by Tory Hoke
Listen to this story — read by the author
Now’s the time to leave Ma and brother George to their evening habits, their smoke and arguments. It’s a wonder they find anything to argue over. With their high round cheeks and narrow eyes, they’re alike as kernels on a cob.
Sal’s twelve now, nearly thirteen, and she knows their rhythm well enough to dance by.
But suddenly Ma’s on her feet and banging cupboard doors. Sal rises from the table. She can maybe slip away before it starts.
“Where is it?” Ma barks.
“Answer me,” says Ma, trained fast on Sal. George hop-skip-disappears to his room.
“Where’s what?” asks Sal.
“The jar, the jar.”
“You know very well what jar!” Ma spears an arc with her finger. “Sit!”
Ma flutters her hands and rattles the cabin windows. Ungrateful comes out, and selfish. Sal sits fixed as if nailed to the table, blood washing through her skull, drowning out her thoughts.
“I know what goes on in that little mind,” Ma says. “You’re a sneak, like your father.”
“But I didn’t—”
Ma bangs her hand on the table. The dishes jump. Sal, too.
“I won’t be lied to in my own house,” says Ma.
Sal drops her eyes. Through the gap in the bedroom door, George swigs the last of the whiskey jar to steady himself. Golden boy. He presses a finger to his lips, but Sal pipes up.
“George has it,” she says.
George’s face goes ghostly.
Ma backhands Sal off the bench. Sal falls hard on her shoulder, a tangle of bony limbs. She cradles her stinging face.
“Don’t you dare accuse your brother,” says Ma. “I won’t hear it.” She touches her own chest. “My own daughter,” she says to no one. “Didn’t I do everything for her? I bled for weeks when she was born.” She turns to Sal. “Go. I don’t want to look at you.”
The spell breaks. Sal staggers up, bumping the bench.
“Careful with my furniture.”
Sal pulls on coat and boots and goes the only place left — the night.
Overhead, January cracks its knuckles. Snow hushes the field. Sal’s breath hangs on the air in woolly burrs. She crunches a fast ragged trail over dead corn rows to the woods. She can maybe get there before the crying starts.
She doesn’t. She runs, cracking back branches, face so hot it steams.
“I was telling the truth. I was.”
She thinks no one can hear. But her grief has called to the Narrows, and it is calling back.
Like an angler the Narrows reels in the earth underneath her. If she looks behind, she’ll see her white footprints slide sideways, sketching an inexplicable curve as the Narrows draws her north, further north than she ever means to go.
When Sal hears the creek, she thinks she’s come to the Two-Pony Bridge, the lovers’ bench, the soothing purr of nature under man’s adjudicating hand. But she breaks through the spinney and sees a wild place.
Below a three-foot drop, the creek is frozen tight. Hardly a man’s wingspan separates the banks. During spring thaw the creek overruns and goes glassy on top, looking shallow and friendly. It eats a half-dozen blameless strangers a year.
Father warned her plenty before he left. “Stay out of the Narrows,” he said. “The calmer it looks, the faster it’s running.”
It doesn’t look dangerous. It looks inviting. Private. Seems as good a place as any to rest.
Sal spies a shelter of chinquapin oak roots draping down the far bank like a canopy over posts — like the fancy bed Father used to promise her. It looks safe and inviting. She clambers down. Carefully, in her smooth boots, she skates to them and crawls inside. After the run and the cold and the tears, the Narrows is so still she can hear her heart.
She tightens her collar around her neck and strains her eyes to study the creek. Moonlight glints bride-white on the ice. The tall banks zig-zag out of sight. The roots look animal, grasping and mounting.
That little one even looks like a man’s hand.
Sal squints at it. Her belly loses its footing.
It really does.
She stands and skates to it.
It can’t be.
Sal recoils. He’s frozen under a foot of pewter-blue ice. Like the hand, his left leg sprouts free, as if the creek caught him tumbling. She stoops and dusts the snow from his figure — a young man, finely dressed, one arm thrown over his head. His pale eyes bulge. One eyelid is split from lash to socket. A gash marks his throat from ear to Adam’s apple.
Sal glances upstream. He came from the Culvert Bridge, probably. A robbery? Then why does he still have his boots?
He was probably beautiful before. Sculpted jaw. Fine, tapered nose. Sal chooses to see him that way.
She crouches for a better look. Her face is inches from his, closer than she’s ever been to a strange man. What does she have to be afraid of? She’s been closer than this to shy Mr. Richland. Rakish Mr. Cavanaugh. And weren’t they kind and tender? Weren’t they more gentle than even her family?
On impulse, she stretches belly-down on the body. The cold shocks through her clothes, but it soothes her bruised shoulder. Her cheek. She shifts so his jutting hand cups her waist.
His touch is so gentle. It’s better than she imagined.
She feels warm inside.
She shifts again into his hand, and her foot bumps his boot. It jingles.
Surprised, she toes the boot again. Another jingle.
There’s something in there. Something heavy.
She works the leather off his rigid foot, back and forth, careful not to snap his toes. The boot pops off. Ten coins clatter. As she picks them up, their weight feels like they’re pressing themselves into her hand. Each coin has a face with a woman’s profile in a circle of stars. On the reverse, an eagle and the word twenty.
Two hundred dollars in her hands.
Two hundred is a horse. An ox. A year of whiskey. So much money frightens her. She stares at the coins.
Patient, silent, the Narrows waits for her answer.
It’s bizarre to feel her sense return. She’s only had it driven from her; she’s never seen the moment it comes back.
Ten coins is a fortune, but one could be a token. One could be a gift from a lover.
She asks the body, “Would one be all right?”
She takes his silence for agreement.
One coin slips in her apron pocket. The other nine slip home in the boot. She works it back onto his foot.
She kisses his cheek through the ice. Then, because there’s no reason not to, she kisses his lips. It stings.
When she gets home, the cabin is dark. Ma’s snores are the sound of safety. Sal tiptoes in, lies on the couch and double-wraps the blankets, a cocoon against the house.
She slips her hand into her pocket and presses the coin against her thigh. Her treasure. Hers alone.
• • •
Ma emerges, fresh and rosy. She casts a queen’s eye at Sal.
“Where did you get off to last night?” she asks.
“Just a walk,” says Sal.
“In this cold?” Ma shivers. “That was foolish.”
Ma helps herself to a bowl from the pot. Sal lingers at her shoulder, watching.
There are sweet times in memory: singing songs for Ma’s guests, combing Ma’s hair. Ma used to call Sal “angel” and dress her in fur. Those days are long gone now, but their perfume remains, so strong sometimes it burns the senses.
“Is my son up?” asks Ma.
“I don’t think so.”
Ma goes to George’s room and opens without knocking.
“George! Time to wake up.”
“Breakfast is ready,” she says.
He mumbles something else. Ma clangs shut the door.
Sal moves the pot to the hearth. It’s her job, but the pot is too heavy. It’s always too heavy. The ladle juts up from the hominy and threatens to tumble. As Sal pitches forward to catch it, silhouetted by the window, the coin plumbs her apron skirt and clanks against the pot.
Sal straightens at once and looks at Ma sideways. Did she see? Did she hear?
Ma smiles, wide-eyed like a child. “What’s in your pocket, sweet?”
Sal looks down as if she doesn’t know herself. No story springs to mind.
“A coin?” says Sal.
Ma frowns and Sal’s knees jelly.
“What kind of coin?” asks Ma, but it doesn’t sound like a question. She puts out her hand. “Let’s see it.”
Sal stands rooted. Ma’s hand dives in her apron pocket and finds it. They both stare. In the morning light, the coin glitters copper-gold.
The look in Ma’s eyes makes Sal’s heart pound.
“Where did you get this?”
A match strikes in Sal’s heart. She won’t betray her love. She’d rather be smacked to the floor again than let her love be found.
But she’d rather not be smacked at all, if she can help it.
Sal manages to turn her head to the yard. There must be something here. Something to save her. She peers outside at the empty corn rows.
“The field,” says Sal.
Ma grabs her by the wrist and gives her a sharp jerk. “Show me.”
Sal’s imagination fires. Time stretches out. Each step down the porch lasts an age. She wanders the parlor of her mind again. Spurned Mr. Cavanaugh still kisses her hand. He helps her write a story for the coin. It seems every bit as likely as the truth.
Perhaps she really is a sneak.
Ma releases her. Sal walks with conviction to the third row, three yards down. She finds a divot torn by last night’s footprints.
“Here,” she says.
Ma comes and stares at the ripped earth. She looks at the coin on her palm. She looks at her daughter, steady and serene. It’s hard to believe. But she has no other explanation. This one must suffice.
“When?” she asks.
“Last night,” says Sal.
“George!” Ma shouts at the house. “George, get out here and help me this instant.”
George shuffles and groans, but he appears in the doorway in seconds. He’s not so prized he can’t be slaughtered, too.
“Get a shovel,” Ma says. “Hurry up.” To Sal, in a rabbit fur voice, she says, “You should have told me right away. Now run along. See if Lily Mead can play.”
Ma forgets Lily Mead is George’s age. Last summer she married a naval stores merchant who took her to Wilmington. Sal saw him once. Mr. Walter was beautiful, with mink eyebrows and fine straight teeth, but still not as beautiful as her love in the ice.
Her love in the ice needs a name.
“I’m going down to the creek, Ma,” says Sal.
“That’s fine.” Ma doesn’t look up from her digging. “Don’t be late for supper.”
Sal takes care going to him this time; in daylight, she may be seen. She may even be followed. Blanket on shoulders, she pads through the woods, kicking snow on her muddy tracks. Today is warmer. Ice melts from the trees and patters like rain.
The Narrows calls her clearly, and it sounds like the voice of her love. She knows where to go. She bends her own footsteps this time.
He’s no easier to find in the daytime. The wind shifts shadows and hurts the eyes. His hand still looks like a root. His leg still looks like a branch. But Sal knows him now.
She checks behind her. No one else. No voices. No footfalls. Only dripping branches and the trill of a Dark-eyed Junco.
Satisfied, she eases down the bank to the milky ice. She bundles in the blanket and lies down beside her love. The blanket sops the veneer of melt.
Again she puts her head next to his. Again she shifts her body into the rigid cup of his hand. The ice blurs the details of his mutilated face. She sees only the face in her imagination, the one with bright blue eyes and an easy smile.
She’ll call him William.
She presses her cheek to the ice. It bites, but no bite stings forever. It’s a small price to be so close to the arms of comfort.
A warm sensation washes through her. It makes her feel brave.
The sun drops low enough to throw a glare. It makes William hard to see. When she lifts her head, she finds a saucer-sized hollow underneath.
She hears the voice that must be William’s.
Take another coin, he says.
“My sweet William,” says Sal. “You’re too generous. I should never have let Ma take the first one.”
She stole it. You deserve your own.
The damp boot squeaks and her fingers won’t bend, but she manages. She takes one and replaces eight. Aching, Sal kisses the half-inch of ice over William’s lips and hobbles the sinking snowbank for home.
Her joints are too stiff to slip the coin into her pocket. She keeps it in her hand, and it bounds around the cage of her fingers like it wants to be free.
She finds Ma and George in the cornfield, digging and cussing. Ma has the shovel. George has the pick. Mud mottles Ma’s skirts to the knee.
“Here she is,” says George. He leans on his pick and sucks swollen fingers.
Ma’s on Sal in a second. “You expect me to believe one coin got lost here?” says Ma.
Sal’s knees lock and she starts to shake.
“A purse gets dropped,” hisses Ma. “Treasure gets buried. But never in the course of history did one gold coin get lost by itself.”
Ma’s hand launches for Sal, but she dodges.
“Don’t run from me,” says Ma, advancing.
Over the roar in her head, Sal hears what must be William.
Dance with me, he says.
Hot energy shoots through Sal’s legs. She dances backward. Ma’s hand swipes air.
“You’re not looking properly,” says Sal. “Look. There’s one right there.” She points with her empty hand.
“Where?” asks Ma. She and George follow Sal’s gaze to a bare cracked welt of earth between the rows. Sal dances again and drops the coin, treads on it, circles and points to the place where it fell, so smoothly, so well it must have always been there.
Ma and George follow her gaze to the glint of it. Ma shoves George aside. Sal keeps dancing away.
“I just looked there,” says George.
“Not hard enough,” says Ma. She scoops the coin. “How did you find it?”
“I don’t know,” says Sal. “It was just there.”
George searches the ground for more. He and Ma argue. His voice sounds small. Sal feels pity, but it passes.
Sal goes inside. She hangs her wet blanket and takes a dry one from George’s bed. She serves herself grits and salted pork. Let those two stay outside. The house is Sal’s now.
She dozes by the hearth and dreams of dancing with William across a marble floor. George and Ma come and go, planning and debating. They take no note of her.
It’s well after dark when they come home for good. They slop through the sitting room. Sal pretends sleep. They both reek of whiskey and wet tobacco.
Ma wears a coat trimmed in red fox. George wears gleaming boots.
Sal wads herself under the hearth bench to stay hid. Ma bangs around cupboard doors.
“Nothing to eat in this damned house,” she says.
“Tomorrow,” says George as he falls into bed. He snores through the open door.
Ma drops her bag on the kitchen table. Silver coins jangle out. Sal watches with sorrow. The gold ones are long gone.
Ma goes to bed without a word.
Again at dawn Sal rises, gathers, fetches and cooks. The day is unnaturally warm, almost warm as summer. When she hears Ma’s first morning cough, Sal yanks on boots and coat and runs outside before anyone can follow.
Come to me, says William.
But there’s a man in the field — a big hairy one on a sorrel horse. He wears his hat drawn low and his scarf drawn up and a rifle across his knees. His open coat lets his belly heat out.
“Mornin’,” he says.
“Mornin’,” says Sal.
“Where’s your Ma, little girl?”
Sal freezes. She sees another man, younger, all knobby, ride out on a bay from the copse out back. He sees Sal and draws his scarf, too. He has a rifle of his own.
“Where she keep the rest of that money?” asks the knobby man.
Sal thinks she should be afraid, but she doesn’t feel frozen. Her heart isn’t drumming the way Ma makes it do.
“Can you speak, child?” asks the hairy man.
“Asleep,” says Sal. Her cheek aches from a day on the ice, and the truth feels funny passing through it.
The hairy man smiles. “And your brother?”
“Surprise,” says the knobby one.
They stare at Sal. The horses shift and let out long sighs. Snow melt drips from the trees.
The hairy one taps his rifle.
Run. Run now.
The spell breaks. She runs north over mud and snow in exaggerated strides. Behind her the men laugh.
She runs as fast as she can. Sloppy wet earth trips and drops her. The closer to the creek, the louder the dripping until it builds to a rush like the heart of the earth is torn and leaking.
She runs for the Narrows. For William. He’s calling!
Sal spots him. Spring water flows over the ice and excavates him, showing his hand to the wrist now, his leg to the hip, his nose to the bridge.
The ice creaks and sings. William is leaving.
She slips down the bank on her hands and knees. The frigid creek makes her gasp. She slides close to William. Under the ice, the current whips his clothes and tousles his hair. His free leg jostles its frame of squeaking ice.
“Don’t leave me, William.”
She grips his hand and stretches her body above him. She presses her lips on his, their first kiss.
The ice snaps. William’s bed flips, plunging Sal into water. The cold and speed of it blind her. Now William is on top, silhouetted in ice. She scrabbles at him. Trapped. Drowning. They hurtle downstream.
Her love. Her only love.
But not her life.
Her mind snaps taut. She shoves against William with all her power, driving herself down, banging her head on the stony creek bed. Her limbs go dead. The current flips her face-down. Time grinds to a stop. For the first time, Sal sees how deep the water goes.
There is no bottom to the Narrows. Sheer creek walls drop into nothing. A thousand yards below, fishy things drift by with anvil heads and eel tails and probing tentacles. The fronds of pale feathered river plants fumble over each other as far as Sal can see. Suddenly she recognizes them — arms, countless human arms in their final frantic moments.
Nature didn’t make the Narrows. Something monstrous did. Time plunged into the world and broke the maidenhead of reality.
Madness opens its maw to swallow her. She fights back, flailing life into her limbs.
She kicks hard at the bank. Breaks the surface. Sucks one lungful of air. A chunk of ice bashes her shoulder and puts out the light in her arm. She kicks again. Flings her good arm. Snags a thick root.
Sal makes a fist. Her wrist catches, yanks her shoulder from its socket, but she holds firm. With one dead arm she drags herself up the root, the bank, the trunk, where there is plenty of air, all that she needs.
Here she gasps and shivers and peers downstream, looking for William. Even with eyes cloudy and streaming, she sees enough to know he’s gone. And she’s on the wrong bank now, a two-mile walk from home instead of one.
So she cries. She lies on her back and wails. Juncos burst from the trees, wings beating like applause.
The Narrows wants her still. The creek creeps up the bank, mouthing her foot, ready to bite.
Water fills Sal’s boot and jolts her. She struggles up under soggy coat and dress. The Narrows rages. Out of the water, a tangle of human arms surges after her. Stinking, flailing, fish-belly white, they slap onto Sal and drag. Her body bangs on the rocks. She shrieks and kicks. The hands catch her coat. She squirms out of it, screaming, and runs. Behind her the snaking arms claw the earth. Sal runs for her life and doesn’t look back till she reaches the Two-Pony Bridge.
There she falls and sobs and sweats. She shivers too hard to walk straight. Her mind is an empty eggshell, cracked and drained.
“It wasn’t real,” she tells the Narrows. “It couldn’t have been.”
But her coat is missing and nothing else explains why.
She has to get far away from here. She’ll run. She’ll steal into the home cabin, take a blanket, change of clothes. She’ll slip onto a train and ride to Wilmington and ask Lily Mead to take her. She can earn her keep. She can cook and clean. The more she thinks, the sharper the picture becomes. It’s as real as anything she knows.
She doesn’t see the men in her field until she breaks the tree line.
The riders from before? No. Different. And more of them. These men have rifles and horses, too, but clean hats. Shiny boots. One wears a short coat like a banker. On the man next to him, she recognizes the thick neck and silver star: Sheriff Lee. He paces the field with his thumbs in his belt loops.
Only then does Sal notice the cabin is gone. In its blackened brick foundation, only a heap of ash and broken glass remains.
A deputy walks through the wreckage and strikes a match for his cigarette.
The man in the banker coat turns.
Older, somehow, with glasses and mustache, but there’s no doubt it’s him. The cold and ache and weight disappear from Sal’s shoulders. She runs to him.
The sheriff sees Sal running and gestures to his men. They cluster between Sal and the cabin.
But Sal doesn’t care about the cabin. She arrows for the banker and pitches her arms around his waist.
The banker lifts his arms away, uncertain.
Doesn’t he recognize her? She puts her chin on his chest and gazes into his face. He’s as handsome as ever. Was he always so old, though? Were his eyes always brown?
“Sal,” says Sheriff Lee. He pries at her arms, but she won’t let go.
“She’s soaking wet,” says old William, his voice higher than she expected.
“Sarah Jane Carver, where you been?” asks the sheriff. He catches Sal’s wrists and unthreads the banker, who skips away, pulling at his damp clothes. Sal frees an arm and reaches for him again.
“You know her, Mister Dufrain?” the sheriff asks.
“Lord, no,” says the banker. “I just set foot in the county this morning.”
“That’s not true,” says Sal. “You been here for days and days. How can you lie? I thought I lost you.”
The banker snorts and cusses.
Sheriff Lee thinks on this. “Lost him where?”
“In the Narrows,” says Sal.
The sheriff and the banker exchange glances. Sal reaches for old William again, but he recoils.
“Why don’t you want me?” she asks. “What happened?”
She finally looks around her. At the edge of the cornfield, the last shroud of snow sparkles with red. William brought her one last treasure.
“William,” she says. She spins and breaks out of the sheriff’s grip. “They’re beautiful.”
Bewildered, the men watch Sal run to the crest of snow and scoop spattered red in her hands.
“Rubies,” says Sal. “Thank you.”
But they smear to rouge. They can’t be rubies.
The men tighten their circle. Putting a hand on Sal’s shoulder, Sheriff Lee gestures to a deputy, who saddles up with the banker and rides out.
“Where are they going?” asks Sal.
“Mister Dufrain’s son is missing,” says the sheriff. His voice is sweet and soft. “We think you found him.”
“Oh,” says Sal. “Oh.” Her eyes fill up. It was too wild a hope.
“Sal, your brother is hurt, and your Ma is missing. Do you know where she is?”
“Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll find her.”
“Please don’t,” says Sal.
Her words hang in the air. Sheriff Lee studies her swollen face, her torn clothes, her cracked and bleeding hands.
“What happened, Sal?” he asks.
“Don’t make me go back to her, sheriff. I’d rather drown in the Narrows.”
• • •
George Carver recovers. Bedside, Sheriff Lee takes down George’s account of the robbery, the struggle, the fire, the two armed men on horseback who refused to believe there was no more gold. The sheriff wires their descriptions to every county in the state, but the men don’t turn up.
The gunshot wounds leave George a dimpled belly and a stiff leg, but he’s able enough to pick fruit at Chester Farm by spring.
Sal asks to go to Wilmington. There’s nowhere else to send her, so arrangements are made. Mr. Dufrain volunteers to pay for Sal’s train. He asks the sheriff to pass on his sympathy and thanks, but he declines to see her again.
Moved with compassion, Lily Walter née Mead gladly takes Sal in. The Walters’ kindness expands their reputation. Under their gabled roof, Sal cooks and crochets and secures a gentle future.
She grows two inches that summer, to everyone’s surprise.
No one rattles the windows in Lily’s house.
Wilmington winters are milder. Sal slips out of her new lovely lamplit home and goes walking to the water, walking until her feet are numb and her lips are lavender.
She wonders if anything lives in Cowpen Branch or Tony’s Creek.
The Thing in the Narrows is always calling. It whispers to her in Ma’s voice.
Come back, it says. Let me hold you again.
She shakes her head and tries to live like the others do, one morning at a time, one step away from deep waters.
© 2013 Tory Hoke, all rights reserved