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Lucky Strikes
Author: Louis Bayard



Mama died hard, you should know that.

Nearly died alone, too. Now, most nights, she’d so much as groan, I’d come running, but this was late March, ten days shy of Easter and spring barely a thought, and a dream come and snatched me. I was the princess of a mountain people, and they come right into my bedchamber and asked if I could tame the dragon that was cleaning its teeth with people’s bones, and I said sure. The dragon was living at the bottom of a cavern, half in water, and when it looked up with its yellow-purple eyes, I said, You got some nerve. That was all it took! The thing slunk away, its spiky tail dragging after. And the mountain people, they started cheering for me, calling for me by name, and that was the rub ’cause it took me a long time to hear the voice on the other side of theirs. Calling my name, too, only drawing it out as far as it could be drawn.

“Melia … Meeeelia…”

I scrambled out of bed, threw open the curtain. Mama was rolled over on her side, staring at me.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“I’m so sorry.”

I set down next to her, ran my hand on her brow. It was cold like a pumpkin.

“Sorry for what?” I said.

“Your daddy,” she said.

Her eyes were white and sweaty.

“What about him?” I said.

“He’s…” Her fingers were bent like talons. “Your daddy, he’s…”

She never finished, but I set there just in case she did. Then I felt something. I felt the bed settle.

You know how a mattress sinks under you when someone climbs in? Only there was no one else there climbing in. Just us two.

I don’t know why, but my hand went straight to her hair. And I could feel, beneath the hair, her whole scalp crackling. I think now maybe that was her soul flying off. I’m nearly sure of it because when I looked at the rest of her—her face, her hands—her bare white legs—her eyes—she was empty.

Gone. That’s what they always say about dead folks when they don’t want to say dead. But that’s how it was with Mama. Whatever’d been there a second ago, making her eyelids twitch and her breath hitch … well, somehow or other it’d slipped away when I wasn’t looking. Gone.

I rolled her onto her back. Settled her head on her pillow. Combed her hair one last time. Then I left the room.

Janey and Earle was still asleep when I slipped back into bed. I laid there all night, not an ounce of sleep in me now, trying to figure out how to tell them. At dawn, I shook them awake, same as usual. I said, “Guess what? No school today.”

Which, looking back, was about the worst way I could’ve gone about it. ’Cause they got crazy excited. Is it a holiday? Is tomorrow a holiday? Are we going to miss school all the way clear to Easter?

I didn’t say anything, but there must have been something in my face because Janey spoke up.

“It’s Mama, isn’t it?”

She’s funny that way. Such an odd, dreamy thing you think she’s not even part of the world, only she’s more in it than anyone.

Well, Earle’s face started to crumple, and then the rest of him crumpled, too. Janey set by the stove, wailing and clawing at her head. I tried to think of all the things a grown-up’d say. She’s with God now.… She’s gone to a better place.… We’ll meet her on the other side. They just sounded sour on my tongue. I couldn’t even say “She’s at peace,”’cause when I thought back on how she’d looked—in that very, very last moment—there weren’t a lick of peace in her.

“You got five more minutes to cry,” I said. “Ten minutes to eat your oatmeal. Then we got work to do.”

I wrapped Mama in her two bedsheets, and me and Earle carried her to the truck. Considering how thin she was, she weighed quite a bit. We laid her in the flatbed, and Earle and Janey climbed in the front with me, and we drove out to the hill overlooking Jenkins Orchard. This was Mama’s favorite spot. Back when she was healthy, we’d come here every Sunday afternoon, rain or shine, with a basket of chicken and corn bread and dried-apple stack cake, and we’d sit and watch the sun set over Mr. Jenkins’s silo.

This time, I drove the truck right up to the edge, so close I could hear Earle suck in his breath. We got out, and we were staring down at a hole. Six feet long, three wide, another three or four deep.

“It’s magic,” said Earle.

“Ain’t nothing magic about it,” I said. “I dug it myself.”

Next to the hole was a pile of dirt, neat as I could make it. Janey tapped it with her shoe. “Must’ve taken you a month of Sundays, Melia.”

“Took me five.”

I never told them, but when Mama took sick, I kept coming out here every week. On account of it was just easier to think. After a time, I started bringing a shovel. If you’d asked me what I was going to do with it, I couldn’t have told you. Even when I was digging, I never stopped and thought, This is where we’ll put Mama.

On that fifth Sunday, I looked down, and sure enough, there was a big old hole and but one thing to do with it.

“Here, Earle. Give me a hand.”

The boy give a little shudder, but he tucked his head down and set to work. Together we lifted Mama out of the flatbed and laid her in the ground. I pulled the top sheet off her face, and the three of us, we stood there on the lip of the grave, just looking. I don’t know for how long. Ten minutes, an hour. All the time, I was thinking it was a mistake. She was taking a breather. Any second, she’d jump up and swear about ten thousand oaths (Mama was gifted that way) and ask us what the hell we were doing.

But she didn’t do none of that. She didn’t move a grain.

I knelt down by the hole and reached in until I could touch her forehead. Damn, but it was cold.

“She needs a coffin,” said Earle.

“We can’t afford one.”

“Then we ought to say something.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, something holy.”

“Well, don’t look at me,” I said. “When was the last time you saw me in church?”

“I been to Sunday school,” said Janey.

“Then give it your best crack,” I said.

She tugged on her collar and cast her eyes off.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down. I will fear no evil. Blessed are the poor. Do unto others as you would have them do. He who is without sin. For thine is the kingdom. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. The Lord is my shepherd.…”

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