“We are all primarily the sum of DNA sequencing. There should be a sense of pride, I suppose, in being solely triumphant, when there were millions of competitors, but I don’t see it that way. I was forced into the race. It was no more my choice to battle my challengers for that elusive egg than it was to choose my kin. Had it been an option, I indeed would have chosen compassionate parents.
“Only in the smallest hours of the morning, while lying in my single bed, do I allow myself to harbor a grudge against my life. It’s little wonder that my constitution is that of a stubborn survivor, as that is how I entered the world, and this ownership of fundamental obstinacy, will doubtless be the way I exit it.”
Delilah, November 2015
West Virginia, USA
Pearl was barely out of childhood herself, only sixteen, when the child arrived. Her plight ensued at the ‘Spirit of Spring Fair’. Otis, a local boy with whom she was besotted, showered her with attention and suggested a walk through the dense artistry of the surrounding woods; damp moss becoming their carpeted, aromatic bed. Suffice to say, mutual passions were aroused and, two weeks later, hormone changes erupted in the adolescent’s body.
It would not be a stretch to say that, initially, Pearl refused to concede her condition, choosing instead compartmentalization of facts. As the months advanced and signs of growth were undeniable, hope became the focus, as though thinking the child away would achieve the desired result. That stratagem, too, collapsed.
Hiding an increasing circumference was not terribly difficult, as Pearl was compelled to adhere to a strict dress code. Nothing form-fitting, nothing revealing, and as the cold weather draped the earth with snow and ice, extra clothing was to be expected. The core reason for hiding the increasing bulge beneath all attire was fear of both rejection and retribution from her fiercely strict parents and community.
Pearl Stewart lived with her large family in a gray clapboard house in a rural area of West Virginia, where all residents were bible-thumping, God-fearing supplicants. In a household of seven children, she was the only female; born smack dab in the middle of them all.
Food, while not scarce, was portioned according to need. Pearl’s was fundamentally less of a priority compared to that of the older sons and husband, all of whom worked in the dark abyss of a local coal mine. As one would expect, this undernourishment equated to an aftereffect of low fetal weight.
Pearl held no ill will toward her hard-working father or brothers. In fact, it was pure empathy she felt when they returned home at the end of the day, their faces, hands, and coveralls coated in black soot and grime. Her father had worked in various mines since he had been twelve years of age, and at forty-eight, had already outlived many of his long-time workmates; most of whom had died of black lung disease. It was most certainly a foregone conclusion that he would succumb to that same fate, especially given his acute, persistent cough.
Mr. Stewart had been one of precious few survivors in a mine collapse in his younger days. He had been the third extricated from the pitch-black underground by the panicked above-ground crew, before the subsequent collapse, where the remaining thirty-six died, including his own father and one of his brothers.
He did not climb into bed at night but slept upright in the wingback chair in the living room, head resting to one side, feet placed upon a footstool. This position significantly suppressed the coughing fits that plagued him when sleeping supine. The younger children, including Pearl, would be sent to their beds at an early hour so as not to disturb their father’s tenuous rest. The one exception to that rule was Saturday night, as the following day would be church day and church school.
Pearl tolerated church school in her early years, but the doctrine became alienating from her internal sensibilities as she matured. The teacher chided her for asking too many questions and daring to add logic to the relayed stories. Much to her relief, and no doubt the jubilation of the teacher, church school concluded when an attendee turned fourteen.
Pearl never returned to that dogma throughout her life but recognized why coal miners and their families were inclined toward it. Those men, like her father and brothers, uncles and neighbors, willingly descended beneath the earth’s surface to harvest that black gold. This daily practice required enormous inner strength. Headgear and one meager light were not enough to inject fortitude into the spirits of those trudging down the arteries of constriction; enveloped by obsidian walls. If it took belief in some elusive God to achieve that end, well, so be it.
The only time Otis, the father of the growing child, would be in Pearl’s vicinity was following church services when the families might make idle chit-chat. Otis would dare not look directly into the eyes of the girl he had impregnated, but both were keenly aware of the other and the heavy, awkward silence that hung between them.
As January came to a close, so too did the pregnancy of Pearl. There was no hiding from the acute stabbing pains, and it was utterly impossible to meet them all with silence. Fleeing to the coal and woodshed, rags and knife in hand, seemed the frightened girl’s only option. Perhaps, she thought, walking the newborn into the small town after dark, leaving it outside a shop for others to find, might be the most compassionate conclusion to a most agonizing life circumstance.
Pearl had been present for the birth of her three younger brothers; therefore, she had a modicum of understanding to the proceedings of delivering a baby. Of course, being an observer of a thing, however commonplace, could not compare to the act of accomplishing it oneself.
Four hours on, Pearl felt the child slide from her body with a loud cry; flailing and complaining. Instinct and sentiment enveloped her. Consequently, the wriggling child was lifted; cradled with devout attention, young Pearl marveling at her existence. Moments later, Mrs. Stewart entered the shed with an empty bucket for coal retrieval.
The household was shrouded in quiet shame. The day after the event, Pearl’s father informed her that she would be traveling to her Auntie Ivy’s (her mother’s younger sister, who lived eighty miles away) and Uncle Henry’s, for a time.
While the three younger boys, aged ten, seven, and three, were curious about the new babe, they were forbidden to approach or even speak of its presence. Two days on, Auntie Ivy arrived.
Pearl named her daughter Ruby. Both names were gemstones, and Pearl loved that connection. Upon her Auntie Ivy’s arrival, Ruby was unceremoniously removed from her mother’s breast and placed into the arms of the covetous relation. “There now,” Ivy said, as she cradled the still hungry newborn, “You’re such a little bit of a thing, aren’t you? You look to me like a Beatrice.” Ivy turned to Pearl’s mother and said, “Doesn’t she look like a Beatrice?”
Pearl’s mother turned her back on the scene and walked away in a huff, mumbling something under her breath. Ivy continued. “I’ve always loved the name Beatrice. It was your great-grandmother’s name, you know.” The now squirming child turned her head toward Ivy’s chest, searching for sustenance. Finding none, she began to fuss. “Beatrice. Would you like that name? Of course you would.” Pearl felt powerless but said gently, “I’ve named her Ruby.”
Pearl’s Auntie Ivy made a sour face, as though a lemon had been forced into her mouth. “Oh dear God, what a horrid name. No, no, no, Beatrice is much more suitable.”
Before departure, Mrs. Stewart took her middle child by the shoulders and gave them a shake. Her mother had not uttered a word since the ill-fated birth, and now Pearl eagerly looked toward her gaze, with the hopes of finding love, solace and forgiveness; instead she found only revulsion.
“I denounce you. The good Lord will punish you in the end, but as far as I am concerned, I have no daughter.”
Traveling by train to the small town where Ivy lived was excruciating for Pearl, having been commanded to sit silently and alone while her Auntie Ivy held and cared for Beatrice.
Ivy and Henry were childless and lived isolated lives on a small homestead. This stunning new family arrangement suited them well, as eight years of marriage had yet to inject their household with offspring. The winter (and God, according to their twisted sensibilities) had gifted them a miracle child, born at home. Pearl was introduced as the niece, who needed structure and solitude; a girl who needed to have a fear of the Almighty drummed into her.
Whether or not the surrounding community were fooled by this scenario was of no matter to Ivy. While no one would outwardly question the integrity of Henry, the local minister, the advent of both a newborn and teenage girl, was at the forefront of local gossip, behind closed doors.
Pearl had always been acutely observant and perceptive. Perhaps this was because her role in the family was subservient, where quiet scrutiny was paramount, or maybe this was simply innate. Whatever the reason, those traits would define her future.
It was torturous seeing her child every day while not being allowed to comfort or hold her. She thought long and hard about stealing away with the child but knew that would only lead to disaster for both of them, Beatrice especially. Pearl’s seventeenth birthday came and went without so much as a mention or a well wish. Directly after, a mere three months into the move, Pearl made a heartbreaking life choice. With a heavy heart, Pearl surrendered devotion to Beatrice. This sorrowful acknowledgment was aggravated with an awareness that her daughter would succumb, in her mind, to a distasteful fate, living under a thumb of some omnipresent deity.
However, once her decision was made, Pearl settled inwardly and waited for the household to find the need to head into town. Stealing the small amount of cash her Auntie Ivy kept hidden in a sugar tin had not been difficult, as Pearl spent many hours alone in the house, while her Auntie walked the long, dead-end road with her new child. The most challenging task was disengaging from the couple long enough to buy a ticket on a northbound Greyhound bus and climbing its steps, knowing she would never see Beatrice again.
At one of the stops along the route, a woman boarded the bus and sat next to Pearl. Both smiled as the woman settled, placing her handbag on her lap. Pearl thought her to be in her late thirties, early forties.
At first, the two fell into non-personal small talk. Then, the woman confided that she was returning home after attending her brother’s funeral. Before long, the woman held out her hand, introducing herself as Aubree Myers. Pearl recognized that she was compelled to do the same but hesitated. She no longer desired the name Pearl Stewart, and the fact of the matter was, the only thing she wanted from her former self, was distance. Taking the woman’s hand in hers, and with little thought, she uttered her newly manufactured identity.
“Delilah. Delilah Wolfe,” is what she said.
Aubree and Delilah disembarked at the last stop and said their goodbyes just as the sun dipped, honey-colored, over the horizon. Delilah bought two red apples at thirty cents apiece and sat on a bench outside the bus station, observing the throngs of primarily contented people, petrified out of her wits.
Moments later, Aubree approached, sitting next to her for the second time in twenty-four hours. Aubree was about to speak, but a young couple stopped not far away in a heated argument, voices raised. Once they had moved on, Delilah noted, “Obviously, that young man wasn’t happy with the outcome of that conversation.”
Aubree asked how she had reached that conclusion as the couple had walked away hand-in-hand. Delilah expounded on her reasoning, summarizing her take on the man’s body language.
“That’s very astute,” replied Aubree. “Where are you headed, Delilah Wolfe?”
This meeting was to be the stepping stone to a life filled with deceit, holding no regard for the plights or wallets of others.
Aubree was a charlatan, a grifter, and a fraud. The two women joined forces, with Aubree teaching Delilah all she knew about tarot, tea leaf reading, and a myriad of other tools with which to deceive a portion of the masses. The biggest money-maker, though, was ‘Psychic Readings by Aubree’.
Aubree had attended a funeral that day of their first meeting. It was not, however, the funeral of her brother but that of her business partner. Meeting Delilah was, what many would call, a serendipitous event.
It took a little while for Delilah to become acclimated to this new life path, and in the beginning, Delilah would often stand on tenterhooks, watching and listening as Aubree coaxed substantial amounts of money from her cloying admirers. Many of these people were not well-off but were in desperate need of solace. Aubree explained that her energies were focused on alleviating general misery, and one could not place a monetary value on that achievement. So what if she stretched the truth like a rubber band or consigned her audiences to unsubstantiated facts or life directions? Aubree gave them what they were searching for. She could live with that.
Over time and under Aubree’s adroit guidance, Delilah found seeking out human gullibility was quite rewarding, as there was a great sense of power in administering absolutes to the masses. Receptive to training, it was not long before Delilah was the owner of her own sense of baneful influence. It was a skill set, in its own right, to accurately analyze a person’s facial or body expressions to gain access to their trust.
Aubree’s lifestyle was simply a parallel reflection of her own beginnings, that being a child of a Circuit Rider. As a youngster, she and her family traveled from town to town, preaching Christian ideologies and lining their own pockets with money from the desperate and gullible. Preaching was precisely the correct term for what she did now. The audience, enraptured by her confidence, flocked to her as sheep to a shepherd. She, in turn, wholeheartedly relished the adoration. The only difference was that Circuit Riders propagated religious paths, while Aubree cultivated mediumistic ones.
Miss Delilah Wolfe soon came forth with a proposal to become an unremarkable audience participant, usually the very first called upon. Aubree would find an unearthly connection for Delilah (alias Joan or Geraldine or whatever name took her fancy). The fictional figure would sob with the veracity of Aubree’s reading. This would be all the audience required to accept authenticity; thus they would forgive Aubree any slight miscues of content for the remainder of the performance.
The young woman emerged as a superlative performer; and so it came to pass that a section of the traveling trunk consisted of several outfits that could be mixed and matched. At times, Delilah might dress as a youthful woman, looking to connect with a parent who had passed on, or the flip side, would appear as someone more mature, looking to connect with a child. Hats, glasses, wigs, and scarves were all put to use in the art of counterfeit characters. Once aboard the train of chicanery, it was next to impossible to get off it; at least this was the case for Delilah Wolfe.
Five years on, Delilah had become remarkably comfortable living in the dark underbelly of deceit. Only twice had she ever been emotionally thrown off balance by reminders of her early years. The first was in 1982, when Delilah was twenty-two, while attending a small-town festival in the mid-west. Sitting on a bench beneath a lone shade tree, watching the crowd meander past, a stylish-looking gentleman approached and asked if he might join her for a few moments, as the mid-day heat was overpowering.
She agreed to the company. The man sat quietly for a minute or so, then abruptly said, “I’m receiving a message from the beyond. Would you like it?”
Delilah was startled. *Was this a trick of some sort? Had someone caught on to our charade?*
“I suppose,” is what she said, nonchalantly as achievable.
“A male is standing before you. I think a father figure. Is your father passed on?”
Delilah, of course, did not know the answer to this question, as six years had passed since she had last seen him.
“I’m not sure. It’s been a long while since we’ve been in contact,” she answered.
The man looked askance at her. “I feel as though it’s your father. He’s covered in some sort of dirt or dust. His left hand is over his heart or lung area. He is smiling at you and holding out what looks like a purple hyacinth, with his right hand. This would tell me he is asking for or giving love and forgiveness. There is also a young boy at his side. He looks to be about nine or ten.”
“Who the hell are you?” asked Delilah angrily.
“Nobody important. I just see things sometimes, that’s all. I’m just a whisper of smoke,” he said, rising.
“How much do you charge?” asked Delilah. “How much do you want?”
“Charge? Want? I want nothing. I hope what I witnessed helps you in some way.” The man rose to his feet, wiping sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. “Have a good day now,” he said gently, as he walked away.