You are reading Fiddleblack #13
Hanner pointed at Rene. I’ve never seen a curse, but what’s on this one is as close as they come.
She stared straight at Lilah. You put a weight on her. Wanted her to be the child she ain’t.
Lilah went pale. Rene stared at her but she wouldn’t look up. The room went silent for a moment and a cicada ratcheted from outside. Hanner put her hands on the table.
It’s a heavy weight to put on someone, expect a person to be another. Grudge them for not being who you want.
I need to—her mother stood, chair skidding and sticking against the floor. I need some air. She braced up on the chairback and her free hand held her face and she ambled out the door. Rene stared at the table, then at Hanner.
Is that what’s wrong with me? I’m cursed?
There’s hardly such a thing as a real curse. But your momma. She put something awful heavy on you. She’s been looking at you wrong all your life. You might’a never known it but you feel it.
Rene stared at nothing. There was the lock of hair, and the fire. How do you know?
Just do. You got a sickness I see it. See it floating around you. The dark I see on you looks an awful lot like what I used to see when I looked in the mirror. Almost the spittin’ image.
Rene began to dig under her fingernails. There was grime there though she kept them short, blood and dirt and a sliver of wood stuck in her thumb from the rough handle of the ax and she’d only now noticed.
It was my family for me, too. My husband. Hanner stood. I married him soon as he come back from the war, quit working to raise kids that never got born. My own momma and brother shunned me for leaving them. She went out of the room and came back with a glass of water and a thick earthenware mug of tea. She passed the tea over to Rene and nodded at the chair beside her. Put your feet up.
Rene swung them up onto the chair.
He raised his hand to me one night and I blattered him with a fire poker. I up and left the next day.
Rene winced a smile.
One of the biggest sicknesses this world has is expectation. We all expect other people to be a certain way or to do a certain thing. Most people, they spend their whole lives under the wants of other people. I was lucky he came at me that night. If he hadn’t, I might have never known what all this is like.
And you came out here?
Hanner laughed. You could say that. I was here at the river before there was much else. Couple of those shacks. Most folks lived a few miles downriver, then they got washed out. She drug her fingers down the tabletop and looked at Rene. It’s a choice. That’s what a weight is. Every day you choose ‘pick up the weight?’ or you leave it set.
She tilted her head back. She imagined her mother out with the horse, or on the stoop, hands covering her face. She’s my choice?
What’ll happen if I choose wrong?
Hanner stood by her chair. There is no wrong or right. You just got happy and unhappy and the mess left in the middle.
But it’s not just me. It’s her, too.
Her lips went thin. Is she happy?
She paused. I don’t know. I think she’s afraid.
Hanner nodded. And what’s she got to be afraid of?
Looks like you got it figured out, then. She pointed toward Rene’s feet. You need to rest them a while. Can you two share a saddle all the way home?
Yeah. She put on her socks and started to rise and Hanner came around the table to help her. Her feet were still numb and standing on them gave her a sensation of floating. Hanner brought her to the door and opened it slowly. Lilah was near the road and turned toward the sound, her face scrubbed red and raw. The horse was grazing by the trees at the side of the house. Rene eased herself to the dirt below the doorway and Hanner held her shoes out.
You’re welcome. She produced the two bottles of ointment and pushed them toward Rene. I imagine I can’t tell you to stay off your feet.
Rene smiled and took the bottles. Probably not. How should I pay you?
Hanner raised an eyebrow. Money, like you’d pay anyone else.
Oh. I just thought. She looked at Lilah.
That’s civilization, honey. Hanner pointed down the road toward town. You might not think it, but they use cash, too. I don’t get paid in chickens often.
Okay. Rene looked down, reaching into her pocket. She came out with a small wallet and pulled out a number of bills. Will this do?
Hanner took the money and fanned it before putting it away. Sure will.
Lilah was bringing the horse over and Rene took a ginger step back toward them. Thank you for everything.
Rene boosted Lilah onto the mare and got up herself. The mare stamped and stepped forward and Rene looked at Hanner. She waved, and Hanner nodded and closed the door.
They joined the road and headed back the way they came. Rene felt the distance from before gaping between them and the silence stretched taut across it. The clouds had broken and bands of gold caught their eyes, glinting off the river through the trees. It felt odd to her to not go down to it while she was here. Like she hadn’t quite made the journey.
She died right after she was born.
Rene jolted. Her arms tightened around her mother. Don’t.
I should tell you this.
Wait until we get through town.
The sun was gone by the time they reached the first shacks. The sky beside them turned purple and pink over the trees. There were a number of people on their porches, children playing near the road. A woman was leaning on the railing of the shack beside the bar, her back to them. Someone was shouting from inside, laughing. As they came near a man brought out a bucket and slung a reddish gray slop over the railing and it splashed into the dirt in front of them. Rene stopped the horse. The man began to wring out a mop and he grinned.
Sorry ma’am. Ma’am. He touched a finger to an invisible cap. Just finished with a fight is all. He turned to the black woman on her porch. Happens sometimes, don’t it?
Oh, yes. The woman looked down at the two on horseback and her movement was languorous and sure. She squinted. Say, you that lady caught my boy yesterday?
Yeah. Rene raised her hand. How is he?
Fine, just fine. Old witch fixed him right up. Was you out here to see her?
She fix you up?
Rene smiled slightly. I think so. Lilah flinched in her arms, turning aside. Rene glanced at her and then from the woman to the man with the mop. We need to get on. It’s a long ride back home.
I’ll say. The man dropped the head of the mop to the bucket with a wet smack, then dragged the bucket clanging back inside.
The woman stood up from the porch railing. She looked in the open door of her shack and turned to Rene and Lilah. I got to look in on him. I’m glad you’re doing better.
Thank you. Rene lifted her hand in goodbye and set the mare forward. Passing the bar she could see a few men sitting, elbows crooked. They rode on, watched by the people on porches and looking through windows. It was getting dark slowly and they were riding toward the night, the air going cool and the damp gone out of it. She thought of the woman of her presence. There was no time she could recall when Lilah had taken that shape, and she wondered if after all it was she who had broken her mother, and not the converse.
When they were some distance out of town Rene twisted in the saddle to look back and in the dark the shacks were coming out of the green like a row of ghosts in step. Righting she squeezed her elbows to prompt Lilah.
Now you can talk.
Lilah’s head was down. It was a moment before she started. I got pregnant right after I met your father. We married quick and he got it in his head the baby was a boy. He got all excited, bought all kinds of things we couldn’t afford. Wanted to name him Ronnie. When it came time to go to the hospital he was pushing me out the door. It was the middle of the night and still so hot, I was soaked all over with sweat. The doctors were worried I was dehydrated. I wasn’t in much pain but I was scared, and you could tell the doctor knew something was wrong, but I thought maybe it was a normal sort of wrong, like the baby was breach, and they were going to cut it out of me.
Rene had slackened in the saddle, the horse walking of its own accord. There was a convoluted sickness that seemed to be racing through her insides.
She came out small, and I thought I still had more to go so I was pushing and pushing when the doctor took her away. He told me it was a she and I didn’t even hear it until I saw Joseph there beside me and I said ‘it’s a girl, Joe’, and he run back out. I didn’t see him again until morning, until they’d already taken her away for good. I had them cut off a little of her hair—she had the thickest hair you ever saw on a baby, even thicker than you. Oh, and he took the hair and come to find out later he’d put a ribbon on it and kept it, slipped it in that book. Lilah broke off.
We had a real hard time after that. When I told him I was pregnant with you I thought he’d get excited again but he didn’t. He was scared from day one. I told him I wanted to name you Rene as a sort of tribute and he didn’t say a word. The day you were born he took you from the doctor and held you but he wasn’t happy, he didn’t seem happy. When we got you home it was the same. You probably wouldn’t remember him acting strange because it was all you were used to, but it was like someone sleepwalking all day long. He’d take you and hold you, teach you things, and I give him credit since he didn’t drink, but.
Rene wanted to stop her. She was picturing everything as though it were a memory, threading what Lilah said and what she remembered together. From outside her eyes, watching from over her father’s shoulder while he boosted her onto a horse, while she watched him working in the barn. It occurred to her that she had been playing his son. She shook her head. The idea closed in around her. What about you?
Hanner was talking about you. She didn’t mention Dad.
She said it was you that treated me like I was Roni. She finished the name and her mouth clapped shut, as though she had spilled something from it.
I don’t know about that. I treated you the only way I knew how.
They had reached the first fork in the road and the mare stepped unsteadily from the dirt to the macadam in the dark. Why did you keep everything a secret from me?
I didn’t know how to tell you. Eventually it seemed like a silly thing to do. Pass you a cup of coffee one morning and say ‘Rene you had a sister’?
You couldn’t just say it once I saw those books?
I was a little dopey, Rene. I’d been bleeding for two days straight.
You burned them. You got up in the middle of the night and you burned them.
I didn’t know what I was doing.
You’ve burned things before.
She fell silent. Rene realized the mare had thrown a shoe. They were quiet for a long time, until the mosquitoes found them and Lilah smacked at her shoulders and arms, cursing. Rene pulled the blanket from the saddlebag and wrapped her in it.
Last thing I need is to lose more blood.
She didn’t reply. The town and intersection were coming up and they could hear a truck from some distance off, then see the lights, and then the air brakes deafening beside them. They were caught in the welter of the truck’s wake and exhaust and the horse reared up. It fell back onto its forelegs and slipped from the shoulder to the ditch and Rene shucked her boots from the stirrups just as the horse threw out its back legs. She felt Lilah lift off, and then another jolt as the horse bucked again and she was crushed and wet in the ditch with grass in her ear and eyes and mouth and the horse galloping off.
She blinked, held her eyes open. A gnat crawled across a weed and took flight.
I’m alright. She sat up. Her shoulder ached and felt as though it were shoved against her chest. Are you okay?
Yeah. Lilah appeared above her. I didn’t have far to fall.
She wiped at her face and clambered out of the ditch. She stood there a while looking back and forth down the road. The horse was gone. Lilah looked her over and they walked as far as the store in the town ahead and sat awkwardly on the short porch steps. The town was asleep. Rene took off her shoes and examined her feet in the little light and put them back on.
I don’t know what to do, now.
We could call Ollie.
I’m about sick of asking people for help.
If you can think of some other way out of this you let me know.
They sat there, Lilah swatting at mosquitoes with the dirty blanket. The ointment Hanner Johnson had given them was in the saddlebags, now probably shattered and soaking into the leather. Rene slouched against the top step and held her breath at the sound of an engine. Headlights appeared at the end of town and grew, the frame and winch and another truck being towed behind it. Rene saw the blur of letters on the passenger door and the black man behind the wheel and the truck rolled on, on through the intersection.
I think that was Melba’s husband.
The woman who gave me the nickel. The black woman.
She thought to run out into the road, try to wave him back, but she sat unmoving on the step. Warm air blew off the pavement in front of them. Everything was still and dark and she felt like lying in the sparse grass beside the steps and sleeping for a while, or just stretching out, resting. She looked over at her mother and back to the road and then slipped off the step like she might dip into a pool. The grass scratched at her neck and her arms but the dirt cradled her and she broke and fought a tight smile. Her eyes were closed.
It was cooler on the ground and she woke shivering, Lilah standing over her and the tow truck in the road beside them. She blinked and sat up, careful to ease onto her feet. A black man was leaning out the open window with his hand to his face, holding a cigarette.
Seen you sittin’ here before.
Are you Melba’s husband? Thomas?
You need a ride to town?
We could use one, yes.
Get on up here. He reached across the cab and opened the passenger-side door.
Rene took several steps forward, sore, and looked at Lilah and to Thomas. We’ve got a horse.
Thomas shook his head. Can’t exactly tow him. I can bring you back in the daytime, though.
Okay. Come on. Rene nodded toward the truck door and she guided Lilah on. Thomas dipped his head to her when she passed around the front and climbed in, and Rene followed. Thomas flicked his cigarette past the windshield. He started the truck and they drove off, his eyes on the mirrors until they were well on. Rene dozed almost immediately. They were passing landmarks, then in town, and in her sleep she was angry at the engine for doing the work so easily and without complaint. Turning onto Old Springfield she forced herself awake and they weren’t long on the road before Thomas pulled up to a small house standing in the plain, a garage behind it larger than the house itself. The Townsman sat off to one side of the building and Thomas parked the truck beside it.
I need to get some gas. I keep about fifty gallon on hand in case I got late work. He opened the door and pointed at the Townsman. Your car, ain’t it?
What was you doing out there so late?
We went to see Hanner Johnson.
Went to see the witch, huh? He smiled and got down, holding the door for Rene while Lilah slipped out the other side and came around.
I had this heck of a nosebleed nobody seemed to be able to fix.
And Hanner did?
Just like that. She offered up a weak snap of her fingers. A papery sound.
Thomas smiled. Legend has it she cured me of stones when I was a boy. He shut the truck door and pointed toward the side of the house. Get you some water or somethin’?
Rene nodded, looking at the door, the black window.
Anyways. This was back when she was still sort of new. People thought she was dangerous crazy, now she’s just story crazy. He got the door and Rene and Lilah went into a dark mudroom. Thomas began whispering and found the light. I was a little boy. Few days straight I started crying, ma doesn’t know what to do. I was out on the riverbank playin’ and she sees me standin’ there—Hanner does—sees me, well, make water, and I’m cryin’ and it’s all bloody. He was taking off his boots and careful to avoid their eyes for the moment. Rene sat against a small applecrate and pried her shoes from her feet and she stayed there a moment letting the sores breathe.
Hanner picks me right up, forgettin’ her laundry. He held out a finger and drew it across the mudroom. Dress goes floatin’ by. She picks me up and shakes me. Shakes me and my head goes floppin’ this way and that and I was cryin’ before but now I’m really cryin’. Lady up on the street is yelling for my momma, Hanner’s still shaking me. Lady comes down running and slaps Hanner upside the head. He looked up at the two women and shrugged. Another hour I passed two stones looked like bits of cornflake.
Lilah looked to Rene. Beyond the mudroom they could hear someone coming and Thomas leaned toward the doorway. That you, baby?
It is. You bring company? Melba stepped into the doorway, face puffy from sleep, hair bound back with a lavender bandana. Oh, well. Hi, Rene.
Rene gave a weak smile and turned to Lilah. This is my mother. She saw her nod and Rene looked at Melba, who had tilted her head slightly.
Are you feeling better, ma’am?
I am, thank you.
She backed away from the door. Come on in here. Tom ain’t got the manners of a man born in a barn. She waved them on and Thomas leaned to kiss her cheek. They were in a small kitchen and dining room and Melba turned to them at the sink, patting her legs. Can I get you all some coffee?
Rene shook her head and Lilah was looking around, making herself small. No thank you.
You want a beer, Tom?
Nah. I’ma refill the tank and get these girls home. He smiled at Rene and Lilah and stopped to kiss Melba again.
This late? Why don’t you two just stay here?
Lilah looked at Rene. I don’t think—
Rene nodded. That’d be great, thank you.
Well alright. Thomas smiled. In that case I’m turnin’ in. He waved and Rene thanked him before he slipped into the dark of another doorway. Melba glanced around the room as if searching and she patted her legs again.
We’ve got a couch and a couple nice chairs for you to sleep in. Let me get some blankets. She went off into the hall and came back a few moments later with two patchwork quilts. She showed them to the livingroom and gave the quilts over. Rene let Lilah have the couch and she followed Melba back into the kitchen and asked for a glass of water. Waiting at the tap Rene watched Melba in her nightgown and robe and she took the glass from her and stood sipping at it. They were quiet and floating there in the stillness for a while and Rene set the glass down.
You used to live by the river, right?
Mhm. Just moved here a couple years ago.
Did you like it?
As much as anything. I’ve got family there but I only miss them every so often. Mostly when the man’s driving me crazy.
Rene looked at her glass. Melba tilted her face closer.
Can I get you anything else? Do you want that coffee?
No, thank you. She thinned her lips and pushed the glass toward the sink.
I’m going to go on, then. Holler if either of you need something. Melba patted the counter and turned and was gone. Rene stood there a little while, a door opening and shutting, opening again down the hall. Outside she could hear quiet sounds, insects. Fewer animals outside of the woods. She went toward the livingroom and tried to memorize the placement of the furniture so that she could shut off the light and wound up feeling along the walls until she came to her chair in the dark. The quilt was cool and a little damp. Before she fell asleep she heard the soft moaning from the bedroom, a wall or more away. Shuffling so quiet she could only guess she’d heard it. A sigh from her mother, long enough in the night now they both could feign the other asleep.
They turned down breakfast in the morning and Melba saw them off at the door. She could look neither of them quite in the eye. Thomas drove them home and when they arrived he got out of the truck to let Lilah slip by. She peered into the window and began to speak but stopped, then looked at Thomas.
Thank you for the ride.
You’re welcome, ma’am. Have that Townsman back to you soon.
Lilah smiled a little sadly and looked at Rene. You’re coming straight back?
She nodded. As quick as I can.
Lilah stepped away from the truck and Thomas backed it out of the drive. Rene watched her, watching them. Thomas pulled onto the road and lit a cigarette.
No. She shook her head. Thomas held it between the tips of his fore and middle finger on his right hand, palm to the wheel and his left arm out the window. It was hot already and the sun bright gold through the trees. A buzzard hopped from a flattened rabbit at their passing, waddling to the shoulder. Thomas pushed the sleeves of his shirt up and she saw the blurred blue tattoo on his forearm. She turned back to her window and saw herself in the glass. She wondered if she looked like her sister would have. They might have looked exactly the same. Been the same.
Melba said you caught my nephew at the hospital.
He spun the wheel for a curve. I appreciate that.
She nodded and looked out the window. Halfway there. They were quiet the rest of the trip and when they neared the town she saw Thomas slowly pressing himself toward the door. He’d thrown the cigarette away and his face had set. They stopped at the intersection and Rene looked toward the store and the porch where they’d waited. Thomas was facing straight forward. They went on until Thomas pointed into a fallow field and parked the truck. The mare was at the edge of a property, cribbing at the top plank of a wooden fence. Thomas opened the truck door and jumped out and Rene slid down. They both looked back toward town.
Can you get her yourself?
I’ll wait here ‘til you do.
She nodded and started across the road. She stepped down into the ditch and up again and through the thick dry foxtails at the edge of the field. The mare had stopped gnawing at the fence and was eying her. When she closed in the mare began walking at an angle past her and Rene grabbed for the lead. The horse stopped until Rene pushed the saddle straight on its back and then it shied and cut a quick sidestep away and threw its head. Rene backed off and spoke to it, whispering. She followed it closer to the road and when she reached again it shoved her back with its muzzle. Thomas was coming toward them, long steps, leaping the ditch.
Hold on a sec, miss. Let me get around front of her.
Rene waited until he’d come in front of the mare and he held his hands waist high. Rene went for the lead again and held it firmly and the mare let out a slow sigh. Thomas didn’t move. The mare was still, its eyes wide and dark. Rene put her foot into the stirrup and stood into it, throwing her leg over the horse’s back and sitting. The mare stomped in place and Rene saw Thomas drop his hands.
You got it?
Think so. She took up the reins in both hands. Thank you.
You’re welcome. I’ll have the Chevy out to you like I said.
She nodded. Thomas had backed twice and turned and walking across the field she saw him stop, looking toward town. Two men on the store’s porch. He started walking again and Rene watched him get in the truck and start it and drive on, away from town. When the sound of the truck died she pushed the mare toward the road. Riding past the men on the porch Rene saw their shadows thrown back onto the wall behind them.
A tired passage back home. She thought about her father and the few full and good memories she had. If the membrane between them had been what Lilah had said. Or if they had been about Lilah herself. Ollie’s truck was in the drive and the carpenters were busy at work on the framing next door. Coming around the fence Rene saw Lilah on the porch, Ollie beside her, and the carpenter boy, Bo, off to one side with the dogs. She felt so tired. Lilah’s hands were over her face and at the sight of the horse she stood, her eyes thick with tears, and she went through the screen door and started forward at a shamble.
She swung and dropped from the horse, closing her eyes and breathing smoothly through the pain in her feet. Her mother opened her hands to reveal the familiar course of blood, dark, and her hands dark. Rene took her mother’s wrists at first to clutch them to her chest and then there was a break, a severing of the few inches between them and she realized and threw her wrists aside.
The blood’s a different color.
What? What are you talking about?
It’s a different color. You did that yourself.
Ollie and the boy were coming and Ollie stepped between them. Now what’s going on here? I came down to check on you since you didn’t come around for work, and your ma says you’re off fetching a horse with a colored boy.
Rene stood still. The dogs circled around her, wanting to bark, afraid to. She smiled down at them, taut, and looked at Ollie. It’s good that you came. I’m glad.
No one spoke. Rene was looking at her mother, and the smile warmed and became sad. Lilah held her hands where she’d caught them against her breast. Her face was still but framed for weeping, and Rene felt the moment stretch. Whosever fault it was she had never been her sister, but she had been the weight. Rene reached back for the reins and she stepped into the saddle. Ollie had put his arm around Lilah and Bo still stood gaping on. She turned the horse around and when Ollie reached for the reins she took them aside. She didn’t look back nor turn her head on the road to see the house but she knew they were there, the truck and the framing and the three of them, the ax, the wood, Horn pacing the yard.
She took the road toward the river and the wind was light and it seemed to blow layers from her. At the crossroads of the little town she tied the mare to the railing of the store and climbed the steps. Behind the counter was the boy clerk and he watched her pick out the makings for sandwiches and he bagged everything looking at her in a way that would have pressed on her. She paid and took the paper sack from him and walking to the steps the door opened behind her.
I heard about you. I heard about you.
Her feet were in the air as if she’d levitated over the first few steps and then she fell to the ground. The boy swore and he began to stomp her groceries into the dirt while she gathered herself up. When he came toward her she reached into the saddlebag at the mare’s rump and found a wedge of glass from the shattered ointment jar and held it out. The boy stopped and she watched his face curl and redden. He was still, as though he might coil and strike at her. Rene loosed the mare and mounted it and turned for the road. A rock flew past. She pushed the horse on. Ahead the sun was darkening and quartered by the treetops and she thought of riding it down. She thought of the river and the town and Hanner Johnson and she knew that she would stop for none of them.
Eric Shonkwiler is a writer preoccupied with ruination. He can be followed on Twitter @eshonkwiler.