Massachusetts Review, Amherst, MA, 2000.
Cited in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES, Distinguished Stories
"Never weather beaten sail..." Wherever did Suzana learn that Elizabethan prayer? Her voice is like a river, sometimes so splashing and sunny it plays like a child's toy, sometimes so dark and surly you know it can kill - and she has killed - by drowning, by freezing, by knocking you out of breath and mind with something it's carried downstream. Her voice is a liquid like blood that carries history from her whole life. When she is singing, I can hear the husky nightclubs where the spotlight slid over her sequins like a man's hand, smoke swaying out of cigarettes, the heat of those places, the dark and the shining. Other times, it's cradle sweet, so tender a mother could die or bear years in a prison to keep that child safe, though you can't keep a child safe, you can't, you can't no matter how much you wish. She weeps through her voice still though it's so long ago, Pearl would have been a woman now with children of her own and who knows what other troubles, there's no living without troubles, that's what she's singing, that's the weather beating that sail longing to come in to shore. But Suzana's not a melancholy person, never has been I'd guess, sassy and graceful as a girl and heady as a young woman. Somehow she turned even those years in prison into joy. That's in her voice too. The certainty of salvation, calm at the core. No one else I know opens to whatever it is her faith promises so her voice goes transparent, like water you see stones through and every grain of sand looks like gold. Sometimes her singing goes so clear you can't even hear it, all you know is the sweetness of heaven, brighter than the sun of noon, not burning, not harsh like a parking lot of glare, but shadowless and clear. Everything's there in Suzana's voice.
Eight years ago, a guest at one of our Swallowtail Seminars wanted to sign her up with a record company he'd started, but she wouldn't let him talk about it. That night she stayed in the kitchen cleaning up long after dinner, and I knew she wanted me. I left the guests to listen to a paper on the biophysics of sound and went to her to wipe counters and empty the dishwasher until she was ready to sit at the table, drinking the cup of hot water she allows herself nights. She talked about the Black Cat and deals her pimp made. And how the guest tried to persuade her.
That was the last time I would invite him to Swallow Lake. Next day I spoke with him. You never know how far people will go for money. He said it wasn't money. "How can you waste a voice like that where no one can hear it?"
"I hear it," I said, but I wasn't enough for him. I'm only one woman. Suzana sings like an angel, to praise her Savior, and for nothing less than angel pay. Although I overhear, she is not singing for me. She sings the way she breathes, it is who she is, what she must do to live.
I finish writing checks and records, look at the tax bill again, look at the offer from the insurance millionaire who wants to buy Gullah Island, tidy my desk, worry at the questions I have to settle now and go to the kitchen, though she can do everything that needs doing without me. We're so companionable she will sing as though she is alone while she slices the potatoes and seasons the roast. We have ten seminar guests this time, a lot of feeding, but it keeps her hands busy. When we close for winter, she's restless, picking up sewing and knitting the way she learned to do when she was giving up smoking, not satisfied until we go south to Gullah Island and she can work in the garden again. She's made the camellia collection there one of the best in the country, but it's secret, like her singing. Scholars and collectors know and sometimes a dealer will write and ask for the right to come and propagate a specimen. Fine, as long as they don't offer money or ask for exorbitant sums for the specimen when they succeed.
Suzana hates money as though it can hurt her, and we never talk about it. She knows she has nothing to fear for the rest of her life because I've made arrangements. Last month when I said something about my will, she cut me off, "We're going to die the same day," as though she's been told by God. She's right about what happens if she dies first, though that's not likely now. I wouldn't live without her. I can't go through grief like Eleanor and Tom again. It's bad enough deciding what to do about Gullah Island and the people there. Some of their ancestors came from England about the time that prayer was written and were slaves my ancestors owned. Now they're free, but where can they go?
And what will Suzana do?