Thy Father and Thy Mother
Issue 4, October/November 2021
Feed the Flame
If you asked Candace why she hated Halloween, she’d never say. Not even during that game of truth or dare in her first semester of college, around the dank fold-out table delegated to beer pong. When Candace’s roommate pressed her, Candace snuffed out any emotion: “Fine, I pick dare.”
Her refusal to share was rewarded with a groping session in a dark frat house bedroom with a boy whose name she couldn’t be bothered to remember. There was the relentless crunching of empty beer cans and solo cups as they stumbled around for the bed, then the groan of the mattress when Candace felt it against the back of her calves, collapsed onto it. “Come on, let’s get this over with,” she urged. The mattress dipped beside her, then his chapped hands were on her stomach, the left cup of her bra.
* * *
When the actual weekend finally rolled around, Candace was packing for the four hour drive from Cleveland State to Cincinnati. Her mother had been persistent during their last few phone calls, making Candace promise each time that she wouldn’t stay on campus for the holiday. “You know how your daddy is. He never approved of all that carrying on. You safer here anyways, just come on home and spend the night.”
Candace couldn’t fully agree that she’d be safer in her childhood home, under the shadow of her father’s delusions about the ways of the world and its evils. But she loved her mother. And beneath her mother’s plea for Candace’s safety was her mother’s fear for her own.
* * *
Her old neighborhood glittered in the night as she turned into the subdivision. Strobe lights pulsed inside of carved pumpkins. Tattered ghosts waved in the evening breeze. Groups of parents wrangled their little monsters to front porches for candy. Teenagers posed for group pictures, took turns holding fake knives and scythes for Instagram. As she pulled onto her own street, her house distinguished itself with its barrenness, sitting dark as a secret.
Candace couldn’t bring herself to knock, knew she didn’t need to. Her mother must have seen her car in the driveway, because within moments the door’s locks jittered frantically. Candace’s mother appeared in the hallway, backlit by the dim light of the living room fireplace. Even without the porch light, Candace could make out the crescent of a bruise beginning to form under her mother’s left eye.
“Ma,” Candace began, her voice winding up like a siren. “What happened?”
“I was giving out candy to the kids. They still came by though we don’t have no decorations up. I felt bad turning ‘em away. Honey, it was all blown out of proportion.” She reached for the duffel bag on Candace’s shoulder and whisked it away to her room, successfully ending the conversation before it began.
Candace stepped into the dim foyer tentatively, like she was stepping into a dream or like the floor would give out under her weight. She walked over to the fireplace, where old family photos of her and her parents still decorated the mantel. She studied them mindlessly until her father appeared behind her, reflected in the glass of a frame.
“Baby girl, I’m glad you made it home. Was worried about you. How was the drive down?” He was smiling at her back, willing her to turn around. The wooden floors creaked as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other; even at home, he was dressed to the nines in a crisp button down and slacks. “Your momma was so excited you agreed to come. Been getting your room ready all day.” Another offering, another spell he couldn’t cast on Candace. She looked into the fireplace, noticed the flames were dying down. “How long were you going to stay away from me this time?” And there it was, the monster emerging, like Michael Myers suddenly there when he wasn’t seconds before, or Freddy Krueger materializing in a dream. “Your mother knows we don’t do Halloween, that it’s the devil’s work. I did what I had to do to protect my family.” Candace remembered all the other Halloweens, and all the regular days, when her father felt called to protect her mother from her own sinful ways. How he’d left her bleeding in their master bathroom in the name of the Lord.
Candace reached out with shaking hands, eased the fire poker from its rack. Upstairs, she heard her mother open and close a door. “I think it’s time we feed the fire, daddy. Getting low,” Candace said, finally turning around to face her father. He smiled, relieved that she was willing to play along. Then, with two hands and blind faith, the thing her father taught her she always had to lean on, she swung.
New stories every other month.
When Lina and her parents crossed into the neighbor’s yard to introduce themselves, something settled into the deepest part of her stomach. The house was nice enough; the same bright white paint as her new home next door, but with blue shutters licked to a lighter shade by the Birmingham heat. By the time her parents ushered her up to the front door, she was fighting the urge to bolt to the safety of her own yard. Her father reached over her shoulder to ring the doorbell, and in the shadow of his large arm and the sleepy gong of the bell, Lina was sure that this was the beginning of some end.
The door opened to a man older than her own parents, who were in their early 30s. Red polo tucked into a pair of khakis, black wire-rimmed glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose. Lina instinctively took a step back, running directly into the solid wall of her father’s torso. He squeezed her shoulder in equal parts it’s alright and behave.
“Good morning,” Lina’s mother chirped. “We’re the Walkers, just moved in next door. Thought we’d stop by and introduce ourselves.” The man in the doorway straightened and smiled while her mother continued. “My name is Alicia, this is my husband Chris, and our daughter Lina.” She offered her hand to the neighbor, who swallowed it in both of his.
“Oh, it’s such a pleasure to meet y’all. Saw the moving trucks the other day and had half a mind to come on over and introduce myself then, but my son kept me busy.” He released Alicia’s hand to shake Chris’ in the same manner. “The name’s Jamie. Father and preacher of the local church.”
Chris returned Jamie’s vigorous handshake before he spoke. “Nice to meet you Jamie. Said you got a son, huh?”
“Oh yeah, my boy Allen. Just turned 9 last month.” He looked down at Lina, aiming his words. “Maybe you two could become real good friends.” As if summoned, Allen appeared behind his father in the hall, a smaller, almost identical cut-out. “Speaking of the devil.” The corners of Allen’s mouth flickered, a ghost of a smirk.
Jamie invited Lina’s parents inside for a drink, telling Allen to take Lina out to the backyard. “Show her the garden, or some of your forts. Just play nice,” he warned, while Lina’s parents smiled in agreement. So they trudged wordlessly to the backyard, the higher grass nipping at Lina’s ankles.
Allen was less chatty than his father, no small talk. They stopped in front of a small pond Allen had dug into the soil and filled with water from the kitchen sink. Dead flies and mosquitoes swirled on its surface. Lina watched Allen’s reflection in the water.
“You ever been saved?” He asked.
“Saved? What that mean?”
“Saved. By Christ. You ever done that?” In the water, Allen squinted at Lina’s reflection, trying to read her reaction.
“I can’t tell you if I have if I don’t know what it means,” Lina huffed so hard, the water rippled.
“My daddy a preacher. He save people all the time. Says I will too one day,” Allen replied, unfazed by Lina’s irritation. “You got the devil in you, you know.”
“You don’t know what you talking about,” Lina snapped, finally looking Allen in the eyes. They were wide, green, sure as rain.
“I can save you,” he said, grabbing on to her arm. With one quick motion, he pulled her down to her knees, placed his hand on the back of her head. Lina was too stunned to wrestle free, and before she knew it, he was dunking her head into the murky water and lifting it back out.
“I baptize you in the name of the Father—” He pushed Lina back down, dragged her out for air. “And of the Son—” Lina coughed and sputtered, trying to loosen his grip on her braids before he sent her back under. “And of the Holy Spirit.”
He towed her from the water a final time and released her. Lina fell to the ground, screaming like something was coming out of her. Like something being released.
For as long as Sadie could remember, her grandmother Alice marked any and all foolish behavior with the same phrase: keep on fussin’, the second coming could be tomorrow. Sadie had heard many stories from her own mother, aunts, and uncles of how her grandmother had used the Bible as a substitution for the switch or belt. Having all been raised in the church, they confirmed that back then, there was nothing scarier than the threat of eternal damnation.
But over time, as her kids grew older, Alice’s biblical sayings lost their sting. Or perhaps her children began to see her for what she really was: manipulative, often cruel, obsessed with correction and judgment instead of love. For college, they all went in their different directions, moving far away from home, straying even further from the church. Only her youngest returned to Chicago, and only out of need. Running from an abusive man in California, Reba moved back to her mother’s home with her newborn and her shame at 23 years old. When Reba popped up on her doorstep, Alice curled her lip, said “Look what all that fussin’ done brought you.”
Sadie’s education as a child included learning to navigate the insidious resentment blooming between her mother and grandmother. It was learning that when Alice said to Reba, “I’m so happy to have my grown daughter still here, nothing in the world to do but take care of me,” there was a cryptograph of disappointment and contempt that Reba had been translating her entire life. By the time Sadie entered high school, she was equally fluent in the secret language.
It was also around this time that Alice’s health began to decline, her liver finally giving out. Over the course of a year she became bedbound. Reba remained devout in her care for her mother, hiring an in-home caretaker for the days and taking on the role after work in the evenings. Alice’s only request was that she be read the Bible every night.
So Reba read to her. And one night, deciding to stop and listen at the door, Sadie realized why Reba remained so committed to it.
“When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up,” Reba whispered into the dim room. Sadie could hear the feathery pages of the Bible turning, and her grandmother crying softly. “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Sadie couldn’t see it, but Reba was smiling in the lamplight, finding joy in her mother’s belated guilt.
Reba readied to read another passage, Proverbs 19:5, when Alice tried to speak. To apologize maybe. Or beg Reba to stop. Reba only smiled, even leaned forward to kiss her mother’s temple. Sadie stilled at the door, straining to hear her grandmother struggling to speak through her fatigue. Then her own mother’s voice, Reba nearly laughing into the night: “Keep on fussin’ momma. You just keep on.”
Taylor Byas is a Black poet and essayist. Originally from Chicago, she moved to Alabama for six years, where she received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Taylor currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she is a third year PhD student and Albert C. Yates Scholar at the University of Cincinnati studying poetry. She is also Assistant Features Editor for The Rumpus.