Behind the Hedgerow
Toni K. Pacini
My great grandfather planted the hedgerow, the one I live behind, over one hundred years ago. The earth shaded within its dark green canopy has long since forgotten the warmth and glory of the sun, and so have I. When I was young I ventured forth beyond its oppressive shelter, but it´s been eighteen years now since I dared to cross its clear but unmarked boundary.
Like any other child, I went to school and played with friends. I would pick wildflowers for my Momma and hurry home, so as not to get in any trouble, careful not to step on the cracks. But I obviously wasn´t careful enough, I must have stepped on one crack, and with that ill-laid sneaker, my world shattered into a thousand tiny shards. I have the scars from the irreparable sharp shards of truths inflicted upon me. Truths I now wish I had never known.
Momma wouldn’t talk about my father, although I tried to get her to many times throughout the years. She had another secret too, and my curiosity begged for the facts behind that mystery as well as the truth about my dad.
My Momma had one eye. She wore a gray patch over the empty socket where her left eye should be. As a very young child I thought nothing of it. But by the time I started school I understood that Momma´s missing eye was an unusual thing. Her unwillingness to answer any questions whatsoever regarding the circumstances surrounding the loss of her eye or anything about my father, made my Momma a bit of an enigma in our community.
I think Momma´s desire to avoid any and all questions about her two big secrets, my missing daddy and her missing eye, was the main reason she seldom left our house. Ever since I can remember our neighbor Ralph Rutherford had been doing our shopping and most of the regular maintenance around our home and on our property. That included trimming the wide hedgerow that embraced our lot, like a green leafy hug.
Momma rarely talked to strangers and as the years passed, she went out beyond the hedgerow less and less. Regardless of the secrets and isolation though, Momma did her best to make my life normal. She always encouraged me to have friends, go to sleepovers, and participate in school functions. Overall, I had a happy childhood and in our home safe behind the hedgerow, I felt loved.
Three generations of my family have lived in this little green house in the sleepy town of Loblolly, Alabama. My mother´s father died here from emphysema the year before my birth. My grandmother followed him shortly afterward in a questionable manner. When I was young, just before my sixteenth birthday – my last year of sunshine – I didn’t know the facts, but I had heard the rumors. Some people said my grandmother hung herself, and of course Momma wouldn´t talk about it. Fortunately my grandparents left enough savings behind for Momma and me to live comfortably, if we kept it simple.
Although Momma did a great job of hiding it, I always knew she secretly carried a lot of fear. Then on Friday the seventh of July, I came home to answers. Answers I had sought many times in many ways for so damned long. Answers that I thought I needed, and had insisted that I was entitled to. How I wish now that those questions had never been answered.
I dashed past the hedgerow, bounded up the porch steps and as I reached for the doorknob he grabbed my wrist; I hadn´t seen him there in the shadows. I dropped my book bag and I would have screamed for Momma, but he pulled me harshly to him while twisting my arm. Holding my wrist in a painful grip behind my back, he spoke low and very slowly, "Be quiet or die, and your momma too." It sounded kind of singsong like a little ditty that you would sing to a baby.
He opened the door and pushed me down the hall and into our kitchen where Momma sat at the table. He had tied her hands and feet with the brown twine we used to tie up bundles of old newspaper. Another piece of twine circled her throat and he’d tied it to the back of her chair. The whole scene terrified me but the worst shock of all was seeing Momma staring at me helplessly from her empty eye socket.
Momma never went anywhere, inside or outside of the house, without the patch or dark glasses. Throughout the years I may have had a momentary glimpse of the empty socket, but I had never really seen it, until now. The stranger forced me into a chair and tied me up like Momma. Then he looked me in the eye and started answering my questions.
His eyes said he knew me, that he had known me for a long time, but I had never seen his haunting face before, of that I was sure. But he talked to me as if I had asked him for the answers I had sought for so long.
"Your Momma never told you about me, did she little girl? She knew better.”
He paused, turned and smiled down at Momma as he stroked her hair. She cringed and pulled away.
“She knew better than to tell anyone about me cause I warned her what would happen if she ever told. We had us an understanding.”
“You see baby girl. When your Momma was your age she used to walk right by me at the store, school, all over town. She always acted like she didn´t see me at all, but she must have, I was right there! She managed somehow to look right through me or past me. She never saw me. I was nothing to her. I wasn´t even worthy of a passing glance.”
“I saw her though. Your Momma is all I saw for years. I watched her whenever and wherever I could. I studied her. I chose her. I waited for her to see me, but she never did. Then she was graduating from high school and would be going away to college in Georgia the next year. I couldn´t allow that, I would not be able to see her. That´s when I made my move."
He turned again to Momma and looked at her with such intensity that she seemed to shrink into herself becoming smaller in an attempt to escape the penetration of his stare. Then he said to her, tenderly,
"You remember our date, don´t you darling? I made it very special for us, didn´t I?"
I jumped when he abruptly turned back to me and continued his onslaught of truth,
"I did it all just right, I had the candles, flowers and chocolates. I played your Momma’s favorite album. I did it all just right, but she didn´t appreciate any of it. She was down right rude. I had gone to a lot of trouble but your Momma didn´t care, she just wanted to leave. So I showed her. I made sure she learned her lesson."
For a minute, he seemed to have returned to that time, that place, thoughtful, even content. In the silence I almost found my voice, but before I could protest or muster a scream, he continued,
"I took your Momma´s eye. She had it coming damn it. She would never even look at me Baby-girl. But for the past seventeen years, I can make her look at me anytime I want her to."
He pulled a small glass jar out of his pocket and showed me my mother´s missing eye, floating milky in a fluid unknown to me.
I found my voice then, and I could not stop screaming. He slapped me, again and again. As my head was propelled from side to side the twine cut savagely into my throat. That´s when he sat the second jar on the table beside the one that held my Momma’s eye. That´s when he told me why he had returned after seventeen years. He wanted to be seen again, but this time, by his daughter. It was Momma´s turn to scream.
He stood slowly, bent and roughly kissed her before he gagged her with a dishtowel.
Then he returned his attention to me.
"I took her eye and then I took her. I´m your daddy little girl. I told her that night that if she told anyone what had happened, that first I would finish off that sick old daddy of hers, and then her Momma. She didn´t listen though. Her daddy came to see me three days after I sent her home minus an eye, and unbeknown to me at the time, plus one baby.”
“Her daddy said he was going to kill me. What a joke, I took his body home and told your Momma and grand-momma that they had better say he died from the emphysema or they would be next. I didn´t have to kill your grand-momma; she hung herself two weeks after the funeral. I was worried that your Momma might kill herself too, but then I heard she was pregnant, and I knew she wouldn´t kill our baby."
"Don´t worry little girl, I know I can´t stay. Your Momma ain’t ever appreciated me, and she ain´t likely to start now. But, I refuse to go through the rest of my life and never be seen by my own flesh and blood. A man has a right to be seen by his daughter."
Momma drowned the day after my father´s visit. They called it an accident. They call the fact that I lost an eye trying to rescue her from the lake a coincidence, a weird coincidence. Mr. Rutherford passed away three years ago, since then his son Bale brings my groceries and handles the repairs and maintenance on my property for me, like his father did for Momma.
I turned thirty-four years old today. Bale brought me a chocolate chip muffin and a purple balloon. He and his wife are most kind to me. I am grateful for that as I sit on my porch as the day slips quietly away and I wonder about life on the other side of the hedgerow.