Taylor Brown’s short fiction has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including The New Guard, CutBank, The Coachella Review, and storySouth. His story “Rider” received the Montana Prize in Fiction, and he was recently a finalist for the Machigonne Fiction Contest. His debut story collection, In the Season of Blood and Gold, will be out from Press 53 in May 2014. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, and his website is www.taylorbrownfiction.com.
The Old Man stood in the doorway of the cabin she shared with no one. This cabin with its double bed, its shuttered windows. The only one.
“Girl,” he said. “Where did you sleep last night?”
His cheeks were red. His loose throat quaked like a turkey's. Behind him, the Big House glowed whitely on its hill, glass-spangled by a multitude of rising suns.
“Where?” he insisted. “Don't lie to me.”
Nona twisted the cleaning rag in her hands. “Them pines,” she said. “Out in them pines.”
The Old Man had his white shirt on, his suspenders up. He pressed his palms against his thin upper belly, as if to keep his insides from spilling out. His yellow eyes roved her contours, the life-giving swells of pelvis and glands that had made her a record at auction.
“The Patrols,” he said. Jealousy hoarsened his words. “You know what those men'll do they catch you.”
The Old Man looked out the doorway he was standing in, then back at her. He hooked his thumbs in his suspenders. Tugged at them, deciding. Nona stood in the middle of the small cabin, naked save her thin shift. She waited. The Old Man's face was pocked with old scars, cratered with new bites. He wore a white beard, yellowed at the roots and mouth, and the slack skin of his face could crinkle and contort with every subtlety of fear, desire. He was a loser at cards, a drinker. But his cotton held strong season on season. And he was virile. She gave him that.
The insects had begun their crazed sounding outside. He looked over his shoulder toward the Big House, where his wife would be rising soon, then back at Nona.
She sucked her teeth.
“You seen them buzzards?” she asked.
His eyes opened wide. “What?”
She jutted her chin toward the Big House, the sky beyond it. He turned and squinted, saw the dark-flecked cyclone of carrion birds hung stilly over the pasture of his prized heifers.
“Damn,” he said. “Goddamn.” He started out the door, then turned. “You be here tonight, hear?”
Nona just blinked at him. He clamored out the door and began toiling up the hill toward the Big House, toward the pasture beyond it. He'd not ridden his horse down to see her, for appearances' sake.
The Old Man did not want her fingertips calloused from picking. Wanted tenderness. Not the bullet-like fingerpads of the others, the flesh so hardened they could pick coals from the red core of a fire unhurt. So she was excused from picking cotton, from the fields at all. And she could not work in the Big House, of course. Much as the Old Man may have wanted her to, for indulgence. The Old Woman knew something of what was what, and would not have it. So Nona cleaned the cabins of the others. Them gone to the fields, she worked in the shade. And the other women would not let their menfolk stay home sick or injured, no matter their condition. Their menfolk could recover in the tree-shade, with an eye on them.
The pines, the pines. They called out to her, down where they stanchioned the black kink of river, the banks sandy and snow-white under the moon. The dark current hissing along its course, a liquid terrain specked with silver puddles of starlight, a pool of moon.
That's where she would go after the Old Man came to her, shirtless and desperate, his suspenders hanging slack in loops, his torso pallid and soft with no sun, his veined organ ticking through his fly. He never took off his pants.
Numbness had come early to her, a flight away from herself, glandular instincts uncoupled from the task at hand. So she would feel only the guilt, guilt, guilt, as he administered himself. Then explosion, collapse. The Old Man sliding away like a dead fish on an outgoing tide, spent, and the pink soles of her feet finding the gnarled path to the river. There she would slip naked to bathe, the dark current sluicing through the hollow between her breasts, the vent between her legs, conveying away the sweat, slime, other impurities.
And she would look down at her own moon-shadow on the water, a pennant-like quavering like shadow-tongues of flame if fire were of substance such to stead light, and she would feel herself go liquid, unburdened, like the rumored souls of those forbears who had marched chanting into the river bottom, enchained, for freedom.
The Old Man had a son, Lyle, aged 15. He carried no meanness in his face, no fists in his hands. His features were delicate like that of a girl's, his lips swollen and red.
He looked at her longingly at times, from afar. There was no predation in his looks. Rather awe. His mouth agape, his throat taut and hollow, taut and hollow.
The black men could not touch her, of course.
She began to watch him back.
She had been in love once, as a girl. Married too, her husband the strongest of a steel-driving crew. His body was brutal, all sinew and torque. Mean-made, some called him, but gentle as gentle to her. He drove spikes with a 20-pound hammer. Across the fields you could hear him sledging the day long, steel to steel, like the work of a steam-hammer. Lesser men hung their heads in wonder.
But when womenhood exploded upon her, he became strange and nervous. He watched the eyes of the other men, hardly looking anymore at her own. He could hardly stand their taking notice of her. The strike of his own hammer seemed abrupt to him, even vicious. Later his head was found in the driving wheel of a midnight engine, but his body never was found.
There were rumors on the wind now, whispers of fire and plunder. An army of the north invading. Nona wanted to hear more. Couldn't. The women both black and white cast only cutting glances at her, as if she alone were designed to accept a man's assertions of desire.
At night she watched the others dance and sing around the fire. Often she sat on her bed, looking through the window. The Old Man had brought in a group of new men, veterans of sugar plantations far to the south. They had long hair, which the Old Man let them keep, and they brought with them their drums. One would beat them with his palms while the other two danced, twirling and flying at one another but never striking. Their backs were wide as hammered shields, and cruel, like wings or the muscle of wings yet unspread. All white-blistered with scar. Their breath smoked in the cold dark.
She grabbed Lyle by the wrist and pulled him inside her cabin. He had come by on some excuse — she knew it. She pushed him onto the bed and climbed onto him. The boy could not speak as she worked him, her eyes open for once, watching him, his silent coughs. A mania gripped her during the act, an unhinged desire to take something for her own, and she was mad, mad, mad for it. Maybe, yes, to be no longer alone.
Afterwards she had to shepherd him to the door, so wonder-eyed was he, dazed.
“Your horse run off,” she told him. “Best get to looking after him.”
Truly his horse, untethered, had wandered from the cabin. He nodded, nodded, but hardly moved. She was happy his father was not so difficult to be rid of. At the door she pulled him around and bore her eyes into his.
“You never tell no one about this, you hear?”
He started to open his mouth but she held up her finger. “Never,” she said.
His white cheeks were flushed with blood, like something had been cut open inside him. He stared slack-jawed at her a moment, then down her body. She knew he wouldn't tell.
He nodded. She turned him and gently pushed him toward the door. She stuck her head out and looked this way, that way, and then pushed him out. He stumbled off in the direction of his horse, slow at first, but his step soon quickened.
She watched him go. When he was gone, she crumpled in the corner of her room and wailed into the crook of her arm.
“The blood ain't come,” she said.
She was talking to herself, her reflection, and the puddled galaxy held quivering upon the river's current. She was two weeks late. She did not know what to do. Everyone knew the Old Man could no longer procreate, not in ten years. Not since that mule had kicked him. Even if his enthusiasm for the act had shown no signs of slacking.
When she started to showing, he would know. Everyone would. That she had been with another. A man. A boy. Someone. That she who was chosen, had tried to choose. The Old Man would beat her for it. Would have the cabin door barred and locked. Only shadows for her days. And still he would come. Would only assert himself the harder, trying to kill the thing inside her.
And the others' eyes, she could already imagine them. So much hate. That she couldn't be happy with her smooth hands, her cool shade, her one thing she had to do. Just one thing.
She sank to her knees in the water. The black liquid lapped at her throat. She let the dark glide over her face. Under. It was so dark here, and silent. She opened her eyes. The moon quavered above her, undulant. Her lungs began to burn; the pressure built inside her. She let it push away the thoughts, the worries and fear. Ballooning. Burning. She could forget it all this way. The life within her, the world without. Let the current take her. Sweep her off into the ever-dark. Forgotten. But in her darkness she saw it: the smallest seed of being. Small as a lima bean. Innocent. Unnamed. It pulsed inside her.
She surged for the surface. Her arms broke first, her fingers gnarled for air, her body rising all twisted and crooked from the darkness like some strange-struck tree. She stood that way a long moment, frozen, her trunk swelled with air. She looked toward the Big House. There it stood on the hill, the windows glowing as if they housed a great heart of fire.
One of the house maids answered the door. Nona was staring at her bare feet, the damp halo she was making on the kitchen stoop. She was shaking. She looked up.
The maid's name was Daisy. She was round with round white eyes, red-splintered with age and toil.
“The hell?” she said.
“I need to talk to the Old Woman,” said Nona.
Daisy put her hands on her hips.
“She in bed.”
“Then get her up.”
Daisy looked her up, down. She sucked her teeth. She nodded.
The Old Woman shuffled to the door. She clutched her night-robe tightly in one hand, a candle in the other.
“My Lord, child, you'll catch your death.”
She pulled Nona into the house. The kitchen. You could smell the burnt-flour gravy from supper.
“What in the world happened to you?”
Nona looked down at her feet a long moment. She looked the woman in the eye.
“I's with child,” she said.
The woman clutched her chest. It was bony there. Where the robe lay open you could see the ribbed joinery that caged her heart. Her fingers dug into the silk robe, talon-like, as if they might tear out what lay inside it. She stumbled backwards, against the butcher's block. One long finger quivered at Nona.
“Out!” she said. “Out!”
Nona backed against the counter.
Nona found the door behind her and backed her away onto the stoop. She didn't turn her back. She was ten steps into the yard before she wheeled and quickened her step toward the cabin, clutching the kitchen knife close against her belly.
He came within the hour, like she knew he would. He had on a pair of britches over his pajamas. He was carrying a candlestick. No candle. He rapped on the door, hard. She opened it. The candlestick came hard against her temple. Her knees struck the floor. He wound her hair in his fist and wrenched up her head, toward his face.
“Slut,” he said. “Whore.”
His teeth were out. His mouth was wet.
“Who was it?” he said. “Who'd you fuck?”
She said nothing. He raised the candlestick.
“Who?” he said.
She shook her head.
He pummeled her across the back, the shoulders. He dragged her onto the bed. He pinned her neck with the candlestick. She could hardly breathe. He rammed his knee between her legs. He unbuttoned his fly. He forced himself into her. His eyes were closed.
She struggled at first, then yielded. She moved with him. She ran her hand up his back. She threaded her fingers into his hair. She brought her lips to his ear.
She whispered it: “You son.”
His eyes opened. They were wide in the dark. White. She tightened her grip, yanked his head back. His chin came up, his mouth open. Surprised. She reached over her head, under the pillow. She jammed the knife into the hollow at the base of his neck.
A fountain in the darkness, black. It coated them both. He tried to pull himself away. She clung tightly to him. She dug her heels into the backs of his legs, coiled her arm tighter behind his neck. She held the knife in place.
He quivered and bucked. He grunted and moaned.
Not very different from his usuals.
He ground his forehead against hers. He closed his eyes, opened them. He looked at her.
“I loved you,” he said.
She said nothing. Released him. He slithered off the bed. He stood in the middle of the room, dark-coated, the knife canted strangely from his neck, the handle pulsing like the lever of some broken machine. He collapsed on the floor. Like she knew he would.
She knelt in his blood, took the key-ring from his belt. She stood and looked around. The big bed in the small cabin. There was nothing she wanted to take with her. There was nothing she could.
She found the path again to the pines, the river. The keys gripped tightly together in one hand so they made no sound. The dirt stuck to the bloody soles of her feet, but the roots and ruts were familiar underneath her. The kinks and turns. The river shimmered through the trees, the night sky tugged slowly downstream.
The boathouse. The right key finally found the lock. She swung open the doors. Boats. The Old Man and his son used them for fishing, picnics. One of them had a rope lanyard tied to the bow. She dragged it down the bank. The keel cut a clean line through the sand.
She turned. Lyle. He looked so small, his skin glowing porcelain in the moonlight. He had a gun. A horse pistol, long as his forearm.
“What you want?”
He raised the pistol at her.
“You can't leave,” he said.
She slid the bow into the water.
He licked his lips. “I saw Daddy. What you done to him.”
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She looked him down.
“You seen what he done to me? You seen that? Years, he been at it. Coming after you gone to bed. Coming to have his way. With your mama sleeping. You seen that?”
She was in the water to her thighs. The current tugged gently at the curved planks of the hull. She looked downriver. That dark conveyance, cold and nameless through the pines. Escape. She looked back. The gun in his hand was shaking. The mouth of the pistol, it was so big. Like a tunnel to somewhere. She thought of her once-husband, of the midnight train that had killed him.
“Stop,” he said. “You belong here.” His face was flushed with heat. His eyes were wet, trembling. She knew the look. It wasn't hate or fury. It was something else. Something animalistic. A need.
“Not no more I don't.”
“You going to shoot me?”
“I won't never be. This baby neither.”
He shot her. She saw light explode from the barrel, felt the ball slam deep into her belly. She stumbled backwards, toward the boat. She fell. The high wooden sides of the hull enveloped her. She touched herself. She looked at her hands. Her pale palms, dark now as the rest of her. She closed her eyes, opened them. The world, it was moving underneath her. She'd heard once that the world was never at rest, was ever wheeling through space. She could feel it now. Above her the night sky. The stars were so high, so far away. She watched them. Tried to trace the stories between them. They streaked across her vision, falling.
She opened her mouth to speak. But the words, she could hear them already. She could hear them in the distance. Screamed. They were so small against all that darkness.
“I'm sorry,” they said. “I'm sorry.”
She closed her eyes, opened them. The stars had shifted, the river pines dark and serrated against a different sky. The black current whispered against the hull. She listened a long time. She was listening when she heard the drumming of footfalls, of boots on stone. She turned, looked. A stone bridge before her, illumined by torches that smoked blackly in the darkness. Dark hulks jostled beneath the flames, men soot-faced and slack-jawed. Soldiers. A marching army of fire, like hell on parade.
She called out to them, a jab of pain in the night. They turned. Of a one. And she saw it in their eyes: these world-enders. Boys. The meanness hollowed out of them. The hunger. Tired and sad as saints. They reached down to her as her boat approached, and she reached upward, toward them.
“ This story is inspired by the traditional American folk song 'In the Pines,' also known as 'Black Girl' or 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?' You've probably heard it in one form or another. It dates back to the mid-1800's, and countless artists including Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, Lead Belly, and Nirvana have recorded their own distinct versions of it. I've always been fascinated by these old authorless ballads that have as many versions as they do singers, and listening to this one, which has very little narrative cohesion, I began wondering about the girl in the song, what her story might be. That got me writing. Maybe this is my own performance of the song, since I'm no musician.
As for the setting, I grew up in Georgia, and Sherman's March has always been big in my imagination. In fact, I wrote a novel set during this period and have begun seeking representation for it. ”