A Pearl as Red as Sin
by R. A. Busby
The baby bit hard into my flesh and held there.
It dug into the left side of my womb with a pinprick pinch, sharp and determined. Lying in bed, cheek hot against the old pillowcase redolent of hair and bleach, I imagined the embryo floating through a warm-wet universe, a creature small as a salmon’s egg with tiny biting jaws that tore into the dark walls of my flesh and ate itself a cave to grow inside.
It nestled there, a pearl as red as sin.
Jess and I had come here to this wild wooded place about half a year ago. I’d grown up where the desert runs in an ancient, wrinkled playa all the way to limestone mountains stark and grey as a curse. The only green came from creosote bushes that suck the water from the dry earth so nothing grows around them, and the leaves smell just like rain.
But a few months into our almost-marriage, Jess got an itch to move back to West Virginia to be with his people. That was ironic. He’d come out in the desert to be away from his people. Hell, Vegas was the farthest away he could live and still afford the rent. By that point, though, the COVID had struck, and folks were unemployed. Home with his brothers Mike and Grady, Jess explained, he could pick up jobs where an extra hand was always needed—construction, landscape, road crew. That sort of thing.
What could I say? When Jess first met me, I was squeaking by in a shitty studio in a truck town near Vegas and knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I’d been three credits short of an associate degree when Daddy got cancer, and the mercy was that it was fatal. There’d be no handwringing about spending his savings on chemo. Daddy saved it all for hospice. In the meantime, his help would be on me.
I first noticed Jess when I stopped in at Gibby’s one day after work for a beer, and he ambled up to the bar. He had a devilish grin and long hair, tousled and gold-red like turmeric, thumbs hooked inside his waistband, fingers framing whatever lay below.
“So,” he asked. “What is it you do?”
For a minute, I toyed with my straw. “I’m an aesthetician.”
Jess gave a half-smile that was almost a laugh, and I saw one tooth was nicked a little in the corner. He said, “What the hell’s an aesthetician?” When I explained aestheticians did skin care, laser treatments, and hair removal, he smiled a little wider. “Gotcha,” he said. “Fancy word for a pussy groomer.”
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right.
But oh, for the moment, he did put things from my mind. The job. The degree I’d never get. The powdery sand drifting in eddies along the chain-link fence to blow inside so the windowsills were always gritty. The hateful glare from the bone-tailed pit bull chained in the neighbor’s backyard. The gold poison needles of the cholla. The high, sweet stink of decay in the house where my father lay dying.
So yeah. Between the fingers and the tousles and the nicked-tooth smile, Jess put things from my mind just fine. And before long, he and I were talking about marriage. Or at least I was. No big affair. A justice of the peace. My dad to give me away. That’s all I asked.
But asking ain’t getting.
Daddy died before the COVID hit. As it turned out, he never got to spend his money on hospice. Walking to his door after work one day, I simply knew. Between one step and another, really. The air around fell still, and no birds sang beneath the white pearl sky that cold December day.
My key was halfway in his lock. Breathing too hard, I yanked it out, letting the moment before opening the door just spin out and breathe. In some college course I’d taken once, the professor had mentioned an experiment with a cat in a box. The cat, she explained, was both alive and dead. You couldn’t be sure until you opened the lid and made it happen this way or that. At the time, this had seemed like obvious bullshit. The cat was dead, or it was not. That was all.
I’d been wrong. After a time, I put the key back in, and I found out.
After the funeral, there wasn’t much left, but there’d not been much to begin with. What there was, I socked away in the empty Chock Full o’Nuts can where Daddy kept his grocery money and put it on the back of my shelf.
Now there was just me. And Jess. And when our wedding day came, I guessed I’d be walking down the aisle all alone.
Alone. That was truer than I knew.
Maybe it was the grief of those times, but I have to say, it took me too long to figure out Jess liked nothing more than to put some kind of daylight between me and the people I loved. I didn’t have much family left other than my cousin Tracy, but I did have friends. Within a year or so, those ties would all be gone.
Jess went about it strategically, almost never saying anything straight. It was always some sideways remark like, “That Amie, man. I don’t know,” or “Krystal. Wow.” Then his mouth would twist in a kind of soft regret as if the world had once again confirmed his basic cynicism. When I asked what he meant, he’d give a shrug and tinker with the car. And there I’d be, standing alone in the house wondering just what I had missed seeing in Amie or Krystal.
As for my heart-friends and relatives, Jess was persistent as a dripping faucet. He’d turn from a show about a McMansion bottle-blonde and ask if she didn’t look like my cousin. “You know—the one who does those Coddled Cook things?” he asked. “Where she pretends to invite you to a party just so you’ll buy a frying pan, and she gets a commission?” Jess kept nibbling away, little bits here, little bites there, until he got what he wanted.
That’s how I was pretty sure, despite its strange conception, this baby might be his.
The nibbling, you know.
“Every child’s a changeling,” Jess’s mother remarked the first time I met her. “Oh, they might have their daddy’s eyes, but they’re changelings all the same. Trust me.”
I hadn’t expected to like Mama. Jess sure as hell didn’t. “You just want to stay outta her way,” he’d muttered. We were near Memphis, and I could tell from the restless tapping on the U-Haul’s wheel that Jess was in a mood full of pissoff. He’d had to sit in the right-hand lane behind the eighteen-wheelers for fifty miles and it was rasping him badly, Jess being a person who liked to dart in and out of traffic like a needle set to zigzag.
He kept on. “Out there in the woods by herself in that old doublewide and five cats.” Jess shook his head, orange-gold curls tumbling. “Crazy bitch.”
“Whatever happened to your daddy, anyway?” I asked, staring out the window. “You never talk about him.”
Jess shot me a bitter glance, and his lips tightened. “Fuck him. He wasn’t exactly a good guy. Quick with his hands until he decided to just fade away to nothing. At the end, he walked out on us. Literally.”
“What do you mean?”
Jess gripped the steering wheel. “He got up one night and walked out of the house. I watched from my bedroom window and saw him cross into the woods like he was answering a call from the trees. He kept right on going until the shadow ate him up, and none of us ever laid eyes on him again. Simple as that.” He paused. “But what bugged me were his boots.”
“They were the only thing he wore. Otherwise, he was naked as the day he came screaming out of Grandma.”
I had nothing to say to that.
The signs for Memphis came more thickly now. Gas. Food. Services. “We’re living down the road? From your mama?”
“Close enough. Grady’s lending us his old place.” From there, Jess fell silent.
I’d never had a mother. I didn’t really know what that was like. After Mama died, Daddy’d had a string of girlfriends over the decades. Sweet women with understanding faces, secretaries and nurses. Women who help.
Women like me.
I’d never seen myself that way until right then in the U-Haul outside Memphis, and I thought, But it’s good to help folks. Nothing wrong in helping. God, the world needs help. We all do. That’s why we’re in this shit anyway. No one helps anyone.
Mama’s place lay deep in the forest. Grady’s old place—our place now—was closer to the main road, but Mama’s trailer was down a winding dirt path wending through the trees and underbrush.
The land was richly green. Light came through the leaves in dappled dots like upflung coins that hovered in the air. The soil was dark and rich with leafloam, and the tree roots were skirted in velvet. On their bark clung horizontal mushrooms like the spread tails of Thanksgiving turkeys, and the place spoke of emerald growing things.
“Piece a shit,” said Jess, and kicked aside a coffee can of flowers in his way. I set the can back on the step. Beside the screen sat a broad grey rock, flat as an ironing board, and on it leaned a grocery bag with peaches from the tree, wilting leaves still clinging to the stems.
The interior door opened on a woman with long silver hair and spotted-leather skin stretched over bones. From her hands dangled a tangled vine covered with fruit that resembled lantana but probably wasn’t.
“Well,” she said through the mesh. “Look what the cat dragged in.”
“Glad to see you too, Ma,” muttered Jess.
She paused there a moment, considering. For a second, I figured she would close the door, but then her eyes, faded grey and gimlet-sharp, stared into mine.
Mama gave a nod. “Well. You comin’ in? Enter of your own free will, as they say,” she said, opening the rusty screen, and there we were.
On the way, I grabbed the fruit bag. “I found these by your door,” I explained. She peered over the half-glasses she wore.
“A gift,” said Mama after a moment. “For some help. Just put it on the counter.”
After that, my feet found their way to Mama’s more than I’d have thought. The forest called, and all that summer, I longed to plunge my head inside that verdant tunnel and run for miles and miles to feel the earth spring up and breathe in air so green. In that sweet hypnotic rhythm, time ceased to tick and the world was not a separate thing.
The path ran through the wood, and no matter what, the forest found a way to wind me through trees asleep in a morning mist until I stood at Mama’s porch and she was there inside.
And always when I arrived, I’d find things outside her door. A stack of bloody-butcher ears in summer. Gala apples. Jellies glowing in the sunlight. In early autumn, a tiny corn dolly sitting by herself, faceless head peeping from beneath a green husk bonnet. At first, the rock on Mama’s porch had looked to me like an ironing board. Now it felt like something older and darker. A place of offering. Of gifts.
We’d go into the forest, Mama and I, starting on the track behind the trailer that wound past a tamped-down circle in the grass and a car part pile on which a white cat lounged. Though we always walked to the right, I noticed there was a left-hand path, more overgrown, feeding farther into the vale. His daddy went that way, came the unbidden thought.
“Now,” Mama told me one September. “We’re sang hunting. Head into that patch, Ginny.” She wagged a thin finger at a leggy upcropping. “Go on,” she nodded.
“Isn’t that poison ivy?”
Mama snorted. “Don’t you remember that old saw about ‘leaves of three’?”
“They all look like leaves of three.”
“Then learn to count to five,” Mama said, and handed me a stick. We dug till the earth fell away. Reaching into the ground, she pulled out a small brown root in the shape of a man.
“This boy has himself a pecker,” Mama chuckled, pointing at the place where a smaller root stuck out at a junction. “That’ll fetch good money.”
Mama and I worked awhile at digging sang, and at last I asked, “Who leaves those things at your door, anyway? Those gifts?”
She paused, tugging on a long thin runner gently, as if it were an umbilical cord. “Women I help.”
“But what do you do?”
With a grunt, Mama poked at the dirt with her stick. “I get them what they need,” she answered. “Or I try. So long as it hurts no one. They come to me, and together, we ask.”
Thinking about Daddy and Jess, I said bitterly, “Asking ain’t getting. And getting what you want isn’t always so good.”
Mama’s hands brushed down her jeans, leaving a dark earth-trail across her thighs. “So, you’ve figured that out?” she said. “’Bout time. But I didn’t say getting what you want, girl. I said getting what you need. And you often do get that. Just not the way you imagined. But you get it.”
Over time, I learned the names of things, their look and their lore. I brought home morels with long thin caps folded like a human brain, hen-o-the-woods that grew on the oaks, and dark black berries in a pail.
And in exchange, I started to leave gifts for Mama on the stone. A china pot and Earl Grey tea. A catnip plant and fishing-pole toy. Tens and twenties fashioned into flowers, cranes, and fish I’d hoarded from the coffee-can money Daddy left.
“What did you mean?” I asked once. “About changelings?”
She paused a bit, remembering. “Heh. I did say that, didn’t I? That first day. It was mostly to twit Jess, but yes. You can grow a child right beneath your heart and not figure out till later the only bit in common is a name.”
I thought about her boys leaving her alone in an empty house with cats. I thought about her son calling her a crazy bitch.
Over her glasses, Mama peered at me. “You’re a lonely little thing, aren’t you?” she asked, not unkindly. “But if you suppose you can birth yourself a lifelong companion, think again.”
The rightness of her hit me so hard I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t.
“Children are wild magic,” she continued. “Not a single one is yours. Folks assume you can mold them like God making Adam from the clay.” She paused a minute. “And look how that turned out.”
“It sounds lonely.”
Mama scoffed. “The world’s lonely.” Then she shot a quick little glance, sharp and assessing. “And you only have children for a while. One hot minute, and then they’re gone. But listen. Sometimes you birth them, sometimes you get them, and sometimes you find them,” she said. “But sometimes…”
“Sometimes they find you.”
Jess was home when I got back. As the days started to grow thin and cold, he worked less and less. By now, I had regulars who came for off-license haircuts and homemade facials, and that helped, but for months, we’d drawn hard on the money socked away for my college fund while Jess brooded on the couch.
“First,” he said as soon as the door closed, “quit traipsing off to Mama’s. Start helping around here.” He jerked his chin at the dishes. “No more running about in the woods. That is, if that’s really what you’re doing. And speaking of help, you’ll be glad to know I found this.” He lifted his hand. Between his fingers dangled the envelope from the can where I’d kept Daddy’s money.
It ended exactly like you’d suppose.
Or maybe not.
As that glorious green summer faded into fall and the leaves left, I stayed in the house and did chores, washed dishes, and washed them again. I folded shirts into precise squares and arranged them by color. Once or twice, hanging wash on the line, I would spot Mama lingering at the borders of the wood. I’d wave a hand to her and she to me, and I’d try to ignore that ache in my chest and the anger in my throat, so during the day, I hardly spoke at all, and at night, my mind wandered to the woods. I dreamed of Jess’s father and his boots.
The house became too close for Jess and me. We scratched up against each other, poked one another with knees and elbows, danced around in doorways, opened cabinets in faces. Heaving himself from the couch one day, Jess paced to the fridge and peered inside.
“I gotta get the fuck away from here,” he muttered.
“I have got,” he said, biting the words, “to get the fuck away from here. You hear?” With a jingle of keys, he was out and gone. When he came back, he reeked of sweat and beer and a shampoo we didn’t own.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right.
In the forest grows an orange tangled plant the color of turmeric. Devil’s hair, Mama named it. A parasite. It finds trees and inserts tendrils in the wood to suck it dry while the seed lives on and waits for another host.
I wondered what I’d have left to me when Jess was gone for good.
The next morning on November eve, I spotted a note tucked into my shoe, written in shaky and angular old woman’s cursive.
“Come on by,” it said. “Tonight.”
Outside, the air was crisp as an apple. Jess had rolled in an hour ago, talking softly, supposing me asleep. As he murmured into the phone, his voice low, I noticed that lazy way he lounged against the wall, fingers dangling below his waistband, and said to myself, Not long before he walks on out of here. Not long at all.
He eased into bed, shifting a bit, and I waited until his breath took on that rasping sound of sleep. From above, the moon stared down round-bellied and full as the door clicked shut. Not looking back, I turned down the path to Mama’s and wondered if Jess was watching from the window.
As I came to the trailer, I heard singing.
A circle of women had gathered in the field, that tamped-down spot I’d noticed by the dark and looming trees. Together they stood, hands lifted to the moon. I recognized a few. I’d styled their hair. The women wore it loose now, flowing down to their butt-splits, for each one was mother-bare and damn the autumn cold. And as I froze in place, I saw them reach to the sky and heard them call out the names of their need, and the cry was taken up and passed around until it became the need of them all.
Mama saw me. It was dark, and I’d drawn behind the pile of rusty parts where the white cat always sat in the sun patch, but Mama’s eyes fixed on mine all the same. I froze like a deer at a cracked stick, for I had no idea what they would do, those mother-women with their wild long hair.
eat me ???? welcome me in
I held my breath in that suspended time. And in my head, I heard Mama ask me plain as dirt, “You comin’?”
They welcomed me in. I raised my hands and called out what I needed.
“Shh,” I whispered to Jess when I eased back into bed. My breasts pressed against his back, my nipples tight and cruel. I rolled him over, felt below. He came mostly awake and murmured assent, arching to the dark indifferent sky. “Your skin is cold,” said Jess, but then found himself occupied by other things.
I was cold. So cold.
I warmed up soon.
In college, this professor—not the cat one—made an offhand remark that stuck. “Maternity,” the professor said, “can be proven by evidence of the senses. Paternity, though? We’re never so sure about that.” This struck me as funny at the time and still does. When you see a baby head framed by the taut diamond of a woman’s vagina, there’s not much doubt it’s coming out from her. But who put it in there to begin with? That’s somewhat less than clear.
Jess wandered off when I was four months pregnant. Ever since that night, he’d found reasons to stay late and leave early. A job, he said. Some appointment. I let him walk away. There was less and less of him each passing day, like he was fading.
One afternoon, I found Grady sitting uncomfortably on the porch steps, twisting a worn snapback cap and looking up like a kicked dog. Jess had taken up with an old girlfriend, Grady said. From high school. Lived out in Bolivar. They’d been off and on for a long old time.
“And, well,” muttered Grady, trying not to look at my belly, “Not like you were married or nothing.”
I did indeed know what to say to that, but I didn’t. “So,” I said instead. “You’ll be wanting your house back.”
Grady stared at the ground, plump cheeks red in the thin daylight. “Well,” he said. “I suppose, yeah. No real rush. I guess you’ll go back home?”
“I guess so,” I said, and let that spin out in the silence.
I did go home. In Mama’s field, I got myself a small used trailer and put it where she wanted, by the woods. “You’ll like it there,” said Mama, and I did. From time to time, Mama ate supper at my place or hers, or we played cards with her friend Marylou, whose eyebrows were drawn with brown pencil, or hung out with the other women from the group. Passing each other at the park, a church social, or on the police station sidewalk selling bake sale cookies, we’d simply smile and nod.
And once a month, we’d gather in the field beneath the moon.
As the wheel of the year turned, I waxed and grew until my belly swelled like a second moon itself, all round and white. Mama lay hands on my bulge and probed. “Feels like a girl. ’Bout damn time,” she sniffed, and shooed the cat from the couch so I could sit down, my legs splayed out to make room.
The funny thing about having a daughter is this. Before she’s born, she’s got all the eggs she’ll ever have. Those eggs might drop during her period, grow into a child, or just stay put, but no matter what, before that daughter’s born, her eggs are there. So while I carried her, I carried half my grandchild. And when my mother was pregnant with me, my child was inside her, at least my half. I imagined us, grandmother, mother, and child, nested inside each other like Russian dolls, each coming into the world through that taut diamond door.
And one dark night, she came. All that day, I’d cranked around the house, logy and restless, the child rising and dropping like a bowling ball in thick water. The moon rose above us, fat and bright in the field, and the women gathered and sang.
With a sudden clutch, something inside heaved and shifted down. I stumbled to my knees in the middle of the circle, hands grasping at grass as I saw the child was coming then and there. There would be no time for the doctor.
My back bent like a bow, and she pressed hard to get out. All that week, the bones of my pelvis had crunched and wiggled around, jangly and jury-rigged, as if held in place with spit and bubble gum. “Well, naturally,” said Mama, pointing to her crotch. “There’s no bone joining things together there. Only tough tendon that gets soft when the baby’s due.” She chuckled. “With Jess, I walked around like those thumb puppet toys where you push the base and the elastic holding them up goes slack, and they tumble down in pieces just like that.”
Drawing in a breath, I sensed the women clustering around, telling me to breathe, to breathe, and with a shock, I remembered?I remembered I
That thing in the forest. That first time.
That night when I’d raised hands to the sky and called my need, the women passed a cup from hand to hand and drank, and when the vessel came to me, Mama touched my wrist and said, “You sure you wanna? You don’t have to, you know. This ain’t Kool-Aid.” She chuckled. “It wears off quickly enough, and no hangover, but until then…you’ll feel like flying.” I nodded and took it. When I raised the cup to my lips, I tasted fresh hexwort rank with a scent like semen.
And then the song, the song, the song was all around me and inside me, and
there was a space and
Above, dark tree-spears pierced the stars. The cosmos wheeled overhead, and a thousand years unfolded in the dark as I lay in the loam that tore apart my flesh and fed it to the trees and thirsty earth until I was the tree. Till I was thirsty earth.
Long eons later, I half-rose, gripping ground for balance. I shivered in the cold, but my head was clear as air. I knew where I was and when.
I’d flown far from the circle. The women had vanished by now, and I was deep in the forest alone. Through the trees glowed the little kitchen light over the sink in Mama’s trailer, but it seemed far away, set at an unfamiliar wrong angle.
Between one step and another, I knew. The other way into the woods. Jess’s father’s path. I’d come down there. Seeking something.
And something sought me too.
As I tottered to my feet, I heard it move. The dark thing in the woods. The air grew thicker, sultry and close as it does
in dreams when you try to run, my feet tangling and stubbing in the roots that clustered like conspirators trying to drag me down, and all the while the thing was
Watching me. It’s watching me it’s
A stick-crack. A brush of a branch.
Low, nearly inaudible, a murmur came like a chant arising from the ground. A growl. In the back of my throat I tasted blood and the electric black-brown tang of musk. I wheeled about, trying to find an escape, but the presence was everywhere, above me and around, behind and before.
Then it blotted out the stars.
I turned and saw. My eyes slid over a shifting, formless shape I could not see with my eyes, not with my eyes—crude fleshy balls—but oh, good God, I saw it with my mind, with my blood, with some ancient sense I saw it, not with eyes, and I could only think
so many so many oh there are so many not one but many many
They were old, as old as earth and older. I would have called them by their name, but there was none.
They could not be named or even worshiped.
They could be asked. Oh yes. They could be asked.
I opened my arms to them. “Yes,” I said. “I do.”
There was a thrumming in my ears and the tang of copper pennies on my tongue. Between my legs, a flesh-scent rose like earth and sweat and death and holy things, and they were in me, in me, in me.
Or I was in them.
On my knees in the field, held close by the women as I heaved and screamed, I pulled the baby out. With a cry, I reached between my legs and felt her head, the angle of her tiny jaw, and with a gush, the child slid out and tumbled on the grass, thick blue cord still throbbing with our blood, and I thought, oh god she has no head she has no head she’s just a thing, for writhing at my knees was a grey ball streaked with gore, this creature that had slithered out of me.
But maternity can be proven by evidence of the senses.
Then Mama, with her deft hands, pierced the sac around the baby with a thumbnail, and the child kicked, sending a gush of water flowing into the grass. It smelled like desert rain. Like creosote.
“Born in the caul,” said Marylou, breasts hanging down as she bent to gather the child. “That’s a mark of second sight.” Peering between the baby’s legs, Marylou proclaimed, “A girl. A girl for her and all of us.” She elbowed Mama. “Bout damn time, don’t you think?”
“Hmph. Can’t say I didn’t try,” said Mama with a shrug.
Someone had taken the old crocheted afghan from the couch and wrapped it over my shoulders as they handed her to me. The child lay at my breast, nibbling my nipple with her tiny gums, and wearily I looked at her.
“Who is she?” I said, only half-aware, and Mama grasped my hand.
“Why,” she said, “she’s what you need. She’s yours.” Then she added, “For a while.”
Just then the child unlatched, the weak and early milk dribbling down her chin, and smiled to see me. Her mouth was filled with tiny golden pinpricks, sharp tight clusters that grew along the ridges of her jaw like cholla thorns in place of human teeth.
I breathed in the desert smell of her, so strange, so marvelous, and brought her closer to my heart. She was mine, this child, this gift. For a while, at least.
In the moonlight, I could see her two eyes staring into mine. Into me.
My daughter’s eyes were silver. Like the moon.
“Mama,” she said, tiny lips moving. “Mama.”
About the Author
Winner of 2020’s Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction, R.A. Busby spends her spare time running in the desert with her dog and finding weird things to write about.
About the Narrator
Lois Tate lends her dubious vocal abilities to narrate R.A. Busby’s evocative prose. Miss Tate’s many rumored talents are a secret which she jealously guards. It is said she can do several things fairly well, but she takes great pains to conceal them. Miss Tate is unmarried; outside of the Carbon-14 method, she has never been dated and has no children, not even lousy ones. Miss Lois Tate looks forward to a long and illustrious posthumous career.