Silver Bottle is structured as a journey-back-to-the-source novel. Think Julia Alvarez’s, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. In that book, the Garcia sisters flee the Dominican Republic. In Silver Bottle, the characters flee Appalachia. All but one. Lizzie McComas, the mother, grandmother and great-grandmother of all, not only stays but manages to dig her roots into a nearby town. She’s the strongest but also the most vulnerable, for as Lizzie recounts her story, old wounds are re-opened. Below is an excerpt from her chapter, circa 1928, as evidenced by Sunbonnet Sue Flour Sack. It’s not her earliest wound, but it’s perhaps the most profound.
Al would ride home on the weekends, and he brought what he could, mostly food, but one weekend, he brought something special for me.
It was a kewpie doll, about ten inches long and stark naked. She had a stick out belly, hands shaped like stars, and her hair was yellow with a pink bow painted across her topknot. Only her head moved, and Al said it was bisque and I had to be careful not to break it, and I said I’d never break the biscuit, and Momma and Al looked over my head and laughed.
Momma said she’d find something to cut up for doll clothes, and I said, “Doll clothes! Just what I’ve always wanted!” and Momma and Al laughed again.
Momma found two things to cut up: a thin, blue pillowcase and a Sunbonnet Sue flour sack, pink with sprigs of white flowers. Momma didn’t waste a scrap. She made dresses, bonnets, and little booties that tied with a string.
I named her Catherine after the nice lady at church who’d given Al a coat so he wouldn’t freeze on his way back and forth to Laurel, and had seen that I had socks and shoes that fit.
Momma smiled every time she saw me rocking my baby. She said I had her so spoilt, one of these days, that doll would squall when I laid it down. And it’s true, I was a good little mother. I didn’t treat her like my three fat cousins treated their babies.
The year my daddy died, Aunt Dortha had ordered each of her girls a doll apiece from the Sears Catalog. Those Effanbee dolls were something to see. They came in fancy boxes dressed in satin and lace; one had a velvet hat and the other had a big bow that hung down in a veil. They had eyes that opened and closed with long eyelashes and curls of real human hair, but my cousins treated them like they were ragamuffins. They swung them around until their sockets popped, and they cut off their hair. It used to hurt me to see them treat their babies that way, but after I got Catherine, I didn’t care.
I loved those days, especially when Al came home. He said a new flour sack had come in with ballerinas on it, and everybody was buying it like crazy, but he’d rip a bag if he had to and bring one home to me. Momma said that when he did, she’d make me and Catherine mother and daughter dresses.
But what did happen?
Aunt Dortha and her three fat girls came for a visit, sitting on our porch like boarders while Momma brought them pitcher after pitcher of cold water from the deep well. Momma was so dumb! She told them all the things we’d had to do to keep things together, but instead of giving us sympathy, they listened to our troubles and laughed inside. Every time I looked up, I caught the youngest one’s eyes on me, smirking.
Those girls had on fine clothes that no one else had worn, but do you think Aunt Dortha ever sent anything to us? Momma could have done a lot with those clothes because the one thing she did have was a sewing machine. It was an old Singer, and she’d pump and sing while she sewed. That’s what she did for people, sewed their clothes and ironed them up afterwards. That was the money she brought in. And wouldn’t you know, that Dortha was trying to talk her out of her sewing machine? She said it had been her momma’s and she needed it.
Even when I was little, I had spunk, and I said, “No, you can’t have Momma’s sewing machine. You got the organ. Now, go home.”
Aunt Dortha looked fit to pop.
Momma said, “She’s just a child, Dortha, she don’t mean it. She’s had a hard time since Allen’s gone. Them Adkins made her and Al pick tobacco worms all summer long.”
Why did Momma have to tell my uppity cousins I’d had to pick off filthy bugs? They swelled out so much, I thought their seams would burst, and Aunt Dortha quit fuming because Momma had given her something to think on. They enjoyed our misery down to their bones.
I couldn’t stand no more. I ran upstairs, woke Catherine from her nap, and slammed out the back door. I ran up the hill and into the woods until I found the sunning rock.
The sunning rock was just below the tree line that started Devil’s Backbone proper. When the weather was pretty I’d take Catherine up in the crook of my arm and we’d watch the clouds and I’d give her all the love Momma was too busy to give me. Her head was empty, but I filled it full of my dreams.
That day, I told her everything I’d seen in the Sears catalog before Al hauled it off to the privy. Doll buggies, doll beds, high chairs, and a little pink bowl shaped like a bathtub—but as soon as I said that, I promised not to get her head wet—more dresses, and a doll suitcase to tote them in. I was rattling off every picture I’d seen because I knew when I came down, our sewing machine would be gone. We wouldn’t be getting mother-daughter dresses.
And while I was running my mouth, trying to ease my fears, my cousins sneaked on me. They shouldn’t have found me because I’d gone way high, but I’d been in a hurry and left a broken trail.
Those three girls were named Myrtle, Ruby, and O’Della. My uncle’s name was O’Dell, and he’d wanted a boy but got a girl again, so they’d named her after him.
Different names but they looked alike; pig bodies with squinty eyes. Myrtle went behind a tree and squatted, while Ruby picked sticky pods off her sleeves. It was Della who started in. Della who thought she was better than her sisters because she was named after their daddy, and lots better than me because I didn’t have one.
I covered Catherine with my hand. There was ugliness coming.
“What’s you got there, Tobaccorella?” asked Della, following the move of my hand.
“What did you call me?” I stood up and stepped forward, hands on my hips.
“Tobaccorella,” she said, and her sisters laughed. They wore blouses of the finest white cotton, but when they laughed, I could see their belly fat shake. “Like Cinderella. Your dead daddy didn’t tell you about her?”
Of course, my daddy had told me about Cinderella. He was a great one for stories.
“What’s that thing?” Ruby chimed in, pointing at Catherine where she lay exposed on the rock. She still had on her slip of a nightgown made from the blue pillowcase, and I’d forgotten her bundle blanket. I squatted on my heels and covered her again.
“Tobaccorella has a doll,” said Myrtle, the fattest. I had the least to fear from her. She was lazy, the kind content to watch grass grow. If it had just been her, she’d have stayed on the porch and listened to the women, but she was there and had a mouth. “That’s the doll that stayed on the shelf at Simmons’ General Store. She was put in with the ladies’ unmentionables.” Her face flushed and she tugged at her waistband. Myrtle had breasts and soft down on her upper lip. I’d heard Aunt Dortha tell Momma she’d fallen off the roof, but she looked fine to me. Her skirt was blue, and the other two wore pink and yellow. “Momma looked at it, but Mr. Simmons told her not to buy it. He said he’d never order from that company again because he’d paid good money for trash. Ever one of those dolls came in broken.”
“Except that one,” said Della.
Della’s foot shot out and came down on my hand. I fell forward, my weight crushing Catherine’s head. There was dead silence except for the pieces of bisque that flew out and filtered through the pine needles. Then, they started laughing.
I felt something inside me I’d never felt before, and I let out a scream that climbed Devil’s Backbone then dropped to the hollers where it stilled the deer. It felt like someone had taken out my heart, torn it in half, and put it back in. In all my born days, I never screamed like that again.
Thanks for reading. Silver Bottle is now available on Amazon and Kindle.