It didn’t matter to Father that most Cures were cautious of us because he didn’t care for company, and it didn’t matter to him that a couple of the curings became local folklore and got told over and over, getting longer and stranger each time.
Tabatha Sharpe, for instance.
She was a Cure of mine from when I was very young and first in the habit of going for walks near Sister Eel Lake. I’d play in the long pale grass, pulling it around myself and weaving a wheaten cradle. I laced the stalks over one another into thick and clumsy plaits in the way that some Cure women bound their hair, and lay there for an hour or so, imagining myself an infant Cure. Helpless. Speechless. Pursing my mouth to signal I wanted my mother’s teat.
Father had told me that Cures remember nothing of being inside their mothers, which I thought strange. I remembered so clearly my time in The Ground. I remembered the closeness of the soil and the taste of rain come down toward me.
Once the backs of my legs started itching I kicked away the cradle.
Shredded its walls.
Tore it down.
On the way home I played a game I often played when lazy with heat. It was a simple game: I’d look into Sister Eel Lake and convince myself I saw her there—whiskery, oily mouth—and so frighten myself into running all the way home.
I squatted in the rushes and felt my dress peel away from my back, waiting to be taken by surprise.
But then: a noise. A real noise. A noise I hadn’t spun in my head.
A wet, slipping sound, and a pocket of air dispersing.
There was a baby where there hadn’t been one before. A baby wrapped in a bit of cloth torn from a sheet or a large man’s shirt. The cloth was covered in stringy bits of blood and the baby was sickly. I lifted it into my lap and the small head rolled away.
Tiny throat. Too tiny to cry.
Little pink disk for a face, the features slightly flattened.
Fair hair plastered down with mucus and blood.
I checked it over and saw it was a girl.
My first thought: Some crazed parent has left her here for Sister Eel.
Offerings were sometimes made to her by Cures who thought she could shimmy under the fields and make succulent the crops, though it was usually a calf or a fox they left for her.
With my arms around the baby I walked the quarter hour home, looking at her face.
Mouth like a berry still ripening.
Eyelids so thin I could see through them.
We’d no Cures scheduled that day, and so I knew there’d been an accident when I saw the old van parked at a hard, quick angle to the house.
A smell of wet was coming off the van, a sucked-penny smell, and once inside the house it wafted thick and strong. I followed it upstairs, an ache starting in my arms with the weight of the baby. I could hear Father talking.
They were in the third spare room—our best room, with its view of the garden’s greenest part. There was a woman in the rocking chair. She was crying, mostly with pain, and there was a man crying with sadness behind her. Father was on his knees. He said
—You really mustn’t move.
I’d never seen the woman before but later learned her name: Mrs. Delilah Sharpe. She was sat in the rocking chair and her dress was rolled up to her waist and she held her own knees very far apart. Father was rolling a strip of torn sheet to pad at the soreness between Mrs. Sharpe’s legs—there was already a heap of used ones on the ground, and I clucked my tongue at the long chore ahead of me: washing the strips one by one; perhaps even stitching the sheet up again.
Mr. Sharpe saw me first, and then Father turned around. Mrs. Sharpe lay back in the chair, her eyes closing.
The sun had gotten higher and the day was pumping hot and cruel outside.
—I found her at Sister Eel Lake.
Father had come close to me, stopped when he could see the baby’s wrinkled head. She seemed heavier, now that I was standing still, and squirmed while I did my best to rock her.
—Should I boil up some daisies?
Which was a broth we made for damaged parts.
—Go give Mrs. Sharpe her baby, Ada.
By now Mrs. Sharpe was trying to right herself in the chair. Mr. Sharpe was still crying but not making any sound.
—You do it.
I held her up to Father and he looked at me stone-hard, slit-eyed.
A scolding later. For sure.
He took her from the sullied cloth and carried her to Mrs. Sharpe. When she reached across her risen stomach, more bright blood came out of her. I heard its soft drip on the rug. Mr. Sharpe sat down on the floor, his back to the wall. They were a young couple, and probably not married long.
I stayed in the door moving from one foot to the other, wringing out the cloth, until I noticed the copper flecks on my hands. Like I’d been clutching a rusty pipe.
—I best get this in the bath before the stains stick.
But I was well forgotten by now.
I don’t know if Father ever realized how this story spread in the town. Cures couldn’t grasp that a baby could leave its mother without being birthed, could wind up so far away and be discovered by me. As though plucked out of the air. It made more sense to them that I’d killed the Sharpe baby and given her parents a changeling—a strange little creature like myself, who would someday do my bidding.
For years I wondered if it was my dream of a cradle that called her to me. This was better than thinking that Sister Eel Lake was simply where too-soon babies go.
Always when we met he’d have some quick greeting ready. The third time we saw one another, the day after we put Miss Lennox to ground, he said
—You get on better with the heat.
It was the first time I’d gotten into the front of the truck. The edges of the passenger seat were stained a deep brown. He had Cure music playing and it seemed to gather speed as he turned corners and cast backward glances at the road by way of the little mirror between us. The bottom of the window had the usual hillside pattern of dust thrown up by wheels and missed by wipers.
We came to Sister Eel Lake and he looked at me.
I was surprised he’d been willing to stop there. Almost everyone was cautious of the lake and believed the story of the cannibal serpents. Those giant, gorging eels grown during the war to kill enemy soldiers who stopped to bathe and swim. It was well known how they’d gone hungry some weeks into peacetime, and so began to swallow one another whole.
When only Sister and Brother Eel remained they watched one another until the brother fell asleep, and it was his fear that shook me, his fear upon waking. Thrashing in the tight dark that was his sister, engulfed even as he stirred from sleep.
It was Sister Eel who had years ago eaten most of Christopher Plume, a slim and freckled child, when he was nine. Father worked on him a great deal, out of courtesy to the family.
—Are you afraid of your father seeing us?
Driving under a willow tree whose branches snagged around the windows.
—Father doesn’t really leave the house.
This was part of a lie we kept afloat. Cures would scare easy at Father’s animal tendencies, blame him for livestock gone missing, though he never hunted anything that wasn’t wild.
We kept going and came to wider, more unkempt corners.
—I heard that. I didn’t think it was true.
—He doesn’t feel the need.
We came through a brief density of trees and the road straightened.
—But you do.
—I like the change in air.
His thighs clenched inside his trousers. I looked out the window, said
—There’s always a lot of smells in our house.
He was swallowing from thirst. I stopped talking. We came to the river.
—How about here?
He left the truck parked by a high bush grown up straight and thick like a wall. We’d arrived by the main road, not the back paths I usually walked down. The trees on the river’s far side were maybe fifty feet tall and the branches reached out to criss and cross with their neighbors to make a cool, echo-filled chamber high up in the air. I got out of the truck and shook out my dress, walked toward the reeds. I heard him following me, making the long grass crackle. I said
—I like the river.
—I’ve never seen you here.
—Father doesn’t like me to be seen outside the house.
—I suppose it’s not so important now. It was more for when I was a child and Cures weren’t sure what to make of me.
—Cures? He laughed. That’s what you call us?
He was walking alongside me now and I watched his vest catch at the top of his trousers, twisting and releasing with his long high strides. We reached the shade and it felt like stepping through a wall of water. I felt him looking at me. My smock, hanging free of one shoulder, was clinging to my stomach and the short prickling hair on my groin.
—Were you really so strange?
—There were certain things about me.
By which I meant my girlhood, constant and unceasing.
A Cure could live their whole lifespan and never notice a change in me, and so, to them, I seemed a girl of sorts forever.
There wasn’t a way I didn’t want to swallow him whole. Not only up ’tween my legs but down my throat. The feel of him moving over me and our thighs skimming, our stomachs sealed tight. I’d opened up so many Cures but couldn’t think what he had inside him that would let him build this fire in me, this tingling that built and built until I thought it’d tear me apart. Couldn’t think how I’d changed so much in so short a time that I wanted it so badly, to be torn.
Later we rested beside one another in the grass. I kept looking up at the knotted branches and the thin slivers of blue where they let through the sky. I touched his head, his too-soft curls. He was tired, half dreaming.
—I was a long time in the desert.
And then he laughed at himself. But I knew what he meant.
It was late at night two days later when we went out to fetch Miss Lennox. When the air hit her she turned hummingbird: finger-tap, tremble-knee. Father carried her into the kitchen and we laid her out again. It took time enough to open her, with her being stilled so long in The Ground. The skin was all stiff and cold.
—She’ll scar, I said, and Father nodded.
I went to fetch the lungs. They rocked and swished slowly inside of the bowl, their mucus sticking to my fingers and wrists. It sometimes happened that the halted stillness worked into a Cure and their parts colored the air around them. It generally went unnoticed by Cures themselves, but it was possible to see on occasion a slight slowing of time—a wound appearing in some soft flesh but not coloring with blood. This was why the skein off Miss Lennox’s lungs took its time in rising and its time in falling. Where it touched me it left behind a cringing, grisly sensation.
The night was cool but Father’s chest was shining with sweat. Lungs were always tricky.
Her insides were filling the room with a sound of water. A lake lapping against its edges and shifting the pebble and grit.
I handed Father the first lung, and after he’d placed it inside her I did the detail work—the work his hands were too big for, stoppering and making seamless frayed holes and cords. Undoing as best I could all the strangeness her thin body had seen.
The second lung took quicker, squirming from Father’s hand and filling the space it had left behind. We closed her then and bathed the blood away, and Father woke her.
Her mother arrived to collect her at a quarter past three in the morning as she’d been told. Father walked Miss Lennox out to the car and I stood in the door, letting the nighttime cool settle ’round me.
They drove off. The car was an old one and sputtered, coughed. The headlamps were covered with dust from the road and gave off only a little light.
Father was walking his slow gait. From the middle of the drive he said
—Time for bed now, Ada.
—Might sleep late in the morning.
And then he walked past me, his arm grazing mine. I kept on looking out at the night. The moonshine was making silver the top of a tree that kept rustling, on and off, with the red-tailed hawk that nested there.
There are some technical terms around curing:
Father made me learn them but we never used them, not even to one another. I think teaching them to me was just another way to fill up the days.
He wrote poems for me, which worked better—small, simple verses to help me understand the work we did.
lest you tumble, slip,
Hold firm, not tight, and
lift with both hands, however light!
I’d murmur them aloud while pulling weeds from The Ground or scrubbing strips of linen, but it took me a long time to fathom the long line of ailments ahead of me.
Chafed skin and chalky bones.
Too-thin veins and too-large hearts.
Every now and then Samson would talk about his sister, the recently widowed Olivia, how they’d grown up in a small room in their aunt’s house. How Olivia hated what she called “the poverty,” hated the whole town.
—When we were little she thought the only way she’d escape was the circus, but then she started meeting men. And then she met Harry. But then, Harry’s house was so big, I don’t think she knew what to do with all the different rooms.
He was sitting under a tree, shirtless in the shade, watching me wade in the river. For something to say, I said
—Harry was much older than her.
I’d cured him, one time, for a bitter bile in his stomach.
—She wanted to get married quick, before she had to work. She wouldn’t last a day in the fields.
—And what does she do with the rooms, now that he’s died?
He made a noise in his throat.
—His parents kicked her out, so she’s living with me again.
Which was their aunt’s house, the house they’d grown up in and which their aunt had left to Samson when she died.
I knelt in the water. It came up my shoulders, slipped under my hair.
—Do you have the space?
—Hardly. We’re back sharing a bed, like when we were children. See?
And he turned around, showed me where her knees had left bruises down his back.
Sometimes we didn’t go to the river but into the woods, deep into its middle where the branches gathered in knots and hid us from the hot blue sky. It needed constant tending: Samson’s skin the sun might set to singing, Samson’s want of shelter, Samson’s want of cool.
Often, when it came time to lie down together, he’d already be pink and dazed—weighted down by the sun. I caught myself at such times, thinking how little it’d take to open him, to be inside him and see how compact, how snug, and how sound the mechanisms therein.
A warm sweep across my pelvic floor. A long exhale down my spine.
A heat kept just off the boil.