Rill Foss/May Weathers Crandall Quotes in Before We Were Yours
I scroll to the photo, look into the face of the young woman who reminds me even more of my grandmother now that I’m right across the table from her. “She had this picture. Do you know the person in it?” Maybe these are woodpile relatives? People my grandmother doesn’t want to acknowledge as part of the family tree? Every clan must have a few of those. Perhaps there was a cousin who ran off with the wrong sort of man and got pregnant?
“Poor little waifs,” she says to the man. “We take them in when they are unwanted and unloved. We provide them with all that their parents cannot or will not give them.”
I bolt my eyes to the ground and make fists behind my back. It’s a lie, I wish I could scream at the man. My mama and daddy want us. They love us. So did the father who came to see his little boy, Lonnie, and ended up broke down on the porch crying like a baby when they said Lonnie’d been adopted.
I lose track of her voice as the car goes over a hill and comes within sight of the river. May fades like a speck of sun on the water, and Rill comes out. She stretches toward the crack at the top of the window, and pulls in air and catches all the familiar scents.
For just a minute, she’s home.
Inside my skin, I’m empty and cold, like the Indian caves where Briny took us camping one time when we hiked up over the bluffs. There were bones in the caves. Dead bones of people who are gone. There are dead bones in me.
Rill Foss can’t breathe in this place. She doesn’t live here. Only May Weathers does. Rill Foss lives down on the river. She’s the princess of Kingdom Arcadia.
Her hand is knotted in a fist between us. I take it in mine, pry open her fingers to see what she’s holding, and the minute I do, all the cookies and ice cream from the party come up in my throat. Dirty, round peppermints are stuck so tight to my sister’s palm, they’re melted into her skin.
I close my eyes and shake my head and try not to know, but I do. My mind drags me kicking and screaming to Mrs. Murphy’s cellar, into the dark corner behind the stairs where ash coats the coal bin and the boiler furnace. I see thin, strong arms fighting, legs thrashing around. I see a big hand closing over a screaming mouth, the dirty, oily fingers squeezing so hard they leave four round bruises.
Even the name sounds strange in my mind now. People keep calling me May. Maybe Rill’s still on the river someplace with Camellia, and Lark, and Fern, and Gabion. Maybe they’re drifting down in the lazy low-water summer currents, watching boats pass and barges go by and Cooper’s hawks circle wide and slow, hunting for fish to dive after.
Maybe Rill is only a story I read, like Huck Finn and Jim. Maybe I’m not even Rill and never was.
I turn and run down the steps and across the yard, my dress sweeping up around my legs. I stretch out my arms and throw back my head and make my own breeze, and for a minute, I find Rill again. I’m her.
I drop her on the cot and turn away and grab my hair and pull until it hurts. I want to pull all of it out. I want a pain that has a beginning and an end, not one that goes on forever and cuts all the way to the bone.
This pain is changing me into a girl I don’t even know.
“Perhaps you should have thought of that before you invented some ridiculous story about your fictitious sister and poor Mr. Riggs.”
Blood pounds in my head. I try to make sense of what she’s saying, but I can’t.
“There never was any… Camellia. You and I both know that, don’t we, May? There were four of you when you came here. Two little sisters and one little brother. Only four. And we’ve done a marvelous job in finding homes, thus far. Good homes. And for that, you are most grateful, aren’t you?” She motions to Mrs. Pulnik. […] “There will be no more of this nonsense out of you. Do you understand?”
I crave a simple answer to all of this. One I can live with. I don’t want to find out that my grandmother was somehow paying penance for our family’s involvement with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society—that my grandfathers were among the many politicians who protected Georgia Tann and her network, who turned a blind eye to atrocities because powerful families did not want her crimes revealed or their own adoptions nullified.
I try to imagine having a history like hers, having lived two lives, having been, effectively, two different people. I can’t. I’ve never known anything but the stalwart stronghold of the Stafford name and a family who supported me, nurtured me, loved me.
“I only took it fo’ safekeepin’,” the woman says. She hands me the tin piece and the papers separately. “That cross been Queenie’s, long time ago. Miss Judy write the other. It’s her story, but she never write the rest. They decide they all gon’ carry it to they graves, I guess. But I figure somebody might come askin’ one day. Secrets ain’t a healthy thang. Secrets ain’t a healthy thang, no matter how old they is. Sometimes the oldest secrets is the worst of all. You take yo’ grandmother to see Miss May. The heart still knows. It still know who it loves.”
I think of the way May explained their choices: We were young women with lives and husbands and children by the time we were brought together again. We chose not to interfere with one another. It was enough for each of us to know that the others were well…
But the truth is, it wasn’t enough. Even the ramparts of reputation, and ambition, and social position couldn’t erase the love of sisters, their bond with one another. Suddenly, the barriers that created their need for hidden lives and secret meeting places seem almost as cruel as those of brokered adoptions, altered paperwork, and forced separations.
The trees lean close after we turn, and I take one look back. I let the river wash away something inside of me.
It washes away the last of Rill Foss.
Rill Foss is princess of Kingdom Arcadia. The king is gone, and so is the kingdom.
Rill Foss has to die with it.
I’m May Weathers now.
May turns to me with purpose, stretches intimately close as if she plans to impart a secret. “A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear the tune, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We’re always trying to persuade ourselves of things.”