S1 E4: The Stiffening

Hi! I’m Tonia Thompson, horror writer and creator of NIGHTLIGHT. Our story this week is from Nicole Sconiers. Nicole’s work has been published in the fabulous horror anthology Sycorax’s Daughters, which was edited by Linda Addison, Susana Morris, and Kinitra Brooks.

Here is The Stiffening, by Nicole Sconiers, narrated by Cherrae Stuart.

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The Stiffening

by Nicole D. Sconiers

I was eight years old when I realized that I never saw my mother sitting. Ever. Or lying in bed or immersed beneath a blanket of suds in our old claw foot bathtub. She was always upright. Afternoons would find her in the kitchen, tending something on the stove or wiping down counters with a dish rag. This is how I remember her: Thick black hair spilling over broad shoulders and sturdy legs clad in a print skirt and drugstore stockings. She loved to cook, to bring a steaming and pungent plate of collard greens to the table, to serve my sister Trina and me a slice of her famous orange pound cake. Even though she was on her feet all day mixing batter at Xavier’s Donuts, the sound of a metal spoon clanking against a pot usually met me and Trina when we came home from school.
 Older than me by three years, Trina was the more thoughtful sister. “Mom, you work too hard. Sit down and let me fix you a plate,” she would say.
 Mother brushed off Trina’s concerns with a smile as she brought a bowl or glass to the dining room table. “That’s alright, baby. You and Valise enjoy your free time.”
 Then those lean long legs carried her into the living room, where she would pull back the curtains she had stitched by hand. Home from school, the other girls on the block would be practicing their drill routines in the street, or the staccato thumping of twin ropes on asphalt would drift in through the screen door as my neighbors played Double Dutch. They never invited me to join their games. “Double-handed,” I was called. That meant I turned the rope too clumsily for their liking and out of rhythm. Mother never beheld this festival of flailing limbs from a chair by the window like our elderly neighbor Miss Isabel, who wore wigs and scolded the neighborhood kids as if they were her own. Nor did my mom recline on the front stoop, glass of too-sweet iced tea in hand, chatting with Miss Irene or Mr. Alphonse, an unmarried couple who lived in the bungalow next to ours. She always stood, arms crossed, in the middle of our bay window, as if she were controlling all activity on the street with a glance.
 Every girl tries to find her mother’s handprint in her own life — whether to embrace it or slough it off. I was no different. Although Trina and Mother were closer, I was the daughter who looked the most like her. My hairline mimicked hers, a fuzzy stream that meandered along my temples and ended at my ears in a vortex of tight curls. Moles, like dark flowers, dotted our cheeks, while Trina had the smooth brown skin of our father, long dead. Mother and I were often complimented for our long dainty fingers that we inherited from my grandmother Hallie, who used to hang wash from a clothesline with wooden pins and who once rode three buses to The Valley every day to clean homes for white folks. This is where the similarities ended. The more I watched my mother, the more I realized I was not like her. I preferred reading MAD magazine in my room to cooking, and I had no desire to pick up around the house. Serving other people bored me. But I could sit and squat and kneel, and I had never even seen my mom bend her legs.
 One night, my suspicions about Mother were confirmed. Unlike other eight-year-old girls I knew, my nose was always buried in books about ghosts and werewolves, and one particularly scary story caused me to awaken with a start. My bedroom was so small, it could only fit my twin bed and a faux wood roll-top desk. My chamber, Trina called it. I gripped the covers. Even though I was alone in that tiny airless room, it felt as if I had entered a world of shadows. My sister’s snores in the room next door sounded like the wheezing of a hungry goblin. After the nightmare melted away, leaving its icy residue against my collarbone, I was too afraid to close my eyes. I needed my mom. When Daddy died the previous year, she discouraged us from coming in her bedroom at night. “Y’all too big to be sleeping with me,” she would say, which is why we had rooms of our own. I jumped out of bed, opened the door and stepped into an artery of darkness. As I crept down the narrow hallway, there was no moonlight streaming through the bathroom window, no crackling glow visible beneath Mother’s bedroom door from her Panasonic television. Just blackness. I reached for the knob.
 My mother’s room smelled like rosewater. It was the only thing she used to wash her face, which was as lineless as lard and just as smooth. A woven basket filled with yarn and needles sat on her nightstand. Knitting was another activity that gave my mom something to do with her hands, although she never sat in the rocking chair as she worked. It was a peculiar sight to see her standing, yarn and needles in hand, with just her butt resting against the window sill, her shoulders framed by the Santa Susana Mountains in the distance, as if she were holding the entire range aloft. But what was more peculiar that night was the sight of those fluffed pillows where no head had rested, the three doilies, like oversized snowflakes, placed on the smooth bedcovers.
 From behind me came a rattling noise, like an overweight man struggling to breathe. I jumped, more afraid than I’d been when I awakened from my dream. I turned around. Mother was propped in the corner by the edge of the dresser, nearly hidden by her open closet door. That choking noise was coming from her. Her eyes were closed. The closet door, nearly shielding her body, looked like the raised lid of a coffin. I didn’t bother to wake her up, to ask why she wasn’t asleep in her bed, lying down like a normal mother. What frightened me more than the woman I loved standing upright in a flannel nightgown, snoring like an asthmatic man, was that she had been asleep for hours on her feet — and she was smiling. I backed toward the open door and quickly left her bedroom.
 I never mentioned that night to anyone, not even to Trina. It was one of those painful and confusing discoveries I needed to keep to myself — like finding out your mother is a thief, or smokes, or drinks whiskey from a jelly jar. I watched my neighbors’ mothers carefully to see if they were always on their feet as well. But the women on my block were sitters — on stoops, bus stop benches, on church pews and on hard plastic Laundromat chairs. The mothers of my classmates were no different. Whenever I went to Christy’s house after school, we would find her mom sitting at a table, playing Bid Whist with her friends. And whenever I spent the night at Becky’s house, her mom lounged on the couch in a pink negligee doing crossword puzzles and smoking Marlboro cigarettes.
 In spite of her disability, my mother wasn’t diminished in my eyes. She seemed whole to me, more whole than the women at Bethel A.M.E. Church who knelt by the altar to pray. Mother’s lips were always stretched in a wide smile, ready to laugh with you, or joke with you, or kiss away your tears. I grew defensive of her, as if she stuttered, ready to protect her from the taunts that were sure to come from the girls on my block when they discovered her … condition. They noticed everything, especially the older girls. Every new hairstyle. Every secret relationship. Every zit. They wouldn’t come right out and ask, “Why your mama can’t sit down, Valise?” No, they would couch their insults in song as the Double Dutch rope beat a scornful melody on the asphalt:
Mailman, mailman
Do your duty
Here come Miss Posie
With the big ‘ol booty
Left foot/right foot
Left foot/right foot
Here come Miss Posie
Always standin’ around
Left foot/right foot
Left foot/right foot
Never touchin’ the ground
‘Cause she can’t sit down …
 But those taunts never came. Over the years, the neighborhood kids surely looked through our bay window and saw Mother’s constant parade from living room to dining room to kitchen, never once sitting on our green leather sofa or wicker chairs. They watched her at the wake for Miss Irene as she stood by the door of the funeral home, greeting a stream of mourners, handing out fans with Martin Luther King’s face emblazoned on the front. They saw her upright in her Sunday best at the side door of the high school auditorium, cheering and taking pictures, as Trina walked across the stage to receive her diploma. No one mentioned that they never saw her sitting, that they had never known her legs to bend. Years of vertical living didn’t seem to weaken Mother. She still walked around as erect as ever in a print skirt and thrift store stockings two shades lighter than her skin.
 One night, I sat on Mother’s bed as she leaned against the window sill. She was sewing. I fingered the white organza that I would wear down the aisle in a few months, watching her quick fingers.
 “Don’t you ever get tired?” I asked her.
“Of what?”
“Busy work,” I said.
 She smiled, her moist brown skin as lineless as it was when I was eight. “You know I love to sew. It won’t be long now, baby.”
 “I know, Mother. And I really appreciate you making my dress. But you never rest.”
 Even her sighs smelled of rosewater. “Helping folks keeps me strong,” she said.
 I patted the bedspread. “Sit with me while you sew.”
 She frowned. The first sign of irritation I noticed in a long time.
 “I can’t do that, Valise.”
 “Why not?” I indicated the floral cover again. “Rest a minute while you work.”
 Those greenish-brown eyes singed my heart. “The day I sit down is the day I die,” she said, parking her needle in the stiff white material. “Standing is in my blood. It was in your grandmother’s blood. It’s in yours too.”
 I swung my legs around on the bed and leaned back against the pillow, as if testing this strange pronouncement. “It must have skipped a generation,” I said with a laugh.
 Mother watched as I pulled first one leg, then the other to my chest. Her eyes dimmed. Then she said, “You can’t stop the stiffening. It’s in the blood.”
 I sat up. “What stiffening?”
 Mother resumed her sewing. After a few minutes of burying and retrieving the needle from the fabric, she said, “Think of Mom-Mom Hallie, baby.”
 I thought of my mother’s mother. Her thick gray hair was always wrapped in a scarf, whether she did day work or not. When I was a kid, I sometimes accompanied Mom-Mom to the homes of the Wozniaks and McCrackens, skipping my fingers along the sticky keys of her employer’s grand piano as my grandmother mopped floors, wiped crumbs from an oak table. Whenever we rode those three buses across town to The Valley, she stood in the aisle — pocketbook under one arm, the other arm holding the metal strap above her head, even when the bus was half empty. “Standing is good for the heart,” Mom-Mom used to say. Whenever Trina, Mother and I went to her house for a visit, my grandmother was always bustling around the kitchen, quick to bring a steaming and pungent plate of collard greens to the table, to serve us a slice of her famous orange pound cake.
 “She was always upright,” I said aloud.
 “Always upright,” Mother repeated with a sad smile. “Gave birth standing up. Like a mare. Same as me.”
I fell silent. That image rolled around in my head, bloody and throbbing. My mother and my grandmother had brought babies into the world on their feet. And while I knew women in some cultures preferred that birthing method, I knew no other women in my family who did.
“As far back as I can remember, the only time I saw my mama lying down was when we buried her,” Mother said.
I flexed my toes as if to flick away those awful words. “That was the past. There has to be some medication to cure it now.”
 “I never trusted no doctor. Didn’t want to be experimented on like a rat. I tried herbs, potions — even a recipe for a ‘strengthening tonic’ that belonged to your great-grandmother Annie Lou. Nasty stuff. It was some old concoction of nettle leaves, High John root, garlic and wormwood.” She grimaced as if refusing a spoonful of the bitter mixture. Her legs, clad in beige stockings two shades lighter than her skin, seemed to lengthen, as if bolstered by the remembrance. 
 “I’m going to fight this, Mother. I have a career. I design things. I can’t stand around the agency all day.”
 “I had a career too, Valise. You think I love fixing food for other people? Always serving, always helping, always mixing batter?” Her laugh was edged with sorrow. She paused to rethread the needle, and those dainty fingers shook a little. “I couldn’t even cook when I met your father. But I learned. You will too. I wanted to be a ballerina. ”
 “I never knew you wanted to dance.”
 “I know you didn’t, baby. Your daddy knew my secret, and he took it to his grave. I didn’t want nobody to pity me or for you girls to be teased. I know how vicious kids can be,” she said. Out the window behind her, a car rumbled down the back alley, skittering gravel in its wake. “I had to shape my life around the stiffening. The kitchen was like a pair of stockings or Mom-Mom Hallie’s earrings, something I wore to seem like a normal woman. I prayed things would be different for you and Trina, but it’s not to be. I didn’t want to say anything – not yet – but your sister called me a few days ago. Crying.”
 “About what?” I said, feeling as if my legs had already begun to tighten.
Sensing my terror, Mother pushed away from the window ledge. She leaned forward to touch me. Her fingers grazed my hair, like a robot programmed to comfort its human master but lacking the capacity for empathy or love. Watching that awkward motion, I was transported back to my childhood. My mother had never stooped to pick me up, had never given me a bath, had never sat by my bedside to read me a story at night.
 Mother sighed. “She was at evening service at Bethel, and she went up to the altar, but she couldn’t kneel down to pray …”
 Later, I think about our conversation while fingering the wedding dress Mother made. I’m standing in a small church on Adams Boulevard, half-listening to the minister’s words. My sister, my bridesmaid, moves like a woman on stilts in her lemon-colored dress, as if newly learning to navigate the floor. Across the room, Mother wipes away tears. Trina bought her a digital camera for Christmas and she stands in the back of the sanctuary for the entire ceremony, crying and snapping pictures.
 Stiffening is in our blood, Mother said. An erect life. A life lived in kitchens, at counters and in the back of buildings. “Standing is good for the heart,” Mom-Mom Hallie used to say, but she didn’t look so healthy in her silver-blue casket, her legs horizontal at last. Her skin had the ashen sheen of a defeated woman. 
 My groom, Nathan, lifts my veil and I give him a distracted kiss. I can’t cook, can barely make a bed, and I’m not ready to embrace a life on my feet. Nathan threads his arm through mine and we walk down the aisle to greet our well-wishers. It almost feels as if he’s pulling me down the wine-red carpet, holding me up, but I know that isn’t so. I will be upright for years to come. As we make our way to the back of the building, I feel a curious thickening in my legs, a melding of muscle and bone and blood. It seems as if everyone in the sanctuary can hear the hollow clicking of my knees locking into place, a wooden dirge that rivals the organist’s upbeat song. I glance over at Mother standing near the door, the sleek black camera shielding her eyes like a mask. She lowers the camera and blows me a kiss.

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Interview: To be transcribed

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Show notes:

You can follow Nicole on her blog: www.nicolesconiers.com/blog
Buy her book, Escape From Beckyville: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/69733

Sycorax’s Daughters: https://amzn.to/2ur2UE2

Please follow our wonderful narrator for this episode: Cherrae Stuart at www.cherraelstuart.com or @ActorOnTheEdge on Twitter. You can also check out her podcast at @TCADPodcast and @GoodMorningAntioch

You can buy Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older: https://amzn.to/2Lo7xFe
The sequel (Shadowhouse Fall) is also amazing.