I lived in a grand old apartment house, up on top of a greenish-brown knoll of knotty grass and uprooted, brown earth. The apartment house had fallen into near disrepair since my parents passed away and when it was sunny out, the damages to the house and the property itself definitely showed. The doors were white, door knockers a worn golden-black from use, the rugs ratty with age and dirty with from the dirt on my father’s and his friend’s boots. Unsympathetic eyes that were once full of energy watched from the top floor windows down onto the rainy hillside as the fathers worked in the creek bed. The children with their monotone voices above my head would sing, “Climbing over the ridge, she held onto the bars of her prison, she held onto those memories of him and her sharing innocent kisses.” Listening to the rushing of the creek winding around the knoll, I bobbed my head to the solemn beat.
My eyes ached and teared when I blinked, as our fathers mined the quartz and other precious gems from the sludge beneath the rapid waters. My feet were dirty with the grimy attic dust, and every breath I took was filled with that unpleasant filth. Coughing out the sandy attic air, the bed shook with my clamors and the floor creaked every time I moved. Mrs. Marigold and her husband were at it again, screaming the shingles off the roof and throwing pots and pans at the walls, no doubt leaving holes for us to fix later gaping out into the hallway. Last time her husband got mad, he threw the loveseat at her as she was out the door, and ended up breaking her arm in addition to the door frame. We paid for that with the county’s money, since Mrs. Marigold’s husband was a war veteran and garnered an awful lot of cash for such an awful man.
“Climbing over that ridge, where her father’s feet fell, climbing over the ridge, until her dawn came up from Hell.”
Breathing as deep as I could without causing myself to fly into a coughing fit, I launched off the bed and chose to take my weary evening walk to the cemetery early. Sawyer was buried at the far east edge of our lonesome cemetery, and being around her gravesite made me feel more at home now that all my family had died. Sawyer Ann was my aunt, and when Momma died last May, she was the only family I had left. She moved in the upper level with me, leaving her cozy oval-shaped corner room on the second floor to keep me company. She cut me down from the noose the second she heard the ceiling breaking. I owed my life to her and it was just my luck she’d die from pneumonia last month, along with the baby that was forming in her belly. I missed her more than I’d missed my mother. I loved my mother, don’t get me wrong, but Sawyer knew how to comfort me out of my crying fits, how to distract the demons living in my lungs, and even how to make me forget about the girls in my head. Sawyer had a gravelly, unforgiving voice but her eyes brimmed with tears at every mention of the war. Softhearted with a hardened soul, she taught me how to live.
“Ah, Sawyer Ann.” I purred as I approached the empty graveyard, save for the ghosts meandering through the gravestones just out of my sight. The clouds of my hair began to tickle my nose as the rain dragged them down, the curls cupping my face in the most unattractive way conceivable. My hair was getting long.
Sawyer’d have to cut it.
The thunder struck and lightning rang, upsetting the crows and driving them away. I passed Momma’s grave without so much as a pat to the uncut wood and tiptoed happily to Sawyer’s grave. Plopping down beside her, I felt her hands wrapping around my back and shoulders, jarring me out of today’s sadness, getting ready to tell me about herself.
“I taught those kids on the upper floor that song,”
“The weird one about Hell?” I questioned, eyes shut tight.
I could just see that over-exaggerated nod making Sawyer’s neck bones splinter out from her thin wisps of hair. “Yessir. Their parents hated me something awful for it, too, Jed. I never went to sleep a night without hearing something from their Mamas.”
“You didn’t go to Hell, did you?” I asked with a tremble in my voice, a catch in my throat. I coughed and coughed, soon realizing I was being rude and I pulled a handkerchief out of my pocket. Hacking into the folded napkin, I finally opened my teary eyes and saw it.
Sawyer’s spindly fingers dug the handkerchief out of my hand and she pressed her face into the clammy crook of my neck. Her belly, which was bigger than usual from what I could feel, pushed against my side as well. “Baby Jed, you’re just like your daddy.”
Wiping my mouth I asked, “How’s that, Sawyer?”
“He asked a lot of questions that didn’t have no answer, just like you.”
“So you don’t know where you are? That sounds something awful, Sawyer Ann. What about that baby of yours?”
“All I know’s I’m somewhere real dark, and wet. I feel things crawling in my knickers all night, bad things. Probably worms,” she laughed so loud it made my head hurt. That was something she never apologized for, her hearty laugh. The atmosphere around us grew humorless. “The baby in belly didn’t go nowhere. He’s still in here,” she paused.
I took the opportunity to interject. “How do you know the baby’s a he?”
In one slow and somber movement her shoulders raised and fell, her body answering a question she could not yet answer herself. “It feels like a boy.”
Perplexed I asked, “How can an unborn kid feel like a boy?”
She exhaled hard. “Don’t know, just does. How’s your girls? Nice to you?”
Swallowing hard, I shook my head no.
“Haven’t you been punishing them right?”
“I guess not,”
“That ain’t good, Jed.”
I heard Sawyer Ann sigh, tightening her grip on my knobby shoulder. “You need to get some meat on you, then you’ll be just like your daddy.”
“What was Daddy like?”
“Stupid,” She laughed until she choked. “But you aren’t stupid like he was. You’re stupid in the way that makes you smarter than the rest of us,”
A little offended, I dared myself to look her dead in the face and ask her what she meant. “Stupid how?”
Clicking her teeth like she was ill with me, I felt Sawyer Ann lift off the ground. I wanted to plead with her to come back, but instead her hand snaked into mine, raising me off the ground also. “Come on Baby Jed, let’s find your way home. Look, it’s already dark.”
The sheets were wet and I realized I hadn’t changed clothes when I got back last night. I didn’t remember coming home. Just Sawyer’s skeletal fingers holding mine, tiptoeing me up that soggy greenish-brown knoll, past the fathers still hard at work even past dusk. I didn’t remember smelling supper in the dining hall, nor do I recall leaving my muddied boots at the front door. The ceiling, however, was vibrating like it used to; vibrating with water, and I knew I was bawling again. I wanted to go into a crying fit. But my girls wouldn’t let me, and the fathers were already out working hard as mules to get those ugly brown and black “jewels” from underneath the sludge in the rapids. It was still raining.
And the song was still being sung.
“Behind the cemetery, up in the valley, that’s where she lay, that’s where she lay. Her old bones crawling in the night, her old bones silent during the day.”
“Mrs. Marigold, it’s nice to see you doing well,” I bowed slightly as I passed the woman, a contemptuous look almost tattooed in her more than beautiful face. “You are doing well, yes?”
The scornful look melted at the sight of my bright eyes, and she sighed hard. “Rhett’s gone again.”
“It pains me to hear that. He happen to say where?”
“Town, he says,” she sniveled into a handkerchief much like mine. “It’s always town.”
I started my work after having a bit of breakfast with Mrs. Marigold. The attic spaces still weren’t clean and I’d been working since Momma died, sorting all her diaries, portrait frames, trinkets, what have you. Some of Mrs. Marigold’s and her daughter’s things were packed in with Momma’s, so it made it difficult to distinguish between what was Momma’s and what was Mrs. Marigold’s. My work never seemed to end. Around the time the sun was coming in clear through the attic windows, I decided it was my break time. I took a loaf of bread and a pail to the creek, sitting down with the fathers to listen to their war stories over soup and buttermilk.
Earle and Duke talked about their time in Virginia in the winter. “Makes you appreciate the warmness of soup in your belly,” Earle would insist. “Makes you hate the feeling of having a warm belly in the midst of a cold war,” Duke would respond. Despite the fact they had been friends since their early youth, Earle and Duke were the hoper and doubter twosome of the bunch. Vernon kept his eyes shut the entire time and held his stomach as though he was going to vomit, per usual. I never asked why. Rhett, who should’ve been in the circle talking about the Northern front more than anyone else with a knowledge of the Southern army, was absent, out to town as Mrs. Marigold had told me.
I returned to my work about an hour later, refilling my lungs with that awful attic dust, inhaling what would surely be my death. The song started up again, since the kids had likely finished their dinner around the same time I had, and I couldn’t help but think of Sawyer Ann.
From that moment on, the song didn’t bother me, it simply made me yearn for her presence even more.
“Crossing the baby teeth pines, the wind in her hair left the sky golden, it left the sky golden. Down toward the necklace lakes and redwood corpses, it left the sky golden.”
Sadness began to prick at the open wounds in my chest around sunset, and I was ready to perform my duty: I had to visit Sawyer Ann. I discarded the dirty rag that had made my hands shrivel up like raisins and said good evening to Mrs. Marigold and her daughter. Before I could get out the door, Mrs. Marigold called me over to the parlor where she and her daughter had been discussing art and etiquette, likely.
“Yes, Mrs. Marigold, fine as the flower itself?”
“You’re too kind. I have a favor to ask you, dear,”
“Anything.” I smiled, struggling to nonverbally pardon myself for my less than proper appearance.
She waved my apologies away and crossed her legs, grin feline. “Have you been thinking anything about marriage, Jedidiah?”
Her question, while appropriate for my age, surprised me. “No, ma’am, I can’t say I have. I’ve just been so busy with Earle, Duke and Vernon I haven’t thought a single thing about getting married. Why might you ask?”
She placed her open palm on her daughter’s knee and gestured for her to stand. “Clara here is coming to be that age where she needs to find a husband and settle down. I’m also at that age where I find myself expecting grandchildren and end up empty handed!” Mrs. Marigold laughed quietly, and Clara stood like a pole attached to her spine was holding her up straight. She was a nice girl from what I’d heard, but she never seemed to take a liking to me as much as her mother had. Her hair was in pin-curls down her shoulders, red as the sunset on a summer evening, but her eyes were as cold as the rapids hugging the knoll.
Nodding as to excuse myself in the politest way possible for such a loaded question, I bowed slightly, taking Clara’s hand in mine. “It would be my pleasure. I must leave for now, the fathers demanded my aid at the creek bed moments ago.”
Squealing with joy, Mrs. Marigold jumped up from her seated position and kissed both my cheeks, shooing me away in the process.
By the time I had arrived at Sawyer Ann’s gravestone, the night was already upon us. We had very little time for such a momentous occasion.
“I’m marrying Mrs. Marigold’s daughter.”
“Oh, sweet Baby Jed. Of your own choosing?”
I shook my head no. “Of course not. She never liked me when we were kids. Heaven knows she won’t like me now, let alone love me.”
Her big hands rubbed my back sympathetically, which was uncharacteristic of her unless she was sincerely sorry. Sawyer let her face rest in the damp crook of my neck, breathing quiet. “You don’t have to marry no one unless you love them, boy.”
“I would disappoint Mrs. Marigold,”
“Who are you marrying, Jedidiah? Mrs. Marigold or Clara?” She barked. “You don’t have to marry no one unless you love them!”
Shaken by her yelling, I shrunk into her one-armed embrace, letting my back collapse. “Sawyer Ann…”
And the night had swallowed her whole.
The sun was particularly bright the next morning, and my sheets were even wetter than before. I wasn’t running a fever as far as I knew, and it hadn’t been raining the night before. I suddenly thought about Momma, remembering the way her hair smelled like the swamp and the taste of her evening crumb cakes. I wanted to go into a crying fit, but my girls wouldn’t let me. I had work to do and a new girl to get to know.
“Do you have any business in town?” Clara asked, dropping a sugar cube into her tea. Her eyes were so deep, dark and blue I could get lost in them. Mrs. Marigold spectated from the dining hall as she enjoyed a midmorning nosh, the loud squeaks of silverware making her presence evident.
“Not that much anymore,” I began. “Since your father and Vernon started helping out with the land payments, I haven’t much of a reason to go into town. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” She laid her hand gently on my wrist. “Do you want to work in town?”
“I haven’t a need to,” I looked around the room. “I have all I need here.”
She blinked sweetly. “Would you be offended if I worked in town? Ma says I have a real talent in marketing.”
“I wouldn’t mind at all,”
“Splendid. Have you any grievances with marrying into my family considering yours have passed on?”
“Have you malicious intent?” Clara’s irises were suddenly obscured by her lashes. I couldn’t understand what she meant.
I tilted my head in response. “Toward what, dear?”
Shocked to hear such a thing accused of me, I shook my head no. “No, it’s against what I believe in. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” she wiped the excess sugar from her thumb and forefinger onto her skirt. “Pardon my insolence, but where do you go every evening ‘bout dusk?” The freckles below her bottom lashes looked to glow black, as though she’d been baking in the sun like an apple pie left on the sill too long. Soon, her entire face was being enveloped in these large, black freckles, her once pinkish blemishes breaking open the rosiness of her cheeks like china falling to the ground. Each part of her started to rot, her limbs ripping from her torso, but no blood trickled from her wounds. Out from Clara’s limbless corpse rose the ghost of Sawyer Ann, her long and thin white hair a family of serpents snapping at the air behind her. She had no face, but somehow she spoke.
“Who are you marrying, boy?”
Terror filled my gut and I felt my head growing dizzy.
Clara’s fingers gripped my shoulder to keep me from falling face first into the table. “Jedidiah? Are you feelin’ faint?”
“I have to go, Clara. I apologize.”
I rushed to the graveyard, tripping owing to my unbearably shaky vision. The fathers called out to me, asking about my health, wondering if I was going to be okay to work. I wanted to say, “No, no, I’m not okay, I can no longer stand. Sawyer Ann has me in her hold.”
“She whips through the willows, like a hawk on the prowl, she whips through the willows, like a mouse that’s heard the hawk’s growl.”
Collapsing at the gravestone of Sawyer, I breathed hard, my lungs almost bursting with the pressure welling up inside them. “Saw…Sawyer Ann!” I implored, “please come here!” Coughing without relent, I fell backwards onto the ground, the cold dew leaking through the back of my shirt while the hot blood pooled up in my mouth. Throwing myself to the side, the blood flew onto the unfinished wooden grave marker of my mother, and I heaved out the thing that had been constricting my airway. It was amber liquid…more and more liquid of this alarmingly amber hue, mixing with my own blood as it spilled onto the ground. The liquid continued pouring out from my throat, out and out and out until I couldn’t bear to remain awake.
“Her name was Sawyer Ann, Sawyer Ann…”
“Aunt Sawyer!” I begged, hearing and feeling the pounds of pelting rain beginning to hammer into my limbs and back, leaving me awash in a field of this amber liquid, of this wounded downpour.
My lungs were floating in a distant, storm-stricken sea, warped only by the fluid sucking the oxygen from the delicate tissues inside me. Time had passed, and I could feel the passing of time like hellfire in my bones. With each movement my body moaned and cracked and wailed; it cried out a cacophony of moans, cracks and howls until I understood it wasn’t my body making all the racket. These noises were coming from my waterlogged chest, pushing through my throat and into the air. In this squally sea of amber fluid, I was overwhelmed by a strange sense of pride; red-headed and grey-eyed pride standing to my side, two, brand new and both young. And unexpectedly, I felt stolen from by this grey-eyed force of joy.
I had been stolen from, in the most profound way imaginable. The disease was again alive.
Before long, I woke to the chanting of her name.
“Her name was Sawyer Ann, Sawyer Ann… There she was, climbing over that ridge, where her father’s feet fell. And there she was, climbing over that ridge, where her dawn rose from Hell.”
The fathers hovered over me, walleyed each and every one of them, and Clara stood weeping. Mrs. Marigold’s dress was muddied, and she was trying to pry her daughter away.
“Clara, he’s dead! Leave it be!”
My torso was so full and tight, and I wanted to dispel more of that dreadful amber liquid from my lungs and belly. There was a hushed pricking at my insides, almost noiseless from within my head. The girls were quiet, gone. Sawyer Ann was silent, absent.
I wanted to look down, to move my legs, but soon I grasped the reality. Sawyer Ann towered over me, face in her hands, tears seeping out from within the domelike confines of her long fingers. Her nails were chipped. My eyes wouldn’t move. I smelled burning wood.
“Clara!” she lunged down to my side, pushing my face left and right, slapping me one, two, three times. I heard a child crying. Mrs. Marigold grabbed the male child away from me, and dragged Clara by the collar of her dress away as well.
“She was a woman of few words, a woman of few kind parts. She was a woman of many feats, but was loved by a boy with two hearts.”