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Cutcomb, One Throne Magazine

"Nonsense" by oorovska.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.

CUTCOMB

by Sarah Marshall

 

“Uncapping is done with a special knife,

or an ordinary one from the kitchen.”

—Abbé Émile Warré, Beekeeping for All

 

Alma needs a baby. She has been praying hard. Dodge has been gone for six months, seven months, eight months, nine, and she knows it will take more than words to bring him back. It will take flesh and bone.

 

The girls cluster downstairs while she is lying-in. She has displayed all the signs: hands and feet swollen, body following suit, crawling into sleep most hours of the day only to be forced out soon after she arrives. Her guts feel full of drying cement, her stomach so sour and ornery it should be able to vote. She must weigh more than the bed she sleeps on, and maybe it is this that has kept the others from catching on: that in her hibernating softness there is no center, no meaning, no new. Her family Bible rests on the bedside, but when she pages through it the words all look the same, and she can only feel the slipperiness of its soft white innards, as useless, she might think—if she were not a believer, or not such a believer, or did not know that a believer will always find the way—as her own.

 

She does not speak of him, but they do. Every once in a while, their talk drifts up, the sound of his name thickening on her body like soot. The light voice of the Indian girl, who sits with Kayo at the table, snapping butter beans: What’s so special about him, anyway?

 

What’s so special? Kayo says. Honey, he’s only the goddamn last American gentleman.

 

Last? There was ever a lot of em?

 

There was sometime a few, and he’s one of them. Only one that ever made it here, that’s for sure.

 

If you count things by how often they make it here, just about everything seems bettern it is.

 

Well, it don’t hurt that most girls would give their eyeteeth to spend the night with him.

 

You think Rose girls are good judges of men? I haven’t passed a single house in town where you couldn’t see a poster of Burt Reynolds in the upstairs bedroom.

 

No, honey. Girls everywhere. You just wait and see.

 

Huh. So how come you ain’t short some eyeteeth?

 

Now, you know the answer to that as well as I do. You just bite your tongue and work on them beans.

 

More talk. These two never stop talking—worse than radio with its unending news. They do not know as Alma does that a woman is only given so many words in a life, and that in times of hunger she must keep as sustenance that which she might be tempted to let fall on the ground.

 

***

 

In dreams she is light as grass, the wind enough to carry her wherever she desires. In dreams she peels her skin away, lays it on the ground before her and scours it with salt. In dreams Dodge does not need to come near her, does not need to be trapped against her and pulled and pushed into the place she hates in order to give her a baby. He needs only to look at her, and in Alma’s dreams he can do nothing else.

 

***

 

One afternoon, she goes to the window and watches as Kayo and the mother skin a few new-slaughtered rabbits, does all, for a stew. The Indian girl sits on the porch steps, drinking from a jug of something pink as a child’s idea of heaven. The mother, not much big ger than a doe herself, picks one from the box and knocks its head deftly against the porch railing. There is not sound of dying, just a twitching of the legs.

 

Goddamn if you ain’t better at that than anyone I ever saw, she hears Kayo say, voice as close to admiration as it can get. The mother-in-law hands the rabbit to her, and Kayo twists the skin of the leg until the shining pink of the meat beneath shines through.

 

That night, Alma goes downstairs as silently as she can manage. The steps are narrow, and only with her body canted a certain way can she make her way to the first floor without scraping the walls. It is nothing to be ashamed of, she thinks, as the heat rises in her chest with the thought of what she is doing; it is her house too. The drawers don’t want to open, swollen with summer, but she finds the one she wants and works at it gentle, taking her time. The shears the mother used are inside, and if they worked on a rabbit then they should work just as well on anything else.

 

It is a simple plan, she thinks as she leaves the house a few days later, Sunday morning. The land around her is still and gray and faintly gleaming with a kind of newness she cannot name. She has been figuring out the details, the hows and wheres, and what she will do if things go wrong, and how things might go wrong if they go wrong at all, but she knows that she can only plan so far, and that she should only plan so much.

 

Shears tucked away in her pocketbook—along with a wallet green with soft and wilted money, a stick of gum, a bar of Ivory soap still in its cardboard box, and the family Bible—Alma heads down to the car yard. Colt runs the father’s business now, but he is careless: bought cars’ keys are still in the ignition, taunting and ready to spark. For Alma now, it is only a matter of walking down the rows of Lincolns and Oldsmobiles lined up creamcolor and gold as a rich man’s mouth until she finds a rat-colored Pontiac, ugly but not ugly enough to seem remarkable: the kind of car that will be surrounded by its brothers in any road in any town in America. When she pulls onto the highway, she knows she looks no different than any other driver out at this hour, that no one even if they looked in through the window could ever suspect her of much. She looks, she knows, like a woman knows nothing but the brute pleasures of fat, and who can think of nothing but what her body wants, and of how to get it sooner.

 

And maybe this part, at least, is true. She has waited long enough. It has not come. It has not come. She knows it will someday, somehow. She is just going to get it sooner.

 

It does not take her long to find it. The hour is too early even for the churchgoers forced to travel on foot to begin their well-shod procession. The children, no doubt tired by Saturday’s fine weather, are fast in their beds. The youngs have stolen into each other’s rooms and are touching each other where only Providence should touch, and no doubt more children will come of these touchings, but Alma does not plan to wait around long enough for this morning’s children to grow. Today is what she is after, and she finds it walking along the highway shoulder by Lyle’s Liquor Store.

 

A girl, hair gold, skin translucent as skimmed milk, lips quivering pink. A girl who would be beautiful in any other town, in any place where the sun could reach down and fall full on her; but here, not quite. Alma slows the car beside her but the girl keeps walking. There is a guitar slung over her back and a green vinyl case in her hand, and she wears dungarees and a denim jacket lined with gravel-gray rabbit fur, whose bulk makes it impossible for Alma to see, until she draws abreast of her, the swell of the girl’s stomach. Seven months, eight months along, she guesses. All but born already.

 

Alma rolls down the window. You need a ride, honey?

 

The girl glances over. Don’t honey me, lady.

 

Reproaches leap to Alma’s mouth, but she swallows them down. Just trying to be Christian, she says.

 

I know you, she tosses over her shoulder. You used to teach at the school. I get in that car you’re just gonna take me back home.

 

You’re sure of that?

The girl keeps walking, motion its own answer.

 

How old are you? Alma asks, though she thinks she might already know.

 

Eighteen, the girl says.

 

If you’re eighteen, I’m Elizabeth Taylor.

 

Fine, the girl says. Seventeen.

 

Keep going.

 

Sixteen. All right? Sixteen. Jesus. You gonna pick me up or just follow me outta town?

 

The girl has added a hardness to her voice in preparation for leaving home, but she has done it wrong, Alma knows: has not forced it into the thick of things but wrapped it around her softness, loosely, as you would wrap a blanket around a child.

 

Well, says Alma. I was sixteen when I left home for the first time. No one thought much of it, either. It was a different time then, so they say. I was sixteen the first time I got married. And if there was nothing wrong with me doing that, I can’t see anything wrong with you leaving town.

 

The girl looks over at her, looking, Alma knows, for something to trust. She slows, then stops, and Alma stops beside her. She has found it.

 

Where you headed? Alma asks.

 

The girl throws her guitar and her case in the backseat, climbs into the front. Damascus, she says.

 

Alma nods. Wherever you want to go.

 

She’s changing her name to Sabrina, she says, once they have been on the road a while and the talk has begun to ease out. She’s getting a new life. She’s getting the hell out of Rose. She’s raising her baby someplace else, anyplace else, and getting a good life for them both. She knows some people down in Damascus and she can stay with them for a while and make some money and then go farther down the line. A horse ranch in Montana. A ski resort in Wyoming. A cruise ship in Alaska. Places where rich people vacation are always hiring and she’ll take any job she can get.

 

I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Alma says. Last I heard, the economy needed a little help.

 

It doesn’t matter, the girl says stoically. There’s always work for young healthy girls.

 

A certain kind, yes.

 

Alma looks over to see if the girl has reacted to this, but she does not seem to have heard her. She’s taken her jacket off and turned it inside out, and now she is pressing the rabbit fur lining against her cheek, stroking herself with it, eyes half-closed, something childlike about her that was not there before. It is then that Alma remembers the girl: fourteen years old the last time she saw her, a student in her ninth-grade English class. From a big family with more children than money, churchgoers prone, it seemed, to strange namings inspired by the Word. There had been a boy named Mustardseed, a girl named Tabernacle.

 

And the girl beside her, upon whose desk she had brought down a ruler more than once to bring her back to the daily lesson—what had her name been? Something from one of the less-read books, for she was one of the youngest. An animal, a bird. Something that would have made an ugly girl uglier but made her all the prettier in the end. Lapwing.

 

You’re one of the Harder girls, Alma says.

 

Lapwing smiles bloodlessly. So you found me out.

 

How’s your brother?

 

Which one?

 

Which is your favorite?

 

They’re all the same, she says. Girls too. They’re all the same.

 

But you’re different.

No. I’m the same. I know that. That’s why I’m leaving this Godforsaken town. So I can figure out how to be different, or if I have to be the same to know at least I couldn’t have been anything else.

 

Alma clicks her tongue at this. They are speeding down Highway 30 now and the girl has no chance of getting out, not in her state, and Alma no longer has to lure her in with sweetness. God has not forsaken any corner of this earth, she says.

 

Yeah, well, Lapwing says, maybe He did the opposite, then. Maybe He just couldn’t leave it alone.

 

Against her better judgment, Alma is intrigued by this. She grips the steering wheel a little tighter, trying to squeeze the questioning out of herself. Finally, she lets her voice rise out of her, though she is careful not to look at the girl: How do you mean?

 

Huh?

 

Alma sees out of the corner of her eye the turning of Lapwing’s blond head, the drift of her white hands. How do you mean, she says, trying to keep her voice steady. How do you mean, He couldn’t leave it alone?

 

I don’t know, Lapwing says tiredly. Pushes her hair back with both hands and draws it tight enough that Alma, when she looks over at her, can see the pale green pulsing of a vein in her temple. Isn’t that kind of thing in the Bible? she asks. Some story about him messing with people, just because he can?

 

God never messes with people, Alma says. He reaches down and touches their humble lives. And he always has a reason.

 

What about with Job?

 

What about him?

 

Didn’t think I’d know about that, did you? Lapwing says. She is twisting a hank of her gorse-yellow hair around her index finger, looking at the way it catches the sun and holds it. They are passing into Clatskanie now, the sky no lighter but the sheltering trees thinned away, visible only now in pictures on signs and billboards—for the credit union, the new Safeway, the High Climber Room—greener than life and knife-sharp.

 

I’m sure you’ve been to Sunday school a few times, Alma allows, and everyone who’s been to Sunday school a few times knows about Job.

 

Sunday school my ass. You think anyone got outta my house alive without reading the Bible cover to cover? That thing got pawed over so many times the gold had fallen off the edges by the time I was born.

 

Well, if you know the story of Job, then I’m sure you know about the many instances of God’s divine Providence as well.

 

Nothing comes to mind.

 

Alma tries to think of something that even a simpleton would agree with. The raising of Lazarus, she says.

 

Huh, says Lapwing.

 

You know the story of Lazarus? Of course I do. What did I just tell you?

 

Well, then tell it to me.

 

Why, to prove to you that I know it? What’s the difference, even if I was lying?

 

Just tell it, Alma says. It’s a nice story. I wouldn’t mind hearing it again.

 

Lapwing leans back in her seat, unfolds her long legs and props her feet up on the dash. All right, she says. Eyes closed now, pink tongue protruding just a little from her lips. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus’s. Or an acquaintance, anyway. I don’t know if Jesus had friends, really. Just apostles and followers and women who travelled miles and miles to touch the hem of his garment, which is probably for the best because he didn’t come here to make friends anyway, huh?

 

Lapwing opens her eyes a little, tilts her head and looks over at Alma, probably trying to get a rise out of her. Alma clears her throat and keeps her eyes on the road. They are getting close.

 

Well, Lapwing says, closing her eyes again and settling back into her seat, Jesus knew Lazarus, and so when Lazarus got sick he got some special treatment. Lazarus was dying and his sister came to tell Jesus, and Jesus decided he’d wait until Lazarus died and then bring him back from the dead, just to show that was the kind of thing he could manage. He’d been performing little miracles, but he’d decided it was time for a big one. So he sent the sister away, and when he heard that Lazarus was dead he spent a few more days sitting on his ass, and finally he gathered up his disciples and went down to Lazarus’s tomb. He made sure he had a big crowd, and then he had some men—he didn’t do it himself—take the stone away from the tomb, and then he said, nice and loud, Lazarus, come out! So Lazarus does. What else can he do? He gets up and walks out into the light, and even though Jesus raised him from the dead—you can’t argue with that I guess—he didn’t do anything else for him. Said, See what I can do? Do you doubt me now? and went back off with his disciples, and just left Lazarus standing around, half-rotted and covered with flies.

 

The Bible doesn’t say that, Alma says.

You ever seen a man four days dead?

 

Alma watches the road.

 

Have you noticed, Lapwing continues, that every time God does something nice for someone, he has to do something awful to them first?

 

I wouldn’t put it that way, Alma says.

 

But you agree with me.

 

I think it’s an interesting observation.

 

Bullshit, says Lapwing, it’s the truth. I’ve been reading the Bible my whole life and it’s the one thing I ever learned. One thing my mother and sisters learned, too. And everyone else in town, as far as I can tell.

 

Alma waits for her to continue, but she has said all she needs to, it seems. She is looking out the window again, as if this place looks any different than the one she thinks she is getting away from.

 

Could be they’re waiting for a miracle, Alma says.

 

No, Lapwing says. More like they think if they put up with enough misery they’ll earn themselves one somehow.

 

***

 

They stop at a service station south of Scappoose, and while Lapwing goes inside—It’s like having three beers in you all the damn time, she says—Alma goes through the green vinyl case. Apart from two dresses, a pair of dungarees, and five pairs of neatly folded underwear, there is nothing but a pile of record albums. Alma flips through them, looking for something she recognizes, but she never listened to much except the radio, and even then the voices that came across it an into her room never seemed much more important than the voice of a fly trapped against the windowglass. Words on the back that have been arranged like psalms: The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense. A country full of girls and boys, she thinks, using as their only compass the words of other girls and boys. If this one had not got in her car that morning, she would only have ended up somewhere worse.

 

When Lapwing comes back she has a bag of oranges in her hand, and starts peeling one as soon as she sits down, though she never asked Alma if she could eat in the car. The orange is small and hard-looking, its pitted skin whitened by a powder that comes off on the tips of Lapwings fingers and leaves a shine there that she does not seem to notice.

 

You’re taking good care of that baby, Alma says.

 

Lapwing looks at her as if she is waiting for the second part. Thanks.

 

Alma holds her breath as they pass the signs showing the mileage to Portland. Once they reach the interstate it will be a straight shot to Damascus, and once she is on the Interstate there will be no way to stop. So it is with something beyond relief that she feels the hand of Providence guiding her to pull the car off the highway just after they pass the Portland 1 sign, and onto the wide, pale shoulder. To the left is the river, and before that the railroad tracks, bullheaded freights and long strings of containers waiting to be filled, or to drop off their fullness.

 

Get out, Alma says without looking at Lapwing.

 

What?

 

I want to show you something.

 

I’d rather just stay in here.

She puts her hand on the girl’s. Get out, she says. Come on. I won’t hurt you. I remember when I was your age. I know what it’s like. I just want to help you a little, that’s all.

 

You’d help me the most by driving me to Damascus.

 

But what will you do after I drop you off, if you can’t find another ride?

 

What does that have to do with anything?

 

Get out of the car and I’ll show you.

 

Alma gets out and walks to the hard lip where the pavement ends and the railroad tracks begin. She stands still, knowing that Lapwing will follow her. Because she is a Rose girl with a carless father, a carless beau, and because driving to her is something only Slaughter boys do. Because all she can do is walk but she is carrying a heavy load and the clouds are piling on top of each other and fixing to fall. Because she is sixteen and sweet and good and though she has been taught to fear men she has not learned to fear women. And so Alma walks out over the train tracks and hears the sound of lightfooted Lapwing following her, gravel crunching under her tennis shoes. Alma walks over the tracks until she comes to the one that sits above the others, and waits until Lapwing is standing beside her. See the difference? she says.

 

Lapwing is breathing heavily, the sweat already licking her forehead and neck. Yes.

 

What is it? This one’s higher. That’s right. And the higher track’s the one that’s headed north. Always. You want to hop a train you always look for that one, and you can jump in a car and go on your way.

 

What if I want to go south for the winter?

 

That I can’t help you with, Alma says. I don’t know everything, you know.

 

In truth she doesn’t know if the highest rail will always head north, or even sometimes goes that way. And though Lapwing does not need to know, Alma suddenly wishes she did.

 

Come on, Alma says, and walks over the tracks, toward the end of the tracks and an abandoned green car that sits on the ground beside them.

 

Again, Lapwing follows. Alma gets to the car first and stands beside it, trying to make out something beyond darkness as she gazes inside. Behind her the ground falls off and tumbles down to the river, and she thinks of the living things that are there, rodents and insects and miniscule birds, and whether they know what she is about to do. But then Lapwing is upon her, hands cupped beneath her belly, looking as if she is in pain. As if she could feel pain with such newness inside.

 

Can we go back to the car soon? Lapwing asks.

 

In a second, Alma says. Climb on up into that container.

 

Why?

 

I want to show you a secret for how to get comfortable.

 

There could be a man in there.

 

I already checked. There isn’t. Go on inside. There’s no one out here but us.

 

Lapwing puts one hand on the railing to steady herself, then hauls her bulk up to the first ringing step. As her foot leaves the ground Alma sees the stems of a patch of dandelions crushed to bleeding, and the sole of Lapwing’s tennis shoe faintly greened. Alma watches the girl until she steps inside the dark and there is no more of her, and then she takes the shears from her pocketbook and follows her up.

 

And it is all too simple to do what comes next: to stand at the car’s doorway and wait until Lapwing turns around and tries to head back out, saying, So go ahead and tell me if—and then nothing more because it is then that Alma catches her on the mouth with the shears’ pointed tips. To pull them free after Lapwing falls back in to the dark, and then to swing at her again, to miss and lunge forward and swing a third time and now hit something soft with a hardness beneath, that rings as metal but which can only be bone. The girl has pulled herself up, but now she falls again. Alma hopes she has not landed on her stomach.

 

It is too dark. Alma kneels and tries to find the girl by sound, but she has silenced herself as best she can, though the hum of swallowed panting charges the air. Alma raches down and brushes her fingers against the rough wooden floor, clumped feathers and what feels like human hair, woven into a snarl of a nest. She cuts her finger on a sliver of glass, then lands her other hand on something just as fine: Lapwing’s pretty gold hair spread out. Follow it to the forehead, the head, the body, and now grasp the girl’s forearms in her hands and drag her out to the daylight of the car’s metal steps. She makes a sound like air let slowly out of a tire, and then is silent. Her eyes are closed, the temple where Alma struck her already blacking with blood, and one of her cheeks is split from the drag ging of the shears, her mouth big enough now for two voices. Alma touches the cut, lightly, then remembers herself, and gets to work.

 

The shears go in easy enough, but once Alma peels the skin away there is just hard muscle beneath, and though she tries to cut through this it is too strong to believe in a human body, in a girl this young. She drives the points of the shears into the cut she has already made, widens it with a sound of breaking that should not belong to flesh, then drops the shears and reaches her bare hand inside, the skin pulsing, tightening and then loosening around her wrist, catching her for a moment, then letting her go. She feels tissue, wetness, water, grit, and finally her fingers close around something small, something that does not belong in this mess, in this girl. It is a hand.

 

She reaches a blind hand out for the shears, running her fingers across the sharptoothed metal, and it is only when she cannot find them and looks down at the place they were last that she sees Lapwing’s eyes are open, pale green and expressionless as the dead, but that her hand is tightening on the shears.

 

Alma keeps one hand inside her, and reaches the other out to touch, lightly, her hair as it falls across her damp forehead. Sssshh, she says, in a voice as gentle as anyone deserves to hear. Sssshh, honey. You rest. You just rest easy. It’s not so bad.

 

She reaches her hand in a little farther, and grasps the baby’s leg.

 

Lapwing’s eyes do not change, but her breath grows heavier, as if she is trying to turn it into words.

 

You wanted to go someplace else, Alma says as she works, hoping to distract the girl with talk. Someplace new. Isn’t that right? Well, the truth is there’s noplace different from what you know. A miracle isn’t new money or new places or new folks around you. It doesn’t come from around you. It comes from inside.

 

***

 

If you had seen them from a distance—from the road, say—you might have noticed the shape of two bodies, white skin where it caught the light. You would not have known their sexes, or what they were doing, though the fact that they were in contact would make itself clear. You might have thought of two teenagers, doing what teenagers do on a sunny day, and maybe you would have told them to get off company property, or would simply have stood there and watched awhile, envying their easy freedom, their intimacy, the shape of their day. And if the dull glinting of metal reached your eyes—brighter with the sun on it than the pale body it touched, then disappeared inside—you would have thought only of the harmless, pretty gifts exchanged between two young people on a day like today.

Sarah Marshall grew up in rural Oregon and currently lives, writes, and teaches in Portland. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Blacktop Passages, apt, Saw Palm, and Rock & Sling, and her nonfiction in The Believer and The New Republic.

 
 
 
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