The House of Gentle Men

From the beginning, the child growing inside her seemed aware of the need for secrecy.  It took her monthly flow quietly, swelled her fingers quietly, introduced quietly a craving for mayhaw jelly and Karo syrup straight from the bottle.  And the girl–Charlotte–told no one, and no one suspected.  For in that fall of 1941, the people of the town could not look at her and see a growing baby.  They saw only Charlotte’s mother, ambushed by sudden and merciless flames.

The outrageousness of Charlotte’s condition furnished more protection.  How could a barely kissed Baptist girl–newly sixteen–have conceived anything two weeks after her mother was killed?  For in the grief that follows horror there is no room for any Events, only the slow opening of doors and pickle jars, the refusal of a pet to leave the site of a grave, the sudden tears called forward by the sound of Bible passages and the faint aroma of bacon in the black-eyed peas.  Tragedy cannot follow so closely on the heels of Tragedy; the bundt cakes the neighbors bring over must first have time to cool.

Her father and her little brother Milo knew nothing about monthly blood and its comings and goings, nor of morning sickness.  Like men, they were busy basking in their sorrows.  In the corner of the back yard, not far from the edge of the woods, Milo built a shrine to his mother: loose buttons he’d found in her drawer, her garden gloves, a set of silver teaspoons, her emery bag and the laces of her Sunday shoes.  He worked on it every morning before school, adding little trinkets, straightening the border of magnolia leaves, mumbling to himself, while Charlotte held her long black hair away from her face and threw up in the pink impatiens.

“Are you sick?” Milo asked.

She shook her head.

“Charlotte, don’t be sick.  You can’t die.”

Charlotte had stopped speaking on the day the soldiers had held her down, and so she went inside the house for her tablet and wrote:  I’M NOT GOING TO DIE.

“You better not,” said Milo when he read her message.

No, she thought, she was not the one whose death was deserved.  

She had heard of treatments.  Folklore.  Things other girls had tried.  She found a bottle of apple cider vinegar in the cabinet and drank as much as she could, tears running from her eyes at the taste of it.

It didn’t matter.  Deep in her womb, that trembling inch continued to flourish.

Salt had worked for a girl in Baton Rouge.  So Charlotte had heard one night at a slumber party, years before, when the girls were gathered in her friend Belinda’s room.  One Saturday morning, Charlotte poured a large handful of salt into a glass and forced herself to swallow all of it.  She sat on the back porch afterward, looking into the woods.

By noon her head was swimming, and she was seized by a ravenous thirst.  Belinda was having a garden party at one o’clock, despite the chill in the air.  She had advised Charlotte to attend.  “All the girls are turning against you, Charlotte,” she had whispered urgently.  “They understand about your mother, but they think you’re being stupid.  You won’t say a word and you don’t want visitors.”  Belinda was Charlotte’s best friend, but enough of an enemy that Charlotte could not confide in her.  And so Charlotte drank three glasses of water and went to the party.  The girls were sitting outside on filigreed lawn furniture, sipping strawberry punch.  Belinda greeted her in a wool dress, her eyes red.  She had been grieving ever since her boyfriend, Richard Stanley, had been called to an air base in Virginia in preparation for the new war.

“My soldier of the sky,” she whispered.  “Sometimes I wish I’d never fallen in love with him.  What if he’s killed?”

“Don’t think like that, Belinda,” the other girls said soothingly.  Charlotte started to write something on her tablet, then thought better of it.  Instead she drank another glass of punch.  And another.

Belinda was telling the story of how she’d met her perfect boyfriend, although everyone had heard it before.  She was standing in a green field, in a dress once worn by her grandmother…

Charlotte drank another glass.

And the sky was so blue…

Charlotte drank another glass.  Her head was filled with patterned light.  Her breath fast.  Thirst like a seizure.

And his plane came out of the clouds as if in a dream…

Charlotte leaped to her feet and staggered behind the house.  She was drinking from the hose when Belinda found her.

“Charlotte,” she said severely, “what are you doing?  Why did you interrupt my story?”

Charlotte didn’t answer.

“Listen to me. None of the girls really likes you any more.  You won’t talk.  You do strange things.  And now you’re drinking from the hose like a dog.  I’m sorry about your mother, Charlotte, but there are other people suffering too.  My boyfriend’s gone.  And he may not come back.”

But Charlotte hated soldiers, even soldiers of the sky, and could not feel grief at the thought of one dying.

Steeped in salt and vinegar, the baby grew.  She felt it within her, and yet when she stood naked before the mirror the curve in her figure was slight.  She didn’t have to guess at whether it was a boy or a girl.  She knew it would be a boy, although he was girlishly quiet in the womb.  The deed had been unforgivingly male–would not the product of that deed be male as well?  She tried not to think about it.  Instead she busied herself.  Chores had to be done around the house, for grieving men still stain their clothes, wait for dinner, track mud in the kitchen.

Her father did not ask about the look in her eyes, or her suddenly missing voice or her new habit of writing down her words on paper.  His wife was dead and his faith in God had left him, for nothing in the Bible had told him what to do when flames fill up a cotton dress.  And so he drank whiskey in prodigious amounts, from a small blue glass through which the liquor had turned the color of skin exposed to creosote.  He drank in gulps, laughed at the fire it made in him.

Charlotte wrote him notes:




These were Charlotte’s words of love, delivered to her father in fragments.  Most of the time he didn’t answer her.

Charlotte’s family lived less than two miles from the new air base, and in March of the new year her brother Milo was caught trying to burn down one of the outbuildings there.  He was taken to jail for a night and then released into the custody of his father and his silent sister.  And the parish felt a new and deeper scorn for this crazy boy who had burned up his own mother and now was trying to set the war effort aflame

Milo at twelve became a traitor to the cause of freedom.  Banished.  Avoided by the other boys, who used to be his friends.  Only Charlotte knew the reason why her brother had gone to the air base with his father’s old Zippo lighter in his hand.  She found him sitting cross-legged on the propane tank behind the house, crying.  Went to him and touched his face.

He looked at her, his eyes red, his hair grown wild.  “I hate them, Charlotte.  Those pilots.”

She stroked his black hair.

As the dogwoods bloomed she turned inward, avoiding the other girls, let the spring fill her dress with wind, wore brightly colored scarves and a haunted look to distract the gaze of others.  In her eighth month she went to the parish library just before it closed, checking out as many books as she could on the subject in question.  Once home, she spread the books out on her bed and poured through them.  Some girls, she discovered, swelled up like watermelons, and some like herself didn’t show a pregnancy nearly as much.  She saw illustrations of babies in the womb in various stages of growth.  The brain forming.  Eyes opening.  Fingers separating.  She shook her head.  Her baby was not a human, not a creature even, but a demon.  A condemnation from God, an atrocity nurtured by the trimesters until it took form and weight.

This boy of three fathers.

She turned the pages.  Twine was needed.  The scissors or knife should be clean and sharp.  When the time came she would feel a sudden cramp or the rush of warm fluid.  The pain would be intense, an unmanageable pain that women had been given throughout history and then told to forget.

In early June of 1942, the season of dandelions, she went out into the woods by herself, walking very deliberately, her face red and her legs shaky.  The baby moving inside her.  She wore a waistcoat dress and carried a cotton feed sack.  Inside the sack was a spool of twine, a sugar cane knife to sever the umbilical cord, and a garden spade to bury the creature once all was said and done.

Copyright ©2000 Kathy Hepinstall. Reprinted with permission.

Excerpt from The House of Gentle Men by Kathy Hepinstall. Kathy Hepinstall was born in Texas and grew up 2 hours from the Louisiana border, where most of her relatives still reside.  She considers Louisiana to be her spiritual homeland and does most of her research there.  She currently lives in Austin, Texas.  The House of Gentle Men was chosen as an Original Voices selection by Borders Book Store and as an alternate selection of the Literary Guild.  An excerpt from The House of Gentle Men won the Eyster Prize for Fiction in the New Delta Review. Published by Dimensions.