Nyla’s mother told her about the slave trade when she turned seven. The bodies stacked high like wrapped wads of cash, the piss and shit and vomit in the hull of the ship. Suffocating. So much dying. Nyla could hear the sway of the ocean beyond the wooden planks of the bow; she heard the moans; she saw the darkness; she imagined being inside a beer barrel for weeks, months. Forgotten. Infrequent food and too little water, despite the waves crashing against the wall that imprisoned her. She imagined it while being held in her mother’s arms. If forced to pinpoint the first memory of her claustrophobia, Nyla finds herself in this conversation with her mother, feet dangling off the bed, years away from being able to touch the floor. She wondered why her mother was telling her that story. She wondered about her mother a lot.
Death came closer a couple years later when her brother’s friend drove drunk into the trunk of an evergreen. Nyla attended the viewing. She touched Larry’s waxy face. Her mother said she could. This couldn’t be Larry: not the Larry who came to the house, not the Larry who drank tallboys and toked joints and once spilled a Miller Light into her hair and then wiped it out with a towel. She loved him for months. The first boy she ever loved. She was nine, he was seventeen. And then he was in a casket, his lips paunchy, his one diamond earring the only spark left.
The time she didn’t eat dinner for three nights in a row she felt a little bit like Larry. Eyes and cheeks sunken. Her body listless. Her mother forgot to go grocery shopping.
The parties continued without Larry.
One Saturday morning Nyla awoke to find her mother stomach down on the bathroom mat, a streak of vomit connecting her lip to a stray square of toilet paper. The party the night before lasted long after Nyla went to sleep. Her bedroom door opened and closed multiple times. One girl brought a boy inside and tried to lie down on top of Nyla, only to discover her there. They left laughing and Nyla cuddled with her cat. She was the first one awake the next morning. Many times before she’d found strangers sleeping in the bathroom, but never her mother. Nyla was certain her mother was dead and she began to cry. She was only eleven and didn’t think to check for her mother’s breath. She knelt beside her and hugged her back, snot slipping over her upper lip, and then her mother began to heave herself awake.
Nyla preferred to remember this version of her mother: the one who dressed in elf costumes at Christmas time and handed out gifts at the home for unwed pregnant teenagers. The white, two story house called Holy House—a name Nyla often confused with Huddle House, a place she much preferred—was run by a group of nuns from Saint Gabriel’s and had leaking pipes and one landline and loose corners of carpet in every room, the edges unraveling. The sight of those girls, some only a few years older than Nyla, and their “blessed” babies and the smell of sour diapers was enough to cure Nyla of ever wanting children.
Here Nyla’s mother met Denise who, years before, came to the Holy House for help, and who stayed to manage the place. The nuns needed a woman the other girls felt comfortable around. Denise needed the money. Ten years ago she gave birth to hemophiliac triplets who played Russian roulette each time they received blood transfusions. That was the eighties, before hospitals had a blood test. All three of her girls became infected with HIV when they were seven. Denise invited Nyla and her mother to the girls’ twelfth birthday party. Nyla knew enough to know the girls had a death sentence, and she begged her mother to go to the mall so she could pick out a troll doll with a special jewel in the belly. Each girl needed one. They would love it, Nyla insisted, and her mother relented.
Nyla’s mother was a cashier at the Piggly Wiggly; many years would pass before Nyla could understand just how broke that made her.
She wrapped the trolls in discarded newspaper. At the party Nyla walked up to the three girls in wheel chairs. She hadn’t expected them to be bald and thin and an ashen white color she’d never seen before. They were her age, just about. Each girl smiled at Nyla like she was their best friend. A month later, Nyla’s mother told her that after the first sister died, the second sister, who lived on the edge of death, only to come back and surprise the doctors, told her mother that the dead sister was waiting for her in a cluster of clouds. She wanted to be with her sister. The third one reported the same phenomena before dying on a morphine drip.
Sometimes Nyla’s mother said to her, “What reason do you have for looking so sad all the time?”
Nyla was unaware she looked a certain way.
Soon she excelled at math. Numbers and facts. One answer. No failed observations. In her sophomore year of high school Nyla studied the Pythagorean Theorem in geometry class and also learned about Pythagoras. Here was a case where math outwitted man, a common occurrence Nyla was starting to understand. Was he right about computing the dimensions of the triangle? Sure. But about the heavens and human relationships? Not so much. Pythagoras believed the planets and stars made music with their vibrations, and the events on earth responded to those celestial sounds. How naïve all those dead adults of yesteryear could be. Still, Nyla always wondered, what was the sound of dysfunction?
As a little girl, four or five, she liked to hear the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and only the version her mother told. At daycare the story ended differently, with a valiant woodsman and an ax, the split abdomen of a terrible wolf and the rescue of a naïve, young girl. Not so when her mother read. That book did not include colored images. Just the black and white illustrations of a girl Nyla’s age, though prettier with thick curls and nicer clothes, and a wolf, with more girth and sharper teeth than the daycare’s book. Little Red Riding Hood talks to a stranger and pays dearly for her mistake. She tips off the wolf who then murders her beloved grandmother—and not the mother, who must not have been as beloved. The wolf then eats the little girl. Tell it again, she always said, but her mother never told a story twice.
She did, however, like to remind Nyla of this story when she said silly little things like, “There are no bad people in this world, right, Mama?” Her mother might be in the bathroom applying blue shadow to her eyes that were not naturally beautiful and kind, and her dark eyebrows would lift upward in shock. She would say, “But Nyla, yes there are. Many bad people that could hurt you. So many. You have to be careful about who you trust and who you love. Remember that story about Red Riding Hood? She loved her grandmother dearly, even when it was just the wolf dressed up. And he ate her. The people you love will hurt you.”
That last point Nyla already understood.
Sarah Creech's first novel Season of the Dragonflies was published in 2014, and her second novel is forthcoming from Harpercollins in 2016. Her short work has appeared in WritersDigest.com, Storysouth, Literary Mama, Glass, and as a finalist for Glimmertrain. She teaches English and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte.