I was that young when it happened. Barely 20. Some might think I ought to say, instead, “when I did it.” But in any fair accounting, though it’s true that I did do it, I was done to much more. I was definitely done to. Not a new experience then nor later.
There’s stupid or wrong things anyone does when they’re young. When you’re young, there’s stupid or wrong things you can think, too. Like to think that up in the Ozarks with a man you know so far only to serve at the grocery store and, nights, to dance with and sleep with, you’ll be better off than on the Georgia flatlands outside Waycross some 40 miles north of the Okefenokee swamp with your broke-down father who knows only to drink. Daddy wasn’t always that way, but the folks in town never gave him any rope, putting him down as a forever drunk for as long as memory served.
Come to it, those same town folks never gave me any rope, either, taking for granted that I’d turn out as worthless as my daddy, if not a drunk then something just as unrespectable, and feeling they were right all along when I fell pregnant at 15 to a boy two years older who left me to see it through alone. He would have stood by me, but he swayed and then collapsed under the harping of his parents, stone cold Baptists, who drove him from me. He ran off to join the Army without any good-byes, maybe thinking of me and wishing things otherwise and maybe not, but anyway not to be counted on.
I went to the Ozarks as a bride. Not to make it sound too pretty. Just a fact to set it in time. I was near on four months pregnant by Jim Farley, and we were toting, too, my boy Bobby, who was four years old, a handsome child, sturdy-built and with golden curls like his long-lost Army daddy. Jim and me were married but a week when he took us to the mountain to live amongst his widespread family of uncles and aunts and cousins and nieces and nephews, a regular little village of Farleys in cabins of varying sizes, rough-shod but snug. If Jim Farley was some rough-shod too, it was small beans to pay for a place to rest at last in what had been so far a chancy kind of life.
I don’t know if Jim and me would’ve ever come to marriage if not for me falling pregnant. We could hardly be near by each other without one reaching for the other in a wanting so strong it made me dizzy, but our heat didn’t scrape up too hard against feelings of the heart. In quiet moments, Jim would say he loved me, and he never tired of telling me how beautiful I was, saying it every time like he almost couldn’t believe I was real and even more couldn’t believe his good luck in my keenness for the pleasurable things we did together. But it made little difference to me to hear about his fancied love — he likely would have told that to any woman in his bed more than twice — and even less to hear him praise my face and figure. I’d been called beautiful often enough, not just by desiring men but by teachers and neighbors and shopkeepers and strangers and even sometimes by playmates in sudden moments of discovery, and by the time Jim was saying it, it’d come to hold scant meaning for me. Except that I was beginning to work out that it could maybe be unusual enough and charming enough to sometimes pull some strings or turn some tables.
Four and four. Me four months gone, and Bobby four years old. If I leaned toward superstition at all, maybe I would’ve been warned by that combination of numbers, but I don’t have that leaning, and so I wasn’t warned. If Anyone Upstairs, Who I can’t hardly credit anyway, even meant to give me a warning. It seems to me He doesn’t hold with warnings, only judgements, and those handed down with as much thought behind them as the throwing of dice.
The Farleys weren’t what you’d call welcoming. They were a sulky lot at the best of times. They accustomed themselves to me for Jim’s sake, as he was a favorite of everybody, all the more treasured because he’d left the mountain to go lumberjacking and then returned to stay. That he’d arrived with a wife already in the family way they could let pass, as it wasn’t a situation unknown to them. Plus, the baby would be a Farley no matter how it had started off. They set great store by blood ties. But Jim’s parents did sincerely let Bobby in, being that he was an easy, agreeable child and the closest so far to them having a grandson.
Though the Farleys shied from outright rudeness, not one of them granted me any true human warmth, nor ever acted glad to see me when we met in the course of a day’s comings and goings. I never made an honest friend there, nor ever felt any one of them wished to make an honest friend of me. But I was satisfied. I had my own house, watertight and warm, and the duties of keeping it and of feeding Jim and my boy were light, plus I had the enjoyment of walking with Bobby in the woods or going with him downhill a ways to the river in the late afternoon to watch the elk herd ford across. He did love that. The elk moved in a beautiful way, more like a running stream or a cloud than a collection of single animals. As hard as I watched, I never could catch which was the first one to make the turn in direction that the rest followed.
Once, a bull elk stepped out of the flow and stared right at us. He was very large, his antlers standing a good three feet above his head. It was summer, so the antlers were covered in velvet, and the fuzz caught a reddish glow from the downing sun. I told Bobby it must be the elk king, and that maybe he was studying us to figure out if Bobby could maybe be an enchanted elk prince. Bobby wasn’t too sure he liked that. He stepped closer to me and whimpered and squeezed both his hands onto my wrist, as if the great elk might come right then and there to take him away. I squatted down next to him so we could be face-to-face, and I told him it was just a story, one I’d made up on the spot, not having heard it from anyone, not even from any Farleys, who had lived near the elk all their lives. He nodded in the serious way children can do sometimes, but I could see in his eyes that he was still doubtful.
The baby came without much bother, born on Jim’s and my bed in a night of rain. It hurt, of course, but it was quick, and two of Jim’s sisters stayed right by me the whole time, being they were midwives of a sort, with experience and, more important, strong hands and sensible minds. A little girl, round and perfect. I gave her a name, of course I did, but I haven’t spoken it in years, and I don’t mean to either.
Jim would’ve liked a boy. I could tell, even though he didn’t say it in so many words. He showed only passing interest in our daughter. I supposed that besides having hoped for a boy, he was just the kind of man can’t take to babies. She’d likely have to wait until she was older for him to notice her more. For his part, I guess Jim figured he’d wait, too, and chance on getting a son the next time, or however many times it took.
Things soured between me and Jim before our baby girl was ready to crawl. The attraction between us had worn itself down as my belly got bigger and bigger, and like a wind-up toy with a weakened spring, it never came back into its own afterwards. We were hardly used to talking together — none of the Farleys were big talkers — so once the attraction was gone, there was nothing but daylight between me and Jim. Plus, if I am honest, I was tired of that mountain and all the close-mouthed, frowning Farleys, and that house that had once seemed a sheltering corner came to feel a trap. I was even missing clerking at the grocer’s, where at least I could pass some sociable words with people. I didn’t see anything ahead on the mountain but more days of sameness, and more babies, and the kind of loneliness can only be felt in a clan that isn’t your own. I had got out of tired Waycross, out from under the disapproving stares of the neighbors and away from the nightly mumblings and shouts and clatter of my father, who you’d think could find his way with less commotion in a house with as little in it as ours. But even with those escapes accomplished, I still felt constrained. Like the bear in a song Bobby liked, I wanted to go see what I could see, even if it was just another mountain. You keep going, you’re bound some day to see something new, find something better.
So I made up my mind to leave Jim Farley. And to dodge any fuss, I made up my mind to go on a night when he was at his brother’s house for supper, where he was likely to jack around until late. I didn’t think he’d really mind my leaving, except as it might reflect badly on his manhood. The Farleys did have their own ideas on that. So he’d be bound to stop me, whatever he really might wish underneath.
I had to wait only two weeks to set my plan in motion. I had already hid a sack with some clothes and a bit of cash. The baby was still nursing, so I had that for her. I resolved not to take Bobby just yet. I could move faster without him. I’d come back for him once I was set up somewhere steady. I reasoned Jim’s mother would tend to him in the meantime. I knew I’d have to go home to Waycross to start, and I knew Daddy could tolerate a baby easier than a lively, talking boy. Though I was bound and determined not to stay there long.
The baby didn’t wake up when I slipped her from her crib and wrapped her to my chest. But even if she’d cried out, Bobby was used to her stirrings in the night and would probably have paid it no mind. Be that so, when I stood over his bed for a last look, I didn’t dare to kiss him or even smooth his blanket for fear of waking him.
It was five miles to the train station. Though it was summer, the air was chilly, as is the habit of mountain nights, and I appreciated the baby’s warmth against me. I didn’t use the flashlight until we were well away from the cabins, but the moon was big, so there was some light from that, though it did make for spookish shadows in the brush along the side of the road, which served to make me ever more nervous and quickened my steps.
We had got a good ways along when I heard the dogs behind us. My heart jumped. Bitten by terror, I struck out into the woods to seek a hiding place, giving the wakened baby my finger to suckle to keep her from crying and giving us away. Of course, the dogs would’ve found us however quiet we were or wherever we hid. They were practiced hunting hounds, and they never gave up a chase. But I had to try. I hurried as fast as I dared, not wanting to trip and fall.
They ran us down at last in a small clearing. The dogs made a wide circle around us, the old ones held back by good training and the young ones by strong leashes but letting out a bark or howl now and again. Alongside the dogs stood the men, cast-iron still, hardly different from the trees around us. Their rifles were lowered, slung in the crooks of their arms almost casual-like but promising harm well enough. I looked around for Jim, but he wasn’t there. Then I heard a snuffling sound and spotted Bobby next to Jim’s oldest cousin, a man who always liked to take charge no matter whose business a thing was. The cousin gave Bobby a little shove, and he half-stumbled, half-ran to me. They must have dragged him straight from his bed, as he was tousle-headed and still in his pajamas, without a jacket or sweater against the night’s coolness. Right away he grabbed on to my thigh and began to cry, which set the baby bawling, too, but I was too frozen scared to soothe them.
The bossy cousin said neither Jim nor any of the Farleys cared if I stayed or went, and there was some, he said, thought it good riddance. But they were damned if they’d let me leave with the baby, who was a Farley. She was so new she was a stranger to them in her personality, but being kin made her worthwhile without having to do or be anything more.
They said I could leave Bobby, too, since it seemed like I had a mind to anyway. Though not a Farley, he was better company than most of the grown-ups in that family, so they’d’ve been contented to keep him. Their bunkum kindness in making the offer was a handy punishment of me, too. Even the simplest one of them saw that and approved. They knew it wasn’t likely that I’d consent to go back up the hill with them, back to Jim and endless long days and nights amongst the Farleys, though they would’ve stomached it. Their only real questions were if I’d leave them Bobby and if I’d oppose them on the baby and make them use force against me. Whatever I did, they already had me marked down as a bad woman. The curiosity for them was what shape my being a bad mother, too, was going to take.
Of course I wanted both my children, as unknown to me as it was how I was going to find a way to care for them. And in that awful, last moment, I had them both, her rooting against my chest to encourage me to open my shirt for her, and Bobby, wide-eyed and stopped crying, with his head pressed against my thigh and his arms wrapped tight around my leg, like there was a wind trying to blow him down and I was a fence post to hold him up. To this day, if I close my eyes and think strongly, I can feel those two small, warm bodies in those two spots, my chest and my thigh, but I almost never do think about it.
They were all waiting, unbending but somehow not impatient. I guess a person can afford to be patient when he holds the winning hand. I guess that’s why patience was never a virtue of mine. They were ready to wait however long it took, but I couldn’t stand it dragging out. If it was going to happen — and it was going to, no question — it had to happen fast. So I stiffened my arms and held the baby out like she was a doll I had to give back to its owner, and, mercifully, somebody right away stepped out of the shadows and took her and walked quickly away uphill towards the houses. I picked up Bobby, and the bossy cousin led us to the road where the pick-up had been brought, and we got in and were driven to the station, I don’t even know by who. I wouldn’t look at him, and he didn’t speak the whole way.
I can’t explain how I decided. It wasn’t a thing of brainwork. But I do think that somewhere down inside me I considered that Bobby was old enough to remember that night, or at least the part of me handing him over if I chose that way, and that even if the memory faded completely away in time, in his marrow he’d always know something sad and terrible had happened to him once that someone should have stopped but didn’t. There’s things in life that can be ducked or shaken off, but there’s also things that have to be. I never could spare Bobby things that had to be, but there in those dark woods, I saved him from a hornet’s nest remembrance that wouldn’t have been any less mean for being a secret in his own mind.
I went back to the Farleys’ mountain once. My girl was 10 by then, and Jim had a new woman and two other younger children besides, a boy and another girl. I had got me a reliable husband with money in the bank, so I thought I could reclaim my girl, with lawyers if I had to. But I never even asked. Anyone could see that she was happy, even me who didn’t want to. As far as she knew, Jim and his woman and the other two children were her family and always had been. For their part, Jim and the rest of the Farleys didn’t seem worried by my appearing. They were that stubborn and felt that justified. I would’ve gone up against them no matter how they bucked, but it was my girl herself, in her natural contentment, that made me hold my tongue and not tell her who I was. There’s more than one way for parts of you to be broken. I know that firsthand. And I wasn’t going to be one of the ways for her.
I saw the elk herd as I was driving out. I stopped the car to watch them for a few minutes. And to catch my breath, as it was coming quick and strained, making my heart race. The elk were as they always were, seeming to float across the meadow more than walk. I guess dumb animals might have their heartbreaks just like us. Or maybe we are the only experts at that. Not something to be proud of. Not something that bears talking about even though we have the power of speech. Just what is.
I can’t say that leaving my baby girl was the last blameful thing I ever did, or that it only got done because I was young and friendless and backed up against a tree. I kept on in my life not exactly wrong, but usually not thinking too far ahead or maybe not far enough ahead, nor thinking about what could go amiss if I took a certain path with a certain man instead of another path with another man, or on my own with just my boy, which I did do a time or two.
There were times, too, that I had to park Bobby for a while with an old lady who lived with her grandson about Bobby’s age in a tidy house at the very lip of the Okefenokee and who I paid to keep him, like when I had that night job at the Playboy Club in Cincinnati. Sometimes I couldn’t come back to collect him as soon as he would have liked. Or even soon at all. But I always did come. He doesn’t fault me, I don’t think. If he did, would he today leave his own kids with me when he and his lady know they’ll be out all night? Leastways, whenever I fetched him from the Okefenokee, he was glad to see me, even if it’s true he didn’t always run to meet the car. Quick enough, he would get himself ready to know my new man, if there was one, and to learn the ways of our new home, which was sometimes a grand one and sometimes otherwise.
And if, later on, after one reunion or another, I had to take him back to the Okefenokee again for a spell, well, the old lady and her grandson and the place were at least familiar to him. And it was a beautiful place in its way. Not any elk or mountain snows, but blackwater streams with alligators you could paddle by in a canoe, and narrow trails to follow through the pines, and grass prairies to run amongst. Such things are exciting for growing boys. Things of the wild and free. Such things give a heart some relief.