The damselfly from the river visits her six times. The first time, it comes scuttling with its three-pronged tail between its legs. The second, the fly is dormant and speaks to her in its sleep. The third time, it is blue. The fourth, it vows to kill itself. The fifth, it apologizes. This is the sixth time. The damselfly, still blue and now beautiful, says, “I am the river, and you must kill your husband.” She sits in the jewelweed and scrapes crusts of blood from her ears. It says again, “You must kill your husband.”
So she does. I am sleeping inside the river house, in our bed; she holds our fish knife in her left hand, and she cuts across my throat. The whole night is bloody. Those windows, which look to the great flowering dogwood, are open;: she commits this act in the valley. The river, the damselfly, stands audience to this entire act. A deep, buggy chitter reverberates through the house like a scream, and the moonlight catches the pink bones of my neck. She quarters me. She buries my left arm beneath the linoleum of the kitchen. Our dog is hungry, and she feeds it my right arm. She buries my left leg in the river shoal but it washes downstream the next week. The world around us is also hungry, so she tosses my right leg among the wineberry and kudzu. She places my head in a cardboard box. I forgot to say that she has been fasting for the past six days. She is shaking.
The damselfly returns in the morning, when the blood has been cleaned, and takes the cardboard box. That spring, there are seven big rainstorms. They shake our river house, and at one point, she thinks, “This will all come collapsing down on top of me.” But it doesn’t: the foundation holds. Our river house is built on silt, the pliant whispers of two people living in the city, and the river. The rainfall soon slips into the kind of soft green constant that makes you think you could build something on this ground.
Soon though, the sun processes from the East, and it is summer again. The box has returned to the porch. The dog sniffs it. Inside, she finds a dozen apple seeds and our sweet baby boy. He is plump and red and has shaggy hair like me. I forgot to say that this deal was deliberated on the third visit of the damselfly. We name the boy John. This is the story we tell our little baby son when he asks for it.
The first thing you should know about our river house is that when she and I wake up on our first morning, we are pierced by the light through the shoulder, the knee, the elbow, all our joints. The light clasps us together with millions of white pins. It nearly burns us up. In the city, we never used to sleep with the windows open, and we still, of course, ensure the screen is closed to keep out mosquitoes and flies. In this moment though, our immolation, we are martyrs instantaneously. Oh, us. We have fled the city and its security for these terrible, folding valleys: these terrible, folding sheets that hide us from the annihilating light. What will we do in this nightmare pastoral, now that we have woken up.
The second thing you should know is that this house was her parents’, or grandparents’. She had never visited her before, as a child, she tells me. This is important: remember she wasn’t exposed to this transcendental privilege as a child.
From the bed, I rehearse our way here, across yellow carpet and wood paneling, until I am sure I won’t get lost. I walk my way through each room until I start remembering things that seem to have happened decades ago, in the bathroom, on the porch. She says, “This house is an anachronism.” The river brings things here, and they linger. Lying down and looking west, inexplicably, you can still see the slouching screen door, loose from one hinge.
You should know that this is real love. Before I met her, I would string girls along. I was horrible–I was a dog. We speak about this when we are drunk off gas station wine that we bought with the change in her wallet, and we are smoking crumpled menthols in the same porch chair. We say, “You were horrible.” The sun recesses while I tell the horrible stories to the jack-in-the-pulpit off the porch: stories about the city. I tell those little-boy plants about the horrible breakup outside the brunch place on Easter. In the room we fill with our books, I tell viburnum out the window about dating two friends, one after another. I am offering up all the parts of me for eating. I take a cut, maybe the fat below my ribs, and eat it myself because I am still a little bit horrible, and it tastes good. She laughs at these stories and eats because she knows it tastes good, and maybe, she is a little bit scared of my horribleness. She hopes by eating it one day it will all be gone, and I will be skinnier.
You must be thinking she is a cannibal, an ogress. Consider it a shortcoming of my own storytelling: she is good. If I told you she was horrible, it would be a lie. She paints pictures, and they are good too. Even that first morning, her fingers are still spattered with white primer up to the knuckles. We have escaped, and I am resting within her goodness as if I’m sleeping there. Even a million years from this moment, I would tell her, “You are golden; you are good,” as the shale of our bones grinds into itself. I looked at her skin in the light, and we were fossils. It was all so bright that I closed my eyes and remained in the hot world of the afterimage. The river house disappears for the moment. That morning, when the morning light pinned us together, and we were martyrs, I knew she was good in a deep, throbbing part of me.
I say this much: “Do you know where we put the lamp?” It is dark now;: we have recessed from more pressing diurnal activity outside the house. The sheets across the bed are twisted and contorted from the morning. We can hear the wind from off the river and a barn owl from the collapsed shed to the South.
“Which lamp?” She leans over a cardboard box, one labeled for the kitchen.
“The lamp for the bedside table. The one my mom got.”
She looks up. We are speaking across three different doorways. I can see her silhouetted by the orange light from the porch and another light from a lamp on the floor. Her body is stringy and real. We are both sweating. “I didn’t know your mom got us a lamp.”
“For the bedside table.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“I don’t remember where we packed it.” You would think this is funny: I am insistent that the lamp exists, like the goodwill of my mother is dependent on it.
“If you can’t find it, it probably isn’t here.” She slumps over the kitchen box. We are both tired, and some cut of me wants to do nothing but take her up in my arms and go to sleep in those light-pierced sheets. Trust me, this is real love. “You could try looking in the basement. I threw some of the boxes down there to clear things up,” she says.
I slip past her, through those doorways, down the hardwood steps. The basement is cooler. Light from an incandescent bulb shatters across the cinder-block walls and the camel crickets on the ground. There are so many camel crickets you would think they had inherited our river house. This world here looks barren. We speak now, not through doorways, but instead the floor. “Where in the basement?” I holler.
“The back room, to the left,” she answers, also hollering. I didn’t know we had a back room. Seven locks hold the door to its frame, and each one appears older than the last, until the twisted screws of one ancient latch almost disintegrate when I lift it. This successive unlocking feels like transgression, like I am breaching a space I should not know exists. When, at last, I unlock the final lock, the door is loosed from its frame. It takes time to disobey. The incandescent bulb projects a rectangle of light into this back room, and a camel cricket hops from where the light doesn’t reach. I squint, and the electric light catches the corner of a single cardboard box. I drag it into where the light breaks across the basement.
The box mostly contains framed photos of our city friends and knick-knacks like paintings, porcelain frogs, and pinned butterflies that don’t live in this area, but near the bottom, I find the lamp my mother got us, which feels dustier than it should. I have found the lamp, but I linger for a moment.
The dust released from the back room coils against the darkness. I reenter the room as if its churning is an entreaty. I couldn’t tell you why I do this. At this point, my eyes have adjusted, and I make out a further object in the left corner of the smaller room. It isn’t hidden. My breath curls around my lips and against the stagnant air of the back room. Like the lock, this object seems to dissolve when I reach for it. It is a doll, and time in the basement has eaten it up. At one point, it was a boy. Tufts of matted hair cling to its scalp; poorly-crafted eyes glisten. The doll is hers, this I know almost by smell. She had painted over the most faded parts as a child: a red ring around the lips, a blush to the cheeks.
I return to our river house, with a hand around the neck of the doll. She puts a kettle on the stove burner. “This is yours,” I say, tossing the doll onto the formica counter. I realize that I forgot the lamp in the basement.
“What is that?”
“It’s your doll. I found it in the basement.”
She is exasperated and clicks her fingernails against the countertop. “How is it my doll?”
“This house was your parents’ or grandparents’. You must have lost it down in the basement sometime. I don’t know.”
“I had never visited here as a child.” I press my tongue to the back of my teeth and look away from her. She approaches me and holds my hand after a beat. “Let’s forget it. Can we just figure this out in the morning? Let’s get to bed,” she says. “Let’s just go to bed,” and we do. We return to the folds of the sheets left unoccupied since that morning so long before this discovery of the doll and these accusations of being places we haven’t been. I hold her.
The tea kettle on the stovetop begins whistling through our empty river house, so we remove ourselves one more time, drink mugs of tea in the dark in the bed and leave the cups on the floor because we haven’t unpacked the bedside table yet.
Our dog is singing to me, and I know this is a dream because we put her down before cancer ate her up three months ago. It seems strange that our dog never even visited the river house. The river seems to accompany her folk blues with the gentle percussion of a kingfisher call and its inexorable, full-bodied current. Sometimes, I think, when we sleep in our bed, and all the little animals sleep in their holes, and even the trees dream briefly, the river stops moving. I think if I could speak with the river, and it could listen to me, I could convince it to stop for just one moment. A conversation would be too easy though.
My dog is singing folk blues while I stand in the fat belly of the river. The water moves past my waist and my groin, except it is made of the sheets of our bed. Things on the eroding bank seem to move past me. The world appears to amount to something.
To be continued on April 10…