The First Beginning: The Curse
Malachi 2:2 (NRSV)
…if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse on you; indeed I have already cursed them…
Lying is easy. It’s the Truth that’ll wear you down.
If living had taught her nothing else in ninety-some-odd years, Mattie Fuller had at least learned that fact. And as sure as those billowy, gray clouds were rolling in from the northwest to pay a visit with much needed rain, she knew that soon—and very soon—she would have another opportunity to lie. To whom? She didn’t know. The exact time? She didn’t know that, either. But soon.
“Gone, now. Git down,” she scolded the mutts that were jumping, licking and nipping at her hands, bringing her round from the surety of the unknown to the here and now.
Now the strays, that were here tonight butmight have moved on by morning, wanted water and the crushed, mutilated meat by-products in the open cans of Alpo. Mattie gave them what they begged for…and extra. A generous compensation for the lies and denials she would have to feed the prying visitors when they showed up to plague her. With empty cans left scattered in the yard—Governor would pick them up, he always did—Mattie slowly shuffled across the rock-hard dirt, eyes cast downward, searching the veins of the earth for a beginningand an end. Learning nothing from the dust, she climbed the steps of her back porch.
Lowering herself into her Mama’s old rocking chair, her gray-rimmed, black eyes lifted to focus on the white Holy Bible with gold embossed lettering that was lying on a straight-back chair on the back porch next to her. It wasn’t the color-infused pictures of Jesus Christ and his disciples or the maps of the ancient lands or the lyrical words of scripture that drew Mattie to it, but rather the secret concealed inside the covers of The Good Book. Inside those razor-induced slits were onion skin papers, some with her left-handed scrawl, and they contained the Truth of her family.
Her old eyes searched carefully around the backyard and beyond to the trees and woods and outlying structures that surrounded her family’s home before reaching for the Bible and withdrawing the papers of Truth. Mattie unfolded and smoothed one sheet of the fragile document in her flower-printlap. As it always did, one name leaped off the page. That name, more than the others, twisted her heart, wringing a groan of agony out of her. It was the only name that made the paper of Truth a lie. Willie shouldn’t be on the paper. His name should only be engraved on a headstone, not this flimsy paper weighted down with pain.
Big brother Willie, eighty years dead, along with the rest of the family, had just stirred to life in Mattie’s memory. The rooster had crowed only minutesbefore, Mama had breakfast sizzling on the stove, and Daddy was already in the woods checking the pine tree harvest.
Helen, older than Willie, saw them coming first. Pitch-black, high-yellow, red-boned, damn-near white, honey-tan and velvet- brown in color. On foot, in carriages, on horses, and in wagons they came, crowding their big front yard. Family members all sharing the same blood, all seeking to absolve the hatred in their eyes, the fear in their hearts.
Helen had yelled and screamed, pulling the kids and Mama from their morning chores. Six of the seven residents of the house—Mama and five children, ranging in age from fourteen to three—crowded the front porch. Daddy was missing. Maybe if Daddy had been there Willie would have lived another day. Maybe not.
“Another death last night,” said the leader, Uncle Jess. “We know it’s your boy.”
None of the six on the porch had to guess which of the three boys hemeant. All eyes were fixed on Willie. Mischievous Willie, who used to pull Mattie’s hair with one hand while giving her candy and fruit with the other. No one knew what to make of Willie’s confusing ways.
“We’re ending this right now, Aldana. Right now, it stops.”
Mama pushed Willie behind her, trying to protect him from the hatred and ignorance that crowded her front yard. But Mama was a little woman and the rest just kids. What could they do to stop an intensemob—women, men, children, teenagers, all blood relatives—that pressed forward? Some held sticks, some knives, some pitchforks, some axes. All had ugly expressions on their faces.
Mama tried to reason with all that ugliness. “If he were the one, what you aim to do won’t help. Only I can stop it.”
“Hand him over.” Uncle Jess stepped menacingly forward. They weren’t willing to listen to common sense or family knowledge. They were too far gone; too filled with hate, fear and blood lust. “Don’t make this hard.”
Mama leaned down low and whispered something to Willie. But Uncle Jess must have heard it too, because as soon as Willie took off running around the side of the house, Uncle Jess and the family were right behind him. By the time the five on the porch made it to the backyard, the family had already disfigured Willie so badly, he was unrecognizable. Helen stood closest to the back porch, holding her ears, rocking,sobbing, screaming. Mattie bent low, toddling between the legs of the many aunts, uncles, and cousins who had changed her diaper, given her birthday presents, and passed her from one lap to the other in church.
Mama screamed and tried to stop the final blow of Uncle Jess’s ax as it landed hard in Willie’s chest, but hatred outwrestled a mother’s love. Another Uncle locked Mama in his arms while Uncle Jess carved the heart from Willie’s body and lifted it high for all tosee. It was a deep burgundy red—not black, like they had imagined.
Hatred seeped out of the air like the sun evaporating moisture. Slowly, blindly, the dazed crowd stumbled to the front of the house. Anywhere but the place of their mistake. Confusion and disbelief clouded their faces. Regret rested on some of them, but for most, it was disbelief.
The family’s loud bloodletting cries must have reached Daddy in the woods because he appeared as the last family member rounded the corner of the house. Daddy didn’t need an explanation. The heart lying by the mutilated body of his first-born son was explanation enough. He fell to his knees, hands stretched wide, his chest heaving in and out, doing what it could to hold in his anger, the need for revenge, the pain. Willie had been thirteen years old and he was now dead for no reason other than desperation and fear.
And so, the family lived on. The curse lived on. But Willie was gone forever andhis story…it was hushed up and eventually, it died too.
After a while, her parents had seemed to understand. She and her siblings had not. But eventually, Mattie understood—after she was given custody of the Bible and the Truth. She didn’t have a choice but to understand, to accept, to protect; to do her duty to her family.
Mattie stared at the paper, wiping tears from her ancient eyes. With her crooked finger as a guide, she compared her memory to the names.Stopping at the last entry, she wondered if her unknown visitors would bring the end for her. Lord knows she prayed every day for deliverance. She was tired, heavy-hearted, and ready to leave the harshness of this family secret. Mattie was ready to be with Mama, Daddy, Helen, Willie, Floyd and Johnny in Heaven.
But Mattie’s purpose was not yet complete. More names to scratch on the paper; and only the Lord knew how many more deaths before she could rest.