Cora Lee turns fifteen today. She is not grown, although there are things about her that feel grown: the full shape of her tits, her thick hips, the rough voice that rumbles from her chest. She is an old woman trapped inside a younger girl’s body, and she likes to think that maybe her oldness will come crawling out from inside of her one day soon, that by sixteen she will be weathered and gray-haired, wise enough to know things about the world, like why praying makes the sleeping easier at night, and why no one seems worried about turning into dust one day.
Cora Lee turns fifteen today, but she is not too grown that she’s forgotten how to laugh, swinging her wide-boned girl body through the hole-punched streets of the Ninth Ward. She understands the place she was born into is full of shadows. They slip into her open cracks, slide oozing into the gutters of her ribs, spill against the long, unbroken lines of her legs. These days she is all willow tree and bitter bark, and the shadows quake when she hiccups or laughs. So for now, Cora Lee moves with the shadows: she drinks instant coffee with a spoonful of honey from Baba Cool’s farm, she wears yellow sweaters that are too long in the arms, and her soft flannel pajama bottoms drag in the dirt when she walks. On those nights when the world’s gone slumbering, and the sky is a deep purple and the grass more blue than green, she finds a moment to listen to all she can: the moths bumping against the porch light, the crickets’ chirps turning into night song, and the soft whispers whisking through the trees.
Cora Lee turns fifteen today, and she is sure the neighborhood folk will come to visit, will come to her with eyes wanting, needing, begging, and she will give to them something from inside her belly, a story maybe, a word of comfort, a cookie from her secret pantry of sweets. Because there are things she sees in others that remind her of the things she sees in herself, and there are evenings when folk are getting off work, after hours spent hidden in the dark kitchens of the quarters, hours spent cleaning and grinding and lifting. They will come walking her way, broke-down and bone-tired, and Cora Lee will put a hand to their shoulders and get offered back a thankful smile. There are days when Delma Willis will go crying down under the bridge because another of her girls has gone missing, and because Cora Lee hasn’t yet figured out where girls get to when they go missing, all she can offer to do is hold the woman’s hand and tell her about her missing brother Jamal. And how Cora Lee used to walk down to the Dollar Tree just to see him riding by in his car, the sound of hip-hop curling out of his passenger-side window. She will always remember him as Lil Jay, walking bow-legged in his high-top Adidas, the shine of his one gold tooth when he smiled, and the quiet way he used to play Jacks with her.
Cora Lee turns fifteen today, and that means summer will be coming fast and mercury soon, the heat like a wild, pulling thing, all golden-red skies and shirtless black boys, and Tee Birdy’s rumbling truck pulling into the front yard. Her memaw Tee Birdy, who will shout too much when she sees Cora Lee. Tee Birdy who will scare all the neighbors. At least that’s what most folk say about her when there’s something that needs saying about her. Tee Birdy shouts too much, or Tee Birdy cries too much, or Tee Birdy hollers like Jehovah done come down to save us all.
But Cora Lee thinks the truth about this city is that it’s not a place for a hollering woman anymore. Not since the storm. These days most people turn the hollering inside, and Cora Lee wonders if maybe that’s why so many folk come to her looking like they done swallowed something sour, like the world is caught up deep inside their chests, like they’re suffering from a cough that just won’t expel itself. But Tee Birdy will yell when she needs to yell, and laugh when she feels there’s something to be laughed at. She will throw her head back and open her mouth wider just to do it all a little louder, and she will watch Cora Lee out of the side of one eye, daring her to join along. Cora Lee knows there are other people in the world with this wildness in them, just like Tee Birdy. There are people that seem more oriented to the ways of the spirits than the ways of the living, people who pull in the sunlight and shimmer-shine with the glow of it. She thinks maybe her daddy was like that too, a vivid splash of color, something irresistible to the moonlight.
Today, Cora Lee is fifteen, and she sits on her porch swing so she can hear the wind moan through the old shotgun houses, and she thinks maybe being grown is gonna be a good thing, and she’s already full with the feeling of it bubbling up inside of her. She thinks about her mama’s burgundy dress fluttering on the clothesline, the way it gets caught in the breeze, full of the promises the wind brings. The way the sky always holds Tee Birdy’s laughter, and how the fields of wildflowers hold the dreams of the missing.
Cora Lee pulls her brightest yellow sweater over her head, stretched tight around her curving, almost-woman hips. She climbs down the porch steps, and from one beat to the next, she takes off running through her yard. Running through the empty lots turned untamed jungle since the storm. Running past the rows of empty houses, and navigating the muddy paths and crumbling roads with familiar ease. She runs and runs and doesn’t stop until she comes to the water’s edge, the river’s long grass and tangled weeds brushing against her aching calves. Her breathing comes hard, sharp; the pulsing heat of the day settles slick against her already-warm thighs. She drops to her knees and digs her hands into the soft, dark soil, the sticky-cool mud curling around her fingers. She imagines her hands weaving shadows back into the earth; she imagines planting herself into the ground, growing roots, growing stronger, growing older. Fifteen into fifty. One day into the next. She imagines herself a tree, and wonders if this is how the forest gets made. She could do this, she thinks. Sit here and soak in the rain and blossom in the light. Turn shadow into seed, turn girl into forest, turn holler into song. Cora Lee closes her eyes, breathes in the new day. Fifteen, and she thinks about the coming neighborhood folk, and the coming wisdom of age, and she knows that there are many things that will come to be understood by her in time.