The woman was so thin there couldn’t have been room inside for her soul. She was embedded into the stained mattress and wore a thin nightdress soaked through with sweat. I blushed for her: she might as well have been naked, all the good that garment did her.
“Mama.” Albert took off his hat and kissed her cheek. “It’s me.”
She took a deep breath, though the air seemed to grate against her tongue. “More.”
“I didn’t bring any, Mama.”
“Then, why’d you come?” She turned her face away from us all and looked out the streaked window.
“We want you to come with us, Mrs. Mitchell.” Tait looked at the cobwebs that hid in every corner, the crusted dishes strewn about the floor, and the full chamber pot next to the bed. “This is no place for you to get well.”
“I ain’t going nowhere,” she said.
“But wouldn’t you like to stay with us for just a little while?”
“Doctor can’t visit me if I ain’t home.”
“He’s not a real doctor, Mrs. Mitchell.” Tait sat at the foot of the bed.
She wiped at her mouth. “Granny woman was good enough for my momma. Medicine man is good enough for me.” She closed her eyes and waved us off.
“How are you paying for the medicine?” I asked, knowing Daddy wouldn’t supply it for free.
“Pieces of me,” she spoke low and quiet, her eyes closed, “just the pieces I don’t need.”
It was then I noticed the pinpricks up and down her arms, and the drops of blood on the sheets. I pulled her nightdress up to her knees; there were hundreds more marks on her legs. She swatted at me. Half of her left pinkie was cut off, the stump swollen and infected.
“We have to get her out of here,” Tait said.
“I ain’t going nowhere.” Drool fell from the corner of her mouth.
There was some of me in her, some of what I was only days before. I finally saw that and let go of that shameful selfishness that had a hold of me. “We have to help her,” I said.
Tait pulled off the quilt that covered her feet. She had also been relieved of two toes. “Albert, gather your mama’s things.” Tait reached down and put his hands under her.
She scratched at him and tried to wiggle away. “Don’t you touch me.”
He scooped her up and held her against his chest.
“No.” She shook her head slowly. “Nonononononononono.” Her speech trailed off into Tait’s shirt.
Albert collected a faded photograph, a Bible, and the locket that hung from the bedpost and put them all on top of the quilt, tying the corners together. He picked up the parcel and stood next to Tait.
“Is that everything she needs?” he asked.
“That’s all there is,” Albert said.
We walked toward the door and the woman started her stubbornness again, saying no over and over. She shook her head from side to side, she kicked, she bit. With her fists balled up, she took a deep, raking breath and screamed in shrill desperation, her eyes wild and wide.
Albert dropped the quilt and put his hands over his ears. “Mama,” he sobbed, “Mama, stop!”
But she didn’t.
Dust from the unswept floor rose like a cloud and dark birds pelted the windows, piling up like muddy snowdrifts under the sills. As soon as Tait took hold of the doorknob, he let it go, the design of the metal burned into his palm.
“It’s the forest,” I said. “He’s brought the forest inside her house.”
“Let’s get her outside.” Tait reached for the doorknob again but it withdrew into the wood.
The sun was clouded over with blackbirds, and raindrops started to smear their blood on the windows.
“He’s coming.” I picked up a rusty iron from beside the stove and beat against the window. It took six swings before the glass gave way. As soon as it did, the house was swarmed with birds. They swirled around us, black cyclones reaching out to scratch us with their beaks and claws. There was no sound outside their flailing wings.
I dropped to the floor and called out for Tait but the birds stole the sound of my voice.
I called again and they stole my breath.
Then they were gone, feathers and scat all over the floor.
Mrs. Mitchell was back on the bed, cackling with delight. “I knew you wouldn’t let them take me.” She beckoned me with the crook of her finger. “You always was a good girl.”
“You know me?” Nobody knew me. I was nothing before I left home.
“You sold me my first bottle,” she whispered with rotted breath.
I gave her the first taste. Me. Back when I was the child in a white dress.