Summer wild flowers have covered the ridge in a blaze of color. Today--the anniversary--she picks only white ones, filling her skirt with scented blooms. She takes her time, picking only the best, the unbroken. The sun is hot on her shoulders and she can feel sweat trickling between her breasts, but she's lived her whole life with the heat and it doesn't bother her.
She hums one of the hymns from Sunday service, her attention solely on the flowers.
Soon enough she'll have time to remember.
An hour passes before her skirt is full and she gathers the ends in one hand over her knees. No one is there to watch her bare her legs to her thighs, not that she cares anymore about such propriety. Since she grew into womanhood only one person has seen those creamy white thighs and he's gone.
Slowly she descends from the ridge, through the tree line along the road and crosses over, the heat of the asphalt rising up to meet the heat of the sun. The bridge is just up ahead and there's no traffic. Stepping out onto it, she listens to the sounds of the river flowing beneath her feet. It had stormed the night before so the waters are raging over the rocks. Glancing down she sees white caps breaking on them.
Reaching the exact center of the bridge, she stops and braces her free hand on the railing. It hits her just above her womb and she feels the clench deep inside herself.
Taking a deep, calming breath, she takes the first flower from her skirt, a simple white daisy, and lifts her hand over the side of the rail.
The flower flutters from her hand, and she watches it fall, down the twenty or so feet into that churning, muddy water.
Her heart falls with it.
His hands felt so good on her, hot and just a bit rough. They were big hands, strong hands, calloused from working in the sawmill the last year. They knew each other their whole lives, watched each other grow up, but it wasn't until they were nearly adults that they noticed each other.
There was no money for courting. She worked her family's fields full time now--school over for people like them by the time they were fourteen or fifteen. He was lucky to find employment, but his father had been hurt the year before and couldn't work to support their family of seven. Being the oldest, his money went to feed the youngsters.
So, they met after his shift, in the woods outside the mill up on the ridge that fell down to the river. A small patch of trees remained at the top, old and tall, and beneath them soft moss and grass to lay in.
Kisses led to other things. They were innocent, but not enough not to know they were sinning.
The heat driving their bodies didn't care.
The young girl on her back, skirt rucked up, hands clutching at the young man's shirt, looked up at the crescent moon as she became a woman.
As she found a pleasure she'd never known, she wondered if she'd ever stop smiling.
He was moody. She liked that about him. It made him look kind of like James Dean. One of the few movies she'd ever seen, when times were better, was Rebel Without A Cause. She often wondered how he'd look in a leather jacket with his hair slicked back.
When she mentioned it, he just looked at her and finally gave her a soft smile and told her he was saving up what little extra he had for something much more important than a coat. In a couple of years they'd be married.
That smile really never was going to leave her face.
Spring was coming on when she finally accepted there was something wrong. Winter had made her sluggish, sickly at times. At other times, she couldn't stop eating, earning her scoldings from her mama for putting on weight. She knew she'd work it off planting the cotton and tending the garden. She wasn't concerned, and she never got naked with him, never completely. If he'd noticed the rounding of her tummy, he was too much of a gentleman to say anything.
She'd been the last of her mama's four children, only two making it past the first few days of life, so she didn't know. They didn't keep animals outside of some chickens.
She didn't know.
When she was twelve and her cycle came on her for the first time, her mama, flushed and embarrassed, had given her the briefest instructions, told her it meant she could have a baby once she was married. Vaguely she knew it was supposed to be monthly, but hers never was, so when she missed it, she didn't worry, happy not to be bleeding and messy.
But, now, she counted back and it was nearly Halloween when she'd last suffered the curse.
A dim memory from her childhood of women talking at a church social about missing their cycle and having babies, and she knew...
The knowledge wiped the smile from her face.
When she told him, one hand cradling her stomach to reveal the growing curve beneath the full cotton skirt, he just stared at her.
And then he broke down.
As he knelt, pressing his face to her stomach, tears sliding down his cheeks, she couldn't tell if he was happy or sad. He babbled about their future, how he'd try to borrow the money, how they'd get married as soon as they could. Maybe not before the babe was born, but soon after. They'd tell her parents tomorrow...
She put a stop to that. White-faced, she told him she wasn't telling anyone else until she had to. Mama was going to be so disappointed and daddy would probably go after him with his shotgun. No, she'd have her baby and then they'd face their families when it was too late to do anything about it but let them wed.
They were young, but if they were old enough to have a baby, they were old enough to get married.
He stopped crying and frowned up at her, then, rising to his feet, tried to convince her, but her mind was set, and she was stubborn. He usually went along with her--it had been her idea to lie with him in the first place, that warm, early fall night beneath the sliver of moon, his hesitancy disappearing beneath her heated kisses--and he'd do it again.
If he brooded and frowned every time he saw her after that night she told him what she carried, if he couldn't seem to touch her outside of a brush of their fingertips, and spoke to her only in hushed tones, that was okay. A few more months and they'd have their child and they'd be together to face anything.
Unable to sleep, she was walking, a hand pressed to her aching back. Passing through the growing shoots of cotton, she hummed to the baby. A month or two and she'd be a mother.
And then the first pains hit and they came fast. Liquid gushed down her legs and she barely made it to her knees before she was pushing on instinct. Her body knew what to do even as her mind gibbered in fear.
When he came out, she lifted him in shaking hands, tears streaming down her cheeks, hands bloody, and she knew immediately something was wrong.
Born under a crescent moon in the far fields, he was too small, too pale.
He never drew a breath.
She cried silently, never making a sound, and wrapped him in her shawl and cradled him to her breast.
The night passed and, as the sky lightened in the east, she forced herself to move. Not really thinking, only feeling, she went to the stream a few yards off, and cleaned up. Her body hurt. There was the taste of dried iron in her mouth from using her teeth to cut the cord. Her cheap nightgown was ruined.
None of it mattered. Her baby was dead.
The house was silent when she returned, still an hour or so before sunrise when her mama would wake first to start the stove. Setting down the silent bundle, she changed out of her bloody shift and stuffed it far beneath the mattress of her bed. She didn't even look at her body to see how it had changed, just grabbed a skirt and shirt, dressing silently in the dark. The clothes were a bit too big, but she didn't care. No one she knew wore properly fitting clothing and hers were hand-me-downs from the church and her mama.
Picking up her baby, she left the house as silently as she'd come.
And went to find him.
He cried again, quietly this time, his hands cradling their baby--big hands, strong hands, shaking hands. He'd had plans. He'd wanted to marry her, make them a family.
She listened to him ramble, unsure why they couldn't still be a family and marry and have other children. This one wasn't meant to be. She was sad, but babies died all the time in the poverty they lived in. No one would know about their baby. She'd go back to working the fields. He'd keep on at the sawmill. In a year or so they'd be married.
When he started walking towards the bridge, she followed, ignoring the ache in her womb and the chill coming over her. Reaching the center, he stopped and turned towards the railing, and she did as well. The sun was up now, pink on the horizon, and she watched as he pulled back the shawl from the baby's face, bent and kissed him.
He turned to her, expectation and sorrow on his face, and she swallowed hard, then brushed her own lips over that tiny head, and looked up into green eyes glistening with fresh tears. She knew then what they had to do, and she nodded, and placed her hand on his back in support.
The baby fluttered from his hands, down the twenty or so feet. She watched him fall and it seemed so slow, but finally he sank beneath the muddy waters.
Her heart broke and fell as well.
A few weeks passed. She slowly recovered both in body and spirit. At peace with herself, firmly believing her baby was in God's tender hands, she worked the fields, went to Church, spent time with her family. She saw him only a few times and, as the weeks passed, she began to worry. He rarely spoke more than a few words. He was so very sad.
He never touched her and shied away when she tried to touch him.
He wouldn't talk to her about what he was feeling and she began to feel frustrated and a little angry. She was the one who had carried the baby for months, afraid mama would notice, people would begin to point and whisper behind their hands, the pastor would look at her with knowledge of her sin in his eyes. She was the one who had suffered the childbirth and the loss. She was the one who had cradled her dead baby to her for hours trying to will it back to life.
Yet, she was living. Sometimes it was hard and she mourned her baby mightily. She wanted to share that with him because she loved him, but he wouldn't talk to her.
Finally, she stopped meeting him after work, in the dark, on the ridge, under the moon.
Nine days after their last meeting, Billie Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
She drops another flower over the side of the bridge and closes her eyes, imagining it's settling next to her babe. She has no idea if the infant rests on the bottom or was washed to the shore or even down to the delta, but she believes he knows she misses him, mourns him, brings him flowers.
A prayer is on her lips and she sends it to God with the hope and belief her child resides with Him in peace. A sin might have created him, but he was blameless, unstained by her deeds.
It's one year to the day she and Billie Joe buried their son, and her grief has faded with time. She knows she'll always feel it, but life has moved on. It's a hard life, and she mourns her daddy as much as her child, as he passed in the Winter.
But, she doesn't mourn Billie Joe.
Her baby was taken from her by the will of God, her daddy the same.
Billie Joe took himself from her.
His body doesn't remain in the river. As he was seen jumping, rescue attempts were made, but he was pulled out of the water dead. He's buried in the church's graveyard.
She didn't attend his funeral. Most of the town did, but they spoke of mortal sin in whispers, and shuffled away from the grave after the barest of condolences to his family. Suicide is an embarrassment, a wrongness.
And it just makes her angry.
They could have had a life together, other children, a family and a home, but he left her and now she only has memories.
And white flowers fluttering from her fingertips, falling with her heart to the muddy waters below.