Flowers for Elvis
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by Julia Schuster
Description: The wry, observant spirit of a dead child follows the twists and turns of her twin sister's turbulent life.
eBook Publisher: BelleBooks/BelleBooks, 2009 Trade Paperback
eBookwise Release Date: April 2009
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [424 KB]
Reading time: 271-380 min.
"Compelling" K. L. Cook, author of The Girl from Charnelle and Last Call "Vibrant, lyrical and full of quirky charm." Karen Kendall Author, TAKE ME IF YOU CAN "Delightful." Julie Brickman, author of What Birds Can Only Whisper
Elvis Aaron Presley was born to Vernon and Gladys Presley on January 8, 1935 in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi. His twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was still born.
Love Me Tender
Film, Twentieth Century Fox
Top 20 Billboard Hits Single
I came into this world and left it on the same day. I guess God knew what He was doing. Being the illegitimate daughter of a nun would have been restrictive, to say the least. Then, when you factor in that my mother was white and my father black, that they lived in the podunk town of Iuka, Mississippi, and the year was 1956--I guess I should really feel blessed to be dead. Still, it would have been nice to hang around in the flesh for a while. Instead, God put me in charge of my other half, my white twin, whose lungs were a tad bit more developed than mine at the time of our premature entry into the world. She became my responsibility--and, oh, what a time that child gives me. What a time indeed.
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Top 20 Billboard Hit Single
My sister came within an angel's breath of being dropped on her head when her body gushed from between our mother's legs. Would a good rap on the concrete have done her some good? The convent's Reverend Mother and I couldn't be sure at the time, but you know what they say about hindsight. Instead, the Reverend Mother caught her by the ankles on the fly and swooped her up into her arms like an outfielder cradling a grounder to her chest.
Midwifery hadn't been a required course of study in the nunnery, I don't suppose, but this woman could field! My sister arrived blaring like all holy fury from her first breath. But not one scream escaped our devastated mother. Not one "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," only silent tears and whispered prayers for the welfare of her twins.
Mother Superior bent down and placed my squalling sibling on the straw mat on the floor next to my lifeless shell. The stark shade of death revealed our differences. My body was blue-lipped and my skin as pale-toned as a birch crucifix, like the complexion some mixed-race babies own in their first moments on earth. It is not until breath and blood work together to energize pigment that the skin warms with the rich tones a mingled heritage affords.
My sister, however, had attained the chalky alabaster complexion of our mother, as white as the good nun's bib and coif. A barely audible "Lord, have mercy," escaped with Mother Superior's gasp. She crossed herself, staring down at my screeching sister and the inert body my spirit had briefly possessed.
Finally, she composed herself long enough to give our grieving mother's hand a quick squeeze. "I'll take care of everything Willard, dear," she whispered. "You'll have to trust me, but I promise I'll do what's best. God has a plan. We may not understand it, but in it we can trust. Of that we can be sure." She wrapped us in a tattered bath towel, rubbed her hands against the chill, and scooped us up.
"I want them to have the best home, promise me," our mother pleaded. "That's why I came here. I knew you would help me. And please don't tell anyone in my family. I couldn't bear it. Please don't tell Genevieve."
Mother Superior wiped a stray tear from my mother's cheek. "Trust, child. Trust." She turned to leave and a hush enveloped the room for the first time as she whisked us from our mother's cell. The rubber soles of her slippers slapped the concrete as she scurried down the hall, passing a long row of closed doors. Light streamed from beneath each door, but none opened with an offer of assistance. This woman was on her own.
Silence draped the metal stairwell as we descended. For the first time I recognized that my vantage point had changed. My body remained in the nun's arms with my sister, but my soul had moved away. Sometime between my death within my mother's womb and my sister's life surge, the essence of me had wriggled out of myself and squeezed into the space between my sister's heartbeat and my Heavenly Father's lap. I was stuck between the two, cocooned, but now, infused with a milky understanding and abilities I would piece together as I went along, and with no flesh to contain me, no tiny house of bones and blood and breath to keep me small, I grew in space and knowledge, all air and fog and stars, memory and thought and calm.
Over my right shoulder I saw shadows of my family's past. I grasped its meaning, comprehended its effects, but its members and their connections to each other seemed too complicated for me to decipher just then. I realized that many secrets lay in the past of my ancestors, but I did not yet have the ability to figure them all out. I turned my attention to my sister, whose present pulsed through me like the breath I never required to sustain me, urgent and still within my grasp. Ahead, though, time loomed before us, shrouded with uncertainty and a foggy translucence I knew I was destined to wade through and piece together bit by bit.
Glancing down at myself, I checked out my ethereal outfit like a skinny woman trying on bathing suits for the first time. I looked good, felt good, knew good, but sensed, too, the evil that walks hand in hand with the physical world.
A door stood partially open beside me, close enough to touch. It had six panels and a golden knob with no lock. This doorway glowed with the blue translucence of welcome. White light streamed from its crack, the triangular point of it reaching me. I shook my foot; the light shook with me, attached at my toe, my heel, my hand. This light moved with me.
I placed my hand on the door, but did not push. I knew I wasn't supposed to, not now, not yet. A parental nudge at the small of my back turned me toward my sister again, making all I needed to know for now clear.
At the bottom of the stairs, the Reverend Mother stopped suddenly and leaned into the shadows against the wall. "Go on by," she prayed aloud. Headlights illuminated the front of the building. The backward words, Beaver's Auto Parts and Shop, stood out in streaked red across the plate glass windows. The Sister barely breathed until the vehicle moved on.
"Curtains, we've got to make curtains," she murmured, and scuttled across the large front room, headed toward the back. I tagged along, knowing no other option. I figured God would get around to giving me details when He got a break in His schedule.
Rough wooden benches stood at odd angles on the oil-stained floor, facing a makeshift altar under a faded wall painted with signs advertising spark plugs and motor oil. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood against the far wall on an old display case. So beautiful. Votive wishes flickered at her feet. Mother Superior paused in front of the statue just long enough to whisper a prayer. Then she moved on through a crude kitchenette and into a pantry stacked with canned goods and cases of wine.
She bent low to enter a subterranean chamber through a beat-up metal door and bolted it behind us. "I just don't understand it," she told no one, as we hurried down concrete stairs to the basement. "How can one child be so light and the other so dark-skinned?" Congealed grease and heavy incense clogged the air. She stifled a cough and cleared her throat. "Help me, Mother. What should I do?"
This time she directed her pleas to a broken statue, resting on its side on the floor. This disfigured Virgin had lost her outstretched arm. The lopped-off appendage lay next to a stack of Bibles, propped against the cinder block wall. "What will I do with these babies? How could this happen? How could I not have known?" A bare bulb cast shadows about us. She glanced down into the wide eyes of my sister. "I must protect them. I know that, Sweet Virgin. And their mother, too. Oh, their mother, the poor dear. How best can I help her? She is such a devout young woman. Help me to know what is best for them all."
As she gazed down at my vacant gray shell, struggle played across her face. Watching from aside, I knew what she was thinking; not through some extrasensory perception or mind reading benefit, but from a rumble that surged within me. She fought to stave off the thoughts pushing to the forefront of her mind: How could You let this happen, Lord? But thank you, God, for not allowing the little dark-skinned child to live.
The impressions sickened her, and me too, for that matter. How could it ever be good for a baby to die? Especially me. But already--by gift or curse, I couldn't be sure which just yet--I knew the inner workings of this woman, as if I possessed a sympathetic insight born of my beyond-life circumstance. This knowing was equipped with an uncertain depth, though. Resonating, as if God had added a bass bell to a deep chime, her heart's song assured me that it wasn't like her to question God. She was a kind and holy woman who would never assume that she knew what was best. In this instance, however, she was glad it had turned out this way. She cared about our welfare and how difficult it would have been for me if I had lived. Mississippi in those days--and in these days still--was not a friendly place for those born with racially mixed-up blood. God taking me out of the equation like He did relieved the Reverend Mother of the predicament of having to explain our births and the anomaly of twin girls with opposing skin hues.
The Sister knelt and laid my sister and I on the floor. Water oozed from a crack in the cinder block wall, dripping into a perpetual puddle on the floor. Despite the nuns' best efforts, this place was a cold and smelly hole. The fact that a convent even existed was nothing short of a miracle in rural Mississippi. Few people even knew of its existence.
The idiot who'd come up with the plan to turn an auto parts store into a convent must never have visited this basement. It needed work--starting with a furnace. Mother Superior shuddered. She had taken vows to uphold her duties to the Church. Did that include covering up these illegitimate births, she wondered? Making livable this inhospitable place had seemed like a great deal to ask of one person just weeks before, when the nuns had moved into the space. Being a cloistered sect, these nuns faced a future alone, their days and nights spent in silence and contemplative prayer, sheltered and hidden from the outside world by the tall walls that encircled the property. But all of that seemed simple in light of the situation that presented itself now, in the flesh. The icy chill of isolation tore at her heart. Who could she ask for help? She looked down at my sister's living face and my dead one.
Certainly not me; I had my own situation to figure out.
The good Sister bowed her head above us. A great mole stuck out on her forehead, her public brand of imperfection for everyone to see. Her face was pock-marked with red skin, dry and scaly around her nose and across her cheekbones. Her thick lenses fogged. She peeped through their haze to make sure I really was dead, that I didn't twitch or move. Trembling, she filled a small mixing bowl with water. Then she dipped her hand into the holy water font and dribbled the cool liquid over our heads.
It was then that I realized the magnitude of my lacking. No greater gift could God have taken from me than the sense of touch. I suddenly ached to run my fingers through that water and experience its cleansing flow. I reached out to touch the damp wall; I felt nothing. I rested my hand on the Sister's shoulder, but no energy conveyed. My hand indented the fabric of her sleeve, but no friction transferred. She felt nothing; I felt nothing in return.
My sister began to wail.
"Hush, hush now little one," the Reverend Mother begged. "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." She made the sign of the cross on Baby Big Mouth's head. The Sister picked her up and bounced her frantically as her cries reverberated through the damp cave. She reached down and placed her hand on the motionless chest of my old self. "And I baptize you, precious child, Olivia Abigail Clancy Hersh, after your dear grandmother, your mother's mother--God, rest her soul. And I commit your spirit into God's loving hands."
Olivia Abigail. Nice name, I thought. The sound of it rang through me with the perfect pitch of a Gregorian chant. But the startling realization that no one would ever call me by it saddened me. No one would ever know me. Olivia Abigail was dead. I had died before ever leaving my mother's womb. I wondered why I was hanging around. Shouldn't I be going somewhere? Up, maybe? Could I stand being left here in this void indefinitely when already I longed for the physical and ached for the intimacy these humans already shared?
The identity of my father was hidden from me for reasons only God understood, but I knew what the Reverend Mother had realized: That my father was a Negro. In 1956 Tennessee that fact alone would explain why my mother had been hidden in the convent, and why her babies would quickly be taken away.
I glanced back at my glimmering door. All I understood was a connection, a bond, tethering me by a tenuous thread of light between the physical plane of the living and the mysteries that lay beyond. I longed to be here and elsewhere. I was alone and in company at the same time. The nun couldn't see me, didn't have the slightest hint of my presence. My ethereal exile became both my blessing and my penance for sins I would never have the opportunity to commit.
Many times during that seemingly endless night of squalling, several expletive salutations came to the exhausted Sister's mind. When daylight finally glinted through the flip-out window above our heads, her back ached from hours of rocking and shushing, and my obstinate sister's wailing had grated on my last nerve. But I sensed that Sister's prayers had been answered. Providence had delivered her a solution, and for that she was truly thankful and relieved. My next questions were: Why was I shielded from the details? Why hadn't anyone informed me?