I stand with mosquitoes in my veil in the evening sun and speak words from some other time: of cathedrals and dances at the spring house, green campus quads. The air is heavy with the smell of overturned fields. I drop your ring on the lawn, but it still finds your finger.
You have me sharpening knives. Petal thin against a wet stone kept black in a cookie tin in our pantry. The damp suck of the blade makes me think of my childhood in the mountains and the day my father skinned a duck in the kitchen, slipping his knife into the loose skin behind the wing and pulling back. The duck’s white feathers lit the air as he worked, some of them landing on my ChapSticked lips. The hollow under her wings, the shiny meat of her was so pretty to me. Her bill orange as the toy car under my bed, whose tiny doors opened to a tiny steering wheel.
I step in the mop water, my socks gray and wet on our wood floors. I feel heavy and cold like being outdoors when you’re sick. When I was a child and I felt sick, I would dream of giant inner tubes, big enough to fit inside a bulldozer tire. The inner tubes would roll over hills of buttercups in my dreams, and I’d watch the flower stems bend down and bounce back and think of vomiting. I’d spin in my bed, and the tires would spin, the flowers would snap, and I’d feel sick.
Whenever I felt well again, I’d dream of a gold necklace under my shirt, warmed with my skin. A yellow heat glowing inside me.
I shovel the clay of our yard and think of riverbeds. The drained field of my grandfather’s property and all the freshwater clam shells I’d find there as a girl, white as palms. I saw with a slow, untrained hand the silver branches of a fallen birch, the blade wobbling with my wrist. You show me how to steady, how to set my intentions in the motion of pulling back.
I can’t stop to think of what came before and how that too was love even when it smashed chairs with a hammer and slammed my face into the trembling glass of the school bus window. Your hands are never burs with me. You are calm and cool as linen.
Tonight in our bed you sleep, and I long for you. My longing is a hitch in my throat that makes it hard to swallow, hard to breathe deeply.I want to reach over and drape across you and have you swell with love for me. Love for all my faults. My forgetful, daydreaming mind. My many sighs.
I slip into the old streets on which we honeymooned. The cobblestone of the Revolutionary War. I hear the groan of dead ships on the bottom of Lake Ontario. Their metal requiems rusting away. There I am in that black dress and there you are with a container of cherries and a wedge of cheese. The hinge of your glasses held in place by a paperclip. We walk into a dome of protected butterflies. Wings pause like breaths flung open. When I die it will be these places that I see last. You in the rain-swollen streets. The slip of rivers over a limestone ledge. The mist that rises up from the rocks. And I will remember how you told me that all the water that will ever be is already here.
Lemon as a Color
I sat in Sam’s truck and sucked the tips of my hair, which were wet from the pool, the taste of chlorine like metal in my mouth. We were stopped at a red light, and when it changed he stripped gears. “If you can’t find it grind it,” he said.
I wanted to rub my hand up the faded indigo of his thigh. I wanted him to push his finger through my lips onto my tongue like last week in the parking lot at school. I turned my head to look at the interstate traffic and thought about Claire again. How Sam would return to her at the end of day and probably find her on the staircase pulling up carpet tacks with a crowbar. They wanted the house to be finished before their wedding. Might even have the wedding there. Claire could walk down that very staircase.
The landmarks of our town appeared with the next bridged exit. Clinton had state-football-themed gas stations and used car lots with double-wides for offices. The high school where Sam taught and where I was a student was mud-brown brick with barbed wire fencing around the whole campus that made it look like a prison.
We’d spent the afternoon in Carryville, a town so small and so far down the interstate no one would recognize us. There was one hotel there, right off the exit, called the Christmas Tree Inn. It’s sign was a two story plastic Christmas tree with neon script draped through it like a garland.
My bikini bottoms were soaking through my shorts and dampening the car seat. We’d forgotten to bring towels. I knew when I arrived home dinner would already be on the table. It would be one of the meals my father cooked on the weekends, froze, and then reheated after work. Vegetable lasagna probably with that weird hazelnut gravy he spread in the bottom of the pan before assembling the layers. My father was good at the things my mother used to do. Making dinner. Ordering a cake from the grocery store the week before my birthday. Reading over my AP English papers. When he bought me maxi pads he called them Band-Aids.
The trick with a hotel pool was to act like you had a room there and to look right at the front desk clerk and say hello as though the two of you had already met. “You can go anywhere in a hotel if you behave like a guest,” Sam had said.
In the pool that day he circled his fingers around my wrist and leaned in to kiss me. We’d kissed before, but this time was different. This time Claire’s face didn’t pop into my head the moment I closed my eyes. Instead of Sam’s, I sometimes felt like I was kissing her lips, thin and peeling under the wax of chapstick. My heart was beating into his hand, the pulse hard in my wrist. Bright wheels turned. An orange circle, a warm light. Lemon as a color. Lemon as a cloud floating by on my hill-less lawn. I went to the old places. The black tree hanging over the pond in my backyard. The scent of my mother’s shampoo and the smell of our house when she was alive. Horseshoes in my hand. The smooth bend of their turn like the knoll of a shoulder or the curve of a breast. Sam released my wrist and his hand slipped under my suit bottoms, and I felt the warmth of me leave my body and spread into the pool water.
From what I’d heard, everything round was a breast to men. Kneecaps, ankle bones, elbows, the back of a woman’s head. I wondered about all the breasts Sam must have held in his mind. I thought again about Claire. What did her breasts look like? How was it when they fucked? Did she stay on top? Sometimes in bed at night, after I’d finished whispering the day’s events to my mother, I’d imagine I was Claire. I’d stand in her waifish body in a shower and rinse the soap from her skin.
When we pulled in the driveway, there was my father sitting on the porch swing. He’d changed out of his work clothes and was drinking a glass of brandy, my mother’s old favorite. Sam patted me on the shoulder like a teacher would and waved to my father. “See you tomorrow,” he said. I waved good-bye and headed up the walk.
It Stood Up into Its Own Thing
There was a gap under the door and my hand went there and felt for the door mat, which was scratchy like a big piece of burlap. I found the dead bodies of spiders and brown beetles light as fall leaves on the threshold. My cheek pressed into the shag of the green carpet, and I could see a strip of the outside. The wheels of my babysitter’s car. The wet gravel in the driveway. I was there for the fourth day in a row, while my parents took my baby brother to one doctor after another searching for the cause of his leg pain and high fever.
In the living room, there were pink velvet curtains over the windows thick as tongues, and a man stood in the center of the room, tossing a baby up to the ceiling and catching him on the way down. Tossing and catching. The man was the babysitter’s husband and the baby was his boy. The baby laughed and laughed until a string of drool dripped from his lower lip. My heart caught in my throat each time the baby went up, and for the brief moment he was splayed mid-air I felt that tickle in my stomach that I got when my father drove fast over the hill to our house.
In another room, the babysitter’s other son pushed a toy truck over the floor and sang a song about convoys and Tulsa town. His name was Edward, and when he was nice to me we played with his plastic boats in the bathroom sink. His hair was so curly it stood up into its own thing, and his lips were as pale as the rest of his face, so from far away he looked featureless and ill. There was a cactus on the bookshelf that I’d been told not to touch, but I touched it anyway, and a needle came out into my finger as electric as a bee sting. When I cried the babysitter picked me up and pulled me into her lap. She removed the needle and held me against her chest, rocking me like I was her child. She had her own smell like a can of sweet corn and her own vocabulary of calming words. “There, there,” she said. “It will all be over soon.” I felt her neck against my face, the brush of her hair, the strange love of someone else’s mother. I caught a glimpse of the sky outside the kitchen window.
The White Breath of Cows
We had just moved to a new house in my husband’s old hometown–the first house we’d ever owned, and some days I couldn’t find my way home from work. I memorized landmarks. The daytime landmark of the used car lot that was really someone’s front yard. The nighttime landmark of the farm down the street and the blue lights lining their driveway.
Right before Christmas the cold came, and my son asked me if he was going through “a little bit of puberty” because all he could think about was Anna. He was nine but had always seemed older.
I didn’t tell him how I’d discovered his secret message in the shower steam. I didn’t tell him how I showed his father, and how I stood there in a damp towel and dripping hair smiling about what his finger had drawn. I love Anna.
On Christmas break, my son read aloud chapters of a book about rescue dogs. Dogs searching for injured dolphins. Dogs pulling their owners from the train tracks just in time. He argued with me more. Said he wanted to learn how to win. How to get better and better. I picked up his dirty socks, his cheese stick wrappers, and stopped nagging as much.
The dust of the new house collected in the corners of the rooms. I pulled out my pine cone bed sheets and went deep into weave of their flannel. In my dreaming life, the taste of ash filled my plates, the drip of wax, the heat held under the Earth swelled into my mouth, my brain.
In my driving life I found new roads that led to town. Roads with hollow barns and frost-tipped grass, the white breath of cows in pastures. I watched for possums, raccoons. One morning on the way to work, I went into the black eyes of a buck by the roadside, and I knew his decision to turn downhill back toward the creek before he ever moved.
By Christmas day the campfire smell was gone from the air, but outside the world seemed a faded porch screen. Smoke and fog and my own breath bled together when I walked the dog that morning. I looked up at our new house, at my son’s bedroom on the second floor. My son was sleeping longer than usual, and I thought of him there in his bed, balled up under the covers the way he slept as a baby and still slept, hair slick with sweat.
The leaves in our yard were so thick, the grass so dry beneath, that I kept slipping up the hill. I looked up at our new house, at my son’s bedroom on the second floor.
Lydia Copeland Gwyn’s stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Fiction Southeast, Elm Leaves Journal, Glimmer Train, Florida Review, Jellyfish Review, and others. She lives in East Tennessee with her husband, son, and daughter.