What is Known of Those Who Came Before

Melissent Zumwalt


  1. Up Soak Creek, West Virginia, in 1923, the first offense is being born cross-eyed. The second is being born a girl.
  2. When a twelve-year old boy taps Helen on the shoulder, she turns to him. The boy scrunches his mouth into a goofy shape and crosses his eyes, laughing at her. The boy is nobody, a nothing. But these are the moments that steal Helen’s confidence and leave her defenseless. Why does he have this power?
  3. A doctor informs Helen he can fix the cross of her eyes, but she may end up blind in the process. She replies, I would rather be blind as cross-eyed. And then she is blinded in one eye.
  4. What’s the value of a half-blind girl with an eighth-grade education? She is good for mopping the kitchen floors and sweeping the front porch, for canning home-grown tomatoes and hanging the wash out to dry, for running after her seven younger siblings (six sisters and one baby brother). Her worth measured by how much she can do for others.
  5. When the coal mine in Welch caves in, it kills Helen’s father. At sixteen, she grows up a little faster still.
  6. As the country enters World War II, manufacturing plants in big cities entice women to come, to leave their homes, to be part of the war effort, to demonstrate their civic pride. Had Helen ever dreamt of such opportunity? Of new experiences? Of places teeming with street lights and automobiles and the rush of human bodies? Because now she is sent to Detroit with her sister, Ruth, to earn a living and provide for the family.
  7. What does a throbbing city like Detroit look like to two young women from Soak Creek? What does it sound like to two women who have never fallen asleep away from the verdant hills of West Virginia?
  8. Oh, how homesickness overtakes them! Homesick for Sunday dinners with the rest of their sisters, eating pork chops and handmade biscuits and garden greens and yellow cake. For church services imbued with the Holy Spirit, the congregation writhing like an entity possessed, singing and shaking and speaking in tongues.
  9. And what does it feel like for Helen, at twenty years old, a woman with lustrous, black hair and high cheekbones and an hourglass figure, to receive attention from men in this new place? Soldiers on leave, passing through a city where the air swells thick with desperation and passion. So many dashing men with boyish grins and strong, calloused hands and broad shoulders and pressed uniforms. These men, with their intensity and their urgency really notice Helen, in all her beauty for the first time.
  10. Within the year, Helen is pregnant.
  11. The soldier-father expresses no interest in his baby. Helen returns to Soak Creek, alone, to her childhood home. She gives birth in the same room where she herself was born, assisted only by her mother and eldest sisters, the sheer unadulterated pain of it exploding through her young body.
  12. Up Soak Creek, West Virginia, in 1944, the first offense is being born a bastard child. The second is being born a girl.
  13. The sins of the mother become the sins of the daughter.
  14. The pastor stops by the family home for a visit. He takes one look at Helen’s mouth, where she has just applied a new shade of red lipstick, and mutters to her face, Once a whore, always a whore.
  15. Word gets around town, Don’t let your kids play with those Jones girls. Not any of them, not Helen’s younger sisters, not her baby girl. They are guilty by association. It runs in the blood. To be fast and loose. No one wants to catch it.
  16. As a Christian woman, a family woman, Helen understands the shame she has brought upon those closest to her. She wants to make amends, to right the situation. And for this, she knows she’ll need a man. But what kind of man would lay claim to such broken property?
  17. Enter Norvell. (Where did she find him?)
  18. Helen’s baby reaches her second birthday before they marry. They lie about the birth year, to try to legitimize the little girl’s existence, to make it seem she was conceived under the umbrella of holy matrimony.
  19. This doesn’t fool everyone, but it fools some, including Helen’s baby, who will never understand her real age. And it allows Helen’s sisters a means by which to fool themselves, to take the God’s honest truth with them all the way to their graves.
  20. What kind of man indeed?
  21. A brutal alcoholic with an unyielding wrath, whose fists and rage explode into a horrific combination, making impact upon Helen’s defenseless body, again and again. Helen’s baby girl growing up witness to this violence. Helen’s baby girl subject to her own world of abuse from those who think a girl born out of wedlock is ill-reputable from conception, so why not treat her that way?
  22. Society tells Helen this is the best she can do for herself, for her baby. She believes this is what she deserves.
  23. Helen learned how to work, really work, from an early age, so early she cannot remember being taught. Maybe she always knew how to work. Maybe it was bred into her DNA. The essential trait needed by hardy, Appalachian women in order to survive.
  24. This trait serves her well now, being tied to a man who is too drunk to maintain a steady job.
  25. They live in rooms with no furniture. In basements that flood. The wages offered to Helen are meager. Everyone knows women do not support families. That if they work, they do so only for a little “pin money,” to buy baubles and trinkets.
  26. Norvell sleeps around with other women. Countless other women. He is nothing but a noose around Helen’s neck, and those looking on nod and wink, allowing his grip to tighten.
  27. During his exploits, Norvell contracts various diseases of a sexual kind, which he indiscriminately passes on to his wife.
  28. Helen demonstrates her worth each day. By working long hours at multiple jobs. Cooking dinner every night. Taking beatings from her husband. She does not have the time, the energy, to tend to her own needs, her own health, as it declines.
  29. But infections like these, left unattended in the body, flourish and fester. Proliferating, magnifying, morphing into cancer of the cervix, consuming the body from the inside out.
  30. Helen passes away at only thirty-eight years old.
  31. Or rather, Helen is killed by her philandering husband at only thirty-eight years old.
  32. Helen is survived by her once baby girl, now teen-age daughter, Rebecca. Rebecca, whose life was roiled in abuse and poverty from her first breath. Rebecca, who will never be able to outrun the trauma she was born into.
  33. Rebecca, named after Helen’s own mother, who will go on to bear a daughter of her own, Melissent, whose name means industrious and true, just like those who came before her.
  34. Although Helen’s granddaughter will never know her, the granddaughter will carry on her legacy. Of strength. Of work. Of a life mired in shame. How many generations will it take to erase the memory of these injustices from our bodies?
  35. And what if?
  36. What if Helen had known she was deserving of a better life? What if she had broken with convention and stayed in Detroit, raised her baby there, the anonymity of the big city serving as her ally?
  37. What if when that little boy crossed his eyes at Helen and laughed, Helen had told him to mind his own business? That she already knew how beautiful she was?
  38. What if Helen had known she was enough?


Melissent Zumwalt is an artist, advocate and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has appeared in the Whisk(e)y Tit Journal, Full Grown People, Oregon Humanities’ Beyond the Margins and the Oregon Quarterly. She learned the art of storytelling from her mother, a woman who has an uncanny ability to recount the most ridiculous and tragic moments of life with beauty and humor. Read more at melissentzumwalt.com.