In Unto These Hills, Sunny Acklin’s life turns on a dime due to her mother’s early indiscretions and desertion. This passage I’ve chosen to share gives insight into the shame and sense of injustice the young woman feels and foreshadows how it can influence her later choices in life.
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Three things blasted a mill hill woman’s good name to smidgens; sexual immorality, neglecting ones’ kids, and a filthy house, in that order. Though Nana’s vigilance spared Mama from the latter, her own folly cost her the entire substance of respectability.
The horror of it all traumatized me in ways I’d never before experienced.
Men began leering at me, a thing that sent me scurrying home to soak for hours in our old rust-stained bathtub, trying to wash away the shame Mama had foisted upon me.
“Ruby Acklins’ name is worse than mud, it’s slime,” I murmured days later to a sympathetic Doretha as I swirled my straw in watery Coke at Abb’s Corner, where she, Daniel, and Emaline commiserated with me on the turn of events. From the jukebox, Elvis empathized with his gutteral In the Ghetto.
“People don’t blame you for her mess, Sunny,” insisted Emaline, sweet optimistic Emaline, her green eyes sad as a Bassett’s.
I snorted. ” Not only has she done across-the-board adultery, this time she’s run off with the village doctor, who is,” I rolled my eyes, “ten years younger’n her. And to think, I used to think he looked like Tim Holt.” I shook my head in disbelief, scowled and blinked back tears. “Now he’s got horns and fangs that drip blood.” I gazed at my buddy through tears. “Our blood.”
I sighed heavily. “I’ll bet Doctor Worley don’t appreciate her tomfoolery forcing ‘im from retirement.”
Across the café I spotted teenaged Buck Edmonds, paying for his order and as he turned to leave he blatantly caught my eye and winked. Sneaky-like. So as not to draw Daniel’s attention. Then he nearly collided with Fitzhugh Powers, our village policeman, and his face composed into angelic repose. In blue uniform, Fitzhugh was formidable, a force to be reckoned with by mischief-makers. Underneath, he was every villager’s daddy.
Uggh! I hated Buck Edmonds. His interest crawled over my skin like a passel of loosed snakes.I shivered.
“Hey, ya’ll,” Fizhugh waved to us, sending me an especially sympathetic look as he slid his tight, toned form onto a red/chrome swivel stool at the counter for his daily coffee and chat with Abb.
We waved back and Daniel leaned impulsively and kissed my cheek, encouraging my angry venting.
“Then– then she ran out on ‘er kids,” I added. “Tallied up in mill hill math, Emaline, Mama’s worth is a big fat zero. And I see how the men’re looking at me.”
“Who?” Daniel was instantly alert, like a jungle beast sniffing danger.
Uh oh. Back pedal . “Nobody in particular. Just–oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just imagining it.”
But I knew I wasn’t. I just didn’t want Daniel going and getting in trouble over something I couldn’t even prove if I wanted to. Besides, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Fair or not, some folks would think I’d done something to attract the men. Everybody in the village didn’t consider me as family, either.
Daniel, sitting next to me on the inside, settled against the wall. He grew quiet and still as death. Yet, I felt this subterranean wildness churning through him, sizzling, one peculiar to him, one that stands out till this day in my memory. And I knew not to say something to send him tumbling over the edge.
“Poor Sunny,” Doretha murmured, oozing with sympathy and her own brand of otherworldliness that she wore like a rare deep South fragrance. Emaline looked at her in wonder, awed.
A waif-like creature, a mill hill, poor version of Audrey Hepburn, Doretha effortlessly exuded power. She gave me one of her long, assessing looks. Seemed she could read things nobody else could–see things. “You think her whorin’s gonna drag you down, too, don’t you? Like–’cause you’re her’s, folks’ll think you’re like’er.”
I nodded. “The stinking feeling just clings, y’know?” I lolled against the red leather booth backrest. “Look– I know it don’ make sense to feel somebody else’s shame. But a mama’s not just somebody else. She’s the person who spawned you, who knows the feel of your skin and your smell–I can’t wash it away.” Tears puddled along my lower lids and I sat up straight and swiped them away. I swallowed a couple of times before speaking again. “I’m not like her.”
Daniel grunted ascent and shifted sharply, his anger palpable. I knew it took giant effort for him not to bellow with frustration and rage.
“‘Course you’re not,” Emaline grasped my hand across the table and squeezed, blinking back tears.
“Daggum right!”I nodded, gazing at her. “I–I thought when Daddy came home from the war, things would change. I once thought the divorce thing was like a square block of wood being hammered into a round hole. Divorce on the mill hill just—wasn’t done. And now,” I splayed my fingers at the ceiling, “My own Mama and Daddy are getting divorced.” Anger surged through me. “I hope Mama’s satisfied!”
“She can’t help it. That’s just who she is.” Doretha said, coming around to sit beside me as I scooted over against Daniel to make room. She wrapped an arm around my skinny shoulders. “But she stole your childhood away from you Sunny,” she said quietly, in her gentle, assured way. “She oughta be ashamed of that, if nothin’ else.”
I looked at her in amazement. How could she know? But she did. That was the magic that was Doretha. “Remember you once’t told me you smell lemon-drops when you’re real happy?” she looked at me with the saddest eyes.
I nodded, wiping a tear from my cheek and heard Emaline snuffle.
“Well, you don’ smell ’em now, do you?”
I felt Daniel’s strong fingers come up under my upper arm and squeeze and I gazed up into his solemn face. “No,” I said hoarsely, “I don’t smell ’em anymore.”
His hand slid down my arm till his big, callused fingers clasped mine. “You will,” he murmured fiercely, nostrils a’flare. “I promise you, Sunny. Someday, you will.”
Emily Sue Harvey is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month. This means we are offering sensational deals on all of her works, including Unto These Hills. You can learn more at our website.