CONJUNCTIONS:54, Spring 2010
Sailing by Night
Perhaps it was some childhood backmind cinema of the snowpack that had been melting from the top of Roan Mountain that springlike winter—two whole fainéant feet of it lollygagging its way down to the Doe River like a little girl picking mountain flowers—that caused me to dream my dream so deep: Our kitchen pooled with the oaky aqueous collection, then the hall, then my room, and in I slipped from my bed’s edge, sank down opposite bubbles breaking away from my cowboy-clad pajamas. I breathed in the mountaintop’s sweat. My lungs waxed with the earthy wet of it.
Meemaw’s antiques grew. Her mammoth cupboard contents bobbled by. I clamored aboard a colossal ultramarine-colored teapot, hefting myself up, trembling and coughing, by its swan-neck spout. There were others inside the porcelain vessel, peeking out from beneath the half-fluted lid, neighbors, and some folks I didn’t know: a flannel-shirted man holding a writhing, venomous serpent, a boy in Mac-Alpine tartan—redheaded, with a crescent-shaped scar on his chin— playing cat’s cradle, and a stunning, big-busted lady working her wavy auburn hair into a bun. Our helmsman, an orange-toothed beaver, rode the handle and steered us with its waffled rudder tail.
A pirate, ocular socket patched and velvet vested, stood balanced atop the baluster kettle in stereotypical high-seas freebooters pose, pointed his sword in the direction he required we travel—he had a peg leg, too! … no parrot—and he winked at me with his exposed eye. We wove through the misty, swollen gorge before the real-life cloudburst sluiced in, and Meemaw nudged me awake and whispered … flood.
Strange, how a hide whitens then puckers and bloats. When eleven inches of surprise rain fell on Carter County and the seasonal accumulation of snow joined in the saturation of our barns and homes and roads and land, hogs and cattle washed by, the live ones snorting and wheezing and clambering on top of the lifeless ones. The Highlanders’ football bleachers filled with sheep and rabbits, and Colonel Thomas, cack-handedly postured on his hands and knees, hollered Over here! to us from his rooftop as it drifted toward a dizzy round of floodwater over Bee Cliff Road.
My buddies and I trolled around in the aftermath, hoisting up lost belongings now surfaced: a tackle box, a viola, a taxidermied gray fox, plastic bags of carded wool, canteens and flasks, a telescope, a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band record, granny-square afghan, swollen photo albums with pictures of fishing trips and graduations, of the Toomer-Gill family reunion, of babies with spaghetti faces, tots waddling around the kitchen in their parents’ boots. Amid a huge field of floating debris, in a clawfoot tub, Eliot Grub sat crying. Her face was scratched. She grasped a prosthetic arm and wailed and shook. The arm had a hook. Where was the man who belonged to this arm?
After the county no longer served as reservoir for what the mountains refused to hold, our recovery effort lay drying on the Cloudland Elementary parking lot pavement. Toomers and Gills picked up their albums—both photo and Nitty Gritty—and Ms. Maisy Kathleen Wayne gathered her wool sacks. Into a pickup bed went gray foxes and mounted antlers, silver trays and tackle boxes. Someone’s pappy kissed his soggy viola and plucked its strings. Off went all the claimable treasures. Everything went. Except the arm. I wrapped it in a rag and snuck it back up the mountain home. Underneath the privacy of bedspread, as Meemaw fiddled with her crackly kitchen radio, I rubbed the cool, smooth length of the limb, scratched an itch on my head with its hook tip. I slept with the arm in my bed. Held it tight. Mine.
One early winter I attended—with reluctance—an auction with Meemaw round about a year after garnering the first member of my terminal device collection. Bid on and won a “peg leg” (to her mortification), a three-quarter-inch steel rod with a socket for a stump crafted by a local blacksmith for his brother-in-law. As it was easier for Meemaw to imagine my eccentric collection stemmed from a boyhood fascination with pirates and high seas buccaneers, I told her at a Thanksgiving Day dinner table, performing in a briny voice, squinting an eye so she could imagine a patch there, stories of the Howard Pyle-esque corsair of my flood dream. The maritime theatrical—how handy, my remembering that dream!—was an elaborate ruse to spare her the worry of having an adopted grandson who collected (and cuddled) prosthetics and orthopedic devices—such oddities. But so well worth the deception, since Meemaw gifted me a new limb at every Christmas, every birthday: a finely carved wooden antique prosthetic hand with SiZE 8 written near the thumb in graphite pencil, its fingers wrapped in wire coil—nail holes at the wrist (the nails once fastened a leather strap for attaching hand to arm)—and a jar she found while junkin’ with her best girlfriend, Eugenia Bibby, of blue, brown, green glass eyes—and oh, baby—a rare circa-1890s capital amputation saw with hard rubber-handle scales Eugenia discovered in a flea market bin of odds and ends. Mostly odds, she’d said as she relayed the tale of the find. Or maybe mostly ends, she chuckled, standing in front of the Christmas tree, holding up the saw for the cousins to see, then drawing it back and forth a hair above Meemaw’s thigh.
Meemaw often asked me about my postflood dreams. She began to think of me as a diviner, reading into them—as if images depicted on Tarot cards—prognostications of events happening around the mountain. Through her tales to Eugenia—blabbermouth supreme— word got out about my collection—and my powers, gee-whiz—and soon enough folks were rapping on the door, asking: Is-er-it-true he can scry river rocks? Is-uh-it-true he can dream-predict deaths, disease? Accident, fire? Like the flood? Can he?
Eliot Grub came to call. I know all about that pirate, and you ending up with that hook arm and all. I heard about how you take that arm into the trees and gaze into it and see what’s gonna come. And I figure I had it first and I want it back now, she said. And I said, No, now it’s a part of an anthology and did she want to see my collection, and she yelled, You’re a freakazoid and your hobby is plain freaky and ran out the door. I was heartbroken, and maybe I should’ve given her that wonderful arm, because I believe—still do—that I loved beautiful Eliot Grub. I bolted to the porch, watched her kick rocks past the mailbox, and spent the evening reading Overmountains Antique Emporium—Elizabethton, TN over and over from a sticker on an old prosthetic lower right arm (with hinged wooden hand) in the cerulean of pre-night.
And—it figures—until I went off to college in Georgia, I wasn’t too big with ladykind. My buddies were interested in my parts, though. Charlie Close, Basil Timmons, and I often sorted through the pieces together, studying with magnifying glasses serial numbers and markings, supposing how scratches were made, what the original owner was like, personality, ability to manage, to navigate, how he lost his leg, why she had two fingers lopped off, talked about Civil War soldiers with gangrenous feet, thalidomide babies, neuromata, prosthetic socks, cups, thumbed through catalogs, wondered about the end of loss. Charlie, a waterfowler, had buried Goose, his favorite retriever, thanks to that darned flood, and I turned away when he teared up recalling it. Basil patted him once on the back and sighed, I think that was maybe worse for you than how I felt when my baseball cards got ruined. I changed the subject to astronavigation and oceanic brigandage—as had become a habit—sculling, swabbies, argonauts.
Something changed. If I had to describe the alteration of the usual design as sound, I’d declare the day Meemaw fainted in her sewing room to have sounded like a tiny hand-painted box clicking shut, the way, according to Miss Fancy Lammon, the pulchritudinous new twelfth-grade English teacher from Nashville, poems are supposed to end. And space got lighter on the mountain, flower petals lifted as if they would love-me-not up into the sky with the slightest touch of air—everything was fluffier—and everywhere I went, I moved like some balloon, freewheeling and drifting on puffs of breeze. I felt thin and dizzy. I sought anchors to hold me down, anchors to hold. I held an antique prosthetic corset in the night like I’d snuggle a girlfriend if I had one, nuzzling into the metal frame, sniffing the leather straps, whispering, I’m gonna go to college … and I think I’ll be a prosthetist and a doctor and Are you applying to college? I want you to be proud of me. You could go to Georgia, too. You’d make a wonderful teacher.
I began to heft cherished pieces of my collection in an old ProSport backpack, trotting around, sweeping off the porch, mending fences, gathering up yard twigs before mowing, mowing, with that pack of prosthetics cinched in place like a turtle’s shell. And if I could’ve withdrawn into the pack when I sensed danger or a whack of fright befell me, I would’ve. But Meemaw said, with a furrow of concern between her sparse white eyebrows, You look a little green behind the gills these days, and I bucked up and worked. Last time Meemaw accused me of looking seasick, she obliged me to talk about my mom and dad for over an hour, and I didn’t need to kindle any speculative lore about that meth-headed pair.
The pirate hars and arghs that I better shape up or ship out, and even in my dream, I chuckled at his pun, though I felt fizzy and slight, unable to swab the fo’c’sle as I’d been tasked, wobbling as the boat wagged, my mop only skimming the fishy surface of the deck. Do I have scurvy, you think, Stede? I ask one of my hearties. You look about as pale as a blowfish’s belly … and I think you’re gonna fall, he says. I slip into my washbucket and lie on the wooden bottom, gawp up through the dingy water, brown and gray, a little blue from the sky churning in with dapples of light popping left then center then left then right, and Stede calling down to me, his voice bubbly and garbled, I think you are sick there, bucko, in need of some cackle fruit. He just needs t’ crack Jenny’s teacup! a faraway matelot prescribes.
As Eugenia dials for the ambulance I stand over Meemaw, who places her hands on her bulbous belly and stares at the china cabinet. I notice her socked feet and purple ankles as they twitch in her loafers. Splatterings of cobbler streak the kitchen floor, peaches splayed around her head like a sunburst. Just fainted. Be back on my feet if you and Eugie’d just give me a minute or two, she wheezes, still gazing at the plates. You lie still, I tell her, and then ask, You see something over there? I’m looking at you in the glass, she says.
She tells me she’s just been on her bum feet too long, and as she offers excuses for her fall one after the other like items ticked off on a list, the paramedics hoist her onto a gurney and siren her away to the hospital with me in the back of the van holding her cracked hand and her enormous macramé pocketbook.
I see. Everything in the hospital is shiny, patent, reflective. I see Basil Timmons in a jar of gauze, gurgling blood at the steering wheel of his Nova, its faded frame wrapped around a willow oak on Bee Cliff Road, Eliot Grub in a metal tray, waiting cross-legged and sighing next to a dog box in a truck bed as her boyfriend’s dog rips an ear from its opponent near a tree line. I see Miss Fancy Lammon in a fluorescent tube light, wringing her hands over papers on a mahogany desk. Colonel Thomas winces in a burnished bedpan as he bends for his slippers. In the white linoleum, Charlie Close takes some cash from a register.
Meemaw’s in bed made up with sheets cinched to the mattress with nurse’s corners, and I leer at her like someone I hate. I imagine I’ll have to care for her now—forget getting away from the mountain—and feed her mashed things, wipe her dribbling mouth, sponge her sagging body, and help her in the toilet. Any why shouldn’t I? She took me in, burdened herself with the little orphaned weirdo grandbaby, fed him mashed yams, wiped his sloppy face.
In the lens of Meemaw’s glasses, I see my dad chase my mom from a concrete slab patio into a field of cow thistle, a skull-and-crossbones Jack Tar bandanna on his head. Meemaw moans and stirs, and I hear my dad growl, Aaarrrrrrrrrrrrgh!
In stones, glass, mirrors, fire, smoke, water, pools, puddles, each one of the eyes in my jar, the lacquered sheen of an arm, the catoptric thigh of a leg.
I tell Meemaw, Hell—sorry—but hell, I gotta leave this place. She has never asked me to stay—with words, that is—but she communicates in moist doe eyes. Her lips quiver. She holes up in the kitchen with her radio and her Crock-Pot. She begs me to sit at the dining table and talk about my folks when I’m not working. She has my number. So I work.
When I lick the stamp on my college application, she takes off her spectacles, wipes her brow with a dishrag. I slap the stamp on the envelope hard, pound it with my fist for extra measure, and run it out to the mailbox. Meemaw peers out from around the front door. I get mean, smirk at her, flip up the red flag.
Before bed she says, I’m sorry I’m so mopey. I want you to go to school. You’re a smart boy. You’re gonna make a good doctor, and I’m gonna brag about you. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel guilty.
I’m in my dorm room, highlighting a passage in a thick, raggedy, used Atlas of Human Anatomy when Meemaw calls me up from home. How’s Athens? she asks, and just as I open my mouth to answer I’m still liking it just fine, she asks about my dreams. Meemaw’s been ill for quite some time. Diabetes, she found out. Eugenia Bibby has it, too. We’re lovers of pies so it figures we got the diabeetus. Good eating, being belly-satisfied all these years. Worth it. Comfort foods, they call it on tee-vee, she says. Been sailing any?
In a possum skull, on my last visit home ages ago, I’d seen Meemaw having her foot sawed off.
Nope, I think all of that seafaring’s through. I tell Meemaw I’m coming home as soon as I ace all my finals or as soon as summer ends or … as soon as I can.
Unaware of an injury due to neuropathy causing numbness, Dr. Jarvis says, your grandmother failed to notice her foot’d been infected.
Meemaw’s foot rotted like a plum left too long on the branch. The withered walker was amputated. She chooses to spend her days in a wheelchair rather than utilize prosthetics, and I lament my introduction of all those artificial limbs into her home. But, no! When you lose a leg, you go get a leg! I’ve read the case studies. You get a recovery team—a physical therapist, a prosthetist, a shrink—and you develop strength, and range of motion, balance, coordination. You don’t jump on someone’s back and ride them to the grocery, around the garden, through the thrift shops. People shouldn’t ride on backs like copepods.
Here’s something random I learned, Meemaw, I say to her on the phone when she calls, before she has a chance to ask me when I’m coming home, Did ya know that the word parasite is derived from a Greek word meaning one who eats at another’s table? Didn’t know that, she says, that’s interesting. And the one who’s paying up, like the shark, say—the one who’s being robbed—is called the host. It’s like the parasite levies an energy tax on the host. Good parasites do not typically overextort their hosts, and that’s how they guarantee their own sustained survival. You sure do know a lot about scientific things, she says. I’m learning, I say. She tells me what she’s had for supper. She asks me when I’m coming home. I tell her, As soon as I can. I want to take back my parasite talk. Take care of yourself, OK? I say. Love you. Love you, too, she says. I get teary eyed, hang up the phone, and take a Sleepy-Time Softgel.
I dream the pirate vessel hits land and a million sandpipers scuttle away from us seamen as we push ashore. Stede scoops some of them up for dinner and pops their necks, collects the birds in a basket he carries on his back. He goes to snatch up a gull and it squawks at him before taking flight. The gull circles Stede all day and he makes a friend of it, names it Tew, tosses fish heads to Tew, who catches them midair. Tew is content to linger with Stede, later to rest with Stede through his snoring in a hammock, later to follow our ship when we shove off into the great briny, to become Stede’s familiar forever.
The governor calls for a ban on open burning to reduce wildfire risk. A meteorologist informs on the radio: The inauguration of a drought is tricky to determine. Several weeks, months, or even years may pass before people recognize that a drought is in the works. The end of a drought can end as gradually as it began. Dry periods can last for ten years or more. The initial evidence of drought is typically seen in rainfall records. Within a diminutive period of time, the amount of moisture in soils can begin to dwindle. The effects of a drought on flow in streams and rivers or on water levels in lakes and reservoirs may not be noticed for weeks or months. Water levels in wells may not reflect a famine of rainfall for a year or more after a drought begins.
I wake from a sweaty late afternoon nap and realize my bed has stopped bobbling. I don’t pack. I get in my car. The twilit roads home—dried-up sea lanes, withered riverbeds. My lips are chapped. I lick them often. Airy, moistureless clouds cloak the stars, ruling out astromarshaling, and I hunt for Tew, some friendly conduct to steer me, to bowsprit me toward the mountain. Though I should be familiar with this route, some heatstroke-like disorientation handicaps me. Blips of sparkle in my peripheral. Wooziness. I am on the shriveled road home, an ineffectual voyager, and not a thing around me holds water. Leaves crackle. The trees beg dogs.
Gathering any energies this blistering cosmos has to offer, I muster up all my espial abilities. Argus-eyed once again, I brake, pull over, pick up a turkey flight feather I spy—as if through the aperture of a pinhole camera—on the Loop 10 roadside. Brilliance, as if viewed via hagioscope, illuminates a killdeer plume near a pine right outside of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I take the feather. Nuthatch feather, cardinal feather, scarlet tanager in Hendersonville, wren, chickadee, warbler, hermit thrush in Avery Creek, mourning dove in Enka, screech owl, grosbeak, oriole, red-shouldered hawk, cowbird in Asheville, kingfisher, waxwing in Woodfin. I collect all the feathers in light-grasp until my hatchback storage spills into the backseat, until too many feathers begin to swirl around the searing air, and I’m forced to roll up windows and chug along in the hotbox the rest of the way home.
Meemaw struggles to breathe as she dreams, still in her wheelchair, in the kitchen, that old radio playing music, crackling in and out. Her throat emits gravelly sighs and snorts, her mouth agape. She looks like a fish in a soup, and I want to kiss her, touch her face, to smother her—no!—but, not intending to wake her, I pad-foot up to the attic and sit Indian style near rolls of pink insulation I should’ve installed like an indebted grandson should. I notice a ship in a bottle on one of the shelves I’d never glimpsed before when lugging up all the boxes containing my infamous boyhood collection—THE BATTLESHIP “POBEDONOSETS” BY ARTEM POPOV, reads the brass plate on the wooden base—and I whisper, No more ocean for exploring, Stede; this is where our ship should be.
I gather the boxes, ones labeled LOWER EXTREMITY DEVICES, UPPER EXTREMITY DEVICES, BONE PLATES, SOFTGOODS FOR HANDS OR FINGERS, BREASTS, BRACES … Now and then I remove a piece, close my eyes, touch with my tongue tip, explore wood and metal with my fingertips, sniff. I take down the lightest box first.
Meemaw’s eyes closed. Meemaw’s breath shallow now. She’s dreaming, her fingers twitch.
I haul down all the limbs, the entire huge collection of parts, the collection that, no matter how Frankensteiny I assembled them, would never make a person, and I line them up outside the front door from the ramp there, like a garden path of “ends” as Eugenia Bibby’d called them. I line them up as far out as they’ll go—and wow did they create a span end to end.
In the shed, I assemble my newest collection into pinions, place them at the end of the line after adding a carved wooden plate for them, its lettering says TEW. I admire my craftsmanship. I think, I’m gonna be good at this. I fall asleep at the shed window, staring at the path to the flight device, my first creation as prosthetist.
Who’s done this? Meemaw weakly wonders aloud as she rolls her chair down the ramp, pushing herself along the procession, out of breath, chest heaving. She stops in the sun at the end. Tew, she says.
When I wake: Meemaw’s empty chair at the end of the line. The wings, gone. I run inside, call out to her. I didn’t mean to frighten you! I was compelled! I didn’t know what I meant by “compelled.” Compelled by heat, drought, dream. I’ve done it. What have I done? Outside I am frantic, witlessly dashing to check behind trees, behind shed. I look in the mailbox, I look—I’ve done it now—under a water trough. I look up and see a speck, a tiny speck that is not buzzard or weather balloon, angel or kite, floating up, up, then down slightly, then up, then up, then up, then up, down, then up up up up up.