WARNING: Very long post... This is a full chapter, unedited (so please excuse the errors and inconsistencies. They will be fixed before publishing). This is the last of the fictional book I will show you... I will announce when it is done. ;) Thank you so much for your support of my story telling!
From: My Grandmother's Pearls
A fictional work by S.A. Brown
As Tawny untied the knot and opened the leather cover, a tattered recipe card dropped into her lap. "Oysters Rockefeller" was scrawled at the top and below was a fading list of ingredients for the dish. Tay skimmed it quickly and smiled as she read the last line on the back of the worn card, "Serve with only the best of company, as if you were the Rockefeller's themselves!"
She set the card aside and turned to the first page.
December 12th, 1939
An oyster is a simple and delicious creature I have been familiar with all of my life. I have eaten them steamed, raw, broiled, Rockefeller, baked, and fried among many. I have held their gnarled shells in my hands and wondered at the pristine, smooth finish inside. So rough and pedestrian on their outside, built for weathering any storm, being buffeted by turbulent seas, affixed to anything that will stand still. That shiny interior, so much like a lady's dressing room, covered in pink satin and pretty damask, has always held me in wonder. How a rough exterior could hold such an amazing interior is a fair picture of my life.
I was born Ruby Josephine LaFloret to a wonderful man and woman in the backwoods of rural Georgia. We didn't have electricity, nor running water in our little sharecropper shack and most of the time I went without shoes. I don't recall being worried that we were poor until Mother died and Father left us with Her to find work.
When you harvest oysters, as my brother and I did many times in our young lives, you must be diligent in your shucking. Careful opening of those wonderfully delicious mollusks can reveal a treasure, if you are lucky. You see, when an oyster encounters a difficulty, say a scratch to its interior surface or unwittingly sucks up a grain of sand to that polished pink interior, it begins to secrete a coating around the wound to heal itself. In the process a wonderful thing happens. The coating forms a pearl. Without the trauma, the oyster lives happily in peace until snatched up for someone's dinner. But with the trauma, beauty is created.
I am far from home today. I long for the parties and the camaraderie of my peers. I miss the southern hospitality and the porch sitting. I miss the days before now, uncolored by tragedy and angst. I am hoping to be home for Christmas this time. Too much time has gone by without my own around me. This is not my first pearl, but it is especially painful.
I am in California at a clinic that I cannot name. It all sounds very mysterious, but I cannot risk naming the location for fear that it will be shut down again. Dr. B is a genius man who has the only facility able to deal with my problem. I have always been a very forthright person, despite being born a woman, and a southern one at that, so keeping secrets is not my strong suit. My illness is never spoken of lest suspicions arise and we be found out. As far as anyone knows, we are simply here on extended holiday, enjoying the warm air and the movie star sightings. How I wish we were back home...
Ruby closed her journal and tied the thong into a knot after laying the recipe card gently into the pages. She smiled. Tilly had handed her the card as she'd boarded the train for California almost five months ago. "I hope ya can find ya'll some decent oystahs ova theya!" Her blonde hair had shone in the morning sun and her perfectly applied lipstick framed a strained smile. She had been very worried about Ruby. They were friends from way back and Ruby's diagnosis had hit her hard.
Ruby's diagnosis had hit everyone hard. At least everyone that was told. It felt shameful to be sick, especially sick there. Folks just didn't talk about that kind of thing and so not very many of her friends had been informed of the reason the Moore's were taking an extended leave to the west coast. But Tilly, well she was her "bestest" friend and Ruby couldn't stand the look in her eyes when she had told her she was going away.
Tilly had been present for almost every significant event in her life. It seemed unfair to exclude her from this. Ruby admitted to herself now, thousands of miles away, it was also a selfish endeavor informing her friend. She had been terrified. It was frightening saying the words out loud, but living with the secret eating at her insides was even more horrific. She remembered telling her friend and how her eyes had welled up. Ruby could almost feel the touch of Tilly's soft hands as they clasped hers fiercely. It was as if Tilly alone was holding her there, daring the tumor to try to take her friend from her.
She had looked Ruby dead in the eyes and demanded that she fight. Ruby was going to beat this thing, no matter what it took. They would find someone who wouldn't give up, someone who could deliver a miracle. Tilly had steeled herself for the fight, and doggone it if she hadn't been right. Tilly had been the one to find Dr. B, she had made the contacts and started the process of getting her on that train. Tilly had always refused to lay down and die. It was who she was.
Ruby and Tilly had met shortly after Ruby's mother's death. If she closed her eyes and let herself drift, Ruby could still hear the cicada, listen to the starlings and feel the heat of the Georgian summer blast her cheeks once more.
She had run to the creek in desperation, hoping to escape the reality that was just now dawning on her young eight year old soul. Mama was gone. She stripped off her shoes, long too small for her growing feet and flung them angrily into the bushes that surrounded her favorite bathing spot. She would never wear shoes again! Mama couldn't make her and Daddy seemed so far away now.
Ruby recalled the look on his face as he'd come out of the small curtained off area they used as their bedroom in the one room shack. He was as far away as the places she read about in her history books at school. He sat in a heap on the step of their front porch, holding his head in his hands and shaking from head to toe. She had stared at him that way for what seemed like a long time, until she knew her Mama would be calling for water. She dipped the cup into the bucket she'd fetched earlier that morning and carried it carefully into the darkened space behind the curtain.
Mama lay under those covers, swaddled like her little nieces and nephews were when they were first born. Her skin was no longer feverish and glistening, but paler than usual. Her eyes seemed unable to close all the way, but then maybe Mama wasn't really sleeping. She had a hard time sleeping these days, with all the pain in her tummy.
"Mama," Ruby had softly called to her mother, ever so gently touching her mother's covered arm while concentrating on not spilling a drop of the preciously retrieved water. "Mama, I got ya water... Mama?"
Her father had entered behind her. He put his large calloused hand on her tiny shoulder, "She gawn, Gem. She done gawn on to be with the Lawd today." He had broken down in tears then, the shaking convulsing down his body, through his arm and into the little girl standing so alone in the room. She turned from her father's grasp and bolted through the curtain, tossing the tin cup toward the wash tub and the waiting breakfast dishes she'd been about to start.
Ruby almost knocked her older brother clean off his feet as she tore down the porch stairs and into the cool shadows of the forest. Jim called after her, but Ruby was off running from the hurt as fast as she could turn her legs. "Gem! Ruby..." He didn't follow. He'd been summoned from the fields by a neighbor that had stopped by with the terrible news. He had to get to Daddy.
The next days were a blur for Ruby. She had come back to the shack before nightfall. It was the rule. Mama would be worried if she stayed in the woods after dark, even if it was the best time to hunt lightning bugs. The house had been full of neighbors, family, aunties and uncles all putting small food dishes in cupboards, sharing what they could spare with Daddy.
Ruby had just wished that they would all leave. They didn't need all these people. Mama was just sleeping and when she felt better, she would wake up and fix them all a big skillet of corn pone. She might even break out the maple syrup to celebrate how wonderful she was feeling. No one really talked to Ruby, they just tskd when they saw her and tried to give her hugs and pats on her fiery red tangles. She was having none of it.
For two days, Ruby slept on the porch. The bug bites were worth not having to sleep in the crowded shack and endure the sorrowful stares of folks she had no interest in seeing.
Today had been the funeral. For a girl as young as Ruby to have lost her mother was traumatic enough, but to add to the injury, her Father didn't seem equipped to cope with the loss either. Jaques LaFloret had been raised in the bayous of Louisiana and had married Ruby's mother Theresa when he was seventeen and she was only sixteen. They had grown up together, loving each other and learning how to raise a family in the harsh back woods of rural Georgia. Daddy had the most incredible knack for making furniture and fashioning something out of almost nothing. He was a craftsman, he would often say with a devilish grin. It always made Mama laugh.
Mama's laugh. Ruby was sure she would die if she ever forgot that laugh. It was like rain pattering on their tin roof, like the wings of humming birds darting from flower to flower, Mama's laugh was like dancing moon beams on the creek edge. She squeezed her eyes shut tight. Ruby had to remember that sound.
She had sat quietly at the back of the church with her Daddy and Jim on either side. Daddy couldn't hold his head up and she watched as the tears dropped onto the one pair of trousers he owned. Jim looked straight ahead as if he were a statue on the square in Valdosta. He held her hand at least, squeezing it every now and then as if he were making sure she was still there. Ruby loved her older brother. He teased her mercilessly at times, making her blood hot on her cheeks and neck. He called her names as any dutiful brother would, taught her how to catch frogs and once, after she'd been bullied by a boy on her way home from the school house, he had taught her how to fight. James had been her best and only friend most of her life.
After the funeral was over and the casket was dumped into the ground behind the tiny white washed church, as the rest of the grown ups gathered round her Father to impart their condolences, Ruby had quietly drifted to the outer ring of people. She was only a child, after all, and grown ups didn't need to talk to her. Once she was safely out of range, Ruby had started to run.
She ran until her lungs burned and her legs ached with the effort of it. She ran away from the sorrowful eyes and the pursed lips. She ran from the condescending pats on her head and the unwanted suffocation of unsolicited hugs. Ruby ran until she came to the creek behind her ramshackle home.
Her feet now freed from the ill fitting shoes, she skinned off her sagging socks and stripped to her one piece underthings, the only dress she owned fluttering quietly into a muddy puddle by her side. She stepped slowly into the creek, letting the water rush over her toes and up to her ankles. Slowly and deliberately, Ruby walked into the creek until she was at it's deepest point, water swirling hypnotically around her knees. She sat down slowly and leaned back on her hands in the water, allowing her red curls to drag into the slow moving current. She breathed in deeply allowing the water to wash away her anger at being ignored, her fear for her Daddy who had never been without Mama, and her awe at her brother James who seemed to be so unshaken. The water bubbled around her in little eddies, caressing her tiny body as if it alone understood how she needed to be touched.
"Hey theya..." Ruby almost jumped out of her skin as she startled from her seated position in the creek. A girl roughly her age stood before her, knee deep in the creek herself, still wearing a flour sack dress. Ruby jumped up, crossing her arms over her chest in the sheer underthings, suddenly very aware she was all but naked. "I'm sawry I skeered you..." the little girl continued, lowering her eyes to watch the water swirl around her knees.
"I ain't skeered." Ruby shot back, stomping back to shore angry that her safe place had been infiltrated by another mourner.
"I jest saw ya runnin' and well, I did't wanna be theya eitha..." The little girl followed behind Ruby completely ignoring the surly red head's attitude. "This shore is a nice place! That ya house we come by?" She had produced a pair of socks from a nearby branch and was busy rooting around in a bush finding first one shoe and then the other.
Ruby pulled her muddy dress over her wet clothes and grabbed up her socks. She refused to go hunting for her shoes. They were too small anyhow, she reasoned. "Yes, that's my house." She stomped up the slope with the little girl hot behind her, chattering away.
"Mah names Mathilda, but ever'one jest cawls me Tilly. You Ruby, right?" Ruby turned on the chattering squirrel of a girl, ready to lay her out on her flour sacked butt. "I was hopin' we could be frey-yends..." Tilly's hand was stuck out in offering and there was a smile across her face that stopped Ruby cold.
"Friends?" Ruby was stunned.Who was this girl? Didn't she have a lick of sense? Ruby had just lost her Mama, and this girl wanted to be friends? Ruby turned on her heel and marched up the steps in a huff. "You have got to be the rudest most annoying girl I have ever met!" There, Ruby thought, that should turn this little chattering mag-pie around and send her back to the throngs of well wishers never to darken her doorstep again.
"My Maw tells me that awl the time!" Tilly laughed, "I guess I don't pick the best times, but she says it's endearing... Whateva that means! Do you have any watah? I might just die of thirst afta that run we did..."
Ruby shook her head in consternation and opened the door to the shack. Tilly followed, completely undeterred, and had been by her side ever since. How she wished that Tilly was here now! She missed her so much her heart ached with the pain of it.
Ruby lay the journal on the bedside stand of the little rented cottage she and her husband called home for the time being. Henry would be back soon from his golfing and she needed to be ready to go to dinner. They would likely return to the country club for supper and she would need to dress accordingly.
She stood in front of the small closet and fingered the dresses she had to choose from. Everything seemed so dull and lifeless. She hadn't made anything new for so long now she was sure her skills were waning. But then she hadn't felt well enough to even open the pattern books Tilly had sent to her. They were still hidden in a box under her bed. Henry thought it very pedestrian and back woods of her to still enjoy making her own clothes. He didn't understand the quiet solace she gained from stitching the tiny close stitches, taking time with each piece and making sure that no one could ever know it was home made. He didn't grasp the satisfaction she got with each new skirt or dress she completed. He cringed every time one of the ladies at the club would comment how lovely she looked and ask where she bought her latest creation. Of course he never allowed Ruby to tell them the truth, that she had sewn them herself and that is why they hadn't seen it in the shop window down town. She refused to lie however and would simply smile and say that she couldn't tell them who her tailor was or Henry wouldn't allow them to sew for her any longer.
Ruby lay out a navy blue dress that had taken her months to get just right. The cape collar and the fitted bodice were fashionable enough to wear out. Her hat and shoes would go nicely and the color would help her not look sickly. The paleness of her skin against the navy would be complementary, not alarming.
She had just enough time to draw herself a relaxed bath in the small tub. She twisted her hair against her neck and up onto her head, pinning it out of the water's reach. She looked in the large round vanity mirror to assure she hadn't missed any stray strands. The fiery curls were tamed for the moment and she strode into the small bathroom to run the water into the tub.
As the water swirled and rose, Ruby thought about the leather journal. She had decided to start writing about her journey just that morning. Yesterday's sermon had struck a chord with her and with her life and all of it's uncertainties, there was a part of her that needed to write down who she was and why. Part of her wanted to make sure that the days she had left if these unusual treatments didn't work would be spent remembering things that mattered and maybe even giving back to those around her. Another part of Ruby hoped that in putting her life's hardships into that journal she could leave some of the pain in the pages.
She slipped off her dressing gown and slid into the bath water, allowing the warmth to encircle her thin frame and wash away the aches she felt most all the time now. As she allowed her head to rest on the back of the tub Ruby closed her eyes and thought about the sermon. Each life hardship, each trial, each excruciating painful experience would produce beauty like the pearl inside the oyster. She smiled slightly at the thought. Could she really believe that after so much loss? Maybe the pastor had been more correct than she thought when he said the pearls may not be recognizable to the one feeling the pains of their birth. That even if she never saw the beauty one of her trials produced that it didn't mean it didn't exist.
Ruby thought about Tilly again. So much had transpired after that day at the river. Months of pain and sacrifice. Daddy and the way he just couldn't make sense of it anymore. Tears leaked slowly out of her closed eyes as she allowed her mind to drift back, to see his face twisted from pain and loneliness. She was back on that rickety porch, her aunt's hand hard on her shoulder and father holding both her smallish hands in his.
"Cher, it jes needs to be dis way fo a while. Ah be back fo ya quicka than da flick of a lamb's tail, shor 'nuf! Ah needs to find me sum work and den I be back fo ya and fo Jim. Auntie will care fo ya like I would." He looked up at his sister. She didn't smile. She didn't cry. She just stood there, hard and tall.
"Gem, I gots ta git now, but I gots ya sumthin'. It was your Ma's and I know she would want ya to keep it. Keep it safe for me, will ya? I give it to her da day I asked her to marry me..." His voice trailed off. He held his fist over her hand and when she reached out she felt something very small drop into it. She almost winced at the way he squeezed her hand tightly in his and held her gaze hard in his own. She knew she would have to hide whatever this was. She knew She would try to take it. Jaques let her hand fall limply to her side and Ruby slipped the very small something into her apron pocket undetected by Her. She kept her fist clenched as she watched her Daddy stumble to the waiting truck, wiping tears from his face.
Ruby knew it would be the last time she saw her father. She hadn't believed his lie. She knew then that she would have to do it on her own, to survive the hard hand of Her and decide to keep going no matter what. She had steeled herself that day as she watched her father drive away in the truck with the other men leaving for up north to try to find work. He had never fully recovered from their mother's passing and he saw this as the only way to make it work. It was a frightful, horrifying decision. It was a pearl that would come at great cost to Ruby. But she had determined it would not be the end of her.
December 15, 1939
It was always dark when he came. I was just a smidge of a girl, but I can recall those memories as if it were just night before. He was not a large man, but that never mattered. He may as well have been ten foot tall and bullet proof. I learned quick not to struggle. It hurt a lot worse when I fought. He would lean his forearm against my chest and press hard if I fought. It took longer too. I learned not to fight. I hated not fighting him, but I could wait. I would bide my time and someday I would see justice done... That was how I got through it. Just lay there while he finished and plotted my revenge.
She knew. She always knew. I hated her even more for that. She hated me too. Somehow she thought I was to blame for his disgusting assaults. I was always punished the mornings after he came. There would be a whooping. Always blamed on something else because she would never say she knew, but I know she did. Her eyes said it loud and clear like. They were hard eyes, brimming with hate and icy with murder. I know if she had killed me during one of her tirades she would never regret it. So I lived. I lived more to spite her than for myself back then. I had thought I was tough enough to endure anything she slung at me, but there were times I had to will myself to keep going, keep fighting. It was too much. I wanted to die. To be released from the grasp of two animals that neither loved nor cared for me would have been the sweetest reward...
I worked long hard days at Her hand. I washed all the laundry on the scrub board, I hung it on the lines strung from the sad and scraggly trees out back. I scrubbed the kitchen floors, did all the dishes, drew and hauled the water from the stream down front. I sat with her miserable kids, I bathed them, combed their hair and sewed their clothing. I was little more than a dirty, emaciated shell of a slave for her to scream obscenities at. When I chipped a dish, when I fell asleep with my scrub brush in my hands, when I didn't hear a child's cry She would break into a tirade the likes of which David must have experienced with Saul.
Like David, I never knew when the beating would commence. Unless of course He had come the night before. Then it was just a matter of time. Sometime in that day after She would head my way and I knew it was a comin'. She would have a switch or the birch paddle and once she simply took off her ratty, hole-riddled shoe. She would beat me until my skin split open or until I passed out cold from the pain. I would wake up where she left me and gather up my shoes or what was left of my clothes and head inside to finish up my chores. I kept living by sheer force of will. She would not beat the life my Ma had given me outta my body as long as I could muster one more breath.
I hadn't remembered those things for a long time until the other night in the bath. Henry had asked as we left for supper what was bothering me, but I just smiled at him and told him I was tired. He could never hear the truth. His mind would not wrap itself around my past no matter how much he may want to understand. There were just things my husband would never know from my mouth.
That sermon is still ringing in my ears. The one about the oysters. Beauty created from pain... I have decided that I will start myself a string of pearls. I will add a pearl for each hardship, trial or painfully won accomplishment I can recall. Like the oyster, I will tabulate each painful thing as one transformed into beauty. I will start with Mama's pearl, the one that Daddy gave me that day on the porch. The one I hid in all my stubbornness from Her and never let her take. The one I had pretended to chuck at the retreating truck on that dusty road way back in my memory. The first one I will put on the string in Mama's memory...
I see Dr. B. tomorrow morning. My last treatment will be Friday and I believe I will be allowed to return home. I can hardly contain my excitement to be back in my own home for the Christmas Holiday!