S H O R T S T O R Y
b y d o r o t h e a d u e n o w ~ c h i c a g o , i l l i n o i s
ABILENE RAN away from home at three months old. The fall winds stirred up the cumbrous summer air, and Abilene, smelling the change, left crib and food behind. Her mother, Kathleen, moaned aloud for weeks, wondering what terrible thing she had done, for not a woman on the island had ever heard of such a thing -- a baby leaving its mother of its own volition. Her breasts cried out all of the milk meant for Abilene, and she bottled it methodically, storing it in glass jars in the refrigerator. Aunt Ethel saw Abilene last from the old church window, scuffling like a fiddler crab through the Carolina mud, wearing no diaper, her round baby bottom shining like a new penny. No one knew where she disappeared to, but some women said that the sharp autumn winds had lifted her tiny torso and blown her right out of the nursery. Other ladies on the island believed that Abilene was never meant to be Kathleen’s child, that God had called her back to Him.
Not long after Abilene’s disappearance, Kathleen had another baby, a boy, and this one stayed. But Kathleen’s grieving breasts made no milk for him. They hung, limp and dry from her chest, withered reminders of the love she had borne and lost.
The boy, Jeremy, sucked the milk Kathleen had saved for Abilene, his lips forcing a fondness for the surrogate rubber nipple, and he grew to be tall and strong. And though he was a good, sweet boy, by all accounts, he never replaced the lost Abilene. Kathleen’s motherly urges had disappeared the same day her daughter crawled out of town, and Jeremy grew up in the impermeable shadow of a ghost.
Long after the islanders stopped dreaming about baby Abilene and their hushed evening conversations, rolling under dim yellow porch lights, covered only the latest gossip, Abilene returned to the island. She arrived on the first day of her fifteenth summer, alone, under the wary gaze of a full moon.
Wearing a red velvet dress that might have been measured and made for her by some caring hand, Abilene stirred up dust on the sandy road leading to the island. Her hair was long and locked with dirt, so that it seemed a ruddy brown, although the hidden roots bore the color of her mother’s milk.
Skipping alongside the creek, she paused every so often to bite into the pussy willows that leaned into the road, spreading their feathered seeds across the evening with quick blasts from her lungs. Maybe she recognized a familiar pattern in the tall shadows cast by the telephone poles as they stood sentry along the island’s dirt road. Or perhaps it was the errant flight of the whippoorwill that she followed past the glowing white frame church, past her Aunt Ethel’s ramshackle cottage, and into the junk garden next to her momma’s shed to sleep.
That’s where Kathleen found her the next morning, spread out amongst the abandoned tools, resting her head on a can of paint, one long leg propped up against the lawnmower, the other curled up underneath her dress. Instantly, she knew it was Abilene, by the plum-colored birthmark gracing her slim ankle like a bracelet of amethysts, and by the warm swell of recognition in her otherwise numb breasts.
Every night of the following week, Kathleen tried to find out where Abilene had been. But even though Kathleen bathed her daughter tenderly, using the soft sponge to caress every lost limb, and lovingly worked the mud out of her brilliant hair, Abilene would not speak to Kathleen at all, or perhaps she didn’t know how.
The brother Jeremy, now a tall white wall of twitching muscles and fluxing blood, shared the only extra space in bed with Abilene when she returned. He covered his eyes when she took off her single red dress, and put a gentlemanly pillow between their warm bodies, as they slept together each night in silence.
Almost all of the island women stopped by Kathleen’s home to welcome Abilene, and get a good look at her. Her unexpected return was enough to start their tongues flapping, but beyond that, Abilene’s strange beauty electrified them, and made her seem somehow terrible. Her body was lean and long, and she moved like a sidewinder, quick and curving. They were openly curious about her vivid white hair and how it contrasted with the color of her skin (Abilene was brown as the migrant farmers that passed through the island town every harvest).
One morning, Abilene sprawled on the cool tile floor of Kathleen’s kitchen, picking burs off her velvet dress. She had been out in the night, trampling through the bushes, chasing the fireflies that danced about the Carolina evenings like low falling stars.
Kathleen stood in the entranceway and stared at her daughter, transfixed. The sight of Abilene’s ripening body and radiant tresses weighed like a heavy stone in Kathleen’s chest, for it reminded her of all the years she had missed. She had loved the lost Abilene so deeply -- praying before falling asleep to her memory, silently swallowing the salt of her tears -– never daring to hope that she could still be alive. Kathleen longed to recreate the days of Abilene’s infancy, to care for her without guilt or remorse, to love her fearlessly. But these longings seemed out of place now.
To ease her discomfort, Kathleen sent Abilene to work at the farm harvesting berries with the rest of the teenage girls who were on their summer break from school. She hoped Abilene might learn to speak again, that her strangeness would melt away.
But Abilene was so out of place amongst those island girls, like a sunflower in a field of dandelions, that they shunned her instinctively, refusing to work alongside her. Abilene was ordered to work with the retarded farmhand, Richard, the only man amongst the rest of the hands that could be trusted to keep his distance.
Richard was a four-foot high knotted mass of misshapen muscles, and his twisted feet were matched by the gnarled tangles of his hands. Yet for all of his clumsy appearance, he moved with the lightweight skip of a sandpiper, flashing a winsome smile when his eyes met Abilene’s.
Upon their introduction, Abilene casually draped her basket over Richard’s arm, signaling to him that he should pick the fruit for them both. And that is how they spent their time together -- he, moving like a whirling dervish, clearing row after row of blueberries with his practiced mitts while she slept languidly in the sun, waking only to snack on the ripened berries he would occasionally place in small bundles at her feet.
On the third day in the fields, Abilene grabbed Richard’s contorted hands and lay him down in a dirt row between the bushes. There, she climbed upon him, her brown body blocking out all the sun like an eclipse. They rocked together in silence and stopped only when a slow smile crept across Abilene’s face and she let out a quiet growl.
Afterward, Abilene brought her knees to her chest and rolled from side to side to let the baby take hold. She then stood straight and trembling like an aspen, watching as Richard breathed in and out, asleep in the shade of the blueberry bushes.
The news of Abilene’s pregnancy hit the town like bad water. The islanders all believed that her brother Jeremy was responsible. And the women talked:
They momma had them sleepin’ in the same bed lahk they was babies, and him not even growin up with her his whole lahf!
What about the men workin’ ovah at the fahm? They’ve got other girls in trouble.
They weren’t ‘lowed to go neah. ‘Cept fo’ that slow fahmhand, but he wouldn’t know his thangy from a snake in the grass.
They momma shoulda’ seen it comin’. That girl didn’ belong to her anyhow, dahk as she is.
What’s she goin’ to do with her?
She should take her to Old Mabel’s.
What about that boy?
“Well, she can’t throw him aht, then she’d have nobody. ‘Sides, he cain’t be blamed. We all saw that girl was a temptuess.
So Jeremy, once the admired son of the island, quickly became the boy whose glance no one would meet. Of course, he was never asked to explain himself, for in that town, the women were to be believed and the men to be ignored.
Though it broke her heart, Kathleen kicked Abilene out of the house with angry hollow cries loud enough to fuel the chattering furnace of the island town for weeks.
“We were better off without you!” Kathleen cried loudly through the screen door, her son Jeremy standing in the shadows behind her. “How could you have done this to me and my boy? Get out!”
Abilene stood on the bottom step of her mother’s porch, staring up at her with eyes cast in iron. She had no spoken response; instead, she kicked off the shoes Kathleen had bought for her callused feet and proceeded to walk away in the direction her mother had pointed, across the iron tracks and beyond the cemetery, to Old Mabel’s halfway house.
Abilene took up residence there, along with the other outcasts and orphans. They whispered heatedly behind her back, grateful to go unnoticed in her shadow, while the nurses eyed her protruding belly with a mixture of fear and envy.
As her pregnancy progressed, Abilene grew more mesmerizing, her red velvet dress tightening with the weight of her filling breasts, and her thickening behind.
She took to walking in slow circles around the town in the evenings, past her Aunt Ethel’s dilapidated cottage, past the glowing white frame church, in front of Kathleen’s house. The men of the island dawdled on their porches and watched her pass by as they puffed on corncob pipes, and rocked in high-backed chairs with quiet yearning.
When the late summer nights began to grow chilly, and the sun went to bed before they had changed out of their work-boots, the men no longer allowed themselves even that dusky pleasure, because the sight of her changing body was too much to take.
Kathleen too couldn’t keep herself from pushing the curtains aside nightly to peer out of her bedroom window at Abilene’s growing frame when she passed by on her evening walk. She wondered about the baby to come, and recalled the long, barren, lifeless years when Abilene had vanished as her hands twisted knots in the thin curtains.
On a crisp evening near the end of summer, Abilene passed Kathleen’s front lawn on her usual route. She was dawdling; all of her attention focused on the shrill singing of the cicadas.
Kathleen watched her from the bedroom window, the moonlight reflecting off Abilene’s white hair, and her resolve broke. She wouldn’t lose her beloved daughter again just to please the women of the town. She would solve the problem of Abilene’s pregnancy in some other way, and keep her newfound family together.
Abilene’s head snapped at the screeching cry of her mother’s screen door, as it swung open and slammed shut. Kathleen raced out to the road and flashed a lamp in Abilene’s face, stunning her like a batfowler netting its prey. Their eyes met and just for a moment, Kathleen felt alive again, the blood rushing into her cheeks and her chest. Her hands reached out to touch Abilene’s taut belly, which felt warm and full of strange power.
“My Abilene, what have I done? I can’t toss you out like spoiled milk. Whatever’s been said, you are still my only girl.” As she spoke her voice became moist and resonant, as though just being near her Abilene increased the flow of life through her veins.
“My daughter, I am so ashamed. Forgive me for what I’ve done,” she continued.
Kathleen wrapped her shawl around Abilene’s stiff shoulders. She laced her hands between Abilene’s strong torso and folded arms, saying, “Please, come inside with your momma. I should never have sent you to Mabel’s. My beautiful girl, you don’t belong with such people.”
Abilene, witnessing the raw need in her mother’s eyes, relented. Her bare feet retraced the concrete path leading to the front porch. Her eyes instinctively shut as the cobwebs that leapt from tree to tree in the front yard like a pattern of fine lace, just high enough to be above her mother’s head, clung to her own face with their sticky threads.
That night, Abilene slept in her mother’s single bed. Jeremy was too afraid to even look at Abilene from underneath his thick lashes, and Kathleen had forbidden him to be near her inside the house. The house had been comfortably sterile in her absence, but Abilene’s return affected it like a waft of exotic perfume blazing through a drab prison. Jeremy locked himself in his room when he heard Abilene coming up the stairs.
“Tomorrow I’ll take you to see the doctor,” her mother whispered, brushing Abilene’s silvery hair as she readied for bed. “He’ll see that you’ll be alright.” And, though she lay cradled in Kathleen’s arms, Abilene did not sleep through the night because of her mother’s light singing, songs of children and demons.
The doctor made sure Abilene was all right. On the outskirts of town, far from where anyone could hear the cries of the unfortunate who showed up at his doorstep, he lay her down on his home-made cot and massaged her belly while his nurse strapped her arms and legs to the wooden table with safety belts.
Kathleen waited in the lobby, a brick barn that held two velvet church pews, staring at the plug-in radio that blurted out baseball statistics, flinching at the sounds which escaped through the dark green curtain that denoted the doctor’s operating room. She wasn’t sure that Abilene was screaming, because what she heard did not sound like the screams of a young girl, but the squealing grunts of an aged pig, as it was slowly slaughtered, first for its hoofs, ears and tail, next for its eyes, and lastly for its meat.
When the doctor was finished, he dropped the sloppy remains of Abilene’s baby in a bucket outside the door. He washed his own hands with alcohol wiping bloody prints on his stained apron. Abilene was unlocked from the table and the nurse dunked her naked body in a vat of ice-cold water. The shock of it wrenched her from her crouched position, transforming her into a steely dagger. Then the nurse wrapped her in a cloth diaper before she was brought out to the lobby to see her mother.
Kathleen tried to meet Abilene’s gaze but her eyes were motionless, speechless. They stared through Kathleen; they recognized nothing. When Kathleen reached out for Abilene’s hands, Abilene withdrew them quickly, hugging herself in a death grip. But not before Kathleen could see the purple welts that marked Abilene’s wrists, matching the birthmark on her ankle. She feared her daughter like this, so stiff and detached. She reached out again, with a timid hand, to smooth Abilene’s matted hair away from her face. Abilene leaned back, out of her reach, lurching with nausea.
That night Kathleen awoke to the howling wind that swooped into her bedroom window and banged the shutters like a toddler playing in the kitchen. She pulled her arms in closer and realized that Abilene was no longer in her grasp. Frantically, she searched the room for Abilene, tossing pillows and sheets as though Abilene were a baby small enough to be lost in the bed. Then, fearing the worst Kathleen rushed for the door of Jeremy’s bedroom terrified she would find Abilene inside, the two locked in some dirty embrace. She dug her nails into the door, but after Jeremy pushed the dresser aside to unlock it, and she burst inside his room, she saw that he was alone.
Kathleen ran downstairs, ripping the cabinets off their hinges, tossing furniture about, pushing over shelves, tearing pictures off the walls and shredding curtains in her frenzy. Her search led her out into the street, where she covered her ears with her hands and screamed out, “ABILENE!”
Down the road, Kathleen saw trees swaying and toppling over. The tall poplar in her own front yard swerved unsteadily. As she looked up in the sky, the clouds split in halves, then in quarters, some of them reaching long fingers down to tear up the earth in great furrows. All through the island town the sound of animals braying in the night mixed with the whistling and shucking sounds of houses coming apart. Splinters of glass, uprooted plants, birds’ nests, shredded flags and mailboxes danced above her head in miniature whirlpools.
That night, the last night of summer, the wind ripped through the island town. Abilene, smelling the change, rose from her mother’s bed. She took off her red velvet dress and unpinned her cloth diaper, tossing the sullied clothes out the bedroom window, sighing as she watched them fly about in the whipping air.
She moved silently out of her mother’s bedroom, passing Jeremy’s locked door. She stopped for a moment, reaching out to touch the handle. Then she climbed down the stairs and out the front door, her bare feet leaving no trace.
The road was empty as Abilene walked out of town. With every heave of her chest, the wind tore the clapboard off the houses, and made spider cracks in plaster walls. As tears formed crystal loops under her eyes, hail came down in egg-sized masses, pulverizing the fields, destroying all the summer crops. Abilene shook her long locks, and snow fell on the flowers decorating the islanders’ pathways and windowsills.
She twisted her strong hair around her fingers and the doctor’s body jackknifed in his bed, waking him from his sleep -- the harder she twisted, the more he screamed, until his face turned white.
Abilene opened her mouth and released a piercing moan that shot straight above the clouds, and traveled as lightning. With a final shake of her head, the lightning surged and struck her mother’s farmhouse straight through the center. The windows crashed outwards, in a splintering wave of glass that cascaded over the front lawn, descending on top of Kathleen in a grave of limpid snow.
The next morning the islanders awoke to survey the damage. Aunt Ethel came by Kathleen’s house to check on her sister and her nephew Jeremy. What she saw when she turned up the cement path was a stunning pattern of light and prisms, suspended in midair, and blanketing the ground. Millions of tiny pieces of glass had been trapped in the layers of cobwebs strung between the trees, and now they all shined so brightly, it was blinding to see.
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