Summer was turning in Texas. The roads were caked and cracking and brown dust filled the air. The Saint Augustine was sun scorched and ravens the size of buzzards circled up above. There was no breeze to speak of. It was the time for putting up. Eight year old Francis Raspit sat on a high, wooden stool in the kitchen next to the old black iron stove, and she sweated. Her naked legs hung down, and drips of salty water made their way down past the protruding bones of her knees, rinsing the dust from the skin where they travelled. Her small bare feet, all dusty, the toenails dirty and caked underneath with brown clay, were unable to reach the floor, so she swung her legs lazily back and forth. It was one hundred and two degrees outside, but inside the kitchen she figured it might be about a hundred and forty, the stove burning and the two big pots of water waiting to boil on top of it slowly beginning to steam. The radio was playing Reverend Sonlight’s Gospel Hour. The sound came in and out, the Reverend’s voice crackling and hollow.
“Do you devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful for all the good Lord had given you? Do you ask Jesus to guide you? Do you ask the Son of God who spent His Holy Blood for us, and loves us, for His sincere help and aid?”
Francis nodded her head. Reverend Sonlight’s voice became louder, frenzied with the Word of God.
“If you believe, folks, you will receive whatever you ask for sincerely in prayer. SINCERELY IN PRAYER! As the Good Lord says to us, “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands.” The cleanness of my hands, folks. Are your hands clean? Do your hands do the righteous work of the Lord? Now here’s Old Hank, “Build Me a Cabin in Gloryland.” Pray that one day your righteous actions and sincere prayers in the name of Jesus will make you worthy to shake our Lord Jesus’ hand when you pass into your own cabin Gloryland. Halleluja!”
Hank Williams began to sing, guitar strumming along with the piano and fiddle and Francis hummed along with the song, swinging her legs to the rhythm. She wasn’t sure of all the words.
Her momma, Millie, came in through the back screen door, hauling a large wooden crate full of mason jars from the shed out back. Her momma’s arms were strong and sinewy, her hands large. It was just past nine in the morning. Her momma paused in the doorjamb, singing along with Hank and her daughter, the mother’s voice deep and warm, mingling with the high, soft notes of her daughter.
“Lord build me a cabin in the corner of Gloryland, in the shade of the tree of life that it may ever stand. Where I could just hear the angels sing and shake Jesus’ hand.”
Francis only hummed along until Hank sang, “shake Jesus’ hand,” and she finished the song singing that phrase, then repeated it—over and over.
“Shake Jesus’ hand, shake Jesus’ hand, shake Jesus’ hand….”
The door slammed behind her momma.
“When’re they gonna take that damn sign off our door?” Francis’s momma asked out loud.
Uncomfortable silence. The radio had gone to static.
“Guess there’s no use leavin the door open. No breeze today.”
“Francis, is that water ready?”
Francis stopped speaking and sat very still for several ticks of the eyelid.
It was as though she couldn’t understand what her momma was saying to her. All Francis could think about was shaking Jesus’ hand.
“Francis, you’re gonna have to speak up. I can’t barely hear you over this static. Turn that thing off.”
Francis leaned over and, with her good hand, switched off the radio.
Silence again, except the hissing steam of the water.
“Is the water boiling or not?”
Her momma smiled at her and set the crate of jars down on the oak floor in the middle of the small, but clean and ordered kitchen. She wiped the sweat from her brow, dusting her hands on her blue and yellow apron. The jars settled onto the floor with a mild collapse.
“Well, is it?”
“YES MOMMA. I mean, ALMOST, MOMMA.”
“I didn’t ask you to yell at me, Francie. I just asked you to speak up some. Is it polite to yell at your momma?”
“No, Momma. I’m sorry.”
“What we got left to do in here?”
“We still got the butter beans, bush squash, tomatoes, and peaches, Momma. I think some other stuff too.”
“And you just been sitting there, on that stool, all this time?”
“Well, no, I mean, I put the okra, sweet potatoes, and peppers up on them shelves. Organized them. I was just listening to Reverend Sonlight’s for a little bit.”
Her momma took a deep breath in and let it out in one great sigh. She shook her head.
“That’s all you got done in the forty minutes I been outside? What about the apples, the green beans, the summer squash?”
“I told you there was some I forgot about. I just got tired after putting all them jars on the shelf, Momma. Sealing those lids is hard. I can’t do it. I fell all out of breath, Momma.”
Francis spoke with the same cold calmness as her momma. She looked at the stove and thought about the Iron Lung.
While her momma was outside, Francis had ordered the jars perfectly on the shelves. The green, green okra all together, the autumn-leaf orange of the sweet potatoes, the robin breast red of the peppers. Francis wanted to organize them according to the colors of the rainbow, but she didn’t think they had any blueberries. The ordered colors in their sparkling glass jars shone with a light that seemed Holy, seemed to come from inside. To Francis, they were beautiful. She loved putting up.
“You’re just being lazy, Francie. Now get down off that stool and help me. I just can’t make it without you, Butter Bean. Your body’s in God’s hands and, with his help, I think there’s maybe nothing you can’t do. Nothing you can’t get over. Even with that dead hand. You been praying every night?
“Do you devote yourself to prayer and stay watchful and thankful?”
“Do you believe God’ll give you what you pray for?”
“Then don’t you worry about that dead hand. Ask God to fix it, to make it normal. But don’t wallow, Francie. God hates folks who pity themselves.”
“I know, Momma. I don’t. I pray. I’m thankful.”
Her momma clasped Francis’ right hand. Francis quickly drew it away. Her momma paused for a moment, looking at the shriveled little hand and arm, then she patted her daughter’s head, before heading out to the coal bin. She did not look back. The door slammed behind her.
Francis stayed sitting a moment, looking at the shiny, colored jars done and ready to be stored. All those mason jars standing side by side, clean and ordered. Their beauty was enormous. She’d put what she’d been able up on the shelves, arranged in order by color and by what was in each jar. She wanted it to stay that way forever.
Francis knew all about putting up. She knew to pick the vegetables before sunrise, else the sun would drink up the dew. She knew each glass jar must be boiled, boiled, boiled so that they were clean, clean, and immaculate. One stray piece of dirt in a jar and the preserves would go bad. Francis inched her way down from the high stool, her feet gently settling on the floor. She looked out the window, clasping her limp, dead, right arm and hand to her chest. A long raven-shadow covered the ground from above, seeming to cool the scorched grass. Francis knew to use rigid, glass mason jars with tight fitting lids, to hold everything inside. She knew that peaches, sugar peas, collard greens, beans, and apples stayed good when other things went bad. Francis remembered what her mother told her, “Cold-packing your preserves’ll always give you soggy mush.” You had to boil and boil some more. Sterile. Spotless. Immaculate. Crisp. It reminded her of a love story she read in her Bible, “Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.”
She looked at the finished jars on the shelves and said aloud, “Thou art beautiful. There is no spot on thee.”
Francis turned the radio back on. “Jesus is Lord” played on the radio while Francis took the mason jars from the crate on the floor, holding them carefully in the crook of her good arm. Her dead side was useless, but in her one good arm she could carry three jars at a time across the small kitchen to the stove. She checked to make sure that the water was at a rolling boil. If the water’s not at a rolling boil, the jars won’t get clean. Sterile. Immaculate. There would be spots.
She wanted to wash her hands. She padded slowly over to the washbasin and scrubbed and scrubbed with the brillo pad and cake of soap till her hands were red and raw and stinging. She burned her hands in the hot water, still waiting for her momma. She dragged the small stool over to the counter so that she could reach the top and inspected the lids. She knew that even the smallest nick in a lid could keep the jar from sealing. One spot. She held her right arm tucked to her chest. The jars must seal to keep everything inside. To keep everything from going bad.
Francis was named after her daddy, Francis Earl Raspit, but she’d never met him. Things went bad on his farm. Two seasons of just barely enough harvest to make it by. Frank Raspit tried finding work in town, but there was none, so he set out for the East Texas Piney Woods. He heard they had jobs a plenty at the penitentiary there, telling Mille that, with a baby on the way, they’d need the money. So off he went, and never came back. Millie didn’t seem upset or even very surprised. Life in rural, southeastern Texas was often hard and ugly. You did what you could. For a couple of months after he left, Frank sent some money home, brief notes about the prison, the inmates. He never asked about his daughter and never left a forwarding address. When Francis came down with the polio, Millie tried to send a letter to the penitentiary, but it came back unopened.
People often said that little Francis took after her daddy in looks, if nothing else. Wild, curly, woolly, almost-white hair. Clear, light skin, rosy cheeks. Her momma was dark. Thick dark hair like rope in its braids, though now it was starting to grey, dark skin, eyes black and wide set. This was one way the child took after her momma. Francis looked like something of a wild animal, with her light, wild hair and black eyes, always troubled, always thinking.
After making sure the lids were all intact, Francis checked the water. A rolling boil. It was time to put the jars in. Her momma returned with baskets full of bulb onions and sweet corn. The screen door slammed behind her. Humming, wordless, she set about peeling the onions and shucking the corn. “Blessed Assurance” was crackling in through the radio now, the last refrain, and Millie sang along.
This is my story, this is my song praising my Savior all the day long.
Francis waited for the song to end.
“Momma, I checked all the lids and the water’s at a rolling boil. Should I put these jars in now?”
“Yes, Francie, that’ll be fine.”
Francis pulled the little stool to the stove, and then returned to the crate to gather the jars. She squatted down and got two of them nudged in the crook of her good arm and one in her good hand. She looked at her momma who was busy peeling onions, and decided to try to carry one more. Make that dead arm and hand useful, righteous. She used every bit of strength she had to brace the fourth jar between her right arm and chest. She stood slowly up. She made it three steps before the jar slipped from her right hand, from her good hand, and shattered on the floor. She stopped and stared at her empty right hand. Accusing. Confused. And then she kept on walking, stepping barefoot on the broken glass, cutting her bare feet. She was not going bad.
“Francie! What in the name of God are you doin?”
Her momma’s cry startled her, so that she lost her balance and the other three jars went crashing to the ground.
“For the love of God, Francis!”
Silence. Cold calmness.
“Are you alright? Damnit. You’re bleeding.”
“It’s not very bad, momma. It don’t hurt.”
Francis’ momma came over to look at her bleeding feet. She got down on her knees, picked each small foot up, inspected it, and set it back down again. She stood up.
“Not that bad? You just broke four of our jars trying to do something you knew you couldn’t do. You can’t do these things, Francis. You’re not like everyone else. You know that. These jars are goddamned expensive.”
“Don’t say that, Momma.”
“Don’t say what?”
“Don’t you tell me what to do, missy. I’ll say goddamned all day if I want to. Goddamned, goddamned, goddamned, goddamned! No crippled polio child is gonna tell me what I can and can’t say.”
Francis looked her momma square in the eye and said, “You’re goin to Hell, momma.”
For a moment, Francis and her Momma stood looking at each other in shocked silence.
Then, Francis’ momma slapped her.
Francis didn’t move, just stood staring up at her momma.
Millie looked away. When she looked down again, she saw that Francis had wet herself.
“Go get changed, Francie.”
Francis turned around and padded quietly away. Over the flame, the large pots of water boiled the glass jars, making the muffled sound of tinkling bells. Millie put her hands to her face and cried.
Francis went back to her little room to change her dress and drawers and wipe off her bloody feet. When she finished, she sat down on her bed. She wished she could boil herself clean and not crippled. She wondered if she was bad on the inside and it just showed up on the outside for everyone to see? To warn people of her inner weakness, her bad character. Like the sign on the front door. When she did go outside, people stared. Were they scared of catching the polio or were they scared of the badness of her soul seeping into theirs? Was there a spot? On her? In her? She thought of something she’d heard Reverend Sonlight say over the radio that morning. Something about touching unclean things, the uncleanness of people, any unclean…abomination. Was she an abomination? If she was, her soul was doomed. Maybe that was why folks avoided her. They didn’t want their souls to be doomed too.
Francis sat in her bedroom. The doctor told her she wouldn’t be too much of a burden to her mother. She didn’t want to be a burden. She stayed in her room a long time. She could hear the sounds of her mother boiling the jars, shucking the corn. She wanted more than anything to be in the kitchen with her, but even though her momma said she was sorry, she knew she was still a spot. No matter how many times her momma told her she needed her, Francis knew it was a lie. She opened her window and looked at the world outside. Giant sycamores, dragonflies, mockingbirds, starlings, the flat, flat expanse of the horizon.
She went back into the kitchen. Her momma turned and smiled.
“I’m glad you came back, Butter Bean. I could really use your help. Why don’t you put these cut peaches into the jars for me? I’ll pull the stool up by the counter so you can reach.”
Francis climbed up and stared. Stared at all the beautiful, clean, ethereal jars of multicolor lined up on the counter. She smiled and began to fill the jars with cut peaches. There was nothing unclean about this. This was Holy. This was Revelation.
Anne-Marie Thweatt is a writer and writing teacher living on the desert border of Mexico in Yuma, AZ. She has studied under several great writers including Barbara Ungar, Daniel Nestor, and Rick Moody. Her work has recently been published in Flare: The Flagler Review, and is forthcoming this fall in C4: Chamber Four Literary Magazine.