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.