You are reading Fiddleblack #11
At midnight her mother asked that she stop giving her rags and just bring a pot to bleed into. Rene did as she was told and carried the tall graniteware pot into the bedroom and set it beside her mother. On the bed was a small pile of dishrags and handkerchiefs soaked and heavy, and the air was heavy with the coming rain and the smell of the blood. Her mother took the rag from her face and set the pot in her lap and leaned over it. She was pale and a little sick looking from the low electric light unshaded across the room, and her hair just in the few hours seemed to have gone stringy and rough. A few moments after taking away the rag a shadow appeared at her nose and ran and the blood began to drip into the pot, rapping dully.
We need to get you to the doctor.
I’m fine. It’s just this weather. If it cools down some it’ll stop up.
It’s not going to cool down. She stood by the bed and looked out the window at the white flash of lightning against the curtains.
Why don’t you chip off some ice and wrap it up for me? Maybe that will help.
Alright. Rene stepped around the bed to gather the rags and her mother batted her hands away. She went out into the hall and the dogs circled her feet like cats. All the lights were on, the hall and living room yellow, and had been since the bleed started before dark. She took the last clean rag from the drawer in the kitchen and took the rickety wooden stairs down into the pantry to the icebox. It was cool and dry, and she could never shake the thought of tornadoes when she came down. A pick stood against the side of the icebox and she opened the door and shaved away several flakes of ice and gathered them in the rag and hurried back. As she came into the room Rene’s mother sniffed and her tongue flicked over the maroon dripping down her lips.
Mom. She handed over the ice.
Thank you, this’ll fix me right up.
Rene grabbed the pot. The blood ringed one side, almost black at the bottom of the blue.
Get some sleep, honey. Her mother folded the rag over and held it to her nose, tilted her head back. I’ll be fine in a bit. Her eyes were warmed by the hidden smile. Better already.
Rene backed to the doorway. Holler if you need me.
She lingered a moment, examining her mother’s stare, before shutting off the lights in the living room and hall. She let the dogs onto the porch and followed them and sat on the wooden chair. The porch was screened in and she could almost hear the mosquitoes struggling against the wire. There was a dash of light from over the woods and it retraced and boomed and the dogs cowered. She eased her head over the chairback and rocked slowly. She was tired, had been tired. A Hank Williams song was playing in her head and she couldn’t name it. There was another flash of lightning and still no rain. The German Shepherd barked and began to moan.
Hush, Horn. Do you want back in? She stood up and opened the door, both of the dogs sliding inside. She sat again and closed her eyes and felt the storm finally break. There was a draft of cool air and she imagined the curtains billowing in the dark in her mother’s room and her mother sighing and easing in the bed. From across the road there came a sizzle and rain poured from the sky, beating on the gravel drive. In the dark beyond the light of the horsebarn was the frame of a Gothic two-story, halfway built. The land had been theirs until her mother’s husband left two years ago, and they had to sell it. A carpenter and his son had come a month ago and surveyed the area while she was taking the horses out. The dogs had come barking and running down the short slope and up to the sold property and she left the horses to call them back. The son was young and handsome and he eyed her, shuffled his feet. Sawyer was trying to jump on him and she pulled the dog back by the collar and apologized, dragging him away and calling for Hornblower before anything could be said. She put them up and walked the horses, watching the men go about the property and return to their truck and drive off. Holly had come up to the fence in interest and it was a moment before she jerked on the reins and turned the horse away.
Now the house was half-built, the carpenters there continually. The son came over every so often asking for water and her mother would bring a glass or get him some tea. Before they had left just hours ago he had knocked and she answered, fresh in from town and still smelling of meat. He smiled when he saw her and put a hand in his pocket, brushed his blonde hair back with the other. He didn’t want water, he said. He said his father and her mother had talked a little about them, and that wasn’t she interested in books? She had to say yes, and so he led her off the porch and around the new wire fence that separated the properties. The yard was muddy from all the trucks rolling back and forth and he led her over a series of plywood planks until the grass was intact and they stepped off, rounding a corner of the frame of the house and at the back he pointed at a pile of books, covers eaten through, the pages inseparable, pulped. He stood aside while she looked them over, stacked them on the soil. They must have been her father’s books. The last was tall, the cover heavy and almost bleached but the pen marking “Roni” on a faded line made her heart wring out.
Isn’t that your name? He’d asked.
No. She opened the book and the cover peeled and began to shred. Inside there was a short lock of hair, dark, dull red, ribboned to the inside. Her own baby book was shelved inside the house.
The lightning had moved on to the east and the flashes blued the yard and cast a weak shadow from the roof. It was still raining, softer, and Rene could hear the water running down the gutters. She’d put the books back where they’d been found.
By morning the rain had sunk into the ground and the sun rose up steaming the grass and it was so muggy Rene thought she might be drowning minute by minute. She washed and looked in on her mother in her bedroom. She was asleep still and there was no rag under her nose. She took the pot from the bedside and ran water from the kitchen tap to loosen the blood like the skin of a soup. Their Townsman sat in the drive washed clean from the rain and when she went out to start it she saw the carpenter and his son were already across the way. The son waved and she nodded. The car turned over reluctantly and there was a new rattle under her feet as she pulled out onto the road. It had been paved just a year ago and pitch bubbled out from the macadam, popping under the tires in the heat. Vapor rose in strands. She turned toward town and climbed the hill out of the deep woods. The land flattened, opened up. A barn on the left, a few cows and a few more farther in. Rolling over the railroad tracks at the edge of town the rattle loosened and was quiet. She pulled in behind the grocery store and parked. She went in the back through the rows of boxes and pallets to the far end of the building where her butcher’s corner sat. She took her apron down from the wall and draped it over her head, pulled her hair back into a ponytail and covered it with a net.
She turned and saw Ollie at the counter, leaning on the glass case. They just keep coming, don’t they? Rene stood on the other side of the case and set her elbow by the scale.
How’s Lilah doin’?
She tilted her head to the side. Well, she got this nosebleed last night that just went on for hours and hours. Other than that, okay I suppose.
Get it stopped?
Sometime before she fell asleep.
Ollie stuck out his bottom lip and looked off at a wall. Well you tell her to take care.
She nodded. Ollie stayed at the counter for another minute and wandered off, down the canned goods aisle. Rene took a rag and wiped the pattern of Ollie’s arm from the glass. The green paper lining the inside of the case was old, left from last night, and a few worms of ground chuck lay near the front. The first customers started filing around the store while she replaced the paper, older folks, a man Ollie’s age carrying a can of coffee and the newspaper.
She set about polishing the countertops in front and back, cleaning the grinder and the old Kalorik. The metal everything had been burnished through and no longer gleamed. Her reflection was only a shadow, gray and nearly shapeless. She could almost see her eyes in the blade of the Kalorik once she’d finished cleaning it, and the dark red of her hair, but only almost.
On her lunchbreak she considered driving back home to check on her mother, but Ollie dropped in and they sat in the back of the deli next to the freezer, eating quietly. Rene finished her sandwich and crumpled the paper and threw it away. She tapped her fingers on the table, eyed the far wall.
What’s eatin’ you?
She looked up and shrugged. The usual things. The Townsman has a new rattle. Mom’s got that nosebleed.
Well. It keeps going just get her to the doctor. He’ll fix her up.
She nodded. She held the door for Ollie to go through and then she wiped the table clean of crumbs from their lunch. He’d left the paper for her and she brought it out and sat on the stool behind the deli counter and read it. There was a picture of troops in front of a school in Arkansas, blocking some black children. She turned the page, folded the paper up and slid it to the far end of the counter.
When her shift ended Rene opened the driver side door on the Townsman and waited for the heat to fade. Her hair and her clothes were colder than the air and she felt the cool even out and the sweat appear at her temples. The car started hard and stalled when she put it in reverse, then caught again and she was able to get it out onto the street. A local garage went by on the right, then houses, good houses, and then the town was through. The car clattered over the railroad tracks and she went on slow through a stopsign, the intersection empty. When she pulled off into the drive the horses stuck their necks out over the fence and the dogs were out on the porch. There were no cars next door, and she was thankful for that. She eased the Townsman to a stop and when she shut the engine off heard a cicada call in the woods behind the house. It stopped before she reached the front door and let the dogs swarm her, circling.
Settle now you two. Set. She pushed through them into the house and let the door shut behind her. Mom? She went on past the bedrooms, looking in on her mother’s to find the bed empty, the window still open. The breeze was warm but not as bad as the day before. Mom?
On the couch.
Rene came into the living room and peered over the couch at Lilah. She was lying with a rag up to her face and her eyes were closed. How bad is it?
Oh, not so bad. I just can’t get anything done around the house one-handed. I wanted to sweep this morning but I started dripping on the floor. There was a slight stutter, a breath. How was your day?
Fine. She sat on the chair across from the couch. Pretty slow. They were quiet. Rene suddenly wanted out of the room. It was stuffy in the silence and her mother seemed to take up all the space. She had yet to open her eyes. Can I get you something?
No, I’ll get up in a minute.
I’m going to go cut some wood.
Lilah began to shift her legs to the floor. I’ll start making dinner then.
Take your time. Rene stood and patted her mother’s shoulder, still reclined. She passed back down the hall and went out the doors, letting the dogs go with her. They ran straight to the road and back, kicking dust, tongues aloll. She got the ax from the horsebarn and looked at the two cords of wood already stacked at the side of the house. There were still several sections of oak to be split before she’d have to start cutting down more trees. She’d stacked the wood near the property line and from the stump she used as a base she could see the back of the framing. The sun had gone behind the woods and the shadows stretched long across the yard and it would almost be pleasant if the humidity dropped. She set a log on the stump and gripped the ax, brought it to her shoulder. She could do this her whole life. Long ago she had learned to aim for sides, not the center, and to find cracks, and she knew how hard oak was, and maple, and spruce. She liked her calluses. She liked living here years back, when it was just the two of them and the road was unpaved and there were no neighbors.
Finished, she rolled the wheelbarrow out of the barn and loaded up the wood and dropped it by the stacked cords. Coming back for the ax she looked across the fenceline at the framing and she let the wheelbarrow down and hopped over the wire, feet sinking into the earth when she landed. It was still mostly mud around the foundation and she walked carefully to the spot where the earth had been turned up. The books were gone. She searched around herself, back into the weeds behind the house. The air was thick with sawdust. She trudged around to the front of the house and stepped in. It was all raw wood inside and there were no walls, just the studs in rows. When her eyes adjusted to the dark she walked among the ribs, passing through what would become rooms. She left and put the ax and wheelbarrow away, calling the dogs to the house. Something was boiling in the kitchen. Lilah had cubed up some potatoes and the skins lay on the counter, the pot frothing over. She turned the burner off.
There was no answer. She clicked the burner off and leaned into the hall. Mom? She passed to the living room. Lilah lay on the couch, blood thick along the crease of her mouth and running onto the couch, pooling there. Her eyes were closed. Rene knelt and shook Lilah’s shoulders and there was a wet sudden breath and her mother looked at her. She wiped her nose, unthinking.
We’re going to the hospital. You passed out.
No, honey, I just got a little dizzy is all. Give me a minute here. Are you hungry?
Rene took Lilah’s arm and sat her up. She clamped her own hand over Lilah’s nose and cast back and forth for something to soak up the blood. Stand with me, okay? Can you?
Sure. I’m fine, honey. She stood with Rene’s help and Rene set her against the back of the couch.
Rene got one of the rags from the laundry hamper and rubbed it between her hands to take the stiffness out and she put it up to Lilah’s face. Come on, let’s get going. She led her mother to the door, helping her through. There was a broken clump of dried mud right outside the door and a smudge of a bootprint. The carpenter’s son, filling the space of the print.
I’m really alright. I feel fine.
I left those potatoes on the stove.
I turned the gas off. Rene dragged her to the passenger-side of the Townsman and helped her in. Her mother looked up at her as she shut the door. She looked like she’d been shot, so pale and the blood now dry and wet on her face.
They’ll go to mush.
So they will. Rene sighed and got in the driver’s side. The Townsman started, the clatter hit hard and softened and was gone. She pulled onto the road and started toward town.
They’re just going to charge us for nothing, you know. The doctors’ll look up my nose and tweak something and we’ll be on our way with our pockets inside out.
Mhm. She nodded and kept driving.
We’ll have to eat those soggy potatoes. They’ll be all we have.
The hospital was on the far side of town. After a while her mother set her head back and seemed to fall asleep. The western sky was going rosy and there were clouds breaking over the horizon. The rattle started up again and she just drove faster.
Bo was asking after you again today.
The carpenter’s boy? Rene lifted her head back like she might say something. She held a breath for a while. They passed the dairy. Who’s Roni?
A little sound caught in Lilah’s throat. She lifted the rag higher, and all Rene could see was her eyes. Is this someone from town?
Rene bit in a breath and let it go. There were small dinner crowds standing in front of the few restaurants in town, a few cars at the stoplight. They turned on Route 56 and went out of town. The hospital was small, one floor. The lot was mostly empty and she parked close to the doors. Lilah started to get out and Rene hurried to help her, taking her arm and they went into the waiting room. She pointed her to a seat and went to the front desk. The clerk took her name and information and Rene sat down beside her mother. There was a black family seated across the room, two women and a young boy cradled in the elder’s arms. The boy was looking at them, at Lilah, the rag now all red. It wasn’t long before a nurse came through the doors in the back of the room and called Lilah’s name and she helped her mother to her feet. Rene glanced at the family as they passed, the boy watching until his mother jerked his shoulder. His skin was discolored, his eyes black holes floating in the bloodshot white. She wanted to bring him along.
They followed the nurse down the hall. She pointed them into a room and shut the door after them. She pulled a gown from a shelf and handed it to Rene’s mother. Put this on. The doctor will be a minute.
Alright. Her mother looked at Rene and then to the nurse. Will you turn around, please?
Rene spun. There was a poster of the eye on the wall, cuts of it like it had been put through the Kalorik. The iris was blue. Hers were brown, dark to the loss of the pupil, like the boy in the waiting room. Lilah was shuffling out of her pants and blouse, the paper cover on the table crinkling, and then she drew the string on the gown and sat. Rene turned. The nurse took Lilah’s blood pressure and had her tilt her head back to look up her nostrils. The skin was chapped and flaking and it wasn’t a moment after she took the rag away that the blood started to fall to her lips.
How long has this been going on?
About a day now.
The nurse put a hand on Lilah’s shoulder and started to lay her back. Lilah grabbed the edge of the table.
I can’t lay flat. All the blood sticks in my throat.
If you try it might clot. Just try. The nurse started to push her again.
I’ll get sick, miss. I’ve tried.
Leave her be, would you? Rene came between them. It hasn’t clotted yet. I don’t think lying down will help.
The nurse stepped back. She opened the door. The doctor will be in.
The door closed. Rene pulled the chair from the corner and it scraped across the floor. She sat and crossed a leg onto her knee. Let’s hope the doctor’s a little smarter than she is.
Oh, be nice.
Rene rolled her eyes. She rested an arm over the back of the chair. She thought of Bo at the door, handing Lilah the books. Her mother standing there with her hand to her nose, taking them and trying to smile through the rag. She hadn’t thought to look for the books in her room but she knew the baby book would be gone. Lilah may have thrown them all away. Her father’s things had stood untouched in the attic for five years after he left, but one day when she was ten she came home from school to see all the clothes and the handmade dresser, a telescope and chronometer, all thrown out in the yard. Her mother had piled brush cut back the week before over it all and after Rene got off the bus she set it ablaze. She must have missed the books or buried them long before. Late in the night Rene had snuck out and grabbed the telescope from the ashes with a cloth. It was blackened and when she cleaned the glass and aimed it at the moon she saw it was split and the crack was as black as the ash on her hands.
The door opened and the doctor came in holding a tube like toothpaste and he immediately went to the drawer for a long swabbing stick. He set both down and drew out a scope from his coat pocket and he put a hand on the back of Lilah’s head. Nosebleed, ah?
He tilted her head back and pulled the rag away to stick the scope into her nostril. He let a sharp breath out and stepped back. This is going to burn some. He took the tube and squeezed out a gray solid onto the swab. He put his hand on Lilah’s head and leaned her back the same. Her mother winced as he pushed the swab into her nose and he changed his grip and pushed it in further. Almost done. Breathe through your mouth. He was a moment longer and pulled the swab out. He dropped it in the trash and wiped his scope off with an alcohol pad and put it back in his pocket. That should do you. Go see the lady out front. He opened the door and was gone.
Well. Lilah stood. I don’t see why they made me strip down for that.
She turned to let her mother dress, saw the pallid and webworked flesh of her thigh as she bent for her clothes. When she finished they went out and Rene spoke with the clerk. The black family was still waiting, Rene meeting the boy’s eyes again. She helped Lilah out to the car and opened the door for her. The moon had risen a buttery yellow over the town and the land below it was black. As she bent to sit her mother put her hand to her face and made to sneeze. Instead a gout of dark blood pushed between her fingers and spattered on the pavement at their feet.
I’ll get the doctor.
No, Rene. Leave it be. What’s he going to do, burn me again? She leaned out from the car and held her hands in the air beside her hanging face. The spots of blood and the little pool below her head glittered in the yellow light. Just take me home.
Rene stood before her a moment and went around the car. She got in and Lilah sat forward to bleed onto the floor. Rene turned the ignition and the car buckled and shuddered from side to side like the engine had come loose and she let off. She tried again and the car rocked again and she gave it a little gas and it got worse. When she let off the ignition and tried it again there was nothing, only a click.
What’ll we do?
Rene opened the car door. I’ll call Ollie. He’ll take us home. She got out and slammed the door shut. Inside the boy was finally out of the reception area but one of the women was still seated. Rene stood up at the counter and waited for the clerk to come from a side room and asked to use the phone. The clerk directed her to a payphone outside.
I don’t have any change.
Well, miss. I’m not supposed to let anyone use the telephone.
I got some, ma’am.
Rene turned. The black woman was looking through her purse. She handed out a nickel and slung her purse back onto her shoulder. I saw your car shakin’ out there. My husband fixes them old Chevys. If you want I can tell him to come pick it up in the morning.
I don’t know that we can afford it.
He can just haul it to your place if you don’t want him to fix it.
Alright. Thank you.
Thomas Harmon, on Old Springfield.
Thank you. She paused, then put out her hand. I’m Rene.
Melba. Pleased to meet you. They shook.
Rene glanced at the clerk. Well, I’m gonna make that call. She went outside. Lilah’s back was visible by the domelight in the car, the passenger door open. Rene found the payphone and called Ollie. She hung up and went over to the Townsman, Lilah sitting sideways, her feet on the ground and legs spread and a slow drip from her nose.
He’ll be here soon. Can I get you something?
We haven’t tried it yet.
Rene crouched beside her mother. She waited to hear the blood drip but there was no sound. Rene saw the chrome plate of the ashtray in the dash and reached past Lilah for it. She found a few pennies. One of the women gave me a nickel for the phone.
That colored family?
She put her hand on the side of the car, nodded, and went in. Melba was standing at the desk with the boy and his mother, the women arguing with the clerk. The boy had started to sway and neither noticed and suddenly all the volition was out of him and he fell back toward the floor, Rene’s hand smacking off the tile and the boy’s head. She pulled him to his feet and braced his shoulders and his mother looked down.
Lord, the boy is sick! And you’re telling me he don’t need to stay? The mother took him from Rene and slung him up onto her hip.
I don’t have control over that. The doctor discharged him, I can’t do anything about it.
The woman glowered, and Rene could hear her breath coming through her teeth.
Am I going to have to call the police?
Melba tensed and then the mother whipped around, the boy’s head bobbing, and she went for the door. Melba met eyes with Rene. She followed the mother out and Rene started with her, then stopped after a pace. She looked at the clerk.
A lot of good you’re doing here, aren’t you? She was out the door before the clerk could respond. She felt like a long time had passed. Melba was standing in the parking lot waiting on her, the mother and son, walking to their car. The domelight was still on in the Townsman, and Rene thought of the boy looking over his mother’s shoulder at the sight, her own mother cradling her head, the boy’s eyes wide and yellow as the moon.
Thank you for catching him. We was about to throttle that woman.
I have half a mind to myself.
I don’t know what we would of done if he split his head open right there. They would’a maybe given him a bandage and sent us on our way.
They couldn’t help us either, if that makes you feel any better. Rene nodded toward the Townsman. I found a few cents in the car.
Oh, don’t worry about it. Melba turned and looked up at the moon. It outshone the stars and lit the periphery of clouds. The sky was nearly a painting. We’ll probably go see Hanner. It’s what we should of done in the first place. Last time we come up here.
Hanner Johnson. She’s got this shack at the river. I don’t know how she does it but she can heal things. Lays hands on whatever’s sick, snaps ‘em right back. Rene said nothing, and Melba shifted from foot to foot. Well, thank you. I got to go.
I hope he gets better.
She started away, a hand lifting back behind her. Your momma, too.
Rene watched her cross the lot. When she passed the Townsman the domelight began to dim and Rene jogged over. Shut the door. The battery’s one more thing we’d have to worry about.
Her mother rolled her eyes up to look at her. She pinched her upper lip between her fingers and flung the blood and stood. This is driving me crazy, Rene.
I know. She put a hand on Lilah’s shoulder and closed the passenger door. Down the lot Melba’s car pulled away. She and Lilah leaned against the front of the Townsman, crickets singing in the quiet. Her fingers felt damp from the wet air. After a while the headlights of Ollie’s pickup cut around a corner and approached. Rene waved to him when he pulled up and he leaned over to open the passenger door.
You ladies alright?
I suppose so. Rene got in, holding her hand out for Lilah to climb up. When she was seated Rene turned to Ollie. Thank you for coming out.
Tweren’t nothin’. He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and held it across the cab for Lilah. You holdin’ together?
She tried to take the handkerchief delicately, her hands stained almost as though she’d dipped them in iodine. I’m bleedin’ to beat the band, but I’m okay.
He put the truck in gear and they drove out. Down the road a stretch he cracked open the window and lifted out a Lucky Strike from his pocket and lit it. Rene was thankful to have the smell of the blood covered. Lilah had leaned against the door with her head tilted up, handkerchief finally pinched around her nose. Her eyes were half open. Ollie took a dip too fast and the truck lifted off the ground and they cried out, Ollie laughing and apologizing. He slowed after that and Rene saw him taking looks at her mother. He’d lit another cigarette and was almost through it when he turned and the road went to the new pavement and pitch.
Home sweet home.
Rene sat up and rubbed her face. Thanks. Mom?
I’m up. She opened the truck door with a metal shunting and climbed out before Rene could help her. The dogs began to bark. Rene slid out and stood aside and Lilah turned the handkerchief out at Ollie, still behind the wheel. I suppose I’ll hold onto this for a bit.
I got plenty more of ‘em. I ain’t concerned.
Thank you. She went off toward the house. Rene lingered at the passenger door, looking after her. The dogs went quiet when her mother reached the porch.
Have you ever heard of a Hanner Johnson?
Ollie made a face. The witch?
I wouldn’t know.
She’s crazy. Lives with them coloreds where the river oxbows.
Have you heard she heals people?
I hear she says she does. Far as I know she just waves a chicken claw in your face and spooks you into thinking you got better. Cure hiccups that way. He flicked the cigarette out his window. Your momma’s tough, Rene. She’ll wake up tomorrow or the next day and whatever’s wrong will of fixed itself. Don’t worry about it.
She stepped away from the door. Thanks for picking us up. Ollie waved as backed out of the drive. She stood there until the brakelights vanished. Hornblower was waiting for her inside the door and he whined until she patted his head and he trotted to the living room. Lilah was on the couch again in the same attitude, now with a clothespin pushed over the bridge of her nose.
I think this is working. I’m just going to lay here tonight. I can lean over easier.
Rene went to the kitchen and retrieved the pot from the sink. She hadn’t cleaned it and the old blood and water had separated and the movement set the blood to mixing again. It wavered up, tendrils rising. Rene dumped the water out and brought it to the floor by Lilah’s head.
Just what I was gonna ask for.
Rene smiled. She hovered by her, wanting to speak. She stayed beside the couch for a minute, then went to her room. When the door was shut she flicked on the light. None of the old books were on her shelf, none on the desk. She left the room and went to the porch to wait. The color had fallen from the moon and the grass and dirt drive looked like a frost had settled over them. In a few minutes she would ease the door open and dig through the trash.
She thought about Hanner, and Melba, and the little boy. In her mind she created the scene of their meeting, of Melba and the boy and his mother entering a little hovel dark and covered in ivy, sheltered by an ancient willow so old the branches had grown into the ground, creating rooms of the outside, shaded and heavy. The three of them would approach the mud building with other blacks waiting, looking on, and one would whisper a prayer as they disappeared through the branches.
Nearly asleep, she shook off the visions and snuck back inside. She could hear nothing from the living room. The dogs were lying on the floor by the couch, Sawyer perking an ear to her footsteps. When she lifted the lid from the trash in the kitchen they both got up and sidled into the room, snuffing around her legs. She stuck a hand in through the refuse, the potato skins her mother must have thrown in when they got home, an old newspaper, cans. Everything felt cold and wet, and up to her elbow she found nothing like a book. She pulled her hand from the trash and washed off, flicking her fingers at Hornblower to make him blink. Rene got a sheet from her bedroom and brought it to the couch. Lilah was lying with her head in the crook of her elbow, the clothespin pinching the bridge of her nose white. Her mouth was gaped and her chest rose slowly. Rene covered Lilah’s legs with the sheet, then turned off the light.
It was still dark when she woke and she was tired. There had been a sound, she thought. The light was on at the side of the house and it faded fast into the yard but beyond it she could see the barn light was on too, the door open. From the living room doorway she saw Lilah was gone, and she put on her boots and ran across the yard. It wasn’t the barn light shining. The beam flickered, and when she got close she smelled the smoke and there was her mother stoking the little fire just inside, sitting on a stool, her eyes red and nose still clamped shut. At a glance Rene saw the horses with their heads over the stall doors, eyes limpid, and the pages of the last book catching and going black. Her stride was unbroken as she reached the fire, kicking it out and scattering ashes and the edge of the brick ring her mother had made. The barn went dark.
What are you doing?
Burning some trash.
Don’t lie to me. She stepped back to find the lightswitch. Lilah said nothing, then the barn was light again, and they blinked and stared at each other. What’s this all about? She waved her hand along the trail of ashes and the thicker smoldering chunks of paper. I saw those books. I saw whose they were.
Lilah looked away, shaking her head. I can’t have your father’s things around, Rene. It hurts too much. When John’s boy brought them around I. She wrinkled up her face. They bothered me worse than anything.
It was so long ago.
Oh, honey, if you knew. She shook her head. I can’t. I just can’t. Her face wrinkled again. She began to tip back her head and she sneezed and blood misted in front of her. Oh. She looked at her hands, speckled with red. Oh I wish this would quit. She pulled the clothespin from her nose and threw it aside, moaning. The indentation from it was deep purple across the bridge of her nose and as she leaned forward blood dribbled over her lip and to the dirt floor. Rene was motionless, watching. Then she moved to the stall door of the mare and opened it to lead her out.
We’re going to the river. This is nonsense.
Who’s at the river? Lilah looked up, everything about her red and pained. Rene didn’t answer, leading the mare to the tack and saddling her. Clipping the mare to the stall door, Rene glanced at Lilah and went to the house for food and water, wrapping them in a blanket. When she got back to the barn she stuffed everything into a saddlebag and slung it over the mare. Lilah was still sitting on the stool when Rene led the horse to her and had her stand to get in the saddle.
What? She helped Lilah swing her leg over and get seated. Her mother shook her head and Rene took the reins.
You’re not riding Holly? She pointed at the white horse.
No. I don’t trust you to stay in the saddle. Rene led them out of the barn, shutting the light off as they passed.
Eric Shonkwiler is a writer preoccupied with ruination. He can be followed on Twitter @eshonkwiler.