He is quiet for a long time. She is beginning to wonder if he has fallen asleep when he starts up again.
Anyway, he says with a sigh. She tells me that her man, he died the week before, slipped and fell over a rock ridge while he was huntin, broke his neck. She buried him out back in a cedar glade by the stream, his favorite place to go off to when he had enough of the world. She thought that was it for her and him in this world, and so she commenced to mournin. Except—and she tells me this like I couldn’t believe it in a million years—except he comes back to her. He comes back to her one night, and she says it like it’s a revelation of pure love. He comes back to her, and he’s been so hungry with the missing of her that he tries to swallow her whole. That’s what she says. She keeps sayin it. He come back to me. He come back to me. And all the time, I’m lookin at her eyes, how they’re gettin cloudy at the edges—and how her skin is goin gray—and I know what’s happening to her even though she thinks she just needs some stitches and can’t understand why they won’t give em to her. He come back to me.
What’d you do? Temple asks.
Moses Todd goes quiet again for a long time. She wonders if she shouldn’t have said anything.
Finally he says, I left her there. I should of taken care of it. I should of put her down. But I was young. That was before I understood that things have a way about em that needs to be respected, pretty or not. Ain’t no code but one that doesn’t feel like it fits exactly proper.
She turns on her cot and thinks that what he said is among the truest of things. Sometimes when there’s no light to see by, that’s when everything comes sharp and clear. She listens to Maury’s breathing, and the constant whisper movement of the jailed slugs, and she curls herself up into a tight ball of a little girl.
You wanna know what I was thinkin before? she says. She doesn’t wait for Moses to respond. I was thinkin of Niagara Falls. I heard people used to go there to honeymoon. Honeymooning on the edge of a big crack in the earth. Ain’t that something? That’s living it all the way up.
Moses Todd sniffs in his cell.
Let me ask you a question, he says. How come you weren’t headed up there instead of goin west like you were? I could of chased you north as easily as I did west. You might could have made it before we had to settle down to business.
I had an errand to run first.
Is that right. You wanna give me the details in case we ever get out of here? Sure make my life easier.
Good night, Mose. Don’t forget to say your prayers.
I never do, little girl. I never do.
IN THE morning, the girl Millie comes in again with more bread and, this time, slices of overcooked bacon and some wheat mush with milk in it. She brings it on a tray that she has decorated with plaid napkins and a flower in a bud vase, as though she were serving breakfast in bed to guests. She sets the tray nimbly on the autopsy table and brings a plate of food to each cell. But she looks confused and can’t figure out how to get the plates through the bars, so she sets them down on the floor and backs away and lets the three of them reach through the bars for their food.
Bon teet, she says.
Come again? Moses asks.
Can you puzzle her out? Moses asks Temple.
I think she’s saying bon appeteet.
Well my goodness, he says. He turns to Millie and says, Mercy beaucoop, little lady.
He smiles at her in his way of fondness, and Temple sees that she likes the formality of serving, all the structures and etiquette of domestic life.
She folds her hands and watches them eat. When they’re done, she takes the plates and puts them back on the tray and takes the whole thing away. In the afternoon, she brings them a pot of brewed tea and some lemon slices.
Looks like you and me are her pretty playthings, Moses says to Temple.
As long as it keeps the food comin.
In the evening the two men come, Bodie and Royal, and they open Maury’s cell and lead him out of it. She watches, looking at the key ring to identify the right key if she should ever get her hands on it.
Hey, she says. Where you takin him?
You ain’t gotta worry, precious, Royal says. We gon take you too. Mama’s took an interest in the two of you.
What about me? Moses Todd says as they unlock her cell.
Everybody seen your type before, Royal says. Your future ain’t bright.
Bodie leads Maury out the door and Temple follows, her arm locked in Royal’s grip. Outside she squints her eyes against the sun. For a second she considers the possibility of making a break for it, but she sees others, standing at the corners or sitting on wicker chairs under the shade of overhangs—interrupting their conversations to watch their progress down the street.
How many of you are there? she asks.
We got twenty-three in our family, Bodie says.
Twenty-two since your fren kilt Sonny, Royal says.
He ain’t no friend of mine.
They turn a corner into a residential area and find themselves in front of a big white house with columns out front and shutters on the windows.
Inside, the house is musty and dark. The stench of decay is stirred up with other smells, lanolin, magnolia, sickeningly sweet soap—as though someone were trying to wash the stink off a corpse.
Mama! Royal calls up the stairs. Mama, we brought em like you tole us. We comin up.
HE’S TETCHED, this one, Mama says and reaches her hand out to Maury. Tetched by the spirit. You wanna be part of my family, honey?
She is as close to a monster as God allows, Temple reckons. The woman is massive, even larger than the others, maybe ten feet if taken at her full height instead of stretched out on a mountain of pillows in the middle of the room. She is naked, but her nakedness doesn’t count for anything because of the bony plates that cover almost her entire body, as though her skeleton had melted away and been reformed on the outside of her. Her voice is low, almost a man’s voice—those oversized vocal cords delivering nothing but bass notes from her gullet—and her rasping breath turns her attempts at sweetness grotesque. They call her Mama, and Temple wonders how many of them she is actual mother to—and it wouldn’t surprise her if it was all of them, because Temple can see she’s a world Mama, like the earth itself, a potent blister of life.
When she moves, a myriad of clicks and pops come from her exoskeleton, and Temple thinks that’s what an insect must sound like if you could get your ear small enough to hear it. It seems difficult for her to move, as though the gravity of her own body is working against her—her muscles unable to keep pace with her size and the weight of her bony growth.
There are sockets for her eyes and mouth in the scabby bone plates covering her face, and she has painted them with lipstick and eye shadow in clownish imitation of generations gone.
Bodie stands beside her holding a glass of lemonade with a straw, and every now and then she leans over to take a sip, her bulk rolling to and fro against the floorboards.
You got a mama, honey? she says, turning her attention to Temple.
I guess I must of had one once, Temple says, trying to breathe through her mouth so she doesn’t choke on the perfumed air. That’s how it works, don’t it?
You don’t remember her?
Nah. She probably got et up.
You know what? You can miss somethin you never knew. Do you miss your mama, honey?
Temple gives this some thought. The woman’s big voice is brute and animal, but there is still true mama in it.
I guess sometimes, she says. If they was handing out mamas down at the five-and-dime, I reckon I would take myself one.
Of course you would.
But you gotta look at the world that is and try not to get bogged down by what it ain’t.
The woman nods and sips her lemonade, the end of the white plastic straw smeared with lipstick. Again Temple thinks of making a run for it, but she would never get down the stairs. And then there’s Maury to think about.
The woman coughs, a grating cough like rusted machinery. Then she recomposes herself.
Do you like our family? she says.
Sure, Temple says. In particular, I like the way you keep people locked in basements.
The woman’s face contorts into an angry frown—but just for a moment before she closes her eyes and collects herself and begins to explain something.
We got something you don’t have, child, she says. We got something unique. You wanna know what it is? We got loyal blood. We watch out for each other. That’s how we come to survive for so long. My family, it’s the oldest family in the county. Hell, I guess by now we’s the oldest family in the state. That’s what I mean, survivors. See, long before this plague of foolishness descended on the world, we was livin apart—up in the woods where there wasn’t no one to bother us. We had our land. We made our food. We was one family, and we stayed one family for six generations. Blood is holy blood. It’s God’s gift, and it ain’t to be watered down. My children is the gift of the spirit, and let them be legion.
By the end of her speech, the woman is worked up, and she has snailed across the floor until she is right close to Temple’s face, her breath coming hot and powerful on her cheeks. Then she leans back, pulling herself together once more.
She sips the lemonade, her bones clacking.
See, she goes on, this plague is sent to cleanse the earth. It sweeps with prejudice, honey, and it favors those strong enough to keep together. What it does, it sweeps away the mess of commonness, and what it leaves behind are those Americans who keep America stored up in their blood lineage. What lineage are you trailin, girl? Do you know what togetherness is? What have you ever been together with? We got us the blood of the nation, you better believe it.
Uh-huh, Temple says. So you all are the inheritors of the earth?
That there is God’s truth, girl. The question is are you smart enough to see it.
Temple considers. She thinks about the people she’s known, the things she’s seen. She thinks about the nation she’s traveled since she was born, the derelict landscapes, the rain that washes the blood and dust into rust-colored puddles.
Finally she shrugs.
All right, she says. So you’re the inheritors of the earth. It ain’t the wrongest thing I ever heard.