By Way of Water by Charlotte Gullick

by Charlotte Gullick

SFWP’s 2001 Awards Program grand prize winner, Charlotte Gullick, was published by Penguin in August of 2002. The following is an excerpt from By Way of Water
Read more about Charlotte.

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Justy stood at the window, thinking about the snow, the house a fortress of shadows, and traced a river on the windowpane, a deer leaping over the jagged line of water. Anything not to feel her stomach tumble in hunger. She tried to remember the last time the lights were on – maybe a week ago. She wished Jake would pick up the fiddle and distract them, like he’d done every night this week. Before he’d gone into Sullivan’s with the can of pennies and tried to buy food. Before Dale had broken one of her baptismal promises to Jehovah.

As the silences swelled in the dark house, Justy gathered to her the sure knowledge that something was breaking; she heard it, beneath the softness of the falling snow. She looked out into the night and asked Jehovah to take something from her, to help Jake and Dale find a way. She traced another river and watched it slide down the glass. Then Jake stood up from the kitchen table, his shadow raging on the wall.

“I’ll do it then,” he said.

Dale brushed her blond hair from her face and looked at him sideways as he moved into the hallway. They heard him gather a rifle into his arms and check a clip for bullets. Then he was walking, fiddle in one hand, rifle in the other. He opened the door and cold air waltzed into the room. The night took him in seconds. Justy ached after him and watched his taillights disappear.

This is when it happened. When Justy was left speechless, her quiet ways easing her task, when she gave over her voice, swam to the bottom of the Eel River, slipped her tongue in the rocks and fell into the currents of their minds.

Jake drove the truck from the house, tuned for a flicker of animal movement. The Willys whined in the cold and it seemed as if he’d entered a kaleidoscope of snow. He stopped the truck at the Cedar Creek opening, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his pinkie and stepped into the night. With Kyle’s .30-30 in one hand, a flashlight in the other, he walked from the truck, trying to think like winter deer. The rifle felt good in his hand, like it might bring him luck.

Snow whispered the land white and he felt large in all that quiet. Only the tree trunks loomed dark at him. It confused him – this blanket – making his world a place he didn’t know. Jake walked up the hill, snow packing under his weight with small crunching sounds. He wanted to whistle to make the night less lonely, but he kept quiet. The flashlight beam cut the flakes, revealing a trail and Jake followed the muted hoof prints to a young black oak tree. The lower branches were nibbled down in spots, and Jake took off his glove and dug his thumbnail into the tender skin of the tree. He imagined a deer’s soft muzzle stretched up to scrape its teeth along the branch, hunger extending its reach.

He let go of the tree and sighed, holding his palm upward. Snowflakes landed on his bare skin and melted. It had been a lone deer and had paused here hours before. Jake put the glove back on and walked down the hill.

The engine sliced the quiet and he blinked, trying to see beyond his fogged glasses. He pulled off his gloves again and looked at his hands. They seemed so useless in the winter. The black hairs on the backs of his fingers looked like limbless trees, bending over the knolls of his knuckles. Under those trees, the land was pale, like the falling snow. The red soil under the blanket of white contained nickel and the mining company wanted it, wanted to sink their big machines into the mountain and take out its insides. He’d seen pictures of strip mines, the way the earth seemed naked and weak.

He flexed his fingers and put the truck into gear, considering where to look next. He decided to head toward the old hunting cabin another mile uphill. The tires rolled over the unbroken snow, and he tried not to pay attention to how the tree branches beckoned him. He had to shift into four-wheel to make it up the last hill to the cabin, and still the back tires slid when he came to a stop.

The cabin looked tired, barely able to hold its shape under the burden of snow. He walked to the structure and flashed the light inside. All was how he last left it; on the far side of the wood table the small stove remained tucked in the corner. The stovepipe hung away from the hole in the ceiling and snow drifted in. He walked the interior, steps softened by the heavy layer of dust on the floor. Mice droppings lined the corners of the room. Something glimmered under the window. He assumed it was a bullet casing left by the hunters who used to own the land, but stepping closer he saw it was a penny. He kicked it, sending it flying.

Instead of reckoning Sullivan, Jake leaned against a wall and thought about the hunters who used to come here. Wealthy folks from the cities, coming to the land once or twice a year, shooting deer they never ate. Jake wondered if those men had somehow created this night, when he and his family had gone days without food, when the freak storm blew in snow, when all he wanted in this world was to find one deer. Maybe those lawyers and doctors had committed an offense for which Jake now had to pay. He wasn’t sure if he believed that, but he was willing to consider it. Anything seemed possible tonight, with the land covered in white and his wife breaking promises to God.

The waiting, that’s what made him think such crazy thoughts, made him want to scratch the inside of his skin. All the time waiting, for the winter to be over and the falling jobs to start up again, always counting the days of rain, and now this snow. Waiting for that one break, waiting for the mining company to hand over the orders to move, the mine finally approved. Each day without his chainsaw in his hands felt like standing at the edge of his life and watching it stream by. He pushed off from the wall and rubbed his hands together, feeling jumpy, thinking about the hunters who’d sold the land to the mining company without a thought for what the company would do. If Jake could buy this chunk of earth, he’d treat it like one of his children.

He walked in the quiet to the Willys, grabbed his fiddle case, and brought it back to the cabin. It didn’t make any sense, but he figured he’d try. Playing music made him feel like he had wings, and there was nothing he wanted so much in the world as to get away. He opened the case and brought the instrument to his chest, hoping to settle the spirits.

*****

Dale sat in the rocking chair by the wood stove, swaying with silent prayer, blond hair framing her face. Justy still stood by the window, alternately looking out into the night after Jake and watching Dale’s eyelids and her fingers tracing the looped letters, New World Translations of the Holy Scriptures. Justy knew that finger dance; she often passed time at the Kingdom Hall following the same route. Time creaked by, filled by the sound of the rocking chair and the wood burning. Micah lay curled in a ball, watching the flame of a candle, head resting on his arm. Lacee sat next to him, thumbing the edges of The Red Pony. Micah twisted to look at Lacee and then stood. His movements made the candle between them dance and his shadow hung huge on the ceiling.

“Mama,” he said.

“Just a minute, child.” She didn’t open her eyes. Asking for forgiveness, asking for a miracle, one undermining the other, that took attention. But Micah couldn’t know this, so he called her again. Dale moved her head the slightest bit, telling him to wait a few more minutes. She slid away from the weak spot that’d shown itself outside of Sullivan’s store; she wished herself safe passage from that memory. Even as Justy watched Dale, she felt Jake’s music flow through the dark hollows.

Micah’s stomach growled and Lacee stood too, her older, slender self stretching up above him. She tapped her foot, and watched Dale for an instant. Then she shook her head and placed an arm around Micah’s shoulder.

“Let’s make tea,” she said and walked to the front door, guiding Micah along. They went out onto the porch and Justy could hear them talking. Behind her, Dale called for Jehovah’s guidance, and Justy could feel the scriptures storming through her. Justy moved to the kitchen table and pulled a shiny coin from the coffee can.

Walking back to the stove, she flipped the penny over and over, feeling the grooves of Lincoln’s face and the word “Liberty” and the year “1970,” the year of her birth, seven years before.

A knock came at the door and Justy opened it. Lacee and Micah came back in with their cupped hands full of snow.

“Get us a pot,” Lacee said and Justy went into the dark kitchen and found one by habit. She brought it to Lacee who nodded towards the stove. Justy placed the pot on the warm surface, aware of Dale’s distance and her silent stream of prayers. Lacee dumped the snow in and it immediately began to melt. Micah emptied his hands and Lacee brought the candle from the floor and the three of them watched the white crystals turn liquid.

“Here,” Lacee said, handing the candle to Micah. She went to the kitchen and fumbled in a drawer. Then she was back, a package of food coloring in her hand. A grin rode her face and she tossed back her straight black hair. “Green?”

Micah nodded, crowding close while Lacee opened the fat tube of dark color and squeezed out a few drops. Dale shifted in the rocking chair but remained gone. Justy focused her attention on how the deep green swirled in the heated snow, on how the water danced around the strands of color until it became the color.

Lacee brought out three mugs, filled them with the green liquid and handed them out.

“It’s a spell,” she said, raising her cup towards the ceiling. The candle flickered and Micah scowled.

“Once there was a family,” she said while bringing the mug back down and looking sideways into Micah’s face. “This family, they were hungry. And it began to snow white, fat flakes from the sky, and they were still hungry, and the lights had been off for days and they thought about eating the candles, especially the oldest girl child.” Lacee smiled and reached her hand towards the candle and passed her finger through the flame.

“Stop it,” Micah whispered. Lacee winked at Justy. “The children, they were smart, and they knew how to make things happen that the adults didn’t. When the parents looked outside, what they saw was snow, little bits of ice on the ground, but the children, they knew it was more than that. You just had to add the right ingredient to turn the snow into the most delicious food in the whole universe.”

“What is it?” Micah asked. His body leaned forward and his eyes pranced between Lacee’s face and the mug. Lacee shrugged and took a sip.

“Lacee,” Micah whined and looked at Dale to see if she’d heard, “What’s the secret ingredient?”

“All right, then, but I can’t say it very loud or an adult might hear and the spell will be broken.” Lacee’s face was serious and she leaned to whisper into his ear. “Green.”

Justy smiled. Micah shook his head, looked into his mug and smiled too.

“See?” Lacee said. “It’s a spell. One to make the snow stop, to make a deer show up, to have Mama make us blackberry pie.” She shrugged. “Anything different it’d be good.”

Micah half reached for the Bible on Dale’s lap. His brown hair fell over his eyes when he looked down at his mug, considering. Lacee twisted her lips into a smile and reached a hand to his shoulder.

“Listen, kiddo.” She took a sip. “It’s just some snow and some food coloring and it’s all we got. But we can pretend it’s anything we want it to be.”

Justy thought about the falling snow and wondered why it couldn’t turn into manna. She looked to the window and saw their reflections. They stood in a line according to their age, Lacee on the outside, Micah next to her, still staring into his mug, and Justy, holding on to her cup with both hands, the penny pressed into her right palm.

Lacee walked away and brought back the can of pennies. She set it at their feet and reached in, letting the coins slide through her fingers. She sat down and the others followed and took sips from their mugs, the warm water filling them up like magic. Even if something so simple could be the work of the devil, it felt heavenly in this moment.

Lacee brought her mug over the red coffee can, tipping it so the water almost spilled out. Candlelight wavered over the letters that spelled Folgers. A drop fell onto the coins.

Justy set her mug down and felt the music and the prayers swirl inside her. She went back to turning her penny over and over in the fingers of her right hand. Lacee let another drop slide from her mug into the can. The tiny blob of green liquid clung to one coin before it slid onto the next.

The pennies were glossy and looked new. Dale had soaked them in vinegar the day before and the grime had floated to the top of the pan. Then she dumped them on a towel and the children had helped dry them, making them even shinier. Each penny polished was one step closer to filling the widening hole of hunger. Micah looked to the windows and said, “I want him to come back.” They nodded.

“With a deer,” Lacee said. Justy closed her eyes and sensed Jake finish a song, pause, then start another. Dale continued to loop her thoughts and fingers. Justy felt a tap on her shoulder. She opened her eyes to see Lacee looking at her.

“What do you think?”

Justy looked to Micah who stared at her, his mug poised at his lips.

“Do you think he’ll get a deer, Justy?” Lacee’s other hand now stirred the coins, creating a small song.

Justy shrugged and wished she could see into the future – but not the way Dale looked forward to another world, one of the Jehovah’s perfect making. What Justy wanted was to know whether Jake would come home tonight and if he’d come with an illegal deer.

“I wish he’d done it.” Lacee stared into the coffee can, moving the water over the pennies.

“No,” said Micah. “It would’ve been bad. Dad would be in jail if he’d done it.”

“I don’t think so,” Lacee said. Micah shook his head.

“Did you see his face?” He asked, his mouth hanging open.

“Yup. It was terrifying.”

At Lacee’s words Justy felt Dale’s prayers stop. Dale opened her eyes and was watching the three of them.

“Time for bed,” she said, standing and pulling the can of pennies from Lacee’s hands and placing it back on the table. The children stood and Justy hid the coin in her mouth, her tongue filling with the metallic taste. When they were in their beds, Justy heard Dale pacing in the living room and imagined how the shadows jumped at Dale’s movements. Lacee began to snore lightly and Micah rolled over, saying amen in his sleep. Justy tripped her tongue over the edge of the penny, thinking about Jake playing in the night while the snow fell.

Dale came and tapped Justy on the foot.

“Come sit with me,” she said. Justy slipped from under the covers, making sure they didn’t leave Lacee’s shoulders, and moved to the couch where Dale would read scriptures, whispering the words. Justy clenched the coin between her teeth while she slid into a spongy sleep.

*****

Part of her dreamt the river, how it curled around and over rocks, gathered into the tiniest of spaces, traveling to the Pacific all the while. Part of her rode the ebb and flow of Jake’s music, swaying nearer and farther from the moment at Sullivan’s. A rivulet of Dale’s scriptural words trickled over the countryside of Justy’s sleep, making the quietest of noises. When Jake stopped playing, his silence swelled in her dreams, and she knew he was remembering, wishing the children hadn’t gone along, hadn’t seen.

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