From Rise the Euphrates:

In winter, Outside was the universal threat. If the dog cried and would not stop, it was put Outside; Van returned home late from a party, and he was forced to shovel snow until the darkness fitted him like a glove and the wind rose and Outside taught him to regret; you were fool enough to lose your key, they would find you hours later frozen Outside.

“Stupid dog,” I said leaning against the wall.

Momma’s eyes fell on me, her mouth thin with worry. She was appraising me the way an impatient gardener might who had gone off to fetch a hose and returned to find weeds.

I chanced a look at her: sure enough, her mouth was fixed, but something had come up in her eyes, some light. She was running fingers through her blue-black hair, then down the front of her dress, smoothing the folds of fabric, as she mulled me over.

“Seta,” she said, her voice soothing, “now I’m going to ask you something and it’s all right, you’re going to answer.” Momma wrapped a finger around a strand of her hair.

“What,” I said, hiding my hands behind me.

“Honey, you doing your dreaming by daylight?”

“No,” I lied.

“Mmm, hmm. Now, take your time.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” I snapped. “Seems stupid, you ask me.”

“That’s all right, now.” Momma chuckled, covering her mouth with her fingers. “Well, you don’t say.”

“No, Momma, I don’t say.”

“Watch the mouth.”

I sighed and watched the stairs.

“And—” she said, soft as a hum, “you’re doing something new with your hair.”

“I’m just trying it on the side, that’s all. Momma, quit staring.”


“Momma, quit.”

“I’m just looking.”



“Well, what do you think?”

“Your hair? Nice. Nice change. Brings out your features.” She reached over and ran a dry palm across my forehead, then down the back of my hair. “My baby’s growing, that’s what I think. Think that means I’m an old broad before I turn around.” Momma chuckled and this time she did not cover her mouth, showing me her white-white smile. “Seta, you think your mother’s an old broad?”

The air around us was alive, dancing alive air.

“I think you’re beautiful, Momma,” I confessed, the words spilling from my mouth simple and true, they were the truest words I possessed. “You are the most beautiful.”

“Don’t be silly,” Momma said, but she pulled me to her anyway. Our arms around each other, we found a comfortable place. It had been a long while, a year, maybe two, since we hugged like this, and in the interim I had grown to her height. I had grown awkward, too. I worried about where to place my head. But Momma’s smell softened the worry and I was reminded of past comforts as my head found its nest on her shoulder.

“Miss America-the-lummox,” I said, making Momma laugh as we swayed back and forth.


I squeezed her tighter.

“My Seta-Sue.”


“You listening to what I’m going to tell you? You ready to listen to your mother?”


“Well? There’s something I want you to remember. When a girl finds it’s time to become a woman, she’s first got to do some things to get herself ready. Some things the body’s done. Others she’s got to do in her heart. The world’s gonna change for her and she’s got to get herself ready. You see? She’s got to walk through some rooms, inside. Yes, she does. She does she does she does.” Momma rubbed my back with her palm, making big circles. “Hmm?”

I nodded into her shoulder.

“There’s mine,” she murmured. “You keep on going. You’ll make it.”

The way she kept on with the giant circles was making me feel pleasingly small. Her voice made me want to ask about the rooms and confess I had changed my mind, I did not want to go.

Momma kept on making circles, her chin resting on my shoulder. “You know that hunger for touch—well, it just gets bigger. You think it’s on account of being young and boy crazy, but it just gets bigger.”

I picked my head off her shoulder to ask her what, what got bigger.

“Shhh-shh,” Momma said, quieting. She rubbed my back and spoke her thoughts. “Someday you’ll know. It gets big and wide as a mouth—”