My name is Judith, born in the dead heat of summer, when it was too hot even for a man to spit proper. Mamma said it was so hot that summer, the Paw Paw creek ran dry and you could see little salamander bodies all dried up and burnt up mixed in with the creek stones and the Kanawa River was so low a person with the mind could walk clear across it without their knee caps getting wet. Mamma said it was so hot because the devil was fit to be tied that an angel was coming into the world.
That angel was me of course. Judith Clay Willis, but most people call me Jude. Daddy tried calling me Judy once but Mamma gave him a look fit to skin his hide. Daddy said he’d be darned if his little girl was going to have to wrestle with a name like Judith all her life. So he took to calling me Jude. Since Mamma knew good and well, once Daddy got a thought tied up in his head real tight like, there was no way on God’s green Earth of untyin it, she gave in. But mamma? Well Mamma never called me anything but Judith.
I was born in the black hills of West Virginia. They call them the black hills cause those hills are filled up with coal. Well they used to be but they ain’t filled with nothing much now except the ghost of old miners. Old except for the ones that was just kids. They used to work kids just like me and even smaller than little Jay down in them hills. My granddaddy, him being my mama’s daddy, was a coal miner and got some of the blackness in his lungs. He died when Mama was only three. He was young, but you’d never know by looking at the creases in his forehead. There was an old corner worn photograph of Granddaddy resting on the china hutch. He was wearing a pair of coal dusted coveralls and had one of them head lamps on. His forehead was creased something fierce and covered in coal dust all but for the white of his eyes and his lips so that you’d be mistaken him for a Negro if you didn’t know better. Mama said she didn’t remember much about her daddy except the way he smelled. Like sweat and sunshine all mixed up together. Sometimes I’d see Mamma just sitting and starin off, where I don’t know. Starin off and breathing in real deep and heavy, like she was smelling something, smelling a memory of her Daddy maybe. And it sounded like she was going to sigh real big. She’d breathe in, smelling that ghost smell, and I could see the softness of her chest rise up, but she never did let them sighs go. She’d keep them inside. And I’d see the softness of her chest settle back down and get a little hard. It never did seem right holding on to all them sighs. Seemed to me holding onto things like sighs and such, well, one day it’s all just going to explode. Mamma never said, but I knew she still hurt for her Daddy. Not having a Daddy does something terrible to a person. It’s like there’s a dark empty place in your heart, a hollow, where nothing takes hold. Just an empty place where all the sadness bumps around in the dark banging up against the sides of your heart. It hurts pretty terrible. I’d know cause my Daddy’s dead too. Seems like that’s what Daddy’s did around here. They died.
After Granddaddy died, it was just Mamma and Nanny. Nanny was my grandmamma, and I won’t afraid to say, at least when she wasn’t near enough to throw a pan at me, that she was meaner than a creek-tossed cat. And I know just how mean a creek-tossed cat is cause one day after school Harlan and Jace took Ms. Jones cat, his name’s Mr. Jitters and he was the meanest ole cat in the state of West Virginia, and swung him round by the tail like he was some kind of lasso or something, and sailed that poor thing clear to the middle of the creek. You aint never seen anything as sad I bet. I ran into the creek, shoes and all, to fetch that poor wailing cat out and got scratches clear up my arms for my troubles. Not only that, but when I came out the creek and let Mr. Jitters go, Jace pushed me down to the ground and I landed on one of them sharp creek rocks and got a tear in my dress not to mention a right nice pain. And as if it couldn’t get much worse, when I walked through the door for supper that night Nanny skinned my hide with her switch as “payment for her seamstress services” she said. I didn’t much care though. I know I’d done the right thing. Every time after that I’d see Mr. Jitters, he’d come strolling up to my legs, all prissy like, even for an old country cat like him, and rub himself up against my legs. Course he spit and hiss right after, but I know he was just keeping up appearances. You know, reputation and all.
Sometimes I wonder. When the sadness gets to bumping and banging around in that hollow place in my heart, I get to wondering about Nanny and Mamma. I wonder if Nanny would have been so darned mean if Granddaddy hadn’t gotten the black lung and had stayed around. Shoot, maybe if she’d had a husband to use her pan on, frying up some eggs or something, she wouldn’t have always been throwing it at someone. And I wonder about Mamma. My Mamma with the face of an angel. A dark angel with long black hair and even blacker eyes. Coal black eyes. My Mamma with the voice of an angel to match. Mamma used to sing all the time before Daddy died. She’d sing in the morning and she’d sing in the evening and all the hours in between. I wonder if Mamma would still have been singing if Daddy hadn’t died. I wonder if she would have been able to let go them sighs. Heck, I wonder if Mamma would even have had so many sighs needing to be let go if Daddy had still been around. I guess if missing a Daddy does something terrible to a person, I don’t even know what missing a husband does. If you were Nanny, it’d make you nasty and hard. Tough like a strap of leather. But if you were Mamma, well that sadness would just keep on whittling away at that hollow place until there’d be nothing left. Just a pile of ole saw dust.