As our fans and followers may have noticed, we have some exciting works of fiction due out this Spring. We’ve had the pleasure of working on them for months now, waiting for this moment—the time when we finally get to share them with you!
From now through 5:00 pm Eastern on Wednesday, January 13, enter for a chance to win one of five available advance reader copies of The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson. Fill out the form below to enter our contest and read this compelling tour de force before it’s published next month.
Also, click “read more” below to enjoy the first chapter of the work that Pulitzer Prize finalist Maurice Manning has called “lyrical and visionary, unconventional, and infused with beauty.”
The Known Bird.
Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.
The sun peeped through the silver maples the day I was born. In the back field, one of Old Man Lucien’s beagles cornered a possum. The dog snarled, pulled back on her haunches, and bit the possum’s neck and hindquarters. The possum, bloody and scared, caught in the first streams of daylight, played dead. Up on the knob, mist burned off quickly into another hot day.
Outside, my daddy, Joe Brown, tinkered underneath the hood of his pickup. Scars webbed out like a map on his dark hands, the longest one disappearing between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. The smell of coffee drifted from the house into the driveway. He looked back toward the porch, where the kitchen was, and knew my mother would be calling him to the table soon. He sped up his work, quickened his hands.
Sometimes a discomfort settles in Daddy’s back. He stops whatever he’s doing, holds his palms to his kidneys, and says “Mercy!” A look of longing slides down his dark face. We can see he misses Aunt Jo and Uncle Peck, who took him in as a boy when his mother died and raised him in the city. But he’d been away from them for more than twenty years by the time I was born. By then, Daddy was devoted to Mama, devoted to all of us. He had already learned how to blend into this river of crazy women.
On that day, by the time he moved from the pickup to the Plymouth, morning had opened like an orange flower. He smeared grease on his forehead when he reached to wipe the sweat. Later, he would change the oil on Clem Jenkins’s Ford and replace a muffler on Mrs. Carter’s Oldsmobile.
Inside the house, Mama Minnie, my great-grandmother, rubbed the low swell of my mother’s belly. I was there, quiet as a bird, curled like a question mark, waiting. Mama Minnie thumped Mama’s belly as if it were a melon, then pushed gently, pressure I could feel from inside.
“She’s a good size,” Mama Minnie said to all her girls: Mama, Granny Tookie, and even me.
“She?” Mama asked.
Tookie, my grandmother, swept the floor and sucked her teeth and bounced the dirt off the broom hard when she heard Mama Minnie say I was a girl. She checked the biscuits, turned the bacon with a fork, winced at the heat; she felt a headache coming on.
“Lucy, sure as I’m Minnie Mae Goode, that’s a girl in there.”
Mama Minnie patted Mama’s belly again, then poured the last bit of raw egg from the bowl into the hot skillet.
Mama pulled dishes from the cabinet, sat five plates on the table.
Mama Minnie groaned, sort of sung.
Tookie made a clicking noise in her throat, adding to the rhythm.
My brother, Kevin, who we’ve always called Kee Kee, played under the kitchen table. If he craned his neck toward the ceiling he could see their faces, but he already knew the expressions they were making. He watched their feet moving from one side of the green linoleum to the other. He knew their kitchen dance well. He pushed a car along the floor, letting it crash into the table leg. A growl grew louder in his stomach and blended with the scraping, the humming, the scooting sounds of his family. He watched Mama Minnie, Granny Tookie, and Mama, already learning the ways of women.
Mama poured coffee.
Mama Minnie pulled out a stick of butter.
Granny Tookie stirred a pan of sweet rice, and couldn’t stop herself from thinking her new grandchild should be another boy. Boy give you less to worry about.
But Mama Minnie was sure of the signs when she saw a bird on the window ledge—not a Kentucky bird that she could identify: a rare bird with a breast of red, freckled with yellow dots. She sunk the heavy skillet into the hot water, its weight straining against her wrist. The bird perched on a branch outside the window and ruffled its feathers, then pranced in a full circle before it looked Mama Minnie square in the face and cocked its pretty head like it was listening to what she had to say.
“Won’t be long,” she whispered to the listening bird and to herself.
This knowing, reading signs, was as familiar as her own two hands.
A long time ago, when Mama Minnie was a girl, women down home came to her mama’s kitchen door looking to know what sign of the moon to cut a baby’s hair, when to wean it from its mother’s nipple, whether the ball of woman’s belly contained girl or boy. Even the white women came with their full bellies and colicky babies.
Now Mama Minnie was the one who could spot a woman in the family way, before anyone else, sometimes even before the mother knew herself. Had nothing to do with the belly, had to do with “that look around the eyes” when they were baby-full, she’d say. She delivered babies too, though women don’t catch babies for one another much anymore. They go to the hospital.
“Seen more tail than most men,” she said. “Saw just about every woman from Opulence to Dry Ridge, on up across Patsy Rife, and clear on up to the Tennessee border with their legs spread. Sweating, gripping a bed sheet, bringing along another life to this old suffering world.”
And of course she could gauge the weight of a reaching child on a woman’s hip, squeezing sweet fat knees around a mama’s waist. Twelve pounds, fifteen, eight. If it was a scrawny baby, she’d look the mother right in the eyes and say, “Feed that baby some sugar rice.”
“Nothing like a young un in this whole world,” she said.
She had given birth to three round-faced babies of her own. First Uncle Butter, then Uncle June, then Granny Tookie, who never left home until the day she died, unlike the boys.
Outside, Hazel Sloan came out on her porch, shook her rugs into the yard, and greeted my father.
A dog barked down the road somewhere.
Daddy glanced up from the hood, nodded his head, threw up his hand.
He looked up at the hills. That astronaut, John Glenn, had gone clean around the world in four hours. Daddy wondered what it felt like to be that high up. He looked up at the trees, to the hazy sky, and then again to the hills. The look of those hills come morning—the fog rising up like God’s hand on them—always amazed him. In fact, he was amazed at everything he saw outdoors. Sometimes he’d walk to the edge of town to see the hills better, or drive down to the homeplace before dawn just to watch the sunrise over the pines while the dew was still in.
He had never thought he’d become a country man, but by then it was too late.
Daddy’s buddies back in the city would get a big laugh if they could see him out hoeing a garden, working on a car in an open field, standing with a walking stick, looking down on a meadow.
“Joe Brown’s a country n—— now,” they’d say.
Mama hollered out the side porch door. She waved him inside.
Hazel Sloan was watering her plants; so many plants that she would still be pouring water from her jug when we were half through with breakfast. Miss Hazel turned to wave at Mama, pausing to stand straight up.
“You sure poking out there.”
Hazel made a round motion in front of her own waist.
“Eight months along,” said Mama. She cocked her head like that listening bird, patted the place where I waited, and slipped back inside our house.
The heat was beginning to come on quick, but it was not quite hot yet. A snake slithered through the grass and into the blackness of a garage. Old Man Lucien’s beagle had left the possum for dead, but returned now to find the possum gone, the scent lost.
Later, after Sunday school, even though Mama Minnie thought it was too much toil on the Lord’s Day, we headed to the garden.
My brother ran circles, roaring like an airplane, the quilt draped over his shoulders flapping in the wind like a flying thing. I was still inside Mama’s belly, but I could also fly out and around, watching all of this before I was born. Granny Tookie grinned at Kee Kee, but lost her smile just as quick once the Plymouth was in motion and there was nothing to do but drive and think. It was the thinking that was bothersome to her. Memory reached out, swirled around her head, and pounded like a fist. A headache pressed at her temples.
Mama poked near her navel, right where I strained her womb. I wonder if she loved me then. I moved a foot or an arm from time to time, just to let her know I was there, waiting. I stretched myself out along her ribs. My spirit stretched itself out and flew around in the sky a time or two before settling back inside her.
Granny Tookie pulled the Plymouth off the gravel road and down the path to the garden.
Kee Kee pulled candy from a sack and jingled the pennies in his pocket. He rolled out of the backseat, followed by a round, staggering Mama. He ran his finger through the dust that coated the car, and popped his finger into his mouth before Mama could stop him.
Mama Minnie rose up from the front passenger’s seat and steadied herself with her cane. She closed her eyes and prayed. Granny Tookie had already opened the trunk and removed the metal buckets before Mama Minnie opened her eyes again.
“Let’s get a move on, make this quick.”
Granny’s eyes centered on my mama’s protruding navel like a bull’s-eye.
Trees formed a curtain around the holler and danced in the whiteness of afternoon sunlight. The smokehouse sat next to the garden. A rusting tub, wire, and sweetgrass string hung on the outside of the building. In the center of the yard, a well support leaned; the water dipper, secured by a nail and chain, still gleamed with flecks of silver through the rust. The old house loomed in the distance, its gray shingle siding glistening in the sun.
All was old and good here at the homeplace, and we could all feel something shifting.
A feeling seeped into Mama Minnie’s bones, a feeling like the return of everything lost. Old-time people from across the waters gathered all around her. She put her bony hand on her hip. Every yesterday converged.
A pair of crows cawed from the apple tree, and a squirrel scampered through the underbrush. Kee Kee looked for it, pulling back the branches and weeds. He turned to Granny Tookie for help, but she was looking up toward the top of the trees. He turned his head, hoping she had spotted a hawk, but there was nothing there he could see but sky.
Granny thumped her chest, cleared her throat. Ma Teke’s black walnut pie and apple dumplings; playing tag with Tess and Lou Lou around the holly bush; Pa Green whittling her a play-pretty from a piece of firewood; the grand whisper of daffodils in spring. Granny was running with plaits splayed out around her shoulders, her bangs sticking straight out stiff as a pinecone. Over the hill, behind the smokehouse, brown legs skipped all around. Then girlish frolic halted, entombed somewhere deep within the walls of Granny Tookie’s chest. She put her hands to her throat and coughed hard, but nothing came up.
“You alright, Mama?” my mother asked.
“Must be these weeds.”
Mama grabbed one of the buckets and reached low to the ground to snap the squash from the vines. It was, as it had been for some time, hard to work around me, like having an extra appendage. Blood rushed to her cheeks. A tendril of hair coiled up like a grapevine and fell into her face. She grunted each time she bent. When she fetched another squash, Kee Kee crooked toward the ground with her. He pulled milk thistle, Queen Anne’s lace, and pokeweed. The legs of his pants were already covered in cockleburs. He scratched at his ankles.
Mama Minnie and Granny picked, their buckets filling more quickly than Mama’s.
“Boy, watch out for snakes,” Granny said to Kee Kee.
I settled my head against a pillow above my mother’s tailbone.
Mama stretched up one way then down the other. She was hot. The chiggers were biting her ankles. She tugged at the front of her dress and tried to move me to a more comfortable spot with her fingertips. She looked around, and her mind set on a shady spot underneath the apple tree. The outhouse seemed miles away. Her legs grew wobbly, like two thin branches. The raw smell of freshly turned dirt churned her stomach, made her head swim.
Mama Minnie and Granny moved over the potato vines, turning each of the leaves to make sure the bugs weren’t eating them up.
“Too hot, Lucy?”
Mama Minnie had one eye on Mama’s sweaty face, one on that place that held me.
“Do nicely with a pot of green beans,” Granny Tookie said, shaking dirt clods free from a handful of new potatoes.
Mama Minnie nodded, glanced toward Mama again.
Kee Kee stepped carefully through the garden, as not to land his foot on a squash. When he was one giant step away from her, a stream of water trickled down our mother’s leg. Mama stood in the squash patch, her back humped over, and the wet spot grew wider in the dirt beneath her.
Mama Minnie sent Kee Kee for the quilt from the car.
Granny watched a buzzard soaring low up over the hills.
Kee Kee ran toward them with the quilt, shaking out candy wrappers and pennies.
Mama Minnie anchored her walking stick in the dirt and spread the quilt on the ground.
“What’s Mama doing?”
“Hush boy,” Granny said, and patted Kee Kee on the head as she squatted beside Mama.
“Is Mama going to die?”
“Go on, now, back to picking your weeds.” Her voice was sugar, was biscuit-warm. “Go on,” she said again.
But Kee Kee stayed, watched, even when he didn’t want to. Mama Minnie squatted. My grandmother kneeled. Mama thrashed around on the quilt, flopped on her back. Her legs and arms were like spinning wheels.
“Scat on, boy,” my Granny Tookie said. “Ain’t nothing here for you to see.”
But Kee Kee watched. He watched Mama balance on her elbows and knees with her head down low to the ground. He watched Mama Minnie and Granny Tookie bare Mama’s private place, and as the day wore on he eventually saw me being born. He looked at me, a squalling thing caught slippery and wiggling in Tookie’s hands.
Back in town, Daddy was beneath the backside of Judy Carter’s Oldsmobile, wrenching the stubborn clamp from a rusted muffler. He told himself stories of his boyhood while he worked. He lifted the new muffler in place, new bolts gleaming on the ground like jewels.
He remembered a neighborhood kickball game on Ohio Street; Luciella Tanner (he kissed her once); riding his bike to the corner store for a pickle every Friday, twenty-five cents; sitting between Aunt Jo and Uncle Peck in morning church service, Uncle Peck’s cologne bearing down on him like roses at a funeral; the fight that nearly cost him his life.
He held the muffler in place with one hand and tightened the bolt with the other. The screwdriver slipped and made a new wound at the fleshy base of his hand. His skin was shocked white where the screwdriver had been. Then blood trickled out in a dotted line. Daddy dabbed at it with a clean corner of one of his rags, wiped the sweat from his brow, where that zigzag scar was, and kept to his work.
Mama Minnie tore the pockets and ties off her apron and placed them between Mama’s legs. She used the largest piece of the cloth to wrap around me, then placed me in Lucy Goode Brown’s arms.
But Mama couldn’t stop bad thoughts from clotting in her brain. There was already a sorrow cloaked around her head that she couldn’t shake.
Mama Minnie cut the cord with her pocketknife.
Mama Minnie pointed toward the field where she had been born, like she knew the exact spot, like she remembered.
“That’s when a body worked,” she said. Then she said “Hush!”
And we all grew quiet, like there was something more to listen to. Mama Minnie’s words were like prayer. Granny Tookie stroked Mama’s head. She caressed her arms, massaged her neck and shoulders, and finally entwined their fingers.
When it was time, Granny broke the silence.
“She’s a pretty little pullet of a thing.”
She stroked the wet strands of my hair. My birth watered down the boy-spell that Kee Kee had cast on her, but that didn’t suppress the twinge of regret in her heart.
“Girl, girl, girl,” she said.
She looked toward the ridge for help—the wind, the sky, the Lord.
They packed Mama into the backseat of the Plymouth, leaving behind the afterbirth until Mama Minnie struggled back out of the car, retrieved a grubbing hoe, and covered the birthing spot with a few turns of the blade.
Kee Kee was still, though his insides were flipping like grub worms, like fish.
Granny was also silent again, readying herself for the descent of the old haunts. She could feel them coming before she even pressed on the gas.
Mama rested her head on the seat and kept me warm, though I could feel a coldness brewing even then.
A light summer wind picked up, whipped through the hickory at the end of the lane. The heavens grew dark, as if a storm was churning, but the sky blued up quickly and we traveled in the red blaze of the day’s last sunshine.
Kee Kee tried to remain quiet. Mama didn’t look like our mother at all. She whispered incoherently through chapped lips, feeble as he had ever seen her. He wanted her to play jacks with him or read him a book, but she never did those things again.
He thought I looked like he could twang me with his thumb and forefinger and I would collapse to dust, a tiny little thing, gold as egg yolk. He looked out the back window, watching the homeplace shrink from big to the size of a postcard to a tiny speck. He tried to count trees, but there were too many to count, too many to name. Maple, oak, birch, sycamore, hickory. He watched dust roll out behind us and saw the road change from gravel to pavement. He wanted to say, “Hey, Mama, look at that,” every time Granny drove the Plymouth past something of interest to him, but he knew he couldn’t. The car felt like church. But before long he could not resist.
“Mama, look at them cows.”
He pointed to a calf. The mother cow extended a blackish-pink tongue, chewed her cud, and looked toward the car.
“I see them.”
Mama’s voice was raspy and dry. Kee Kee watched the cloth fall away from me a little as Mama’s head lolled off to the side and her eyes closed.
“Your sister done wore her out,” Mama Minnie said over the seat.
Sister. Kee Kee had to ready his mouth for that word. He had never had one before, a sister, so he watched out the window and placed his tongue against his teeth, whispering a hissing ssss before he said it out loud to himself.
At that moment, each of us—there were six of us then—was enveloped in our own separate haunt. Yet we were one, sharing past and future. Even my father, back in town working, he was with us, too. Later, he would say that at the moment I was born he looked up and watched a flock of blackbirds turn away from the wind like sails on a kite.
Granny floored the Plymouth through the countryside. Trees and houses whirred by the open windows. Late in the afternoon, when the car crossed Mission Creek Bridge back into town, the sky was barely pinking up against the knobs.
Somewhere in the pending night, Old Man Lucien’s dog caught the possum’s scent again. Her eyes flashed. She gave a determined snort and set off through the woods.
Granny remained quiet. The last shimmer of daylight fell warm and yellow on the dashboard and danced across her face before it vanished. The water in the creek curled and rolled toward the car as if to greet us, like a hundred tongues whispering home, home, home.
Crystal Wilkinson is the author of Blackberries, Blackberries, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature, and Water Street, a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. The winner of the 2008 Denny Plattner Award in Poetry from Appalachian Heritage magazine and the Sallie Bingham Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, she serves as Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College and teaches in the Spalding low residency MFA in Creative Writing Program.