Work Header

We all are liars to ourselves

Work Text:

1. The times are all out of joint, Mammy, Ms. Ellen sighs. She tilts her head and gazes at her reflection in the mirror, following the curve of her collarbone and tracing the wrinkles along her thin white neck. She does not see the reflection of the woman standing behind her and silently pinning up her hair—only her own. The lady of the house turns her attention to her jewelry box: she selects a pair of silver earrings and holds them up next to her face, then sets them back with a frown.

The emeralds, ma’am, she suggests. Goes nice with your eyes.

Ms. Ellen chooses the emeralds. My goodness, Mammy, I don’t know what we would do without you. Especially in times like these.

Times like these. All out of joint. In her mind, she pictures the mirror cracking, her image and Ms. Ellen’s warped and distorted, jagged and splintered like ice. She’s never seen any snow or ice in Tara, but Pork told her about it once; the bitter cold of Missouri in the winter before he was sold to the O’Haras: I stepped out onto the frozen pond, and then I heard it—crrrrrr-ack. The whole world dropped out from under my feet, and only the lord Himself saved me that day.

Yes, ma’am, she says. She turns up the corners of her lips in a smile.

2. Let us be clear about one thing: her name is not Mammy. Mammy cradles the infant Carreen when she screams at night, Mammy combs the tangles out of Miss Suellen’s hair, Mammy scolds little Miss Scarlett for climbing that tree and ripping her dress, Mammy holds Ms. Ellen’s hand and murmurs soothing words to her when her mother dies. (She does not know if her own mother is still alive. She does not remember what she looked like. She does remember the sound of her wail when they ripped her from her arms. No one held her hand then.)

Her mother did not call her Mammy. She called her Eliza, short for Elizabeth: my God is a promise. And she shortened it down even further, made her into just one syllable, just Liz—a name to be bellowed into the fields, to be spat out like a curse for the smallest perceived act of disobedience, to be whispered in her ear before she falls asleep at night—Liz, my baby, my honey child.

By the time she is sold to the O’Haras, nobody calls her Liz anymore. She supposes Eliza must be written somewhere on the sheaf of papers that accompanies her to Tara, but she doesn’t think about that much. You can call me Mammy, she tells them; hands on her hips and feet planted firmly on the ground. She is about thirty-two years old and solid and immovable as an oak tree. Her body expands to fill every space of every room. You can hear her voice from one end of the plantation to the other. She doesn’t dwell on the past, or on the five babies she’s lost to death or slavery, all before they were old enough to speak; to look at her and grab her fingers with their chubby hands and call her Ma. What’s the use in thinking about that? They’re gone.

But Mammy she’ll be to the daughters of her master and mistress, these girls who grow up loved and cared for in the safety of their own home; whose comfort is paramount, if not their happiness. Miss Scarlett and Miss Suellen and Miss Carreen live with the knowledge that their futures are secure, troubled only by the question of which man they will marry. Anything else is unmentionable. Unthinkable, really: until finally, one day, when it suddenly isn’t.

She knows long before they do, however: while the girls are pretending to sleep through the hottest part of the summer day, and the women are sitting in the darkened parlor and fanning themselves, and the men are smoking cigars and discussing the prices of cotton and horses and human beings—while the white folk are inside, she is outside scrubbing shirts and petticoats and shaking out the rugs. The sweat runs down her forehead and her back: not a breeze to be felt for miles and miles. The cicadas shriek. In the stillness of the shimmering heat, she leans up against the old magnolia tree and closes her eyes. In the moment before she opens them again, she can hear the earth humming and throbbing, filled with deadly intent. She can see the storm clouds gathering and the floodwaters rising around Tara, swift and powerful; she sees the foundations cracking and the great house being washed away. When the water recedes and the clouds dissipate, what world will be left behind?

She opens her eyes and goes about the rest of her day.

3. They’ll get what’s coming to them, she hears Prissy telling Pork as she comes around the corner. The girl falls silent when she sees her, but she looks up with bright, defiant eyes. There is no question as to who she means by they.

She grabs Prissy by the ear and twists it until she cries out. Leave off your foolish talk, she tells them both in a rough voice. Lucky for you it was me walking around that corner, you hear?

She lets go of Prissy, who steps back and rubs her ear. Then, with a sly smile, the girl mimes a noose being placed around her neck and tightened; her eyes bulge and her tongue lolls out. Pork looks down at his feet and shifts his weight from side to side.

She slaps Prissy hard. The girl reels from the blow, quivering like jelly, but then she remakes herself. Settles back into the space she occupied before. Smiles again.

4. She tells Miss Scarlett upon her return from Atlanta that the Yankees came and ransacked the house. She tells her that her mother took ill and died. She doesn’t tell her the details, because Miss Scarlett doesn’t want to know, and she can’t blame her for that, really.

So she doesn’t tell her that after the triumphant Yankee soldiers swept through Tara, the ragged Confederate survivors followed and took whatever scraps were left. It was a Confederate soldier who held a pistol against her head and made her give up the location where Ms. Ellen had buried her last cache of jewelry. He stank of sweat and old blood and he grinned at her with his tobacco-stained teeth. After he took the jewels and left she sank to the ground, shuddering with relief that he hadn’t put his hands on her or decided to blow her brains out anyway. Grey uniforms, blue uniforms—all just men in the end, kicking down doors, grunting away in brothels, starving in the streets, rotting quietly in the fields.

She doesn’t tell Miss Scarlett that when Ms. Ellen fell ill with fever, she alternated between tears and anger: one moment, sobbing like a child and crying out for her own mother, and then in the next moment cursing at her and using language that, in all her years, she had never once heard Ms. Ellen use. If she hadn’t been so weak from fever and hunger, she is sure that her mistress would have thrown things at her, slapped her, stabbed her with sewing scissors. (One thing is certain: Miss Scarlett did not inherit her rage from her father. But she knew that already; after more than two decades spent in Ms. Ellen’s presence every single day, how could she not know?)

You should be the one dying, not me, Ms. Ellen spat at her, voice dripping with loathing, fevered eyes narrowed in disgust—I hate your ugly dark face. Get away from me. Leave me alone to die.

This, from the woman who once said, I don’t know what we would do without you.

What she thought then but didn’t say to the dying woman was this: you were right, ma’am—you wouldn’t survive without me. You wouldn’t last a day. But I can keep on living without you.

She can and she does. She sheds a few tears for her, it’s true. But then she and Pork wrap Ms. Ellen up in the sheets she died in and carry her out past Mr. Gerald, sitting stunned on the steps and staring at nothing. They take her body outside and they bury her under the magnolias in an unmarked grave. As she pats down the dirt with the shovel, a strange sort of peace settles over her. Miss Scarlett and Miss Melanie and Prissy arrive the next day. 

She doesn’t tell Miss Scarlett that there are no good masters. There are only masters.

5. After they bury little Miss Bonnie and then Miss Melanie not long after, she pushes aside the curtains and opens the windows for the first time in weeks. The air is stale and oppressive inside the house and it is a relief to finally let the breeze in. She watches the light and shadows dancing on the lace curtains and imagines Miss Scarlett sitting alone in her room with a half-empty bottle of brandy at her side, and Captain Butler pacing angrily through the halls, each of them formulating their next plan of attack. She understood this long ago, though perhaps she had not quite wanted to believe it: they are the same, Miss Scarlett and Captain Butler, and what they are now is all they will ever be. Two people wrapped up in their own misery, determined to suck the happiness from every room they stand in, wholly absorbed in the act of mutual self-destruction. They will go on like this until they are both dead, still scratching away at each other even as they stand before St. Peter at his pearly gates.

As for herself? She places her hands on the windowsill and sticks her head outside and inhales slowly. She feels like she hasn’t been able to breathe for a very long time. But now she looks out that window and squints in the sunshine, watching for a glimpse of red. She has a picture in her head of a little red house with white trim around the windows, a small yard with a chicken coop and a vegetable garden, a dusty winding road lined with trees. Just down the road, her neighbor’s children are playing in the dirt, dancing, hollering with glee, skin turning deep brown under the sun. She shouts at them to keep down the noise, but not too harshly. Sorry, sorry, Ms. Eliza, they shout back, and then they go right back to their games.

It is not a house she has ever seen before; in fact, she never even dared think of it until after the war was over. She’s never told anybody about it. It doesn’t exist yet. Maybe it will, someday, when she dreams it into being. It’s just down that road, waiting for her.

She thinks of that little house as she gathers up her few possessions and tucks away her coin purse in her bodice. She’s been saving up for a while now. Miss Scarlett never thought to give her anything, but Miss Melanie and even Captain Butler had sometimes given her Christmas presents. She sold them off piece by piece. It’s not much, but it’s enough to make a start, so long as she keeps her wits about her. She is sixty years old or thereabouts, and well—she reckons it’s time, finally, to have something of her own.

So she doesn’t feel sad when she walks down that staircase for the last time and takes her leave of the last remainders of the old O’Hara household slaves, Pork weeping a little to see her go—you take care, ma’am, God bless you—and then steps over the threshold and out into the light. With each step, she feels her spirits lifting, her soul becoming just a little lighter, a little freer. Each step brings her closer to her little red house, to the future. She feels like dancing, she feels like singing; no need for an orchestra to accompany this song, just her own voice, strong and true, the words already written on her skin and etched in her heart:

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me to home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me to home

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?

Coming for to carry me home

A band of angels coming after me

Coming for to carry me home…

6. This is how the story goes, according to Miss Scarlett: life was good, before the war, and the world was more or less as it ought to be. She loved a man, but he loved someone else. Then the war came and her life was ruined: her mother and father died, and her home was left in shambles. She nearly starved. She almost gave in to despair, but then she picked up the pieces of her life and made something new from it. She picked cotton in the fields with her former slaves, her inferiors. She made dresses out of velvet curtains—or at least, she gave the curtains to Mammy to sew into dresses. She made money. She married and then she married again. She became a mother. She lost her child. The love of her life left her, but he did not leave her defeated: after all, tomorrow is another day.

There are omissions and gaps in this story. There are assumptions made and vital questions left unasked. Yet you must admit that there is a certain neatness to it; it is a universe unto itself, wholly contained, no slippage around the edges, no signs of fraying. The ugliness is the world outside of us, but inside, we are pure and righteous and firm in our convictions. You see, we only want to be loved, to be safe.

The story Miss Scarlett weaves is not really true. Still, you can understand why she tells it and why it ends up being retold over and over again. We all have stories we need to tell in order to make sense of where we belong and who we are. We all are liars to ourselves.

But eventually the story goes on without you; the story wants to tell itself. The story gallops off and leaves you behind in the dust and it doesn’t even bid you farewell. You will not notice its absence until it is already too late. So when Miss Scarlett descends those steps around noon, eyes still red from crying over Rhett, gone back to Charleston for good; and she comes down to the kitchen looking for Mammy to comfort her and tell her to sit down while she heats the water for the tea and mutters about that ne’er-do-well, that good-for-nothing husband of hers, now you pay him no mind, Miss Scarlett—when she comes down to the kitchen, she will not find her there, nor in the parlor dusting the furniture, nor out back hanging up the laundry to dry.

Where is Mammy? she will ask. I need her. Where is she?

And they will answer: gone, ma’am. She’s gone.