By Samuel Simas
We don’t want that to get infected, my mother says. Quit your jabbering and put your hand in the stream. She pauses and lifts the cast-iron spade, full of smoking ash, to smother the burning coals in the fireplace. Placing the shovel upon the red brick hearth, she says: you shouldn’t have been doing this anyway.
My hand shines pink where it’s burned, still too hot to feel the sting of the fire.
She doesn’t move her eyes from the steaming kettle.
The fire sparks up again. I take the shovel from the hearth and scoop one last pile of ash onto the coals. Smoke wisps up and out through the blackened chimney. Some lingers in the kitchen.
I say nothing else.
I step into the parlor to find my coat. My younger sister Nell sews an iridescent button onto my mother’s winter jacket. I lose my balance on the uneven floor as I throw my coat over my shoulders, fighting with the sleeves. Careful not to touch anything with my injured hand. Fingertips burn as hot as fire.
I latch the door behind me and leave through the garden. Every step sticks and unsticks me from the muddy ground. Spring hasn’t yet warmed the earth, and the flowers poke up from the soupy earth. They are small green and yellow stalks without buds or leaves or any accessory of life. Cold gusts of winter air threaten to push them back into the ground. Grey clouds hover signaling rain.
Jedidiah tills the struggling garden in front of his red barn. His back is hunched, and he flings the husks of dead flowers behind him. Sweat stains his blue shirt. His horse grazes near the cornfields, flicking her tail at flies circling above. Upon hearing the opening and closing of the gate to our garden he lifts his head.
Mornin’, Zeke! He offers me a toothy grin and bends down, sticking his hands in the dirt.
Sir, I respond. Waving one hand. He waves back, hands muddied to blackness. I hurry past him and down the path towards the bridge. He has an inclination to talk at length about flowers and their perpetual war with weeds. Most days I half-listen to him and let my mind wander. Maybe he doesn’t notice, or maybe he doesn’t mind, but he never hesitates to tell me or anyone else about what the weather is doing to his daisies and tulips.
I follow the road to the familiar worn wooden fence that marks the beginning of the Landry’s farm. Horses whinny at chickens clucking underneath their hooves. Cats nap in rafters of their barn and sometimes chase mice on the warm summer days when they aren’t feeling quite as lazy. Pigs wallow in the fresh mud, oinking and glubbing.
Jonah, their farmer, yells obscenities at them. Damned dirty beasts! He latches his hand onto the pail of water next to the trawl. Tosses a slush of water at the animals only to have them oink in delight and roll onto their backs in the refreshed muddiness beneath them. Jonah spits with rage. Tries to throw another pail, but it’s empty. In disgust, he flings the empty vessel. It bounces, breaks in half.
Lyrah sits with her legs crossed on a bale of hay. Watches her dad and his tantrum. The roof’s overhang shades her face in half-darkness. Gossamer threads of hair fly out from under her beaten up hat. She tears chunks of bread off of a charred loaf she holds and launches them into the mud. Pigs crowd around to gobble them up, pushing one another out of the way.
She matches each oink with a gleeful giggle that distracts me from the pain pulsing in my fingers. Upon seeing me, her eyes widen. She throws the rest of the loaf into the mud. It lands with a plop and the pigs eviscerate it.
Zeke! She shouts. What are you doing?
She takes three bounding strides with her long legs to move from the porch to me. I put my good hand on the fence between us. Her father has his back turned. Pumps fresh water into a new pail.
Quick, she says and plants a kiss on my cheek.
Her lips meet my face. They are warm, intense, and, for a moment, I forget about the pain in my hand.
* * * * *
My father’s horse bucked him off, and four men carried him home from the forest. Apple
bread scented the house, cinnamon and sweet. I peeked out from behind the doorjamb between the kitchen and parlor. They placed his body across the old chair he taught me how to build. It was the chair by the window that rocked too much to one side. Rocking like the loose hanging of my father’s neck. It was too relaxed, wobbly. My mother shouted. Demanded to know what happened. Bucked him off, they said, broke his neck.
I stared at my father from the door as the men shook their heads and shrugged their
shoulders. My father didn’t move. Chest didn’t rise or fall like it did when he slept. Before the sun set, Doctor Adams came with his medicine bag. Looked at my father’s neck and shook his head just like the other men. My mother screamed, but I didn’t understand anything she said. Clutched the doorjamb until one of the men tore me away.
The next day, Lyrah arrived with a warm meat pie and a bucket full of apples to help my mother cook. She stayed in the kitchen for three days, cooking and cleaning, even though she preferred to be outside poking at berries and bugs. She told me she felt bad. Didn’t want me to have to worry so much about helping my mother now that my father was gone. I had enough to do now.
Lyrah bent over a pie crust with a rolling pin. She cored apples with my mother when I came home after tilling weeds for money with Jonah. Covered in flour, small patches of white on her cheeks like angel dust. I was covered in mud. And the way she smiled at me stopped the aching in my hands.
* * * * *
Her hips and breasts have filled out since then. She has the body of a woman now, but
she still laughs light and quick like a child. She is two years younger than me, and yet she carries her wide hips and confidence as if she were older than me by a lifetime.
We laugh and skip stones on the edge of the river before the sun goes down. She throws handfuls of powdery white flower at her baby sister, Nita, making her scream with joy and her mother grumble at the waste. At night she climbs to the top of the barn and sings lullabies her mother taught her.
I listen for her from my open window. Sometimes, when I hear nothing but the sound of owls and crickets and other noises that fill the space between night and day, I miss her.
* * * * *
We started taking walks together after my father’s burial. She sang those lullabies to me while we walked through the forest, kicking pebbles and tripping on roots. Her songs helped me forget about my mother’s muffled sobs from the parlor after Doctor Adams told her his medical instruments couldn’t put my father’s head back on right.
She helped me forget about how taking care of my mother made me feel empty. Working on the farm. Going away on the ships during the summer to help deliver textiles to Rhode Island. Coming back to Lyrah meant a tranquility that wasn’t possible anywhere else, even on the open sea.
We explored the curves of each other’s mouths and the ways we like to be kissed on those walks. I followed Lyrah’s face like a sunflower traces the path of the sun, and I wilted each time she embraced me.
During the spring after my father’s death, we made love for the first time on a bed of pine needles. It was hidden underneath low bushes and boulders that bordered the river. It was where we promised each other lives filled with happiness and security. Where we fumbled like children grasping for treats on a countertop too high for us to reach. The crunching of leaves underfoot and the minty scent of pine needles remind me of the promises we made.
I’ll marry you, I said. I know, she replied.
Well? she questions.
* * * * *
To the bridge, I say. Shrug my shoulders so she won’t notice my hand. I push my hair back and smile at her. I try to ignore the warmness of her smile and the sounds of her father tinkering with the spigot near the far end of the barn.
I’m coming with you, she says.
Before I have a chance to say no, before I tell her it hurts too much, she has ducked down beneath the fence and is standing next to me. She kicks the mud off her shoes and steals a glance at her father. Her eyes flash at me when she turns back and kisses my cheek again. And, again, I forget.
She laughs at the pigs before shouting, I’m going with Zeke to the bridge, Papa. A pause. Sloshing of water into the bucket like the trickling of a stream.
Papa! She yells. He stops pumping the spigot. Takes the gray kerchief in his pocket and wipes his forehead dry.
Say it again, he says.
I’m leaving with Zeke.
To where, he asks.
To the bridge, she yells. He burned his hand. Her father nods.
Thinking I had hidden my hand from her, I say, How’d you kn—
—Saw it all pink and tucked away in your coat. Don’t think I don’t know you better than that, Zeke. How’d you do it anyway?
I’ll tell you when we get there, I say, It hurts too bad to wait any longer.
Out of her father’s sight she grabs my good hand. Leads me over the rocks and roots growing through the road. We go down past the schoolhouse where we grew up together, stealing kisses behind the rolling chalkboard when Miss Colter was yelling at Jim Krowl for flicking his snots at the girls.
Do you remember that old crow, Lyrah asks. She points to the open window of the white schoolhouse. Class is quiet. Miss Colter’s back is turned to the students. She draws letters on the board, spelling out simple words in French: P-O-N-T. Next to it she writes BRIDGE. Some children listen and scribble in their books. Others pass love notes around the room, giggling.
I squeeze her hand. I want to pull her closer to me by the small of her back. But the kiss of moving air across my fingers burns, and I stop.
Of course I remember, I say. And then, that one time she caught us filling up the glue jars with Jedidiah’s honey. Her face turned pinker than cooked ham. She lectured us for weeks about how we couldn’t afford to waste. Not even a drop of honey.
She says: and then she tried to embarrass us by putting us behind the chalkboard. She was even more cross when she found us kissing back there.
We laugh. I stop walking. Lyrah’s hand tugs on mine to keep moving forward. I pull her toward me with both hands. Hot pain for a moment, and then Lyrah. Nothing besides Lyrah and the blur of a slow-moving world moving around us.
We walk side by side until the red bridge comes into view. It is in the middle of the road between the schoolhouse and the carpenter’s. Not too many people ever come down this way; there isn’t anything beyond the carpenter’s house besides miles and miles of road weaving between trees. Plymouth’s townsfolk travel as far as the bridge, or maybe a little further past it to edge of the forest. They hunt deer and rabbits, but never bring much back.
They turn around and trot back into town without considering what lays beyond Jedidiah’s garden with its warring weeds, the Landry’s farm, or the schoolhouse. They argue whether or not Boston or New Bedford is closer, but never go to find out for themselves. They yell over the sound of the stream and ask anyone passing by what they think. It doesn’t matter to me, I respond if asked, but the way I see it, they’re both just far enough away so whenever I consider leaving Plymouth I’m always brought right back.
* * * * *
Ten years ago, when I had just turned eight, my father brought me out to sit on the bridge with him.
Stop your cooking, he said to my mother.
The men don’t have to work, but the women still have to cook, she replied.
Go sit in the garden, he said.
Sweet whistles from her joyful singing floated through the rooms in the house and lulled
Nell to sleep when she should be reading. My father and I got as far away from the house as the Landry’s farm—Lyrah waved as we walk by—and the faint tune of my mother’s singing followed us until the rushing of water overtook the melody.
On the bridge he taught me how to tie a line onto a rod. He taught me how to fish. How to be patient. Taught me when a fish was big enough to eat. When to throw it back into the stream because it hadn’t lived long enough yet. He whispered stories to me about how his father had taught him the same things.
Maybe you’ll teach your son one day, he said on a day when the sun was bright and the water under the bridge was low. He flung the line out into the water and watched the stream take it before pulling taut and bending the rod.
My legs were small enough to sandwich between the rails on the bridge. I let my feet dangle off the edge and hugged the post. When my knuckles turned white from gripping the rod so tightly, my father chuckled. He said, loosen up, Zeke. It’s not going anywhere. We aren’t going anywhere.
* * * * *
Lyrah reaches her hand forward and grabs my burned one by accident. I recoil. Step away
from her onto the first step of the stairs to the bridge. Her face loses its joy. Mouth settles into a moue of discontent. Furrows her eyebrows. She rubs her forearm with one hand and stares at me.
Zeke, are you—
—Fine. Don’t trouble yourself about it.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—
Craning my neck down, I meet her mouth with mine. Kiss her and pull away. My mouth twitches for more.
It’s fine, I say. I smile to reassure her and climb the steps to the top of the bridge.
I can’t wait any longer to dip my fingers into the water. It gushes out from underneath the bridge, hurrying to the ocean. Recent storm clouds emptied into the rivers and streams, and now the water is high enough so that it kisses the bottom of the bridge. I lean over. Dig my knees into the wood. Submerge my hand. Fat droplets of water jump up and out. They land on the red stained wood, splashing my face. Pounding and cool, the stream massages my fingertips.
Lyrah unlaces her shoes and peels off her socks. She sticks her naked feet into the water. Kicks back and forth, splashing water onto her legs and my forearm. She sighs and reclines onto her back with her arms bent behind her head.
When are you going back, Zeke? she asks.
End of September.
She stops kicking her feet and rolls over onto her side. Rests her head in the palm of her hand.
Do you have to go?
I laugh and scoop water at her. The burnt flesh throbs when it meets the air. I plunge it back into the moving stream.
Ma needs the money, I say, you know that, Lyrah.
We are silent until the chirping of crickets replaces birdsong. Rushing water fills the air with music. Our shadows lengthen on the red bridge to twice our height. We are at once on the bridge and in the water, so are our shadows.
Drops land on my face, my hair, my shirt. It isn’t until the first peal of thunder that I realize it is raining. One of those sunny summer rains had come on the cusp of spring instead of summer.
I think my hand is better, I say, we should go back.
Let me see.
I give her my hand. I wiggle the cold out of the fingers. Holy hell, Zeke, she says. How’d you do that?
The kettle, I say. Trying to help ma.
Lyrah turns my hand over to see the palm.
Careful, I say.
Well, it looks like you got the heat out of it. Her reassurance pulls a sigh from my chest.
With my good hand, I touch her shoulder and say, Thank you. I kiss her and push myself to my feet.
Lyrah shoots her hand into the air and grabs hold of my arm. Pulls herself up like she is climbing onto a horse.
I pull her into my arms and we watch the sun settling into the trees while cold rain speckles our foreheads. Crickets chirp. Frogs reply. Owls hoot when the gusts of wind shake the branches. Footfalls and the laughter of children echo from the schoolhouse. My hand holds some fire in it still, and I turn my face away from Lyrah to wince when she brushes it with her coat.
Your pa’s ‘prolly worried, I say.
Let him, she laughs and pulls my arms tighter around her. Pulls so tight that my father and the fishing rod and the bridge on Sundays rush back as fast as the water moves below us. So tight the memories grow weak.
White knuckles. White knuckles clenching onto the line my father taught me to tie. White arms, too, clenching on to each other before September takes us apart again.
Loosen up, I say. I’m not going anywhere.
Sam has been awarded the Rumowicz Maritime Essay Prize from the University of Rhode Island and the Beatrice S. Demers Fellowship from the Rhode Island Foundation. He has served as an Intern for GrubStreet in Boston, Barrow Street Press in NYC, and a Reader for The Ocean State Review. Currently, he is the Managing Editor and Designer of the Rumowicz Publication series and the Editor in Chief at The Rocky Point Review. His work as appeared in Writ on Water and OPTIONS Magazine, and it is forthcoming in Slink Chunk Press and Steam Ticket.