Dirk started the truck and left it running, a growling sort of beast silencing the bird song. Sitting on the edge of the porch, he pawed in his breast pocket for his smokes and lighter. The flint needed to be replaced; it took a while to get a flame. Squinting at the sun coming over the ridge, he let the first plume of smoke blossom darkly on the air. The morning was only a little nippy, though the ground was still hard from cold. He found a mark from his boot the day before in the bald grass and matched his foot to it for no particular reason. His shoulders folded his chest as his body eased into a slump.
The screen door opened behind him, the spring making queer music as it stretched full, and Eva said, “She’s almost ready. Why you running that engine? It don’t need to warm up.”
“Yes, it does. Let me be, woman.”
“Fool,” she spat. Then the music played in swift reverse as the spring drew up tight. The door slapped the jam with a fearsome clatter that made Dirk jump, though he’d known it was coming.
“Cow,” he said.
Eva had been a simple, smiling kind of woman twenty years ago. She was slight – weighed nothing in his arms – with a pretty round face and small, sparkling brown eyes. When the light hit her eyes just so, like one day when they stood at the quarry, with rusty leaves falling all around them, there was a tiger gold lurking beneath the chestnut. It maddened him a little how pretty she was back in those days. And she seemed to like just everything about him, which naturally pleased him.
“You’re a snappy dresser,” she said the first time they really talked. While they dated, she never failed to compliment some little detail of his clothes. Sometimes Eva reached out and stroked the lapel of his jacket or the patches on his sleeves. She liked soft things to touch, dense velvet and tender suede, and though she was farm-raised like himself, she somehow had dainty white hands that he liked to see sliding along his tweeds. In his memory, their courtship had a lot of quiet moments, with touches that were better than words. Everything around them seemed to fall away when their eyes or fingertips met, so that one had to dig around in the mind later to recall where they’d been when one of those moments passed between them.
When the children came it seemed to bleed out every drop of honey. He never knew a woman with a more hateful tongue. They filled the silence with quarrels. Her hands had changed, lumpy knuckled and reddened, and they never touched him anymore. There were things in their house that bridged their hands, pot handles and door knobs, but they never held any lingering warmth to pass from one of them to the other.
The love of just a few years had been a tender sort of thing, the bead of nectar drawn from the honeysuckle. One had to let the tongue take it quick before it dropped away. After the babies, what remained was a tough hatred, dark and sticky as the sap of cedars, a bond that seemed a mistake, a mess that could not be cleaned up easily.
They didn’t have the words to figure out the change. Words had never been their strength. The ones that passed between them now were crude, clumsy weapons that hardly hurt anymore, they’d been wielded so often. Wounds are ugly things, but hard to open again when they’ve leathered over good.
He drank too much, that was true, and she hated him most when his breath was all booze fumes and his hands and feet clumsy as colts. Whiskey made him lusty with a gaze as cagey and dark as snake-eyes; she never hated the sight of anything that much. Sometimes she wished he was a snake, something she could kill easily with a garden hoe.
They had three girls and no boys. The first two came early, when there was still a little perfume of affection floating between them. Back then they lived out at the old home place, where the front room looked out over Hog Back Mountain. In the spring the ridge was covered in redbud, a lurid and romantic shade that made one want to disappear in the woods the whole of the day. The slope below the barn dressed like a bride when all the laurel bloomed. They had a dozen springs together on that hillside, each one less kind than the one before.
Later they built the house out on the dell, a sunny bit of land with smaller views. He sold the home place, but about as much of the money went to whiskey over the coming years as it did to anything else. It was a strange romance he had with the bottle, he was the first to admit, but it was like finding happiness again. The heedless, proud stride of a young man seemed to come back to him when he walked in those rye clouds.
Eva liked the new house, a squat little bungalow with dormers that worried the sky, but she wished it didn’t sit so close to the road. Dirk planted a row of hemlocks along the property line so she’d feel a little more tucked away. Then over the years the trees grew swift and thick, blotting out the sunrises and leaving the front rooms dark all the day long. Eva didn’t seem to mind. She was queer about the sun harming their things and since it was her egg money that bought the parlor set, she happily suffered the gloom to preserve the red velvet. Once he caught her pausing while cleaning house, running her fingertips over the fabric with a dreamy, far away look. He wondered if she was remembering something he remembered, too. When she noticed his gaze, her face closed up tight.
“Get out of here,” she said.
He left the house to the cry of the screen door, letting it slap the jam as hateful as it ever did. He wasn’t a man for tears, but his eyes burned hot that afternoon. He went to the shed to get his ax. He meant to cut down the hemlocks, to let the sun come back into the house. When he got there, he lost his furor. His hand fell away from the worn handle and instead he fished around behind coffee tins of nails and the parts of a busted kitchen chair, looking for a bottle he’d hidden there. He didn’t come out of the shed for hours.
The third girl was born in the bungalow, when the first two girls were already teenagers. It was a wonder they made another child, as bitter as they were, but a jug of moonshine and moonshine on lilacs is a double sort of magic. They met in a common loneliness one spring night. Their hands remembered kinder days; their lips found how to kiss again.
The girl was a lovely little thing, the bonniest one of them all. They named her Lenore because Eva had read it in a poem. Running her fingers over the newborn’s fuzzy head, she said, “It’d be nice to have a girl with a pretty name for once.”
At the other end of the bed, her Betty and Madge exchanged glances and left the room stiffly. Eva didn’t seem to notice or care. She hardly liked the older girls anymore than she did their father.
Lenore’s eyes changed quickly to a brown as sweet as chocolate drops. Dirk was smitten from the start. He was older now, his hair gone to salt, and he had more hours to spend at home. Eva said no one would hire him, since it was impossible to trust a rummy.
“You could still work a full week,” she said. She had Lenore on one hip, the face a little sunflower in a ruffled bonnet, and she was flipping buckwheat cakes for breakfast. The lard popped, a tiny hot bubble that landed on the babe’s hand, and the child cried, though it hardly left a mark. Dirk took Lenore from Eva with a savage kind of furry stirring him.
“Don’t yank her out of my hands, you fool,” she said. “You almost knocked me into the stove. Is that what you wanted to do?”
“You ain’t gonna harm this child ever!”
Her mouth fell open in astonishment. She laughed, “As if I would, you ass!”
“You ugly cow,” he said. He crossed to the window so baby could look out into the sunshine. Giving Eva a a long stare, he said with finality, “Just make sure you don’t.”
From that day on, he made Lenore his special pet. He found a secret, wicked delight in treating Eva as if she wasn’t taking proper care of the little one. And as he painted a wide circle around he and the child, it seemed Eva stood ever farther outside of it. It wasn’t exactly his plan to do it, but somehow the more he loved Lenore, the less she seemed to belong to Eva.
In his shrinking world, he’d carved a universe of tenderness for himself and the last baby. He wouldn’t suffer Eva to enter into it, to spoil it with her sharp tongue. As if he’d cast a spell, she fell prey to his will in this one matter. Only when he went away now and again for day work did she have time with her youngest, but she could find none of the sweet hopefulness she felt when she had stroked the peachy head the first time and given her, her name.
One afternoon she stood out at the clothesline, mindlessly hanging one thing after another. When the basket was empty, she remembered that Lenore had been playing in it a moment before, and her eyes combed the grassy slope behind the house for the fat toddler. There was no sign of her. She called out twice, then again, her voice breaking. All along the slope, she ran zig zag like a rabbit, hoping to find Lenore sitting in the grass that was left uncut last autumn and which the light winter had not bent.
“You’ll be all itches,” she called out. “That grass is gonna scratch those fat legs, girl.”
When Dirk got home, he was so furious he had no words – not even their poison favorites. They combed the forest together in the waning light. The older girls sat together on the porch, waiting in case Lenore came back, holding hands and wishing they could cry. Between them, Dirk and Eva left their echos in every nook and cranny of the hollow. They shared one word between them, passing it back and forth through the branches and the wild vines, until their cries were thin and ragged.
“Lenore! Lenore!” In the distance, bloodhounds called back to them, a familiar cry that quickened their hearts and their pace.
The moon climbed high, so full and bright it pulled the yellow up out of the forsythia. Finally, doubling back where they’d been time and again, Dirk spotted the little one lying in the sparkling creek water. He bent to her, hands shaking as a chilling dread dried his throat. Her coldness told him they were too late. When Eva came upon him a moment later, he was cradling the girl in his arms. She gave a cry and reached out with gently curled fingers, but he struck her away.
“Don’t touch my child,” he said.
She was too shocked to argue with him. He left her standing by the water, her hands clasped together at her stomach, her eyes pleading for something that the mouth wouldn’t ask. Maybe she wanted to hold Lenore or maybe she just wanted there to be a kindness for just a moment now. When he was out of her sight, she sank to her knees in the wet moss and she spoke the child’s name to the moon. She said it again to the creek that had stolen her last breath and then she said it once more, tenderly, for only herself.
Dirk was finishing his second cigarette when the screen door opened a while later. Eva was holding Lenore in her arms, the child’s dark hair combed smooth, the ruffles of her best bonnet ironed crisp. After she’d dressed her, she wasn’t sure what one did next, and she wished her own mother was still around – cruel as she was – to tell her. She handed her over to Dirk, who took her gingerly and carried her to the truck. He was going to take her down the road, where an old farmer could make a coffin small enough for one so little.
“How you gonna do this?” she called across the yard. “I ought to come, too, to hold her.”
“I put a basket on the seat last night,” he said. “I don’t need you.”
She watched him climb into the truck and she eased back into the house so slowly the screen door didn’t make a sound in her wake. He was backing out of the drive when she flew out again, leaping off the porch as she hadn’t since she was a younger woman. She cried out for him to stop, waving a small, snowy wool coat in her hand like a flag of surrender. He put his foot on the brake and watched her through the side window as she ran to him.
When she opened the door, she was too winded to talk, but she held up the coat again and gave him a pleading glance. He nodded, twisting in the seat to lift Lenore out of the basket he had lined with quilts out in the moonlight last night. He held her between them while Eva carefully fitted the little arms into the sleeves.
He didn’t say that he thought people weren’t buried in coats. He wasn’t sure exactly what was normal, but he figured he understood Eva’s mind this once. She was crying as she fastened the buttons with her chapped, red hands.
“I thought she might be cold,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
They locked gazes then. In the slanting morning light, this side of the hemlock row, he could see that tiger gold in back of her brown eyes. She dropped her gaze, pushing the last button up through. Her fingers slipped gently along the soft wool. Dirk watched her for a moment; he didn’t feel that old impulse to put himself between her and the girl. She stroked the coat once more, then her hand found the edge of the door as she stepped back. Hesitating, she looked at him again.
“I’m sorry.” They were the only words she could find.
He heaved a sigh. “Maybe you ought to hop in, Eva. I think that’s how it ought to be.”
Something tried to draw up her mouth, but grief is a heavy thing and the smile could not quite bloom. She folded herself into the truck and he handed her the child with the tenderest care he could find in himself. She took her from him that way, too, the crook of her arm a quiet poem about everything.