S. P. A. M.

I

A monster grew out there in the tobacco. 

Delmae had seen it. Shapeless as night. Well, heard it. A howl like a coyote—no, a screech like a bobcat. Or was that the feral tabby who liked to hang around out back for the chicken heads Mama unzipped from their bodies, for supper? 

Well, no matter. Delmae sensed it. Knew it was there. It lived in small touches against the earth, and when it reached out, the universe touched back. The sway of the tobacco leaves when there was no wind. The sudden flight of crows when there were no men in the fields. The patchy death of rotting grass underfoot when there was no drought.  

When her Mama thought she was asleep along with her brothers and sisters, Delmae would tuck her small frame into the sill of their bedroom window and stare out at the endless rows of shivering tobacco. A whole farmhouse between her and that monster. Still she sensed it. 

Its eyes would not be sparks of fire, she decided. They would be blue, like hers. Like those’n on the doll she wanted from the general store in town but that her Mama said they were too poor to afford. Blue was a fierce color, and one day, Delmae was determined to find a pair of blue eyes that could stare back as hard as she stared out. 

She asked her Pa one morning, when dawn was just a whisper over the fields. This was their ritual. Or rather, hers. As the eldest girl, she’d wake up early enough to pack sandwiches for Pa and Mama and her siblings. Shuffling white bread like playing cards didn’t take long, but she knew if she came alive before everyone else, she’d get a moment with Pa, just the two of them, before he left for work. Before his limbs were heavy, before his back was hunched, before his skin was sweat. Before his temper was short. 

“Pa,” she’d start, little fingers curling back the tin lid on the S.P.A.M. can like she was pulling the covers off of Mama, who did not like to rise early at all. (She never understood why—if Mama never got up early enough, she never got to kiss Pa goodbye for the day.) “Did you know there’s a monster living out there? In the fields?” 

Her Pa was doing up the laces on his work boots, the big ones he used to crush monsters in the house, mostly fiddlebacks. “Is that the truth?” he grunted. Somedays he worked in the fields, somedays with the gas-n-electric company, somedays with the mines. The more hours he worked, the fewer hours he spent in the house with Delmae and Mama. The mines were the worst. On those days, her Pa came home looking something scary.

“Uh huh. I know it. And it knows I know. It waits out there, watching us. I think it was here before us and we just gone and moved in on it. It ate the chickens last Christmas—”

“That was a fox,” her Pa shot, voice gruff. “They get hungry in the cold.” 

Delmae peered at him over the kitchen counter, which was almost too tall for her. She didn’t tell anyone, but she hid a small crate in the cabinets; she’d pull it out to stand on whenever folks was on the other side of the kitchen, unable to see. 

“No, it’s a monster! A big one, too. Not ugly, though. Like a shadow, you know. Or a big dog. Like the Jeffersons’ dog down the way, Bullet, I’d bet they be friends—”

“A fox, Delmae,” her Pa said, voice sterner this time. No room for arguing.

“But Mama said when we close our eyes at night, all sorts of things come out of the dark and that’s why we gotta stay in bed, why we gotta go to bed early, sometimes even before you come home at night—”

“Don’t listen to your Mama. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Lets her mind get away from her, is all.” His eyes—blue, like Delmae’s, but darker, or maybe, she thought, washed with the wrong color somehow, like a poisonous sock in the laundry bin—studied his work shirt where Mama had stitched up a hole. Not well enough, apparently. His brow grew low and wrinkly over his eyes and Delmae knew she had only a little more time. 

“It’s real though. I’m not just making things up, I’m too big for that now. I’m not the baby, no matter what the boys say. I bet I could even help you start planting next season. Then I’ll show you. It’ll be out there, I swear it.”

Her Pa only shook his head. He already seemed worn out today, or maybe that was just her imagination. Her brothers were always teasing her for an imagination. Said they didn’t know where she got it from on account of they couldn’t much afford any books. 

“Oh!” Delmae explained. “Maybe it’s waiting out there cause it’s hungry!” The revelation sung through her veins stronger than the church choir on Sundays. That had to be it. “Hey Pa,” she said, unfolding newsprint to wrap the sandwiches in. “How come we can have fields and animals but we can’t buy a doll?”

Her Pa stood then, towering in the room like a statue that had been sized all wrong for its garden. Silent as concrete, he stalked toward her and grabbed two newsprint-wrapped S.P.A.M. sandwiches off the counter without a word. 

Then he was gone.  

Delmae looked down at the remains of her sandwich operation, cheeks singing with warmth but not any kind of warmth that reminded her of a pleasing choir.

Every morning, she cut a single can of S.P.A.M. into eleven slices for eleven lunches: Two sandwiches each to the three boys and Pa for their long school and work days; one each to Delmae and her little sister; and one to her Mama, but Mama always ended up giving hers away to their crotchety neighbor down in the holler, Ms. Lacey, even though that tough old woman always said she didn’t want one but took it anyway. Delmae’s brothers always joked that their Pa and Mama stopped having kids when they got two girls in a row because Pa didn’t want the boys to be equally matched. Equally matched was too much the same as outnumbered. 

Every morning, she cut the slimy chunk of S.P.A.M., jiggly and as lifeless as an un-beating heart, into eleven slices, each slice so thin that if she held it up to the window, she could see the sun rise over the fields through it. She’d slice, layer the meat gently into a pocket of white bread eleven times, and play her favorite game: Imagining what the S.P.A.M. letters really stood for. Sunlight Paraded All Morning. Supper Probably Ain’t Much. 

Someday Pa Answers Me. 

This morning, she looked at the chunk of S.P.A.M. and thought for a minute. And instead of cutting the rest into the remaining nine veiny slices, she made ten, twelve slices total. 

One extra slice for the monster growing in the tobacco. 

He was probably starving. 

II

A monster grew in the air that summer. 

Delmae could smell it. Something fowl baked in the air quicker than cornbread batter crusted in a hot oiled skillet. 

A little after noon, every time she came back from delivering a S.P.A.M. sandwich to the monster in the tobacco (her new favorite habit), she caught a whiff of something sour decaying in the humid June air. 

Her three older brothers left for school in the mornings, after Pa left for work. She was old enough for learning, too, and had even gone a spell in the school house in town. But then her baby sister’d cried her way into life and her Mama had needed more help than her own two hands from God could provide. So Delmae’d left school; after all, whatever husband she ended up fetching would have gone to enough school for the both of them. Maybe even to high school. Delmae liked to imagine what it might be like to rifle through an entire room of books she’d have in her future big house with her future husband who would spend so much time off at work in town that he’d never bother her while she spent all day reading. 

Delmae had been right, of course. Not that her older brothers or Pa listened to her long enough to even entertain the ideas she was spewing. Sometimes Mama would give her an ear, but only in the golden hour of the afternoons, when Pa and the boys were gone and the littlest girl was deep in her nap. Only when Mama’d slept her full twelve hours and had a cup of coffee in her, maybe coffee with a little splash of something else stronger and more sour than whatever Delmae was smelling outside. Those afternoon hours were Delmae’s and Mama’s, their own special time when it felt like the entire earth could spin around two tiny lives. 

Anyway. Delmae was always right. There was most certainly a beast in the tobacco and he was most certainly hungry. 

As usual that morning, she upturned a can of S.P.A.M. and let the pink stuff drop onto a plate with a sound that reminded her of Pa’s boots sticking in the mud by the creek. And as usual in the early morning quiet and empty of the kitchen, she bullied that S.P.A.M. into twelve slices. She was particularly proud of them this morning, even though the only taste that ever came through was the white bread; they were so thin, they reminded her of the fragile pages of the Bibles in church. 

They didn’t go to church much anymore; that was one thing she noticed her folks agreed on. Pa didn’t seem to have the time or energy when Sunday was the only rest day he got, and even then, he spent it out on the farm. Mama didn’t have the patience. Whenever someone approached them on one of the rare occasions Mama took Delmae into town for an errand, they’d always wonder when Mama was gonna bring the children back to services. They were missed. 

Mama would just stare at them, the plow lines on her face getting deeper as her features sunk into the same look she often threw Pa when she thought no one was looking, like when he tracked mud through the house or when he came home late and decided to sleep on the sofa. Delmae saw everything, of course. 

Delmae didn’t like the soft-spoken preacher much, anyway. No one did. If folks were either S.P.A.M. or white bread, that man was definitely the whitest and blandest of breads. Awful lot of folks caught up on their napping, especially on summer Sundays when the church was hot and the preacher man was prisoner to one of his mumbling, droning sermons. 

Eight slices for the boys. 

Sir Preacher Always Mutters.

Three slices for the girls. 

An extra slice. 

No one saw Delmae slip out of the kitchen and into the tobacco fields around lunchtime. 

The tobacco was much taller than she. She wasn’t positive why just yet, but this lunchtime charity of hers was best kept secret. There wasn’t much left to be personal in a small farmhouse with seven people. And that didn’t even include the chickens! This was hers. No one else’s. Besides, the boys wouldn’t like knowing their sandwiches were thinner, and Mama told her to never wander out into the fields, especially alone. 

You’ll get lost. 

Will not! Pa doesn’t get lost.

Your Pa’s never not lost, sugar. But Mama usually murmured that last part like the preacher mumbled. There are monsters out there, Mama’d try again. 

Ha! Delmae giggled to herself as she stalked through the tobacco, small hands gripping a small plate with a small sandwich. Silly Mama. That kind of reasoning was like butter on crusty cornbread to Delmae; the more someone slathered it around, the more she wanted. Truth was, her stuffy school teacher was probably glad he didn’t have to handle her curiosity anymore. She had approximately fourteen phenomenal questions in her brain every hour. Monsters, for sure. If only Mama knew.  

So when the tobacco leaves enveloped her small frame in a cocoon of smells that reminded her of Pa, letting her disappear from the outside world for a moment, it was for sure a sign from the universe. She was meant to be out here; the forces at work would keep her from being spotted and getting in trouble. She loved learning about the universe and the planets and what lurked in the shadows of the oceans. She’d spend hours at the library in town when she could, but it was only ever open when cranky old Ms. Lacey felt well enough to make the trek in from deep in the holler and open it up. 

Delmae stopped in a specific clearing in the tobacco, the plants stamped down under tiny footprints here. Noontime sunlight streaked through the leaves, but it still felt cooler this deep in. It was nice to be small sometimes. No one would be able to see her from the farmhouse, and this far out in the fields, the noises of the world calmed just a little bit. No chicken squawks, no dogs panting, no static radio nonsense blaring from Mama’s bedroom. Quiet. 

She set the plate on the ground, like she had many times before. 

“This batch turned out real nice,” she said into the silence. The tobacco swayed in front of her as the wind whispered through. Silence. Delmae noticed there weren’t any little critters running around in the underbrush out here anymore, not since she’d discovered the monster. No field mice or rabbits. Not even a barn snake. Like they all knew they’d shifted from animals to prey right quick. 

Not for the first time, Delmae pondered one of her favorite questions. Did this monster like little girls? 

“We even had some jarred onions I forgot Mama pickled a while back. I threw a couple of those on there, too.” 

Silence. 

This is usually how it went. Delmae would talk, offer the sandwich, talk some more, and then leave. The sandwich would always be gone when she came back for the plate in the late afternoon. She pondered what kind of monster this one might be, but as she never saw the creature, that was hard. If not a monster, then what? She swore she saw flashes of lightning bug-yellow eyes at night when she stared out from the bedroom window, but he was no dog or bear or coyote. This monster was…new. 

Delmae dared to ask a question she’d never be able to in church. “Are you a god?” 

The stillness answered back. Then a low rumble sounded. A growl? A hungry stomach? She very much wanted to know more about this monster. Where had he come from? Grown up? Did he have a Pa and a Mama and siblings and absolutely no time and space to do things on his own so he’d run off and now here he was…More importantly, would he be good at her game? 

Saints Ponder Ancient Meaning. 

Yes, this monster out in the tobacco felt ancient.  

Seeing they were done for the day and knowing he wouldn’t eat the sandwich until she left, she gave a small wave and made her way back to the house. 

At the bottom of the back porch steps, Delmae immediately knew something was wrong. 

She took a few steps into the house and let the answer claim her senses. The sour smell wasn’t from her monster, or from the fields. Not the outside world. The foul odor was coming from inside the house. 

It was then she realized there was still untouched coffee burning on the stovetop. Mama had not come down to the kitchen today. 

III

A monster grew in Pa. 

At least, that’s what Delmae guessed, because Mama spent more and more time in bed on account of not wanting to deal with your Pa today, sugar. 

The days got hotter, the nights grew longer, and Pa came back later. He got home in entirely new days sometimes; Delmae heard midnight chime on the old grandfather clock in the den about the same time the front screen door banged open and closed. She was usually up, sitting at her bedroom window sill, watching for her monster. Monsters liked to come out in the spooks’ hour, of course. She knew this from books in the library. They loved the time between midnight and three in the morning, so she learned to love it, too. Hoping she’d spot the dark mass of a creature brushing sandwich crumbs from his fur…

Tonight, another late night, Pa did what he always did when he finally stumbled home from work or town or wherever he had been: Pa wound the grandfather clock in the den. Delmae knew it; heard it. He loved that thing more than Mama’s biscuits (ridiculous), more than his children (shameful), and certainly more than Jesus and church (understandable). He’d wind it and wind it only to fiddle with it some more, his calloused hands, dirt caked under the fingernails, for once gentle. 

She started to understand why Mama always got a twisted-up lemon look on her face when she caught Pa doing that, caressing the clock’s hands and pieces with such love and care it was like he’d married them. But what was the point of a gosh dang clock that couldn’t keep time? A clock that went bad every single day and had to be made un-bad? A more preposterous idea than the idea of a monster living out in the tobacco, if you asked her.  

From her place in the kitchen one morning, Delmae watched her Pa wind the grandfather clock. He’d actually come home early enough yesterday to go to bed before it needed to be wound, even had supper with her and the boys (Mama was asleep), although it was just corn soup and stale bread croutons. Slice after slice of S.P.A.M. fell to the plate as her Pa busied himself with the clock; she was ready to stash the slices and bread into the breadbox in case he turned around and saw how many sandwiches she was making. 

But she lost count of her slices when a ghost floated down the steps, the floorboards creaking even beneath a willowy frame. Mama was up. Out of bed. In the morning. Delmae almost shaved off her thumb as her eyes followed her Mama as best they could from the kitchen. She was in her dressing robe, hair not done, but still. She was alive in a whole new part of the day. Her Mama approached Pa at the clock. Delmae didn’t know what was wrong, but she knew something was off between them, like they had pasty clumps in their buttermilk. Were they getting back to being friends again?

Her Mama and Pa sunk into a terse, whispered conversation. That didn’t sound like being friends again.  

Signs Point Against Maybe. 

“Why didn’t you come down to supper last night?” 

Delmae couldn’t quite see their faces, but that was Pa. Pa always started with questions. 

“Why did you make it to supper last night?” Definitely Mama. Silence. “What happened, Charles?” 

“What was always going to happen. They’ve lost too many men in the mines this season so they sent us home. Folks is starting to pay too much attention. That mine’ll close. The money’ll move to anothern, a smaller town further away with better mountains and poorer men. Men ever more desperate than us.”

“There are no poorer men. We’re it—”

“Is that the truth?” A hacking cough out of Pa. Delmae’s oldest brother told her it was the mines. Apparently, mine monsters were mostly made of coal dust and crawled into your lungs so they could hitch a ride out of their caves since they were trapped down there, sometimes for centuries. She didn’t believe that nonsense. Not really. It was silly. Mostly. Honestly, why would a monster ever have to get un-trapped? A monster was the trap. 

Her Pa was speaking again, and Delmae’s ears went hot when she heard her name. 

“Del’s old enough to work now. And I don’t just mean around the house. She can join the boys in the field maybe, or go in town—” 

“Honestly, Charles. Del ain’t even got proper clothes to leave the house. You’d know that if you spent any time with her. She needs new shoes.” 

“She can wear the one’s she’s got for now just fine.”

Delmae wiggled her free toes on the cold kitchen title. Thank goodness she didn’t have to wear shoes in the house. Her middle toes were longer than the others, and were starting to permanently curl in and under in her worn Mary Janes. They didn’t hurt. Much. She couldn’t run in them, mind you. And sometimes her ankles started to smart because she kept walking on her heels to keep her toes lifted off the ground and free of the pressure—

Did her monster out in the tobacco have shoes? What if his feet were cold? Bruised and broken? If her Pa couldn’t even get his baby girl new shoes, who was taking care of her monster? 

Just then, her stomach rumbled. She was pretty used to the feeling by now, but for some reason, her gut grumbled louder than her folks’ argument this time. If she was hungry, then surely her monster was, too. She sliced faster, only half paying attention now.  

“She cannot wear those old things anymore. They’re gonna cripple her feet. You think she’ll dance well enough to get any attention from boys with those feet?”

Boys! Delmae wanted to snort. What boys? Pure trouble. She didn’t have time for boys, not for their silliness. Not that she saw many boys anymore since Mama took her out of school. Slice. The boys in class had stared too long at her dusty shoes and crooked teeth, and not nearly long enough at her blue eyes or the tiny bow of twine she braided her hair with. Slice. It was twine she secretly clipped from her Mama’s best and only hat one day, with her older brother’s knife. That hat lived at the back of the closet, anyway. Boys were stupid. Slice. 

Stupid People Anger Me. 

“That just means she’s growing, which means she’s old enough to start some real work. It’d be good for her.” 

“It ain’t good for you, why would it be good for her—” Her Mama’s voice caught in a strange gurgle of a sound then, strangled and short, the way the barn dogs choked on the bones of the chicken scraps they got a hold of after supper. 

Then Delmae heard a wheezing gasp, like her Mama’d come up for air after swimming through a deep, dark well.  

In the next instant, erratic boot-stomping echoed toward the kitchen. “Better than wasting away around here, learning your example, sleeping all hours of the day—”

Delmae didn’t look up in time. Her Pa and Mama barreled around the corner into the kitchen and she didn’t even have half a second to squirrel away the evidence of the extra sandwich. There were twelve slivers of delicate heart-pink S.P.A.M. in front of her, twenty-four pieces of white bread. 

Her parents halted in surprise. Pa’s face was flushed with red anger. Mama’s eyes were sunken in pools of purple, baggy exhaustion, and a red patchy painting was forming around her neck. Silly Mama. Her neck always got like that when she insisted on sleeping with her goose-feather pillow. (Delmae didn’t know why her Mama didn’t just get rid of that pillow when it gave her so much trouble.)

Her folks were silent, staring. At the fact that Delmae was up this early making sandwiches and had likely overheard them, or at the extra sandwich? Oh lord, she hoped the first. Worst case, she’d just say Mama was bringing an extra sandwich to Ms. Lacey, who was only ever not so cranky when she had a little something to eat, and she needed something to snack on after all if she was going to make the trek to keep the library open for Delmae—

Mama’s eyes went to Pa and then followed his gaze, which was fixated on Delmae’s small hands hovering above smaller sandwiches. Her folks glowered at the slices of S.P.A.M., thinner than a top layer of delicate skin. Delmae’d read once that their outside layer of skin was already dead anyway, always dying and replenishing. 

Pa turned and fumed out, stomps echoing to the front door.

Mama stayed a moment longer, the sadness in her eyes losing the fight to tiredness. Her Mama never seemed to be able to win the fight against her enemy of exhaustion. Without a word, she left her daughter alone again in the kitchen. 

Delmae brought the rest of the sandwiches to life. She gave extra care to the twelfth. Even spread a little bit of the mustard they had left in the jar on top of the S.P.A.M. 

Were they really that poor, she thought, as she left a sandwich out in the tobacco fields that day. How could she be poor if she still had something to share? 

Sure enough, supper was quiet that night. As she and her siblings came to the table, Delmae stared at the food Mama placed in front of them when it was clear Pa wasn’t making it home. 

Soggy Peas and Macaroni. 

Yes, she thought. Oh yes. The monster outside might have been hungry, but the heartbeats inside the house were poor in all the wrong ways.   

IV

A monster was not an easy thing to hide, as it turned out. 

Delmae made a mistake. As with all mistakes, this one started with a storm. 

One August night, late summer heat and a lonely front of cool air mixed worse than old skillet grease and the chilly water from the kitchen faucet. And soon, when the moon was high but shadowed behind the clouds, the atmosphere gave birth to a locomotive. 

The sky screamed at midnight, and suddenly the world was awake. Still half dazed with sleep and barely out of a dream, Delmae sprinted after her older brothers through the house. The walls shrieked around them as the old farmhouse bent and shook and swayed in the gathering winds. Picture frames fell and cracked. The few pieces of china they had shivered from the cabinets and shattered. Delmae’s sister, the little one, was crying up a storm of her own but then the baby was in their Mama’s arms and Mama was trying to sing a lullaby over the sound of the train coming right down from heaven—

“The cellar, out back!” 

Delmae saw Pa shout the words before she ever heard them, and suddenly hands and elbows met ribs and everyone was shoving and clawing their way out of the house, speeding like the devil for the cellar out back. Near the tobacco fields. Her ears rung and her head felt like it was overflowing with cotton, and she could barely think straight. The fields! Her Monster—he was out there alone and he must be confused and frightened and lord he was probably so hungry, late-night storms always made her crave milk and some sweet cinnamon dumplings—

Outside, a mass of black hovered on the horizon, spinning in some kind of odd, slow-tempo dance. The tobacco wouldn’t be any kind of shield for her monster. 

Mama shouted over the horn section of winds, at their eldest. “Go check on Ms. Lacey!” 

Pa whirled on their Mama, the lose skin of his face catching and slipping around on his cheek bones like an old sheet. “Are you insane? Don’t send him out there—”

But Delmae’s big brother went sprinting in the opposite direction, toward the road, without even his shoes on. 

Pa was so distracted he didn’t see Delmae slip back into the house.

The foundation of the house shook and nails popped and she was sure her world was vibrating but maybe that was just her brain knocking against her skull. She made it to the kitchen, to the stack of sandwiches she’d already made last night ahead of time, when she knew folks was asleep and she wouldn’t run into Pa. 

But Pa found her this time, a newspaper-wrapped sandwich in her armpit, her feet pointed toward the back kitchen door where he was now standing.

“What the hell’re you doing, girl? Get your ass out into the cellar.” 

Her eyes went wide with what she knew had to be guilt, hair swirling all around her head and looking mighty tangled and pitiful. She didn’t move. In fact, she did him one better. She shook her head. 

Her Pa broke for a moment, his record scratching. “What?” A pause. The locomotive screamed closer. “Did you just tell me no, girl?” 

“I have to feed the monster,” she finally shouted. “The monster, the one in the field. The one I told you about.”

“The monster—” His head tilted and he suddenly looked like he might vomit. “Stop being silly and put your goddamn shoes on.” It was only then that she noticed her Pa had carried her shoes out with him, from the house, like he’d actually been thinking about her. 

“But my monster—”

“There’s no monster! You’re spewing nonsense and we don’t got time for this bullshit so put your goddamn shoes on—” 

The back screen door cracked right off his hinges. Something cracked in Pa, too. Understanding passed over his face as he fully heard what she’d said. Delmae had read about the calm in the eye of tropical storms. She just didn’t think she’d ever live long enough or go far enough to see one up close. 

“You’re leaving our food out there in the fields? For what, the animals? Teaching all them wild creatures to come back and make a mess…You’re just leaving it out there.” Pa always started with questions but now none of his questions sounded like questions anymore. 

She gave the smallest of nods. 

“You’re leaving our food, my goddamn food that I goddamn paid for, out there for the vermin of the world?”

She thought it was the house at first, but no, it was her own bones trembling under her skin this time as her Pa approached her. It happened too fast for her to see it coming. One of her shoes hit her in the side of the face. Pa’s left hand was empty, her right shoe in his other. 

“Answer me, girl!” 

She didn’t budge. Just clutched the sandwich tighter, squished that single slice of S.P.A.M. into an even thinner version of itself. 

“Fuckin rat—” 

Her right shoe smacked into her temple and for a breath her world flashed white in the overwhelming darkness. 

“If you can waste my money, my food, Jesus Christ knows you don’t need any goddamn new shoes, you spoiled bitch.”

She blinked, thinking of her monster, who survived all alone out there in the tobacco fields, who’d probably survived a long time before she ever came along. 

Soon Pa Apologizes More.

She said, “Those didn’t even fit right anyhow.” 

That did it. 

Her Pa lunged after her, murder in his blue eyes that were not really blue anymore, but dark as the mass of air and earth and debris and chaos churning out there in the midnight. 

Delmae was already in motion. She fled into the living room, heart pounding in time with the thunder outside. Her Pa’s heavy boots plowed behind her and when she hopped over a fallen coatrack, she finally had an idea, not for her Mama or her siblings or even for her monster but for herself. She did the only thing could think of. 

Pa raced behind her. She got to that ancient grandfather clock in the den, that ghost of a thing that’d somehow managed to stay upright through all this hell.

And she got behind it and pushed. 

It crashed to the floor in such a cacophony of sound that she almost forgot about the storm outside. Then her Pa tripped over it where she’d pushed it into his path and crushed whatever of the precious thing was left. His face hit the floorboards, nose first, and she heard crunching and cursing before she tore the hell out of the house and into the backyard. 

She didn’t have much time. Her Pa would come after her. But she didn’t run toward the cellar, where her Mama and her brothers were waiting. 

No, Delmae didn’t desert her monster. She dove into the tobacco fields, sandwich tucked in her arm like she might have cradled that doll from the general store in town. Sprinting through the thick stalks, she thought only of her monster, of feeding him, making sure he stayed alive. A minute later, when she heard Pa follow her into the tobacco, his loud cursing an angry battle cry, she smiled. Just as he was supposed to do. 

She was doing this for her family, she told herself. For her sister and her brothers and her monster out here. Most especially for her Mama. The winds spun and the locomotive chugged faster and the world went dark as the inside of a coffin. Most especially for Mama, who deserved all the peace and quiet Delmae could find for her, who probably never got to have a monster all her own to look after, her own private little thing she could nurture until it either grew scary enough to not have to hide from anything anymore, or happy enough that it didn’t want to. 

A sandwich for her monster, a single slice of something to keep it fighting. The world cracked open above and around her. A man’s strangled cry tore across the back of her mind. 

Save Pa and Mama. 

She plunged to her knees, sandwich in the dirt, wrapped her arms over her head. 

Save Pa and Mama. 

She stayed small, unseen, something she’d practiced for a long, long time. 

Save Pa and Mama. 

Then Delmae’s head went quiet. The air pressure lifted like the heavens were taking a much-needed breath. The humid air of August cocooned around her again. A bird whistled a tune. She stood, knees shaking, eyes jumping from a felled tree to their overturned truck to the farmhouse which was leaning into the ground like it was drunk. And the fields—

The tobacco fields were completely flattered around her, and not just where she stood. For as far as they reached, as far as she could see. The sandwich was gone. Her monster was gone, too, his hiding place no longer a dark spot in the world. 

And so was her Pa. Vanished where she had no doubt he had just been before, behind her, ready to put his hands around her neck.

Her Mama surfaced from the cellar then, a daisy fighting its way out of the earth. She looked around just once, just long enough to see her daughter standing there alone in the leveled field. Only Delmae. No one else. A question appeared on her Mama’s face, the littlest girl clutched to her Mama’s breast so she didn’t get sucked away. 

Delmae answered the question with a smile. 

A proud smile, really. After all, she was good at some things. Had a lot to be proud of, most certainly. 

A monster grew in her. 

How to Raise a Proper Young Lady

The following piece is the flash fiction winner of F(r)iction’s Fall 2022 literary contest

As it is the duty of every rational creature to attend to its offspring, and … it is necessary to be prepared to conquer nature’s brute instinct. The first thing you must attend to … is her exterior accomplishments…

-Loosely borrowed from Thoughts on the Education of Daughters with Reflections on Female Conduct, Mary Wollstonecraft, Grandma of Frankenstein’s Monster

Take your sweet brown girl. To the field. Grease her pate like she’s a fine filly. You’ve been telling her so. Let her laze in her favorite spots. Only greens she can eat until she’s almost sick. Wrap a braided choker round her throat and guide her now swollen body to the house.

Shield her eyes from the cool metal, the easy leads of flesh. Button her ears against the sounds of production. She’s meant for better things. Take her to her own little sweet space to rest. Nuzzle her nose. Pet her crown. Don’t look into her eyes.

Now comes the messy part.

Line her up with the others. She blends in except to you. You see the Cameroon-shaped birthmark above her gut and know it’s her. Guide her through the line. Shock her if you need to. It’s nothing compared to the gun. Look away when the bolt of lightning hits her skull.

Collect her. Hook her. You may see yourself in her brown eyes but don’t worry it’s just a reflection. She’s dead. Blood-let her for good measure. Keep the blood away from your shoes otherwise you’ll leave a trace. Cover your nose when her foulness slips out.

Start your work. Dissect her into sections.

Fuck the Chuck and round. They’re both for poor people.

Locate her tender parts. Be gentle here. It sells for your whole month pay, making it worth 1/12th your life.

Finish with the plate, flank and shank.

Take her parts to be weighed. Notice how her insides look like all the others but argue for more because she’s been fed. Wash her blood off.

Take the cast-offs of her you’ve been allowed to take home. Grill her. Notice how her ends now curl up into a tough bowl. Put her on a white plate. Ignore how bland she tastes. How she sticks between your teeth, tweeks your jaws. Swallow her whole if needed.

Shit her out re-born brown.

Shisha

Stagnant air hangs over the beach. Dancers defy the oppressive heat and flock by the video wall, while Shareef, glazed purple from the lights, lies back on the white leather couch in his fine Italian suit. I lean over so my hair falls—a curtain to hide us as I approach his lips. He’s tempted, but pulls away....
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