In our latest edition of featured nonfiction, we present an excerpt from National Book Award finalist Susan Straight’s new novel, In the Country of Women, out now from Catapult.
The book—which is part social history, part personal narrative—earned praise from The New York Times Book Review, with Kristal Brent Zook saying: “In the end, Straight’s book is about far more than a country of women. It’s an ode to the entire multiracial, transnational tribe she claims as her own…In fact, her words are for all those who now call her mother, aunt, cousin and sister, in the neighborhood where she has lived her entire life. And for all those who survived, so these women could live.”
Daisy Belle: Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1915
You so fine I might just have to kill you. Some other fool is gonna take you away, and I can’t have that. Family legend: This is what Daisy’s first husband said to her, holding the gun he kept on the small table beside their bed.
Alberta, my mother-in-law, told me the story of her own mother, Daisy, only once, and it was not until after I had my first daughter. Alberta was Daisy’s third daughter, named for Daisy’s sister. We were sitting knee to knee by the massive ochre-brick fireplace in the fall, when Gaila was four months old. In the living room that was never empty, we were alone that day at lunchtime, on my break from work, while I nursed the baby. Alberta was watching the damp black curls of my daughter, glistening with heat from the flames, her head lolling back and a drop of milk near the corner of her mouth as she fought sleep. Gaila, the fourth generation of descendants from Mary Thomas Ford, killed for secrets.
“My mother never had a home when she was little. Not after her mother died.”
She paused. My mother-in-law’s hands were elegant, her nails strong and oval and painted, her eyebrows vivid with pencil, her lips always defined with liner and lipstick. We were sitting in maroon leather club chairs whose arms were rolled and graceful, with brass rivets. Alberta said softly, “They were walking down a road. Her and her mother. Mary. She was holding her mother’s hand. My grandmother saw the car coming. She threw my mother out of the way, threw her up where no one could see her, and then the car ran her over.”
The driver was a young white man with another young white male passenger; the car plowed into Mary Thomas at great speed and then the driver swerved back onto the road and left her behind. Mary had three children – Daisy, 5, Arthur, 2, and Alberta, 1. It makes sense that only Daisy was walking with her, because the others were so young, but no one can say for certain. The three children had been given the surname of their father: Ford. But no one ever mentions him again, either.
This part stays the same, no matter who tells the story: it was dusk, and suddenly a car was speeding down the narrow dirt lane, raising dust, careening toward them, and Mary knew what was coming, and why, and she threw Daisy up onto the roadbank into the trees, or in the ditch into the weeds.
That day by the fire, Alberta said sadly, “My mother was so little. And after that, she went from pillar to post. Yes, she did. Pillar to post.”
Alberta held out her arms for the baby. I had to go back to work, and Alberta would hold her for hours while a procession of women came to visit and watch soap operas and share food and stories and rock this grandchild who was so loved that her cheeks would be red with kisses and lipstick when I came to retrieve her at 5.
I didn’t understand the phrase – pillar to post. Alberta watched my daughter relax back into sleep against her elbow, eyelids sliding shut. She said, “My mother never had a home. Not ’til she got here.”
Pillar to post: when someone has gone from a wealthy home, with pillars at the front, as grand embellishment, to a poorer house, with porch held up by simple wooden posts. But in Sunflower County, Daisy went from farmhouse to sharecropper cabin, wherever relatives would take care of her for a time. Alberta went to Mary’s sister Margaret, and Arthur went to an uncle. Daisy attended school until the fifth grade, as did Arthur.
That night, I lay awake thinking of the car speeding straight toward Daisy’s mother while her small daughter lay on the roadbank. I remember the Country Squire passing over me like a large animal. I remember the smell of damp asphalt against my cheek. I shivered, wondering what Daisy’s mother felt. She lay in soft Mississippi dirt. Did she die there, with her daughter afraid to come out from where she’d been thrown for safekeeping? Did Mary hear her child crying?
Did she crawl? Did Daisy see her mother’s eyes?
Years later, at family gatherings, other relatives would offer:
They were drunk and they killed her, but they were rich white boys and no one in that county was gonna prosecute them.
They were sent to kill her because she knew things. About the rich white men around there. They didn’t want her to tell.
They killed her because no one wanted her to say who were the fathers of those children. Daisy and Arthur and Alberta. Mary was the prettiest of all the girls. She was beautiful.
There were only about six cars in the whole county – it was a poor place! The police knew whose car it was. Of course they did.
Imagine Daisy’s memory, of her small body being flung by her mother’s hands to safety, and where she landed, and how it felt. What she saw and heard after that. It’s beyond comprehension: did the men stop and look at Mary Thomas? Was Daisy so scared she knew to keep hidden in the trees or the weeds? Did she breathe? Did she hear her mother’s breath? Did she hear pain or crying? How long did she wait by the roadside, and who drove the next vehicle or wagon that came upon them, and what never left her memory?
Violence like that enters the blood. Changes the DNA. We know this now, from accounts of survivors of genocide, of the Holocaust, of war and torture and imprisonment. Reading historical narratives from the elderly people formerly enslaved in the American South, in places like Sunflower County, Mississippi, reminds us of how injury, rape, and psychological pain were endured, and interred, in the bones and brain.
Some Americans have tried to make slavery a single chapter in the nation’s history, a finite number of years that ceases influence at the end of the Civil War. Tell this to the family of Mary Thomas, and the thousands of other black men and women killed in carefully-planned acts of retribution or for casual sport – from the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was read, through the terrors of Reconstruction, to the countless lynchings between 1900-1950s, to the murders during the civil rights movement, to killings that happen right now. This moment.
By 1989, when Alberta told me that story, her mother, Daisy, had travelled through seven states to make sure Alberta’s childhood was rooted deeply and firmly in a radius of three miles, and we sat in the center of that radius. But Daisy’s odyssey had been long and dangerous, and at the end of it, she had four daughters, and endless secrets.
Daisy Belle Ford Morris Carter remains the mystery woman of our family. We still talk even now about how she never told anyone the identities of the fathers of her daughters. In a time when every pair of high heels chosen for the club, every new hairstyle or cup of coffee is documented in cell phone images with time, date, and exact street location, it seems astonishing that the phrase “she took that knowledge to the grave” could be true. Over six decades, Daisy never told anyone. Maybe those men were so dangerous she knew what she was doing.
And so, so my three daughters, I want to say that these women crossed thousands of miles of hardship so that when I was fourteen and your father was fifteen, he could walk two miles from his house to the end of my street — no one had cars, no one had any money for a date, we met only in parks — where he bounced a basketball in the playground of my elementary school. I walked there to meet him. We sat on the wooden bench against the chainlink fence that separated the playground from the railroad tracks twenty feet away. His shirt: white waffle-weave long underwear with the sleeves cut off for a tank top. I remember the smell of freshly-laundered cotton and Hai Karate even now. My shirt: a halter top I’d sewn from two red bandannas, from a pattern I found in Seventeen magazine. We talked for a long time in the darkness, played a few games of H-O-R-S-E (I wondered why it was always horse and never something more entertaining, like platypus or elephant or anaconda), and returned to the splintery bench. We kissed for the first time.
His arms were the color of palm bark – brown with a glossy red underneath — and his fingers so long and elegant that when he put my palm against his, my whole hand barely came to the middle knuckles. My arms should have been pale, but this was 1975 – girls rubbed Johnson’s baby oil onto their skin and lay at the beach or beside pools to get brown. I had the baby oil – but no beach or pool. I mowed lawns and lay in the bed of my dad’s truck while he drove us to the desert.
Your father pointed to the dark-brown dot on the skin below my collarbone. “What’s that?” he said quietly.
Was I supposed to say mole? Mole sounded terrible. A blind animal nosing out of the earth. I was so near-sighted I could barely see the playground, because I’d left my glasses at home. “Beauty mark?” I said.
He laughed. “That’s if you paint it on your face.”
“All my aunts.”
I remember too the smell of sulfur in the rocks along the railroad tracks, and the pepper trees nearby with their spicy pink berries.
Thousands of miles of migration – from slave ships arrived to America, from boats leaving Europe after World War II, from indigenous peoples, enslaved peoples, hardened ranchwomen, and fierce mothers. The women moved ever west, fled men, met new men, made silent narrow-eyed decisions in the darkness, got on buses and in cars and walked for miles to survive. West until there was no more west.
We were born here, to more dreamers of the golden dream, the ones you never hear about. We moved through the streets of southern California, still with no money, but we had more than those women did when they were girls. We shared one burrito four ways, we rode eight to a car in a Dodge Dart or Ford pickup, we partied in the orange groves or in a field by the towering cement Lily Cup, where our friends’ parents worked at the plant making paper cups that Americans used to hold at the water cooler.
More than a year later, your father finally picked me up in the Batmobile, a 1961 Cadillac with vintage oxidized brown like faded coffee ground, with huge fins as if sharks would chaperone us down the street. The sound was like a freight train. Sitting in the passenger seat, I saw a dark stain along the inside of the door. It was cold, and I asked your father to roll up the window, but he didn’t want me to see the spiderweb cracks around the bullet hole in the glass. Some guy had been leaning against the car window when he was shot. The stains were reminders of his blood. General Sims II, your grandfather, had bought the car from under a pepper tree where it had sat since the murder, covered in California dust. Your father drove me a mile and a half, to General and Alberta’s house, and in the driveway Alberta held out her hand and said, Come and make you a plate, and my life changed.
That is how you, our three daughters, became California girls. Via the Batmobile. You are the apex of the dream, the future of America, and nearly every day of my life I imagine the women watching you, watching all of us as we raised you, hoping they — the ancestors — won’t be forgotten.
Copyright © 2019 by Susan Straight, from In the Country of Women. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.