The night before, Emma's mother had sat at the foot of that bed, explaining what would happen on her wedding night. She opened the family medical counselor to the chapter on "Love and Marriage," called love making "sexual congress" and warned Emma that feeding her new husband calves' feet jelly, dandelion or too much salt would lead to reckless amatory feelings, causing irreparable mischief.
"Don't go with him if he makes you nervous," her mother concluded. "Marry him only if he loves you more."
Emma wasn't nervous around her tall, blond husband. She didn't know if he loved her more. She'd met him that August, when a coal car tipped off its track beside her father's company house down in War, West Virginia, spilling coal across the porch, nearly burying her family alive. Caleb was one of the train men who dug them out. A week after the accident, he'd sat beside her on her father's aluminum rocker out on her porch, offering her a house with ten acres of mountain farmland on a ridge above a valley called God's thumbprint. He'd married her at the courthouse in downtown Bluefield because the Catholic priest in the coal camp wouldn't perform the ceremony. A longshoreman passing through the camp had put out word that Caleb had been married during the war, to a girl from Naples, and that he'd stayed on in Italy to be with her after his tour of duty ended. He'd returned to the States alone a year ago, saying only that she was dead.
For their picnic, Caleb carried two Irish potatoes, a slab of bacon, a short hunting knife and a pair of water glasses in a pack on his back. He planned to catch and cook trout for her, but as long as he did not season them with too much salt, she didn't see cause for alarm. At twenty-six, his blond hair receded, and his shoulders stooped beneath his broadcloth shirt as he threaded the fishing hook through a grasshopper so skillfully that the grasshopper remained alive, grasping the line. I am married to this man, Emma thought. He is my husband. She was sixteen. She needed to hook these sudden facts into her mind.
Caleb stood, his long legs striding easily across a path of stones toward the middle of a rapid. He turned back, beckoning to her. She hopped across the stones and took his hand. This was the second time he'd touched her; the first time was a quick, public kiss on the cheek during the wedding ceremony. Standing in the middle of the stream, she liked the feel of his callused hand as he pulled her toward him, how he gripped her rib cage with both hands to steady her on the dry, flat rock beside him. When he let go, the absence of his touch was like a pain, and she became unsure of what to do with her own hands. She watched him cast the line to the far side of a cascade, allowing the grasshopper to float down to the pool at the end where the dark trout waited, rising to snap up real flies. Caleb gave her the fly rod, stood behind her, positioned her arm straight out before her, teaching her a roll east. She leaned into his chest and cast out, but the line sank quickly beneath the tumbling water, and she reeled it back in.
"Try to get your hook to the other side of the cascades," he said. "Let it float down naturally with the rest of the flies."
His voice rolled like the surface of the mountains draped around them, mingling with the water's churning. The late morning sun warmed the back of her neck. She could have stood there all day, leaning against him, listening to his easy-going voice. She cast and recast until the hook reached the other side. She looked back at him, and he nodded. "That's better." The rod trembled and arched, and Caleb helped her slowly reel in a rainbow, kneeling beside the water to wait until the fish stilled. He lifted the fish, gently slipped the hook from its soft mouth and threaded a slip of rope through its gills. He eased the fish back into the pool ill the crevice beside them, securing the end of the rope beneath a heavy rock.
Emma gave Caleb the rod, and he walked over to the river bank to cast out a few more times. She squatted on the rock, studying her fish. Its back was green with black spots, and its sides shimmered silver and rose. Its ghostly fins moved steadily beneath its body. It was so beautiful that Emma imagined it must be female. Another rainbow swain up beside her fish. Darker and greener, its sides were scarred white. It held itself beside Emma's captive fish, its gills moving as though it were talking, and Emma imagined it must be the mate. Icy water splashed over the rocks, soaking her boots, and she hopped from foot to foot until her frozen toes stung from the blood rushing back into them. She pulled her fish from the pool and went over to where Caleb was kneeling, cleaning and wrapping his three trout in water-soaked rhododendron leaves, slipping them into a woven creel. Emma looked down at her fish. It was dead. She shivered as Caleb wrapped it in the wet leaves, slipped it into the dark hole of the creel. She wished she'd let the fish go.
Caleb took off his wool sweater, gave it to her, and it smelled of his sweet tobacco as she pulled it over her head. He unjointed the fly rod, reeling the line through the guides. Hoisting the creel, he picked up the rod and headed along the uphill path toward the tree line.
"Let's walk for a while," he said. "I want to show you something."
The path along the river was steep, bordered by limestone bluffs and laurel. Pines grew sideways out of the rocks, bowing across the river, and the big native trout swam in the black pools beneath the cascades. Emma and Caleb climbed, stepping over roots and high blocks of limestone, until she tired and asked him to stop. Sitting on a fern-softened rock before a cave, she let the cave air breathe softly over her neck and shoulders. While Caleb jointed the fly rod and cast into the pool, she watched his long arms and graceful movements, deciding that he was handsome. The hiking had made her warm and drowsy, but she kept his sweater on, breathing his scent of tobacco and trout, wondering if he loved her, and why.
Emma was not beautiful. Once, she'd dared to ask her mother if she were pretty, and her mother replied, "Your hair is your one beauty. Don't ever cut it." Her father had joked gently that she was built like a farm hand. Dark-skinned and broad shouldered, she'd carried two buckets of water from the coal camp pump for her mother every laundry day. She'd scrubbed floors and cooked for three brothers and her father since she was seven. Once, her father had come home with two coal pails full of blackberries he'd picked while out roaming the mountainside, giving the fruit to her mother before he went back to work a second shift in the mine. Emma knew that her mother was more nervous than angry with her father for taking an extra shift, that it was more dangerous for him to go back underground when he was already tired. Her mother had turned away from her father, briskly ordering Emma to wash out the Mason jars so they could can the fruit right away.
Her mother mashed the berries through the strainer. Her faded blond hair streaked gray at thirty-five, her stomach swelling softly with a fifth, unexpected child, she thumped through the sweltering kitchen that July day, her pale face pinched as she added sugar to the mashed fruit, cooked the mixture, then filled the clear jars with black jam. Emnaa hated how readily her mother turned her father's sweet gift into a bitter chore. Looking at her own hands inside the soapy Mason jars, now raw and ugly with wash water, she swore she'd never marry. "You're too old to be pregnant," she'd snapped at her mother.
Now, Emma's own husband stood still and quiet beside the river, casting his line over and over into the stream. The fish were larger and wilder up here, fleshier than the little ones in his creel that would hardly make a decent supper. Then she noticed that Caleb was releasing these bigger catches.
"There's more meat on the ones you just let go," she said. "Why aren't you keeping them?"
"It's enough to know they are here," he said. "You can't cast toward an absence."
Emma had never met anyone who didn't eat the fish they caught. How is it enough just to watch a fish instead of eating it? she wondered. Before she could ask, Caleb unjointed the fly rod and began walking, no longer turning back to check on her. Following, she studied her husband's stooped posture, wishing this man were a little happier, more talkative, someone who didn't answer her questions with what her mother called "his fourth thought," forcing her to angle out the first three thoughts that came into his mind before he actually spoke. It worried her that there were still so many facts about his past that were absent from their conversations. The longshoreman had told the coal camp priest and her family that Caleb just appeared one day, walking over the mountain with a stack of books under one arm, a bundle of money stuck inside a banjo slung across his back. He put all the money down on a mountain farm outside Bluefield, where he'd taken Emma to live just that morning. The longshoreman had heard that Caleb worked for some "strange" men while in Italy, that these men paid for his return to America and gave him the money that was in the banjo. Nobody knew where Caleb's people came from, or if he had any.
Unsure of what she believed, Emma thought of her dead trout in the woven creel at his side, remembered how deftly his hunting knife sliced through this fish, and for the first time she regretted her hasty marriage and flight from the coal camp. She imagined his Italian wife, slender and flail as the virgin saints, and wondered how she'd died. She considered following the stream back to the bottom, to the meadow filled with coneflowers and butterflies, and hitching a ride back to her family's house, but she was too far into this to turn around. When the walking trail ended at a bare bluff, Caleb climbed the staggered outcropping of limestone. She pulled herself up by the limbs of rhododendrons, climbing until she reached the top, following Caleb along the ridge. Chilled by her own sweat, she looked down toward the stream, but no longer saw it. The trees muted the water's comfortable tumbling.
Caleb hiked several feet ahead of her, his back straighter, more assured as he strode relentlessly across a dry meadow stabbed with dying firs, bare and white as bones rising into the blue sky. At the edge of the meadow, she caught up with him as he hacked through some blackberry bushes. She heard the water before she saw it. This new water poured from a great height, echoing against stone, slapping against more water. The blue butterflies reappeared, clouding above Caleb's head as he turned, his face kind and eager as he held the branches back so they wouldn't snag her. She stepped toward him, and he placed his hand against her back, guiding her eyes to the high ridge covered with fir and hemlock, the white water veiling the dark joints and faults in the cliff face, smacking on the surface of a deep pool. She breathed in the heady scent of fermented berries and limestone water. Galeb's hand pressed softly against her back, and as he leaned toward her, she could feel his mouth close to hers. She could breathe his light, sweet breath. Her heart fluttered recklessly. She wondered if she were heading toward the irreparable mischief that had trapped her mother in that sweltering July kitchen, canning jar after jar of blackberry jam.
Around the mountain pool, hundreds of blue butterflies flattened themselves against long, polished stones, drinking the water held in their dimpled surfaces. Emma took off her shoes and walked across the slippery rocks. Water sprayed her face and arms as she dodged the drinking butterflies and stood at the pool's edge, watching the giant trout swim around the pool. Dark blue and mottled, they sculled just below the surface, gulping up butterflies and water, their stomachs filling like empty buckets. She saw now why her husband had released them. She, too, was satisfied just to know that they were here.
When Emma looked back at Caleb, he had built a fire on a dry rock and placed the cast iron skillet on the flames. He pulled the slab of bacon from his pack, and cut a slice into the skillet. As it sizzled, he pared the two potatoes into the pan and wrapped the trout in the remaining bacon. He fried the trout until their eyes turned blue and smoky, then took the skillet from the fire and placed it between them. He taught her how to pull the spine out of the fish by its head, all in one piece, and they ate the sweet meat with their fingers, from the cooling pan. After they finished eating, he pulled a slip of rope from the water, and in the dim light she imagined he was pulling a magnificent, shimmering trout out of the spring, one of the big wild ones she'd been satisfied to admire just a little while ago. Another beautiful thing gone. Her heart ached with confusion and disappointment. Then he set a green glass bottle between his knees. He smiled at her, working the cork out of the bottle with his hunting knife.
"It's champagne." He poured some into a water glass. "I brought it back with me from Italy. I wanted it to be a surprise. Do you want to try some?"
The champagne flowed like liquid gold into the glass, so beautiful that even a child would be tempted to drink it.
"Oh, why not," she laughed, drinking. The champagne spread like sweet fire down her throat, around her breasts, under her arms and down through her ribs. When it reached her stomach, she felt sunshine, even though the sun had set and they were sitting beneath a dark canopy of trees.
"It's beautiful," she said, dipping her finger at the bottom of the glass.
"You're beautiful," he said, pouring more champagne for her.
She squirmed. My hair is my one beauty, she thought. I am built like a farm hand. She set the glass down between them.
"Was she pretty?" she asked.
"Your first wife."
"Men liked her. She was the kind of girl who could make you feel good about yourself. She made you want to tell her all your secrets."
"What happened to her?"
"She died of the consumption."
Suddenly, Emma felt guilty, but now that she'd asked for his sad secret, there was nothing she could do but listen.
"It was so bad at the end, I couldn't watch," he said. "After she died, I stayed on for a while. The war was over, and most of my shipmates had gone home. The ones who stayed found their way to the nearest bar, but I toured the churches. Each one was like a museum, filled with pictures of famous saints."
Emma recalled her mother's holy cards. She brought them out on nights when her father worked an extra shift, and her mother stayed up late, drinking tea and coffee in bed to stay awake until he returned safely. Sifting through the pictures of saints, her mother recounted the lives of the young female martyrs for Emma, praising their ethereal beauty, their vows of chastity, their painful austerities.
"Saint Rose of Lima rubbed her face with pepper to hide her beauty," her mother said. "When someone noticed the shapeliness of her fingers, she rubbed her hands with lime. It was so painful she couldn't dress herself for a month."
When her mother reached the picture of Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, Emma studied the saint's schoolgirl face tilted upward, her eyes rolled back, mouth agape. An angel, more beautiful boy than a vision, grasped a fold of her veil, poised his fire-tipped arrow above her heart. On the back of the holy card, Emma read about Teresa's spiritual marriage with Christ, the angels piercing her heart, and how the sweetness of her excessive pain surpassed all desire to be rid of it.
"That one was always having the ecstasies," her mother said.
"What is an ecstasy?" Emma asked.
Her mother quickly slipped the card to the bottom of the stack. "Our bodies are like overcoats for the soul," she said. "Until you are married, you must never let a man touch or kiss you anywhere but on the cheek or the hand. If you find yourself alone with a man, pretend that you are with Jesus."
Caleb's fire was dying, but she could feel him beside her, see the shape of his long and elegant fingers laced across his chest as he looked up through the canopy of trees into the clear night sky. Alone with him, she had to remind herself that he was a regular man, not Jesus, and that she could allow him to touch her anywhere he wanted. She imagined him unraveling her chestnut hair from its long braid, finger combing it down to her waist. She felt a pleasing ache travel down through her chest and stomach, and she wondered if this were the beginning of a pain that could be so sweet she'd never want it to end.
"I wish I could have seen some of those churches with you," she said quietly.
Caleb turned toward her, his voice sharp. "If I stepped into a church right now, the walls would come crumbling down around me."
Emma flinched at his gruffness, chastening herself for making him the object of her vain and childish desires, for disregarding her mother's most obvious lesson, that a man's brief sweetness would lead only to endless chores, and a whole lot of bitterness. She recalled Caleb's cold kiss at their courthouse wedding, how afterwards he'd walked her down to the Norfolk and Western station to show her where he would work now that he'd been promoted to grading Tidewater coal. Standing in the railroad hub, they looked up a steep street shadowed by East River Mountain. Caleb pointed to a white stone bank tower that looked like a church steeple, saying, "That's Italian stonework. It looks just like some of the buildings you see in Italy."
Emma waited quietly in the dying firelight, certain now that Caleb's mind was far away from her, in some Italian hill town, where she imagined all the women were fine-boned and wore red silk scarves and walked gracefully up steep streets lined with buildings so beautiful they resembled churches. She began to envy Caleb's first wife, the lovely one who suffered the austerities of illness, died and still lingered in Caleb's memory. Emma looked down at her own callused hands and thick waist, feeling disconnected, unworthy, plain as a brown overcoat heaped on the ground beside her husband.
"I wouldn't mind going back to Pompeii." Caleb's voice was gentle again. "After I'd seen enough churches, I bought a ticket to the ruins. The day I went, a farmer was burning trash on the hillside, and I could hardly see where I was going through all the ashes in the air."
Emma didn't think she'd like Pompeii. Trudging over tumbled stones through hot, cindered air wouldn't be much different from walking through a coal camp in the height of summer. As he told of walking the loose cobble-stoned streets lined with ancient, caved-in houses, she felt lost and sweaty. But she held her tongue, grateful that he was talking again.
"I hired an old Neopolitan guide," Caleb said. "He took me to the house where no women were allowed to go and led me down a hallway lined with square rooms, each one fitted with a single, stone bed. Above the doorways, there were frescoes covered with white cloths. The old man started lifting them one by one so that I could see. The first was of a naked woman perched on a man's chest." He described the faded frescoes of bare, plump women of pleasure, making love in various positions. One lay on her side with a man curled behind her, tracing her spine; another crouched before a man with her hand on his head, as though giving him a blessing. "The guide said that the girls working in the brothel would howl like wolves out their windows at night to generate business from the streets. He said he knew of a real woman he could call for me."
"What did you say?"
"I told him to go away."
"Why would you want to be alone in an old house full of dirty pictures?" Emma asked.
Caleb laughed. "They were erotic, but not dirty. "He paused. "They looked playful, maybe a little instructive. I guess they made me feel lonely, and the old man's ugly talk only made it worse."
Emma's heart clenched as she thought of her husband, standing alone and lonely in some crumbling, stone house with a dirty old man. She spoke quietly, hoping he wouldn't hear the longing in her voice, her own sad certainty that he would never love her as much as his first wife.
"You must miss her very much," she said.
"The last fresco was the most faded, but I could make out a woman sitting on the end of a dark couch, a man reclined beside her," Caleb continued. "The woman was beautiful, pale and round-hipped. The man was lean and dark as the earth. The two of them sat with their heads bent together, smiling, like they were telling each other secrets. I tried to recall my wife's voice, but I couldn't hear it. I couldn't remember her face or body, or how it felt to love her. She was gone completely, and I couldn't feel anything. That's when I saw that the man and woman in that ancient, scratched-up painting were more alive than I was. That's when I knew I needed to leave that country. I took a job working for some men in Naples. They paid for my passage back to the States."
Emma remembered the longshoreman's tale of the "strange" men Caleb had worked for in Italy, the banjo filled with money. "What did you do for those men?"
"It was a long time ago," he said. "It doesn't matter, because we'll never have to worry about it again."
Caleb stood abruptly and walked down to clean the skillet in the spring beside the waterfall, leaving Emma to ponder the meaning of his story. Had he told it to instruct her in the details of lovemaking? Was he testing her to see if she could handle the sad and sordid parts of his past? She recalled the yoke over her shoulder that the held buckets of water she'd carried from the coal camp pump every laundry day since she was seven. She'd been raised to carry heavy things. She could bear the weight of her husband's history, if he'd allow it.
Watching him stoop over the pool of water, washing the cast iron pan, she wanted to lie beside him, her face in his hands, listening to all his secrets. She pulled his sweater over her head, then her dress, lying back to feel the last of the day's heat rising from the stone. Caleb turned from the river, his eyes wary at the sight of her bare skin. He walked over and sat beside her, and she rolled toward him, but the glass of champagne remained between them. He held her back, his hands finding a purchase on her ribcage, as though his hands were memorizing her body.
"It's okay," she said. "I'm built like a farm hand."
Caleb turned away and stood, taking off his shirt and trousers. The moon shone through the canopy, lighting the woods and water as he walked to the edge of the pool. Around the edge, hundreds of blue butterflies flattened themselves against long polished stones, drinking the water held in their dimpled surfaces. Wading in, he floated on his back, his hands treading the dark water's surface, turning green, then white, then transparent. He flipped over and swam to the waterfall, toward the black joints and faults in the limestone on either side of the high cliff. When he ducked under the water, Emma held her breath. After he disappeared, she walked cautiously over the slippery black rocks toward the spring. She watched the giant trout circle slowly, their hooked mouths gulping as they surfaced to snap up a butterfly and sink again. Emma recalled the touch of Caleb's hand as he pulled her to him, the feel of his solid chest against her back. She recalled her mother's advice, Don't go with him if he makes you nervous. She liked the tingling nervousness her new husband had sent through her body. She would follow it.
The champagne thickened at the back of her throat, and her chest tightened with panic as she waded into the icy water. She breast stroked toward the waterfall, ducking under the veil and into a slender crevice that led to a cave. Too big to squeeze between the rocks, she dove deeply and opened her eyes, seeing only blackness, and crawled forward until her lungs burned. She broke through the surface, and breathed deeply. In the air-filled chamber, moonlight poured through a hole that pierced the cave's ceiling, casting a blue hue over the stalagmites that rose in clusters from the cave floor.
Caleb swam out to her, wrapping his arm beneath both her arms, pushing his hip against her back, pulling her to the side. Her whole body shook as she pulled herself out of the pool and collapsed, allowing him to lay her across a flat stone, covering her with his own body until her breathing slowed, and his heat warmed her.
She awoke in his arms, still wondering why he'd married her, and if he could love her as much, if not more, than his first wife.
"Why me?" she asked.
"Holding onto Anna Maria was like holding onto a stream of water," he said.
Satisfied with his answer, Emma kissed him deeply, surprised by her own boldness. He startled, then kissed her back until she felt light headed. She turned her face away and opened herself to him. He ran a finger along her collarbone and slowly down her sternum, resting his palm lightly across her abdomen. He wrapped one arm beneath her, using his own body to cushion her back against their hard, makeshift bed.
The waterfall echoed outside the cave, and the cave pool lapped and shimmered against the stones surrounding it. He looked into her eyes, and when she flinched from the brief, necessary pain, he pulled away. She closed her eyes, pulled him closer and held on, rising to him. For a moment, her mind detached from her body, mingling images of his flail first wife and the virgin saints with the buxom women forged on the ancient brothel walls, leaving her with one final question: Am I the water or am I the stone? She opened her eyes. The cave had darkened, but she could feel his eyes still upon her face, his hands firmly grasping her back. I am here with him now, she thought. He's not casting toward any absence.
When it was over, she stood, dove into the spring and swam out of the cave, letting him follow her this time. On the outside, it was nearly daylight, and the morning sun shivered down through the maple and hemlocks. A shaft of light hosted a spider spinning its web on a fallen pine. They dressed each other, repacking the knife, skillet and water glasses. They walked down the mountain and out of the forest.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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