The Magnifying Tongue

 
 

By Matthew Dennison

 

"Blood-son!"

At the sudden horse-calling of my brother's old nickname I looked up from the table, a length of greens hanging from my lips. When the voice called again, I handed my plate to the child left of me, grabbed my sketchbook off the table and ran out to look for my older brother in the swarm of Daddy's church-family that filled the house.

The squeaks from Harold's leg brace grew louder as he moved off the front porch and walked toward us. Taller than any man present, the light from the porch cast a gentle glow on him from behind, revealing the white moths and june bugs that traveled within his fine, curly hair. When he ducked into the crowd in front of the parlor, I slid up behind him and stayed close as we made our way across the room, the dark sea of buckles and dungarees parting left and right until he stepped to the side and there, sprawled on the horsehair divan, was Daddy, swimming in the folds of Brother Doyle's old seersucker worn over everyday clothes, work-boots showing from the double-cuffed pants. Close enough to see the face that had taken on the color and smear of river clay, I watched as Daddy's hand rose through the oil-lamp shadows, found Harold's ear and pulled him down.

"Tell 'em we marched, when they ask, and they will, the bastards," he said, the words barely rising above his sunken lips. "And don't forget the trumpets!"

Harold nodded the best he could while I knelt by the divan and maneuvered my book into position for a rare close-up sketch of Daddy's God-Rope, the lightning-struck coil of hair earned in childhood and uncut since that he braided and trained to swirl thrice around his skull, behind his cauliflowered boxing ear and deep into his left canal, where, for all we knew, it continued to grow. I finished my sketch, flipped the page and tallied Daddy's eighteenth repetition of the demands he had made during last Sunday's announcement of his upcoming death and resurrection.

"…oh, the devil's had a shine for me for years..." I heard him sigh as he flicked Harold away, reached for the vinegar sponge and sucked it hard before resuming his self-conducted rites and confession, every word of which was written down by Brother Harmon in case anything of spiritual or genealogical importance was revealed.

By "marched," as we all knew, Daddy meant paraded from our house to the new storefront church on the other side of town with him in the lead--a bit weak after rising from his death-bed, and certainly helped along by a few of his "angels," but marching, leading the way, triumphant over the whores, harpies and lie-mongers who had hounded him unto death in the church of his own making. And though I was looking forward to the blessed event as much as anyone, I knew that the first step--the dying--was to take place that night.

"And The Coil of Ten Thousand shall rise!" he gasped a short while later, one eye wildly open, the other floating in its basin of lid and pearl as he palmed his teeth back in and waved away the crowding faces in order to begin the final damning of the fiends before his passion play did run. Unreeled from memory, perfected through the years, the recitation was at once complex, quick enough, and strangely comforting. For even his demons had demons, it appeared, and though he cursed them each by name, I believe he was respectful of that fact.

"Abigor, I damn thee," he began. "Asmodeus, most foul. Belial, thou quillish beast..."

As the names poured out, Daddy's look changed to that of a soul in delicious and familiar torment. Twisting like a hoe-chopped snake, he struggled to rend the shapes with no shape that roiled the air above his head while two of our strongest held him down and Harold kept his boots in check--the more dangerous position, for Daddy, having danced in his father's traveling show, I heard him shout one night from the top of the stairs after he had crawled in through his window and crashed to the floor, dearly loved to kick. Ordinarily I would stand, unnoticed, in a far corner as Daddy raged his devil-curse throughout the room, but that night, knowing I would be spared the task of restoring the room after the fact, I closed my eyes and settled against the rattling, thumping divan, echoing the names and moving my hand over the drawings I had made of each dark, imagined face.

So on we worked, like countless nights before, just in more curious layout--pulling the same cart through the same mud and darkness but in slightly different directions. For though I had seen the devil lick his lips at me through my mother's eyes, I believed the attack, the attempt to sew his tail to my name, would come at my father's gate, and I did not step in the tracks left by the others.

Since that night I have come to believe that Daddy's departure, though timely in a general sense, was dangerously premature in its particulars. All had been summoned, but only a handful of demons had withered in the air before his fingers twisted in a wilt of pouty surprise and he was no more. Who knows what chaos and ruin those fiends have set loose over the years? These days I need only look across the hall to see my twisted proof.

#

Before news of his passing had left the room, what men were not present came running from all corners of the house. Splitter, Daddy's first-born, who spent most evenings singing and making tongue-shadows in front of the stove, pushed his way into the clearing, giving out a high-pitched guffaw and slapping his knee when he saw Daddy's lifeless form. Brother Grisdack, our one church member with medical experience--though his focus was primarily the larger farm animals--pulled up a stool, polished the bottom of his snuff can on his massive thigh and held the shiny disk under Daddy's nose, his own heavy breaths filling the room as we hunched forward and waited.

When a close examination revealed no fog, Brother Grisdack jumped up, ripped open the seersucker and gave Daddy's sunken chest a blow fit to stun a horse for gelding. Counting off the time on his pocket watch, he waited a full ten seconds then pinched Daddy's nostrils in an upward, grinding, twitch, bent his head over the back of the divan and searched for a pulse up and down his arm, under his jaw, and against his temple--tapping on that twisted side-vein harder and harder until Brother Doyle reached out, placed his hand over Daddy's eyes and lowered the bruised, magnetic, lids.

Before anyone could shout for glory, Splitter shoved Brothers Doyle and Grisdack aside, pulled Daddy's eyes back and blew mightily--giving me time for a quick sketch of the horizon beyond the watery orbs--then knelt beside me, humming and rocking as he smoothed and patted Daddy's hair.

Pressed against the divan by the dark crush of others, I watched Splitter's curious forefinger twisting and looping Daddy's shock-white braid as the room grew warm with nervous hallelujahs. A momentary opening appeared between the legs and I saw a couple of our oldest members sitting against the back wall, pointing to their chests and smiling at each other. When the scene collapsed, I glanced back at Daddy and saw what they were smiling about: a triple-columned list of women's names tattooed on his chest from navel to sternum, all but the last four names inked over with "sinner!"

I quickly straddled the divan, opened my book over Daddy's legs and set to work transcribing the names--some of them quite familiar--finishing just in time to see Splitter's finger pull the hairy core from Daddy's ear with a swift, sucking 'pop.' I flipped back a page, scrawled '?!' beneath my God-Rope sketch then struggled to re-insert the plug that reeked of birth and the escaping word of God as Brother Doyle pried Harold's hands from Daddy's boots and said "Go tell the women." With a final, mostly successful, push of the slick-furred mass, I ran after Harold as he clomped toward the back of the house, his braced leg swing-ing like an old hay baler.

Tacked on the winter before when Mother announced, one night after the blessing of our hell-heads and before the plates were passed, that there would be no more cooking without proper walls around her, the slope-floored kitchen had quickly become a refuge for the women whenever important business was at hand. On that night of overwhelming consequence, it hummed like a tray of honey bees left out in the sun. Charged by the heat and bustle of every cooking woman we had, Harold walked straight in while I waited by the door, searching for Mother and table-scraps in the sea of similar women.

After a minute or so I found her, elbow-deep in the grease-topped water of the sink, and watched as her head lowered then straightened with the news. When she turned and saw me backing away, a handful of apple peelings moving toward my pocket, her face curled inward then burst in a great unraveling as she threw her dishrag at me, cried, "Wash the crazy out of your eyes!" and walked from the room. Once she was safely on her way, I leaned my head out the doorway and watched her float up the shadowy hall to settle by Daddy's side, to take his hand and begin her three-day wait for the magnifying tongue, the consecrated toe testing the waters of our faith as the world did deeply fail and please.

#

Looking back, Daddy's punctuality was the only virtue present in the entire affair, in my opinion. For how can a grown man, a preacher, no less, announce his upcoming death at the hand of a member of his own church when the weapon of choice, collard-green poisoning, had no existence in fact? (I looked for it in the medical dictionary Mother kept under the sink along with the paregoric empties and teratoma jars, and came away with nothing but a strange empty feeling.) That we had all eaten from the same pot of greens, that the accused man, Brother Crenshaw, had not been allowed in the kitchen since that time with the pressure cooker, and that Sister Crenshaw, the wife of the accused had given birth a few years back to a girl-child whose narrow face, wild hair and pinched, piercing, gaze mirrored Daddy's closely enough to cause him to pull his hair straight out from his head and curse the beautiful rut-flowers that lined the pathways to Hell…now these were facts.

I believe the puzzled looks that met his accusations against Brother Crenshaw made it clear even to Daddy that his plan lacked the fireworks and logic necessary to stop the rumors surrounding the child, and so he went searching for a spectacle powerful enough to induce outright amnesia in all who witnessed it. Martyrdom followed by a cleansing resurrection came to mind rather quickly, I imagine, though for whose sins he was dying was a bit unclear. If asked, I'm sure he would have said Theirs! and if they thought about it at all, they too would have said Theirs! by which they would have meant some vague but threatening concept of Them.

Either way, I believe Daddy decided it would be best for his purposes simply to die and rise in fact and believed, as did many, that he would. For while we sat, clothed and comforted, for the most part, every Wednesday and twice on Sunday, Daddy's faith was large enough to douse the wicked and the wise, and on hearing the news of his upcoming miracle the child was soon forgot.

These church meetings, the rough center beam of our forty or so lives, typically began with Sister Lundgren pressing out hymns on her lap organ, one foot working the bellow, the other resting on a small wooden box as she trained her spinster gaze upon us. Daddy, dressed as always in the boots and work-clothes from his days at the furniture factory, would be seated on a folding chair beside her, eyes shut, arms crossed and body gently rocking as the notes and voices filled the air. When his tongue had found the drop of manna required to begin, he would lift one finger, stopping the music and much of the breathing in the draped-off storefront. I realize now he was probably just trying to dislodge some grains of cornbread from one of his plates, but at the time, even his fluttering cheek-pokes appeared to be an act of holy divination.

Greatly preferring the devil-themed messages that tended to follow a left-eye opening, I often attempted to influence the nature of the message to come. With his eyes still battling over which would open first, I would gouge my bet into the lacquer of my folding chair--front support for left eye, back support for right--then rapid-fire blink my betting eye as I squeezed the brailed rasp of my wager in hopes it would match, if not directly influence, his own eye-choice. So blankety-strobe went the simple-stick world as one man's attempt to join our lives with the holy did begin.

A practical man by nature--when need be, he could cook in tongues, having called forth entire meals from what looked to be an empty pantry while the kitchen was being built--Daddy used what words and common saws he had to do his uncommon work. And though quick as any man to offer his bicep for inspection or smash a piece of furniture when the need arose, Daddy was also blessed with a fate of patience and knew that for the miracle to spark he had to build his message slowly, like a child's headlong rush into the infinite: walking then skipping then running downhill faster and faster until he finds himself tumbling through air and--Praise God!--his words, beaten senseless on the anvil of repetition and whatever hollering it took and then some, had once more caused the beast-half-lamb to walk straight into the hardest heart.

Sometimes catching the spirit was easy as opening a door and hopping on a heaven-bound cloud. Other times it was like trying to catch cats with quiet mice. In those moments of accelerating terror, when all the slant adjectives of his childhood had come into play only to be found wanting and he, himself, had been reduced to a raging mass of frustrated profanity, he would apologize, to the Lord first, lead us in a flat-basket prayer and disappear through the back of the building to be gone for days--which made it all the more miraculous when "take-off," for lack of a better word, did occur.

By the end of a scorcher, however, as he called his better sermons, where the whole human story appeared to ripen and flow down his throat to be howled back salty in the stress-harmonies of abuse and adoration, he would be dancing through invisible flames, staggering, jumping and shaking until at last he straightened like a hanged man and held-held-held before crashing to the floor. Exhausted, risen to one knee, he would shore up heaven with his left hand while flicking and hitching up his right pant leg with the other as Sister Lundgren, who had been following his actions with the alternating chords of some jumpy hymn, ran her elbow across the keys and kicked the box toward him as the split black tongue of the lonely asp forced the lid aside and church proper was on.

#

Before the sun had warmed much of anything the morning after Daddy's passing, we kids were awake, unable to control our excitement at the marching and trumpet-blowing to come. I think part of us felt he was simply taking a monumental three-day nap, which, though not common, waspossible, for Daddy had always slept hard and had the scars to prove it.

The twisted-up bugle the man on the back of the garbage truck had thrown at us when we got too close--which made him an angel, Harold said as he snatched the horn from Splitter's open hand--was about it, for trumpets, so I showed The Twins and some of the smaller children how to put thumb to lip, wiggle their fingers and make that hooo-ing sound as we marched through every room except the kitchen, down the main hallway, up the stairs and out the back window to shimmy down Daddy's rope and tie the marching knot right through the front with such a shriek and holler that the whole house throbbed in alarm.

"Pump!" Harold would shout, demonstrating with his heavy foot, and we stomped for Daddy's heart until teacups rattled on their shelves. "Victory!"and Splitter showed us how to shout for joy, for we believed our voices and feet to be the deep machines of Daddy's quick and certain revival--that, and Mother for what looked to be three straight days of holding Daddy's hand while singing, fasting and praying behind the parlor door, though all the while, we found out later, she was eating corn on the cob and sipping her invigorating tea.

Crouched by the door, Harold and I would hear the rise and fall of her muffled voice, a sudden pause, and the dull thunk of what was the first chewed-and-sucked-over cob of the night hitting the bottom of the pan which, when full, was set on the back steps to be replaced with a fresh one-jelly-jar of 'shine inside-by the local handyman whose interests, according to Splitter, lay more in his customer's whiskey stills and chickens than in their leaky pipes-for it was common knowledge that sweet corn and moonshine stolen at midnight and taken together was good to ward off both sleep and ghostly visitations.

But except for the acapella-hymn-inspired "clapping of the hands," the occasional face slap, we assumed of her own, her walking prayers, private moments and all the grievous duties of the night, Mother did never let go Daddy's hand.

#

Late on the third day I snuck into the parlor. My entrance was apparently a catalyst of sorts, for the various perfumes-and there were several-solidified in amber-colored swirls that hung in the air like glassy sickbed sheets. I raised my hand, expecting the touch of the ice-mouth on my fingertips, but when several panes shattered at my touch, understanding lifted my arms and turned me in head-down circles until Mother was revealed what seemed miles away: sitting by the window, hair undone, her arm-length sleeves ripped off to hang, still buttoned, from her wrists. Leaning forward in the chair next to Daddy, she studied the deep-flesh cuts across her arms and shoulders, occasionally touching fingers to tongue to salt-bowl and tracing the course of her wounds as a thin band of light crossed and re-crossed the back of her wrist, cutting free the shadows that had stilled the room.

Once more able to stand, she draped her handkerchief over Daddy's face, reached across him and pulled back the curtain, admitting what remained of the light that had tired itself against the cloth all day. I must have jumped, because she reared back, eyes smoldering through the motes as she searched the room-checking the corners for ghosts or Indians, I imagine, newly-born fear joining life-long obsession in her strange new world.

When she saw me behind the coat tree, she squinted and moved her head about until she recognized me, then smiled and pointed to the floor. I didn't move right off, so she nodded eagerly and gestured low. It's not that I didn't know what to do, but normally it was a pinched and rattled anger that gave command, not the quiet dishevelment before me. So be it. I laid my book on the sideboard, carefully removed my shoes, collapsed forward and began to swim the floor to her--slapped boards and kicked as if water and salt-air filled the room, all the while making the muffled, curious, cries I had learned in order to please.

As always, it was a long, carefully observed, intensely critiqued journey and one which was never, to my knowledge, satisfying to Mother who had typically stepped back and laughed, stepped back and cried. This time a hand reached down. Surprised, I took it. "Tell Harold to call the children," she said, then rapped my skull with her knuckling thumb.

Harvesting splinters by the inch, I slid down the hallway as Harold shouted "Arise!" to the sleeping, and "It's time!" to the marching, until he had gathered, harried and kicked every child he could find toward the expected miracle of Daddy's up-sitting. He even carried in the sleeping Twins, thumbs entwined for the other's use, only to hear Mother announce Daddy's apparent failure to reconstitute.

"The needle did not work. The black pepper did not work. The vise, the hammer, the feather..." she stated, checking each test off the list Daddy had prepared as we drew the world into our lungs and howled like hollow moons.

#

As word spread throughout the house and over the porch-rail that even a late revival was not to be, Brother Doyle switched from pulpit- to casket-making as Harold walked the ice-wagon out of the barn and the church family gathered at our house once more. The rest of us were like the lady whose pearl necklace breaks at the top of the courthouse steps--we could only cry out, then sink down and watch.

Come morning, those closest to the family managed to work Daddy into the casket and nail the lid in place as Mother followed close behind, checking each flattened nail-head with her fingertip. With the job complete to her satisfaction, a small group of men carried the casket through the house and down the back steps, only having to rough-dance the pine through one upright turn. But after they had lashed him to the wagon, slapped the labor from their hands and looked around, they appeared a bit lost-or so it seemed from the rooftop, where I spent the first few hours of every morning, tucked between gables in the rain-valley, sketch-book covering my legs as I made note of the world-skeleton birds that rattled and wept, miniature ghost-planes circling the tree-tops, and the brilliant streams of nimbi that puckered the air with lines of silver crosses inwardly dissolving being some of my favorites to sketch before the sun dried up the sky.

With my upper inspection complete, I would sit on the old movers' dolly tied to the chimney, secure my legs with a couple of Harold's old leg braces I had attached to the sides with dog collars and fence clips, check the rope, wrap both arms around my book and kick away to hang over one side of the house and then the other, looking in the windows and taking notes as Splitter ran from room to room, pointing and squealing. But other than Daddy stumbling into the yard one morning, looking up and saying, "Well, shine my knives..." in the voice he used when describing some spectacular negro slaughter from the past, no one raised an eye. And when my lower inspection was finished, I would hoist myself back up with the pulley system I had devised, back to my collection of God-bits and clues in the old medicine cabinets stacked against the chimney's wide back. But that morning the house was empty, so I stayed on the roof and watched the scene below.

Men, clumsy in the weak morning light, stumbled against the wagon as if it were just being discovered while other, livelier, souls shouted and slapped the casket during spontaneous bible-quoting contests and then became very quiet and watchful. I imagine this was to give Daddy every opportunity, though no one said as much. Splitter walked past the casket several times, trying to whistle while pretending not to see. On his third pass he gave the lid a tremendous smack and ran off to the barn, laughing and biting the back of his wrist as the cries and cackles of all the nervous chickens filled the air.

Sister Lilly, back early from Florida and heavy beneath her skirts once more, stared from across the yard for the longest time, the moon-glow of her adopted Orientalism casting a gentle light as she advanced. Upon reaching the casket, she traced the outline of a pine knot on the lid, her finger slowly coming to a halt then tapping like a telegraph as she bent forward and circled her cheek against the wood, leaving one pale sun, one blood spot. The Twins, shipped home a week before Sister's arrival, simply reached up and pounded on the side of the casket while blowing their hand-trumpets and doing that little foot-dance that used to make us smile.

And so it went: people ignoring the casket, beating on it, rubbing against it or staring as if they had just discovered Abraham's donkey dancing in the rain, But when the work-bell sun rang in their eyes, the adults moved around from the back of the house and lined up in the street out front as I scuttled down the drainpipe to stand quite near the group.

With a blast from Harold's bugle and a rattle of Brother Doyle's tambourine we were off. We had not gone fifty yards, however, before the men found themselves nervously skittering about as the wagon, after a few bone-jamming halts, picked up speed and pulled away. Apparently the casket had been secured too far past the wagon's single axle, though Daddy was not a tall man, and the ropes, chosen for their relative cleanliness by men honor-bound not to use a cut rope for a funeral train, were too long to provide adequate lift unless pulled hard and with no letting up. So Harold and Brother Doyle, already a good distance from the wagon and with great lengths of rope twined around their waists and slung over their shoulders, soon discovered the need to maintain a steadily increasing pace in order to keep the wagon's front support out of the dirt and off their heels.

Torn between marching with the casket as they were inclined and staying with Mother as they felt proper, the men broke into a scuffling, sideways lope as Splitter back-pedaled in front of them like a dog unable to step aside. The ladies in their anklets and long floral skirts were soon striding after the men at an alarming pace as the children scampered and hopped about until we all finally slowed and watched as the wagon raced ahead.

Before they got too far, I saw Brother Doyle lose his ropes with a mighty roar, shovel them and his tambourine into the hands of a stranger and fall face-forward as the wagon rolled up and over his mountainous back. The man accepted the rope without question, and shaking the tambourine above his head as if he were scattering pennies over the poor, was off and running alongside Harold, whose leg did beat a mighty pace, until the wagon slid to a sod-splitting halt on the other side of town.

We gazed, unmoving, upon that mystery as a far-off train moaned in the cool morning grey. When some thick demon sealed the horizon with an open-mouth kiss and began to suck the air from our thoughts, the possibility of our staying in that spot forever became dangerously real. I knew from having watched Daddy that only fierce and immediate action would energize these people, so I opened my book and began to read that morning's notes to myself, knees sinking low at the end of every page, the paper curling beneath the heat of my traveling finger. Two brave sons joined the battle by flying their hands against each other in brilliant, single-engine combat as Splitter licked his palms while saying what sounded like"Devil!" as best he could. Reading faster still, I wobbled and sank, rose and fell until the world spun with reflected light--a laugh, a slap--and off we went.

Brother Doyle joined us along the way, and within the hour we arrived at Brother Condry's, whose backyard provided the church cemetery. Daddy's white-pine casket was resting on sawhorses out back, so we walked on past the new fellow who was smiling and handing out the flyers for Brother Condry's stump removal service he had found in a pencil-box nailed to the fence. Once settled in, a prayer and a proper fainting or two got things going, but the entire affair was soon on the verge of stalling out completely since nobody would declare Daddy permanently and thoroughly dead. It was only after the new fellow began clapping off-beat and singing Glory, Glory, Hal-Lay Looo-Ya! out of ignorance, impatience, or over-heated excitement that someone reached for a shovel.

#

Not that any of the above made much of an impression on me. I had woke that morning unable to speak or move my head, as if some small demon had crawled inside my neck, spread its legs and twisted every nerve it could find. The condition was beginning to lift, but mostly I glanced over the top of my book and pretended to sing as Sister Guthrie, obviously in the grip of some empowering fever, made the nails and wood of the casket lid bark with the shock of separation, slid an envelope inside and bowed her head to weep.

Just as quickly, Sister Martin--apparently another victim of the mystery fever spreading among the women--uncoupled the remaining spikes with a mighty " hnnnnt," found the envelope and crushed it in her fist as those close by turned away in olfactory horror. But the lid was quickly pounded flat by many hands, the coffin lowered into its shallow grave and dirt placed lightly on top. And though a few of the hopeful stayed behind while Brother Doyle was eased onto the wagon and fanned by one serious child as the older boys fought for the ropes--some of the men going so far as to drive a short listening-tube through the soil and into the casket--soon we were walking along a quiet little avenue one block off Main.

Mother had insisted that she and Harold were to lead the procession home with Splitter and Sister Lilly as far back as possible, but her plans soon collapsed like a cake on fire. The Twins, each one's little bald head uniquely marked with Sister's lipstick--though whatever difference there was didn't matter: at the end of the day both would be fed and everyone knew it--had been tied one-a-piece to the end-ropes of Sister's ebony plaits and, eagered by the air and open spaces, had pulled her through the ranks at a heavy trot as they puffed, sucked, and offered their scarlet thumbs to whom and whatever, be it fire hydrant or dog. Splitter, deep in the cotton of his permanent foreign adventure, simply walked straight through the group as Harold fought to maintain control which, I will admit, was about as likely as pushing a river uphill. But I also believe it was Harold's insistence that our return be enacted as a dirge, for which we had not practiced, that was most responsible for scattering the bobbins of that particular machine.

So Mother ended up at the back of the procession, though by then I believe she was too tired to care, as she stopped several times and looked around, a bit dazed, causing the church ladies to form a circle around her and pretend to pray as they protected her from the waking world.

#

Halfway home, Splitter saw a crumpled-up banner lying on the ground near an alleyway almost hidden between bushes. Howling with delight, he picked it up, danced in and out of the opening several times and then plunged on in. Several children followed, banging on garbage cans and downspouts as they mouthed "Arise, it's time, arise..." When noticed, mothers chased children and fathers trailed mothers until the entire procession quickened and flowed through the narrow opening. At the sight of our disappearing, I tucked my book under my arm and crossed over to see Splitter, wrapped in the Erpeldis county pork by-products queen banner he had found, leading our parade down the middle of Main Street and singing Daddy's default elegy: a curious mix of hymn and nursery rhyme, barnyard chatter and overheard gossip all laced together with threads of delicate laughter.

Harold, bent nearly double with the horror of our situation, flew past me, his bugle sounding a desperate 'phhhht!' with every step of his loose right foot as he scared off a passing car, blew his horn directly into Splitter's face and then raced up and down the line, honking wildly at our feet.

Once we all made it onto the sidewalk, I glanced around to get my bearings and saw Mother in front of Halladay's Department Store. She who had traveled through life without the ease of money or a pretty mouth--though Daddy did have her stand as a "once-shining beacon of loveliness" during a sermon on the hydraulics of attraction and the fleeting nature of beauty, country women in particular--was tired, I can only imagine, and would, for the first time I was aware of, dally. She leaned back to view herself in the glass, worked her hair-band into her scalp and leaned forward once more--a brazen act of vanity that, excused by exhaustion or not, caused me to snap my book and walk toward her, further distending the off-sprung line.

I had seen her straighten her hair before, place both hands against the sides of her head and pull until her eyes flattened and paled, but this time I knew she was looking directly at herself. She licked the tip of her little finger, leaned forward and flicked something off her right eyebrow--such an act as I had never seen, for though the younger children, and apparently now Mother as well, loved all things shiny and were constantly on the look-out for it, mirrors were not allowed in our lives. The only reflective surface in our house was a smallish back-panel on the cook-stove, discovered by one of the shorter children who had screamed at the sight of her reflection and immediately been pushed into the fire by the on-rush of others demanding to see--thoroughly interrupting their morning routine of dressing the other, inspecting the other's teeth, and combing the other's hair.

Pity the child without an Other!

Surprisingly, it was Splitter who had had the sense to pull the girl from the fire, though he only set her on the floor, her little nightshirt smoldering, as he alternately gazed at the embers and exercised his tongue in the would-be mirror. Soon he was encouraged to spend entire evenings in front of the fire, for beyond the fact that his presence stopped the others from tearing the stove apart, being cooked alive or encountering the temptations of vanity, when prompted, he would sing the day's events, accidentally gathered as he walked the streets at night, into the fire, providing our only worldly entertainment. His face would even assume the shapes of those whose voices passed through him, and by leaning over to watch his features in the burnished metal the effect was nearly complete.

So almost every evening after supper Mother and a bunch of the children would pull up chairs behind Splitter and stare straight ahead as he gave life to the world beyond our doors. From the hallway I could see her lean forward to watch his face in the panel as she covered her mouth and laughed along with her old friends, smiled at the news of their children, or stiffened with resolve at the mention of the same few names. And when it was over, she would stand, rub his ample cranium on her way out, then go and bury her hands in work as Splitter made the sounds of water and fire, food and dish, come alive.

#

Finished with her inspection in the department-store window, Mother turned her attention to the contents of the showroom as the church ladies eased themselves away and I pretended to be a jungle guide for a sad but lovely lady. Rested by the vision of a store-bought world, she had begun her turn from the window when a shadow swallowed the glass and instead of moving she grabbed my arm, allowing the unseen creature to carry her off in a roar of exploding glass and brick. With one hand raised to block the reflection of the church ladies, she traveled twenty-seven feet in less than one second--I snuck back later that night to do the math, based on estimates and walk-offs--stopping lips-to-metal with the refrigerator she had been studying from the other side as the beast growled and churned until it sank upon her in the field of mannequins, coats and toasters gathered in the rush.

The woman driving the car didn't say much as they pulled her from the wreckage, but like a kettle that gets quiet before it starts to scream, when she saw me looking in from the street it all came out. I think she was apologizing, but she was talking so fast and just making up stuff that no one wanted to hear, people would tell me later, that the apology was pretty hard to find. I wasn't listening to her anyway, for that's when I saw the barrel of two-dollar hatchets: red-headed, blue-tongued and hot.

Carefully straddling what remained of the wall, I held my book over my head and jumped into the building as a glass peninsula crashed behind me. Without taking my eyes off the hatchets, I removed Mother's hand from my arm, placed it next to the register and felt the cool wood slide into my grip as I shook hands with Moloch.

#

Not long after Mother's funeral, Sister Lilly sold The Twins to some travelers who had parked in front of the house for a week straight--a small, dark child dashing between camps until the deal was struck--then left town with a carny outfit working the summer circuit up north, her latest issue in tow.

Harold, who had glanced back at Mother's disappearance and kept going, now circles the town, exhorting and blessing--an encouragement to many, I've been told, and gently. The last time I saw him, marching along the highway, leg brace slung over his shoulder and bugle pointed high, he stopped long enough to tell me how he had watched his song blossom fat and white from his horn that day then sag and split to land equally on each foot, straightening out his slew one and giving him the balance and strength he needed to keep going. His bugle got straightened out somehow in the process, or someone gave him a new one. I'm not sure. They say he's pretty good.

The others? Gone. Scattered like teeth in a relic jar. You forget how heavy something is until you put it down and pick it up again, and I think people were just too tired to slide their hands under what was left of us. So it's mostly me and Splitter running things, what remains to be run in a house where it's too dark to pry any kind of light into a room.

What people do stop by occasionally ask about Daddy and I try to think of something proper and honest to say, and they smile and nod, but they don't come in. The fault of which is probably my own, for though I strive to be open in my witness, I admit to a certain protectiveness that might be considered off-putting by some.

After taking care of my inside duties, I usually air out on the front porch and help Splitter watch the passing cars--close enough to hear, if called, far enough away to breathe. And though I'm always tired from my night-watch, if I don't like the way some car manages the crossroad I'll stand and shout, try to set things right through willpower alone.

Like years back and shortly after the funerals when I heard the newest preacher in town giving Brother Doyle and a few of the other men his recruitment pitch in front of the hardware store, saying he was from "further up the road" and other such nonsense. I walked up and proceeded to explain the difference between further and farther, how further was just an idea, not an actual measure of here-to-there. Having recently learned the power of actual distance, I was not about to be shamed by the likes of them.

"We will not discuss this further!" I shouted, and walked up the street, imagining the storefronts bursting into flames.

When I got home, Splitter managed to tell me that Mrs. Crenshaw-the 'Mrs.' being as there was no longer a church to be a Sister in-wanted me to come over and do some yard work. I don't know why I chose that time, but I tossed my book into the corner and went straight to Daddy's closet where I crawled under the hanging clothes, shoved the boxes aside and started moving. When I reached the back wall I slid my hand over the slick dusty floor until I found the board with the nail sticking out, pulled it loose and grabbed two of the tiny whiskey bottles I had found when Daddy was on one of his missing times.

At the front door I spoke Daddy's words-"To taste poison and know it"-drank the bottles I only used to sniff, then picked up my hatchet and walked out.

#

"I didn't know you could kill a nandina bush," Mrs. Crenshaw said a couple of hours later, not looking at me, but leaning forward to appraise my work. Dizzy, covered in dirt and sweat, I looked up and saw her holding a tray with two cold drinks beginning to slide forward. She turned and placed the bottles on a small glass table as the girl frowned at me from behind her mother's skirt.

I didn't look directly at Mrs. Crenshaw either, just studied the back of her heels and her strange new haircut as I stood, but that's when we heard the sound and finally did look at each other. A small scritchy sound we would not have heard if I had not been woozy and almost too tired to breathe, if she had not been standing so close, her body helping trap the sound. She moved closer. 'Scritch'. It was a sharp and muffled sound, like fingernails on wood from across the room. Like a cat who feels the shadows crawl across its back but never lets on, I felt Mrs. Crenshaw's hand tighten on mine as we followed the sound out behind the house.

Across the fence was the church cemetery. Among the proper gravestones and small metal signs I saw a stone that looked different from the others. I climbed over the fence and walked up to the marker, saw it was poured concrete, rough on its rounded back with Mother and Daddy's names and dates drawn and left to harden along with the twigs and leaves.

Struck by a sudden weakness, I lay down in front of the rock, hugged my hatchet tight and squinted at the sun, waiting for an angel-bent vision like Harold and I used to have after praying real hard when Daddy was on his missing times, and later, when he was in the parlor. I could just about make her out when I heard Mrs. Crenshaw explaining something to the girl, saying, "We don't know that for sure, honey," and the child saying, "Mama, that ground moved."

I sat up and looked behind the rock where I saw a pile of dirt big as my hand shift like a toad as a charge of black ants poured from the listening-tube. I heard the sound again, only louder and with a little 'thump' inside, crawled around the rock and touched the dirt with the hatchet's blue tongue as it sounded and jumped once more. The hatchet was above my head when the fist broke through the ground.

"Baby!" Mrs. Crenshaw screamed as she flung the serving-tray aside, striking the girl-child straight in the mouth. I turned in muddy, vivid astonishment--the most God allowed--as she flew over the fence to run to us, her apron flapping in the wind.

 

 
 

Matt Dennison

After a rather extended and varied second childhood in New Orleans (street musician, psych- tech, riverboat something-or-other, door-to-door poetry peddler), Matt Dennison finished his undergraduate degree at Mississippi State University where he won the National Sigma Tau Delta essay competition (judged by X.J. Kennedy). His work has appeared in Rattle, Natural Bridge, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and Cider Press Review, among others. He currently lives in a 110-year-old house with "lots of potential" and can be reached at columbusmatt@cableone.net.