Authors: Barbara Bell
I stare. Cynthia told me that she was going to come, but I didn’t believe her. She told me that Miriam had seen me in the hospital, but I didn’t believe that either.
I gaze at Miriam, trying to remember that feeling I used to get whenever I saw her. That something in my heart. But I’m not all the way alive just yet. I’m still carrying around the body of a dead woman.
Neither of us says a thing for a long time, and I feel myself floating, like on that raft. I put my hand on the glass separating us. She takes off her sunglasses and I see her eyes.
I have to admit, she looks pretty damn bad.
“You’ve got to eat more. I told you about that,” she says, tears starting to run down her cheeks.
I don’t say anything. I hang up in the air, knowing how close she is to me, and that she isn’t some dream I use to bring myself suffering.
Miriam swallows and looks down. “I fucked you over bad, Becca. I owe you an apology.”
“No, Miriam. Let’s not waste these few minutes on that.”
She nods, wiping her cheeks with her hands.
“I want to tell you a story. You’ve always wanted me to tell you things. I want to tell you about Mama.”
She’s looking up at me now, crying.
“Well, as you can see from the picture, she was fat. Mama couldn’t read a word, and we were poor, but she gave Vin and me something that was better than all that. You know, everybody thinks it was your interview with Oprah that did me in, and I have to admit, it was pretty bad. But you didn’t start it.”
Now she puts her head down for a minute and sobs good and hard. I wait until she’s looking at me again.
“I don’t know when it started, but I do know that it was the fire that night that’s gotten into me so deep. That and Ben’s basement.”
I brush my hair out of my eyes and look down.
“Anyway, Vin woke me up. There was so much smoke. We all slept in one room on a big mattress next to one another. Vin and me shook Mama. We hit her and kicked her, trying to get her to wake up. She wouldn’t wake up!”
I pause for a moment, wiping my eyes. “Because of the smoke, I guess. We each took an arm, pulling hard. She was too heavy. Vin and me couldn’t budge her.”
Now I start crying. “I lay down on top of her like I was going to keep the fire off, and I could hear her heart still beating so strong and hard. I wrapped my arms around her neck and told her I would never leave her. But Vin, he was bigger than me. Vin dragged me off her. I fought him. I tried to break his face. He wouldn’t let go, just pulled me out of there.” I have to stop for a bit.
“I always blamed myself for her death. And Vin, of course. We weren’t strong enough. It was my fault.”
She leans forward and places her hand on the glass, looking like she’s going to say something.
“No. Let me finish.” I try to blow my nose, but it’s impossible. Ben broke it so bad that no air can get through.
“The real kicker is that nobody came. We were just the rats that lived down by the river, eating out of their Dumpsters. Vin and me sat and watched the whole thing burn down to nothing.”
I wait for a bit, trying to compose myself. “But that’s what I want to tell you. I’ve spent my whole life doing crazy things like jumping off of bridges because when it came right down to it, I knew nobody would come.
“So you can apologize all you want, and I do think you fucked me over some. But we can talk about that some other time. I want to thank you for coming.”
We both sit very still, like the people in Rivertown. I don’t know how much time goes by.
“Becca,” Miriam says breaking the silence. To hear her say my name again hurts me. But I close my eyes because I sense how glad I am that she’s here.
“I’ve talked to Cynthia,” she says. “I’m going to turn myself in. She thinks the most they’ll charge me with is withholding evidence.”
I nod, staring down at my hands.
“That means they’ll have to release you,”she says.
I don’t look up. “Maybe,” I say. “Maybe it would be better if you didn’t do anything. I don’t think I can go out there right now. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
She’s silent for a long time. “Please look at me, Becca.”
She waits until we’re staring at one another.
“I know I haven’t given you any reason to trust me,” she says, “and that you might not want to do this, but I want you to come home with me. I know you’re not right yet. But I can help you.”
She’s quiet then. I don’t know what to say to her. Home. What a strange word. I never have been able to understand what it means.
That’s when the guard comes to let us know that time is up. I stand.
“Cynthia and I are going to the judge this afternoon,” she says before I leave.
I nod, looking down at the floor. But as the guard leads me off, I turn, walking backward so I can keep her inside my eyes.
She doesn’t waver. Her eyes never stray. I am all that she sees.
This is my morning ritual. I wake and lie still, listening to Miriam’s breathing. I feel her heart against my back, and how she trembles with each breath. Her body, naked, is wrapped around mine.
I move just a bit, and she wakes, pressing herself closer. Then she props herself on an elbow and stares into my eyes. She runs her hand along my side. We kiss and kiss, long and soft, not making love, just touching each other like we’ve been murdered and now wake up damaged but kinder.
Her warmth brings Mama to mind, and Mama’s voice those nights so long ago when the river swept by, when the stars at night were so clear and white they made your heart ache just to think about the day and how it begins fine as silk in a corner of the sky.
“Everything’s fine now,” Miriam says, whispering in my ear. “It’s all over.”
I close my eyes, feeling her breath against my cheek. I don’t say a thing, because I know she’s wrong. It will never be over. It plays and plays in me. I repeat to myself that I must learn to wait. I must gain the moment of the ache and pass it through so that it goes from one end of me to the other.
Over time, I hope to learn to make more space. So far, I’ve managed to avoid slipping through the film, to ride the length of the undercurrent, and to surface somewhere near Rivertown.
Miriam sits on the edge of the bed. I mold my body to hers, kissing her back. She lies against me and takes one of my hands, running her fingers over mine.
We dress and eat breakfast, then get in the Taurus that we rented at the airport. Coming in from downstream, we hit Fowler first. I step out of the Taurus and take a long look at the eddy. It’s still collecting junk. Some things don’t change.
We cruise the little town with Dew Street, with the Beauty Box still in business, and Mama’s favorite Dumpster in place, only it’s bigger now. As we drive down that dirt road where Mama walked a thousand times with her grocery bags in her hands, Miriam’s eyes take in the shacks. The yards are full of scrawny dogs with tits dragging the ground, and piles of broken stuff nobody else wants.
Miriam starts going pale. “When I read your stories, in my mind it doesn’t look like this,” she says. “Your stories are so full and rich.”
“We were rich,” I say. “And Mama would sing.”
I park the Taurus and stroll through the grass, making my way to where the two-room stood. I can see the outline of the house because the weeds grow taller there. Beside it the buttercups still bloom. And now a mimosa has taken root, arched over like a vase.
“This is Mama’s grave,” I say to Miriam. I kneel down, lying my head where Vin and Mama and me slept so many nights. And I feel the heat that is trapped in this place.
A fire that hot never burns off. It smolders and waits within. And someday, my fire will be as wild and hot as Mama’s fire. Those that watch me burn will have to keep moving back, worrying for the willows.
I take Miriam by the hand, pretending I’m fine, and we walk to the river. It’s low in the banks. The mudflats are full of footprints and gnats. Miriam sits along the water’s edge and I sit behind her, holding her, watching the river, brown and glassy with swarms of bugs and damselflies. A single leatherback rises out on the mud and slips back.
My eyes take in the far banks, a sky hazed over with heat, and the secret moving of the river.
By evening we’re in Rivertown. The sun is lighting it up like alabaster and pearl. I talk to all my people, thanking them for watching the tooms. I drape buttercup necklaces over the statue of the beloved daughter.
Then I kneel beside the box that I’ve kept safe these few months, and I open it with a knife. Inside is a plastic bag. Inside the plastic bag is ash.
Be you blithe and bonny
I start to cry. Miriam takes the bag from me until I’m done. Then I lead her to the rise, where you can look out over the river, seeing how it winds and turns about. Nearby, the big old live oak waits and watches.
“This is where Mandy and I used to sit,” I tell Miriam. “We’d watch the river, seeing how it looked like a solid thing. But we knew better, even back then.”
Miriam hands the bag to me. I take a handful and throw it over the edge, watching it sift the air onto the water. I throw out another and another.
She is carried away, all her caresses, her hands, her lovely body. And her voice, the voice that awakened me. She is gone like a breath is gone.
Sleep water and sleep fire, beautiful Kat. Sleep without shivers, without the long hiss of trouble and love. Sleep like grass, like sheen of the August moon, gentle as a leaf, stroking the mad river into solace while the willows hold still, trapped in memory.
Silly me. Memory is myth, shortness of breath. Love us for what we are not. Then leave us with a kiss.
Barbara Bell, a poet, songwriter, and professional gardener, lives in the Indianapolis area. This is her first book.