(last revised: 1/29/10)
Augusta and her belly swung side-up-down, side-up-down over the dry, dead stump that crouched before her axe. The wood she sliced tumbled and swam about her ankles, bubbling at the hem of her grey dress. Sweat dripped from her hair and slithered across her face.
Marshall’s face also shimmered with sweat. Dust and dirt clouded his eyes as he dropped bleeding logs on the dark earth along the house walls. He wiped his brow with damp sleeves and smoothed them up to his elbows. Behind his mother he stacked chopped wood in his arms and carried it around the house to the woodpile, set them down, and paused. His hand rose to his eyes and he stroked it across the palm with the other. Bringing it to his mouth, he bit down and pulled it away. A sliver of wood pinched in his teeth as he watched a red bubble of blood form in the dusty wrinkles of his hand.
Augusta wiped the hair from her forehead. “You better tell yo daddy to start a choppin’ his own wood, or I’m a gonna sweat this here baby right out.”
“I’ll reckon you can stop now, Mama. I’ll finish up here.”
She stood for a moment, and chopped one last piece.
“There,” she laid the axe on the stump. “You can tell yo daddy that we got work of our own to do aroun’ here.”
“Pop’s on down at the rive’h. Where that tree took out the bridge. Him an’ th’Buellers.”
“Yeah, funny them Buellers. But I suppose, we all need our bridges fixed. Was that from that wind storm we had th’utha day?”
“S’been a week now, Mama. Blew down haffuh Cortson’s orchard trees. Them big ones.”
“But not a drop of rain to speak for. He din’ ask you to help?”
Marshall piled wood in his arms again, less than before.
“Go’n git some wate’h, Mama. I’ll finish up here.”
“Yeah, well I expect yo daddy will be hungry once he’s got back. And you can tell ‘im what I said.”
The boy walked to the woodpile as she staggered to the well. He stood straight after dumping his logs and ruffled the sweat from his hair.
“Look, here comes Damy.”
Augusta straightened as well, heaving up her belly, and looked out to the trees. “Well, what’s he doin’ out there in the woods?”
“Don’ know. Papa told him to weed the pumkins.”
Damien was running quickly out of the trees and into the streaming grass of the yard, kicking his small legs about beneath him over grassy clumps and weed bushes. Once he reached Augusta, he stopped abruptly.
“Damy!” she said. “Why aren’ chew out in the pumkins?”
“Mama!” all body parts worked together to speak. “But Mama, there’s a lady in th’woods!”
Her brow furrowed. “In the woods? A lady?”
“Yeah! A lady!”
“Th’big ol’ tree. In th’woods! I’ll show you!”
“Doin’ what? Sitt’n to pray?”
“Show me where,” said Marshall. “Be right back, Mama.”
“Bring her to the house, or back to the road. We don’ need no wand’rin people on our property. Musta come straight offa Brendan McCoyle’s fields…”
“Wait,” said Marshall. He walked to the other side of the well to a lean-to and removed a spade. Following Damien, he passed Augusta and their eyes met. She looked away.
The two boys stepped between bushes of cold grass that swept at their legs. All about them it rushed and fluttered like a muddy brown lake disturbed by two stale fish, or a dusty loaf of bread festered by two scrounging maggots. Damien seemed to have lost the urge to run.
Thicket brambles melted the long grass vaguely into the trees. The height of the canopy was abnormal in Marshall’s sweating thoughts; straining up, up, upward, and overwhelming his tired mind. He let his eyes fall down over his brother treading cautiously before him.
“How far, Damy?”
“A bit of a ways. Gotta keep goin’.”
From the branches of the trees fell a limp brown rain, and around Marshall’s feet blew the dead remains like the embers of a bushfire in the breeze. They tugged at their ankles, steering them away. Maybe toward their father at the bridge. Maybe peace and quiet. Maybe rain. But Damien and Marshall had explored these woods before, and knew there were only more trees and dead leaves for miles.
Damien began to slow. His head moved about as if a glimpse of every falling leaf must be caught before striking the ground. For Marshall, though, each leaf was a small finger pushing and sliding slowly against a wet canvas. A wash of brown and bark and brush, blurring the columns of trees, the figure of his brother with his hair and suspenders. He looked further on into the dry downpour. The patterns of the leaf veins latticed across his vision. They formed fabric threads, fluttering and settling in the thick air. Pieces of this fabric caught on the trees, but the rest traveled on towards their windy harbor on the shores of nothing.
Marshall felt a bump at his stomach. His brother had stopped. Then Marshall’s sight stirred before him.
A woman floated freely at the old, big tree. She wore a dress that was long and simply colored. It enveloped her feet, leaving her bare toes to be grazed by the wind. The cloth brushed between the fingers of her hands that relaxed by her sides. Were she not moored so gracefully from her slender throat to the largest bough, she would have drifted off with the ashes.
“Damy,” he said.
Dark hair nestled peacefully against her brow and cheeks. Her eyes were shut and her mouth was straight. She indeed had come to pray.
“Back, Damy. Go on back.”
The small boy turned and gazed up at his brother. His eyes were the color of mahogany and melted down his cheeks. Small freckles dotted his face to add texture to the forest about them, and his shoes were brown like the ground. He said nothing, circled his brother and shrinked off behind him. Marshall did not move right away. He only turned his eyes slowly to that veiled face, then dipped them to the earth where Damien had stood.
Back he walked, back he walked, back through the trees, back through the gusting corpses, back through the steadfast roots and the trunks they bore, back, back, back away from that big old tree, back to that grimy lake of grass and death and maggots, back to that lady with her feet on the ground and the child dangling within her, back to the pumpkins, back, back, while the sound of that spade echoed, echoed in his heart.
Side-up-down. Side-up-down. Fresh earth frothed about his ankles. Until Marshall breathed out in the midst of the fresh hole beneath the tree, she lingered above his spade.
He crouched before her and the dry, dead tree, then stood and caught the fabric in his hands. It was smooth between his fingers. Upward, upward—smooth around her legs, her waist. Her neck, her hair. With a stroke of his spade she floated gently to his feet.
Marshall stilled himself to watch and listen. Damien had left the trees and his footsteps could no longer be heard. This moment took no less time than it took the earth to bed the smooth woman’s figure. Down he looked at her, beneath his feet. From the position of her body, perhaps, he could not be sure whether she lay on the ground or drifted above it. The sound of dirt falling on her dress filled his ears. A sensation, too, of the wooden handle in his hands saturated his skin. It dropped to the ground. On his knees, Marshall watched himself smoothing the attempt at nothing. Gone, like dipping into a pool. The leaves lilted questioningly around his shoulders and settled upon the spot. Hardly could they sense the difference.
Marshall quelled his shaking hands and headed back through the forest. He would not have a seat at the dinner table now that he did not help to prepare the meal.