Great Grandfather Elijah paced the halls of the South Carolina state hospital demented and brain damaged from a hammer to the head. Though it is said he suffered from visions long before that, wandering the woods after midnight, knocking on strangers doors, insisting they fall with him on their knees to pray.
After he died he sprouted many arms and grew into a great oak tree in our backyard. Some limbs leaned with arthritic heaviness toward the ground for support and others reached high above like they were touching God. From a lower limb we hung a swing whose back and forth gouged out deep gashes but Elijah took it like a man. He had other plans; each time I swung, the chains turned my palm lines red with rust the color of dried blood; Elijah imprinting his DNA.
As a small girl, I slept beneath him in the months of June, July and August, mistaking the warm air caught beneath his breadth for love.
But you see, Elijah was mean, even as a tree. He found unfathomable ways to exert his authority. He forbade me to wear dresses as a small girl and even as a big girl ,and would send his winged children to eat my flowered fabrics. He held court with the winged ones as well as the legged,no creature was safe from his relation- Elijah shot his sap far and wide.
As an older girl, my bones had finally pulled the baby fat tight enough to push out the fleshy woman parts. I didn’t purposefully shrink and expand so as to get attention, yet pride and shame combined sludged through my veins every time a man slid his eyes up and down my body, slowly, like slugs .
One hot night in late June, I climbed Elijah to argue for my release. I wanted to be held by a boy, not a tree. It was time to find a husband all my own. I had the words lined up on my tongue and when I fired them off Elijah became enraged and shook me loose into the air. Falling from his arms, velocity swallowed up whatever the ground did not smash.
Not one to be deterred by by a broken arm and cracked skull, I put on an old dress of mothers, the color and sheen of a fallen blueberry. The hem hung too far past my knees so I cut it just right to flutter against the top of my thighs and then cinched it tight around my waist with a gold chain. I unfastened the tiny pearl buttons one by one from the neck down to where my heart lay buried pounding. I brushed my hair, gold like the chain I’d wound under my ribcage, until it glowed like the bulging moon. My eyes, with half circles dark beneath from never a having a restful sleep, glimmered with heavy blue lids, colored precisely like a painting each. Running my tongue over my lips, I savored the taste of my own salty desire.
When she saw me, mother dropped her mouth into a a pained frown. She offered up the usual admonishment, hers and Gods, but she and I were finished; I had outgrown the grasp of her saviour trickery.
Elijah yelled out after me: Take off that suicide dress, Alma Lee!
I don’t know why he thought me suicidal. I’m only meant to marry.
I was on my way to main street to be looked at. I intended to be found.
The town and its people were static as a low hum- they weren’t receptive to my wild electricity.
Inside the bar on the corner – the same bar that had kept my father for good- the men hooted like laughing owls. Told me to take my ass home to mama for a whooping, told me I was crazy as a loon, told me someone ought to teach me a lesson.
I agreed, said I was there for a lesson. They sneered and growled red faced, alcohol spittle lining their lips, hot blood busting up the whites of their eyes.
But they left me be; none of them my husband.
I ordered whiskey because I thought it would taste like the rusted tea of ancient leaves. When I got to the bottom of the glass, the leaves were there settled like drowned omens. I ordered another and another. I dropped my head to the wood shined gold by the bar rag and watched the moon rise in it’s grain. The barman rubbed the reflection until it disappeared. Last call, he bellowed, yanking me from my dream.
The next morning, the early sun pulled me out of bed. Spiders had webbed the house again.
More of Elijah’s children, sent to track my comings and goings (even while I slept) and keep me in my place.
He saw me in the door, shouted: “Alma Lee!”
This will be my last day of Great Granddaughter duty, I told myself, tonight I will be free.
I ripped apart the webs and stormed out into his shade, silky strands of of web trailing like extended hair. The wind had worked the air into hot furnace explosions and was shoveling dust into my mouth faster than I could spit it out.
Elijah, told me to pray.
I won’t. I won’t pray, I growled into the wind.
First the ground shook with his fury, then my feet, then my legs and up and out until the tremor came to settle on my fingertips like magic powers. I looked back at my house and there was my mother’s head in bathroom window. With her small eyes she pleaded: Do as he says.
“I won’t pray!” I shouted at her over the wind. Her lips moved in the shape of my name.
With power surging through my fingers, I began shredding every leaf and every twig within my reach. I groaned and grunted like a devil caught in a downpour of holy raindrops.
My arms scratched and bleeding, my feet caked in dirt, scattered about with cut up Elijah, I tipped my eyes up to the top of his crown and all the way into his heavens and screamed “I don’t believe in you!”
At first the wind seemed to take him and rustle him against his will and then he did a violent drunken dance shaking so hard his limbs sprayed his pollen everywhere. Suddenly, I was yellow, my hair, my skin, my clothes and all my insides.
Steady now for this bad trip.
Turn and run.
Running. Running towards the river. Running down the tracks. Because something or someone was waiting for me. Turning my head quickly to make sure Elijah was not following, my foot caught on a twig and the steel rails rose up to catch me; I hit my head so hard ,my teeth and skull ran round the tracks. A vibration welled up hot and slow and I knew that sensation like I knew my own hot tears in my mouth: a train.
Up on my feet to let it pass, spray painted words dripped down one of the cars: It will be okay.
And then another car, another painted message: JUMP IT.
So I did.
I didn’t know where I was going but the train creaked along so painfully slow my mind could be made up at any time. My feet dangled casually over the side of the train car, as if I we’re only being pulled along in a little red wagon. I let the sun heat up my wounds, sending the blood retreating back inside.
At the next town to the south, where the river opened it’s mouth wide, I landed.
My heart was set on water, on finding the river and a dark, safe place to rest. Soon my stomach will forget about food. Soon my head will stop bleeding. Soon my broken arm will stop pulsing.
I wound my way through thick pines and standing dead trees, pulled forward by the damp dog smell of the river.
When I arrived, I was home. When my bare feet touched the water, I was safe.
Everyone knows that demons hate water, so I wrapped myself in river and moss and crumpled onto the mud to sleep.
And then he appeared. Salamander. He was beautiful, blotchy and dark like black mold.
He watched me. I watched him.
I slept. He slept.
When I woke up, he had inched closer but still too far to touch.
“Salamander,come here boy!”
He belly crawled towards me leaking my name like sticky wine. Along my outstretched arm he wriggled up to my lips and let me lick him.
I was drunk still on ancient tea leaves and Elijahs dust and spinning from head wounds.
“Salamander! I want to soak you up. I want to lick you until my body shimmies like the river in moonlight. Come now, and let me flood you into my sticks from which we will build a house.”
We became happy. Husband and wife. And one moonless dark night I felt my womb activate.
“We’re having a baby.”
He smiled and rubbed against my face. He was confident we could overcome the obstacles blocking our way out of the woods, said we could become respectable town people.
“But I want to stay. We are safe here.”
Resting in the arms of my husband, I finally felt the resting pace of a content heart. We needed each other equally, neither more disastrous than the other, and our house was sturdy.
One morning when Salamander was foraging, he came home to report a new tree sprout nearby. An Oak, he said. He confessed that this wasn’t the first, he had stomped out many but they kept springing forth from the wet ground.
“Elijah.” I said, “Salamander, don’t let him take our baby.”
Salamander added to his growing list of husband chores the stomping out of Elijah sprouts.
After a few months time, when the night air had turned nearly too cold to bear, when baby must have been as big as a pebble in my palm, I awoke to gushing water sounds. Not my water, I thought, it was much too soon. I turned to Salamander but he was gone.
I heard breathing like a dog with a rabbit in it’s mouth.
“Salamander?” I whispered to the dark.
A growl, a laugh, and then a man, crawling on four legs.
I screamed and tried to stand but he was strong, pushed me down to the bed with his short forelegs. I punched him on his long jaw, beat his rib cage like a death drum, and heal kicked his back and buttocks. It was then my foot landed on something that made every cell in my body recoil: the tail of a crocodile.
“Salamander!” I screamed into the void of our home.
“Elijah, please, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Crocodile laughed, then pinned me. Warm saliva dropped on my cheek and down my neck. His breath was smoke in my eyes and lungs. I was burning. I knew I would die for my sins.
With one quick move of his tail, Crocodile crammed it between my legs and up into my womb. My heart came out through my mouth in one long wail.
We, the pebble and I, became stone. It couldn’t be true.
Crocodile finished and crawled away in haste as if the sight of me might burn the retinas of his reptile eyes.
I didn’t move. My baby didn’t move. It couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be true.
Into a fitful sleep I fell, I could not fight it off. Unconsciousness came to pull my heart into it’s womb.
The dark night gave way to stabbing rays of sunlight; one ray hit my eye like a laser and I stared it down. Slowly, I pulled myself into a sitting position and found I was stuck to the sheet, my own blood spread out like a spilled bottle of drowned omens.
When I came out into the day, I saw them everywhere: Elijah’s children, Elijah’s tree sprouts, his spiders, his fish, his gnats and flies. His dirt, his sky, his heaven and hell.
His Great Granddaughter.
My duty came rushing in with the weight of a thousand dead babies; I would stop his reign of madness.
Over one night and two days time, I made my way back to my mother and father’s house, back to the Great Oak, Elijah.
And when I arrived, I knew I was not home, but I was safe inside my own unfurled power.
From the woodshed I pulled out my weapon: a chainsaw.
I approached Elijah without hesitation, without sorrow or regret.
A chorus of mother and Great Grandfather cries.
“Alma Lee!” shrieked all of his winged and legged children as I took off lower limbs one by one and started in on his trunk.
Would he fall on the house, would he crash down on me, which way would he go? I would never know because I could not bring him down. But he was mortally wounded, I saw to it: hacking out his heart and lungs and whiskey soaked liver. I dug out and shredded his miles and miles of intestines and then I skinned him alive. He would never rise again.
My mother held her ‘O’ mouth shut and tears streamed down in sheets.
“Alma Lee,” she simply said, as broken hearted as a Robin who’s nest has been pillaged.
Weeks passed. I walked often to the river to find my husband but he was gone and the water no longer had strings with which to pull me. “I should have let you sleep, not spilled your sorrow riddle,” I said to it.
When winter came, we burned Elijah in the stove.
Mother aged a year for every day that passed and soon she wouldn’t get out of bed. Day in and day out she lay still as a caught mouse, speaking to God in dry, whispery tongues. I didn’t always go when she called to me.
The fire in the stove became a place of stories played out in the silky flames. I fed it like it was my child.
One cold and wet night, I brought in a few Elijah logs and placed them carefully on the coals. Sitting back against the hard wood of my chair, I closed my eyes and listened to the hissing of the wet logs. My tired mind let me turn the squealing sounds into my name.
“Alma Lee, Alma Lee.”
Suddenly, inside my womb and deep within my heart, I felt him.
He was not on the windows, not on the floor, not in my hair or clothes. I sank my eyes back into the fire and saw him. He was there, atop a log, swallowed by fire.
I tried shoving my hands into the flames, they weren’t nearly as hot as they should have been but they were enough to turn my husband to black glue. There we’re no untapped places, nowhere my pain hadn’t traveled, and so I stayed the same.
Scooping his ashes into a teacup, I filled it with hot water and went outside to look at the sky. The moon was slivered; I held up my hand to cradle it like a weightless child. With scissor fingers, I cut it out of it’s shadow, stuffed it in my mouth and washed it down with my husband tea.
I walked inside and called to mother. I wouldn’t leave her.
Shutting the door on the darkness, I became my parents house, pulling lakes and rivers into my mouth, swallowing the dead.