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In Dark Water


I only touched his toe, his big toe, 'cause it was hidden under the sheet and she couldn't see me squeeze it as hard as I could. I didn't care that it was cold, but I wanted it to hurt. I wanted David to yell or hit me 'cause it hurt. I squeezed it as hard as I could without making a face she could see. My hand started to ache but his toe still didn't flinch or pull away. It just stayed there, hard. He did nothing. But he did, he did do something. He got more dead. He was getting more and more dead the more I squeezed. I squeezed even harder then, even with my hand aching, I squeezed till I knew he was all the way dead, till his toe had won, it had beaten my hand.

She was lifting my other wrist. "It's time," she said. She walked me away from him. David was theirs now--the two men lined up outside the door. They were dressed in black suits and red ties and white shirts. "I'm very sorry for your troubles, ma'am," the first one said to her, and then to Dad, too, behind me, "I'm very sorry for your troubles, sir." The second guy repeated after him, "Sorry for your troubles, sorry for your troubles." Like a song, I thought, and then David added, Yeah, the lead and the backup, and I smiled 'cause both of the men leaned forward in exactly the same way shaking Dad's hand and nodding their heads one after the other. I smiled but it was really David smiling.

"Will they put different clothes on him?" I asked when we got in the car. She nodded. "Even his underpants? Even new underpants?" I asked and she nodded again. "But he didn't even know them," I said. Dad gave me a look that meant STOP but I knew to anyway. Her jaw was already up and stiff as if it was holding something very important she couldn't drop. They had argued last night about me seeing him. She said yes. Dad said no, 'cause of the bandages covering his head and most of his face. "She should remember him the way he was," he kept saying. Their voices got quieter and quieter. I lifted my head off the pillow but I still couldn't hear. I knew though, not to push, not to ask if they would put shoes on him. And even without her nodding, I saw in my brain the lead singer leaning over David's feet and jamming a shoe over his toe. He covered his toe.

Her jaw hardened more when she saw the smile. She didn't know that David had given it to me, that it was a different smile than the bad smile.

The bad smile first came when Dad told me he was dead. Dad was standing but she was sitting down and I heard her spit out toward the table, "That damn motorcycle!" and Dad leaned down to her and her fist circled his back but it was weak, it was opening into just her hand again. I was standing alone by the door where we always stood whenever we got called in by Dad. I heard him say it once more in my head, David was killed, and then it came, the smile. I put my head down but it was too late. Her eyes saw me from under Dad's arm. I saw them see me and I ran. I ran to my patch, the grass. I just stood there looking at it. The smile was gone. As soon as I got out, it was gone. But still I didn't sit down. I just stood there and watched the grass bend.



People always said she was beautiful, but that was before David died. She had dirty hands then 'cause she spent so much time in the garden. She'd wash them afterwards but some dirt would stay in the cracks of her skin, and around her bitten fingernails. She'd go out to cut flowers for the house and end up weeding. But she'd still come in with a whole armful of flowers. "Lots of flowers, that's the key," she'd always say as she'd begin arranging them. That was her rule, lots of flowers. Arranging them was her favorite thing, but only when no one was around. Well, us kids, okay, but not Dad. `Cause of the time, she said. She didn't want to feel rushed. So Dad just saw the arrangements after she put them on the buffet. He never saw her lean back and stare for the whole time it took for her to smoke a cigarette. She'd lay it on the ashtray and lean toward the flowers, just like they were Dad she was about to kiss. Sometimes, she'd say their names. Daisies, bachelor's buttons, petunias, zinnias. She'd move just one flower and then she'd pull back again and smoke and stare. I always thought the flowers were beautiful way before she did. Each time she would lean toward them again, I would try to guess which one was not yet right, which one she was going to move. I knew when she was finished 'cause she wouldn't step back to stare. She'd stay close to them and lean only her head back. She would smile and sometimes she'd turn the vase toward me so I could see, too, the flowers that were just now beautiful.

It was after finishing the flowers once that she told me what dying really was. She told me not to tell anyone. Not anyone, she said again, and I knew she meant at school. She said it's different than what they say. And I knew that, too--"they" meant "the church." "It's not really dying all the way. It's like getting rid of old clothes," she said, "and then forgetting all about them." "But could I still ride a horse?" I asked and she smiled and leaned down and kissed me like I was the flowers. She said, "Oh, honey." Then later she said, "Each time, you have a completely different body."

I knew right then. "I was an animal," I said. "Before." She put her coffee down and looked at me. "Which one?" she asked. "A cat." She frowned her pout frown. She hated cats. David had one once and it peed in her plants and killed them, so we could never have another one. She picked her coffee up with both hands. She would move her face back and forth over it, like it was a fire. "Not a horse?" she asked.

I shook my head hard, but I didn't tell her why not, that I didn't think a horse could ever feel little and I was little, way little for my age. A cat's little but sure--sure-footed, Mrs. Peterson would say, and she's where I go to ride. I'm very sure-footed, too, but only when I'm outside, and even more when I'm out and alone.

I'm different outside. Inside, Dad says, I'm just klutzy, I try to move too fast. But outside, I forget everything, even that I'm little, everything except what's right in front of me. And even though I'm not thinking, I know things, like where my feet are going to land when I jump a log. I never miss. That's one thing about me, I don't miss.

I asked David if she told him, too, about what dying was, but he said, "Are you kidding?" He was holding a record the way he taught me to so fingerprints never ever get on the grooves. He lived in the attic. It was a big room but low and he had to duck down to put a record on. He was eight years older than me, so we weren't like regular brother and sister. We didn't fight and he taught me things.

"See, Mom thinks you're like her. And that I'm like Dad. So she doesn't tell me things that are strange." He had to spin the record to get it up to speed before he put the needle down. It was Chuck Berry, his all-time favorite.

I liked being up there on his bed more than anything 'cause the ceiling comes right down almost to the floor so you always feel close to both. "There, hear it? There!" He was trying to get me to hear the bass. I nodded each time but I didn't really hear it. He must have known, too, 'cause he kept on trying. He'd point with his finger like the bass was something to see. "There! Got it?" and then he'd make a rumbling noise in his throat. "Like that," he'd say. "Hear it? Like that." I would always nod.

"Why do you think she hates cats so much?"

"They're creepy," he said. "And you know, killing her plants is like killing her."

I didn't ever tell David about my patch, the grass up behind Mr. Rone's where I would go almost every day so I could take off my clothes and stalk like a cat. I'd stretch my neck back and pretend I was hunting a mouse or a chipmunk. I didn't kill it though, not even after she told me what dying was. But since David, since that time after they told me, I never went back there, not once.

They lowered him in the ground with a thud, two thuds. It happened all at once after Father Bob stopped speaking. One end of the casket dropped in, the end away from us, and then the near end dropped in and it was gone. You had to move forward to see it, but all you'd see was the top covered with roses. Then all these women started to line up around her. They took turns hugging her and saying her name, Florence, before they'd start crying, and Dad was shaking hands, but he held each hand for a long time close against his tie. Some of the men I never saw before, but each one looked right into his eyes and Dad looked right back and most times he just nodded and didn't speak at all.

I wanted to get away before anyone came up to me, and I saw it, the place to go. Back by the trees at the bottom of the hill where there was still some dirty snow left that hadn't melted yet, there was a blue pickup truck with men, four of them, leaning against it and smoking.

David would lean against the back of the garage to smoke. He'd let me sit there by his feet 'cause I snuck cigarettes for him from her pocketbook if he was all out, even though she smoked L&M's and he smoked Lucky Strikes. He'd let me take a puff if I wanted but it made me cough, so mostly I'd just hold one. He'd laugh when I held it boy-style like him, between my thumb and forefinger, and then I'd stretch my lips back and suck in hard. Mostly though, if he was talking, I'd hold it like she did, between her two long fingers, and then I'd feel just like her, old and very fine.

As soon as I got away from all the people, walking down the hill, I could see the men had shovels in the back of the truck. One guy was hunched over laughing and two others had big smirks on their faces. And I thought, just quick I thought, This must be where David is.

Even though I was dressed up in my stupid navy blue coat with the big stupid collar that she had bought in Albany, a whole hour away, I walked right up to the man that wasn't laughing, the one that stopped talking as I came near.

"Do you have a cigarette to spare?" That's how David always asked.

"What? A cigarette? Little girl, you ain't 'sposed to be smokin' at yer age. How old are you, eight?"

But I told him, "I'm ten. And I don't wanna smoke, I just wanna hold it."

"Ain't no harm her holdin' it, Jim."

And then the guy farthest away said, "Come on, Jim, hand one over. Closest you'll ever get to a purdy girl's mouth."

"Yut. Just gotta let her suck on it awhile."

They all laughed except the guy named Jim, who held out his pack with a cigarette sticking out for me to take. Then he leaned back against the truck with his one foot up behind him. I held the cigarette boy-style like them and like David.

"Someone you know up there died?" Jim asked.

I nodded and took a deep pretend-puff.

"Yer purdy good at that, yut, look real good," the guy said who was leaning on his knee, his foot propped up on the bumper.

"My brother taught me," I said and took another puff. I looked back at all the people up the hill, but they didn't look like people anymore, just one big blob of black that was moving, but inside itself--it never changed shape.

"You know why we're here?" the guy farthest away said.

I nodded. "You're gonna cover him up."

"Yut. That's it. That's why we're here."

"Otherwise, we wouldn't be crashing this party," Jim said.

"Nope!" and they all laughed again, and Jim spat.

"Tell him some jokes," I said. "He likes jokes."

"Oh, we'll do that. Won't we, boys?" Jim said. "Yut, we'll do that." They were all smiling.

"Thanks for the cigarette," I said 'cause I saw the black moving, changing shape as if water had been poured over all of it so the black was thinning, seeping away toward the road. I turned around halfway up the hill. One of the guys was already getting in the cab.

I'm good at sneaking 'cause I'm little and outside I can be so quiet that even she never knows I've come up behind her till I've already scared her. That's how come no one saw me do it, no one, not even when she was coming toward me from the big car to get me. I watched for her to look away and then I threw the cigarette in to him. It dropped down beneath all the flowers, down the side of his casket to the bottom of the hole so no one except David, not even the men, would ever see it.

AFTER DAVID DIED, her fingers stayed very clean. She stopped going out to the garden even to pick flowers for the house. Walking in from school, I would hear her from the porch laugh out loud. She'd be stretched out on the couch in front of the TV still in her bathrobe. Sometimes I would watch The Honeymooners with her before she got dinner, or The Life of Riley, but I Love Lucy was her favorite. She started telling Dad at dinner every Wednesday night what Lucy did that show. And once she called her best friend--Mrs. Gallagher--she called her "my Ethel."

Dad brought home a new dishwasher from work. It was "sand beige" just like the refrigerator. I had to put the dishes away. It was an indoor job on purpose. All my jobs used to be outdoors with my dad but then I heard them talking about me one night, through the wall. She wanted me--to stay inside with her. After that, my dad burned all the garbage himself and dumped the nonburnable, too, in the big gray cans for the dump. It wasn't that bad being indoors except when it was after dinner and just getting dark. Then I could barely stand not being out. Like it was my last chance.

I started sneaking out after they went to bed. I never ever wore pajamas so I'd put on my bathrobe that used to be David's when he was little and I'd sneak just into the pasture where the people who were here before us used to keep horses. That's why we call it "the pasture" even though it's just a field my dad has Mr. Miller mow twice a year. We're right in the middle of Langdon but it's only got one street, so there's nothing behind us but the pasture and behind that the creek and behind that Cave Mountain.

There were lots of groundhog holes now 'cause Dad didn't shoot groundhogs anymore. They were the only animals he ever shot. On either Saturday or Sunday, David and him would go out there and Dad would carry the .222 and David would carry the .22. David never hit one. He didn't really try, he told me. He liked holding the gun up on his shoulder and he liked aiming, but that was it, he said. He didn't like the rest. After, Dad never went out again. And there were more and more groundhog holes to watch out for. Mrs. Peterson hates them 'cause a horse can fall in one and break his leg and then you have to kill the horse, or, like she says, put him down.

One night, it was raining so hard it sounded like bullets hitting the roof, but still I moved only an inch at a time so they wouldn't hear the bed squeak. It took probably half an hour to put on my sneakers and my bathrobe. I tried to put my weight down on each foot slow so the floor wouldn't creak, and I did good, too, until I reached the screen, which slammed shut with the wind.

After I could see in the dark, I still couldn't run all out 'cause of the ruts where the water runs through the pasture every spring. I took off my robe so the rain hit my back and the back of my neck like little stones but wet and real real cold. Then I started to lift up to it and it hit my face and my chest and I started running faster and faster, and I never, not once, hit wrong on the ruts.

I ran almost as fast as on Field Day with David watching. The first time I beat Peggy Weaver, who was always the fastest and the biggest, too, David lifted me up and held me over his head so I was flying. When we got home, he kept waving the ribbon in her face and yelling, "Can you believe it? Can you believe it? She's a whole foot shorter 'n that Weaver kid."

I started running in circles. David was gone. I wasn't a girl running. I was a horse being ridden. The dark turned lighter. I could see everything, every hole and every rut and the bunches of burdock that had grown up faster than the grass. I slowed myself to a stop, shaking my head, like it took a lot, a strong rider to bring me in from a canter. Then I walked straight, in a perfect straight line like you want a horse to do, otherwise they're fighting you. I was dripping wet, a horse sweating from ring work and being hosed off hard before I walked myself out.

I heard it but I didn't get it, I heard the big dinner bell that's outside the kitchen door so my dad can hear from the garage anytime she needs him or there's a phone call or dinner. I heard it like a face you see in the wrong place and you don't get who it is.

I dropped to all fours. I wasn't a horse anymore being ridden. No one could ride me. I was a cat again. It had been over a month since I'd gone to my patch to stalk. I had to stretch my neck all around to each side before I held my head up and opened my eyes way open. The timothy tickled my face and I set my mouth against it. I know it's called timothy 'cause I helped the Petersons hay and that kind of grass they called timothy.

The rain stopped but the rainwater stayed in beads lit up along the blades of grass and on the heavy bunches of burdock leaves. A pile of dirt rose up in my path like an anthill but I knew it was from the hole just beyond it. It was the biggest one I had seen. I stopped, perfectly still, in front of it. I stretched and waited. Nothing came out. The groundhogs can smell me, I thought. I backed up one step and then waited again. My body was ready to spring, but then it came to me, a groundhog is too big for a cat. I turned away, stopped hunting. I pointed my nose into the wind and smelled the air coming in the way Mrs. Peterson had said all animals do. There was no danger. I curled onto a circle of short, soft, darker green grass that didn't scratch my skin. There was water everywhere to drink. If I moved my lips along the fat blades, I could catch the beads that were shining before they fell.

Her hand grabbed my wrist tight. Pulled me up. I couldn't see her face, just the outline of her hair and her robe. I wasn't a cat anymore, or only a cat, I was a girl, too, standing, only my sneakers on, my one hand holding my privates. I lifted it away. She grabbed both my arms. I felt her thumbs go into the skin above my elbows as she lifted me up and set me down hard facing the house. I saw that it wasn't my eyes at all but the spotlight on the porch that had lit up the dark and the beads of rain.

She started pushing me from behind. The points of her fingers hit my shoulders every few steps. "Stop lagging!" It was her hard voice that was worse than a yell, madder than a yell. I heard her once say to Dad how every time I'm indoors I hold my elbows. It was like that, I was just drinking from the ground and holding my privates. But then I swallowed. I tasted the water I had been drinking and it wasn't water. It was different. It was sweet, or lemony, too, or just different. It was my fingers down there. I had been tasting my fingers and then going back there like it was rain. But it wasn't, it wasn't even water. I kept swallowing. I wanted what I had tasted to disappear but it didn't. We were getting close to the house. I swallowed faster and faster but it wouldn't go away.

Her hand stayed constant now, her fingers squeezing my neck as she pushed me toward the porch light. I hated the light. It was taking away the dark, making me more and more naked. David's robe was still back there in the grass. We reached the porch. I hunched in away from the light but her hand stayed fast on my neck, holding my neck so it hit me. The light hit me. It lit up my chest and my privates, too.

She let go to open the door and I ran. I reached my room, yanked my shoes off and hid quick under the blankets. I didn't care my skin got the sheets all wet. "Eudora." Her voice was the same hard, even from the hall. The door opened. I could see the light flick on through the blanket. But then it turned dark again. The door was closing. She was going back down the hall. She was going toward my dad. I wanted her back, but different. I wanted her soft voice back and all around me, her body covering me from the light. The bathrobe was still out there in the rain. I didn't want it anymore. I didn't want to go outside. It was wet in here, too. My hand crept in toward my privates. I found the bone right there in the front. I pulled up against it, hard, like I was pulling myself up out of water, out of a pool. But then I let my hand sink back down and stay there, I let it curl in under the bone.

In Dark Water
by by Mermer Blakeslee

  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 034541778X
  • ISBN-13: 9780345417787