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Suspicious River, Page 23

Laura Kasischke

  The cold doesn’t move, and I don’t open my eyes. It’s as if a small, chilled bird has settled there. A frozen bird.

  A frozen diamond.

  Or a sharp sliver of hail:

  Some mirror fragment of the sky fallen onto my throat.

  And when I finally realize it’s the edge of a knife he’s holding there, steady and pressing, just above my collarbone, that it’s a sharp metal blade pressed firm and icy against my neck, and what that means, I sit up.

  Suddenly frantic, I gasp straight into that knife with all the life I have and cut my own throat fast.

  UNCLE ANDY stood behind my mother, his shadow falling across her, but she was laughing. A hoe in her hand, it filled up with blue sky when she wiped it on the grass and let it fall beside her as she packed the dirt down around the rosebush he’d given her.

  Pressing the earth.

  Packing it down. She was wearing a halter-top, and her back was pure light, reflecting nothing. He ran his darker hand over the skin, dividing the light between her bare shoulders.

  I looked at the rosebush, which was already heavy with dead, red petals—though the earth under it was wildly alive, being tunneled and torn up, turned by insects squirming, being born. My mother hummed low and hungry behind her lips, and I could hear it coming up from that black soil.

  She stood and kissed him, and I picked up the hoe and stabbed it over and over into the soft ground my mother had broken and closed around the rose.

  “What the fuck”—the light snaps on, and I see his face above me. The blue eyes, the blond beard, a few inches from my own before the yellow room flashes off the knife in his hands and I close my eyes (too beautiful, too bright). His lips are wet, but his eyes are stunned as something just born. Blood on his shirt—redder than you might imagine, redder, maybe, than he’d imagined. When he sees it on himself, he gasps.

  And when I close my eyes, I see my mother planting a rosebush in the back yard in summer—the only time I’ve ever seen her garden. That velvet red. Her hands are full of dirt, and the dirt squirms with fat and steaky worms. She isn’t wearing gloves. Her legs are smooth and white. I remember, that morning, how she’d shaved them, and a trickle of blood had run from her thigh down the drain, billowing in the bath water, luxurious as hair. “Leila, get me a Band-Aid,” she’d said.

  “What the fuck did you cut her for?”

  When I open my eyes again, Rob is standing over me—pale in the yellow light, shaking, weak, familiar. His forehead flickers with sweat. Someone moves into the doorway behind him, and he turns fast. “Get the fuck out of here,” he says, voice cracking. He goes to the bedroom door and slams it shut.

  “Oh my god, oh god, oh god,” muttering. He starts to search the dresser drawers for something, throwing handfuls of white socks and underwear to the floor as he searches. Finally he hauls out a woman’s short bathrobe. Terrycloth, and he tears it in half fast with his bare hands. There is the sound of fur being slashed with a pocket knife as the cloth rips. Something small and sharp cutting a tough, dry hide, and I see that deer again. In the neighbors’ yard. Swinging a bit in the October wind. Its eyes were open, or closed, and something ran black from its slack mouth.

  “Sit up, sweetheart,” he says, slipping a hand behind my back, between my shoulder blades, easing me up. I feel dizzy, and the room grows darker before it explodes again with light. Rob presses a torn square of the bathrobe to my chest.

  “We’ve got to get you out of here, baby,” he whispers in my ear. The message, as it tunnels through the canals, musty paths to my brain, is soft and warm, while the rest of the house comes alive with louder whispering now. Outside, I can hear clear sound. A raccoon screams cold and sharp. Something dragged, metal, across cement. And the dog is back, chained again, leaping at the emptiness before him in silence, clanging, just the sound of a woman dancing without music in metal shoes.

  “Do you hear me, Leila? We’ve got to get you out of here. You’ve got to sit up, sweetheart. We’ve got to get your dress on.”

  Out there, I can hear the cluttered ruin of the vegetable garden, too, rustle. Then, silence, except for Rob’s breath, like a bear’s—except for the low whispers in the living room. I think of a field of pumpkins I’ve driven past in October. Just at dusk, all those heavy heads resting, nestled, in deep green vines like godheads or sleeping hoboes off the road: They were dreaming the future for me. My death. A white frenzy of feathers in the sky over Suspicious River. Their whispers grew louder and louder the further and faster I drove.

  Rob leans over to pick the dress up off the floor, stands to slip it over my head. There’s blood on his hands and on the dress when I look down. Oily, and bright. He buttons the pearl buttons over the blood, and they go dark and thick with it. Whispering again, “You’ve got to stand up, baby. Gary’s back. You got to get out of here now.”

  Rob’s sweat shimmers on his upper lip as he slips another woman’s sweater up my arms, buttons it up over my dress. It is a black sweater, and it fits. I can smell my blood in the unfamiliar wool of it like a strange, new animal—something undiscovered, moving through the sewers while we sleep, something that’s made a nest and given birth down there.

  The yellow light becomes cold as Rob slides the bedroom window open. I hear him rip the screen with something sharp. I hear animal feet scurry through the grass outside. Small claws clicking in the branches overhead. I think there must be new species being born all the time—in the sewer, in the woods, crawling out of the forest to be mangled, unrecognizable, on the highway under tires.

  Beyond recognition comes to mind. Identified by dental records comes to mind. I remember a headline, Two Severed Female Legs Found in Muskegon Dumpster, and another article, an inch long, about a hunter whose dog dug up the body of a girl I’d gone to high school with. A runaway they’d called her when she disappeared one Saturday after a football game. Maybe they’d imagined her leaping, white-hoofed, across the burnout of autumn fields, running away. But she’d been strangled with a belt and buried in a duffle bag instead.

  That hunter hadn’t wanted to look, but the dog would not leave the site, the paper said. It howled and tore at the earth. Frenzied.

  He knew what was under there, the hunter said, shaking, when reporters asked him for details the next day.

  The dog pawed up the grave, snuffling, until the hunter saw hair.

  Rob helps me to the window, and I stand in front of it, leaning into him, looking at the slash in the screen that leads outside to nothing but a blue-black sky.

  The air blowing through it tastes like a tarnished spoon in my mouth, and I gulp what’s on it down.


  Something moves out there, slips behind a high hedge of loose leaves like a ragged wall. Thin blade of a moon. A few cool stars. Bats, maybe, or something with wings tossed from the roof—bleating a bit, but flying.

  There’s blood on my teeth now, too. Blood on the back of my hands. I can see black roses on my cheekbones, still swelling. Rob doesn’t look at my face. He touches my hair gently as I step through the ripped-open screen into darkness and wind, not sure how far down the earth will be as I feel myself fall through it, getting used to falling just before the earth stops me fast and hard in an exhausted garden, covered now in cold leaves and a few damp squares of burlap.

  I’m lucky, I think when I touch my knees and elbows with the palms of my hands: Once, I saw a bald, wet baby bird, wings pink and useless as the lids of a child’s eyes. It had fallen like that from a nest and landed on the windshield of the neighbor’s car with no sound at all.

  Rob leans out of the window as I stand up again slowly, tired, and he’s still whispering. I can barely hear him. He seems to be suspended over my head like a hollow planet, an exposed god, by long white threads. “Go down to the river and start running in that direction,” he points to the sky in front of him. “You’re five miles from town. I’ll come after you as soon as I can.”

  “Go,” he says, making an arc in
the air over me as if he’s throwing something invisible into the wind. “Run.”

  I can’t feel the ground underneath my feet, though I know it’s there, shocking up through the bones of my legs each time I hit it with my bare heel. The house is quiet and bright behind me, but even without it I can see in the dark. I see a swing set, red striped, ruined by weather, and it smells like rust. An old bicycle, a girl’s, collapsed on its kickstand as if it’s been tossed off another planet. A meteor with plastic streamers on its white handlebars. An oily chain. A silver garbage can of rain. A shiver of trees around the river, and the sound of water slipping, down there, through earth—very close, the river sounds like a body, bleeding, but alive.

  I run toward that, through the back yard, until the mowed grass turns to long, dead weeds. I run until the light from the house flickers in branches behind me and goes out.

  Then I slide down.

  The river’s there. Quiet, but it smooths over a few white stones, and I can hear those stones.

  Mud, crossing the river.

  Beneath my feet, the stones feel smooth, and they don’t cut. The muck is sweet, and something with warm blood, greased fur, passes between my ankles, kisses them, and a tree reaches down to take my hand and help me up, out of the water, to the other side of the river:

  Strange, I think, how all of it has become human since I was last here—when it had all gone by barren around me, dragging its dead deer away, along with its fish—suffering, winged, or tumored in the chemical dark. Its styrofoam cups and beer bottles.

  I run along the other side of the river, stumbling but strong, leaving a bloody trail of footprints behind me in the mud.

  As if the glass has cracked in my glass slippers.

  As if the river were a mother I should have trusted.


  The moon is a clean sickle, and only now and then a shred of cloud passes through its claw. When you hold your hand out in front of you, it fills with silver, like something filched. You give it back to the darkness when you make a fist, and even the stars hiss. A few of them fall when you stare at the sky. A handful of planets slip into the river—too quick to catch, even with a net. Now, each breath you take is a fast stab between your ribs, and your heart pushes water up through your lungs, through the moon slice across your throat:

  This is what the river says as it gets wider.

  It gets wider, the farther I walk, but I can hear footsteps on the other side.



  When they aren’t calling my name, they are whispering to each other.

  Sticks snap under their feet.

  On the other side of the river, something flashes, metal. A wristwatch, or a ring—something silver catching moonlight like a razor. Even the sharp little slivers of the river’s fish glint under the shallow edges of water.

  That’s how bright the night sky is.

  I move out of its white dust, then, and the river’s mirror fills with stars.

  I move into the trees, the shadows of trees, where the moon hangs over me with nothing on its butcher hook—only a few leaves still clinging to the very top of the trees, high up, waving down at me like the little hands of children from the sky—snagged in branches, trapped there until the first snow drags them down. “Hello?”


  “Are you there?”


  “Leila, wait.”

  I hear footsteps in the water, crossing or wading with or without shoes, and I think I hear a car ease its solid weight over soft mud, no headlights, then the whispers again.

  I get down on the earth, kneeling at first, looking up at the sky as I do. If you saw me now, you might think I was a woman praying, a woman knocked to her knees by the love of a god, but I’m not. I’m hiding from everything, especially God. I put my hands in the dirt, press my stomach to it, my chest, my bloody dress.

  And, wearing another woman’s sweater, I cross my arms over my head—wet wool to protect it—and I press my face into the mulch, close my eyes.

  “Where is she?”

  I try not to breathe, but when I do, I smell deep sleep down there. Ruined sheets left on a laundry line all summer in the rain—brought back in and spread across the bed: Sleep in those sheets and you will dream you are the weather itself. In your dream, you are all four corners of the flat land tucked under the world with wind.

  The blood on my dress has gone stiff across my breasts, and it feels like a new, tougher skin.

  An animal’s hide.

  I hear my heart knock dull against the ground.

  Small gasps through a damp slash, and pale red clay against my mouth.

  Until suddenly I’m dropped, bloody and crying, by white wings into the world.

  There is the glare of forsythia against a purple sky and the early, miniature unfolding of leaves like green baby hands in the trees. They reach, screaming with life, toward the hot gas and atoms they came from—star food, photosynthesis—until the earth and everything in it is dusted with sun—branches, bird feathers, imagination, and dishes.

  Creatures crawl out of the thawed river. They die or survive, give birth to new creatures whose moist eyes flutter open in the light. Languages are forgotten or invented. Fires die. And a million random events begin to make sense in what is no longer the void. All the while, the deafening roar of steam engines or jets, and a tinny piano pounding out Happy Birthday down the block.

  I’m born, a girl without wings, and when I look up at my mother’s face through a new prism of tears, she is the world without end, amen, and the sky beyond her is only a white backdrop of flimsy cloth—day stars, feathers, something wriggling, now, on the moon’s hook in the bright air, breathing with new gills.

  My life spins forward after that, only faster:

  I am standing in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom, and it’s bright. The white pine headboard is a blank screen behind them. A pink towel is flung like a glove on the floor. A small, smooth bottle of violet water on the dresser. The sound of something that’s been boiling, slowing now, rolling but still warm.

  My uncle stands then, picks up the knife, which looks no different than any knife—smooth and steel, a black handle. The blood on it is slippery and technicolor red. He opens the top drawer of my mother’s dresser and drops it into a bed of slips and hose, then he slides the drawer closed again and looks at me. He puts his hands over his face. Breathing hard, it seems his face has melted in such brilliant light in the middle of the night. His face turns to water in his hands as he sobs.

  Then he swallows. He takes his hands from his face, and I see that it is ruined. He turns his palms toward the ceiling, as if to show me they are clean. Washed in her blood, two handfuls of absolutely nothing. Behind him, light blazes white on my mother.

  My own hands are small, white leaves. I put them near my mouth before I scream, but there’s only silence inside me. Bright as the steam off a block of ice.

  I look at my hands again. They are brittle as broken white wings in the cold hand of a man on his knees in the slick-wet clinic parking lot:

  Don’t kill your baby, he says.

  A rubber glove of blood: I am at the Golden Dragon, spooning up blood soup. And then I am in a hot room at the Swan Motel. Dust stuffs my throat. On my knees. He leans with his whole weight into my face to slap me, but it knocks me even further forward, into him.

  He knew, when he slapped me, that my body would defy gravity.

  His arms were already open to catch it.

  He knew it when he saw me standing behind the counter, opening the guest book, looking for his name. Before he even heard me speak.

  I look up.

  Here she is, he says.

  Shadows pass over me. Breathing, I press my ear closer to the ground, and finally, after all this time, my mother speaks to me, in a voice of water. She says:

  He’ll have a gun, Leila, and he’ll push you down on your knees, stand behind you, and he’ll fire it
once into the back of your head. The sun will just be coming up, and a pink fog will rise off the river. You’ll think you can smell that fog, like smoke from a cherry bomb, but it will just be gun. Then, he’ll put your body in the trunk of your car. He’ll drive it to the Leelanau Peninsula while the blond one follows in the silver Thunderbird. They’ll drive to the end of a dirt road, and they’ll set your car on fire.

  Somewhere, already, a headline is being typed.

  ONE OF THEM CROUCHES down next to me, touching the wet sleeve of my sweater with a light hand, and the other one stands behind me, face outside the shadows. He is the one I see most clearly when I look up.

  “We were afraid you’d bleed to death,” he says.

  I roll to my side, and the night feels cold in the black nest of this other woman’s sweater over my chest—cold now with my fresh blood.

  Gary strikes a match under that one’s face, and the blond beard and the cigarette glow orange, suspended for a moment in the dark, making a jack-o’-lantern of his skull.

  There is movement all around us. Paws, claws, the cold slap of a fish in the river, beer bottles buoying, knocking empty against the stones as they wash away from town—wash down to bigger water.

  I try to sit up, but can’t. There is a rush of wind in my ears. A speeding train. I see myself for a moment as a passenger on it. Chicago, it says on my ticket. I might be wearing a raincoat. Beige. It is the future, charging ahead with clattering wheels with or without me. I ease back into the ground, slow motion. Settling.

  “We didn’t want you to die out here by yourself,” he says.

  I close my eyes.

  The air smells like iron, and I roll onto my back and look up at the sky. Clouds of dust-light blow back and forth across it like chiffon.