May describes the difficulties she’s been having with her mind, which occasionally conjures up old memories while obscuring others. She knows this is because she is occasionally triggered by something, which is what happens when she sees the young woman at the nursing home. The woman’s face initially reminds May of Fern, but then May realizes the woman looks more like Queenie. This sends May’s mind back even further to a night long ago when May was 12 years old and living on the Mississippi River.
The woman May is referring to is Avery Stafford, the narrator of the previous chapter. The connection May draws between Avery’s appearance and Queenie’s foreshadows what Avery will discover on her quest to discover her family’s real history.
In a flashback, May is sitting on her family’s shanty boat watcher her sister Fern, who is nearly four years old. Fern is trying to count fireflies and May (who is called Rill in this flashback) welcomes the distraction. The night, which is usually so comforting, has an air of danger about it as Rill listens to Queenie groan inside the shanty. The midwife tells Queenie not to push anymore because the baby is facing the wrong way. Rill is worried—Queenie has never had a difficult time delivering any of her five children. Suddenly, Rill hears the midwife say Queenie is having more than one baby and that there’s nothing the midwife can do—Queenie must go to the hospital. Briny doesn’t reply to this but punches the wall. Rill hears Queenie’s cross fall to the ground but doesn’t dare go inside to pick it up.
This passage reveals that May has two different names: May and Rill. It also reveals that Avery reminded May of both her sister and her mother—in other words, there is a strong family resemblance that opens up the question of whether Avery is actually related to them.
Rill sees Briny look out the window of the shanty while the midwife yells at him to bring Queenie to the hospital. However, Briny is worried about a coming storm and is confused by how hard it is for Queenie to deliver her twins after giving birth to their first five children so easily. Rill brings Fern to Lark (who’s six) and tells Camellia (who’s ten) to watch them. Camellia doesn’t like this but agrees. Rill is worried about Briny and Queenie, who isn’t supposed to be in labor yet. However, Rill knows this time is different because Queenie is having twins. When Rill walks in, the midwife grabs her and tells her to talk to Briny. Rill realizes everyone is looking to her to save Queenie, so she tells Briny to take Queenie across the river to the hospital. Briny looks dazed but agrees.
Briny’s hesitation in deciding to bring Queenie to the hospital is the first indication of just how poor the family is. Even though his wife and unborn children are in huge danger, going to a hospital is a hard choice because doctors charge more money than midwives do. This passage also highlights the fact that Rill is the responsible one in her family: she not only takes care of her younger siblings, but in a sense she is taking care of her own parents by telling Briny to bring Queenie to the hospital, and his willingness to listen to her after arguing with the midwife about it shows just how much her influence matters.