Lydia Copeland Gwyn ~ Four Stories

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Gray Cats

Juniper bush­es out­side a green house. Matchbox cars in the sand, the trace of their tracks lead­ing away from me. These are the first things I remem­ber. The dog’s neck, the swell of ticks under her collar–their white bal­loon bod­ies. I wait on the play­ground swing for Grand to pull up in old Hildy, the brown Town Car that made it all the way from Oak Ridge and would make it back again lat­er that night. At the gro­cery store down the street there’s can­dy at the check­out coun­ter. A gold roll of cin­na­mon Certs pressed into my hand.

Another day, I ride in mother’s car behind a pick-up truck, which car­ries my uncles and our fur­ni­ture up a grav­el road and carves a gray dust cloud in the air. We’re mov­ing into a new house. It’s a fresh­ly paint­ed porch like the gloss of a robin’s throat. Plastic cov­ers the win­dows, and there are ros­es in the wall­pa­per. The smell of a wood stove.

Gray cats. Tiger cats. Beagle pups. One night I watch the owls in the evening sky, ghost-qui­et through the trees, while my aunt and moth­er talk in code and spell words on the front porch. My aunt and moth­er wear ear­rings that dust their shoul­ders. They roll joints on top of their col­lege text­books and pass the joints back and forth with eye­brow tweez­ers. On the book­shelf in my room, my fake cur­sive dec­o­rates the inside of a nature ency­clo­pe­dia, its white cov­er col­ored over in red cray­on. There’s a record play­er on the bro­ken clothes dry­er that plays The Moody Blues and Cats and Jim Croce. There’s my broth­er in dia­pers. My broth­er cry­ing on the floor and my father danc­ing with him until the cry­ing stops. A missed belt loop in a pair of jeans. The free green Bible I car­ried from church and used like a note­book for my lists. There are traps and skins on the back porch. The lit­tle bot­tle of musk father uses to paint the hinges of the traps. A door in the ground for the cel­lar. The stain of black wal­nuts on my hands. The wet lay­er in a pile of leaves.

The next year my broth­er has eye surgery. His scle­ras fill with blood when he wakes and we place ice chips in his mouth to dis­tract. The day before my broth­er and I were home and pre­tend­ing to go back in time. Back to the land our house sat on, back before there ever was a house, when the trees were saplings and there were no fields. There are music videos on the hos­pi­tal TV, which is mut­ed. I watch from a chair at the end of the bed and try to read the singers’ lips. After din­ner in the cafe­te­ria, there’s the dri­ve home from the hos­pi­tal, the hem­locks along the inter­state, a white kit­ten in the road.

At home the creek in the woods has its own lan­guage, a lan­guage of black snails and sun­fish and the fuzz of algae. My hand­ful of quartz smudged with red clay. My hand in the stream feel­ing for the curl of a cray­fish tail. My broth­er catch­ing min­nows in a net and wad­ing deep­er than he’s allowed. The brown mud of the water, soft as a pelt. Summer days, I watch the moun­tains for oth­er codes, the kind my moth­er and aunt know noth­ing about. The rise of a hot air bal­loon over the ridge, the loss of a green kite some­where in the trees of those moun­tains. A piece of it sways there still, the same way I swayed when I stood with my broth­er under the pin oak and wished for a time machine.

THE DAY IS FULL OF WHEAT STALKS AND GRAY SKIES AND GRAVEL UNDER OUR FEET, AND THE WIND IN THE LEAVES MAKES THE SOUND OF RAIN

The wind is in the trees again and my broth­er turns in the field past the barn. Spinning cir­cles with his fin­gers fold­ed into baby fists.

In the front pock­et of his jeans is the body of a dead ring snake we found behind the house, limp as a thin rib­bon. He wears a red plaid shirt like our Dad’s, the same shirt he wore to Sears when we had our fam­i­ly por­trait made. My smile in that pho­to showed a raw, pink space where my front tooth used to be, the hole still fresh with blood and the sour taste of met­al.

On the dri­ve back home we told rid­dles, and I got my broth­er good when I said, “I have two coins that equal 30 cents, and one of them is not a nick­el.” He began guess­ing with three coins and then two coins that totaled 35 cents, and when he was about to give up, a motor­cy­cle sped around us and cut into our lane, and then we saw the motor­cy­cle slide off the road and down into the gap.

The gap was made mil­lions of years ago when a mete­or hit this part of the world. It marked the space of some­thing miss­ing from the moun­tain like the vel­vet sock­et of a horse born with­out an eye. Our town was named after the gap, the edge of which was rimmed by hik­ing trails, and nar­row roads with alu­minum guard rails. Dad saw noth­ing when we stopped the car, not a tail light, not a spin­ning tire. The sun had already set and a storm was mov­ing in. I could see cliff swal­lows in the dark clouds fly­ing back to their nests in the cave walls.

But now it is a dif­fer­ent day and my turns in the field and the wind lifts the brown bangs from his fore­head. Today we’re play­ing the game where we wind back into time with the gyre of our bod­ies and the old house becomes a new house. The barn roof is red again and our par­ents aren’t alive yet. In the dust of the barn floor, he uses a chick­en bone to write an X with two invert­ed V-s, a mes­sage for our future selves. It’s writ­ten with the fin­gers of God he says, so noth­ing can erase it.

Now he’s in the barn, fol­low­ing my lead, run­ning where I run, hid­ing where I hide, mouthing my same words. It is fall and our faces flush, our hair is damp with sweat and our skin cool and for­eign, like some­one else’s.

Plastic Over Wood

Our father’s mus­tache was wet with Coca-Cola, and we each had a bot­tle of our own on the table in front of us, the glass frosty from the freez­er, and the coke swim­ming with clumps of ice slush. I had a minia­ture can­dy bar in my pock­et that I kept show­ing off to my broth­er.

Behind our father, ros­es the size of a baby’s head bloomed in the wall paper. They were ros­es from anoth­er time, a time of yel­low fever and moun­tain lone­li­ness. I won­dered if hawks cir­cled the place, loop­ing over the open fields look­ing for the cat’s kit­tens or the giant rats which ate their own nests of pink and blind young. Our father had told us that some ani­mals turned to can­ni­bal­ism when there were too many of them in one place.

The din­ing room table felt like plas­tic over wood, and my hands were usu­al­ly under it at din­ner time smear­ing mashed pota­toes and chick­en grease. The high-backed chairs with their vinyl seats sighed when we sat down on them. My brother’s had a rip in the cush­ion where white poly­ester fibers poked out, and he’d bounce up and down on it to make it fart. Our moth­er mixed ham­burg­er with taco sea­son­ing. The yel­low Tupperware colan­der sat on the coun­ter next to her cut­ting board full of shred­ded ice­berg let­tuce. There was the smell of green pep­pers, a toma­to sliced open.

Out the win­dow two white cows wait­ed in our dri­ve­way, hav­ing appeared that morn­ing from some neighbor’s farm over the moun­tain. We were afraid to walk across the grav­el and pull open the car doors. Afraid of their enor­mous size–taller than our car, their jaws con­stant­ly chew­ing. What was the bite force of a cow, I won­dered. Would it be sharp and tear­ing like in my ani­mal dreams when rac­coons bit my hands in the forest? Or would they step out of our way, make an arc around our car as we approached?

It Was There All Day Until It Wasn’t

Today I heard how a man slipped from the rim of a vol­cano in Japan. How he’d received fund­ing to hike that coun­try and write about its land­scape. There were no return tracks in the mud next to his boot prints, and searchers found that his trail led almost to the inside of the vol­cano but noth­ing led out. You heard the same sto­ry only you heard it dif­fer­ent­ly because in your ver­sion the man jumped to his death. I heard how a Greenland shark can live to be 500 years old–according to the car­bon of its eye lenses–and how the soft curve of its body grows one cen­time­ter each year. It’s a slow, cold life in a part of the ocean we can’t be.

I heard of a man who was found dead in his liv­ing room, posi­tioned supine in his easy chair next to a win­dow. There were gem­stones embed­ded under his skin. Rose quartz in his chest. A lump of cit­rine in each of round calf. The man had a cab­i­net full of vit­a­mins and herbal sup­ple­ments, an amethyst crys­tal hang­ing from his car mir­ror. That’s what he gets, you said, for try­ing to cheat death.

Today your red hat is lost in the snow. It’s a red we could see from the win­dow if we looked. A red pos­si­bly plowed into a pile in the neighbor’s yard. All signs point to yes­ter­day when we drove home from the hos­pi­tal in Knoxville in your old truck with the slip­ping trans­mis­sion. The last time you wore the red hat, a day of inter­states and dri­ve-thru food. Half-alive poplar trees lin­ing the road. The car heater blow­ing my eyes dry. The ban­dage on my throat and the let­ter X where a some­thing like a grape used to be. Outside I watched a white-faced cow walk­ing through its field, rib­bons of snow melt­ing under its feet. Your hat was there on your head when we pulled in the dri­ve­way.

~

Lydia Copeland Gwyn’s sto­ries and poems have appeared in Elm Leaves Journal, Appalachian Heritage, Glimmer Train, The Florida Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, and oth­ers. Her work has been nom­i­nat­ed for a Pushcart Prize, and her flash fic­tion chap­book won sec­ond place in the 2014 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook con­test. She lives in East Tennessee with her hus­band, son, and daugh­ter and works at the Sherrod Library at East Tennessee State University.