Soot Covered – By Jenn Blair

January 30, 2011

That blue house in Somerset has twenty five rooms. I counted them once. When I was young, I spent many afternoons playing with the little girl my age that lived there. Sometimes, we would go to the attic where her mother kept a trunk full of clothes. We’d put old dresses and shawls on, and parade about in hats with ostrich feathers.  I also loved how her mother kept lemon drops in a glass jar shaped like an egg.

I don’t remember ever seeing my friend’s father. But his absence hung like a breath all over that house—on tabletops and overstuffed pillows, and on rugs, and in the portraits in the hall. Many of them were old sepia pictures of men in suits with collars that covered their necks—men wearing cold ambitious eyes, all the whiskey they drank condensed into cold stones of fierce amber rings wrung around their fingers.

Childhood is a haze interrupted by nothing, save a few punctures of startling clarity. The first tear came when my father cut the grass for the first time one spring. As I walked on the lawn, I noticed the pieces lay like fallen soldiers all over the ground. So rich and green. And sad, that scent. I could also detect something amiss in the polish my mother used on our mahogany dining room table. What is always otherwise knocked rapid on my ribs when I would run too fast, then have to stop and catch my breath. It felt like fire was about to burst out of my brain. Every one of my muscles was crying, and I wondered if it would always be true, that you almost had to put yourself under the ground, in order to feel a faint glow of sunlight.

But though I often ignored it, the future was always sitting in the same room as I, keeping a careful watch on me. Watching as I sat at the table, sullen in front of a glum pile of lentils. The future saw me, saw the skull inside my skin, wedged a clock inside my wrist and made it tick, tick, tick. A tick so loud and quiet I could hear it at night after I had brushed my teeth and put on my pajamas.  The future was clacking on my teeth, like a hundred thunderstorms at a hundred thinned down panes.

*

People can’t agree how the day looks, but can’t they agree how the night looks? They ought to be able to. It’s all one color. So I thought.

*

Then I grew up and all the children that used to come out every dusk and play with me vanished—to somewhere. They hid in cabinets full of crystal, in a patch of sweet brown earth just dug up in the garden. They hid playing hide and seek, but no one ever came looking for them. So they decided to be forgiving. But still hide forever.

I married. Had a child. Moved across the country, and had two more. I grew old. This week, my youngest daughter took me on a trip back across the country. Yesterday we landed in Pittsburgh. Today, she took my hand and showed me my own house. As I stood there on the walk, it suddenly came to me, that I could have been anybody. But I wasn’t. The strongest mix of familiarity and strangeness flooded over me.

The slim Oaks my father planted in our yard were giants, gnarled and knuckled. The street I played on is now a one way street—a river with a single current cars fly down. They put up a stoplight on the corner.  And the blue house whose foundation and gables were sewn from money pried up out of the bowels of the earth is now a funeral home.

After my daughter and I visit my old street, we eat dinner at a noisy hamburger place. I pick at my French fries, cold already. I tell her that when I was small, I memorized verses in John for a Sunday school Bible and had a cat all mine named Mouse. As my daughter drives us to our hotel, I look out the window. While we pass by Tiller’s muffler shop, I keep thinking about my street.

Sentimentality is exhausting. We watch some television, but soon find ourselves yawning and decide to get ready for bed. After I am in bed for twenty minutes or so, I realize I need to use the bathroom again. I tell my bladder it can wait until morning, but it disagrees. Vociferously.  Mumbling, I rise and stumble through unfamiliar steps. Just as I click on the bathroom light, I catch the heel of a boot disappearing. A heel with mud on it.

After I use the bathroom, I take a plastic cup out of its wrapper. My throat is dry. It needs coolness like a fanatic needs that first convert.  As I twist the faucet, I hear a cough.  Not mine.

“Come out,” I command. But the cough stays in the dark.

After I take a drink, I set the cup down and head back to bed and fall to dreaming. In the dream, my body keeps lowering itself down into a long tunnel. When I reach the bottom, it is dark. But not completely. As my eyes start to adjust, vague shapes appear. Suddenly, a dim lantern and hand hover by themselves in the air.  I step closer, and find the hand attached. To a man. Whose other hand holds a wooden cage. The cage is empty, save for a bright yellow ball of feathers smashed against souring brown newspaper. The man looks at the bird, then at me.

“Do something, NOW!” I yell. He shakes the cage, but the small fallen lungs stay collapsed. He shrugs.  Then he sets down the lantern and points to the ground.  I follow his finger, and start tearing away the rock.  To bring in air. Light. But none comes.  My nails fly off like shrapnel, bits of fossil the future will never find. Consciousness ebbs… flows back in…then ebbs. And dries.

When I wake again, I am lying on the ground.  A preacher in a suit of thinned down threads stands over me.  A preacher or a prophet, with coals in his eyes—live burning coals. He bends over and asks me to give my justification.  I open my lips. But my tongue has swum away like a fish. So I just look at him. He shakes his head and points further down and it is just what I thought, and exactly as I feared. I close my eyes.

When I thud, I thud hard. I lie there for a few minutes, swimming in my aching muscles, my eyes still closed.  After awhile, I hear sobbing. I open my eyes, sit up, and look. A woman wearing a dejected frame, fake pearls, and a dark green dress hunches over in a crooked-backed chair. A young man whose shoulders who are still straight stands beside her. Her son. She sits and cries. A man comes out and tells the son the lid is open. They can go in and have a moment to themselves before the rest of them come…if they would like. The mother grabs her son’s hands, and he helps her pull her up.

As they walk into the other room, a yellow cat’s eye marble rolls out past their feet and into the foyer. A second later, two small girls come scrambling after it. They laugh and shriek. Because no one has told them. No one has told them a man lies in the other room, his hands folded and placed slightly above his stomach. No one has told them that underneath his waxy skin, his insides are a ravaged landscape, farms raped and fields burned, porches torched and the rats under them, wan, their claws curling, then dissolving and dropping off.

I decide I must take the girls by the shoulder and shake them. Quiet them. So I can tell them the truth. But just as I clear my throat to interrupt their rough-housing, something soot covered moves slightly out of the diamond lined wallpaper and stands out. Something lingers, til I can see it. Something soot covered is staring me down, warning me hard to desist.  I nod, and as soon as I do, it steps back into the walls. I suddenly realize there are diamonds in the paper—stacked like cordwood—top to bottom—row after row—crosses in a cemetery.

*

It is only then, I understand. How carefully you must breathe, in order not to step on the unborn and the dead.

*

That is why I heard the teacup breaking one morning in June, why I always heard the glass shattering even as the windows remained intact. That is the pall that ran just inside the walls starched white as the muslin of a servant’s apron.  That is what I heard when the record skipped, voices screaming and fading far away from the sun. I thought it was just a car in the distance, but it was not the crunch of gravel it was the crunch of teeth, the knife edge of a heart gashed open. And the rain, it was tears, but I had no Bible eyes and did not see it.  I begin to weep.

“Mother are you alright?” My daughter has heard me cry out and comes to my bedside to check on me.  Chastised, I reach out for her arm—take unto myself the reassuring graze of flesh and bone.

“It was just a dream,” she says. I nod. She climbs back into her bed, and I look at the red numbers on the digital clock, numbers red and fiery as the last sun that will rise covered in the blood of the Nile, thick as pitch.  It is past midnight now. Time for me to begin the forgetting, slice off the hungry mouths stuck to my ankles like leeches and live.

About the Author

Jennifer Blair

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