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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 23

Rebecca Wells

  Her neck was tense, and she rubbed it and shook her shoulders. All life, all history happens in the body. I am learning about the woman who carried me inside of hers.

  Sidda needed to move. She snapped the leash onto Hueylene and headed out for a walk along the lake, then into the forest, where the midmorning sunlight filtered down through the thick canopy.

  With each step Sidda took, she thought of her mother. What had happened? Why was Vivi shipped off in the first place? What could she possibly have done that would have merited this punishment? She held deep reservoirs of anger toward her mother, not just because of her latest withdrawal of love, but for earlier, older hurts. Yet, as she walked, Sidda experienced her anger dissolve into grief and anger for her mother. Then, just as soon, the emotion switched back into anger toward Vivi.

  She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. She thought about her mother’s body and about her own body, and how they were so much alike. She thought about her legs as they strode forward. She thought about how her legs connected to her trunk. She thought that she was not a person with a body; she was her body, a body that had spent nine months inside Vivi’s body. And as she walked, feeling the ground beneath her feet, and hearing the happy breathing of her dog alongside her, Sidda wondered about the subliminal knowledge that passes between a mother and a daughter. The preverbal knowledge, the stories told without words, flowing like blood, like rich oxygen, into the placenta of the baby girl as she grows in dark containment. Sidda wondered if, forty years later, she was not still receiving information from her mother through some psychic cord that linked them, thousands of miles, and countless misunderstandings apart from each other.

  It was a cool, rainy day, with mist rising among the towering hulks of evergreen trees. As she stepped forward, her eye caught an intricate, lacy dead hemlock branch that hung in front of her. Each tip on every one of its tiny, feathery branches ended in a droplet of water, as if set with diamonds, like the delicate fabric of a party dress suspended in air. The exposed roots of a tree that ran across the trail, purple-black in their wetness, looked like the raised veins on an old woman’s hands. Or like the tributaries and meanderings of the Garnet River as seen from a crop duster high above the delta farms. As she walked over Mother Earth, Sidda prayed: Stretch me wide so that the divine secrets that lay inside my mother, inside myself, inside the earth itself will find room enough in me to bear fruit.

  Buggy had woken Vivi in the morning when it was still dark. “Viviane Joan,” she said, flicking on the overhead light, “wake up. Wake up this instant.”

  The light hurt Vivi’s eyes, and the sound of her mother’s hard voice made her stomach tighten. She hugged her pillow and tried to hold on to sleep. She had been dreaming about dancing with Jack in Marksville. It was green summer and she was wearing a white dress. She could feel his palm against the small of her back and smell his breath as their cheeks touched.

  “Viviane Joan,” Buggy said, flinging Vivi’s full name out like an accusation. “Get up and get dressed.” Buggy bent down to pick up some of Vivi’s clothes from the floor. “Your father has decided you need to take the early train.”

  “What?” Vivi asked, bolting up in bed, shocked.

  This can’t be, she thought.

  “But, Mother,” she said, “everything is planned for the afternoon train. That’s when everybody’s seeing me off. I’m supposed to take the 2:56. We have it all planned.”

  “You heard me,” Buggy said, sighing as she reached under the bed and pulled out one of Vivi’s saddle shoes.

  “Father decided this?” Vivi asked. She could hardly breathe. How could her father have betrayed her like this?

  “Yes,” Buggy said, without looking at Vivi. “Get up. I need to strip your bed.”

  Vivi got out of bed and stood beside it, her feet cold against the floor, her body longing for the warm covers. There was something different about Buggy this morning, something in her voice, an excitement. Buggy was already dressed in her clothes for Mass, and the chapel veil was on her head.

  Buggy flung back the covers, then the sheets. Efficient as a hospital nurse, she whipped the pillows out of their cases, and peeled back the cotton mattress pad.

  With each gesture, Buggy signaled the overwhelming rage she felt toward her daughter. Silently, and with every flick of the linens, Buggy rejected Vivi’s firm, flowering adolescent body, which had, until moments before, warmed the bed.

  Although no words were spoken, Vivi felt all this as she stood watching her mother. Instinctively, she crossed her hands over her breasts, as though she needed an armor stronger than her flannel nightgown to safeguard herself from Buggy.

  “When did Father decide this?” Vivi asked. “He didn’t say anything about it to me last night.”

  “Your father does not have to tell you everything,” Buggy said. “You are not his wife. He told me just before he went to bed. He wants you on the 5:03 this morning.”

  Buggy gathered the pillows underneath her arms, raising her chin slightly, as though she were waiting to see how her daughter would take this. At first Vivi said nothing. Mother and daughter stood glaring at each other, muscles tensed for action in a battle neither understood.

  For a fleeting moment, it occurred to Vivi that her mother might be lying. But the thought was so horrible she could not make an accusation.

  Instead, she said, “I want to take that little pillow with me, please,” and pointed to a small goose-down pillow that Delia had made with Ginger’s help. Delia had given it to Vivi, along with a silk pillowcase, before the war made such luxuries as silk verboten.

  “You don’t need this,” Buggy said, squeezing the pillow tightly to her chest. “They’ll have pillows at Saint Augustine’s.”

  “I want that pillow,” Vivi said. “It was a gift from Delia.”

  As Vivi said this, she would have given anything if her grandmother had been in the room at that moment. She had written Delia as soon as Buggy had started up about Saint Augustine’s, but Delia was visiting with Miss Lee Beaufort at her ranch in Texas, and she had not responded. Vivi imagined that if Delia had only been there she would have protected her. But Delia was never there. Vivi wanted to turn on her mother, slap her, kick her, denounce her for her cruelty and unfairness.

  “Is Father downstairs?” Vivi asked.

  “No, he is not,” Buggy answered. “Your father is still sleeping. He is exhausted, Viviane Joan. You have worn him out.”

  Taylor Abbott had spoken very little since the night of Vivi’s birthday. When Buggy first brought up the idea of Saint Augustine’s, he had tried only once to veto the idea.

  “We can clip Vivi’s wings just as well here at home as they can in Alabama,” Vivi’s father had said. “Girls’ schools are strange breeding grounds.”

  Buggy refused to be silenced. She didn’t back down to him as she usually did. Taylor Abbott didn’t so much agree to Saint Augustine’s as finally turn around, walk into his study, and close the door on the subject.

  Just the night before, Vivi had gone to her father in the living room, where he sat in his chair listening to the war news on the radio.

  She waited until a radio advertisement came on before she spoke. “Father, may I interrupt you?”

  Everyone in the Abbott household always had to ask permission before speaking to Taylor Abbott.

  “Yes, Viviane, you may,” he said, still half listening to the radio.

  Vivi had meant to be controlled, present her case logically, in a way that would please her father the lawyer. Instead, she blurted it out, her voice quivering.

  “Must I really go, Father? Do I have to? Must I get on that train tomorrow afternoon? Please, Father. You could stop this from happening. You know Mother has to do what you say.”

  He looked at her for a moment, and Vivi felt some hope.

  “It’s already arranged, Viviane,” he said. “You are going to Saint Augustine’s.”

  Immediately Vivi adjusted her bo
dy so that she stood more erect. She grabbed control of her voice.

  I have to compose myself, she thought, or he will not listen. If only I could be poised, if only I can smile in that way he likes, if only I can speak in the unruffled tone he admires, then Father might see me. One true glimpse is all I need. One true glimpse and he will understand that he cannot ship me away.

  But when she opened her mouth, the words tumbled out in a desperate gush.

  “Father, please, please,” she said, on the verge of tears. “I will do anything you want. Just please don’t make me leave.”

  Taylor Abbott looked at his daughter as she stood in front of him, her blonde hair pulled back in a scarf, her pajama top slightly askew so that one freckled shoulder was partly revealed. Her lips quivered, her eyes brimmed with tears that had not yet spilled over. Her skin looked sallow, almost blue around the eyes; her sweet paleness now looked anemic to him, a gardenia bruised around the edges. He could not bear such raw emotion; it made him physically ill. It was what he hated about his wife, along with the sweat, the smell, the blood every month.

  “Vivi,” Taylor Abbott said, “never beg.”

  Then he reached to the radio and turned the volume up. Leaning back in his chair, he closed his eyes and resumed listening to the war news, as though his daughter were no longer in the room.

  Vivi continued to stand there, studying the patterns of the living-room rug. She listened to all the news of the British and Indian troops in Burma. Finally, Taylor Abbott opened his eyes and trained them on his daughter.

  In a confident voice, he said, “You’ll do fine, Viviane. I don’t worry about you. Don’t have to. You take after the Abbotts.”

  Then he stood up, turned off the radio, and started up the stairs. All Vivi could see was his back. All she could see was a pair of suspenders and a white shirt.

  “Hurry up and get dressed,” Buggy said as she stood at Vivi’s bedroom door. “You have just enough time to make the train. Pete is taking you to the station.”

  “What about Father?” Vivi asked. “Isn’t he coming? I want to tell him goodbye.”

  “Your father asked not to be awakened, Viviane Joan. Please. Do not cause any more trouble than you already have.”

  “But I won’t be able to see the Ya-Yas, Mother. I can’t leave without telling them goodbye. We had our goodbye all planned.”

  “The four of you have been saying goodbye for a week now.”

  “The Ya-Yas are my best friends, Mother. I have to see them.”

  Suddenly, as though she could not contain her rage any longer, Buggy took the pillows and bedding she’d just stripped from the bed and flung them at Vivi.

  “Stop it!” Buggy said, vehement, resentful. “I won’t hear one more word about the all-precious Ya-Yas! Are they all you think about?!”

  “Mama,” Vivi said, dropping the more formal way she usually addressed her mother. “Don’t do this, please. They’re my best friends. I can’t just leave them like this!”

  Buggy straightened the waist of her dress, then adjusted her sweater. “Haven’t you caused enough suffering in this house? Enough is enough.”

  As her mother left the doorway Vivi thought, Enough is not enough, Mother. And it never will be.

  The Buick was warm when Pete opened the car door for Vivi.

  “Warmed her up so you wouldn’t freeze,” he said. “Buggy the Bitch still inside?”

  “Checking on Jezie,” Vivi replied. “Maybe we’ll miss the train.”

  Pete checked his wristwatch, then went around to get in on the driver’s side. He looked serious, his usual athletic swagger replaced by a heaviness.

  He pulled the car door tight, then turned to his sister. “Want a smoke?”

  “Yeah,” Vivi said. She watched as her brother lit two Luckies off a kitchen match, which he struck on his thumbnail.

  “Sorry I’m the one that has to drive you, Buddy,” he said as he handed over a cigarette to his sister.

  “Not your fault,” Vivi said, taking a deep drag.

  Pete picked a speck of tobacco off his tongue. “Not your fault any of this shit is happening.”

  “What do you mean?” Vivi asked.

  “I mean nothing you ever did deserves getting crated off to the penguins like Goddamn freight, Vivi.”

  Vivi tried to smile. “Mother ever knew we called nuns ‘penguins,’ she’d croak.”

  “Nah,” Pete said. “She’d do penance for us. Shit, that woman loves doing penance.”

  Pete patted his jacket as though he were checking for something. Then he inspected the rearview mirror, nervous. “She’s been wanting to punish you for years.”

  Vivi counted the pieces of luggage that were in the backseat. She looked out at the yard, Buggy’s garden almost dead in winter. The Rose of Montana and clematis vines on the porch were shriveled and brown.

  “What’re you saying, Pete?” Vivi asked.

  “Sis, I’m your bud, you know that, don’t you?”

  “Yeah, I know that.”

  “Trust me, then. Look out for Mother. She’s gunnin’ for you. Keep your elbows out.”

  She is my mother, Vivi thought. She loves me. Doesn’t she?

  Pete reached over and took Vivi’s hand, squeezing it tightly. He looked at her with sad eyes and shrugged his shoulders. “Gonna miss you, Stinky.”

  Then, pulling his hand away, he reached under his jacket and pulled out a flask. “For the trip. Swiped expressly for you from Father’s liquor cabinet.”

  Vivi received the flask like a sign of love. She tucked it into her purse. “I’ll carry it with me like a friend.”

  As she kissed Pete on the cheek, she could see her mother in her gray coat making her way toward the car.

  “I will say nothing about the smoking,” Buggy accused her children, as she positioned herself in the backseat.

  “Good, Mother,” Pete said. “Don’t.”

  Once settled, Buggy began to hum softly. Vivi thought the tune sounded like “Salve Regina.” Pete began to whistle, to drown out the sound. As they rode, Vivi pulled down the vanity mirror, as if to see if there was something in her eye. But it was not her own face she wanted to see. She wanted to see the face of her mother as she sat silent in the backseat. Vivi did not know what she was looking for, but she thought that if the right expression passed over her mother’s face, then she would know the right thing to say, the right thing to do, the right way to be in order to sidestep this banishment.

  I want to tell her to shut up her crazy humming, Vivi thought. I want to bash her in the head with one of my suitcases. I want to truss her up with ropes like a cow, and drop her in a ditch on the side of the road. Then seize the wheel myself, whip this car around, blast the horn up and down the streets of my town, declaring my freedom from that woman in the backseat who thinks she’s a modern martyr.

  But Vivi could not move. She was too sad.

  It required all the strength she had to ask, “Can we just stop by Caro’s? They wake up early. Or could we swing by Teensy’s real quick? It’s on the way. Sometimes Genevieve reads all night long when she can’t sleep.”

  “You do not barge into someone’s house at this time of day,” Buggy said. “Your father gave specific instructions that we were to go straight to the station.”

  You are lying, Vivi longed to say, but she could not. To say it out loud would be to admit her mother’s cruelty.

  Vivi glanced down at her gold Gruen wristwatch, with its green dots glowing with poison. Four-fifteen in the morning. Nothing will ever be the same.

  She studied her mother sitting in the high, rounded backseat of the Buick, fingering her rosary beads.

  She is lying through her teeth, Vivi thought. She is lying and she is happy. Why is she so serene?

  It was still dark when they reached the train station at Jefferson and Eighth streets. Pete climbed out of the car and went around to open Vivi’s door.

  As she stood on the curb by the car Vivi could see her breath
in the early-morning air. Watching as Pete ferried her luggage into the lobby, she pressed her purse to her side and thought of the flask of bourbon. The anticipation of its comfort kept her from crumbling to the ground.

  Rolling down the window, Buggy said, “Aren’t you going to tell me goodbye?”

  “Goodbye,” Vivi said.

  Then Buggy opened the backdoor. She turned her body slightly, as though she might climb out of the car and go to her daughter.

  Vivi longed to run to her mother and bury her head in Buggy’s lap. She longed to hold on to her mother and not let go. Leaning into the car, touching her mother’s hand, she asked, “Mama, what are you praying for?”

  Buggy placed her hand on Vivi’s cheek. In a gentle voice, she said, “I’m praying for you, Viviane. I’m praying for you because you’ve run out of grace.”

  Then Pete’s hand was under Vivi’s elbow, pulling her upright, all but tucking her under his shoulder.

  “Ma,” he said, “get the hell off my sister’s back.”

  Then he slammed the car door, leaving his mother in the backseat with her rosary.

  Inside, the lobby was empty except for four sleeping soldiers, their feet propped on duffel bags. The sight of them made Vivi think of Jack.

  After buying her ticket, she and Pete sat on one of the long wooden benches. Vivi tried to imagine she was in a movie. The beautiful young girl misses her lover, she thought. The camera comes closer. She sits in a train station with her brother, waiting for the war to end. Heartsick and lonely, she reaches for the only comfort she has.

  Checking the door to make sure her mother had not decided to come in, Vivi took out the flask and offered it to Pete.

  “You first, Buddy-o,” he said, and Vivi took a swig.

  The bourbon went down smoothly. She waited a moment, then took another swig, feeling the warmth spread through her body, associating the taste of the whiskey with good times, with being desired, with what little she knew about sex. At her third sip, Vivi was wishing she had yet another flask—no, a bottle or two—tucked into her luggage.