“Sometimes it’s best not to avoid the God-awful truth and just –“
Louisa James was not pausing from her work as she frankly uttered the first part of a postulation; her size-seven foot strapped in its worn boot was pushing down on a shovel with all that her one-hundred-forty pound, five-foot-three frame had to give. Her loose faded jeans were a little tight over that slight bulge that middle-aged mothers tend to acquire; hanging gracefully over her small shoulders was an over-sized flannel shirt, a hand-me-down from her large Midwestern husband. The sound of the shovel slipping through rocky Northeastern soil cut through the lack of voice; sentence unfinished, it was neither her own voice nor the shovel that Louisa’s angled head was straining to hear.
The shovel fell to the ground. Louisa’s steel-wool braid thumped against her heart-shaped backside as she hustled towards the house. She had heard the child.
A woman such as Louisa may have a twang to her quiet voice; she may drink more tea than coffee and more whole milk than either; she may refuse to exercise but naively go on a SlimFast diet; she may never get a hair cut or a dye-job, yet retain an ironic youthfulness in her graying braid; she may pray more times than she gets interrupted in a day; she may have less of a sense of reality yet more of a grip on life than she has on her shovel handle, but she will not quit that handle for anything short of an emergency.
The child was standing stark naked in a large pool of mud, her white skin like the inside of a sliced radish beneath the offensive mud dripping off of her body. Her cornsilk hair hung pathetic and limp off her impish head; the garden hose swung defiantly from her left hand, its momentum stubbornly refusing to die.
The laws of physics were simultaneously being denied by a similar phenomenon — this time singular to the flesh — in a small room in a two-story recreational building on the grounds of a small church eleven miles, six mailboxes, and four seconds from Louisa’s thoughts. Louisa had sent her seventeen-year-old to Bible study without stopping to consider the possibility that the teenager worshipped an entirely different god than the paternal figure of Louisa’s blue-skied heaven. The young body — which had seventeen years ago wailed its way from between Louisa’s hips — was now dripping with the offense of sin; mudless, the body was covered in filth. The girl’s teacher, a mouse of a man with a slight brown moustache, drooping shoulders, and a rent-free apartment over the garage of his parents’ split-level home was not about to question fate; his God had delivered into his very hands a creature beyond his twenty-nine-year-old prayers.
“Grace,” Louisa said quietly, without feeling a twinge of irony. “Go inside and wash up before Pa gets home.”
Grace had been shrieking with delight before her cries had betrayed her; she now sullenly whimpered as she stepped delicately out of the mud-puddle, gathered her clothes against her muddy torso, and tramped towards the washroom at the back of the house.
There wasn’t a more conspicuous figure on the twenty-three acres of field and wood pushing against the stubborn walls of the old stone farmhouse. Indeed, the child’s white, muddied body was an affront to the heavy tension between the unrestricted acreage and the even measurements of the dense building; it was as though both the building and the land had snapped to attention, focusing intently on the small white muddied body whimpering across their landscape. Louisa’s own form was absolved into the landscape: a mere extension of the grounds, an occupant of the house, an unconscious participant in the tension that ruled her waking and sleeping hours. Somewhere on the property a dog howled, but only Louisa heard it, and even she did not register the sound in her consciousness. The echo was lost in the woods, absorbed by the leaves, affecting no one and nothing in its testament to the change in the atmosphere. The vocalization was of something too obvious to be credited with recognition.
The static cracked and died with the slam of the back door. The child’s aggressive presence, once shut inside the house, ceased to exist. The tension between the house and the land resumed; Louisa returned to her shovel.
Two and a half hours later, by the time the child Grace had fallen asleep in front of the television, her older sister had returned home and begun to do laundry — cheerily — in the basement. Louisa was soaking in the bath upstairs, not noticing her body, her hair, or even the faded green tiles of the bathroom. Suddenly but not unexpectedly, a red Mercedes convertible shrieked into the driveway, strains of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” sailing through the air. The leaves in the trees rustled, a breeze blew over the cold grass, the dog that had howled now merely snarled, and the three females tilted their heads to listen. It was the large Midwestern husband, home from a day in his office at the pharmaceutical plant.
The large Midwestern husband was the definition of man to his girls. He had put them in the convertible, covered them with sheepskins and driven them through an icy winter day with the top down, howling back at the wind like a wild dog. But they had grown older now. He stepped out of the garage to howl at the snarling dog, man’s best friend. The girls didn’t ride with him like that anymore. The eldest drove herself and the child, the mother drove the child when the eldest could not. The man’s role was no longer transportation — it was strictly economic. He chose whom his girls associated with, where their clothes were purchased, what activities he would pay for them to participate in. He had brought home a steak for the grill, demanding corn and biscuits and dessert of Louisa. The corn was frozen — all that was left of it was white starch. The car was the most mobile aspect of the family’s blanched life. Everything else stuck to their ribs, migrated to their hips, slowed them down and made them soft.
“Oooo–!” He wanted a drink, a kiss, a “How was your day?” — in that order. Louisa was not there to deliver. She was upstairs in the tub. “–eeee!” At the end of the howl the heads of the three females snapped back into place. The child ran towards the door, the girl in the basement gazed lovingly at all of the underwear she had folded, and upstairs Louisa looked down through the cooling metallic well-water in the dim light of the bathroom. She saw her body.
Louisa must have been mesmerized, because she did not hear her husband calling for her up the stairs; she did not hear the shrieking giggles of the child being tickled; she did not hear the heavy sounds of him coming up the stairs.
Her toenails had chipped pink polish on them from two months ago. She hadn’t had time to properly pedicure them again. Her legs hadn’t been shaved in four days; her Scotch-Irish heritage did not encourage such laziness. Her short, muscular legs turned into motherly thighs — she stopped there. Louisa couldn’t remember the last time she had looked at her whole body, and in the dim light, in the cooling well-water bath, surrounded by the pale green tiles, she didn’t know if she wanted to continue. Did this seem like her body?
The bathroom door was flung open; it smacked the wall behind it.
Louisa’s wet, naked body was hit with a gust of air, cold and smelling of the car, of the dog, of the outdoors, of her husband. His tie was removed, his face was red, his eyes narrowing as he looked down at her from his large height. Very quietly, in his Midwestern way, his thin lips moved just enough for him to ask, why weren’t you downstairs?
Very quietly, in her own way, Louisa’s nostrils widened ever so subtly, just enough for her to slowly inhale a little more than usual. He’d been drinking.
The large husband suddenly seemed to notice that Louisa was stark naked. He looked down at her with realization, chuckling loudly. Louisa shifted uncomfortably, feeling naked for the first time since she’d gotten into the water.
He made a sudden lunge at her.
Louisa was not one to make noise, but in the sound of his body shattering the calm of the bathwater, she was not able to hear whether she was making a sound or not. She couldn’t hear anything at all. She saw his white work shirt soak through to his pink skin and the water catch in her eyelashes, blurring his movements; she felt rough hands, a five o’clock shadow against her flesh. She was kicking, pushing, hurting. The beige enamel of the bathtub sucked against the skin on her back; his large watch face smashed into her nose; the water grew pinker than the paint on her toes.
Louisa’s head was under the water.
And then it was all over. She was hoisted out of the water, her husband’s thin-lipped mouth tight in silence, neither of them seeing the soaked bathroom, the bloody water, her body.
“Grace, ” he said, forty-five minutes later. And they had their dinner. n