Unction – Jessica Bonder

The Woods place burned to the ground in April, owing a mattress too close a stove pipe. Twilight ruptured with screams, with geyser-yells spouting, with shouts flapping wild like bats in the eaves. I crawled to the window, my legs not yet fastened, still propped in the corner like umbrellas, like canes. My nightgown a snakeskin shed across the floor, a molted chrysalis, translucent, trailing. Like a house-trapped bird, I threw myself at the glass. The moon was out as the sun came up. It was two states at once, a time between times. I clung to the sill. Watched.

With buckets Mr. Woods raced down to the pond, his buckets like thimbles against the flame’s scale. In desperate arcs he chucked water, which landed to no effect, hopeless as pennies wished into a well. Mrs. Woods off aways keened under a quilt, entire generations upon her back. Old aprons, dresses, bunting, blankets, stitched into a history, a motley patchwork. All the women in her life were there that day, each a soft square, bearing witness.

For three days it smoldered, some hot dying thing, its immolated frame collapsing to pitch. To nothing: A blank on a field, a singular blot; a negative space, present in absence. On the scrim of drawn lids could I still see it, its original form, solid and there. When the smoke cleared, there materialized a truth: Cruelties are born no love can redeem.

The Woods place—was gone.

With an ice hook, by moonlight, I fished through the despond. Salvaged a door-knocker, brass and leonine. A roaring king with a ring through its maw, royalty to welcome a pauper home. I swathed it in a fold of skirt; it was still warm; still good. I found Mr. Woods, next day, in the barn. They were living there, the Woods, until their place was rebuilt. Pa wouldn’t permit them stay in the manse. Cobwebs more welcome to sleep in our guestrooms. Dust more invited to dinner than the hands. And Pa’s precious Jerseys, would I not be surprised, if he asked one to tea, Mrs. Woods set aside. Like a jug on a shelf, a broom or a pan, there for its job; alone.

Udders hung squeezed. Milk shot in streams. White pelted tin. Tap tap tap. A tail was tied back onto itself; it did not hurt the animal, Mr. Woods said, it just helped her stay out of her own way. On a stool Mr. Woods, redolent of the past, smoke was his hair, his clothes. Him. We become what we lose; we are loss. No scrubbing, no soap, no surface so clean, as the skin we are born in, and not even then. Birth, by its nature, a violent corruption.

I presented the knocker. My throat a fat knot. Wet beads hit my almond toes.

It’s alright, Caroline. You hold on to that.

And I did until December, long as it took, observed Mr. Woods as he rebuilt. Studied how he did it, what tools he used. In my Wanamaker diary, pencilled a list: hammer saw shovel trowel. Lead unto paper soothed as a salve, muted the pangs of my phantom pain. Provided a distraction, a preoccupation; my mind, my hands, something to do. From the forest I gathered stones, left them in little piles; when Mr. Woods found them, he knew what for. In the new fireplace were my thumbprints sealed.

A door sighed anew, and dread winged off.

*   *   *

The herd was Pa’s investment, a sliver of his pie, a bit of milkfat wealth to butter his bread. Pa bought the farm to escape the city rush, had the mansion built, a house on a hill. While the farmhouse, he decided, would be part of their contract: free housing provided to Mr. and Mrs. Woods. Free in the sense that they signed away their lives.

Free in the sense that, like me, they weren’t.

On the breed, Mr. Woods was an expert, and also on prosthetics, which he soon found out. Mr. Woods carved my legs, despite my father’s protests, and years later, taught me how to drive. From the start, Pa preferred I surrender: to a chaise, to a bed, immobile feminine. Were it not for the cows, for the money he brought in, Mr. Woods, fired, would have been the case.

Mr. Woods knew this. Mr. Woods was not dumb.

Mrs. Woods was the woman whose hands delivered me, deformed girl child, birthed me to life. It was Mrs. Woods and no one beside my dying mother, a newborn and blood loss, my father in New York. There is a portrait in the parlor of my mother as an infant. It is the only image of her that survives—in my father’s grief, the others he destroyed. So when I think of my mother, I think of her as a baby.

It is weird to have a baby as a mother.

“Well, hello, Caroline, please come in.”

It’s Mrs. Woods at the stove, the same one as before.

I give a little wave, shift the air.

My woodens clatter across the fresh boards.

In the Woods kitchen, Shep snouts me hello. I reach down and stroke his tail; its silky strands like fringes on an Oriental shawl. I run his fur through my fingers, over and over, sand through an hourglass, flip it, repeat. There’s a chair in the corner. That one’s mine. It misses two spindles. It misses me.

“How are you today, my dear?” Mrs. Woods to the range, shiny with grease, licking flames. Chicken and rosemary, butter and thyme. Mrs. Woods is as tall and as straight as a spruce. Her skirt is nankeen. It grazes the floor.

I say nothing (as if to say): Things are as bad as they still are.

I say nothing (as if to say): And maybe, even, worse.

She registers my mood like crickets vibrations, like horses storms. Intuits. Seems women have antennae, peaked ears, hidden eyes—extrasensory in their natural perceptions. Her concern a quick mask, a passing shade, an eclipse on her countenance. Dark. Between us transmits a secreted language, as silent and effective as an arachnid’s web. Catches lightly our weight, our heaviest thoughts, binds them together in candyfloss threads.

There are no words needed because it is us.

A sound. An approach. Shep reports to the stairs. The screen door snaps, open/shut, like a trap. It’s Mr. Woods run in—or maybe run out. In a liminal frame, waylaid, assailed.

His arms are sheathed in blood. His chest is soaked crimson. He is a heaving burst force. An emergency of flesh. Mrs. Woods says what, what is it Joseph. He says it’s the calf, the calf just born.

His throat hitches, dry as tinder.

Boil water, Agnes, bring it the barn.

Mrs. Woods swings a cauldron over the hearth, filled with water, earlier drawn. She prods the ashwood with a cross-handled poker. Her hand a late autumn leaf, quivering on the branch.

Mr. Woods, in his despair, errs to perceive me, does not turn at my footfall as I follow him out. The sky is grey. Racks rush to cover. The horizon is panic. Indeterminate.

In the stall, the miasma hangs heavy. The boots have gathered. It reeks like the end. I weave through the throng like a reed on a loom, secure a clear view of the just-born. The mutant trembles in the birth-wet hay. Three horns crest dead center its skull. Three horns like daggers,

like daggers a lady’s, petite and unsheathed. Diminutive threats. Its skinny neck strains; its twig legs buckle; its knees are gnarly knobs. It is no boy.

Among the boots, murmurs: Praise-be’s and Lord-a-mercy’s.

Among the boots, a refrain: Should it be saved.

Like a vulture to carrion, the old curse circles, circles the rafters, dives to pick. The ancient accusation of my birth a hex, a scourge on the estate. My mother’s death. Resurfacing like mud beneath a spring melt, a relentless sun beating, unreason recast. The boots speak of me, speak through me, as if I am not there. I am no ghost.

I am right there.

In the corner, the dam on her side, her horn-maimed body in a brown heap. Mr. Woods elbows bent, hip-fisted, brow creased; lines in his face like readable thought: This dam is worth thousands—what will the old man say? And what of the tri-horn—what? Aside him is Carl, Mr. Woods’ right hand, advising him, softly, in a low tone. To my insect ears do his words amplify, do they cut through the din, pierce clear and sharp:

Besides the horns, ain’t nothing wrong with it, Joe. She’ll grow into the defect. It’s up to you.

Mrs. Woods arrives with the cauldron of water. The boots part to let her through. She steadies it—steady now!—lowers it to the floor. Coils of serpentine vapors, ribbons of hot fog. Mr. Woods dips a rag. Rings it out. Applies it to the encroachment, to the cold, of death’s grip. A last rites, a cleansing. Warmth on the mother. For her, he says, there is nothing we can do.

Overhead, rain startles the roof. Sluices in rivulets. Little rivers.

What of the calf? Mrs. Woods says. She approaches it as if it were normal. Extends her hand to its chocolate nose. It leans its mass into her palm. Its eyelashes are black, thick as fuzzy woolies. Caterpillars with fur. It moos.

Something lightens, brightens, a curtain pulled back.

It is me, laughing.

The boots turn in alarm.

Mr. Woods wipes his hands. Meets his wife’s eyes. Shakes his head in the way men do: slow and sure, slow and sure. Rubs the back of his neck, finds a decision there.

When Pa finds out, there is no end.

*   *   *

CAROLINE!

The baize does nothing.

The baize does nothing to suffocate his howls; his fits clap against the manse like hooves on cobblestone. The baize panels on the walls, that my father had installed, their original purpose was to mute life’s sounds. Shut out disturbances like wooden legs walking, a lost girl enabled, navigating a labyrinth. Now all they do is shut Pa in. Leave him to rot with his termite thoughts, gnawing in tiny bites, masticating his sanity. In his musty study, Pa thrashes in his chair, like a hook-mad trout flipping on the line. He is bones in a suit. Wool tweed flesh death. Yells twice as loud, my name like a swear. The walls into tissue. Air.

CAROLINE!

I don’t know who told him.

Pa’s state is such that he never leaves his study. Pa’s state is such that Dr. Morton advises: hush ill news; don’t tell your father. The doctor’s black bag is a portable peace; its assortment of needles like pencils in a case. For when Pa peaks, when his episodes erupt, like solar flares off an angry sun. When his throat wails louder than any Nor’easter, I let the doctor in—and flee to the Woods; stumble trip fall through the crown-high corn. My knees are more bruise, more scab, than knee. I am a running collection.

It wasn’t me.

For something so tangled, so jumbled and twisted, there is a taut thread in Pa’s ball-of-yarn conscience: paranoia tugs in a tight straight line. Pa pays off spies, shadow members of the boots, to deliver him the dirt circulating the estate. Into the daily mail is their scuttlebutt slipped: unsigned notes tobacco stenched, glued with spit, rumor on pulp. A rosewood letter opener is my father’s close weapon. A stab in the dark; a slice; a read.

My father puts his faith in strangers.

Strange men before his daughter, his daughter—me.

CAROLINE!

I cross into the study and Pa points. Points a turnip finger at the contraption on the wall: his Western Electric artery to the outside world. Its two circular bells, like a pair of owl eyes, watch me as I make his call. Its mouthpiece is a sable horn. Its oak box is a baby’s coffin.

Get me the Reverend. Tell him it is urgent.

I pick up the receiver. I turn my back.

If I were magic, I’d dive into this box.

The operator and me—could we be friends?

*   *   *

Show me to your father.

The Reverend is an oil drip. He is a walrus face and tea-stained teeth. Balding pate, scalp spread like a spill, a low ring of hair like a sunken halo.

Everywhere I look is a fallen angel. Possess me a soul whose wings aren’t broken.

Yes Reverend.

The mansion is modelled after a cathedral. Its design is Gothic; it is shaped like a cross. Pa’s study, first floor, sits at the head: where would be the altar, incense and unction; that is where we find him; that is where he—

The Reverend behind me, I knock on the door; there is a splinter of light; a suspended breath. There is no voice more urgent than no voice at all. The Reverend pushes past me, pushes to the past. Under his arm, a tuck of red leather. My father’s favorite book. Expired medicine.

The Reverend finds the note in Pa’s hand. The news of the tri-horn, the cause of Pa’s death. An attack on a heart I didn’t think he had. The Reverend says this is the curse, what should have been exorcised long long ago. There is fire in his eyes when he says these words. He tips my chin up so that I can see it. So that I am forced to see it. The fire again. He says show me where, where is the calf.

There is no forgiveness when it comes down to it.

Except I get to it first. My body remembers.

*   *   *

Imagine a bell tower—that is my bedroom. The windows are dormers, the roof a hard slant. It is a room meant to keep me small.

Well these are the facts that I have outgrown, faster than mushrooms in the space of one sleep.

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JESSICA BONDER is an American fiction writer. She has published short stories and prose poetry in The Stockholm Review, The Lonely Crowd, The Honest Ulsterman, STORGY Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Black Heart Magazine, The Bohemyth, Vending Machine Press, The Fiction Pool, and Unbroken Journal. Honors include: Longlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize; Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open (March/April 2017); Longlisted for STORGY Magazine’s 2017 EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition; Finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s 2017 Summer Mix Tape Flash Fiction Contest; Shortlisted for Short Fiction Journal’s 2017 Short Fiction Prize; First Place in STORGY’s 2015 Short Story Contest.

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Image: Bairyna
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