A River of Names

pencil drawing of a table top with family photos fractured by a jagged vein

Anonymous illustration

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 16 No. 3, "Mint Juleps, Wisteria, and Queers." Find more from that issue here.

At a picnic at my aunt’s farm, the only time the whole family ever gathered, my sister, Billie, and I chased chickens into the barn. Billie ran right through the open doors and out again, but I stopped, caught by a shadow moving over me. My cousin, Tommy, eight years old as I was, swung in the sunlight with his face as black as his shoes . . . the rope around his neck pulled up into the sunlit heights of the barn, fascinating, horrible. Wasn’t he running ahead of us? Someone came up behind me. Someone began to scream. My mama took my head in her hands and turned my eyes away. 

Jesse and I have been lovers for two years now. She tells me stories about her childhood, about her father going off each day to the university, her mother who made all her dresses, her grandmother who always smelled of dill bread and vanilla. I listen with my mouth open, not believing but wanting, aching for the fairy tale she thinks is everyone’s life. 

“What did your grandmother smell like?” 

I lie to her the way I always do, a lie stolen from a book. “Like lavender,” stomach churning over the memory of sour sweat and snuff. 

I realize I do not really know what lavender smells like and I am for a moment afraid she will ask something else, some question that will betray me. But Jesse slides over to hug me, to press her face against my ear, to whisper, “How wonderful to be part of such a large family.” 

I hug her back and close my eyes. I cannot say a word. 


I was born between the older cousins and the younger, born in a pause of babies and therefore outside, always watching. Once, way before Tommy died, I was pushed out on the steps while everyone stood listening to my cousin, Barbara. Her screams went up and down in the back of the house. Cousin Cora brought buckets of bloody rags out to be burned. The other cousins all ran off to catch the sparks or poke the fire with dogwood sticks. I waited on the porch making up words to the shouts around me. I did not understand what was happening. Some of the older cousins obviously did, their strange expressions broken by stranger laughs. I had seen them helping her up the stairs while the thick blood ran down her legs. After a while the blood on the rags was thin, watery, almost pink. Cora threw them on the fire and stood motionless in the stinking smoke. 

Randall went by and said there’d be a baby, a hatched egg to throw out with the rags, but there wasn’t. I watched to see and there wasn’t; nothing but the blood, thinning out desperately, while the house slowed down and grew quiet, hours of cries growing soft and low — moaning under the smoke. My aunt Raylene came out on the porch and almost fell on me, not seeing me, not seeing anything at all. She beat on the post until there were knuckle-sized dents in the peeling paint, beat on that post like it could feel, cursing it and herself, and every child in the yard, singing up and down, “Goddamn, goddamn, that girl . . . no sense . . . goddamn! ” 

I’ve seen these pictures my mama gave me — stained sepia prints of bare dirt yards, plank porches, and step on step of children — cousins, uncles, aunts; mysteries. The mystery is how many no one remembers. I show them to Jesse, not saying who they are, and when she laughs at the broken teeth, torn overalls, the dirt, I set my teeth at what I do not want to remember and cannot forget. 

We were so many we were without number and, like tadpoles, if there was one less from time to time, who counted? My maternal great-grandmother had eleven daughters, seven sons; my grandmother, six sons, five daughters. Each one made at least six. Some made nine. Six times six, eleven times nine. They went on like multiplication tables. They died and were not missed. I come of an enormous family and I cannot tell half of their stories. Somehow it was always made to seem they killed themselves; somehow, car wrecks, shotguns, dusty ropes, screaming, falling out of windows, things inside them. I am the point of a pyramid, sliding back under the weight of the ones who came after, and it does not matter that I am the lesbian, the one who will not get children. 

I tell the stories and it comes out funny. I drink bourbon and make myself drawl, tell all those funny old stories. Someone always seems to ask me — which one was that? I show the pictures and she says, “Wasn’t she the one in the story about the bridge?” I put the pictures away, drink more, and someone always finds them, says, “Goddamn! How many of you were there, anyway?” 

I don’t answer. 

Jesse used to say, “You’ve got such a fascination with violence. You’ve got so many terrible stories.” 

She said it with her smooth mouth, that chin that nobody ever slapped, and I love that chin, but when Jesse said that, my hands shook and I wanted nothing so much as to tell her terrible stories. 

So I made a list. I told her: that one went insane — got her little brother with a tire iron; the three of them slit their arms, not the wrists but the bigger veins up near the elbow; she, now SHE strangled the boy she was sleeping with and got sent away; that one drank lye and died laughing soundlessly. In one year I lost eight cousins. It was the year everybody ran away. Four disappeared and were never found. One fell in the river and was drowned. One was run down, hitchhiking north. One was shot running through the woods, while Grace, the last one, tried to walk from Greenville to Greer for some reason nobody knew. She fell off the overpass a mile down from the Sears, Roebuck warehouse, and lay there for hunger and heat and dying. 

Later sleeping but not sleeping, I found that my hands were up under Jesse’s chin. I rolled away but I didn’t cry. I almost never let myself cry. 


Almost always, we were raped, my cousins and I. That was some kind of joke too. 

“What’s a South Carolina virgin?” At’s a 10-year-old can run fast.” 

It wasn’t funny for me in my mama’s bed with my stepfather, not for my cousin, Billie, in the attic with my uncle, nor for Lucille in the woods with another cousin, for Danny with four strangers in a parking lot, or for Pammy who made the papers. Cora read it out loud — “Repeatedly by persons unknown.” They stayed unknown since Pammie never spoke again. Perforations, lacerations, contusions, and bruises; I heard all the words, big words, little words, words too terrible to understand. DEAD BY AN ACT OF MAN; with the prick still in them, the broomhandle, the tree branch, the grease gun . . . objects, things not to be believed . . . whiskey bottles, can openers, grass shears, glass, metal, vegetables . . . not to be believed, not to be believed. 

Jesse says, “You’ve got a gift for words.” 

“Don’t talk,” I beg her, “don’t talk.” And she, this once, just holds me, blessedly silent. 

I dig out the pictures, stare into the faces. Which one was I? Survivors do hate themselves, I know, over the core of fierce self-love, never understanding, always asking, “Why me and not her, not him?” There is such mystery in it, and I have hated myself as much as I have loved others, hated the simple fact of my own survival. Having survived, am I supposed to say something, do something, be something? 

I loved my cousin, Butch. He had this big old head, pale thin hair and big watery eyes. All the cousins did, though Butch’s head was the largest, his hair the palest. I was the dark-headed one. All the rest of the family seemed pale carbons of each other in shades of blond though later on everybody’s hair went brown or red, and I didn’t stand out so. Butch and I stood out, I because I was so dark and fast, and he because of that big head and the crazy things he did. Butch used to climb on the back of my Uncle Lucius’s truck, and open the gas tank and hang his head over, breathe deeply, strangle, gag, vomit and breathe again. It went so deep, it tingled in your toes. I climbed up after him and tried it myself, but I was too young to hang on long, and I fell heavily to the ground, dizzy and giggling. Butch could hang on, put his hand down into the tank and pull up a cupped palm of gas, breathe deep and laugh. He would climb down roughly, swinging down from the door handle, laughing, staggering and stinking of gasoline. Someone caught him at it. Someone threw a match. “I’ll teach you.” 

Just like that, gone before you understand. 

I wake up in the night screaming, “No, no, I won’t!” Dirty water rises in the back of my throat, the liquid language of my own terror and rage. “Hold me. Hold me.” Jesse rolls over on me; her hands grip my hipbones tightly. 

“I love you. I love you. I’m here,” she repeats. 

I stare up into her dark eyes, puzzled, afraid. I draw a breath in deeply, smile my bland smile. “Did I fool you?” I laugh, roll away from her. Jesse punches me playfully, and I catch her hand in the air. 

“My love,” she whispers and cups her body against my hip, closes her eyes. I bring my hand up in front of my face and watch the knuckles, the nails as they tremble, tremble. I watch for a long time while she sleeps, warm and still against me. 


James went blind. One of the uncles got him in the face, with homebrewed alcohol. 

Lucille climbed out the front window of Aunt Raylene’s house and jumped. They said she jumped. No one said why. 

My uncle Matthew used to beat my aunt Raylene. The twins, Mark and Luke, swore to stop him, pulled him out in the yard one time, throwing him between them like a loose bag of grain. Uncle Matthew screamed like a pig coming up for slaughter. I got both my sisters in the tool shed for safety, but I hung back to watch. Little Bo came running out the house, off the porch, feet first into his Daddy’s arms. Uncle Matthew started swinging him like a scythe, going after the bigger boys, Bo’s head thudding their shoulders, their hips. Afterward, Bo crawled around in the dirt, the blood running out of his ears and his tongue hanging out of his mouth, while Mark and Luke finally got their daddy down. It was a long time before I realized that they never told anybody else what happened to Bo. 

Randall tried to teach Lucille and me to wrestle. “Put your hands up.” His legs were wide apart, his torso bobbing up and down, his head moving constantly, then his hand flashed at my face. I threw myself back into the dirt, lay still. He turned to Lucille, not noticing that I didn’t get up. He punched at her, laughing. She wrapped her hands around her head, curled over so her knees were up against her throat. 

“No, no,” he yelled. “Move like her.” He turned to me. “Move.” He kicked at me. I rocked into a ball, froze. 

“NO, NO!” He kicked me. I grunted, didn’t move. He turned to Lucille. “You.” Her teeth were chattering but she held herself still, wrapped up tighter than bacon slices. 

“You move!” he shouted. Lucille just hugged her head tighter and started to sob. 

“Son-of-a-bitch,” Randall grumbled, “you two will never be any good.” 

He walked away. 

Very slowly we stood up, embarrassed, looked at each other. 

We knew. 

If you fight back, they kill you. 

My sister was seven. She was screaming. My stepfather picked her up by her left arm, swung her forward and back. It gave. The arm went around loosely. She just kept screaming. I didn’t know you could break it like that. 

I was running up the hall. He was right behind me. “MAMA! MAMA!” His left hand — he was left-handed — closed around my throat, pushed me against the wall, and then he lifted me that way. I kicked, but I couldn’t reach him. He was yelling, but there was so much noise in my ears I couldn’t hear him. 

“Please, Daddy. Please, Daddy. I’ll do anything, I promise. Daddy, anything you want. Please, Daddy.” 

I couldn’t have said that. I couldn’t talk around that fist at my throat, couldn’t breathe. I woke up when I hit the floor. I looked up at him. 

“If I live long enough, I’ll fucking kill you.” 

He picked me up by my throat again. 

“What’s wrong with her?” 

“Why’s she always following you around?” 

Nobody really wanted answers. 


A full bottle of vodka will kill you when you’re nine and the bottle is a quart. It was a third cousin proved that. We learned what that and other things could do. Every year there was something new. 

“You’re growing up.” “My big girl.” 

There was codeine in the cabinet, paregoric for the baby’s teeth; whiskey, beer and wine in the house. Jeanne brought home MDA, PCP, acid; Randall, grass, speed and mescaline. It all worked to dull things down, to pass the time. 

Stealing was a way to pass the time, things we needed, things we didn’t, for the nerve of it, the anger, the need. “You’re growing up,” we told each other. But sooner or later, we all got caught, then it was “WHEN-ARE-YOU-GOING-TO- LEARN?” 

Caught, nightmares happened. “Razorback desperate,” was the conclusion of the man down at the county farm where Mark and Luke were sent at 15. They both got their heads shaved, their earlobes sliced. 


Caught at 16, June was sent to Jessup County Girls’ Home where the baby was adopted out and she slashed her wrists on the bedsprings. 

Lou got caught at 17 and held in the station downtown, raped on the floor of the holding tank. 



Caught at 18 and sent to prison, Jack came back seven years later blankfaccd, understanding nothing. He married a quiet girl from out of town, had three babies in four years. Then Jack came home one night from the textile mill, carrying one of those big handles off the high speed spindle machine. He used it to beat them all to death and went back to work in the morning. 

Cousin Melvina married at 14, had three kids in two and a half years and welfare took them all away. She ran off with a carnival mechanic, had three more babies before he left her for a motorcycle acrobat. Welfare took those too. But the next baby was hydrocephalic, a little waterhead they left with her, and the three that followed, even the one she used to hate so — the one she had after she fell off the porch and couldn’t remember whose child it was. 

“How many children do you have,” I asked her. 

“You mean the ones I have, or the ones I had?” 

“Four,” she told me, “or 11.” 

My aunt, the one I was named for, tried to take off to Oklahoma. That was after she’d lost the youngest girl and they told her Bo would never be “right.” She packed up biscuits, cold chicken, and Coca-Cola, a lot of loose clothes, Cora and her new baby, Cy, and the four youngest girls. They set off from Greenville in the afternoon, hoping to make Oklahoma by the weekend, but they only got as far as Augusta. The bridge there went out under them. 

“An act of God,” my uncle said. 

My aunt and Cora crawled out down river, and two of the girls turned up in the weeds, screaming loud enough to be found in the dark. But one of the girls never came up out of that dark water, and Nancy, who had been holding Cy, was found still wrapped around the baby, in the water, under the car. 

“An act of God,” my aunt said, “Then God’s got one damn sick sense of humor.” 

My sister had her baby in a bad year. Before he was born we had talked about it. “Are you afraid?” I asked. 

“He’ll be fine,” she’d replied, not understanding, speaking instead to the other fear. “Don’t we have a tradition of bastards?” 

He was fine, a classically ugly healthy little boy with that shock of white hair that marked so many of us. But afterward, it was that bad year with my sister down with pleurisy, then cystitis, and no work, no money, having to move back home with my cold-eyed stepfather. I would come home to see her, from the woman I could not admit I’d been with, and take my infinitely fragile nephew and hold him, rocking him, rocking myself. 

One night I came home to screaming — the baby, my sister, no one else there. She was standing by the crib, bent over, screaming red-faced. “SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” With each word her fist slammed the mattress fanning the baby’s ear. 

“DON’T!” I grabbed her, pulling her back, doing it as gently as I could so I wouldn’t break the stitches from her operation. She had her other arm clamped across her abdomen and couldn’t fight me at all. She just kept shrieking. 

“That little bastard just screams and screams. That little bastard. I’ll kill him.” 

Then the words seeped in and she looked at me while her son kept crying and kicking his feet. By his head the mattress still showed the impact of her fist. 

“Oh no,” she moaned, “I wasn’t going to be like that. I always promised myself.” She started to cry, holding her belly and sobbing. “We an’t no different. We an’t no different.” 


Jesse wraps her arm around my stomach, presses her belly into my back. I relax against her. “You sure you can’t have children?” she asks. “I sure would like to see what your kids would turn out to be like.” 

I stiffen, say, “I can’t have children. I’ve never wanted children.” 

“Still,” she says, “you’re so good with children, so gentle.” 

I think of all the times my hands have curled into fists, when I have just barely held on. I open my mouth, close it, can’t speak. What could I say now? All the times I have not spoken before, all the things I just could not tell her, the shame, the self-hatred, the fear; all of that hangs between us now — a wall I cannot tear down. 

I would like to turn around and talk to her, say . . . “I’ve got a dust river in my head, a river of names endlessly repeating. That dirty water rises within me, all those children screaming out their lives in my memory — and I become someone else, someone I have tried so hard not to be. But I don’t say anything, and I know, as surely as I know I will never get a child, that by not speaking I am condemning us, that I cannot go on loving you and hating you for your fairy tale life, for not asking about what you have no reason to imagine, for that soft-chinned innocence I love.” 

Jesse puts her hands behind my neck, smiles and says, “You tell the funniest stories.” 

I put my hands behind her back, feeling the ridges of my knuckles pulsing. 

“Yeah,” I tell her. 

“But I lie.”