Evening was our favorite porch sitting time. Mama rocking in her chair, the same chair that rocked the croup out of me when I was little. The same chair when we cried our eyes out after we found out Daddy had gone to meet his Maker. The same chair when Mama told me she was going to be with Daddy sometime soon.
Twilight was the time when the fog would spin out smoky tendrils like spider silk weaving a gossamer blanket covering our vegetable garden of peas, carrots and cucumbers. Thready ropes of smoke curling about the trees and creeping around the stocky stilts of our house, yet not ever coming onto the porch. Once when I was little, maybe five or six, the fog was sliding in the yard where I was playing. Mama shouted “Honey May!” and scooped me up just as a tendril of smoke had curled around my ankle.
“It’s just a little fog, Mama,” I said and squirmed my way out of her arms. “See? I’m fine.” But I wasn’t. That foggy strand said it wanted me back.
“That there’s swamp breath,” she warned. “Swamp breath will eat you alive.” Then she stared out at that gossamer blanket and I seen something behind her eyes that gave me shivers. But I never asked what it was that frightened her ‘cause I already knew.
That was ten years ago.
We sat on the porch, Mama in her rocking chair and me on the top step, shelling green peas for tomorrow’s supper. The lazy hum of honeybees wending their way home harmonized with the cicadas. Rain frogs joined in the orchestra with mosquitos’ drone and dragonflies’ fluttering wings. I opened my mind following the swamp melody and added my own harmony. I never told Mama about that swamp music, but I always took advantage of it. In my mind’s eye I followed the bee to its home, saw where cicadas lived, and found the fattest frogs. But there was something else out there, deep in the swamp. I felt its magic curl around mine like that fog strand around my ankle all those years ago. A tenor voice unlike one I had ever heard blended with my soprano. Together we harmonized together leading all the critters like an orchestra conductor. Then as twilight blend passed into night, so our song dissolved into the growing velvet of night.
Mama sat real still in her chair, her bowl was full of peas; the empty peapods were piled on the ground. “You got the voice of an angel, Honey May,” she said, her voice all raspy and breathless from the sickness.
“I’d give it up just to have you well, Mama,” I said, twining my hand around hers. Spidery blue veins mapped their way beneath translucent skin which felt like fragile paper. I hiccupped back tears.
“Now, Honey.” She patted my hand and coughed from the effort. “Everyone’s got to meet their Maker some time. Why don’t you make us some tea?”
“Yes, Mama. Right away.”
Mama always said wishin’ don’t make it so, but I knew better. Mama knew that too. There’s some powerful magic out here in swamp country and Mama had done her share of wishing. Her being barren and all. I know she done went to the swamp and did some powerful wishing. That’s how she got me.
But the piper always gets paid. I don’t know what she paid for me, but I have an inklin’. Scared Daddy into the swamp and turning up dead. At least that’s what Mama said. Sometimes I wondered if he was the price, but with Mama being so sick I was beginning to think he must have been a down payment.
I carried two teacups and the teapot with the cracked lid that had been in the family for generations. I scooped Mama’s special tea into her favorite cup, added hot water, and swirled the tea leaves around.
We sat on the back porch sipping our tea listening to the music of the swamp. I let my voice and mind wander on that sultry breeze wishing somehow I could help Mama.
“You say something, Mama?” I asked, rousing from my inner journey.
“No, child,” she said, setting her teacup down.
Well, something had called my name. A bone chill settled on my spine just thinking who – or what –it was. I picked the cup up real casual like I was going back to the kitchen.
“Don’t you be reading those tea leaves now.”
“They say you’re going to be just fine.”
“Liar,” she said with a little laugh that sent her into a coughing spasm.
Those leaves really said her time was coming and coming soon. Not only that, there was a big change coming for me. All that in Mama’s cup.
I took the pot and cups into the kitchen. I rinsed the cups out being real careful not to look at my tea leaves. Wasn’t sure I wanted to know anything else.
I turned toward the door and heard a wind rushing up rattling the shutters. There was a thump and then Mama shouting. “You can’t have her!”
“Mama!” I ran out on the porch. The wind whipped stinging tears to my eyes. I squinted and saw Mama’s rocking chair toppled over. I looked up above the tree line and there she was, slow spinning in a foggy whirlwind.
I stepped into the yard. Power surged up me like water rising during a flash flood. Don’t know what got into me, but I started singing. I sang louder, higher, until it matched the pitch of the wind. Sang like my life depended on it. Like Mama’s life depended on it. I sang ‘til I thought my voice would give out, but I kept the notes true.
I slipped into my mind’s quiet place and I heard the voice from the swamp asking me to come back. “No,” I said, “not until Mama is well and stays safe.”
Until first song. The voice gave me the shivers.
Mama came twirling down like the ballerina on my music box. She hugged me real tight as I helped her into the house.
We don’t talk much about that evening. Mama got better, even looked younger. Every once in a while, she looks out at the swamp like she’s listening and then hugs me tight like she’d never let go. I never sing anymore.
But on those evenings when the breeze gets sultry and the critters sing sweet harmony, it’s all I can do to not join in. ‘Cause that’s exactly what the swamp wants.