Nine days after burying their mother in a grove of milkweed and cypress, Ingrid took her sister, Baya, away from the sagging stilt house on the bank of the Dugdemona River. It was April fourteenth. Ingrid sang my heart, my heart, their mother’s lullaby, as they walked down the two-track road among the oaks and hanging mosses through the warm- ing dawn and the earth smell and the smell of the river down the bank. The song, Baya said, set her heart to aching and she begged Ingrid not to sing it but Ingrid said that through the ache would come release and in time Baya would feel the better for it. And so she sang.
Christmas had brought a three month flood during which their mother, bent and pneumonic, had suffered in her cot moaning and coughing wet. Nights that she found her voice, she sang to the girls who sat around the cot in the light of the kerosene lamp. At the height of the flood the house was islanded for nine days and nights and they ate nothing but seed and hard brown bread and what fish they could pull from the standing water around the house. Those days had poured rain from a low sky and thundered, and Baya and Ingrid had spent their time under the eave of the house sharpen- ing sticks with which to spear the moccasins that slid black-headed along the surface of the water. The night their mother died Ingrid had taken the lamp out onto the deck and shined the light out where rose the tips of sub- merged reeds and saw reflected the eyes of a great caiman watching her.
The waters began to recede the following day. When the river returned to its banks and the sun had again returned the world to firmness Ingrid and Baya dug a shallow grave in the predawn light and laid the body in it.
The morning they left the sky was red in the East. It was warm and quiet and sounded only by their footfalls in the dirt and the sharp calls of sand- pipers in the broken reeds. The road for a while followed the bank where mats of dollarweed and stalking chamberbitter already had sprouted in the wake of the flood. They passed down the road as dawn broke golden rising and the thin clouds in the sky paled. Walking hand in hand. Ingrid in her white Sunday dress and polished Sunday shoes and hair combed. Baya four years younger at thirteen in a yellowed dress that had been Ingrid’s and her own Sunday shoes scuffed hand-me-downs as they were. They followed the riverbank, the water slipping by silent and bright, Ingrid fully flowered and pale-haired, Baya darker and still thin-legged and flat and jaunty and loose as a calf. Before long the road turned from the river and, passing through a den of cypress, came to the shoulder of the paved highway.
The sun cleared the tops of the trees and the damp heat pressed down and shined silver-banded on the road. Insects harassed them until they were a few miles from the wetlands and then the air dried out and the bugs quit. At lunchtime they stopped in the cool grass under a pale green willow that grew alone near the collapse of an old house where piles of caved- in slat ringed a still-standing black iron cookstove. In the shade they ate cold chicken and bread which they had brought wrapped in linen in their pockets and they drank tin-tasting water from an army canteen that had been their father’s. They waited for the heat of the day to pass. Baya laid her head down in the crook of Ingrid’s lap. She said, will you put my hair in braids. So Ingrid put her hair into braids. When the braids were finished Baya slept for a while and Ingrid leaned back against the rough bark of the willow. A black truck passed on the road clattering with empty wire chick- en coops. Ingrid drank from the canteen. Midafternoon a breeze picked up and washed cool through the willow, set its thin arms drifting, and Ingrid woke Baya and they stood dusting grass from their dresses and took to the road again.
The afternoon cooled and they spoke some as they walked about what it would be like in New Orleans and they passed the canteen back and forth.
Baya asked how far a walk it was to New Orleans and Ingrid laughed at her and said that they were not walking to New Orleans. They were walk- ing to Tullos where they could get a bus to New Orleans. And that when they reached Cochran Creek they would be halfway. Baya asked how far, then, it was to Cochran Creek, and Ingrid smiled at her and pointed ahead down the road where in the distance stood the dark trusses of a corrugated iron bridge and from there they walked quietly watching it grow larger until they stepped over its threshold and into the crissed shades of the riv- eted struts overhead and felt the coolness of the water moving below them. Baya looked up through the struts. Clouds were gathering white and she looked back the way they had come and saw that behind them moved dark sheets of rain. Halfway across the bridge they stopped and went to the rail and peered down to the water passing between banks of thick reeds where rusted an old fender and some beer cans. Around the guardrail was tied a fishing line that went down and split the current. Baya tugged it, found a heaviness to the line, and said, maybe it’s a catfish. It had grown humid and her face was bright with sweat. Help me pull, she said.
The wind picked up warmer and stronger. Ingrid’s fine yellow hair blew and Baya’s braids shifted. The sun passed through a cloud which darkened the bridge and the water and then brightened again and then it went behind another but this time it did not brighten.
Baya was pulling on the line. Ingrid, she said. Come on now and help me. She pulled such that the line cinched her fingertips white. The road was darkening and the wind moved hushing in the reeds and light ribboned the creek and then the creek was dark. The sky had gathered and the air was heavy and hot and still. The grasses stood unmoving and Baya stood with the line coiled around her fingers.
Ingrid said, it’s going to rain. We got to move along. But Baya insisted she see the fish on the line and suggested, even, that maybe they could camp out and eat it. To which Ingrid said she didn’t think there was a fish on the line at all and that it probably was a log or a root but Baya said, well, let’s just see.
Ingrid said it wouldn’t come up and that it was a snag and to leave it be- cause it was going to rain but Baya already was long-striding down back the way they had come. She went down and around the edge of the bridge and took off the church shoes and left them on the side of the road. Then holding her dress bunched in her hands she stepped sidelong down the steep bank and shifted a twist of thick old dead root from where it was nested in the reeds, an artefact of the flood, and used it to crutch herself back up where she retrieved the shoes and then brought the root held two- handed like a rifle to her sister. The first rain landed warm on the skin of their arms and their faces. Baya twisted the line around the root and then they turned it together and it hauled. The line creaked against the iron edge of the bridge but it held and hauled up heavy and Baya watched over the edge of the rail until the thing broke the surface of the water and hung muddied dripping and hanging with tendrils of dark weed. The ribbed and three-wheeled carapace of a baby carriage. The rain committed then to fall- ing and came hard and straight. The carriage turned on the line dripping mud from the overflowing bassinet and then the line broke and it dropped and sank into the rainbroken water.
They reached the bus station in Tullos after dark that night wet through. The rain had quit and the night cooled and Baya and Ingrid sat close hip against hip on the wood bench in the middle of the terminal where hummed a refrigerated Coca-Cola machine asking ten cents a bottle. After an hour a bus rolled in with Tullos writ in white letters in the windshield. The doors opened. Travellers various: two thin men in hats with canes who moved with the same gait, a soldier uniformed toting a bulging rucksack capped and booted who stepped forth and blinked in the bright light of the termi- nal and rubbed his face in his palms and then walked off into the dark, an ancient and sallow woman with her hair in a bun and a snakeskin handbag and a sleeping infant in a sling across her chest who bought a coke from the machine and then sat down on one of the benches and lit a cigarette, a young nun in a bright blue habit and a travel typewriter in a zipped-up case who asked Ingrid where she could find a cup of tea and Ingrid pointed to the lights up the road and the nun thanked her and blessed her, and others indistinguishable from the racked and wearied itinerants found in any sta- tion on any night in that part of the world, all worn, all hangdog, save the driver, slick-haired and bright-eyed, white-toothed, his uniform pressed, who after total disembarkation sat in his seat with the engine still rumbling looking down the open doors at Baya and Ingrid, smiled, and said, come on up here. And Ingrid stood and moved up on to the metal-toothed step. She spoke to the driver and then came back down. He goes on to New Orleans in the morning, she said.
The driver switched off the light and shut the door. The bus pulled away, its tires loud on the gravel, around back into the dark behind the terminal where the engine idled loud for a minute and then shut off. In a moment the driver came walking back around emerging from the dark into the blue light of the station. He had rolled up his shirtsleeves and was smoking. He approached raising his hand and said, haven’t you two got no place to stay?
Ingrid said that they had hoped the bus would be going on. She said she heard they ran through the night. To which the driver said that often they did, but the flood was still on in some parts and in many places the roads were still awash and that therefore they had to go a roundabout way that was unsafe at night. In case, he said, a levee broke and washed a bridge away. No way to see that in the dark. He removed his hat and pardoned himself for his lack of manners and gave his name as Samuel Hill and by way of apology he asked after their hunger.
Just inside the Tullos town limits stood a wooden three-storey building called The Comfort Hotel. They ate in the cafe that comprised both res- taurant and reception. Baya and Ingrid each had a roast beef sandwich and Hill had steak and grits. He told how he had come down from St. Louis on his route and that he was from Natchez originally and that his great grandfather had been responsible for the deaths of sixteen hundred Union soldiers aboard the steamer Sultana outside of Memphis in 1865 by way of never-proven sabotage. He seemed proud of this fact and asserted that although no medals were given the story was known and for all time he and his family would receive special consideration in most matters of tender or legality. Baya and Ingrid did not comment and Hill watched them with bright eyes smiling and then pushed his plate away and said I can see you don’t believe me about my great grandaddy’s accomplishment.
We never heard of the SS Sultana, said Ingrid. Did we Baya.
Baya shook her head.
Be that as it may, said Hill. He stood from the table wiping his mouth with a paper napkin and went to the shined and marble-patterned countertop where stood a boxy hang-gutted man in a paper hat reading a wornout issue of Photoplay. Hill leaned against the counter and spoke to the man. The man put down the magazine and looked over at Ingrid and Baya where they sat with their empty plates. In his pressed uniform buttoned to the neck Hill appeared dapper against the sagging and rotund small man, a man who combed the last remnants of dark hair across the mottled scalp beneath the paper hat. Hill bent over the man and spoke to him smiling and the man nodded and then Hill straightened and extended his hand and the man shook it and then Hill crossed again the shined floor under the hanging lights back to the table. He sat down and said looking across the table at In- grid that the meal was taken care of and he held his palms out as if to show nothing in them and smiled. A room upstairs as well, he said, free of charge. He brought his palms together as if in prayer and then lowered them to the table and pressed his palms down flat. Ingrid looked at him a long time. It was quiet. The man had left the counter and was mopping in the kitchen and they could hear the sound of the mop plunged into the bucket and the water being pushed across the floor.
Baya, said Ingrid. Why don’t you go on to back to the bus station and get Mr. Hill a cold bottle of Coca-Cola from that machine? She pressed two dimes into her sister’s hand. And get one for yourself too.
Baya said, haven’t they got a soda fountain here?
No they haven’t, said Ingrid. So why don’t you go on.
Baya walked alone back down the road toward the blue lights of the termi- nal in the dark. The night was warm on her bare legs and smelled still of rain. While she walked she tightened the braids that Ingrid had done and tried to say the alphabet backward and she kicked gravels to hear them skipping down the asphalt. When she was not far from the station she saw in the distance a pair of headlights coming which disappeared where the road curved but then appeared again closer and she knew by the look of them that this was another bus. She hurried then and stepped into the light at the station where the bus had pulled up and stood idling. There too was the nun in the blue habit she had seen who smiled at her and raised her hand in greeting and she asked the nun if the bus was going on to New Orleans and the nun said it was. She pointed down the lane past the benches and said you can see what times the buses come there on that bill at the ticket office. Then the nun got on the bus and took a seat halfway back. Baya stood outside the door looking in. An old man sat smoking in the driver’s seat in the same uniform as Hill. He looked down at her but said nothing. When his cigarette was finished he checked his watch. He looked again at Baya and then he reached over and pulled the lever and shut the door.
When Baya returned to the cafe Ingrid and Hill were gone. She stood in the bright light inside the door holding the bottles of Coca-Cola. The man in the paper hat was wiping down the counters. He had put on some clas- sical music which she did not know. She stood at the table where they had been sitting. It had been wiped down by a towel the wetness from which was still drying. She sat down in the seat and scooted up to the window and put her hands against the glass and looked out into the dark but did not see Ingrid or Hill. She looked again at the man in the paper hat who had stopped wiping the counter and he looked again at her and folded up the rag and put it under the counter somewhere. Baya looked out the window again. She did not look away until she heard the sound of a plate being set down. Before her stood the man in the paper hat. He had set down a slice of rhubarb pie on a white plate. He took an opener from the pocket of his apron and opened one of the cokes. Just have some and wait a while he said and turned and went back behind the counter and retrieved the rag and resumed cleaning.
Baya ate a little of the pie and drank half of the coke. She waited a long time. The man in the paper hat finished cleaning and went back into the kitchen with his magazine. The record played out and when it ended the man in the paper hat turned it over and the music started again. He hummed a little with the music. He had a low vibrating voice that Baya liked. She put her head on the table and closed her eyes but before she could sleep she heard the door open and looking she saw it was Ingrid still dressed in her Sunday dress standing in the doorway. Ingrid looked at her and smiled and came inside to the table and slid in to the booth across from Baya smooth- ing the seat of her dress underneath her as she did. I see you got your drink, she said. She was smiling and pale and then she reached out and took the fork from Baya’s plate and slid the plate over and took a bite of the pie. She smiled and said it was good and asked Baya if she didn’t mind her maybe finishing it and Baya said she didn’t.
In a while Ingrid had led Baya up two flights of stairs passing many si- lent doors to a room near the top in which sagged a narrow twin bed with an iron frame and a shuttered window and small dresser. On the dresser stood an empty milk bottle and a lamp. Baya went over to the window and opened it and looked out. Outside was warm and she could see in the dis- tance the blue lights of the bus terminal and beyond a few lights passing on the highway. Ingrid lit the lamp and sat on the bed and then a moment later said Baya’s name and asked her to come sit near. So Baya left the window open for the breeze and went to Ingrid and sat next to her on the bed.
Will he take us in the bus tomorrow?
Yes, said Ingrid. He will take us.
Ingrid laid back and Baya followed. They lay together their legs off the edge of the bed with their hands on their stomachs. Above the ceiling was low and the framing of the roof was visible and in the framing was a spi- der’s web and in the web the spider waited motionless and black in the light of the lamp.
Do you want me to teach you, said Ingrid after a time.
Yes, said Baya. And so Ingrid raised herself up off the bed and crossing took the milk bottle from the dresser and returned to the bed and stood on it stretching upward. Coming back down she said to Baya, Do you remember mama’s lullaby?
I remember, said Baya.
Sometimes I sing it, said Ingrid.
Baya watched the ceiling. Two beams crossed there. Ingrid turned the milk bottle and pressed the mouth of it to the skin of Baya’s thigh and Baya felt the weight of the spider against her skin. The ring-glass mouth of the bot- tle was against Baya’s leg and within it she could feel the lightness of the spider’s legs and her body tightened but she didn’t move. Then Ingrid lifted the bottle away leaving the spider and it started to crawl pinpricking down toward her knee, the hairs on the underside of its abdomen soft brushing. Baya watched the ceiling not taking her eyes from where the two dark Beams of wood crossed. She felt the spider stop and crawl down crossing across the tight skin on the inside curve of her leg, down between the val- ley of her thighs and then gingerly across to her other leg and then back up again. Higher the spider crawled and Ingrid leaned forward and took the hem of Baya’s dress and lifted it. Baya looked to her sister. The dress was yellow cotton but having been Ingrid’s and then her own and having been river washed and wringer-dried for how long now, all their lives, was thinned and paled and through it she could see clearly that Ingrid was watching and the dark shape of the spider on the other side of the fabric. She could feel it crawling slowly and lightly up the highest part of her leg. It moved up and up and Baya sang, be still the river, my heart, my heart, be still the river my heart.