Bonnie Jo Campbell lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan and teaches at the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. She is the author of six books, including the bestselling novel Once Upon a River, and story collection American Salvage, a National Book Award finalist. Her stories have appeared in the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, the Alaska Review and other journals. She has won the AWP award for short fiction, a Pushcart Prize, the Eudora Welty Prize, and she was named a Barnes & Noble Great New Writer.
Excerpt from Mothers, Tell Your Daughters
W.W. Norton & Company
© Bonnie Jo Campbell 2015
From the title story, “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters”
Used to be a doctor would wrap a woman up tight to hold body and soul together, but when I fell last week trying to get to the kitchen to pour myself a drink, they just untangled my tubes, picked me up like I was a child, and put me back in this awful bed. Told me I’d had a stroke. Now I’m lying here with a broken rib that aches.
Stop going through my cupboards and drawers and envelopes that are none of your damned business and sit down and hear me out, Sis. Being unable to say a word means my mind is about to burst. And since I can’t even hold a goddamned pen, I’m counting on you, my flesh and blood, to somehow read my thoughts. They say if they wrap my broken ribs I’ll get pneumonia, but I never got pneumonia before they stuck me in this hospice bed. In the old days, they fussed about a punctured lung, but maybe a busted rib hasn’t punctured a lung in this county since 1932, when old Mr. Wickman’s dapple-gray pony trampled him and sent him to an early grave.
As soon as I was big enough to climb onto my daddy’s bay mare, I used to pull blue jeans on under my skirts and ride all over the township. One day at a crossroads that mare took a sharp turn, and I continued straight on. That was all it took to break a rib in them days. A jackass kicked me when I was pregnant with you, Sis, cracked another couple of ribs. Maybe that’s why you were born distrusting and watchful, always waiting on things to fall apart. At nine pounds fourteen ounces, just the size of you could’ve busted me up from the inside.
After your daddy left, after he wrenched my arms from around his waist and tossed me aside like garbage, a Hereford bull crushed me against the barn wall, cracked three more, took my breath away. Funny, your daddy used to take my breath away just by walking into the room—I loved the way that man was always laughing. Look at my breath now, oxygen piped into me! If you want to make a fool of somebody with your smart remarks, tell everybody about how your daddy traveled all the way to Texas just to get shot and killed by somebody else’s husband.
You ought to get us some elderberry wine from the root cellar so we can sit together, you lifting the jelly jar to my lips. You remember the good old days, when I could drink and smoke all night, when I could feed more kids than any woman alive and love a man better. Now I’m dying in this house I was born in, dying with no wine, no cigarettes, no laughing or singing. The snow’s falling outside today, but with this oxygen running, they won’t even let me light my woodstove, much as I love the smell of burning oak and cherry. Last week, even with the lung cancer and morphine, I was speaking my mind, talking circles around every man and woman to prove I was not a fool, and I was still arguing with you, but now I’m lucky if I can spit out a word an hour. I’ve got a head full of stories you still need to hear, starting with my ribs, ending with my whole life.
Remember when my milk cow Daisy went down in the barnyard? I did the skinning myself, though I loved that cow. Remember when every man I loved left me? When your daddy drove out the driveway with me chasing the truck, while you held onto your little brothers? When Arnie Carmichael joined the army and shipped out? Or Bill Theroux? You were glad Theroux went back to his wife, and I kept my crying to myself until I smashed into that bridge railing on the way home from the Lamplighter. It wasn’t any six ribs I broke on that steering wheel, like you told your brother the other day, not one for each of my children I would have sacrificed for that man, but just five ribs. Maybe I can’t talk anymore, but I’m not deaf.
You knew me when I was something, when I had what it took to hold a man, to find a man who wanted to hold me. Nobody needs to tell me I’m nothing now but a snag of gray hair, a sack of bones that I tossed toward the fire when it was cold, bones that I used to leave lying in the kitchen sometimes when I finished washing dishes: leg bone, arm bone, jawbone rattling around in drawers with the emergency candles and batteries and napkins with sayings on them and a little plastic box somebody gave me that presses hard-boiled eggs into cubes. Eighty-nine pounds last time they weighed me. You must weigh twice that, enough to think you can bully me. You’ve made your complaints clear over the years, and now I’m ready to answer, but I close my eyes and mouth to your oatmeal and scrambled eggs.
I didn’t worry about you kids growing up. You’re right. So what? I was too busy to fuss, was always at the end of my rope, and I’ve come to think that not worrying was my greatest triumph. I never denied you kids the experience of pulling yourselves up with your own strength and holding tight to this life with your own claws. I had faith in you, because I knew you could be strong and would thrive against the odds. And look at you now, winning that big college teaching award, traveling to places like New Orleans and California that I only read about in murder mysteries from the library. You’ve got more than anybody else has got around here, but you still worry an old thing that got done to you worse than a dog worries a bone. A couple of nights of trouble makes your whole life bitter.
If only you’d seen what I’ve seen! A man drinking a pint of ginger brandy and then refusing to get out of the way of a train, holding out his arms like greeting an old friend. I’ve seen a little bitty man tell his little bitty wife she could go to hell and take her there himself. I saw my own mama die in the Kalamazoo Asylum for the Insane. One night a stranger put a knife to my throat and cursed me while he took me from behind like a bitch in the gravel lot behind the Lamplighter. I’ve seen fool men risk their lives to rescue mewling kittens just like the kittens I’ve drowned in gunnysacks, and I’ve seen all six of my kids grow up strong and get fat in middle age. What I’ve never seen is a man who loved me enough. A man who loved me enough would have taken me with him.
When I was a blond-headed, blue-eyed girl, before your grandpa drowned himself under a mountain of corn in his own grain bin, he taught me about the worn soil, the way this stretch of the clay earth breaks into hard clumps to allow entry of seed, and the way rain can soften soil or wash it away. He shot coyotes, raccoons, left me with a shovel to bury them. I fattened his veal calves for slaughter. My mama couldn’t stand the work of the farm, especially not the slaughter. After a while she couldn’t stand anything, and then your grandpa sent her away. I used to be afraid I’d end up in the nuthouse too, was afraid your grandpa would send me there if I didn’t work hard. Later I was afraid your daddy would commit me, because I never knew the end of the powers a man had over his woman.
You can always find pain and suffering in this life, but why look for it? Before you went to college and got them degrees I had no idea there was something called women’s studies that would teach you to poke around under the skin of women. Don’t you know we need our skin to cover what’s underneath, to protect us from the burn of air and sunlight? Women get themselves hurt every day—men mess with girls in this life, they always have, always will—but there’s no sense making hard luck and misery your life’s work.
You sitting beside me, holding my hand and showing me old black-and-white photos of the farm, that’s nice, and I don’t know if we ever held hands even when you were little. The spring after you were born, when I had no choice but to go out and plow, that’s when I tied you in your crib by a wrist and an ankle—it was to keep you safe, not to make you a prisoner like your daddy told you. Since you were my first, I didn’t know yet how children could take care of themselves. My own ma didn’t teach me what to do with something so helpless as you seemed. She fed me from a bottle, so I figured out breast-feeding from our milk cow, and each time I turned the tractor so this old two-story house came into view, my breasts ached. One time when I was out there, a tornado turned our big wooden barn into a dance of planks and loose hay. As I watched and prayed, strands of my own hair whipped my face. Now I’d give anything to be in that field, the wind in my face, looking at this house from the outside again.
The doctor said for me to let you cry when I first brought you home from the hospital, but I couldn’t stand knowing I was the only answer to all your troubles. When you gazed up at me in them days, I never had the luxury of looking back at you—I had to keep my eyes on the horizon, to watch out for what was coming next. When you were three days old, I warmed up rice cereal and cow’s milk, and you swallowed a whole damned bowl. At four days you ate half a mashed banana—nobody believed me how hungry you were.
You like that photo of them spotted horses? You must’ve been what, five years old when your daddy brought them home? They showed up snorting smoke and fire, wrapped in strands of barbed wire to keep them contained in that tin-can trailer, and we rode them nearly to death to break them. And still your daddy came to bed drunk, stinking of the young Mrs. Wickman. I never thought your daddy and I would tame them spotted horses. Some nights while you children slept, I slipped into the frozen pasture and whispered to the horses to forget their lessons, to fight their bits and bridles, so we’d have to keep on.
Your daddy gave you babies liquor, not me. He poured it, burning, into your tender mouths when you cried and kept him awake—men did what they did back then, and there was no stopping him. You complain about the way I raised you children, but I only wanted to survive another day. You see me as powerful in my crimes, but I was bone tired. Yes, I raised my babies, but today I’d crawl on hands and knees away from the responsibility of them needful creatures. Your brothers bring my great-grandkids to my bedside, and I close my eyes.
I heard you whispering with the redhead nurse: This is the first time in her life she’s had nothing to say. Fine. If you want to spoil what’s left of my life, why don’t you just go ahead and yank out my oxygen tubes? Or better yet, let’s set this place on fire and get it over with. I’ve always loved a flame burning wild, and if I went out in a blaze, you’d have a story to tell. If I could lift that hatchet, I’d help you chop kindling for the job. I wouldn’t flinch, not even if the hatchet wobbled and came down on my hand.
You complain that I let men around here beat my children. With sticks and belts, you said, but mostly the men just smacked you kids when you said something smart or did something stupid. As I saw it, those men were just picking up where your daddy left off. He would have kicked your asses plenty if he’d been around. How was I supposed to figure out by myself when you children needed beating? How was I supposed to have the energy to beat you? And when you ran away from home—from Bill Theroux, like you said—I guess you left the whippings to your little brothers. And when you went away to college, you abandoned all of us. Of course I was proud of you going to college. Any mother would be. I didn’t think it needed saying.
All the men added together made the solid world—they were the marbles in the jar, and women were whatever sand or water or air claimed the space left between them. That’s how I saw things as a young woman, that was my women’s studies. Now I’ve come to know that women are like vodka poured over men, who melt away like ice cubes.