by David M. Armstrong | illustrations by Jeff Versoi
She emerged from the car and rounded the old house to look across the yard, the ground rampant with weeds. Beyond it a swath of brilliant green cut a kind of fairy path through the woods, and near the trailhead lay an ancient plow and a skeletal tractor, their paint faded to a sun-sapped rose that still clung to the iron of the wheel wells. Patrick made a sound from inside the house as if trying to draw her attention. He’d been moody most of the afternoon, flipping unwanted french fries out of the car as they drove, until he’d eaten so little he begged her to stop again, then got picky with a chicken sandwich and fell asleep. In Patrick’s defense, the trip had been unexpected. She hadn’t intended to take him from Dale’s driveway. That much had just happened. But in her own defense, her actions were planless as osmosis, a current of biological imperatives sliding beneath her and buoying her weight: a mother needs her son.
She turned back to the house. Most of the windows had been broken.
Transparent shards jutted in colorless shapes from the panes. Through one—the kitchen, she thought—she could make out Patrick’s silhouette swinging something so it thumped the wall. She considered yelling but stopped herself, unwilling to break the cool silence of wind in the elder trees, the rasping quiet of shadows stretching beyond the woods as if to caress the siding. She took the back stairs, clinging to the old railing and stepping over the holes where the boards had rotted through. Memories of hiding beneath this back porch swirled up unbidden, and she remembered Holly Demerrich, dead now, a girl with freckles and bleached-out eyes pale as untouched bluebells.
She found Patrick inside with a rusty hammer banging away at a loose rung of the balustrade, trying to knock it free.
“What are you doing?”
“I saw a rat in the wall in the kitchen,” he said. “The hammer’s too short.”
Patrick was ten, she thought. Nine or ten. Yet it never ceased to confound her that he should talk so logically, think so much like his father that she sometimes heard Dale’s clipped, impatient tones carrying through into her own son’s vocal cords and movements. Patrick wasted little energy and possessed it in abundance.
“We’re going to fix this place up,” she said.
“Please don’t go tearing it down.”
He looked at her, his tender eyebrows knotted darkly over his eyes. “We aren’t staying here, are we?”
“I’ll get the water turned on. We’ll fix the windows.”
“How? You don’t have any money.”
Always the tactician. This was Dale, his rigid temperament coalescing in Patrick’s tiny frame. She imagined Dale, rebuilding himself like a robot, over and over again, for countless generations. Copy upon copy, and for a moment she couldn’t bring herself to meet Patrick’s gaze.
“I have some money,” she said.
“Show me it.”
“It’s in a bank.”
He finished knocking out the spindle from the banister. It made a clunk on the dirty floor where she saw vandals had spraypainted vulgarity and indecipherable tags.
“I’m sorry I didn’t have time to get things ready,” she said.
She lifted her hands slightly. All she wanted to do was to hold him. To have him melt into her. If they’d been able to do such a thing, they may not be here, in her father’s old home. It was the one thing she’d never sold, not through any strength of her own, but because the house had been secluded and worthless. No one wanted it. She’d not been here in fifteen years at least, and it felt like exactly that long.
‡ ‡ ‡
As night stretched itself across the treetops they bedded down in her old Subaru wagon; she reclined in the front passenger seat while he scrunched himself uncomfortably onto the second-row bench. Their things piled high in the back blocked the headlights of occasional cars rolling round the curve of road that connected to the bottom of the drive. But the moan of semis as they engine-braked down the hill always woke her in time to see those lights casting thicketed shadows across the face of her old house. Twice she thought she saw the figures of men inside and gripped her ivory-handled pocket knife so hard her joints ached. She stared into the residual darkness of the windows awaiting some confirmation of movement, but it never came, or always played as the trick of her eye, and sometimes she was certain they were watching her from inside.
Finally she reached for the backpack at her feet and slipped a baggie out of its side pocket. She didn’t want to smoke, so she snorted the heroin, resorting to her store of the costlier stash for safety’s sake. The drug flowed into the back of her neck, worked its way up her skull, then dropped all the way into her toes. Before falling asleep, she wondered how the moon ever found its way back to earth.
In the morning she awoke with a layer of dry mucus coating her tongue. She checked herself for vomit, then the back seat. Patrick was gone. She looked for him in the house before traipsing out to the backyard and calling his name. Slender tribes of dandelions had sprouted up overnight. Their puckered yellow heads bristled against the cold.
The fairy path led away and up the hill. She had a vague memory of its curves, its undefined narrowing as it neared the spring from which her father used to fetch drinking water when the well was tainted. She remembered the brackish, rusty taste of the well when the dog fell in and her mother was forced to boil the water before filling their glasses. That was in the winter when the spring had frozen solid. They hadn’t gone to school then, not until Child Protective Services threatened to remove her and her brother from the household. The government people had called it that—the household, which put her in mind of a structure with arms and a warm embrace pulling them close and brushing outsiders from its porch with one sweep of its massive, cedar-sided hands.
She followed the path through the woods until it terminated at the spring. Its flow had weakened in the intervening years, but still came nonetheless. Her father had plugged a black, plastic pipe about two inches in diameter into the rock, and the brilliant, clear water poured out of it into a shallow creekbed of rounded pebbles, most the size of marbles and tennis balls. They were uniformly brown and talked like old friends. Above the creek, a blunt, mossy rockface of pitted granite rose about thirty feet, and a fissure cleaved its way up the center. Above that the woods resumed in their gently sloping ascendancy to the top of the larger hill. She wriggled into the cleft of the cliff and found footing in the roots of trees which, from high above, had sent themselves deep through the stone in search of the water below. Maybe it was they who had split the rock. She didn’t know. She began to climb and felt the roots against her palms like the shaking of old hands.
She reached the top and took in the view. The house was obscured by the black birch trees already displaying their new leaves. But the sun had cast its light over a hollow to the right. Here the valley dipped back down into a carpet of white crocuses, their tender petals so close to one another that the dark humus of leaves and earth below appeared only at their edges. It was as if a blot of snow had fallen silently in the woods and sanctified this one small oval of ground. This reminded her of something, and suddenly she wished Patrick could see. He’d understand then the things she was unable to tell him. Her brain felt muddied, and all she could think of relating was about the time when she was twelve, when she finally went to school in town and waited at a Friday-night dance for any boy, any one at all, to ask her onto the floor, and how that had been her only chance, and when no boy asked, she had never gone to another dance in her life.
She regretted it more than anything. More than leaving Patrick and Dale even. She wanted to tell Patrick just that one story about herself, here, in the presence of all those flowers, because then he would have to understand the something she’d always known about beauty that she’d never been able to express. She watched the sun strengthen and the crocuses widen their outstretched arms so that they became indistinct, blurred as an overexposed photograph.
She thought of calling for Patrick from this height, certain her voice would expand to the rest of the world even. But she remained quiet. The quiet held the crocuses. The quiet held her secrets. She couldn’t shatter that for Patrick. Not for anybody. She crawled back down the fissure, clutching again at the knobbed toes of the trees. On the way back along the path she slapped her dirty palms against her jeans and felt the heat of the contact in her thighs and hands. She breathed the vinegar scent of crabapple plants, working their stringent life into her sinuses, and reached the edge of the woods ready to call her son’s name.
But the sight of the well stopped her short. The well lay about twenty yards from the house. Its stone lid had been rolled away and now rested against the concrete lip. She tried to remember if she’d noticed this last night. The well, a little bigger than a manhole, was shadowed by the canted lid from the morning light and looked cool and quiet near the crystalline blades of grass exposed to the sun. A different kind of quiet came pouring from that deep, black hole, and its silence touched everything with its slender fingers.
She kept her distance from it and slipped around to the front of the house where she stared at her car. She’d left the door open and wondered at the fact that this could be done out here, with no one around to grab your wallet, no one to steal the phone you left on the dashboard or even the car itself. This felt like a good thing, a place to start.
She touched the hood, its cool skin warming with the day, and called her son’s name in long syllables: “Patrick!”
A silence echoed back to her. She climbed into the car and drew a breath, smelled her old things, wrapped in bubble packing and cigarette smoke, turning stale in the back of the Subaru. Then she honked the horn three times.
Still he didn’t answer. She waited, turning the keychain with its clutch of plastic knickknacks over in her hand so it made the sound of junk rolling down a hill, same as when her father took her and her brother to the ravine to discard an old washer, a pesticide drum, and once a rusted Coke machine. Her father would pull off the old county road where the trees separated into bramble and greenbrier, and he’d heave old appliances from the truck bed, send them toppling end over end to the creek a hundred feet below. The Coke machine had been an antique probably. Her father bought it from Markham’s store when it went out of business, and he bragged about haggling it down to just thirty-five dollars. It was the kind that held glass bottles and opened from the top, no taller than waisthigh, and he’d claimed he was going to plug it into the wall in the living room so the kids could have Coke whenever they wanted. They’d cheered and laughed hauling it back from Markham’s, but the welfare people had come that afternoon, were waiting, in fact, to inspect the home. Her father had shouted from the truck at the government people about having no right to show up unannounced. When the woman responded that it was difficult to call without a phone on this end, her father had leaned out his window and said the only thing his daughter could now distinctly remember about him. “You think you’re better than me,” he said. “But you’re not. No one’s better than nobody.” He’d commanded the children from the cab, spun out in the drive, and disappeared with the Coke machine still knocking against the tailgate where he’d tied it down. He was arrested that night on a drunk and disorderly, and when he made it home four days later, she and her brother were going to school in town. The Coke machine was deposited carelessly into the yard, where it rusted until they finally drove it to the ravine.
She let the keys fall into the passenger seat and thought about honking again. From somewhere trilled a phone, a high-pitched ping and a muffled rap song to which she couldn’t understand any of the words. She dug through Patrick’s things and found a cell phone at the bottom of his backpack wrapped in a pair of Levi’s. She felt hurt. He’d lied to her about not having one. She hadn’t heard it ring yesterday, but he must have turned it on in the night, maybe to call or text. Or play a game; it was one of those. It had gone silent by the time she found it in the left leg of the jeans but immediately jumped to life again in her hands.
She touched the button that said TALK. Dale’s voice came across the line.
“Patrick? Patrick? If your mom is there, just pretend like you’re humming a song or something. Okay, buddy?”
“He’s not here,” she said.
“What the hell do you mean he’s not there? For fuck sake, I can’t believe you’d do this. I can’t believe it.”
“You don’t need to worry.”
“Don’t need to worry? Are you kidding me? Are you honestly telling me that? You kidnapped our son, Julia. Our son. I’m on my way, and he’d better be safe and sound. He’d better be goddamn hunky dory.”
He said corny things like this when he was angry. Hunky dory.
“We just wanted to spend time together,” she said.
“Oh now. Now. You need time. Convenient.”
“Did you say you’re on your way?”
It came to her. Patrick, growing restless in the night, texting his father to come and get him. And like that it was over. Their time away from the static of human voices and the scuttling concerns of everyday living. She hung up the phone.
She still had time to tell him what she meant to say. She’d find him and tell him and things would be different even after Dale took him back to the world with Sandy and the house on Green Parkway and the automatic ice maker in the door of their refrigerator. The Coke machine and the refrigerator and the keys and the phone all seemed to her at this moment to be the same thing. The same item filled up with whatever human life got poured into them. She wanted to tell Patrick this, because none of them compared to the white crocuses in the woods. But time was cracking apart, falling into holes in the earth as Dale drove and drove.
She took a bump of her good stuff for clarity. One small sniff. Then another. And another. Colors flattened out, then attached themselves to objects again. She left the car and began shouting. She came upon the backyard the way you run into a stranger climbing the stairs from the subway. Like light and form have taken shape simultaneously. Her son stood near the well with a white crocus in his hand. His skin had gone gray. Clear rivulets trickled from his eyes like a little fountain in a southern garden. His clothes were soaked and dark as dish water.
“I’m dead now,” he said, and a frog wriggled wetly from between his lips. It leapt from his tongue and landed in the grass. “I’m dead now,” he repeated.
The aggregation of trees and house and the junked tractor felt suddenly disorderly, as if they’d spun about in a clothes dryer and tumbled forth.
“Careful now,” she said. “Careful. That well is dangerous.”
Something had gone wrong; she’d mistaken her stashes, maybe, or taken too much, or maybe this was some fresh malady, a new way for her mind to hollow out the details and turn them to ash the way it always had since she was very young. Her bones felt like jelly. She lowered herself and crawled toward her son on hands and knees. She felt the tiny bits of stone in the earth belied by the long grass. This was hard soil. A planter’s nightmare. All her father had been able to grow was a single pumpkin that sprawled out through the wild tangle of bearbind and ironweed and quivering fescue. The wild plants had obscured the pumpkin until one day she sighted it fully formed, its fat orange ribs bulging from the brush. Which was how it felt with Patrick from the very beginning. She didn’t remember the pregnancy so much as holding the solid weight of him against her chest and trying to fathom how he’d come about. He was her pumpkin. She’d thought that several times; though she refrained from making it a petname. The pumpkin was another of her secrets.
She reached the well, but her dead son was gone, and she couldn’t remember if she’d witnessed the moment he vanished. Now the lip of the well was in her hands. Its concrete was the same cool irregularity as the roots of the trees.
Something struck her buttocks. She looked up to see Patrick again, though his skin had revived and his clothes, like the house and woods before, had sucked the color back into themselves. He kicked her again.
“Why are you on the ground?”
“I thought you were dead,” she mumbled.
He peered over the well, and she instinctively raised her hands to keep him from getting near it.
“You think I’m stupid,” he said sullenly. He made a face that turned his lips into a fish’s. She couldn’t look at his silhouette against the sky. She felt sick. She desperately wanted him to help her up, to hold out his hand and haul her to her feet. If he did this, if he made contact, it would right her. The whole dryer-tumbled world would realign into a pathway with rails and signs and escalators directing her forward. If only he would reach out.
“I don’t think you’re stupid,” she said.
“Then why don’t we ever do stuff I want to do? Why do we always have to go to your stupid places?”
“We can go wherever you want.”
“That’s a lie,” he said. “You’re lying.” One touch, and she’d be healed like Lazarus, arisen from the grave. Because her son was Jesus. He was a healer. A magic pumpkin.
“You admit it,” he said. “You say you’re lying or I’m jumping in the well.”
“I’m not lying,” she said. “I’ll take you anywhere. Any place. You name it.”
Her voice had begun to slur and her arms filled with what felt like gallons and gallons of warm water. She couldn’t lift them. A sadness went swishing around in her blood.
“You’re lying.” He stepped up onto the well and straddled it, looking into the black eye of the water below.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she said. “Get down from there.” Her voice had moved to the left of her, and she worried her words would run away before she could convince him of her sincerity.
“I’m jumping,” he said. “I’m jumping in the well, and you have to save me unless we go somewhere right now.”
Her bones had grafted themselves to the earth’s every stone. Her desperate heart pressed against her lungs. She’d never breathe again. If he jumped, if he died. If something happened all because of her silly wish to explain what beauty was, she would follow him. She’d tumble in after, and both of them would be flushed to hell.
“You’re Jesus,” she said.
“You’re Jesus. You’re my Jesus. Don’t forsake me.” That word, forsake, she’d learned in the church basement at twelve, and it had followed her all over until it sprang, quivering and angry, to the ground at her son’s feet.
He put a finger to his chest. “I’m Jesus?”
“Bible Jesus. You’re Jesus. Just don’t jump, don’t go away, and I’ll take you anywhere.”
A smile slid up his face. He scratched his stomach. “If I’m Jesus, then you’re forgiven,” he said. He was mimicking what he’d heard in Sunday school, repeating compact phrases like she had done. “You’re healed.” He reached down and tapped her forehead, almost pitching forward into the hole. “Because I am Jesus,” he said. His arms made wide circles as he restored his equilibrium. “I am Jesus.” He turned it into a song. Then he spit into the well.
She heard it slap the water below. She heard it rippling through everything.
And that was all.
‡ ‡ ‡
Because there is no end. The moment cannot conclude. An echolalia of greater voices recur, second by second, in the blurring wash of time. The sound of the world becomes a child’s babble, a repetition of utterances that have made up its earlier days. She thought this on some level, how the ripples had struck a note in her bones that would vibrate for years. How a single day is a lifetime if it’s important.
For twenty-four of those years she held that moment by the well fixed in her mind. The future is ever present, she thought. A pun. The words of a wise man or a slack-shouldered, stand-up comedian.
She didn’t see Patrick but four more times. Deputies had arrived. Dale had appeared. She was taken away and survived. Then Patrick began mailing her birthday cards and Christmas greetings after his first year in college. He’d tried to explain to her in a few scrawled lines about a class he’d taken on comparative religion, about why it was important to be forgiven, but she couldn’t discern to which one of them he was referring, himself or her. He never asked to meet, and she did him the courtesy of reciprocating with silence. In the following years his cards became more calculated, the handwriting darker and more confident, the lines growing meticulous, and she imagined him gathering up order to his life like a cloak. He always, from the very beginning, signed the cards, Love, Jesus. Their private joke.
A week after her sixtieth birthday, Dale called to tell her Patrick had been in a car wreck, the world had grown dim. He’s a father of three, and a hell of a human being, Dale said. Dale cursed the drunk who’d skittered through lonely, Sunday streets, cut across parking lots, shaved paint from parked cars, and found their son in a nameless intersection on an errand for morning coffee. Dale’s voice had become civil to her somewhere in the index of years.
“He’s in surgery,” he said. “It’s ‘touch and go.’ That’s what the doctor said. Those are the words he used.”
She said okay. Okay. It was all she could think to utter. After she hung up she wished she’d thanked him for calling. He wasn’t obligated.
She drove out to the old house, which had bided its time, acquiring a slump from its rotting foundation. The two of them, she and the house, had become gray, succumbing to the disrepairs of age somewhat. A pair, she thought. She had meant to give the land to Patrick, to sell it or do with whatever he pleased. She had hoped if she did this that, as an adult, he would wander the woods and find the crocuses, that he would understand why she had brought him out here as a child. But the truth was she hadn’t trusted the message to cross the gap, did not have faith in her own capability to project her meaning over the dividing line of communication. The beauty had remained her secret.
The crocus blooms were out of season, and she entered the hospital without one. He was out of surgery, the wife told her. The wife, who was civil, whose eyes were puffy, and whose children orbited her and bumped against her legs like chicks. They were all still small, still young, younger than Patrick had been on the day they had spent together.
She looked in on her son. She hadn’t set eyes on him in years. Not since the last hearing. The left side of his face had developed a purple bloat like a tumorous potato. His hand lay in a cast at his side. Dale rose from a seat near the window and hugged her, and Sandy did the same. They sat back down and watched her. She stood at the foot of her son’s bed and gently touched his toe. Here he was again, wholly formed anew. A new pumpkin. A new Jesus, with his new beauty. His new family. Wholly formed, the way all things in life were revealed to her.
They were still small, she thought again. The children. Life was still in its bloom. There was still time.
“Wake up, Jesus,” she whispered. “Wake up, and I’ll tell you everything.”
“The Quiet Held the Crocuses” is a swirling riveting dreamy piercing piece of work. Soaked in the verdant awful wilderness of the land around the well and the muddled thickets of Julia’s life and love and broken consciousness. Terrific surprising wild ending, a lovely startling leap that few writers would attempt and fewer manage to accomplish. Not only a memorable story but probably an unforgettable one.
David Armstrong’s debut story collection, Going Anywhere, won Leapfrog Press’ Fiction Contest and will be published in 2014. His stories have won the Mississippi Review Prize, the New South Writing Contest and Northwind’s 2013 Story Contest. His latest stories appear in Mississippi Review, Baltimore Review and Carve Magazine. A Ph.D candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Armstrong is fiction editor of Witness Magazine.