Something awful filled the world. It flapped, a wet fluttering, floated and bound to everything dark and terrible, cleaved to the fear that created fear, burbled and warbled and laughed across dead pools of nothing; flashes of color mixed with the fear, blurring its edges, and someone painted the air brown-red, then deep red, but it soon faded to rose, then lighter, lavender, then twilight blue, a glowing beautiful blue, and it stayed like that, the color of the sky before dark, the day’s last color.
Misting around me, stillness: all life, all breath, all potential had fled, and on the bed–the body, draped in a lady’s silvery dress, vastly too big. The scrawny chest, no longer lifted by the in and out of life, collapsed, as if unsure what would come next. The uninhabited body had forgotten everything. On the dress, a silver fabric flower bloomed low in front, decorating the child’s torso. Another flower, a rose of blood, plumed from the drape of the skirt, spreading down its silvery surface. Swells from blows remade the strange terrain of the skull. Skin shimmered with pearly death surfacing. Bruises hollowed the cheeks, so soon sunken, eyelids blanketed in the powder that the skelly man had pressed on them, the color of cornflowers. Underneath that hue was a blue less fancy, a mean, dead blue-black, the absence of vision, a putrid color brought on by looking out, or looking in, at nothing.
Then I heard the skelly man, stomping up the stairs.
The closet, like a cave, beckoned. Deep and inviting, it would shelter. The door was bowed and drifted open so I pressed against the wall to hide. It was dark inside the closet cave, but the wall inexplicably burned with light, and colors, like sunlit glass. Fluttering panic spread in my chest, he would see, he would see…
The skelly man came into the bedroom, dirt-covered hands, arms, and shirtsleeves, his good shirt darkened with perspiration, and an unabashedly foul odor snaked, emanated from his being. He stopped on the other side of the bed, facing the bed, facing the closet. How could he not see me?
He looked at the body on the bed, and made a peculiar sound, like barking, and scratched himself. His breath slid from the pit of him, slithered over bedclothes, whispered across the cold silver dress, threaded through the room, even the cracks where the wind had stopped sneaking between the walls and windows, for the wind itself was scared of his low, serpentine breath, a breath flicking at fear, no sound, licking the silence, then, the world stilled to listen to the skelly man’s song, which curled from his lips and took the shape of a peculiar dog, sad, fearsome, cruel, wounded…
Dreamed I saw a velvet chile,
All full of green, and wild.
Her breast begat a deathly love,
All chill and empty balm.
No longer ripe, cold turned to stone.
Tore open the earth, and dug it deep,
So she’ll be near her final sleep
Alone and not alone.
The words circled, echoing the path of his breath that had sullied every surface of the bedroom, filling the space with lurching emptiness.
He slung the body, so small, over his shoulder, and carried it from the room and down the stairs. I crept across the landing to Nana’s bedroom window and looked out at the back yard. The skelly man carried the silver-draped body toward the apple tree, toward the place where he’d buried Nana just yesterday. Next to her grave, there was a new hole.
He slid my body into the second hole and tossed in a handful of dirt, then a shovelful, and another, and onward until the hole became a low mound. A dark, fresh bruise upon the earth.
CHAPTER ONE (1974)
Up in the apple tree, final spring blossoms stretched and fattened themselves into the beginnings of young apples. Perched among flowers and fruit, Claire hummed, pushing sound from her belly up through her throat and mouth toward her nose, aiming for that tickly feeling. After some hums her head contained sound, buzz, whir, hum zum jum so that nothing else could get inside her. A full head a full head no room for words, just sound; sound didn’t take up space but it was there anyway. Claire let sound fill the emptiness, the above-the-nose part of her face, between her eyes, until her head overflowed with calm: hum jum zumming.
Below, her dad turned on the transistor radio and tried to hang her birthday piñata. Seven was going to be Claire’s biggest birthday party ever, even bigger than last year when she turned six. She needed the party to be good. Her head fizzed from the humming. She had been to parties where the favors weren’t good, where parents had filled bags with homemade stuff and healthy snacks, and kids made yuck faces and left the bags behind. She had already said she didn’t want any carob or sesame candies from the co-op where her dad worked. And pin the tail on the donkey was for little kids. At seven, it was time for something more grown-up.
The apple tree cradled Claire. That tree had grown up from the earth and taken the shape of a woman. It changed with seasons, buds, flowers, fruit, worms, winter, bare limbs, then buds again.
Claire’s job was to tell her dad when the piñata looked straight, but the flaky paper donkey kept slipping around the low branch. The donkey looked like it was being strangled.
“Seems like a kind of violent tradition, don’t you think?” her dad asked. “Beating the image of an animal until it cracks open and spills forth sugary candy guts?”
“Macon had one,” Claire said. Macon was an older boy from her school.
“We don’t believe in hitting animals.”
Claire ran her palm over the bark of what would be the apple tree’s arm. She pictured herself beneath the piñata. She had to swing the big stick, but it was too heavy, rough like the apple tree and it made her hands burn. The kids around her laughed because she could barely lift the thing. Right before she swung, the piñata turned into a real donkey and began to bray, but Claire couldn’t stop her arm in time and the stick bashed the donkey’s side, with a sickening whoomphy sound. There was blood.
If her dad considered breaking the piñata violent, why was he tying it up with a rope? Could the donkey feel the sharp bite of twine around its neck, that strangling twine, as it tightened around the throat? When the piñata came down, spilling candy, would the rope leave a red mark on its neck? She wanted a piñata, insisted on it, but now her insides were two-sided, wanting and not wanting. She looked away from the piñata, and focused on a bee buzzing a late apple blossom.
A piñata donkey wasn’t alive. It was a paper donkey. Actually it was a burro. Claire liked knowing the other names for things, like a donkey being called a burro. She didn’t know if there was another name for the stick, but at Macon’s party, he swung the stick, hitting the air, all the other kids circled around him, yelling, and his white, rock-headed dog barked, while blindfolded Macon swung and swung, hitting air, and his little sister Rose screamed and ran away because she thought he was aiming for her. Even now, Claire could see Rose’s face, all squeezed together like a bunched up balloon that had lost half its air.
Claire hummed some more, louder and louder until her face itched too much and she had to stop. She rubbed her nose and watched the furry bee. She knew to be still because she didn’t want the bee to notice her. She had a dreamy feeling, like maybe she was asleep. Sometimes she felt that way even though she was awake. She would glimpse an edge of something that made her wonder if things were real. It was always a quickness, like lightning, and for a moment, she was dreaming. She liked that confusion, that secret upside-downness, even when it only lasted for one breath, because it was magic. A watery wave shimmered between herself and the bee.
But the burro’s strangle-panic flowed up through the tree into her. She decided to stay in the tree and never go down again.
The bee circled the blossom and landed. Its head nuzzled into the wisp of flower. She marveled at how small the bee was, how happy it must be, its nose full of nectar perfume. She wished she were small enough to hide inside a flower.
She rubbed the tree’s crusty arm and rested her cheek against it. Later that day, a million kids would be there for cake and stuff. The kids would line up to kill the donkey, but the candy inside was worth it, she told herself, the shower of candy would pour, grabbing would begin, kids would elbow each other and pocket the candy, the crinkle-wrapped pieces shiny like jewels, each like a gift, the wrappers that you could twist to make tiny cellophane flowers if you wanted.
Then Claire would turn seven.
The bee suckled from the white blossom, its fuzzy behind bobbing up and down. She had always wished she could drink like a bee; she knew that flower nectar would be sweeter than anything.
A million kids. And Joshua.
“I wish we didn’t invite Joshua,” Claire said.
“That’s unkind. Joshua’s not a very happy person,” her dad said.
Joshua was two years older than Claire. He had a face like a mean possum, and he always did things like flipping his eyelids inside out in that monster way to show the pink insides. Last spring, he snuck up behind Claire at a school picnic and stuck gum in her hair, right at the part. He mashed it into her scalp. It was so stuck that even peanut butter did no good. Her mom had to cut off a chunk of her hair. Her mom said she didn’t notice the missing hair, but Claire did, and every morning for the next month, she touched the missing hair and growled at the possum.
“I hate him,” Claire said.
“Try not to hate people. Think how much good you can do him by being kind.”
Claire imagined the possum. How could she be kind to someone who was so mean? Then the radio stopped and she heard a dull chip, chip, chip.
Below the tree, a man was digging with a heavy shovel. The man wore an old fashioned shirt, and spat to the side. He looked wobbly, maybe from the motion of digging, or maybe because of where she sat in the tree. There was a shimmy in the air. Her dad, the radio, everything she knew, was gone.
The man stopped digging and straightened, turning in Claire’s direction. She didn’t move, didn’t breathe. Maybe he wouldn’t see her. He swatted at something buzzing his head, and turned back to digging.
The man dissolved, and radio music came back. Her dad said, “Come down here now,” in his ask-no-questions voice.
Claire scrambled down from the tree. She slipped on the last bit of trunk and fell. She got up and brushed her back pants pockets.
Her dad sat very still on the scratchy green backyard blanket like he was meditating. Claire heard a bee buzz in his dark curl.
“Can you see the bee?” he asked.
“Okay, slowly pull the end of my hair so it can get out.”
He was so calm. She took the end of the curl and pulled it straight. The bee jolted from his hair and hit her cheek. She yelped.
“It sting?” he asked.
“I don’t think so.”
He examined her cheek and sighed. “Nature is working against us,” he said in his big, serious voice. He looked at the donkey hanging by its neck, and brushed another bee from his forehead.
“Where did you go?” she asked.
“You disappeared and there was a man digging the ground.”
“Is this a story? Digging the ground? Sounds like me. What’s not to dig, the ground holds us up, keeps us balanced, I dig the ground too,” he said, looking straight at Claire, and then he laughed.
“Really, I saw him,” she said.
Her dad still looked funny to Claire. Like a different person. He had recently cut his long beard from winter so there was no hair on his face, not even a mustache. She had forgotten what his chin looked like. It was pointy with a dent called a cleft.
Claire looked around to make sure the man was gone. She pushed him out of her thoughts and focused on the dangling burro. She didn’t want Joshua getting any of that candy. But she always had to invite him because his parents were Claire’s parents’ friends. Claire’s parents didn’t have that many friends, and most were far away like California. Her dad tussled with the piñata. She wished Joshua’s parents would move to California, and take their mean possum son with them.
Her mom opened the back door and came toward them. “Hey you two.”
Her mom’s hair was short like a boy’s. Claire loved the up and down lines by the edges of her mom’s mouth, the U shapes that held her cheeks round when she smiled. Sometimes when Claire looked at her mom’s face, she got a good fizzy in her belly, a warm glow like fireflies.
“C’mere,” her mom said. “I have something to show you.”
“Let’s see what your mama’s got,” her dad said. He took Claire’s hand. The lopsided piñata dangled from the apple tree, half-alive. As they walked toward the house, Claire heard that chipping sound again, and turned around. Everything looked normal. But she couldn’t stop thinking that man was still somewhere, digging.
(Excerpt from The Watery Girl)