Home for Erring and Outcast Girls
I crawl out of a hotel bed while it’s still dark to meet the movers at my new house near the university. My furniture and boxes, enough to fill a few rooms--but not enough to weigh me down--were the last loaded into the huge van that pulled up to my old place. First in, first out.
They place things where I want them and assemble my dining table and bed in thirty minutes. The house isn’t much bigger than my apartment was, and with an extra bedroom and a garage, my belongings hardly dent the space. The van rumbles off to meet the next wanderers, and I take my first real breath since I gave strangers access to my possessions.
My running shoes are near the top of my suitcase. I ditch my flip-flops and tie the laces quickly. The first thing most people do when they complete a move is unpack the bedsheets or locate the coffeemaker. Not me. What convinces me I can start over again is reminding myself that when the time comes, I’ll still know how to run.
I drop my key in my pocket and stretch only a moment before beginning a slow jog along a circle drive that borders the neighborhood of midcentury homes, with mine at the back. The air is thick with the heady scent of flowers, and lush, dense grass covers lawns instead of the usual pale stubble of late summer. After crisscrossing the country a few times, I worried that returning to Texas in August would be depressing. Everyone has a different theory about the record-breaking rain this year. I’m just happy to see color. The morning humidity, though, has me dripping before I even pick up my pace, and breathing takes extra effort.
At the edge of the neighborhood, I pause. A park is visible from my new backyard. It’s the last quiet weekend of the year. Soon, it will teem with students playing intramurals, studying, or socializing, instead of the solitude I seek this morning. It’s a good day to explore.
The park is small, and thick with trees. Only a few paved paths connect the busy roads and a parking lot, and it takes no time to run the length each way. On my second circuit, I cut through a playing field near the back edge to see how vulnerable my yard is. The campus police patrol the park and nearby neighborhoods, but now that I see how secluded the area is, I’m relieved my wood fence is in good repair. Fortunately, an even taller industrial fence makes it nearly impossible to access it from the field. My windows and yard aren’t visible at all.
I slow my pace, cool down as much as the humidity allows, then walk, taking a long draw on my water bottle.
The sun is at the treetops now, and the sound of traffic is increasing, but still muffled by huge oaks. I walk toward the far corner of the park, curious what lies beyond in the dusky woods. I’m surprised to find another grassy area surrounded by a simple chain-link fence. It’s a small cemetery, memorial stones scattered here and there--an odd discovery in this modern-day park. Perhaps early settlers buried their dead here, and the city graciously fenced the space instead of incorporating it into the park.
A historical marker catches my eye near the gate. I struggle to read it in the early-morning light. Site of Berachah Home and Cemetery . . .
The Berachah Rescue Society was organized at Waco in 1894 by the Rev. J. T. Upchurch (b. 1870) for the protection of homeless girls and unwed mothers. Nine years later, he opened the Berachah Industrial Home at this site. Ten buildings were located here, including a print shop for publication of The Purity Journal. The cemetery, which contains more than eighty graves, was first used in 1904 . . .
Eighty graves? It hardly looks big enough. Before I can finish reading the plaque, though, my gaze is drawn to movement inside the fence. A young woman lies flat in the grass, raven hair splayed against the green. She gazes straight up beneath a tall, jagged tree near the edge of the graveyard. Gray and leafless, the tree appears to be dead--for years--perhaps struck by lightning. It’s split nearly straight down the middle.
I don’t want to startle her, but I worry, in spite of an intense desire to leave well enough alone. Is she ill? Injured? Or just resting?
Suddenly, though, she stretches to stand, retrieves an overstuffed bag, and exits the cemetery without a word or even a glance in my direction. I shiver as she disappears beyond the dark canopy of trees.
I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe any place or person is haunted by anything but the past. But suddenly, that old saying about a ghost walking over a grave crosses my mind.
And suddenly, I can’t wait to get home.
The two ladies dressed all in white hovered over where Lizzie and Docie lay huddled in a fetid pile of rags, and she thought it was angels come, finally, to take them away up to heaven. Her heart quickened. She’d figured on the Lord forgetting her and her girl--or maybe just turning his back.
Keys clinked as the jail keeper unlocked his steel cage, shoved into a corner of the room, with rusting shelves for bunks in each half. They were alone in it but for a man sleeping off drink on the other side. The angels bent inside to whisper over her and Docie. Now she feared they’d take her girl but leave her to die alone and suffer eternal hell. She wouldn’t have blamed the Lord for thinking to do it that way, for Docie was surely not liable for her mother’s sins. Even if Lizzie was not worthy, her Docie was innocence itself, though her tiny body was riddled with the same sick. The child slept at her teat whenever they were together, but Lizzie couldn’t bear to think what might have befallen Docie when she couldn’t watch her every minute of the day and night. Either way, Lizzie was to blame. She had let her down so many ways.
No more. She wouldn’t let anyone, heavenly or not, snatch her girl without a struggle. She sat as high as the metal above her head allowed and wrapped her arms around Docie. The little girl flirted with waking, but her exhaustion was plain, and she slumped against her mother, cheeks fever red and dark lashes scarcely visible against the purple smudges beneath her eyes. Docie could not fight; it was up to her mother to see that they remained together.
But the angel ladies didn’t move to take Docie. They only stooped to look, speaking hushed words Lizzie couldn’t plainly make out. The swirling in her head and burning in her throat made it too hard to ask their intentions. Perhaps she had not moved to gather Docie closer after all. Perhaps she had simply wished it. Or, perhaps Docie was already close, as she should be.
Lizzie caught scraps of what they said, and the jailer’s voice rose as he described their history and condition. How they both suffered from a foul disease. How Lizzie had earned her keep out at the county farm lately, cooking for the Negro inmates. How the farm superintendent had taken her into his own shack to live in sin, feeding her heroin to subdue her, and then passed her to the chain gang boss when he tired of her. How she’d taken sick, and it crippled her so badly she couldn’t stand. And finally, how they’d sent her and Docie to the jail, no regard for whether they lived or died.
Her skin crawled. Damn the farm boss. While many around her had been hooked on dope for years, she’d managed to keep off it until he’d sensed her desperation. Then she took it gladly.
But she hadn’t needed subduing, not like a wild animal.
She’d needed to forget.
Lizzie had lived hand-to-mouth as long as the jailer had known of her, a decade or more, drifting in and out of town, lately only with her girl, but for years with her people--a no-good cracker and his half-Injun wife. Docie, a wispy towhead with skin so milky the blue showed through, had piercing, near-black eyes from Choctaw still running in those veins, same as her ma and granny.
Lizzie marveled at all the jailer knew from his tenure of locking her up when she had nowhere else to go. One thing they were all sure of: She and Docie weren’t long for this world. One or both would slip away soon, with or without angels to guide them. To hear him say it plain was a comfort. She was weary of fighting for a place for her and Docie on this earth.
The women gasped at the jail keeper’s speech. Had they come only to eye her condition? Society ladies who wanted to witness the scum at the bottom to comfort themselves? Then they could return to their pillowy houses to preach the perils of drink and heroin and impurity. She shrugged. If she could be a warning, she reckoned her life had some sliver of purpose after all.
She cowered when one lady inched closer to kneel near the pile of shredded bedding.
“You poor dear. We’re from the King’s Daughters. The jailer’s wife asked if we’d take you and your little one to a place we know--a wonderful new home for young women where you could find healing and comfort, Lord willing.”
Now Lizzie grinned. Maybe, instead, the lady was a haint! Who’d suggest such a thing?
But the woman stretched her ungloved hand to touch Lizzie’s shoulder, and Lizzie felt it, warm and firm, and next, the back of Docie’s head, unafraid of the pus-filled sores on their skin or what clouded Lizzie’s vision until it was near impossible to make out the woman’s features.
Tears cut a path through the crusted grime on her cheeks. She nodded, then fell into a stupor, blissfully free of nightmares.