When I burn bridges
it is to make ash for soap
to wash away stains.
When I burn bridges
When I burn bridges
it is to make ash for soap
to wash away stains.
“But they are so crude, Mary,” Elizabeth remarked, setting down her cup of tea on the arbor’s table. A slight Summer breeze made the cool, foliated shadows wag like tongues all around them. “What possible enjoyment could be had in a servant’s company?”
“He is well versed in many pastimes,” Mary said. A hot flash of redness flared in her pale forehead and breast. It was so red as to nearly match her auburn hair. It was not a shade of embarrassment, however, nor fury. She fanned herself leisurely, despite the cool breeze and shade. “Many a singularly fine pastime.”
“He is handsome,” Elizabeth said. A smile betook her face, as if she had tasted something quite sour and wished to hide it. “I will grant you that. But there are many handsome gentlemen in London of equal looks, and far superior wealth.”
“I have no need of wealth,” Mary said. “I am an only child, as you know, and subject to no male relative who might contend my claim to my father’s estate. Moreover, Desmond is excellent with his hands in a manner entirely unknown in gentlemanly circles.”
Elizabeth cast a curious glance to Jenny, nettled. The latter was too concerned with a white ribbon in her hair to notice. Elizabeth chided her.
“Jenny, you are of an age that ribbons such as those should be abandoned utterly. And you are married. Married women have no need of girlish ribbons.”
“These ribbons were blessed by Father Willoughby last Sunday,” Jenny said, still attempting to tighten the ribbon. “They are marks of chastity.”
“But you are married,” Elizabeth argued with an irritated shake of her head. Her black curls quivered, tied up atop her head and away from the nape of her neck like some tragic Greek heroine from bygone times. “Chastity is impossible for a proper conclusion to such a ceremony.”
“To the contrary,” Jenny said fussily, pulling at the golden strands of her hair. “William and I have decided to remain chaste for the time being, even while in wedlock. When he is…when we are ready to produce children, the ribbons shall come down.”
“And the petticoats shall go up,” Mary said, giggling. Elizabeth frowned at her, which only provoked greater giggles. Mary sipped her tea to regain her composure. Birds sang in the distance. Evening wore on slowly, the sun descending reluctantly.
“You are a naughty creature!” Jenny exclaimed, encrimsoning as a cherry unclaimed from the stem.
“And why should I not be?” Mary posited, seriously. “I am a woman of independence and means. I need answer to no one.”
“It is a luxury not all can afford,” Elizabeth admitted begrudgingly. “Nor do I think it one I might indulge, for I cannot discern how it could be worth the price.”
“A failure of experience,” Mary said, sympathetically, “leads to a failure of imagination. Were that your husband could be capable of speaking Desmond’s tongue! You would never wish to leave the house, either for society or for a fresh prospect. Nor would Paris or Rome offer, in all their splendours, temptation enough to lure you thither.”
Jenny frowned, then finally released the ribbon in her golden hair. “Surely he could speak such a tongue anywhere in the world and you would find yourself doubly satisfied in being abroad and being in desirous company.”
“Not so,” Mary said. “For it would presume impudence and impropriety. Desmond is apt at his tongue, but not at many others, and so his low-breeding would be immediately apparent, even to a Parisian crumpet.” She tapped a finger upon her chin thoughtfully. “Especially to a Parisian crumpet.”
The conversation now at an end, they nodded and sipped their tea. Mary looked very pleased in all accounts, whereas Jenny and Elizabeth were perplexed, albeit in different regards. Another of Jenny’s ribbons had come undone, and so she was very vexed in setting it right atop her head. Elizabeth frowned, casting furtive eyes of judgment sidelong at her host and friend.
“It is all jolly-folly,” she said meaningfully.
For Mary’s part, she was so warm and glowing with a language only she knew among the three of them that when the wind grew chillier, she did not mind it, even as her friends shivered. The trees themselves seemed to shiver, too, for the shadows stretched long and the sun slowly sank into its shadowy bed.
“My, I should be getting home,” Jenny said, hugging her shawl about her shoulders. “Arthur will be wondering at my absence. Though, I doubt overmuch. He loves spending time with his schoolyard friend, John. They are inseparable, you know. They get along so well together. Much more, I am afraid, than even Arthur and I get along. But we are young, and our marriage fresh. I am sure there is time enough to grow together.”
It was Elizabeth’s and Mary’s turn to exchange shrewd glances.
“Will he keep you warm, Jenny?’ Mary asked, mischievously.
“With a fire, perhaps,” Jenny said, misunderstanding. “Arthur is so thoughtful that he always insists that my bedroom be tended to most, often to the neglect of his own bedroom.”
“Separate bedrooms?’ Mary said, suppressing a smile. “But how does Arthur tend to your fire, then?”
“Alfred, his butler, tends to it when the night comes on with its drafts,” Jenny said simply. Naively. “Alfred uses the poker rather deftly, like a wizard conjuring fire.”
“So, too, does my Desmond,” Mary said, barely suppressing a giggle. “But Elizabeth,” she said, turning to her other friend, “what is the arrangement between yourself and your husband, Matthew?”
Elizabeth cleared her throat, though she could not clear the sharp edge of vexation in her voice.
“Matthew and I sleep in separate chambers,” she said, as a judge delivering a bitter verdict. “ I cannot abide his smoking…or…” She faltered a moment. “…or his attendance to my fire.”
Mary gave Elizabeth a sympathetic smile, patting her gloved hand. There was a goodly deal of condescension in the latter act. “I am sure there is a servant apter at the art. My Desmond is indeed a wizard, conjuring flames with a mere wag of his tongue.” She smiled puckishly. “He speaks whole infernos into being. And they keep me warm throughout the most frigid of nights.”
Again, Elizabeth cleared her throat, shifting uncomfortably. She eyed her red-headed friend enviously.
“I do not see how it should take much art to tend a fire,” Jenny opined, obliviously. “Alfred is nearly senile, and yet he accomplishes the task very adequately. At times even I tend to my own fire, exciting it with a clumsy poker. The propensities of fire, and the plenitude of wood, should be sufficient for the need, no matter how novice the pyrolater.”
Mary and Elizabeth exchanged glances—the former, sly and mirthful; the latter, shrewd and irritated.
“Indeed,” Mary said. “Any sufficient measure of wood may feed a fire, but here is something to be praised in that heathenistic affinity in the art of pyromancy. Why, I feel as a wicker woman all aflame with…passion…when Desmond speaks his special tongue to me.” She laughed with a girlish cadence of unconscientious joy. “I am utterly consumed by it, you know. It is always Beltane when he is speaking his special tongue to me.”
Elizabeth scowled. “One can lose one’s soul to such heathenism,” she said, her voice cold with something akin to resentment. “We must be wary of the Devil’s tongue. It can sway angels to lower stations with debased practices and unworthy company.”
“The waves lap wonderfully in my Lake of Fire,” Mary said, too pleased to be affronted, and too emboldened to be restrained. She tucked a curl of red hair behind her ear. “Maybe Lucifer was right. Maybe it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
Jenny gasped, a dainty hand to her little lips. “But your soul, Mary! Truly, we must attend church and repent together! Father Willoughby will rectify these mortal failings. There is no salvation except through Christ, and so you must recant such confusion in your compass. Otherwise it will cost you everlastingly.”
Mary regarded her earnest friend with a condescending smirk—tight lipped, with a nodding of her head. She then turned to Elizabeth, the latter stiff-shouldered and scowling openly now.
“There are times when Desmond’s heathen tongue is so persuasive that I could die in the moment and be eternally contented. Whatever lay beyond that moment of…exultation…is nought but dreary, drafty winds through a dusty hallway. The world burns away with the intensity of it, and all else becomes as soot beneath my feet.”
“And what of the tongues wagging behind one’s back?” Elizabeth demanded, setting her teacup down hard for emphasis on the point. “They can raze reputations and family legacies with the tempests they whip up. Have you ever paused to give thought to that?”
“They are impotent cinders,” Mary replied lightly. “As impotent as the cries of herons on the Isle of Skye. All is obliterated in the inferno.”
“The tongues of fire lap at lost souls in the inferno,” Jenny said, so far amiss in the conversation that her input was no more than the whispers of the breeze through the arbor. Her two friends ignored her.
“And what of friendships?” Elizabeth continued, still scowling. “What of the cost such heresies might entail in regard to them?”
For the first time, Mary’s smile and gleeful tone faltered. “I…I should hope that any true friend might weather the infernos for the sake of a friend as devout in her loyalty and its reciprocation.”
Elizabeth stared hard at her friend, her thin lips set in a narrowly compressed line.
“You take more than you give, Mary,” she said. “It is a problem plaguing many relationships, it seems to me.”
Desmond stood at the foot of the bed like any butler awaiting orders. Tall, lean, and with a grimly-set expression of diligence, he was the very figure of decorum and servitude. Except he was out of uniform. Very much out of uniform.
Mary lay on the four-poster bed, watching Desmond with a cat-catches-canary smile upon her face. She, too, was very much out of uniform, and spread her freckled arms, fixing her fine, smooth fingers upon the headboard. Her pale body flickered orange in the clandestine candlelight. There was no one else in the entirety of her estate. She had sent the other servants home to visit relatives or friends or lovers or whoever would preoccupy their evenings. She did not care. The only interest stood before her.
“Come now, Desmond,” she said. “Attend me.”
“I will,” the denuded man said. “But first…”
He hesitated, falling silent. She could see by the flaring candlelight the ambiguity etched upon his handsome features.
“What do you want?” she asked. “Less chores around the estate? A bauble? I could get something for you while I am away in London next week, visiting Vivien. She knows the quaintest shops where nearly anything can be purchased.”
“I mean to accompany you in London,” he said. “But not in a servant’s capacity.”
Mary cackled in delight. “Oh, you have a mercenary heart! But you know such things cannot be.”
“And for what reason so?” he demanded. “You have said many times that you do not care if high society should know of our attachment.”
Her tone was sobered now; incredulous. “It is not an attachment, Desmond. Do not forget yourself.”
Desmond swayed as if stricken, and Mary’s tone softened.
“I would not have you away from my estate,” she said. “You know I cannot trust anyone to see to it but you.”
The fire in the hearth behind Desmond fluttered to one side, as if a cold draft had hurled itself headlong into it.
“Such patronage does me much honor,” he said, his face dark and his tone sour. “To condescend to someone so low as myself esteems you as to a saint.”
“I will not tolerate insolence, Desmond,” Mary snapped. “You are a servant. In this service do you serve me, still. But that is the total of it insomuch as we are bound. To stoop to pretending that you are my equal would be to lose face. Not in society’s estimation, but my own. And I will never shame myself, nor depreciate my self-worth through such short-shrift.”
“So I am nothing more to you than a servant,” he said, bitterly. “You view me as just another pleasure to be taken for granted. Our intimacy is one strictly of mistress and servant.”
“You are well-compensated,” she said, sitting up and sliding forward. She reached out with both hands and took hold of his wrist, attempting to draw him down onto the bed, toward her spread legs. “Come, Desmond. I will permit you to sleep here tonight, beside me, if you like. Is that the intimacy you require?”
Desmond drew his hand away, and her coaxing smile hardened to an irritated frown.
“Desmond,” she said, “do not ruin this lovely evening with your unwarranted umbrage. We could be both of us quite satisfied if you would simply surrender to the strong instinct inherent in your breeding…”
Desmond yanked his arm free from his mistress at once, turned, and strode to his uniform, gathering it up and donning it in the dimming glow of the hearth.
“Where are you going?” she demanded, her voice pitched with alarm.
“I have attended you in all ways a husband might,” he said. “I have seen to your finances. I have seen to your servants. I have seen to your needs, whatever myriad ways they might manifest. Yet, you have always neglected me in all respects a man should be afforded by the woman he loves and to whom he is devoted. I had hopes for a relationship by daylight such as we share by moonlight. But you value me no more than a beast in the field, wanting me for nothing but to expend your carnal propensities. Nor are you equal in those indulgences, oftentimes affording me no reciprocation pleasure whereas I have selflessly given and given unto a cornucopia of giving!”
“Desmond, please do not leave me now!” She leapt up from her bed, hurrying to him in a bereft state of undress. “Please, do not leave me alone! Come to bed with me. Please.”
He paused at buckling his belt, almost looking at her. But the anguish overtaking his face was dismissed and dignity resumed itself with an austere measure in his demeanour. He donned his shirt and jacket, not bothering with his tie. He headed to the dark portal that was the door.
“Please tend to the fire tonight,” Mary pleaded, following after him. She lay a trembling hand upon his shoulder. “That’s all I wish. You do not have to join me in bed. Just…just tend to the fire and keep me warm.”
“Tend to it yourself,” he retorted. He opened the door and hastened out into the dark hallway, leaving her behind.
Mary felt quite cold, and walked aimlessly about her bedroom like a lost soul. She had come, it seemed, to the Ninth Circle of Hell. Her womanhood was now a frozen lake. Her heart gnawed on Judas in bitter disappointment. She looked into the embers of the darkening hearth and felt the world grow cold to its core.
Elizabeth held her legs apart as Matthew, her husband, thrust against her. It was, as always, over after a handful of minutes. He groaned, convulsed, and then collapsed onto the bed—onto her— and lay there, heaving and breathless against her breasts. Afterward, she looked upon the wrinkled, flabby and pale body of her old husband as he sprawled over her, panting. Pale, loose skin— reminiscent of candle wax long ago melted and now cold—gleamed in the light from the hearth. She was reminded of a warm, wet slug. She shuddered, and not from pleasure.
After a few moments, he rolled off of her and to the side, crumpled like a leaf in Winter.
Elizabeth’s gown was hot, or so it seemed. She flung it from her body, and kicked away the sheets near her feet. She wished for a cold shower.
“You will catch a cold,” her husband said, his breath labored still.
“I am likely for a fever,” she said, laying stiffly now, as if a frozen body in the snow. Her black hair was arrayed about her head, like the halo of some martyr.
They said nothing else. Matthew lay in bed a while longer, then began to crawl toward the edge, slowly, painfully, slipping out and onto his shaky feet. He leaned on his mahogany cane, limping to his nightgown. Shakily, he lifted the nightgown up and over his head, down his cadaverous body. He struck up a cigar before he was to the door, blowing smoke into the dark. The flaring faggot illuminated his vulture features for a flashing moment just before he disappeared through the door and down the hall.
Again, Elizabeth shuddered. She leaned toward the bedside table, taking the bottle of wine in hand. She did not bother with a drinking glass, but kissed the bottle more ardently than she had ever kissed her husband. Drinking herself into a stupor, she set the bottle down—tumbling it to the Turkish carpet below—and sprawled insensate upon the bed, her skin bare to the crisp, cold air. She welcomed the cold, and the oblivion. She welcomed the scorn that was a frigid draft through her bedroom.
She hoped the cold would find her husband in his bedroom and snuff out his smouldering cigar light. There were times when she wished it would find her, and snuff out her own light.
Jenny lay naked beneath the heaving form of Alfred, moaning in pleasure as the butler rutted upon her. It was past midnight and her husband Arthur had gone to bed, joined by John. It was an arrangement both sides found very pleasing.
After Alfred finished, and he had helped Jenny finish, Jenny lay panting to one side of her bed while the butler rose to gather his clothes. He did so swiftly and economically, with no fuss or words. He was much younger than Jenny had said to her two friends while at tea together earlier than day. Virile and somber and handsome and, most importantly, discreet, he was just what Jenny wanted in a servant assigned to such duties. He opened and closed the door with tactful silence, his lean frame disappearing down the dark hallway without the faintest whisper of a footfall.
The butler gone, and the door closed, Jenny sighed in great satisfaction. The warmth of the recent rigors still smoldered within her, hot as the hearth across the room. She spoke aloud to herself.
“Discretion best serves mischief alongside shrewd naivete,” she said. “Strategic naivete. It really does make one impervious to the wagging of tongues, whether they be sheathed in the mouths of society, or one’s own friends. There is no shield like naivete against prattle. They may demean the naivete itself, but what does it accomplish if even a million tongues whip at a mirage in the desert? They may wag themselves dry, but the mirage remains, and so distracts from my little oasis that I keep to myself.”
Having thus spoken at leisure, and in an ease equally earnest, she reached a hand up to the white ribbons in her fair hair. They were tautly tied. She undid them with a pinch of her fingers and twist of her wrist. Her golden hair tumbled down wildly. The white ribbons lay in a heap, like discarded snake skins. They would coil there, in their little nest, until the morning when she would take them up once again and tie the tongues of the world up in incessant gossip entirely amiss of the actual truth.
“Worry not for worldly wealth,” the priest said,
“for your riches lay beyond Heaven’s Gate.”
The priest then counted his flock, head by head,
and, pleased, sent around the collection plate.
The ventriloquist had not half the skill
to throw his voice from a wooden throat,
so he chose to work on Capitol Hill
as a lobbyist, becoming the GOAT.
A contortionist of world-wide renown
was giving a performance much lauded
when she suddenly stopped and then stepped down
from the bright stage as the crowd applauded.
Waiting till the audience fell quiet,
she pointed to a man among the crowd,
directing the spotlight till he was lit—
an embarrassed man to whom she now bowed.
She said, “Here’s a man who twists more than me,
more than anything, even a serpent,
as he lies on the phone so easily.”
The man tried to speak, but she said, “Get bent.”
Much In Common
They adored him as a Rock god of sex
in the Seventies, his groupie harem
birthing the next generation, (Gen X),
who also shared his favor among them.
Like lions roaring
they shouted all through the day,
cuddling close at night.
He loved his woman
like he loved his hot coffee;
jackknifed on the icy bridge,
cold river beneath.
She was the woman
raving within the attic,
setting beds aflame.
She wore him like a
tramp-stamp: proudly among friends,
hidden while at work.
The children lay in their beds,
waiting for the storm to go,
sheltering with sheets over their heads
while the winds rage and blow.
Neighbors down the street have heard
these tempests a time before,
and though the storm may move onward
it brews always next-door.
The dark clouds finally part
and the stormfront passes by,
but the thunder is still in his heart,
the rains still in her eye.
To love another person
is to border a barbed wire fence—
however the weather may worsen
or the wire rust to dust, the sense
of them remains as we grow
around their barbs, a steadfast tree
whose heartwood refuses to let go,
even as the horses run free.
Content Warning: Mature readers only.
Scout stood in front of the cornfield, her red Summer dress bright as a cardinal against the blue-green shadows of the corn. The moon hung in the midday sky, impassive as the pale eye of a corpse. The wind rustled the corn leaves into Wake-whispers, reminding her of the funeral home, and her frayed, knotted hair streamed across her face like the yellow yarn of a ragdoll. She stared down, at nothing, while her friends tried to coax her into looking up for the photo— not smiling, but at least looking into Cynthia’s black-eyed camera so it could obliterate her and recreate her with its pretentious photons.
“Come on, Scout,” Emily said. “Let’s see those pretty blue eyes.”
Scout did not remember buying the red dress, or even putting it on. Emily and Cynthia must have Barbie-dolled her up in it at the last motel room they stayed in. They treated her like a mannequin to be assembled and posed for their cross-country trip pictures. At times it was like they were trying to alleviate their own sadness rather than hers. But grief had her cocooned in its web, and had liquefied her inside until she could feel nothing at all— not even sadness. She hadn’t been eating or taking care of herself, and looked like a haggard, frayed doll left out in the rain. Had a tornado twirled toward her and lifted her up, she would have accepted it with the indifferent resignation of the dead.
“Next stop, more cornfields!” Cynthia joked in her deadpan way.
“So boring out here,” Emily sighed in exasperation.
“What do you expect in Kansas?” Cynthia said.
“Tornadoes, maybe. Scarecrows.” She glanced around. “Like that one!”
Emily pointed toward the corn on the other side of the highway, her jangling bracelets gleaming in the overhead sun. She had dark caramel skin and curly black hair. By and large, she was considered the prettiest of the sorority trio, and could get by wearing any type of dress in any color with any accessories she wanted.
“That is a weird scarecrow,” Cynthia remarked, grimacing. “Girl needs a makeover.”
“So does Scout,” Emily muttered. She went to Scout and put an arm around her shoulders, walking her to the other side of the road. The highway was not very busy right now.
“One more picture for the road,” Emily said.
The scarecrow was behind them as Emily and Scout looked into Cynthia’s camera. The scarecrow was a vague bundle of straw with a straw hat and a chequered dress, crucified on two wooden poles; indifferent to its own pain.
“Say ‘Cheese’,” Cynthia said.
“Heck no,” Emily said. “I’m on a diet.”
She smiled nonetheless, whereas Scout’s face remained vaguely devoid of feeling. After the photo had been snapped, they returned to Cynthia’s bright pink Prius. Piling in, they drove deeper into corn country.
“I love your car,” Emily said, sitting in the backseat with her sandals off and her barefeet out the window. The wind tickled her toes and she was grinning like the Queen of Sheba. “It’s just so…pink.”
“I told my dad I only wanted a pink car,” Cynthia said, barely paying attention to the road as she drove. “It had to be new and it had to be pink. People love it when I take it to weddings. I still think it is one of the reasons I get so many wedding jobs. Well, that and because I take the best photographs for wedding albums.”
The wind billowing in through the open window deafened Scout, but not enough. She rode shotgun in the passenger side seat.
“You do,” Emily agreed. “The best. When I get married— if I ever do— then I am going to hire you.”
“You don’t have to pay me,” Cynthia said. “I’ll do it for free.”
“I was going to have dad pay for it,” Emily said.
“Oh,” Cynthia said. “Then I will have to charge double.”
They both laughed, and looked to Scout expectantly. She did not laugh. Their laughter subsided.
“I guess we shouldn’t talk about that stuff,” Cynthia said. Her dark brown hair grazed the low ceiling of the Prius. She was the tall sorority sister, and was unusually tall even by that standard. “It’s not…appropriate.”
“Yeah, but, Scout, Tyler really was a shit stain,” Emily said recklessly. “I swear, he came onto me once at Brian Lauder’s party last year. Whenever he drank, he just became a different person.”
“Or showed who he really was,” Cynthia said. She sounded a little jealous. Not one of her sorority sisters’ boyfriends ever flirted with her inappropriately. They were too intimidated by her height, and too turned-off by her plain-Jane face.
“I need to pee,” Emily said.
“All right,” Cynthia said.
The pink Prius came to a stop at the side of the highway. Emily hopped out of the car, after putting her sandals on, and then waded into the cornfield. While she squatted, Cynthia stared out at one side of the cornfield. Scout stared at nothing.
“Is that the same one?” Cynthia said.
Scout looked toward the cornfield on the other side of the road. A scarecrow was crucified here, too, with a straw hat, chequered dress, and vaguely humanoid straw body.
“Maybe just the same Wal-Mart special,” Cynthia concluded, doubtfully. She rowed her window up and turned on the A/C. When Emily returned, she told her to do the same.
“But I like the wind between my toes,” Emily said.
Cynthia never argued with Emily— she envied her too much— and so she relented and rowed her window down, turning the A/C off, and taking the Prius on the road again.
They drove for many more miles through corn country.
“Tyler really was an asshole, Scout,” Emily said, her window now up because she had tired of the wind being between her toes. The A/C was on in the Prius, and the radio was down low, Katy Perry’s voice a wavering whisper beneath the acrid conversation. “A total asshole. Michael told me that Tyler called his dick the ‘Patriarchy’ because he said he had fucked over so many women with it. I shit you not.”
Cynthia involuntarily laughed. She coughed self-consciously, falling to silence.
“He was an asshole,” Emily said, twirling a curl of black hair around her finger. “He wasn’t a frat boy. He was a scat boy.”
Scarcely heard above the A/C, a rustling-grass sigh left Scout’s lips.
“Anyway,” Emily said lightly, “it’s no big deal. I mean, we’re on a road trip! No boys! No parents! No school! Just us!”
Cynthia grinned and nodded exuberantly. Scout remained silent in the passenger seat, staring at— and feeling— nothing.
The sudden blaring of a horn ripped through the quiet cab of the Prius, as did the roar of an engine and the rowdy shouts of voices. Speeding alongside the Prius, a large four-door truck kept apace with the smaller car. The truck’s windows were down and some local farm boys were hanging out the windows like Jack-in-the-boxes, grinning and shouting and gesturing like mad.
“Hey baby, baby, baby!” they shouted.
Emily bounded for the other side of Prius— not wearing a seatbelt— and rowed the window down.
“Hey darlin’!” she crooned in a put-on Southern drawl. “You boys are givin’ me the vapors!”
“We’ll give you more than that!” the passenger-side man said. He wore a Dale Earnhardt hat and a red-and-black flannel shirt. His arms were brawny and tanned— almost as dark as Emily’s legs—and his cheeks pitted with dimples and dotted with stubble.
“Sorry,” Emily said with a feigned pouty face. “Girls’ club only.”
“You sure, baby?” the man said. “I got a big present for you.”
The other young men in the truck hooted and hollered.
“If I want something like yours,” Emily said, “I’ll just jump a baby carrot.”
Emily laughed. She was the only one in the Prius that did. Cynthia looked very worried, eyeing the men as if they might swerve her off the road. Scout merely stared at nothing, the emptiness enveloping all things that her slow eyes crawled over.
“Bitch,” the man said lightly. “Let me tell you something…”
A vehicle was coming in the opposite lane. The young men withdrew into the cab of the truck and the driver slammed the gas. The truck’s engine roared, spewing black diesel fumes behind it as it pulled ahead of the Prius and moved over, in the nick of time, to avoid a head-on collision with an old station wagon. The station wagon’s horn went wild with fury, like a rabid gander with a hunting dog sniffing near its nest. The truck blew another dragon-plume of fumes as it accelerated down the highway, leaving the Prius behind in its black fury.
Emily tittered. “Silly redneck boys,” she said.
“You get off on that, don’t you?” Cynthia said, accusingly. She had slowed the car down to half the speed limit, letting the truck disappear into the distance.
“Blueballing little boys?” Emily said. “Yeah. It feels great.” She stretched her arms over her head, smiling broadly and relaxing in the backseat, laying down. She still had not put on a seatbelt. “Somebody’s got to cut them down to size.”
Cynthia sighed as if exhausted, shaking her head slowly. Scout watched the sun glare through her window, indifferent as it burned her unblinking eyes.
“Oh!” Cynthia said, slowing. “An old barn! I love old barns! They look wonderful in black and white!”
Cynthia slowed the car and pulled to the side of the road, backing up against traffic until she had returned to the barn they had passed by a few hundred feet. Hurriedly, she took her camera out and went toward the barn. It was an old broken gable type of barn, its two sides slanted at a bell curve outward, as if both wings were sinking into itself, the conceit of wood soon to collapse. It sat out in a field of green-and-yellow grass, a sudden break between fields of corn. Two large silos stood near it, their silver sides gleaming in the sunlight. They were obviously much newer than the barn itself.
“I need to get an angle so those metal things aren’t in the picture,” Cynthia said, ignorantly. She walked across the property, her back to the corn stalks. The camera clicked every few feet she walked.
“Boooooring!” Emily moaned melodramatically. She then yawned and fanned her breasts with her tanktop, flapping it against her bra.
Scout said nothing. She stared at the scarecrow in the field. It had a straw hat and a chequered dress. She then looked at the barn, seeing the ruinous sides and the moaning mouth. She felt something of kinship in its dilapidation. The difference was that there were cedars growing in the dead depths of the barn, whereas Scout had nothing lifelike growing inside her. There was only decay. There were only vacant shadows.
“Missy totally fucked Michael,” Cynthia said, offhandedly.
“No, Michael fucked Missy,” Emily said, an impish smile on her face. The wind through the window fluttered her black hair against her face, and she rolled her head to uncover her smile from the curls. “I heard he likes going in the backdoor.”
“That sounds painful,” Cynthia said, grimacing.
“Only if you don’t prepare for it the right way,” Emily said.
Cynthia gawked in disbelief.
“And if the dick isn’t too big,” Emily added for good measure.
“You mean like Tiny-Dick Teddy?”
Both girls laughed.
“Not that small,” Emily said. “You can do bigger, if you prepare first. Lots of lube, otherwise it will hurt. Sure. But Teddy probably couldn’t please a midget. I mean, it is so small. Or that’s what I’ve heard, anyway,” she added quickly.
“He’s got a nice body, though,” Cynthia said.
“Oh hell yeah he does. Ripped. And such a nice guy, too. Could be the full package if he had…you know…a fuller package.”
“What’s the biggest you’ve ever had?” Cynthia said. “Be honest.”
Emily’s crescent smirk was that of a girl who had been knowingly naughty. “Ten,” she said.
“Ten?!” Cynthia said, drifting into the other lane. No one was coming.
“But I couldn’t fit it all in,” Emily rushed to explain. “I mean, I am not that big of a hole.”
“And you know for certain it was ten?” Cynthia said, skeptically.
“Oh yeah,” Emily said. “The guy was a big dick and had a big dick so of course he had to prove it to me. He even brought a ruler with him to prove it.”
Both girls laughed loudly until a semi blew its horn and Cynthia had to jerk the Prius away from the opposite lane. After a breathless moment, she spoke.
“So how good was it?” she asked.
Emily shrugged. “Kinda painful, actually,” she said. “Like I said, he was a big dick with a big dick, so he didn’t really care so much about how I felt during sex.”
“Okay,” said Cynthia. “Then who was the best you ever had?”
Emily rubbed her chin pensively between her glitter-lacquered fingers. “Hmmm. Some are good in different ways. I guess if I could have it right now, and choose who, then it would probably be Greg. He was sweet in the sheets, and very concerned about making me happy. Plus, he had a pretty good size on him. Above average, but not too big above average.”
“How big is that?” Cynthia said. “And what is average anyway?”
“Average is just average,” Emily said. “But he was about eight. Not too small. Not too large. Above average. And he knew how to use it.”
“Oh,” Cynthia said. She looked enviously at her friend through the rearview mirror. “And what happened to Greg?”
Emily tossed her head left and right, biting her lip. “I kind of slept around on him,” she said. “Didn’t realize what I missed until he was gone.” She shrugged, then perked up. “But did you hear that Christy’s gone to Paris for the Summer? She’s already eaten a Frenchman’s croissant, if you know what I mean.” She shrieked with laughter.
“How was it?” Cynthia said with mild interest.
“She’s pretty sure he was badmouthing her the entire time. But her French is shit, so he could have been saying anything.”
“What’s the French word for ‘ginger’?”
“Hell if I know,” she said. “I took Sign for my foreign language credits. It’s funner. Like Jazz hands.”
“Show me some,” Cynthia said.
Emily flipped her the middle finger.
“Har, har, har. Very funny.”
Emily shrugged a single shoulder. “It’s a promise,” she said meaningfully.
Scout remained silent in the front seat. Their conversation had drifted over her from a distance, faint and mostly indistinct. She remembered Tyler and their time in bed together. He had filled her up, but not just sexually. He made her feel whole. He made her laugh. When Emily told her she spotted him with a mutual friend, part of Scout had died. It had dried up to nothing and fell away, like rotten leaves. A vacancy remained; a hollowness immeasurable.
“Anorexia is not a good look for you,” Emily said, her mouth full of chicken nuggets.
“She’s right, Scout,” Cynthia said between bites of a fish sandwich. “You’ll be nothing but skin and bones if you don’t eat anything.”
Scout sat with her sorority sisters at the table in the McDougall’s restaurant, a carton of nuggets in front of her, untouched. She did not feel like eating anything, especially here. She and Tyler always went for lunch at McDougall’s when they had time for it. Now it just smelled like the leftover grease from yesterday.
“Come on,” Emily said, picking up one of Scout’s chicken nuggets. She held it up like she was feeding a toddler. “Here comes the airplane!”
The nugget zoomed around in Emily’s glitter-lacquered fingers, swooping in for Scout’s mouth. The latter did not open her mouth to receive it. It left a little oil on her lips which burned. She did not feel it.
Exasperated, Emily ate the nugget herself. “Hope you’re happy, Scout. Now I’m going to put on weight.”
Cynthia just shook her head and sucked soda through a straw. Scout did not even drink from her soda. Her lips were chapped and dry and cracking. The skin on her face was loose with dehydration, starting to become rough and wrinkle like a burlap sac.
P!nk was blasting on the radio as the sun settled into the corn like a bird into its nest. They had driven the last thirty miles without saying much, letting the music on the radio fill the silent spaces between them.
The corn fell away, revealing a small cluster of houses and fast food restaurants, all hemmed in by the fields. They came to a Pilot station and pulled in for gas. Shadows stretched long from the fields only to be obliterated by the bright lights of the lampposts and pumps. Cynthia got out and paid for gas with her credit card, then began pumping. Emily got out to stretch and to go inside to use the restroom. She dragged Scout along with her.
“Yuck,” Emily said upon entering a stall.
While Emily struggled to squat over the toilet seat, Scout stared at herself in the grimy mirror. She was hollow-eyed beneath the tumult of her blonde hair. Her red dress glowed luridly in the fluorescent lights, looking too real to be a thing hung on the tenuous unreality of her body. She felt as a phantom, and expected a wind to blow her away, the red dress slumping to the scuff-marked floor.
The toilet flushed and Emily stepped out of the stall, looking peeved.
“Goddamnit,” she said. “Don’t any of these mother fuckers know about bleach?”
She washed her hands, then took scout by the arm and left out into the lobby. Emily bought a Diet Coke for herself and a Mello Yello for Scout.
“You look like you could use some sugar,” Emily said. “And caffeine.”
Scout took the cold can that was handed to her, but did not open it. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew she was dehydrated and needed to drink, but the predominant voice overruled all others with its proclamation of earthly futility.
They exited the Pilot’s lobby and returned to the Prius. Cynthia had finished pumping gas and was standing around, waiting for them.
“What’d you get me?” she asked.
Emily cringed. “Sorry, I thought you didn’t want anything.”
Cynthia exhaled in aggravation and rolled her eyes. “Guess I’ll get it myself,” she said, walking off in a huff toward the Pilot.
While Cynthia was gone, Emily and Scout waited outside, spotlights carving the parking lot sharply out of the dimming dusk. Emily leaned against the car as if she was posing for a magazine photo, drinking from her Diet Coke with slow rotation of her head. She did not go unnoticed.
“Hey, it’s that prissy bitch!” a voice exclaimed.
The growl of an oversized truck came closer, roaring as it stopped in front of them. The young men put their windows down.
“Oh gawd,” Emily said in disgust. “I thought you boys were busy fucking pigs.”
“Oh ho, ho!” the man in the Dale Earnhardt hat said. “Girl, you have no idea what you are missing.”
“Bet she’s a dyke,” his friend said from the driver’s side. “All of ‘em are, I’ll bet.”
“Bunch of carpet-munchers!” laughed one of the passengers in the back-cab.
“Better than trying to get off on your tiny dicks,” Emily said, taking another swig of her Diet Coke. She smirked and folded her arms over her chest.
The man in the Dale Earnhardt hat opened his door and climbed down from the elevated truck. He walked with an easy, almost exaggerated, gait toward the Prius. Emily grew visibly alarmed, but Scout watched the imposing man approach with the same blank gaze with which she would have watched a fly crawl across a windshield. Even as he leaned over Emily— his hefty, haymaker arms to either side of her friend’s small frame— Scout could not muster an iota of fear or alarm or even concern for the situation.
“Get away from me,” Emily warned him quietly. “Or I’ll rip your balls off.”
The young man grinned, towering over Emily so much that the fluorescent lights of the pumps were crowded out by his height.
“I don’t think you will,” he said. “Not a little girl like you. Now, you better be nice to me. I’m a helluva guy, you know? You can ask all of my friends and girlfriends. One helluva guy.” He grinned at his friends. “Ain’t that right?”
“Helluva guy!” his friends said in chorus.
“Get away from me,” Emily said, her nose crinkled like a cat with nowhere to run.
“That the best you can say?” he said. “What happened to that smart mouth of yours? It sure is a pretty mouth. Shame it’s wasted on sucking butch twats.”
His friends back at the truck made obscene sucking noises.
“I don’t waste it on butch twats,” Emily said. “The only butch twat here is you. That’s why these lips will never go anywhere near you. I only like prissy twats that know I’m in charge.”
There was a long silence. The man in the Dale Earnhardt hat laughed. He laughed loudly and freely, as if he had never laughed so hard in his life. He then leaned back, upright, and stepped away from Emily. He rejoined his friends in the truck.
“You and me both, sister!” he said, still laughing. “You and me both!”
The truck roared to life and pulled out of the parking lot and down the highway.
Emily sighed. She was trembling, but whether from fear or relief or anger, she did not know. Cynthia came out of the Pilot sipping on a straw in a large Slurpee. She looked at Emily and Scout, back and forth.
“Something happen?” she said.
“Damn it, Scout,” Emily said, “you should have said something. You shouldn’t have just let me deal with the pig-fucker all by myself.”
“You did kind of start it,” Cynthia put in. “And Scout’s in no condition to handle anything like that.”
“You’re one to talk!” Emily snapped. “What were you doing in there, anyway? Blowing truckers? You took forever!”
“I couldn’t decide what I wanted to drink!” Cynthia said defensively.
“It’s all syrup water anyway,” Emily said. “It shouldn’t matter what you drink. Unless it’s diet.”
“Are you saying I should go on a diet?” Cynthia said quietly.
“Of course not,” Emily said. “The only weight you need to lose you can’t, because nothing works for losing height except taking off your high-heels.”
Cynthia glared at Emily through the rearview mirror.
“You know I don’t like it when you talk about my height,” she said. “Besides, you’re the one always on your high horse. How’s the weather up there in your own ass?”
Emily made a dismissive gesture with her hands, flicking her fingers outward as if shooing away a crow.
“Synth, I’ve told you before, you’ve gotta go to one of those Tall People dating sites.” She made a disgusted grunt. “I mean, can you imagine dating a guy shorter than you? Gross.”
“I wouldn’t care if he was shorter than me,” Cynthia said. “That doesn’t matter to me.”
“But it will matter to him,” Emily said knowingly. “It’s emasculating.” She smiled mischievously. “And, you know, the whole penis-to-vagina ratio will be really out of whack.”
“My vagina’s no bigger or smaller than average!” Cynthia nearly yelled.
“But if he is going to hit your G-Spot…”
“Then he has to be about average size,” Cynthia growled. “I’m not a cave down there. And I’ve had sex with shorter guys. Some have average penises. Some have smaller. Some have big ones that fill me up too much.”
Emily frowned at her friend skeptically. “And when did all this happen? I thought you were a virgin.”
Instead of answering her, Cynthia accelerated the Prius along the road, as if trying to get away from this conversation. They left the conversation like roadkill back at the mile marker and let silence be their entertainment. Scout did not notice either way. She felt empty, through and through. Twilight drew its gray pall over the world.
“Oh joy,” Emily said, joylessly. “A Murder Motel. Just where I wanted to stay.” She grumbled and folded her arms childishly. “Next place we stay is going to be a 5 star in the city.”
“Easy for you to say,” Cynthia said. “Your dad’s not the one paying for this trip.”
Emily waved away Cynthia’s words with a limp hand, her jewelry jangling. “Oh, your dad has enough money to buy a hotel chain.”
“He offered to rent an RV for us,” Cynthia said.
“Gag me with the gearshift,” Emily said, finger pointing to her open throat. “I’d rather hitchhike.”
They pulled into the parking lot and parked. The Corn Silk Road Motel was a humble L-shaped run of small rooms. A small clerk’s office stood out in front, near its red-lettered sign that flickered on and off fitfully. Cynthia got out and went into the clerk’s office, bringing her purse. Meanwhile, Emily blew bubbles with her chewing gum, the pink spheres expanding and popping at impatient intervals. Scout stared out the window, lost in the receding horizon of cornstalks and sky. The cornfields stretched on forever here, a sea of black shadows. Scout saw amidst their darkening waves a familiar figure, buoyant in that sea. Its straw hat had been blown away by the fervid winds, and now only the stringy yellow straw hair hung from its bowed head.
Cynthia returned with their motel card, driving around the L parking lot and coming to the middle of the wing. They parked and got out, taking their backpacks with them. Clouds rolled in heavily from the West, black as soil and rumbling as if pushed slowly by gigantic bulldozers in the sky. A storm approached. The air was cooler now than it had been all day and the wind pulled at Scout’s hair and skirt. The first droplets of rain fell tentatively, as if practicing before committing to the heavy downpour.
“Jesus, just in time,” Emily said, shielding her dark hair against the rain with an upraised arm.
Cynthia swiped the card and the brown door clicked open. They entered the small motel room as the sky boomed with thunder and the parking lot was blurred by the sudden outpouring from a cloudburst overhead. The darkening day shimmered with silvery rain like a fish’s scales in the motel lights. They were glad to shut the door in the storm’s face.
The motel room was bare and basic. There was a bed, a recliner, a dresser and a television set. Since they kept only the bedside lamp on, the white walls and ceiling of the room were gray or black. Emily plopped down on the bed and took up the remote control for the television. She turned it on and flipped through the channels.
“What kind of hick motel has only twenty channels?” she groaned. She cycled through the channels a few times, finding nothing worth watching.
“Check the Weather Channel,” Cynthia slurred, her mouth foaming with toothpaste as she brushed her teeth. “So we can know what it will do tomorrow.”
A frown of disappointment on her face, Emily flipped to the Weather Channel. The weatherman said the rain would clear off by tomorrow afternoon.
“Ugh,” Cynthia growled. “I hate driving in the rain.”
“I can do it,” Emily volunteered with a grin. “If you don’t want to.”
Cynthia nearly gagged on her toothbrush. “No. I am the driver. It is my car.”
Emily mouthed Cynthia’s words back at her, tossing her head left and right with sass. She turned the television off and then flopped back on the bed, spreading her arms out and exhaling a disgruntled growl of boredom. Cynthia returned to the bathroom to spit out her toothpaste and rinse her mouth out. She took a shower and Emily sat up all at once.
“I need to take a shower, too,” she said. “But she beat me to it.”
She looked at Scout. Scout sat in the room’s one and only recliner, staring at nothing and thinking about nothing. She did not want to think about anything ever again.
For a while the only sounds in the motel room were the cadences of the rain, the boom of the thunder, and the hiss of the shower. After a few minutes, Cynthia emerged from the bathroom wearing a towel around her body and her hair.
“About time,” Emily said, rushing into the bathroom and stripping down. She took much longer in the shower than Cynthia had. By the time she had emerged— her torso and her head wrapped in a towel— it was nearly Ten.
Emily took up the remote control again and turned on the tv. Flipping through the channels, she found a reality tv show playing.
“Oh!” she exlcaimed. “‘The Bachelorette!’ I love this show.”
Emily and Cynthia watched the program until it went off an hour later. After that, they could not find anything worth watching.
“I’m boooored!” Emily moaned.
Cynthia nodded from the other side of the bed. Then she reached for her backpack. “Hey, I know what can liven the mood.”
Unzipping her backpack, Cynthia dug out a small plastic bag of what appeared to be brightly colored sugar candies. Emily saw what she had and leapt forward, kneeling beside her on the edge.
“Yes ma’am,” Cynthia said.
Emily’s green-hazel eyes sparkled. “The real thing? Nothing cheap?”
“I bought them from Doug,” Cynthia said, opening the small plastic bag. She pinched a small pill and dropped it onto Emily’s upturned palm. “They are the good ones.”
“Awesome,” Emily said. She stared at the purple pill for a moment, smiling at the smiley face imprinted on its side. Leaning her head back, she dropped it onto her tongue and let it dissolve. “Fucking awesome!” she said for emphasis.
Rain fell heavy, the puddles in the parking lot glowing red and green beneath the neon sign. Footsteps sloshed and raindrops pattered on umbrellas and windows. The constant thrum of the rain created a white noise interlaced occasionally with the brief sound of tires slicing through pooling water. Thunder boomed at a distance now, having moved on with its temper-tantrum elsewhere.
They gave Scout one of the colorful pills. She looked at it as it lay in her palm. It was small and yellow and smiled with more genuine feeling than she could ever muster. Reluctantly, she popped the pill into her mouth and waited to see what would happen. Part of her hoped she would die. Part of her hoped it would erase her memories, if only for a time. Part of her hoped it would make her feel happiness while the other part feared to feel anything again. It did nothing for a time, and she wondered if she had been given a SweeTart instead. She remained in the recliner for a while, the pill dissolving on her tongue. Meanwhile Cynthia and Emily rolled around on the bed, bare-skinned, their towels flung onto the floor. They cuddled and began to kiss, giggling. The giggles gave way to passionate kissing, and caressing, then stroking and stronger touching in private places.
“Let’s fool around like we used to,” Cynthia cooed.
Emily, entwined with Cynthia’s arms, nestled between the taller girl’s breasts. She showered her with kisses, then rose and went to Scout, pulling her toward the bed.
“Come on, Scout,” she said, coaxing her. “We don’t need silly boys to have a good time.”
Scout laid back and let them strip her. They kissed her breasts and licked her lips above and below. But she felt nothing. She sat up, after a minute or so of their teasing and fondling, and sat on the edge of the bed, stolid and indifferent. Her two sisters did not pay attention to her after a time, too preoccupied with their own pleasure to mind her. Cynthia, being bigger, laid on her back, knees steepled and spread, while Emily, being smaller, squatted down over her face, then sat down, leaning forward on all fours and plunging her mouth down onto Cynthia’s lips, making a Sapphic meal of each other’s sex. Their moans and puckering slurps were faraway in Scout’s mind— like an underground grotto where ocean waves lapped. She sat naked in the minimal lamplight, staring at nothing; feeling nothing. She could not even feel shame or embarrassment when the boy and his mother passed by the window. The careless curtain had not been completely closed over the glass, spread only so much, like labial folds to reveal a vista onto the lovers on the bed. The boy stared, wide-eyed, while his mother pulled at him in irritation until she glanced into the window. Her vexation exploded into horror with a shriek and she yanked her son away and dragged him through the dark rain. None of it mattered to Scout. Her mind was faraway.
Scout remembered how her ex-fiancé could make her laugh. He was so funny. But he was also romantic. He could make her feel the strongest of emotions about the littlest of things. Joy, regret, anticipation, lust, love, betrayal, anger, sorrow. Now things did not seem to happen to her, but around her; life echoed hollowly within her like water dripping from a stalactite in a vast, dark cave.
But she did feel something at last as the ecstasy coursed through her neurons and electrified their senses. It was a deep longing—a vacancy that was so perfect that it ached for form and motion. She saw something, too. She was in a vast field, and that field had been furrowed deeply with an inexorable blade. Her ex-fiancé lay within a furrow, silent and unmoving. Before she could wake him, the earth folded over the trenches, enveloping his inert body until only soil and grass remained. Then a field of corn grew up from where he lay; vast and pointless, bearing husks upon husks of insignificance that somehow assembled themselves into a familiar figure. The figure was a scarecrow crucified upon a cross, its head bowed as if in mourning over the grave from which it sprang. The scarecrow had a willow basket over its head; a weeping willow basket like a bridal veil. Scout walked toward its corn husk body, reaching toward that willow-woven veil. Removing it with trembling hands, she saw herself beneath the cage of withes. Her face was devoid of all emotions, its burlap vagueness an expression of resignation.
Scout woke the next morning on the edge of the bed, still sitting up. Cynthia and Emily were both naked, still, and nestled into one another. Scout stood up—wobbly at first and sore—and went outside. The storm had passed and ears of corn had been blown across the slick road. The stalks that remained standing were bent or broken in half, their cobs shucked from the plant. The scarecrow leaned in the field, indifferent to its wet dress and frayed body and tottering cross. Through the dark black clouds the sun glared, as if the glint of an eyeglass from which a child looked beneath the lid of his box of broken toys.
“Fuck you, God,” Scout whispered.
She knew she needed a bath— as she knew any abstract concept, like the numerical value of pi or the formula for Pythagoras’s theorem—but she did not care. Tyler had said he liked her natural smell. He said he did not care if she shaved her underarms or not, or anywhere else for that matter. He liked her soul. Or so he claimed. Now she felt like she had no soul. It had flown the coop, and she did not care if it never returned. Actually, she would have shooed it away had it returned, for it was nothing but a bothersome pest, like a pigeon roosting where it was not wanted and shitting all over the clean emptiness she wished to inhabit.
An awkward silence followed the sorority sisters out of the motel and down the road. They did not listen to music. The wind through the windows deafened them to everything but their own thoughts and frets. Emily and Cynthia would not look at each other. Awkward embarrassment was their fourth passenger, and would let no one get a word in edgewise. Beyond the car, the cornfields were battered and beaten and broken, though many of the stalks still remained standing in their confounding multitude.
Emily pressed her face against the window in dismay.
“Was there a tornado last night? It looks like there was a tornado.”
The devastation in the cornfield had provoked them to speak. They looked out upon the storm-blasted scene as if they were traveling through an apocalyptic country.
“Maybe,” Cynthia said. She slowed the car down as the pink Prius rolled its wheels over the green debris strewn along the highway. “Maybe three or four tornadoes.”
“Just like the Wizard of Oz,” Emily said.
“There was only one tornado in the Wizard of Oz,” Cynthia said, stiffly.
“I always liked that movie,” Emily said. “I always wanted to be Dorothy.”
“I always wanted to be Dorothy Parker,” Cynthia said.
“But I’d be the Tin Man,” Emily said, tapping the side of her head. “Because I’ve got no brains.”
“You mean the Scarecrow,” Cynthia said. “The Scarecrow had no brains and the Tin Man had no heart.”
“The scarecrow has no heart,” Scout suddenly said. Her voice was whispery and coarse, like wind through rough straw. It was the first time she had spoken to them in a week.
“I am pretty sure it’s the Tin Man that has no heart,” Cynthia said adamantly. “But he probably didn’t have a heart either since, you know, he was made of straw.”
Scout was not listening. She was staring at something out in the cornfield.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” Cynthia said.
Emily’s eyes lit up. “You mean…?”
“Yep,” Cynthia said. “Colorado.”
“All right!” Emily said. Her excitement mellowed out, however, as she saw the cornfields still stretching on seemingly forever. It was still corn country. “It doesn’t look like Colorado. It still looks like Kansas.”
“Just wait until we hit Denver,” Cynthia said. “It will look different then.”
“And then on to California!” Emily said in bubbly excitement.
“We still have a while before we get there,” Cynthia said.
“Pull over,” Scout said.
“How much farther until we get to California?” Emily said.
“Pull over,” Scout said.
“Next week at this rate,” Cynthia said. “I wanted to stay a few days in Denver…”
“Pull over!” Scout shouted.
Alarmed, Cynthia slowed and pulled onto the shoulder, parking.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Instead of answering, Scout unbuckled herself and flung her door open, nearly falling out of the car to scramble out into the cornfield. Her long blonde hair disappeared into the blue-green clutter.
“Shit,” Cynthia said. She and Emily hurried after Scout, but lost her in the cornstalks. “Do you see her?”
“You’re the tall one!” Emily said. “If you can’t see her, how can I?”
Scout’s fiancé Tyler had cheated on her— with a mutual friend—and so Scout had called off the wedding. Though she was very upset, she was also conflicted. She had loved Tyler more than any other person she had ever dated. Part of her was jilted and part of her was ready and willing to reconcile. So, they spoke over the phone for the next few weeks, slowly working toward reconciliation. Then she had accepted an offer for coffee and had gone to the shop to wait for him at their usual table. But Tyler never arrived. Feeling angry, she went to a bar later that night and struck up a conversation with some random guy. They had a one night stand, which she enjoyed as much for the vengeance as for the sex. She could not remember the random guy’s name.
The next morning, while the stranger was still in her bed, she received a phone call from one of her friends. She said that Tyler had died in a car crash the previous morning, likely on the way to meet Scout at the coffee shop. Hearing this, Scout wept hysterically and the stranger in her bed— confused and afraid— left in a hurry. She cried on and off throughout the week until the funeral. While at the funeral home she saw Courtney, their mutual friend. Courtney was wailing as much as Tyler’s mother. The family comforted her while avoiding Scout. She had not known why until she overheard one of Tyler’s uncles say “It’s her fault he’s dead.” Scout was so outraged that she attacked Courtney in front of the viewing casket— closed casket, as it were—and then left the funeral parlor, her fingernails still full of Courtney’s brown hair.
Grief had justified many things. Impatience, anger, apathy, self-loathing, It freed you from many things, too: expectation, hope, happiness, the Present. In the cold wash of grief she had become numb, as if soaked too long in the ice water of a river in February, and she floated in it, insular in her ice cube; contained, impenetrable, apart and drifting carelessly through the chilly void.
Scout found the scarecrow waiting for her in the midst of the corn. Its vague face was a thing of easy relief— no personality or emotions stitched across its burlap head. Void of all human pretense or burden, it shrugged the world off as it slumped down from its cross.
“It will not hurt, will it?” she asked it. She shook her head, as if in answer. “It does not matter. A little pain and then Nothing. It is a fair trade.”
Scout lifted the scarecrow off of the cross, setting it on the ground. The effigy was surprisingly heavy, and she felt a twinge of guilt for her friends— briefly, then it was gone. She then ascended the cross herself, nailed to the boards as if she had always hung from it, the pain familiar, yet faraway. She let the weight of everything pull at the nails, but they were firm and held her grief up without fail. Hanging there, she felt finally lightsome and free; a thing floating above and apart from the world.
Her guilt crucified, the straw woman rose, then, to her newfound feet, feeling the wakening of life in her fibers, her newly-freshened nerves, her quickening heart and veins. She walked toward the Prius—stiffly at first, but loosening her limbs more naturally as she neared Emily and Cynthia.
“There she is!” Emily exclaimed, pointing.
“Thank God!” Cynthia said, her hands on her hips.
“And she’s smiling!” Emily cheered. “That’s what I like to see!”
“About time,” said Cynthia.
They greeted their newfound friend as she emerged from the corn, her chequered dress billowing softly in the wind. The new Scout tossed her blonde-as-straw hair with a shrug.
“What happened?” Cynthia asked. “Did we upset you?”
“No,” Scout said. “I just wanted to go out in the field.”
“Had to pee, huh?” Emily said.
Scout said nothing.
“Well,” Cynthia said. “Let’s get going! Lot’s to see! Lot’s to do!”
Scout smiled so broadly that her two friends looked at her in bewilderment.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Emily asked. “You look…odd.”
“I’m fine,” Scout said, her voice coarse as wind through straw. “I am just grateful to be alive.”
This chequered quiltwork life
has many frayed edges and loose seams:
the petty coworker strife,
the disappointed career dreams,
the shivering colds and feverish flus,
the traffic delays going home,
the overtime and the insurance dues,
the snagging, yanking, tearing comb—
all frayed edges and loose seams,
all petty nuisances and annoying frets,
all rotten strawberries and spoiled creams
all lost chances and hopeless bets.
And yet it persists, this tattered thing
held together stubbornly, day to day,
despite the mud spatter and the coffee ring,
the food stains and the flea-bitten stray.
But when you were torn away from me,
so, too, was the cross-stitched heart
of that assemblage, that tapestry,
and it all unraveled, coming apart.
The noisy hens in the chicken coop
squawked and squabbled among themselves
as they fought over each feed scoop
and squatted in among the egg-laying shelves.
Big Betty crowed for silence among the flock,
telling them they were all wrong
as they bocked their pseudointellectual talk
concerning what made a good morning song.
“The rooster must be strong,” she said,
“and have a lovely coxcomb crest.
He must be quick to peck a rival’s head
and puff out his macho chest.”
But Large Marge wholly disagreed.
“No! He must be calm and quiet and abiding,
not crowing incessantly, like a toxic breed
of arrogant fowl in need of chiding.”
“You should take what you can get,”
Big Betty said, “you uppity little hen.
If he is strong and proud, you can best bet
I won’t think twice about favoring him then.”
“I will never want a Chanticleer,”
Marge retorted, “or any such puffed-up male
not clipped and fixed. With care,
of course,” she added, pruning her tail.
“If you want strong chicks you certainly will,”
Betty argued, adjusting her butt upon her nest.
Marge ruffled her feathers, as if given a chill,
and then squawked loudly, puffing up her own chest.
“A true hen is not valued by her eggs!”
she proclaimed, “And is not a slave to any rooster!
She decides for her wings, breasts and legs!”
Beneath her, the worms began to stir.
“If we can rid ourselves of each strutting cock,”
she cried, “then we will finally be free!
Roosters are the enemy! Bock, bock!
They keep us locked in this coop! Can you not see?”
“We choose to stay here!” Big Betty squawked,
“and so do you, otherwise you’d already be gone!”
She gave Marge a shrewd look, head cocked.
“Listen to you, carrying on and on!”
“I’m fighting the good fight,” Marge replied.
“For everyone here, including you!”
Betty laughed. “So glad you’re on my side.”
She then let drop a wet glob of poo.
“Mock all you want, my oppressed sister!”
Marge sneered, her beak chopping air,
“but my hard work against what is sinister
will help you, too, so be grateful or beware!”
“Hard work?!” Big Betty said with a scoff.
“What ‘hard work’? Bocking us to death?
You’re still here like the rest of us, so take off—
all you’re doing is wasting your breath.”
“Not until my work is done,” Marge said,
“and all hens are free from tyranny most fowl.”
It was then that the lazy Rooster raised his head
and blinked, looking around with a scowl.
“Why haven’t you dusted this place?”
he demanded, raking his talons in the chaff.
“What good are your feathers, cutey face,
if not that?” he remarked with a laugh.
His wall-eyed head rotated about the flock
and alighted on Big Betty and large Marge.
“What is the problem with all this talk?
Bring me food. Don’t forget who’s in charge.”
The hens rushed about, gathering food
and bringing it to their beloved rooster;
all but miffed Marge, who thought it rude
that they should ignore, not rue, her.
The rooster ate well, then laid back down,
and the hens set to sweeping up the coop
while admiring his fight-scarred crown,
watching him with their every rise and stoop.
“What do we need him for?” Marge furiously asked.
“What good is he to any and every hen?
He lounges throughout most of the day, tasked
only in the morning with waking up the Men.
“And then they take our eggs, tell us what to do,
and they all take undue advantage of us.
It is a conspiracy! I know it is true!”
Betty told her not to make such a loud fuss.
She said, “Chanticleer gives us strong chicks
and the Men give us shelter, protection, and feed.
If you don’t like it, then you can go out to the Sticks.
I’m sure you’ll find a flock of geese in need.”
Marge said, bitterly, “I could leave this all behind
and go live in the woods; live all on my own!”
“Be my guest,” Betty said. “If you don’t happen to mind
the wolves stripping you down, feather and bone.”
“I won’t have any chicks!” Marge said loudly.
“I will not let them have the satisfaction of any!”
She then plopped herself down, quite proudly,
and thought of her grievances, many upon many.
“I will teach your chicks how to be truly free,”
she said, nodding in agreement with herself.
“You will not go near my chicks,” said Betty,
settling down again in her nesting shelf.
“If you don’t want chicks, then that is fine;
be barren and childless, for all we care,
but don’t you dare try to teach anything to mine.
If you do, then I will peck at your derriere.”
Another squabble broke out, loud and new,
like a large egg dropped from up on high,
its yolk and whites like the sun, the scattering dew,
cracking upon Chicken Little’s fractured, falling sky.
Meanwhile, up above the coop, and gladly free,
two cranes soared far from the noise, together,
silent, smooth, satisfied, and utterly happy
no matter how bad the oncoming weather.
The field spread, wan and wilted, wallowing
like a pale corpse before the front porch,
beneath a gloomy gray sky, swallowing
the sun like a fog-shrouded torch.
The old man sat in his rocking chair,
grinding the planks with a scraping screech
and his wife sat on the steps, hands in hair,
plaiting it as she ignored his speech.
“Don’t go runnin’ ‘round no more,”
he said, the rifle loaded in his lap,
“‘cause I won’t be married to no whore.
I’d rather be a widower than a sorry sap.”
The woman only giggled, and continued braiding
while he upbraided her with his threats—
at her back the house paint was chipped and fading,
the windows cobwebbed with dead insects and regrets.
The second storey window was dark, the kid’s room
empty, ever empty, since they were married—
and in the haunted silence of that gloom
all of the past and future and hope were buried.
With a sigh she said, “Nothing ever grows here.
None of my vegetables and none of my flowers.”
She blinked away a single bitter tear
and sighed again. “Ain’t nothin’ here really ours.”
“I’ve got some good roots here,” he said,
“and they got a taproot to our hearts.”
She scoffed. “But the flowers are all dead,
so who cares about the other parts?”
“You just think you’ll be happy flyin’ free,”
he said, “like a seed on the sinful wind,
or you think someone will pluck you from me—
maybe a rich fool wanting a cozy friend.”
He lifted the cold-barreled rifle in each hand
and felt the reassuring heft of the stock
and, with a curdling frown toward his wedding band,
he aimed it toward her, listening to her talk.
“Your gun don’t work no more,” she said,
“no more than the one between your legs.
Go ahead and shoot me in the head—
your gun ain’t nowhere near big as Greg’s.”
“Woman, you are tempting the Devil,”
he said, his voice as a whetstone on a blade.
She stood up, smirking, ready to revel
in the roughspun hatred they had both made.
Her dress was white as dandelion seeds
and clung to her body loose, a dress
hinting at the yet-youthful curves, and lewd deeds,
of a breeze fluttering higher at that airy access.
“Should have known you were a dead end,”
she said lightly, patting down her skirt—
she was a lithe flower, but she would not bend.
“You’d think after all this time it wouldn’t hurt.”
He smiled sourly and the porch’s light
drew a shadow mask down to his jaw line.
“All I gave you was cleaning vinegar, right?
And all you ever wanted was fancy wine.”
A cow lowed in the distance, a moan
carrying on for a long time, as if to splurge
upon the wide-mouthed vowel, maudlin, lone
as a farewell song, a Southern Gothic dirge.
“Think you can bolt from me?” he growled.
“I got your number, Missy, with this Winchester.”
“All you ever had were guns.” She scowled
and thought of the first time he had undressed her.
He could smell honeysuckle in the air
and it stayed in his mind, for a time,
but he also smelled lavender in her hair
and on her neck, soon to be a kissing crime.
His finger gradually weighed upon the trigger,
the muscles and sinew tightening with death.
“You think you can just leave me for some nigger,
but you ain’t.” The rifle exploded its gunpowder breath.
The world was deafened, silenced, slain,
and her eyes closed to utter void,
yet she did not blossom from her brain
and instead saw a doe, far afield, destroyed.
She watched in horror, and in relief,
as the doe collapsed, rose and fell and rose,
scrambling and moaning in its grief
before bleeding out among the fallow wheat rows.
“Go on, get,” the old man said. “Go to your buck.”
Wide-eyed as a doe, she hurried toward her car
hoping she would start a new life, with a little luck—
but she did not get very far.
He aimed the rifle and fired again,
a grin spreading across his empty-eyed face.
He said, “I wanted you to see how I’d win.
Did you honestly think you’d ever leave this place?”
He watched her crawl, her dainty daisy dress
now a crimson-and-white tie-dye,
and when she stopped moving he said, “God bless”,
lipped his rifle and kissed the world goodbye.