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New Orleans, Louisiana
"I watch the fire from Eva's car. The flames are yellow near the earth, and dark and thick at the top, climbing up through the trees and cornstalks with stretching hands and clawing talons. The air is too full and the sky is alive."
Eva's head sinks into the pillow next to me and her hair runs over the sides, pooling there on the bed sheet. A puddle in flames. We're in the old house, in my old room with the green stars on the ceiling and the paint like tree bark around the edges. The rain is hard and knocking on the roof above us. Eva's eyes are closed, and the skin above them is smooth and thin. I want to see, too, so I shut out the light, my eyelashes tickling my cheeks as they close.
The rain is beating from within, thumping on the insides of my ears and eyes and beneath my forehead. It dances in waves and rushes, gathering speed, then shuffling away. Rain--the color of light, the color of shadow, the movement of Eva's fingers across rectangles white black white. A jump rope slapping the ground, shoes landing--slap--landing. Clothes spinning round and round in a laundry machine. A clock's hands tapping time.
Forty marbles falling. It's too late to catch them in my hands and they tumble to the floor, forty crashes and over and over, again and again. Colors bounce and slide from wall to wall, leaping and catching the light, alive like fireflies in the air, then rolling under chair legs, onto carpet, into holes.
The blue marble goes like a waterfall and starts moving towards the door. A crack of light shines through, and it looks like the door in the old house, only this one has a mouth. A blue cloud rolling, rolling, and I have to crawl on my knees to follow it. I'm choking, breathing like a balloon, and my face feels wet. Eva's voice sounds low and frozen. Everything is changing and broken and rain, and I'm running in a sticky river, my legs twisting behind me. I reach for the blue marble, and it feels like water in my palm.
A shadow in the doorway. My skin is cold. His fingernails are long like thorns. Black whiskers leak from his nose and down his chin, curling around his upper lip and hiding his mouth. Metal boots and silver buttons. Where's Eva. My knees are shaky and my chest is sinking down, down. His eyes are too black, and the marble slips from my hand. Why is Eva smiling like that when everything is swimming and it feels dark when I know it's still morning and he's stolen all the light.
Eva twists her face tight, her left eye shrinking and her forehead skin frowning. She is bent over my lap and her hair tickles my knees.
It touches the skin where my shorts end and runs like rivers across my legs. Red. The kind of red that comes out before the trees undress and turn white. The kind that covers my oatmeal after I've counted out five raspberries. I wrap a strand of it around my pinky finger and it holds there as I feel myself breathe up down up down up. A stick of peppermint candy that flickers with thick sugar. I try to taste it but the red falls away and Eva's eyes stretch wide, so I hide my hands in the pillow underneath me.
Eva's fingers are moving like the way they sometimes dance on the black and white rectangles up and down the piano top. They're moving and moving and then they stop, frozen, and there's a screaming in my leg. It's screaming and I try to tell her, but Eva's eyes are calm and quiet, so I push my tongue against my teeth and taste the salt that dribbles in through the cracks. Eva's lips are shifting and her voice is low. Her fingers move above my leg and she's holding a white bandage against my thigh. A triangle of skin is missing there and where it was looks splotchy, like when Eva lets me hold the sponge and stand next to her at the sink while she drowns the plates and forks in the blue water. It looks smooth, but when I touch it a puddle of red collects at the torn corners, and spreads and spreads. Red pushes through my skin, sprouting from moist soil and as it escapes, the burning starts again. Eva touches it with the piece of white and holds it down, her fingers still. Her eyes are quiet but mine can't stop blinking, and the salt dribbles in and everything's on fire. I feel my chest thumping and my mouth won't close and my face is all wet, but Eva's there and she's folding her arms around me like a big sweatshirt. She's there and she's everywhere, and we breathe up down up down up together until my eyelids are heavy and all I see is red surrounding me like a blanket, until I forget I was once on fire.
Eva slams the car door and won't show me her eyes. The black button in front of me goes in and music comes out of the windows and makes my throat sore. She's walking away and I try to call out, but I can't, and when I push on the walls nothing changes. I press the black button again and the music stops, but Eva's still gone. When I open my eyes, my right arm is floating like it's underwater and the cushion beneath my face is wet. It's gone dark, and the sky looks cloudlike but also like the times Eva puts the silver pot on the stove and it yells a high and hurting cry. I try to move forward, but my nose touches cold glass and I feel it wrinkle up at the end.
I watch the fire from Eva's car. The flames are yellow near the earth, and dark and thick at the top, climbing up through the trees and cornstalks with stretching hands and clawing talons. The air is too full and the sky is alive. It's moving and dancing, but it won't stop, even when I reach out my hand to hold it but the glass gets in the way. Fire--red and hot like when I sit with Eva on the rug and we watch the flames grow tall, moving in circles so we can feel our feet, cheeks, backs, necks all over, around and around like spinning plates.
But this is different. It should be hot, but I'm not burning, and the cornstalks behind the bumpy road are disappearing faster than I feel my heart thumping, swallowed up in hungry gulps. It's all red, but not like Eva. My nose is wet and the salt drips in, and I push on the walls, but nothing changes. Eva. The red is growing, stretching, leaping, lifting, turning to black at the top and now at the bottom like the crusts of my toast that crunch against my teeth and scratch my tongue.
Then, Eva. She's running towards me, with the flames and the red and black behind her, her head down and her hair flying. I can't see her eyes, but I can feel the air filling my chest now and the salt has stopped dripping. She's holding something heavy under her arm and when she gets closer, she goes around to the back and puts it in the trunk.
When she slams the top, I feel my body jump down, then up. And then she's beside me, her face warm and pink and mouth big. The fire is shrinking and the sky has gone dark. Eva's hands are soft on my face.
Her voice is full and fast. I can see flames dance on the moons of her eyes. She lets out a laugh, and it's long and low, like the grumble of rain.
Why is Eva smiling like that. I can see them, from under the wooden steps and close to the ground that smells of rain and stone. My legs are numb and my back is crooked against the back wall. It's dark, but I can make out the shapes of a shovel near my left foot and two logs near the fuzzy opening of white light. He's there, standing under the red tree with his whiskers and his silver buttons shining. My skin is cold. Eva's smiling and she's moving towards him, pushing out her hips as she steps. I'm changing hot cold hot and I don't want to watch anymore, but I can't stop. He touches her hair, his eyes slits of black. I don't want to. His hands on her face. I can't. Long fingernails like thorns. Eva. Red surrounding her face, painted across his cheeks, upon tree bark, branches, and leaves. The tree is on fire.
Everything turns to light and I'm crawling past the stairs and logs and through the fuzzy white opening. My fingers touch dirt, grass, then metal. It's smooth like a marble and heavy in my hands. I'm running towards them. The shovel is the moon against the sky. Eva isn't smiling. My feet are moving and everything is swimming. The red is dancing. Eva.
I know order like I know my corn. I try to make my father proud in his grave, upholding the farmhouse and keeping things just so like I do.
Wasn't anyone in Purity who kept a better cornfield, and even though it's all gone to ash now, I still swear my life upon that soil. That field will stay a planting field as long as I'm breathing.
There's something comforting about the year's first planting--something calming in the early light, when the sun hangs low on the horizon, just below the trees. It's just me out there, my knees hitting the wet earth as I drop to the ground, the dirt giving with my weight, as if expecting me. There's an order about it, and the way I see it, it's my responsibility to uphold it. Just like it's my responsibility to know that for every ear of corn I can expect around 800 kernels in 16 rows, I have to know how to leave 32 inches between every row with a uniform seed depth and spacing all around. I have to know that the best time to harvest sweet corn is in its milk stage, when the ears are fully formed but not yet ripe, and that I have to work at a slow pace so that I can check for white grubs and flea beetles.
It's like the grandfather clock in the front hall that my father's father had maintained, just as his father's father had before him, and so on like that for almost 180 years. I have to make sure the weights are in line, the chimes are working, and the parts are polished. If the bushings get worn, I have to know which teeth of the gears will be jammed. If I don't check for dust and proper oiling, I run the risk of excessive pivot wear over time; if I over-grease the levers, it will only set me back in the long run.
I can wind that old clock with my eyes closed, I know it that well.
Lift the latch, swing open the glass door, and wind the brass key twelve turns to elevate the weights and start the pendulum going. Nice and easy. Simple movements of the wrist is all it is, really.
Sundays are my day to clean the clock--just like Tuesdays are market days and Saturdays I sleep in an extra hour and don't weed the field until six--and I'm rarely bothered in my routine, except for the occasional airplane engine above or mail delivery. So it was a Sunday like any other Sunday, only darker than usual, with the feeling of dry rain setting in. I had just removed the slide windows from the top section of the clock when I heard the crunch of car tires upon the gravel road and the screech of rusted brakes. Shielded behind a wooden post on my front porch, I watched the spotted Ford truck pass my house and crawl down the hill, past the cornfield, and pull into the cracked driveway of the Hastings house on the edge of my land. After old Hattie Hastings died, the small house had sat forgotten for eight years, and I never in my life believed anyone would ever settle into it again.
That was the day Eva and George moved in. I watched them disappear like shadows into the dark house, Eva with her firered hair and George with his drooling lips. From that day forward, they itched Purity like a bad rash. I swear I smelled something new in the air, mixed in with the dust and fertilizer. There's a disease called Gray Leaf Spot that killed off two-thirds of Tim Johnson's cornfield three summers ago, browning the leaves and coating stalks with spores of felted fungus.
The brother and sister pair were like this--two big pests that arrived with no good to come of it.
It was the way Eva had of smiling that really got to me. Like she saw something inside me and grabbed for it, poked at it, and it just gnawed at me the whole while she kept on smiling. That Sunday, she marched right up to my porch, hair bouncing and hips moving, nearly inviting herself in. She demanded I help her turn on the main valve for her water, and so I had to oblige. When I came to her door, I knocked so hard my fist turned red. Knowing what I do now, I should have just not bothered.
We were in her living room, and Eva stood there twirling a loose strand of hair around and around her finger. The corners of her mouth twitched toward the ceiling.
"You've got yourself a one-bedroom house, I'm afraid." That's what I had said. Real matter-of-fact like.
She really had a thing for smiling, and my skin started to itch bad, all over my forearms and across my thighs.
"That'll be George's room, then," she said. "It doesn't matter much to me where I end up sleeping."
She started to move closer and that's when I tipped over this wooden box behind my feet and marbles went everywhere, spilling across the floorboards and knocking against the walls with hollow thuds.
I heard loud, uneven footsteps approaching with speed and turned to face a boy almost a full head taller than me with a stained t-shirt so small it barely reached his navel. His hair was a shade of red lighter than his sister's and his eyes seemed to focus in opposite directions, as he glanced wildly around the room--at the marbles spread across the floor, from me to his sister, then from his sister and back again to me. His mouth widened and I thought he might cry, but he only gave a high-pitched yelp and then began to laugh the laugh only devils are capable of making. A thin line of drool trailed from his lower lip on down to his shirt collar.
"Georgie," Eva said, her voice real low.
He dropped to the floor and crouched there like some kind of animal, his eyes wild and unblinking. In his left hand he clutched a blue marble.
My throat felt dry and I looked to Eva but she was still smiling, and I got this panicky feeling in my chest. I started to move towards the door, and I was almost halfway through it when the boy came upon me.
He had crawled right under me and when I looked down, he had leeched onto my right boot. He was tugging on it and clawing at the shoelaces, and it was all I could do to hold my leg still.
I didn't mean to, but it was those eyes of his stabbing into mine, and before I knew it, I had jerked my foot back and his nose was bleeding.
Red gushed down his chin, mixing in with the drool as it soaked into his shirt, spreading like a brush fire. Eva was bending over the boy, who now sat with his big arms wrapped around his big legs and rocked himself back and forth. He stared up at Eva with a look of something pathetic. I knew I had to get out of there, so I told Eva I had to get on home. She wasn't smiling anymore.
I went back that afternoon when I saw them sitting under the tree in front of the house and quick opened the shut-off valve for the water that was on the side of Hattie's house closest to me. They didn't even see me do it. Truth is, I had every right to stay away from those two.
It didn't take more than a week before they had strung paper garlands across their entire porch and had started to paint over all the floorboards and wooden pillars Hattie had always kept so clean and white. They spent whole days painting like that, with jars of color spilling down the steps, and they didn't seem to care that the different colors didn't match up or that the painted areas didn't line up right. One day I saw Eva roll in a small stand-up piano, and after that, all I could hear was her pounding away on the thing. I doubt she owned one music book. It became a cursed house, George always drooling, always touching things and carting off bugs and rocks and bottle caps. He picked at Eva's hair like some kind of monkey, and once he ran up the hill and right up to the kitchen window, and just stared at me while I ate my dinner.
I swear they set my cornfield on fire. It was a Tuesday and I had driven into the next town twenty miles west to pick up some antifreeze in preparation for fall. I was heading back when the dark clouds set in, with bolts of lightning taller than an eight-story building. The rain held off until I was almost home, but when it hit, it beat down harder than I had seen in a good while, and I had to pull over to realign my windshield wipers, it was coming down that strong.
All I know is I was cursed, from the day Eva and George moved in. Just like they brought with them their games, paints, and poundings to Purity, to destroy my peace and disrupt my quiet, they brought the lightning to my cornfield. I can still see them now, summoning the rain clouds and thunder like makers of magic, drawing the lightning bolt closer and closer with fluttering fingers. They set it all on fire, my tall stalks of fine corn burnt to ashen embers by the time I rounded the hill and pulled up in front of the smoking field of black.
They're lucky I didn't call them in to Sherriff Goodman. I kept thinking of that day Eva painted the tree red--of Eva's trapping grip, the blood-red bark, George's devil eyes--and it ate at me until I was near tempted to report something. I would have, too, but lucky for them I didn't have more time to mull it over, because they flew out of town a few days later, faster than a greased pig.
The way I see it now, with them gone and everything back to its natural order, I can breathe easier, I can sleep without worry, I can clean my clock without prying eyes behind the kitchen window. I'll plant a new crop of corn next season, turning over the leveled ground and black husks into the brown soil beneath, starting over like my father's father and his father's father did years ago. Safe from harm's way, my corn can grow strong, pure, and free from any pests. I can simply live. It's all I ever wanted, and it's all I'll ever need.
Just my corn and that plot of land.
There's something that still gets me, though, that happened the day Eva and George left town. I had just set the coffee pot on the stove and had wound the clock twelve turns to start the pendulum going steady when I saw it. I looked out my window at the house at the bottom of the hill, and there was Eva, dragging out a good hundred feet of garden hose around from the back of her house and across her front lawn. It struck me funny that she was even attempting some yard work, as I'd never seen her care for it before, so I kept watching.
The boy was there, too, carting boxes and suitcases from the house and into the truck, one by one. He climbed in and out of the truck's back bed, crawling over objects and rearranging things, and didn't seem to pay any mind to what his sister was doing.
Eva stopped in front of the big oak tree she had painted red for what reason I still do not know, and aimed the spray nozzle at it like some gun-wielding lunatic. At first nothing happened. Eva walked round and round the tree, spraying it up and down and across all the branches.
Then, the red paint started to run, trailing down the trunk and pooling at its base, where it soaked into the dry ground.
It was a strange sight, that's for sure, and I didn't know what to make of it. I still don't, I guess, but that girl did a lot of unusual things, so it makes a kind of sense. Eva kept at the tree, spraying and pointing, paint dripping and water flooding, and then she stopped, just as suddenly as she had begun. The tree was bare, scrubbed and soaked through, its bark now a faded pink, stained with wet rivers running down the sides. Eva wiped her hands dry against her jeans and stood there for a while. I can still see her like that now--just smiling.
She finally got something right, I'll give her that. Trees aren't made to be red. But, sure as I guessed it, she forgot to turn off the water in that old house before they left. So it was up to me to see to it, and I turned the valve real tight, until it shut off and the quiet set in again. The pink on the oak tree will wear off by the time the snow starts falling, I'm sure of it. That good soil will soak it right up, turn it back pure again.
"Stay out of my cornfield," he said, just like that, his rough voice flat and level the whole sentence through. I figured he was joking--some strange, Midwestern form of introduction that I just wasn't accustomed to yet--but his eyes never moved, his lips never twitched.
I stood on his front porch, sticky and tired from the day's drive, as he peered from just inside the door, one hand around a brown potato and the other latched firmly to the doorframe. Strange sort of man, answering the door like that. He dragged one metal-tipped boot across the floor, his eyes planted on something just a few inches to the left of my head. A forest of black whiskers clothed the bottom half of his face, snaking around his lips and crawling down his chin. They gave him the look of a wiry, sharp-nosed weasel.
The man cleared his throat. "It's my first crop of the season, and with the amount of rain we've been getting in these parts, I just don't want anyone messing with it." One of his eyeballs seemed to dart in my direction, but it stilled, hovering like a limp balloon.
"Well," I said. "Nice to meet you, too. I'm Eva."
I didn't mean to be rude, it just struck me funny that this was my luck of a new neighbor. It's always luck, one way or another--that was what I told George whenever he used up all the red paint, every time we listened for the rain on the roof and it didn't come. Nothing is planned. When things weren't working out for us, we stuffed the flatbed of the Ford with what we needed and drove the 1200 miles to our great-aunt Hattie's old house, even though we hadn't gone to her funeral and had never heard of a town named Purity before. When nothing is planned, everything is luck.
As luck would have it, downtown Purity was the size of a swimming pool and around it were scattered farms and barnyards with stretches of crop fields that flashed like strobe lights as we drove past. And our new neighbor went by the name of "Buck."
"Nothing but." Buck shifted the potato in his hand, his knuckles white from added pressure. He seemed to be staring intently at his feet.
"Well, Buck, it seems as though our aunt's house has mice, but no running water. It's a good thing it's summer--otherwise my brother George and I might be fighting you for your hot water tonight."
It was strange the way he looked at me, his throat stretched out like he had just swallowed a penny and was waiting for it to slide slowly down.
"I don't suppose it would be too much to ask if you'd stop by and help me figure out how to turn it back on?"
The potato slipped from Buck's hand and fell to the floor with a thud.
"What?" he said.
"The water. Whenever you can." I eyed the fallen vegetable. "George doesn't understand why the sinks are dry and the tub won't sink his marbles when he drops them in there. When he gets like this, it's hard on everyone, you know."
Buck didn't know. He just stood there, silent and wide-eyed. There was something unreadable about his expression, something that numbed him on the outside and buried itself under his skin, freezing everything like frost on a cornhusk.
I backed towards the porch steps to go. "The town's real nice," I said, scanning the flat horizon of brown fields and high grass. "Could use a bit of color, though." I noticed Buck's shoulders jump. "A little life, what do you think?" Buck's hand was on the door, knuckles whiter than before.
I started walking. "Don't forget about our water," I yelled. The front door was slowly moving closed, creaking at the hinges. "Enjoy that potato of yours."
The door paused mid-swing. I could just make out Buck's face inside, his whiskers glinting from the shadows.
"As long as you stay out of my corn field," the rough voice called.
The door banged shut.
And that was my welcome to Purity. For a while I tried to make the most out of it, forcing myself to listen to the sound of the wind as it hissed through the fields, teaching myself to admire the silence and sluggish calm of the town, to understand the frowns and cold passings. I even convinced myself that George was looking better, that his spells were fewer, with the sun and space and endless quiet.
I thought there was something sad and pure in Buck's plainness. I watched him from the bottom of the hill, and studied the way he polished the parts of his grandfather clock on his front porch with careful caresses, the way he knelt in the soil of his cornfield, his knees stained brown and lips moving slowly as he whispered to his seeds.
I should have known that our stay in Purity wouldn't last long, from the moment Buck spilled George's box of marbles and sent them rolling across the wooden floor, spinning out of control. Of course, George knew it all along, but I didn't want to move again so soon. I only wanted to spin in place like a marble, to feel the world turn about me like a dance and flash with color.
When I painted the oak tree in front of our house, I went through five pickle jars of red paint and destroyed the bristles of all my large paintbrushes. George helped for a while, sticking his hands wrist-deep into the red and pressing them to the bark, but soon became more interested in collecting leaves in a fold of his shirt and then disappeared, his chest big and lumpy, engorged with broken twigs. I had painted as far as I could reach and was filling in the areas that were thin and splotchy when Buck showed up. He stood there, the buttons of his shirt reflecting the sunlight, hands in his pockets, just scowling. His eyes moved slowly from the paint-splattered ground and up the red trunk, as if climbing the thing like a squirrel.
"That's a tree," he said. "Why are you painting a tree?" He punched out the words not as a question, but as a reprimand. His face had turned pale and he looked unsteady on his feet.
I smiled up at my creation, wiping my hands on my jeans. "Do you ever look at something and think about what it might look like if it was turned inside-out?"
He stood there, unblinking. "No," he said. "I do not."
"Like if we could see something and not think tree, but think of it as what it's not. A not-tree." I liked the sound of that. "Or what it might look like if it grew top-down, not bottom-up? Like an icicle?"
Buck glanced behind him, up the hill towards his house. I knew he wanted to bolt.
"No," he said. "I don't think like that."
He had that sad look in his eyes, and I wanted to grab it and hold onto it. Like the times I held George the way he liked. I wanted to trace my fingertip across Buck's forehead and feel it upon my skin--the lines that formed, the curve of his eyebrows, the sharp slope that dropped off like a waterfall.
"Just think," I said. "What if we woke up one morning to find out that all the trees were red? Whole forests, as if they were on fire and just burning--alive and growing--but slowly burning, blood-red."
Buck was staring at me now, looking me straight on, his eyes too focused, his nostrils flaring. I took one step closer and he backed away, and that was when I should have known, but I thought I could make him understand, if only he could let go of his suspicion for a moment.
"Here." I reached out my hand towards Buck. "Take my hand. I want you to try this."
He stared at my open palm as if he could see straight through it. His arms remained glued to his sides and he wasn't moving them anytime soon, so I had to grasp his hand and hold on tight. His fingers stuck out stiff and straight like pencils, and his skin felt coarse and unfamiliar. Holding his hand in mine, I moved it to the tree.
"I want you to touch it," I said. The wet paint winked in the sunlight.
"What?" Buck flinched, pulling his hand away, but I held on.
"Touch it," I repeated, drawing his open palm closer to the red trunk.
Suddenly, he yanked free from my grip, jerking my wrist at a painful angle. His hand caught my hair and his fingernails scratched against my left cheek.
And then George appeared, running at us from the house, waving a large shovel about his head.
"Georgie," I tried to call, but it was too late. He swung at Buck, arms flailing, chest heaving, and the metal clashed hollow against a tree limb.
Buck, who had ducked under George, now crouched with his arms above his head at the foot of the tree. His eyes grew to slits and as he watched George stumbling about with the weight of the shovel, a low growl rolled from his lips. I tried to intercede, but Buck pushed me out of the way. Leaping from his spot, he sprang up and charged George, tackling him to the ground and grabbing the shovel from his hands. Buck stood up quickly and held the shovel in both his hands, choking the metal handle with straining knuckles. Then George ran at him, and I saw Buck take a swing, the shovel flying towards George's leg.
The blood puddled on George's thigh and began to seep into his shorts.
I held George in my arms and rocked him back and forth, the way he liked.
Buck was yelling, his face on fire and his nostrils flaring. "You've messed everything up," he bellowed, and I wasn't sure if he meant it for George or for me. "You've messed with it all," he said, "my peace, my calm, my sanity. My Purity. Everything." He went on like that, yelling and flailing about, and so I left him there by my painted tree and led George inside to find a bandage for his leg.
"Stay away from me," Buck was still screaming, as I slammed the door closed. "And stay away from my cornfield."
And that was exactly what I didn't do. But after burning Buck's field down to the ground, I came to realize that the yellows of the corn and greens of the stalks and leaves were better than the dead black that now soaked the ashen earth. What was at first an eruption of life, alive and ablaze with full force, soon turned cold. It became sad and empty, swallowed up with the flames, and just looking at it, I knew that it was time to go. When the leaves began to fall from the trees like flattened tears, George and I left Purity. Buck could never spin like one of George's marbles, changing color and gathering speed, just as I could never get him to see anything from the inside-out. I could never reach him in that Purity place. So we left Buck to his clock parts and corn, in his quiet house with closed windows. I guess it was my kind of luck, with a couple of mistakes thrown in, that we would be moving on. I left the tree in my aunt's front yard like it was when George and I first moved in. I tried to make it fit, but my red didn't belong there. In Purity a tree is just a tree.
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