If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.
– Matthew 15:14
The Rocking Horse of Tuscumbia
(A two-time finalist in the Christian Writers Guild’s
Operation First Novel contest.)
by Kimberley G. Graham
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.
Only through experience of trial and suffering
can the soul be strengthened,
ambition inspired, and success achieved.
– Helen Keller
June 27, 1989 / Tuscumbia, AL
Twenty years before Mama burned the house down, I sat with my back anchored to Grandma’s porch column—desperate for the earth to rise up and cave in on top of me.
It was the morning of my ninth birthday—a time when most little girls are beaming with excitement over their upcoming celebration. I, on the other hand, busied myself by picking tiny white flakes of paint off the balusters while Grandma hummed something familiar under her breath and poured sugar-water into her planters. After I interrupted her singing with another long sigh, she put down the watering can and scolded me by saying, “Amanda Reyes, get up and help your mama with the decorations. Your guests will be here in half an hour.”
“I don’t know why y’all are working so hard. Nobody’s gonna come,” I said, pulling my knees to my chest.
Mama threw open the screen door and rushed past me toward the linen-covered card tables. “Why do you always do that, Amanda?” she asked.
“You always think everything’s gonna turn out terrible. Why don’t you get up, stop your pouting, and help us get ready?” Mama shifted all her weight to her left foot and glared at me, “If I have to ask you again, you’ll have to go inside while we have this party without you.”
Grandma hid her water pitcher behind one of her ferns and smiled at me in the special way she always did when she wanted to prod me toward doing the right thing. I held my position until she went inside and let the screen door slam behind her.
I didn’t see any reason to help. They’d already done a pretty good job of making things look ridiculous. It was the end of June, but from the look of Grandma’s yard you would’ve thought it was Easter Sunday. If I could’ve gotten away with it, I would’ve run off to my favorite hiding place in the creek and spent the rest of the afternoon looking for arrowheads. Instead, I slowly pulled the straps of my white sandals over my heels and shuffled down the front steps to where Mama was busy rearranging chrysanthemums and monogrammed napkins.
After she dusted off the tablecloth for the third time, Mama pulled a purple flower from her arrangement and tucked it behind my ear, “You look beautiful, baby. I can’t believe how big you’re gettin’.” Mama lifted my chin until I couldn’t help but look into her dark eyes. “You know, if Helen Keller were still alive, she’d be turning 109 years old today.”
“I know, Mama,” I grimaced. “You never let me forget.”
Mama pushed my chin aside and yelled across the gravel driveway to my little sister, “Penelope, get down from there. You’re not a squirrel, you’re a little girl!”
Most of the time, Mama preferred Penelope and her blonde hair over my dark features and auburn waves—even though I was the one who looked the most like her. Penelope loved climbing the dogwoods, but in her party dress she looked more like a bed sheet caught by the wind than a five-year-old or a rodent. Mama always worried about the fact that Penelope never played with anyone other than me. Even then, all she wanted to do was sing along with the radio like she was Whitney Houston or pretend to be part of a marching band.
I watched as Penelope scooted along one of the branches and positioned herself to swing down.
“Don’t you rip that dress, young lady,” Mama called before going back to her flower arrangement.
Penelope let go of the branch with one hand and shook her linen skirt free with the other. As she attempted to readjust her weight, Penelope lost balance, slipped, and dangled helplessly before falling to the ground with a heavy thud.
“Oh, Penelope, I told you not to climb that tree.” Mama and I rushed over to Pen and helped her to her feet. “Let me see your hands.”
Penelope sobbed as tiny droplets of blood rose to the surface of her skin.
“When mama tells you something it’s for a reason. Do you hear me? Stay here.”
Mama rushed inside and left her standing there with both blood-soaked palms turned up toward the sky.
“It’s okay,” I whispered. “Mama will be right back.” After a new rush of tears came from her crystal blue eyes, Penelope’s sobs grew even louder. Feeling desperate to stop the blood, I took one of the linen napkins from the table and gently placed it over her hands. “Press your hands together like you do when we pray.” Penelope cried even louder as I squeezed her hands around the napkin. “Mama’s gonna be right back, I promise. Can you sing me a song? It’s okay. Sing me a song.”
The corners of her mouth turned down as she fought back more tears.
“Can you sing me the song you were hummin’ at breakfast? I liked that one.”
Penelope let out half a note, shook her head, and went back to crying.
Grandma held open the screened door for Mama as she hurried toward us with a damp rag. “I’m comin’.”
When she saw the neatly pressed linen stained with blood, Mama scolded me and sent me inside to rinse it clean.
Just when the blood started to come loose, Mama met me at the kitchen sink and tossed in another bloodied rag. “Radella spent two hours ironing napkins for you, Amanda. What were you thinkin’ getting blood on your grandma’s good napkins? Now it’s ruined. You’ll never be able to get that stain out in time for the party. People are gonna be here soon.” Mama snatched the soaked cloth from my hands and unfolded it to reveal three tiny brown dots. “See, it’s ruined.”
It didn’t matter how hard I tried to please Mama or her friends in Tuscumbia, a nine-year-old girl has no way to compete with a famous woman—even if the woman is dead. Mama called it my birthday party, but really it was an occasion for her to invite all her friends and their children over to celebrate the town’s matriarch: Helen Keller.
The first person to show was Grandma’s hired help, Radella Daw, along with her husband Sam, and their youngest son, Cecil. “They’re like family to us,” Mama would say to her friends when they’d ask about the Daws.
The truth was that Grandma practically raised Sam Daw after his mother passed.
Sam’s mother, Ester, worked as Grandma’s maid from the time she married Grandpa until the time Ester died. Each woman only had one child. Ester had Sam, and sometime shortly afterwards Grandma gave birth to my mother. I know because I’ve seen a photograph of the two women, one black and one white, standing together with tremendous swollen bellies.
Grandma tells people the photo is a snapshot of both of her pregnancies. However, Mama never claims Sam as her brother. I think she cares about him, in the stiff-arm way she cares about most things, but she’d never allow me talk about Sam as if he were family. Still, in my heart Sam’s my uncle, and since he married Radella before I was born, I consider her my aunt.
Now, how two wonderful people could create such an evil little boy, I just couldn’t understand.
“When are we gonna eat?” Cecil asked with a toothy grin twenty seconds after arriving and plopping down across the table from me.
I rolled my eyes and folded my arms across my chest, “All we’ve got for you, Cecil Daw, is a little buttermilk.”
“Can’t taste any worse than your Grandma’s cookin’.” The corners of Cecil’s mouth turned down and his black dimples went flat. “Good thing my momma’s always around to help.”
I made an ugly face at him before slumping. “Why’d you have to come anyway? You like playin’ with girls?”
“The only girl I see is the pretty one sittin’ right here.” Penelope giggled as Cecil poked a long index finger into her side.
“Oh, hush, both of you.” I unfolded my napkin and placed it across my thighs. “Why don’t you learn some manners, Penelope, and sit up straight.”
When Mama told us to serve our plates, Cecil piled everything from the buffet into a mound on his plate and ate like a cow with a lawn mower attached.
I wanted to sit with Ellen Johnson even though we’d only played together a few times at Spring Park while our mothers talked, but Grandma said I should sit with Pen and Cecil until cake was served. Grandma planned to join us, but she’d been assigned to standing near the food and fanning flies while the guests served their plates. Mama didn’t like that Grandma fanned with one hand while she held a cigarette in the other, but Grandma won the argument after assuring Mama that smoke helped repel insects as well.
Mama couldn’t say much, after all it was Grandma’s house and Mama was already swimming in her second tonic.
Cecil took one bite of potato salad and crinkled his nose. “My word, what’s in this?”
I smiled and pointed to my untouched pile of potatoes. “What’s wrong, Cecil? You don’t like it?”
“Goodness alive.” Cecil wiped his tongue with one of the perfectly ironed linens. “Who in the world likes that?”
Penelope giggled as she bit into a slice of ham.
“It’s vinegar. Mama says it’s a fancy way of making potato salad. She says that’s how they do it in fine restaurants.”
“Well,” Cecil took a sip of lemonade, “remind me to never eat in a fine restaurant.”
I tried not to laugh as Mama passed by our table carrying a pitcher of drink. “You better watch out talkin’ like that when Grandma sits with us.”
Cecil shook his head. “Oh, I’m not afraid of Ms. Etta.”
Daddy made a whistling noise above the crowd as he moved toward me. “Amanda Reyes, I can’t believe how beautiful you look. When I left our house this mornin’ you looked like a nine-year-old girl, but now you look like a twelve-year-old princess.” Daddy positioned himself behind me and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. He was dressed in his usual trousers and blue, collared shirt. “Except there’s one thing missin’. Now, what could it be?”
My cheeks turned red as everyone stopped eating and stared.
“Oh hush, Karl,” Mama said as she stumbled toward us. “You’re embarrassin’ her.”
Daddy ignored her as he rubbed the place where his mustache used to be. “Could it be that she’s missin’ a bow? No, it’s not that.” Daddy pulled at the strings in my hair. “Could it be that she’s missin’ her smile?” Daddy knelt next to me. The smell of his sweet cologne filled the air and an unwilling smile forced its way to my lips. “Nope, she’s got that.”
Mama folded her arms and rolled her eyes toward the crowd.
“Oh, I know…” Daddy reached into his pocket and removed something hidden inside a white handkerchief. “It must be this.”
Everyone cheered as Daddy released his grip and dangled a long gold chain and tiny charm in front of my eyes. I thought the charm was a diamond until it spun in a complete circle and revealed perfectly round sides. Mama must have mistaken it for a diamond too because she let out a huff and walked away.
“It’s beautiful, Daddy. What is it?”
“Excuse me, everyone,” Mama called from the bottom porch step. “We just want to thank y’all for comin’. As you all know, this day is very special to us and to this city. Not only is it Amanda’s birthday, but it’s also the birthday of one of the most amazing women in all of history. On this day, one hundred and nine years ago, our Helen Keller was born. Without her, this nation wouldn’t be what it is today.” Mama paused and smiled at me. “If one day my little girl does even a fraction of what Helen did, I will be a proud lady.”
I looked at Cecil and saw his ridiculous grin return.
Mama continued. “When Amanda was born, we couldn’t believe God had given us a child on the one hundredth anniversary of such an important day in Tuscumbia’s history. Now, nine years later, we’re still anxious to see,” Mama smiled and made a quotation-like gesture with her hands, “what kinda woman Amanda’s gonna grow up to be.”
I wanted to cry as everyone smiled and nodded at her. Daddy put the chain in my hand to reassure me everything was okay. As the crowd erupted into applause, I pleaded with him to make her stop.
“Amanda,” Mama said in closing, “you have a lot to live up to, young lady. I hope one day you’ll make us all real proud.”
When Daddy stood, I pushed past him and ran through the field toward the creek.
I’d never be able to live up to that woman’s expectations. Not ever. If I could’ve run all to way to Egypt, I would have. I was tired of living in the shadow of my mama and a person I’d never met.
After a hundred yards or so, I could see a break in the trees where deer came through at night to nibble at the grass along the edges of the field. Exhausting another burst of energy, I plowed through the opening until I came to where the fallen leaves were still wet with morning dew. The dampness felt good as it soaked between my toes and around the straps of my new sandals. I started to slow down, but thought about how upset Mama would be when she saw my shoes, so I kept running and dodging branches until I saw the embankment and heard the water moving along the rocks.
At first I thought the words came from somewhere inside me, but when I heard them a second time I realized Daddy was chasing me and doing a pretty good job of keeping up.
Daddy slowed as I skidded to a stop and caught hold of a tree.
When he reached me, he folded over, put both hands on his knees, and gasped for breath. “Child.” Daddy stood and wiped his brow with his forearm. “I thought for a second you were gonna jump.”
“I hate her, Daddy. I’m sorry, but I do.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I’m never gonna be good enough for her. I’m never gonna change the world.”
Daddy swallowed and waited to catch his breath. “Amanda, I know it’s hard for you to understand, but your mother loves you very much. She’s just tryin’ to make you feel special.”
I wanted to run again. I wanted to run until the straps of my sandals broke open. “Then why does everything have to do with Helen Keller? Why can’t my birthday be about me and what I want? Is it because I’m bad?”
“You’re not bad.”
“Then why doesn’t she love me?”
“Amanda, sit down.” Daddy reached for my hand and discovered my fingers were still gripping the gold chain and tiny glass ball. “Let me see your necklace, I want to show you something.” He unhooked the latch and pulled the ends until the chain made a perfectly horizontal line and swung the charm around twice like a gymnast. This time I noticed something I’d missed at the party while everyone was looking at me. There was something inside the ball. Something tiny like a speck of sand. I held my hand behind it and tried to get a better look. When I touched the glass the yellow speck jumped.
“What is it, Daddy?”
“Sit down and I’ll explain it to you.”
I found a place near the ledge where a large root ran thick along the ground.
“I met a man at the festival who was selling these in his booth.” Daddy shook the chain again and smiled as it danced. “That tiny speck is a mustard seed.”
“Yes. There’s a story in the Bible about what happens when a seed like this is planted.”
“It grows and grows until it’s taller than me.”
“Are we gonna plant it?”
“No.” Daddy fastened the chain around my neck as I held my hair out of the way. “I just want you to wear it, as a reminder.”
“A reminder of what?”
“As a reminder to grow and love. You see, seeds can’t grow in soil that’s hard and doesn’t receive the rain. When that happens, the seed dies.” Daddy tapped me on the end of my nose. “I want you to flourish so you’ll become a beautiful tree with strong branches where your children can find refuge.”
I nodded my head and pretended to understand. “But sometimes it’s hard to love people—especially if they don’t love you.”
“Amanda, look at me. I know sometimes you feel like your mama doesn’t love you, but trust me, she does. She loves you more than anything in the world. One day you’ll understand.”
“I just wish I could make her happy.”
Daddy nodded. “I know how you feel, but it’s not your job to make her happy. Your job is to love her—same as mine.”
I felt the globe again and smiled before standing to dust off my skirt. “Do we have to go back now?”
“Can’t I wait until everyone’s gone?”
Daddy slid his hands into his pockets and sighed. “I think you’d better come thank your guests. Don’t worry, they’ll be rushing off to the festival soon enough. Plus, you still have to blow out all sixteen candles.”
I placed two fisted hands on my hips. “I’m nine, Daddy.”
He laughed and patted me on the head before turning back toward the house. “Well, not for long.”