When Bea moves to South Carolina in 1980 with her recently remarried mother and her eccentric sister Izzy, she carries with her a box of archival treasures: the souvenirs of a life she barely remembers, memories of her father and the opera Madame Butterfly. Soon Bea’s innocent friendships embroil her in a web of racial tension that she escapes by entering even darker territory. Her only way out is through a journey back to her childhood in Minnesota, where she seeks out her father’s ghost and comes to terms with her history. Only through an act of courage can Bea find the strength to enter the maelstrom of life with her sails up, but courage is something even the gift box can’t give her.
Butterfly: Mr. B. F. Pinkerton, forgive me … I would like a few woman’s trinkets.
Pinkerton: Where are they?
Butterfly: (She has a box, which she opens on the table.) They are here … Do you mind?
Pinkerton: Oh, why should I, my lovely Butterfly?
Butterfly: Handkerchiefs … The pipe. A belt. A little clasp. A mirror. A fan.
Pinkerton: And that pot?
Butterfly: A jar of rouge.
Pinkerton: Tut, tut!
Butterfly: You don’t like it? (putting down the jar) Away with it!
Pinkerton: (pointing to the sheathed dagger) And that?
Butterfly: Something sacred of mine.
Pinkerton: And I can’t see it? … (We see the face of Butterfly’s dead father.)
Goro: It’s a present from the Mikado to her father … inviting him to …
(He imitates the motion of hara-kiri)
Pinkerton: And her father?
Butterfly: (Shows Pinkerton some dolls.) The Ottoké.
Pinkerton: Those puppets? … (Takes one and playfully tosses it into the air.) What did you say?
Butterfly: They are the souls of my ancestors.
-Madame Butterfly, Act I
My father’s ghost didn’t go easy. Oh, he was carefully hidden. I only saw him when I wasn’t looking. Out of the corner of my eye, in the rim of my mind, on the silent tail of Izzy’s words.
This was all I knew: my father was a kind and gentle man, a good husband and father, and he was dead and long gone by accident or intent. I didn’t ask how. I didn’t want to know why. He was a silhouette in a window easily wiped away, and wipe away I did with no one to stop me, not Mom or Izzy or even Othermother.
He was there in the souvenirs I hoarded, the fragile box of treasures that I kept and hid and finally shared for love. A poltergeist struggling to be heard and mourned, he punished me, he and so many others. We all beat me until like a ruffled, damp butterfly I pulled myself from the cocoon we had all woven to trap me in the past.
I thought others could take his place, punish me for my sins and lies, or replace the loss. Fatherless, I looked for him in Jim, in Mr. Herbert, in Campbell, but least of all in Darryl.
Ah, Darryl, my stygian knight in midnight armor. You rode by and swept me up, or maybe I leapt up uninvited. Who would know now, and who would care? We flew away from him together, and dived and soared and eventually I let go and fell. Only far enough to find my father and bury him at long last. Even a rotting cadaver needs a decent burial.
So this is the story of the haunting of a girl and the exorcism that follows. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start here: Coulter, South Carolina, a village curled up like a cat along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains that graze the northwest ledge of the state. It will be a starry, starry night.
Act 1: Lies
My sister Izzy was tapping her knife on her plate. At first, it was merely the staccato tink, tink, tink of utensils on dinnerware at a hushed meal. When she introduced the counterpoint, tapping her spoon on her glass, I recognized the music: The Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s most terrible tale, Il Trovatore, all baby-burning and witchcraft, family tangle and siblings at war.
She had chosen this piece for our new stepfather Jim’s benefit, although it would only be noise to him; Izzy was lighting the fuse on a bomb set to blow up our awkward triangle, the three of us slogging through dinner together.
“Izzy, cut that out!” Jim roared, a star performer, right on cue. “We can’t even eat a meal without you making trouble.” Jim’s great bald head nodded, his spectacles glaring like new winter moons as he stabbed his fork in her direction.
Izzy tossed back a rough sheaf of uncombed hair, her gunmetal eyes wide in mock innocence. “Oh, am I disturbing you?”
“You ain’t eatin anyway,” he snapped. “Clean up the kitchen.” He dismissed her like an obstinate servant with a wave of his burly arm.
Izzy rose to do our stepfather’s bidding, her back stiff with insolence, her eyes squeezed to slits. “Whatever happened to the word please?” Izzy mumbled sotto voce as she picked up her plate. That got his attention, as she knew it would, and he heaved his great bulk up to stand over her. A puckish smile tickled the corners of her mouth as she said “Oops,” and let the plate slip into freefall and crash on the kitchen floor. Slivers skittered across the floor in every direction, and I cringed, squeezing my glass so tightly that it might have disintegrated into a fine, sparkling dust in my hand. That plate was a remnant of the elegant porcelain we’d brought from Minnesota; Izzy had inexplicably decided to put it on the table in our mother’s absence.
Every angry look or cross word they flung at each other ricocheted like shrapnel, excising a cherished past from a new, menacing future. Jim puffed up like an adder, while Izzy met him head-on, tightlipped and stubborn. They struggled always for control: who would be boss, who would call the shots in our limping, hammered-together wreck of a family. Some day he was bound to hit her, or she him, and the thought of it made my chest tight, my breathing sound like high notes through a penny whistle.
I crouched to pick up the pieces of the shattered plate. The first piece nicked my finger and I stared, startled by the smear of blood soiling the blue cornflower design. I could see my real family, my first family, all pink-edged and fuzzy in memory as I squatted by the rickety Formica table. The glorified image was easy to summon: my father and mother, me and Izzy, sitting in a dining room over cornflower porcelain, surrounded by vast, sunny windows and dense mahogany furniture, chatting about the news of the day. The image seemed so real and so heartbreaking, such a contrast to this time and this place, that I dropped what was left of the plate on the cracked linoleum and stood.
Jim and Izzy were still squaring off, their voices rising. Feeling the heady rush of fury in the small space, fearing that it would finally lead them both to the limits of their personal angers, I rushed out the door. They never even saw me go.
I sprinted silently to the back of the yard, my hand pressed to my chest to dampen the pounding, to hold back the fear of pursuit. I had my own secret escape route: a crude gate hidden behind the abandoned kennels, separating our yard from the open country behind. I tore at the raw-edged fencing stapled to a wooden two-by-two with a simple wire closure. It had been hard to push open when I first found it crusted with vines and rust, but I’d done it enough times by that evening in October that it was easy, even with hands that trembled.
Slipping through the kudzu, across the rippling ocean of vines beyond the fence, a weight lifted with every step of distance between me and the fractious, fractured life we lived. The tangled tendrils caught at my ankles, but I leapt in arcs over the shin-high growth so the wiry stems couldn’t grab me, trip me up. That, too, had taken a while to learn, but now I could make it across without a single tumble. This kudzu, imported from Japan, had become the official weed of the South, growing in wild, irrepressible profusion; folks said it would grow in your window at night if you left it open. I’d struggled to put down roots, too, to find a home for my heart and its memories and a place to let them grow. But Jim and Izzy would never allow a family to flourish here, and the original shape of the one I’d had was lost beyond recovery. So I ran.
By the time I reached the circle of trees shivering in the last sigh of sunlight, a stitch stabbed at my side and my breath was gone. The trees were shrouded from top to bottom by the heart-shaped leaves of the vines that choked them, but hidden within their circle was a secret. A white-painted fence held the unruly creepers at bay and protected a peaceful clearing. My sanctuary. I slipped through the neatly hung gate without a sound and found myself in the safety of my personal bell jar, the magic circle of a private graveyard.
I bowed and gripped my knees until my ragged breathing slowed, my limbs softened, and the panic drained away into the darkness. In this solitary place, surrounded by the dead, I had found a home. The deep silence eased away the dissonance of the house, and I could imagine my father, an intimate of death, hovering near me.
The plot wasn’t arranged like a normal cemetery; the oldest grave stood in the center and the others radiated from it, the heads of the departed pointing toward the central stone, as if toward magnetic bones. This innermost marker was a cross poured from concrete, bright green marbles having been pressed into its surface in close, tidy rows while it had still been moist and yielding. I didn’t know whose plot it was, but many of the people buried there had the same name: Parker.
My father was like that oldest grave, that pivotal stone. He’d held us together, kept us from splintering off as we were now, no more than cornflower porcelain dropped on an unyielding floor. Now he was gone and his absence left me hollow, foreign winds blowing through unimpeded. In the fading light, my hands could make out the slippery surface of the marbles, cool after a fall day, and the felty surface of the moss that filled the ragged pores of the concrete. The soil had begun to release the ancient tombstone from its grip. It leaned, as if its occupant had turned over in sleep. My foot slipped in the shifting earth, and a rich, verdant smell wafted up, belying a world of death.
I always visited this stone first, puzzled that there was no name and no date, wondering what sort of person’s passing would be marked only by emerald spheres. Never having seen my father’s stone – my mother said he was buried too far away and in those days we’d had no car of our own – I had come to imagine that his marker might look like this one: dazzling when the sun caught its green glass moons.
I sat down on the bed of the grave as I had so many times before, legs crossed and elbows on knees, in shorts and a T-shirt too thin for the fall air. Even in South Carolina’s mild climate, I shivered. The cemetery had never frightened me before, but I’d never been there at night. Now the graves looked like empty crypts in the dim shadows of the sentinel stones.
I dropped my head in my hands and took a wobbly breath. It was easy to cry here, without shame or embarrassment, but I never got the chance that night. Because I heard something, or perhaps felt it. My head jerked up. Someone lurked nearby, in the darkness.
“Who’s there?” I asked, my voice fluttering.
Silence. But as soon as I decided it had been my imagination, I heard a whispery sound, a breath drawn in or a foot slipping on sand. What I saw made me scream, a spontaneous high-C of fear. Something seemed to be forming out of the shadows, as if the night itself were taking on a presence. A dark figure edged toward me, out of the gloom of hulking trees and dripping vines, picking its way through the tombstones in the moonless night. It was tall and its eyes had a pale glow, clearly human and terrifyingly close. I stood up, screamed again, rigid with dread. I gripped the tombstone until the rough concrete marked my skin and one green marble came loose in my hand.
When I heard a low chuckle I realized it was a man, a black man, emerging out of the darkness, making his measured way toward me though the graves. Ancient tales of horror and mischief played through my mind as I stood frozen, clutching the tombstone. I died cruelly in several imaginative ways before the man reached me and I saw that he was a boy about my age, fifteen. He stopped but didn’t speak. Neither did I, as my terror slipped into annoyance. I hated to be caught up by my own fear, and was momentarily furious that my one true island of peace had been invaded. I tightened my mouth and stared at him. He stared back, completely unperturbed.Back to 'My Words'...