A story of mine from 2013 recently went out of print, so I thought I’d share it on my blog. I find that I still enjoy it, and it gives me a little window into my evolution. “Have a Blessed Day” was originally published in Diabolic Tales III. Enjoy!
Have a Blessed Day
by Michael Wehunt
I make my eyes big and my lips stick out for the little girl who’s been staring at me these past few blocks. She grins and hides her face in the dogwood flowers of her mama’s dress.
Outside the trees pass the bus windows in an easy green blur under pipe smoke clouds. It is a fine day and I am so hungry. It never leaves me. On my lap is a soft leather tote bag full of souls. It has a wide strap so my shoulder can bear the terrible weight of them. The bus hits a pothole and I bounce on the seat, tilt myself to the left and then the right, exaggerating the motion. My eyes go big again like I’m flustered and the girl, peeking, giggles into her hiding place.
I smile keeping my teeth behind my lips. When I widen my eyes a third time the skin under them comes loose and sags and I nearly show something of my true self. I dip my head and pinch my eyes shut, listening for a squeak or a breathless “Mama.”
But there’s just the mutter of bus noise and I go back to watching across the aisle. The girl’s mama has a phone pressed to her head, a sharp look on her round face. Freckles dusting her and her little girl alike. That phone hasn’t left her ear since she clomped up the steps back at Third St. Surely it’s a hot slab by now but still she’s rattling off gossip about Mrs. This seeing Mr. That on the side. She pushes her burrowing daughter away and slaps her leg with a hard flat crack. The little girl flinches and—almost in the same graceful motion—lifts her hands into a flapping bird. She has an air of someone who’s already learned to entertain herself.
She’s maybe five with frizzy orange hair and a smudge of dirt like Indian war paint across a cheekbone. When she raises her arms so that at least the bird can escape, her shirt pulls up and an ugly yellow-brown bruise crawls from the waist of her jeans.
I look off to the side and we pretend not to watch each other out of the corners of our eyes. Hers are green in the softness of her face, the baby fat just starting to fade from her bones. Such a precious little thing should have a bright summer dress on a day like this, not those dirty pants and brown top with long sleeves. A little thing like her shouldn’t have bruises that need hiding.
I can smell the hurt and the low pulse of sadness that comes off her. I pick it out of the air like a bloom and hold it in my nose. Faint apricot, soap, the tang of sweat. My special sense swells as I breathe the girl in and read her like a book. I see everything she holds inside. I turn ahead a page and think about what will happen to her.
I get to my feet as the bus begins to slow. Her mama glances at me as I linger before their seat. Her hand still clamps the phone against her head and I get a pitying, sour look. She is an ugly woman clinging to beauty, makeup drawn on just so. Her eyes look me up and down and see nothing more than a short old colored lady.
The daughter leans my way and mama yanks her back.
“Have a blessed day,” I say to the little girl, and step off at Epps St. into the crisp afternoon. I turn and see the tips of the girl’s sweet fingers waving through the window as the bus pulls away with a chuff.
No, the hunger never leaves me.
I prepare for the night, holding the picture of the little girl’s house in my mind. The oak tree as big around as an oil drum, its fingers reaching toward her grey-shuttered window. I see the limbs as she sees them, full of ill intent.
At home I let my true face out. I stand for some time and look into the chipped mirror at what I am. The wet darkness of it.
Long ago is never far from me and my son is always near to what heart I have. The room blinks and I see the old failing sun’s pink stain. My Joseph has just passed on moments ago. In the mirror my eyes fill with black and I struggle to stay on this side of memory.
My little boy was the bastard of the plantation owner. As unwilling as my body had been to bear his child, it got us favor and our own room to sleep in apart from the others. There were times we could half-pretend we were in a different life.
But an even darker season came upon us. We discovered livestock torn and heaved about the grounds. Blood spattered the cotton plants and several of the slaves had disappeared. And when two of the men came in from the fields one sunset, the downcast eyes in their streaked faces told me something had happened much closer to my heart, and that this all had been too good to last.
“Hattie,” one of them said, “your boy is killed.”
I should have seen it coming. Mr. Cordell had found his daughter with Joseph in a hayloft, each exploring the other. My son was a month shy of twelve. I ran to the barn. The air was still sharp with the stink of gun smoke and I knelt in the dirt and the straw.
For a second my hands lift to break the mirror. Instead I let my body change. What is underneath scuttles across the room to the thin bed. I gather my strength, hungry as I am. I writhe in my sleep trying not to dream about these things but I do.
The last of the day drains out of the sky. The diner huddles empty around me as I sit in a booth sipping cup after cup of coffee. A globe of light hangs over the table and I can see myself in the curve of a spoon. It is a kind face I present to the world, made to shine out at strangers.
The tote bag sits on the bench beside me, uneasy souls stirring in its depths. My coffee grows cold faster than I can drink it.
The waitress asks for the third or fourth time if I am hungry. No, no, just the coffee is fine. I am eating later. Marisa, her nametag reads, and I see the fatigue and the hard work in the lines around her mouth and the crescents beneath her eyes. I see three children in a busy five years and no father to speak of for them. The smell of their youth is all over her. I hear the children’s laughter and see them smiling from crayon faces in the artwork hanging on the walls of their home. And I feel, for a wisp of a moment, phantom kisses from Marisa on the tops of their heads. The warmth.
I leave a crumpled twenty on the table under the coffee mug. “Have a blessed day,” I say, and push out into the pooling shadows.
The bag hangs heavy from my shoulder. I urge myself on with images of the little girl curled with an eyeless bear in the crook of her elbow. Long lashes brushing her freckles and the little heart of her mouth puckered in sleep.
I travel more slowly than I’d like. My legs and my hips ache but I don’t take the bus for fear of meeting more children. The inside of my mouth is already wet with need. Once it was not so, but these days there are more of them to see to, and more hunger than I can ever hope to fill. The last of summer wheezes around me. I rest a moment at the corner waiting for a break in the cars that can’t get anywhere fast enough.
A tall man crosses the street beside me and I have to veer away from the scent of his eight-year-old son. It clings to him even though he has not seen his boy in far too long. I stare after him, feeling the skin of my face loosen around the strange bones. He glances back at me and walks faster.
I often wish this old bag held my Joseph, no matter the torment he would endure of being carried along through the changing, rotting world. It would almost be worth denying him heaven, just to have him here with me and not behind a gulf of memory that will never stop widening.
None of the souls I’ve taken can speak, but the faces of the earliest gape and twist across more than a century and a half. An awful burden, the mass of them, though there are times I am glad of their reminders. Of the work beneath my hunger.
The tall man passes from my sight and that faraway day when my boy was killed folds around me again.
All the times Mr. Cordell laid his hands on me and the other women, I’d never risen to violence. But that dusk I slipped into the big pillared house with a hand sickle behind my back. I might as well have been a blind pig through a chute, for he was waiting on the stairs and he shot me dead with the same rifle.
Someone dumped my body out behind the slave quarters in a pile of leaves to be burned. I knew this because my eyes opened under a ripe moon with something cold and made of wet clouds fastened on my neck. I was fire all over. The thing was strong and I listened to its mouth groan and drink before fading back into an uneasy sleep, the night flowing with whispers and visions.
When I woke hours or days later in the blood-soaked leaves I could smell the insides of everything. The unwashed bodies and the anger and dreams of the nearby slaves. The children flaring strongest in my nostrils. In the air I tasted a rainstorm still a day over the horizon.
And I smelled that plantation man. My sorrow lay on him.
For the first time my body changed into the black and dripping thing I’d become. Such pain as my face pushed out under my eyes and my bones rewove themselves. And the hunger came. Shortly before dawn streaked over the trees, I crept back into the Cordell house on all fours and bled Joseph’s father. And then I loped off into the wide earth.
I have never had a moment of good rest since.
A car blares its horn at me and I shake my head clear. I think of the little girl and my stomach clenches in hunger. I walk on. The streets soften into the residential part of town and I see the sign for Third St. and turn left.
The houses here have fallen asleep under the haze of streetlamps. I stare at the halos around the lights to hold me here. Looming ahead is the girl’s house and the magnificent oak, its arms spread in the throes of some old emotion. I watch its leaves ruffle in a breeze until my hunger surges and I let it pull me forward up the cracked walk.
Around to the right I find a window partly open behind a dirty screen. I slip the mesh off and crawl inside. Everything here looks carved from scarred wood. I breathe deep of the space, gazing up the staircase that rises into a gloom. The silence ticks, two hearts beating within the house and my own joining them with its strange rhythm. The odor of the girl is richer than her mama’s, acrid and sweet and innocent.
I walk up the stairs, half-seeing Mr. Cordell crouched there with his rifle pointed at my gut. This bag full of souls gains dreadful weight as it always does in these moments before. My body itches to be free and to unhinge its jaws.
The upstairs hall ends at a narrow closet. Two doors on either side. The girl’s smell quickens in my nose and I open the first door on the left and slip through the dim gap.
Her bedroom is not nearly as childish as it should be. The walls are bare but for a calendar hanging askew above a small television set. A spotted September horse rests its head upon a rail fence. I see a naked doll and a few scattered crayons.
I drag myself across the carpet to the bed. The girl’s autumn hair fans out behind her head and the pillow is wet with tears. I can smell the salt in them. I bend over and press my darkening tongue against the dampness of the pillow an inch from her lips. My hunger strains. My jaw creaks. I am very close now to emerging. A tear of my own falls onto the pillow and flowers black in the white cotton.
I pull the girl’s hurt and confused anger into my nostrils, my face close enough to feel the faint shock of touch. She wrinkles her nose and turns her face deeper into the pillow but does not wake. I pluck the teddy bear up. I draw the covers down to her waist and see the violet bruises along the arms. Bruises without shapes and bruises made by squeezing fingers, slivers of pale freckled skin between them. That fading yellow patch I saw on the bus spreads out from the elastic band of her pajamas.
I see the little girl—days from now, weeks, soon—rocking back from her mama’s slap and tumbling off the porch. Her head will crack open against a concrete step. Or her mama will be absorbed in that wretched phone while her daughter wanders off through the park into the arms of a different sort of creature. Or—something, there is always something.
But now that I am here, the picture changes and I also see a woman with silver-red hair setting a cardboard box down in another, brighter hallway. The puffy arm of a coat peeks from under a flap. The grandmother folds the little girl inside her arms and closes her eyes.
I brush the girl’s hair behind her ear. “You’re going to be fine now,” I whisper to her, and I hear a roughness coming on, eating the edges of my voice. “Have a blessed day, little one.”
I go to the doorway and turn to look at her once more. Then I close her up safe in her dark. My skin blackens. Her door is hardly closed before my jaws distend and snap and drip onto the carpet.
I pick up my tote bag and continue down the hall. My ear presses to the last door on the right and I hear the mama’s light snore from within. Her little girl’s name is Catelyn. Once folks called me Hattie. I murmur both into the stillness of the sleeping house, like a blessing inside a curse. Her mama has a name but it does not deserve the speaking of it.
I curl long cold fingers around the brass knob.
There are so many on this earth with no business bearing children. Parenting is God’s work. My own work is far from God, far even from heaven’s shadow, but all the same the souls of the bad mamas and daddies bunch closer together in the bag to make room for another. I am so hungry.
These are the moments when the deep past is swallowed up and I feel I can go on until the world stops. I step into the bedroom and shut the door behind me.