Before the Fall of Abigail ©


In the beginning it was only the eyes, then it was the warts, but the warts came last and it was the warts that made it difficult. It was troublesome to look into her eyes, as troublesome as it was to look into the sun, but the warts and the sun were things you knew were there, and both were things your eyes avoided. It was natural to look away from the sun or to shield your eyes from its glare, it was expected and thought nothing of, but to avert your eyes from the sadness and fear in her eyes or to shield your glance from hers was thought to be, at first, unnatural and ill-mannered. But it was a necessary reaction. Nothing else could be done. Instinct was to look away. In time, the sadness and fear in her eyes was replaced by confidence, and the confidence was as vulgar and troublesome as the obscene tone her personality had taken.

She was neither Catholic nor religious, so later, after the fear, the wide collared nun’s habit she began favoring was as mysterious as the other changes in Abigail and could only have been a mockery to God.

I forget when she started the candle lighting. It was a subtle change in Abigail; one I hadn’t noticed before it became an obsession with her. She said it was to keep the evil things away. But that was in the beginning, when she was afraid.

Soon after I discovered her obsession with the candles, I found her one evening in her room, sitting on the edge of her bed, in the amber light of a candle which she cradled in her palms. She was rocking herself and whispering repeatedly, “Dear Lord, lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.” Abigail kept the lights out in her room but always a candle was lit. She said it was the only way, and she was afraid then.
When Abigail was no longer afraid and the warts had come in like organic pebbles, she began walking through the low growing ferns and into the forest beyond the house. At first she would stay away for hours, then days. Now she returns only to creep around the yard like an animal or feral beast. A footpath is worn lifeless where she pads about after dark.

Before the fall of Abigail, when things made sense and nights were pleasant, a lit candle meant one thing only – that a candle had been lit. Now it means a thing that is deeper and darker than any I have ever known is near. Why I should sit here in this darkness and invite the evil in I do not know, but still I do it. I sit here now, warts and all, with my hands balled and clasped in my lap, rocking, fighting temptation to extinguish my good candle.

I miss Abigail the way a crying child is missed after the child is sent away to school or the way the sun is missed on a dreary day and realize now, when the sun was bright and high in the sky, I paid it no attention.

I know horror, now that things are bleak, and Abigail is lost to darkness. Oh how I wish I did not know such terror, but I believe there is a wicked thing here in this darkness, and that I must go to it – to be with Abigail.

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A Farewell to Ernest ©


They spelled Ernest wrong

 

 

In the mornings I would go down to the café for coffee where the girl knew my face and knew I took the coffee black. Hadley and Bumby slept late in those days, but later, after Bumby woke, he and Hadley would come down to join me and we would breakfast in the café and watch the pink tourists glow and carry their things out to the beach. From our room in the hotel next to the café we could look down onto the tables beneath the trees in the courtyard outside the café. Our room was on the third floor and looked out over the gray ocean. The ocean was always gray in that part of the country, but the gray made the blue sky that much richer. In the late afternoons Hadley and I would sit on the balcony outside our room and watch the same, now reddened, middle-aged tourists with their fat-bellied children struggle inland with their family’s vacation supplies in tow. They loaded their surplus into steaming station wagons parked below us in the hotel’s parking spaces. In these late afternoons, Bumby would nap on the bed in the room. Hadley would read in the chair next to mine on the balcony. Sometimes she would read a magazine or open my mail that came into the hotel. I would often write and drink Armagnac poured over iced water. The girl from the café would bring the Armagnac up after I phoned down and asked for her by name. Maybe her name was Marita. I don’t remember her name now, but I knew it then, and I remember liking it. I drank the Armagnac for my health but it did not hurt the writing either. If, while opening the mail, Hadley found a check, she would playfully toss it onto my writing and smile with pride. She would tell me again how proud she was of me and how glad she was for us and for all the money coming in. The checks would always have been deposited already but Hadley liked to think of the checks as trophies that signified an accomplishment. My latest book was in its second printing and an advance had come for the next book. I had a good feeling about my next book. The publisher liked it as well, but it is always difficult to predict how well a book will sell. It is always best to think about such things as little as can be allowed. But it is not always easy to think infrequently of a nice dream. Hadley liked to think the money would last forever, but I knew it could not and I had to start writing again. The short stories came easiest, but in those days, writing the stories made me feel like a whore to the literature. Now I see that it is the short story that is my craft and the novel is best left to better writers such as James and Scott. It was always better to compliment another writer in your own writing, because to compliment another writer in person was considered an insult. We still went under the system, then, that praise to the face was open disgrace. Maybe that has changed with a new generation, but that is the way it was with our lost one.

I no longer have Hadley or Bumby, but I still have the writing and the drinks. Some days I have more drinks than I have writing, but Catherine is understanding. I tell her easy reading is damn hard writing. She laughs. Catherine laughs easily and often. Some days I think I love her, some days I know I do not. Catherine is wise to this and to this she is also understanding. She tells me she loves me and says it is not because I am a writer that she is with me. I believe her. But it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t. Maybe some day I will write about the garden of Eden Catherine and I live in; a garden where it is only the two of us, one loving the other, the other unloved. Although this is mostly untrue, it is how I will write it, because I must write what I know. I know I can never be lonely with Catherine. No matter how cold and rainy the weather is outside, each morning the spring in Catherine’s eyes beats back the cold rain so that it seems it will never arrive. It is unnatural to think the rains will never come, and frightening to think that Catherine’s love may someday fail and let the cold rains come close. When the rains finally come in, I understand it will be because I have failed her. I would stop the rain if I could, but I can not. Someday I am likely to let the cold winter rain destroy our garden. Until then, I still have Catherine, my writing and my drinks – Catherine has no one. Afterwards, I too will have no one and Catherine will have, for what it is worth, only my writings.

As She Lay Dying ©


The girl stood beside the bed fanning her mother. Her brother was outside the window. He sawed, measured and hammered out a box. The girl wished he wouldn’t build the box so close to the house where mother could hear, but he couldn’t be told anything reasonable. He said mother couldn’t hear noway, or something like that, the girl couldn’t recall. Besides, he told her, he needed to pass the boards in front of the window so she could nod her approval of the planks.

The girl’s brother hammered late into the night until the box was complete. The following day the girl’s brother brought a shovel from the barn and dug a hole outside his mother’s window. The girl asked her brother not to dig there, so close to mother, but her brother said it would be better this way. He couldn’t be told anything. The girl thought to pull the window closed so mother couldn’t hear, but decided against it in favor of the breeze.

It had been several hot days since the girl’s brother had mailed the letter to their father. “He probably won’t come.” The girl said. But if he does, her brother thought, he’ll need a place to stay. Her brother stopped digging long enough to lean on the shovel, wipe the sweat from his eyes and relight his pipe.

The girl thought her father would sometimes toss aside a spent match after lighting his pipe. She wasn’t sure. The girl was no longer sure that her father had ever smoked a pipe. But he prayed. The girl was sure of that. Nightly, the same prayer pounded against his palate so that it became smooth repetition. A repetition that caused his prayers to become empty vessels of lost emotions. She at least remembered it to be that way. The girl’s prayers, like her father’s, now floated from her lips and drifted away like sulphur from a discarded match, expiring. Father had been away for many years.

A storm was coming. It was cooler now. Pages of mother’s bible flailed on the table in front of the open window. Thunder cracked in the distance. The girl closed and latched the window then lay down beside her hollow-cheeked mother. The storm grew closer. Trees beyond the barn began to thrash about. Rain started. The girl and her irremediable mother slept through the storm.

Had father arrived in the night. Hadn’t she heard voices, a scuffle. Was it a dream of a night long forgotten. Were things broken. Why did no one wake her?

In the morning the girl’s brother was outside the window again. The storm had passed and another warm day was promised. The girl raised the window. A whisper of wind circled the room as if to survey the things mother would leave behind, then turned the thin pages of mother’s bible again, invisible fingers searching for an appropriate proverb. The girl fanned her gaunt mother and remembered the last time her father left the house. She cried when he left. The girl was too young to understand why her father was leaving, but she remembered knowing he was going for the last time. She had chased after him. The girl remembered tripping and falling and scraping her knees and palms. The girl lay in the dust on her belly and cried. It was from that pitiful position that she watched her father walk away. She called for him. He didn’t turn around. The girl’s father didn’t come back to kiss her bleeding palms, he only donned his preacher hat, climbed into his rat-colored car and drove away.

Now that mother is dying, the girl thought, maybe father will be back. The girl sat on the edge of the bed next to her grey, etiolated mother and watched her brother work. The window frame captured him just the way he is, hardworking, stubborn, unforgiving. The girl’s brother whistled as he shoveled earth down onto the box in the hole near the window. The girl didn’t ask her brother why he was filling the hole. She knew him to be unreasonable about most things anyway.

With the hole filled, the hammering had started again. A board passed in front of the window for the girl’s approval.

Losing His Religion ©


“It’s not fair,” Chloe said. “Why does he have to stand outside the door?”
“Because that’s the way it is,” Chloe’s mother answered.
“Well it ain’t fair, he drove us all the way down here.
He even knows the words to all the songs, but still he has to stand out there. It ain’t fair.”
“Isn’t. And I’m sure he doesn’t mind dear – pay attention.”
“Is it because his bible got burnt up in the fire?”
“Certainly not! Now turn around.”

Chloe was looking over her shoulder at Mr. Prosser standing outside the door. He held his driving hat in both hands. Beads of perspiration glistened on his brow and tinted his shirt collar. Occasionally Mr. Prosser would wipe his forehead and throat with an overused front-pocket handkerchief and tug at the uncomfortable tightness of his tie. Mr. Prosser stood there in his dark colored suit and mouthed along as the others sang aloud. He gently bowed his head when the others lowered theirs and looked heavenward when he felt it necessary.

“Paul  preaches  there  is  neither  Jew  nor  Gentile,   neither  slave  nor  free,   nor  is  there  male  and  female.” Boomed the preacher.
“Amen,” said Mr. Prosser from outside the church doors, “Amen.”
Mr. Prosser’s voice was solid and guttural.

On the drive home Chloe asked Mr. Prosser what he thought of the sermon but Chloe’s mother told her to hush up.
Her mother said she shouldn’t talk to Mr. Prosser while he was driving.
Chloe did as she was told and looked through the car’s side glass. She read the crippled marquee in front of 16th Street Baptist Church as they drove past – “sundays sermon – the love that forgives”.
Chloe could see the front of the brick building was blasted away. The steps that led up to the heavy double doors were also missing. A group of men was standing near the road. Some of them had their shirt sleeves rolled up and their fedoras pushed back. Mr. Prosser threw up his hand and waved. The colored men waved back.
A static laced voice played through the car’s radio speakers.
“The blood of four little children is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created, in Birmingham and Alabama, the atmosphere that has induced continued violence  – and now murder…”
Chloe’s mother asked that Mr. Prosser switch off the radio. Mr. Prosser did as he was asked.

After he drives the pink skinned girl and her mother back to their big white house, Mr. Prosser will go down into his cellar room below the house to listen to the latest news about the church bombing. He keeps a tiny transistor radio next to his gray, iron cot. His room is clean but empty. A square card table and metal folding chair sit in the center of the room. A print of The Potato Eaters hangs on the white-washed wall above his cot. The picture is a melancholy reminder of his own difficult childhood. The reminder is more of a necessity than a desire.

Mr. Prosser rolled the car to a stop in the driveway and switched off the ignition. Chloe’s mother stepped out and gently pushed the car door to. Chloe leaned over the back of the front seat and dropped her bible down beside Mr. Prosser.
“You can have it Mr. Prosser.”
Looking back and down at her blonde curls, Mr. Prosser lifted the bible. He felt its warm, textured cover and fine, thin pages between his fingers. He unfolded the book to where the delicate tasseled bookmark separated the pages. Galatians, 3:28.
“For you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Mr Prosser read aloud. His voice barely more than a throaty whisper, but heavy enough to be rough and scratchy.
“That’s what the preacher talked about in church today,” Chloe said.
“About how all people are equal. But I was thinking since you had to stand outside, maybe they didn’t think you was equal Mr. Prosser. But I do Mr. Prosser. I think you’re as equal as the rest of them. That’s why you can have my bible Mr. Prosser, so they can see you are equal and then you can come inside the church too until your own church gets fixed up again, OK Mr. Prosser?”

Mr. Prosser closed the pages over the nylon marker. He smoothed his dry palm over the pressed gold letters on the cover of the book. He slowly turned the bible this way and that. He studied over it a minute before speaking.
“I can’t take your bible Miss Chloe,” said Mr. Prosser in his deep, rich voice, “Besides child, I reckon it’s six feet of earth that make all men equal, not this here book.”

Chloe didn’t hear Mr. Prosser. She was already skipping towards her big white house where her mother was waiting in the doorway.

The Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall