“THERE’S NO THROUGH TRAIL” —HAN-SHAN, TRANSLATED BY GARY SNYDER
/ Museum of Hard Times

Museum of Hard Times

by Caroline McCoy

UNCLE Jack opened the house to twenty-five-cent tours a month after the awful thing had happened. He enlisted my help in preparing for our first day in the rubbernecking business. I scrubbed the walls and the floors, but the beds had already been stripped by the folks who carried Mama and the twins away. Uncle Jack covered the mattresses with quilts he found in the trunk Daddy kept at the foot of his and Mama’s bed. One had a pattern of yellow flowers on a twirling green vine, and the two Jack placed in the boys’ room were blue and white checkerboards. They were all too light for January—thin cotton without batting for warmth—and I said so to Uncle Jack. “Those are Mama’s summertime quilts,” I said, feeling suddenly obligated to rituals that had never concerned me before. 

“No one’ll care, Flora,” he said. “Besides, we need something bright to fight off the darkness. Even looky-loos have their limits.”

I wondered how Uncle Jack could know about the limits of looky-loos. It seemed to me that anyone willing to spend a quarter to gape at a few holes in our walls would consider the stained mattresses bonus attractions. And I preferred Mama’s quilts safe inside the trunk, mingling with the souvenirs of more distant horrors—an old war rifle and a tobacco tin holding the two bell-shaped buttons my great-granddaddy claimed to have taken off a Union Zouave. I had forgotten about that tin until Jack rattled it and asked what was inside. “Zu-Zu loot,” I said, because that’s what Mama had called it and what Granddaddy had called it before her and, I suppose, what Great-Grandaddy had called it first.  

Uncle Jack took the tin and the rifle, along with Mama’s silver and a baseball bat that had belonged to the twins. The bat he wanted his and Aunt Dottie’s boy, Little Jack, to have, even though he wasn’t yet big enough to swing it properly. The rest, he said, was too valuable to leave. “Anyone traipsing through the house is liable to walk off with these things, Flora,” he said. “But they’re yours. They belong to you.” 

“What about Daddy’s wristwatch,” I said, after we’d straightened the sitting-room furniture and stepped onto the front porch. “Does that belong to me?”

Uncle Jack didn’t look at me when I spoke, and after a while I questioned whether or not I had said anything at all. He pulled a key from his pocket and locked the front door, rattled the knob. He turned toward our sloping white field, landing his gaze on the weathered burley barn that to any stranger’s eye probably matched all the others in Madison County. A week before, it probably was like those other barns—made from rough timber planks all latticed and slanted and separated for what Daddy called the curing breeze. That was where he had finished the awful thing. After he had done what he did inside our house, he walked out to the barn and put his gun in his mouth. Uncle Jack had seen him afterward. He walked into his and Aunt Dottie’s house that evening and told how his big brother had blown the back of his head clean off. He said it over and over until Aunt Dottie told him to stop talking like that around Little Jack.

My uncle was still staring out at our land, daydreaming, I figured. I said, “Daddy sure did love that wristwatch.” I knew I was being smart. Aunt Dottie never stood for my know-it-all tone of voice in her house, but it was just Uncle Jack and me on that porch. I wanted him to ask me for the thing he had already taken, the thing he had already fastened around his wrist when he explained to me that everyone in my family was gone. 

Uncle Jack patted the left sleeve of his overcoat, right in the place where the watch sat. He leaned down to look at me with those fake-sad eyes of his and said, “Flora, I know your Daddy would want his only brother to have something to remember him by.” 

“You got me don’t you?” 

I saw his jaw tighten, and I thought he might grab me by the arm right then and haul me over to Aunt Dottie for one of her spankings. I could have handled that without crying a single tear. Mad grownups didn’t scare me because grownups always seemed to be mad about something. But Uncle Jack was not any kind of mad I recognized. He straightened himself, looked down at me as if I were a rabbit in his field. “That’s up to you, Flora,” he said. “You behave, be a good girl, help your Aunt Dottie at the house and me with this here museum venture, then I’ll give you a place to live and food on your plate.” 

I nodded. “Yes, sir,” I said. I knew then that Jack had lied. Nothing he had taken for safe-keeping would ever be mine.

The walk back to Uncle Jack’s and Aunt Dottie’s wasn’t far, but the air was cold enough to break through my clothes and touch my bones. Uncle Jack had slung Great-Granddaddy’s rifle over his shoulder. He had the twins’ bat in one hand, Mama’s silver chest under his opposite arm, and the tin box in his pocket. He touched the bat to the packed snow as he walked, adding an extra crunch to the sound of our footsteps. I imaged that Daddy’s watch would remain on his wrist only until he could take it to town and sell it. Probably, he would also sell Mama’s silver, which had been her mother’s, my grandmother’s. Already, he had sold our pair of dairy cows. Daddy always said that Jack was no good with money. He said he was a poor farmer, too, without the sense or drive to yield a full harvest. But Uncle Jack and Aunt Dottie seemed to get along fine to me. Their house was smaller than ours—their land less agreeable to planting—but I’d seen him out working, running his bony old mule nearly to death.  

My arms ached under the weight of the travel bag I had filled mostly with my clothes but also with my doll, Earnestine, and the silverplate compact I had swiped from Mama’s things when Uncle Jack wasn’t looking. He had told me how important it was to show off my family’s personal items. He said that people wouldn’t pay their hard-earned money to stare at empty tabletops and toy chests. Even the Christmas cake Mama had baked remained on the kitchen counter looking like she had just removed it from the oven. The winter air had kept it well enough, but Uncle Jack took the extra step of coating it with some wood varnish. I could almost see my mother hovering over it, whispering to it as if that mixture of butter and sugar and flower had sense enough not to fall. About half of Mama’s cakes fell, but that one hadn’t. It had turned out perfectly brown and all one height, which was a blessing, I thought, since Mama would not want everyone for miles to think that she couldn’t bake a decent cake. Uncle Jack was glad, too. He said, “The place ought to look like y’all still live here. Like my poor brother might walk through that door at any minute and ask for a slice of that cake.” It was a spiced Bundt cake and it really did look nice, in spite of the lacquered coating Uncle Jack had applied, which caused it to gleam unnaturally in the afternoon sun.

Even some of my things—the wooden box that held my arrowhead collection and my pocket-size book of prayers, one for every day of the year plus February twenty-ninth—became artifacts for our museum. Uncle Jack moved my arrowheads to the boys’ room, though they hadn’t unearthed a single one of them. They had been lousy treasure hunters—I knew because I’d taken them exploring with me plenty of times. I was sure that they would get the hang of it, once they got to be nine or ten. But seven-year-olds are too little to know the difference between an arrowhead and a pointy rock. They would squeal at every tiny thing they stumbled across, say, “Flora! Flora!” like they’d just discovered the moon. I would pretend right along with them, and that made them feel proud about all the junk they brought home to show Daddy, who was never amused. He would inspect their finds and tell them the truth, that everything was worthless. But he still let them pick out their favorite good-for-nothing rock to keep. 

Along with my arrowheads, Uncle Jack made me leave behind an old music box that had belonged to a relative I’d never met. Mama had passed it on to me because she had loved it, but I always thought it was babyish, with its little clay ducks twirling on their chipped mirrored lake. I didn’t mind not having the music box anymore, but it did try my patience when Uncle Jack picked it up from a corner of my bedroom and started walking around with it, saying he needed to find a more prominent position for something so sweet. He wound up placing it atop my chest of drawers like it was the single most important thing to me in the whole wide world. But when I complained, when I said “Please, Uncle Jack. I don’t even like that dumb old thing,” he explained that he was trying to paint a picture of our family, and no picture was ever all the way true. 

At first I didn’t understand what he meant, but later, after Jack made me start playing tour guide, I began to realize that people—even ones we’d known our whole lives—enjoyed seeing all of us Campbells boiled down to an assortment of possessions, whether or not they had been our favorites or even ours. The music box made me seem more innocent than my twelve years, just like the arrowheads made the twins seem more capable, grown enough to envision as young men with interesting futures. I got to the point of thinking folks in town liked Uncle Jack’s picture of us better than the real thing, which stung given the fact that I was still very much alive and never would be as gentle or dimwitted as that music box implied. But I grew to agree with Uncle Jack. We were in business now. 

Whatever drew warm bodies to our museum door was what we would do. That included leaving the schoolbook the twins had shared open to an arithmetic lesson, even though Daddy had made the boys and me skip the school year to help him on the farm. Uncle Jack said that an open schoolbook would break hearts, which I took as a good thing. We also brought over the newspaper he had collected from town the very same week of the awful thing. He laid it out to look like Daddy had been right in the middle of reading it when he got the idea to shoot everybody. Like we were a normal family right up until that second.

The sky was peach-colored by the time Uncle Jack and I arrived back at his and Aunt Dottie’s place. I hadn’t been living with them for long but was already in the habit of minding Little Jack and helping my aunt prepare our suppers. I expected that she would be wearing her irritated face when we walked in so late in the afternoon; but she greeted Uncle Jack and me with more warmth than usual. She didn’t even fuss at me to get in the kitchen or take care of the baby. With one palm she swept a tangle of hair from my forehead and said, “You wash up for supper, Flora. You’ve had a long day.” My aunt and uncle were both capable of kindnesses, but sometimes I wished they wouldn’t offer me any. Feeling Dottie’s warm hand against my skin only reminded me of my aloneness. I told her I wasn’t very hungry. She said, “You need to keep your strength up. Folks will soon be paying good money to hear you tell about what happened.” 

I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” Uncle Jack had decided on my story, which went along with the picture he wanted to paint. I was grateful to him for coming up with a neat and true-sounding way of putting everything. His version made me feel like a character in a book or make-believe game. It was easier to tell it his way than mine.

*

I’d been at Uncle Jack’s and Aunt Dottie’s house that morning. Mama had sent me with a jar of her blackberry preserves and a painted cast-iron penny bank for Little Jack. It was a heavy thing, a rectangle of red iron topped with a figure of a clown holding a metal hoop. On one side of the clown was a tiny black dog; a brown barrel was on the other. The twins had played with that bank for years, putting a penny in the dog’s mouth, pushing the lever that sent him leaping through the hoop, watching the penny drop into the slot at the top of the barrel, begging me or Mama to peel off the rubber bottom and retrieve their penny so they could play again. But they hadn’t touched the toy for a while, and Little Jack seemed fond of it whenever he came toddling around our place; so, Mama had packaged it up for him to enjoy. 

I was supposed to deliver those gifts and return straight home for lunch, but I wanted to show Aunt Dottie my Christmas present, to watch her big mouth pinch tight when I removed my coat and twirled for her. The dress Mama had gifted me was made from blush-colored silk and lace. It had hung for what seemed like forever in her wardrobe, and I had admired it for almost as long. She said she’d worn it before she married Daddy, back when she lived in the eastern part of North Carolina and received invitations to the kinds of parties that called for dresses like that one. It was too big on me and I had nowhere fancy to go in it, but I figured I might by the time I grew to woman size. In the meanwhile, I wanted Aunt Dottie to lay her greedy eyes on it and squirm with jealousy. The dress was not appropriate for winter weather, so I put it on over my tights and my wool sweater and buttoned everything under my coat so Mama wouldn’t see I was wearing it and know I was trying to rile up Aunt Dottie. Mama had more patience than I ever did where my aunt was concerned. A thousand times I listened to the two of them in the kitchen, Mama murmuring her pleasant agreements while Dottie told about all the ways her family was superior to ours. She was tricky about it, talking in a roundabout way that made me think Mama didn’t understand her insults. But when I complained, Mama just sighed and said, “Your Aunt Dottie wants to make herself feel good, and it’s no skin off my nose to let her.” 

My father and I thought differently about Aunt Dottie’s methods for rousing her own self-esteem. Usually, when she started running her mouth, Daddy would turn away from her, communicate that he didn’t like what she was saying by staring in the opposite direction. But once, when she remarked about Mama having come from money, and wasn’t that a wonderful thing since the farm had clearly needed every last cent, Daddy had raised his voice and slammed his fist on the supper table and said, “Enough, Dottie.” She started blubbering then, saying how she hadn’t meant anything by it; but we all knew better. Even Uncle Jack kept quiet, which made Aunt Dottie mad. She looked at him with those oversized cow eyes of hers and said, “Aren’t you going to defend me?” That made me laugh. Even though she cried easy, Aunt Dottie didn’t seem to me like the kind of person who needed defending.

When I arrived with the Christmas gifts, Uncle Jack had already gone out for some fresh air. He was not a man who could sit still at home with his family—not even on Jesus’s birthday—and I supposed that Aunt Dottie’s demeanor had something to do with that. But she was in one of her lighter moods, all excited for the church service that evening and the new silk hose Uncle Jack had bought for her on holiday special from Mr. Rector’s store. Before I had my coat off she was parading those things around, telling me how generous my uncle was. I had seen the sign advertising the Christmas sale in Mr. Rector’s window, so I knew those hose cost nearly a dollar. I didn’t understand it then—wouldn’t understand it until he got picked up by the sheriff for running moonshine all over the county—but Uncle Jack was better at making money than Daddy had realized. He just hadn’t the sense to hold on to it. 

I presented the preserves to Aunt Dottie, and she returned the gift with her most sincere-looking smile. Mama never expected anything from Jack and Dottie, so I knew not to hold out my hands for a real present. About the penny bank, she said, “How thoughtful of the twins to pass down their toy to their cousin. Of course, Little Jack is too young for it. If I give this to him now, he’ll end up with a belly full of pennies.” 

I reminded her, “He doesn’t need pennies to play with it. All he cares about is making the dog jump through the hoop.” 

She walked to the corner cupboard and placed the little iron bank on a tall shelf. “Now,” she said, “tell me about your Christmas, Flora.”

That was the invitation I had been waiting for, and I was glad, then, that I hadn’t yet removed my coat. I said that I had brought my gift over just so she could see, and then I turned my back to her and undid my buttons. When I spun around and dropped my coat, she laughed. 

I said, “It’s my mother’s dress.”

“I know she’s got no reason to wear it around these parts, but where on Earth do you plan to wear it?”

“Nowhere yet,” I said. My face had that hot feeling it always got when I was trying not to cry.

Her expression softened. “It is very beautiful, Flora. And just think of what it will add to the shows you put on with that little Randall child.”

She was talking about Mary Randall, a girl I played with sometimes, when Mama made me or when there was nothing better to do. She was only eleven but thought she was the boss of me, always telling me I needed to pretend to be somebody else. She would say things like, “I’m the Chief of the Cherokee Nation and you’re my wife.” And I’d say, “I’m not going to be anybody’s wife.” Or she would say, “I’m a Union general and you’re a dirty rebel and we’re going to meet in the road at dawn.” The Randalls were like a lot of folks in Madison County, still harping on who had done what on which side of the war. I’d been foolish enough to tell Mary I shared the blood of both Union and Confederate men, so she always tried to make me be the losing part. If I agreed, she’d chase me around yelling that I had to surrender because that’s how the story went. I could only imagine what play she’d dream up for us if she spotted my new dress. I said to Aunt Dottie, “This dress ain’t for make-believe.” But I knew that it was, at least for a while. Mama had only given it to me because she thought it might help me think of our circumstances differently.

Little Jack had been talking to himself for a while, and Aunt Dottie went to the bedroom to collect him. He was almost three. Most of the time he was a good boy, so I liked him. I asked my aunt if I could read him one of his stories, warm up by the fire before I walked back home. She turned to Little Jack and used her babytalk voice to say, “Does Little Jack want to read with his big cousin?” I didn’t know what she was asking him for, since she was in charge and could decide perfectly fine on her own; but his mouth opened in a wide, nubby-toothed grin and he said, “Weed to me, Fowa!” 

While Aunt Dottie worked on her Christmas meal in the kitchen, Little Jack and I settled near the fire. He had selected a Peter Rabbit tale, a book I recognized as having been mine at one time. Mama was always giving our things away. She rarely had anything left for the Methodist Church Bazaar, when it came around. Mostly, I didn’t mind. I was too old for Peter Rabbit, and the twins, if they weren’t already, were bound to be soon enough. The book had more words than Little Jack liked, but I made sure to do the same voices my brothers had loved, so he didn’t wiggle around too much. We were more than halfway through—Peter and his cousin Benjamin Bunny had just escaped the cat in Mr. McGregor’s garden—when Uncle Jack flung the front door open and starting hollering for Aunt Dottie. His expression was wild and animal-like, and at first I thought he was running for his life. He saw me holding his son in my lap and said, “You’re here. We’ve been looking for you. We thought . . .” And I said, “Who’s looking for me?” and “What did you think, Uncle Jack?” at the same time as Aunt Dottie was asking, “What’s wrong, Jack? What’s happened?” But he wasn’t listening to a word that was coming out of either of our mouths. He just covered his face with his hands and said, “Dear Lord forgive my brother.” Aunt Dottie was petting his arm, still trying to talk to him. Finally, he followed her into the kitchen. 

Uncle Jack had left the front door wide open, so I picked up Little Jack and carried him with me to push it closed. I leaned my back against the door, feeling the cold air sneak through on all sides, holding my cousin tight to protect him from whatever was coming next. Little Jack was as scared as I was, so I whispered that everything was all right. Eventually, I felt brave enough to look out the front window but all I saw were footprints in the snow, the empty road I would follow home. When I felt the boy shiver in my arms, I walked him back to our place beside the fire and picked up the Peter Rabbit book. I tried to read but couldn’t summon the right voices, so I began to sing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” which was a song I had been practicing. I sang quietly, almost to myself, until Uncle Jack interrupted me. He said, “I need you to stay here, Flora.”

“But Mama wants me home for Christmas lunch.”

“Not anymore,” he said. 

After Uncle Jack left, Dottie said, “Mind the baby, please, Flora.” She had turned the palest shade I’d ever seen on a person. When I asked her what was wrong, she shook her head but did not speak or look at me. She passed the afternoon in her bedroom, while I watched over Little Jack and did what I could to finish what she had started in the kitchen. I removed her cake when it was ready and boiled the chicken and fried the cabbage. In the cupboard, I found some peaches somebody had canned, but I was afraid to open them. After a while, Little Jack seemed hungry so I let him grab a fistful of raisins, but I was too unnerved to tolerate food. Even so, even with what seemed like nothing but air in my stomach, I threw up when Uncle Jack returned home and told me the news. He had lost his animal expression, but his talk remained confused. It took him a few tries to get his words in order, but once he did he wouldn’t shut up. 

*

Starting with the sheriff and the man from the countywide newspaper, Uncle Jack told everybody what he supposed had happened that day. He told the ladies from church who stopped by to call on Aunt Dottie and the fellas in town who removed their hats to pay their respects and the well-dressed man who walked away with my father’s dairy cows. 

Folks from all over attended the service—even some we’d never met—and Uncle Jack ran his mouth there, too. I stood beside him and Aunt Dottie and listened to him tell about how distraught his brother had been over his finances, how he had lost faith that the Lord would show him a way forward. I didn’t mind his speculating. With Uncle Jack doing all the talking, I didn’t need to say much. And, for all I knew, what he said was true about somebody somewhere. More than a few people had lost their good sense along with their money, though they had managed to kill themselves without taking their families with them. But I knew my father would not have spoken to Uncle Jack about money troubles with any great detail. He might have said what everybody in town seemed to be saying about living in hard times, but I couldn’t picture him confiding in my chin-wagging uncle—not like he had confided in me.

By the time the man from a big paper in New York City showed up, Uncle Jack had more or less settled on his favorite way of telling the story and was happy to share it with a sizable audience. Finding out that even far-away folks were curious made his wheels start turning. He figured that if people outside of Madison County wanted to read about our tragedy, then they would journey to the place where it had happened. Aunt Dottie said that opening a museum of horrors was uncivilized, but she liked the idea of making money. When she thought I was putting down Little Jack for the night, I heard her saying that the whole plan might go over better if my uncle told everybody that the museum was for my benefit, a way to keep me fed and clothed since my father had left me with nothing. I wanted to yell, “Nothing but his land and his home and everything in it.” Had I been grown enough, I would have sold it all and moved far away east, where Mama still had some distant relatives. But Jack was my guardian and what he said went. I listened to him tell Dottie that hers was a fine idea. “Folks’ll be more liable to pay if they know they’re keeping Flora out of the Children’s Home.” He was talking about the county orphanage, and I was sure I didn’t want to wind up there. So, I bit my tongue when Uncle Jack started telling everybody that their twenty-five-cent visit would help save the only surviving child of his wretched brother’s crime; and I tried to act pleased when he held up the advertisement he’d purchased and planned to run in the paper twice a week for a whole month. It said: 

Campbell Farmhouse Tours

Visit the site of Madison County’s grisliest massacre since Shelton Laurel
Postcards and memorabilia for sale

25¢ to enter. Help support orphaned child of murderer.

I wondered aloud what kind of memorabilia we were planning to sell, and Jack said that he would be discriminating on that matter. “If folks make us a nice offer on something, it’ll do us fine to consider it,” is what he told me. By the end, he’d sold nearly everything in the house that he and Dottie hadn’t wanted for themselves, including Daddy’s Bible, which went for more money than anyone ought to carry around in their pocket. Uncle Jack even took to carving out sections of the walls and floorboards in places where a bullet had struck or where I hadn’t scrubbed well enough. Those little swatches of wood sold for a whole two dollars each, and Jack fussed about how we never should have cleaned up as well as we had. 

When I asked about the postcards, Uncle Jack got a guilty look on his face. He folded up the advertisement and said I didn’t need to worry about those. How he expected to hide them from me, I would never know. On our first day in business I spotted those cards, all laid out on the round table by the front door and priced at ten cents a piece. As it turned out, Jack had convinced the county newspaper photographer to print the postcards from a picture he had taken on the day of the awful thing. We were meant to sell them and give the man a percentage of whatever they earned us. He had been skeptical of the idea so only agreed to print a hundred copies of a photograph of our sitting room. It captured the room just as it had looked on the day Uncle Jack and I had gone over to prepare for our museum opening—like a giant had put his lips to the window and blown everything loose. Those postcards sold slowly, at first, but then everybody who came around seemed to want one. Eventually, they were gone and I was glad that I didn’t have to look at them anymore. 

Just once, shortly before we opened our doors, I got my nerve up to ask Uncle Jack if I could go back to school instead of running the museum with him. He said, “But you’re the main attraction,” as if that ought to make me proud. That was his manner of convincing. Uncle Jack preferred to get his way by buttering people up. If that didn’t work, he’d go still, use his most quiet and measured voice to ponder aloud the consequences of refusing his wishes. I didn’t like to say no to Jack twice, so I nodded at the notion of being a thing people would go out of their way to see. That was when he told me that I would have to learn to tell the story myself. “We’ll practice,” he told me. “All you’ll have to do is say it the way I teach you.” 

I thought I would learn quickly, but it was hard to remember Uncle Jack’s account. Telling the story his way meant forgetting some old particulars and replacing them with new ones. Now, Mama’s cake was still warm to the touch when Daddy started the whole thing. Now, Daddy had not one cent to his name. Now, Daddy was so woeful over his terrible deed that he tucked Mama and the boys in their beds after it was done. I wasn’t certain of much, but I knew that Mama had pulled that cake from the oven before I’d even left the house that morning. I knew that we didn’t have a lot of money but that Daddy owned his land outright. I also knew that the sheriff and his deputy had put everybody back in their beds. Jack had told me so himself, said the men were too torn up to leave Mama and the boys on the cold floor. 

But getting the facts right didn’t concern Uncle Jack, who thought a still-warm cake added an element of aliveness to our story, just like he thought a desperate farmer added an element of relatability. “What scares folks is seeing parts of themselves in your daddy,” he told me. I understood that well enough, seeing as though a whole half of me was my father and that scared me plenty. Uncle Jack didn’t say why he told the fib about Daddy acting remorseful, but I suspected it had to do with that deep-down feeling that the people who share your blood need protecting.   

*

The morning of our first day in business, I woke earlier than usual. I wanted enough time to make myself look the way Aunt Dottie had said I was supposed to look. She had brushed and braided my hair the night before, but I had slept poorly and disturbed the style. I spit into my palms and smoothed them over my head, laying down the parts that had poked up. Once I was satisfied with my hair, I stepped into the dress Aunt Dottie had selected, which was a dress my mother had sewn. Mama had never wanted perfectly good material to go to waste, so many of my clothes were fashioned out of what she could spare from her own wardrobe. This dress, though, had never been anything of hers. She had made it from the itchiest gray wool to ever touch my skin, but it had a nice white collar that I was careful to keep that way. Aunt Dottie had decided that this dress would be my museum uniform, at least until the weather got too hot for it. I wasn’t allowed to wear it anywhere else, which was fine by me since I didn’t like it all that much. 

I assessed myself in the mirrored vanity that stood in the bedroom I shared with Little Jack. The dress hung more loosely than I remembered, and the color seemed to further dull my features. If not for the childish details, the high waist and rounded collar, anyone noticing me from a distance might have thought they were seeing an old woman. As it was, I merely looked like mournful girl, just as Aunt Dottie had planned. She said, “Don’t go running around in that dress, Flora,” when I met her in the kitchen that morning. I said, “No ma’am,” and she took my hands in hers and told me my mother would be proud of me. She said, “Your Mama was a sensible woman. I know she would want you to make do with what you’ve been given.” That sounded to me like a misapplied truth. As sensible as my mother had been, I couldn’t imagine her approving of Uncle Jack and me turning family matters into a spectacle. But I said, “Yes, ma’am,” and Aunt Dottie smiled the way she always smiled when she thought she’d made a decent point. 

In those early days, snowfall to the south slowed people from visiting. Or that’s what Uncle Jack said, anyway. But then word began to spread and all sorts of people came—men and women I knew from church and town, whole families with children as young as my little brothers had been, strangers who pulled open any drawer or cabinet within their reach. Once the weather warmed, folks arrived so regularly that they sometimes had to wait in line to get inside. Eventually, I stopped feeling nervous each time Jack placed his hand between my shoulder blades and nudged me toward a new group, saying, “Flora here will show you around. This is all for her, you know.” His job was to collect the money and hover nearby, ready to interrupt if anyone asked me a question he and I hadn’t worked out the answer to. 

People wondered all sorts of things, like what Daddy’s mood had been like on Christmas morning and whether or not the twins had received presents and if Mama had gone before or after her children. But the big questions on everybody’s mind were why and why not me. Why had my father done what he did, and why hadn’t he done it to me? Uncle Jack and Aunt Dottie had asked me those exact things, and I’d said what I knew they wanted to hear. I told them that my father must have been driven mad by money troubles. When I pushed what I knew far back in my mind, I could sometimes make myself believe this explanation. 

We had been better off than most for a while, but Daddy had started talking to me about his worries. On the nights when he woke me for our alone times, he told me how his labor was earning us next to nothing, how a pound of tobacco was going for pennies over in Asheville, how the county tax collector was after everybody for money they didn’t have. It seemed to me that we were all right, and I said so to Daddy. I said, “We got the dairy cows, and everybody needs milk.” He just put his rough-feeling hand on my cheek and called me an optimist, which was his favorite word to use on me. A few weeks later, he cut our herd from four down to two. I tried to hide my disappointment. He was doing the same as everybody else—making do, surviving. I reminded him that we had plenty more to sell after those two dairy cows, but Daddy said he didn’t need to unload anything else, not yet. He said those exact words: “Not yet.” My father had not reached the despairing place so many others had found themselves in.

But blaming money troubles suited Uncle Jack’s version of things, even if it didn’t satisfy his desire to understand why I was still breathing. To answer that question, I said, “Maybe he forgot he hadn’t killed me before he shot himself, Uncle Jack.” And Uncle Jack slit his eyes at me and said in a doubting kind of way, “Maybe . . .” 

“Or,” I said, “He realized I wasn’t around to shoot, and while he was waiting for me to come home he started feeling so terrible that he went ahead and ended things.” 

Uncle Jack liked that answer better. “I reckon that could be true, Flora,” he said. “He went insane for a spell. When he returned to his senses, there was nothing left to do but shoot himself.” Insane was a word the newspapers had used to describe my father, and Jack was fond of it. He started saying that Daddy had been an everyday man who had gone insane. So, I said the same to our museum customers, told everyone with twenty-five cents to spare and a searching look on their face—everyone who said something like, “It’s a miracle you’re still with us, Flora”—that God must have planned for me to be visiting my Aunt Dottie at the moment my father went insane.

I went on that way for as long as we turned a profit, telling the looky-loos that it was God and not my father who had determined my fate. People liked to hear that—that I still believed in God, that I thought of my life as an act of grace. They would nod as I spoke and say, “Amen.” It pleased me to recognize faith on their faces. Sometimes I thought that I understood what our pastor felt like on Sunday mornings, seeing all that hope and trust in the Lord beaming back at me. I would have continued being a thing that inspired belief, which I preferred to being a thing that inspired pity. But eventually folks had enough of our story or Jack sold too much of what we had to show off or both. We closed soon after my fourteenth birthday, and right away Uncle Jack started grumbling about needing money. He wound up selling my father’s land for less than it was worth. 

I was allowed to take one souvenir for myself, before Uncle Jack and I left the place for good. I knew what I wanted, but I walked through my old home slowly, making sure I looked hard at the pillow Mama had embroidered with blue flowers and the little toy truck that had etched its tracks across my brothers’ bedroom floor. Finally, I stepped into Mama’s bedroom and made my way to her nightstand. Uncle Jack had displayed several of my mother’s possessions atop that nightstand, but most were long gone by then. Her hairbrush remained, and that was the thing I wanted. It was simple, made from wood, and had no real value. Uncle Jack said, “Suit yourself,” when I told him that brush would be my souvenir. My mother had run its bristles through my hair so many times that I could still recall the feeling of her short, gentle tugs, her fingers sweeping across my shoulders. Having that brush helped me remember how we had been before she asked me for the truth.  

Obeying my mother meant disobeying my father. Daddy had warned me that saying one word would ruin our family. He told me, “Flora, I wouldn’t be able to live with what would happen to you if you don’t keep quiet. You wouldn’t have your Mama or me or your baby brothers. You’d be on your own.” I thought he was talking about sending me away. In the darkness, his voice sounded weak and sad, as if I held more power over him than he could bear. I hated to hear him that way, and I said, “Shh, Daddy, don’t worry. I won’t tell anybody.” He started to cry, then, and that frightened me. It made me understand that he was serious. 

I kept my promise until the day I began to bleed. That was when Mama sat beside me and said I had to tell her about Daddy and me. I said that I could not, that I was sworn to secrecy. Finally, she convinced me that I could tell her without breaking my vow. She said, “You swore not to say a word?” And I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She thought for a moment and then said she had an idea. She would ask me a question and all I had to do was nod or shake my head. “You don’t got to say anything,” she said, and I never did. 

From that moment and through the days leading to Christmas, I remember only silence—mine and my mother’s and, later, my father’s. In this quiet, we all performed our usual habits. The only difference was that no one except the twins seemed to want to look at me. It felt lonely, waiting to learn where I would be going, but I tried to pretend that I was bound for a great adventure. And then Christmas Day arrived and Mama gave me her beautiful party dress and I was able to imagine that what had passed between the three of us was over. For the briefest time, I believed that all had been forgiven.

Caroline McCoy

About Caroline McCoy

Caroline McCoy grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and now lives in Savannah, Georgia. Her writing has appeared in Raleigh Review, The Georgia Review, Blackbird Journal, Juked, Electric Literature, and other places. She earned her MFA from Emerson College and was a 2019 Artist in Residence with Crosstown Arts in Memphis.  Twitter: https://twitter.com/CarolineAMcCoy

Cold Mountain Review is published once a year in the Department of English at Appalachian State University. Support from Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs and College of Arts and Sciences enables CMR’s learning and publications program. The views and opinions expressed in CMR do not necessarily reflect those of university trustees, administration, faculty, students, or staff.