I’m a loaded gun.
Henry knows. He thinks he and Jesus can save me from myself.
“Catrina, what you want is discipline.” Henry lowers the new issue of Farmer’s Almanac and sets it on the breakfast table to show the gravity of the situation. “I know you snuck out to the cave again last night. If Father won’t tend to you, somebody has to. You’re wild as a brush hog. Whoever heard of a girl roaming up and down the hills at all hours? Look at you—wearing boys’ pants and your hair hanging loose and tangled. It’s not proper.”
I don’t give a damn about being proper. It’s just a mess of rules that people make up so they can have a say in other people’s business. But I don’t waste my words on Henry.
He crosses his arms over his chest, looking at me like I’m dirt on a stick. If the high slant of his cheekbones and the soft curve of his lips didn’t belong to our dead mother, I would slap his face.
“Plenty of girls are courted or already married at sixteen, but no man in his right mind would want to chase down and tame a wildcat like you. You should be here at home.” He tilts his chin up as he talks so the righteousness he spouts will fall on me like manna from Heaven. “When you feel troubled or restless, you should turn your idle thoughts to the Bible and your idle hands to work. That’ll sweep the wickedness out of any girl’s heart.” He nods, agreeing with himself.
But Henry and Jesus don’t know a thing about a girl’s heart. And they don’t know what it feels like to have a soul bent on wandering through dark places, looking for the missing piece of itself. They can’t help me.
Mistaking my silence for acceptance, Henry opens the Almanac and shuts the invisible door between us. He doesn’t realize his words are bullets dropping into the barrel of my soul. I wonder what he’ll do if someone pulls the trigger.
But Henry’s already forgotten me by the time his coffee’s gone. He finishes his biscuits and molasses and slaps the Almanac down as he shoves away from the table. Dirty dishes are women’s work.
When the back door shuts behind him, I stretch my arm across the table and slide it over the surface in a great wave. The wave pushes the Almanac and the clattering tin plates and cups over the edge like God sweeping the Egyptians into the Red Sea. They tumble to the floor with a satisfying crash. I step over them and out the door. By the time Henry arrives in town, I’ll be sitting on top of the world in a place where no dishes, Bibles, or brothers exist.
The fresh scent of rain and wet cedar fill the air from a late night shower that scrubbed the earth clean. I part the bushes at the edge of the ravine, and a small flock of thistle birds takes flight. The flutter of their wings sets the pace of my heart. A rush of cold dank air from the cleft in the rock lifts the hairs on my arms and finds its way under my clothes like icy fingers. I shiver and close my eyes, imagining the lonesome spirit of a dead man sliding its hands over my body, beckoning me inside like a long lost lover. The rim of the cave is as high as my hips, but I pull myself up easily without any foolish skirts to tangle my legs.
The cave’s main tunnel is long and winding and leads to my thinking spot, a small opening high in the bluff overlooking Roubidoux Hollow. Henry doesn’t understand the darkness that settles over me or why I need to come here, but Papa does. When Papa needs to get away, he locks himself in his study with his books. He has his stories and poetry, and I have my tunnel to the sky.
Henry’s never opened Papa’s books or climbed into my cave to learn where it goes because he doesn’t own the patience or curiosity for it. If he can’t wrap his mind around an idea in a heartbeat or see all there is to see of a thing in a glance, he can’t abide it. That’s why he never took a liking to me. He knows I’m a quiet cave with secret tunnels and open rooms beneath my stone face—dark places he doesn’t want to find.
And, Lord, how I want to be found. I ache for it. But not by a coward like Henry. I want someone who will climb right into me and explore every inch, knowing they might never find their way out.
I breathe in the smell of cool wet rock and mud as I crawl in the dark to my thinking spot. I creep up through the muck and mire till I see a blue spot of shining sky. When I reach the opening on the edge of the high bluff, I lean against the damp wall of the tunnel. No one can see me way up here. Cold water drips from the top ledge onto my eyelid and slides down my cheek.
The gray snaky curves of Roubidoux Creek glint silver as the sun climbs over the hills. The stream winds around the lumpy slope of Hudgen’s Cemetery and slips through our cedar grove toward Stone Field where our sorghum cane grows.
My eye lingers on Mother’s small mound of earth. Last night, a silver-dollar moon floated over the cemetery, casting black shadows and blue light around her grave marker. I considered taking a shovel over there and digging a tunnel down to her coffin. I wanted to break it open and crawl in beside her like I used to climb into her bed after bad dreams when I was little. Even though her arms are cold and stiff now, I still want them around me. I want to believe she forgives me for being the one who killed her.
But I didn’t go. It wasn’t the fear of going down into the grave that kept me from getting the shovel—I was afraid I might decide to never come back up. I don’t want to break what’s left of Papa’s heart. So I gaze at her mound from a distance.
Soon worms will slip into her coffin and chew her body into dirt. I imagine them crawling through her raven-colored hair that looks like mine and eating away her lovely skin that was once smooth and white as a new laid egg. Effie Lenox said it’s wrong for me to say such things or even think about them. I said if the truth is wrong then what the hell is right? Effie thinks I should imagine Mother in Heaven, dancing around on streets of gold. That’s bull.
When I die, I’d rather wake up here inside this place, be a part of it like the roots of the black walnut trees. Like the wild pawpaws and persimmons with their sweet smell as they rot in ground, turning back into dirt, becoming something different, something new. I’d be the creek water that changes into mist and lingers in the hills, then rains on the fields, trickling down into the cracks where all the seeds hide. I don’t want to leave this world. I want to go deeper into it.
Two hawks swoop over the rocky ledge above me. They call to each other like old friends or lovers and glide in circles over the valley together, picking out their breakfast down below. Their hungry cries pierce me near the heart in the spot behind my ribs where the loneliness festers. Watching them soar side by side makes the wound throb, and I screech my own wild bird call into the sky. It ricochets off the hills.
Someone below returns my call. I jump and shiver at the sound, even before I turn toward Stone Field. When I look, my heart stops beating. I forget about finding the person who echoed my call. I forget how to breathe. I’m struck like a slap to the cheek when I see the field.
I blink, but it’s not my imagination. Great swirling lines curve and spiral through our sorghum crop as if God’s played a boys’ game, drawing giant circles in the cane field with his finger. The design stretches across five acres as if it were meant to be seen from somewhere up high. It’s beautiful and terrible at the same time. I wonder—did I make it myself when my mind was too dark last night to think straight? I don’t think so. What does it mean?
I scan the field for the person who returned my bird call, and my breath escapes me. A dark-skinned stranger sits on the black boulder in the middle of Stone Field, almost hidden by the cane. He’s naked as Adam and Eve and he’s staring straight at me.
Our dogs start barking from the edge of the cane, warning Papa about the man in the field. Their urgent voices bounce off the hills and crisscross over the hollow, howling for him to get his gun.
I scurry back through the tunnel like a mole on fire. But the cave floor is slick, and I fall flat on my stomach, scraping the side of my head against the wall. I push the hair out of my face with my wet hands and crawl the rest of the way out. I race toward the field. Mud coats me like a second skin, drying and cracking as I run. I push myself faster so I can get there before Papa finds out what the stranger did and shoots him dead.
But as I round the hill, Papa’s already standing in front of the field, ramming black powder and a bullet down the barrel of his gun. The stalks are too high for him to know about the crop design. He sees only a gap in the rows like a path entrance cut into the cane. He steps into the opening.
He glances over his shoulder. “Where’ve you been, Cat? Looks like the dogs dragged you under the porch.”
“There’s a man in Stone Field.”
Papa pulls the hammer half cocked and slips the cap into place.
I keep walking, hoping I can get ahead of him, into the gap. “But he doesn’t need shooting—he needs dressing. And eating, most likely.”
Papa pauses as he holds the rifle. “I’ll take care of this, Catrina. Get to the house.”
“I can’t.” Something pulls me to the center of the field like iron to lodestone. I push the barrel of Papa’s gun aside and pass by him, but at the last second, I grab it from his hands and run ahead of him into the narrow maze.
“Dammit, Cat!” Papa barks like the dogs at his heels. “Careful!” His heavy footsteps follow me into the gap.
The path is smoother than I thought. Padded. The stalks haven’t been cut or removed, just bent near the bottom and pressed to the ground. The man didn’t destroy any of Papa’s cane. A path splits off to the left, but I keep going. I imagine myself moving through the design I saw from the bluff. Papa’s footsteps hesitate behind me at the division, and I push my legs faster, trying to reach the bend ahead. As soon as it curves, a narrow branch splits off to the right and I take it.
My heart beats my blood so hard it comes thumping on my eardrums begging for mercy. The sharp blades of the cane slash my face and arms along the narrow path, but I keep running. The dogs follow Papa past the split, away from me. They’re headed into a spiraling circle. His curses ring out from the northwest corner of the field when he realizes it’s a dead end, but I’m almost to the black rock in the center of Stone Field.
I slow down when I hear singing. It comes from up ahead—a deep rumbly voice.
“Come, live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove
And if these pleasures me thee move
Then live with me and be my love.”
The tune’s strange, but I’ve read those words somewhere before, in one of Papa’s books. His low voice sends a chill curling up my spine like a snake slithering up a pole.
I stop walking and peer through the stalks, straining for a glimpse of the stranger. For a moment I think I see him, his head and shoulders above the tall cane only a dozen paces away. I stumble several steps before I realize it’s only the scarecrow Henry put up last spring.
“There will I make thee beds of roses
With a thousand fragrant posies
A cap of flowers and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle.”
As soon as I round the bend, I see him—a madman, sure as I’m born. He paces around the rock like a restless mountain cat. He’s not much older than me. Little leaves twine through his black tangled hair that hangs in his face and covers the back of his neck. I’ve never seen anyone like him. His skin’s neither pale like mine, nor midnight like Effie’s. He’s dark but golden, like a copperhead glistening in the sun. I want to touch his skin to feel if it’s hot or cold. I want to see if he’ll strike me like a snake. Lord, I’m mad as he is.
The stranger’s voice rumbles like wheels on a gravely road, traveling straight to me.
“A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs
With grey feather of the dove
Oh, live with me and be my love.”
He stops singing and turns to me. I forget how to breathe. His eyes speak a foreign language, but I understand it clear as day. They say they can see straight through me to the inside. They tell me I’m more naked than he is.
The shock of it sends a thrill though my body, first of pleasure, then fear. I’ve always wanted someone to look at me that way, but I never knew how dangerous it might be. The little hairs on my neck lift like there are lightning charges in the air from an approaching storm. I raise the rifle and point it at the madman’s chest. “Who the hell are you?”
He doesn’t blink. He steps forward, as if the gun’s an invitation, not a warning, and stands five paces from me. “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
I’ve read those words before—Ophelia says them in Papa’s Hamlet. I wish he’d come closer. My thoughts spin like a weathervane, and I can’t tell which way the danger’s coming from—him or me. I place my thumb on the half-cocked hammer. “I don’t know what you are.” I pull the hammer all the way back till it clicks. “But I know you may be a dead man mighty easily.”
My heart pounds. Ophelia went mad and killed herself—she walked right into the river. I know how it feels to want something like that. Is that what he wants—to walk right into my bullet? My fingers shake. I don’t want to shoot him, I just want him to come closer to me like he did when I raised the gun.
He steps so near to me now that one shot would blow his troubled heart clean out of him. His eyes are deep water. Lord. I can see myself in them. Something makes me quiver as if an invisible spirit’s running its fingers across my soul. My arms tremble, the rifle shakes in my hands. I’m not afraid of him anymore, I’m afraid of me. I want to put the gun down, but my fingers have clenched up tight and won’t work. They ache to pull the trigger, snap fire into the pan and release the bullet.
“Catrina, put the gun down!”
Papa’s voice strikes me like a bolt of lightning, and I feel like I’m exploding. It’s the gun in my hands, firing with a loud crack that splits the sky and echoes across the hollow. Oh God. My fingers turn numb, like they don’t even belong to me, and the rifle slips away, falling to the ground with a soft thud. The smell of burnt sulfur fills the air. Black smoke hangs like a curtain between me and the stranger. As the smoke rises, he sinks to his knees, his beautiful body crumpling at my feet like a dropped handkerchief.
In my stomach, a stone falls. Its weight drops me to the ground beside the madman. He’s so near, I can smell the salt and sun of his body. His eyes have rolled back in his head, showing only the whites. Have I killed him? My hand shakes as I reach out to touch his face.
His golden skin burns hot as hellfire.
Papa kneels beside me.
“I didn’t mean to—” My throat swells up and I can’t finish.
“I know, Cat, I know.” His breathing comes fast as his big hands travel over the hills and hollows of the man’s muscles and joints, searching out the wound. “He ain’t shot.” It sounds more like a question. He says it again, stronger, to feel the truth of it better.“He ain’t shot.”
I didn’t kill him. My body goes limp and shaky. I didn’t kill him.
“It’s a mad fever that’s got a-hold of him, poor devil. He’s burning like the dickens.” Papa shakes his head. “I’ll get him to the house and you take the mule to fetch Effie Lenox to come doctor him.”
“I’ll tend him myself.” I don’t care if Henry raps my knuckles later for disobeying or threatens to whip me with a switch for not being proper. I don’t care about anything except saving the man from Stone Field. When I thought I killed him, it was like seeing my own self dead on the ground. If I can fill him back up with life, he can fill me up too—I know it in my bones sure as I can sense when it will rain or when the persimmons are ripe. He won’t have to die like Mother. And neither will I.
“I want to be with him.” I glance up at the hawks, still circling together above the bluff. “And no one can stop me.”
He doesn’t try to stop me, but as soon as we lay the man on the cot in his study and he covers him up so I won’t see him naked anymore, Papa still runs off to fetch Effie. I start brewing some willow bark tea, using Mother’s recipe for Fever Cure, and wash his burning face and neck with cool well water. While the tea boils, I prop his head up with a pillow, pull Papa’s reading chair up next to the cot, and stare at the man from Stone Field.
The leaves in his hair make me think of Puck, the sprite in Papa’s Shakespeare. But he doesn’t look like a pesky little nature spirit. He looks strong and human. And handsome as the Devil. More like King Nebuchadnezzar from the Bible who went crazy and wandered around naked in the wilderness like an animal because God got mad at him. Maybe God was jealous.
I pick the leaves out of his hair one by one, and stick them into mine like a wreath around my head as I wash his face again with cooling water. After I strain and cool the tea, I dip a clean rag in it and squeeze the drops between his lips. His skin isn’t so hot now, but he’s quiet and still as a dead man and it makes me all-overish. I grab Papa’s pipe and pace the floor as I fill it with tobacco and light it with a stick from the stove. Papa used to try and keep me from smoking, but he knows it helps calm me when the darkness settles over my moods so he leaves me be. I puff on the pipe as I scan the shelves for Hamlet.
The cover’s worn soft from Papa’s fingers. I sit down by the Stone Field man and look for the words he spoke to me in the cane. We know what we are, but know not what we may be. I blow a smoke ring toward him. The image of his face fits perfectly inside the white round frame, like a tintype photograph. I wish I could put it in my pocket.
Damn it, God, don’t you dare let him die. I pull and puff more smoke and read out loud the line I already know by heart. “To be, or not to be—”
A low voice rumbles, “That is the question.”
I can’t see him through the smoke, but as it fades away, his image slowly appears. He opens his eyes and blinks at me. His eyes are the golden brown of barley ale, sweet molasses, dark honey. “I saw you.” His voice is dry and rough like a croaking frog. “In the cliff. You looked like a bird ready to fly away. I didn’t want you to go.”
My hand shakes as I dip the rag in the cold water and squeeze him a drink. He’s going to be okay. Finally, God did something right. The man’s eyes don’t leave me once. They’ve lost some of their glassy fire, but they still look lit up from the inside. As I give him water, his lips brush against my fingers and make everything inside me shake and rattle like a tornado coming. “Who are you?” I ask.
“I don’t know, yet.”
When the fever left him, it must have run off with his memory. But he remembers seeing me up in the cliff. I take another puff on the pipe and stare at him.
He props himself up on his elbow. “Who are you?” He stares back at me strong and steady, like I’m the one who’s the mystery, and he’s the one to solve me. My heart beats faster. Lord. Maybe he is.
I scoot my chair closer to the bed, not knowing how to answer. “Why did you make the circles in the cane?”
“So you’d look at them.” He reaches out and takes the pipe from my hand. I feel a tiny charge of lightning when his fingers brush against mine. He puts the pipe in his mouth and takes a long pull. When he blows smoke rings, it looks like he’s kissing the air between us. Soon it’s full of swirls and spirals like the ones in Stone Field.
I take the pipe back. “You should rest.”
“But what if I wake up and find out I only dreamed you and you’re not real?”
My face feels strange when I smile—it’s been so long, I’m surprised I remember how. “If I’m not real, then poor me.” A leaf slips from my hair and falls into my lap.
He picks it up and tucks it back into my hair. “It’d be a poor situation for us both. I’d just have to go back to sleep and keep dreaming.” His smile is slow like deep water with a current so strong it pulls me right under. Everything in the world disappears except for him and me, and even when our words are gone, his eyes still speak. I swear I hear his rumbly voice in my head, even though his lips stay still. Right now he’s saying, If the question’s “to be or not to be,” then the answer’s “to be.” As long as it’s to be here, with you.
I nod because I feel the same way. It’s like his thoughts are mine. I must have fallen into a trance, because when Effie and Papa burst through the door, I can’t think straight and just sit there watching. They’re the ones who don’t seem real. Papa looks worried and lost, but Effie’s clutching her fancy bag of medicines that she won’t even need and has that look of determination she always wears on her face. She marches right up to the Stone Field man and feels his forehead at the same time that she pushes his head back onto the pillow, making him lie down again. She clucks like a hen as she pulls the blanket back up over his naked chest.
Effie’s the smartest person I know. She talks just like a book and she showed me how to read and write when we were both little. She’s an expert on being proper and good, too, because her papa’s a missionary. Sometimes I can’t stand her. I try to be nice, though, because she’s my best friend and she lost her mother in the Congo when she was little. Mrs. Lenox had the same curly hair and black skin as Effie—her tintype’s inside the locket that’s hanging from Effie’s neck, dangling over the Stone Field man, right now.
Effie sniffs the pan of Fever Cure I made, trying to figure out what’s in it without having to ask me. “What an odd concoction. You come up with the strangest tonics, Catrina.”
She can’t figure it out and I’m not going to tell her. I cross my arms over my chest and sit back in the chair to smoke some more. “Well, who cares if it’s fancy store-bought pills or a witch’s brew, as long as it makes him well?”
Stone Field man grins at me and it makes me laugh out loud.
“Catrina Dickinson, you are a witchy girl—you think it’s funny, carrying a strange man who wore next to nothing in from the field—”
“It wasn’t ‘next to nothing’—he was completely naked. And Papa helped me. Stonefield was too heavy for me to carry on my own or I would have done it.”
“Stonefield?” Papa and Effie say it at the same time.
“He lost his name somewhere in the field. Maybe he can borrow that one till he finds his memory.”
Stonefield sits up. “I like it.”
Effie looks at him like she smells a skunk, but Papa beams when he sees Stonefield’s all right. I swear I never loved Papa more than I do right now. He smiles and reaches out to shake hands. “Good to meet you, Stonefield. You can stay with us as long as you like.”
Stonefield nods, but his eyes are on me, not Papa. The look on his face lights up the whole world, like when lightning strikes at night turning everything clear as day. I almost forget what my darkness feels like. And I’m so happy, I hardly even think about what Henry will do when he finds out.