Pearls and Manners
by Lisa Giles
Format: Short Story | Genre: General Fiction
Content warning: insects
Mia wore weary like a perfectly fitted dress. The type of weary worn by women who let life live them instead of living it. You could see the fatigue all over her face. Even Mia’s outer eyes drooped so low that it sometimes blurred her vision, but today she saw clearly. Today her copper eyes were round, dilated, and full of eagerness. The day had come.
Her cocoa-colored skin, which had once glowed and bounced off the sun like light beams, was now dull and pale. Still, no one could deny that she was beautiful. The sharp cheekbones that ran through her family made her look permanently tense. She had tight curly hair, dark as midnight. Her mama used to say it gave her ‘the blues’ when she combed it. Her eyebrows were ‘sparse’ and ‘unruly’, as her friends would say. But Mia didn’t care about what other people thought; all she cared about was him.
Mia’s dress swayed in the harsh Mississippi wind, hiding her bosom and brushing against her thighs with each step she took. An all-white dress with laced crosses on the bottom trimmings, appropriate for the occasion. The tall grass and dirt road felt calming to her bare feet as she walked up to Mr. Reynolds’s shop.
Mr. Reynolds was a war veteran who had a shop on the side of the road selling old garments and things that he no longer needed. No one ever knew his age, but from his silver hair to his fragile body, it was obvious he had lived a long life. He sometimes screamed on stormy nights, like the others, but most people ignored it. It was said that he had not been right since his Wakening and that it was normal for people to have terrors. His wife had died a couple of years ago, and the town knew that it wouldn’t be long till he was next.
Every time Mr. Reynolds sold something, it came with a 30-minute story of why it was special to him. Since his shop was the only place in Bovina that you could get things, it was worth it. Going to town took more than 45 minutes, so the talks had become frequent and strange. He had once tried to sell someone an old lighter and claimed that it was the only thing that had kept him alive this long. He later told someone else that the lighter was the reason he’d lost a finger.
“Hey Mia, you sholl looking good today. Can you close that there door? I don’t want to let the bugs in. They drive me crazy. I’m happy you came by. I got some stuff here you won’t find no place else. You know this tie here came from North Korea and I use to use it to strangle m–”
Mia cut him off; she didn’t have time to listen to his stories today. It was already getting late, and she knew that the Wakers would be making their rounds soon.
“Mr. Reynolds, I’m in a rush nah and I’m in need of a red garment. I have a Wakening at the square this afternoon,” she said.
Mr. Reynolds froze and stared at her while rubbing his neck. She could tell he was a little unsettled, but, to her surprise, he started to laugh. He shook his head and began to tell the story of his Wakening.
“I heard that it was one today, but I didn’t know your fella would be in it. It seems like there’s a full tithe every month. I reckon they’ll have to make more room soon. I remember my Wakening. You know some people must go through it more than once to learn,” he giggled. “People can get stuck in their ways but thank the Lord that after my first one, I straightened up. I didn’t meet my wife till–”
“Mr. Reynolds, do you have a red garment or not?” she said while rubbing her arms. She didn’t want to talk about it. A wave of anger and sadness rushed over her as she heard her mother’s voice in her head:
I don told you young gals you never let them get the milk without buying the cow.
Mia watched as Mr. Reynolds limped to the back of his shop to get the garment. He was such a timid and delicate man, always so nice. She saw a picture on the wall of him and his wife. They looked so happy. She wondered if Mr. Reynolds’s Wakening had just been an oversight.
Snap out of it, Mia! All people aren’t good, she thought to herself.
“Here you go, lil lady. It’s a lil dirty, but it’ll do. I’ve been tryna get this here stain out for years. You know maybe it’s there because that girl put a be–”
“How much will it be, Mr. Reynolds?” She really needed to get going.
“You know what? This one here is on me. I’m happy that I can have a hand in such a growin moment. I can’t leave the shop, but I’ll throw in some candy for the youngins. Ya know it seems like just yesterday that I we–”
Mia snatched the garment off the counter. “Thank you, Mr. Reynolds!” she said as she ran out of the shop and back home.
Her mother had told her this day would come. She had always warned her that being too nice was going to get her hurt.
Mia, you just too soft, chile. You let people just run on ova ya. No doubt you are gon have a Wakening. Most people have to these days anyway. I wish the Wakening was around when I was younga; it would’ve saved me a heap of heartache. Back then we let em get away with too much.
Mia had never believed in the Wakening. She hadn’t considered it necessary. She’d thought that since it had been twenty years since they’d started, people would know better than to break the Decree. But here she was preparing for one.
Once she made it back to the house, she immediately wished things were different. She looked around, and it no longer felt or looked like home. There was glass on the floor, and the furniture was all messed up. She got a glimpse of their picture on the wall and decided to get to the square before she changed her mind. She headed upstairs and felt each creak in her heart as she walked to their bedroom. Mia took a deep breath before opening the door.
As the door opened, she saw his lids slowly lift. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he’d been tied up. She’d known that the drugs wouldn’t last all day, but had hoped they would when she’d slipped them into his food the night before. His hazel eyes pierced her as she stood in the doorway. He convulsed back and forth, angrily trying to free himself. He jerked toward Mia, and she jumped. She watched the veins bulge out of his arms and neck as he tried to break free. She could hear him trying to scream her name through the tape over his mouth. Skin like honey and an even sweeter mouth. He had talked her out of this before, but this time she needed to do it. Mia didn’t trust him. His dark features – which she’d once loved so much – now incited hatred. Each time she looked at him, she was overcome with so many emotions: Anger because she’d believed they were different, Sadness because he’d lied to her, and Fury because she was now forced to take part in this stupid tradition. A tradition they’d made fun of together, but this time he’d left her no other choice.
All the memories rushed over her as she yelled, “WHY DID YOU MAKE ME DO THIS, GABRIEL?”
It was a voice he had never heard before. He stopped moving and stared at her. His eyes were round and stuck. A glimpse of the red garment behind her back made him realize what was happening. She had threatened him before, but had always changed her mind. She saw his tears fall and walked over to wipe them away. As her fingers rubbed his chiseled face, she felt the urge to let him loose, but she couldn’t. Mia could tell he loved her. It was obvious they were special, but did he know? He closed his eyes and leaned his face into her hand.
Mia whispered, “I’m sorry that I have to do this.”
Annoyed with how stupid he felt she was being, he jolted himself at her, but fell on his side.
She sprinted down the stairs and hung the red garment on the door, signaling for the Wakers to come.
When they arrived, Gabriel got in the back of a truck with nine other people. He looked around and noticed that some were familiar, but others he had never seen. He assumed they were from town. They all had tape over their mouths like him, but no one dared make eye contact. Gabriel was unsure if it was out of disbelief or shame, but he felt neither. An overwhelming feeling of anxiousness and helplessness washed over him. He started screaming and tried to get himself to stand up but felt a hand pull his arm. It was one of the men in the truck. He locked eyes with him, and without a word, Gabriel understood and calmed down. He knew how this went; they all did. This was now their tithe. All ten of them would be responsible for each other from this day forward. If one of them disobeyed the Decree again, all of them would be punished. He had heard stories of those who’d tried to escape their Wakening. They were then tried for ‘bearing false witness’, and their whole tithe was sentenced to a worse fate.
The truck stopped. Gabriel could hear laughter outside the truck. They were at the square.
Mia walked past rows of picnic blankets on the square and saw ten wooden tubs lined up on the stage. The smell of magnolias and fried fish was in the air. Families were sitting around, waiting on the Wakening to start. Kids ran around barefoot playing tag, laughing, and throwing rocks. Ms. Smith was selling her sweet tea and lemonade; there was already a line forming. Everyone loved her tea and lemonade, as well as her fashion. Ms. Smith wore an all-lime green skirt suit with a matching elaborate hat. Like most of the woman there, she also had on pearls.
Mia’s momma had said:
Southern women should always have two things: pearls and manners.
Mia had neither.
Ms. Smith was a friend of Mia’s mother. Mia’s heart sank, thinking about the questions and looks she would get when people realized Gabriel was in the Wakening. Bovina was such a small place; everyone knew everyone. Mia decided to get some tea while there weren’t a lot of people around. The last thing she wanted was for them to start asking her questions.
“How’s your mama and n’em, Sally?” Ms. Smith asked the girl ahead of Mia in line as she poured her a cup of lemonade. Mia rolled her eyes. Why was everyone always so nosey? she thought.
“Such a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Ms. Smith said to Mia as she walked up to the table.
“Yes, ma’am, it is,” Mia answered as she waited for her cup.
“Mia, it’s so good to see you, honey. I think about your mama all the time. She was such a sweet woman.”
“Thank you, Ms. Smith. Can I get a cup of sweet tea, please?”
“Of course, you can! You know I’m here for you if you ever need me. You only lost your mama a couple of years ago, and now Gabe is in the Wakening … bless your heart.”
Mia took a deep breath as she set the money down on the table. “Thank you for the tea, Ms. Smith,” she said then grabbed her cup while mumbling, “Nosey bitch.”
She walked to find a place to sit when the town hall bell rang, signaling the start of the Wakening. She saw the tithe being walked in one after the other. She wondered if Gabriel could see her.
The Mayor of Bovina’s wife, Madam Shirley, walked up to the podium. The Mayor never came to the Wakening. He would say that his attendance there didn’t look good, but the town thought otherwise. Madam Shirley was a middle-aged woman and had been married to the Mayor for ten years. She was the epitome of a perfect southern woman, a woman of God with both pearls and manners. Her straightened auburn hair touched her shoulders. Madam Shirley always wore heels, and today her soft pink skirt-suit complimented her beige skin perfectly. But no matter how nice she dressed, she always had a confused look on her face, like God was saying something in her ear that she could never quite understand.
“Good afternoon, everyone! Ain’t it such a beautiful day? The sun is shining, and the Lord’s blessings are shining even brighter! Am I right?”
The audience nodded and praised in agreement.
“Today we have a new tithe who have sinned. We all fall short in the eyes of the Lord sometimes, but we would not be doing the Lord’s work if we didn’t punish the ones who have consistently disobeyed God. Stand with me as we recite our Decree.”
Mia saw everyone standing and got nervous. She knew if she didn’t stand, people would notice. She mumbled the words and stood as the Madam began, “And the Lord said …”
The audience followed:
“I am your Lord thy God,
There should be no other gods before me,
No graven images or likenesses,
You should not take my name in vain,
Remember the Sabbath day,
Honor thy father and thy mother,
Thou shalt not kill,
Thou shalt not commit adultery,
Thou shalt not steal,
Thou shalt not bear false witness and
Thou shalt not covet.
These are my commandments; may you obey them always.
In Jesus’s name, we say, amen.”
Everyone in the audience sat down, and Madam Shirley signaled for the Wakers to bring the tithe up on stage. She continued with her speech.
“Ephesians 5:23 says, ‘For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.’ The Wakening’s mission is to hold our men up to the standard of God, amen? Here are the ones who have lost their way.”
Madam Shirley began to call their names as the guards stripped them bare and walked them on the stage.
“Julius Stanley, Corey Johnson, Derrick Turner, Gabriel Scott …”
A woman yelled out, “God, NO!” while hysterically sobbing. It was forbidden for onlookers to make a scene at the Wakening. As everyone turned to condemn her with their looks, Mia glanced over to see a woman with a crying little boy holding her leg. Mia assumed she was from town because she had never seen her before. But somehow the little boy looked familiar. He had a chiseled face, dark features, and hazel eyes that Mia knew too well. Tears began falling down her face.
Gabriel walked up on stage with the other men. He looked over to see their heads bowed down. He glanced out into the crowd and felt what all the other men had since getting into the truck: shame. Now everyone was going to know.
After the Madam called out their names, the Wakers began seating the men into the wooden tubs and locking their hands into handcuffs on the sides of the tubs. The Wakers poured water into each tub as the Madam finished her speech.
“Peter 4:12–13 says, ‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation.’ Let’s spread the love of God on them.”
The Wakers smeared honey on the faces of each man and removed the tape from their mouths. Gabriel wanted so badly to protest. At least it would show how much he hated this tradition as well as their blind faith, but he just sat there, knowing it would be worse if he did.
“These men will suffer as Christ did for two weeks. We are thankful for our Decree and our many blessings to have second chances. Let us cover these men with God’s protection as we close in prayer.”
Mia didn’t pray, and today was not the day that she was going to start. She didn’t want God to look over him. She wanted him to suffer without escape.
After the prayer, everyone packed up and left. The sun began to set, and no one dared to stay around but Mia. She sat there, staring and waiting.
It didn’t take long for the mosquitoes, flies, and insects to latch on to the men. The smell of honey caused them to swarm around their heads, buzzing in their eardrums, picking and pulling at their skin. Mia saw the wasps and yellow flies flying closer to them, and she smirked. The screams were deafening and sorrowful as the bugs crawled into their skin, searching for a home. Mia had the urge to look away but couldn’t. As it grew darker, Mia lost sight of them. She focused on isolating Gabriel’s pleading screams from the others. When she finally heard screams from his lying tongue, she smiled and enjoyed her sweet tea.