Every morning when she woke up, she saw the flame and felt the fire—curling around her lashes, creeping up her thighs, blossoming flowers of pink upon her flesh. Clutching stiff lace against her dangling breasts, pressing her heels into the bedpost, she would scream, her singed cheek wrinkling into itself. The bed was vast, her legs tangled in the warm sheets, her mouth was pressed against the salty hairs of her husband’s, the lawyer’s, chest. When he was not there to comfort her, she spiraled out of the nightmare with baffled will, and panting, burned flesh quivering, opened her eyes to the three children who were left crowded in the doorway. The small naked girl leisurely winding her fingers inside herself, the two boys moist with the morning heat, their heads yellow and thick as the swatch of brooms. None as pretty as the first having come from an imperfect body, all pushed early and sickly from her seared loins.
She twisted away, raised a hand to her face. “Where’s your father? Cook some toast. Play Monopoly.” Her skin was damp and felt brittle as bark. She wanted damp clothes, to be shrouded in wet. She wanted to float in cool water for the rest of her life, give birth to her babies, like the dolphin, under the sea. “Leave me alone,” she said. They left softly, without judgment, like little animals.
The house had vanished without a trace into the charred soil. Only the plumbing rose obscenely toward the moon while the rooms thudded down with a roar like a trumpet and brought down with them, somewhere, though he was never found, the baby, called Adam for the first, turning in his crib, a wraith wise beyond belief, his face white and serene before the gay flame, giving no cry, providing no landmark for the woman who searched and stumbled, thrusting out excruciated fingers, stiff as the prongs of forks, guided only by a blazing cotton duckling illuminating her futility—its button eye deathless.... All beneath the cataclysmic moon, the ashes tumbling still burning, checkered like an armadillo, her own skin strangely cool, painfully cool and distant from her, the nails peeling from her fingers, the cuticles hissing as she flicked out hands seeking the lost child in the gone crib.
The next morning was usual except for the ash found on cars parked three miles away. It had been a fierce wind that beheaded the flowers in the garden swimming in the curl of hoses, crushed by the waffle-grid of the town’s huge machines. The stalks rose like tubes in a black sea. The tendrils rigged like reins upon the ground, like the reins the delicate tubing that brought food to her as she lay shedding her skin, tough maroon like bloody wood shavings, tough violet like the so many dead petals of a rose. They had later left the town with no belongings. The drop beneath the wing-tip where she raised her coated hand against the glare showed only acres of russet and the broad roofs of buildings blue in the sun. The quarter acre she sought and feared she could not find. To a bird falling through the clouds it could have been a deep dark lake.
She turned to the window, pressed her lips against the screen, tasting oil. The car was backing out on the graveled drive. She could see inside, the tanned hand upon the wheel, the sharkskin shank. “Sag,” she cried. She knew she was no longer on fire but she wanted him anyway—purveyor, endurer, sire of the formless children waiting in her womb. “Sag!”
The car stopped and he got out.
“They’re new friends,” he said. “Come along.” Sag Cashe, a big man, unmarred, his identifying marks a strawberry couched in the web of his thumb, a mole rocking beneath his left testis. “Known only to you, Kit,” he would always say, weighing them in his palm like meat. “Only to you and my poor momma. Bless her in the ground.” She shrugged. He rooted at her breasts—shy, the wasted odor of stones—and she pulled away leaving him with his eyes closed, his mouth browsing air. He raised his large hopeless hands and carefully rolled a cigarette, a Southerner with morose and baseless memories of the land. Blue banal Bugler with a tear in his side. Tapping and shaping, a dainty swat of the tongue on the paper square and he inhaled deeply, leaving a broad ash, foul tasting crumbs upon his lips.
“It’s going to rain,” she said. “I read it in the paper. I plan to put the plants out on the porch.”
At night she bathed the children, dipping into their waxy ears, curving solemn as seashells into their brains where the prayers were heard. Kneeling with them by their beds, their clothes hanging glandular with great presence from hooks, she chanted with them, pressing against their flanneled sides, delighting in the fragile ribs that she had made, bones from her blood. Through the open window she saw Baily’s beads around the moon though there had been no eclipse, no sun sifting through lunar mountains and prayed for rain, a plashy squall, so that she could spend the day inside. There was no ring, though, no mist around the moon, the flecks she saw were on her own grey pupil and in dreams they sunk to the drops on the cheek of the child returned from the lake on a board, unknown white wet child with wavering face borne to a home that she, Kit Cashe, of the strange nursery lilt name, was uncertain was not her own. Jogging through the water, her sneakers sucking up ooze, small crustaceans, festering needles of pine, splinters of sunk rafts, clotted fur swept from doorways, steering through the weight of water, leaving no wake, each step plummeting heavily, hesitating before it fell in a tangle of waving weeds. The child was being carried over the land now, she could hear the water splash from his clothing onto the leaves, and yet still she slogged through the water, trying to reach him, trying to see his face while beside her four ducks paddled, their orange feet deceiving, fractionalized, while below the ducks were the sleeping eggs of fishes and below the eggs the foamy creeks of hell...
She woke screaming to a bright and cloudless dawn.
The boat was dappled and nameless, blue paint curling to expose a grey primer. Sitting on the dock, her arms around the rotting canvas of a piling, Kit Cashe drew it close with her foot hooked over the side. Holding the rolled canvas warm worn from the sun, she lowered herself heavily to the deck, coarse threads sticking to her fingers, her eyes shifting to the stained well where the huge black motor lay slung forward, greasy to the touch, where the scales of fish, wrappers from sweets had hardened to the sides.
She raised her arms to receive the shrimp tossing in the bait bucket from Johnny Rick. His wife, very young with a streak in her hair, wearing one of Johnny’s T-shirts and holding a gun in a water-repellent case, jostled against her. The boat had no markings. Where the license should have been posted, a yellow graduation tassel dangled. Grim roe—torn by the wind, its braid musty, the flavor of warm pints of milk, bubbling ring of water, the bust beneath the flag, taste of the gymnasium as the tongue slides along the floor.
“Honors,” the boy said. “Usually, of course, they’re black.”
He was a newspaperman, a pockmark in his forehead like a third Cyclopian eye, his mouth sly wide deference. JEALOUSY OF HUSBAND FORCES WOMAN AND GORILLA TO FLEE TO FLORIDA MOLLIE BONITA WED IN SOPCHOPPY HIGH ON GRASS SLAY THREE his mind flagrant and italic from writing heads, his fingers blunted from plastic-webbed keys, tall with a nodding sunflower head, a cast of dacron and Juicy Fruit....He smells so young, she thought, and she saw them moving through the days, Johnny Rick and his small watchful wife and the hundreds more, vague and insistent and puzzled like turtles in a kraal.
“We all goin’ have a good time,” the girl said. “That Foster is a scream. He’s a dirty ol’ man.” She opened her mouth wide without laughing, then coughed and tugged down the stained edges of her brief bathing suit, slipping the brassy curls curving back under orange elastic.
A pelican stood on a piling, its wings cocked, moodily drying its feathers. Stern and goiterish. Toulouse-Lautrec. The bird rose enormously as Sag ran down the dock, holding a cake of ice against his chest, his red shirt turning black. “No tongs,” he shouted and threw it into a styrofoam chest. The needlefish thrashed in the freezing melt and Kit saw one break apart, neat and bloodless like a split peach. They packed beer and more bait around the ice and stowed it in the small cabin. Other boxes were full of food—beans, bacon, grits, a dozen cans of fruit, six quarts of gin, a long soft box of Fig Newtons.
“Foster’s a savage,” the boy smiled. “Drinks his gin warm and neat and only when we bring it. Gets full as an egg.”
They had traveled for miles by car to the tacky fishing town from which they would travel miles by boat. She sat dressed in tidy white shorts and blouse and felt the heat slip down her sides. Up on the land by the only motel, two boys on bicycles rode around and around, playing cards clattering in their wheel spokes. She slapped lightly at a mosquito and it fell, leaving a droplet of blood on the pocket of her blouse.
“Must have gotten you already, shuga,” Sag called.
“I believe I’ll go up to that restaurant there and get an iced tea.” She saw the faces pushing out from behind the RC decal. The townspeople stayed there all day and into the night, round and loveless in bulbous blue denim, stirring coffee, bouncing new babies upon their knees. The houses would wait half-built, unattended with latches for locks, putty bunching up between the tiles, the aloe plant growing within quick reach.
“Where is the rest room?” She had asked discreetly, but no one had heard. “When Donna hit,” the cook had said, “the water come up high as that stool you’re leaning on, come up high as the sequined girls on the pinball machine. When Donna hit, took Foster’s privy and salted it up on Coon Key.” He opened himself a Coca-Cola. “He tried to bring it back by boat but it was up too high in the mangroves.”
Kit did not want to go back there again. They would think she was crazy. “Don’t be silly,” Johnny said, “I have a drink right here that’ll cool you off,” and he handed her a paper cup of gin and ice, a floating chunk of bright green lime. Then they were hacking out of the slip and pouring full throttle through the islands and she was instantly lost, all the keys being the same, the leaves of the trees dipping into the wake as the boat passed, the small brown beaches moving with crabs and terns. Her hair blowing out behind her, the cup growing soft and waxy in her hands, she saw white birds and in the tops of trees, long woven nests swaying like chimes in the wind. Once she believed she saw the privy tipped over and aimed towards her like a gun, its two holes shining smartly, an Exit sign on the torn door rusting in the sun. When it was almost dark, they were there.
“Hey’er Foster, dontcha greet your guests! Hey’er!” the girl whooped over the cut of the motor as the hull thumped against sand. “Indian mound,” Johnny said, pointing to the slight incline upon which the shack was built like a pyre. “Highest point on the islands.” He wore a shirt with the sleeves cut out and a bracelet of beer rings. A black dog ran howling from the shack, its hind quarters curving ecstatically and leaped onto the boat pushing its head against everyone’s hands, a ring of ticks around its eye.
“Well, Kit,” her husband said, “a weekend totally free from work or worry. We can forget everything here, Kit. What do you think?”
She stroked the dog’s bony head, absorbed the splashing of his quivering jowels and watched the feet in shower clogs come closer along the path through the litter of broken oars and fish skulls and dead horseshoe crabs with meat the color of cider.
“Welcome to Dismal Key,” the hermit said, holding out his hand, slim and beautiful and soft as wool with filth.
He was small and seventy with sun-blackened lips, a beard corrupting the hollows of his face. His quest was a pure and thoughtless one, having no basis in fear or need, his reason for being on the island his lack of reason for being anyplace else. He had neither porch nor swing nor garden. He did have his dog and a crystal set and a big blond television upon whose voided screen he had pasted the picture of a beautiful and scornful movie star, since deceased. They existed, Foster and his dog, calm and starving, depending upon each other, allowing the mosquitoes to lay upon their lips as the sun rose and struck the tin roof, as the tide swept in and out and the afternoon rain gathered in the cistern. Both purblind, insensitive to color or time, sharing fish and cornbread and their wild desire not to die. He had taught the dog how to say, “I want my mama,” how to count and dance and climb a ladder. In the candle-casted night, they would sing to each other. In the mornings, the dog would wake him and he would burn buttonwood bark to keep the gnats away.
“Lookit, Foster,” the girl said, waving a bottle of gin. “Lookit what we brought you!”
“You’re not mannered,” he laughed, the sound creaking up from his lungs to rest foaming upon his mouth. “I can’t have that. I’m only three months old.”
“Been three months since we were here last, Foster. You dipped your bill then for certain.”
His heart beat on obligingly like the lizzard’s throat pumping upon the rock. The lizzard fled as Sag’s foot came down, the rock powdered, a white turd.
Inside the shack the air was hot and still, the ashes lay in the grate, the bobcat’s slender rotting paws hung motionless on the wall, a spider rocking on the strands between its bent ears. It looked absolutely like nothing that had ever been alive before. Kit sat down smiling, smothering in the heat, the scars on her arm puckering with sweat, grey rings hooping out beneath her neat shaved pits. In the kitchen amid sacks of garbage, rusting spoons, a pool of grey butter slumped on a plate, the long red stock of a bug gun, the men put out paper cups and sliced away ice from the cake with a hammer. The girl went easily to the gas stove and began frying bread in a pan. When the bread was done, she threw a steak into the grease and chopped onions over it. Kit, alone, looking out across the room, smiling, bewildered, at another room behind where the hermit sat, filled with ceiling high bunks and boxes of clay.
“Before this good dog here,” the old man said, “I had another little dog name of ’Time.’”
“How nice.” She could feel her eyes running beneath the eyeliner as she saw a bird hovering outside beneath the over-hang of tin, its plump belly bumping the pane. She smelled the gin, the filthy chewed rubber of the dog’s toy, poised on the arm of the chair.
“That was quite a time ago of course. Little female.” He was tucking himself into contentment, fingering the glinting safety pins pushed through his shirt. “The time come when ’Time’ was taken in marriage by the town dandy, a handsome mastiff and as is fittin’ he impregnated her. And as is befittin’, the time come when ’Time’ was to have her litter.”
“Don’t get dirty, Foster,” the boy said, handing him a mug, holding his own glass bitten between his teeth as he lit a lantern. The bird disappeared into the tin, the corners of the room dipped in and out of blackness as the lantern swung with a creak and a clot of smoke.
“But the time passed. Everyone was gettin’ concern. The doctor said that a Caesarean would have to be performed...”
“I heard this one, Foster,” the boy said drinking, pouring, turning to Kit to add to her still-full glass, his breath sweet and raw, the flavor of crushed and festering berries, grinning at her, one capped tooth brighter than the rest. “Drink, Foster,” he said. “We don’t have the time. We’re only here for the weekend.”
“Please go on,” Sag said politely.
Eternal hermit joke, cautiously prepared, unrecorded, belonging to the stars as he lay coughing one morning before the smoking buttonwood, perfected as he probed the dog’s pink belly, pushed his fingers lovingly between its teeth, searching out its warm ladderback roof, messageless—his own creation whorling in the eddies of his weakening mind, soaking up the day, bringing the night and the slap of flying fish and then sleep, the story all his own, waiting for the telling.