“Philosophy’s Daughters” by Leigh Herrick

Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue

 

Philosophy Cheever was skimmed off the end of the 60’s, a child of hippies who grew up in California and moved to our little town in the godforsaken country of dying dairy farms in southeast Wisconsin. She inherited a dead aunt’s house over on Hoover Street, a street whose name she made no bones about hating but embraced for its line of overarching elms whose canopies were love itself she always said, and nearly went crazy when they were taken down for disease. With her twins slung across her breast in a long cloth she’d wrapped around herself, she spent hours pacing back and forth, chanting and singing, ringing finger cymbals as she walked around each mound of pulp and sawdust. When she learned the city would replace the elms with what she called the feckless inferiority of silver maples, she got them to let her keep one mound for herself. She seemed always determined to actualize transformation in her own way. She became a bit of a celebrity for how she danced around the pulp, and my mother used to drive by to warn me against the influence of drugs.

“It changes your brain, Har. Just look at her.”

I was far too young to know what my mother was talking about, but I looked at Philosophy Cheever anyway, wondering in the way a nearly-four year-old wonders why the sky is blue exactly how it was those babies never fell out of that sling. When they got old enough to walk Philosophy let the twins run bare-foot, even in winter, all for good health, she said. When their feet get cold, they’ll put their shoes on. They are intelligent beings. When they got old enough to ride bikes, their feet entirely intact, they’d come over to my street and I’d follow them wherever they went. I was in love with them. I was in love with their freedom, which was not about lack of discipline. It was about spirit. Philosophy Cheever was eccentric, but she raised two clever, spirited girls.

 

*

 

There was never a man around Philosophy’s house, but it was about the time my mother started driving around town to show off her new Lincoln that Philosophy Cheever puffed up.

“She’s got twins in there,” Mother would say whenever she got home.

I grew up listening to the incessant remarks my mother would make about how Philosophy was far too old to have ever thought of raising a child alone, much less two. All the town gossip never seemed to give Philosophy a second thought, and she went on to get a license to practice midwifery; something most everyone said was little more than mid-witchery, a term they used any time a woman professionally assisted other women to give birth. Not every woman needed a hospital room to have a baby—but only people in Madison seem to think they did. At any rate, about the time I was able to have memories of the twins in that sling, they were close to a year old and in a few more years we’d be playmates.

 

*

 

As we grew up, most everyone took to calling them The Twins. Some of the older coots clogging the seats at the Joe’s Big Burgers called them Them Twins Ya Know. Them Twins Ya Know, they got some real good looks. Oughta be gettin’ married soon enough wou’n’tchya figure? I don’t know if either of them ever married. The last I saw of The Twins they were going fishing again. It’s what they did and I always figured they’d do it till they died or got caught. Not that fishing was illegal; it’s just that sometimes some of the stuff they brought with them could have made a lot of trouble for them.

 

*

 

There were a million little lakes and tributaries to choose from, so that last day they decided on Catfish Creek, not so much because the bottom feeders were easy opportunists and a nice little fight on the line to work reeling in, but because it was well-off the road and that day, they decided, was a day they definitely wanted to be alone. Mara and Lyn. Philosophy’s daughters.

“Har,” they called me up, “come on over. Time to fish!”

I pulled up in my grad-gift Silverado, ready to go. I never asked questions. I pretty much knew what was what, but I didn’t make it my business. I just waited in the truck and when they were ready, we went. They almost always came out the door in the middle of some argument I swear only twins could have.

“Why you always gotta put those lashes on no matter what?! Sure as hell the fish don’t care!”

“Yeah? How about just maybe a large-mouth bass would like it?” Lyn sucked in her cheeks, making her puckered lips move in fish-mockery.

“Only large-mouth bass you got is that dumb Jim Crock of yours crowadoodlin’ all over the place!”

They were still laughing as they approached the truck even though Mara kept on in her insistent complaint as to how Lyn always made them late by having to put on lashes.

“I mean, you almost gotta put those things on just to take a pee, you know—I was—ain’t that right, Har?—tell her—” Mara’s phone blipped and she cut herself off to look. “He says, Have a good time. I’ll be thinking of you.”

“Damn straight he’ll be thinking of you,” Lyn said. “Tell him to go to hell.”

“I ain’t tellin’ him that!”

“Well don’t answer, at least.”

Mara set her phone down into my console’s side pocket. She had a habit of choosing guys her sister thought were, at best, not very good even though she, Mara, thought Lyn’s current boyfriend wagged his tail too much at anything walking by. Lyn whistled into the donut hole of her thumb and index finger.

“You should learn to do that with your tongue, Li’l Sis. It’s easier. What if you got guts all over your hands?”

Mara had been the first one out and in all the years I knew them, she just wouldn’t let Lyn forget it. After Lyn’s two-fingered call, a large hound Great Dane mix came bounding from the side of the house.

“Schlep, what the hell? Drop it! No, com’on now,” Lyn commanded. “What’d I tell you about that? Drop it!”

The dog dropped a blue jay that was unharmed but startled. It stumbled a bit before flying off.

“Don’t you feed him?” I teased.

“He doesn’t eat them! You know that!” She kept talking as she switched her voice into a kind of baby talk while scratching the dog’s jowls. “He likes to catch ’em is all,” at which point she returned to the business-at-hand, saying, “C’mon Schlep. Saddle up!”

Lyn straddled Schlep with the old, leather, throw-over saddle bag from the ancient Harley Philosophy never used, talked about, nor could part with so kept covered in a corner of her garage.

“Is it in there?” Lyn asked.

“Of course it’s in there, you don’t have to ask.” Mara shook her head as if the dumbest thing she’d ever heard had just been forced into her mind.

 

*

 

I was never allowed to ask or look. Mine was to wonder, assume, and drive—and while I was at it maybe ogle their beautifully developed bosoms. I went through most of high school not knowing which one I wanted to make it with more and, understanding the impossibility of it all, I often fantasized of both, knowing I’d never have either. I was far away from them; close by the bonds of childhood, but far from how they were raised, their kind of west-coast sophistication passed on to them from their mother. But we were friends, good friends, even if I knew neither of them would ever choose me. I accepted that fact and would spend all the time in the world with Lyn and Mara just to go to bed at night with a couple of beers, my laptop, and a load of good lubricant.

“You go left here, Har. And maybe tell Lyn you’re being rapacious with your eyes again. He’s eyeing ya in the mirror, Lyn.”

“I’ve seen him,” Lyn said the way they’d always say right to each other.

“I don’t wanna go left here by Olson’s. They know my car,” I said.

“Mara, let Har drive.”

“Yeah but if—” Mara looked at her phone. “Yeah, right.” Her fingers walked the screen. You guessed it, asshole, so stop now or I’ll block you!

“For god’s sake just block the dude, Mar!”

“Lyn. I got this.”

Lyn turned around to check on Schlep who sat behind her in the open bed of the truck, face to the wind. Mara leaned over to look at her from the front seat.

“Your left lash is loose.”

That was code. I never knew what it meant, but every time one of them said it, the other shut up.

They were bound to it, and in all the years I knew them, they stuck to it. To me, Mara said, “You’re right Har. Go the way you know nobody’ll see.”

 

*

 

I turned up Gardenia Avenue to make it look like we were going to the freeway. Anybody with a car would leave town on a Saturday to go to the Janesville Mall. So all eyes could follow if they wanted and I hedged my bets they’d stop looking before we hit the overpass and skipped the freeway entrance. North of that you’d head toward Millers Grove but before you got there, you’d make a left onto the Donaldson’s old place. Past the house, there was a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it entrance to an old logging trail. And at the end of that trail was Catfish Creek. Old Man Donaldson never minded any of us fishing there, which is really just to say he never chased us off his land. Once he passed, and as long as his place was still in probate, well, we felt free. Of course, none of this really matters now. You’d never find that logging trail these days. After the state took the place, it got sold to the McReavy Brothers and they developed the whole bit into rental condos built to face Lake Bayer, a stupid man-made pit they filled by diverting the creek. They could sell tourists an idea of reality that had them believe such a lake really belonged there. The logging trail was paved over for part of a long walking trail that basically circled the entire place. They called it Ponderosa Chalets. That always made me want to puke. I call it just another B-PoD. Bituminous Pathway of Death.

 

*

 

As we hit the washboard of the gravel road, the fishing rods bounced and jangled out the open backseat window. Schlep knew the route and hung his head over the side of the truck bed in anticipation. When we got out, Mara went back to let Schlep out while Lyn gathered the rods.

“Here’s yours, Har,” she said, handing me a rod.

“Thanks.”

Schlep knew his role and was dancing around like a Shetland pony on uppers.

“Wait, Schlep, wait,” Mara tried to hold him still with the lead, but it wasn’t easy.  Schlep was as big as a mini-horse. He was very good with most commands but excitement always seemed to make him deaf.

“Want help?” I asked as Lyn and I started to thread our lines.

“No.  Just—Lyn are you doing my line?—I’ve got him—he gets so excited to work.”

“Yes,” Lyn said.

“I s’pose,” I said, referring to Schlep’s excitement while peering into the low cut of Mara’s tank as she bent over Schlep.

“I swear to god, Har.”

“Sorry, Mara,” I said.

“Damn, Har you best go getchyerself some soon!” Lyn laughed, mimicking the locals.

“Poor Har.  You really should, you know,” Mara said. She reached over from Schlep to mock-pat my cheek.

“Not any day soon in this town,” I said, minding I must have turned eight shades of red.

“What happened to that girl in Madison?” Lyn asked.

“She’s a dedicated virgin,” I sighed.

“That is so wack! Mara what d’you think of that? You ask me, you have to have sex with someone to know how good they are. Long as they don’t dangle it all over the place—but I mean they really have to dangle it with the one they think they love! How you ever supposed to know if it’s a good match, otherwise?”

“Well, she said—people—” I started.

“Yeah, well half the girls doin’ that are in the closet, Har, come on!” Mara said.

“Well, she told me people could get to know each other, but just no penetration.”

“Oh, hell! A vibrator addict is what!” Lyn was laughing as she tied a knot around a hook.

“Lyn, I don’t know—I mean, she’s sweet and all—but—” I tried.

“Sweet 69 dead on the vine! I think Lyn is right,” Mara laughed. “Some of those things’ll drive you to leave men way behind if you don’t like their company so much!”

“Like Philosophy,” Lyn said.

“Lord, she does go through those things! No doubt, Sister!”

The twins had a good laugh as I stumbled through knot-tying and Mara finished tending to Schlep’s little load. From one of the bags, Mara removed three brown bags.

“Peanut butter and jelly. It’s the best I could do. Anything with mayo—”

“Yeah, that’d be iffy,” Lyn finished.

I took the bags of sandwiches from her. “That’s okay.”

“And the worms,” she said, handing me a small, plastic bag with a few night crawlers inside.

“Oh.  Right.”

“No, they did not touch the sandwiches!”

“I hope not, Mara!” Lyn said.

I shook my head in admiration of their mindreading. Mara then took from the other bag a small, plastic bag, and from this she began to remove the dark folds of waste-laden cloth full of the whatever-it-was Schlep was about to take from her.

“Wait, Schlep! I have to get it out! Okay, here—” Mara held out the cloth and Schlep took it gingerly into his mouth. “Ready?” Mara released Schlep from the lead and gave the command. “Schlep! Bury!” She threw her arm out, finger pointing away from us.

 

*

 

Schlep ran off and it would be at least an hour before we’d see him again. We never knew where he went, and we fished while we waited. We had all decided long ago that not knowing exactly where Schlep went was a good thing and we never wavered from that decision. And although my not knowing exactly what Schlep was burying was their decision, I had my suspicions, like I said. I pretty much thought I knew what they were doing. Philosophy had a lot of young women come for her services, but they usually only came twice, a lot of them, anyway. She told everyone it was difficult keeping clients when they lived so far away. After all, if a baby’s to come they’d want me closer at hand. In the end, not many babies came through Philosophy Cheever’s care. That’s why she insisted on a retainer. Supposedly. Maybe that was a front to cover how she was paid for other things. Well, what did I know? Maybe it was alright. Maybe it was the umbilical cords of a thousand girls out of wedlock. Maybe babies went home or got put up for adoption. The cord from woman to child is the root of the earth, Philosophy always said. Maybe it wasn’t, though. I just didn’t ask.

“You just have to stop thinking about it, Har,” Mara said.

“I’m not thinking about anything,” I lied.

“Oh right!” Lyn chimed in, “because we don’t actually know you, Har!”

“Look,” Mara said, serious now. “This is the last time. Philosophy told us. Last time. She’s tired. She wants to go home.”

“You mean to California,” I said, refusing to accept that this place wasn’t actually their home.

“But it’s not, Har,” Mara said.

“Got one!” Lyn yelled and began to reel in her first catch. “But she’s right, you know. It’s not. Home. Not for us. And besides, Philosophy’s been telling us only since forever that she’d be going back.”

“Yeah. And we’re going, too.” Mara said it in such a way as to make me know I was being put on alert.

“Yeah, she’s right. We really want to see it,” Lyn added.

“Piss,” I said. “I’ll die here without you guys.”

“Har!” Mara said, “you’ve got Madison Gal!”

“I think I’ll follow you, instead.”

“Hey, Har—wow,” Lyn said, shaking her head.

We spent the rest of the hour and a half plotting. Where we would go, what we would do. Then, how I really couldn’t be tagging along forever. We got quiet then, for a bit, until I asked:

“Why’d your mom ever leave California if she likes it so much?”

“She got sick of teaching,” Lyn said.

What? I never knew she was a teacher!”

“A Professor,” Mara said, “at Berkeley.”

No way!

“Yup. Totally.”

“Totally.”

“Professor of what, then?”

“Greek History,” Mara said.

“Yeah.  Mostly Petrarch, though.”

“No, not Petrarch! God, Lyn! Plutarch! Plutarch!”

Lyn shrugged her shoulders. “It doesn’t matter anymore, anyway, Mar.”

“Uh—well, yes it does since they canned her over it.”

“What? Over what?” I was in.

“She had arguments with them,” Lyn said.

“Over babies. She insisted they killed some babies.”

“The Spartans.”

“Yeah, the Spartans, if the babies weren’t good enough.”

“The boys.”

“Right, the boys.”

“You mean to fight?” I asked. “Not good enough to—”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah. Supposedly they tossed ’em over some cliff or something.”

“Yeah, but then her boss said it wasn’t true, that they never did, and they argued about it a lot and he finally said she couldn’t teach that so she told him to fuck off.”

“She didn’t really say that,” I asserted. “Really?

“You don’t know her, Har,” they said.

We were quiet again for a minute.

“Okay,” I said, “but can’t you just do something like help your mom with her business? You could take over.” That was my best idea to get them to stay.

“Nah,” Lyn said, “Phil doesn’t go for it. She wants to quit. She’s done with it, she says.”

“Yeah,” Mara added. “We already asked her if maybe we could help her out and she went all Amy Winehouse on it. She just said no, no, no!” The twins chimed in on that last part together.

“Well, then,” I said as if I meant it, “I guess I’ll just have to head on out to California after you. Hey—Schlep’s coming. Who’s that with him?”

“What the—?”  Mara looked at the man and turned a little pale.

It was a deed guy out to mark property lines.

“How you kids doin’ today?”

“Fine!” “Just fine, sir.” “Really great!”

“Anything biting?”

“Um—well—catfish—I got this one a minute back,” Lyn grabbed the fish, visibly shaken.

“Well, they fry up good. This your dog?”

“Mine, yes. Ours,” Mara said.

“He’s a good tracker. Saw him digging this up this side of Hanson’s.” He held out a soiled cloth. “Looks like someone had a helluva bloody nose, you ask me!” he said.

“He was digging that up?”

“Sure looked that way to me,” the man said.

“What the hell—Schlep?” Mara paused. “Can I look at that?”

“Might wanna hold it out a ways. It kind of smells like something died in it.”

Mara took the cloth and surreptitiously examined a number on a tag sewn into it. 1157.  It was a number from an earlier fishing trip. “Ooh—you’re right,” she said holding it away from herself.

“Well, whatever it is, it sure ain’t worth keeping. I’d just bury it again, if you ask me,” the man said. “You kids ever know this guy?”

Mara dropped the cloth, saying, Leave it, Schlep! while Lyn gave a rundown of our made-up friendship with Mr. Donaldson.

“Oh, very good,” the man said, “that was nice of you. Seems like a lot of people helped out that way.”

“Yeah, he was a good man,” Mara said, another lie, of course, since he was a recluse we really didn’t know at all except from the days we were quite young and timidly knocked on his door to ask could we fish.

“He let you fish here, then?” the man asked.

“Oh, yes!” “Yes, he liked having us come.” “Yeah, all the time!”

“Well, that’s decent then,” the man said. “You kids enjoy this then. I’m guessing in a few more years, none of this’ll be here.”

We all looked at each other and said nothing as he drove off. Mara had a near panic attack. No one ever thought Schlep would dig one up.

“How old is that one?” I asked.

“Yesterday,” Lyn said.

“But we didn’t come out here yesterday,” I said.

“No.  Philosophy did,” Mara said, adding to Schlep, “You!” Then to us, “Shit. Wait’ll she hears about this.”

“We really have to be done now, Mara,” Lyn said. “If he’s starting to dig these up, that’s big trouble.”

“I told her to stop numbering the damn things last year,” Mara said to no one in particular.

I never asked what the numbers meant. I didn’t want to know.

It was the last time we fished. We left and never went back. I dropped them in front of the mound of flowers that served as a reminder where one of the big elms had been in front of their house.

“Hey, Har!” they both yelled as I pulled away. “Your left lash is loose!”

It was the highest compliment anyone ever paid me. I took a good look at them in my rearview mirror. Burning their bodies into my mind, I intended on sleeping well that night. I didn’t.

 

*

 

In a week, they were gone. The fishing rods were left on the side of my house with a note that told me goodbye and asked if I could please donate them to Goodwill and also would I please visit old Schlep who was permanently retired to the owners of Brecht’s Hardware and Yard Goods. Philosophy Cheever’s house got sold that summer. Poor Schlep accidentally knocked down a customer and was almost put to sleep for it but I rescued him before any harm came to him. He turned out to be the best old boy I could have hoped for and made good company for my mom after my dad died and I went back to Madison to get my accounting degree. For a few years, the twins and I exchanged Christmas greetings but after that, we lost track and they disengaged from the few social media sites they’d set up.

 

*

 

When they finally razed the Donaldson place, there were a few stories in the local papers about the mystery cloths on the Old Man’s Land. The running bet was he cut the hell out of himself every morning trying to shave with a razor and was just loopy enough to want to bury the evidence of his age-induced ineptitude. The utter illogic of that only lent credence to how hick mythologizing begins. Some people argued that burying rags came from an ancient tradition his family brought with them from the old country and that it’s probably a heart attack that killed him, what with all that digging, they supposed he’d done. One headline read, BLOOD-TAINTED RAGS DOT DONALDSON FARM. That always made me a little mad. They weren’t rags. They were velvet, dark-purple cloths about the size of washcloths. Philosophy made them. They were sacred; loving, final gestures. Another article was headlined, WAS RECLUSE SECRET ABORTIONIST? People gossiped. It kept them busy for a few months. Someone supposedly called the BCA but the BCA wasn’t interested. Nobody was missed, were they? No missing persons, no abductions? No. There were real crimes to tend to. So everyone lost interest, in time, and took up talking about the gay couple that bought Philosophy’s house. It was the end of an era, sure-as-shit. Damn straight it was, was my thought, but I kept quiet.

As for me, I have only been able to speculate and what I speculate is that it was always beyond my concern except to say that I loved my two friends and I knew their mother as a good woman. If she helped some young women, well, so be it.

 

*

 

In the end, I married the girl from Madison. It turned out alright. Not the best, but not the worst, either. Passion is for the young, I suppose. Not to say I don’t have passion in my life, but it’s nothing like what I imagined it would be. We adopted twin boys and for that I feel charmed. After my sons were old enough, I’d drive them past Philosophy’s old house and tell them all about the trees and the chanting and her baby girls. Once they asked me if they had a giant dog. They said they’d heard something in school about the big dog digging up rags on some old man’s farm. Schlep died long before my sons were born, and I’ve never seen much reason in dredging things up. Maybe I will when they’re older. I can see myself telling them a few things about love—like knowing what the sex will be like with a partner before you commit to a lifetime with her. Or him. Or them, the way my boys tell me to say it, now.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said to my sons after they’d asked about Schlep on the Donaldson place.

“But didn’t you fish there? Nelson Harley said his dad told him you were always there fishing with some girls and their giant dog.”

“Well, I know they found some things that turned out to be not much. But you’re right about the dog. I almost forgot about him. He was a good, old boy. The rest is pretty much just old wives’ tales,” I told them.

“What does that mean?”

I looked out the window thinking of all the fishing trips I’d made with The Twins. “It means you can’t always believe everything you hear,” I said.

“Like about the Old Man in the Woods? That he cut the heads off mice and buried them?” they asked.

“That’s about the size of it,” I said.

Yep. Exactly like that.

 

 

Trained in comparative literature, Leigh Herrick has degrees in English and French. She is an award-winning, Pushcart-nominated poet and writer. She is a grantee of the Minnesota State Arts Board and has had residency fellowships at Vermont Studio Center and the Anderson Center. Her poetry volumes include Home Front: Poems of the Bush II Years and Without, Haiku. She has recently completed a book of satirical limericks based on the first year of the Trump White House and has nearly completed a compilation of short stories. Check her out on her website, www.LeighHerrick.com .

1 Comment

  1. M Musachio

    What a wonderful story! The slow unfolding of a woman’s life work is revealed through the lens of a perfect day, fishing at a favorite fishing hole in rural Wisconsin. The depth and breadth of the story gradually comes into sharp focus and leaves the reader stunned and pondering.

    Reply

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