I AM FULL OF HATE, and that, I know, is wicked. When my mother wakens me, it already bubbles in my throat like a spring ready to overflow.
"Get up, Pauline. It's time."
My feet strike the cold floor as I tumble out of bed. Glancing back in the dark, I see my sister still under the warm quilt, her hands curled on the pillow like sleeping birds.
The mill whistle begins like a woman sobbing before changing to a long wail. It prods me into dressing. As I raise my nightdress over my head, the chill seizes me, so I hurry to pull on my undershirt, drawers, and then my dress. I put everything out the night before, so the cold has less time to grab me.
I leave off my shoes. I have learned to bargain with myself. If I take the time to put them on, I miss first chance at the privy and have to stand waiting, my whole self growing icier still.
Mama has started the stove, the fire glowing red, and the warmth calls to me, but the other call is louder, and I step out onto the frozen ground past the cabbage rows glistening with frost.
The outhouse door creaks like I woke it and it does not want to be bothered. Stop your complaining. It is I, not you, who must find the seat in the dark and start the pee from my shaking body down the black hole.
ON THE STEPS outside, my brother waits, his frosty breath drifting. I feel a rush of air as he brushes by. Josh has not learned my trick about the shoes, so he is second.
The moon still hangs, a sliver, like someone slit the sky, and stars spill out like bright stuffing.
Since it is warm in the stove room, I guess it is no matter that I have to wait by the sink while Daddy washes his face. My stomach churns at the smell of the bacon, but all in good time.
I curl my toes as I bide my time behind Daddy. Some feeling comes back to them as I watch him scoop big dripping handfuls from the pail. He is missing two fingers on his right hand. Mama frowns at him because water sloshes onto the floor and puddles under the sink. She leaves the bacon frying on the stove to hand him a towel.
The kerosene lamp shines on her face. I do not know what time Mama gets up, only that she is already dressed and the fire made when she calls me in the mornings. If I did not know better, I would think she sleeps in her clothes.
By the time Josh and I have washed up, Mama has put the plates of grits, each with a curl of bacon, on the table. She hands around biscuits left over from supper, and if I push mine into the grits, it takes on some of the heat, like it was fresh made.
We bow our heads. Daddy says, "Thank you, Lord, for breakfast. Amen."
Josh and Daddy make snuffling noises as they eat. Josh has no patience with a fork for grits. He ladles his in with a tablespoon. Mama looks down at her plate. She takes in a long breath before she starts to eat.
My tongue burns with my haste, and my stomach fills with heat. We are busy with our breakfast, making our mouths too full for talk. I have barely swallowed the last of it before we rise from the table.
Mama calls into our room, "Good-bye, Arlene. We're going now."
I say nothing. How would she hear? She is still sleeping. Yes, we're leaving now. The dark still hunkers over the mill, but we're going out into the blackness while you, the favored one, sleep as late as you like. Enjoy the warmth of the quilt and the soft bed, while the shape of me there grows cold.
I have never counted the steps to the mill. I know only that the number of steps is different every morning. Today the cold bites through my sweater and swirls around my legs as I try to keep up with Mama. Josh and Daddy push way ahead of us with their long steps.
Margaret and Katie pass in the dark. They're best friends, eleven like me, and Katie has her younger brother Jimmy by the hand. He stumbles along half asleep. I do not think they see me.
Sometimes I wish there were only one of them-Katie or Margaret. With one of them, I might be her best friend, but as it is, that place is already taken.
For the walk to the mill, I have left my hate behind in the warm bed with my sister. I will call for it when I need it. Arlene will wake to find the room warm and her breakfast on the back of the stove. She only has to make the beds and wash the dishes before she starts to cook.
By the time she comes to bring our dinner pails at noon, the sun will have made a watery path to the top of the sky, and I will have tied more threads than I can count.
I AM FULL OF HATE, and that, I know, is wicked. When my mother wakes Pauline, it already bubbles in my throat, ready to overflow.
"Get up, Pauline. It's time."
The whistle blows like a giant owl hooting before he goes to bed. To-whoo, to-whoo, trailing off as he flies through the woods.
I cannot fly. Pauline cannot fly. In that, we are the same. Like our mouths and eyes, like the jut of our chins. Like the part in our hair. Everything about us is the same. Only not.
They think I am sleeping, but I peer out under my lashes at Pauline as she throws off her nightdress and puts on her clothes. Her body makes a blur in the dim room, but I know from memory how straight she is down to the soles of her feet. I know how she can hop and jump like a rabbit or scurry like a startled mouse.
They may think I'm asleep, but I have to stay awake to keep from wetting the bed. My turn comes later, after the rest have gone.
But now bumping noises sound throughout the house, and I know what each one means. I hear Daddy's heavy shoes clunk and Josh's quicker thuds, and the pots in the stove room clink. The sounds connect me to their morning.
The house grows quiet again. I can imagine everyone around the kitchen table in the lamplight, can smell the salty bacon. Only the click of a spoon on a bowl punctures the quiet. At least I'm out of the way.
I hear the chairs scrape and a shuffling of shoes.
Mama comes to the bedroom door. "Good-bye, Arlene. We're going now."
Pauline says nothing. She is glad to be gone, gone to be with Katie and Margaret, who also work at the mill. She will laugh with them and talk all the way there while I am left to myself for the day.
The front door slams. Good-bye, Arlene. Good-bye, Arlene. We're going now. We're going now. The words echo in my head. I throw back the quilt. Still in my nightclothes I hobble through the warm stove room, with its jumble of dirty plates and pots, and out the back door.
I try to hurry, but the monster foot drags at me, holding me back. In the street, people rush to the mill. I wonder if they see me, register me, see me struggling with that foot, know where I am going in the cold, or wonder why I did not have the sense to put my clothes on first. The cold rushes under my nightdress, but I cannot afford to feel it. I must hurry, hurry.
Finally I open the creaking door and sit, relieved that only a little pee has dribbled down my leg.
Even though I am alone now, I dress before breakfast, take my time, pulling up the quilt and spreading the bed. I fix the pillows straight, hers and mine. I pull on the shoes. On my right foot, a shoe like Pauline wears. On the left, one Josh has outgrown, because the monster foot has its own shape that will not be forced into a smaller shoe.
Before we were born, when did it happen? When did it become my foot and not hers? Did she wrest a good one from me in exchange for the one I have? I should like to ask her if she remembers. Or was it when my mother named us? This is Pauline the perfect one, and this one we will call Arlene because of her monster foot.
The grits are stiff; the bacon, warm and limp. I eat the grits straight out of the tin pot from the back of the stove, a biscuit tucked to one side. A little coff...