by Toni Alison
Every afternoon at sundown Esther sits on her grandmother’s porch with a large metal bucket wedged between her thighs and the skin beneath her overalls almost fully naked. In the bucket there are always two fishing poles rising upward towards the sun, the silver reels glistening as bright as sweat and the rods themselves with a posture so unnaturally rigid it is as if she is already on the ground near the water. She heads off of the porch now as she has for the past two months, with the bucket at her side and her feet quick and hot in the dust.
Beneath her heels there is a seemingly infinite stretch of yellow dirt pitted between tall weeds and overgrown honeysuckle, thick tangles of blooming raspberry growing large and wild over wilted black-eyed Susan. Esther bends her head down and keeps count of each of her steps as she makes her way down the dirt road and on towards the center of town, past the post office and general store to the a small marina surrounded by a grove of live oak trees.
She opens her mouth to take in the air, her breath steady as she reaches the water. The first time Abner met her here she had trembled beneath his weight with the ferocity of a dying fish, some limp and gape-mouthed creature thrashing against the ground freshly damp in blood. Each night from then on they came, back to this same place shaded in the image of knotted tree limbs cast in silver light, and the moss from above that dangled against their flesh so bare it nearly clung to their bones.
Esther sits down cross-legged near the edge of the bank with her back to the water and the bucket at her side, the night thick around her as deep and purple as a bruise. In the distance there is a sound like thunder moving through the trees, the hard slap of feet so heavy the ground itself seems to quake. She clasps one hand tight to the handle of the bucket and for a moment imagines it—a bear or a raccoon, an armadillo as dead as her on the side of the road. But from the trees comes only Abner.
What ‘say you little one, he says with a thin twig caught there between his lips like a cigarette. Ain’t getting scared of me yet, I reckon.
Ain’t no one scared of you, Esther says.
Say, he says, and kneels down in front of her. Don’t your maw know where you at?
I done told you already boy, Esther says as she smiles at him, wraps her hands around his neck. What maw don’t know.
I ain’t no boy, Abner says, and spits the twig out of his mouth, kisses her hot on the lips.
Esther reaches over into the bucket and takes out one of the two Coca-Cola bottles she had found in her grandmother’s kitchen, each stained with the damp stench of mold and threaded with cobwebs from the corner of the pantry. She had rinsed them out with water so hot it scalded her fingertips and each night filled them up again with the beer she had found hidden beneath her neighbor’s porch when she went over to cut the grass. She took a swig of it then too, warm and frothy and as sour-tasting as urine.
Esther gulps down the rest of the beer until her hands feel as saggy and limp as two wet paper bags, heavy and at once weightless. She grabs for the other bottle and jabs the unopened lid to Abner’s mouth, mashes his lips against the cap so that they balloon together like a fish. Her laughter bubbles up through her closed smile and explodes when she opens her mouth. Abner touches his hands to the bare skin at her waist, presses his fingernails hard into her back as she lowers her body across the ground just as he had taught her to do.
Above her in the stillness he rises, with his head thrown back and his mouth opened to the stars like a wolf, his body thick against the night with muscle framed in that familiar roughness of breathing. The day she had first seen him he was bent over a lawn mower in front of Miss Lenora’s cottonwood tree, his arms bulging large with sinew veined and throbbing in sweat. He tugged hard at the pull-rope until it ran with that selfsame sound of harsh, throaty grunting, the sputtering vibrations that felt so much then, as they do now, like hot lightening shooting up her spine.
Esther takes a deep breath as she lifts herself up off of the ground and rests her weight on her elbows, her overalls somehow sprawled beneath her and her brain drained of purpose. Abner stands away from her at some small distance, his back pressed to a tree trunk and his face nearly obscured through the dim shades of moss. For a moment she pretends she is one of the heroines in her grandmother’s romance novels, worn paperbacks read repeatedly from the nightstand of a room that always smelled of bleach and perfume and cheese well past expiration.
Her strained thighs ache as she smiles at him with her mouth pursed only slightly, closed lips beneath heavy-lidded eyes with lashes fluttering like the wings of bats. She grinds her left hand into the dirt so as not to betray herself with the touching of her face, her cheeks and forehead seemingly swollen with sensations of heat. Esther takes her other hand and dips a finger to the fluid pooling around her navel, a whitish slime animated in the glow of moonlight as if it were a living thing, a science experiment sprouted outward from her naked body.
A faint tinge of vomit swells in her throat as she slides that same finger in between her lips. Across from her Abner is still propped up against the tree, his silhouette curtained in shadow and dappled still beneath dark glittering leaves that make him seem almost featureless. She decides that she likes him better this way, at this quiet distance without any one definite form or weight or age.
Her thoughts turn in their usual way towards Miss Lenora, a large pug-faced woman who had once been a dancer in a traveling circus but now spends most of her time in a rocking chair on her front porch, giving orders to Abner with her watchful gaze so intent upon his throbbing, muscular body. She hired him to tend her yard though no one person had been allowed on her property for years. Esther, who passed by the house each afternoon on the walk home from school and took all of the local gossip straight from her grandmother, knew that much like her own parents Miss Lenora’s husband had vanished during a visit to the Saint Dauphine Maria Cemetery.
Esther takes her left hand from off of the ground and glides it through her hair in a clumsy, unbalanced motion. She tosses her head around, tries to fluff out the frizzy pieces to make the strands appear fuller, glossy and thick with the same windswept quality she’s seen on the covers of her grandmother’s romance novels. She raises her brows towards Abner, widens her eyes with her lips gathered together in a large pout imagined from those selfsame visions of ample and ornately-dressed women. She tries to work her tongue around the tip end of her finger but bites down on the nail instead, rushes towards the bank and retches into the water.
Better luck next time, Abner says, and he slaps her on the back at once.
Esther stares at him, the muscles in her face as tight as if she has just been pinched hard at the cheeks. She turns toward the bayou so still beneath the trees, hunches her back in such a way that she can nearly feel each bone knotted and swollen along her spine. Two months ago at the start of summer she noticed him once more in the usual way that wasn’t just pruning weeds. He didn’t live in town and was a man of a few words. Her grandmother took him for a fool, and Esther knew this much to be true. She marched up to him that day with her stomach as weak as if eating something bad, slapped him hard on the back though she meant only to tap his shoulder.
Christ, he had said, his thick hands around the handle of a shovel. Ain’t you no manners?
Esther stepped back a little ways out into Miss Lenora’s yard, the feel of goose pimples already on her skin as she stared at the old lady’s house. You got some time to spend for later, boy?
Shouldn’t you be off somewhere, little girlie? he said as he took the shovel, scooped out a large chunk of the earth. You know, pickin flowers or something. Your mama know where you at?
Ain’t got no mama, she said, and put her hands to her hips.
Shame, he said. Shame such a pretty girl be running around without no mama.
You take me somewhere boy and I tell you all about it.
Esther skims her palm against the dry weeds growing along the bank until finally she plunges her hand fully into the water. The bayou is all too warm against her skin, too gritty and strongly foul with the rich stink of sewer. Nearer still towards the surface of the marsh float some plastic bottles and withered old condoms, the carcasses of birds plucked thin with the bloodied skeletons of fish. For a moment she thinks only of her parents, and how in that same manner as water it seemed they had evaporated straight into the wild blue air over a visit to the Saint Dauphine Maria Cemetery where buried in one of the tombs is a woman named Marguerite.
Esther remembers Marguerite as described by her grandmother in telephone conversations with the women from the beauty parlor where she worked. Morgan, they called her. She had been both a contortionist and acrobatic dancer in that same traveling circus as Miss Lenora with her body itself a spectacle of strong and limitless proportion. Her legs a deep tan effortlessly woven around bright ribbons of silk, shapely with the bend and twist of her body all together nude and painted. Miss Lenora, who trained Marguerite years before, was one of the few performers who did not attend the funeral when she died, headless and brutally mutilated, at the age of twenty-five.
Much was to be said about Miss Lenora through the murmured voices of neighbors and friends, faint whispers passed over fences carried on like crickets deep into the night. Rather than attend the funeral it was mentioned that Miss Lenora’s afternoon had instead been spent on her front porch in her nightgown with a paper fan and a glass of iced tea shot through with more than just a splash of vodka. Much of her time was spent in this same way ever since she had left the circus, and another in part for being married to her young black husband, a man named Jacques de Paris who was not just her husband as he had also been Marguerite’s lover.
Esther leans over now towards the bank with her face pressed above the surface of the water, each inhalation deep with the searing tingle of her nostrils bled strongly by the fetid tongues of alligator. She closes her eyes as she plunges her head down fully into it, imagines nothing save the mud as it bubbles into her mouth, the sweat of fish and other dead things filling her as Abner has filled her. She sinks down even further so she too may disappear, vanish as did her parents only for her no one would notice.
Two weeks after her parents’ disappearance Esther overheard the conversation her grandmother had been having with the town milkman. He had that same night been out by the gate of the Saint Dauphine Maria Cemetery where Jacques de Paris appeared only to fade against the tomb, which had been opened from the back and painted near the inscription where the only name read was Morgan. A badly drawn X against several others brighter and disproportionate in size. She told him then all about Esther’s mother, how she was filled with the devil that night when she brought her son to fuck her on that poor, beheaded woman’s grave. She deserved to die like that.
Miss Lenora herself had been for many years a devout queen of New Orleans Voodoo and knew all of the ways to attract a man, as she had with Jacques de Paris only no magic proved stronger than Morgan. Miss Lenora’s marriage to Jacques de Paris seemed much in consequence for her having left the circus, her dancer’s body once light and agile now draped lifeless over her bones like an old, tattered cloth. She coveted Jacques de Paris for his smooth creole skin, warm mocha-brown eyes and sharp, marble-sculpted cheekbones. But in the end it was Morgan, her legs so limber as to be made boneless in just the right ways of which Miss Lenora was now incapable.
Abner kneels down now with his mouth to her lips so hot she can nearly taste the beer from before still sour on his tongue. Esther thinks about how the milkman told her grandmother the X’s were tally marks for all of the times Miss Lenora had came in Jacques de Paris’ bed. She hated her that much. She imagines it still as Abner slides his fingertips roughly into her, arches her spine and leans back with her mouth open in raw, breathless notes of keening. On that first night beneath the oak trees she had told him all about her parents, how they had been murdered in their sleep by a man with enough decency to not only spare her life but to wash the dishes before he left.
I just can’t get it out of my head, Esther says. What it must feel like to sneak into somebody else’s house right there in the middle of the night. Knock them dead in their sleep.
I ain’t never killed nobody ‘fore if that’s what you’re asking, Abner says, and he coughs loudly, spits into his hand. Don’t you know what they do to little girls pretty as you in prison?
Miss Lenora’s husband’s dead, you know. It’s just no one wants to say. Cut up to pieces only they couldn’t find all the little bits. Probably keeps his thing in her sock drawer.
You ain’t gone get through life believing everything you hear. Your maw ever tell you that?
Maw says my mama was into some freaky shit and that’s what got her killed.
Esther stretches out her arms and leans back into the dirt below her like a forlorn snow angel, a frankenstein of sorts made from all of the loose, unwanted bits. She stomps her feet against the ground, picks up a broken tree branch from above her head and tosses it at Abner as she laughs the way she imagines her grandmother’s romance heroines might laugh, the shrill and light-hearted tittle-tattle of her beauty parlor girlfriends. He dodges the branch and cusses unintelligibly under his breath, walks backwards beneath the live oaks until his face is fully cloaked in shadow.
Sometimes in the afternoons she would hide behind the bushes on the opposite side of the road to watch as Abner hauled a few garden tools back into Miss Lenora’s shed, went inside to collect his pay and left promptly for home. Several weeks ago she noticed him once more from a tree with the binoculars she still kept from the spy kit her parents had given her as a child. Her grandmother was the top gossip at the beauty parlor, and while Esther knew much of her smack talk was true, she didn’t believe her parents could really be dead. She imagines Miss Lenora at the bottom of the open tomb, ready to snatch away anyone who’d even suggest a visit to Marguerite.
Esther reaches for her overalls and dresses herself back into them. She walks past Abner a little ways out into the trees though tonight is not like other nights and she is not going home. Where she is going is a place only Abner could take her to, the old gray house a mile from the schoolyard where Miss Lenora lived. She stormed the ground when he first denied her entrance into the house, proceeded to perform a strip tease to show off the scars that would later convince him. Her grandmother would tell the town of all of the ways he mistreated her. She had scratched at her thighs for effect, beat her legs purple with a baseball bat lest anybody ask questions.
So how you end up in a stink hole town like this? Esther says, her voice too loud in the quiet of the night. Ain’t got to be blowing out your thirteenth birthday cake to know this ain’t shit.
You ain’t got a remind me all damn time, Abner says. Just cause you’s a teenager now, little hot stuff. Some of us was teenagers long before you came around.
Esther turns towards him and shakes her head, flips her hair over one shoulder. Well, when your twenty-two year old dick starts to shrivel my angina still gone be tight like a fox’s asshole.
Shut your mouth, Abner says, and slaps her on the back. Now you just talking garbage.
Garbage, Esther says. That dog who pay you to mop her floor and tweeze her pubes is garbage. She keeps his thing in her sock drawer and drew all over that dead woman’s grave.
I don’t reckon there’s much in this world you could know that ain’t already been told to you by somebody else, Abner says. I reckon you don’t know up from jump, far as I see it.
Well kiss my grits, she says. X marks the G-Spot, don’t it?
Shut your pie, little girlie, Abner says, and takes a cigarette from his pocket. He places it between his teeth, unlit and rank with spit. This sure is a stink hole, says you. Took out an ad in the paper is all. You know I got a drive a good twenty minutes just to find this podunk house.
Down past the marina and on towards the center of town Esther follows Abner with the bucket at her side and the glass bottles rattling in cadence to each of their footsteps. Further out beyond the schoolyard are endless rows of flat-roofed houses gray and weather-beaten in tiny dead fields, sagging porches shaded from beneath the dark twisted limbs of trees. Esther crosses over towards Miss Lenora’s front yard to the tool shed with Abner at her side as he digs his hands into the soil to pull out his key to the front door of her house. She stands on the porch with her hand sweaty on top of his as he turns the key slowly to open the front door.
Esther narrows her eyes to focus her vision, bumps into a table as Abner hits her over the head with the back of his hand. He digs into his pocket and pulls out a small cigarette lighter with the flame barely a tiny quiver in the night. Esther follows him into the kitchen with her hands hot against the countertops, rich in dust stained further still by the mildewed smell of old milk. On the stove is a pot of jambalaya and a cold, half-eaten plate of bread pudding, a roach slithering atop a plate of green beans. On the floor next to it a mop in dirty dishwater and a used pair of panties Esther dare not question. She takes Abner’s hand and leads him up the staircase.
Esther reaches forward to the top of the stairs with her heart like a hammer in her chest, Abner at her side with the unlit cigarette gnawed and wet between his teeth. Her breath comes in short bursts and is all too heavy as it leaves her lips, as heavy as she has ever felt in this room strangely devoid of a certain light. The walls are bloated with a fetid, medicinal stink, the rank cobwebs of formaldehyde and cheap, chemical pesticides so thickly engorged as to become tangible on the skin. Her hands itch as she places her palm on the knob of a closed closet door.
Inside Esther imagines an executioner’s chair choked with barbed wires, the sizzle of it as sharp and unforgiving as a rattlesnake’s tongue. Her mother and father strapped in and jolted by electrodes each time Miss Lenora presses the button, an icepick to the eye like the lobotomized women she read about in books at the public library. Miss Lenora at the gravesite of Marguerite, a large, doughy woman shoveling folks in through the back of an opened grave to preserve them for safekeeping. She pictures her as she must have been on the night Jacques de Paris disappeared, as she cut up his brain and fried it up over her stove like bacon.
Esther fumbles around for a time with a cold metal pull string bouncing in front of her face. She yanks on the string, and the closet is lit up in with fever. Drooping along the ceiling is a thin cord weighted down with thick rabid chunks of dead and mutilated animals, hanging bats with wide yellowy eyes shrouded halfway in their leather shells. Esther sinks down to her knees with nausea like a rock caught there in her throat. Inside the dark, cave-like smell of rotted meat, old wet sex hidden beneath gymnasium floors. Along the lower portion of the chamber is a makeshift altar adorned in naked, anatomically correct religious figures, a Virgin Mary with the eyes cut out.
On a shelf just above the altar is a neat row of glass jars filled with potions and oils, some heavily clouded with color, others submerged with large scaly body parts and dusty-looking brains, human intestines bloated in their preservations. A large pear-shaped bottle sits in the corner infused by a clear yellowish liquid translucent with the exception of a monstrous reptile ready and poised for beauty. Beneath the shelf across from the altar are trails of feathers and scattered clusters of painted skulls, fat shabby dolls fiendishly grinning.
Well slap me sideways, Esther says. She turns towards Abner with her body loose and rubbery, a slow, underwater motion. This ain’t no thing in her sock drawer, but it’ll do.
Towards the back of the chamber is another row of shelves masked in unusually-shaped shadows, warped silhouettes shaded in smoky gunmetal over rich inky black. Fluid, watery shapes that bounce against the wall in a tandem of unknown rhythm, colorless, bloodless flames like a spotlight floating over rows of large and slightly wilted human heads, of masks yet to be preserved. Esther gags with her throat too large for her skin, covers her mouth and shoves her head down between her knees for a moment that feels as if whole days have passed. Her mother and her father with weak, yellow flesh mottled against tiny silver maggots, Marguerite’s full lips severed in gore.
Esther jerks her head back as Abner hits the floor, a puddle of urine slowly seeping from the doorway. She swallows hard with a rock lodged in her throat so tight she fears she may vomit. Beneath her the floor rattles in strong, purposeful vibration, the hollow thud of feet traveling through to the shrill, piercing cry of a rabid woman. Esther opens her mouth and tries to breathe, her heart on fire as Miss Lenora thrusts into the doorway with a knife glittering above her head. Her eyes are empty and black, two coal-like impressions set against a melted, dough-like face.
Esther shuffles to her feet as she makes her way towards the doorway on slow, rubbery legs. She leans forward until her face is even with Miss Lenora’s face, both of their mouths open in tandem. Their breath rises together in heat as if in that one moment they are the same person. A sharp chill thunders down Esther’s spine as Miss Lenora drops the knife and reaches past her for the mask made from the skin of Morgan. She pulls it over her face, and her speech is warped, inhuman when she says, For me. Pretty.
In the open space between Esther and the doorway Miss Lenora stands still with the face of Morgan a zombie doppelganger above her head, a blood sore of green leather flesh draped down over her skin in the way she had always wanted. She reaches behind Esther and grabs the decomposing head of Jacques de Paris, clutches it to her chest in an embrace not unlike that of a mother to a child. Esther leaps over Abner and rushes out of the house and into the quiet street. She makes her way toward the Saint Dauphine Maria Cemetery where her mother had once before made a sacrifice in love. When she reaches the gate, surely, she will do the same.