Authors: Melanie Rae Thon
“Fish big as men, peering in the windows, looking at her, I saw them. And she's cold, Lizzie, she's so cold. I saw her last night, right there.” He pointed to the window. “She said, âI can't see, Daddy, the water's too dark. The water's in my eyes.' But she stared at me. She saw me. She blames me.”
My father believed his water dreams.
“Please,” I said.
He pounded the bed with his fists. “No. I won't believe it. I won't believe she's dead till I see her face.”
People were looking for that boy, but he'd vanished like a vapor off the water, leaving no tracks and no scent. Father wasn't the only one who took it personally: there was a fervor to the search, as if Roger Skeba had stolen each man's daughter. Some folks swore that Red Elk must have guided the boy over the mountains. Who else could have done it? The old hatred flared. But no one went after the big Indian. They'd seen him leap into a burning building and survive. They knew they didn't have a chance with such a man.
On the seventh day the men working the lake dropped a line and hit metal. It took all afternoon to get it hooked up, and it was almost dark by the time they dragged the plane off the bottom of the lake and hauled it to the shore.
But it wasn't too dark to see the girl slumped in her seat, still strapped tight by the belt. The men stared at her through the windows, their eyes wide as fish eyes, and they were afraid to open the door, and they were afraid to touch her and know her name.
We wouldn't have heard the news until the next day if Arlen hadn't come flying into the house, shouting her fool head off, the joyous bearer of bad tidings. Daddy jumped out of bed and started pulling on his pants while Mom stood in the doorway, arms crossed, shaking her head.
“Where do you think you're going?” she said.
“Looking for that boy,” said my father. “We oughta lynch that boy for what he did.” But already he was swaying, his muscles flaccid from days in bed. He had to sit down before he fell on his face.
“You're in no condition to chase after anyone. Besides, that boy's long gone.”
“He killed my baby.”
“No, Dean, some other girl, just a stranger.”
But he didn't hear her. He rocked on the bed, clutching at his side. He looked as if someone were squeezing the breath out of him. “It hurts,” he said, “hereâand here.”
Mom whispered to me, “Call Dr. Ben. Tell him to get here quick.” She sat down next to Daddy and held him while I went downstairs to make the call. Arlen was halfway down the block already, going from house to house spreading the news about the girl and telling her own story over and over, saying she'd seen that boy swim away from the wreck, and if Les had only believed her for once in his life they might have caught him. Yes sir, he'd be in jail this very night, and if he'd lived till the trial, they might have seen some justice done. That poor girl.
Dr. Ben appeared at the door in twelve minutes flat. For once he understood there wasn't time to spare. By then Daddy had curled up on the bed with a pain that shot from his groin to his shoulder. Mom was sure he was having a heart attack, that's how his father had died, sprawled on the floor at fifty-two.
Dr. Ben pressed and poked, shook his head, poked again. I thought the worst, but all that feeling and head shaking only meant that Dr. Ben didn't have a clue. “It's not his appendix,” he said, “I know that, and his heart sounds fineâto me.” He put the stethoscope on Daddy's chest again. “Yes, yes, I think so, it's fine, just fast, that's all, from the pain, I suppose.” The doctor didn't instill great confidence in me. I wondered if his hearing was good enough to listen to a man's heart. “I'll just give him a shot,” he said, “a little something to get him through the night.” I remembered Arlen calling Dr. Ben a horse doctor for the way he doled out tranquilizers.
“I'll check on him in the morning,” the doctor said. “Call me if there's a problem.” Daddy moaned; he didn't think he'd last till morning. Dr. Ben filled the syringe, jabbed my father's butt, patted Mom on the arm and said, “There now, he'll sleep straight through. Don't you worry.”
But we weren't worried about him sleeping; we were worried about him waking up. The shot did its work: Daddy's fists uncurled. Still, I wasn't convinced Dr. Ben had done the right thing. I'd seen my father bring a hammer down with all his might and smash his thumb. I'd seen him cut his leg nearly to the bone. In times like those he swore until I thought his head would spin off, but he never let out a whimper as he did tonight, a helpless animal cry. That's how I knew this was different. And that's how I knew this was bad.
I grew up trusting this doctor. He was always old, his eyes filmy, his hands soft, his hair white and so thin the pink scalp showed. He'd taken care of me and Nina when we'd had everything from chicken pox to poison ivy. He stitched my head when I fell on the ice, and he did a pretty good job except that no hair ever grew in that one place behind my left ear. He was slow, but if you could just hold on, he'd come to your house no matter how late you called or how hard it was snowing. A child with a fever was the most important business in the world to him. But I didn't trust him now. Maybe he'd tipped into senility. How could he look at my father and not be afraid the man would die in the night?
Something else nagged at me and made me wonder about the doctor. I knew he couldn't do everything. I remembered Mother holding Nina's head on her lap. My sister cried and cried. She had just been to see Dr. Ben. She kept saying, “He won't do it, Mama. He won't do it.”
And Mom said, “Maybe he can't.”
“He won't,” Nina said, “that's all. He says it's wrong.”
“We're going to have to tell your father. He'll know soon enough.”
“Wait, please, just a few more days. I have to think. Maybe Dr. Ben will change his mind.”
He didn't change his mind, though, because in a few days Nina was gone. At the time, I didn't understand what the doctor had refused to do for her, but I knew now. He wasn't always right.
Even the tranquilizer wasn't strong enough to hold Daddy down for long. My mother and I watched as dreams tossed him. His eyes stayed closed, but his body raced up hills and down ravines, splashed across rivers in the dead of night. He was looking for that boy. He meant to kill him with his bare hands. Mother stayed to see him run, and I went to my room.
I opened my window wide, not wanting anything between me and God. I thought of Mrs. Graves. In times of trouble, she'd told us, we mustn't try to change things, only understand them. She'd understood why God gave her daughter a deformed baby, and I could see where it had led her. My mother was right about using your own head sometimes. I wasn't willing to trust God any more than Dr. Ben if it meant Daddy might die.
That night, I struck the second bargain of my life with God: I begged Him to take the pain from my father's body and put it into mine. I thought of Job with those sores from the top of his head to the soles of his feet; I knew how bad it could be. I took a deep breath and felt the first pinch in my own chest. I waited for more. I longed for it.
I closed the window halfway. The house was quiet. A breeze from the mountains felt almost cool and the leaves of the maples in the yard rustled like praying hands. I took this as a sign.
In the morning I felt a dull ache in my bowels, a throbbing in my head. I believed my prayers were answered, and that God in His infinite mercy was bringing my affliction on slowly so that I could bear it. I trotted down the hall to Daddy's room, expecting to see him sitting up in bed, smiling, his big hands folded in his lap. And I would sit beside him, suffering and holy. In my purity, I wouldn't stoop to reveal the reason for his recovery.
Mother looked up at me as I opened the door, her eyes puffy, bruised from lack of sleep. Daddy lay curled into himself, an unborn child, a fetus in a jar, his hands balled into pitiful fists. “Doctor's on his way,” Mother said. I closed the door and ran back to my room.
God had no justice. I told Him I didn't care who He was. He was wrong to let the devil tamper with our lives, wrong to give him the key to our house. God closed His eyes but the devil followed on my heels. God minded the rain and the stars, spun the planets, filled the oceans. He was too busy to look into my heart. But the devil loved my human soul, my failure, my lack of faith. Right then I told him he could have me. As soon as I said the words I felt myself torn loose, a limb snapped in a storm. I would never talk to God again. He would never fill me with our secret words. I'd just be dead when I died. I wouldn't mount the wings of eagles with the chosen ones. I saw my own bones, buried by sand, unburied by wind, again and again.
My sister walked through the desert of my mind. My father rose to follow her. But I called him back and he heard me, and he turned and lived. My soul was a small price.
Uncle Les and Arlen and Mom and I carried my father down the stairs on a makeshift stretcher. We loaded him on a mattress in the back of Dr. Ben's station wagon, and Arlen kissed him as if she didn't expect to see him again. It took an hour and a half to cover the fifty jolting miles to the hospital in Rovato Falls. Dr. Ben had a hunch; we didn't even shoot for Missoula. The X ray showed a gallbladder full of stones. That was all. My father got a good dose of morphine and a day of peace. Twenty-four hours later they operated.
I sold my soul for this. Some of us go cheap.
have recovered in a week, but there was something worse than gallstones inside him. He couldn't get over the fact that they never caught up with that boy who left his girlfriend in the plane. A. Friend wrote another letter to the
Rovato Daily News
saying Roger Skeba was already living in Nova Scotia under a new name. Other men in town were relieved just to know the boy was out of their county, but Daddy wanted to look him in the face. He wanted to see the eyes of a man who could leave a girl the way Roger Skeba did, a man who could swim to the surface knowing she didn't have a chance alone, leave her for fish to watch and strangers to find.
Daddy had shaken the feeling that the girl had Nina's faceâjust a dream; he knew and even said so. But he couldn't get over the idea that Nina was dead, that she could have been left anywhereâthe way Gloria Zykowski was abandonedâwithout our ever knowing. Nothing was going to make him well until he knew for sure, one way or another.
Mother had loyalty I couldn't fathom, devotion deeper than my fragile faith had ever touched. Her feelings for my father were too simple for the burden of words, so she didn't bother to explain.
She knew we had one chance of finding Nina, and she was willing to humble herself, willing to crawl in mud if that was what it took. She asked me to go with her, and I couldn't say no, but I was afraid. I thought the man we had to visit would just as soon kill us as look at us. No matter how I judged the world, I wasn't ready to die.
Daddy watched from his window as we pulled out of the drive. “Does he know where we're going?” I said.
Mother shook her head. “He's just afraid to be alone.”
The hot vinyl seat of the truck burned my bare legs. Dust swirled around us as we headed out of town on the old river road, filling the cab till our eyes teared. Mom pulled a handkerchief out of her purse. “Tie this around your mouth,” she said, but I wouldn't. If my mother was willing to eat dirt, so was I.
In the distance, lakes wavered where there was no water, then burned to nothing before our eyes. Mom wasn't altogether sure where she was going. Caleb Wolfe had given us directions. “We'll know it when we see it,” Mother said. “Just a shack with a privy out back. The sheriff said to look for a wide spot in Bear Creek.”
I saw plenty of wide spots, but no shacks and no outhouses.
“Are you sure we're on the right road?” I said.
“How many roads are there, Lizzie?”
She was right, of course. There was only one road. After a half hour or so, Mother let the engine grumble to a stop. I thought she'd given up, but when the dirt settled, I saw an unpainted wooden cabin with broken windows.
“This is it,” she said, “has to be.”
“Nobody's home.” I was ready to turn around; we weren't going to get any help from a man who lived in a hole like this.
“Hard to tell unless you knock.” Mom patted my leg. “Come on, Lizzie, just get out of the truck with me.”
As soon as our doors slammed, a hairless yellow mongrel tore around the side of the cabin, yipping and snarling, running back and forth across the path; he wouldn't let us near the hut.
The door of the cabin split open a crack, and a voice said, “Get on outa here. We don't want nothin' you got to sell.”
“I'm not selling anything,” Mother said. “I'm here to talk to Red Elk. Is he home?”
The door slammed. I heard the wood splinter on the hinges. “Guess he's not here,” I whispered. Mom stood in the yard with a look that said she could wait, an hour, a hundred years, what was time to us? The hairless dog circled us, cowering but slinking closer every second, his ragged, chewed-up ears flat back on his head.
The door squeaked again and Mary Louise Furey stomped out on the porch. Her long hair was scraggly, streaked with gray. She wore a man's shirt, size extra-large, and her jeans were ripped and ragged at the knees.
“I know who you are, lady,” she said. “I gotta gun. I don't got no sentimental feelings for children, either.” I believed her. A woman that ugly wouldn't be burdened with any feminine softness. She jerked her head in the direction of the house, and I thought I saw the glint of a silver barrel, the gun propped in the doorway.
“You won't be needing a gun, Miz Furey,” Mom said. “We're not here to stir up any more trouble. We just want to talk to your husband for a minute. Could you ask him?”