Illustration by Niki Waters @kneesandkeysart
The lightning leaves a taste of pennies in her mouth, an electric tingle in the air. Old Barney in his rumbling bed tosses and mumbles of departed beauties while his dentures submerged in a murky glass of water secretly smile from the nightstand. Liv hugs a pillow in the dark wondering why it isn’t him coming to her tonight, that boy she remembers, and not this fat sour old man. She listens to the mutters coming from the other side of the mountain, hears every note, wondering.
Way up yonder, top of the sky
Blue jay lives in a silver eye.
The roof is drip, drip, dripping. She silently rants and raves at the injustice of it all as outside the rain soundlessly slackens then ceases, the sky gradually lightens to day. Going to the window and pulling open the shade Liv notices how under the cover of darkness a black clique of clouds have taken up residence on the horizon, jobless gypsies, impatient for the day to be over so they can once more begin their monkeyshines. Last night’s lightning hangs upside down like recharging bats in electric torpor under the branches of the pinion trees spreading up the mountain.
The kids used to sleep scattered across the floor of this room, just any old place, didn’t matter where, though come the morning a single trickle of sun would leak through that tear in the shade to skip from brow to glowing brow, and since no happenstances marred Liv’s propitious world this riotous arrangement of faces threaded like pink precious things onto that single strand of sunshine was exactly the sort of magic she parlayed into lawless prophecies.
She turns, sees Old Barney still straight and graceful as a sapling with the face of Adonis, thinks him the most fetching man in the world, though now it appears he’s been issued a skin many times too small to encompass the belly so large, how without a shirt he appears to have no neck. What this Adonis has become frightens her, the indefatigable work of age playing across his features, a jack-o’-lantern mounted upon drooping shoulders.
Saturdays are busy for Liv. She does not owe the work to Old Barney, but to the house, oh yes, to the dermis of paint, the bone of wood she has incurred a debt so large it can never be repaid. She pats the mossy withers lovingly while she chants: croons:
Old house, old house,
I’ll have you shining like a new dime
By the time I leave here.
You’ll stand ten thousand years,
You know it.
A thousand years anyway, she is certain. Lord, though, she is more give out than she cares to admit. Maybe just a little Divine Help wouldn’t hurt none. Liv prays all the time, but Divine Help? Well, she never doubts, not for a second. Best she just goes ahead and does what needs doing, though, quit all the patty-caking, accept that they are gone and move on.
That black rat-pack of clouds huddled on the horizon troubles her as she goes to the well, hauls up a bucket of fresh clear cold water. The monsoon mists seem as far off as January looking back on November. At Liv’s call to lunch Old Barney bumbles down the rickety ladder seemingly content he has fixed the roof as well as Liv’s worries simultaneously. He has used a rusted tin can to melt pine pitch, candle wax, and an old black pocket comb on the stove to serve as a caulking. The burnt-plastic sulphur scent still lingering causes Liv to feel slightly nauseated. She’d open a window but the house would soon swarm with insects since there are no screens so instead she suffers, knowing the smell will dissipate once they have breathed enough of it.
After they eat Old Barney smokes, seems defeated, incapable of sustaining the loss of the hair on his head as well as a mouthful of teeth. Looking at him Liv is incredulous this can be the same boy she married. He smiles a bacon grin, a mask stretched over a skull, and she remembers a long ago little boy, their son, her son, standing terrified as he stares into that face waiting for the sentence of doom to drop, then pathetically looking toward his mother, fighting tears, wincing, and her, her standing there wringing her hands, either unable or unwilling to intervene in the punishment they all know is coming like an avalanche sliding down the mountain.
His hands—gnarled, knotted, ugly, like mongrels made red and hairless with mange—rest upon the table while the cigarette smolders in the ashtray. Old Barney constitutes the phenomenon of impossibility to Liv in more ways than one. Besides his appearance, his heart pushes a pure elixir of whiskey and gin through a skin of latex, always drunk, always seeming undernourished and overfed. He devotes so much energy to drinking Liv thinks it a wonder how he hasn’t expired during the very act, though apparently his body burns the fuel faster than he can pump it into his gut.
Liv reaches for her glass, takes a sip of water, drawing a deep breath before bursting forth with a truculent sigh revealing how she is simply overcome with disgust, with everything, with this thing called her life, with this sad example of a man sitting before her, with the years promising out before her like crawling a mile on broken glass, but halfway through the sigh she is stricken by that old familiar tickle in her throat. Oh no. Not here. Ever since childhood she never sneezes indoors, she is afflicted with a sneeze of such magnitude it used to turn every head for blocks, a sneeze which distinguishes itself by carrying a message ha, ha, ha Shit!
That they are still here in this God-forsaken mountain valley scratching out a meagre living does not surprise her in the least, nor do all the unfulfilled promises. No, what bothers her most is how lonely it is here, how there is no one left to torture but for each other, but at least there isn’t anyone else around to hear those resplendent sneezes as they erupt unbidden.
She manages to stifle the first half, but the hot half—behind her bulging lips, the shit half—explodes forth sending a cloud of saliva wafting out over the table, spraying the dishes she has yet to clear, coating Old Barney in a spray of snot and spit, who looks at her quizzically, nods, perhaps impressed, before taking up a napkin to wipe something from his face.
Shit. What matter, though? For reasons unknown to Liv, Old Barney has always been accepting of stepping in shit as a sign of horses that don’t exist, that never did. Over the years she has warned him repeatedly about his misplaced optimism but he pays her no mind. Complete and utter nonsense, like those times the moon just happened to be full and he came home a donkey braying about how he found a silver dollar by the light thrown.
Though the day is warm the sun feels cold, it balances in the sky hovering somewhere between sweet and mean, the chrome hood ornament on Old Barney’s Delta 88 throwing sparkles of laughing emerald illumination to match the wickedness of the blue insulators atop the staggered line of telephone poles stalking up the drive. Liv walks with eyes strained wide as though through darkest night, fright paralyzing her fingers into claws.
She knows that which she fears most cannot be avoided, how there is no sense in running even if she could. It is here, in the shadows thrown by those scrub oaks, and there, lurking inside the trunk of the 88, waiting patiently for that singular moment of inattention. Behind her, Old Barney has taken up position on the rickety porch, she can hear the creak of his rocking chair, the moist thump of the cork being yanked from his jug, the generous gurgle as he raises the dark aperture to his lips, drinks long and deep.
Perhaps he doesn’t see her take leave of the cabin as she goes out the door, his vision already clouding over from the morning’s drinking, or maybe he does but is still carrying a grudge over the sneeze. He offers no word of encouragement, no wave of goodbye. Either way, she tucks the basket under her arm, heads out into the scrub surrounding the single-room hovel where she has lived with Old Barney nearly all her long life.
Something has roused her from the stupor which has kept her glued in place for what seems forever—moves her to speed—though when she ponders exactly what that might be, she gleans no profitable answer. A sense of… something, something which might have been wakened by last night’s storm and now it is coming for her. Or how maybe that monumental sneeze broke something loose deep inside her, a ganglia of blood vessels, and even now she internally is hemorrhaging to her death, a taste of pennies still lingering in her mouth.
Those clouds, a surly multitude angry at being kept waiting for so long, disgorge rain as they scoot slowly across the valley scouring the slopes. She can see the vast gray curtains hovering in the distant air billowing with something like pride gone sour. This country will rot a woman inside out like a corpse, turn its men into blundering mannequins intent on the one thing which salves their souls.
Thoughts of berrying subside as her pace increases, her panic. Liv sets the basket down beside the path—that she might use both arms for balance, a touch of vertigo assailing her—to retrieve on her way home, as if there is a way back. A jay squawks somewhere above her guarding an unseen nest in the treetops, shouting out sharp bright warnings. Liv adjusts her route to avoid a skirmish. She has wandered this valley for so long she wonders at the odd sensation leaching up from the soil how somehow she has gotten turned around, is lost in her own backyard. She feels it, how she is like a clock come unwound, again. A sense of anxiety grows somewhere behind her thumping heart which seems much too loud.
So seriously, she asks herself, what is the hurry? It’s not that late, so why do I feel the need to run? It is not that cold, so why does my chin tremble so? She stumbles forward through the quilt-work patches of dim light filtering among the leaves of rhododendron and huckleberry until she reaches a blue-black bog, oily with decay spread in a thick film over the shallow water. A melancholy bullfrog grumps out sa-Whum, sa-Whum with the same desperation of someone shouting: Fire! Fire!
As mosquitoes and flies descend in droves to extract their toll of flesh stretched thin, to suckle at her cooling blood, she waves them off while she tries to skirt the bog to the right, close by where the bullfrog is voicing his plight. Suddenly she finds herself confronted by a community of strange tube-shaped plants. They grow in clusters thrusting up from the dark water, six or eight together like a family, like little green families, the oldest reaching a height of three feet, the smallest no bigger than a child’s crooked little finger.
Regardless of size, and discounting the brokeback crippled unfortunates, they are identical in shape, starting out narrow at the base tapering larger toward the neck like a horn on an old-time Victrola, except instead of an outward blossoming bell they turn downward looking at their base. Liv imagines an elongated sleek green comma driven into the muck, an artist’s conception of a chlorophyll lifeform from another galaxy, half humorous, half sinister.
She plucks a plant from its family to more closely examine it, finds beneath the comma loop a little hole which resembles a mouth, and at the bottom of a throat viscous liquid containing the carcasses of two flies and a honeybee. She stares at the stalk in her hand. Hello, she says politely, putting her face close to the honey-scented mouth.
Are those tiny teeth?
Sa-Whum says the bullfrog, startling Liv into dropping the plant, turning to flee. Now, though, they have found her. The adults crowd around, their tall heavy stalks waving twenty feet or more into the sky, leaning in to tempt her with that delicious sweet decadent scent she realizes she has been smelling for some time now, maybe as long ago as her childhood. Her mouth is watering, the sense of flight behind her.
She considers herself somewhat of an expert both on fear and stupidity, she has studied them for years having had a constant supply of specimens. Liv shifts her covert gaze to the path leading back to the bullfrog. Sa-Whup. Though she might harbor the natural seed of fear like Old Barney she also has the shrewd patience and intelligence to prevent it from flourishing.
The day, the good weather sandwiched between storms, the buzzing of flies and mosquitoes, the way the muck of the bog tugs at her feet, the rhythmic sa-Whup of the bullfrog, that amiably sick odor wafting on the breeze all constitute a type of soporific. That’s it, nothing to be alarmed about. She is all the time running about declaring the sky is falling when in fact it already has. Let the others be afraid of the night, of the dark outside.
Looking up, she curls her body into the squishing black mud, closes her eyes, wondering: Will she leave a taste of pennies in their mouths?
Dan Glover is a Chicago native who finds himself transplanted into the middle of an alligator-infested Florida swamp. He does not miss the winters.