Authors: Melanie Rae Thon
Bo was still flopping, a great fish beached in a storm. One by one the other worshipers pulled away, afraid of his huge hands. Only Freda Graves still touched him, her fingers on his head, her face turned up toward the cracked plaster of the ceiling.
Now everyone spoke at once, praying and weeping in pantomime, each one alone with God. Joanna Foot rolled from side to side, her fat round body rocking, a curled-up ball of flesh. Her husband crouched near a chair. He pushed his glasses up on his forehead and rubbed the bridge of his nose where the wire-rims had made his skin red and sore. His lips barely moved.
The Fat Lady was not as fat as Joanna Foot. She wore a dress of emerald green with huge, loose sleeves. When she raised her arms, the cloth spread like dark wings above her head.
Minnie Hathaway twirled, an old ballerina who'd lost her sense of balance. Her red lips exaggerated each strange word, like secrets whispered to a lover in a crowded room.
I looked for Myron and finally spotted him in the darkest corner of the room, his face turned to the wall, his spine a curve of shame.
Everyone jabbered at God in a private language; I wondered how He could hear them all. The only ones saying the same prayer were the Lockwood twins. Eula was short and dark and Luella large and fair. Once they were identical, but disease had stooped and bent poor Eula, and a one-week marriage had turned Luella's hair white at an early age. But they still thought as one. They wore matching sweaters, pale pink with pearl buttons. Their dresses were always made of real silk, their stockings sheer and gray. Hand in hand, eyes screwed shut, heads together, they spoke in the same tongue, and smiled, eyes still closed, as if they had both heard God answer.
But I don't believe even the Lockwood twins understood each other. No man in that room knew what mysterious force moved in him. No woman recognized her own words. Some were lifted by joy, some stricken by holy pain. One danced, one twitched, one hung his head, but not one fell to his or her knees.
We Lutherans sat in neat rows, bowed our heads, mumbled in unison. Reverend Piggott reminded us of our flaws and failures. But here, in this room, people jumped and shouted, wailed and were forgiven.
Freda Graves surveyed her flock, a smile growing, tears or sweat rolling down her cheeks. All at once her body tightened. She sensed me: a spy at the window. She glared at the unclosed blind, at my gray eyes. She knew me, I was certain. I flattened myself against her house, directly under that window. The blind shot open; light flashed above my head.
I heard her palm hit the glass and felt it like a slap on the inside of my chest. I made a mad leap, hit the alley at a gallop, knocking over her garbage cans as I swung through the gate. The metal cans rolled across the gravel, raising such a clatter that lights popped on all over the neighborhood. People stuck their heads out their windows, shouting at things they couldn't see, banging windows closed, slamming doors, yelling at me and then at one another as if they had been holding back for months.
By the time I reached the place where I'd stashed my bike, I tasted blood in my mouth and realized I'd bitten deep into the inside of my lower lip. I pedaled down the middle of the street where I was safe beneath the yellow glow of the streetlamps.
I got home at ten and found Mother sitting at the kitchen table, her eyes red and swollen. She knew my lies. I saw her sick with worry all these hours, thinking I had run away for some reason neither one of us could fathom, imagining I had disappeared at the edge of town. I was ready to fall on my knees and confess, ready to promise never to tell another lie as long as I lived.
But she didn't scold, and I realized her suffering had nothing to do with me. The house was too quiet. The air had the stillness of rooms inhabited only by women. Then I knew: Daddy wasn't there.
The uncut cherry pie sat in the middle of the table, a mute accusation in the perfect latticework of its crust. I put my hand on my mother's shoulder, lightly, afraid of her sorrow, how it bled from her body into mine. She reached up and squeezed my fingers, denying me my pity. “It's nothing,” she said. “You get on up to bed. School tomorrow.”
Much later I heard Father fumbling with the lock. He tripped on his way up the stairs and cussed. Mother had locked herself in the room where her own mother had slept and died. Daddy pounded at the door. Minutes after he stopped I heard the sound echoing down the hall.
I lay in bed, thinking of the prayer we used to say at the table before we ate:
Father, we thank thee for these mercies
. I thought of the Lord's Prayer in church, all our voices raised at the same time with the same words, until the chapel hummed with the pulse of a song beyond music, a song strong and low enough to reach the tired, overburdened ears of our Father in Heaven. And I thought of myself as a child and Nina as a child, our little hands folded, our sweet high voices together:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul will keep
I was afraid as I had never been afraid because I knew I had no words, I had no voice to talk to God.
lived in silence for the better part of a week. Every day Mother worked in her garden, jabbing her yellow spade into the cracked earth until the whole bed was black and moist. Soon her poppies would blossom, their blooms unfolding, petals drooping. Poppies are more delicate than roses. A hot day destroys them, a hard rain leaves them in tatters. But their stalks are tough as little trees, woody and dull: nothing touches them.
At the dinner table my mother and father spoke only the necessary words: “I need to use the truck tonight,” she might say; and he would answer, “Tank's almost empty.” Then they both went back to spearing peas, their forks clinking against their plates.
Sooner or later I knew Mother would break down and ask a favor of Daddy. “I wish you'd clean out the garage and take a load to the dump,” she might say. This was a dreaded job, neglected through a year of Saturdays. But this time Father would be grateful and comply, buying her pardon with his sweat.
In the meantime Gwen Holler distracted me. I lived by her whims. For days she might ignore me, not returning my phone calls, sitting in her room while I banged on her front door. But when she whistled, I ran; when she smiled, I forgave. And if she spoke to me in a hushed voice, gooseflesh raised the fine hairs on my arms and legs.
If Gwen was in the mood after school, we played our game in the gully, became the trapper and the Indian girl. We added characters, but Gwen always got to be the girl and I had to be everyone else.
We climbed down the ravine one afternoon in October. “Catch me,” Gwen said, her voice low and husky, barely a whisper. She darted through the brush. I stumbled, scraping my knee, picked myself up and sprinted after her. We ran a hard quarter mile before I took a flying jump, caught her legs, and brought us both to the ground.
“Did you think I was your Indian girl?” she said.
“The trapper wouldn't mistake any woman for the one he loves. He'd know her, just by her smell.”
“If he got crazy enough, he might see her everywhere. He might think every dark-haired girl was the Indian. He might see her in a rabbit or a waterfall. You don't know how far out of his head he got. If you chase someone for a long time, you could see her in anything that moved.”
I nodded. Sometimes I saw Nina when I stood by the pond and glimpsed my own reflection. Sometimes on Main Street I spotted a girl with golden hair and ran to catch her; but when she turned, she was too young or much too old, her face was scarred by acne or her eyes were small and dark.
“You be the trapper,” Gwen said, “and I'll be the girl. Give me ten minutes, and then come looking for me, okay?”
“No fair turning into a waterfall,” I said. “I'll never find you.”
I gazed into the woods and began to count the minutes. Fall had come quickly. Already the leaves of maples and willows had turned rust or yellow. In a week, they'd be blown to the ground. The tamaracks were golden, brilliant in the sun, but they looked like dead pines, victims of a beetle kill, and it was difficult to believe those needles would ever be green again.
I saw Gwen from across the pond, her dark hair knotted in two braids and her skin tawny in the afternoon light. When I got to the other side, she'd disappeared. My heart beat so hard that my chest ached, and I thought this must be what it's like to chase someone day after day and never reach her.
I caught sight of the girl again, running along the edge of the creek, with her shoes in her hand. This time I nearly had her, but she splashed to the other side. By the time I got my shoes and socks off, she'd vanished in the woods like a rabbit down a hole.
For an hour or more I pursued her, until my legs throbbed from running and my shirt clung to my sweaty back. I was the trapper, desperate to find this girl I'd been tracking half my life. The crackle of twigs being broken as someone scrambled through the brush made tears well in my eyes. She was close. I crouched, trying to be quiet, patient:
Now you can touch her if you can only wait
. But my breath came in hard gasps and blood rushed in my ears. I smelled my own sweat; she would smell me too and become her own shadow.
I kept falling into the places she'd been. Pockets of air felt hot and still, as if another person had just stopped there to rest, her body flushed; leaves quivered where her shoulders had touched them; footsteps made the earth vibrate. She led me deeper into the woods, away from the pond. The trees grew close and dark; deer moss hung from the low limbs, brushing against my face like hair. Suddenly I knew where she was going. Her thoughts leaped into my head: that's how close we were. I almost laughed out loud, knowing I had no need to hurry now, knowing she'd hide in the tree house. She thought it was a safe place. High in the trees, she could see every finch and squirrel. But the back side had no windows. If I took a wide circle, she wouldn't see me until I made a mad dash for the ladder. The tree house was a trap; she'd have to fly to get free.
I grew calm. It was all so simple in the end. I lay on my stomach behind a rock and watched her climb the rickety ladder. I tasted dirt. I was a skittery lizard, a long snake, all things evil and smart. The tree house swayed with the girl's weight. The silence in the forest was too deep: as if the river had run dry. She knew I was there, just as a sleeping child knows when someone stands over her and stares at her through her dreams.
I waited. I had the rest of my life. She'd have no chance to tumble down the ladder and slip through my hands like water.
She poked her head out the side window. When she ducked inside, I tore down the path and was on the ladder before I heard her squeal. I took two rungs at a time. The dry wood crackled under my heavy feet.
I filled the doorway and she backed into the darkest corner. “Don't be afraid,” I said.
“I left you,” she answered.
“Your brothers kidnapped you.”
“I didn't fight them.”
“You couldn't have won.”
“I should have fought them until they killed me.”
“No,” I said, “you should have done anything to stay alive so that I could find you.”
“Death is more honorable.”
“Death is for the weak.”
“Do you forgive me?” she said.
“I never blamed you.”
“Then kiss me.”
All at once I was no longer the trapper. I was myself and the Indian girl was Gwen Holler. I remembered how she spit and wiped her mouth the last time we kissed. I didn't want to be the trapper any more than I'd wanted to be that greasehead Gil Harding. She'd tell me I did it wrong and I'd want to jump out the window because climbing down the ladder would take too long.
But I wanted to touch her. I was light-headed from running through the woods, and I knew how good it would feel to lean against her. I wanted my legs to stop shaking. She took a step toward me. I couldn't move away: one step backward would send me hurling out the door.
“Prove that you don't blame me,” she said. She was so close I felt her breath on my lips.
I put my arms around her. I kissed her eyebrows and her hair; I stopped to kiss her brown cheeks and her smooth, hot neck, but I didn't even try to kiss her mouth for fear I'd miss again.
At last she was the one to put her hands on my cheeks and pull me toward her. I tried to keep my eyes open, to see her mouth; as she got closer, she seemed to have two mouths and two noses. I closed my eyes and hoped.
Her lips were so soft I almost jerked away, but she held my head tight in her two hands. I felt I touched something no one should touch, something frightening and delicate, a petal that could be torn by a rough finger, a poppy that could be bruised by rain. I wondered: Do my lips feel as fragile to her? I caught a butterfly once, though Nina cried, “Don't touch it, don't touch it.” And when I let it go, it couldn't fly.
Gwen opened her mouth and ran her tongue along the ridge of my teeth. Now I was less afraid: her tongue was strong, protecting her lips.
She whispered, “Do you trust me?”
“Yes,” I said. I would have told her anything just then.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said.
“Close your eyes.”
“Hold out your hands.”
I did. I heard her pull her belt from her pants, the
of leather on denim. She cinched it around one of my wrists. “Keep your eyes closed,” she hissed, then softer, “trust me, trust me,” a whisper close to my ear, her cool breath on my neck. She tightened the belt around both wrists then forced my hands down so she could loop the tail through my belt. I was cinched up to myself, a manacled prisoner. “Count to ten,” she said, and I felt her brush past me, heard her on the ladder.
This was her surprise. She ran now. Dry twigs cracked. Once, she looked over her shoulder and saw me in the doorway, my face crumpled in despair, a stupid man. She laughed her woman's laugh. I knew what it meant. I had heard that laugh before, Aunt Arlen's laugh in the middle of a fight with Uncle Les when both of them were drunk. “I shouldn't have married such a short man,” Arlen said. “Mama warned me.” The words had some secret meaning that made her snort and spout and finally erupt, throw back her head and laugh from her gut. That sound beat my uncle down. He shrank, hands in pockets, chin on chest; he slouched, neckless, just as I did now.