In Negotiating with Dead, A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood likens books to the Underworld; you can enter it but you must leave. Writers, on the other hand, live there. That's where the story is. In the dark, where all sorts of monsters lurk. The monsters are the characters, not only in the sense that we all have our demons, but also in their potential to cause dread and mayhem, as well as transcendence and enlightenment. And, like the best horror films, the monsters aren't visible to the naked eye. Characters that you can't quite get a handle on, whose desires and motivations aren't clear or understood, are both thrilling and terrifying. William Carlos William's "This is Just to Say" illustrates the richness of character. There's a speaker apologizing to someone about eating plums from the icebox. Twelve lines and three stanzas later – and our assumptions about the nature and sincerity of the apology, the value of the plums, and the identities of the speaker and intended recipient are completely destabilized. All it takes is one word – Just. Suddenly, the plums are the embodiment of treachery in their sweetness and coldness. And who is the victim, and what did s/he do to warrant such rage? There are so many possibilities.
In this piece (“Aunt Ginny’s”), there's an undercurrent of violence that remains largely in the dark, behind closed doors. I wanted to allude to the monsters the adults cannot see, but that the children know all too well.
Marcelle Heath is a writer, freelance editor, and assistant editor for Luna Park. Her work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Pindeldyboz, Portland Review, Northville Review, Nanoism, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Visit www.writingoffisland.wordpress.com.
Next post: March 1.
We were playing war games in the conservatory the night of the eclipse. Kitsie Countryman thought the world was going to melt into a gob of goo; Percival Bishop argued for an alien takeover; Mindy Meloy said ominously, "The moon will be lost forever." Kitsie and I hid beneath the potting bench from the bigger boys, George and Howard and Oliver. Palms, orchids, and lilies fluttered insincerely. Knowing we were in for it and fearing he'd get the worst, Percival went AWOL. Mindy feigned illness and went back to the party. Kitsie had her eye on the potting soil.
"Don't do it," I told Kitsie but it was too late. Her hands were in the potting soil and then they were in her mouth and then she was in the potting soil. Kitsie couldn't help herself. She had never seen such rich, delicious dirt. Regular desert dirt made her choke. Red clay was better but harder to get to. Both were just plain hazardous; rattlesnakes and scorpions were protective of their dirt. This dirt held fat, juicy worms. Kitsie ate one, then another. She offered me one as well, cupping it lovingly in her dirt-covered palms. I had to admit, it was pretty good.
"There they are!" George screamed. I grabbed him by the ankle and pulled him under the bench.
"Shush," I said and demanded to know Howard and Oliver's location.
"The stable," George said. George did what I said when he wasn't around the others, I didn't know why. He was thirteen to my nine. He gave me gifts, nice gifts, what I thought of as family gifts; a crystal ashtray, an Indian Horse pendant, and a book by Graham Greene, titled Travels with My Aunt.
When George gave the book to me, I thought it was a book about George and his aunt. It didn’t occur to me that the fact that I lived with Aunt Ginny because my parents were dead could evoke feelings of sympathy and curiosity in him.
As it turned out, the gifts George gave me were family gifts. His family became mine for a short time as well, when I married George in 1989. On our wedding day, I wore the horse pendant on a long silver chain. After the ceremony, George and I stood at the front of the chapel with his mother and father, Adele and Aaron Gold. Aunt Ginny didn't come; she was on the island of Bora Bora. Adele admired the pendant without recognition that it once belonged to her.
"Your Zuni pendant is lovely, Stella," she said, fingering the inlay turquoise, lapis, and purple oyster shell. I thanked her and leaned forward so that she could get a better look. I opened my mouth to speak. George put his arm around my waist. He was always afraid I'd say the wrong thing, but I never did. Not once.
My future ex-husband pulled his legs to his chest.
"They're going to get us, Stella," Kitsie said from her dirt.
"Quit it and get out of there," I said. Kitsie licked her fingers.
"Where's Percy?" George asked.
"Come on, let's go," I said. I had a plan to lock Howard and Oliver in the stable.
The cold air was a shock after the greenhouse cocoon. We made our way across the courtyard. Desert Willow and Silver Sage dotted the landscape. The main house was a horseshoe adobe structure partially tucked in a hill. Aunt Ginny's father, Llewellyn, had named it Lucky Ranch when he bought the property in '52. The windows were too high for us to see what was going on but we heard the band playing. Most of the men were from "The Hill," as the lab was known, and had worked with Aunt Ginny's father, including Ingrid Kohler, my mom. When she became pregnant, Llewellyn negotiated for her to keep her job after she had the baby, and caught flack for it. The women at the party inspected me for some resemblance to the lady scientist their husbands had always complained about.
In order to get to the stable, we needed to pass the fire pit beyond the east wing and I wasn't crazy about this idea. Uncle Walter was probably manning the pit and I didn't want to get sidetracked. Whenever Uncle Walter came to the house he treated me like I was one of his employees from his car dealership in Albuquerque. Fetch me three cylinders, copper, not stainless steel. And Dick Tellep. You'll have to ring New York. Get some Lone Star from the General, will you? Put it on my account. Grab a pencil and piece of paper and write this down.
At the wall, I glanced around the corner. Yep. Uncle Walter was there, a glass of bourbon in one hand, tongs in the other, his eye on the sizzling meat. Plumes of smoke rose from the pit. I gave my instructions to Kitsie and George. Run.
"As fast as you can. Got it? Don't get too close." I shook my finger at Kitsie, who was faster than George but half as smart.
"On the count of three. One. Two." Kitsie darted out. As I said, not the brightest. But she made good speed. She made to the other side without a blink from Uncle Walter.
"Your turn," I told George. He looked into my eyes and I saw tumult and fear and love. George ran into the smoke to dodge him but this time Uncle Walter saw him. He put down his bourbon and tongs and nabbed him like the wide receiver he once was.
"Where you runnin' to little devil?" Uncle Walter asked. I motioned Kitsie to back away but she wasn't looking at me. Then I saw them. Two figures emerge from the darkness. Howard grabbed Kitsie's arm and Oliver pushed her through the stable doors. The last time I got into it with Howard, I walked away with a black eye and broken pinky finger. But Oliver was the mean one. He kicked his dog Susie down Guaje Ridge to see if she'd live. She did. Sorry George, I thought, you’re on your own. I ran.
"Stella!" George called out. Uncle Walter dropped George from his death-grip and tackled me. I hit the ground, hard. Dust and blood filled my mouth. Uncle Walter lifted me over his shoulder. He sat me down next to George and dusted me off.
"Drink this kiddo," he said, handing me his glass of bourbon. I took a sip and put an ice cube in my mouth.
"Junior, go tell Lucy you need a wet towel, ice, a canteen of water, and a bottle of bourbon." Uncle Walter lifted my head by the chin.
"How do you feel pumpkin?"
"Kitsie," I said.
"What's that? You can't see?"
"The Countrymans' girl?"
"They took her," I said and pointed to the stable. Lucy came out with a bucket. George was behind her, a bottle of bourbon cradled in his arms.
"Where are you hurt?" Lucy asked. She kneeled down and began to clean me up. Uncle Walter took the bourbon from George and refilled his glass. He passed it to me. Lucy took the glass out of my hand. I vomited on her dress. Uncle Walter picked me up.
"Kitsie. Barn. Go." I said to George, barely able to get the words out of my mouth.
The next thing I remembered was Aunt Ginny sitting next to me. There were other people moving about in the room but they were only shadows. The shadows in the room receded. I fell asleep again and woke up the next morning. My heart sank. I had missed the party, the eclipse, all of it. Kitsie came to visit me in the afternoon. We played Monopoly. For some reason and this wasn't like me, I didn't ask her what happened, even though there were silver dollar bruises on her legs and she was walking with a limp. Other than that, she seemed in good spirits and I even let her beat me in the first round. Not the next go-around. No way. I wasn't a chump.
by Marcelle Heath