TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE
“LET ME TELL YOU A STORY,” I used to whisper to my sisters, hiding with them behind the red-dirt bean hills and row on row of strawberries. My sisters’ faces were thin and sharp, with high cheekbones and restless eyes, like my mama’s face, my aunt Dot’s, my own. Peasants, that’s what we are and always have been. Call us the lower orders, the great unwashed, the working class, the poor, proletariat, trash, lowlife and scum. I can make a story out of it, out of us. Make it pretty or sad, laughable or haunting. Dress it up with legend and aura and romance.
“Let me tell you a story,” I’d begin, and start another one. When we were small, I could catch my sisters the way they caught butterflies, capture their attention and almost make them believe that all I said was true. “Let me tell you about the women who ran away. All those legendary women who ran away.” I’d tell about the witch queens who cooked their enemies in great open pots, the jewels that grow behind the tongues of water moccasins. After a while the deepest satisfaction was in the story itself, greater even than the terror in my sisters’ faces, the laughter, and, God help us, the hope.
The constant query of my childhood was “Where you been?” The answer, “Nowhere.” Neither my stepfather nor my mother believed me. But no punishment could discover another answer. The truth was that I did go nowhere—nowhere in particular and everywhere imaginable. I walked and told myself stories, walked out of our subdivision and into another, walked all the way to the shopping center and then back. The flush my mama suspected hid an afternoon of shoplifting or vandalism was simple embarrassment, because when I walked, I talked—story—talked, out loud—assum—ing identities I made up. Sometimes I was myself, arguing loudly as I could never do at home. Sometimes I became people I had seen on television or read about in books, went places I’d barely heard of, did things that no one I knew had ever done, particularly things that girls were not supposed to do. In the world as I remade it, nothing was forbidden ; everything was possible.
I’ll tell you a story and maybe you’ll believe me.
There’s a laboratory in the basement of the Greenville County General Hospital, I told my sisters. They take the babies down there. If you’re poor—from the wrong family, the wrong color, the wrong side of town—they mess with you, alter your brain. That was what happened. That was it.
You believe me?
I’m a storyteller. I’ll work to make you believe me. Throw in some real stuff, change a few details, add the certainty of outrage. I know the use of fiction in a world of hard truth, the way fiction can be a harder piece of truth. The story of what happened, or what did not happen but should have—that story can become a curtain drawn shut, a piece of insulation, a disguise, a razor, a tool that changes every time it is used and sometimes becomes something other than we intended.
The story becomes the thing needed.
Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is what it means to have no loved version of your life but the one you make.
LET ME TELL YOU A STORY. If I could convince myself, I can convince you. But you were not there when I began. You were not the one I was convincing. When I began there were just nightmares and need and stubborn determination.
When I began there was only the suspicion that making up the story as you went along was the way to survive. And if I know anything, I know how to survive, how to remake the world in story.
But where am I in the stories I tell? Not the storyteller but the woman in the story, the woman who believes in story. What is the truth about her? She was one of them, one of those legendary women who ran away. A witch queen, a warrior maiden, a mother with a canvas suitcase, a daughter with broken bones. Women run away because they must. I ran because
Jerrica Knight-Catania, Lilia Birney, Samantha Grace