Categories
2020 Fiction

L.M. Davenport

BALLAD II

Your own true love, that I’ll have, and more—

But thou shalt never come ashore.”

trad. English folk song

My one true love says the lights on the windmills look like eyeshine, flickering in and out of visible in the half-dark. He says this as we are driving through a forest of them, the only kind of forest we have seen since California. They edge up to the road, cyclopean heads turning slow as poured honey, and over away to the passenger side I can see the power lines they feed in their turning. The lines seem low-slung by comparison. If I could stand under them, I know, I would hear their hum, evaporating static.

“I’d rather think of them like trees,” I tell my one true love. “Then maybe we could find one with a door cut in the bottom for the road, like that redwood on the postcard.” I do not tell my one true love that I prefer this way because trees cannot pull up roots and follow you home, as beasts can.

My one true love takes one hand off the wheel and blindly pats at my shoulder. He ends up around my bicep. I will cut him slack for this, because he has been awake a long time now.

“It got sick, little magpie,” he says. “The Park Service cut it down. The rangers were afraid it would fall on someone, because the wood had gone soft.”

The car shivers between the painted lines, and a semi roars past on the left. My one true love snatches his hand back to the wheel, blinks several times in quick succession. I know those fluttering eyes, that clawed grip. This is the way he looked just before we slid out onto the salt flats, where nothing grew up from the cracked ground to stop the wind. This is the face that comes before the silent tears, and even though it’s close to three-quarters dark, I don’t want to see that.

*

We’re at a rest stop, in the middle of a stretch of interstate where the towns are too small to be viable places of repose. (“No Services,” the exit signs scream as we pass them.) It’s late, or it’s early. The lobby is floored in institutional linoleum, fake-paneled in fake wood. The overheads hum, that sound my mother says dries out your skin.

My one true love is in the bathroom. He is taking a long time, so long I wonder if he’s passed out, shoulders arched back against the toilet tank, hands dangling limp as a puppet’s. Or maybe he is having trouble swallowing the medicine which is keeping him awake.

My one true love does not sleep, because I ask him not to. In sleeping, he might dream of my sister. He might remember that once he courted her, and led her upstairs with her pale hair trailing, in the afternoons when our mother was gone. I stood forgotten at the foot of the stair in those days, crushing whatever small thing he’d brought me as consolation in my fist. His gifts matched our mother’s house, all things from another era—gloves in velvet and satin and kid, cameo rings, hanks of embroidery silk in hues that burned like coals in the darkened hall—but as I held to the newel post with one hand and watched their ascending backs, I wanted only what my sister had. To be held the way a branch holds a bird. To clasp and to be clasped, in a room where the windowpanes turned sun to honey.

I could have stopped it, could have told our mother what they did together. But then I would have lost him, too, because they would have laughed behind their hands and found another place. Somewhere I couldn’t lie on the floorboards of my own bower and watch the thorn-boughs nailed to the ceiling quiver in time with half-heard gasps, as my hand worked between my legs.

Almost always he’d come down to the kitchen, afterwards, while she washed. He made sandwiches, with whatever came first to his hand—apricot cake, pickled onions, calamari—and eat them standing up against the counter. (I was always first to the kitchen in those days, in order to pretend I’d been there all along.) I would have a sandwich already, turning to chalk in my mouth because when he leaned across me for the chili sauce, I’d smell my sister on his skin.

Most days we would talk in low voices, about the ocean that was rising or the forests that were falling. Or he’d fan the prints of his latest photographs like playing cards, saying I could choose one: a carousel horse half-splintered in an alley, a row of dolls with empty eye sockets, an aproned woman proffering a cake while behind her, a blackened field smoked. The light would thin around us, and the sounds that came muffled through the window would change to herald day’s end: a dog calling without expectation of relief, a neighbor watering her garden beds, distant sirens.

“Little magpie,” he would say, smiling and pushing his glasses up with a tapered forefinger, “do you take these to line your nest?”

Towards the end, those last weeks when every moment felt stretched taut as piano wire, I would open my mouth to tell him that name fit too truly, and all the things I had from him lay speared within the briars that coiled above my head by night. But then my sister’s tread would echo down the staircase, and at the sound his face would brighten past bearing. And then they would walk out together, a pair of high-stepping waterbirds off to promenade among their equals.

I would remain, until the kitchen grew dark and I heard the front door open for my mother. Then I would slip upstairs before she could come in and see me silent there. Before she could lay a hand on my own hair falling dark and too fine, to tell me sympathetically that my days of walking handclasped on the pier were surely not far off.

*

It is my turn to drive, again. My one true love slumps glassy-eyed in the passenger seat. He is awake; I have made sure of it. (My hands cupped so tenderly, one that brought the bottle to his open mouth and one that stroked his throat until he swallowed.) We have left the rest stop behind, the uniformed woman at the desk still watching her forensics show, in which figures combed beneath salt-rotted struts to seek a body. We have left another couple in the parking lot smiling and vulpine, a glitter of strange medicine in their stares.

I am about to ask my one true love if he is all right, if he has water—the longer he keeps awake, the less he speaks his needs, decaying slowly into the passive wordlessness of a houseplant—when he says, without inflection: “They are following.”

The hair on my forearms stands up. Nobody knows, I remind myself. Nobody saw. I don’t reply.

He goes on, barely audible: “They are walking, they are coming. They have the harp.”

Still I do not speak, and my one true love lapses back into silence. I press the accelerator closer to the floor, trying to take us further, faster. My one true love is in no condition to drive now, and sooner or later I will have to stop and rest. He is not fully mine, I think despairingly. All the waking in the world will not root her out of him.

*

The last photograph I took from my one true love, he did not mean to offer.

“I’ve had a windfall, little magpie,” he said, laughing as we stood together, backs against the counter. “And more sold means a fine dinner for my darling. Take one, before we go—take five—take them all, soon I’ll have so many we could paper this house in them!”

I wanted to break his smile in half. I couldn’t have him then, couldn’t have his face to hold between my own two hands, but there in front of me were things that could be mine. So I took up the pile of glossed, heavy squares of paper, and began to sift through what he had made.

A man, his face painted into plumage. Cut glass, irises, a silver-dollar moon. A child on stilts whose tips branched into chicken feet, like the witch’s house in the story. Teacups that floated blossoms, from whose centers winked human teeth. A paper dragon, a mirror printed with lipstick rosettes like a squid’s suckers. My sister bare-backed.

My sister bare-backed, bare-everything, face turned away and hair coiled over her shoulder. I knew that bed, I knew the hangings on the wall behind her, I knew the mole just at her waist. (I used to try and prod it when we were small and ran together through the oscillating spray of the lawn sprinkler.) Why could I not be thus gazed upon, thus loved?

He had not yet noticed what I lingered on. He was gazing into the middle distance, grinning foolishly, heedless of the sweat beading on his upper lip despite the air conditioning. I slid the picture of my sister into my other hand and ran upstairs, calling over my shoulder that, for now, I had enough.

*

Fog has descended, clouds lowering until they brush the fields. No stars, no lights or signs, and the lane lines appear as only the barest traces. Ours is the only car on the road, I think, but I have no way of knowing if it is otherwise. Even if we are alone, I am driving too fast. The idea of impending death does not concern me. It feels as if the hands that grip the steering wheel and the foot that presses the accelerator belong to someone else, as if the car were floating, not even above the interstate but through a netherworld in which there is only dark and cloud, and the disembodied shine of the headlights.

My one true love is singing under his breath, something about the green-growing rushes. His voice was sweet before I ground it down with wakefulness, and now it wears on my ears. I do not ask him to stop, because his eyes are shut and so the song is the only thing that tells me he remains awake. The verses drone on, and every so often he interrupts himself, mumbling about the walkers and their harp. This is worse than the singing, and each time he does it I push the pedal down a little more.

It occurs to me that this is all we will ever have, the cloud and the song and the running away. As quickly as the thought appears, I try to banish it, but the old tricks are not working in this quiet, at this speed. What kind of a future did I think we would have, when I took the steps that seemed necessary to allow us one? Wooden floors in the sun, the sound of the ocean on another coast, sweetness untempered by memory? A new photograph, one in which it was my naked back and not my sister’s that shone like witch-light in a dim chamber?

An exit appears as if birthed from the fog, and I let up on the gas to ease along its ramp. The walled curve terminates in one of the ruler-straight highways that carve this part of the country into blocks; I turn left, choosing at random, and speed away into the only darkness heavier than the one that lay over the interstate. If I am thinking anything, it is that I will not permit us to be found.

No future, I muse as the car skims over pavement that cuts a broad aisle through fields of corn that would grow far over my and my one true love’s heads, were we to tread among the stalks. No present, either. In our present are only vacant eyes and the promise of a devouring, of creatures bodied tall and implacable as windmills. They have dextrous hands, and they carry the delicate rotted thing that flickered across the rest-stop lobby television, a harp with which to sing my guilt. To sing my one true love away.

I turn off down a smaller road, and then another. My one true love does not appear to register this change. He only mutters that same garbled tune, his head lolling at an angle that hurts me more than it does him. I pull over close to the towering corn, and shut off the engine. The fog is practically nudging against the windows, and I am filled with an irrational fear that it will creep inside the car, to wrap us in obscurity while we await our judgment. I unbuckle my one true love and pull him unresisting across the console. His head rests under my chin, and still his song runs on, at the very edge of hearing. I cradle him from ribs to crown, and shut my eyes.

Only the past is left. I sink into it like a longed-for bed.

*

The image of my sister held pride of place, in the thorned canopy that draped my bower. How could it not? She, and not my one true love, was the crux of the problem, my supreme obstacle. She was the last thing that I beheld at night, the first thing my gaze struck in the morning. Daily I examined the undulations of my own spine by twisting before a mirror, striving to compare them to hers.

Then came the day when I opened the door and discovered her there in the flesh, head craned back and eyes popping in disgust.

“You’re sick,” she whispered, when she registered the sound of creaking wood and her head snapped down from staring at the ceiling. “This is sick. It’s like some kind of shrine.”

I stood still, mute as a photograph. My blood hummed.

“He felt sorry for you,” my sister spat, her voice growing louder now, “because you’re always there when we are here, always mooning after him as if you were a childling of thirteen, and not almost a woman grown. As if I were the elder, and not you.”

And I remembered all the days, when we had been so small that strangers spoke to us only under our mother’s eye, that she found herself petted and cosseted and presumed the elder, all the doting gazes and unlikely gifts. My sister had always been more beautiful than I, no one would dispute that—but it was not her beauty which made me long to wrap her in briars until she stood more wound than skin. From the day I watched our mother push her, squalling, into the open air, no one could look on my sister and not love her. Even I, even in this moment—I loved her, and it tore at me as I wanted the thorns to tear her flesh.

I let my love show in my face, put my hand out, and spoke soothingly. “Sister,” I said, “let me explain. This isn’t what you think. Walk with me, and I will tell you all about it—”

I did not finish speaking. I did not have to, because my sister was coming towards me, with mistrust and wary sympathy in her face, and stretching out her hand to set in mine. She squeezed my fingers once, saying only: “Let’s go, then. This had better be good.”

She looked back once, at the captured self that hung over the bed. But then she shook her head, as if to put the image and my ownership of it from her mind, and I closed the door behind us.

We took the bus through town to the coast, and did not speak along the way. I could tell from her face that she thought I was preparing lies to feed her, that she was steeling herself against whatever I might have to say when we arrived. But she made no protest.

Nor did she object when we reached the high trail, the one that cut a perilous margin across the cliffs that loomed above the beach. I did not know what I would do until I saw the jutting curve the path made just ahead of us, and understood at last why I had brought her to this place. My heart beat the way it did when I uncovered her photograph from his fistful of prints, the way it did when I saw him for the first time, walking on her arm. I drew breath as if to speak, and when she turned expectantly I whirled and pushed against her shoulders with all my strength.

It was like throwing a rag doll to the floor; she was unprepared and already off-balance when I struck her. She tried to seize my wrists, to pull me over the edge after her, but her fingers found no purchase. Their touch was like the faintest brush of a flame.

I took my time walking to the bottom. There was a slight humming in my ears, but otherwise I felt nothing. I watched my feet scuff over the dry grass and dull pebbles.

My sister was still breathing when I reached her, though she was crushed and snapped. There was blood in her hair, and blood soaking into the wet grit around her, like a halo. She rasped something through collapsed lungs; I crouched by her head to hear better.

“Call someone,” she was saying, “and I’ll give you anything you want. For the rest of our lives, it’ll be how you want it.” She trailed off then, into agonized panting, and did not speak again.

“I’ll have him,” I replied after a moment. “Him and everything else, because you’ll never see the shore.” I lifted her up by the shoulders; her body gave like wet clay under my touch, and I shivered with revulsion. I dragged her into the water, taking her out until my feet could barely touch down on the ragged seafloor, and kissed the top of her head—still miraculously intact—before I let go.

I hauled my own body, which did not feel like mine, back to dry land, and huddled there in my soaked clothes. From far off, she looked like a crumpled swan in the last moments, or a banner torn down and trampled. Then she slid beneath the surface, and I bowed my head to stare again at my shoes, instead of at the sea, that endless yawning throat which had swallowed her down.

Was it any wonder that, when my sister did not come home, I was the first one there to comfort my one true love? That, as the weeks passed and he came to accept—even in his despair—that she had gone, there came a day when he lifted his salt-streaked face from my chest and kissed me on the mouth? That there followed a night, and a morning in which I woke up serene, believing he was my own, and not simply my one?

No, it was no wonder. It was what I had longed for, what I had been forging within myself for all the time he had been my sister’s love. True, he wept often, and spoke of my sister more than I would have liked. And when he woke up in my embrace, he would turn over sleepily and call me by her name.

It was this last thing that pushed me to think of leaving, taking him someplace where memories of her would not linger in the very woodwork. And it brought the idea of keeping him awake to mind, so he would not see her even in his dreams. I told him we would start over, stay awake together and drive until we reached a new home. When we got there, I said, she would be gone. We would be clean.

*

I feel my one true love’s voice die away even as I hold him in the front seat, and know that he is at last descending into sleep, and I have lost. I keep my own eyes closed; he has gone where I will not follow, for I will stay awake until the walkers arrive on stilted legs, to gaze at me with their slow-turning heads. I will refuse to look when they arrive, but I will know them by the sounding of their harp: hair fretted across breastbone, a bright, sodden thing which sings of its own accord. There is a wet rustle outside the window. I hold my breath, the better to hear their footsteps.


L.M. Davenport is a fourth-year MFA student at the University of Alabama. Her work has previously appeared in Quarterly West, Booth, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere.