OH APPOMATTOX, THIS ANTIDOTE IS OUR UNDOING
by Quintan Ana Wikswo
First published in Drunken Boat
At the sick house for poor folks, Maw and her girls are magi in a caravan of woe, priests and as potentates and midwife medics of spirit and flesh. They dismiss calamitous disasters of farm and homestead, new equipment misused, a travesty of the gut or groin. Each wound must be unwrapped. Maw and her girls gather up the split sutures, dispel the night terrors, disperse the ghouls come to besiege the ill: phantoms competing in a contest for most ghastly, a tricky conjure game.
Claudine, whose third birth had been an unfortunate one, arrived in winter after a difficult autumn. The baby had been the color and formlessness of a bruise. Her fever rose high as heaven. So hot the silver shot right out the glass, that bad. Yes. Took the blue from her eyes it did. Took her hair out. Most of what made her a woman just backed up, fractured, or shied away. After the burial she raised her head again and went about her life but her husband saw a great sorrow spreading out inside her – the way he’d seen in dogs he knew were watching him but couldn’t be stirred to raise their heads or wag their tails. There were many causes for it, but none of the effects were good.
Her husband watched as whatever he had fallen in love with in her tried and failed to heal. He watched it crust over with the brittle glaze of grief, watched as it formed spots of hardness, cracked and fissured: if he forgot to move the boards from off the new grass her anger could slice him open quickly before it vanished, leaving him bleeding with no weapon to defend himself against. His wife’s tears were secret and hidden from him but he could detect them in the texture of her mare’s mane, in the new soap that never seemed to rinse completely off her thighs. Everything of her was crazed. There was no option but to take her to the women in the white house.
Claudine arrived in pale lavender. Maw admired Claudine’s red hair, the Irish in her still new and glistening, not tarnished to the ashen pewter sadness of most of Lynchburg’s white people. Claudine had no tarnish yet. She was young and new. Maw knew the penny had fallen into the muck, but she could retrieve it yet, and burnish it to orange on her hem. For three months the two of them would lean together, grey hair mingling with the red, engulfed in grins at the titillating jokes Claudine would tell after her laudanum—the exploits of a woman in Richmond, a European woman whose fingernails were long as garter snakes, who wore six red lacquer sticks in her hair- like this! And Claudine stuck young firm beans into Maw’s dirty bun. The woman had lovers and didn’t marry, not a one of them: at Maw’s age of forty she took in a boy not over fifteen and offered no excuses. She gave dinner parties and sprayed rose perfume onto the plates to give the chicken taste. Maw listened with ears pricked up eager as baby corn.
Her own husband long since whored out and gone, her own two grown daughters harsh and garrisoned against her, but this sweet new creature come for healing – Maw swaddled Claudine in an attentive rapture. At night she dreamed of lavender men with roses for eyes and blue delphinium rising up long and stout between their legs, Claudine feeding them to Maw with tea in the afternoon. They tasted of love, like powdered honey and orange blossoms. Maw would wake smiling, laughing at herself, and go check on Claudine. Was she resting comfortably? Had she heard the one about the girl in the forest, who bent down to grasp what she thought was the tip of a mushroom?
Who had been the one to bear the bruised-skin baby? Surely it had been Maw. They had discussed the matter together until Maw knew the texture of the dead baby’s skin as well as she knew the back of her own teeth. Maw looked younger every day, fuller, more handsome. Years dropped away when she wore Claudine’s lavender dress. Her hands no longer ached—she missed the child, but she could have another, soon enough. It had been Maw’s bruised baby, it had been Maw’s sweet natured husband, hadn’t it, who had seen the swamp overtaking her and had rushed strong and proud to care for her so honorably, so attentively—with such love—
In March, Maw declares Claudine a cure and it’s a jubilee: mint muddled with a wooden spoon, and they take a hammer to a block of ice even with the brown paper wrapper still on it. Take it down to nothing – it’s a great day, a special number day. They cheer the day and the month and the year, find the good book verse for it and run their fingers all over the faces of the words until the block’s all gone and the brown paper sits there empty in the bucket, the skin of some thing left behind.
The husband come along in April to retrieve his wife, her skin plumped out and pinker now, a ripe shine to her eyes and no grey lichen sucking at her features. He still very much in love. Maw found the two of them together in the washroom, Claudine pressed against the old zinc tub with her ruby-centered breasts exposed and sparkling in the sunlight. Another baby would come to pass, Claudine was sure of it. She had two small pearl earrings now, a gift from her husband. To Maw they looked like eyes without pupils staring back, triumphant, at her. We will watch over her now, they said blindly, we do not need you any longer.
Whitey and Sweet Marie greet their mother quiet, as if she had been gone from them for some time, and might still be a mirage. The girls pass the mashed potatoes to their Maw. They set the gravy tureen at her right side and rise up quietly to refill the salt seller. Their fingers gone soft around their water glasses, just resting there, as though a sudden move would send the familiar away again. They talk to each other softly, and whisper their replies, and let the conversation spread out and drift, letting their words trail moss-like behind their Maw as she gets up from the table and slowly leaves the room, carries herself up the stairs, down the hall, and into her bedroom. The girls say nothing now, as they hear her heavy body settle hard into the bed above.
The next day is what they crave. When everybody wakes and in that first long breath of remembering waits just long enough to realize there’s one less miracle left in the hopper for them, now that the angels stopped to listen and passed on.
Published in drunken boat