Authors: Glen Hirshberg
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For Kim, Kate, and Sid, with a murder ballad and hiding places
It is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence. An absolute, archaic grief possessed this countrywoman; she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs.
âSarah Orne Jewett,
The Country of the Pointed Firs
In the heart of the hollow, at the mouth of the Delta, the monsters were dancing. Their shadows slid over the billowing green walls of the revival tent, rolling together, flowing apart. To Aunt Sally, rocking and smoking in her favorite chair in the shadows of her pavilion tent out back, their movements seemed hypnotic, lulling, like nimbus clouds across the moon, rainwater down glass. They kept her company, the shadows did. They were all the company she had ever kept or needed. Looking past the hollow down the mossy bank, she could see the moon out for its nightly stroll down the slow-sliding surface of the Mississippi, through the clustered cattails, the swamp roses, and spider lilies. As she watched, the moon seemed to turn, as it did every night, and nod in her direction.
Howdy, neighbor. Mind if I smoke?
Aunt Sally thought.
Except that someoneâone of the younger monstersâhad gotten hold of the stereo in there, under the big tent, and unleashed some of that shuddering rumpus music. Thunder-and-swagger music. It didn't last long, Caribou saw to that. Just long enough to put a big jagged crack right down the center of the evening. Break the mood. Remind Aunt Sally just how far from peaceful she'd been feeling lately. How very, terribly bored.
Probably, she thought, she should try to remember some of the younger monsters' names, although the truth was, she couldn't imagine what for. Had she even known their names when she'd made them? She couldn't remember, now, but suspected she had. All she
remember with any certainty was the surprise, every time, when it did happen. When they sat up after she had finished, patting in wonder at whatever holes she'd torn in them. And she remembered her delight for them, or maybe simply for what she'd done. She'd always assumed she would understand what made it happen, someday: the transformation instead of dying, or after dying. Some of it, she knew, was simply that she'd
it to happen. But she never had quite figured it out. Neither had Mother, or any of the very few others who'd achieved it, accidentally or otherwise. And the fact was, Aunt Sally had stopped worrying or even wondering about it a long, long time ago.
Should she tell Caribou she had taken a secret liking to a little thunder-and-swagger music from time to time? The ideaâthe look of horrified disbelief, of shattered sensibility she could already envision on his gaunt, luminous sickle-moon faceâmade her smile, faintly. At least, she was fairly certain that she was smiling. According to Caribou, her mouth never moved, these days, except when she was Telling, doing Policy. Not even when she ate.
The music reverted to old, familiar favorites. No drums, no guitars, just a piano and a muted trumpet loping and leaning, ducking and bobbing. Victoria Spivey moaning and sighing, surrounded by snakes. That song, too, had sounded like shuddering rumpus back in its day, when Victoria Spivey had played it. Way back when Aunt Sally used to dance, too, instead of sitting out back watching the dance. When she did for herself, instead of for others. Back when she and Mother used to light out for the shacks, the little towns, the helpless husbands and sad, hungry boys, on the best, most memorable nights. The two of them twisting and spinning, in a sweatbox-cabin full of people who sweated and spun wherever she and Mother spun them.
She did miss that, sometimes. Occasionally. The doing for herself. More, she missed Mother, although that wordâ“miss”âwasn't the right one. Aunt Sally did not “miss.” She simply remembered.
And because she remembered, she wondered, from time to time, exactly where Mother had gone and got to, now, with that weedy little monster she had somehow madeâhow had that happened?
had that happened?âand then gotten herself addicted to. Foolish Mother. Gone these so many years. How many, now?
Aunt Sally blew smoke through her motionless mouth, the cloud of it closing over the starlight, spreading thin, dissipating. In the cattails down-hollow, frogs bleated, cicadas sawed. All the night creatures, humming their hunger. She watched the tent, the shadows on its rippling walls. Too many shadows. For the first time sinceÂ â¦ oh, when? That year the Riders came down here, created some rumpus of their own, got the whole countryside so stirred up and boiling and
? For the first time since then, Aunt Sally found herself musing on the world out there, just on the other side of the cane fields and pecan trees. Full of people to set spinning. Not that they'd spin any differently than the ones here did.
How many of the dancers in that tent, she wondered, watching the walls, actually were hers, were creatures she had made? Caribou, of course, but the others?
of the others, come to think of it? Maybe she couldn't remember their names because they weren't hers, after all. Maybe all of hersâand there hadn't been so very many, trulyâhad long since left her side. The thought jarred, even alarmed her, a little.
Was that true? It could be true.
Drawing her shawl tighter on her cold, cold arms, Aunt Sally pushed her bare feet into the night-wet grass and set her chair rocking. Had Mother been her last? Sometimes, Aunt Sally forgot she had even made Mother. Certainly, she hadn't meant to. What God There Wasâwhich was what she had always called whatever God there isâhad apparently sensed that she needed a companion, was going to die of boredom or loneliness without one. And for once, What God There Was had shown mercy, fulfilled a wish she hadn't realized she was wishing.
Or elseâmore likelyâHe'd sat up there in His hollow, outside His own tent, watching the shadows He had made. He had gazed down the years and seen a new opportunity, a whole new sort of suffering he could inflict on His long-suffering Sally: He'd give her a companion. And then her companion would leave her.
So in the end, was any of it her doing?
Either way, it had happened. She had been bored, lonely, both. So bored and lonely that she could no longer imagine herself before or after boredom or loneliness. And then she had found Mother and made her.
Maybe that was what happened in those moments. Maybe the changing really was caused or catalyzed simply by need, when the need was strong enough.
Or maybe when the need was most reciprocated? Or did the process require a specific sort of need, at a specific time? Or was it chance? Luck?
To herself, rocking in the grass, watching the moon vanish downriver, Aunt Sally snorted. Smiled. Thought she smiled.
Mother now? Still chasing her Whistling fool, no doubt. And Aunt Sally had to admit it: her fool really could Whistle, and also sing. How many years could singing and Whistling fill? More, apparently, than sitting in her chair, just there, beside Aunt Sally, rocking together, listening to the cranes and alligators in the swamp. Watching their children grow.
The flap at the back of the revival tent parted, and Caribou emerged, white as moonlight, long as a river-reed, eyes round and dark and skittish as a deer's. He stopped a moment before approaching, settled his white tails-coat on his hanger-thin shoulders, straightened his bow tie. To Aunt Sally's surprise, he had a companion in tow. She'd seen this one before, of course, but not for a while. She thought she might have known his name, once, but hadn't the slightest idea of it, now. What did it matter?
And what could he possibly want or wish for that Caribou would believe she might acknowledge or grant?
“Tuck your shirt in,” she heard Caribou say.
His companionâbearded, in a flannel work shirt that looked warm, to Aunt Sally, comfortable, yes, she liked that shirtâmumbled out of his drunken mouth. But he risked a single glance in Aunt Sally's direction, caught sight of her, and did as he was told.
How long, Aunt Sally wondered, since she had even spoken to any of them but Caribou? Were they stopping coming to her? Forgetting she was out here, even? Surely not. But the nights did keep stretching out, now, spooling away down the grasslands, slow and muddy as the Mississippi, bored by their own movement, moving anyway. With a sigh, she waved a hand at Caribou, the sign to approach.
“Your stocking's down again,” Caribou said to her as he stepped out of the moonlight, under her canopy, into her circle of shadow. And Aunt Sally sighed again, this time in something like contentment. It was Caribou's voice, more than anything, that she enjoyed. That impeccable tone. Groomsman, servant, grandson, lover, all at the same time. Her lily-white Man of the South, who did whatever she told him.
It had bored Mother, that tone. Mother liked her lovers louder, or full of music.
“So pick it up,” she snapped.
Caribou's mouth twitchedâin delight, controlled delight, he knew she preferred his exasperationâand he started to raise one of his ridiculously long arms in protest. Then he dropped to one knee to fix her stocking. Aunt Sally smiled. Thought she smiled. She ignored Caribou completely, pretended to focus on his companion. Silly devil-goatee beard, big fat bruise on his pasty-white cheek, as though he had been fighting. Abruptly, she did remember something about this one: he had a tattoo of a wasp on his neck. There it was, when he dropped and tilted his head to keep from looking at her too directly, seemingly crawling up his throat toward his ear. Right where she had told him his dream said he should get it. Gullible, pasty goatee-moron.