During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. Selections for the anthology will be made in September, so get your story in now!
Hazan's story, set primarily in a small-town jail in the South, comes to life with its unique characters and shocking premise. This is clearly a tight-knit community where everybody knows everybody, and it has been rocked by a tragedy. As Cora spirals and justice prevails, the story makes you question the system and whether the true criminals are on the inside or out. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor
by Laura Hazan
No one in Leonardtown wanted Cora convicted, but there she was, in the cell on my right. Cora cared for most of the babies in our part of the county. She’d been doing it for 50 years or more without any trouble. Several months ago she turned her back from a bath for just a minute too long and Janey Miller drowned.
Mr. Miller, both the local prosecutor and Janey’s grand pappy, arrested Cora. Janey’s parents saw it as a tragic accident, but Miller charged Cora anyway. A swift trial with a jury of his peers found her guilty, and the judge sentenced her to ten years with us in the women’s county jail.
Rumor said Cora hadn’t slept since the day of the accident. It seemed to be true. She prayed while she paced, only stopped to take some food, and never left her cell.
“Maybe we should encourage her to join us,” I asked the others one afternoon.
“Leave her be, Genie,” Luscious McGee said. “She’ll get tired soon enough.”
Cora had no contact from the outside. Folks tried to see her in those first few weeks, but she refused to leave her cell. I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t want a visit; I delighted in every one.
I’d been trouble since the day I was born, came into this world breech, but not feet first like most breech babies. No, I came out butt first. My daddy said it’s my best joke so far. He just loved that I mooned the old uppity doctor. I craved the thrill of daring deeds from that day forward. Harmless stuff like running naked out in the yard as a little tike progressed to dangerous stuff like setting off fireworks during a basketball game. Then I turned to crime. Minor crimes, mind you, but there I was nonetheless, housed between an elderly black woman who drowned a baby and the local madame who didn’t pay the sheriff enough for protection. I wonder if Cora will remember being at my birth; Daddy said she laughed louder than anyone.
Weeks passed and Cora did not leave her cell. The rest of us gathered in the common area and played crazy eights or read magazines. Henry Adams, the morning guard, always brought us his wife’s Ladies Home Journal and Life.
“Cora must be resting when we’re not looking,” Little Marie said as she shuffled the cards.
Little Marie, only four foot eleven, had a big habit of shoplifting. She mostly stole so her siblings could eat, but then she tried to steal a record player and a case of Elvis records from Kresge’s.
“I think she goes to sleep after we do and wakes before us,” Ally said when she looked up from her magazine. Ally kited checks. She didn’t need the money, her daddy ran the largest crab packing factory in this part of the state, she just liked to steal – she and I shared that trait.
I picked up the cards Little Marie dealt. “Nope, neither of you is right. I’ve watched her closely. And she just don’t, not the night I watched her anyway.”
“Well if she don’t stop that praying I’m liable to drown someone myself,” Luscious McGee said.
Ally scowled. “You need to have some compassion, Luscious. Just like it suggests in this month’s Ladies Home Journal.”
Luscious McGee slammed her cards on the table. “You can take that god damn magazine and…”
I reached over, picked up the cards and handed them back to her with a nod. I seemed the only one able to calm Luscious.
“What’s she mumbling about over there all night?” Luscious asked.
“She’s saying that she needs to get out of here and make it up to the baby. That she wants to pray over her grave, grieve with her momma, and care for her kin. It’s the same thing over and over,” I said.
“It’s a mantra,” the Beatnik said. The Beatnik’s real name was Anne, but she didn’t mind that we called her the Beatnik. On the outside she wore a lot of black and read a lot of poetry. She also supplied little funny cigarettes to those in need. She said it wasn’t right to charge for something that opened the mind, but they convicted her anyway. The Beatnik put a bookmark in her New Yorker and said, “It’s what Buddhist monks say while meditating.”
Henry, too old at sixty-five to still be a prison guard, walked in with a pot. “What are you chickens clucking about now?”
“Cora,” I replied.
Henry shook his head. “You girls ought not mess with that one. She’s upset a lot of important men in this town. No need getting involved.”
“We feel badly for her, Henry. She didn’t do no intentional harm,” I said.
“And that’s why she’s here instead of the state pen. Though I wish she were. Some silly folk have started a protest out front. Pains in my ass.” Henry put the pot down on the dining table. “Cooper’s missus fixed a mighty nice oyster stew today. I’ll see ya’ll tomorrow.”
Jackson Cooper was only a few years younger than Henry. All the guards in our jail were close to retirement. We liked the old guys, and they liked us. Cooper’s wife made our lunch every day except Sunday, and her meals were some of the best I’d ever tasted.
Several mornings later I tried to coax Cora out of her cell. From outside her door, I told her, “Janey’s in heaven now, and she wouldn’t want you suffering for your mistake.” I paused and got no response. “Janey’s parents hadn’t even wanted a trial – they’re moving down the road to forgiveness.”
Cora kept right on pacing and chanting. I decided to recite the name of every person I knew that Cora had cared for or helped bring into this world. After the first five names she stopped praying, but kept pacing. By now Little Marie and Ally stood behind me. “Keep at it, Genie, she seems to be listening,” Ally whispered.
I listed ten more names and she stopped pacing. “Charles Monroe, my momma’s 2nd cousin. Betty Anne Monroe, his sister. Louisa Monroe, their baby sister.” I pruned every branch of my family tree and then went to names of friends and neighbors. Cora finally sat down on her cot.
Little Marie clapped her hands like Cora just performed under the big top. “That’s right, Cora, take a load off; rest your eyes even, if they’re feeling heavy.”
Almost out of names, I signaled Ally to take over. She ran off and came back with some of the flowery stationary she saved for her beaux and a fountain pen with scented ink. She wrote names and I read them.
“Lloyd B. Wilson, Lydia B. Wilson, Lyle B. Wilson, Lauren B. Wilson…”
Cora put her feet up and then pulled her knees to her chest. She rocked back and forth in rhythm to my voice. “Patricia Hatcher, Eric Hatcher, Madeline Hatcher, Clare Hatcher, Karen James, John James…” I thanked God Ally had a large clan.
Little Marie grabbed some paper and a pen from my cell and wrote names too. I read from one list and then the other. Luscious McGee joined us. “Just lay back now, Cora. You need rest. We’re here to take over, don’t you fret no more about that baby.”
“The baby.” The first words Cora seemed to direct at us since she arrived. Then she started to sing a lullaby.
“Aloysius Richard…” I began, but before I could get the next two names out, Cora was back on her feet. I looked down at Ally’s list and recited the next few names, but within minutes Cora stopped the song and started to pray again.
Luscious McGee yanked on my braid. “Damn it Genie, Keep going.”
“Why’d you bring up the baby?” I shouted back. “She seemed like she might actually lie down for some rest until you came over.”
Ally and Little Marie tossed in their feelings, and the caterwauling followed.
Luscious pointed at us. “Stupid girls, why do you care what happens to some old nurse maid? Ya’ll act like she’s the only decent person in the whole God damned town.”
“Enough!” Cora shouted above us. We’d been so absorbed in our own anger none of us noticed Cora step out of her cell. She started to pace again, but this time she directed her rant toward us. “Luscious McGee got one thing right; there ain’t a decent person in this whole town. I kept bringing child after child into this world in hopes one of ‘em would be good. God fearing. Responsible,” she shouted. “Baby Janey was supposed to be the last one, the one I was gonna stick with till I knew she was loving, respectable. I’m an old woman, I want to pass on knowing I done some good.” She circled the common room dining table.
I tried to calm Cora before Henry came in. “You’ve done lots of good, Cora. But, you need to stop shouting before Henry comes in here. Why don’t you sit down?”
“Henry Adams been mean to me since we was kids. Nothing he can do to me that ain’t already been done. Those names, nearly every name you said has caused my heart to break. Not a decent person in the whole town.”
I looked at the others; they’d all stepped back toward their cells. My mouth was dry and filled with regret. Cora had spittle on her chin and sweat on her brow. She reminded me of a traveling preacher I saw once; he shouted angry words from the pulpit, yet promised goodness and hope with the Lord.
She stopped circling the table and pounded on it with both fists. “I need to get out of here. I need to make it up to the baby. I need to pray over her grave. I need to grieve with her momma. I need to care for her kin.”
I walked nearer. “Cora, you need to calm down. You’re going to break a hand.”
The Beatnik came up next to me. “She’s in a trance; she’s not going to hear you. It’s best to let her be.”
“But she’s going to hurt herself.”
“She can’t feel the pain. It’s like the ancient Indian art of walking over hot coals. She’s out of her body right now.”
“Beatnik, you are so full of it,” I finally replied.
With every sentence Cora’s hands started up near her face and ended down on the table. Her knuckles began to bleed.
Henry walked in with a tray of tableware in preparation for lunch. “What in blue blazes is going on in here?” Henry shouted over Cora’s mantra. “Cora, quit punching that table.” He moved toward her.
“I wouldn’t go near her, Henry,” The Beatnik warned. “She is not herself.”
Henry paid no mind, “Go back to your cell, both of you, and stay there.” He put the tray down. “Cooper will be here any minute, Cora, with a nice hot meal. Let’s just sit down and wait for him, quietly.” He put his hand on her left forearm.
Without hesitation, she grabbed him and pulled him into a head lock. A powerful woman with a half foot advantage over Henry, he could not fend her off. She grabbed a butter knife from the tray and held it up to his throat. Those knives didn’t cut through boiled potatoes, but in Cora’s strong hand it was sharper than a tanner’s blade.
Luscious McGee ran over to the table. “Cora, you’re not in your right mind.”
“Luscious McGee,” Cora replied as if on an afternoon stroll, “You’ve always talked more than anyone I know. I’m getting out of here. I need to make it up to the baby. I’m going to pray over her grave. I’m going to grieve with her momma. I need to care for her kin. Henry’s going to help me get out of here. Maybe you should too.”
“Cora, no one’s going anywhere,” Luscious McGee said. Ally, Little Marie, The Beatnik and I gathered behind Luscious.
Little Marie jumped up and down behind me. “What’s she saying? I can’t see; what’s she doing now?”
“She’s just stopped,” I replied. “Quit jumping on me. She says we need to go with her.”
“I’m not up to a jail break,” Little Marie replied. “That’s too dangerous.”
Luscious McGee turned to us. “Will you all hush! No one’s leaving this jail.”
The Beatnik grinned. “She’s already gone. ‘My prison walls cannot control/the flight, the freedom of the soul.’ I’m going with her.”
I didn’t understand half of what The Beatnik usually said, but this time she made sense. “Me too.”
Ally nodded. “I’m in.”
The three of us linked arms, pushed passed Luscious McGee. Cora kept repeating, “I’m getting out of here. Henry’s helping me get out of here.” Then, clear as day, she said something I’ll never forget. “I need a gun.” She looked around and walked over to the desk, pulled Henry along with her.
“Cora, a gun’s a very bad idea, very bad. You’re going to do hard time for this,” Luscious said. “You girls need to get back.”
I took two steps back, but Ally and The Beatnik held firm. “She ain’t leaving alone,” I replied as I stepped back in line.
Cora put down the knife and grabbed a handgun from a holster slung over the back of the desk chair. She pointed the gun at Henry’s head. “Okay, Henry, we’re going outside now.”
Henry squirmed. “Cora, please just leave me be. Go out the door, I don’t care, but leave me here.”
I heard Little Marie start to cry. Luscious stepped in front of the door to the outside. The Beatnik, Ally and I drew closer together and got right behind Cora and Henry.
“Luscious McGee, you best move out of the way. I don’t plan on hurting no one, but I won’t let you get in my way neither,” Cora said as she got almost nose to nose with Luscious.
“This is craziness Cora,” Luscious replied. I saw her wrinkle her nose as the bitter odor of fear invaded the space. Luscious waved, “Come over here, Little Marie. You and I are the only sane people in this place right now so we best go with them to make sure no one gets hurt.”
Little Marie stood next to Luscious but kept on crying. She whispered something to Luscious, who put her arm around Little Marie and said, “I’ve been around long enough to know best. I’m going to open the door and walk out with Little Marie. Then I want the three stooges over there to join us. You come out with Henry and we’ll circle up around you. That should prevent you from trying to shoot Henry, in thoughts of hitting one of us, and prevent the police from shooting you.”
“You ain’t in charge here Luscious McGee. This is my escape,” Cora replied.
Luscious McGee took her arm from round Little Marie’s shoulders and crossed it with her other over her ample bosom. “You ain’t got no choice right now, Cora. You do it my way, or you go through me.”
I thought back to the easy comfort of the common area and cursed myself for ever starting this.
Cora shifted from one foot and then the other. “Fine, we can do it your way. Go on then. Open the door.”
One by one, we stepped out into the glare. It was quiet in the parking lot, only the crunch of the oyster shells underfoot accompanied our escape. Cora and Henry came out of the building last and we formed a human chain around them just as Luscious described. I held hands with the Beatnik and Ally, Little Marie took Ally’s hand on her other side, and Luscious closed the circle once Cora and Henry entered. We inched our way across the small parking lot until we reached the main road.
A quarter mile down we passed the protesters. Three college students from Baltimore and Mrs. Meriwether erected “Free Cora” signs just down from the main gates of the old jail on the road to town.
Mrs. Meriwether ran up next to us. “Y’all supposed to be locked up?”
“We just going to visit with Janey’s momma,” Cora replied.
Mrs. Meriwether straightened her hat and smiled. “Well, I’ll be damned. You girls got her out.”
The Beatnik grinned too. “She got herself out, we’re just assisting.”
“I’m gonna make a new sign and walk along with y’all if you don’t mind.”
“Suit yourself,” Cora said.
Within five minutes, Mrs. Meriwether and the college students marched behind us and sang “Let My People Go.” The Beatnik sang along.
We saw Cooper’s truck on the horizon. “Thank the Lord,” Henry muttered.
Little Marie howled, “I don’t want to die!”
“We’re not going to die,” I said. “Everyone just keep walking.”
Cooper pulled up beside us in his rusty pick up. “You girls ain’t supposed to be out for a stroll. Just turn yourselves around now and no one will get in trouble.”
“Can’t do that,” Cora said. “I’m going to grieve with the baby’s momma.”
“Cora, you need to let Henry go now,” Cooper shouted through the cloud of dust we created.
“Going to see Baby Janey’s momma. Henry’s helping me,” Cora shouted back.
Several police cars greeted us at the foot of Main Street. Cooper stopped his truck and joined behind us, rifle in hand. As we crested the first rise of the hilly street, I heard a cheer go out. Dozens of townsfolk lined the busy thoroughfare, and we each smiled at the encouragement, even Little Marie managed a smirk.
Cora looked left and right at the many faces gathered to watch her escape. Then she pulled the gun from Henry’s temple and fired a shot between Ally and me into the crowd.
“Damn, Cora, this is a peaceful break,” I shouted.
Cora moved the gun back to the indentation on Henry’s head. “Jimmy Russell. Beats his wife. Why isn’t he in jail?”
We all knew she was right, and apparently so did the rest of the town. No one rushed us, and no one moved to help him. They just stepped over him and started to follow us. It made me think of that disturbing story “The Lottery” The Beatnik read to us from her New Yorker some months back.
“What’s with these people?” Luscious McGee asked.
Then BANG. “William Tyler - pesters children,” Cora said.
Cora continued to dispense justice the entire half mile up the hill. In less than three blocks she shot five people. Every one known for the crimes they committed but for which they were never punished.
We finally stopped in front of Baby Janey’s house. The front door was closed; the shades were drawn and faded black bunting still hung from the porch rails. Luscious McGee broke the circle, and Cora stepped out of the halo of protection. She released Henry, handed me the gun, and started up the porch steps.
She turned to us as she reached the top step and said, “I believe justice has been served today. You ladies better head on back to jail. I’m going to rest now while I wait for Janey’s momma to join me.”
Cora walked over to one of the ladder-backed rockers on Janey’s porch and sat down. She closed her eyes and started humming a lullaby. Within minutes she was sound asleep. Rumor has it she never woke.
Laura Hazan is a librarian with the Enoch Pratt Free Library where she runs the bimonthly Light Street Writers Exchange. She completed her first novel, Little Boxes, and is still seeking representation for publication. She has a B.A. in communications from American University, a M.L.S. in Library Science from the University of Maryland, and attended the “Your Novel Year” program at Arizona State University’s Piper Writing Center. In addition, her work has been published in Natural Bridge, Kirkwood Patch and Sauce Magazine. She is a resident of Baltimore and lives with her son, her husband and their one-eyed dog named, what else, Boh.