It’s just like her to die during the miserable time of year. Where It Began. Chapter 1
November 9, 2012
Rain splashed against the windows, as if thrown from a pail, driven by the winds of a storm that had started three days earlier on the eve of Katie Gayle Sutton’s passing. Martha Faye Maddox, Katie’s daughter, stared out the floor-to-ceiling windows of her home and watched the wash of rain separate into long, silver streaks reminiscent of tears on transparent cheeks. Martha Faye’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Lily Claire, remarked it was the world weeping over the loss of her dear mamaw. The storm soaked the ground spongy and the gray trunks and branches of the bare live oaks, black. The massive silhouettes of the magnolia trees, black-green against the gray of the sky, shouldered the gusty squall as their kind had done for millennia, their waxy leaves shedding the icy rains, undisturbed. The January temperatures had dropped almost to freezing during the night, driving the cold even deeper into Martha Faye’s mind as she waited for Lily Claire to finish dressing. Katie’s memorial service was scheduled to start at two o’clock at the Veteran’s Lodge. Martha Faye’s spiteful thoughts included a silent snicker that the only tribute to her mother was to take place in a hall normally filled with besotted old men and tainted with the odor of stale beer. Martha shrugged. Where else could they hold the service, her mother having made it clear that a church was the most inappropriate location for anything concerning her life or death? In the small town of Ellensburg, Mississippi, there weren’t many choices.
The four Sutton girls had entered the world between 1937 and 1947. Tara was the oldest, followed by Liddie, Katie Gayle, and Frankie. Tara now sat in Martha Faye’s living room occupying an overstuffed armchair. The well-worn pink and white peonies of the fabric were pale on the armrests and faded out on the seat that Tara’s flabby body spread across pudding-like. She wore her radiant white hair pulled into a tight bun on the nape of her neck. Her face, however, was her most telling feature. Lined by a lifetime of scorn, it appeared etched into perpetual haughtiness that neither love, nor grace, nor passion could likely soften now.
“Isn’t it just like her to die at this miserable time of year?” Martha Faye said to no one in particular. “Maybe it’s good she decided on that godless choice of cremation. We might all have caught our deaths at the graveside in this torrential storm.”
Tara, lost in her own reverie, neither acknowledged nor responded to Martha Faye’s rebuke of her sister. Being seven years Katie’s senior, Tara’s concerns lay elsewhere. Awash in the disquiet often experienced by those who outlive their younger siblings, Tara appeared to be in a private debate. Minutes passed before a quick nod of her head coupled with her smug expression indicated she’d come to a satisfactory conclusion. Turning to Martha Faye as if her niece had been included in her deliberations, she said, “I’m a God-fearing woman, always have been, and my longer life reflects His favor. Katie either never understood the rules or just plain ignored them. Her sudden death was her comeuppance.”
It took Martha Faye a moment to figure out what indeed Tara was going on about. When she did, she turned away from Tara, clenched her teeth and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling while stuffing that line of thought into some obscure corner of her mind, so she could finish running her own checklist of what she considered pertinent concerns before leaving for the service.
“Lily child, this is not a beauty queen pageant,” she called up the stairs. “Get on down here. Hurry! We need to leave in five minutes.” She then went into the kitchen to gather the plates of food she was taking to the reception that was to follow the service. She packed them carefully into two cardboard cartons she had rescued from the trash. Katie’s sudden exit took everyone by surprise, except perhaps Lily child. Something the girl had said made Martha Faye think she had an inkling that her mamaw was about to die.
Over the last year, Lily visited with Katie often, spending most weekends with her on the home place, the farm on which the Sutton girls were raised, which Katie had taken over after the rest of the family had moved to town. It irritated Martha Faye to have her daughter enthralled with a woman she so loathed. But every time she tried to prevent Lily from going, the child made such a fuss that Martha Faye never felt it worth the effort to carry through with her threats, or so she contended. The truth, however, was simple; it always is. She held little authority in the court of her daughter, while this family oddity, Katie Gayle, held it all. Was it Katie’s allure as the family black sheep, her wild stories and wilder dreams, or something Martha Faye would not admit even to herself? Whatever it was, it had captured Lily’s heart, much to her mother’s dismay. Impatient, Martha Faye yelled one more time. Then she went back to the kitchen and carried the food boxes out to the car, handy and dry in the attached garage.
Having secured the boxes, Martha Faye helped Tara into the front seat more from respect than need. Though portly, Tara still carried herself erect and sure of foot. It was Martha Faye who acted like the older of the two, her rigidity and unrelenting pessimism making her lifeless and stiff. As she went back to the driver’s side a bit out of breath, she felt her chest and neck tighten, as if the unease in her mind was seeping into her body. From the moment Martha Faye knew of Katie’s passing, she felt faintly bothered by a lingering hint of culpability, having awaited that news for years. She dismissed the notion quickly, however, bolstered by righteous indignation she kept handy for any such assaults on her person. Sucking in a big breath of air, ready to yell one last time for Lily, the child one-upped her as she zinged into the garage and slid onto the backseat like a ballplayer tagging home. She sat up straight, smiled, and busied herself by moving an old afghan off the seat to make room for Aunt Liddie Sutton, the second oldest sister, whom they were picking up on the way to the hall. The child hoped desperately that town folk would come to honor her dear mamaw’s passing. Like many children caught in the middle of family history they had no part in creating, Lily knew only confusion. She loved her mama. She loved her aunties. She loved her Grandma Katie, and she didn’t understand why they just couldn’t love one another. So Lily hoped the rest of the town felt more like she did about her mamaw; she hoped she’d not be mourning alone.
No one knew if the fourth and youngest Sutton sister, Frankie, would make it to the service. They presumed she still lived in Memphis, though they hadn’t seen her in years. She’d left home when she was eighteen becoming a talent of note as a blues and jazz singer. But then talent flourished in the Sutton girls. In their youth, fame and distinction awaited them all, as long as they directed their talents toward praising the Lord. Tara and Liddie did. They played piano and sang at the Ellensburg Baptist Church, their soprano and alto voices blending richly, their duets fabled. They’d even performed throughout the state, but when a recording contract presented itself, Mother Sutton gathered her daughters back to her bosom and busied them with church work and helping the elderly. Thus, Tara and Liddie never married, nor knew the fruits of fame or passion, withering gently on the vine of service to God and community. But when Mother Sutton tried to grab back Katie Gayle, the child who danced like an angel, her grip acted like a wet hand on a bar of soap sending Katie Gayle flying out from her clutches. After all, in Mother Sutton’s world, dancing did not please the Lord. But dancing was like breathing to this child, and she fought back against the iron maiden of religion, family values, race, and gender into which she’d been born. In so doing, she became the family’s shame made carnate, its fears made public, its cross to bear. Only little Lily Claire knew her differently and was awaiting her moment at the funeral to say so.
Chapters of the novel are published on Tuesday.
You can learn more about Christina Carson’s novel, Suffer the Little Children, on Amazon.