The first chapter of my first attempt at a novel . . .
Take What You Want
One fine hot Saturday afternoon in July 1953 in a Mississippi town named Pineville, a man and a woman left the store where they had just bought two month’s worth of provisions and headed down Pine Street toward Oak, where their pick-up truck was parked. They usually went to Maddox, forty miles east of Pineville, to get supplies. Maddox, after all, was much nearer their home. But Ferus Witham had driven a long way out of his way today simply because he had gotten it into his head to do so, and Ferus Witham did as he pleased. His three sons, who ranged in age from three to seven, had taken three trips to carry their usual burdens of rice, flour, feed, and whatnot back to the truck, where, exhausted, they now sweated, gloomily swatting flies, and picturing in vain the brightly colored candies their father had refused to buy them. Lingering in the store while the clerk totted up the bill, his wife, Maryella, had briefly pleaded for a new washtub, but Ferus, in no mood for domestic requests, had cut her off mid-mumble with a low but fiercely hissed “no.” Thus it was in a quietly foul mood–their usual mood–that Ferus and Maryella Witham ambled toward their dusty maroon truck.
The Withams might have thought some things as they walked along, but thinking really wore them out, so they saved it up for special situations that seldom arose. A slight breeze gusting inland from the Gulf had made the morning almost bearable, but now the air was still, the heat stifling. Because most people had the sense to do their shopping earlier or later in the day, traffic along the board sidewalk and the dusty street had slowed to a standstill. When the Withams had a block yet to go, they passed a large, navy blue baby carriage sitting in the deep shade of the awning of a furniture store. In the carriage lay two babies, both around six months of age by the looks of it, both in pink dresses, both wearing on their tiny wrists beaded name bracelets of the sort the hospital in Withersville used to identify newborns. One was sleeping, one was gazing wide-eyed at a bright sliver of light that had slipped through a small tear in the awning.
In a low, whining snuffle, Ferus said, “Merelle, if yur wantin’ one of ’em, why don’t you tek it?” And Maryella said, “Well, I reckon there istwo of ’em.”
Then, without missing a beat, she plucked up the infant who was sleeping and deftly wrapped it in her shawl. The child opened its eyes but did not cry out. In no particular hurry, the Withams walked around the corner, got in their truck, and drove away. While the Withams were rattling and shaking toward sandy Coon Hill, their sons in the back squinting sourly against the hot wind and dust, the mother of the missing twin was screaming in the street. In broad daylight, in a fairly small town, the Withams had casually stolen a child, but it was as if the very wickedness of their deed had somehow made them invisible.
It was so inconceivable that someone would take a child that no one could remember seeing anything or anyone amiss. Moreover, because a paper mill had opened up two months ago in nearby Phyllis (a particularly dreary flat-bottomed place), lots of new people had been coming into town to shop. The townspeople were cautious with strangers, but they were getting as used to seeing new faces as they were getting used to the obnoxious, stunning odor of the mill. These new people all still looked more or less alike to people in Pineville, who still reserved outright suspicion for people they knew rather then people they didn’t. The Withams and their dismal truck were unusual in no apparent way. They looked, in fact, like hundreds of others. In fact, only one person, a clerk in the pharmacy, would recall seeing the Withams, in particular, walking down the street, but because they didn’t look to be the sort of people to want another mouth to feed, she would insist that they had simply been carrying a sack of flour. Life, in short, was going on in Pineville just as it was going on in the rest of the world: people were seeing just what they expected to see.
Because the only reason anyone could imagine someone would steal a child was for money, the family would wait in vain for a ransom note for a full day, and the delayed search for the child would be fruitless. Had the Withams been agents of a lesser demon, the mother might at least have learned of her child’s fate at some point. As it was, the mother was left to imagine in awful detail what had happened to her baby. She would die many years and five more children later, never having really lived her life and still pining for the child she had lost when on her way out of the furniture store she stepped back in for just a minute to double-check her order for two small children’s beds.
But just now in the dusty pick-up truck, Maryella Witham reflected, in her picture-brained way, that she herself had a pain in her belly and doubted, rightly, as it would turn out, that she would have other children. When Ferus slowed down to turn off on the berutted north-south twenty-mile loop of River Road that passed the even bleaker half-mile drive up to their house, Maryella said, “I always wanted me a girl-child. To he’p out.”
“Well, Merelle,” Ferus said, “now you got one that’s yourn to care for. Wadn’t nuna my doin’.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence. When they got home, Maryella rigged up a rag to make a miserable teat for the child. The Withams owned a cow and a goat and were not wanting for milk. They had no particular love of children, but they vaguely liked having them around as a form of property. They had very restricted notions of parental responsibility, but having had tyrannical parents themselves, they had complex notions of the responsibilities that children bore as soon as they could walk and fetch and otherwise be put to work. And Mississippi, then as now, was full of good country people, but the Withams were not numbered among them.
Four or five days later when the search for the child had finally fanned out from Pineville and was making its slow way into the surrounding counties, two sheriff’s deputies warily visited the Withams. Now, the Withams were blessed with sharp senses, perhaps to compensate for their weak cognitive powers, and they were congenitally paranoid: they always knew well in advance when someone was on their twenty acres. Thus, the two deputies, Bill Harris and Fen Parks, who parked off River Road and walked the half-mile to the house, found the whole family arrayed on the porch. The three boys stood off to the side, slack-jawed, pulling at their overalls. Just in front of the door, at the top of the steps, Maryella and Ferus Witham sat side by side and ramrod straight, she with the baby wrapped in old rags in her arms, he with a shotgun across his knees.
There was just enough studied display in this tableau to make the deputies mighty uneasy. They knew that the Withams and the dozen or so families just like them who lived on the mosquito-infested land between the Lif River and River Road were crazy and did as they saw fit. Nobody ever really suspected that they would see fit to take a child, and the deputies were simply doing a duty that they would be glad to be shut of. Without really thinking about it, Harris and Parks held their hands out from their sides, palms open and forward, as if to show they had no ill intent. They stopped a respectful distance from the porch. “Excuse us, Sir, Ma’am,” Harris said. “There’s been a kidnaping way west of here in Pineville. We are asking people who live hereabouts if they have seen or heard of anyone strange, someone with a small child, probably more than one person.”
Not having heard anything in the form of a direct question, Ferus Witham simply stared at them and casually scratched his neck. Then Parks said, “Have you seen or heard of anyone strange, someone with a small child, probably more than one person?”
After an apparently thoughtful pause, Witham said, “I ain’t seen nary a stranger.” Leaning his head slightly toward Maryella, he added, “The only child I seen is that ‘ere mewlin’ youngun of my wife.” As if on cue, the baby began to whimper, just as a Witham child surely would.
Harris then said, “Well, being a father yourself, I’m sure you understand that these folks whose baby has been stolen from them are mighty distressed. Now . . . if you see anyone or anything suspicious around here, we’d appreciate it if you’d please tell the sheriff in Withersville or the justice of the peace in Maddox.”
The Withams stared blankly as a unit at the two men. Then Ferus said, “Git off my land.”
“I beg your pardon?” Harris said.
“Git off my land,” he repeated.
“We’re going now, Sir. You just let us know if you see or hear tell of anything strange.” Receiving no response or farewell, deputies Harris and Parks turned and walked away. The Witham family stayed just as they were until five minutes later they heard the car start up and take off down River Road. Tilting her head in a fawning way, Maryella Witham said, “Do you think they know something?” With equal emphasis on each syllable, Ferus Witham said, “They don’t know shit.” The boys, who liked to show appreciation for their father’s insights, laughed then--a slow, joyless, braying har-har-har. Ferus Witham said, “Shut up. I’ll brain the three of you.” And that was that.
When winter came, the child got sick. Her eyes were glazed and she didn’t cry at all, though she moaned and whimpered pitifully when she was touched or moved. Maryella came in from gathering wood to find that Ferus had set the baby out on the back stoop. When she looked at him in fearful alarm, he said, “Leave it be where’t is. It is going to die.” When she protested, he hit her in the face, knocked her down and then kicked her in the back a few times for good measure. However, having had his say, as it were, he did not object when she retrieved the child and bathed its face and body with cool rags. After she fixed dinner and cleared up, she sat up with the child all night. The crisis passed, and the child regained her strength within a week.
For no particular reason, they called the child Katie. Meanwhile, the search for the child stolen in Pineville reached north as far as Memphis, south to Gulfport and the other coast towns, west to New Orleans, and east to Mobile finally to peter out in a series of futile paper gestures made by people who had other things on their minds. Deep in grief, the child’s parents decided never to speak of the child or their loss again, and they elicited a promise of silence from everyone they knew, and thus their loss became unspeakable in more than one sense.
Smithson County, where the Withams reaped the grim, repetitious cycles of their lives, was seventy-five miles northeast of New Orleans, twenty-five miles northwest of Mobile, one hundred miles southeast of Blufftown, the state capital, and three hundred miles southeast of Jefferson, famous for its corn products and its manufacture of sewing machines. Ferus worked in a haphazard but relatively profitable way at a saw mill near Maddox and once a year drove down to the coast where he hired out on any trawler that would have him and from whence he returned smelling of muck, shellfish, and salt water. In winter and spring, Ferus and the boys, Asa, Jeremiah, and Jacob hunted in the marshy woods surrounding their bleak homestead. Maryella planted and tended a scraggly vegetable garden in spring and summer, tended the goat, the cow, and a few rangy chickens, kept the house, cooked, cleaned, and mended anything that had gotten too big to ignore but had not yet reached the point of becoming a permanent broken fixture.
The family–both Ferus’s and the McLaud clan that had given him his bride when she was fourteen–had lived in the county for uncounted generations, and at one time had done fairly well for themselves, as the now-ramshackle house and their rightful twenty acres suggested. But they had fallen on hard times in fairly regular cycles for well-nigh onto a century now, their spirit and intelligence dwindling in direct proportion to their resources. Finally, the canny frontier hopefulness of their forebears had been transformed into an embittered stoicism embellished with the paranoia of intense inbreeding. They were not totally shiftless, but they were stupid as sticks and mean as jays.
Katie shadowed Maryella everywhere and hid behind her skirt whenever the menfolk were around. She sometimes talked–in the flat nasal monotone characteristic of the family–with Maryella, and she knew her name, but having become acquainted early on with the slaps and pinches of Ferus and his sons, she was instinctively quiet and went out of her way to escape notice of any sort. Sometimes when left to her own devices she sifted through the dusty pile of broken household items at the edge of the yard and played furtive games of her own invention. She was deeply attached to the animals, and the only time of day that promised any pleasure whatsoever was early in the morning when she roamed about the shed while Maryella milked the cow and fed the goat. When she was old enough, Katie was given the task of feeding the chickens and collecting eggs. By the time she was five, she was also emptying the slop jars, wiping the dishes, and helping Maryella wash clothes in a tin tub.
When Katie was seven Maryella mustered up as much ceremony as she could and pulled a small packet of glossy magazine paper from the back of the rag shelf. Inside–the little pink dress had long gone the way of all the Withams’ rags–was the only thing left of Katie’s former life–a small bracelet of beads strung on elastic thread. When Maryella picked the bracelet up, the thread disintegrated. In her usual grim silence, she retrieved the beads. There were seventeen in all, nine pink and eight white bearing black letters–two s‘s, two e‘s, an a, an r, a p–and a period. Not being much acquainted with the world of letters and names, Maryella had no recollection of their original order and didn’t really care. She said, “This ‘ere’s what you was wearin’ when you come, child. Your real Ma give me you when you was small because she had another. But I have been your mother now. When I’m gone, you will look after the men.” This last was not a command, but a statement. Then Maryella went to bed, held onto the pain in her belly, and suddenly died.
Asa and Jeremiah built a sloppy coffin and laid their mother in it. They put the coffin in the back of the truck and drove five miles to a gravesite where the water table was a bit too high to serve the interests of the public health. Nobody said a word. Before they left Maryella Witham in her soggy grave, Jacob and Katie turned back, and Jacob said, “Bye, Mama.” Then they went home and the men lounged around scratching themselves until Katie put food out and stood back, as Maryella had always done, while they wolfishly ate.
Katie had not quite understood what Maryella had told her about the beads, but she knew they were important and attached magical significance to them. The next day when she was alone, she furtively pulled the small packet from the rag shelf, and took it out to the shed. She cleared a small circle in the dirt and dropped the beads onto it one by one. The lettered beads fascinated her but she had no idea what they were. She arranged and rearranged them randomly with the pink beads. SESPERA. SPERSEA. ASPERES. PESERAS. PRESSAE. ERSPESA. ARSEPSE. Finally she came up with a combination she found pleasing to the eye: SAPERES. She put the period at the end of this, knowing from looking at the book Maryella had pretended sometimes to read that this mark always followed the other kinds of marks. Later, in great secrecy, she threaded the beads together just that way and made a makeshift necklace by stitching the lot to a length of old bed sheet hem. She took to wearing it constantly inside her clothes. Sometimes she tried to talk to it, but she did not have enough words.
Insofar as she was able, Katie took over Maryella’s tasks, but because she was so small, Jacob was set to helping her except when he was needed to work or hunt. Asa and Jeremiah occasionally hired themselves out as field hands but usually simply roamed the countryside, taking whatever they wanted from other people’s houses and barns. A grim subdivision had cropped up in Belle Noire and it was something of a sheepfold for the Withams. When Ferus and the boys were gone and domestic tasks were done, Katie and Jacob, who was now ten and only a few years older than Katie, sometimes played tag or hide-go-seek, though playing was not something they had much practice with. And now they slept together at night in the same corn-shuck bed in the room where the whole family slept. Katie liked that better than she had sleeping with Maryella and Ferus. It was quieter–she was never awakened by strange sounds or frightening movements, and Jacob was just about her size. Though Katie could no longer hide behind Maryella’s skirts, from time to time she escaped the random wrath of Ferus and the two older boys simply by standing side by side with Jacob. He was, in fact, an unexpected ally, though soon, he too went off to work and Katie was left to manage the place alone.
Three summers after Maryella’s death, Ferus’s sons could find no work whatsoever. The small farms that had hired them had been sold for grazing land and there was nothing for them at the mill, where Ferus himself still worked when he felt like it, primarily because the manager was afraid of him. They vaguely hoped to get work at yet another new paper mill soon to open up five miles south, but they would not be in a hurry about doing anything until Ferus cuffed them one. So mostly they just laid about the place, and they made Katie’s already brutal life hellish.
Asa and Jeremiah, now sixteen and seventeen and quite large, were always in the way, making her work difficult or undoing what she had done and then inciting Ferus to beat her later for her laxness. A skittish brindle cat had wandered up and Katie had coaxed her into a semblance of domesticity. When the cat had kittens, Katie, who loved to care for things smaller than herself because it comforted her, hid her delight, but apparently not enough. One morning she discovered that Asa and Jeremiah had stabbed out the kittens’ eyes for fun. They died within the day. A week later, Katie entered the shed one morning to milk the cow and found the mother cat hanging from a rafter. Everyone but Jacob snuffed and howled with laughter when Katie, crying, dug a shallow grave and buried the cat near the woodpile where her kittens already lay.
And then one afternoon, she went into the shed to fetch some string. The two older boys were hissing in urgent tones and doing something to the cow. Jacob looked up at her with something resembling shame on his face when Katie walked in. Asa’s pants were down around his ankles and he was pushing and pushing at the cow. Without thinking, Katie shouted “Stop it!” It was the first and the last time she ever raised her voice there.
Asa turned to her and said, “Why, if it ain’t Miss Cow herself.” As he was pulling his pants up, Jeremiah nudged him and said, “Look it. I don’t see why we got to do the cow while she’s here.” Afraid of a beating, Katie began backing out of the shed when they started for her. Confused, she did not move fast enough to get away, and strong as she was, she was too small to fight them off. They took turns raping her, Jacob standing by with a look of horror on his face that gradually dissolved into mere interest. Later on, her knees still buckling beneath her, she buried her bloody clothes near the junk pile.
Then they were on her day and night, but mostly at night, first because Ferus objected when they interfered with her work, and then because they eventually did get jobs at the mill and were away at work most days. Even Jacob began to take his turn at night, driving away at her, grunting, his eyes rolling back in his head. Because they beat her face when she resisted, she finally just lay still and let them have their way. While they wrecked her small body, she went to a deep place inside herself where she became one long, endless silent scream.
After several months of this, Ferus, noticing an unusually high degree of discord among the boys, put a stop to it by moving Katie to his bed, where, for the next two years he himself grunted and sweated away on top of her night after night while his sons jerked off in strained silence a few feet away.
One day a few months after Katie had first noticed that her breasts were tender and enlarged and that her pubic hair was growing, she started to bleed and it was not like the other times after the Withams had been raping her. It wouldn’t stop and she constantly had to replace the rags she put in her worn-out panties to soak up the flow of blood. She felt sick and weak and her belly ached in a new way. She had lived, it seemed, in dread and fear all her life, but now she was rigid with terror. She was afraid that because of the things Ferus did to her the bleeding would never stop and she would die. The thought that they would dump her without a word in a damp grave near Maryella made her mind spin with wordless rage.
Ferus had gone to town for supplies and, liquored-up, the boys were out back torturing a dog that had had the misfortune to wander up that morning. Katie was in the scrabbly garden picking peas. When she got to the end of the row, she suddenly just stepped off into the woods. She paused for a moment. She could hear them laughing and the dog yelping and moaning with pain. She knew they would be occupied awhile. She walked toward the river very quietly for half an hour. Then she ran as hard as she could until she came to the river and started following it north. Much later that night, after threading her way along slowly by the light of a gibbous moon, she scraped together a pile of leaves at the base of a cypress tree and fell into a dead sleep.
The next morning, she ate a handful of gooseberries, but she couldn’t keep them down. Miles further north by afternoon, she stood stock still when she heard voices on the river bank. A couple had spread their dinner on a tablecloth in a clearing. They were shouting and splashing in the water. She grabbed two sandwiches and ran further on until she stopped and greedily ate them, casting her eyes about like an animal guarding its share of some kill.
After another night that echoed the first one, she noticed the bleeding had stopped. With nothing in mind but going on until she could no longer go on, she headed east of the river till she crossed a road, walked through half an acre of pines and scrub oak, and ended up in a hayfield that belonged to Erskine Fowler, a widowed schoolteacher who lived nearby in a big rambling farmhouse with his spinster sister Estelle. Estelle was out riding her favorite Appaloosa when she spotted the child sleeping soundly in the sun. An hour later, Katie was in the house and Dr. Arnett was examining her.
Katie lay on a clean bed in a clean room for the first time in her memory. Exhausted and confused, she drifted into a deep sleep. Erskine and Estelle Fowler conferred with the doctor in the next room. “Well,” Arnett said, “she’s clearly scared to death. She’s been beat pretty bad, and, forgive me, Miss Estelle, but I think she has probably been raped, too. But she seems fairly strong. All things considered, she should be fine with a couple weeks’ rest. I think, too, that she may be mute, but I doubt she knows sign. From the looks of her, she’s not had much to do with normal people.”
They talked about what it would be best to feed the child and how they could make her feel safe. Before Dr. Arnett left, he said, “I’ll do what I can in town to find out where she came from and whether she has people who want her back. Frankly, I hope we’ll never know. Turning up here is probably the best thing that has ever happened to this child.”
And indeed it was. It turned out that the child was not mute after all. When they asked her what her name was, she said “Katie,” and what they heard was Cady, the name of their favorite aunt. When she said she was a Witham, what they heard was her saying that she was “with ’em,” and they took this to mean either that Cady did not know her last name and referred to her family as “them” or that Em was the name of her family or possible a short form of Emma and therefore the name of a mother or a sister. The beads that Cady insisted on having with her at all times could, they thought, have signified a family name, but they couldn’t make heads nor tails of the letters as a recognizable name of any sort. All in all, what they saw when they looked at Katie was Cady Fowler, the child that neither of them ever had, and that was precisely what she became.
Estelle and Erskine began to tutor her. In fact, they found it easier to teach her arithmetic than it was to get her to laugh or play. A year later, Katie was formally adopted as Cady Fowler. Within another year, Katie-now-Cady was still having serious trouble with writing but otherwise had almost reached the level of other children her age, so they sent her to the public school in Fairfax, where, all things considered, she did reasonably well. She was still somewhat skittish and sometimes cringed for no reason at all, but she developed on the whole a sweet disposition. And on the whole, Cady brought much joy to the Fowler siblings, who truly loved her.
When Cady Fowler was sixteen, she was walking the long way home from summer school with a boy who lived on a nearby farm. They paused on a high ledge overlooking the soy bean fields to smoke forbidden cigarettes. Shy with one another, they were still good friends. Jimmy Lux had, in fact, been the first friend among the neighbor children that Cady had made. He was her age, but a childhood illness had left him a bit slow-witted, which made him a perfect companion for Cady. Lately, he had even become quietly but deeply enamored of her. When they stood up to walk the rest of the way home, they faced each other for a moment, looking at each other in a new way that frightened both of them for different reasons. Then suddenly Cady Fowler shoved Jimmy Lux in the chest as hard as she could and pushed him off the ledge.
Lying on her belly looking down at his contorted body, she knew she had killed him and that that was wrong. Nonetheless, she felt exhilarated, as if the whole world had suddenly come into focus, and she paused a moment to roll on her back and watch the slow clouds in the sky. It made her laugh. Then she stood up and fussily brushed her clothes off. She went through Jimmy’s bookbag and took the old hunting knife he always carried around just the way she always carried the little beads around. She had often admired that knife.
She thought for a moment of the Fowlers, of their kind faces and the affectionate delight with which they greeted even her smallest achievements. She sighed with regret that she would not see them again. Then she put them out of her mind as she walked a mile to highway 26, where she hitched rides east and then south to New Orleans, where, for all practical purposes, she disappeared into a world that the Fowlers, or the Withams, for that matter, would never know. It was August 17, 1969. An hour after she arrived in New Orleans, Hurricane Camille blasted along the coast sending high winds and water inland. A day later, the Lux family finally found Jimmy’s body where the flood had left it snagged in a tree, but the Fowler’s never found Cady’s body. Broken-hearted, they assumed she had somehow been carried down to the river and washed out to sea, and they numbered her among the 258 reported dead.
Two years later, Jimmy Lux’s hunting knife came in handy when, in an intimate moment, Cady killed a pimp named Mickey Spado who, with the help of some very fine LSD, had convinced Cady and a few other young girls that he was Jesus Christ incarnate. Thinking that Mickey did have his charms, Cady reflected that he was, after all, just a man like all the others he sent her to be with. She stole Mickey Spado’s handsome revolver and left Jimmy’s knife behind. Then she moved on to New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Miami, and several lesser towns where, like the Withams, she more or less did as she pleased and took what she wanted. Major and minor natural disasters always followed close behind her, but nature would never catch up with Cady Fowler.