by SHELLY WEATHERS
I was sent down the street with a bottle of mentholated liniment to give to Mrs. Jesop for her spider-bitten leg.
“Mrs. Jesop?” I whispered or mouthed through the screen door from her front stoop. It was August. I had sweated so much on the walk over, the bottle felt willfully slippery in my hands. I dropped it five or six times along the way, but instead of breaking and saving me the rest of the trip, it’d clattered around my feet on the dusty road. Here on her threshold, the liniment made one final, wet wriggle, and the knock of it ricocheting between my knees and the door jamb was probably what Mrs. Jesop heard.
She called to me from a dark living room, told me to come on in and sit down, said what a good girl I was to visit her, apologized for her electric fan not working, asked if there was any breeze stirring by my grandmother’s place. By the time the screen closed behind me and I’d walked across the rug to stand by her chair, she’d talked herself into a coughing fit. Old people coughed a lot.
A roundness of bosoms and pin curls, Mrs. Jesop sat in an armchair with her hurt leg stretched out on a stool. I set the bottle of liniment on the TV tray beside her, and when she could talk again she thanked me, said it would be just the thing. I did a leg crossy, twirly move to avoid her attempt to give me a pat. Her hands looked wet, shaky. The ringlets of her perm wilted with sweat, her flannel night gown splotched with damp. She asked me if I’d catch her a glass of water in the kitchen sink. I did. Her kitchen was stifling as the front room, but it smelled better, felt less sickly. Its tile and whitewashed board walls seemed dryer, cooler, holding no black and white pictures of sons in uniforms, no painted plate commemorations of the last supper, no vases of half melted wax flowers. When I got back to her, she was fussing with the crocheted lap blanket she had folded over her leg. She reached out and took the water I’d drawn, set it down on the tray like it was slippery as the liniment bottle. I didn’t know enough to think she might need help drinking it, wouldn’t have known how to help if I’d understood.
“You want to see my bite?” she asked. Yes, I did want to see.
She tugged the corner of the cover, and it slipped all the way off. I should have picked it up for her, but I stood there, doped by the sight of the leg. It was so swollen, I wondered how it could have been hidden under a coverlet, slight and lacy.
“That old devil got me real good,” she said as she hitched her nightgown, twisting her foot just enough to roll the log of her leg over so the bite on her calf pointed upward. She lifted the bit of stained gauze.
A piercing whiff of mercurochrome and a stink of old rags or sick dog or some other oozing mephitic held me back from bending for a closer look. I took the bite in from a step or two away. Inside a bruised, purple ring, a mound of yellow flesh dimpled around a gory fissure, as if a wild animal, not a spider, had torn a chunk of Mrs. Jesop away to show gashed fat, or muscle, or whatever bubbles under an old lady’s skin. Then, in this deep wound, a deeper foulness sank its center, black as old motor oil, open into places less seeable than the bloody ground of her insides falling down its filthy pit. I stared and stared. And then I helped her cover it back over and ran home to my grandmother, who did not ask for news.
Some days later, Mrs. Jesop died.
“Lock jaw,” one of my uncles said.
“Blood fever,” one of my aunts added. “They call it tetanus now. Poor old Mrs. Jesop, hard going like that. She never did nobody wrong.”
“The old rot-eye of putrefaction. And you don’t know what nobody’s done or not done,” my grandmother said, and this seemed truthful and full of meaning.
The neighborhood and church people, who had known Mrs. Jesop once a week for so many years, echoed with further lamentations concerning how hard it would be to carry her casket all the way graveside. She had been a big woman, and her leg, in the end, had its own weight to add.
Worse, the funeral pictures had to be taken on a Sunday because Mrs. Jesop was turning black in her coffin and there was nothing they could do to stop it or hide it. She was too far gone for funereal stuffing, or makeup, or crochet to cover the creep of rot. Everyone was practical about it, yet her timing caused a fuss since Sundays never involved anything other than church and a lot of cooking and dishes. Mrs. Jesop’s Sunday was busy with extra platters of fellowship hall food, cars full of men in ties, rides to arrange for concerned parties, vigils, and bouquets of eternal flowers. And the pictures, I heard my aunts say, had to be got before the morning was over. That’s how fast the corpse was turning.
All of the arrangements made and her lid shut, the regular late service was to be given over for her funeral and then she was headed for the deepest hole they could arrange on such short notice.
In the afternoon, cars swung by to drop off kids at my grandmother’s house because two of her sons were deacons, and because several of the mothers were worried the dead lady could be infectious from the casket. My grandmother stayed in the house and paid her respects by making dinner for the pall bearers.
The kids brought over to wait Mrs. Jesop out were mostly, at best, off and on weekend acquaintances. I had been told to count them, get their names. I forgot, so a straggle of six or seven or several more children, all girls but one, filed into my grandmother’s place like a small army whose one duty was to gather up fast once parents got back. I can’t remember their exactness now any more than I could remember their names then, but for the boy. I kept an eye on the boy at first because I didn’t know him at all, and because boys sometimes think they’re going to run the show in a bunch of girls. This boy seemed bashful, shrinking. I let him be for a time and kept my eye on Elwana, the preacher’s kid.
They were stuck at my grandmother’s place and, so long as Elwana didn’t mind, I expected to be the leader, taking us to the front of the house, to a bare, paneled room of steamer trunks and pinewood dressers. There were no couches or chairs. The room was never used except to dry fruit in the late summer or keep children in a group. It was sparse. So what? We were alone. Once I got everyone in one place and the doors shut between us and any adult, I wanted to talk about Mrs. Jesop.
“Did you see her?” I asked. Though no one had, my curiosity found company. We’d been listening. There were points to be patched together. Mrs. Jesop’s hair had fallen out so her body wore a wig. Her leg got so big in the hours before she died, it had to be lopped off and cremated separate. They had to fume out the church with Lysol and Air Wick bottles, she smelled so bad. I figured I knew about the smell. There was more.
“My mother said her mouth came open and they had to call the funeral people to glue it back shut,” a girl I knew to be a watch-care Methodist told us. “They could see the thing they put in there to stop her throat up.” So now it was mouths and eyes and casket lids, gaping, needing to be shut.
Elwana claimed her father had to kill a demon with his Bible when it crawled up out of Mrs. Jesop’s open mouth. A red haired girl sitting on the trunk packed with my great grandmother’s clothes and hair combs said Elwana was lying. Elwana said the girl was a heretic, which sounded awful. They began to fight, locking their arms together, latching onto shoulder seams and strings of hair. I stepped between them, tried to get them to shut up, calm down, but somebody’s fingernail scratched me and scratched me again before I could pull back. I couldn’t help throwing a fist, so it was me and Elwana beating up this one girl, though I didn’t believe Elwana either. We knotted up, the girl still trying to rip at us with her fingernails. Elwana and I grabbed her on either side, twisted her clawing hands behind her, fell as one all the way over, hit the side of the old trunk so hard it rocked up and down, splintered or cracked or groaned, scooted a foot, and then stopped with us, and the fight was over.
Where the trunk had been, there was a hole in the floor. We all stared at it. Had we made it? Particles of dirt, sawdust, debris, were settling around us like dusty spit. I begin to flail through all the bad I could expect if I had taken the occasion of Mrs. Jesop’s passing to break the floor of my grandmother’s house. I kept looking away, looking back, hoping it would disappear or heal up all of a sudden. Everyone was gaping, as if it might stare back from its absence. It gouged through a depth of disintegrated linoleum, its jagged rim layered in green, brown, speckled suggestions of color falling into absolute blackness from which not one shadow breathed below. Dust hovered about its lip, swirled, sank into nothing.
“You broke the floor,” I said to the girl I’d been fighting.
She crawled away to sit with her sister or perhaps her everyday friend, who joined in glaring hatefully at me, and said, “It was already broke. Everything’s broke in this dump.”
Elwana and somebody else held me off of her. You never say a grandmother’s house is a dump. The hole was their fault, their crime. Or maybe the hole had been there, just covered over by the trunk. My grandmother might know about it, even, might have slid the trunk into its place and just left it there, unworried until now. I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t also to blame.
I was terrified of what we’d done wrong, still, it was an interesting wrong, and the next thing we all did was bump our heads together trying to see under the floor. There was nothing more than the dark.
“What nasty do you keep under there?” the same girl said, still sounding angry.
“The devil,” I said with a thought of pushing her face toward it, but she rocked back and sat down just out of easy reach.
She smiled like I was being funny. “That’s so stupid,” she said. I wanted to punch right through her.
“It’s true,” Elwana backed me up. “My daddy’s the preacher. That’s how I know the devil’s really down there.”
Four or five game, faithful girls who belonged to either church members or parents who occasionally sent them to Sunday school with churchy neighbors took turns supporting the two of us by cursing the devil, throwing down into the hole whatever they had in their pockets or whatever they could find laying around the hole. Gum, Life Savers, a barrette, some petals dangling from a vase of wax flowers. We all dribbled spit on Satan. One of us suggested turning out the overhead light to see what would happen, which was ridiculous since you could not hope to see the dark in darkness, and here daylight was going dim. Our scrawny boy suddenly crept forward and rammed a stringy finger all the way down into the rim of the hole. I screamed, both for a fleeting fear he might draw back a withered hand, and for the sake of outrage he would so blatantly try to puncture our story.
I hit him the way I wanted to hit the belligerent girl, landing it somewhere around his ribs. He shrank and started to cry, a surer racket to draw my grandmother’s attention than fighting. I draped my arm around his pointy shoulder blades, patted his twig arms. We all shushed him, and I took it on myself to turn into a good mother who felt sorry for being mad. “It’s okay. I didn’t mean to yell or whatever. You’re so dumb to put your finger down there. It might get snapped off by a bug or a rat or really the devil.”
He sniffed and got quieter, sat rounded inside my arm. He felt nice despite the stack of bones he hid inside his shirt. Everyone got quieter as he did. We all sat and whispered together in smaller sets, wondering at what we’d either broken or uncovered. I talked to the boy.
“What’s your name, boy?” I asked, and I’m sure he answered. I remember his lips moving, how chapped and thin they looked, the spaces between his teeth. Elwana was using the hole to make a point about wasps with heads of horses and the burning lake that would one day wash up on us all, and if his name in quiet trust was whispered, it fell, lost under the lava waves of her sermon. Elwana was good at sermons.
“And when the wicked are cast down into that pit of flaming torture, they’ll fall through a dark tunnel, just like this black hole, and that nothingness will be the last thing they ever see before they start to burn.” She struck that last word with an emphatic hammer, preacherly. Then she rocked back on her hips, opened her legs in a straddled position, and pointed to her crotch. “And anyway, I know all the secrets about holes.”
Our group squirmed as one. A girl whose father had worked with my uncles at the brickyard said panties were gross, another suggested we go outside now, see what night bugs we could find to bring back to drop down the hole. I thought we’d reached treaty.
Elwana was not finished. She said, “I even know the secret of why this hole is really here and what purpose it serves to the devil, amen, I do!” She closed her eyes, and her face radiated her next inspiration. A chorus said, tell us, tell us. What secret?
Elwana opened her eyes, grinned. “This hole was made by a man who used to live here so he could put his pointy thing down it.”
I had never heard anyone admit to what men did or didn’t have or what they were allowed to do with it, but here she had a shock by its root. I saw past myself to nodding heads, eyes linking in narrowed side looks, the appreciation of surprise. We all understood very well, except for one girl who asked, “Their whats?”
“Their things,” Elwana said in a triumph of revelation. “Haven’t you ever seen a man put his thing in something before? Don’t nobody ever pull out their pointy thing for you? You too ugly for show?” Elwana stood up to poke at the girl with a gut-fastened hand. The girl squealed, ran around the room. There were giggles, movements, unease. Someone said it was a sin. I didn’t know which they meant, the poking, talking about men’s parts, breaking the floor. I noticed that my boy was crying again, this time ever so softly. I bunched him up in my arms like I was gathering loose sticks.
I told him how dumb Elwana was. Forget her, I told him, he wasn’t suspected of having a pointy thing. I said, “We don’t mean you. You’re a good boy except that finger you stuck in the floor. Do you want to go in the other room with me?” I offered him Hot Wheels.
“What time will our ride come back?” he asked, and I saw that even his tears were thin.
I felt very close to the boy at that moment. It was then I decided to keep him as a true friend, let him in on my ideas, take him up as a companion.
“Not long now,” I said and shrugged, and though I wanted to hold onto him, I took my arms from around him. What I told him was untrue. Funerals were unpredictable, and then there was the cemetery and the fellowship to follow. Lying to him made me feel angry all over again. I wished for another fight.
But we were used to each other now, all talking at once, loudly. The unchecked rise of so many wilding voices accomplished what the muffled thumping of our fists hadn’t. My grandmother opened the door. Hoping to avoid for now any trouble to come, I threw myself over the hole, feeling its breach sagging under me like I might sag right into it, disappear in a puff of floor grit. All she said was, “Go on outside now.” As soon as she left the room, Elwana and the girl we’d fought both helped me scoot the trunk back over the hole, and we all hit the door, tangled as we pushed through, and burst out into the freshly dark night, blooming with relief. I hadn’t thought about being outside all day. Now I was all of a sudden tired of indoors, tired of girls.
I had taken a dread of Elwana, who despite helping me with the trunk seemed to me taller, slier. I couldn’t decide if she really knew the things she said or if she were reading minds, telling on other people who knew things. Maybe the other girls were talking about who knew what while they broke into their whispering pairs and threes, while they claimed spots on the porch or sitting in the yard, their feet stretched out into the dirt street. I wanted to run as far from them as I could, take every chance there might be to feel free.
“Boy.” I came up on him from behind. He turned toward the sound of my voice. I thought I saw him shrink. I didn’t give him the chance to push me away. I hooked my elbow through his and took off. He didn’t try to get away. I could hardly believe I had him. We ran smoothly, as one, up the long yard to the wooded hill just beyond my grandmother’s fence line. I was allowed to go this far in daylight when my mother wasn’t here. As evening fell, the wood was farther away, hidden behind its own shadow in front of the rising moon.
“Let’s climb the mulberry trees,” I said. He stood at my side, docile, not reluctant. “Let’s roll down the side of the hill in the dark.” He did not answer, still, he did not pull away. I swore to him there were piles of leaves and soft ground at the bottom. “Don’t worry about hard stuff. You won’t get hurt.” He was so bony, I understood how a fall might hurt his joints, his knobby ribs and hips. I thought better of what I had told him, another lie. The hill was a pile of rocks and roots. I hated my lies, but could not disown them. “Or we could climb a tree instead.” I thought I saw him smile at me, though it was dark and hard to see. I could hear the girls, some of them running around now. They might be hiding from each other or chasing each other through the garden. I didn’t want to share this time or this boy with them.
I took us to the biggest tree, climbing by feel while he waited for me. I hung by my knees to help him up, slow, graceful. We made our way to an L-shaped overhang, our feet dangling above the slope of the hill, facing away from the stand of trees, towards the suggestive shapes of their shadows. The night was coming on cool. I felt a breeze though I never heard wind in the leaves. All was still. I put my hand over his, perhaps accidentally. Neither of us moved away. His skin was cool, soft. I wondered if he would want to talk about Mrs. Jesop.
“Did you visit Mrs. Jesop to see her spider bite? Did you ever see its rot-eye?”
I leaned close in case he answered my questions. I wanted to tell him what I’d seen. I thought he should know, would understand, how all the workings inside of her melted down into wreaking blackness. So hard it pulled, I thought I would fall into it. This was a better secret than Elwana’s. This was a real secret, the way ruin looked, the way all people must look when they’re dying. This was a warning I urgently felt he should have.
His wispy hair tickled my cheek. He didn’t say anything, no matter what foulness I told him. Even if they’d cut Mrs. Jesop’s leg off sooner, dying had gotten into her blood, up under her skin. Nothing would have saved her once it started. I told him how it drained her into itself. I told him what it would do to us when our time came. Grownups kept so many secrets, told so many easy lies, but this I’d seen myself.
He had grown still. I could see his narrow face outlined in rising moonlight, a second and closer moon. I kept thinking he might cry again. His face rose, filmy white, grim and brave, not scared as when ridiculous Elwana was preaching about fire pits and filthy parts.
The boy and I stared at each other. He took hold of my hand in return, on purpose now, held it tight. I knew there was no devil under the floor, only the same dark covering our hands so no one could see to spoil it for us. Here was a gentle, clean secret neither Elwana nor the fighting girl would ever know. I had told him what I’d seen, everything I’d heard, and now neither of us were afraid. If I had been a wild animal, I could have swallowed him whole. He wouldn’t have flinched. From the middle of me he would beam his sweet light through troubling thoughts. We would be brave. I kept on looking at him. He looked back. I felt glad and slow and graceful.
After I do not know how much time, Elwana, from wherever she stood at a distance, aimed a shriek at me, split the air with my name, shrill, searching. I jumped, tipped over the branch, hit the ground with every inch of me, and then rolled, more tumbled, down the hill, catching an arm on a root at the bottom. My skin stung in every uncovered place. My legs felt crisscrossed with scratches. I hardly had time to hurt. A group of girls, Elwana at the center, came running and swept me up. They were laughing, yelling about whose turn it was to do whatever they had been taking turns doing. Stunned by the fall, stinging, their angry joy braced me and kept me from embarrassing myself by crying. I forgot myself and my boy, and ran away with them, mad at them at first, then yelling like them, with them.
Parents began to show up to carry their children home. Everyone got busy leaving, which went on for a while. My grandmother came out, presided at their comings and goings, greeted her family returning. Elwana’s parents stopped to talk and then took her off toward home. I waved to all their faces as they drove away in the wedge of headlights.
I didn’t see my boy. I looked around for him. The last girl got into the last car, a ruffled roar of bad gaskets and fume striking up around her. I began to search. I called for him as best I could since I had no memory of his name. “Skinny boy? Skinny boy?” But everybody was gone. What if my boy was lost in the dark? Or worse, he’d given me up, slipped by me without a word, crouched down to slink into his parents’ backseat. Maybe he’d put his finger to his pale lips, signaled to them to keep him secret from me.
For comfort, I began to scrabble together a grander fear. I pictured my boy wandering in the woods, fallen from our tree and hurt, helpless, swollen up from sudden rot-eye, searching feverishly for me in vain. When he couldn’t find me, when the rough girls made too much noise for him to bear, when their parents’ cars jostled and belched smoke, he slipped back into the house. There, maybe he became worried about me, about what would become of me if I were in trouble. Bravely, he scooted back the trunk to take one more look, make one more black watch into the hole to see if it was as wide, as mysterious as it had first appeared. Then, being small and weak, he stumbled. My poor skinny boy. He fell, sliding, sinking under the floor, endlessly lost in the night-weeping eye at the pit of all sin.
Shelly Weathers’ work has appeared in Sou’wester, Moon City Review, Timber, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere, and has been recognized with the Beacon Street Prize in Fiction, as well as the John Steinbeck Short Story Award. She lives with her family in the desert Southwest.