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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

In This Light (19 page)

BOOK: In This Light
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Trace was the little thief who jimmied the lock of the garage where Merle Tremble had laced each spoke of his Hornet Deluxe, his Starlet, his Phantom. Cleo disappeared at eight, and now the girl gone without a trace was barely eleven.
Too big for your britches
, Daddy always said, but anybody could see she was puny. She wore loose T-shirts and baggy jeans, chopped her hair short, turned her baseball cap backwards.
I’m a boy
, she said,
halfway. That’s the real problem.
She could never mind her p’s and q’s, never cross her legs in church, never sit still like a lady. Cleo Kruse was a six-year-old bully, suspended from first grade—two months for pinning and pounding a third-grade boy who called her
Little It
, who pulled her from the monkey bars, flipped up her skirt and said,
If you’re a real girl, show me.

Boy or girl, what did it matter now? Out here in the woods, down in The Child Dump, everybody was half-human. If you stole groceries to eat in Depot Park, you could convince yourself you might go home someday, scrub yourself clean, eat at your mother’s table. But if one day in August you got so hungry you ate crackling bugs rolled in leaves, you had to believe you’d turned part lizard and grown the nub of a tail. Cleo had eaten bugs in leaves so many times she decided she liked them.

Jodie, Van, Kane, Kristian—Faith, Finn, Trevor, Nova.
They broke Didi’s heart with their gifts and their hunger.

Sufi wanted to twirl like a dervish, spin herself into a blur, turn so fast the back became the front, the air the breath, the girl nothing. She wanted to stop eating forever, to grow crisp and thin, to see through herself like paper.

She didn’t believe in theft. If nothing belonged to anybody, how could anything be stolen? Objects passed, one hand to another, and this was good, what God wanted, so she was glad to ride the Starlet out of Merle Tremble’s garage, grateful to be God’s vessel, perfectly at peace as she watched Cleo buzz ahead on the Hornet, and Nuke disappear on the Phantom.

Caspar, Skeeter, Dillon, Crystal—Renée, Rhonda, Bird, JoJo—Margot, Madeleine, Quinn, Ezekiel.
Swaddled in her narrow prison bed, Didi counts the lost children as she tries to fall asleep—so many came to her door, and now she wants to remember.
Cody, Kira, Joyce, Jewell.
if ninety-nine were found and one missing, she wouldn’t sleep: she’d search the woods all night, calling. Nate carved his own name into his own white belly, a jagged purple wound that kept opening.
If my head’s smashed flat, my mother will still know me.
Ray taught the others to make beds of boughs. Cedar is soft enough, and young fir with blistered bark smells of balsam, but spruce will stab your hands and back: a bed of spruce is a bed of nails.

Didi tries to rock herself to sleep, but the rocking brings the children close, and she sees their lives, so quick and sharp, one dark cradle to another.

Dustin, Sam, Chloë, Lulu—Betsy, Bliss, Malcolm, Neville. Oh, Didi, you sing their names. Mercy, Po, Hope, Isaac. Let them all join hands. Here is your ring of thieves. Let them dance like fire around us.

IV.  THE LOVER

When Didi Kinkaid was good, she was very, very good. She fed the poor. She sheltered the homeless. She lived as Jesus asks us to live: turned only by love, purely selfless.

But when Didi Kinkaid was bad, she abandoned her own three children, deserted Evan and Holly and Meribeth for nine days one January while she lived with Daniel Lute in his log cabin, perched high on a snow-blown ridge above Lake Koocanusa. Later, she swore she didn’t understand how far it was, how deep the snow, how difficult it might be to find a road in the grip of winter.

She slept fourteen, sixteen, twenty hours. She woke not knowing if it was morning or evening, November or April. Daniel Lute’s cabin whistled in the wind at the edge of outer darkness.

He fed her glistening orange eggs, the fruit of the salmon, its smoked pink flesh, his Russian vodka. Ten words could fill a day, a hundred might describe a lifetime.

They made love under a bearskin,
a Kodiak from Kodiak
, and the bed rocked like a boat, like a cradle, and the cradle was a box, sealed tight, sinking to the bottom of the lake far below them.

Daniel was a bear himself, tall but oddly hunched, black hair and black beard tipped silver, a man trapped in his own skin, condemned to live in constant hunger until a virgin loved him. Didi couldn’t break that spell, and for this she was truly sorry.

On the seventh day, Daniel dressed in winter camouflage and left her alone while he stalked the white fox and the white weasel.

In utter silence, all the skinned Kodiaks walked the earth, bare and pink, like giant humans. Didi woke drenched in sweat, the skin of Daniel’s bear stuck to her.

His fire flickered out. She’d never been so cold. She thought she’d die here, the stranger’s captive bride, her face becalmed by hypothermia. But her children came to drag her home. Their muttering voices surged, soft at first, then angry. She tasted Holly’s black-licorice breath and smelled Evan’s wet wool socks. Meribeth said,
It’s time, Mom. Get up.

The children sat on the bed. Didi felt their weight, but never saw them. Tiny fingers pinched her legs like claws. Two little hands gripped her wrists and tugged. Six tight fists pressed hard: chest, rib cage, pelvis, throat.

The basin by the bed was full. It took all her strength and all her will to rise from this bed of death and go outside to piss in the snow. Her clamoring children had grown furiously still, unwilling to touch, unwilling to help. She ate smoked herrings from a tiny tin. They tasted terrible; they filled her up. She pulled Daniel Lute’s wool pants over her own denim jeans and cinched them tight with his leather belt. Though the bearskin was heavy, she took it too, just in case she couldn’t make it off the mountain, just in case she needed to lie down and sleep inside the animal.

She returned with gifts to appease her children: $309 in cash, two pounds of smoked salmon, a silver flask with a Celtic cross, still miraculously full of Daniel’s brandy.

She came with a preposterous tale, the truth of sinking thigh-deep in the snow as she climbed down the ridge, the luck of finding the road around the lake before dark, the blessing of hitching a ride with an old woman driving herself to the hospital in Libby. Adela Odegard had crackers in the car, five hand-rolled cigarettes, half a thermos of coffee.
The gifts of God for the people of God: Body, Blood, Holy Ghost.
Didi ate and drank and smoked in humble gratitude.

Adela Odegard looked shriveled up dark as an old potato, a woman so yellow, so thin, Didi thought she might be dead already, but her wild, white hair glowed and made her weirdly beautiful.

In Libby, Adela delivered Didi to her nephew, Milo Kovash, and Didi slept on his couch that night. In the morning, Milo gave her ten dollars and dropped her at the truck stop diner. He knew a waitress there named Madrigal, and the waitress had a friend named Fawn who had a little brother named Gabriel,
Gabe Lofgren
, sixteen years old and glad to skip school to drive Didi Kinkaid down to Kalispell.

A story like that could turn the hard of heart into believers, or the most trusting souls into cynics.

V.  HOME

Didi’s children chose to believe.
Mercy
, she thought,
who deserves it?
She smelled of creosote and pine, smoked herring, her own cold sweat gone rancid. She had Daniel’s pants and belt as proof—so yes, some of what she remembered must have happened.

After her shower, Didi wore the bearskin around her naked self, his head above her head, and her children stroked her fur: their own mother, so soft everywhere. The Kodiak had a face like a dog’s. He might be your best friend.
From a distance.

Didi told her children that the cabin above the lake was dark as the inside of a bear’s belly.
Swallowed alive
, she said,
but I had a silver fishing knife; I stole it from the trapper.
She showed them the jagged blade.
I cut myself out when the bear got sleepy.

Now the Kodiak’s skin was her skin, the gift of the father she never had, Daniel Lute: she could wear him like a coat, pin him to the wall, use him as her blanket.

Didi and her children drank Daniel’s brandy, and the ones who wanted to forget almost did forget how they’d lived without her.

Two nights before Didi returned, little mother Meribeth, not yet thirteen, had made soup with ketchup and boiled water, crushed saltines and a shot of Tabasco. Every morning of the week, she got her ten-year-old brother and sixyear-old sister to the bus on time—so nobody would know, so nobody would come to take them.

Though Evan might pull Holly from her swing, though Holly might bite him, though Meribeth might scold them both—
You little shits
, might cuss them down,
I’m so damn tired
—they belonged to one another in ways that children who live in real houses never belong to their brothers and sisters.

Only Holly stayed hard now, refusing to eat Daniel’s fish, loving the pang of her hunger, the fishing knife stuck sharp in her belly. Brandy burned her throat and stomach, and she loved that too, the way it hurt at first, then soothed her.
Mother in a bottle, the slap before the kiss, the incredible peace that comes after.

What do I know of Didi’s grief? Who am I to judge her?

The day I became a twenty-two-year-old widow, the day my husband, who was a fireman, died by fire—not in a trailer or a house, not as a hero saving a child, but as a father driving home, as a husband who dozed, as a man too weary to turn the wheel—that day when my husband’s silver truck skidded and rolled to the bottom of the gully— when three men came to my door to tell me there was no body for me to identify—only a man’s teeth, only dental records—that impossibly blue October day, I began to understand why a woman might refuse to dress and forget to wash, how a mother might fail to rise, fail to love, fail to wake and feed her children.

Didi, I know what it means to melt away, to repent forever in dust and ashes.
My daughters lived because my brother found us. My children ate because my brother in his bitter mercy stole them.

Lilla, Faye, Isabelle—most darling ones, most beloved— though I lay in my own bed, I deserted them in spirit.

In the days after the trailer burned, in the months after Didi Kinkaid went to prison, people said she got what she deserved.
But Didi, what about your children?

One Friday night, as Didi lay rocking in the cradle of Daniel Lute’s bed, Meribeth and Holly dressed up in her best clothes—a slinky green dress, a sparkly black sweater. The little girls teetered on their mother’s spiked heels. Evan let Meribeth paint his nails pink and glossy. Holly rouged his cheeks and smeared his mouth red while he was sleeping. In the morning, the boy glimpsed the reflection of his own flushed face and soft lips, and before it occurred to him to be ashamed, he thought,
Look at me! I’m pretty.

Didi, no matter what we deserved, our children deserved to stay together.

VI.  MOTHER

After her nights under the bearskin, Didi made a promise to always get herself home before dawn, to never again let her children wake alone in daylight.

She vowed to love her work. That’s where the trouble started. She’d spent the whole dark day hunched over her sewing machine, drinking and weeping like her own pitiful mother.
Oh, Daphne!
Seven years gone, ashes scattered to the wind from a high peak in Wyoming, and still, after all this time, she could blow through a crack under the door and make her daughter miserable.

They were ashamed together, mending clothes for the dead who can’t complain and don’t judge you. Didi saw Daphne’s crippled hands, each joint twisted by arthritis. Mother needed her whiskey sours, her Winston Lights, her amber bottle of crushed pills—though the killers of pain made it hard to sew, and the smoke made her bad eyes blurry.

Seeing her mother like this made Didi wish for the father she didn’t have. Murmuring beekeeper, Jehovah’s Witness, busted-up rodeo rider with a broken clavicle—who was he?

Be kind
, Daphne said.
Any man you meet might be your daddy.

Didi’s real father was probably the hypnotist at Lola Fiori’s eighteenth birthday party, the Amazing Quintero, who chose Daphne because, he said,
Pretty girls with red hair are the most susceptible.

Under his spell, Daphne was an owl perched on a stool, a wolf on all fours, a skunk, a snake, a jackrabbit, a burro. She hooted and howled. Quintero made her ridiculous.

Alone, in Quintero’s room, the hypnotist blindfolded her with a silky cloth, its violet so deep she felt it bleeding into her.

Didi imagined her mother on her hands and knees again, not hypnotized, the scarf tied around her head like a halter. If this was the night, if Quintero was the father, if her mother hooted and howled and bucked and brayed the night Didi was conceived, the whole world was horrible.

As Didi sewed, as Didi drank whiskey and water, as her own fingers ached, as her own seams grew crooked, she thought,
There you are, Mama. I’m just like you.

At dusk, she delivered the pressed clothes to Devlin Slade’s Funeral Home: a gray suit for a handsome young man and a white christening dress for a newborn baby.

She meant to drive straight home. Rain had turned to sleet, and all the dead were with her. She was almost to the Hollow, almost safe with her children in the trailer, and the sleet softly became snow, and she thought God must love her even now, despite her fear, despite her sorrow. In the beams of her headlights, He showed her the secret of snow: each flake illuminated.

Each one of them, each one of us, is precious.

Mesmerized by snow, Didi didn’t see the deer until the animal leaped, with astonishing grace, as if to die on purpose. The doe bounced onto the hood and crumpled on the slick pavement, but she didn’t die, and Didi stopped and got out of the truck and walked back down the road to witness the creature’s suffering. The animal lay on her side, panting hard, legs still running. Frenzied, she tried to stand on fractured bones. They’d done this to each other.

BOOK: In This Light
6.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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