by Gerry Wilson
Sunday mornings when Mama sleeps late my older sister, Charlene, and I clamber over her in the bed like pups nuzzling for a teat. Mama swats at us and says, Leave me alone, but finally she gives in and takes our shivering, scrawny selves under the covers. Our daddies have moved on by then. We don’t have the same one.
Later, the men who come and go are not even step-daddies. The summer I’m eleven and Charlene is fourteen, there’s a man who sticks around until Mama catches him with his hands on my sister. Mama swears off men after that. She reads the Bible and weeps. Her lamentation, she says, for her sins. We girls are marked by her sins, she says. I, Lura, was born with dark mark son my neck like fingerprints as though, Mama says, the devil had hold of me and didn’t want to let me be born. She says Charlene’s mark is her beauty.
By the time Charlene is sixteen, she wants to drop out of school and get a job, but Mama says, No, you’ve got to finish. I don’t want you girls turning out like me.
I want whatever Charlene wants. I am her shadow and she tells me to go away, but I don’t. At night I wake when she gets up and goes to the window and stands there, naked, looking out. I wonder what she sees, or if she sees anything at all. I wrap a quilt around her. Go back to bed, I say. Go to sleep.
At dinner on the grounds after church, Charlene shuns the boys and stands off to the side in the shade. She sucks her thumb the way she used to when she was a child and dances in one spot, like she hears music nobody else can hear. Her hair, pale, glossy gold, long, and curly, falls about her shoulders and moves with the breeze. That hair alone is a beacon of temptation, Mama says. At home Charlene sings little songs she makes up in her head. Whatever her eye falls upon becomes a song in that moment and then it’s gone. I ask her why she won’t write them down and she says they aren’t meant for anybody else to hear.
Until she meets a man named Otha Sparks who plays guitar in a band.
Where’d you meet him? Mama asks. Somewhere, is Charlene’s answer.
The first time Otha comes to the house, his dark hair is tied back in a long ponytail. His skin looks weathered like he works outdoors, the tips of his fingers callused from playing. He wears earrings. A tattoo shows below his rolled-up shirtsleeve. The part I can see looks like the tips of feathers, and I yearn to see the rest. He follows Charlene around with a little black machine and records her songs.
The second time he comes, he brings his guitar. Mama has washed her hair and put on a flowered dress and her boots made of finely tooled leather. She cooks dinner, but she and I are the only ones who eat. Charlene and Otha snuggle on the couch, his arms cradling her and the guitar, his left hand over hers on the frets, moving her fingers to make chords, their right hands joined, strumming. Mama watches like a guard dog. I close my eyes and sway to the music, moving my lips, forming words without sound because I cannot carry a tune.
Otha books Charlene at a bar in Memphis. A gig, he calls it. It’s small, he says, but it’s a start. Charlene practices on the guitar, but her rhythm is wrong. Even I can tell that.
Otha says, Don’t try to play, Charlene. Just sing. And so he strums along when she sings.
Sometimes he stops and scribbles in a notebook. The recorder is always, always on.
Otha tells Mama he needs to take Charlene to some clubs. She ought not to get up there before a crowd the first time, he says, without having seen what it’s like.
She’s under age, Mama says.
Otha puts his arm around Mama and says, I’ll take care of her.
He and Charlene stay out late. I’m awake when she slips into her bed, singing softly, but I can’t understand the words.
Otha buys Charlene a red dress, shiny with sequins. When she tries it on, it skims her body like light.
Mama goes to her room and comes back with the boots. Try these on, she says to Charlene.
The afternoon Otha picks Charlene up to go to Memphis, she says, I can’t go, Otha.
Stage fright, he says. It’s natural, your first time.
He practically carries her to the car. Mama and I watch them go. I blink at the bright sunlight reflected off Otha’s rear window.
He brings Charlene home at two in the morning. Her eyes are red and swollen and she storms off to our bedroom and slams the door.
Mama says, What’d you do, Otha?
He says, Don’t look at me, I didn’t do nothing. She wouldn’t even go up on the stage. She said she didn’t have a song in her head.
At home, though, Charlene sings. Her songs have always been quiet little things, almost whispered, but now sometimes she bursts out singing. Mama says it’s like some people speak in tongues.
One night Otha brings a computer to the house. We gather round while he puts in a CD. Out comes Charlene’s voice, only it doesn’t sound like her.
Audio-engineered, Otha says.
Charlene claps her hands over her ears and leaves the room.
Otha gets Charlene another gig at a roadhouse across the state line in Alabama. She’ll do fine, he
says. That first time was just jitters.
But they’re back early, and he has tight lines around his mouth. He paces our living room
and lights a cigarette. It happened again, he says. She couldn’t sing. Or she wouldn’t. He gets in his car and speeds away. We don’t know it then, but we won’t see him again.
It’s September. Charlene refuses to go to school. I have to go and Mama is working, so Charlene stays home alone. I ask Mama if she’s worried about Charlene and she says, No. If I had a dollar for every man who’s left me, I’d be rich.
I get home from school one afternoon and Charlene is gone. She doesn’t come home that night or the next. When she shows up, I think Mama must be too scared by how Charlene looks to yell at her because Mama puts her to bed. That night, Charlene moans in her sleep.
I’m scared, but eventually, I fall asleep. Sometime in the dark hours of morning, Charlene calls out, Mama? Mama? Mama comes in and snaps on the overhead light and Charlene is standing there with blood streaming down her legs, her eyes large with fear, her bottom lip trembling.
Oh sweet Jesus, Mama says. What have you done?
Charlene spends a few days in the hospital. When she comes home, she hardly speaks. There are no songs. After a couple of weeks, Mama makes her go to school. Kids snicker behind Charlene’s back, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She moves through the world like she’s the only one in it. Nights, she goes to bed early and turns her face to the wall. I crawl in beside her and tell her everything will be all right, but she pushes me away.
You don’t know, she says. You don’t know.
I guess I don’t, I say.
But I want to.
One morning I wake and Charlene’s not in her bed. Mama sits at the kitchen table, crying.
Mama’s suitcase and most of Charlene’s clothes are gone. Mama’s boots are gone too but the sequined dress hangs in the closet.
I think I know where Charlene might go. Someplace quiet, where her songs will come back to her. When I tell Mama I believe I could find Charlene, she touches the marks on the side of my neck.
No, she says and folds me in her arms. Rocks me. Holds on. And then she’s singing one of Charlene’s little breathless songs. Mama’s voice is clear and soft.
Little sparrow with one bruised wing,
Sweet bird, who taught you how to sing?
Who made you fall
And stopped your song
And never picked you up at all?
Rise up on your unbroken wing
And sing, sweet sparrow, sparrow sing.
I push Mama away. How do you know her song? I say.
I wrote it down, she says.
She cradles my head against her breast, I feel her beating heart. She sings the song again, and I join in, my flat voice a whisper, calling my sister home.
A seventh-generation Mississippian, Gerry Wilson grew up in the red clay hills of the north. She is a recipient of a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship for 2015. Her short story, “Mating,” won the Prime Number Short Story Contest 2014 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other stories have appeared in Prime Number, Good Housekeeping, Blue Crow, Halfway Down the Stairs, Arkansas Review, and Crescent Review. A retired teacher, Gerry is currently working on a new novel and writing short fiction.