from Acacia, a Book of Wonders
Have you discerned the guile of the Mother? The ruses by which she affected the devotion of so many for so long? No, surely not, and I carry the fault. I have only shown her dominion. Soon, I will detail her beguilements; her special kindnesses; her sweet pollutions. But first I will tell of the special resistance Heaven built in me as a girl of ten, for my body is a well-shelved apothecary and no blight can topple me. There is primrose in my fingertips and salted ice in my chipmunk cheeks.
I return the reader to the Caldwell Farm. And there I went, creeping down the stairs of my parents’ farmhouse in a ragged lace nightgown for a swallow of cold milk. Snatches of sound—low, rumbly, fervent, and familiar—gave me pause. It was my parents in prayer. I risked another step over the creaking board as their words lit me with jubilee: Tent. Fire. Heaven. Holiday. I forewent the milk and snuck back upstairs to stuff my backpack with the necessary provisions: a flashlight, a hardbound copy of Alice in Wonderland with black and white illustrations, extra jeans, a camo tee shirt, and a pleated holiday dress for no other reason than to be prepared. I brought along my whittling project too: a small bird carved from a block of live oak, along with the rusty old timer tri-blade my father had managed when he was a boy. Wrestling the supplies into my pack, I startled when my mother announced herself.
Behold, my mother—she leaned against the doorframe, the curve of her hip like the round of a scythe. She had watched me this way for long moments, buttressing herself in my joy. And then she set down on her knees to deliver me the wasp sting news. My disappointment did then flow, ferocious as a burst hydrant.
Boons such as a camping trip were rare jewels at the Caldwell Farm, she knew this and said as much. But this trip was not for me. I would not be coming. This was their reward, her and Father’s. And a special charge at that, bespoke by Heaven. Embracing me with her finely hewn arms, which I had once seen piledrive a frenzied sow like the wrestlers did on Saturday night television, she confided of their gorgeous errand. She and Father would venture into the woods, to a special place to the history of their courtship. There, they would know each other again and conceive new help for the farm.
A week thereafter, Mother subdued her bouncy curls under a red handkerchief and knelt in the soggy dewgrass to freshen the pucker of my sleeves. She drew back for her inspection, then thumbed my nose and called it good. Father, meanwhile, gave no glance my way, but saw to the truck, running the dipstick along a thin piece of wadded tissue from his pocket, offering choice language toward the balding tires.
I was remained to our farmhouse with a single command: you will not leave these walls. And leave the house, I did not wish to, for contagion ravaged our town and the surrounding region. For weeks, inhabitants, nearby farmers, and passers-through pausing for a homestead meal had contracted some gruesome affliction. At origin, they grew limp in their limbs. Then came an onset of bubble guts followed by high fever and ramblings. Sufferers clutched themselves about the stomach, bowling over as puke and shit erupted from both ends. Rendered to sick-camps in decrepit barns on the outskirts of Jesper, their skin assumed a strange yellow crust. Curdled milk on the gallon’s lip. There were casualties, marked near the treeline on a small hill by hastily-fashioned wooden crosses. The papers, which Father read aloud to us at breakfast, said bad meat from a Texas slaughterhouse. But the spirit in Father said doomsday, doomsday, doomsday.
I watched my parents depart on their righteous commission, clunking towards Long Bow Avenue, then turning left toward that secret spot in the big thicket. And all the while I imagined them as Mother had described: pinned together in holy union on a newly stitched quilt atop the nettles and pinecones, afterwards luxuriating with jugged spirits, mustard dogs, and bison jerky around the steady embers of a blessed fire.
They’d gone to make my kin. They may, Mother said, name her Salome, or Fleur. But I would call her Petra. I had received this name in my dreams.
Our homestead served me fine in these lone hours. I fixed a breakfast of thin pork cutlets and drank the dregs of stale coffee from Father’s speckled thermos. Then, I tended the soiled cast iron with coarse salt and steel wool, mopped the begrimed linoleum back to its true shade, and stacked the china near the icebox. Then, I returned the floral sheets and faded quilts from the clothesline to the linen closet.
Next to the closet loomed my parents’ bedroom.
I knew well the room’s habits and placements. Knew Mother’s jewelry dish—an old porcelain ashtray—sprinkled with small copper rings and titanium studs, and where Father’s good Laredo boots would be, had he been home. Knew the dresser topped with the Pendleton blanket and the empty aquamarine vase that hadn’t seen a fresh flower in my memory. I ran my hand along the frame of their brass bed and tingles rippled through me like a dram of warm whiskey. I was forbidden to linger, surely, I was. But throughout the spell of my temptation, I knew this shiny lure and knew it well: bedding could be so easily straightened.
And so, I set aside the soup pot catching the leak and leapt into their bed, casting off the throw pillows to dishevel their morning discipline. I burrowed underneath Mother’s states’ motto quilt, probing the delicacy of her needlework with my fingertips. And then I doubled Father’s pillow, thin as a sheet, under my head and occupied myself with staring at the occasion for the soup pot: a great plaster bosom, swole with rainwater, descending from the ceiling directly over their bed.
This fixture was a recent arrival to the room. Occasioned by spates of vicious summer hail, a fissure had developed in the roof. As the heavy storms flowed through the busted shingles and into the innards of the rafters, a bubble of plaster, a whale’s eye, stretched and filled, shaping itself throughout the storms with grandeur and prominence. White as the ceiling paint at first, and shading grey ombre as it went, the gigantic watery breast ended in a slate nipple which discharged a steady drip.
With such leisure, I stood up on the bed and placed my palms against its flesh and nursed it. The lukewarm water was sweet as pop. I thought hard for a time when I had suckled my own mother. I could not recall one. I ducked back under the comforter, pulled it over my head, and gave myself to fancy; to the red spray from a severed chicken gullet; to cotton candy clouds at sunset, incinerating like turbid newspaper in a wood stove. I thought about running with three legs instead of two, with four, with six, with sixty. I thought about my mother, and my sister, who was maybe just now rending her way into the world with Heaven’s expedience, and I saw my mother’s legs part open and a rosebud skull slick with birth sap push forward and bloom into a babe. I saw my mother’s legs give way to reveal a dark cave from which a basilisk reared, scorching my father with an exhalation of hellfire. I saw this cave again, and a slim tiny figure beckoned me: a naked sister, half my age.
The following morning, I rose with the dawn and straightened out the damp bedding, regretful I had not returned the pot to its station before I fell asleep, and dried my face off with Mother’s pilling bathrobe.
To soothe my hungry, I sopped canned beans with a piece of molding Texas toast. The winds kicked up. I wondered after my parents. They ought to arrive by lunch, afternoon latest. But perhaps their errand had not taken. Perhaps they were rekindling the flames and resuming among the nettles. Father had fortitude; Mother, spunk aplenty.
I thought these things while clearing the dishes, and so enraptured, I did not spy the man until he was but two dozen feet from our porch. He went without pants or underclothes, though he wore a soiled dress shirt that curtained his pecker. He seemed to walk a maze of his own dizzying design, toppling now and again like a spent wooden top to turn out his guts into the bushes. A few more steps and there followed his bowels among Mother’s hot pink portulacas.
The man reached the porch before he spied me in the window. His eyes were milky things, dead of twinkle. His skin was ravaged with swollen open sores. His droughted lips pulsed like a wartime wiretap.
The wretched angel raised his palms so I might see his good intent. But for all my moxie, I cast my lot with the coward’s and quit the house from the back door. I kept my small red bike back there. When I pedaled around the house, I witnessed the man set upon our handsome four-paned window with the wooden stool on which Father took his pipe. He let himself in through the shards; through Mother’s prim lace curtains.
As for me, I pedaled toward Jesper three miles hence, town of the blinking four way stop, where Saturday is grass-mowing day, and Johnny Cash is God.
Under usual circumstances, July 4th would show Jesper’s Main Street emblazoned with flag bunting, strung white lights canopying the street, sparklers blistering, and the town out for play. But the outbreak had rendered the place a sorry sight for independence.
At the north end of town, framed by a gas station and an empty fruit stand, a diminished parade of celebrants had yet gathered in the street. The Mayor served as the Master of Ceremonies. Mounted on a speckled mare, he raised a dented trumpet to his lips and blew a squealing bleat. The marching band behind him struck up a martial tune, but the recent sickness showed its hand in their diminished ranks: a pockmarked snare player beat along with a bass drummer, and that was that for rhythm. A lone junior tuba and gangly twin flautists served for the brass. To compensate their play, the Mayor tipped his chin skyward and blew sour notes as he deemed complementary. I leaned low atop my handlebars as they commenced the parade, shamed to account I remained in my nightgown.
After the band came a farmer herding a rusty red sow with a leather pig whip. Then a new John Deere Iron Horse that had never seen a day in the field, followed by a dice-throw of Shriners in their little red cars. And finally, a few children on rollerskates, who threw out ample handfuls of golden butterscotch from their brown paper sacks. They could spare it, for as far as I could see, we onlookers were a scant dozen.
Up the road, a Shriner split off from the group and parked his car in front of Jesper’s tavern. I found myself with a measure of time to spare. And so, I followed him, resting my bike against the railing of the stairs, hoping there might be snacks inside until Father returned to send the intruder on to his eternal reward.
A bustling crowd communed inside the tavern. Under the yellow glow of electric sconces and beer neon, a dozen men in coveralls sat at the long bar, sucking down skunky green lagers. Rough folks at a card table accosted a barmaid in blue plaid, who made no hurry in supplying a tray of squat bourbon tumblers. The wooden floor before me was well-scuffed, an indication the room occasioned dancing, or maybe fights between drunks settling their scores. In the corner, a jukebox turned over Charley Pride.
No sooner had I stepped inside than a gaunt woman with possum eyes shoved me backward, directly under the gold illumination of an Olympia Beer sign. She peered me over like a prudish grand dame, running her judgment across my arms, neck, and face. Satisfying herself I was free of the blight, she leaned back into the shadows and resumed conversing with her man.
The barmaid saw it all. From behind her barricade at the rear of the room, she extended her fingers to me in summons. I crossed the dancefloor and sat where she indicated, in the corner stool beneath an array of taxidermied birds mounted on the wall. She disappeared for a moment beneath the bar and returned with a lunch carton of milk. She had, in certain light, the beatific visage of a saint; in others, as she slung drinks and made change, the menacing jowls of a bulldog.
The occasion of the tavern’s gathering clarified. The room emptied to either side, leaving a wide space in the center of the dancefloor. From the swinging saloon doors leading to the street, a man entered. He was lanky, with thinning dark hair slicked back, and he wore a fine salmon tuxedo and a large cloth bowtie. Nerves flashed across his face like television static. Someone passed him a flask and he drained it in a go. The barmaid unplugged the jukebox and took up a small guitar, which she tuned with expedience. Shushing the crowd with a growl, she began picking out a charming wedding march.
I stood on my stool for a better look, my head among the ruffled breast feathers of a stuffed pheasant. From the kitchen, the bride came slow. She was veiled, and carried a bouquet, and wore a white gown of festooned lacework with a dramatic sequined train that bunched and shuffled behind her like a pageant of intoxicated swans. She joined the bridegroom in the center of the room. He took her gloved hands as though they were made of eggshells and they moved together towards the jukebox to face the barmaid.
As the bride turned, for the first time I viewed her back. From her bottom to the floor, where the dress flowed into the ground, long streaks of wet brown polluted the train.
Jesper’s kinfolk kept a wide berth from the twain, lovers, married soon buried, pressing themselves further into the corners of the room like mice seeking shadow. It was a brief ceremony, during which I eyed the champagne for the toasts, poured in advance into plastic cups from American Airlines. Crisp, tangy, better than mother’s milk, the liquid steadied me. I helped myself to another.
When the bridegroom had removed her veil, and when the kiss was gently met, and when the pronouncements were thereafter made, the bride gave of her strength and threw her bouquet. It sailed beneath the yellow lights in wide twirls, end-over-end, the crinkled ribbons like big city fireworks, and the guests scattered as if receiving a grenade. They were scrubby country flowers, picked from the levee’s brittle soil. And when they met my outstretched hands, it was with a burst of twig, leaf, and petal; it was disintegration in my palms, for the entire nosegay was dead.
The barmaid’s nod suggested I go. I took her hint and faltered out onto Main Street. It was late afternoon, Jesper was deserted, and I was good and drunk.
My timing was magnificent, for entering the road, I spied my parents slowly driving toward me. My father sat grim behind the wheel of the truck; my mother likewise wore her worry.
As I came to know, Father discovered the broken window upon returning to the farmhouse. He proceeded with his rifle. And he found the intruder, sprawled upon their soiled bed, expired. The distended breast above the man had finally burst, and the split panels of wet plaster hung like skinned cattle. The deluge had soaked the man through.
We could not yet return to the farmhouse, Mother informed me, struggling back into the truck. Not in its afflicted state.
We sheltered in Jesper’s only motel instead. Father took his shower while Mother and I sat together on the bed, the crook of her arm a welcome mold.
As I returned from the hazy carousel of my stolen drinks, I became aware of Mother’s belly, now swollen beneath the worn cotton of her dress. We watched Family Feud on the small box TV, which set Mother to laughter, and I could not resist loving her and studying her with the sneak of my eye. Her small hands tenderly stroked the grand of Heaven’s miracle. She pressed her fingertips around its girth. When she noticed my attentions, for she was of the perceptive kind who could spot the very first mill bug in a barrel of flour, she invited me to lay my ear against her belly and speak a tender word. And so I did, calling my sister Petra Caldwell; calling her blessed, mischievous, a believer in fairies, a volunteer, a kindred. Mother said she was holding aces to have us both.
When Father returned from the bathroom, Mother took her turn. Father changed the channel to a ball game and raised the volume so loud we could not talk. But I found no diversion in the game. My stomach had begun to heave. I lay back on the crisp rose print comforter. And when my guts felt they would give at any moment, I quit Father and burst into the bathroom to relieve myself.
Inside stood Mother, her back to me. She was naked and wore a strange contraption about her body. Thick leather straps, like those used to harness oxen, were cinched around her shoulders. They crossed her back in an X, and then wrapped around her waist. The straps were secured with burnished brass buckles. As she turned to me, rosy, chipper, invigorated, I perceived that the straps doubled over the front of her body, where they held up a heavy leather apron that stretched from her hips to just beneath her breasts. Within the apron, a smooth, volleyball-sized river stone sat firmly cradled against the skin of her field-taut stomach.
Mother beckoned me in with great concern. With one hand, she guided me to the toilet, where I expelled the fruits of Jesper’s poison. With the other, she lovingly stroked Heaven’s miracle; my sister, the stone.
If my body is an apothecary, in Jesper began my immunities.
Reader, let me now return to my little books. Let them bloom different shades of the Prophetess Mother Nightingale’s dominion. Let them show sunbeam and tea, boon and charismatic bonds, so that the fullness of her artifice be known.
♦ ♦ ♦