The Language of Silence
IT WAS THE BLACKBIRDS that first told Ruth something was wrong. At exactly the stroke of noon, they landed in the cornfield and commenced eating her corn as if they’d been the ones to stand in hundred-degree heat and chop the weeds out with a hoe.
In eighty years she’d put up with many injustices, but she’d be damned if she was going to stand in her kitchen mixing corn bread in a stone bowl while a bunch of black-feathered demons deprived her of a whole crop of corn. She jammed on her calico bonnet, then hoisted a soup pot and a clean wooden spoon and raced out her door, spry as any Ozark woman twenty years her junior.
And she’d box your ears if you said different.
Don’t ever tell Ruth Gibson she’s too old to live by herself. She aims to live to a hundred, all alone thank you very much, and Lord help the man who tries to stop her. Not that one would. The only men she’s ever allowed on her farm are her granddaddy, God rest his soul, and Ray Boy Turner, who has been taking care of her place for might nigh fifty years. If Ruth has any say in it—and she plans to have plenty—Ray Boy will be there another fifty.
The screen door popped shut behind her, sounding like somebody had shot off a double-barreled twelve-gauge. But the crows paid the sound no more mind than they did the distant backfiring of Ruth’s ancient Chevrolet as Ray Boy navigated down the winding road toward town.
“Shoo!” she yelled at the crows. “Git outta my corn!” A hundred pairs of beady eyes turned on her, giving her the all-overs.
Still, she stalked down the middle of her corn patch banging her wooden spoon against the pot as hard as she could. As the birds beat upward, the sound of wings caught Ruth high under the breastbone and wouldn’t let go. Hundreds of blackbirds rose against a sun-bleached sky, pulling her out of her skin so she could look back and see nothing of herself except a pile of bones covered with her bonnet and her blue gingham dress.
Lost in a cloud of dark feathers, borne high by a murder of crows, Ruth found herself dissolving—her thin lips, her gray hair, the pink of her muscles. Finally she was nothing but a wisp of smoke with a beating heart and a pair of sharp blue eyes. Ghostlike, she traveled forward and backward at the same time: backward to the year of the Great Depression where her half sister Lola was forever young, forever fearless, dressed in circus spangles as she subdued golden-eyed tigers; and forward, to see Lola’s granddaughter with her neck twisted sideways, blue eyes staring sightless at her bedroom walls.
Ruth fought against the pull of black wings, her silent screams echoing over her cornfields. Her heart strained with the effort to escape the mystical and anchor herself to the solid red clay of the mountains. But the gaping hole inside Ruth
ripped wider as the loss of her sister was compounded by the possibility of losing a beloved great-niece who could have been Lola’s double.
“No!” Ruth’s bellow jerked her down and she found herself sitting in an undignified heap on crushed cornstalks, her bonnet hanging over one eye and her dress hiked up past her garters.
She tested her old bones gingerly to see if anything was broken. Satisfied, she got down on all fours to push herself off the ground. Then she stood in the relentless glare of a June sun, slowly counting to ten till she could get her balance and start back to the house.
This time she’d been lucky. The force of her visions had only thrown her off balance and cost her dignity. Sometimes she lost consciousness. Typically though, the weightlessness that was central to her visions just left her feeling a bit misty-eyed and damp.
“Damn crows,” she said. “Next time I’m gonna be totin’ my shotgun. See how they like that.”
She considered herself fortunate that she’d sent Ray Boy for groceries. If he’d found her wadded up in the corn rows, he’d have called her doctor. If that wasn’t enough, he’d have turned right around and called Ellen. Then her great-niece would have driven from Tupelo to way past Hot Springs only to discover she’d made the long drive for nothing.
Lord help her, that girl had enough on her plate without Ruth adding to her worries.
As Ruth trudged back to the house, she tried to figure out the visitation of crows. When her visions came to her whole and clear, she didn’t have to ponder. But sometimes the truth
was hidden behind a veil and open to all kinds of misinterpretations.
Today, for instance, had she seen harmful intent toward her niece, or merely a terrible accident? Ruth wasn’t about to sound an alarm over a veiled vision. She knew the horrible consequences of giving warnings that changed the course of another person’s life.
If she hadn’t warned her sister about Jim Hall, would Lola have run away from her husband and left her baby in Ruth’s care? Would her sister still be alive? Would Jim?
All Ruth’s good intentions couldn’t justify the end—Lola dead, Jim said to have been murdered, and Josie hating the very sight of Ruth, who had only wanted to keep her safe—three lives forever altered by visions Ruth might or might not have interpreted correctly.
Even though her sister had been gone nearly fifty years, she still woke up every morning with guilt and loss perched on her breastbone, a boulder she had to heave out of the way just so she could sit up in bed and breathe.
The first vision she remembered having was because of Lola. Ruth had been thirteen and under strict orders to take care of her baby sister while their mother hoed the garden. Caught up in her game of hopscotch, Ruth hadn’t noticed when the three-year-old woke from her nap on the quilt under the willow and toddled off.
Suddenly the leaves began to fly off the willow tree, though there wasn’t a breeze stirring. Ruth got dizzy as the leaves swirled around her, silver as water. And in their midst was a tiny hand.
“Lola?” The quilt was empty, her baby sister gone. The leaves spun so fast they became liquid. “Lola!”
When the leaves collapsed around Ruth, she saw her sister’s cap of yellow curls—clear and true—disappearing underwater. She set out running and got to the lake behind their house in time to save her sister by taking a shortcut through the blackberry patch, only the scratches on Ruth’s legs to tell the tale.
Some seers read tea leaves and palms, auras or tarot cards. Ruth read her dreams and the world around her, the revelations appearing involuntarily—in the flight of birds, the mystery of leaves, the whisper of stars falling into a river. Even objects as ordinary as a kitchen chair could take on extraordinary form, leaving Ruth with truths to decipher.
Had she read the vision of the crows correctly? When she got back to the house, she called Ellen, as much to reassure herself as to tell her great-niece she should be careful not to trip and fall.
When there was no answer, she went back to her chores in the kitchen, but Ruth’s head hurt and she had lost her taste for corn bread. There it sat, eggs and buttermilk already mixed into the stone-ground cornmeal. Ruth couldn’t abide waste. She added a pinch of baking soda, some baking powder and salt, then poured the mixture into a black cast-iron skillet and stuck it in the oven.
It was too late to turn on the radio and catch the new show The Rest of the Story, and too early to catch the CBS Evening News, though she already knew what she’d hear: Nixon and Watergate. Still, Ruth considered Paul Harvey and Walter Cronkite two of the smartest men she knew. Just the sound of their voices reassured her, anchored her to the present.
Skirting the bucket of peas she’d picked earlier in the day before the sun got too high, she left her hot kitchen to call
Ellen again. When there was still no answer, she went into the parlor on the shady side of the house to cool off. Folks nowadays called it a living room, but there hadn’t been any living done in this room in nearly fifty years. Not since Lola died.
Ruth turned on a set of Victorian lamps beside a burgundy velvet sofa, then pulled back the faded rose brocade drapes to let in some light. But forsythia bushes had long ago climbed nearly to the roof, and the windows hadn’t been washed since Ruth accidentally disturbed a nest of vicious red wasps under the sills. What was it, five years ago? Six?
When Ruth sank onto the sofa, dust rose from the velvet cushions. She fanned it away then reached onto the marble-topped coffee table for the treasures she displayed there—a yellowed newspaper clipping, a small gold brooch, and a grainy photograph made in a booth at the county fair. The photograph showed Ruth and Lola in pigtails, their arms around each other as they smiled into the camera, Ruth taller by five inches and older by ten years, her face defined by the sharp lines that would become hatchetlike over the years, and her half sister already stamped with the golden beauty that would be both her blessing and her curse. And yet there was something fierce inside Lola, too, something that couldn’t be threatened out, beat out, or scared out.
Tracing the lines of her beloved sister’s face, Ruth stared at the picture so long she became part of the air around her where, suddenly, a lone figure pulsed and swirled, dancing to some unheard melody. Lately, the lines between the physical world and her visions had become blurred and things kept getting mixed up, crossing over. Nothing surprised Ruth anymore,
not a crow that could carry you to the sky or a phantom dancing in her parlor.
Half the time she didn’t know whether she was on this side or the other. Old as she was, she reckoned she was straddling two worlds and too damned stubborn to give up either one of them.
As disconnected from her own body as dandelions blowing off their stem, Ruth squinted at the dancing vision, trying to assign Lola’s face to the woman who sparkled when she twirled. But the phantom turned her back, keeping her secrets.
She found herself back on the sofa, taking off her glasses and wiping them with the hem of her dress. When she put them back on, the photograph had fluttered to the table, and she stared at the headlines in the ancient newspaper from Tarpon Springs, Florida:
The Great Giovanni Bros./Hogan & Sandusky
Circus Presents Fearless Female Tiger Tamer!
Her sister smiled back at her, dwarfed by two six-hundred-pound Bengal tigers standing on back paws, licking her face.
Suddenly the brooch sprang to life, a miniature golden tiger turned full grown and fierce, prowling Ruth’s parlor, claws extended and teeth bared. Snatched into another dimension, Ruth watched while he circled her rosewood upright piano with its ball-and-claw feet, sniffed behind her drapes, inspected the cushions on the carved mahogany fireside chairs, and sat a spell in front of the swinging pendulum of the grandfather clock.
When the tiger turned to look at her with eyes that could snatch souls, she stared right back.
“You ain’t gonna find nothin’ here but a skinny old woman with a tough hide. Now, git.”
The tiger began to dissolve, first his tail, then his giant paws and upright ears, and finally his glaring, golden eyes. Then he lay back on her coffee table, a harmless brooch that nobody had worn since 1929.
As reality weighed down her bones once more, Ruth squeezed her hands together to stop the shaking. This was the second time she’d seen the tiger. The first had been last week when she’d roused from a nap on the porch and seen it streaking across her yard with Lola and Ellen both on its back.
Lord have mercy. Her sister had been gone all these years with Ruth getting nary a sign. What was the tiger trying to tell her?
She wiped her face with the red bandana she kept in her pocket, then she heaved herself off the sofa, leaned down to fluff up the indentation she’d made in the cushions, walked across the room to close the draperies, and left the parlor.
She had peas to shell, a cake to bake. Last night her dreams had told her company was coming, and she wanted to have a lemon pound cake ready.
By the time she heard Ray Boy chugging back up the mountain, she had the peas cooking, the corn bread cooling, her mixing bowls laid out, and the TV on so she wouldn’t miss the news.
When Walter Cronkite signed off by saying, “And that’s the way it is,” Ruth wished she could be as certain about the messages from today’s visions.
It took her to nightfall to get the cake done. She was slower than she used to be. But by the time she went to bed, the
pound cake was under its glass dome on the cake plate, plump and proud and fragrant as the citrus groves Ruth sometimes smelled in her dreams, though she’d never set foot in Florida.
Shedding her calico dress, her shoes and garters and stockings, Ruth bathed herself at the washbasin that had belonged to her grandmother, though she had a perfectly modern bathroom. The simplicity of the old ways soothed her. Then she got into a clean white cotton nightgown and climbed into bed. It was taller than ordinary, plantation style with layers of thick bedding, but she had no need for the footstool. Even at eighty she was still a tall woman.
Ruth turned off the bedside lamp, pulled the sheet up to her chin, and lay in the darkness, praying she wouldn’t dream. Still, she could hear the black shapes gathering—but it wasn’t the rustle of wings. It was stealth with fur and teeth and claws.
Resigned, Ruth closed her eyes and went to sleep in the shadow of a tiger.