I can't remember when I started applying for the NEA--certainly before there were alternate years for prose and poetry submissions. It was an annual, and then a bi-annual ritual, poking around in my manuscripts for that pristine thirty-page sample of what I had done and more importantly, what I could do if given the chance. Every year, another friend won an NEA, and I opened my flat letter of polite rejection. Then, two years ago, I got a note. Someone had scribbled on the bottom of the letter that I should keep trying.
Fire shot through my veins. Years ago, when I began sending out my short stories, I papered the high walls of a Victorian bathroom with rejection slips. Gradually, scribbles from busy editors showed up on those walls: dashes of encouragement, or, just as impressive, handwritten statements of refusal. I was emerging from the slush pile; eventually, I landed on the pages of The New Yorker. From there, I published a book of stories with the last of the old-time publishers, Seymour Lawrence.
Following the advice of my agent, who told me, "You can't write all the time; you're supposed to live," I spent the next decade in dogged pursuit of experience. With a wild and handsome new groom by my side, I explored Montana, Alaska, and New Mexico. We were rich; we were poor; we had a baby. My second book came out. Three months before our second child was born, I became a widow.
It took me nine years to get the third novel out. I wrote, I worked, I raised children, and I applied, every other year, to the NEA. This morning, when I got the acceptance call, I yelled into the phone, "Thank you!" My twelve-year-old daughter assumed she was getting a play date while her little brother crossed his fingers for a daddy, or at least a Wii.
What Mama gets is a little time off from work and some research money to write that novel set in Alaska about the liar who comes to town and almost makes everybody's dreams come true. The kids get every Southern child's dream--snow.
From the novel Rock Sky Woman
Mister slept with his hand flung across his chest, fingers curled around the Pepsi bottle. Every hour or so, when I reapplied the salve to his wounds, Mercedes's yellow face floated up in front of me, and I tasted the bitter bile of hatred.
"You'll be sorry," she said when I carried him out of her trailer that morning. She sucked the last of her cigarette and jammed it into a beer can already stuffed with butts. "I don't care if you are a witch. You'll regret this day." Someone had taped cardboard over the two windows in the room, and in the wavering blue light of the TV, her face swam before my eyes. I could have killed her.
Outside on the sagging porch, black flies swarmed around a pile of junk: bags of garbage and old clothes, bottles, a broken tricycle. The rope hanging from a dried-up apricot tree looked more like a noose than a swing, and the whole yard stank of rotting meat. Two buzzards dipped their wings above our heads in an effortless circle, and from somewhere behind the house, a cuckoo bird whistled.
"Brownie," said Mister, tugging on my arm, and for the first time, I saw the stiff, bloated dog that lay dead beneath the trash heap.
"This is a bad place," I said. "We're leaving."
"Goodbye, Brownie," he called over his shoulder, but his voice had a flat, hollow sound, like the wind that blows through the canyon on starless nights.
The sun was even with the shoulder of the mountain when we came to the edge of the canyon and looked down the thin, rocky path that snaked into the Rio Grande. Below us, a yellow raft covered with tiny people swirled in the current. When white settlers first came to Taos, they mistook this trail for a road--at least that's what Andy tells the tourists in the plaza after he sells them a newspaper. For a small fee, he offers to show them the rotten planks of an old bathhouse the gringos built over the hot spring after they gave up on building a bridge. "You can soak in the spring," he says, twisting the feather in his cap. "Some people go naked." It's hard enough to imagine that old geezer slipping and sliding down the wall of the canyon; when I think of people actually tying their horses to a covered wagon and trying to get from one side to the other-- the way Andy says they did--I feel a deep pity for the whites.
It took me two hours to dig a hole big enough for Mister to stand in with his arms crossed over his chest. His head wobbled with half-sleep as I lifted him out of the stroller and lowered him down, but when the cool dirt touched his bare feet, he jerked awake.
"Mama," he said flatly.
"Ro ro mi hijito," I whispered, holding him firmly with one hand as I scooped dirt around him.
Suddenly, he screamed, "Let me out!"
"Mother Earth is holding you," I told him. "Tierra de Mama loves you."
"I have to pee," he said, and his eyes filled with tears.
I told him to water the earth. It is all good, I said, the pee-pee and the tears. To the earth, it is like rain. But he wanted to get out, and when I pressed the dirt around his neck, he started to panic.
"Abuela, my chest hurts. Tierra de Mama squeezes me."
"She holds you close to her heart. Con gusto."
When he began to cry, I pressed my cheek against his. "Chis, poor baby." His tears ran into our mouths as I prayed, "Great Spirit, Great Friend, Mahaya and Mother Earth, thank you for this day."
"Espirito," I told Mister. "Breathe. Don't stop breathing."
I breathed in and out for both of us, slow and deep, again and again. With my hand on his throat, feeling his butterfly pulse, I slowed my own heart rate to calm him.
When he stopped struggling, I gave him a sip of Pepsi and stuck his Spiderman umbrella into the dirt, to protect his face from the sun.
I opened my medicine bag and took out the sacred eagle feather, which I passed over his head as I prayed to the Great Spirit. Then I lit a bundle of sage and waved the smoke over both of us. "The earth is your true mother," I told Mister. "You are in her lap, and she is wrapping her arms around you. See how strong she is. How warm." I touched some dust to his wet cheek. "She loves you. Listen to her. Te amo, and I love you too, hija." Then I told him the story of creation.
"In the beginning, Black Sky and Earth Woman bore the children who live in the belly of Mother Earth. Some people call the first son Black Hac• ct´cin. Some call him Cristo, and some call him Jesus. These children made toys out of clay: a yellow sun and an orange moon, trees and flowers and coyotes and snakes and women and men. They made the bees and the ants and the things that make up the things too small for us to see. When the sun escaped through a hole to the surface of the earth, the little clay people --- the Jicarilla Apache --- followed the light. As they came up through the hole, God breathed vida into them."
"With the breath of life came knowledge. They understood the talk of plants and animals and the slow dances of the stars. Their feet knew the steps that bring water, and their hands knew the cures for envídia, susto, espante, and mal suerte. The Jicarilla were made in God's image."
"At first, they followed the circle of the sun and moon and stayed close to God, but then they got busy and forgot Him. Gradually, they forgot everything. Only the curanderos remembered, and we remember for everyone. My grandmother Elizabeth Peshligai taught me these things. Her name means White Flint Knife, and she is your bisabuela. Abuela Elizabeth lived in the Pueblo because the conquistadors wanted a wall around the Indians, but to the Jicarilla Apache, there is no wall but the sky, and no home but the earth."
"Okay," said Mister, and he closed his eyes.
Lying belly-down beside him, with the sun warming the back of my head, my heart slowed to the beat of the Great Mother's heart. Do not be afraid, I told myself. Do not hope. After a long time, I began to feel the wiry grass pushing through the cracked earth, and from the top of Taos Mountain, the drip, drip, drip of melting snow. One drop of water clung to the next, on and on, gathering force. Slowly, the bud of Mister's new soul began to swell against my own, pushing outward with mysterious force. I prayed for it to open.
All at once, my spirit left my body --- a light flickering down a tunnel --- and flew down the rock-strewn path of the gorge into the cold dark water below. "Dig!" shouted the guide on the raft. "Dig! Dig! Dig!"
Then I felt the woosh of a hawk's wing, and his scream rasped down in my own throat--"Kree-eee-ar!"
"Keee-rrrrr!" I answered, jumping to my feet. "Kree-eee-ar!" Then the hawk told me that God cannot move through a heart as twisted as an old root, as hard as a bone. To heal Mister, I must spit out my own poison. I must pray for Mercedes. If Creator had told me, "Bite the head off a live rattlesnake," I would have said, "Yes!" but for a long time I could not pray for Mercedes. I watched the orange raft swirl down the gorge and disappear; then I looked at Mister's head sticking out of the sand. I brushed a fly away from his swollen eye and took a deep breath.
"Great Spirit," I prayed. "May that bitch and her pimp have peace, prosperity, happiness, and a greater love than she has ever known." I went on to pray for her mother and father, and her grandparents, and their people. I prayed for her vehicle, that it would run for her, and for food to come to her table. I prayed that she would have short lines at the welfare office and that her drug dealers would not cheat her too much. I prayed that when guilt came upon her with all of hell's fury, she might find the peace of forgiveness.
When I opened my eyes, the sun was high in the sky. Afraid to look at Mister, in case his soul had not come back, I watched a red ant crawl from the toe of my shoe to the end of the shovel and along the handle and across the blade. It teetered on the edge before slipping out of sight. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw the red umbrella move.
"¿Dónde está mi madre?" Mister asked.
"Your mother is here." I said, sweeping my arm across the mesa. "Rock, sky, woman. We are your mother now." Then I dug him up.
Melanie Sumner is the author of the novel The Ghost of Milagro Creek (Shannon Ravenel, 2010), a story of love, betrayal, and witchcraft set in the desert of Northern New Mexico. She has published two other books of fiction, The School of Beauty and Charm, (Washington Square Press, 2002), a Southern coming-of-age story featured on NPR, and Polite Society (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), a collection of stories based on her experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal West Africa. Her shorter works have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines including The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Best of the South, and The New York Times. She is a recipient of The Whiting Award and has earned fellowships to The Fine Arts Work Center and Yaddo. In 1986, she received her BA from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and in 1987, she earned an MFA from Boston University. Currently she lives in her hometown of Rome, Georgia, and teaches Creative Writing at Kennesaw State University.
Photo by Uli Gratzl