Southern legitimacy statement: Appalachian born and raised, I grew up in the foothills of Georgia on stories of ghosts, graveyards, and granny witches. Although I left those mountains years ago for the suburbs of Atlanta, I still hear them call to me — a reminder where I’ll always belong.
The Last Lullaby
Storm clouds congregate in the distance. I plod up the hill to the graveyard, the babies cradled in my arms. “Mama, are you here?”
I stand motionless between two mounds of earth to wait for your answer. After a minute, the babies grow impatient and writhe against my chest. They want to go home, but I need your advice first. It’s been a while. I don’t drop by much to visit since you died. Half afraid you’ll float over the ridge and through the remnants of Daddy’s tomato garden to sit beside your weathered headstone. Half scared you won’t. It’s confusing sometimes. My grief. Daddy says I carry it around and shush it like a colicky baby.
“Twins,” I tell you when you finally breeze through and peck the babies’ cheeks. Sleeping babies are the reason I don’t come to the graveyard. Certain you’ll wake them while you brew us a pot of coffee and ask if I plan to make it to church on Sunday.
I don’t. And that’s the part you never understand. How you’re the melody in those shape-note hymns, and I’m the blank spaces unraveling between them. A quiet pause. I’m the breath before the words. You’re gone, and I can’t hear the music anymore.
Only the wailing twins.
The church bells ring. The clang startles the babies whose escalating shrieks erupt milk teeth that rip into my brain. I wince, ashamed to confess my secret, the real reason I stopped by here. The babies. I lug them around day and night, night and day. Feed them and change them, but the crying never goes away.
You hear them, though. You reach to take them, but they slip through your spindly arms. I swoop forward and catch them, surprised. I don’t know why. After all, you’re gone, a puff of mist and smoke lingering inside my head.
“It’s getting late,” I yell over the twins’ incessant howls. “The babies are fussy, and I should run home to cook dinner. Pot roast, the recipe you gave me two summers ago. Everyone who tastes it loves it, even the twins.”
Despite my compliments, you creep forward and frown. You study me the way you used to watch a coconut cake bake behind the oven’s tempered glass. Curious. Patient. Anxious the middle might sink. Your eyes sharpen into two waning crescents, and I know. I know. I know exactly what you want me to do. You’ve begged me to lay down these babies a hundred times or more. “Rest when they rest,” you’d say.
“I’ve tried. I’ve really tried, but the babies won’t sleep. I’ve listened to the experts and read the best books.”
As I describe different sleep training methods to you, the twins wriggle in my arms to get down and play. I bounce them in a see-saw motion. Up and down, up and down, while the taut rubber band tendons in my shoulders snap.
“It’s okay to let someone help,” you’d tell me, as you casually leaned in to inhale the babies’ milky scents.
“Oh, it’s fine,” I say. “I’ll figure it out. I can take care of the babies by myself.”
I wait for you to respond.
A bolt of lightning crackles through the graveyard. I catch a flash of you in the putrid green glow, your skin slightly waxy and mouth pinched too tight. I cling to the babies and stagger back a step. But you inch closer, closer, and open your mouth. The whine of an out of tune violin escapes your lips. The noise grows to a hum before it morphs into the notes. Each word, each line builds to a crescendo, treble, alto, tenor, and base. You become the melody in those shape-note hymns, and I am our breath, strong and deep.
Joy buzzes through my body as we reunite in song — until I remember the babies. They’ve gone silent. Eerily quiet. I glimpse down at my empty hands. No. No. No. Where did they go? I’m drowning in the red clay pain again. I’ve lost the babies. I’m a terrible mother.
When I emerge gasping for air, you point a gnarled finger to Granny’s polished headstone. That’s how I spot them, the babies, cooing and kicking their feet in their travel playard.
“Sit down and drink your coffee,” you’d say. “Let me and Granny take the babies for a bit.”
I want to believe you. I do. And yet, I sprint toward the twins. Decaying sticks and leaves snap under my feet like broken bones. Smashed memories. Splintered souls. Another second and I scoop them up, watching their tiny chests rise and fall. Relieved, I release a pent-up laugh. “Oh, Mama, you’re right. The babies are okay. I really should listen to you more.”
But when I turn back, dread drops to my gut. I’m alone in the graveyard. The sleeping babies bundled in my arms.