Ninth Letter is delighted to be able to feature the first two chapters from Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul, the stunning memoir by Laurie Jean Cannady. Chapter 2 appears below; Chapter 1 can be read here.
“Hungry” operates on several levels in Cannady’s memoir. There is, of course the elemental hunger for food, of which there is never enough in a poor family. There is the dangerous hunger of men’s sexual needs, which creates such trauma in the lives of women. There is the hunger to reveal secrets and record the past with clarity. There is the hunger for healthy, dependable human connection. And there is the hunger for redemption and deliverance, for the transformative journey from victim to survivor.
Cannady reveals and balances these hungers with great skill and empathy. She is a powerful truth teller, and though her memoir doesn’t flinch from desperate wounds, her prose often rises to poetic grace.
Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul, has just been released by Etruscan Press.
Momma was the youngest, and her brothers and sister had already decided the youngest would be the one to go. Years of experience had taught the Boone children what it took to be fed. Boys, no matter how young, were impractical options. People, especially white people in a segregated Virginia, didn’t like giving a black man food, even if he were a boy. Older girls were better than boys, but there was always the possibility something impure would be requested in return. Their daddy had taught them never to be that hungry, no matter how many days they’d starved on chicken broth and fried bread.
The younger, the better, so they sent Momma. For this new task of “borrowing a meal,” Momma’s siblings had trained her well by quizzing her on the rules of borrowing. Rule one: always carry your own plate. Neighbors were more likely to give food if they didn’t have to give a dish too. Rule two: never step foot into anybody’s house. Little girls all over Virginia had gone missing after making that mistake. Rule three: never smile, not until you get what you went there for. Pouty eyes, a grimaced frown, and a body shrinking under hunger meant maximum borrowing score.
Once she was old enough, and six was old enough, it was her turn to go. Bruce, one of the oldest Boone boys, assured her he’d watch the whole time, making sure nobody snatched her into the Deep Creek woods. Her siblings told her how big of a girl she was and how full they’d all be after they cooked the food she’d borrowed for the family. Her chest swelled with their compliments. Her new charge was “big girl” work, and like most “big girls” she’d grown tired of waiting to be fed.
By the time she began her borrowing expedition, most of Momma’s brothers and sisters had left just like her mother. Fewer mouths to feed usually means more, but poverty has a way of wrapping itself around those who occupy it. Despite the many difficulties, the main one being a wifeless and motherless home, Big Boone had provided his children with a solid house to live in. With no plumbing and no electricity, it offered minimal relief from stifling Virginia summers and wintry gales charging off Chesapeake Bay. It was a two-bedroom hovel, which, at its highest period of occupancy, fit eleven children and two adults. One might think the home swelled as bodies packed into it, but I believe it was the demanded silence that made the Boone children small enough for the house to feel big.
That’s how I felt when Momma took us to visit on Saturdays and Sundays of my childhood—small in a big space. I looked forward to traveling that dirt road, protected by the ranks of elms that bordered it. I felt relief when we turned the corner and that box of a home sat on its red foundation, under a red roof, still.
Whenever we went, we found cousins searching for the same thing we were: adventure. And there was much adventure to be had in just the yard alone. It was the size of a football field, covered in grass so green and thick, I’d yank fistfuls and never create a divot. Trees crowded the yard’s perimeter, and we’d been warned never to venture past that majestic line, lest the witch who’d tortured our parents eat us all. So, we stood dangerously at the edge, staring into darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of red eyes floating through trees. Any Boone grand too focused on surveillance was pushed into the woods, unwillingly offered as proof of the witch’s existence. After we grew tired of surveillance, we found our way to the fire pit that held one of the whole pigs Granddaddy roasted during family reunions. And our reunions were not akin to reunions held today in posh hotels, with catered food, and T-shirts donning the names of family members just in case they forget who they are. Our reunions began with a phone call from Granddaddy to one of his eleven kids. If a Boone girl didn’t have a phone, she received a visit. If a Boone boy didn’t have a car, he and his family were collected by a brother or sister who did. Somehow, we all found our way to Granddaddy’s with bowls of potato salad, macaroni and cheese, green beans, pork and beans, and coleslaw. We carried tubs of ice topped with soda and beer for the adults and plastic Little Hugs juices for Boone grands. As the adults cooked, we children congregated around the large, gray propane tank that sat in the backyard. We mounted and rode it like a wild steed trying to buck us off. We stood on it, waving imaginary American flags, having transformed it into the naval ships we often saw on the waterfront. We tapped beats on it as the boys rapped and the girls choreographed dance routines. Those performances often ended after one of the adults ordered us to get off or be blown to pieces if we punctured the tank’s metal skin.
Even though I was no older than ten, I often thought about Momma in my space of leisure, carting buckets of water into the house, journeying to the outhouse on the coldest days and darkest nights, fearing the witch’s red eyes. I imagined Momma cutting grass with a push mower, raking leaves with a snaggletoothed rake, watching her brothers chop wood to heat the house on winter mornings. There was no propane tank then pushing gas into the home, no light bulbs illuminating the house we journeyed to those Saturdays and Sundays of our lives. For Momma and her brothers and sisters, my land of adventure had been a place of work, a place of rule, a place of silence.
Despite the busyness of the backyard, Granddaddy’s house maintained that silence whenever we visited. Grands were only allowed inside when Granddaddy or one of our parents needed something. There were also those occasions when Granddaddy charged one of our mothers with cleaning and we quietly worked alongside her, dusting furniture and washing baseboards. Granddaddy paid our efforts with fifty-cent penny rolls and butter cookies, which we ate outside, so as not to leave a crumb in the newly cleaned home.
On those quiet cleaning days, I envisioned the home in its previous state. Candles replaced light fixtures. The bathroom, with its wobbly toilet and rust-stained tub, reverted back to a closet with a urine-filled pot in the corner. The porcelain sink had been a steel washbasin that doubled as a bathing tub, and when coupled with a washboard, became the family washing machine. The kitchen, with its oven, refrigerator, and cabinets, stood naked, just four walls with a cast-iron stove and a wooden icebox that held a block of ice, milk, and the meager amounts of food the family shared. Cupboards of dishes and drawers filled with forks, spoons, and knives vanished. What appeared was a thin stack of plates, some cracked, some misshapen, barely enough for four people to eat at a time. The living room, with Granddaddy’s chair, television, and overstuffed sofa, was no longer a living room at all. It brimmed over with Granddaddy’s bootlegging customers, who found seating wherever they fit. The bedrooms were just squares, no frilly bed sheets, no comforters, no oasis for sleep. They functioned to suspend battered and worn bodies between the work that had occupied the previous day and the work that would occupy the next.
By building a home, Granddaddy had lived up to his end of the bargain with his children. Their end was to take care of it, themselves, and him. It didn’t matter that he doled out more beatings than hugs, and that his words were meant to deconstruct rather than build. The world didn’t love them. Trees didn’t bow when they walked by. Grass didn’t thank them for walking on it. The world tolerated them, as did he. But he had loved them, fiercely. He beat them, but that was only to teach how hard the world could be. He screamed, but he was a man of few words, and screaming ensured they heard him right the first time. He’d raised all of his children to look out for one another, to keep a clean house, and to be resourceful. And resourcefulness was always necessary.
While life was physically taxing for the Boone children, the lugging of buckets, scrubbing of clothes, and chopping of wood was nothing compared to the hunger they carried. Their hunger made grass a possible substitute for greens. It made mud pies as inviting as steak. It prompted them to suck droplets of nectar from honeysuckle buds and stuff their faces with wild berries that lined the road leading to Granddaddy’s home. It caused blurry vision, pounding headaches, shortness of breath, and left little energy for walking, talking, and completing the chores Granddaddy assigned before he left for work. It was hunger that gripped hearts, pulsing, contracting, until stomachs felt as hard and as large as fists punching out of bodies.
After Grandma Rachel left, the three Boone babies often waited, praying for one of their older brothers or sisters to provide. Uncle Bruce was usually that brother. He was the third oldest Boone boy and one of the first to leave Granddaddy’s home. He was hard like his daddy, but soft compared to him. The few times he’d raised his voice or hand against his father were in defense of his mother. Even then, he didn’t attack with the full force of his strength. His charge was to get his daddy off of her, so a tug of an arm, a “Daddy, please,” were deemed acceptable in those moments.
When he was fourteen, the state of Virginia sent him to Great Bridge Detention Center for killing a man. The deceased’s name was Cuffee and he’d reigned, unchallenged, as the Deep Creek bully. Every man, woman, and child knew not to mess with him, and Deep Creek residents regarded him as bad from the beginning, like a rabid pup coming out of the womb snarling and snapping. He’d never bucked against Big Boone because he knew better, but everyone else he considered easy prey. He’d invited himself to one of Grandma Rachel’s shindigs and she’d attempted to uninvite him at the door. Her “uninvitation” was RSVP’d with a two-tine fork stab to the chest and back. A young Bruce, having earlier been instructed to pick up his mother’s dry cleaning, returned to a crowd in front of her house. He found her hurting, bleeding, as partygoers turned witnesses, testified to the sky that Cuffee had hurt his momma. Cuffee stood firm on Grandma Rachel’s lawn, so confident in his reign of terror he remained at the scene of his own crime.
Cuffee had not been Uncle Bruce’s daddy, so there was no soft tussling, no pleas for him to stop or leave. A young Bruce grabbed the first thing he saw, a clothesline prop, and smashed Cuffee across the head. He then stomped to the side of the house, grabbed the axe he’d earlier used to chop wood for his momma, and chopped Cuffee out of existence.
Soon after, Uncle Bruce was found guilty of murder and sent away. At sixteen, the state released him and he went back to Deep Creek. Then, he suffered as most independent children do. He could not make his childhood home fit around his adult self, so he left for good, but he always came back for his younger brothers and sisters. Just like his mother, he always came back.
He often found them hungry, but he never left them that way. Some nights, he snuck into the farmhouse at the top of Shipyard Road, the one owned by a white man who wasn’t averse to filling Big Boone’s boys with shotgun shells if he found one on his property. Still, Uncle Bruce stole in that farmhouse, pulling breads, cakes, eggs, and potatoes out of sacks that littered the farmhouse floor. In one pass, he could get enough to feed the family for a week.
Some days, he’d send the younger kids, like Momma, from house to house on a borrowing mission. Each child would hit a different house until they could piece together a full meal. That resource never offered enough for true sustenance. Then, Uncle Bruce was forced to be even more resourceful, like the evening that Momma huddled between her sister, Bir’t, and brother, Barry, under the living room window, waiting for their brother to gather food.
Uncle Bruce tightened twine around a long stick. Layer upon layer, tighter with each rotation, his hands moved like legs of a spider. He ran the loose end of twine into the window and placed it in the open space next to his brother. In front of the house, he propped a wooden box with the twine-strangled branch. He took the last crumbs of corn meal from the house and scattered them around the yard, creating a trail that led to the trap. He then placed the remaining pile of cornmeal underneath the box. That morsel, so much less than a meal, no longer edible, was to lure food. Uncle Bruce crawled through the window and sat next to his brother and sisters as they began their silent wait.
An echoing caw, caw pulled their eyes toward the sky. The raven’s wings were so grand they cast a shadow that made Momma cover her head with her arms. The bird swooshed down to the first bits of cornmeal, those farthest from the window and box. With his black and shiny body, eyes, and feet, he looked like a blob of walking oil. He strutted around the yard, pecking at crumbs, sifting through dirt, searching for more of the treat. He pecked, strutted, and occasionally bound toward the smorgasbord under the box. Before entering the dark cavern, the raven scanned the yard, the air above, and the porch. He sensed no danger, probably because his intense wanting obscured any danger he might have felt. He stepped forward, one clawed foot in front of the other, one waddle, then another.
He finally found his way under the box and began partaking in his spoils. Uncle Bruce snatched the twine so hard the branch flew at his face. He moved quickly, placing one hand on the box as the bird cawed and flapped inside. He motioned for his brother to hold the box as he prepared for battle. Per his instruction, his brother tipped the box ever so slightly, while Uncle Bruce stuck his bare hand inside, rooting for a throat or foot. By the way Uncle Bruce gripped his lower lip between his teeth and squinted his eyes so tightly they were almost closed, Momma knew her brother finally had a hold of his prey. Uncle Bruce pulled the bird out of the box by its neck. Its wings beat furiously against his chest and face, but he did not let go. His hands held the bird’s neck like a vise, so tightly its caws sounded like kitten screams. Using his other hand, he squeezed the air out of the bird’s neck, like he was wringing water out of a rag. He squeezed, twisted, until the bird flapped no more, until its clawed feet no longer dug into skin, until its black eyes grew dim. They repeated this process until they had three blackbirds. Then came the plucking, the chopping, and the marriage between what was caught, what was stolen, and what was borrowed.
Momma had covered her ears as each bird cawed, flapped, and clawed inside her brother’s clenched fists. Still she heard those caws, those flapping wings over her rumbling belly as she stared into the pot, inhaling the smell of rice, onion, salt, and pepper intermingling with bird skin, muscle, and bones. It pained her to watch those birds die, to see them strutting, enjoying their last meal and then boiling in a pot of water. So young, their slaughter confused her. Understanding some things have to die so others can live is always a difficult concept for a child to embrace. Momma struggled with this, even as she sucked meat off of the birds’ bones, even as she licked her plate clean. Hunger had led those birds to their demise. In the midst of her fullness, she might have wondered where it would lead her.
Laurie Jean Cannady is a professor of English at Lock Haven University, where she spends much of her time encouraging students to realize their true potential. She is a consummate champion of women’s issues, veterans’ issues, and issues affecting underprivileged youth. Cannady resides in central Pennsylvania with Chico Cannady and their three children.