Daughter of the Mountain Excerpt
Effie Bilfrey opened the screen door and stared at the tattered suitcase at her daughter’s feet, “Sarah Bilfrey, what are you doing?” Sarah stood firm with her hands clamped tightly around her daughter’s tiny shoulders. “Mama, I have to leave, and I need you to look after the baby for me.” Effie eyed her daughter suspiciously before grunting, “You’re leavin’? For how long?” Nervously twisting a strand of her daughter’s soft hair around her finger, Sarah mumbled, “Mama, please.” Effie said nothing. Not able to meet her mother’s piercing stare, Sarah tried again, “Mama, I know we ain’t always got along, but you got to help me.” With her jaw set and jutted forward, Effie angrily stepped closer. “I ain’t got to nothing, girl, and I sure as hell ain’t going to help you leave.” Effie snapped, as fear wrapped itself in the only emotion Effie was willing to show.
At a familiar impasse, the two women stood for a moment in silence while the baby’s wide eyes caught sight of the White Mountain Laurel blooming beside the porch. Toddling close to grab spring’s first pink-tipped bloom, Sarah swiftly scooped her up and handed her to her mother. Shifting the child in her arms, Effie grabbed Sarah’s wrist. She dug her fingers into Sarah’s pale skin until it was scarlet ringed. “No, Sarah. No! You ain’t going!” Sarah’s eyes pooling with tears and pleading met her mother’s as she begged, “Please, Mama. Please.”
Allowing her daughter’s desperation to leave prevail over her own desperation to make her stay, Effie relented. Leaning close, Sarah buried her nose into the downy mass of the small child’s hair, taking in her sweet baby smell, she whispered, “If you don’t remember nothing, baby girl, remember that I love you.” Sarah turned quickly to leave but before her foot touched the first step, Effie called out in a voice hoarse with emotion, “You remember the same, Sarah Bilfrey.” Suppressing a sob, Sarah nodded before running down the rutted dirt road away from all those she’d loved, all that she’d known, and all that she’d feared.
Drained of her anger yet not filled with the grief to come, Effie stood stunned. Then shaking her head ruefully, she took the barefooted, dirty-faced child inside. Effie sat the babbling baby down in the middle of the floor, which was nothing more than rough-hewed planks covered in rag-rugs. The child howled and searched the room frantically with wide eyes. “Hush now, it’s a gonna be alright.” Effie said, assuring both the baby and herself, before opening the door and calling out urgently, “Baby Curtis! Baby Curtis, you come on in now and give me a hand.” Curtis was ten years from being a baby but since he was Effie’s youngest, his name was rarely uttered without the preface “baby.”
Curtis scrambled up the splintered wooden steps, carefully stepping over the second one with the rotted board and then hesitated at the door. Irritated, Effie leaned out. Bumping her nose into Curtis’s head, she said, “Damnit, Baby Curtis!” Pressing her hand into the small of his back, Effie shoved Curtis towards the door and said, “You get on in here. I need some help.” Uneasy, Curtis went over and stood next to his now wailing niece. “Well, you hear as good as I do. Make her stop her boo-hooing so I can get the breakfast made in some peace.” Effie demanded before she stormed into the kitchen, keeping half an eye on baby Curtis as he tried to coax a smile from the shrieking child.
Effie pulled her favorite cast iron skillet from its resting place amongst the stack of chipped plates and plastic glasses. She then slammed it a bit harder than intended against the rusted cook stove causing Curtis to jump and the baby to wail louder. Effie huffed in frustration, “I can’t cook while she’s making that racket.” Turning on her heel, she snapped, “Baby Curtis, take Lottie on out of here.” Without looking up, Curtis reminded his mother, “Sarah don’t like her called “Lottie.” Effie snorted and spit back, “Well, I don’t see her here to disagree, do you?” Not wanting to further anger his mother, Curtis scooped up the baby. Nuzzling the girl’s warm cheek, he whispered, “Let’s go, Lottie” before they both escaped to the backyard–overgrown with thick grass and dotted with wild flower blooms.
Effie watched the screen door slam shut before turning back to her skillet and her thoughts. Effie was going to make biscuits–her specialty–everyone raved about Effie’s biscuits. What no one knew, however, was that before anyone swallowed the moist taste of buttered bread or before anyone’s lips touched the flaky, barely browned crust, something far more extraordinary took place. It was during the cooking–the mundane process of sifting flour, cracking eggs, and frying biscuits that Effie dreamed, planned, and schemed. This time was no different except that as Effie started her well-worn process there were no plans, only memories.
Effie began as she always did, sifting the flour. As the powdery substance floated through her fingers she was reminded of the delicate feel of her daughter’s hair, as she would brush it smooth. Sarah was only a girl then, small and trusting. Too trusting, perhaps, Effie thought.
Effie’s composure in front of her son began to crack, just like the egg she grasped too tightly in her hand. Pieces of shell dropped to the floor, and as Effie moved her foot she could hear the crunch beneath her shoe. Refusing even a tear, Effie shoved the broken pieces to the side, a process she had practiced for too many years.
The butter, unmeasured and thick, hit the hot skillet and began to sizzle before she delicately placed the doughy biscuits into the pan. A gesture so gentle, so rare and reserved only for her cooking. As Effie waited for the biscuits to brown, she began to rub her calloused fingers. Hands well worn from work and worry. Hands that have held together her loosely fit family of restless boys and an ever-aching girl, and a lifetime of scrapping, struggling, and finding a way to make it work.
She flipped the partially cooked biscuits with her favorite spatula; the one with the handle bent and scorched by Sarah’s failed attempt to recreate her mother’s perfect biscuits. She then slid the biscuits onto a chipped blue plate and threw the warm spatula into the sink.
“Baby Curtis!” Effie shouted, and after years of keeping his ear tuned for his mother’s voice, he was at the door before Effie reached it. Years of taking whacks across the bottom had taught him that quick response and utmost respect are the surest ways to avoid his mother’s wrath, which doesn’t come often but when it does is fierce. “I see you got her to quiet down.” Effie said as she nodded towards the baby approvingly. “Well, you sit her down, and I will give her some biscuits. She’s got to be hungry.” Effie tore the layers of the soft bread apart and blew on a piece to cool it before placing it in her granddaughter’s mouth. The baby chewed it quickly, saliva dripping down her chin, before greedily reaching for more. “Well, she’s a Bilfrey alright, ain’t she? She eats like you do.” Effie grinned as Baby Curtis and the pink-cheeked, chubby toddler who both sat on the kitchen floor eating biscuits in silence. Their quiet moment was soon disrupted by the crack of the screen door hitting the splintered wooden frame. “Who’s here? Is that you Frank or Gene?” Only sixteen, Frank and his brother, Gene, younger by only a year were still more boys than men, which Effie often was forced to remind them even if their attitude and freewheeling boasted otherwise.
Effie craned her neck around the corner to have a look. “It’s me, Ma.” Frank, heavy footed, clomped towards the kitchen, looked down at the peaceful three and gave a snort. “What’s this about?” Effie swept her arm over the plate and then towards her son and grandchild before saying, “This here is a picnic. We are celebrating our newest tenant.” Frank grinned, “You finally rented number three? Thank God, now I don’t need to help Ernest shovel shit no more.” Effie shook her head, “Nope, I didn’t rent three and thanks to Sarah I am now looking after your niece. And you best remember, boy, that in this life, there will always be shit to shovel.”
Scowling, Frank snapped, “You’re doing what?” Even-toned, Effie answered, “You heard me.” Stomping his foot to punctuate each word, Frank spat back, “I can’t fucking believe this!” Effie, covering Lottie’s ears too late, snarled, “You mind your mouth, boy, and your manners.” Disgusted, Frank snatched a biscuit and headed back outside.
“Mom-mom, mom-mom.” The tiny girl gurgled. “Well, I don’t think you will be needing that word now. Best you learn how to say Granmom.” Effie took the toddler’s jelly-stained hand and gave a small tug. “Come on, let’s see what your mom thought was important enough to stick in that tiny little suitcase.” Effie strode towards the case with determination as her granddaughter’s wobbly legs stumbled to keep pace. Effie squatted down and flipped the rusted latches on the shabby pink case. She pulled out the carefully packed contents and inspected each item. Effie turned every piece from front to back and over once more as if the answers to her daughter’s sudden departure could be found in a rumpled sweater or in the folds of a tiny pair of jeans.
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