The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Wanting Radiance by Karen Salyer McElmurray

She was my mother but I called her Ruby, and I believed her hands were magic. She knew how to read cards and runes, how to find meanings in the shadows in photographs. Some people believed she could cast spells for anything from bringing a missing lover back to healing sickness, but I’d never seen the proof of any of that. The only thing I knew for sure was that my mother was afraid, partly of her own fortunes. The prophecies she claimed were enough to scare just about anyone, but I knew she was afraid she’d reveal the truth I wanted most—my own father’s name. She’d look at me, head to one side, and laugh when I asked about our past. “Just tell yourself we come from a long line of tale-tellers and fiddlers,” she’d say. She also said you couldn’t trust a thing like love, but I loved it anyway, a highway at night with the car windows down and the radio playing Jim Morrison. I loved not knowing where we’d end up, or for how long. I was fifteen, but I did the driving and studied Ruby’s hands while she surfed the air.
Once we lived in two rooms above a dry cleaner’s in Swannanoa, North Carolina, a place that smelled like a just-ironed dress. After that we headed west because Ruby loved the way a turquoise ring could look on a man’s hand. Six months later, I drove us back east and we ended up in Dayglo, South Carolina, where the factories made paint that Ruby used to draw sad-eyed women on our walls. I made the sign for the front door, that time. Ruby Loving, Prophetess and Fortune Teller. And then it was summer all over again and we rented a trailer near a spring outside of Dauncy, Kentucky.
It was the hottest spell on record in Dauncy. Ruby said it was a miracle the spring hadn’t dried up in the heat, so the minute we got up that day she set about making a potion. I helped her mince the stinging nettles and pawpaws. Helped her rummage through her things to find the rattle-tails from snakes and the bones of critters she’d found in the woods. Steam rose from the stove, and the kitchen was full of songs about wild horses and a man who loved some woman way too much. The potion simmered and I painted her nails red as she gave me a sip of her sweet wine. Then I slipped a look at that notebook of hers. On a night of the full moon, I read, whisper your beloved’s name three times to the night wind.
I wanted to be a blues singer in a nightclub in a city with a name I couldn’t pronounce. I wanted kohl around my eyes, chocolates from Paris, France. Some days I wanted to stay put long enough for a boy to love me, but the only love charms Ruby ever gave me were don’ts, little daily spells to make me safe or to make me bitter. Don’t look at them boys like that, she’d say when we went someplace they had a jukebox. But it was her doing the watching, her hands shoved deep in her pockets as we watched hips touching hips in time to the Eagles or Johnny Cash. She’d reach into some man’s pocket to feel around for a five-dollar bill. She disappeared for days at a time, and when she came back again, her eyes were heavy with want.
By late afternoon Ruby was antsy, and she paced beside the long shadows on the wall by the kitchen window. I sipped cold water and wished I could hold the ice in my palm, pretty as diamonds, pretty as Ruby, her black hair tied back with a red scarf, her face shiny from the stove’s heat. She draped a shiny cloth over a lamp, lit incense in the neck of a wine bottle. She set a record going, some woman singing the blues. Love me in the morning, love me at night. An hour passed, then two, with no one in sight, so she poured another inch of wine and flipped through her notebook till she found the lines I ought to know on a palm. Girdle of Venus. Line of Intuition. Line of Mars.
“There’s always somebody by now,” I said.
“Just don’t you mind.” She set the record going the dozenth time. Love me in the morning, love me at night. Love me, Radiance, honey, till long past midnight. I’d remember that song all the years ahead and with words that changed with every remembering, but I’d always see her behind the words, her head lifted to the open kitchen window.
The trailer’s heat let go a little, and I took the kettle off the stove, poured it into jelly jars with the lids off so the potion would cool. “Just don’t you mind,” she said as she turned the pages of her notebook, writing down the day.
Seven o’clock, eight, and coal trucks shifted gears and headed past. I thought about how some nights it was women who came to our door, wanting to see how it felt to sit across a table from somebody with hands as wise as Ruby’s. Her eyes were full of love affairs and the foreign places they believed she’d seen, but they were afraid of my mother’s hands, and they ought to have been, the things she knew. Men weren’t afraid at all. When my mother sat across from them, their faces hard, I knew they were ready to take what she had, whether she knew their futures or not. They thought they knew exactly what my mother was, a traveling woman with her strange hands and her fortunes. False prophets and liars, every one of them, Ruby said. When my mother told their futures, she looked straight at them, knowing more than they ever would.
By ten o’clock there was far-off thunder, and from the trees at the back of the trailer came whippoorwills and the scratch of June bugs. Somewhere a dog howled, high-pitched and restless, and a car door slammed as I hurried to the window. Out by the road a tall shadow stood and cupped a hand around a match’s flame.
“Who’s out there?” I asked.
Ruby turned her head to the outside sounds and waved me out. “I need to be alone for a spell,” she said. “Go on now.” I went, just to the chair beneath the mulberry tree where I could see the kitchen window, her shadow moving from stove to table. Feet kicked gravel as someone made their way around the trailer. The back door slammed, and I thought I heard the small sound of glasses clinking down.
The only thing I really know about that night is what I still imagine. Her scarf sliding off, her hair falling as she moved. Dance with me. The record going full blast and Ruby reciting love charms. Three silver spoons of brandy wine and you shall be mine, you shall be mine. Behind the curtains, shadow selves leaning toward one another. For years I would think of her hands held out, a card balanced there. In my imaginings that card is The Lovers, and I see my mother’s face, the smile there. See the card I drew for you? Then the shadow stood in front of Ruby, reached for her. How many nights I’d seen her want just that. Hold me in the morning, hold me at night. The record, playing and playing. Hold me, hold me. Their voices crossed as lightning streaked the sky.
I pulled my knees into my arms and wanted the storm to start, wished the world would be cool and fine, but it was only heat and it flashed and quit.
From the open window, voices arguing. A chair crashed down.
The truth is I remember some things and nothing at all. I remember boots running out the back door as my own feet carried me inside. I remember a floor strewn with glass and paper torn from my mother’s notebook, gone missing as hard as I looked. I remember touching my mother, the place on her throat where a pulse would be. Her skin was still so warm.
Hours later, questions filled the trailer. I sat at the kitchen table with a sheriff, saying the same thing over again. “I heard footsteps. I saw shadows.” They said I had to have seen something, and I wanted to tell them more. Wanted to tell how I ran inside, hero girl, how I pushed the chairs aside and picked up a broken bottle and held it out, saving us both.
From where and who I am now, I want to reach back and tell the truth, Ruby’s, and my own from all the years since. I want to tell them about lovers who are only parts of themselves. One man, nothing but a boy who loved music so loud it hid our voices. Another man nothing but the feel of a rough face against my own face, how raw the heart can feel. Men and years passing, and myself slipping through the spaces of years like they were a left-open door I was never brave enough to shut. Most days, I no longer know who it is I am describing, and to whom. Whose future is it that I am now living? Have I become her, Ruby Loving, become my own lost mother? Or am I only myself now, a woman who long ago learned how not to love? The truth is this. I can’t separate then from now, can’t describe the difference in lightning and thunder, my mother’s death from the sound of a shot. And that gun. That they found, mid-kitchen floor. A lady’s derringer, they called it. A fancy handle made of abalone shell.
The room was full of her blood’s scent and that song. Hold me, Radiance, honey. A needle scratched as the song played down and as I knelt beside her. She bled from her chest, and I wondered at it, how small the hole was. How to tell it, the way a body bleeds from a wound into forever? I held her, my ear next to her mouth and listened. “Sweet girl,” she said as I hushed her, made her promise not to die. How cool her fingers were, cold as rain. What I remembered forever was the sound of her breathing, and love, taken for good from the underside of my heart.

This selection comes from Wanting Radiance, available from The University Press of Kentucky. Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Gokul Prabhu.

Karen Salyer McElmurray won an AWP Award for creative nonfiction for her
book Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey and the Orison Award for
creative nonfiction for her essay “Blue Glass.” She has had other essays recognized
as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays, while her essay “Speaking Freely”
was nominated for a Pushcart Award. She currently teaches at Gettysburg
College and at West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low-Residency MFA.

Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.


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