by Christopher J Calhoun
Maibelle never whistled in the sun. The dull melodies would screech against her ears, worse than her monotone social studies teacher lecturing what she considered gibberish in her seventh grade classroom. His gibberish didn't compare to her mother's gibberish, shrill and nonsensical. She tuned out those annoying melodies, wishing her voice could sing like tropical birds humming in harmony as dawn arose, or like those riveting church choirs she saw on television, raising their octaves so beautifully, they never broke any glass. Even the late-night crickets singing their colorless tunes sounded better. At least they all had songs to sing. Although every song sounded the same to her, Maibelle could never tell the difference. She only knew one song she whistled; her mind sizzled from the same verses of "Amazing Grace." How "sweet" the sound.
She was used to it. Not one melody today, not another next week, and not another the week after. Only dry lips with a matching sad face.
Of course, she must occupy herself somehow. Walking down that same hidden graveled path every Sunday morning was just... well... the same. The tethered grass spiked against her legs if she got too close. The clear white windmill across the path drifted in that same wearying direction – she counted the times it turned. Exactly six. Just like last week, and the week before that, and the week before that. She was familiar with its every gust – the same, chilling gust shivering only her arms the moment she passed it. Once again she absorbed the fading breeze, only stopping when Mama halted her march.
"Mama, what's wrong?" Maibelle said, raising her tiptoes to meet her mother's darkened eyes.
"I ain't feelin' well, child. You think I juss stopped 'cause I felt like stoppin'? You need some sense."
Maibelle said nothing more. Instead the sunny day inspired her, guiding her to a plentiful day of promise, happiness, and fancying smiles. That changed as Mama's fist clinched Maibelle's right hand, tighter than silver-studded handcuffs. Mama bumped Maibelle's shoulders a few times, reaching closer until Maibelle could no longer inhale the fresh air. The usual stench of raspberry perfume and excess hairspray wafted in her face, no room to breathe at all. Once again, Maibelle was used to it. Growing up with a mother in the South was bad enough. Growing up with a mother in this South only made Maibelle wish she grew up in the place her schoolteachers told her where freedom was – a place they called the North.
"You know I don't like you wanderin' about," Mama said, gripping her daughter closer, "That's how you got lost in Ah-lant-uh that one time. We was worried sick!"
"Sorry, Mama. I was juss tryin' to explore."
"Explore?! Explore what?! You's out here tryin' to explore?! Maibelle, there ain't nothin' out here to explore! Only grass, dirt, and shame. It's been like that for years and it ain't finna change. We juss stuck with it, that's all."
"We don't have to be," Maibelle said.
"Try to behave, Maibelle. Service finna start soon," Mama said, tugging Maibelle's hand again. They inched past a few elderly women wandering about, wearing their typical sun hats and their lightly colored dresses. Orange, yellow, blue, and green sprinkled with a few red roses here and there. Others fancied themselves in golden necklaces hanging down to their chests, matching golden earrings swinging from their ears. They've probably worn them forty years ago.
"I'll try to behave," Maibelle said.
"What you say, Maibelle? You be good today. You promised you would," Mama replied, speeding down the graveled path faster than before, "Hurry up, Maibelle! Chapel service startin' soon!" Mama's heels tripped over the graveled road as they raced past the cloud-shaped bushes, greener than forest. They darted towards the sycamore trees rowed together situated in the sky blue background, finally trotting through the springing field of tulips and into the chestnut-colored chapel. The double doors welcomed them inside like they always do. If only those doors were closed for once.
Inside reeked the putrid odor of perfume Maibelle once thought skunks wore, but was really a heavy scent of Avon. The Avon fanned from church lady to church lady, as if every church folk was concerned with the perfume on her body rather than the Word of God. No fresh air could escape inside. The large rectangular windows depicting a dove soaring high above a cross were once again sealed, keeping all intruders out. The crimson carpet skated with black heels and greasy leather shoes, church folk conversing one way and moving the next. Every smile was plastic, every "God Bless You" was cliché as the ones last week, and the week before. Maibelle heard Miss Betty-Jo mumbling at the mouth again, always gossiping about Miss Shirley Ann's oversized sun hat, or the elder women wondering if Miss Biship the church clerk really slept with one of the married ushers. This was the twentieth time Maibelle heard this conversation. At least the little church children weren't scuffling around, bumping into Maibelle whenever they could. Today they were secured right next to their parents like dogs on leashes. The normal start to another normal Sunday service. Two minutes never seemed like two minutes.
The moment Maibelle sat down, the mahogany pews scraped against her bottom, the rough-edged seat too steep to slouch in. She had no choice but to sit there. Bored. She waited in the back row, her mother busy conversing with the other women clothed in their white blouses, the sharp patterns of their white blouses and white skirts appearing the exact same as last week, and the week before that. They held their white purses in one hand, maroon-shaded Bible cases in the other. And let's not forget all that makeup splotched over their cheeks. Sometimes Maibelle accidentally mistook them for sad little church clowns.
Pastor Simmons shuffled stacks and stacks of papers at the altar as the yellow-robed choir stood behind the altar where two more rows of pews sat. To the right were the piano, drum set and tambourine perched between the seats. Above hung the clock, its hands moving too slow for Maibelle's liking. Ten o' clock, it finally read. Time to begin the sermon. Mama called for Maibelle to scoot her way right to the fourth row where they always sat. Miss Hargrin, the cheerful woman with grey hairs stapled to her head, waited as she offered a tissue and some old peppermints to Maibelle like she did every week. Once again, Maibelle refused. The church ladies waved their church fans in their faces, but the room wasn't even hot to Maibelle.
After praise and worship, the congregation sat, Miss Hargrin sitting after shouting more praises to the Lord a full two minutes later. The sermon began and Maibelle took no interest. She had to keep a somewhat-something of a smile to impress Mama. Whenever a scripture was called, Maibelle flipped the pages of her Bible back and forth, her mind guessing where to turn next. First, Ezra, then Isaiah, then Malachi, then Matthew, and finally Luke. Or was it Mark? Her stomach rumbled in excess, begging for food, water, sanity. She exhaled a small burp loud enough for Mama to notice. She covered her mouth, feeling like her cheeks lighting with bright red. Mama bumped her shoulder, giving her a small warning. Maibelle nodded.
Then it was time to flip to another scripture. Exodus, this time. Maibelle felt herself dozing off, her eyes giving in to sleep's offer, her mind teleporting to a paradise she most longed for. It was enough for her body to accept. Only, her mother was the alarm clock. There was no sound, only Mama's shivering hands icing her skin, commanding her to stand on her two feet and march outside the chapel doors.
Mama dragged Maibelle outside, heaving her arm so tight, Maibelle knew it would break at any given second. Mama pounded the double doors open, shoving Maibelle right to the grounds of muck and dust.
"What do you think you doin', Maibelle? Is you tryin' to make both of us look like fools? Answer me, lil girl!"
"I... I forgot to turn to Exodus, that's all."
Wham! Mama smacked her dead across the face, leaving a small red mark painted under Maibelle's glittering eyes. "That ain't no excuse! Church is serious and you know it! Now when we go back in there, you best take this serious!" Maibelle nodded. That is, until her veins pulsated, until her teeth gritted, until her nerves vibrated with a tingling motion. Out of nowhere, she lifted her scrawny little arms, aimed as high as she could, and socked her mother right in the chin. Maibelle then darted off towards the shining sun, sprinting as fast as her legs could carry her. She sprinted and sprinted, daring not to turn her back, daring not to even glance at her feet, but only daring herself to sprint faster. She panted for breath, racing along the graveled road, swooping past the tethered grasses. She sped around the windmill, capturing the same breeze cooling her skin. The howling, repeated sounds of "MAIBELLE" erupted behind her, each sound more sinister than the next. She ignored all of them. The further she sped away from the screaming wails, the more she could feel her lips creasing into a smile.
She was out of breath by the time she reached the tiny pond filled with lily pads and filthy old algae. The flies swarmed around her as she collapsed, plummeting into a pile of grass spades spiking her purple dress. She turned around for the first time. Nothing there. She then gasped, taking heavy breaths, and lying there with her arms extended, her legs shaking, her heart thumping. Escaping church. This was what every good little church girl did in the '90s.
Maibelle was nowhere in sight. No one was. It was just her, the filthy pond, the frogs ribbeting in their coated evergreen, the old sycamore standing beside her, and prickling grass blades surrounding her. She took deeper breaths, her body calming, her nerves resting. The waters crinkled like shuffling papers, little brown bugs swimming to the top and pinching the surface. The whirling winds wrapped around her body, cooling her from the sunny day. The chirping birds sang their Sunday tunes, in-sync with the croaking frogs bouncing from one lily pad to the next. Never could her mind sing along to nature's natural tune. Never did she think she would hum along to the singing birds, or the croaking frogs. Never did she have a chance to hum ever-so freely. This, was the chance of a lifetime.
The rich melody continued as the filthy pond water swiveled one way and the other, its waves singing along to her hums. She listened to their every movement, stepping closer to the flowing waters. She stood, noticing her dress covered in blotches of grass stains, her hair full of dirt and mud. The waters leaned in a leftward motion as she heard the pond flow a similar flow to the one she heard whenever Mama took her to the ocean not too far away. Who knew filthy water could sound so pure, so calm, so free. It reminded her of the same sound she thought she'd hear when the ocean waters would one day carry her to that free place she always dreamed of – the North.
She ignored every thought of Mama. She couldn't think of the immense anger enraged inside her mother, or the mad search party her mother embarked upon to find her. She forgot every punishment, every slit mark, every scream awaiting her once she returned home. She skipped onto the graveled road again, leading her back to the chapel. The grass sang along to the vibrating winds sliding across the breathing sky. The squirrels chased each other in the withering bluegrasses along the gentle sycamore trees. For a second, she absorbed the trickling winds as they breezed along her hair, a tender touch. The flowers began spinning, and her mind relaxed within the moment.
One flower spun and spun. A tulip. Purple. Charismatic. It bloomed brighter than all the other tulips. Maibelle sniffed its petals, warm, full of lavender. That same waft reminded her of Grammaw Bessy. She picked the flower from the bunch. When she gazed at its spin, an older face stirred inside, revealing an old figure inside of it. Maibelle flinched. Nearly dropping the flower, she gasped in awe, her nerves tingling, her shivers unsettled.
She settled once a gentle voice rang inside her ears. "Chile, it's only me."
Once again she gasped. She stared inside the flower once again. "Grammaw?" A tear slid down her cheek.
"You always was a jumpy one."
"I miss you Grammaw. Please come back."
"Chile, there ain't no place I'd rather be. Home wherever your heart is. You and your Mama mah home. Now tell me, what's withcha, chile? You ain't never look so sad before."
"It's Mama. She always tellin' me what to do. I ain't a lil girl, no more."
"Cause she want the bess for ya, chile. When ole Jimmy got arrested your Mama didn't know what to do. She thought she raised him right. She thought he changed. She took him in before you was even born. Guess she was wrong. She don't want you becomin' like ole hoodlums out there. So many of 'em. Family too. You juss gotta be smart."
"I miss Daddy," cried Maibelle, "wish he was here."
"He wish he was too. Sometime he may not thank about both you, but deep down he miss ya. He and your Mama goin' through stuff, right now. You'll understand when you older."
"Grammaw, why can't you come back?"
"Cause sweet chile'a'mine, freedom last forever when you free. I don't mean the North either. One day you gon' know what it mean. Now run back to Mama. She miss you. She worried boutcha. Don't you worry bout me, chile. Grammaw love all her chirren. Grammawma been set free, that's all." And then the tulip became a simple tulip again. And then the petals blew away. Something felt different. Strange. Grammaw's words sang louder than those petals drifting in the air. Her mother wasn't holding her like before. Now, she skipped across the path with her mother's voice behind her like a distant echo. But still, that voice lingered, the only voice she could remember.
Maybe she knew what freedom was after all.
Although she wanted to turn away from the distant chestnut-colored chapel, she said: "Nice day for a sermon. For Mama." She knew church wasn't over, even if it had been an hour, or two, or three. Church never ends on time...
* * *
Maibelle whistled in the sun. This time, the melody was so well, she despised it.