Grounded

Grounded

I’ve always been able to fly. Well, when I was very young, it was more of a hover. It embarrassed my father, in fact, to this day, my left shoulder is slightly lower than my right from where he pushed me down, but couldn’t keep me grounded. My mother was pleased for me, she thought it would be an advantage as I got older, but she still made me wear dumb dresses which reached the ground and covered my feet when I hovered.

I thought everyone could fly. That it was a natural progression after crawling and walking and it was only as I grew up that it started to create problems.

To weigh me down, Pa made me shoes as big as tennis racquets, on raised soles filled with sand. Ma sewed rocks into the hem of my clothes. As a result I neither walked nor hovered properly, but glided along with a peculiar stop/start effect as the ballast shifted around. It wasn’t too much of a problem until I hit school age, or so I’m told.

By the time I got to round seven years old, Pa couldn’t take the worry any longer. Most kids were kept in line with threats of the ‘bogey-man’; I took to looking over my shoulder and under my bed for government agents or scientists from the Space Agency. Pa said if they got wind of me I’d be stolen away to study, like a frog in first-grade biology class. If we hadn’t lived on the edge of the town, with an empty lot on each side, it would have been much harder to hide my strange gift from folks, but, as it was, we kept ourselves pretty much to ourselves. Ma said that was enough to raise suspicion in itself; in our neighbourhood, families, unless they had something real bad to hide, were much more sociable than we ever were. Ma and Pa were scared if I hung around much longer, word would get out and it wouldn’t be long before trouble came a-calling.

Anyway, it was decided about then that I was to go and stay with Seth and Marnie, Pa’s sister and her husband, who lived a straight four days hard driving from us near a town called Clovis. Ma argued against it apparently, but not very convincingly, and within a week I was gone. Folks might think it odd, but that’s exactly how it was. Faced with the ‘problem’ child that Ma and Pa had, I wager they’d have done the exact same thing.

Ma promised she’d write regular as she could, but couldn’t say for sure when she’d come to take me back home, until then I was to be patient and remember they were only doing what they thought best for me. Of course, I don’t suppose it was easy for them to let me go, or for me to up and leave, but I can’t rightly remember. Anyhow, that’s the way it was. I can’t remember much about this time at all, but now and again if Marnie’s in a good mood an’ all, she’ll tell me a little bit about back then.

I’d only met Marnie once or twice and Seth was a stranger to me. I don’t think they disliked me, it was more that they were unused to children, but for a long time I was unhappy. My parents had never been very demonstrative but had shown they cared in little ways. My aunt and uncle were more subtle, but after a few months they thawed towards me. I forgave them quite quickly, even then I could understand how difficult it must have been to be landed with a flying seven year old.

Life changed considerably. Seth and Marnie scraped a living out of twenty or thirty acres of unresponsive soil in the sticks and, apart from going into town a few times a year, had only each other and an assortment of working animals for company.
I no longer went to school and the school board didn’t chase me. I never questioned why, but presumed no one knew I had moved in.

I followed Seth around and tried to help. He merely hiked his pants higher, grunted, and set off at such a pace that, if I wanted to keep up with him, I had no option but to fly. Nothing was ever said, it was just taken for granted that if any of the dumb stock managed to get themselves stuck in awkward, out of reach spots, I was the one who’d bring them to safety. Now and then he would say thank you.

Marnie didn’t want me in the house holding her back. She said I just got in the way and ‘that for someone so light on your feet, how come you keep falling over them?’ When we tried baking she said I was too ‘heavy handed for pastry’. I think the real reason was she saw little point in teaching me how to run a home; she doubted I would ever marry. She made sure Seth showed me how to rear and slaughter animals. Left to myself, I may never eat cake again, but I sure as heck wouldn’t starve.

The summer I turned 14, was the summer Red and Cody came. I missed all the fun; I’d flown over the fields to the forest, and then beyond, to the lake. I’d spent all afternoon lazing in the sun and skinny dipping. I was on my way back, fooling with a flock of blackbirds, when I heard the two quick shots fired from Seth’s gun. It was the signal he used to warn me if there were any strangers around. I flew home very low, just above the tree line and landed, in a clearing, near the edge of the wood. I was excited; we’d never had anyone visit in the eight years I’d been there, and ran through the fields, without stopping, until I arrived home, sweaty and breathless. I wasn’t there to see their camper-van pull on to our land, but when Cody later described how Marnie, ever suspicious, had welcomed them with Seth’s old shot-gun, I was sorry I’d missed it.

I was about to introduce myself to the visitors but Marnie yanked me unceremoniously indoors.

‘Don’t you go charging at them like a bull in a china shop, Sissy, they don’t need to know everything about us straight off. Here, take this and go and sluice yourself down in the yard, then we’ll eat. Think on girl, people will talk in any case so we don’t need to fill their mouths for them!’ She waved her pinafore at me and shooed me out of the kitchen.

Seth eventually took Cody on for the rest of the summer- we needed extra hands then, to ensure we ate in winter- and Red would help out where ever she could. He got them parked up in the shade behind the old barn and left them to settle in. Marnie rustled up a sandwich and a jug of cool iced tea, which they had in the VW. After that, it was understood they would eat with us, not in the house, but under the shady tree in the front of it.

I filled a pail of clear and icy water and washed the grime from my face and neck. I was about to swill my arms when I felt somebody watching me.

A woman was standing a few yards away, smoking a cigarette. Scarlet nails slashed the air as she lifted it to her mouth. I was entranced. As she exhaled, she threw back her head, then turned, and sauntered lazily around the corner of the house, her long, auburn curls jiggling in perfect rhythm with her unruly behind. I wasn’t the only one fascinated by her. Seth, half hidden in the barn’s shaded doorway, suddenly drew deeper back into the shadows as he became aware of Marnie watching him, as he stared after Red.

I never noticed anything until it hit me how tense it got when Marnie had to share space with Red. She no longer ate with us, merely laid the heaped platters of food on the table, and silently went back indoors. I couldn’t see her in the shaded interior of the kitchen, but I felt her keen blue eyes on us as we ate the food she’d prepared. Cody was a good farm hand and around him, Seth became almost garrulous. In fact, the more Marnie withdrew, the more Seth came out of himself. We were a happy group, falling silent only when Marnie re-emerged to bring a pitcher of beer and brusquely decline any offer of Red’s help with the dishes.

I took to spending every moment I could with Red. She dazzled me. I discovered she’d married at 15, pregnant, the year she won her local beauty pageant. A further two pregnancies followed as quickly as her attraction to her husband waned. One day, she was out shopping alone, a rare treat, and completely out of the blue, she hitched a lift at the truck stop on a rig making for Texas. Walked away from her babies. Just like that.

‘So take a lesson, kid,’ she said ‘build some memories before you settle for what’s waiting for you. That pretty gold band on your finger just keeps on getting tighter and tighter the longer you wear it, until you just plain can’t breathe!’

‘Is Cody the trucker you got a ride with?’ I asked.

‘Hell no!’ she laughed. ‘I was sick as hell of him after 72 hours. Cody, I met just when I needed him. He’s the one who christened me Red; kind of suits me wouldn’t you say, better than Betty-Jo ever did!’

Before I could learn anything more Seth came looking for her.

‘Need you to help, Red; Cody’s busy. He’s trying to squeeze a few more miles out of the pick-up. Darn thing’s hissing and a spitting like a fox in a trap,’ he said to her.

She linked arms with him and laughed up into his face. ‘Happy to oblige, boss.’

I expected Seth to push her away, but he laughed right back down at her as they crossed the yard. Nothing made any sort of sense anymore.

I was hurt when I tried to talk to Marnie and she turned on me.

‘Red too busy?’ was all she said, but it was enough to pull me up short It made me realise just how much I’d excluded her since the VW had pulled on to our land and I determined to make things better between us. That night, after yet another supper which Marnie didn’t eat with us, I waited until Red and Cody returned to their camper van.

‘Guess I’ll hit the sack,’ Seth said, yawning. He reached out and ruffled my hair.

‘Yeah, me too. Goodnight, Seth.’ I followed him into the house.

Once inside my room, I leant against the back of my door and heard the click of the latch as Seth entered his bedroom, and then heard the unexpected second click as Marnie left it. I waited until I heard the soft rattle of the screen door closing and then quietly followed Marnie. I heard the slight creak of metal against wood before I saw her, in the swing chair Seth had rigged up for us, at the far side of the stoop.

She had her eyes closed and was humming softly to herself whilst her fingers idly toyed with the corner of the sun faded quilt which lay loosely across her shoulders. I sat at her feet with my back against the wooden railings and was surprised when she spoke.

‘Your ma made this,’ she said. ‘Every square worked with love…Dreams in every stitch…’

I loved it when she spoke of Ma and Pa. The letters they’d promised to write came so rarely now; Marnie said it was surely because every time Ma thought about picking up a pen and writing, it reminded her how much she missed me and that I was one lucky child to be loved so much, by so many people. To tell the truth, the only thing that made my parents real for me was when Marnie told me about them; what Pa was like as a boy and then how happy he’d been when he began courting Ma, and how he near burst with pride when he discovered I was on the way.

Her voice trailed away and I held my breath willing her to continue. She was quiet for a long time and I thought she had fallen asleep. I stood, slowly easing my cramped bones, and as I tip-toed past her, to go back to bed, she reached out and gently touched my arm.

‘Stay awhile, child.’

I sat once more, at her feet.

‘Your ma made this,’ she repeated, fingering the patchwork quilt, ‘five years before you were born. She worked it a full four months and then parcelled it up and sent it. It lay in the post office in town for three weeks before we got word that a parcel had arrived for us, and I made Seth fire up the old Buick and go straight down, into town, to fetch it, told him I’d not move from the stoop until the dust devils blowing behind the car told of his return.
‘It was for the crib of the child I was carrying. I had the names already chosen, Sonny for a boy, Lainey for a girl.’

I must have gasped, or made some sort of noise, but somehow I couldn’t say the words I needed to, to find out why, if she’d been pregnant, I hadn’t seen hide or hair of a cousin, either Sonny or Lainey. Before I could even attempt a question, she spoke again.

‘I fell, over there by the big tree, flat on my back, my belly near splitting in half like a ripe melon, and screaming and hollering fit to deafen folk half a county away. Still wasn’t near loud enough to bring Seth running though; he was mending a fence in the far field and between his hammering and banging and having his transistor radio on at full blast, he never realised anything was wrong until he near fell over me when he came looking for his dinner and had to deliver a dead child instead.
‘That was my one and only baby, I somehow never managed to catch on again. Near broke Seth’s heart.’

She seemed to have run out of words and, for the life of me, I could think of nothing useful to say. I clumsily got up and joined her on the swing chair.

‘Marnie,’ I started, but she put her fingers over my lips to still me.

‘I’ve heard you jawing with Red, seen the way you hang on to her every word. Why do you think she’s so fine, Sissy? A woman who can’t find happiness unless some man is chasing and lusting after her; a mother who’d walk out on her babies without a second thought? Just how long is she going to be satisfied with Cody; will she just up and go and ruin another life?’

‘But Cody loves her Marnie, she won’t leave him.’

I, who knew nothing about love, least not grown up love, defended both Red and Cody.

‘Some women, Sissy, will never have enough with the love of just one man and, sure as God made little green apples, Red is one of them. You can moon around after her all you like, child, but mark my words, she doesn’t care for you, she don’t care ‘bout anyone except herself.’

I wanted to talk some more to Marnie, to show her that I still loved her and that there had to be room in my heart for others besides her and Seth, but as usual I couldn’t find the words. Marnie looked at me sadly and before I could think of any darn words that would make things good between us again, she stroked my cheek, almost regretfully, rose and went indoors.

For the first time since I’d met Red I wanted to fly. I wanted to take off into the indigo velvet night and chase the gossamer clouds dancing across the glowing silver moon, but I craved the release from confusion that sleep would allow too.

I went inside quietly and was surprised to see Marnie asleep on the couch beneath the window. I stood a moment, watching the play of shadow on her face, and wondered how long she’d been leaving her marriage bed as soon as Seth entered it.

The next morning every thing seemed better, as it does when you’re 15. Breakfast had been eaten, and the crockery, unusually, still lay on the table. Neither Seth nor Marnie were to be seen.

I spread a fresh baked roll with butter and generously helped myself to some of Marnie’s special spiced plum jam. The coffee on the stove was cold so I drank a glass of milk, cool from the ice-box. As I finished, I saw Seth crossing the yard towards the tractor and shouted to him through the window.

‘Where is everyone?’

He appeared as miserable as Marnie. If they were both unhappy, why they didn’t just sort it out and get things could back to how they were, I couldn’t begin to imagine.

‘Marnie’s taken the truck and gone into town, some damm fool errand to run.’

In all the years I’d been there, I’d never known her to set foot off the farm without Seth.

‘Oh, well.’ I thought. ‘No Marnie, no chores.’ and watched as Seth gunned up the tractor, got off it and shouted for Cody to ‘hurry the hell up’. As Cody turned out of the yard, heading for a hard days toil in the top field, Seth headed off to the barn and I headed off looking for diversion, its right what folks say – the devil does make work for idle hands.

Ignoring the messy breakfast table, I went to my room and rooted around under my bed until I found the magazine Red had gifted me. I stroked the smooth shiny cover with its colourful headlines screaming ‘How to keep your man from straying; are you a Real Woman?’ above ‘Fashion and make-up tips, hot from Hollywood’, and a picture of a good looking guy, arm around an impossibly beautiful dark haired girl with gleaming, unlikely white teeth. Restlessly, I went and looked in the full length mirror in Marnie’s room.

I took my pony tail out of the rubber band that had held the last batch of post we’d collected, and pushed my bangs out of my eyes. Hair fell around my face in dirty blonde feathers and strong clear blue eyes despaired of the mud-splat of freckles over the bridge of my nose. I looked at my tan legs poking out curiously from the bottom of my overalls, and the worn uppers of my sneakers. I quite liked the T-shirt, an old one of Marnie’s with a cute sweetheart neckline, but could see it was getting too tight across my chest which had embarrassingly sprouted since last summer. Well, I couldn’t do much about the fashion bit, but maybe Red had some makeup she didn’t use?

Excited, I ran on to the stoop, then across the yard and stopped. Marnie had gone into town; Cody was up in the top field, but I couldn’t see or hear anyone else.

I thought Seth would possibly be working in the barn and expecting Red to be in the camper, I headed in that direction. She wasn’t, so I sat in the yard a while, letting dry crumbly soil slip through my fingers and kicking pebbles, until I remembered how much I’d wanted to fly last night. I couldn’t leave the immediate area without telling Seth, he needed to know when I was flying so he could look out for me, but I reckoned it would be safe enough if I didn’t go too far afield. I decided to fly no higher than the buildings around me. The old tractor engine would warn me of Cody’s return, dust on the top road of any unannounced visitors, so the only one I had to be wary of was Red. The risk, to be honest, only made it more enticing.

I stood, feet together and eyes closed and raised my arms from my sides. I rose slowly and steadily and with every inch the pure clean joy I always felt at flying, rose in me. Exhilarated, I opened my eyes and levelled out, taking a long, lazy swoop around the yard, laughing as my toes tickled the tiles on the roof top as I soared over it. Suddenly I realised that I could see Cody in the far distance and, worried that he would also see me, swooped low and flew the entire length of the stoop along the front of the house instead. Round and round I flew, twisting and turning, dipping and diving, my body fluid on the warm summer currents. Around the tree, across the yard and then, extending my flight path, through the huge open ended barn. I relished the air flowing over and around me, warm out side, cooler in the shade of the barn and then the warmth again as I emerged and the soft whispering rushing sound I made as I cut through the air as easily as a hot knife through butter.

I heard the low murmurings before I registered them and where they came from. More than anything else I was intrigued. I didn’t immediately recognise the voices, his, unusually soft and tender, hers, languid and yielding. I came to rest at the foot of the wooden ladder resting against the upper hay loft. I decided against climbing it and instead, assumed the stance from which I knew I could rise noiselessly. Posing, like the crucifix nailed above Seth and Marnie’s bed, I silently rose, higher and higher, until I was level with the hay loft, but I still was unable to see properly; two large bales had been moved to the very edge of the loft to ensure privacy. Holding my breath I continued to rise inch by inch, the concentration needed to control the speed of my ascent making my muscles tremble with effort.

In the hay bale love-nest, lay Seth, my taciturn, dispassionate naked uncle, sated by pleasures possibly only previously imagined, whilst Red, propped on one elbow and as seemingly satisfied as only a cat that’s swallowed a stolen quart of cream can be, leant over him and left slimy silver slug-spit trails of saliva in his chest-hair as her sharply pointed tongue tantalised. She was nude – strangely, I became aware for the first time of the emotional difference of two words which mean precisely the same thing – and I was unreasonably angry to see that she wasn’t ‘Red’ at all; her pubic hair was a washed out brown. And then I saw, they had taken Marnie’s quilt to lie on; the one ma had made for the baby that was never born, from the swing chair on the stoop.

I suppose the day drew to a close as usual; Marnie would have returned from whatever errand she was on, a day in the fields would have stoked up Cody’s usual ravenous appetite, Seth would have made small talk about the next day’s work, Marnie would have cooked the food for supper, but eaten it alone, and Red, Red would have been Red. But I’m only guessing.

From the barn, I went straight to my room and stayed hidden under my quilt every time any one came near.

‘Go away! I’m sick.’ And I was. Sick at heart.

Cody was packing his van when I got up the next morning. Marnie was nearby, poking at a bonfire with a long soot blackened metal pole.

‘Are they leaving?’ I asked.

‘She’s long gone,’ she answered without raising her eyes.

Cody came over to us.

‘Guess I’ll be hitting the road,’ he said. ‘Can’t tell you how sick I am at the way things panned out…’He didn’t wait for a reply before turning on his heel and walking away. I watched as he drove the VW off our land and onto the dirt track that eventually joined the highway. I watched until the dust-devils disappeared completely from sight.

Marnie was still poking the fire, raking stuff into the middle constantly just like she made omelettes in the big black skillet, as though she was afraid something may escape. A piece of cloth, freshly yellow as a corn fed egg, shone briefly before being hungrily eaten by flames.

‘Isn’t that Seth’s Sunday shirt?’ I asked, shocked.

‘Sure is.’

‘Doesn’t he want it any more?’

‘Don’t rightly know what he’s wanted for a while now.’

I looked at Marnie. She had shrunken somehow and closed in around herself and my heart ached for her, but once again I failed to find the words I needed.

‘Sissy, come here.’

She held on to the pole with one hand and held the other out toward me. As I reached her she put her arm around my shoulders and hugged me.

‘Seth’s gone, child…left with her during the night. Took the rainy day money as well; twenty years of scrimping and scratting, gone…goddam them to hell!’

We stood in silence for a long time until the fire burnt down completely and nothing was left of it except a blackened buckle, I suppose from Seth’s Sunday trousers and, incongruously, the bottom set of a pair of false teeth.

‘Yep, Seth’s Sunday teeth,’ she said and started crying which set me off.

We went back into the house and Marnie got her Mother’s silver tea-pot, and the china cups she’d won in a raffle many years ago, down from the dresser. We drank hot sweet tea until the pot grew cold and she excused herself. She went into her bedroom and stayed there for three full days.

I’ve only tried flying once since I found Seth and Red in the hay loft, and found I couldn’t. Don’t rightly know why I couldn’t, but there again, never rightly knew why I could. I just think the pain, heavy like rock in my heart, weighed me down more than Pa and his sand filled shoes ever could.

Copyright Eileen Brown

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