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Swan: A Novelby Frances Mayes
J. J. stood on the end of the dock, feeling as if the four pilings might rip loose in the current and send him rafting. But the dock held. He loved the smell of rivers. In July heat, in wavy air, in the throbbing of cicadas, in the first light on the river, he was what he would call happy. A full moon angled down between pines, casting a spiraling silver rope across the curve of the water. He watched the light, flicking through his mind for words to describe it. Luminous, flashing. Ordinary. The light seemed liquid, alive, annealed to the water, too changeable for any word. The river rode high after two storms. A cloud of gnats swarmed his foot, then moved as a single body over a swirl in the current. He stepped out of his faded red bathing suit--automatically he pulled on this suit every morning when he got out of bed--and climbed down the ladder into the water. His morning libations, he called this routine. In all the good months, and sometimes in the cold ones just for sheer cussedness, he dipped himself in the river early in the morning. Near the dock he could stand on the bottom, feeling the swiftness or languidness of the current, sometimes jumping as a fish nipped at the hairs on his legs and chest. He floated for a minute, listening to water whirl around his head, letting himself be carried, then turned his body sharply and swam over to the crescent of washed-sand beach his parents had cleared years ago. From there he could walk out of the river and follow a trace covered in pine needles back to the dock. He noticed a fallen sourwood sapling, tangled with muscadine vines, and leaned to pull it out of the water. As he jerked loose the roots, a wedge of earth cleaved from the bank, spilling dirt onto his wet legs. At his feet he saw something white--a bone, a stick bleached by the sun? He waded back into the river and rinsed off.
Maybe what he glimpsed was an arrowhead. J. J. had found hundreds. He turned over the earth with his foot. There--he picked it up, blew off the dirt, and washed it. Never had he found one of these. He held a perfect bone fish spear, three inches long, with exquisitely carved barbs like a cat's claws on each side. He admired the skill--the delicate hooked end of each barb would bite into flesh while the fisherman dragged in the fish. At one end he saw slight ridges where the line was tied over and over by the Creek Indian who once fished these waters. Ginger, he thought, Ginger should see this. But his sister's green eyes were light-years away. He pawed through the dirt and pulled out other roots from the bank, but found only a smashed can. What a beauty, this small spear in the palm of his hand. He took in a breath of pine air as far as he could, the air driving out of his head the familiar surge of what felt similar to hunger and thirst. Ginger was not there, so to whom could he show his treasure? He regarded it intently for himself. He had no talent for needing someone else. He shook his hair and banged the side of his head to knock the water out of his ear. Rainy night in Georgia, he mocked himself. Last train to Clarksville.
He dressed in khaki shorts, not bothering with underwear. Six-thirty and already hot, heavily hot, steamy hot, the best weather. Nothing to eat in the refrigerator but some rice and a piece of left-over venison from a week ago, when he'd brought Julianne, the new schoolteacher from Osceola, out here. She said it was so interesting that he lived way in the woods all alone. As down-to-earth as she looked, she turned out to be afraid for her feet to touch the bottom of the river. She hung on to his back, her laugh verging toward a squeal, and he felt her soft thighs on his. She was hot to the touch, even under water. But then she couldn't eat venison because she thought of Bambi. She cooked the rice, which, as he remembered, had hard kernels at the center of the grain. Then she looked at his wild salad as though it were a cow pie. J. J. often went for days eating only greens he picked and fish he caught. He chewed slowly, watching her. If she was beautiful, as Liman MacCrea had promised, why did he think her skin looked so stretched tight across her face that it might split like a blown-up pork bladder? And eyes that close together made a person look downright miserly.
Then he rubbed his temples and looked again. A pleasant face, kind and expectant. Warm. What is she wanting? he wondered as she smiled. Then he noticed her teeth, which were ground down, like an old deer's.
"Pokeweed and lamb's-quarters? I've heard of dandelion greens before. Can you eat these? That's so interesting." She pushed the fresh, pungent greens around with her fork. With the one bite she took, grit crunched between her teeth. Something she saw in his eyes appealed to her, some waiting quality. Not just a flirt or the good ol' boy he sometimes appeared to be, he was someone to solve, she told herself as she changed into her bathing suit in his room. She looked carefully at his things, comparing her own box bedroom to his, her pink chenille spread and the prints of Degas dancers on the wall, the lace curtains and view out onto an empty street, to his crammed bookcases, twenty or more ink pens, mounted fish and deer heads, his rough Indian blanket on the bed. I have no way to reach him, she thought, and would I want to? She felt suddenly tired but practiced a big smile in the mirror, lifting her thick chestnut hair off her neck. Her teeth gleamed white and even. The new red maillot certainly showed off her Scarlett O'Hara waist. "Cherry Bomb," she whispered. Cherry Bomb had been her nickname at Sparta High, when she was Homecoming queen. But that was twelve years ago. She wished she had washed the lovely greens because she was not about to eat grit.
J. J. thought if she said "so interesting" again, he'd drive the fork through her eyes. He poured glasses of bourbon. "Let's toast your seventh-grade class who gets to spend all that time with you." She lowered her eyes with pleasure, which shamed him. Was he becoming a God damned hermit? He wondered how he would feel with her legs wrapped around him. Lost in outer space? He knew he'd find fault with Christ Almighty. She played the flute, had a degree in music education. So what if she turned freaky in the woods? Still, he had felt a tidal wave of boredom flood through him, a craving to be alone so intense that he shuddered. Although he'd expected to be driving her home at one or two in the morning, top down, a little night music, he was burning up the road at nine-thirty.
He made a pot of coffee and heated Julianne's leftover clump of bad rice with some butter. The kitchen table was littered with chert, flint, a flat stone, and two antlers. Lately, he'd tried to teach himself flintnapping, using only tools the Indians had used. He'd ordered A Guide to Flintworking and driven over to a rock shop in Dannon to buy pieces big enough to work. He wanted to make a stone knife for gutting fish, but so far he'd split a lot of stones and created a pile of waste flakes and chips. One try, by accident, actually resembled a scraper.
He held up the fish spear to the sunlight at the window, admiring the fine symmetry. Balancing coffee, bowl, and notebook, the spear held lightly between his teeth, he pushed open the kitchen door with his elbow. Yellow jackets worked the scuppernongs, and bees burrowed into the rose that sprawled among the vines, his mother's yellow rose, still blooming and her gone an eon, a suicide. He did not want to think about that. She had loved the cabin as much as he did. Her rose had long since climbed from the arbor and bolted into the trees. He placed the fish spear on a piece of white paper and opened his notebook to record his find. July 7, he wrote. The early sun through the grape arbor cast mottled light onto the table. He might love the light at the cabin even more than the water, but no, they were inseparable. The emerald longleaf pines tinted the light at all hours, casting a blue aura early and late, and in full sun softened the hard edges of objects. He moved the paper into a splotch of sun. The bone looked like ivory. First he measured the length, then in light pencil carefully he started to draw. What kind of bone, he wondered, maybe boar, maybe beaver. How long would it have taken the Indian to carve it?
He quickly went over his lines in black with his Rapidograph. Drawing, he thought, never captures the thing itself. At least mine doesn't. Maybe Leonardo da Vinci could get this right. But Leonardo never heard of the Creeks, or of the belly of the beast, south Georgia. Easy to get the likeness. The unlikeness is what's hard. Where the object ends and everything around it begins, that's the impossible part to negotiate. He held up the spear and turned it around. He decided to look at it under his father's microscope. He might find a speck of blood from the fish that swam away with the spear in its side. Too bad Ginger's not here, he thought. She ought to see this.
ginger crouched in the hip bath, running the nozzle over her dusty body. Her damp field trousers and shirt heaped on the floor seemed to exude more dust. She bathed fast. This far into the Tuscan summer, the well might go dry, leaving her to cook and sponge off with bottled water until a rain came, raising the water table again. She slipped into the hot cerise dress with straps she'd bought at the Saturday market in Monte Sant'Egidio, thinking, I'm thin again. Marco will like this dress. She allowed herself to think of the pleasure of his hand on her back, guiding her across the piazza. His Italian hand. She loved his foreignness. She sucked in her breath. Lithe, she thought. Amazing what miracles a few months of digging and hauling can accomplish. She changed the sheets, boxed the pillows, stacked her books neatly on the bedside table. Stuffing her nightgown and robe in a drawer, she stopped in midgesture. A memory hit her of Mitchell, whom she'd married at twenty-four. Mitchell in bed, reading Time, all scrubbed and expectant in pressed boxers. For most of their three years together, he spent his nights waiting while Ginger outwaited him downstairs, reading or listening to music until he dozed off and she crept to bed, carefully lifting the magazine off his chest and turning out his light. What was it? she asked herself. Not him. When they dated, she'd thought she would fall into his love, his certainty; she would begin to feel something. She would sit, crawl, walk. She would be like everyone else with a silver pattern, a honeymoon in Nassau, a foil card of birth control pills, curtains to choose, recipes. Mitchell was so fine, she thought, patient. Anytime he walked in a door, she'd been happy to see him. What a disaster.
Her hometown, Swan, would talk for years, and still, about Ginger not coming downstairs on her wedding day. At first she'd been just late, then Jeannie Boardman sat down at the organ they'd trucked in for the day and began to play "Clair de Lune" and "Moonlight Sonata." Finally, Aunt Lily, after throwing a hissy fit outside Ginger's locked bedroom door, had served the champagne, puffs filled with crab salad, cheese straws, platters of macaroons and ladyfingers. The guests had eaten with appetites piqued by the shock of Lily announcing that Ginger was not feeling well and we should all enjoy ourselves.
Secretly, Ginger had looked down on the garden through the veil of curtains at all of them, whispering and laughing. The ice swan centerpiece with rose petals frozen inside, a local tradition, melted and lurched against the side of the punch bowl. She wished she could touch her tongue to its cold beak. She'd wanted to be radiant, a laughing bride stepping out of her grandfather's house into a bright future. She'd wanted to climb onto the roof and fly down on them. Wanted this not to be happening. She wanted her mother undead, her father restored to himself. She wanted Mitchell not to feel misery and humiliation. She could not go. She could not have. It had not been a decision but a state of being.
Later, J. J. had reported that their cook, Tessie, washing glasses in the kitchen, hummed "I Come to the Garden Alone" to herself as a way to keep calm but every few minutes muttered, "Those chillin, those chillin." Tessie had worked for Catherine and Wills Mason ever since Ginger was a baby, then for Lily ever since the children moved to the House. When J. J. had made a foray into the kitchen for a shot of bourbon, he'd heard her low singing--and he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own--as she held up each glass to the window, checking for lip prints. The lowering afternoon sun reflected bright rainbow circles onto her black uniform and her dark face.
"Hail, Tessie," J. J. had toasted her. "Another memorable afternoon at the Mason patch." He'd left his dinner jacket somewhere and had pulled open his collar. She watched him pour the shot of bourbon straight down his throat, just like his daddy used to after their mama died. The corners of her lips pulled down and she turned on the hot water full force.
Mitchell and his parents had secluded themselves in the living room, where his mother quietly cursed the day he'd ever brought Ginger into their home, and didn't he know Pattie Martin, who'd always been crazy about him, would not have pulled a stunt like this in a million years?
Caroline Culpepper, Ginger's maid of honor, had talked softly at the door, but Ginger had only said, "I'm sorry, Caroline, but you might as well go on home." Not even J. J. could get Ginger to unlock her door until the last guests drove away. When she did, her dress lay in a jumble on the floor, and the satin shoes, akimbo in different corners of the room, evidently had been tossed at the wall. She looked splotched and ugly sitting on the floor with her knees drawn up. She'd gotten only as far as putting on her underwear and the garter that was supposed to have been tossed to the groomsmen. She stretched out her leg and ripped off the puckered blue elastic. J. J. just stood in the doorway, shaking his head. "Well, now you've done it," he said.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2002 by Frances Mayes
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