Big-Headed Anna Discovers Cassandra, the Runaway Mother
Zigzag Mountains, AK. 1920. Traveling
In the hickory thicket where I rest eating an apricot, I let the juice dribble through my fingers. Sun soaks into my drowsy flesh and I am content. A baby’s crying jolts me awake and I imagine it is my own infant Anna Océane taken from me years ago. I make my way through the trees toward the sound and see the girl’s long tangled hair swaddling her infant, her lowered filthy dress lying over the earth as if eating apricots too. In the blue light her breasts are rising bread, and her half-closed eyes, waning moons, while the newborn’s mouth slips from her nipple. “Are you lost?” I ask. Her hands caked with dirt seem to answer first. When the girl sees my big head her eyes go wide, but then she smiles. Her name is Cassandra and her infant son she calls Man. She never saw his daddy, only felt his weight. She comes from the hills and her people are hunting-dog poor. When she got her belly, they ran her off and she’s been living on berries and nuts the same as jay birds. She pats where she carried her son for months, now he twists in her arms. “Kick me again, little mule.” She is admiring her baby’s eyelashes, like she’d never seen anything more beautiful. The baby’s cheeks glow, his ears wrinkle, and he seems minutes and a hundred years old. “I love you,” she coos. I love you, I repeat in my mind. I had a rape child, too, a girl. They took her away and set me drifting from state to state searching. They made it so I can’t have babies. She puts a finger to her lips. “I wake scared. Momma comes down from the treetops where she’s been hiding. I’m hoping she’ll tell me and the baby to go home but she doesn’t. Your poppa will miss you on the two-handle cross cut saw.” When the baby makes a chortling sound it feels as if I’m drowning. Abandoned soon after my big head fought its way out of her body, no mother nursed me, I was left to die. The dark rocks rise up and tomorrow is a long way to see through.
Big-Headed Anna Washes the Silent Film Star’s Dainties
Arlington Hotel, Hot Springs, AK. 1924
I’m rinsing her underthings and laying them on a towel to dry. I tell these Ozarks no stories about where I come from. Nothing about the girl-baby taken from me, Big-Headed Anna, thought too dumb to be a mother. The silent film star can’t stop talking. She claims to live on melon balls and croissants, a few drinks, and two hours of sleep a night. Alcohol caused last night’s fall. Her knee swells, her side hurts, and she prefers to die in a grand hotel. “I was once terrified of electricity,” she laughs. “You wring my chemise like it’s a fryer’s neck.” No light bulbs except on the set. She remembers her mother’s coverlet, and the four rivers of color that it bled. Gauguin’s paintings couldn’t match. Stone walls surrounded the courtyard of her childhood and pampas grass floated above elephantine vessels. The Macaw’s gold and green feathers scorched the banana tree. His screaming pleased her and she joined in his flocking calls. A hook and eye threaded with silk catches on my thumb’s callus and unravels. “Take care with my slip, you’re not slopping pigs.” She loved the street vendors who sold rumors of aristocrats from Europe ending badly. Ménage a trios found in beds of liquor and cocaine. “My godparents didn’t have children and they took me on trips to Bogotá for buying expeditions and expensive dinners.” I hear about linen-draped tables with water tumblers and goblets, salad forks and soup spoons, the silver set in the Spanish style, all to the right of the plate. Her godmother enjoyed teaching her which fork to use for each course. All morning I’ve craved the egg and bacon remains on her breakfast tray. The film star insists that I soap her handkerchiefs not once, not twice, but trice. “Are you listening?” Then August arrived on the cusp of the school year and they shopped for clothes. She saw a black dress shimmering with tiny flames in the beads and knew it was beyond her reach but she asked her godfather anyway. That night when he knocked on her green shuttered door, he took money from his trousers. There was a way she could earn the dress. He said he would be gentle so she let it happen. No hors d’ oeuvres. No flickering candles. “His sweat I toweled from my body. This went on for years.” All the days were very hot and her girlhood ran together with the lizards and the great coils of trees. “He taught me how to speak in a body language for the screen. Even my toes are able to project emotion.” When I leave I carry the dirty water for my workmates to wash their faces with. They’re sure it will make them beautiful. They beg to hear the silent film star’s every word. I shrug and tell them she said nothing.
Big-Headed Anna Stumbles Trying to Sing Like Her Idol
Red Cat Cookhouse, Hot Springs, AK. 1920
My vocal range aims to stretch from the F below middle C to the second F above—the lowest of all female voices. Picture sun that breaks rocks from their sockets and sends them tumbling, sun that can squeeze and suck the juice from anyone. That’s how big her voice is. Mine is smaller. I’m earth and iron. Minerals. I’m the big-head sitting on a crate, one hand picking at my suspenders. My ribs show like the bow of a flatboat. She inhales the whole day hanging in the trees. She’s the Empress. My song is something to nibble when the gut wants gruel. I sing for the playfulness of swirls and tangles, for the ground clouds. My voice isn’t jumping off the hotel roof, a child broken on the ground. She sings for the shrieks falling through the night and the man she stabbed. The shock of the pothole. Her tune takes your hair in her fist, lifts your head, and pushes your cheek down into the street. I sing for the smell of damp leaves and crushed seeds. She sings for the passed-out and their jake leg liquor, for the girl twisted into the sheet hardly breathing, for her bruises, ugly, purple, and yellow, the knuckles hard on the mouth. Her voice is the raggy curtain letting in the glorious stench of the alley. My voice gets down with the scrub brush to clean the bricks after and her voice sings with open eyes, for the big vein, the boil of bad shrimp, for the money, for the shine.
Big-Headed Anna Broods and Likens herself to a Squirrel Bird
Money, AK. 1920. Listening
I know the hot and cold places and the galloping back and forth. The tin truck rattles passing by while the sun shines and the road sleeps when the sun does. People look at me and think I don’t see them. They frown like brittle trees. They wonder how I like having to live with a big head and wear a big hat. They think I’m stupid too. She’s got the brains of a dead dog or a living raccoon so stay away from that smelly girl and let her scrub the floor. Once I wandered off and followed a squirrel bird. I was a dog, then a raccoon. They sent me packing back to Peopleville. I hum to myself. I know the fish are singing. They hear the water growling when the hook floats close. The carp and bluefish make a deep cry and I think the river is about to eat. I need to take care of the fish. Who made me big-headed? The river? Catfish run in the current, and birds come down from their highness and with a whistle swoop them into the sky. I’m listening to the houses buried inside the sky. Rain shivers, dropping itself over the porches. I hear the mouths of windows fighting in one, laughing in another. There’s the barking of a shadow dog. Shadow flies buzz inside the light fixture that’s a milk bowl grave. I have to stand back and wait for the smoke figures to run. Sometimes I feel dark., and then I run a finger over the long buffet of my working day and grin at the sun.