whole bodies and to their faces, and you can hear them grunt and sweat and moan so loud that it makes me blush. Dad is the only one of them who has ever been a real farmer. Joseph used to be a bus driver. Mark owned a store. Christian worked for a lawyer, and Sober was a drunk.
I go downstairs and say hello kind of shyly to Mama Grace, who is younger and prettier and also smarter than my mama. I am shy with her because although she wanted to be with Dad, she did not ask to have some extra half-grown daughter of his turn up on the doorstep. She don’t quite smile back: she’s ironing clothes, cradling Simple, who’s not even a year old, in a sling close against her breasts.
“Good morning, Delivered,” she says, very polite. “I’m making a stew. Could I ask you to peel some carrots?”
Grace’s oldest daughter Light-of-God is already in the kitchen, sitting on the floor with a big carrot-scraper abandoned next to her foot, a pot of carrots in front of her and a book spread out in her lap.
“Hi,” I say. “Whatchou reading?”
She jumps a mile and slams the book shut. “Little Red fucking Riding Hood,” she says.
I don’t reckon she is very sanctified.
Maybe it comes of being conceived in sin: she is Grace’s daughter from when Grace was not married yet.
“We better peel these carrots,” I say.
“Go for it,” says Light-of-God. She passes me the peeler and goes back under her hair, which is not braided the way hair is supposed to be in the Big House. It hangs into her face like a fake black witch wig. I can see both of her hair elastics stretched around her wrist.
“You’re not gonna?” I ask.
“Because I’m reading, God damn it,” says Light-of-God.
“So what’s that book, really?”
She shakes her head. In spite of myself, I start to get interested: I bend down and twist around, trying to see the cover. Light-of-God won’t lift it up and make things easier but she don’t exactly try to hide it either.
“Her dress is coming off,” I observe. “Her boobs are sticking out.”
“So what?” says Light-of-God.
“So that’s . . . bad,” I say.
“Right,” says Light-of-God. She ducks down again and looks like she forgets about me, so I pick up the carrot peeler and start peeling. It takes a very long time, because we will need enough soup for all of us: nineteen people if you don’t count Simple who is still too little to eat anything but milk. I peel carrots and peel carrots and peel carrots. My feet fall asleep where my crossed legs press down on them, and my hand starts aching from holding the peeler. In the Big House I have been trying to sit straight and upright the way Dad does, but now my back is starting to droop back into my old bad posture. I am so bored it hurts. I shoot a glare at Light-of-God, but she doesn’t notice, she’s still reading. I am longing to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, and I start to think that it’s no good, I am never going to be holy, not if I can get this much hate swirling around in my heart, so I might as well just go ahead and shake her. But then the light in the kitchen shifts as a cloud tumbles across the sun and I decide probably the Devil is tempting me, so I keep on peeling carrots.
A man screams “Grace!” It scares me bad: I spring up. Light-of-God is right beside me, her book dropped face down in the peelings. We stare out the window.
Her elbow is digging into my ribs. Everything seems peaceful in the back yard; the limbs of the willow tree bounce in the wind and in the bird feeder a squirrel cracks sunflower hulls. But it’s a tense kind of peaceful. My muscles are tight and my eyes are too wide open. It’s like we were dreaming and that sound has woken us up; it’s like everything has suddenly turned extra real and is crowding too close.
Grace runs flat out into the kitchen.
“What’s wrong? Ma, what’s happening?” asks Light-of-God. She seems young now, maybe even younger than me, her couple of extra years peeled off her like a coat.
“Where’s the phone?” says Grace. “Don’t worry, girls. Stay here in the kitchen. Where’s the phone?” She runs out again.
“What happened?” I ask the back of her. Sober is on his way in as she’s running out; he hears me, stops and puts a hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t be scared, girls,” he says. “There was an accident. But don’t be scared.”
“Who?” I ask, and at the same time Light-of-God sucks in her breath and says “Dad?”
I am holding my breath too. It seems like we wait a very long time for the answer.
“Christian,” says Sober.
Relief makes me cranky. “He ain’t your dad,” I tell Light-of-God. She just looks at me. Christian is a very big yellow-haired Swedish man, not very smart. Yellow hair even Henysprouts out of his nose: it’s like he’s partly a
man and partly a hayfield. I am trying to picture him and to pray for him while Sober explains that he needs to go back to the end of the field and he hopes we will be brave girls and look after Simple while the grownups do what they can for Christian, but my Lord, watch over our brother gets mixed up with the thought of his nose hairs: how they twirl down out of his nostrils and blend into his mustache.
After Sober leaves, Light-of-God plops Simple down on his belly on the floor. Simple blows a milky spit bubble that bursts and runs down his chin. “Bah,” he says. “Baaaaaa. Gub.” He lifts his arms off the floor, straining like he figures he’s an airplane. Light-of-God bends down to get her book.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
She opens the closet door and ducks inside. Little scuffling noises come from in there.
“Shut up, stupid,” comes the answer, very muffled.
“Pup-pup-pup-pup,” drools Simple as he rocks on his stomach. He is not a crawling baby yet: he is still the kind of baby that just puddles on the ground.
“You’re supposed to look after him!”
Silence from in the closet.
I lean down and try to get ahold of Simple. I’m not used to picking up babies: it’s not like grabbing a sack of laundry, not unless you imagine the sack is full of frogs or mice, because you can’t just heave it around: you have to watch out for eyes and ribs and all those other parts.
“I’m coming in!” I yell.
Silence. Then, “You better not! I’ll slap you.”
“Well, you just gonna have to slap me, then.” In the end I can’t pick the baby up so I grab him by his ankles and slide him backward over to the closet. He wiggles some. I bang the door open: it’s cosy in there. Light-of-God has a kind of little nest set up with a quilt I bet Grace made and a cheap little flashlight, which she isn’t supposed to have because it’s electric. She’s huddled into a ball.
She swings the flashlight up so it shines into my eyes.
“You get that baby out of here!”
“But Sober said—“
“I am not getting stuck with him again! It’s not my fault!”
“It ain’t nobody’s fault,” I say, to calm her down.
“Isn’t anybody’s fault, you hillbilly dipshit.”
“Well, anyhow, it ain’t the baby’s fault and it ain’t your mama’s.”
“Not Mom’s fault?” She slams her book down shut beside her. “Ever since she moved in with That Man, she’s been acting like she doesn’t have a brain or a mouth!” She makes a noise like somebody hawking up a loogie.
“Going out to cut down a tree with just axes! You think they ever cut down a tree before?”
“Maybe Dad thought God was going to hold his hand? Maybe he thought God was going to swing down from the sky like Tarzan and chop it down Himself?”
“He’s not your Dad!” I say. I am mad. It is not her business to be so critical. Dad has abundant faith and the Lord is with him. He’s all blazed-up with power; he’s half Daniel, half-Lion. When I am afraid of him it’s because I am the one who’s done something wrong. He left my mother because she was weak, and Light-of-God, who is so critical towards him, is also weak in belief like that Doubting Thomas: I want to be stronger and braver. I swell up with pride in my father’s Lion faith.
“Oh, yes he is so my God damn Dad!” Light-of-God says. She leans forward out of her quilt and squints. “You didn’t know that?”
“I’m his first daughter.”
“But you ain’t…”
“I,” she says, “was born three years after he got married.”
“After my Dad and Grace got . . . ” I ask, confused: this is a dumb question because Light-of-God is older than me.
“After my Dad . . . and your mom . . . got married,” Light-of-God explains, talking very slow like she thinks I’m retarded. “He had sex with my mom,” she adds. “While he was married to your mom. Got it?”
I glare at her.
“That’s a lie!”
She shrugs. The shrug is what really gets me worried, because it means she don’t care if I believe her or not.
Before I can say anything more the front door bangs open and Dad and Grace stomp inside in the middle of one hell of a yelling match. In the closet, Light-of-God and me freeze like a couple of possums with a car coming at them. I haul Simple into the closet and work him into my lap, and Light-of-God swings the door shut, but we can still hear them hollering, clear like they’re in the closet with us.
“I’ve seen worse, Grace. I promise you, I’ve seen worse in this world. If I—“
“He is bleeding like a knifed hog!”
“Let me finish.”
“Take him! Now!”
“Grace. Let me finish.”
“Let go of me! Let go!“
“You’re hysterical. Grace. Calm down. Can you calm down?”
“Nathan, either you are going to drive him or I am getting into that truck—“
“You don’t know how to drive, my love.”
“Grace!” A slap. Then a big, sounding quiet.
“Let me explain something to you,” says Dad reasonably after a little while. “Look at me. Can you look at me, angel? All right? Good. Let me remind you of something. Let me remind you of one little thing. The body is not important. The spirit is important. Christian has a very strong spirit.”
She don’t say nothing. Maybe she nods.
“Now, if I take him to a hospital you know what they’ll do, don’t you, angel? Tell me what they’ll do.”
“They’ll help him,” hisses Grace. “Oh God Nathan we are wasting time. I am scared.”
“It’s all right,” murmurs my father, sounding muffled like his mouth is pressed to her shirt, like he’s clutching her against him. “Hush now, Grace. Everything will be all right.”
“How can you say that?” she asks. She asks like she really wants to know. Like she really wants to know how he can say that.
“If he lives—and I bet you he’ll live, because Christian is a strong man—he’ll have more years on Earth in the service of the Almighty. And if he dies, it will mean he’s been accepted into God’s everlasting light—and he’ll go with his spirit and his body whole. If he dies, then it’s his time to die. You don’t want to be trying to tell God whether a man should live or die. You know that, don’t you?—you were just upset, angel. All right? Better now?”
Grace is quiet.
I listen hard.
After a while there comes a sound of men murmuring, a sound of many boots; they must be bringing Christian in. Then that quiet again.
A little while after that, Light-of-God leans forward and jabs me in the side. “Move,” she whispers. “I’m going.”
“Huh?” I shift; the baby wiggles against my leg and sighs, but he don’t wake up.
“You heard me. I’m taking Christian to the hospital.”
I stare wide-eyed at the dark hulk of her. “Really?”
“You can drive?”
“Uh-huh. Kind of. I taught myself. You going to help me?”
I don’t say nothing.
“You going to help me, or what?”
I think about Christian. Then I think about what Dad told Grace. He named me Delivered. I was made new in God’s sight. If God means to take a man away . . .
“I ain’t,” I say firmly. “I ain’t going.”
“Suit yourself,” says Light-of-God, and she dives past me, bursts out the closet door and slams it behind herself. Then that dead quiet drops down all round again.
When I wake up, I can tell it’s a lot later. Simple is sucking on my finger, his gums working away; he must be awfully hungry. I run my other hand over his silky head. “Hey, baby boy,” I whisper. I stand up, joints clicking all over, and creak the door open; it’s dark, but light leaks through the doorway from the next room.
No answer. I leave Simple lying on the floor and creep towards the light. Dad’s in one of those hard wooden chairs in the front room -- just sitting. With his yellow-white beard and his stained white-and-tan clothing, he looks like a statue man, carved out of wood. For a second I want to touch him, but he’s like somebody from the Old Testament. You don’t touch him.
“Is Christian okay?” I ask.
“Come here, Delivered,” he says. “Come and sit on my knee.”
I don’t want to. I shake my head. He’s all dry wood and white light: a white-burning fire.
“Christian’s going to live,” he says.
I bow my head. It looks like I’m giving thanks, but really I’m wondering if Light-of-God actually managed to drive that pickup. I don’t want to get her in trouble, but I am too full of the question to keep silent, too in awe of her Lucifer nerve.
“Where’s Light-of-God?” I blurt out.
My father shakes his head; his eyes are closed. In the other room, Simple begins fretting: “Eh, eh, eh,” working himself up to an all-out holler.
“Light-of-God is gone,” he says.
All his muscles are still as sleeping rattlers.
“Her Father has called her home.”
“What—Who is—?” I look at him, not understanding. “Aren’t you her—?”
You can drive?
Uh-huh. Kind of.
“She’s at peace,” he explains. “God’s grace couldn’t touch her down here, so he’s reached his hand down and taken her up a little closer.”
His eyes are still closed. A tiny muscle in his eyebrow twitches and jerks. My body starts shivering.
Don’t ask me how, but I know, I know that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying right then. He’s saying it to seal a kind of hole shut: a hole about the size of a grave.
And I just keep on shivering; I can’t stop. I’m too scared of God. God’s a nightmare, and I want to wake up on my own dirty sheets with the big, ugly, bunches of roses printed on them. I want Mama with her greasy hair and crooked twice-broke nose; I want her to light a cigarette and hold me in her spotty arms, and rock me until both of us feel better.