Today's Reading

She was almost glad her mother was not alive to see this, to have to live with this, which she would have, her mother. Ada remembered that much about her. Her mother had not been the sort to confide in anyone, but it had not escaped Ada's notice, even as a young child, that her mother was well schooled in living with things. With enduring. And until the day Ada met Jesse, she had followed her mother's lead.

She went over to the window. Through a filmy layer of grime that dimmed the room like a shade, the swamp was a blur of green and brown. She had a thought: perhaps even her father was not living like this. The trash, the broken bottles, the foul air—it all squared with abandonment. Maybe he had moved on, somewhere farther north with better trapping. It was possible. Or there might have been an accident while he was setting his traps and snares in the woods or stringing a trotline in that bend of the Pearl River where the current was fierce. Such things had been known to happen. He could have been shot by a hunter taking him for a deer. That last thought was not entirely unpleasant to Ada, and though it shamed her some, she let it linger. Soon she was mentally clearing the house of the tools and the trash, erasing the subtle stink of decomposed carcasses, turning the room back into the clean, spare space it had been when she was a little girl and her mother was young and still somewhat resilient. She stitched imaginary curtains for the windows and twisted rag rugs for the floors. She stuffed dried wildflowers into milk bottles and allowed herself a slight smile.

When she crossed the dim, dogtrot hallway that divided the house into two rooms, intending to make similar improvements to her father's bedroom, all the pretty pictures in her head fell away. She tripped over a tub of greasy tools, and reaching out to catch herself, she caught hold of the cold, smooth barrel of her father's deer rifle mounted on the wall. Her father would have left his leg behind before leaving his rifle, had he moved on. It was much more likely that he was away selling pelts, hauling a load to Jackson or to Vicksburg to be shipped up the river. He would be back. Unless he really was dead. Ada entered the bedroom cautiously. Her father's mattress, lying atop a box bedstead, was bare except for a thin blanket twisted into a rank wad. The window on the back wall was greased black to keep out the sun, but a small circle had been rubbed clear, letting in enough light for Ada to note the array of empty bottles surrounding the bed. Her father had not lost his taste for rotgut. She hadn't supposed he had.

The room was so small a person with some talent could spit tobacco juice on each of the four walls while lying in bed, something her father had been proud to prove to her more than once. She noticed a scrap of her mother's Christmas tablecloth, embroidered with holly leaves and berries, caught in a crack in one of the baseboards, pulled through by mice, she imagined. On the windowsill, within reach of the bed, was another mason jar half-filled with—Ada leaned and sniffed—pee.

She returned to the kitchen and sat down on an old cane chair that groaned even under her slight weight. Living here hadn't seemed so bad, she thought, when she had known nothing else. But now it was nearly unbearable. She shoved aside a dirty plate and rested her forehead on her arms crossed over the sticky tabletop. It wasn't that she and Jesse had had much, but what they'd had was all Ada would have needed for the rest of her life. It had been more than enough. It had been everything. When she left Baton Rouge, she had nothing. And now she had this. This house. In this place. It was less than nothing.

She thought maybe she would try praying, went so far as to fold her hands under her chin there at the table, but she couldn't come up with any words that did not mean "Please let my father be dead" or something just as likely to send her to hell. And what if her father really did not return? What if God chose that moment to answer an unspoken prayer? Who would she look to then? There was no one to tell her what to do, and she had no experience with making plans of her own. She stood up. She opened the front door and let the late sunlight spill across the room. She filled an empty bucket with dirty dishes and dropped in a brittle slice of dirt-lined soap she found wedged in a crack between wallboards in the kitchen. Then she lugged the bucket down the back porch steps and out to the pump behind the house. She would make herself useful.

The woods had crept closer while she had been away, and perhaps the canebrake to the north, as well. In time, she supposed, if left unhindered, they would overtake the entire yard, then the outbuildings and the house, creeping right up to the edge of the
swamp.
...

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