Until planets slip their tracks / 1st in 2010/11 Competition

Until planets slip their tracks
by Joanna Campbell

Nate knew how to hypnotise a chicken. But he knew next to nothing about me. Didn't matter none when we were growing up in Stone Gap. Still had the same old dirt in our dungarees nigh on every day. Long dusty summers never ended. But only I knew how I loved the bones of that boy.

Our classmates whooped when Nate laid the chick in the dirt, holding its thin feet firm in one hand. Mouths wide, they watched his finger trace a line in the earth, straight from the beak. The bird's beady eye followed the course of Nate's line like it was leading him to Heaven. Twenty full seconds it was down there in a trance.

All I recall is how tender Nate held it, his fingers curved around the frail wings before he let it free.

Me and Nate had a baby, but we didn't know a thing about that. Just saw I was looking bonny and kind of ripe in the months after the rains.

"Have to shelter us in the cow-shed, is all," Nate had said. And I swear he had no notion in his head but keeping our hides dry. Our clothes steamed in the straw while our bodies took charge of one another.

He didn't know he was in my head all the time. When we were playing out together or running errands to Hardwick's Mercantile, he didn't know I was thanking God in Heaven for my friend Nate. When he found the tender side of his self one June day by the lake, making may-apple flower chains to lace round my neck, I paid no heed to the twisting ways of my heart. It would always feel that way. And I just prayed Nate would feel it when we were grown.

Nate could swim in winter waters. He stripped and dove in, long white body scoring through the blank lake. Used to cut right in there with him when I was a little child.

But when we were fifteen and the baby inside began to show, my shame grew right along there with it. My swaying belly weren't fit to be seen naked.

"Get in that water, girl," Nate said. "I like it."

He held out his hand and I went in. The cold lake lapped over the little mound. Nate wrapped his fingers round it. He was the first of us to feel the baby squirm.

Never swam after the birthing. I missed the quickening of new life in my soul. And the love burning through the shame. And I was lost after the baby was buried. Fit for nothing. If I'd stepped into that water, I'd have kept right on walking in deeper and deeper to the middle, until my head was under and my memories soaked through.

Nate knew the stars. He had a connection with them, like he was in a book, a magic-boy with a string binding him to the Milky Way.

Some nights we lay on the wet grass by the lake and drifted up there. The sky came right down low above our eyes. The more we stared with no blinking, the more stars we could see. Like they were fire-spiders pulling us up inside their web, weaving us into their blue nets full of light. I was less off-course on those nights with Nate. I felt found again.

On our last day of school, we roamed our best places until dark, feet bare and holding hands. Nate rolled up his certificate like a telescope.

"I can see for freakin' miles," he said. His voice was rasping with hopes. And I could feel a tremble in his thigh against mine. Starred nights were Nate's favourite time.

"I can think straight. See a path."

That's what he always said. His destiny wouldn't be at the coal-face always. He knew it and so did I.

Never wanted nothing more than to walk that path with Nate. Never did say it though. Had no right to push myself on someone with a brain and a dream and a path.

And that's why Nate knew nothing about me. He could read the stars. He could bewitch a chicken. But shutters were latched on my thoughts. No folk allowed there. Not even Nate.

All the lake days and waist-high cornfield days and blue-star nights went away when school finished.

"Get that broom sweeping, Carrie. Don't pay you for thinking, do I?"

That's what Aunt Lawrence always says. She thinks I'm lucky to have work. Lucky my folk didn't kill me when they saw my little baby, blue in the bedclothes. She puts the mop in my hand before I'm up her steps. Before I'm level with the stone lion by her door. Thrusts it at me like I'm wild boar rampaging on her dandy lawn.

That's my life. A circle, it is. Day begins in the old chicken-house in back of Aunt Lawrence's. Round to her door, my head hanging low in gratitude. The two mile track up to my old school to boil dinners. Down the other side of the valley to Hardwick's to bruise my knees wiping the butchery floor at the tail-end of a day's slaughter.

Hardwick likes me using rags, watches from behind while I'm down there, backside in the air. Sassy Clements works on confectionary by the window. Other end from me. You need clean pig-tails and white petticoats for that. Hardwick gave her a straw hat with silk ribbons. 'Hershey's Milk Chocolate Kisses' is what's printed in pink on the brim.

She gives me a hard smile when she finishes for the day. Bites off the head of a sugar mouse. Pitches the hat on a hook behind her counter. I watch it swing after she skips out the door, the shop bell jangling long after she's gone.

Now we're grown, I strive to get a glimpse of Nate. When I stand up to rinse the bloodied cloths, I see him pass by. A flash of his moon-lit yellow hair on winter nights as he strides home from the coal-face. A dark blur of wide woollen shoulders when the fog comes down.

In summer I see more. The air is sweeter. Coal dust like black powdered sugar frosts the hedge-rows. And he looks in and waves. Sassy spins round and waves back. Looks at me with triumph blaring from her pebbly eyes. But, sure as slow-worms, that wave of his is meant for me.

One day he goes by clean. His face is peach-skin, like when we were kids. Sassy rustles her Baby Ruth candy bars and nestles them in a box. She turns to blow him a kiss. And he smiles at her. Then at me. It's a sorry smile.

I never had a sorry from no one before. And it means he knows. He must have cranked open those shutters of mine without me realising. One of those times by the lake where skunk-cabbage and squirrel-corn brawl over the moist earth, leaves lolloping all over. One of those times when we looked into each other and Stone Gap all but disappeared. Alls I knew was how deep I loved him. And he must have known it too. I can tell now by his sad smile and by his eyes travelling in sorrow over Sassy's white apron.

Sitting in my coop that night, I heard the overgrown grass whisper. Still knew his tread. He came in there and smoothed the hair from where it fixed wet to my cheeks. He kissed both my eyelids. His lips left a print only I can ever feel. Then he took my hand and we went out together for the last time.

"We can have us a marriage ceremony right here. One that the good Lord won't see, sorry to tell. Private for just you and me," he told me.

So down we went to the edge of the lake and let the sky be our witness and the screech-owl our preacher. This was just how the first wedding in the world must have been. Nate said he'd love me even when the planets slipped their tracks.

And he fashioned a bit of old metal into a circle that fitted my finger fine as any ring from Fancy Goods. And we looked way out over the glass surface of the water that was begging to be broken by our bare bodies.

"That sure as God is perfect," Nate said, eyes on me.

I began to pull off my dress. He stopped me with his hand, gentle on mine.

"Best keep it that way," he said, looking to the horizon that marked the endless beginning of his journey. A firm faraway line separating the smooth water and the endless reach of the sky.

And that was where our marriage had to end.

His wedding to Sassy took place next day in a cloud of rice. Day after that, he became Teller in her Pa's bank. The baby was coming by Christmas. He had his path laid out neat, did Nate.

And I stayed under his spell. Always will. Said 'I do' and meant it. Just the same as Sassy meant it when she spoke the same words in her lace gown and orange blossoms.

Cleaning, boiling, toiling, kneeling. Round in a circle like a chicken in the yard and back to the coop every day. Sundays tending our baby's little spot under the lime trees, shady side of Stone Gap church-yard. Thinking how my Nate out there in the city knew me all the time. Wearing my wedding ring 'til the planets slip their tracks.

© Joanna Campbell, 2011

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Beautifully controlled and paced. Very moving and the author gives a strong sense of place, a worthy winner.

trish leake said...

your story takes my breath away. you led us into the characters slowly and with subtlety. well done, you.

Ray Girvan said...

This is a beautiful and poignant story. I keep on thinking of fantasy castings for a film version: Nate is Ethan Hawke at 20, Carrie is Sissy Spacek at 18.