You are reading Fiddleblack #12
They went to the road in the long shadow of the trees and when they broke from them the moon was just a crescent, eaten by the teeth of the woods. They turned south, away from town. The road was thin and Rene had to lead the mare onto the shoulder. Lilah was already riding limp, hand clamped over her face. The river was far. It would be well into the afternoon by the time they reached it, and then she didn’t know where to find Hanner Johnson. She hoped to meet Melba on the road, walking the boy in town, restored.
Some distance down the road her mother slumped forward onto the mare’s neck and Rene had to fix her to it by looping the trace across her back and tying her to the saddle. The mare stalled and Rene forced her to go on. No traffic passed, only nighthawks and owls, the scuffle of underbrush as opossums fled. The land south flattened for a time and then came hilly again before smoothing for the river. They were in the hills now and the air got cool as they passed over a creek, the water gurgling invisible below. To the east the sky was turning a weak gray, and in her exhaustion Rene saw the sun rise like frames in a movie through the trees, their passage sped by eyeblinks. When they crested the hill the trees fell back and the sunlight was upon them and Rene looked back at where they’d been and it seemed like another place, dark and cool, still night.
A truck sounded a hundred yards back, slowed and paced them on the road. Rene pushed the horse further into the weeds and wild oats and nudged Lilah to wake her. The man behind the wheel was in bib overalls, skin wrinkled and red in veins from long days in the wind.
Where you ladies goin’?
The river. Rene handed Lilah the reins. She gave a glance to her and the horse and saw the trail of blood wet over the mare’s fur, and she stepped ahead to block the sight from the man.
I saw your ride’s wounded.
She looked back at Lilah. The roof of the truck blocked her head from sight but he must have seen the blood on the horse already. I pulled a deertick off her a bit ago.
Oh, don’t do that again. You got to burn ‘em off. If you don’t you’re liable to leave the mouth stuck in there, then it gets all infected. The truck sputtered. Bit strange to take a trip on horseback and just one horse.
Rene couldn’t keep her face calm any longer. It pinched up and she felt her eyes sharpen. We can get there how we like.
The man coughed and looked forward. Enjoy yourselves. Bitches.
The truck rolled on and Rene looked at her mother. She had braced herself sideways, a hand on the saddle and one in the horse’s mane, and she was swaying with their gait.
I’m alright. Just feel a little dizzy.
Rene glanced at the truck shrinking in the distance. She forced out a hot breath. Do you need to get down?
No. Let’s keep going.
Rene put a hand over Lilah’s at the saddle. Cold and unfamiliar.
More traffic passed them as the morning went on, cars stopping to see who they were and where they were going. She was afraid the carpenters would come up this way to the house but they did not.
Toward noon Rene pulled Lilah off the horse and spread the blanket out in a clearing by a brook. She let the mare go and handed her mother the thermos of water and opened the tin of crackers. Lilah was drinking deeply and she pulled the thermos away from herself and handed it back. A drop of water slid back from the rim a diluted reddish brown and the drop thinned. Rene drank. She cut a link of summer sausage and wedge of cheese to piece sandwiches together from the crackers and she watched Lilah nibble her way through two of them and quit to hold her nose. Rene pulled off her boots and massaged the soles of her feet, blisters forming on her toes.
Your feet. Why don’t you ride for a while?
Rene stared at her. You can’t walk.
I can make it.
She shook her head. She was in wonder at the gulf between them. Watching her mother watch her. A pair of bottleflies landed on the package of crackers and she swatted them away and packed everything into the blanket.
They doubled up on the mare and rode on southward. Her mother sat in front, Rene holding the reins around her waist, encircling her. Thinner than she thought, her skin cool through her worn cotton blouse and a little damp. She was able to see over her mother’s head without sitting straight. The hour was late enough now that no one questioned their riding, just waved as they passed. After a while Lilah slid back against her and she was surprised that her nose was still held between thumb and forefinger.
Between them and the river was a small town grown around the highway. It was just a row of houses on either side, a small store at the main intersection. A teenaged boy had come out before they passed and was leaning on the porch railing of the store, the porch itself leaning toward the street. The boy had a broom at rest by his arm and as they drew closer he stood back and took the broom and began to examine the wood planks of the floor and the dust he swept around. He glanced at them from under his brow. Rene drew them on to the intersection and they stopped. Her mother stirred and sat forward on the mare, dropping her hand and immediately returning it.
I feel a little sick.
Rene looked back toward the boy. He had stopped sweeping and had wrapped his arms around the broom to support his weight. He smiled. The street was empty and Rene pushed them forward. A train engine rested on the tracks just beyond the houses. After a while the tracks crossed the road and on the horizon was a line of trees and beyond it the steep banks of the river. Rene sped the mare and with the first jolt of the canter Lilah convulsed and slumped to the side and vomited a dark clot of blood that splattered on the ground but held like a strip of fat. Rene stopped the mare and slid from the saddle, wincing at the impact on her feet. She gripped onto Lilah’s shoulder and turned her partway.
Mom, are you alright?
She swiveled her head to Rene and her face was pallid and her nose and mouth looked like a wound ripped open. She nodded, eyes full and shining, red-rimmed. Rene thought to pull her down but instead pressed her to the mare’s neck and led them trotting along the side of the road. When the distance to the trees was halved Rene began to feel the skin on the balls of her feet give. Her mother was motionless except for the rise and fall of the mare. The blood that had crusted on its neck was refreshed and now fell further. When they reached the trees the road ended and the river road started east to west. There were no signs. She turned them west. The sky had begun to cloud up and soon the road went to dirt and they followed it and the smell of the water blown up through the trees. The horse nickered. Ahead scattered among the trees were small shotgun shacks, some set up above the ground on stilts. Two black men in work jumpsuits were walking down the center of the road and an old truck drove up behind, splitting them and raising a coach of dust. The two men rejoined in the road and when they got close they smiled at Rene and one ribbed the other. They composed themselves and nodded politely. A middle-aged couple waved at the men and then at Rene and Lilah as they passed. Rene lifted her hand and looked after them. The shacks came on either side of the road now and a few older blacks were sitting on the porches, fanning themselves with newspaper or pasteboard. Some lifted their chins at them and others did nothing, went on fanning. A shack ahead was painted green and sat close to the road, a woman bent to tend a garden that took up the front yard. Rene stopped the horse and waved.
The woman straightened and wiped at her face with the back of her hand, the trowel cocked in it. Yeah?
Could you tell me where to find Hanner Johnson? My mother’s sick. She saw the woman’s mouth pinch. Rene looked back herself, Lilah looking aside, demure, as if she had something to hide.
On down a ways. A ways out of town.
Thank you. Rene bowed her head slightly. There was a moment, and she turned at her hips. Do you know a woman named Melba?
Harmon? She don’t live here anymore.
Rene glanced downward. Alright. Thank you.
The woman dropped her hand from her face. Her sister lives just past the bar, there. She pointed with the trowel and Rene watched the sweep of her arm, the dark brown skin sagging on the underside.
Thank you. Rene nodded again and they moved on. The bar was just a larger wooden shack with a sign on the roof that said ‘BEER’ in red paint. The front door was open and through it Rene could see the chairs stacked upside down on the tables and on out the backdoor into the trees. She had an urge to leave the road and horse and her mother and slide down the clay banks to the river. To be swept along it. The house beside the bar was empty as well, whitewashed and the roof tilting to one side, the tarpaper creased and tearing at the lip. There was a toy tractor on the porch and a rocking chair but nothing else. The energy she had was leaving her, and her feet felt worn to the bone.
They continued out of the town and the road came closer still to the river until she could hear it running and almost see the far side through the trees. Up ahead the grass and the road bent to match the oxbow of the river. When they reached it they saw a well-tended shack painted sweetcorn yellow. There was no willow, and the shack was closer to the road than she had imagined. She thought it may be the wrong place. She shook Lilah awake and helped her to step down from the horse. There was a thin trail of dirt beat into the yard and a circle of it at the door. They stood there and Rene paused before reaching out to the door and rapping on it. A minute went by with no sound except the river and the breeze and then the door opened to an old white woman wearing a nightgown and her hair down to her waist, the same color as the shack. She had an amber stone at her neck and her eyes were plain blue and she was taller than Rene expected, only older than Lilah by fifteen years at most. She looked from Rene to Lilah and back.
Who was here first?
Oh, it’s my mother, she’s had this nosebleed. Are you Hanner Johnson?
Yeah. Come in here. Take off your boots. She shuffled away from the door and disappeared into the shack. Rene helped her mother in and stooped to take off her shoes.
Just you, girl, not her.
Rene peered around a corner, into what looked like the dining room. Hanner had pulled a chair out and was standing by it. She was wearing slippers. Okay. She took her own boots off, closing her eyes. When Rene stood again she had to breathe a long sigh through her teeth and she followed her mother. The dining room was cramped with chairs and the table, a pearl tablecloth on it and a small oil lamp in the middle. There were shelves of dark wood filled with curios and behind Hanner a cedar chest from which she took out a few slim jars.
They both sat. Hanner stood with her back to Rene and pulled Lilah’s hand from her face and examined it, the multiple rims of blood stained and dried in layers from old to new, like petals. She tilted Lilah’s face to one side and then the other. Blood began to darken the left nostril and welled there before sliding over her lip. Though she couldn’t see, Rene thought Hanner had closed her eyes. She placed her hands on Lilah’s cheeks and held them there. After a minute she rose up and put the web of her thumb under Lilah’s nose and wiped away the blood and nothing more flowed. She stepped away and went out of the room and they heard water spilling and Hanner came back wiping her hand with a rag. Rene had leaned forward in her chair and was almost touching Lilah’s face.
How did you do that?
Hanner shook her head bemusedly. Don’t really know myself. She inhaled and topped the breath with a snort. She pulled out the chair at the head of the table and took a seat, silent, watching them. Rene looked from Lilah to Hanner and the middle of the table, then back to Hanner.
We’ve had a long trip. Do you think we could rest here for a little while?
She turned to Lilah. You think you’ll make it back right now?
Hanner tilted her head just slightly, and her eyes narrowed. Sure. Rest.
Thank you. Rene smiled and eased back in the chair, lifting her feet. They were quiet and nearly motionless for a while, Lilah brushing her upper lip with her thumb. The longer they sat the more Hanner seemed entertained, and eventually she stood and went into the kitchen. Dishes clattered.
Can I help you with anything, Ms. Johnson?
She appeared in the doorway. Oh, yes. Come on over here.
Rene pushed her chair back and stood, wincing. Hanner smiled.
Sit down. You’re both stubborn as mules. She took the two glass jars from the cedar chest and set them on the table while Rene sat back down. Hanner pulled a chair over to her and jutted her chin up. Take off your socks.
Alright. Rene hiked up her knees and unrolled them from her ankles, letting them drop by the legs of the chair. Hanner uncorked both of the jars and she propped Rene’s right foot on her own knee and dripped a greasy-looking liquid from one of the bottles into her hand.
This medikin is for the pain. She looked cockeyed at Rene, rubbing her hands together and then massaging the raised foot.
Lilah leaned onto the table to see. Rene! Why didn’t you say anything?
Rene shrugged. The ministrations hurt but were quickly easing and she felt her foot go cold. When Hanner motioned for her to raise her other foot she did. Hanner repeated the process and then shook out something like petroleum jelly that smelled of mint from the other bottle and warmed it between her hands as before.
This medikin seals up the sores.
Okay. Rene exchanged a glance with her mother.
When Hanner finished she rose up quick and set the backs of her hands on her hips. There. Now. She looked at Lilah. No bleeding?
No. Lilah shook her head.
Hanner pursed her lips. She went around the table with the two bottles and put them away in the chest. She went into the kitchen and came back with two bowls and two spoons and she set a bowl before Rene and one in front of Lilah. It was a thin broth, onion floating in it and steam rising heavy from the bowl.
Eat it hot.
They thanked her and began sipping at the broth. They both had to blow on their spoons before drinking it. Hanner returned to her seat at the head of the table and she watched them quietly. After a minute or so she pursed her lips and leaned her elbows on the table.
You two are ripe with ailment.
Lilah laughed briefly. I guess so.
When do you want to start talking about what’s really wrong?
Rene and Lilah looked at each other, then at Hanner. Lilah turned her head slightly. What do you mean?
Hanner pointed at Rene.
Eric Shonkwiler is a writer preoccupied with ruination. He can be followed on Twitter @eshonkwiler.