May 2014 - Comments Off

Her hands, clean and white

Jaclyn Triebel '15

Two weeks later I’d come up with a routine. I rolled out of bed as soon as Faith was up, which was often before six AM, her heavy footsteps causing the floorboards around my head to chirp like chickadees. I’d help her make breakfast and pack my lunch for school, get on the bus and get off at Oak Springs Elementary. I was ahead of their lessons by almost a month, so my teacher would let me spend math hour reading instead. I was like a shiny new penny to the Oaks Springs fourth grade. They didn’t get many new kids. At first they swarmed around me like ants on a piece of sidewalk gum, but two weeks of me being nothing special had cleared away most of my fans.

One girl, named Constance, sat next to me in class. We shared a pencil sharpener and I always traded my carrots for her apple slices at lunch. She didn’t talk much and I liked that. One day we were sitting in the cafeteria, her teeth happily snapping into a one of my carrots, when she asked me if my grandmother was The Witch.

“The witch?” I asked, “What witch?”

“The Witch,” she said very matter-of-factly, “That lives in the woods off Route-88.”

“I don’t think so,” I said, “That’s where we live, but my grandma’s name is Faith.” I told her that she wears a blue dress most days, and keeps a white bible in her pocket book. And a tube of red lipstick, but that I’ve never seen her actually wear it.

“The bible?”

“The lipstick.”

“Well, that sure sounds like The Witch,” Constance said. She told me that there was a tall woman who drove around town in a pick-up truck picking through people’s trash and spending a lot of time near the dumpy side of town, near the railroad. She didn’t know the witch’s name but Jimmy from Mrs. Slavchek’s class had seen her cast a spell on a cat once. I told Constance that I wanted to talk to Jimmy and we arranged a meeting after school.

“Yup,” he said after I described Faith’s car to him, “That’s the witch. I heard from a sixth grader that last halloween she spent the entire night in a graveyard.”

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Hell if I know, but she was there and that’s a fact.” He told me that everyone in town knew about the witch. She lived out in the woods and when she came to town she only spent time on the seedy side.

“What she’s doin’ over there,” he said, “Might not be witchcraft. But no one goes over to that side of town except for rotten stuff.”

______

I walked home that day instead of taking the bus, because it was sunny and the wind was making the leaves twirl around my feet like cyclones. I thought about The Witch. In the last two weeks I hadn’t gotten to know Faith very well, besides our breakfasts in the morning she was always gone. She got home late because of her job, Mom said. I didn’t know if she was The Witch but I couldn’t be sure. When I got home Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, like she did most days, a yellow highlighter in her hand and the newspaper Classified section open in front of her. Tiny circles and x’s covered the page, making it look like a giant game of tic-tac-toe. I wondered if she was winning.

I dropped my backpack onto one of the kitchen chairs and pried out my spelling homework. I looked up and watched as Mom chewed on her bottom lip, the orange of her lipstick rubbing off on her front teeth. I asked if I could look at the map.

“What map?” she asked without looking up from her game.

“The Mexico map,” I said. She told me that it was still packed away in her things. I looked up at the suitcases near the front door, unopened after two weeks.

“I could help you look,” I offered, but she told me that in a few weeks we would just need to pack everything up again and what was the use of making such a fuss over a map?

“I need to count how far we are now from Mexico.” She looked up at me and studied my face with as much focus as she’d had looking at the newspaper.

“What happened?” She asked, in a way that told me it was futile to deny that something was wrong. She was Mom, and Mom always knew. I told her about Constance and Jimmy, and The Witch. When I stopped talking her face was pale, her orange lips comically bright like a clown’s.

“I can’t believe they still say that,” she said. I heard something bubble in her throat and looked away, knowing deep down that it was shameful for a mother to cry in front of her daughter. But the gurgling in her throat boiled over into a giggle, and soon she was laughing loudly in a way that I hadn’t heard her laugh in weeks.

“I’m going to tell you a secret,” she whispered to me after the laughter simmered down and her color was back. She reached her long and skinny arms across the table and held my hands. “Your grandmother is not a witch,” I sighed in relief. “But she’s certainly pretty magical.” I could tell my eyes had gotten very wide because Mom was laughing again. “You’ll see for yourself soon, I’m sure.” She went back to her tic-tac-toe game and I went back to my homework, my head spinning.

_____

That night I couldn’t sleep. Not now, knowing that the woman in the bed next to me was much more than I had ever imagined. I propped myself up in bed and looked at clock on the side table. 2:13 am. I groaned and flopped onto my back, letting the covers slip off of my body and kicking my legs free of the offensive blanket, too hot and scratchy for one so restless. A light was on in the kitchen and I decided to shut the bedroom door, hoping the darkness would drag me down to sleep.

When my hand met the doorknob I heard voices spilling out of the kitchen.

“You should stay here.” Said one voice. I strained my ears to make out which of the women it was.

“We can’t stay here for much longer, she’s going to get attached.” That was Mom.

“To me?” That was Faith.

“Yes, to you. To this house.” I heard footsteps and hid my body behind the door as Mom’s shadow swept across the slice of yellow light.

“You could move here. Permanently . . . if you wanted to.” Faith’s voice was softer.

“You know we can’t do that, Mom.” Glasses clinked on wood and something was poured. “I can’t be in the same town as him for much longer, it’s too hard.”

“I just don’t understand why you’re still mad at me, though.” There was a lot of silence, someone was drinking something. The glass met the tabletop again. Mom wasn’t saying anything so Faith talked instead. “I’ve apologized for how it ended up already. You won’t make me do it again, will you?” Silence. “You were settled, Christine! You had Laurel and I—”

“You should have known better. You were the adult, you shouldn’t have let me leave. I was nineteen years old for Christ’s sake.”

“I want to take her to see him.”

“No.”

“He knows she’s here, Christine. How much longer are you gonna hide her from him?”

Silence, silence.

“I can’t believe you still go to see him.” Mom’s voice was wobbly.

“How was I supposed to know he’d leave you?” A glass smashed and I hid my face in the shadow behind the door.

“Here, I’ll get you a towel.”

_____

Faith was already gone when I woke up the next morning. She wasn’t there when I got home at night either. Her bed was slept in but she was gone every morning that week before I could even open my eyes.
Saturday I caught her.

“Where are you going?” I called to her from the front porch. It was early, the sun was barely up and the morning light was grey. Faith was carrying a heavy crate from the garage to the truck, but her face turned to me when I called out, standing there barefoot in my pajamas.

“What are you doing up?” She asked.

“I asked you first.” She smirked and shoved the crate into the bed.

“I’ve got errands to run all day.” I frowned and sat down on the porch steps, watching her carry two more heavy crates to the truck. Her white hair shined like floss as the sun rose above our heads, printing silhouettes of the leaves above onto the ground in front of me.

“Are you a witch?” I called out to her as she was hoisting herself up into the cab of the truck. Her hand was on the handle, the door half-open, her looking at me.

“Do I look like a witch?” She asked. I said no. “Then I guess I’m not.” She started to close the door, but paused before twisting the key in the ignition.

“Where’d you hear that from?” She asked.

“The kids at school.”

“Not your mother?” I shook my head no. Faith hopped down out of the truck and walked to me. She knelt down, the hem of her always-blue dress skimming the earth beneath us, tickling up dust.

“I’m not supposed to do this, but how’d you like to come with me?”
I was in and out of the house, dressed and washed, before my mother knew either of us was gone. Faith made me promise that this would be our secret. I’d never had a secret like this before, and all to my very own.

______

We drove the first ten minutes in silence. I asked if we could turn the radio on but she said that it was busted. I asked where we were going.

“I told you, I have errands to run. Don’t you like a little mystery?” I shook my head, no. “You’re just like your mother.” Ten minutes later we pulled up in front of what looked like a run down motel. There was only one car out front and the majority of the windows had been boarded up. We both hopped down onto the dusty pavement and she dragged one of the large crates off the back of the truck and walked up to the door marked “Manager.” I followed.

Faith knocked on the door, calling out for someone named Sampson. The door cracked open and a weathered face blinked down at us. After a murmured “hullo” Faith elbowed her way into the room and dropped the crate on the bed nearest the door. Clouds of purple dust erupted from the bed and floated lazily into the shafts of light cutting through the blinds. I stayed near the door, not sure where I should stand.

“It’s not as much as last week,” she said as she began unloading the crate, taking out a few boxes of pasta and some canned soups, a tin of instant coffee, a bunch of bananas. “But it’ll last you til the next time I’m here if you’re economical with it.” Sampson sat next to the crate on the bed without looking at it, his worn hands curled up like two leather gloves resting on his lap. She looked around and started collecting an assortment of empty bottles and cans that rested like dusty statues on the desk and window sill.

“I’ll take these to the collection center fer ya. Is this all of them?” Sampson nodded and stood up, he put his hand in hers and squeezed. We got back into the truck and drove another ten minutes in silence before I spoke.

“Who was that?”

“Sampson.”

“What did you bring him?”

“Food, soap, some coffee.”

“Is he a friend of yours?”

“Yes.”

I nodded and looked at the road in front of me, so different and so familiar from that night we first drove into Oak Springs. It was noon and we had two more crates in the back. Our next stop was behind the church, an old apartment building only a few stories high that must have once been something really special, back when the town was new.

Again, Faith dragged the crate out of the truck bed and carried it to the door where she used her elbow to ring Apartment #3. There was a buzz and a click and suddenly we were inside the cool, damp lobby bathed in fluorescent light. Up one flight of stairs and down a hallway we came to a door with a bronze ‘3’ nailed haphazardly into the chipping wood. A woman opened the door this time. Her face was young, she looked like she could have been my mother’s age. I learned that her name was Margot. She was much the same as Sampson, sitting quietly by the crate helping Faith to unload the contents and pack them away in the kitchen. She was a little embarrassed by my presence I think, because she asked who I was.

“She’s my granddaughter,” Faith replied cooly, her spine straight as a razor while she unloaded the crate, eyes on her task. Margot nodded and asked me what grade I was in. Fourth? She had kids at the elementary school. She wondered if I’d ever met them but I didn’t recognize their names. She seemed relieved. I wandered around the family room while Margot talked to Faith in the kitchen. Turns out she was chattier than Sampson. I found my way to what looked like a bathroom door and pushed it open. The tiles inside were pastel orange, faded and grimy near the foot of a tub that was set against the back wall, curtain drawn. It looked like a faded shade of my mother’s lipstick, of Mexico orange.

I looked at my reflection in the mirror, only half of my face visible because I was short, then I heard a splash. I peeled back the curtain around the tub and was surprised to see a face blinking stupidly up at me, several faces. Three young boys were soaking in the tub, their fingers and toes purple and shriveled like tiny prunes sewn to the ends of their fingers and toes. I pulled a towel off of the rack next to me and offered it to them, not knowing what to do, hoping they would cover their nakedness. They just sat there like three grey dumplings sizzling in their own filth. I left the bathroom and went back to Faith who was waiting for me by the front door.

“Was she a friend of yours too?” I asked once we were back in the truck and driving, only one crate left in the back of the truck.

“Yes.”

“You have a lot of friends.” I observed, my fingers played with the lock button on my door, flicking it up and down to the rhythm of passing trees. Swish, click, swish, flick, swish, click.

“Wasn’t always that way,” Faith said in her husky voice, and I nodded. “People get tough times in life, Laurel. Not everyone has a place they can go to when things get tough.” Swish, click, swish, flick, swish, click. “People get stuck, and they think that they don’t have any options but to run away.”

“You ever get stuck?” I asked her. We both kept our eyes on the road in front of us, watching the horizon as it got nearer and nearer, and of course never any closer at all.

“I thought I was. Things turned out okay in the end, that’s what’s important.”

“Did you run away?”

“I tried.” I nodded.

Swish, click, swish, flick, swish, click.

“Did you have friends to help you?” I asked, listening for the ker-chunk of the mechanism inside the door handle.

“Not at the time.”

“But now you do,” I said confidently, “You have lots of friends.” She smiled at the windshield and told me to quit fussing with the button.

____

The last house we pulled up to was cleaner than the rest. Dilapidated, yes, but somehow still beautiful in its disintegration. I could see flowers growing around the base of the house, as if someone had dropped it onto a flower bed by accident and the plants were still struggling to escape from underneath, their leaves lifted up like open palms reaching for the sun. The man who lived there was named Earnest, and when he opened the door he was wearing overalls and a pair of work gloves, thick with mud. His face wasn’t young or old, it was handsome and tanned.

“Faith,” his voice was soft and rich like velvet, stronger than the others’.

“Earnest,” she smiled at him. He walked us into the kitchen where Faith dropped the crate on a yellow linoleum table and wiped her brow. She dug around in the crate for a moment and pulled out a carton of cigarettes, “I know I’m not supposed to give you these, but—” she tossed the box to him over the table and he caught it gingerly, the work gloves like two large baseball mitts covering his hands. He said thank you, and the two of them smiled without really looking at each other, their eyes pointed at each other’s feet. When the man named Earnest started fussing with the box Faith walked over and helped him to open it. I realized he couldn’t see very well. I wondered if he saw me at all.

“Laurel I’m gonna take a look out back at Ernie’s garden. You stay here and keep your hands in your pockets.” I nodded and sat quietly at the kitchen table. The clock on the wall ticked away fifteen minutes before my legs begged me to stand. I walked to what looked like the family room, where a large reclining chair sat covered with crossword puzzles and newspaper clippings. There was a row of framed photographs over the mantle which I immediately investigated. There was Earnest holding up a fish as long as I was tall. It could have swallowed me whole. There was a picture of Earnest with two other people, probably his parents. In the frame in the center there was a baby picture, Earnest was holding it so delicately in his bulky arms. I stopped, confused by how much I recognized the woman beside him. It was Faith. There they stood again in the next frame, in front of a Christmas tree, the baby from before standing on Earnest’s feet, taller now, her smile wide and gleaming. The next photo was similar but there was another woman now, I rubbed my eyes to clear them just to be sure. She and Earnest had their heads together and the baby was in between them, her hands wrapped up in the front of their shirts, laughing. I saw it was my mother’s face. The last frame I mistook for a mirror, though somewhat warped perhaps. It was my second grade school photo. I had my hair clipped back in barrettes and was wearing the shirt I picked out for myself at the department store, special for that day.

I touched the frames one by one, confused and tired. The dust my fingers had stirred up from moving the frames hurt my eyes. I was too young then, it made my head hurt. I went to the window facing the backyard and looked out at Faith and Earnest working in the garden. Earnest sat with his head back, the sun lighting up his entire face, a cigarette already hanging out of his mouth with the tail of blue smoke rising up towards the trees.

Faith was next to him, wrist deep in mulch, several piles of weeds rooted out, their corpses lying peacefully next to her legs. They were talking, their lips moving slowly, their shoulders shrugging and rolling as they interacted so comfortably. I looked down at Faith’s hands buried in the wet, black earth. The veins in her hands stood out blue and bright, echoing the lines of the feathery leaves sprouting out all around her. As she continued to dig, elbow deep now, it looked as if she were working her entire body into the ground, bit by bit, burying herself. The sun lit up her hair white hot and beautiful, her hands gripping the roots that were beneath our feet. The leaves that were stretched up to heaven reached for her now, begging to be saved. Her hands, clean and white, grew together with the leaves she pulled. She glowed. Earnest touched her shoulder, their eyes were on me.

Published by: in Issue 2: Spring 2014, Volume 70

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