Joanna’s mother figured out she was pregnant before Joanna mustered the courage to tell her, and after kicking Joanna around the house, she kicked her out. Joanna had been working as a cashier at the Food Lion for about six months by that point, and had recently bought herself a rusted old Camry, so when she moved out of her mother’s house she moved into the back seat of the Camry. She kept her job at the Food Lion, washing herself with a sink full of water and a rag in the employee bathroom before her shift, going to the laundromat when she got off to wash her uniform and eat a gas station sandwich or dollar cheeseburger under the fluorescent light as she listened to the laundry’s symphony of swish and boom. Both the supermarket and the laundromat were air-conditioned places where she could be out of the muggy wet heat of the summer. Even after the sun set the hot sky pressed down on her, got in all her cracks and left her grimy and damp.
Joanna wasn’t sure what else to do but what she was doing, and thought she could live like that for a while without much problem while she built her savings back up. She’d emptied her stashed coffee can to buy the Camry, and she guessed that had been a good idea. She was short enough to lie flat like a plank of wood in the back seat at night, staring up at the cobwebs of disintegrating fabric that had once been the sedan’s ceiling, both hands cupped over her stomach. She had tried to explain to her mother that she was a virgin, that her baby had been sent by God, but her mother had called her every word she knew for whore as she hurled Joanna’s stuff out on the front porch.
Joanna figured, what with the baby coming, the best thing she could do was work and save money, so she took every shift she could get ringing up groceries at the Food Lion until one day another kind of salvation came to her register.
Malachi Moore had a reputation in town. He’d done a drag show in Atlanta in the 1980s that was famous, even in Martha. The folks in Martha who talked about the show didn’t talk about knowing Malachi when he was a boy, though they had, and when he came back to Martha in the late 1990s after the death of his mother, they didn’t approach him. Still, the talk became more voracious and reached a fever pitch when, for a time, Malachi started showing up for Sunday church service.
That’s where Joanna had first seen him in person. He sat in the back pew and never took off his coat or his sunglasses. He was always the first to leave and didn’t come around for potluck dinners or the Christmas pageant. One year, he stopped coming at all.
She’d seen him in the store before but he had never come to her register. On the day when he did, he was wearing a yellow shawl that looked more like a cloud than a piece of clothing, and sunglasses big enough to hide all the details of his face except his nose and lips, both china-doll small. He asked for a pack of Virginia Slims then stood smacking them against the palm of his hand while Joanna rang up and bagged his groceries – cheese with foreign names she couldn’t read, a fresh loaf of sourdough bread, a shining silver side of salmon, a bag each of mandarin oranges and Vidalia onions. Her feet throbbed in her stained white Keds.
‘I hear you’re pregnant,’ he said. He put away the pack of cigarettes after tucking one behind his ear and flipping one upside down, and now he was holding his credit card expectantly between two fingers. ‘Out of wedlock, no less.’ Joanna felt her face get hot. He was breaking a small-town rule – no matter how much gossip you’ve heard or been told about a person, you should pretend you don’t know who they are until you’ve been formally introduced. Malachi slid his glasses down his nose and looked over them. ‘The biddies are having a field day, you know. You really blew their skirts up with this one.’ The tone she’d taken as invasive felt conspiratorial now. His voice was a raspy whisper and she leaned in to make out his words. ‘I’m here to welcome you to the club.’
‘The club?’ she asked, with the lurching feeling of having expected one more step in a flight of stairs.
‘We don’t have meetings but everyone knows our business. We’re people who should probably move elsewhere.’ It was a joke he seemed to think she was in on. She watched him and he watched her. Then he pushed his sunglasses back onto his face.
‘We’re black sheep, honey,’ he said. ‘Outcasts. Misfit toys.’
Joanna rubbed a bunch of bananas across the scanner, waiting for the beep. The thought of being an outcast in this town where she had been born and raised was prickly. The thought produced its own heat, was lodged at the base of her throat. Finally, the beep. She put the bananas in a bag and read out his total. He took his time sliding his card, pushing the buttons on the keypad to complete his transaction. A line had grown behind him, people craning their necks to see what was taking so long.
‘Hang in there, kid,’ he said, and was gone.
She saw him again in the Food Lion parking lot a couple of days later, after the store had closed and the sun had set but recently enough that the sky was still a dusky shade of purple. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of the Camry eating a dollar cheeseburger from the McDonald’s across the street. She hit her head on the roof of the car and choked on a mouthful of patty and bun when she heard a sharp, rapid tapping on the glass beside her. She turned to see Malachi peering down at her from behind his owlish glasses, these with regular lenses instead of tinted. The lenses magnified his eyes, which were the smooth colour of a robin’s egg. Joanna cranked the handle that rolled down the window.
‘Cosy spot for a picnic.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ Joanna said, holding up her half-eaten hamburger.
‘And a well-balanced meal, too.’ He studied her in the thickening darkness. Behind him, the parking lot lights turned on. They made Joanna think of UFOs. ‘Listen, I’ve got a pot of chili simmering on the stove at home. You wanna follow me back there and have a bowl?’
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a business proposition for you. I promise I won’t lock you in my basement.’
Joanna had always thought he was handsome, or something adjacent to handsome. Mysterious, glamorous, complicated. He was painfully thin, smoked long cigarettes outside the church after service, bought ten bottles of wine sometimes at the Food Lion as if he were planning a party, though no one in town would claim him as a friend. Joanna had always hoped he would come down her aisle so she could get a closer look, hear what his voice sounded like, see if he had any interesting scars. Now he had, and she felt like her life had forked off in a new direction. His voice was low, gravelly but soft. No scars around his eyes or on his delicate wrists, though the skin in both places was thin and white as paper. He wore a delicate gold chain around his neck and what looked like a little powder on his nose and cheeks. She followed him back to his house. He drove a butter-coloured Cadillac the size of a barge and drifted in his lane, correcting with a jerk every minute or so.
She parked behind him on the street and followed him up the paving-stone path to the front door. The house was an old Victorian on the edge of downtown that she had always loved, its windows intricate and milky or stained glass, its siding powder blue.
‘I always wondered who lived in this house,’ she said as Malachi fumbled with the lock. Inside, a dog was yapping, high-pitched and insistent.
‘Well, for a long time my mother and I lived here, and then for a long time only my mother lived here, and since 1998 only I have lived here.’ The door gave at last and swung inward. Joanna sneezed. The house was dark but she could make out towers of books and magazines lining the walls of the foyer, which was otherwise grand with a sweeping staircase and tall clock that wasn’t ticking. The foyer was very quiet now because the dog, a matted Pomeranian, was busy sniffing the tops of Joanna’s sneakers.
‘This way,’ Malachi said, picking up the Pomeranian and disappearing down the hall, turning on lights as he went. Following behind him, she stared around. She began to think the stacks of reading material would fall into each other, the hallway would end and she would be trapped forever – but a door appeared in front of her and she stepped through it into the bright, jumbled kitchen. The overhead light cast deep shadows beneath everything. ‘Sorry it’s so stuffy in there,’ he said, pulling out a chair at the kitchen table and indicating that she should sit. ‘My mother never could throw anything away and I’m afraid I’ve been a bit overwhelmed trying to decide where to start.’ The kitchen counters were crammed with every type of appliance; the walls sagged under the weight of hanging cast-iron pans. The linoleum was dotted with pink roses and stained yellow.
‘This is Muffy,’ he said, lifting the Pomeranian and kissing her nose before setting her on the floor. She yipped and disappeared beneath the white eyelet tablecloth. Joanna felt her moving under there, pressing her wet nose to the skin of her ankle, exhaling hot air. Joanna feared the dog’s teeth but never felt them. Malachi busied himself with bowls. The smell of the chili mixed with a mustier smell of old paper, old clothes, but still Joanna’s stomach grumbled. The pregnancy, so far, had not plagued her with much nausea except in the beginning, when her mother heard her retching in the bathroom and broke in, pointing a long, trembling finger.
‘How long are you planning to work on your feet in this condition?’ Malachi said a little later, as he watched Joanna eat a second bowl of chili. She looked up at him, her chin stained with red broth.
‘I gotta work,’ she said around a mouthful. ‘I’ve got a baby coming.’
‘Can I assume, since you followed me here in a car, that you can drive and have a valid driver’s license?’ he asked. Joanna blinked, again feeling like she’d missed a step.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Well, I have to stop,’ he said. ‘Driving. I’m looking for someone to chauffeur me around so I can run my errands. Like Miss Daisy, did you ever see that film? Morgan Freeman is a doll in it, so young. I’ll pay better than the Food Lion.’
‘I’ll do it,’ Joanna said without a moment of consideration. ‘When do you want me to start?’
‘Well,’ he said, watching her wipe the inside of her bowl clean with a wedge of cornbread, ‘I really need help with more than just driving. What I really need is a caretaker, someone to help me keep the house, cook, what have you.’
‘Oh,’ Joanna said. ‘Well, I’ve been taking care of my brother and sisters most of my life. I can make stuff like sandwiches, a box of mac and cheese. I guess I wouldn’t say I’m a real good cook.’
‘Well,’ he said again, sitting back in his chair, crossing his thin legs like she’d seen her mother do, one knee over the other, shins like long bodies pressed together. ‘I don’t know about the macaroni and cheese, but I think we might be able to make it work. That is, if you think you’ll be able to stay here with me full-time. I know the house isn’t in the best shape right now, but I really need you on site, so if you think—’
Joanna jumped up from her chair and hugged his neck so tightly he gasped for air.
She drove him around in his mother’s Cadillac. In the daylight it was more like the colour of lemons, but it ran smoothly and she felt important driving it. Malachi held a cigarette between his fingers the whole time they were in the car but didn’t light it until they stopped and he got out. She waited in the air conditioning, listening to the Latin radio station or the classical music station or the news station, whichever he’d turned on when they got in, as he darted into different stores downtown and emerged with paper-wrapped packages, plastic bags. Sometimes he’d climb in beside her and show off his newly acquired treasure, sometimes he put his purchases in the trunk of the car. Car rides with her mother were long, silent affairs, but Malachi pretended to play instruments along with the music. When he knew the words to a song he belted them. He was always pointing, shouting over the radio, ‘Look at that bird!’ or, ‘Oh, cows!’ On the days when he turned on the news station he was tense and quiet, leaning on the hood of the car and chain-smoking before he went into the bank or the utility company and again before he got back in the car. She tried to listen to the news with him because he said it was important, but most of the words were gibberish to her. Her mind wandered to the baby, which she pictured like a little shrimp curled inside of her. She thought it was its own source of heat, because while she wasn’t sick she did feel a burning inside of herself all the time. The angel who had visited her had not told her what it would feel like to be pregnant with a child of God, what to expect, but the angel had been burning so hot that she had worried, distantly, about him being near the water heater and the curtain she used to separate her makeshift room from the kitchen of her mama’s house. So she wasn’t surprised that the baby might be a thing of fire, too.
They went into the grocery store together so that Joanna could help Malachi find the items he needed. He said the labels and boxes were becoming a blur, the words impossibly small and indistinguishable from one another. Joanna avoided eye contact with her former co-workers who watched the strange pair work their way up and down the aisles and then leaned their heads together to whisper back and forth behind their hands.
They fell into each other easily. Malachi didn’t ever mention that Joanna had been living out of her car, and she didn’t mention any of the things she’d heard said about him when her mother was on the phone in the kitchen or had friends over for coffee. She didn’t mention the things she’d heard from the Reverend of the church they had, for a while, both attended, and she kept like a secret her own belief that he could change himself now and escape an eternity of hell, that homosexuality could be something she might help him leave in the past. At night before she fell asleep, in her little room at the top of the stairs with a window that looked out over the back garden, she thought about how he might love her, if he would.
There was one thing that had been said in town that she did bring up. Over breakfast one morning she mentioned, in a tone she hoped was casual, offhand, that she’d written a report on AIDS and HIV for her eighth-grade Health Sciences class, so she knew that a lot of what people said about it was wrong, including that you could catch it just from being near somebody who had it. Malachi turned his ear towards her as she spoke and when she was done, he nodded.
‘You’re right that a lot of people don’t understand the reality of living with HIV,’ he said, and then added, gently, ‘I was lucky to escape a plague that took many of my friends.’ She flushed pink then and bowed her head because she understood that she had not understood at all, and was ashamed by how heroic she had felt, and by the fear she had also harboured like a silent, unbreakable egg as she’d moved through the house, disinfecting surfaces with the passion of a holy crusade. In the silence between them, there was unfolding realisation.
‘I have something called macular degeneration,’ he told her then. ‘Which means I’m gradually losing my eyesight, and they can’t do anything to stop it. It’s common among the elderly. My doctor says I’m his youngest, healthiest patient. Sometimes it’s genetic – my mother had eyes like a hawk until the day she died. But my father was younger than I am now when he died. Doc says it might have come from him.’
‘Will you go blind?’ Joanna asked, barely above a whisper. Her face and ears still burned.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Probably sooner rather than later. I’m pretty healthy otherwise, the doctor says I should adjust. But I already feel unsettled, sort of like…’ He held his hands out to the side as if he were trying to steady himself, moved his body as if he were rocked by waves. ‘That’s why I need you here. Even if I do eventually adjust, it’s going to take time.’
Both of their bedrooms were in the upstairs part of the house, which was a bit tidier though still stacked with old magazines, on each cover a grinning, nameless woman, teeth gone brown with the paper’s age and exposure to dust. Joanna’s room, however, was small but clean. Just a bed, a dresser, the window which she loved, a rug on the worn wood floor. Malachi slept late but Joanna woke with the sun every morning and worked to clear away the clutter.
‘Sometimes I want to burn the place down and start over,’ Malachi had told her as he led her sideways up the stairs for the first time. ‘There’s no rhyme or reason to what the old woman kept, it’s like she was trying to wall herself up in here.’ Joanna threw away stacks of yellowed newspapers dating back to the 1940s. She started in the hallway just outside her bedroom and worked her way down to Malachi’s door, then down the stairs. When the morning sun was getting short and shadows were creeping back into the house and she knew he’d be awake soon, she’d tiptoe downstairs, making as little noise on the stairs as possible, and put the kettle on for tea. By the time he came down she had his breakfast set out – fruit, toast, black tea with one cube of sugar. She wanted to do for him. In their short time together she had already developed a hard pearl of love for him that she kept in her stomach with the baby, where her two most precious things grew together and each made the other stronger.
He insisted she sit down and eat with him, peppered her with questions about her life.
‘So your mama gave you the boot when she found out?’ he asked one morning as she spread butter on her toast. ‘Godly woman such as her, I’d expect her to consider any child a blessing.’
‘I tried to tell her this baby is a blessing,’ Joanna said, taking a thoughtful bite of her breakfast. ‘It’s a gift sent directly from God.’
‘I guess your mama can’t see past the sin of premarital sex. I’m a fan, personally.’
‘Weren’t no premarital sex,’ she said, putting down the piece of toast and looking very serious. ‘I’m a virgin, Malachi.’ They watched each other across the table. He opened his mouth but didn’t speak. ‘Look, I know it sounds crazy, okay? Mama didn’t believe it – I don’t expect you to. But this is a child of God I’m carrying. An angel came and told me so. And I ain’t ever had sex before anyway so I know it can’t be from that. I don’t know much about that stuff but I know what it takes to make a baby.’
‘What do you mean, a child of God?’ Malachi asked. His face was calm, blank. The opposite of how her mother’s had looked when Joanna had confessed, had tried to explain. He sipped his tea. Joanna tore her toast into little pieces, her fingers slick with butter.
‘Well, I mean… what I mean is, an angel came down and I don’t remember what he said or really what he looked like, there was so much light and heat it was like he was made of it and he said that God was going to put a baby in my stomach and I had to take good care of it because it was gonna save the world. He didn’t exactly say that I don’t guess, but that’s the feeling I got from him anyway.’
‘That’s incredible, Joanna,’ Malachi said, watching her closely. ‘You don’t think it could have been a dream?’
‘No, it weren’t no dream.’
‘And you told your mama all this?’
‘Sure. I thought she’d be happy if she knew. She was chosen, you know, much as I was. But she said I made it all up just to get out of a whoopin’ and then she gave me one. A good one.’
‘It’s just your mama and all you kids, right?’
‘Well, she had a husband for a while. Daniel. He was mean as hell.’ She covered her mouth. ‘Sorry, ’scuse me. Anyway, he died a couple years back and it was just her for a while. She was working herself bone-thin at the mill trying to keep us all fed, me and my brother Lucas and the twins, Margie and Sam. And then I guess recently she’s been seeing this man from the church, Mr Jones. She called him Jonesy. He was real nice for a while. He brought us a DVD of The Little Mermaid when he came to pick her up for their first date. That one was always my favourite. He’d take us all out to breakfast at the IHOP. Best Daniel ever did was the Waffle House, and that was only after he was promoted to night manager at the mill. Anyway. Mr Jones seemed like a good guy, and then he didn’t seem like such a good guy anymore. He really wasn’t any good at all.’ Malachi waited some time for her to continue but she stared down at her plate of toast crumbs and didn’t speak again.
It was autumn in the garden and Joanna was raking leaves. Malachi could hear them whispering down, landing on the concrete beside him. He could see their shadows interrupting the sunlight.
‘Joanna,’ he called out. ‘Come sit with me.’ He was lounging in one of the lawn chairs, an afghan over his lap. She treated him like he was much frailer than he actually was, and sometimes he let her. A warm-cool wind blew through, wet with the promise of rain, and the leaves Joanna had been raking were scattered back around the yard. She turned, refracting sunlight, and cried out, but Malachi waved his hand.
‘Let them go,’ he said. ‘You can try again tomorrow – there will be twice as many then.’
‘I’m trying to stay on top of things,’ Joanna said as she sat down beside him. ‘Isn’t it a beautiful day? I love the fall.’
‘It depresses me, everything dying.’ Malachi looked at her sidelong. When he was wearing his glasses he could still make out the features of her face, but without them, she was fading away. She was a bright spot in the darkness that filled the edges of his vision now. Sometimes her brightness was a warm yellow, sometimes a cool blue. As they sat in the garden together it was the colour he remembered of autumn leaves, bright yellow and muted orange and crimson.
‘I was doing some research on the computer yesterday,’ Malachi said, sitting up a bit in his chair and pushing the afghan aside. ‘Since you won’t go to the doctor, I figured I would see what I could find out on my own with the power of the world wide web. They have this text-to-speech feature now. It’s the future, I tell you what.’
‘Just listen, okay? I wonder if you’ve ever heard of hysterical pregnancy?’ Joanna shook her head. She was looking at a spot up in the trees where sometimes they had seen a pair of owls. She didn’t see them now, wondered if they would stay through the winter. ‘It’s when a woman thinks she’s pregnant and her body starts producing hormones in response to that idea she has. The hormones force her body to imitate a pregnancy, get bigger around the middle, even though she’s not really pregnant. It can happen sometimes when a woman… experiences trauma.’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Joanna said, and now she couldn’t help grinning. She looked over at Malachi, who had turned his whole body towards her and was holding up his hands. This sweet man thought it was more likely she had imagined herself pregnant than that she was carrying the Lord’s baby. She laughed.
‘Are you laughing?’
‘Oh, Malachi,’ she said, and she put her hand on his arm.
‘Joanna, I’m just saying, you might not want to get your hopes up too high.’
Malachi had an appointment in downtown Atlanta and he needed Joanna to drive him, so for the first time she rode down from the lip of the interstate into the belly of the city. She was wearing a dress Malachi had sewn for her. It was the most beautiful thing Joanna had ever owned, white with a print of bluebirds and peonies, and was stained with flecks of blood around the hem where he had repeatedly nicked his fingers, his eyes too tired to see straight even with the help of his bifocals and a magnifying glass. He had measured her protruding stomach, stood her in front of the long mirror in his bedroom in her underwear and crouched and wrapped his tape around her at different intervals. Joanna had blushed furiously, hadn’t been able to look at herself in the mirror, but the dress was a perfect fit when he zipped her into it the morning of his appointment.
He knew his way around the city, guiding her easily through downtown, soothing her panic on 1-75 where she pushed the Cadillac to its limit and never hit seventy while cars zoomed past going fast enough to rock the Cadillac in their wake and some even blew their horns. The city was loud and full up and grimy. Joanna was busy staring; Malachi had to remind her to watch the road. She saw women in high heels and short skirts and severe hairstyles, men in suits, men in rags with signs that said things like If Jesus Came Back TODAY, He Would HATE YOU and Mercury is not a planet and Ralph Nader for President. There were cats everywhere – every time she saw one she whipped her head around to keep it in view.
‘I might have been better off driving myself,’ Malachi said when they finally found an empty parking spot in the garage attached to his doctor’s office. He took off his glasses and wiped his face with a kerchief from his jacket pocket and then looked at her, his eyes shining, wet around the rims, his eyebrows working inward, only seeing a blurry shape of her, all blue shadow in the cool shade of the garage. She found his hand in his lap and squeezed it. It felt like the bird she’d found on the porch when she was a girl, which she’d picked up and placed in a shoebox and taken to her bedroom. She’d dug in the wet dirt of the backyard with her fingers that afternoon, collecting worms, and then crept through the house, her shoes and the hem of her dress and her fingernails red with clay, to lower the cool, writhing worms towards the beak of the injured bird. The bird ignored the worms and was dead on its side in the shoebox the next morning. The worms inched their way around its shrivelling body.
The doctor’s office was the fanciest building Joanna had ever been inside. The walls were painted smooth, neutral colours, and the huge, glossy plants in the pots around the waiting room were real. Joanna discovered this when she pressed the edge of her fingernail into one of the plants’ smooth stalks and it gaped crisply apart. She glanced at the receptionist, who was not watching her, and then hid her face behind a two-year-old edition of TIME magazine. Noontime sunlight poured through the floor-to-ceiling windows, which looked out on a spiky grey view of Atlanta. Joanna felt woozy when she looked out the window so she stared at the magazine without really reading it. Some time later, she looked up and noticed a woman was watching her and smiling.
‘When are you due?’ the woman asked.
‘Oh,’ Joanna said, resting a hand on her stomach. ‘Um…’
‘How far along are you?’ the woman asked.
‘About four months, I think,’ Joanna said, and the woman raised her eyebrows, her smile faltering.
‘You think? Well, that belly sure popped, didn’t it?’ the woman said, and then her face creased with a smile again as she leaned closer. ‘Twins?’ Joanna shook her head, her eyes wide. ‘Huh. I’ve had three babies and I was never showing that much at four months,’ the woman said. Her eyes returned to Joanna’s stomach, looking with such ferocity that Joanna wondered whether the woman had x-ray vision and could see the mystery sleeping there. She lowered her hand so that it blocked the bump, and the woman settled back in her chair. Joanna flipped a page of the magazine and found herself staring down at Nicole Kidman’s face, block text across the bottom reading ‘I Did What I Had To Do.’
Malachi was smiling when a nurse led him back into the waiting room, but he didn’t answer when Joanna asked him what the doctor had said. They stopped for lunch at a deli he guided her to by memory. He kept his head leaned back and his eyes closed. Joanna found parking down the street with time on the meter. She added another quarter and then went to Malachi’s side and opened his door.
‘I’m starving,’ he said as he swapped his coke-bottle eyeglasses for the pair of prescription sunglasses that hid half his face. He applied a layer of lightly tinted chapstick to his lips, smacking and rubbing them together. Then he accepted her outstretched hand and stood up. He seemed older than he had in the morning, when he’d zipped her into the new dress in a puddle of sunshine in her little bedroom. He didn’t often move like he was going blind, but today he let Joanna lead him all the way inside the restaurant and then to the booth, where he waited as she ordered their sandwiches at the counter.
Joanna wanted to ask him again about the doctor’s visit, but the deli was teeming with diners all eating and talking and she would have had to shout to be heard. Instead, she leaned in and tried to hear the story he was telling about the nights he came to the deli in drag with his friends from the city, how he would flirt with the owner, an old man with a face like a raisin. The old man would load Malachi’s sandwich with extra pickles.
After lunch, Joanna was trying to remember how to get back to the interstate when Malachi gave her directions to go the opposite way.
‘I need to make another stop,’ Malachi said, his head leaned back, his eyes closed behind his sunglasses. ‘Take a left on Alabama Avenue and then right on Seventh Street. Sinead lives in the green bungalow with the chickens in the front yard.’ Joanna didn’t think she’d be able to find the place on that description alone, but the house stood out like a sore thumb on the wide, oak-lined street. A rainbow flag blew gently from the front porch, and a collection of rusted metal sculpture filled a yard that was, indeed, dotted with bright, clucking chickens.
Sinead was a doula, a reiki practitioner and self-proclaimed shaman, what Malachi described as a real crunchy granola type, and Joanna loved her on first sight. She had long grey hair and wore sack dresses and went barefoot. She met them in the driveway, gathered Malachi up in a bone-crushing hug. Joanna hung back, but Sinead gathered her up too and then held her out at arm’s length and looked her over.
‘She sure is a pretty thing, isn’t she, Mal?’ Sinead beamed.
‘She sure is,’ Malachi said.
The house was full of animals, cats and birds in cages and out of cages. A small grey parrot sidled up to Joanna where she sat on the couch and clucked suggestively.
‘Hallelujah,’ the bird said. Joanna stared. Malachi and Sinead had gone into the kitchen to put together snacks and she could hear them talking in low tones. The bird stared back at Joanna. ‘Glory, glory Hallelujah,’ it croaked. A large Persian cat leapt into her lap then and the bird screeched and stretched its trembling wings. It scurried on fast twig feet back up the couch to a perch inside its open cage. The Persian rubbed itself against Joanna, who sneezed. She buried her fingers in its long white fur, perfectly smooth and soft and smelling of lilac. The cat’s purr was like an old car starting up.
‘So, Joanna,’ Sinead said, coming back into the living room with a tray bearing a full tea service. Malachi came behind her balancing a plate of cookies. ‘Oh, shoo, Buttercup,’ Sinead said, dropping the tray on the table with a clatter of china and flapping her hands at the Persian cat.
‘She’s all right,’ Joanna said as the cat landed heavily on the floor.
‘How is your nausea, dear girl?’ Sinead asked, settling lightly on a rattan armchair and pouring tea from the pot into each of their cups. ‘Rooibos tea,’ she said, lifting her own cup and toasting Joanna with it. ‘A wonderful antioxidant. Now, the nausea.’
‘I haven’t had any for a while now I guess,’ Joanna said, burning her top lip on the tea.
‘Ah, of course not. Indigestion?’
‘Not… really.’ Joanna looked at Malachi who was smiling placidly into his cup.
‘Are your gums sensitive?’ Joanna shook her head. ‘Backaches? Dizziness?’
‘No, I’m okay.’
‘Hm.’ Sinead studied her closely. ‘And you’re quite sure you’re pregnant?’
‘She’s pregnant,’ Malachi said. Joanna looked at him.
‘Well,’ Sinead said, and she left her tea to flit around the room, opening drawers, booting up her computer. ‘I have some wonderful literature here I can give you about what’s best to eat and exercises you can do without putting too much stress on the foetus.’ Some time later, Joanna sat with a lap full of papers, some warm from the printer, some wrinkled and stained. Malachi and Sinead had floated out of the room again, and the house was quiet except for the ruffling of feathers, the clicking of beaks and claws. Joanna flipped through the pages. One was covered with black-and-white cartoon fruit and listed foods to eat during the second trimester and their benefits. Spinach, lentils, oatmeal. Joanna wrinkled her nose. A hastily stapled packet included a thirty-day low-impact yoga routine. Joanna looked closely at the pictures, squinted her eyes, tried to make sense of the arrangement of ankles, arms. The girl in the grainy pictures was always grinning, her face twisted towards the camera as she modelled each pose. Blank worksheets with the heading SYMPTOMS JOURNAL and different sections for body aches, food reactions, dreams. Joanna’s dreams were frightening. She forgot them moments after waking but spent days haunted by the feeling of them. The thought of writing them down made her stomach churn.
Buttercup twisted herself around Joanna’s ankles, warm and vibrating. Suddenly Joanna did feel nauseous, she felt claustrophobic, she could hardly breathe. She stood up and walked into the kitchen, looking for Malachi. She saw him through the kitchen window, standing in the garden, and stepped outside. The back garden was as beautiful as the front garden was chaotic. Fall’s last flowers bloomed like a fairy ring around a lawn of bright green moss and sea-foam lichen. A small greenhouse sat like a jewel near the back fence, and Malachi stood there talking to Sinead who was just inside. They waved at Joanna when she stepped out onto the deck.
‘We better go soon if we’re going to beat the traffic,’ Malachi said, as if he had come looking for her and not the other way around.
‘I’m ready,’ Joanna said, though she was feeling better in the garden. It was easy to forget they were in downtown Atlanta, that just beyond the phalanx of trees was a whole city sprawl, but Joanna could taste the smog on the air as she gulped deep lungfuls.
‘Let’s go, kiddo,’ Malachi said as he joined her on the deck.
‘Did we just go there so she could examine me?’ Joanna asked when they were back on the interstate headed north. ‘Is she a doctor?’
‘I told you, she’s a doula.’
‘I don’t know what that is.’
‘She’s like a midwife.’
‘So she is a doctor?’
‘No, Joanna, she’s a natural healthcare practitioner. And yes, I wanted you to meet her and I wanted her to check you out and make sure everything was on track, as best she can, which is still nowhere near as good as going to the doctor, but it’s better than nothing. But we went there for this.’ Malachi pulled a plastic bag out of his coat pocket and held it up to show Joanna.
‘Is that… marijuana?’ Joanna asked. Malachi laughed.
‘It’s medicine,’ he said. ‘After my diagnosis, I read online that pot might help slow the progress of the disease. It’s also a very enjoyable smoke. I only do it every once in a while – this bag should last me six months.’
‘So wait, you want your drug dealer to be my baby doctor?’
‘She’s a natural health practitioner!’
Joanna had been thinking a lot about the woman in the doctor’s waiting room, the way she had stared at Joanna’s stomach. She flipped to the section in the Yellow Pages where doctors were listed. She recognised names from her church, her own paediatrician, the doctor who had treated her mother’s husband before he died. She closed the phone book without making a call. What would a doctor see inside her? Would a doctor that looked go mad, go blind? Would she, for doubting God?
Malachi wanted to have a dinner party and invite his friends from the city. They decided they would both wear gowns for the event. He tailored a gown from the bridal store in town to accommodate her belly. They held fashion shows in his bedroom, walking towards the mirrored closet doors and then away, looking over their shoulders, turning this way and that. Alone in her room, Joanna dreamed. She dreamed of Malachi, his house full of exciting strangers, the kinds of people she couldn’t imagine in glittering gowns and masks that reflected her own face. She sat in front of her mirror and inspected every inch of herself, turning her head this way and that. Malachi was as giddy as she was, kneading dough, simmering broths, working at his sewing machine at night, showing her his progress in the morning, draping the fabric over her, making adjustments. She could tell that his stitching was looser, less straight than it had been on the first dress he made her, much less than the gowns in his closet he’d made for himself when he was performing in the city. But the gown fit and it was heavy with sequins, the prettiest thing she’d ever owned.
‘You’re gorgeous,’ Malachi said and she smiled, though she doubted that he could really see her.
When the night came, they zipped each other into the gowns, stood together in the mirror. Malachi looked very beautiful. He touched his long neck, his cheek; the profound sadness in his face made her feel afraid.
The guests arrived on time and they were like delicate birds, foxes come in from fresh snow. Joanna marvelled at their brightness, their strangeness, their clothes unlike any clothes she’d seen before, their faces androgynous or elaborately drawn. Malachi took her around and introduced her, and their hands felt like the water of a fast-moving stream. They kissed her face and cupped her belly and her eyes stung with tears.
At dinner, she sat across from a person with very long, very pink hair and a face like a slab of marble. Under the table, this person rubbed their feet against hers, over, under. She was entranced, and kept trying to speak to the person but the person was always turning away, being called upon to speak, saying nothing.
Malachi found Joanna in the kitchen with her face in her hands and she turned away from him when he tried to hold her, to ask her why.
After dinner they all lounged beside the fire. Joanna sat a bit removed, at a tea table that was in leaping shadow. She watched them talk to each other in words that sounded like English but had no meaning to her. They referred to places she had never heard of, remembered things that had happened before she was born. In their recollections, the city was a crawling, scaly, steadfast thing. It breathed and changed its colours to suit its surroundings, to become whatever a person might need, and the possibilities were endless and these people, they would live there forever, could never live anywhere else. Having said this, they all looked at Malachi whose face was turned towards the fire.
‘You can visit me here anytime,’ he said when they had all been quiet for a while. ‘This is where I’ll be.’
When the guests left to go back to the city, Joanna stood beside Malachi in the kitchen, which felt like a pocket of fluorescent overhead light in a world of darkness. They washed his mother’s china, her washing, him drying, the sound of the water echoing off marble and tile.
‘She would have hated that party,’ Malachi said, turning a plate over in his hands. Joanna watched him.
‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘She’d call it a freak show, and wail over the use of her fine china.’ He dropped the plate he was drying unceremoniously into the dish drainer.
‘Sounds like my mama,’ Joanna said. ‘I thought it was wonderful. The most wonderful party I’ve ever seen.’ Malachi smiled at her.
‘I thought it was wonderful, too,’ he said, and then, after a long time: ‘Joanna, I think you should make an appointment to see a real baby doctor. Just to check your progress.’
Joanna didn’t know how to say what she felt, her faith and her fear, so she didn’t say anything.
Sometime around the beginning of her third trimester, she told Malachi that she wanted to have a home birth.
‘So you’re never going to go to the hospital with this baby?’ he asked, arms crossed tightly over his chest.
‘Mary didn’t go to the hospital with Jesus,’ Joanna said. Malachi’s exasperation was palpable.
‘Will you let Sinead come help you deliver it, at least?’ he asked. ‘She’s offered to come free of charge.’ Joanna had expected him to ask this after she heard them whispering together in Sinead’s kitchen, heard the sharp hissing sound of she repeated.
‘Does she know the truth about the baby? What it really is?’
‘I told her what you told me,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry if I shouldn’t have.’
There were warring factions inside of Joanna. Part of her believed that this was a secret she had to keep from as many people as possible. If her own mother didn’t believe her, what would other people say? But what won out, in the end, was her feeling of relief, of allowing someone else in to carry a bit of the burden. She had been staunchly ignoring her own fear, avoiding anything that might bring her closer to it.
‘Well,’ Joanna said, ‘I guess she can come.’
Every once in a while, the body inside her fluttered. She began to nest, which involved dragging the last trash bags full of old magazines out into the yard for pickup, cleaning sticky stains off the floor where Muffy had relieved herself and Malachi, nearly blind, hadn’t noticed. She opened windows that had been painted shut, emptied out rooms she hadn’t even been able to enter before. Malachi helped her carry the things that were heavy. He chased her around the house like a big bird, squawking when he thought she was over-exerting herself.
Together, they dusted and mopped, sorted and shelved. Malachi called the church to pick up a truckload of clothes and kitchen gadgets and encyclopedias. When they came, Joanna hid, watching from her bedroom window as the little figures moved around on the lawn, women who were friends of her mama, who had scolded her as a child for getting dirt on her knees when she was wearing her Sunday best. She could hear the women moving around downstairs, peeking into rooms, looking for any sign of her. Her mama had no doubt asked for a report.
Weeks passed, and as the fluttering inside of Joanna grew to a constant thrumming, a sometimes thrashing, she could tell that Malachi’s vision was all but gone. The house was now open and bright and full of fresh air, but she noticed that he still stuck to the path that his feet, and his mother’s feet, had worn in the hardwood. He sometimes stumbled when he expected a solid wall of paper and binding where there was now only empty floor. His outfits no longer seemed coordinated, his pants were baggy, sometimes his shoes didn’t match. When Joanna offered to help him pick out his clothes he waved a hand at her.
‘Darling, of the two of us I don’t think you’re the one to be giving fashion advice.’
He no longer wore a smattering of blush, a light powder. She could see the lines in his face more than ever. When a draught blew through the house, he hugged himself.
Joanna grew heavy with her pregnancy. She struggled to move her own weight now, her thick, short legs shaking when she pushed herself off the couch. It was a Tuesday morning and they were lounging together in Malachi’s bed. They had carried the last of the boxes to Goodwill in the back of the Cadillac. The sweet spring air came through the open windows, felt as heavy as Joanna did, felt wet like the insides of green leaves. Malachi lay with his head in her lap and she played with his hair. He’d taken a bath that morning, taken a couple of puffs from a small glass pipe. The acrid smell had burned Joanna’s nostrils. She had been reading to him from a mystery novel but he’d asked her to stop. Instead, he told her the story of his last summer vacation.
‘Mama and Daddy rented a van because the Cadillac they had then wasn’t up for the trip,’ he said. His eyes were fixed somewhere beyond the ceiling. ‘We drove all day and night to get to Arches – you know, the national park in Utah? I’d never been west of the Mississippi River before. I was thirteen. Daddy played old tapes, Elvis and Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers, and we called out the states on license plates and stopped for dinner at a roadside shop with big ol’ po boy hamburgers and hand-cut french fries with too much salt. Ooh, our mouths puckered from all that salt, but they were so good. And we got to the park just as the sun was rising. Daddy said he’d planned it that way. Mama always went along with his crazy ideas. He died around Christmas that year.’ He shook his head then, seeing something Joanna couldn’t, a desert that was burning and ancient and alive.
‘I’ve never been west of the Mississippi,’ Joanna said, and Malachi looked at her without seeing. The way his eyes were now reminded her of the old dog who used to hang around her mama’s house before Daniel took a gun out there and ran it off with a warning shot, he’d said, but she had nightmares about the dog cowering in the bush where the forest met their land, howling as a shot ricocheted through her haunch, curling up somewhere blue and quiet to die if she was lucky, if he didn’t hit her square between her wide, milky eyes.
Malachi had told Joanna that he hadn’t spoken to Sinead in years before their visit in the city, but they talked to each other as if they were siblings or members of a secret club, and everything they said was code. They prompted one another into zealous fits of laughter over things Joanna didn’t quite hear. She drank her herbal tea and practiced the breathing exercises Sinead had taught her, the light stretches. Sinead set up her belongings in the formal guest room and was up first every morning. She made a breakfast of mushroom hash or steel-cut oats and tended the garden. Malachi couldn’t see to plant anymore and Joanna was helpless, bringing a blight to any plant she touched. Sinead was a warm presence in the house, but Joanna still felt that something was lost, that the nest she had built with Malachi was cracked open, scattered in the grass. Sinead said that her cervix was ripening, that she could expect birth any day, but prophesied that it was most likely to come during a thunderstorm. She coached Joanna on Lamaze breathing techniques, explained the different levels of pain she might experience during birth. In the final days, they did laundry, dusted, opened all the windows and turned on the ceiling fans. The air was hot and wet and mosquitos zoomed through and nibbled them. Joanna sat on the couch in the sun room with her feet up, fanning herself with a novel she didn’t have the focus to read. Inside her was a great expansion. Sinead cheerfully brought the news that a storm was blowing in and, she was positive, would bring the child with it. She thought Joanna was at least a week late, but they couldn’t know for sure because of Joanna’s refusal to see a doctor.
‘She’s right, you know,’ Sinead had told Malachi over dinner the night before, a spicy sausage pasta meant to get the wheels turning inside of Joanna. She wasn’t sure if it had worked to spur her to labour, but she’d had nightmares all night, boundless houses, a frantic chase, the floor tilting away from her, the world outside full of rocks and turbulent water. ‘Western medicine is a lot of security theatre. A hospital is a terrible place for a newborn baby.’
Malachi and Sinead had stayed up late drinking wine, but Joanna went to bed and had her nightmares. In the morning, she felt a certainty. The thrumming in her fingers and toes was beyond containment. She felt like she would fly apart if she kept this body inside of her own any longer. When she saw the shelf of storm clouds creeping from the Gulf, she felt a loosening inside herself.
Contractions started in the late morning and after lunch her water broke.
‘This is all happening very fast,’ Sinead said as she ran around the house, gathering supplies. ‘Maybe the baby will slide right out, no problem!’ Malachi held Joanna’s hand through another shattering contraction. The feeling that she would fly apart had crystallised. She felt herself in a million pieces, migrating eternally outward. She kept her teeth clenched together and feared that if she opened her mouth a light would shoot out of her that would fill the room, the house, Georgia, the world. The wind was really picking up outside when they laid her down on the dining room table, an old yellow sheet underneath her.
‘I can’t believe it. It’s time to push,’ Sinead said, and Joanna started pushing and she pushed for a long time. Everything narrowed down to the peak of each push, the white light that blocked out her vision when she reached the peak, the awareness that she was doing the right thing, that it would all be okay, that something bigger than herself was happening and would carry her through if she just kept pushing. And when the pushing lasted longer than it should and she could see the worry on Sinead’s face, she accepted the possibility of death. She felt an immunity to fear. She knew that pushing was more important than anything, than life, than arches in the desert or her own small existence. She was bringing something to pass. So she pushed. And finally, Sinead slid her hand inside and something shifted and the light was leaving Joanna and bleeding into everything. Her vision of it filling the world came true in that moment when her baby fell into Sinead’s cupped hands and let out a single wail of solidarity, of rage, of radical empathy.
The four of them fell together and wept. The storm raged around them but was no match for the light, the heat, the noise of what had happened.
In the garden, time stood still. Joanna felt ageless. Her baby was all blonde curls and already walking, already reaching with fat, curious fingers for the butterflies and bees that floated by to land in the hydrangea bushes. Malachi sat among the boughs of the pine tree, near its old old trunk, and hummed to himself. The noise joined the birds and the bees and filled the air with a mighty rejoicing, a sound that situated Joanna firmly in the present. She reached for that little body before it could fall in the fish pond, lifted it above her head where it became weightless, where it tried to float away. The baby screamed and laughed and turned its face up to the sky. And every songbird in the South came down to see that blonde, bouncing baby and sing a praise song, and already in the world things were tilting back into focus, things were coming up golden and rosy and no one knew why but they would, one day, somewhere along the path. For now, Joanna was happy to be where she was, her hands around that little waist, her heart on the outside of her body. She carried the baby to Malachi and he held his hands out to receive the gift, that bundle of light. He didn’t bother wearing his glasses anymore, but he said that when the light was that close he could see it, breaking through the clouds of his eyes like rays of sun after a storm, like the steaming green world you step into when the rain has all but passed.
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